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I was raised in a denomination that always stressed the importance of getting doctrine right. Sometimes this emphasis on defining the ‘saving truths’ ended up in quarrels and useless arguments about fine points of doctrine and the denomination divided over questions such as whether the dead will be raised mortal or immortal, whether the Kingdom will be over the whole earth or only the land of Israel, whether sinlessness is theoretically possible, whether the judgment will be at Mt Sinai or Jerusalem, and whether the bread for communion should be leavened or unleavened. All these things seemed very important at the time to the people involved, yet subsequent generations and others not involved in the immediate conflict often see these questions as trifling differences. They might be interesting to discuss, but certainly not important enough to divide over, or even to argue about.

A question I learned to ask which helped to put such issues into some kind of perspective is: what practical difference does it make? Some doctrines are of the type that they affect our whole worldview, or the theological framework within which we think and reason. There is probably no doubt in the mind of any of us here that whether the Kingdom of God will be on earth after the return of Christ or will be enjoyed in heaven immediately after death affects the whole way one thinks about the after-life and the future. Similarly, whether we think of God as ‘one person’ or as ‘three persons’ affects the way we understand God, Jesus Christ and the way of salvation.

With both these doctrines it’s relatively easy to understand why they are regarded as ‘fundamental’ and how they might affect the way we do things. But it’s much harder to see what practical difference it would make if we believed the dead are raised mortal or immortal, or whether we should use leavened or unleavened bread for comunion.

I am NOT suggesting that doctrine doesn’t matter, and that what we believe about anything is unimportant. However, I AM suggesting that important doctrines should affect our conduct, and that if something has no practical affect on the way we live then it’s either unimportant or we have failed to understand the practical implications and put them into effect.

There is a good example of this which has recently received quite a bit of media attention (and on this blog). N.T. (Tom) Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has recently written a book titled “Surprised by Hope” which challenges how we think about heaven, hell, purgatory and eternal life. Most people reading this might agree with him on many of his conclusions about heaven-going and the resurrection.

But according to Wright Christian teaching of life after death should really be an emphasis on “life after life-after-death”. He argues that what we believe about life-after-death should affect the way we live now. Wright wants Christians to focus on how their final destination will affect their lives in the here and now. In other words, if we believe in the restoration of the earth in a future Kingdom of God, then we should live in the light of that belief. He said in an interview on ABC: “because I believe in God’s Kingdom of justice and peace this gives me the energy and the focus to work for the kingdom of God in the present”.

Earlier on this blog someone quoted Catholic theologian Albert Nolan who was writing on the same subject. Nolan picked up that Jesus did not come simply to say “the Kingdom of God is coming”, but rather the Kingdom of God is coming for the poor, the oppressed, the rejected, the mistreated, etc. We need to live in the light of that knowledge and work today for justice and equity for the poor, the oppressed, the mistreated and those for whom the Kingdom is coming.

Jesus told more than 100 parables or sayings about the Kingdom. Most of these relate to our behaviour, our character, and how we are to live in the world where we find ourselves. Jesus’ main emphasis is on the inner character that underlies the outward conduct. Conduct is an outward sign of character. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). Jesus also told several stories about how our lives now are preparing us for something to come. In the parable of the talents the master said to his good servants “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!'” (Matthew 25:23). In the parable of the sheep and goats the King says to those on his right: “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'” (Matthew 25:34-36).

The emphasis of these stories, and others like them, is that we are being prepared for a greater work in the future and our Master is giving us tasks to do today that will build our characters and equip us for the work to be done in the future. The stories which end with some sort of picture of judgment (like these two above) are not so much about being rewarded for work well done, as much as they are about entering in to the work for which we are now being fully prepared.

We need to focus on the characteristics needed for ‘Kingdom-people’ who will “live and reign” with Him. What traits will He be looking for when choosing people to work with Him in the restoration of all things? I imagine that the restoration of our wounded world will need people who are nurturers, healers, builders, and encouragers more than it will need theologians or experts in doctrinal fine points. The tasks we are called to do today are those things that will prepare us for the greater work to be done in the future.

As a community of people who believe in the coming Kingdom of God we need to focus on the practical impact of the Gospel, and live today in the light of that Kingdom – not just believing that the Kingdom will come, but in nurturing, healing and encouraging those for whom it is coming and to model the Kingdom-values of justice and equity for all.

17 Responses to “What practical difference does it make?”

  1. on 09 Apr 2008 at 9:25 amKyle

    I am reading “The Secret Message of Jesus” by Brian McLaren and although I don’t believe that the Kingdom Message is all that secret and maybe I think that not enough emphasis is placed on the future aspect of the Kingdom (to the point of, I think, believing that the Kingdom has already come, although I am unsure at this point), I think the point of the book is important. As Kingdom people how does what Jesus said about the Kingdom affect our lives today. We ought to be thinking about this, I think.

