We all struggle to get terms that work and the word ‘substitution’ with regard to Jesus’ death could work to some extent. For there is a strong ‘in our place’ element within passages, though the over-individualisation of that concept does not do the NT justice. He tasted death for everyone; he dies for the Jewish nation. In both of the previous statements we have a corporate element, a participation by Jesus in a corporate journey, with the end result that something corporate might come forth, a royal priesthood, a new people, indeed new creation. This corporate rather than personal element is visible (I suggest) in all passages, it only being our individualised West that somehow sees death for ‘sins’ being some crude accumulation of my sin + yours + this person + that person… all of which can lead to an idea of Limited Atonement, seeking to answer the question of whose sins did he die for. That is the world of simple transaction – x amount paid for, those whose sins are paid for go free.

A big challenge to ‘substitution’ if defined in too tight a way can be illustrated by 2 Cor. 5:14,15 (emphases added),

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

‘For all’ could be understood as ‘in our place’, dying so that we do not die, but the latter part says he was also raised for us (same term ‘for’: huper). If we press the term ‘substitution’ with the clear meaning of something replacing what would have taken place otherwise (I order a product from the supermarket and when it arrives the product has been substituted / replaced by another product) we run into huge problems with the statement regarding that Jesus being also raised ‘for us’. This would imply that Jesus is raised so that we will not be raised? I think not!!!! We cannot press the language to be ‘in our place’ in that strong substitutionary sense.

We have to move beyond the ‘for’ word and not reduce it to mean a rigid ‘in my place’ and if we insist on using the ‘substitution’ word we have to use it carefully, and I suggest that probably we should rather think more along the lines of Jesus participating in our journey, going there for us, on our behalf. This for me is consistent with how I understand the activity of God… God travels with us, walks our journey (three leave Eden, three again visibly pick up that journey on the road to Emmaus). Jesus does this for us, both in terms of death on our behalf for that is our journey and then opens up the future (through resurrection) so that we can follow his journey, he being the guarantee for our future. Indeed it is not simply he dies our death, but opens the way so that we can die his death, and as a result experience his resurrection – crucified with Christ, buried and raised with / in him. He does this for us, so that we can die with him. That is not substitution but an invitation to an identification and participation with him, all made possible because he identified and participated in our journey.

I certainly do not see any traffic moving in the direction of Jesus punished in our place, but the Triune God willingly taking on the consequences of our rebellion. Identification with us; participation in our journey; but substitution – no; and penal substitution a definite no!

The big issue with the idea of God punishing Jesus is what this would reveal of God. Restorative justice (as opposed to punitive justice) is not something that has been recently invented, but seems to be the very heart of God with respect to justice. Punitive justice calls for ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, it calls for the death penalty for the murderer, yet God comes to protect the murderer (Cain), in spite of all that we read of the punishment fit for the murderer in the later books of the law. He likewise does the same with regard to Cain #2 (Barabbas), allowing him to go free, with the blood of Abel #2 calling out for forgiveness. God is not looking to uphold the law as if we are guilty and Jesus satisfies the requirement of the law. God is looking to heal, to restore the relationship. The law remains broken in that sense, but the guilty go free, forgiveness being the label over the door that leads to freedom, not ‘paid for’.

This is probably where the more eastern expressions of the church have a huge advantage over us. We have so focused in on the individual, law and guilt and the solution we come up with is the law is upheld with Jesus dying in our place. If we think more relationally and turn a focus on shame and sickness of soul we will press in deeper to areas of cleansing and restoration; after all the Scriptures seem to focus in on that the first humans felt ashamed, knowing they were naked. It does not come across as guilt being the central issue. Restoration of relationship not restoration of God’s honour, not a visible demonstration that law, right wrong has to be upheld.

Shame means we cannot turn our face to God. Something deep inside has to take place. Guilt (which is present in the Scriptures) emphasises the falling short of what we were meant to be, and I essentially would wish to suggest that the falling short is centred in on a failure to be truly human, and as a result not to treat others as human (we should also add in a reference to the planet, the habitation for humans, and for them as stewards of it). The glory of God is revealed in the cross, for there we see God unveiled; the glory that could be seen in Jesus, glory full of grace and truth, was revealed publicly at the cross. In stark contrast the falling short of the glory of God – failing to be human – is revealed there too, for it was we who killed the Author of Life.

