Scribal Kingdom

Living in the light of the Kingdom of God

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Author: Joshua Nielsen (page 1 of 5)

What Is Your Story In Light Of The Story Of God?

A Brief Reflection

Joshua Barron, a friend of mine and missionary among the Maasai and other tribes in Kenya, recently shared the above image and provided this writing prompt: “The quote (obviously) is Tekletsadik’s. The questions are mine. What are your answers?”

Good questions, Joshua. From one Joshua to another, I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on this and express it in writing. In a remarkable feat of brevity, I will provide simply the following at this time:

In short, though far from a comprehensive picture, I think one cross-section of my story (the story my life tells, and God’s story as his salvation history unfolds in my life) is the continued transformation (by the grace of Christ and the power of his finished work of atonement on the cross) of a moralist who agrees with and thinks often of God’s Word to a grace-dependent doer of God’s will as revealed in the Word. In this transformation, I am practically learning to first give up the idea that I can do God’s will apart from recurring surrender and God-reliance. Prayer is one form of surrender to note that I am still learning to grow in.

Cultural-linguistic factors? When raised in a region called “the Bible Belt,” an Evangelical and American melting pot of religious involvement, one can learn to agree with God’s Word from an early age but not truly comply with its radical call to obedience and self-sacrifice, or utilize God’s grace in so doing. Nonetheless, grace is present even in the attraction to his Word, because not all are attracted to it. For that I am thankful.

Additionally, like Paul when he confessed he had not yet attained perfection, even in my own imperfect journey I have — amidst many trials, suffering, and also practical areas of repentance in turning from sin toward God — continued to “press on” toward the goal of the high calling in Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14) by God’s grace. Yet I have learned that one must cross from desire for good to transformation, and that only happens through the in-working of the Spirit and out-working of sacrificial obedience arising from faith (cf. also Philippians 2:12-13). Faith in Christ doesn’t merely involve being “once saved” but further being “daily saved” by the working of his power in me (1 Corinthians 15:2). And this is a story I can share with others as well: about the abundant, transformative life to be found in Jesus Christ alone — if only one will come to the well of living water and drink (John 4:13-14).

What Has The Kingdom Of God To Do With Repentance?

Today I ran across a captivating chapel message delivered by Dr. Dan Ulrich, Wieand Professor of New Testament Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary. It is on some interrelated topics that I have long contemplated and written on, yet focuses on a specific text that I had not considered in all its aspects as a nexus for examining them. Namely, the message that the proclamation of the kingdom of God was habitually proclaimed alongside a call to repentance, as well as attended by Jesus’ miraculous ministry and demand for justice. Highlighting the aspect of repentance, Jesus called for it so regularly that ‘repent’ need not even be mentioned in the text every time for us to be sure that he often did so on occasions that he proclaimed the kingdom, because it was how he invited people to participate in it. To be sure, Jesus made it clear that to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23) one must follow him (10:21), yet that very action is the prime example of repentance by doing what God desires in surrendering self-pursuit and negative worldly attachments in exchange for the imitation (“following”) of Christ.

If one were to draw a graphical representation of the various and rich things which the kingdom of God is associated and collocated with in the Gospels and Acts — with the kingdom at the center and the others arrayed around it and attaching radially to it as the hub — among them would be: miracles of healing and exorcisms; kingdom justice and law (contrasted to lawlessness, as in the Sermon on the Mount); inheriting eternal life; salvation; forsaking perishable attachments to obtain lasting reward; suffering in the world; and repentance.

Since these all attended Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, and we see them each more than once in the Gospels, we can be confident that they all occurred with regularity throughout Jesus’ proclamation of that gospel, the good news of the kingdom. Yet if we were to take only some small portion of those things and cast off even one we would have a deficient understanding of the kingdom. In the following sermon, repentance is brought to the fore to consider its relationship to the kingdom of God in a text from the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus wants people to experience the good news of the kingdom of God as truly good for them: for their benefit. But it is not automatically so upon simply hearing it. We see that even in the temporal kingdom healings — which indisputably demonstrate Jesus bringing the kingdom of God to displace the demonic realm in his exorcisms and make people whole — the people who are benefitted by such clear kingdom miracles may yet fail to ultimately enter the kingdom to inherit its benefits. The benefit is not permanent in that case. Such will happen if they leave off one very important and even pronounced thing in Jesus’ message: Repentance. But what is repentance and how should we understand it?

