Thursday, August 10, 2006

What's the Gospel about -- Kingdom or After-life?

For the last two or so years, I've had the fortune to work in an office right next to St. Georges Market in Belfast. Friday and Saturday are market days, and on Fridays, they have antiques, used items, books, cheeses and more. After sampling a few of the cheeses, and one or two olives I usually head over to the bookseller, who usually has a big selection of children's books, all for 25 p per copy. Thanks to that bookseller, Abie, at three and a half, now has a good sized library, including a good number of Beatrice Potter stories, Noddy, Postman Pat, books by current authors like Charlotte Voak, Shirley Hughes, Tony Ross, Allan and Janet Alburgh, as well as a few good Bible story books.
When reading them to Abie, I sometimes find myself telling the story to him rather than reading word-for-word, especially the Bible stories. I do that for others too, like The Tailor of Gloucester, just so Abie won't be bored by the wordiness of some of the narratives. For the Bible stories, I'm a little bit fussy about Bible accuracy, and what kind of message the story is getting across.
For instance, take this bit from The Storm on the Lake (Taffy Davies; Tamarin Books; 1995, UK). The scene opens with Yeshua on the shore of Galilee:
...Jesus healed the people who were ill and he answered question after question from people in the crowd.
'What's heaven like?'
'How can I get there?'
'Tell us, Jesus, why do you talk to people who do bad things?'
'Can you make my leg better?'
'Can you come and heal my mum?'...

So, what's wrong with that narration?
Nothing, if it were about Yeshua preaching to a group of farmers in Wyoming in the late twentieth century. People living in first century Galilee wouldn't have been asking those questions -- especially the first two -- and by pretending that they would, we sell the gospel short.
The questions they would have been asking were, 'Are you really the Messiah? If so, what's on the Kingdom agenda?' Moreover, Yeshua's message was very much tied in with the answering of those questions.
Here in the twenty-first century, we like to talk about how the Jews of the first century misunderstood Yeshua's ministry, and failed to grasp His role as the sacrificial Lamb ushering in the New Covenant. That is indeed so, but at the same time, we fail to realise that the the Kingdom of God -- meaning the Earthly Messianic Kingdom, or the revived Kingdom of David -- was never-the-less at the heart of it all. By not taking that into account, we miss half of what Yeshua's ministry was all about.
While we think the Jewish community has missed the whole point, they also think we've missed it. We're both right, and we're both wrong. They misunderstood Messiah's redemptive role, and we've misunderstood the part the Kingdom plays. No wonder we're not communicating!
It's not that the question of getting into heaven isn't a good one to ask. After all, people have been asking it, so it obviously reflects the concerns they have. Also, Yeshua did say a lot about the afterlife. It's just that that's not all there is to it. Heavenly rewards are only one part of the bigger picture.
It's all in how we understand two words: Gospel and Salvation.
The first century church saw the Gospel as being the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Salvation meant being saved from sin, and everything that keeps us back from being apart of that Kingdom.
The 'Kingdom' meant, God's will being accomplished on earth as it is in heaven. This had relevance both to the world that is now, and the world to come, the Millennium.
The Church is the Kingdom Community in the present world. Acts 20:28 refers to us as the Church of God which He has purchased with His own blood. Our new birth is our initiation as citizens of that Kingdom, but our role is established as we work out our salvations with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Salvation is all about enabling us to take an active part in the Kingdom in the world that exists now. It also makes us eligible for the world to come -- the Millennial reign, heaven, and all that -- but the goal of evangelism and discipleship is to build a people of God that will be the hope of the world, have an impact on the worlds problems, especially in the area of sickness, demonic bondage, hunger, despair, etc., the same as what Yeshua's earthly ministry was all about.
I don't believe this happens by gaining political control, or dominating the national cultural (though this may appear to be the result at times); rather, by our presence, even as a persecuted people. The passage that we call the Beatitudes sums this up by describing the ones to be included in the kingdom, and are therefore the blessed: the poor, the meek, those who weep, who make peace, the pure in heart, etc. To these, he says, even as they're suffering persecution, even as the supposed underdogs, 'you are the salt of the earth ... the light of the world. For you, the world exists. You will inherit it all.'
That was the gist of Yeshua's message to the crowd at the Galilee seaside -- along with, maybe, one ore two warnings about who might end up in hell, and not attain to the resurrection of the righteous.
So, how did our understanding of the message change?
I believe we didn't totally lose our concept of Kingdom as a present reality until very recently in history, although we did run with it in a few different directions, like turning it into a political agenda, etc.
We started out with a very Jewish concept of Kingdom.
The rabbis were staunchly pre-millennial. At times, some of them verged on being dispensational. Here's a small sampling of opinions you can find in the Talmud:
Rabbi Kattina said: Six thousand years shall the world exist, and one [thousand, the seventh], it shall be desolate, as it is written, "And the Lord (alone) shall be exalted in that day." Abaye said: it will be desolate two [thousand], as it is said, "After two days will He revive us: in the third day, He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight. (Hosea vi:2)
It has been taught in accordance with Rabbi Kattina: Just as the seventh year is one year of release in seven, so is the world: one thousand years out of seven shall be fallow, as it is written, "And the Lord (alone) shall be exalted in that day," as it is further said, "A Psalm and song for the Sabbath day" (Ps xcii:1) meaning the day that is altogether Sabbath -- and it is also said, "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past" (Ps xc:4)
It was taught in the School of Elijah, The world will endure six thousand years -- two thousand years in chaos, two thousand with Torah, and two thousand years will be the days of the Messiah. (all three of the above passages from: Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 97a)