Thus shame and guilt are dealt with at the cross as we respond by faith that he dies for us.

The resurrection is not about ‘raised back to the previous state after a temporary kenosis‘, the Jesus who died is the one who is raised, establishing in the face of death, indeed through death a path for all who wish it to travel, a path to true humanity, or as Paul says ‘one new humanity in Christ’ no longer defined by any previous category. ‘In Christ’ says it all, and ‘in Christ’ cancels all other previous categorisations. Those in Christ no longer will claim any definition as giving them a place of power and superiority (Gal. 3:28), and they will live that out ‘no longer seeing anyone according to the flesh’.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s affirmation that the first-born of all creation, the forerunner for us all has overcome. Never succumbing to any level of ‘falling short’, yielding his spirit to God, praying forgiveness for us. The resurrection is not a return to superior power way of living, it is the affirmation of an unbroken way of living, the God way, of outpoured love.

Through the cross we begin to tread that path. Sanctification is the onward journey, not one of conquering all the right / wrong rules, but the path way of love. (Future) resurrection will make that all permanent.

Substitutionary? Not in the classic sense of the word. Only in the sense that the cross opens a path that can be substituted for the common path of humanity (new path for old). He died for (huper) us.

Universal or particular

Jesus died for all (Universal). Thank God. I also think Jesus died for males and for Jews (particular). We all betrayed Jesus, but the Scriptures and the creeds (not many names in there) tell us that Judas betrayed Jesus. Both are true, and in that sense Judas ‘acted for us’. Judas is the particular betrayer; we all universally betrayed Jesus.

Jesus was male, born of a woman, born under the law… so that he might redeem those who were born under the law… This makes his death have a very specific application for Jews. Now let me add what certainly is not explicitly written in Scripture, so I am going beyond Scripture (more of that below), to redeem males, masculinity, or maybe the perverted form of masculinity exhibited in patriarchy and dominance.

Why born a Jew? Because Jews were the problem… hang on, nothing anti-Semitic there, just hang on. They were the problem simply because they failed to be the solution. If we had a camp of people who were sick but there were no doctors able to come, we might well say the problem is ‘we have no doctors’… but the real problem is that sickness has gripped the camp. Sickness has gripped the world, a contagious disease, a pandemic is present throughout creation, and we can call it sin. The doctors though are not available… don’t blame them, they too are sick. Their (Israel’s) sickness was to make chosen to mean ‘them’ and ‘us’, to transform ‘life’ into ‘separation’, to failing to see that ‘we want to be like them (give us a king)’ means we are also ‘them’, that there is no effective ‘us’ but we are all in a mess together, hence Paul’s words ‘all (Jew and Gentile) have sinned and fallen short…’ of being truly human.

That is the strong ‘when’ to the cross. The Jews have to be set free, and the grace of God was to give them a clear generation gap to get on board with such statements as (to Jews) ‘there being no other name under heaven by which you may be saved’ – not Abraham, nor David, nor ‘I am of Israel’. Only in Jesus, the one who died for Jews. ‘Save yourself from this crooked and perverse generation’. There is salvation – in Jesus; salvation from the Romans and salvation for the sake of the world. A restored Israel and we have hope for the nations (Gentiles).

And I also think Jesus is male. Certainly not because of some superiority or creation order. And although I do not read the early chapters as history, history bears witness that the patriarchal nature of the fallen world is a source of deep distress. Maleness, as patriarchy, goes to the cross – maybe the last to be seen at the cross, the first to see the resurrection pushes us to consider that perspective? Jewishness goes to the cross for all divides are nailed there, with the biggest of all divides being revealed as an ultimate wrong (or at least inadequate) perception when the Temple curtain ripped in two. God is not behind the screen. God is with us. Emmanuel. The divide does not exist, and how could it for the two were united in Jesus, fully God, fully human?

Jesus came to his own, but his own did not receive him… yet a few chapters later we read that Jesus sat down with his own and ate with them; he put a towel round his waist and got down… washing the feet of his own. God with us, with those who can receive this God.

Yes, I do believe Jesus died for all. Yet there he is – male, Jewish flesh on the cross. He died that there might no longer be the divide that we who had the power to draw the lines that divide can continue to make. The sharp end of the cross should not be ignored, for in it is salvation for all.

