Sunday, March 31, 2013

Law and Grace (18) Cultural Markers

The Torah, and especially the book of Leviticus, prescribed cultural markers that would distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations. The laws of justice and crime and the instructions for economic life could not distinguish Israel, because God intended the nations to copy them (Deut 4:5-7). The surrounding nations would not copy the cultural markers like the Sabbath and food laws.

One example of a cultural marker is wearing tassels on garments.

Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel (Num 15:37-40).
The tassels would be a reminder not to “chase after the lusts of their hearts and eyes (Num 15:39). The tassels would not give them a new heart, but they would remind them of who they are and mark them off from the surrounding nations in the same way as a sports uniform distinguishes a sports team. The tassels with blue cords were the original “labelled sweater” showing everyone in the world that they belonged to God.

Judging by Jesus challenges, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had focused on the cultural markers and neglected the more important aspects of the Torah.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former (Matt 23:23).
Jesus requires his followers to focus on justice, mercy and the love of God.

Many Christians are getting into Jewish stuff in a big way. However, they seem to focus on the feasts and the sabbath. These are things that Jesus fulfilled. They also pick up some cultural distinctives like Jewish dancing that come from early Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, but are not in the Old Testament. Yet they ignore the really important stuff in the Torah, like the justice system and the instructions for economic life. Their focus seems a bit odd.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Law and Grace (17) Twisted Law

The Pharisees tried to use the laws is used as a method for achieving righteousness. This produced pride and hypocrisy, because the law was not given for that purpose. Their twisted use of the law produced a huge multiplication of rules that turned the law from a blessing to a burden.

The food instructions are an example (they are not expressed as laws). God gave the food instructions to the people to keep them healthy. He wanted them to know which foods are safe, and which are not. The Pharisees tried to make food and eating a standard for righteousness. To make this work, they created hundreds of detailed rules about eating, which placed an impossible burden on ordinary people.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:25-26)
The Pharisees also focussed on the trivial. They were obsessed with food and the Sabbath, but they ignored God’s instructions for economic life, that would have really made a difference to the lives of the people.
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).
The Pharisees turned something that was a blessing into a burden, by turning the gift of the law into a standard for righteousness that God had not given. This shut people out of blessings that God had provided them.
And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them (Luke 11:46).
This hypocrisy really annoyed Jesus.

The corollary of the idea that the Old Covenant provide righteousness by obedience to the law is that the New Covenant provides salvation by faith, with no need for obedience. This cheap grace heresy has done considerable harm. Those who accept the gospel must declare that Jesus is Lord. Those who belong to him are required to submit to him and obey the leading of his Spirit.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Law and Grace (16) Coveting

The Ten Words give no penalty for coveting, so technically it is not a law. Coveting takes place in a person’s heart, so no witness can observe a person has been coveting.

Coveting is the only personal sin mentioned in the Ten Words. A whole range of person sins that are listed in the New Testament, such as pride, deceit, envy, strife, greed, malice, arrogance, hatred, slander, boasting and gossip are not mentioned in the Torah at all. We should not be surprised, as the law was not intended to be a tool for overcoming sin and achieving righteousness. That was not even practical until the Jesus had died on the cross and the Holy Spirit, so God did not expect the law to do this. He was giving his people a justice system and an economic system.

The law had one other role prior to the cross. It was a tool for exposing sin.

Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet” (Rom 7:7).
This is why coveting was included in the Ten Words. Most people do commit not murder, so a law against murder does not convict them. Coveting is different, because everybody does it, and a lot of what they do seems to be okay.
He is lucky having such a beautiful wife
I would not mind having a car like that?
Where did you get that dress?
These statements seem to be acceptable, but the Ten Words explain that they are quite likely motivated by sin. The warning against coveting could not change anyone’s heart, but it did remind people of how far sin has gone.

The Israelites did not fully understand the nature of sin. God had not given them the means to overcome it, so there was nothing to be gained from giving them a full list of sins. God gave them just enough so that everyone would know that they were guilty of sin and in need of way to get right with God (the tabernacle sacrifices were a temporary, forward-looking method). The word on coveting achieved this. The same thing could have been deduced from the words about loving neighbours, but the warning against coveting made it explicit.

The law was given to expose sin and create a need for the cross, but this was only one role. A common mistake is to assume that this is its only role. Many other important roles carry on beyond the cross.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Law and Grace (15) Sabbath

The Pharisees twisted the laws from a blessing to a burden. The sabbath is a good example. It had two roles.

The first role of the Sabbath was as a cultural marker to distinguish Israel from the nations. This was the reason for the tough penalties. This role was described in the law of Moses.

You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever (Ex 31:13,16-17).
The Sabbath was a sign of the covenant between the God and the Israelites to remind future generations of what God would do for them. It marked them of from the nations who did not have this covenant. Keeping the sabbath was not good works to make the people holy. It was a reminder to the Israelites that it the Lord who made them holy.

The second and more important role of the sabbath was bringing God’s blessing to the people. This is recorded in Exodus 23:12.
Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.
The key word is “refreshed”. The sabbath was a gift to the people for their refreshment. Most people in the ancient world had to work every day, just to get enough to eat. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites would have worked every day. Having one day off a week is a huge privilege that most people did not have. When giving the sabbath, God was promising that they would be sufficiently prosperous in the new land, that they would not have to work every day. That was a blessing, not a burden. Taking a day off each week would contribute to their wellbeing, because regular rest is essential for human health. God has made us to need rest every week.

Celebrating a sabbath rest required considerable faith in God. The people were expected to rest during busiest times of the year, during the ploughing time and the harvest (Exodus 34:21). Pausing during the harvest when the weather is fine is a huge risk. Only people who trusted God to provide for all their needs would have the confidence to rest when the harvest was ready for bringing in.

The Pharisees distorted the Sabbath into a huge set of rules. They came up with a list of hundreds of things that could not be done one the Sabbath. Jesus criticised the Pharisees, because they had changed the sabbath from something to be enjoyed into a work to earn righteousness. If the sabbath is a method of determining who is righteousness, then defining what is work and what is not becomes really important. Knowing whether carrying a chair across the room is work is an important, because it could be the difference between being in out. Hundreds of rules are needed, but that was not God’s purpose. He gave the sabbath as a blessing for humans.
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
If the sabbath is a blessing then the boundary between work and rest is not that important. What is work will vary from person to person. Reading theology might be work for a college professor, but could be resting for someone else. God did not give a great list of rules to define work, because the boundary was irrelevant to his purpose. He wants his people to enjoy a day of rest, not keep a set of rules.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Law and Grace (14) Justice System

Every human society needs a justice system. When people live in close proximity they get into disputes and harm each other. Laws are good, because they provided a way for resolving these issues. A judicial process is needed to apply these laws. There are two ways that laws can be obtained.

  1. God’s justice system
  2. Human justice systems
God gave Israel a perfect justice system, so every human justice system will be suboptimal. Some may be okay, but none will be as good as God’s system. Strangely, most people prefer human justice systems. Even nations with a strong Christian influence have ignored God's laws. Instead of adopting God’s justice system, they have mucked round trying to make their own laws.

