James Patrick’s Blog

February 7, 2011

‘The Lord has need of it.’

Filed under: Exegesis,Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 12:41 am
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Nobody doubts that momentous things are happening across the Muslim world at the moment.  Tunisia, Egypt, and many more nations have been or are being shaken, and one dictator after another is being forced out.  Many are fearful of what this means for the ‘plate tectonics’ of Middle East politics and hence the stability of the rest of the world.

One other factor in this, though, that few have considered, is what God is doing in His Church.  In April 2010, the popular Californian church leader Francis Chan announced to his successful congregation that he would be leaving to pioneer afresh somewhere.  Then just over a week ago, Terry Virgo, leader of the worldwide NewFrontiers family of churches, also announced to his home church in Brighton that he had been feeling stirred like Caleb in Joshua 14 to leave his comfortable situation there (despite his age!) and join a small pioneering church in southwest London.  I have no doubt these are only the tip of the iceberg – significant church leaders across the world are feeling ‘untied’ and called to go out and pioneer once again, leading those who respect their ministry to follow their example and pull up their tent pegs.  It is time to go!

My daily Bible reading today is from Luke 19:33-38, a passage referred to by Terry on his blog as having been of some significance in recognising God’s new call on his life.  This excerpt comes from Jesus’ final journey towards Jerusalem during His first appearance to Israel as their Messiah, nearly 2000 years ago.  He recognised from Scripture that Jerusalem must behold its king arriving not in glory on a warhorse but in humility on a donkey.  Rabbis since His day have similarly noticed that Messiah’s coming to the Jewish people would be on a donkey if they were an entirely wicked generation, but on the clouds of heaven if they were a righteous one (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 98a).  Oh for the day when ‘all Israel will be saved’! (Romans 11:25-32)

In this passage in Luke, the disciples have been sent to find a donkey on which no-one has ever ridden, which is the obvious interpretation of the extra specification in Zechariah 9:9 that the donkey must be a colt (compare also Matthew’s report that both the colt and its mother were brought to Jesus – proof that the colt had not yet been ridden).  Luke records that the ‘lords’ of the colt objected to the disciples untying it, as Jesus had anticipated, and they responded as instructed – “The Lord has need of it.”  It now had a new lord, and its old lords had no authority to resist.

This parallels the same situation, though travelling in the opposite direction, that we find during King David’s departure from Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives in 2 Samuel 16.  At exactly the same place on that mountain where Jesus would later mount his donkey(s), the servant of King Saul’s grandson and heir Mephibosheth brought to David two saddled donkeys “for the king’s household to ride”.  Mephibosheth himself had remained in Jerusalem, and was reported to be anticipating that his ancestral right to the throne of Israel would now be acknowledged by the newly crowned upstart, David’s son Absalom.  Instead, the true king David decreed that all Mephibosheth’s existing possessions were to be stripped from him and given to his servant who had chosen to remain loyal to David.

This is precisely what the Lord and King Jesus is now doing, both in His Church and in the nations.  His return to Jerusalem is imminent, this time in devastating glory, and He is in need of a fitting mount on which to ride on victoriously for truth, meekness and righteousness.  Just before He ascended bodily into heaven, He gave specific instructions to all His followers from that point on, to take the news of His deliverance from sin and death, and soon-coming global kingdom, to every nation on earth (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:6-8; cf. Matthew 24:14; Luke 21:24; Romans 11:25-32).  Just weeks later, Peter explicitly called his own generation of Jews to turn to their revealed Messiah Jesus so that they might in turn bless “all the families of the earth” and so prepare for the “times of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:17-26).  The writer to the Hebrews again appealed to the same generation of Jews, who would soon be exiled from their land in AD70, to metaphorically ‘dwell in tents in the land of promise’ (11:9), joyfully accepting the seizure of their property in the land as they had three decades earlier (10:32-39) because it was not yet time to inherit that land promised to them.  The age of ‘Sabbath rest’ for God’s people will only come when God’s work is finished (4:8-11), that work He decreed for humanity in Genesis 1:28, set the stage for in Genesis 10:1-11:9, and provided the solution for in Genesis 12:3.