Beyond Scripture? Not in the sense of seeking to understand a story that is unfolding, a story that takes us from Creation to New Creation. A story that presents the cross as the roadblock to total destruction; a halt in that path, and the opening of a new path, a new creation that we are not simply walking toward but one that is coming this way. Beyond the pages but within the story of Scripture.

A new creation is here. God is with us. Always was, was present in the cross, identified and embodied sin, embodied it in a concrete way, embodied flesh that used (fallenly created) privilege to exclude and divide, embodied that flesh in order to include and unite.

He died for Jews and males; he died for all.

Cannot look at sin

Jesus was a friend of sinners, not simply a friend of ex-sinners. Paul was a friend of those who had not responded to the Gospel he was passionate about (or at least had not responded to the ‘personal salvation’ part of it). But God? And Jesus was like God but God was not like Jesus? Really?

He cannot look at sin, he turns away, we see that ever so clearly with the cry of Jesus:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matt. 27:46).

God-forsakeness. Psalm 22:1 being quoted by Jesus, the words of David. So God abandoned David? David certainly had many moments when that is exactly what he felt but God did not abandon him. Jesus certainly felt and expressed that on the cross, the cross where God was (present) in Christ. Thank God for Scriptures that mean we are not alone. Scriptures that even indicate we have been abandoned by God, but then we discover that others have gone this way before, and they have found that God was with them. There is a cloud of witnesses that testify to the ever present Presence of God, in and through all circumstances. Indeed we need to keep reading the Psalm, for almost certainly Jesus is using that Scripture while on the cross. Read on, read on… Come to verse 24:

For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

He did not hide his face from me. Did you feel abandoned? Yes, desperately… the feeling was real, it was overwhelming, but the reality is the cross is not an evidence of a divided Trinity but of a Unified Trinity, unified for humanity. Human experience and despair (abandonment) meeting Trinitarian undivided commitment and love to go through whatever is necessary to achieve reconciliation.

It is possible that those final words on Jesus’ lips ‘It is finished’ is his reflection on the end of Psalm 22:

his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

He has done it. He, the God in Christ, has done it, has brought deliverance to a people yet unborn. It has been done, it is finished. Whether Jesus words are reflective of that final verse or not, we rejoice that God is the friend of sinners. No appeasement necessary. Only humanity needs to turn their face to God, for his face has always been turned this way.

Afflicted by God, punished even by God, is a common understanding of the cross. But Isaiah 53 a chapter that was taken up in the New Testament of being totally exemplified in the death of Jesus said that this was our perception, not the reality:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

We saw this as God afflicting the Servant, this is how we reckoned it, how we saw it… ‘yet’ shows how it was understood, but the reality is something is going on for us. Jesus is not killed by God – the universal witness of Acts is that ‘you crucified him’. Sin, in all its forms, crucified Jesus. This does not mean that I am suggesting the cross is not an act of God, but it is not the anger of God in any personal sense that sends Jesus to the cross, it is our sin, our estrangement from God, our inability to know him, hence our failure to represent him, to be the glory of God.

It might be a simple way of putting things. Sin brings about God’s anger; we can do nothing to pay for the sin(s) committed, Jesus pays and takes the rap. Believe in that substitution in your place and you can be forgiven, never needing to pay. Simple to present. Simple does not mean either adequate nor right.

Back in the day

It is often assumed that any view of the cross must have at the centre the idea that the human race is to be punished, Jesus took the punishment, and so we go free (penal substitution). It works as an explanation though it raises serious questions if it is not nuanced extremely well about the inter-relationship of God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son). At worst it gives us a loving Son and a more-than-overbearing Father; a loving Son and a holy God who cannot look on sin, who turned his face away from his Son, abandoning him on the cross (thus ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me’). It divides the Trinity. Not only do I distance myself from such views, even the more nuanced ones, it might come as a surprise that the penal substitionary view is not the most ancient view – unless one ascribes it to the pages of the New Testament itself.