With that I will let Dr. Ulrich’s words do most of the rest in speaking to this subject, which was drawn with an eventual application to contemporaneous events telling of the injustice of racism and partiality and the danger of not repenting of injustice:

Sermon Text: Matthew 12:38-45

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

3He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Dan Ulrich:

“This is a sermon where I feel challenged, and feel called to challenge us. And in the process of feeling challenged I felt led to a text that has bothered me for a long time. This is a text that does not appear in any current lectionary, no student in my exegesis course has ever chosen to focus on it for a semester, … yet here it is in the midst of Matthew passionately warning us about the danger of failing to repent.

This warning comes in the midst of a sharp conflict in Matthew’s story. Jesus is in conflict with the leaders of his people. In fact, they’re already plotting to kill him according to Matthew 12:14 — even before the Pharisees ask him for a sign. Jesus has been challenging their authority by emphasizing mercy over sacrifice by healing on the Sabbath, by forgiving people they think should not be forgiven. He’s creating enemies with his stand for God’s reign and its justice.

And he’s in conflict with not only the leaders of his people, but with the crowds. They have flocked to him for healing, they’ve had their demons removed, but they haven’t done what he most wants. His message is: Repent, for the reign of heaven is at hand! That’s why he’s healing, to demonstrate in visible form the reign of God. He has mercy and that mercy is the heart of God’s reign, the foundation of justice; but it takes repentance to live in that mercy and in that justice. And he’s not seeing it among the crowds — that’s why he warns them earlier in chapter 11… Repent and turn away from evil! Turn toward the good! Repent and seek the justice of God’s reign!

We often translate dikaiosunē (δικαιοσύνη) as “righteousness” but it’s not just an internal quality of moral goodness, much less a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Righteousness means justice: it has social dimensions, it has to do with the way we live in society, the way we treat one another. Do all people receive equal opportunities? Are all people valued, as God values each one of us? This is justice. This is a heart of the reign of God — what we are called to seek above all else because we are followers of Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus wants all people to have healing. That’s why when they’re sick he cures them all in Matthew. Jesus wants all people to have enough food. That’s why he feeds the multitudes. Jesus wants people to have rest from their labors. That’s why he says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). This is justice in God’s reign. This is the good that Jesus seeks; and unfortunately the people of Jesus’ generation have not gotten on board.

He will give them a sign far greater than the sign of Jonah when he appears risen from the dead, and yet even then the leaders in Matthew’s story do not repent. His wisdom is far greater than the wisdom of Solomon, and yet people have not listened enough to seek first the reign of God. In these comparisons Jesus keeps saying something is greater than Jonah and Solomon. Something, not someone — something. What is greater? It is the reign of God that Jesus embodies that Jesus makes visible. The reign of God that we are to seek above all else.

Jesus’ warning continues with a parable about a relapse. Someone has been cured of demonic possession; liberated from an unclean spirit that dominated that person’s life. And that’s a good thing — but sadly it’s not permanent. The demon seeks to return and comes back and finds that person like an empty house: all clean and swept — like my office occasionally gets — but like my office it’s not permanent. The mess comes back. The demon comes back seven times worse, and the consequences are tragic.

Jesus knows that opposition to evil is not enough. We have to replace it with something. We have to replace it with the justice and the goodness and the love of God’s reign. Just driving out evil doesn’t stop it. We have to seek the good.”

While I stop my highlight of the message here, I encourage listening to the remainder of Dr. Ulrich’s sermon in the video below for all the contemporary application he gives in showing how repentance is not simply turning away from evil but is turning toward good in doing what is just in how we conduct our lives and treat others.