The cross and the gospel do not eliminate the need for good laws. Even where there is a strong Christian influence, there will be people who have rejected the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. People will need law to restrain the worst effects of sin. Laws will always be needed.

In a society where everyone behaves well because they have received the gospel and love God, law is not needed very often. People will just do the right thing. The law was a system for a society without the cross and the spirit. Without these, people will not do what is right, so the restraint of law is needed. God’s law provided the best possible system of government and justice. It’s economic and social guidelines allow a community of people to live together in relative harmony without any need for a central, controlling authority to bring order by force.

God’s people needed the law before the cross and the spirit had been given. Because the law did not need the cross and the spirit to function, it was applicable to any society of people anywhere in the world. God’s law was the best way for any community of people to live together in peace.

As the gospel advances, the law becomes less important, because everyone should do what is right, because they love one another. However, every society can regress spiritually. If this should happen, the law would be still there as a basis for life together with minimal faith.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Law and Grace (13) Honour Parents

The Israelites had come out of a slave/empire culture. In Egypt, the empire took precedence over family. The best young men were taken to work at the king’s court. Joseph and Daniel are examples. Attractive young girls were taken for the kings harem. A woman could be taken by the slave master, even if she was married. Young people were trained to honour their slavemaster, not their parents. Many young people did not even know their parents well. The Pharaoh owned all the land in Egypt. He could give land to anyone he chose, but he could also take it back whenever he was so inclined.

God was creating a new family/tribe culture in the promised land. Land would be assigned to families and tribes. This culture would have to be totally different. The strength of the culture would grow out of family life. The economic strength would come through tribal groupings.

Honouring parents was not a way of earning righteousness. It was an important feature of the new life that God was giving his people in the new land. He wanted everyone of his people to have a much better life than they had had in Egypt. To achieve this they would have to be organised in a totally different way. They would be doing something totally different that had not been done before. No models existed in other lands for the people to copy.

God gave the command to honour parents, so that the people would switch their allegiance from a powerful ruler and his hegemons onto families and their tribal group. If God had not given this command, the people might have slipped back into the old way, and turned one of their leaders into an emperor (they did this in Samuels time, when they took a king). The command was prompter to encourage the people to live in the new way that God had chosen for them, not a test of righteousness.

God promised that if they honoured their parents, things would go well for them in the land. Those who honoured their parents were not earning a better life. By respecting their parents and committing themselves to tribal unity, they were positioning themselves to receive the blessing that God had already committed to giving to them. There was no other way it could be received.

They were not earning a place in the new land, they were learning how to live in it. This is the same situation as those who receive the gospel. Obeying the voice of the spirit does not earn us the abundant life, but we need to follow his leading to receive all that Jesus earned for us by dying on the cross. If we refuse to obey Jesus and ignore the Holy Spirit, we will miss out on much of what is promised to us.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Law and Grace (12) Spiritual Protection

The law is really fussy about one thing. The people were reminded repeatedly that they must not worship idols. This was not because God cannot cope with competition. The reality was that worshipping idols opened the people up to evil spirits. Because Jesus had not yet died on the cross, the Israelites had very little protection from spiritual attack.

In the Old Testament age, there was no cure for evil spirits. When King Saul was attacked by a spirit, he could be calmed by David’s singing, but he could never escape their torment (1 Sam 16:14-23). Jesus had not yet died for sin, so evil spirits had not been defeated. The Holy Spirit had not come on all people, so evil spirits could not be cast out. The only way to keep safe from evil spirits was to keep separate from the people who carried them and the places where they lived.

In Moses time, the wickedness of the Canaanites had increased enormously, so the land was full of evil spirits. Canaan had become the haunt of every foul demon and bad spirit. The Israelites had already demonstrated a vulnerability to the practices of the people around them, so God was running an enormous risk by bringing his people into this land without any spiritual protection. The only way to get rid of these demons was to expel the people, so they would carry them out with them.

Some of the demons were attached to the idols that the Canaanites had built. By worshipping these idols, the people of God opened themselves up to demonic attack. Welcoming these evil spirits back into the land was dangerous, because it gives evil a much greater freedom to work. If worship of idols got too prevalent, a huge flood of evil would follow. This was why the law was so hostile to the worship of idols. Bringing demonic powers back into the land would release more evil than the law could control. The law could restrain the worst effects of sin,but once evil took hold in a society, evil would win.

The curses in Deuteronomy 28 were self-fulfilling. If the people turned away from God and seriously worshipped idol, evil would be set free. All the blessings that came from living according to God’s guidelines would be swamped by the outworking of evil.

Going into a land that had been a stronghold of evil spirits was risky. In the hostile spiritual environment of the Middle East, the children of Israel needed serious protection from spiritual attack. The only workable protection was to avoid the worship of idols and magic proclamations that would release evil in the land.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Law and Grace (11) Four Groups

The ten words fit into the following four groupings.
Follow God

1. You must only have one God.
2. Idols are out
3. The Lords name must not be misused.
The Israelites must stay loyal to the God, who had rescued them. He was committed to giving them even greater blessings, but they had to follow his angel into the land to receive them, and they had to organise themselves in his way, not Pharaoh’s way, to be able to keep on enjoying them.

These three words were also important for spiritual protection. They could not cast out demons, because Jesus had not yet died on the cross, so they had to avoid them. Worshipping idols would open them up to demons that would eventually destroy them. Using the names of gods to change things on earth releases demons. They would lose their blessing, if they allowed these things to happen.

Family and Tribe
5. Honour your parents
6. No adultery
God was not creating a nation state. He was not perpetuating an empire/slave culture. Instead, he was creating a family/tribal culture, which was different from anything that existed in the world. Honouring parents and forefathers would strengthen this culture. Adultery would destroy it.

Justice System
7. Stealing is a crime
8. Killing is a crime (it includes assault).
9. No false witness
God gave Israel a perfect justice system before they went into the land. It was different from anything they had seen in Egypt or in the surrounding nations. God’s justice system was encapsulated in three words. The first two were the main crimes. There is more information about how they should be handled in Exodus and Deuteronomy. False witnesses are dangerous, because they undermine the robustness of a justice system.

Economic System
10.No coveting
4. Enjoy a rest on the seventh day.
God gave the Israelites a new economic system, before they went into the new land. They would not have a slave system that they had experienced in Egypt, of a serf system that existed in most of the surrounding nations. God was giving them a system where they would could all own capital and be productive. Yet they could not respond to supply and demand with disregard for other people. If they took every opportunity to take whatever they could get from other people, they would destroy their economic system and lose their blessing. Coveting is the opposite of the giving and sharing on which this system is based. A day off at the end of the week, was one of the blessings that this economic system would produce.

Some of the implications of thse groupings in the Ten Words are described in more detail in the next four posts.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Law and Grace (10) Ten Words

Christians refer to the Ten Commandments, but that is a bit misleading. When God announced to the people, he referred to them as words.