The two oldest views (developed soon after the NT period) seem to be what could be termed ‘Recapitulation‘ and ‘Christus Victor‘ (the defeat of the powers, though that term really owes itself to a certain Swedish Lutheran theologian / bishop who published a book with that title in 1930). Recapitulation was simply that Jesus assumed every aspect of humanity, ‘retraced’ the steps of Adam, so he redeemed what was lost, and sin was killed in the Son. There is a great emphasis on the reality of the humanity of Jesus, and also on the nature of two humanities – one in Adam and one in Jesus. The conquering of death for all is essential.

With Christus Victor we see how they wrestled with the idea of ransom. For those who suggested the ransom was paid to Satan, there was an acknowledgement that the devil had certain legitimate claims over humanity. The debt is paid for the release of humanity, and now with Jesus in his grasp the overwhelming goodness and holiness of Jesus just proved too much to hold and the devil having already lost the hold over humanity just could not hold on to Jesus – hence salvation for humanity and resurrection for Jesus.

In neither of the above views – which I consider historically are the two most ancient strands – are there any discussion of Christ appeasing the Father nor of the Father punishing the Son. Those discussions come later.

A big shift takes place with a certain Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm (1033-1109) who using the framework of his day put forward the ‘debt’ that is owed due to the universal failure to honour God, to pay him what is his due. The debt is paid by the one who honoured God, all offence is removed. The culture of the day is the background, with landlords and serfs, and in the case of God a supreme king. The debt is one that can never be paid. With Anselm there is a shift, and a further shift comes as the culture moves on to the time of the Reformation. Debt language can continue but justice and guilt become central. The innocent one dies in the place of the guilty, so the guilty go free. This shift has essentially made this, or a modified version of this, the central understanding.

As I consider further aspects in future posts here are a few thoughts:

  • Does God need appeasing? Can God not forgive without someone (Jesus) standing in the gap? Is forgiveness from God to be understood along the same lines as we understand forgiveness? In one of my books I suggest that ‘wrath’ when applied to God is righteous in Scripture, but we do not find such a description of human anger – thus we should not look to human anger to help us understand what the Bible means when it talks of the ‘wrath of God’. Likewise with forgiveness… Forgiveness at a human level is ‘I choose to let the offence (and therefore the person) go’, ‘You owe me nothing’. If we can do that without asking for recompense, why can God not do that… And if forgiveness is to ‘let someone go’ (the Greek being also a term used for example of untying a ship to let her sail) what is being forgiven, from what are we being untied? Untied from God and the need to pay back… or untied elsewhere?
  • Assuming we want to avoid an automatic Universalism, we will find it harder to do with the concept of a payment, or any ‘in the place of humanity’ as they seem to me the most likely follow through. If it is ‘the cross’ plus repentance in what sense is it ‘the debt paid in full’? Of course there are universalistic texts and one might be happy with that understanding. The solution of a ‘only died for the elect’ of course does not do it for me… hence I find debt payment, universal guilt condemnation not to wash.
  • Any view of the cross must take seriously the unified work of the Trinity. ‘God was in Christ‘ Paul says… God is not apart from Christ, and the work was one of restoration, for ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’. The cross does not reconcile God to the world, it does not change God (wrath to acceptance) but it changes the world. It restores a broken relationship, it restores all breaches, hence the ‘restoration of all things’ is the hope. In Genesis the issues are relational breakdown and alienation.
  • And finally (but far from the final post) the cross will never be worked out theoretically. Maybe the men are not seen at the final scenes of the death of Jesus (other than one… who was characterised by love) because it is the heart, the emotions rather than the head and logic that will grasp what takes place. That for me is sure, for something of heaven and earth meet, history and new creation, humanity and divinity all meet there.

When might help us understand why

Sitting here with some thoughts buzzing through my head I plan to start a slow set of posts on the cross. I plan to start – will I finish? They will be slow, cos I got a lot to think about.

Understanding what took place at the cross is gladly beyond every theory, and there is not a single theory that can adequately sum it up. The New Testament employs metaphors, different metaphors, and because they are metaphors we cannot treat them as literal. The ‘ransom’ metaphor is drawn from the slave market, but is situated within the ‘ransomed from Egypt’ (in the Exodus) narrative. In that narrative there is no payment made… indeed the Egyptians ‘paid’ Israel to leave! Some early church fathers wrestled with the payment, asking to whom was it paid. To God? Or to the devil, and as a sort of trick payment, with the devil grabbing the payment (life of Jesus) and finding that this was simply his downfall. There is no need to go for the payment at any literal level when considering the ‘ransom for many’ texts.

