Monday, August 28, 2006

The Apostles at Jerusalem?

In Acts 8:1 it says "At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles" (NKJV). Why did the apostles stay at Jerusalem, while the rest of the Christians scattered?

Within the book of Acts, Jerusalem seems to remain as the base of operations for the Twelve Apostles (cf. 8:14, 15:2, 15:4, 16:4). Luke doesn't seem to explicitly criticize the apostles for staying in Jerusalem.

With recent discussions about eschatology and millennialism, it got me thinking. I wonder if the Luke's portrayal of the apostles in Jerusalem is meant to be symbolic of the new Israel with its centre in Jerusalem, reminding us of the OT prophecies about the future glory of Jerusalem/Zion (the twelve apostles seeming to be the equivalent representation of the twelve tribes of Israel).

It is a common theme in the OT Prophets that Jerusalem will be restored as part of the Messianic age, after its destruction in judgement. Jerusalem will be the focal point and centre of the new kingdom to come, reigning over all the earth. Consider some of these as samples:
  • "For the LORD will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the voice of melody... So the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; sorrow and sighing shall flee away... Awake, awake! Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of His fury; you have drunk the dregs of the cup of trembling, and drained it out... Awake, awake! Put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean shall no longer come to you. Shake yourself from the dust, arise; sit down, O Jerusalem! Loose yourself from the bonds of your neck, O captive daughter of Zion!... How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Your watchmen shall lift up their voices, with their voices they shall sing together; for they shall see eye to eye when the LORD brings back Zion. Break forth into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem! For the LORD has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God." (from Isaiah 51-52, NKJV; note how it leads into the proclamation of the Suffering Servant who will accomplish these things)
  • "For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns. The Gentiles shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory. You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD will name. You shall also be a crown of glory in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God." (Isaiah 62:1-3, NKJV)
  • "Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest. Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem." (Micah 3:12-4:2, NKJV)
  • "“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” says the LORD. “Many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you. And the LORD will take possession of Judah as His inheritance in the Holy Land, and will again choose Jerusalem. Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for He is aroused from His holy habitation!”" (Zechariah 2:10-13, NKJV)
The rebuilding of Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when they returned from the Exile may have been a partial fulfillment of prophecies, but it seems to fall short of the fullness of the prophetic imagery. There is no king, and the 'kingdom' is still a pale reflection of its former days, the remaining legacy of the split between the North and the South. Some might still look forward to a literal restoration of the old Israel (such as the premillenialists and Zionists), perhaps even including the physical temple at Jerusalem, but this would seem like a going backwards, a downgrade, from what has happened already in Christ.

For now, in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the long-awaited kingdom of God has come and begun, and something greater than the OT Jews could have visualised has been inaugurated, things the prophets and angels desired to know about (1 Peter 1:10-12). Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), and sits at the right hand of the throne of God (Acts 2:30-36; Ephesians 1:19-23; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Peter 3:22), ruling as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 17:14). And the NT emphasis speaks of a new Israel (cf. Hebrews 8:8-13) and a new Jerusalem (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24). So in Revelation we see a new Jerusalem replacing the one that is to be destroyed (Revelation 21-22). Certainly we still await the consummation of the kingdom, but it has nonetheless already begun.

So it seems (at least to me!) quite fitting to have the Apostles symbolically based in the earthly Jerusalem, to show that the OT prophecies are being fulfilled in Christ and the Kingdom he has brought into being, with the Apostles being his representatives of that reality.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him

I was thinking again recently about this verse from Hebrews 11: "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (11:6; NKJV). Particularly the last part which tells us we must believe that God is the kind of God who is a rewarder of those who seek Him. It could be easy here to get side-tracked about ideas of merit, that rewarding is pointing to the receiving of something deserved. But I think the emphasis is not about us getting, but rather about God giving. The object of our faith is a God who gives good gifts, who rewards his people generously. The picture presented in the Scriptures is not that we have a God who merely deals in terms of justice, some kind of strict legalist, not able to exceed the boundaries of the letter of the law. There is no doubt that justice is important to God, that law is important and proper, and yet God is not a God only of justice. We could well say that as Christians we ought to diligently seek God out of mere duty, that God deserves our service, and we should not expect any reward, that we have no right to any reward. And yet how wonderful it is that we have a God who does reward, and who will reward even if there were no strict requirement to do so.

While I think there is significant appropriateness in speaking of Christ as meriting our salvation (though perhaps 'merit' can also have problematic connotations), and of understanding God's covenantal dealings with us, yet I think it would be an inadequate representation of our great God if we thought of His plans and purposes in Christ merely in terms of strict legal or commercial-like transactions. If nothing else, we should remember that in all Christ did for us, strict justice would have compelled him to do nothing for us at all, except condemn us because of our sin. If we are to speak of any compulsion, it would have to be the free love of God that compelled Father, Son and Holy Spirit to act on our behalf, for our benefit.