God spoke all these words (Ex 20:1).
God gave his people words, not commandments. They are never referred to as ten commandments in the scriptures, but are described as Ten Words several times.
He declared to you his covenant, ten words which he instructed you to do, and he wrote them on two stone tablets (Deut 4:13).
Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the ten words (Exodus 34:28).
The LORD wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the ten words he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me (Deut 10:4).
In each of these passages, the English translators have inserted the word commandment, but the Hebrew word is dabar, which means “word”.

The translators often insert the expression “ten commandments” into Exodus 25:16, 21 and Exodus 40:3,20, but the Hebrew word is testimony or witness.
He took the tablets of the testimony and placed them in the ark (Ex 40:20).
The Ten Words are a testimony or a witness between God and his people.The ten words are each quite different, so it is better to refer to them as words than as commandments. For example, a couple are technically laws, because they have penalties specified that legal authorities can apply to enforce them. Others are more in the nature of advice. They all fit together into four groups. I will describe these in the next post.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Law and Grace (9) Torah

The first five books of the Old Testament cover a variety of topics, including:

  • creation
  • history
  • exodus
  • sacrifices and priests
  • tabernacle design
  • covenants
  • criminal laws
  • justice system
  • instructions for economic life
  • infection control and hygiene
  • genealogies
  • blessings and curses
  • land distribution
These five books are a big box. They contain a lot of different stuff all mixed up together and often repeated. That means that we have to dig around a bit when we are looking for something.

The five books of the law are often called the “Torah”. This Hebrew word is often translated as law, but a better translation would be “instruction” or “teaching”. The Torah contains God’s instruction to the children of Israel about the way they should live. I will sometimes use the word Torah, because God gave Moses much more than law. A name that encompasses instruction and teaching is a more accurate description of the first five books of the Old Testament.

God gave a great promise through Isaiah.
Torah (instruction) will go out from me;
my justice will become a light to the nations (Is 51:4).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Law and Grace (8) Blessings

The blessings specified in Deuteronomy 28 are mostly economic blessings. They are not magical, but the natural consequence of living in a perfect economic system, even if they are sinful people.

Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do (Deut 29:9).
To get the promised prosperity, they would need to practice the caring and sharing prescribed by the Instructions for Economic Life. This was not works to earn a blessing, but receiving a blessing through being obedient.

The Mosaic covenant was not a failure. It accomplished everything that God intended. The only problem was that the Israelites rejected the covenant and chose to worship idols, which invited evil spirits into the land. They released evil among the people and life deteriorated. When things went wrong, the people did not turn back to God as the covenant suggested. Instead, they chose to have a king, just like the other nations. These kings won a few military victories, but they imposed taxes and forced labour to support their building programmes. Kings who were good at fighting were hopeless at providing justice, so the law was deserted and replaced by royal favours and privileges.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Law and Grace (7) Faith

Faith was much more important to the Old Covenant than is often realised. Many of the actions commanded by the law took a great deal of faith.

The Israelites were not to eat animals that had been killed by wild animals.

You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs (Ex 22:31).
The fat of an animal found dead or torn by wild animals may be used for any other purpose, but you must not eat it (Lev 7:24).
The main purpose of this law was hygiene. Eating the meat form dead animals or those that had been killed by wild animals created many health risks. God’s people must not be scavengers. However, this took faith. Most people in the ancient world and many in the third world today would eat any meat that they came across, because they did not know where there next meal would come from. Passing over food was risky, even if it was contaminated. Most people were more afraid of starving than an upset stomach.
Walking past a dead animal took a lot of faith for people were sometimes hungry. They must trust God to provide them with food when they needed it.

Attending the feasts in Jerusalem also demanded faith. Leaving a rural property unattended for a couple of weeks was a risky action. Other people could steal anything that was not locked away. If all the people in a district were away on a pilgrimage, a foreign army could use the opportunity to invade. They could be established in the land before the local people realised what had happened. God promised to care for their land while they were away.
Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will.. enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God (Ex 34:23-24).
This was a big promise, but it was also a big ask. Understanding human nature, and realising that they had animals, they were being expected to trust God to prevent anyone from desire their land while they were away. This required considerable faith that God would keep his word.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Law and Grace (6) Not too Hard

Earning righteousness by good works is impossible. Living in harmony by obeying God’s law is practical and not beyond the capability of people without the cross and the gospel.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach (Deut 30:11).
God gave a set of laws and instructions that were not too difficult for them. It was not beyond their reach.
It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it (Deut 30:12-14).
The last sentence is interesting. Moses says that the law was already in their hearts. This seems odd, as these people did not have the new heart that is promised for those who believe in Jesus. Moses seems to be saying that the people had the ability and desire to live together in their hearts, because they were created in the image of God. Although they were fallen, enough of God’s image remained that with the help of the law, they could live in unity. Sin will burst out from time to time to destroy peace and hurt people. However, if the law deals with theft and violence, the worst effects of sin will be restrained.

In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes claims that in the state of nature people will be brutish and violent with everyone fighting against each other. A strong political leader with a monopoly on the right to violence is needed to keep society under control. This view is now widely accepted as a justification for political power.

Moses says something different. Humans will have violence or larceny in their hearts from time to time, but good laws will be enough to restrain them. A strong authoritarian political leader is not needed to maintain the peace (according to Samuel a strong leader will destroy the peace). The image of God is strong enough that most people have a desire for peace and harmony in their hearts, and will be able to live in peace, provided they are supported by good law.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Law and Grace (5) Gift in Time

The laws given by Moses were a blessing, not a requirement for receiving blessing. The children of Israel did not have to earn right to live in the Promised Land. It was a gift from God. As part of the gift, God gave Israel a perfect legal system, a perfect system of judges, a perfect system of defence and a perfect economic system. No other nation had this. While the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they did not need a legal system or economic system, because Pharaoh owned everything. If anyone stole something or struck another slave, the Egyptians guards would kill them.

The same was true in Assyria and Babylon. They were slave empires where the emperor controlled everything, so systems of justice and economics were not needed. The smaller states of Canaan were controlled by warlords, who operated in the same way as the big boys controlling the empires.

Abraham led a large household. He did not need an economic system or legal system, because his household was a complete community living in a big land. Abraham had complete control over his household. He decided what would be done and those who did not agree with his decisions were expected to leave, as Lot did. The same was true in the households of Jacob and Esau. The patriarchs did not need laws, because they controlled their households.

When Israel went into the promised land, numerous households, families and tribes would be living together in a small country. They needed a system of law and economics to keep them safe. God gave this to them as a gift, before they entered the land. This would enable them to live in harmony without the need for another Pharaoh. This was an enormous blessing, not a burden. Being able to live in the land with freedom, without any human dictator controlling them was a wonderful new way of living.

Going into the land, the Israelites had a huge problem. They did not know how to live together without a dictator controlling them. They did not know how to live in freedom. There were no role models among the nations for them to copy. They would be tempted to looking for another dictator to keep peace, but that would take away their freedom. God came to rescue with his gift of the law, before they even knew that they needed it.