God’s work is to ensure that every people group on the face of the earth has been presented with the good news of Jesus’ coming reign over all the earth, so that when He does come He will have representatives in every land who can reign with Him on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).  It is God’s patience that has prevented Him sending His Son back to earth for the last 2,000 years.  Peter made this clear in 2 Peter 3:9, where he writes that the day of the Lord’s return in glory and judgement will not happen until ‘all’ nations have come to repentance, which is also why he urges believers everywhere to ‘look for and hasten the coming of the day of God’.  There is one and only one reason that Jesus has not returned sooner – the last people group has not yet heard about Him.  The sooner we get out and tell them, the sooner He will return, because that is what He promised: “This good news of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

That means that there are people groups in which Jesus has not yet been experienced as lord, on which He has not yet ridden, so to speak.  The time has now come for His triumphal entry, and He has need of every nation.  Yet many nations are bound in service to other ‘lords’, and Jesus is now sending His disciples ahead to untie them and prepare them for His use.  Their present lords will object to their people being ‘untied’, but if like Mephibosheth they hope to hold on to the authority they think they deserve, all that they have will be stripped from them and given to those who acknowledge Jesus as the true King.  Islam has bound many nations and peoples with a tight cord, preventing them from hearing the wonderful news of salvation in Jesus and His soon coming kingdom.  The time is now upon us for this cord to be loosed, for dictators to topple, and for the good news to be spread far and wide.

This is where the changes in the Church come into play.  Jesus is stirring the hearts of His disciples, sending them ahead of Him to untie peoples and nations, to break new ground, like Paul “to preach the gospel not where Christ is already named, so as not to build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.'” (Romans 15:20-21).  Whether a leader has been serving for sixteen years or forty-three years, if they are hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches they will be feeling an urge to pioneer once more.  They must model how to do this, because from now on the pace of mission will increase to a rate never before known on the earth, and churches must learn an entirely new dynamic of equipping and sending workers into new harvest fields.  There is no time to lose, and any leader who resists what the Spirit is speaking individually to their own hearts out of a desire to hold on to their own authority will eventually have it stripped from them just like Mephibosheth.  Jesus will not endure any leader who is competing with Him for the hearts of His people.

May God confirm the words of His servants, and may the kingdom of His Son come quickly on this earth.

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March 22, 2010

Apostasy in Light of Faith and Grace (Winds of Doctrine #11)

In the last eight posts we have seen how the Early Church that had demonstrated Jesus to be the Messiah in the 30’s AD, welcomed Gentiles in the 40’s, and reaffirmed God’s plans for the Jews in the 50’s, had to endure mighty winds of heresy and persecution in the 60’s, and then recover their ‘first love’ for each other again in the 70’s.  The 60’s had brought a widespread apostasy, or ‘falling away’, in the church, which some at the time may have interpreted as the prophesied final apostasy that would sweep through the Church before the Great Tribulation and the return of Jesus (cf. 2Thes 2:1‑12).  Clearly Paul, Peter and John all recognised that a greater one was still to come (cf. 2Tim 3:1‑9; 4:1‑4; 2Pet 3:1‑18; 1John 2:18‑19, 28; 4:1‑3), whether or not they expected the final one within decades rather than millennia.  It is vital that we consider the nature of that first great apostasy, though, that we might be prepared for the final one that will soon be upon us.