May we always remember that if we wish to live in God’s Kingdom we must live a life characterized by repentance. A repentance that is not some mere private and internal moral disposition and conviction, but a repentance that lives out the radical commitment to living according to God’s just reign.

Of course, when we relate this to the rest of Scripture this does not detract in any way from the need and promise of being reborn by God by his grace for those who have faith in Jesus, but we see as Dr. Ulrich highlights in speaking of mercy (which is grace) that “mercy is the heart of God’s reign, the foundation of justice”. Paul even says of God’s kindness, which I think describes the disposition of his grace: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). God is proactive in bringing that mercy and grace to people who did not deserve it, but the question is whether they will receive and live in light of that mercy and grace. And who is a greater model for mercy and justice than Christ, who is perfectly merciful and perfectly just?

Jesus the Blasphemer, or Blasphemed?

I discovered what I think is a notable insight from the Gospel of Luke when I was reading through it in Greek. An attentive reader of a translation could also pick up on this, but reading it in Greek just made it jump out to me more — as I find so often happens. This is the text that initiated my observation:

καὶ ἕτερα πολλὰ βλασφημοῦντες ἔλεγον εἰς αὐτόν. (Luke 22:65)

“And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him.”

I noticed that Luke the Evangelist does something remarkable in telling the story of the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion compared to the other Synoptic Gospels. Bear with some relevant observations below.

In Matthew and Mark they tell how the High Priest, upon hearing Jesus’ own testimony during his first “trial” before the Jewish leadership where he claimed that he was the Son of Man, tore his garments and said: “What further witness do we need? You have heard his blasphemy (τῆς βλασφημίας). What is your decision?” (Mark 14:63b-64a); cf.He has uttered blasphemy (Ἐβλασφήμησεν). What further witness do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy (τὴν βλασφημίαν). What is your judgment?” (Matthew 26:65b-66a).

Keep in mind here that the text reports to the reader that Jesus is the one being accused of blasphemy.

It is clear from context that the Jews here are picturing blasphemy as an offense specific to God as its recipient. While there are occurrences of blasphemy elsewhere in Scripture which are simply directed toward another human or even angelic beings (Jude 8), the context tips the balance here in favor of understanding this to be blasphemy of the divine. They were premising their accusation on Jesus’ identification with the divine Son of Man (Matthew 26:64), and calling for judgment on the basis of the Law of Moses which declares that those guilty of the specific crime of blasphemy against God should be killed (Leviticus 24:16).

Note then what Matthew says in a proximately connected account, which we will then compare to Luke: “They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:66b-68).

Let us then note the amazing reversal that occurs in Luke in both parallel passages to Matthew! He omits something Matthew includes in 26:65, but also includes something Matthew did not in 26:66-68.

Firstly, observe what is absent as Luke reports a summary of the agreement of what all of Christ’s accusers said (“they said” vs. 71), instead of the words of the High Priest: “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips” (Luke 22:71).

No mention of Caiaphas’ accusation of blasphemy is given here, as Matthew had reported.

But secondly, look where we notably do find an indictment of blasphemy in his account. Luke adds a comment that Matthew did not: “They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him (βλασφημοῦντες)” (Luke 22:64-65).

Luke has intentionally reported his account, I think, in such a way that it is shown that Jesus is clearly not the blasphemer but rather the Jewish leaders. This importantly has one further major implication: Jesus is God! Blasphemy against the Son of Man (Luke 22:22, 48, 69) denotes speaking against God. It was Jesus’ very identification with the Son of Man before Caiaphas that led him to accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Matthew 26:64), because of that title’s association with divinity. Yet in Luke we see a total reversal of the assertion of blasphemy.

I don’t think I had ever seen this passage as a testimony to the divinity of Jesus, yet as I examine it closely: there it is. This is a remarkable thing for Luke to highlight that is worth pondering on when considering whose claims truly dishonored, offended, and misrepresented God during Jesus’ passion.