The law was really a gift of freedom, because God gave them a system of laws that would enable them to live in freedom, without losing their peace. No other nation had this gift, and most would give up their freedom to get peace, or have their freedom and peace taken from them. That is the situation even today. When people get a choice, most people give up their freedom in a vain hope for peace and prosperity. God gave the Israelites the gift of freedom, with peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, they gave up the freedom and peace provided by God’s law, so that they could have a king like the other nations. What a terrible mistake.
God’s gift of a system of justice and an economy system were not just for the Israel, but for the nations as well. If the Israelites had implemented them the nations would have been amazed and would want to copy them.

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today (Deut 4:5-8)?
God gave Israel a perfect system of justice. He also gave them a perfect economic system. These were a gift to Israel. They were also a gift to the world that would allow people to have freedom, peace and prosperity. The world has continuously rejected this gift and chosen poverty and slavery under human dictators.

Christians have failed to understand this gift, because they think the law is a failed tool for perfection. They have rejected God’s gift of freedom with peace, because they see the law as a failed means for earning God’s favour. Instead of living in freedom with peace and prosperity, they have voted a worldly system of justice that has failed and worldly economic system that produces poverty and injustice. Most Christians do not know about God’s gift of freedom with peace, because they have never seen it, because they are not interested in the law. They just assume that the law is a failed method for pleasing God.

God did not run a series of experiments, trying something, and if it did not work, trying something else. God works strategically. Each intervention in human history is another step towards the fulfilment of his long-term plan. The gift of the law was a step on the way, not a failed experiment.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Law and Grace (4) Not Legalism

A common assumption that the Old Testament law was a system of salvation by works is wrong. The law was not a system of rules to make people perfect, it was set of laws that would allow a diverse group of people to live together in relative harmony. The law could not resolve all problems between people, but it restrained the worst behaviours that would divide and destroy the community. That is all that law can do.

No system of laws is capable of perfecting people. Even perfect laws cannot make people perfect. Only the cross and the gospel have that power. God did not give the law in attempt to turn his people into better people, because that would have failed, and he does not do failure. He gave the law to restrain the very worst sins of theft and violence. That was all that could be done before the cross, and that was all he God intended.

Moses understood that the law could not make people perfect. Near the end of his life he said,

The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deut 29:6).
Moses was a prophet. He was looking forward to a time when God would give his people a new heart, so that they could love him fully. This prophecy was fulfilled by the ministry of Jesus. Moses probably did not understand what Jesus would do, but he knew that his people needed a new heart. He knew that law could not change human hearts. The best that law could do was to limit the worst effects of sin, so that people could live together without fighting and destroying each other.

Humans have a tendency to try to prove their righteousness by creating a set of rules and struggling to abide by them. These efforts always fail, but this kind of legalism has been common in every age. The Pharisees twisted the Laws of Moses into a set or rules that they could use to prove their righteousness. Jesus rebuked them for this. He said that they had distorted God’s law by transforming it into the traditions of man. They had placed a burden on the people that they could not keep.
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).
God never uses law in the way because he realises that it would always fail. He knows that no one can become righteous by complying with a set of rules. When God gave the law, he was not giving a set of rules that people must keep to be righteous. He had a far more sensible objective. He was giving a set of laws that would restrain behaviour sufficiently to prevent the community from tearing itself apart. The law was not given to make people righteous. It was given to unrighteous people to keep them from harming each other.

The law was a grace system, not a works system.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Law and Grace (3) Sinful People

Most Christians see the Old Testament law as a set of rules that the Israelites had observe to obtain the blessings of the Mosaic covenant. That is not true. The Mosaic covenant did not require the Israelites to be perfect. In fact, it does not even define perfection. The sins that displease God, like pride, anger, hatred, jealousy, selfishness, ambition and dissension, are not mentioned in the five books of the law. The sins that prevent people from being like Jesus are not forbidden by the law. Obeying the law could not make a person perfect, because that was not its purpose.

The Mosaic covenant expected the people to carry on sinning, so it provides a solution for sin. A system of sacrifices was put in place to deal with infringements. The premise of this system was that people could not be perfected by law, so they would continue to sin. There was even a guilt offering for sins that people were not aware of committing (Lev 5:14-19). Most of the sacrifices were offered by the priests, so ordinary people could get on with life without having to worry about their sinfulness. They knew that offerings were being made on their behalf. They only had to make a personal offering when they committed a significant sin.

Discerning Israelites would realise that an animal sacrifice could not fully deal with a serious sin. The sacrifices actually pointed forward to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. Those who trusted in the sacrifice system were really relying on what Jesus would do much later, even though they did not know that he was going to do it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Law and Grace (2) Old Covenant

Fear of legalism has caused many Christian to be afraid of law. Many have been taught that the old covenant established a legalistic system, so they are hostile to God’s law. At the same time, they believe in human law. Whenever a new problem arises in society, Christians are among those calling for the government to pass laws to deal with it. We need to get rid of this strange contradiction, where Christians hate God’s law, but love laws passed by humanistic, secular governments.

We need to get this straight. The old covenant was a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Ex 23:20-24:4 describes the confirmation of the Mosaic covenant. God had already brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They had been fed in the desert. God promised grace for the people that he had chosen.

I will send an angel before you (v.20).
I have prepared a place for you (v.20).
I will oppose you enemies on the way (v.20).
I will send confusion on your enemies (v.27).
I will take sickness away from you (v.25).
I will establish your borders (v.31).
God chose Israel and promised to bless them. Blessing came first, then obedience followed in response to this grace. The only requirement was to follow the angel into the promised land. The Israelites agreed to do what God has asked them to do.
When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do” (Ex 24:3).
God had brought the people out of Egypt. That was a huge blessing (unearned grace), but it was only half a blessing. Full blessing would only come in the new land. To get there, they had to keep on following God, so he could give it to them. Following God was not good works to earn the land. It was going all the way with him to get his complete blessing.

This is exactly the same situation, as those who follow Jesus. We cannot earn the abundant life that he promised, but unless we surrender to his lordship, we cannot receive it. If we do not follow the leading of the Spirit, we will miss the good things that God has for us.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Law and Grace (1) Legalism

The church has always had a struggle with legalism right from the beginning and the problem has not gone away. The modern church is still dealing with legalism. To understand the relationship between law and grace, we must clarify the nature of legalism, and what it is not.

Legalism is not dependence on law. Law is good. Every society needs laws to function. Paul had strong words about the value of law.

The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good (Rom 7:12).
The law is spiritual (Rom 7:14).
This is clear. Attacking the law will not rid the church of legalism.

Abundance of rules is not legalism. Rules can be good. A rule about driving on the right side of the road is useful. However, a massive number of complicated and incomprehensible rules create confusion. Large numbers of detailed rules can be a symptom of legalism, but they is not the cause.