  2. on 09 Apr 2008 at 10:34 amSean

    The kingdom needs to be primarily (if not exhaustively) understood first as future. This is how the prophets envisioned the great divine cleanup (judgment and restoration). Once we grasp that the kingdom is God’s solution to the problem of evil and suffering in the world our hearts begin to lift in hope that we will participate in this grand age to come. Through repentance and forgiveness of sins the gospel of the kingdom, like a seed, is implanted in us and begins to grow. As it grows through the mysterious, vitalizing energy of the holy spirit, we find ourselves living the kingdom lifestyle in the present (i.e. the fruit of the spirit). This new life is really the future of humanity, the plan God has for all who choose him is to be restored physically, emotionally, relationally, etc and to glorify and enjoy him forever. We as the citizens of the kingdom are called to bring forth signs of the kingdom so that we provide a window into the future kingdom by our current lives. Or at least that’s my opinion.

  3. on 09 Apr 2008 at 12:26 pmKyle

    Amen!

    That is what Jesus meant by saying that “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

  4. on 09 Apr 2008 at 12:34 pmWolfgang

    Hi Sean,

    ever thought about the fact that the original paradise was NOT a kingdom? There was not such thing as many seem as being part of what they call the future kingdom of God with Christ reigning from a physical throne at Jerusalem, apparently commanding some kind of an army, etc to restore things …. How does “kingdom of God” when viewed as a future kingdom on earth with such kingdom “furnishings” and a political king and governmental subjects then fit with a restoration of all things?

    Cheers
    Wolfgang

  5. on 09 Apr 2008 at 12:36 pmSean

    Kyle, here is a recent post on that verse.

  6. on 09 Apr 2008 at 12:42 pmJohnO

    Wolfgang it fits with the restoration of all things because that is how God is going to accomplish it (though I might disagree to the army part). God initially flooded the earth to try and restore things. Then worked to restore just one people (Israel). And then Jesus was leading them back to how to truly be Israel for the world, a light of the future – in which we now participate. It isn’t a stretch for God, or the prophets, to cast the golden era of Israel, the Davidic Monarchy, into the means of restoration by Messiah Jesus.

  7. on 09 Apr 2008 at 12:46 pmWolfgang

    Hi Kyle,

    when did Jesus cast out demons? where does he say he was just “showing a window of the future”?
    Do those words of Jesus not make quite clear that when Jesus was speaking about “kingdom of God” he was NOT speaking about a future political rule on earth as king over the world? Do these words not make very clear that Jesus was talking about God’s reign in the lives of people which was NOT a political kingdom/state/worldwide government?

    It seems to me that the Lord as plainly as possible told his hearers that he was acting in the power and under the reign of God and doing God’s will and that the casting out of demons by the power of God was indicative of God’s REIGN in his life and his actions of service to others

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

  8. on 09 Apr 2008 at 1:26 pmSean

    Jesus believed that one day many would come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God (Mt 8.11; Lk 13.29). Even though the righteous will be enjoying this messianic feast, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth because the evildoers will see this new world but then be denied entrance—they will be thrown out (Mt 8.12; Lk 13.28). Those who are meek—who endure injury with patience and without resentment —will inherit the land (Mt 5.5). In fact, the twelve disciples will be chief among these meek, for they will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel on twelve thrones (Mt 19.28; Lk 22.30). The compassionate who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned will one day inherit the kingdom, whereas the ones who have made no effort to care for the afflicted of the world will be summarily dismissed into eternal punishment (Mt 25.31-46). Jesus also believed that in the end, a cataclysmic irreversible act of divine judgment would occur, in which the Son of Man would send forth his angels to separate out the lawless and throw them into the furnace of fire so that the righteous could shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mt 13.41-43). The day would be a cause of mourning for all the tribes of the earth except for the elect who will be gathered together by the angels (Mk 13.24-27; Mt 24.29-31). This moment would be sudden like the days of Noah—people were be eating and drinking and getting married until suddenly the flood came and destroyed them all. Jesus says, “it will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (Lk 17.26-30; Mt 24.37-39).

  9. on 09 Apr 2008 at 1:41 pmJohnO

    Wolfgang,

    “Do those words of Jesus not make quite clear that when Jesus was speaking about “kingdom of God” he was NOT speaking about a future political rule on earth as king over the world? Do these words not make very clear that Jesus was talking about God’s reign in the lives of people which was NOT a political kingdom/state/worldwide government?”

    This is only true is you entirely disregard all of Jesus’ religious history and context. It takes a lot more than a few passing uses of an already assigned phrase to entirely change its meaning without upsetting his entire cultural and historical context with everyone around him. And we’re not prepared to divorce Jesus into a Jesus of Faith that does not fit into history. Clearly Jesus walked the earth and must make sense in light of first century Jewish thought.