I think a starting point is to ask ‘when does the cross take place when it does?’, for if we can get some sight on the when it should open up some ideas about the why.

Paul, quite a thinker that guy!, suggests that Jesus comes in ‘the fullness of times’. Although I take Adam and Eve as mythical (no literary reason to suggest otherwise, though I think Paul probably thought they were literal, or like me, consider them theologically as real) why do we not have the cross at the time of the fall? Why all the sacrificial system, the law, all of which are rendered redundant post-the-cross?

The cross is central and we often reason that Abraham, et al, is saved through the cross, though I think that can be questioned, for we can legitimately ask if God needs the cross to forgive. Without exploring the finer points let us accept the centrality of the cross. Why the delay? Why the thousands of years before the Incarnation?

In short we have to assume that before the time of Jesus we were not living in the fullness of times. So to my read…

Israel is not chosen to be saved and by contrast all Gentile nations to be damned. Israel is chosen to come into relation with God for the sake of the Gentile nations. If we borrow Adam and Eve language (and a number of Rabbis saw the creation story simply as an Israel story – fruitful garden, promised land flowing in milk and honey, expulsion from the Garden, expulsion from the land in the Babylonian exile) Israel is uniquely in the image of God, an all-but replica of God. What is God like? Look at the image, placed at the heart of the temple, placed within creation for the heavens are the place where God sits, and the earth the place where his feet are displayed.

I read a fall, a series of falls in the life of Israel. In brief, a nation that was to be a priestly nation for all others, adopt a priestly tribe for themselves; a nation who had no king but God rejects that path and asks for a king to be like all the other nations; this leading to a building of a Temple that really weakened the image that was then visible of the God who does not dwell in houses made by hands. By the time of Jesus we read,

Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified (John 19:15,16).

No king but Caesar… just like the other nations. Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. what a strong word ‘then’ can be. The extent of the fall is revealed: no king but Caesar. The good news (euangelion: gospel) of Rome; the kingdom (basileia) of Rome; the peace (shalom / eirene) that Rome brought to the world through military rule etc… The image has gone, or the image of Rome has now come to bear on the nation that was to be set apart. Then… if Jesus is not crucified we can say ‘good-bye’ to any hope for humanity. The ‘then’ signifies also that in a very real sense Jesus is dying for the nation of Israel. How ironic is the ‘prophecy’ of Caiaphas:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death (Jn.11:47-53).

If Jesus does not die (is not sacrificed) they will lose the Temple and the nation destroyed. Jesus is sacrificed for the nation and for those beyond… and within 40 years the Temple is gone and the nation dispersed.

If the nation that was to be the image of God, the priest for the world, the ‘redeeming’ nation has fallen to the extent it is now one of the nations we have a problem! We can summarise this as Israel being under a curse, a theme that was familiar from Deuteronomy (I set before you blessings and curses) with the rabbis. I consider that is exactly the view that Paul shows in Galatians 3:13, 14.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

He redeemed those under the curse of the law – this has to refer to the Jewish people and explains why a crucified Messiah was a stumbling-block. A ‘cursed’ person as the Messiah? Yet without that intervention from heaven the Gentiles could never be included. They will be blessed through the blessed nation (Abrahamic promise), but the nation is cursed, under foreign rule.

The when, the fullness of times, for me, then is the ultimate time when there was no hope. No hope for the Gentiles because there was no hope for Israel. Jesus travels Israel’s path, just as they were condemned to 40 years in the wilderness because the refusal to go into the land when the spies had been 40 days in the land, so now Jesus will travel 40 days in the wilderness. Thrown into (same word as casting out demons) the wilderness he confronts the three powers – economic, political and religious – as summed up in the temptations that came from the adversary. He binds the ‘strong man’, the one who by now had become the ruler of this world.

The when… when there was no hope, when the world lay in the grip of the evil one. when there was no hope for the fulfilment of human destiny (read Rev. 5 in this context). At the full height of demonic power Jesus comes. If that is the ‘when’ a strong indication of the cross has to be to set us – Jew or Gentile – free.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal. 1:3,4).

To set us free…

The house is burning?

