Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The foolishness of being neutral on religious questions (Bock)

More helpful comments from Bock: (on Luke 11.24-36)

It is popular in our day to be neutral. In a culture where tolerance is highly valued, nonpartisanship is attractive. In religious discussions we try to avoid stepping on toes, for in Western cultures religious views are generally considered private. We want to avoid offending others in a culture that is diverse. But neutrality is not always a good thing, and neither is polite disengagement. Some issues are important enough to require our considered choices. That is Jesus' premise in this passage.

If God exists, should we think of him as having a laissez-faire attitude, not interested in how we relate to him? Jesus argues that is not the case. Religion by its very nature is a public affair, since it deals with how people relate to reality and to others. Though religious coercion such as marred European history in the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War is wrong, so is our culture's tendency to relegate religious concerns to the fringe world of private reflection. The issues are too important to be kept peripheral. Ultimately we must ask each other, What centers our lives, what do we accept as truth, what defines our character? And so in this short passage Jesus calls us to consider what directs our lives.

Bock on rejecting miracles

As the following comments point out, the modern skeptical reaction that Jesus' miracles couldn't have happened was not an option for Jesus' opponents: they could not doubt Jesus' miraculous power, only reinterpret it. This is from the online IVP commentary on Luke which I think is by Darrell Bock (see here), on LUke 11.14-23

Two options are suggested by those who have doubts. First, some attribute his capabilities to Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They clearly have Satan in mind and imply strongly that Jesus is demonically controlled. The name Beelzebub in its English form comes from the Latin; it appears to refer to the Philistine god Ekron (2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16). In all probability the name means "Lord of the flies" (on this discussion and other options, see Fitzmyer 1985:920-21). The name was a derisive characterization of Satan.

The second alternative is a wait-and-see approach. Some want more proof through some sign from heaven. It is unclear what this might have involved--a heavenly portent or just more miracles? In any case, not all are persuaded that demonic control is the answer.

These two possibilities well summarize reactions to Jesus today. Some reject him; others want to see more from him. But clearly, those who were exposed to Jesus realized that they could not ignore his actions or claims. His ministry demanded that people consider his identity.

Significantly, the opponents did not doubt Jesus' miraculous power. The opinion of skeptics today, that miracles do not happen or that whatever Jesus did was not miraculous, was not a line Jesus' opponents took in his day. This is very significant. Surely if this nonmiraculous option existed, it would have been taken. But the opponents and those they hoped to persuade were too close to Jesus to deny that something supernatural was happening. Unfortunately, historical distance can so blur reality that explanations not considered possible at the time of the event can seem possible later. We can reject Jesus, but to doubt his miracles is to question not only him but also, curiously enough, his opponents.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What and when is the kingdom of God?

Not an easy question to answer, but I've had a go! This was for an NTI assignment and, among other things, I found Thomas Schreiner New Testament Theology particularly helpful.

Reader, please feel free to comment and criticise!


What and When is the Kingdom of God?

Joseph of Arimathea was by no means alone in 1st-century Israel in “looking for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15.43; Luke 23.51).

Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced the imminent arrival of the kingdom and called people to prepare themselves (repent) for its arrival. In addition, both link the coming of the kingdom with the coming of Jesus himself. Thus John announces the coming of one “more powerful than I” who will bring the purifying fire of judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3.11-12). But while John points forward to the one who would follow, Jesus in his teaching and his miracles indicates that through him the kingdom is now breaking in. This is seen in his breathtaking announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled “today… in your hearing” (Luke 4.16-21).
But it is Jesus’ miracles that constitute strong evidence that the kingdom of God has arrived in the person of Jesus. This is the thrust of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees (Matt. 12.22-30): “but if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (v.28) In a similar vein, when John the Baptist sends to ask Jesus whether he is “the one who was to come” or not, it is to his miracles that Jesus’ appeals as evidence: “go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11.1-5)
Jesus’ answer to John not only indicates that the kingdom is arriving in Jesus, but also gives us important clues as to what the kingdom is that Jesus is bringing in. For it would seem that John’s doubt as to whether Jesus is the one springs from some wrong expectations as to what the kingdom is. As hinted at earlier, John’s expectation was that of imminent purifying judgment (Mt 3.1-12) – “the coming wrath” (v.7), but Jesus’ ministry is not that of judgment, but of deliverance and mercy, of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, bringing release to the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18-19, quoting Isaiah 61)
This is a programme of restoration, salvation, liberation – the fulfilment of God’s promises for His people, being accomplished through Jesus – as the people declare in Luke 7.16, “A great prophet has appeared among us… God has come to help his people.” But the picture is more complex than that.
For example, in the early chapters of Mark’s gospel we find that, following the startling evidences that the kingdom is near (chapter 1), there is an escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership of Israel (Mark 2.1-3.6), culminating in their determination to kill him (3.6). In turn, Jesus begins to constitute a new people of God (a new Israel, as indicated by the selection of twelve to be apostles (3.14)) around himself. There is a dramatic reversal of who is in and who is not; in the words of Jesus in Matthew 8.11-12, “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Entrance into the kingdom is for those receives the kingdom “like a little child” (Mar 10.15; Luke 18.17) – it is the tax collector who appeals for mercy that is justified before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18.9-14) – Jesus has come for sinners, not for the righteous (Mark 2.17)
Moreover, there is a complexity to the arrival of the kingdom. For, while it is near and, indeed, “has come upon you” it is still to come. This is the importance of many of the parables of the kingdom (Mat 13, Mark 4) – the kingdom arrives in a small, imperceptible way (like a mustard seed), and then there is a period of growth before the kingdom is fully present (the tree). “The mystery of the kingdom is that an interval exists between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom”[1]
We need to draw some of these threads together. There was an expectation in Israel that the kingdom of God was coming; both John and Jesus announced that the kingdom was about to break in – through Jesus. But John’s expectation was of purifying judgment, while Jesus’ programme was that the kingdom had arrived in Him now, in a programme of restoration and salvation, especially for the despised & the outcasts, but that the kingdom was also to come – there is a two-stage arrival of the kingdom.
But now we need to factor in the remarable series of events that follow Peter’s recognition that Jesus is the Christ (i.e. the king of the kingdom!) – Jesus’ declarations that the Christ must suffer, die and be raised again, along with his journey to Jerusalem culminating in precisely his suffering, death and resurrection. That this series of events has to do with the kingdom as much as the miracles and kingdom parables do is evidenced by, for example, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey – “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” cry the people (Luke 19.38) and “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11.10). But what precisely do Jesus’ death and resurrection have to do with the kingdom of God? For Jesus’ triumphal entry does not usher in a political kingdom and the expulsion of the Romans as no doubt some expected (e.g. Luke 19.11).
In a sense, John was right to expect the coming of the kingdom of God to be associated with judgment. Indeed, this is the Old Testament background: “the expectation of a future rule of God in which he fulfills his promises to Israel and subjugates his enemies”[2] And it is also clear as Jesus’ ministry develops, that his rejection by the Jewish establishment is going to bring judgment on them, with God’s people being reconstituted afresh around Jesus.
And so, in the pattern of Isaiah 53, the king himself bears the judgment of God – on the cross – “giving his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45) Jesus’ new people is a community of sinners, and He himself bears their sins that they may enter into His kingdom. Jesus’ death and resurrection provides the basis for the sinner’s appeal for mercy, which, as we have seen, is the prerequisite for entrance into his kingdom. (cf also Luke 23.42) And it opens the interim day of opportunity between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom, the day of salvation before the final harvest.
In conclusion, the kingdom of God is, in general terms, God’s climactic act in history to decisively and visibly establish his reign in the world, fulfilling his promises to Israel & ushering in a new creation, defeating his enemies and once and for all. But we see that God’s kingdom arrives in the person of Jesus, indicated by his miracles and teaching, and established by his death and resurrection through which, by bearing the wrath of God, a new people of God are constituted who are the firstfruits of the new creation. A day of salvation is opened as the final consummation of the kingdom is postponed, when the full effects of Jesus’ work will be brought to completion in final judgment and new creation.

[1] Schreiner, T. (2008) New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker), p.61
[2] Schreiner, p.49

Personal Update

At the end of August, I, with my family, moved to Spain. We are now living in Terrassa, near Barcelona, and in mid-September I started work for Grupos Bíblicos Universitarios. It is similar to UCCF in the UK. I am an "asesor" (staffworker), and my role is to support, encourage, train, befriend, disciple, love etc... christian students as they seek to live for Jesus and speak for Jesus in their university contexts. It is a wonderful privilege! I will be working mostly in Barcelona, and possibly some other cities in Catalonia (I have visitied Girona once so far), and we have committed to being involved for 7 years. My wife will be involved in small ways, but she has her hands quite full with our two little children!

I am not quite sure what direction my blogging will take since this significant change; I would like to do more blogging in Spanish (particularly on biblical & theological topics) and I would also like to be able to blog about interesting aspects of living out here (that might be better in a different blog), as well as continuing with more theological reflections on things I've been reading etc. So my blogging over the next few months may be rather haphazard until it settles down with some clearer aims and focus.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hola mundo

Well, after 3 months, and finally having had internet installed at home after moving to Spain at the end of August, I should be ready to resume blogging soon... Watch this space