1 Timothy 4:1 makes it clear that “in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”.  Hebrews warns believers not to “fall in the wilderness” through disobedience like the generation of Moses (Heb 3:7‑17; 4:11; 6:4‑8; cf. 1Cor 10:1-12).  Whereas Paul is referring to specific fallen individuals in his congregation, whom he has ‘handed over to Satan’ for discipline, the writer to the Hebrews is offering a more general warning from Scripture, confident that his hearers will turn back from the brink and inherit the promises after all (Heb 6:9‑12; 10:23‑39; 12:12‑13).  The reality is that there are in every generation individuals who in practice ‘fall away’ from the Christian beliefs and lifestyle they once had.  Most of those who read this will know several such people, and the issue therefore becomes one in which we have intense personal interest.  Others might be genuinely afraid that they themselves might ‘fall away’ at some future point, and the doctrine of ‘perseverance of the saints’ (“Once saved, always saved”) can sometimes be applied too quickly to dismiss people’s real concerns.  Probably the single most fundamental key to this whole topic is a correct understanding of ‘faith’, a word we looked at in detail above.

Faith in God’s Grace

‘Faith’, or ‘trust’, is the only appropriate response to the ‘grace’ of God, and these two terms sum up absolutely every element of the Christian teaching.  They are the truth that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion ever taught, because they teach that as humans we have nothing to contribute to our relationship with God, and can only trust Him to bring about in our lives what is pleasing to Him.  Jesus is the fullest expression both of the grace of God towards humanity and the world, and of the faith in God which God considers to be true ‘righteousness’.  We receive ‘salvation’ and enter into God’s family when we share the ‘faith’ of God’s unique Son Jesus, and this has two elements according to Romans 10:3‑13.  The first element is the conviction that God alone can raise the dead to bodily life, which Jesus went to the cross believing, and therefore that God did indeed raise Jesus to permanent bodily life.  The second element is the willingness to surrender one’s life completely to the direction of this God like Jesus did, which Jesus describes as ‘take up your cross and follow me’.  The writer to the Hebrews says that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who comes to God must believe that He exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him’ (11:6).  There are many who have heard about Jesus, admired Him, and even dedicated their lives to imitating His good works, but none of this matters at all if they have not understood that the only way of pleasing God and receiving eternal life is to accept that Jesus has done everything required, and to put one’s life entirely in His hands.  Even this decision itself is a work of grace in the believer’s life.  As Luke points out in Acts 13:48, ‘as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed’.

If a person has truly understood that they can do nothing of any value without God’s gracious giving, they will be in the right place to receive His Holy Spirit, who gives us everything we need for life and godliness, empowering us to do what God has called us to do.  This is the beginning of a life of trust, or ‘faith’, in which time and again the believer comes back to God asking for grace to accomplish what he or she has been given to do.  If at any point we turn back to our own wisdom and strength, we have ‘turned away’ or ‘fallen away’ from faith, or from ‘the [life of] faith’.  ‘Whatever is not from faith is sin.’ (Rom 14:23)  Paul expresses exactly the same concept in Galatians 5:4, when he tells those trying to be righteous by keeping laws that they have ‘fallen from grace’.

Faith is just as necessary for one’s beliefs as it is for one’s life, because we are unable to arrive at the truth through our own wisdom or ‘rational’ thought processes.  God has deliberately planned it this way, so that those who come to Him are forced to accept what He says without the benefit of their own five senses.  If we were able to reason our way to the ‘meaning of life’, we would have no need for grace, and we could boast in our own wisdom.  As it is, God has chosen to save people through the apparent ‘foolishness’ of what is preached, the message of a crucified Saviour (1Cor 1:17–2:5).  Of course, that is not to say that God leaves us in the darkness just for the sake of it, or that He has not revealed elements of the truth about the world around us to those who do not trust Him.  Rather, God reveals more and more to those who keep coming to Him for wisdom, and He graciously enables others who do not trust Him personally to nevertheless recognise the divine order and beauty with which He created the world.