When I come to the chapter on Cornelius in our book zooms we look at the obvious, is it about Cornelius’ one off conversion to Jesus, or is it about yet another conversion of Peter (us)? Seems to be about both. In that chapter, of course, is also raised the question of ‘salvation’. A challenging word for we have reduced it to mean ‘getting our ticket’, whereas in Scripture it is very concrete. ‘You have saved me from my enemies’ did not have anything to do with ‘eternity’ but everything to do with the here and now. ‘Save yourself from this perverse generation’ is in line with this. Certainly there is not a great emphasis on ‘saved from (future) fire’ though one could pull a few texts that way, with a big twist and pull. The emphasis is from ‘powers’ that enslave and for ‘purpose’ that restores.

The chapter sits before the one on ‘witness’ which I contrast with what is often labelled evangelism. A big question how we approach all this I liken to our consideration of the situation that people find themselves in. If they are all (analogy following) sitting inside a building feeling safe but we know that the building is on fire and they are existentially in grave danger then an appropriate response will be to run in the building and shout at them, provoke them, warn them to get out, informing them that there is a fire exit that they have to run to. The fire exit of course being the cross of Jesus, and due to the urgency there is no value in developing relationships, nor wasting our time with those who really do not believe our good news story. Leave them, get the next person out. Persuade them even if they struggle to believe you, cos they’ll thank you later.

The burning building scenario.

Maybe the building is not now burning but will catch fire at any moment, there is an imminent fire. Maybe then we can operate a little slower, nevertheless the scenario is pretty much the same.

I do not believe such an approach merits the name ‘evangelism’ and I seriously question whether it comes close to what Paul was up to in the Imperial context, or what he hoped the various ekklesiai would get up to.

What if the ‘burning building’ scene is more something we have created than a reality, and that our job in faithful witnessing is to introduce people to Jesus (through what they observe in us and through our conversations) thus giving them an opportunity to meet the bridge between the Father and humanity. What a privilege and how much good news is located in that connection. Not presenting a set of facts, but a Person not so that they can then meet God (as if Jesus was the way to God) but so that they might come to rest in the intimacy of love. That love that was already present. And in that encounter discovering that whatever gap (and it is a huge one!) there is between the divine and the human that there is both an inspiration and an empowerment to become who I was meant to be because the joining of human and divine in Jesus closed those gaps.

Beliefs. So essential as they shape us. The world is indeed condemned, but the people?

In spite of a sneaky suspicion that God might just turn out to be a Universalist, I am not. But the burning building just does not stack up.

I wonder if Jesus prayer to the Father was answered? ‘Forgive them…’ Maybe he should have prayed as we do, ‘lead them to repentance, so that you can forgive them’. Just a thought.

Now that is a smart revelation

Ever wake up where things become clear, like ‘that really makes sense’? I did this morning. Some really smart revelation… feel quite good about that.

Be yourself, everyone else is taken.

A really insightful quote from Oscar Wilde. One we can all agree with and nod to, probably not so easy to live out. And given that salvation is freedom from all hostile powers (including that central one of (singular) sin) so that we can fly to be truly ‘us’ we should really not only nod but give it a big thumbs up.

Part of the journey toward maturity (I think!) is to discover the baggage we have carried with us. So, my revelation, not quite a new one, but one that crystalised and made sense. A VERY smart revelation was I am really not very smart.

Back in the UK I had a wonderful library of books, maybe around 5000 or so. The latest (then) on the Dead Sea Scrolls, maybe a minimum of 3 commentaries on every NT book, all the main OT ones covered, articles, subscribing to three theological journals. How I have missed them. Then I realised I did not have the ability to read them! So better they have gone. I enjoy running some zoom groups, and I think most people have enjoyed them; there was one group though that I pulled out of. They were far too smart for me. Someone asked if they were trained theologians… no, they simply understood the English language and were able to read. I used to run the group in our lounge and Gayle was sitting on the settee, as the discussion progressed I had to ask Gayle constantly ‘what does that mean?’, either related to a word being used (and I am sure a common word for the majority of people) or a concept that I had no idea what it was. That was perhaps the best group yet for me. It helped me see that the ‘not so smart’ qualification was something I was excelling at.