It's interesting that Peter also quotes Psalm 90:4 in reference to Messiah's second coming:
Moreover, dear friends, do not ignore this: with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like on day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some people think of slowness; on the contrary, he is patient with you; for it is not his purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn from his sins. (II Peter 3:8,9 CJB)

Even apart from taking various passages in Revelation etc. at face value, there's also external evidence that the early believers were pre-millennial. Take this passage from Jerome:
Papias, a hearer of John, (and) bishop of Hierapolis in Asia, wrote only five books, which he entitled An Exposition of Discourses of the Lord. {...} This (Papias) is said to have promulgated the Jewish tradition of a Millennium, and he is followed by Irenaeus, Apollinarius and the others, who say that after the resurrection the Lord will reign in the flesh with the saints. - (JEROME de vir. illust. 18.)

If we consider that Papias was probably a pupil of John, as well as his scribe when he wrote his epistles, I think he should have known what John meant by his references to the Millennium. Therefore, I think it's safe to assume that John and the other apostles were also pre-millennial.
The difference between the early Messianic sect and the rabbis in this was that the Kingdom wasn't strictly a future thing, but something in the making. Messiah had come already, but that wasn't the end of it. He only initiated a process that would be complete at His second coming -- the resurrection. However it may seem that that process has stalled, and seems at times, non-existent, as Peter pointed out in the above passage, it is nevertheless a process that will complete at the return of Messiah.
By the time Jerome wrote the above bit, a couple hundred years later, things had obviously changed. The church had pretty much dumped anything that sounded too Jewish, and had adopted a Greek style philosophical outlook regarding things like Millennium, which meant they were Post-mil. Replacement theology had become the norm. However, there was still the concept of Kingdom. St. Augustine's City of God was all about the Kingdom of God as a present reality.
The Reformation didn't change very much, except to suggest that the Pope was the Antichrist. St. Augustine's theology remained at the centre of things. Much of what we attribute to John Calvin, is really from St. Augustine. Perhaps they didn't take some of the points made in The City of God quite as literally as the Roman church did, but the concept was still there.
In fact, many attribute the renaissance to the dynamics of the Kingdom of God at work. Things that began during that time led to changes in many areas, including the Industrial Revolution. Even Marxism has it's roots in some of the thoughts expressed at that time.
One thing that definitely had an influence was the invention of the printing press, by Gutenberg. The first book off the press was the Bible, so the masses could begin reading it for themselves and formulating their own interpretations. Another document that became widely distributed, thanks to the press, was Martin Luther's 95 theses, which became the starting point of the reformation.
After the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, the printing press is probably the most world changing technology we've ever seen. Because books were suddenly available, people considered it worth their while to learn to read. Literacy became the norm instead of the exception. We now judge how stupid or smart people are by what they read, not if they can read. Leaders who learned to use the printed word, rose to power, and replaced those who didn't. The printing press is what enabled many of the world changing forces, including the spiritual.
One of Martin Luther's points was that each person had the right to read and understand the scripture for himself. How effective would this concept have been, had not the printing press come to use at the same time, making it possible to do just that?