Legalism works at two levels.
  1. Legalistic Gospel
    The gospel is corrupted by legalism when it is turned into Jesus plus something else that a Christian must do. Legalistic people minimise the gospel, because they assume some other thing has to be done in addition to what Jesus is done. Salvation is partly earned by human effort. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul was dealing with circumcision. Some Christians were implying that faith in Jesus was not enough, so those with faith in Jesus must be circumcised to be fully saved. This gospel was Jesus plus circumcision.

    The addition to the gospel can be something good. Other people in Galatians said that keeping the sabbath was essential for salvation. Their gospel was Jesus plus the sabbath. The sabbath is a good thing commanded by the law. The problem is that when a good command is turned into a criterion for saved, very detailed rules are needed, as there is always one more exception that needs to be clarified.

    For example, if sabbath is a gift for life given for our blessing and refreshment, “have a good day off” is enough. However, if sabbath is a criterion for assessing who is in or out, precise rules about multiple categories of work are needed. The Pharisees were playing this game. Their detailed rules are the symptom of their legalistic approach to salvation, which required people to earn their salvation by obeying all the rules.

  2. Legalistic Living
    Legalism can cripple the Christian life. Humans seem to have a natural propensity for living by rules. Some personalities are particular prone to this tendency. Christians living can slip into living by a set of rules. A good Christian is the one who does not do things on the forbidden list. This legalistic approach to life fosters pride and exclusivism and leaves many Christians stuck in immaturity and boredom.

    Rules are fine for beginners, but as a Christian grows their relationship with Jesus, rules should become less important. The Christian life is following the voice of the Spirit wherever he leads, letting the life of Christ transform our lives. Many ambiguities and tensions will be faced, but these are best dealt with by grace and faith, rather than increasing rules. Walking in the Spirit is much harder and more exciting than living by a bunch of rules.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Monarch Butterfly

Our travelling Monarch butterfly burst into the next stage of life today.
Twenty days have passed since he himself into a chrysalis.

End of Evangelicalism (5) Epilogue

The final chapter of the book examines some of David Fitch’s concerns about the direction being taken by the emerging church. When correcting problems, we must be careful that we do not lurch to far the other way.

  1. We must approach all revelation with humility and openness, but there is a danger. We could end up always postponing judgement as to what God is saying such that we never allow it to shape our lives together as a people.

  2. While evangelicalism has over personalised salvation and is preoccupied with the afterlife and escaping hell, there is a danger in advocating that we put out trust in the message of kingdom, rather than submitting to Jesus who is the reigning Lord and is actually bringing in the kingdom. Jesus becomes a guide, rather than a saviour.

  3. While it is right to resist the institutionalism of the church, we must be careful not to leave the church without a role in God’s mission and Christians doing things on their own in the world.

This book is quite demanding, but is really worth reading.

The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

End of Evangelicalism (4) Christian Nation

The third big issue for David Fitch is the Christian Nation, commonly symbolised by the Stars and Stripes draped on one side of the pulpit in many churches. I agree with him. This is a blindspot and contradiction for American evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism took on an agenda to turn America back into a Christian nation. This became the dominant theme for how evangelicals would engage with society. We do not see the church as having a social reality of its own. The church gathers to encourage and edify, but Christians go into the world as individuals to work for a Christian version of morality.

The Christian nation ideology functions as a fantasy for evangelicalism that enables us to see ourselves as accomplishing something in terms of changing our society for Christ, while in effect nothing ever happens. David says that the Bush II presidency was the big moment, but it produced huge disappointment.

This elaboration of the Christian Nation enables us to go on acting as if we believe “the gospel makes a difference” all the while having to change nothing about our lives. It allows us to work vigorously for justice, while being complicit with existing systems of injustice.

We are suburban congregations sending aid to urban centres, while we sit as individuals next to each other in the comforts of a church pew. We avoid knowing the poor among us and around us. We can give enormous sums of money from behind the protection of our secure bank accounts and gated communities.

We are hampered from embodying the reign of God in a living community that engages the world. We are shaped for dispossession.
We are becoming a society of individuals bound together by a form of spectating.

David Fitch proposes a different approach. The church is a new way of being together in the world. It is social manifestation of the “sent one” by the Spirit the facilitator of the kingdom, which inhabits the world for mission.

The church is the social body of his Lordship incarnating Christ in the world for God’s mission. It is the extension of the incarnate Christ sent by the Father to join what he already doing by the Spirit.

David really hits the nail on the head with one, and drives it home. If you live in America, your should read it.

My Response
here is brief because I have written about this elsewhere.

Nations have no place in God’s plan. Our loyalty is to the Kingdom of God, not to any nation state.

The Kingdom of God will come as Christians get together to re-build society form the ground up, one village and neighbourhood at a time.

The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission

Monday, March 11, 2013

End of Evangelicalism (3) Big Decision

The second big issue that David Fitch deals with is “The Decision”, especially through the sinners prayer. It leads to a narrow focus on penal substitutionary atonement, whereas the gospel is much bigger than that. It also leads to an emphasis on escape from hell and getting a ticket to heaven.

The recidivism rate of these who make decision for Christ is famously high (at least seventy-five percent never go on). David says that making a decision leads to a dissonance. I am saved but I am content to live in the same way that I always lived. The decision allows us to feel good about our belief without having to change anything. It shapes us for duplicity. People can say, “We are saved”, but it does not affect how they live. This makes the church appear hypocritical and is one reason why the world hates the church so much.

The decision leads to pride. We can look at others who have not made the decision and say, “at least I am not like them”. We feel better and morally superior.

David says that the solution is “more about entering into membership of the covenantal people of God in whom he is at work in to fulfil his promises to set the world right.”

We are invited to enter a salvation that God is working in the world. We are joining the Kingdom of God under Christ lordship.

Evangelism has over-personified salvation, making it into a transaction and has generally been preoccupied with the afterlife and escaping hell. It has ignored the message of the kingdom and has preached a personalised, middle-class gospel accommodated to the comforts of American prosperity.

The call for conversion is no longer, “Have you made a decision or receive Jesus as your personal saviour". It is “Have you entered into the salvation begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the world?”.
This is good stuff.

My Response
This is my gospel. The world has been stuffed up by sin and evil. Jesus incarnation, ministry, death, revelation, ascension, giving of the Holy Spirit have set off a process to roll back the big stuff ups, beginning with me and rolling out to places that I and the others who join up have influence.

The initiation process should be based on Acts 3:38 with a bit of Romans 10:9.

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.
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Conversion has several elements.
  • Repentance
  • Belief in Jesus
  • Receive the Spirit
  • Declare Jesus is Lord

Baptism is a declaration of repentance, faith and allegiance to Jesus, and is the process by which we receive the Spirit. David Pawson wrote a good book on this called the Normal Christian Birth.

I dislike the expression “receive Jesus into your heart”. It turns Jesus into an add-on that we control. Receiving Jesus is not scriptural. Jesus still has a human body and he has ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. Although he now has a spiritual body, he cannot be in two places at the same time. He cannot be in with the Father and in my heart. The scriptures teach that if we believe in Jesus, we will receive the Spirit. This should be our gospel.