Gayle is a lot of fun to be with. She is smart and knows how to fly (figuratively). I said to her this morning that in the years we have been together I have so enjoyed it and also like never before discovered how ‘not smart’ (trying to avoid using the ‘stupid’ word) I am. It is only coincidental that my discovery connects with the years we have been married, she certainly has not caused it!

Through those reflections it is possible to come to ‘silver and gold I do not have…’ which is quite good. Of course we have to get to the ‘but what I do have…’; yet the two halves seem to be good to have in place.

Expectations… from within, from others. Perceptions of others. Probably none of them too helpful. Be yourself… not impressive… limitations…

Limitations. Yes that is really important. I remember years ago hearing someone give a critique of Christian TV (it could have been a critique of anything). He explained that so often the money raising was because they are reaching xxx million people; this person then went on to say, ‘not really true’. The transmission might indeed cover that number of people, cover that percentage of the globe, but when we talk ‘reaching’ there is an element where that is shaped by who turns the ‘on’ button on and then engages with it. Potential (and sometimes that is unrealistic potential) is something that can fool us. Realistic limitations (that can be pushed back) are part of discovering what the true potential is. We should not be frightened about discovering limitations. Once we do, then we can begin to exercise who we are within those limitations.

Wisdom. As one gets older one is supposed to get more wisdom. But I am not sure I understand what is true wisdom. The Queen of Sheba was impressed with Solomon, with the ‘half having not even been told’. Impressed with what? That a young humble guy was fast developing a path that would enable the Pharaonic system to embed itself in the nation is an example of great wisdom? Maybe the younger Solomon with his crazy suggestion of ‘cut the baby in two’ was the one who really had captured the heart of wisdom.

I thank God for smart people. We need them.

I am looking for a new level of ‘hiddenness’ , one that is deeper than the past 12 years. Drop down a level, count the number of ears, rather than try to expand the mouth. Be at home with encounters with the demonic. Now that one makes me smile and brings me energy. Theologically I am really not sure about the world of the demonic, too much seems to be made of it from mythical passages, and if truth be out I have no real insight as to whether the Scriptures suggest we should believe in a personal devil or not. Probably, as far as my view goes, theologically I have no Scriptures in my favour; maybe evolution and what I think the trajectory of the biblical story pushes for might be something that at least gives me 1 out of 10 in any exam I was to sit. I smile cos I enjoy a good bruising with that realm!

‘Silver and gold’… ‘No smart answers coming from this source; sorry I simply do not have the ability to engage with that cos I don’t understand it’…

So there you have it, my revelation this morning, and ever so liberating. I thought I would put it down here as it helps me, and maybe there is a reader or two who is meeting the limitations of ‘I am not very…’ But what I do have, the uniqueness of me – rest in that, for your ‘you’ and my ‘me’ will be so small, so like a couple of drops in that big ocean. I kinda think that is where this whole thing started way back in the day of the impressive Roman rule. And I kinda think we are increasingly coming back to it… the multiplicity of the small, and the richness of diversity.

Economic, religious and political rule

There are many ways in which the temptations of Jesus can be viewed. We can certainly learn from them at a personal level, but the temptations are the temptations that the agent of the kingdom had to face. Although ordered slightly differently in Matthew and Luke the same three are recorded.

  • Turn the stones into bread.
  • Throw yourself down from the Temple.
  • Bow and you have all these kingdoms (and Luke specifically the ready-made Imperial system).

The response to the ‘stones into bread temptation’ was that Jesus was called to a deeper source of sustenance – to every word that came from heaven; the response to the ‘throw yourself down’ was not to put the Lord to the test; and the response to the ‘offer of the kingdoms’ was to worship and serve God’.

I suggest we can look at the first temptation as an economic one, to gain sustenance and resource through an abuse of miraculous power; the second as a religious temptation with God serving the pre-set agenda with protection; and the final one as a political rule temptation with the marrying into the system to exercise a ‘godly’ agenda.

What a trio, and a trio that are intertwined, a three-fold cord that is not easily broken. A trio that one could argue could have served the ‘kingdom’ agenda and enabled the message to be spread quickly and efficiently.

I have heard too many times ‘that is just the way it is in business / economics’. Yes, I guess it often is, but if to that statement is brought the ‘every word’ that comes from God we really do need to see an adjustment. From the exposure of (all varieties of) ‘consumerism’ in Gen. 3: ‘I saw, I desired and I consumed’; to the prohibitions not to maximise profits; to the command to care for the ‘widow, alien and orphan’; to the appointment of Judas to look after the money bag. Every word seems consistent, and Jesus certainly hit that big one on the head.