Context of 1-3 John (Winds of Doctrine #9)

Tradition records that Paul was executed in Rome by Nero, just as he anticipated in his second letter to Timothy, and we can assume that Timothy did travel to Rome to see Paul, leaving Tychicus with Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus to teach the church.  Timothy would have raised up new elders to replace those who had left, ‘faithful men able to teach others’ (1Tim 3:1‑7; 2Tim 2:2).  A church that had been through such an upheaval, though, might be expected to be particularly alert to both false teaching and immorality, being experienced in enduring persecution and persevering with a siege-like mentality (Rev 2:1‑7).  In 1 Timothy 2:7, Paul seems to be contrasting his own true call as a herald and apostle with the ‘lying’ of others who called themselves apostles.  After his death, then, the Ephesian church would have been very wary of receiving anyone else who called himself an ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and would therefore have found it almost impossible to accept genuine apostolic oversight from anyone apart from a co-worker of Paul.  We do not know whether Tychicus stayed for long in Ephesus, or whether Timothy or Titus were able to return to support Prisca and Aquila.

It is into just this situation that the three epistles of John seem to have been written.  According to tradition, John son of Zebedee ended up in Ephesus at some point after Paul’s death and Timothy’s departure, apparently working hard to re-establish this church in their ‘first love’ that they had lost through the experience of apostasy in the mid-60’s AD (cf. Rev 2:4).  Who better than the ‘beloved disciple’ to teach this large and influential church about love and unity?  The book of Revelation begins with letters to the seven churches, which in one sense function as John’s divine ‘letter of commendation’ to the churches in Asia Minor.  The false teachers addressed in these letters are also Jewish (Rev 2:9; 3:9), known as the ‘Nicolaitans’ (Rev 2:6, 15), and the book anticipates a time of renewed persecution coming on the whole world (Rev 1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9‑11; 7:14; 12:11).  The description of the nation of Israel being taken into exile in ‘the wilderness’ (Rev 12:1‑2, 5‑6, 13‑16) probably describes the consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, although the description of the nations trampling the temple in Jerusalem for three-and-a-half years (Rev 11:2‑3, 8 ) may suggest that the book was written very shortly after that destruction.  There is still the very clear understanding that the gospel must be preached to every nation before Jesus’ return (Rev 1:7; 7:9‑10; 10:7; 14:6), but this is seen as imminent (cf. John 21:20‑23).

If Revelation was written in the early 70’s AD, shortly after John was released from imprisonment on Patmos (Rev 1:9), this would explain why the letters to the seven Asian churches do not give the impression that John was very familiar to them.  2 John, which is put after 1 John presumably because of its brevity, makes most sense if it was actually the first letter he sent to the church in Ephesus after writing Revelation.  He writes as ‘the elder’, which makes sense in light of the Ephesians’ wariness of the title ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and is writing from another congregation known to those in Ephesus (2John 1:1, 13), though he doesn’t appear to have a personal connection with his recipients.  He has evidently heard of the faithfulness of some in the congregation who have resisted false teaching (1:4), and he mentions the love that both he and all the churches have for them (1:1), and urges them to remain on their guard against false teachers (1:7‑11).  However, his main reason for writing is to urge them to love each other (1:5‑6), which was the primary accusation against them in Revelation 2:4‑5, and is the only specific detail that John seems to know about the Ephesians apart from their survival through heresy (1:4; cf. Rev 2:2-3, 6).  It is understandable why John would feel it important to try to establish a personal connection with this bruised church after Jesus’ stern warning to them, and so rather than writing a long letter, he tells the church that he has many things to write to them but he would rather come soon and speak with them face to face (2John 1:12).  Unlike the book of Revelation, which he wrote out himself and which therefore is fairly poor Hebraic Greek, he would have used the help of an amanuensis, or professional scribe, to help him craft a letter in good (but simple) Greek for the educated church of Ephesus.