Conversion takes time. I remember reading about revival meetings in the nineteenth centuries, where people sat on the sinner’s bench and cried out to God for several days, before coming gloriously through. I do not want to go back to that style of evangelism, but it reminds us that conversion takes time. As soon as we get a whiff of repentance, or faith, we rush the person straight into the sinners prayer and tell them they are saved. This truncates the work that the Holy Spirit is doing. We must get better at letting the Holy Spirit do a full work of repentance in a person’s life, even if it takes several weeks.

The conversion experience will depend on where a person is coming from. We must be careful not to get into applying a formula. For some people, getting forgiveness from God will be important. For others, the guidance of the lordship of Jesus might be what they are seeking. We must allow the Holy Spirit to do what each person needs, rather than following a standard pattern. For example, a few may need deliverance from evil spirits, before they can believe. Most will be set free once they believe.

The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission

Sunday, March 10, 2013

End of Evangelicalism (2) Inerrant Bible

The concept of an Inerrant Bible has become one of the core badges of modern evangelism. David Fitch notes that stand appeals to modernist criteria of true and false. Appealing to the world’s standards undermines the authority of the scriptures. Our articulation of the authority ends up being in terms defined by modern science, histiography and the modern academy. We have sought a secure position in the wider world by aligning ourselves with the forces in power. If we hitch our horse to the wagon of their ideology, we will find ourselves going somewhere we do not want to go. Here are some of the implications.

  • We sound arrogant; because we claim to have the truth and that others do not.
  • Every word in the scriptures is expected to communicate propositional truth.
  • It makes us unwilling to listen to the people their world. We miss their questions, so they do not hear us.
  • The church is too certain about what we know about God.
  • Making a stand for the inerrant bible allows us to believe that we have the truth while not being changed by it.
Fitch is correct to highlight these. He suggests the following response.
Instead of attempting to define the scriptures externally to scripture, we should only hope to know the scripture’s authority in our lives as it is revealed within our inhabitation of God’s mission in the world.

My Response
I have never been that comfortable with the concept of inerrancy.  The following thoughts describe my approach.
  • The scriptures were written by people. They used their own vocabulary and style, and they did not realise that they were writing scriptures. They put stuff in that is irrelevant. “Bring the cloak I left at Troas” does not much anything to us.

  • According to 2 Tim 3:16, the scriptures are God-breathed (theopneustos). We do not fully know what that means, but I believe that the Holy Spirit got everything into the scriptures that he wanted in. The scriptures contain everything that he wanted to about God and the world.

  • When interpreting the scriptures, I am not so worried about understanding the author’s intent. I always want to know what the Holy Spirit intended. I try to read the scriptures listening to him. Reading and listening at the same time are important. (We sometimes need to be in a group to hear clearly).

  • The Psalms teach that loving the law leads to wisdom. I find that loving the scriptures leads to insight (we must not worship them). Heavy doubt seems to leads to dister.

  • Spurgeon said that you should defend the scriptures the same way that you defend a caged lion. You let it loose.

  • All people and all cultures have blind spots. My culture has blinds spots, but I do not know what they are, because I am part of my culture. I have some blind spots that cause me to miss part of what God is saying, or to get some things wrong, but I do not know what they are. It is really hard to escape from our culture and see it as God sees it. They best we can dois to read humbly and be as open as possible to the challenges of the Holy Spirit.

  • Reading the scriptures frequently is important. The more we read, the more we will see and hear.

  • The Holy Spirit chose to use verbal revelation. He could have given us twenty pictures, but he did not. He could have waited until the modern age, and given us a movie or an audio-visual, but he did not. The Holy Spirit chose to use words, so words are important. This means that we need to listen to the words carefully, but in the context of the whole message.

  • The scriptures should be read as they are written. The epistles are more propositional than other parts of the scriptures. The gospels describe events, and record statements. Much of the Old Testament describes events, although the law is much more propositional.

  • Propositional writing is a clear precise way to communicate. Communicating in this way is fine, as long as we understand the limitations.

The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission

Saturday, March 09, 2013

End of Evangelicalism (1) Fitch and Ideology

Back when I was employed as a pastor, I was the minister in a rural parish, where most to the people were sheep farmers. One farmer supplemented his income with fitch farming. He bred these ferret-like animals for their fir skins. A fitch is a ferret that has been domesticated. I thought of this recently when I was reading a new book, “The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission” by David E. Fitch. The subtitle is “Towards an Evangelical Political Theology”. I wonder if David realises that a fitch is a domesticated ferret. He certainly has an amazing ability to ferret out the truth.

David Fitch teaches at Northern Seminary. In this book, he examines the presence of evangelicalism in North America. He asks why evangelicals are perceived as arrogant, exclusivist, duplicitous, and dispassionate by the wider culture. He uses the ideological theory of the European philosopher Slavoj Zizek to diagnose the problems faced by evangelicalism in America. He ends his study by examining the possibilities for a new faithfulness emerging and missional church movements springing forth in the current day.

I found this book very challenging and thought provoking. In the next few posts, I will summarise his main points and outline my response.

When I found that David had used the philosophy of Zizek to provide a framework for analysing the problems of evangelicalism, I was puzzled. I was not familiar with this European philosopher, so I was wondered why he wanted to go there. The funny thing is that it works. He explains Zizek’s philosophy very clearly, in a way that it can be understood by someone who is not familiar with it. He uses Zizek’s approach to expose the antagonisms and contradictions in American evangelicalism very effectively.

I suppose that he could have gotten to the same place by waiting in the council of the Lord like Jeremiah, but I have heard the Spirit speak through donkeys, street signs and atheists, so I am not going to complain. If he can hear the Holy Spirit speak through an obscure European philosopher, all power to him.

David Fitch provides a better summary of the nature of ideology and why it is important in a blog post.

My position (if I can say it that way now) is that before one can engage cultural issues both inside and outside the church, you must step back long enough to discern ideology at work. Because, once you take a position on the terms offered from within an ideology you have in essence already assented to that ideology. There is now no way to escape it. The ideology now determines how you will live out this issue in your life on the terms it puts down… This goes for any number of social/cultural issues including justice and economy.

I have argued for several years now that the church in the West must accept that it finds itself in the minority position in an increasingly post-Christendom culture. I have drawn from Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist theologians (and their philosophical friends) to teach evangelicals how to be alright with that and indeed come to a new self-understanding as the church in Mission in the West.

…..But more and more, over the past five years I have seen the need to discern the ways ideology works and how it thwarts our engagement with culture. To me, a good Anabaptist theologian needs to understand the critique of ideology (here is where people accuse me of being a Marxist which is hard to do if you’re an Anabaptist rejecting church-state alignments). My book End of Evangelicalism? carries out this argument extensively using Slavoj Zizek.