When God reveals himself to Moses, he accentuates that he is a God "merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7, NKJV). The Scriptures abound with testimonies to God's love, kindness, generosity and goodness. As John writes, if we know God at all, then we will know that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). This is a truth underlined in the Bible, as if the Scriptures were using that favourite preachers' line, "If there is only one thing you remember from all that I am saying to you, remember this, God is love!"

I've also just recently worked through the book of Jonah again in the last two weeks, in a study with overseas students. Jonah knew this truth about God, concerning the loving nature of God, when he contemplated God's command to preach to the wicked city of Nineveh (Jonah 4:2). And yet while he knew the truth formally, and no doubt as a Jew and a prophet of God, had even experienced God's love as a beneficiary, he didn't really comprehend or understand this fundamental truth. Jonah did not appreciate the reality of the fact sufficiently. He was a living illustration of what not to do, concerning what the apostle John later wrote (1 John 4:8). If he really knew that God is love, then Jonah would have loved. But when he considered the possibility that God might have compassion and love towards the people of Nineveh, Jonah was filled with bitterness and hatred, angry enough to die (cf. Jonah 4:3). It is all too easy for us to be like Jonah. We know formally that God is a loving, gracious, rewarding God, yet the reality of that fact does not sink into the depths of our being and doesn't change our life. Perhaps we are like Jonah, not desiring God's graciousness towards others, because of racism, prejudice, or whatever kind of pride or selfishness it may be. In our own irrational and contradictory way, we can be miserly with God's generosity. Or perhaps we just doubt God, lacking faith concerning our own situations, that he will have no time to listen to us, or be unwilling to give of himself to us, or that his love towards us might come to an end sometime, as if the generous and rewarding God were really a stingy and miserly God. And yet many passages remind us otherwise, such as Romans 8:32, Romans 5:10, James 1:5. As also does Hebrews 11:6.

Well, really it is nothing very complex, nothing too intellectual, but something I think I need to take more time to stop and remember. I must really believe that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. At least for me, it is something too easily forgotten or passed over. I guess it is as the old Kelloggs slogan goes, "The simple things in life are often the best"!

Monday, August 07, 2006

John of Damascus on Romans 7-8

I found this good quote from John of Damascus, 8th century Christian writer. At least at face value it seems like a good interpretation of Romans 7-8, of sin dwelling in our members, in conflict with our renewed inner man, able only to overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is the quotation:
And so the law of God, settling in our mind, draws it towards itself and pricks our conscience. And our conscience, too, is called a law of our mind. Further, the assault of the wicked one, that is the law of sin, settling in the members of our flesh, makes its assault upon us through it. For by once voluntarily transgressing the law of God and receiving the assault of the wicked one, we gave entrance to it, being sold by ourselves to sin. Wherefore our body is readily impelled to it. And so the savour and perception of sin that is stored up in our body, that is to say, lust and pleasure of the body, is law in the members of our flesh.
Therefore the law of my mind, that is, the conscience, sympathises with the law of God, that is, the precept, and makes that its will. But the law of sin, that is to say, the assault made through the law that is in our members, or through the lust and inclination and movement of the body and of the irrational part of the soul, is in opposition to the law of my mind, that is to conscience, and takes me captive (even though I make the law of God my will and set my love on it, and make not sin my will), by reason of commixture: and through the softness of pleasure and the lust of the body and of the irrational part of the soul, as I said, it leads me astray and induces me to become the servant of sin. But what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (for He assumed flesh but not sin) condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but in the Spirit. For the Spirit helpeth our infirmities and affordeth power to the law of our mind, against the law that is in our members. For the verse, we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself maketh intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered, itself teacheth us what to pray for. Hence it is impossible to carry out the precepts of the Lord except by patience and prayer.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Vern Poythress and Millennial Views

Vern Poythress has got some really thoughtful and stimulating stuff to read, not least of which is some things I had found of his concerning views on the millennium. I probably should includes some quotes and discussion, but for now I'm just going to post links. Maybe later I'll edit this entry and add some more of my own detail. Anyhow, here are the links:
BTW There are lots of Poythress (and John Frame) writings freely available on the web at the same site. Check there before buying any of their books ;-) And while I'm at it, here is another Poythress article that I found helpful recently, about interpreting Scripture: Divine Meaning of Scripture.

The Changing Face of Theology and Denominationalism

I think one of the blessings that has come out of post-modernism etc, is that people aren't as 'stuck in their camps' as they used to be. There is more dialogue between different theologies, and people from different theological and denominational backgrounds. Of course, we still get stuck in our ways, but I think it is a healthy thing that people don't feel as afraid to hear from other perspectives, rather than just being close-minded because 'they must be wrong' because 'they are different from us'. At the Presbyterian theological college where I currently study, it is good to also have a Pentecostal or a Baptist etc in some of my classes. It is good when we can have civil discussions on Yahoo groups with others of different theological perspectives. I remember a guest lecturer I once had, Henry Krabbendam, who kept saying, "Fellowship is not based on agreement, it is based on Jesus Christ." There are good and right ways to express a true Biblical ecumenism reflecting the objective unity we have if we are all in Christ Jesus. "Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 15:5-6 NKJV).