John’s brief introduction letter to the Ephesian church would have been delivered by one of his co-workers to Ephesus, but on his co-worker’s return he would have been made aware of the many problems in the church in much more detail.  It seems that some in Ephesus who had heard John’s brief letter were questioning what right John had to be writing to them, not even knowing them.  As a result, he composed a much more thorough elaboration of his original message to them (e.g. 1John 2:7‑8), which was also a defence of his own authority to give them instruction (1John 1:1‑4), and an explanation of why he was writing to them (1John 2:12‑14, 21, 26‑27; 5:13).  By the time he wrote his third letter perhaps a couple of years later, this time to the elder Gaius (presumably one of the elders of the Ephesian church), he was personally known to many in the church (3John 1:15), and could refer to them as ‘my children’ (3John 1:4).  Presumably he had therefore managed to travel to Ephesus himself in order to meet the church and reinforce the message of love he was writing about (2John 1:12), before returning to his ‘home’ congregation.  Unlike earlier letters, however, 3 John was not written to the whole church of Ephesus but rather to one of its elders, Gaius.  The reason for this is apparently that when John had written another letter to the church (one that has not been preserved), those who returned from delivering it reported to him that although Gaius had received them warmly, the lead elder of Ephesus, Diotrephes, had refused to allow John’s letter to be read out to the gathered church.  As a result, John sent a short letter to Gaius, delivered by Demetrius, in which he is basically warning Diotrephes that he will be returning shortly and will sort him out.  Apparently this did indeed happen, because tradition records that John ended up moving to Ephesus permanently, and lived there to the end of his life around the turn of the second century.

Winds of Doctrine in the 60’s AD (Winds of Doctrine #5)

We find evidence of these particular false teachings in Paul’s ‘prison epistles’, Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians (all evidently written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around AD62), as well as in the epistle to the Hebrews (probably written to believers in Israel in the mid-60’s), the epistle of Jude and second epistle of Peter (written in the mid-60’s also), and here in 1 Timothy.  Philippi is the farthest of these churches from Israel, and unlike Ephesus, had very little Jewish influence (there was no synagogue building when Paul first arrived – Acts 16:13).  However Paul specifically warned the Philippians against Jewish false teachers, quite possibly claiming to be believers, who continued to boast in their Jewishness and obedience to the Law (Php 1:27-30; 3:2‑9) [though there is no evidence that they were still trying to argue that Gentiles needed to be circumcised, as in Galatia 15 years earlier].  Colossians also seems to reveal a pressure against the church from a Jewish direction, because Paul specifically highlights that he only has three fellow workers in his Gentile mission who have a Jewish background (Col 4:10-11), and also rebukes the church in Colossae for accepting Jewish teachings about festivals and Sabbaths, visions of angels, and commandments about abstaining (Col 2:16‑23).  The Colossian church was in danger of being ‘taken captive’ through philosophy and human traditions (2:8), being told they were ‘incomplete’, ‘indebted’ to obey the decrees of the Mosaic Law, and ‘inferior’ to the angelic authorities (2:9‑10; 2:13‑14; 1:16‑17 & 2:15, 18; 3:1‑4).  It seems similar issues are being addressed in Ephesians also (1:20‑23; 2:6, 14‑16; 3:10).

Similarly in 2 Peter, false teachers are introducing destructive heresies by unSpiritual interpretations of Scripture (2Pet 1:20–2:1).  They appear to be people from within the church who have adopted these winds of doctrine (2Pet 2:20‑22; Jude 1:4, 12, 22‑23; cf. Eph 4:14), and are unhealthily fixated on angelic beings (2Pet 2:4, 10‑12; Jude 1:6, 8‑10).  Unlike in Colossae, where the Law of Moses was being used to try to restrain fleshly indulgence (Col 2:23), in the epistles of Peter and Jude it seems that the apostasising believers were actually advocating immoral licentiousness in the name of ‘grace’, hence the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (2Pet 1:4, 9; 2:2, 6‑10, 13‑14, 18‑19; 3:3; Jude 1:4, 7, 18).