But there were also Kingdom principals at work. I'm sure God's hand was on the timing of the invention of the press, as well as the other factors that formed the world we now live in.
Many of the norms of modern society that we now consider standard, such as the abolition of slavery in Western countries, social reform, welfare programs, child labour laws, health care and relief aid, were the direct result of people with the faith to apply Kingdom principals to their environment. I'm sure we could go on endlessly listing the various movements, ideas and such that made the world what it is today.
Today's world, that we're familiar with, is a totally different place than the one in which Yeshua held out the hope of the Kingdom. We don't worry about what we're going to eat or wear. We're much higher on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
That's not to say that in much of the world today, this isn't the case, but we've successfully hidden that fact from ourselves so that the true state of much of the world's population only occasionally peeps out at us from the odd World Vision poster. But even the fact that there is overpopulation in poor countries is due to advances in medicine that reduced the number of infant deaths, another knock-on effect of Kingdom dynamics.
It's this insular, user-friendly world that we live in -- the world that resulted from applying Kingdom principals -- that is partly the reason we no longer ask the right questions.
It's a supply demand problem. For the past 150 years or so, we've lived in a middle class culture that has never known the bondage and hardship that Israelites in the first century faced. We don't need an earthy Messianic Kingdom to alleviate our present suffering. We're quite comfortable enough as we are.
For us, eschatology is a spiritual hobbyhorse, the stuff of Christian science fiction stories, like Left Behind. For them it was a matter of, 'It had better happen soon, or we're done for!'
The only thing we need now is assurance of life in the hereafter. So, we're not asking, when will Yeshua set up His kingdom and chase away the baddies. We're asking the same question the characters in Abie's storybook were asking: 'What's heaven like? How can I get there?' Or, 'After a lifetime of happily living out the American Dream -- or living in this European paradise, enjoying my social benefits, etc., how can I be sure that I will be at least as happy in the next life as I am now?' Maybe that's being facetious, but you get the point.
It was in this setting that J.N. Darby, C.I. Schofield and the other proponents of Dispensationalism got started. That's the doctrine that puts the Kingdom of God squarely in the future rather than now. It's the environment in which their doctrine spread like wildfire; and the same, in which the conservative faction, who saw the 'going-to-heaven' issue as all important, parted ways with the liberals, who held to the kingdom dynamics of alleviating suffering; forcing the rest of us to choose either one or the other.
I suppose, if you consider how strong a force supply-demand is, it's only natural.
So, my only question is now, do we have to wait for a major crises that will shake the foundations of Western civilisation before we begin, once again, to ask the right questions?
In the mean time, I don't trust Bible storybook writers.

1 comment:

mikeb said...

I often think about the issue of how a focus on "heaven" ie. a spiritual place far away - distracts us from the issues that are here and now. WE've traded "steak on plate" for "pie in sky." I think that if we believe that the kingdom is all future and spiritual that, fundamentally, we have an escapist take on reality - and therefore our practice will be to escape rather than engage. If, on the other hand, we believe that the kingdom is earthly and practical (very much like Jesus), our only response is to engage with the world in order to see it transformed into a more "kingdom-like" place.

Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.