A good critique of ideology should teach you:
  • How to recognize the signs of an ideology at work. And so often, when you dare to reveal contradictions at work within an ideology, or use a code word differently, you will see an explosion of excess emotion, fear and anger. If you threaten an ideology that people are most comfortable in, it cuts to the core of our deepest fears and angers. Be of with that. Recognize it at work in yourself. Be ready to repent.

  • That you cannot directly criticize ideologies. You have to kindly provoke, push the ideology’s absurdities to their extreme to reveal the powers at work. Let people come to their own revealing. Only then can they “traverse” it and be “saved.”

  • That ideologies run on lacks, and antagonisms and fears, the opposite of what should be the body of Christ’s fullness in the Triune God. So whenever we see fear and anger and security driving a discussion in the church, we know that the church itself has succumbed to ideology.

When discerning ideology, the local indigenous community must be present. Instead of conceptually entering into an ideology and taking positions to win some “street cred,” instead we must discern individual issues one at a time together with real people in relationship. The first church did not have a “position” on pro-life/pro choice. They simply went about rescuing babies as they were confronted with infanticide in their streets. That was their position. And in that witness, the world was changed. Today, we must do likewise
In his book, Fitch addresses three main issues for evangelicalism that feed out of its struggle with a modernist ideology. I will discuss these in the next few posts.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (18) Equality

God’s goal is equality. Joshua divided the land equally between families.

Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh in the presence of the LORD, and he distributed the land to the Israelites according to their tribal divisions (Joshua 18:10).
Leviticus provided a method for ensuring that it remained equally distributed. When the Israelites gathered manna, some gathered more than others, but each one got what they needed.
The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed (Ex 16:17-18).
Everyone one got what they needed. Paul continued this pattern of equality continues into his New Testament letters.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality (2 Cor 8:13).
This is a radical vision. Paul encouraged serious giving and sharing according to the instructions for economic life would produce equality. We are a long way from Paul’s vision, because we have not understood that sharing wealth is a normal response to Jesus death on the cross.

Jesus confirmed the importance of equality in his parable of the workers in the vineyard.
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day’ (Matt 20:1-16).
This employer had promised to pay “whatever is right”. The parable actions to increase equality are right/just (dikaios).

Jesus gave a solution to the problems caused by inequality of capital.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12;33).
Generous giving and sharing should be normal for Christians, particularly sharing of capital. Those who have plenty of capital should give to those who don’t have much. The outcome will be greater equality.
At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality (2 Cor 8:14).
When helping people give away unrighteous wealth, deacons should channel capital to poor people who have the capability to use it responsibly to be more productive. They will need training in conserving capital and using it wisely. Transferring capital to the poor by giving and sharing will move the world closer to equality.

People like equality, but few know how it can be achieved. Robin Hood tried to achieve it, by robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Modern governments use compulsory taxation to transfer income and wealth from the rich to the poor. This makes the rich angry and leaves the poor still poor. God also wants equality, but his way is by giving, sharing and giving away of unrighteous wealth.

God’s objective is equality, but his solution is unique as it does not require force or coercion. His solution to inequality is love, compassion and repentance that puts things right. God’s requires people with plenty to give generously to those who are hard pressed. He expects people who have prospered to demonstrate compassion for those who have not done so well. Compassion and sharing can create equality.

This full series of posts can be found at Jesus and Economic Life.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (17) Jubilee

Jesus announced a dramatic new jubilee that would transform economic life in the villages of Galilee and Judea, as people began applying the instructions for economic life. The most dramatic change would come when wealthy people gave away their unrighteous wealth. The poor would be lifted up, as Mary had prophesied before Jesus was born.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm…
He has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
This was a promise that God would lift up the humble and fill the hungry people with good things through the ministry of Jesus. This would happen when people began to act on the instructions for economic life and give away their unrighteous wealth to put right the damage done by ignoring them in the past. Zacchaeus showed how this could happen.

The New Testament does not the record what happened in Galilee and Judea as a result of the teachings of Jesus and his disciples, because it focused on events around Jesus. Given that the people wanted to make him king, it can be assumed that the impact was dramatic, as Mary had prophesied. Some rich people would have discovered that all their wealth was unrighteous. If they chose to follow Jesus teaching, they would find themselves “empty” as the prophecy had warned, but they would have a new group of neighbours and “one anothers”.

The early church carried on the practicing the instructions for economic life after Jesus had ascended. People like Barnabas sold their unrighteous wealth and gave it to those in need.
They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2:43).
The church provided food and care for widows, orphans and others who were poor.
Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1).
Paul built on this with teaching about caring for widows (1 Tim 5:3-15).

The early church provided clothing for those who were in need.
In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made (Acts 9:36-39).
A great miracle occurred when Dorcas was raised from the dead. The incident is also recorded, because it reminds us that the Christians continued to provide for people in need, as the instructions for economic life required. The motivation was love, but the instructions put shape around the practice of love.

The modern world has accumulated a huge amount of unrighteous wealth, and Christians are not immune. If God’s people took the instructions for economic life serious, and dealt with unrighteous wealth by giving it away, a dramatic jubilee would occur. Wealth would flow from the rich to the poor. Some rich Christians would find themselves empty, and many poor would be raised up. Communities would be greatly strengthened.

Paul confirmed this in his letter to Timothy.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasures for themselves as a firm foundation (1 Tim 6:17-19).
If Christians applied the Jubilee that Jesus commanded and Paul confirmed, an amazing economic transformation would occur.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (16) Discerning

Unrighteous wealth is not an objective standard so it cannot be decided by a judge. Nor can it be decided by other Christian or elders. Only the person who holds the wealth knows how it was obtained, so they must decide whether it was unrighteous wealth or not. An elder can explain to new Christian what it means, but they must assess their own wealth an decide its status. Only the property owner can decide how much of their wealth is unrighteous.

This is a personal issue. Zacchaeus decided that half of his wealth was unrighteous wealth and gave it away. Likewise, the property owner must decide themselves what they will do with their unrighteous wealth. They can ask Christian elders for advice. They can ask deacons for assistance, but their response must be a personal choice, not compulsion.

Most unrighteous wealth will be obvious. If it is not obvious, we can leave it to the Holy Spirit. He will convict the new Christian, if his wealth is unrighteous and needs to be “got shot of”. We can trust the Spirit to do this task. Christian elders must not get into the business of forcing new Christians to give away their wealth, whether it unrighteous or not. (The Ananias and Saphira incident probably occurred because people were coming under inappropriate pressure to give wealth away (Acts 5:1-10) This teaching is not the basis for compulsory income redistribution either by the church or by political power.

Unrighteous wealth can usually be discerned by examining the way it was acquired. It will have been obtained through deception, theft, manipulation or dishonesty. In Jesus time, it was often acquired through collusion with the political and religious powers. That problem has not changed, but the form will be different.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (15) Restitution

The prescribed treatment of unrighteous wealth is to give it away. If it is known who it was stolen from, restitutions should be fourfold as required by Exodus 22:1. If it was general conniving, the response is extremely generous giving, particularly to the class of people who have suffered. Zacchaeus is an example of new believer giving away his unrighteous wealth.

Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount (Luke 19:8)
He gave away half of his wealth and promised to pay fourfold restitution to anyone who had stolen from. Zacchaeus did not need to ask Jesus what to do. Being a good Jew, he would be familiar with the message of the Torah and understand the instructions for economic life. When he realised that Jesus loved him, he spontaneously put these instructions into practice. He made fourfold restitution for money that was stolen. He gave generously from money that had been obtained through general conniving.

The giving that Jesus was expected was not in discriminant giving. That would be pointless. The wealth should be given to neighbours and “one anothers”, who need help to get back on their feet. The giving should be designed to help struggling people get into a place where they can manage for themselves.

The ministry of the deacon was established to facilitate this giving. Deacons were people who were skilled in managing their households and their work. They channelled much of the giving because they and their spouses were able to teach others how to manage their households better, so that they did not get into trouble again.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (14) Unrighteous Wealth

Jesus introduced the concept of “unrighteous wealth.

So if you have not been trustworthy in handling unrighteous wealth, who will trust you with true riches (Luke 16:11)?
People hanging onto unrighteous wealth will not be trusted with spiritual blessing. This is a blunt message. A key part of Jesus jubilee message was that unrighteous wealth should be given away.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys (Luke 12:33).
Jesus did not define unrighteous wealth, because this had already been done in the Law and the Prophets. When his listeners heard the expression, they knew what he meant. He was referring to wealth held contrary to the instructions for economic life. The following are the main categories of unrighteous wealth.
  1. Wealth that had been obtained by practices that were forbidden in the Torah is unrighteous wealth.

    Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet (Acts 4:36-37).
    Barnabas was a Levite and Levites were not entitled to own land in Israel (Num 26:62). When he came to faith in Jesus, the illegal ownership of land would have weighed on his conscious. He probably could not return the land to its rightful owner (Lev 25:13), so he sold the land and gave the money to the apostles for distribution to those in need.

  2. Land and other possessions that have been stolen are unrighteous wealth. The word used for possessions in Acts 2:45, 4:34 and Acts 5:1 is “ktema” or “ktetor” This is not the word generally used for possessions in the New Testament (uparxis). These nouns are derived from the verb “ktaomai”. It means “acquire” or “gain control over”. It refers to property that has been acquired, not bought. “Ktema” refers to unrighteous wealth that has been acquired by wickedness. Some of the property sold by Christians like Barnabas and Ananias may have been acquired as a reward for wickedness.

  3. The accumulation of houses is unrighteous wealth. The prophets spoke against those who accumulated land and houses.

    Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land (Is 5:8).
    In the modern world, residential housing is a popular investment. This demand pushes up the price of dwellings, which makes it difficult for young people to buy a house. Investment in housing is unproductive. It does not increase the productivity of the economy. People who are saving for their retirement should invest in productivity activities not residential dwellings.

  4. Land and property received through collusion with political powers is unrighteous wealth. People with political power often protect their positions by providing land and property to their supporters. The people who had become rich in Jesus times gained their wealth through their place in the Roman political system. It was unrighteous wealth. Once these people had chosen Jesus as their King, they could not retain land and property that represented loyalty to King Herod or Caesar, so they sold it. They would probably have lost their property anyway, once their new loyalty became clear.

  5. In the modern world, governments often give a group of people monopoly power over an aspect of the economy. Then enables them to become very wealthy, but this is unrighteous wealth.

  6. Limited liability laws allow business to take excessive risks and then leave their creditors (often small contractors) carrying the burden when they default. Wealth gained by benefiting from limited liability is unrighteous wealth.

  7. Wealth obtained through debasing the currency is unrighteous wealth, whether it is done by a counterfeiter or a government.

    See how the faithful city
    has become a prostitute!
    She once was full of justice;
    righteousness used to dwell in her—
    but now... your silver has become dross (Is 1:21-22).
    Those who become wealth through debasing or inflating the currency are creating unrighteous wealth for themselves.

    In the modern world, people have found less direct ways to take advantage of the debasement of the currency. Many people have become wealthy through investing in real estate to benefit from the capital gains that come through inflation of property prices. These gains are often amplified by using borrowed money to pay for the properties. Large returns are earned through an activity that produces very little for the economy. The high returns are dependent on continued price inflation that is caused by the government manipulating the currency. Collecting capital gains caused by inflation is sharing in the deceitful activities of currency manipulators. Wealth obtained from capital gains obtained by highly leveraged investments in real estate is unrighteous wealth.

  8. If the Holy Spirit is prompting someone to assist a neighbour in financial difficulty by giving them an interest-free loan and they refuse, the money that should have been lent probably becomes unrighteous wealth.

  9. If the Holy Spirit is prompting someone to assist a neighbour in financial difficulty by redeeming their property and they refuse to assist, the wealth that they cling to probably becomes unrighteous wealth.

  10. Wealth that has been obtained by taking property pledged by as security by people who are defaulting on interest bearing loans is unrighteous wealth. This has been an easy way to gain wealth in every age.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (13) Love

Jesus agreed that loving God was the greatest commandment.

The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).
Love of neighbour was the second greatest commandment. It was the heart of the Torah teaching and energised the instructions for economic life.

Jesus gave a new commandment.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another (John 13:34).
Giving a new commandment would be a little strange, as Jesus had already affirmed the two greatest commandments. However, he was not really giving a new commandment, but was shifting the old one into a new environment. The Torah commanded us to love our neighbour. This made sense in a tribal culture in an agricultural economy. The world was changing and it was impossible to go back to the world that Moses lived in, so Jesus put a subtle twist on the second greatest command. Love your neighbour became love one another. Love continued, but the object of love changed. This made the commandment relevant to people living in cities separated from their tribal and family groups. Jesus modernised the commandment, because “Love one another’ can be applied anywhere, including cities and industrial societies.

We think about loving one another in an abstract way. It would have been different for Jesus listeners. They understood what loving one another meant, because it was no different form loving your neighbour, and they knew what that meant, because it was the heart of the Torah that Jesus had taught them in their synagogues. Loving your neighbour encompassed all the instructions for economic life contained in the law. Loving one another should be the same.

Changing the object from “neighbour” to “one another shifted the application of the instructions for economic life and the judicial laws of crime and punishment from the tribal groups of Israel to groups of people who chose to follow Jesus. And the shift of love from neighbour to one another would mean that the “one anothers” would have to become “neighbours” to make the instructions for economic life real.

The church in Jerusalem described in Acts was not a new form of proto-communism. It was an attempt to restore God’s social model in a city by applying the instructions for economic life, taking into account the changes wrought by the resurrection and ascension, Jesus becoming king, and the Holy Spirit being sent to establish the Kingdom.

When Jesus us told us to love one another, he extended our social and economic responsibility to everyone in our neighbourhood. Those who are not “one anothers”, are neighbours. The “one anothers” need to become “neighbours” to fulfil the new commandment.