There is evidently also a specific claim made by these false teachers that there will be no coming judgement on the Jewish nation, despite Jesus’ clear warnings about this (e.g. Luke 21:12‑24).  The common misunderstanding of the Early Church that Jesus’ coming would coincide with the destruction of Jerusalem in that generation (e.g. Matt 24:2‑3; see my post on Luke’s clarification of Matthew) would explain why Peter and Jude both emphasise imminent judgement as well as the soon return of Jesus (2Pet 2:4, 5, 6, 9; 3:2‑13; Jude 1:5, 6, 7, 14‑15, 21).  In the last decade of the Jewish nation before its destruction in AD70, nationalistic fervour was on the rise among Jews everywhere, believing that this was the time when they would throw off Roman oppression and regain their territory and independence.  Hebrews was written specifically to Jewish believers who seem to have forgotten their initial willingness to surrender their own lands trusting in an inheritance after Jesus’ return (Heb 3:7–4:11; 10:32–11:16; see my post on Hebrews).  The call to all Jews across the Roman empire, and particularly in Israel, was [as it is in our generation also] that if all Jews return to the Law of Moses and temple worship, Messiah will come and re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  The pressure was clearly on Jewish believers in Jesus also, to return to the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system, and the writer to the Hebrews warns them not to turn away from the greater reality of Messiah’s priesthood and sacrifice (Heb 2:17–3:1; 4:14–5:10; 6:20–10:22; 13:10‑16), nor to ignore the coming ‘shaking’ (Heb 10:26‑27; 12:16‑29).  In Gentile areas, this fervour about an imminent coming age of peace and prosperity would probably have led certain groups of Jewish Christians, who knew the prophets’ words about all nations coming to worship the God of Israel, to twist the message of grace into a license for continued indulgence (Jude 1:4), because Gentiles had no need to obey the Jewish Law – what better way to ‘convert’ the Gentiles to follow the Jewish Messiah (2Pet 2:18‑20; Php 3:18‑20).  The prophets also spoke of Israel receiving the wealth of the nations, which may be reflected in the greedy motivation of Jewish Christian false teachers apparently teaching whatever people wanted to hear in order to be paid more (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11; cf. 2Tim 4:3‑4).

Perhaps the biggest doctrinal problem of this decade, though, involved the identity and nature of Jesus.  Hebrews 1 and 2 give clear evidence that many Jewish believers had come to view Jesus not as simply a holy man, nor as the unique Son of God, but as a sort of hybrid or intermediate angelic being – most likely as the ‘Angel of the Lord’ who acts and speaks as God Himself in many passage of the Old Testament (see Jude 1:5 with the best reading ‘Jesus’, compared with Exod 13:18, 21; 14:19‑20, 24‑30; 23:20‑23; 24:9‑11; 32:34–33:3; Num 14:14‑15, 20‑23, 35).  Although it is probably correct that the ‘Angel of the Lord’ was indeed Jesus in His pre-incarnate form (cf. Acts 7:35‑40), the writer to the Hebrews has to address misconceptions that follow from this, particularly equating Jesus with other angelic powers, and failing to recognise that this ‘angel’ or ‘messenger’ is in fact the divine Son of God Himself.  Paul similarly had to emphasise the exaltation of Jesus over all angelic powers in his letters written around the same time (e.g. Eph 1:20‑22; 3:9‑12; 4:10; Col 1:15‑20; 2:2‑4, 9‑10, 15; Php 2:6‑11; 3:20‑21).  Peter emphasised Jesus’ divine humanity (2Pet 1:16‑19; 2:1), and Jude similarly accuses the Jewish Christian false teachers of ‘denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Jude 1:4‑6).  He chooses to quote from the book of 1 Enoch, a favourite (non-canonical) text of these false teachers, in order to turn it against them by making them the ‘ungodly’ who will be judged by Jesus Himself, ‘the Lord’ who is returning with His holy ten thousands.  [This explains why Jude would quote from 1 Enoch – he is not affirming its authority, but using it rhetorically against those who do.]

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