The religious agenda is where we have a vision and God will back it up. And back it up he often does, with the very clear example of the anointing of the king for Israel so that they might be like the other nations. He backs it up cos he goes where we go (after all he also walked out of Eden with them), and then there comes a time when he does not back it up and we end up perplexed. When he does not we are to open our eyes to where we have served religion and the ever so polished up religious agenda.

Of course, politics and what I have written on the political nature of the Gospel is so key, and I consider that Jesus broke the economic power structures so that he could then clearly observe the economic exploitative system that ‘robs widows of their houses’ was being undone when it sought to swallow also the last coins of a widow, leading him to prophesy the end of an era that had deteriorated into religion and exclusivity (rather than faith and inclusivity) so that the likes of Paul ‘apostle to the nations’ could spend the last days in Rome. From economics through religion (that had swallowed the economic exploitative system) to the ungodly marriage of religion and politics being pulled apart… so that there might be the hope of ‘the kingdom of this world becoming the kingdom of our Lord and Messiah’.

In Ukraine all three of these powers are manifest. A re-ordering of the world of economics is at hand, with the big ‘winner’ being the Imperial power of China who has no need to enter the current conflict at a military level, but is winning the war economically. Sanctions are a response, but we as body of Christ, have to pull deeper, drop down lower. Economic sanctions imposed by a Western ideology that has bowed at the feet of ‘the invisible hand of the market’. I am pro-sanctions (but what do I know?) but as always I consider there are keys within the body of Christ, and those keys are closer to home than we might realise.There is a battle religiously, with views of Christendom being at the forefront, and of course that of political rule.

We need great help from heaven. Angels coming. Angels holding back advancing forces; causing confusion, opening prison doors. (Thanks to this understanding through a conversation with Elly Lloyd.) Unashamedly ask the Lord to send angels, for Jesus was attended to by angels in that wilderness battle.

We are in global shifts. We have to lift our eyes as well as express the pain. And as we lift our eyes we will see body of Christ shifts. Not pushed to the margins. Nor seated at the centre. But both hidden and visible within the place that has sought to displace God with economic, religious and political rule.

The big questions of Ukraine and what are we to do are beyond me. The personal questions are present as always.

3000… a good move?

So he [Moses] stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ ” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:26-29).

And so begins the Levites as the priestly line in Israel… though I do not think God ever intended there to be a priestly line, for the nation was to be a priesthood for the nations, and now begins the first step of reductionism, with a priestly tribe for Israel. Seems to lead all the way to ‘we have no king but Caesar’!

Passion for God is what the Levites exhibited.

Paul showed passion for God, righteousness and zealousness:

as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Phil. 3:6).

That is a pre-Jesus lens, and through that lens only one conclusion, to rid the nation (Israel) of the compromising and blasphemous claims that a crucified man was the Messiah. To claim Jesus as the Messiah was as outrageous a claim as the ones who proclaimed that the golden calf was an image of the ‘god’ who had rescued them from Egypt. Paul truly was standing in a good tradition.

The post-Jesus lens though gave quite a different perspective.

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13, emphasis added).

A blasphemer: this was the accusation against Jesus, for claiming that he and God were on the same level, that he represented God. Paul now understood that his zealousness for the law was simply a cover for a misrepresentation of God. And ironically the one who was taught the Law was ignorant! Same as those who crucified Jesus, for they needed forgiveness for they did not know what they were doing! Eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and end up ignorant, full of zeal, able to represent God, but be guilty of blasphemy!

We cannot justify, nor do I believe that God justifies the killing of those 3000. Maybe there was no alternative, for how does one keep a nation clean when we are all ignorant? I don’t know how to square it all up. God worked with them… but I don’t think there was any satisfaction in God that 3000 lost their lives that day. In the light of Jesus, the express image of God, we cannot say, ‘and this pleased God’.

Jesus poured out what we see and what we hear… and,

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41).

This Jesus we crucified because we had to be zealous for God. Yes we have to critique biblical texts, for we have to critique our own hearts of the self-protectionism that is within them.