  10. on 09 Apr 2008 at 2:38 pmKaren

    To get back to the original subject of the post, here’s Augustine’s famous dictum:

    In necessariis unitas,
    In dubiis libertas,
    In omnibus autem caritas.

    In essentials unity,
    In non-esentials liberty,
    But in all things love.

    Of course then come the quarrels about what exactly are the essentials….

  11. on 09 Apr 2008 at 10:37 pmKarl

    JohnO: “Clearly Jesus walked the earth and must make sense in light of first century Jewish thought.”

    I agree that he walked the earth but why must our understanding of him be limited to “1st century Jewish thought”? (or at least your interpretation of it)

  12. on 10 Apr 2008 at 12:20 amWolfgang

    John O.,

    you wrote above

    And we’re not prepared to divorce Jesus into a Jesus of Faith that does not fit into history. Clearly Jesus walked the earth and must make sense in light of first century Jewish thought.

    yet, this is exactly what you are doing with your interpretation of Jesus’ teaching concerning the kingdom as being a reference to a yet future earthly political rule over the world from a throne in Jerusalem …!! You are removing Jesus’ teachings from its history and its immediate historical context, and you are re-interpreting his words concerning spiritual matters into a political, material, physical earth kingdom concept.
    Jesus’ words should indeed be understood in light of the context of his day and time … and when he announced that the kingdom of God was NEAR we should not make his words say something different. When he emphatically proclaimed that his coming would be at the end of the age, we should not make that to mean the end of an age that had not even come at that time but note in which age he lived and which end of which age was then near. When he further emphasized that some of those hearing him would still be alive when it would come to pass, we should not remove it into a time frame which is till (even after 2000 years) in an undefined yet future time …
    Else, if we do so, we should not claim that Jesus’ words should be understood in light of their historical background, or?

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

  13. on 10 Apr 2008 at 2:15 amJohnO

    Wolfgang,

    Do you have any historical evidence that any Jiewish sect was expecting a purely spiritual experience of Messiah? As ffar as I know, none were looking for that. At least two (Pharisee, and Essene) expected a Messiah who intervened in earthly/political affairs. You seem to be positing a context that does not exist in the first century. A context that only exists in the peistic thinking of second century Gnostics….

  14. on 10 Apr 2008 at 3:37 amWolfgang

    Hello John O.,

    who was talking about “a purely spiritual experience of Messiah”? what do you even mean with that ? I was making reference to the very words of the real person Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, who was speaking in those days and I am endeavouring to understand him from his perspective …

    Yes, many in those days seem to have expected a Messiah who would intervene in earthly/political affairs and free them from the Romans …. now, were they correct in their expectations? NO !!! The problem with those who want “to view through historical Jewish eyes” Jesus and what we read in the Scriptures is that they are often somehow not noticiing that the Jewish leaders with their views were wrong! I do not think that it is a good idea to want to go by “what the Jewish leadership and perhaps many Jews then thought and expected”, because their thought and expectations were consistently wrong and reproved by the Messiah Jesus

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

  15. on 10 Apr 2008 at 6:59 amSean

    now, were they correct in their expectations? NO !!!

    I would say “not yet” rather than “no” but alas, I hold out hope that Jesus will one day return and make things right on earth. The words of Dale Allison are instructive here:

    Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 219.

    “And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”

  16. on 10 Apr 2008 at 8:17 amJohnO

    Wolfgang,

    A “purely spiritual experience of Messiah” is exactly what you do with the Kingdom of God. Your Kingdom does not come on the earth like the lord’s prayer says to pray. If Jesus has absolutely no ties to any expectation of anything remotely Jewish – he does not fit into history seeing as he was a first century Jew. And I did not say he had to fit the model of the leadership… if you read my atonement posts you would know I said he challenged them. But to challenge them is a far cry different from what you propose. There were four sects of judaism and Jesus shares something in common with each of them, and differs from each of them as well. I suggest you do more study on first century history from the likes of Horsley, Blomberg, Crossan, Wright, Sanders, Erhman, Evans and the like.

  17. on 10 Apr 2008 at 8:27 amSean

    I think John’s point about 1st century Judaism can be brought out a bit when we think about the term, “kingdom of God.” It is noteworthy that Jesus never took the time to define this term to his audience. The implication, recognized by Weiss, as early as 1892, is that Jesus was not redefining the kingdom but was operating within the first century Jewish understanding. So, our question is much simplified: “what did first century Jews think about the kingdom?” Were they thinking it would be a spiritual reign of God in their hearts? Were they thinking it would be the church? Were they thinking that Messiah would ascend to heaven and rule over earth from heaven–spiritually? Or were they thinking that the fallen both of David must be restored, that one day God will return the kingdom to Israel and usher in the messianic age?

  

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