Identification With Messiah – Part 2: Sanctification of the Mundane

Delivered to the 2013 New England Messianic Conference

Did you realize your imagination is the seat of meditation? Yes, a sanctified imagination is the godly opposite of the practice of lust.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”

Ephesians 5:1 (NIV84)

The picture that burns in my imagination and has become my favorite meditation on Ephesians 5:1 is this:

I first found the photo flipping through old albums of yellowing, rounded corner, 1970s pictures. And there was a photo of my dad and me. I must have been 3, perhaps 4, and there I was standing on the toilet seat, my Dad and I peering into a foggy mirror, our faces lathered with Barbasol, and in my hand an empty razor—one of the old-school disposable ones, with the twist up doors into which you place a new blade—and with which I was diligently scraping foam from my downy face, in imitation of my loving father, who was preparing for work, but took the time to empty his spare razor, to answer my questions, to lather my face, and to lift his son up next to him.

If Invitation to Imitation is the name of God’s discipleship program, then Sanctification of the Mundane is the title of His curriculum.

Thus far we’ve been talking about the big picture, the how we understand. What I would like to discuss now is more like the lacing up your shoes. It’s the effect that adopting an Invitation to Imitation viewpoint has and how (and why) it has it. I want to talk about why chicken wings and dish washing, lunch with a friend and prayer after meals can change the very course of your life.

I hope you’ll come away understanding the remarkable reality that God produces story-inspiring events from the seeming drudgery of day-to-day life.

Dallas Willard wrote, “I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete plan for teaching people to do “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”[1]

Spiritual formation (disciple-making, sanctification) is at the heart of the Church’s whole purpose for existence. “Our charge, given by Jesus himself, is to make disciples, baptize them, and teach these new disciples to obey his commands (Matt. 28:19-20).”[2]

We’ve declared that God’s purpose for all His people might accurately be called Invitation to Imitation. The pressing question now in need of attention is, how do we become faithful imitators?

The Lesson of the Desert Fathers

Let’s begin by considering the so-called “Desert Fathers.” Why would we consider them? Mostly because they lived in a time eerily similar to ours. Christians and the government had become confusingly intertwined. The state of the world they were brought up in was insanely anti-Christian, pagans resented the power of the Christian “voting block,” many Christians were so in name only, immorality was rampant, the state controlled people’s lives and more and more people depended on the state for their livelihood. Sound familiar? Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the scenario well:

The desert monastics of the third and fourth centuries were not sure how to live faithfully as both citizens of heaven and citizens of the Roman Empire, but they knew they could not find their way by running from the root of temptation, which they located in their own hearts. Led by Abba Antony, they went into their cells and stayed for the purpose of doing battle with the demons of their day.[3]

The Desert monastics saw the practice of a righteous life as a cosmic struggle. Rejecting the constant temptations of the culturally “advanced” Roman society, the allure of “more,” the easy mobility of the Roman roads, the chasing of significance in the accumulation of stuff, power, friends, position, or pleasure the desert monastics moved to the borders of society in an effort to hear God’s voice and practice His ways.

After having been in his isolated place for some time St. Antony faced a barrage of despairing thoughts, accusing him of purposelessness, powerlessness and futility. He was overwhelmed by the seeming monotony of a simple life and cried out, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?”

Perceiving no answer St. Antony was tempted to believe his prayers had gone unheard, when outside his hut Abba Antony saw a monk making rope, getting up to pray, sitting down to work again, then getting up again to pray. Then Antony heard the word of the Lord in his heart, and understood that he was watching an angel, sent in answer to his prayer. Turning to face St. Antony, the angel spoke, “Do this and you will be saved.”

Antony’s biographer, Athanasius, records another story of struggle, relating how when the holy man was viciously attacked by an aggressive demon Abba Anthony called on the name of Jesus and his attacker vanished. The story is compelling in its record of God’s intervening and powerful action on his beloved’s behalf, but also strikingly different from the previous anecdote. In the previous story God does not directly intervene but instead sends a very down-to-earth angel to offer an example. “Some battles, it seems, are ours to fight.”[4]

What are we to understand from these two stories? There are two ways in which God helps us: direct intervention and the practice of His prescribed rhythms. We often long for, and perhaps clamor for, a quick fix, and God responds by giving us work to do. A rhythm of prayer and labor that saves our souls; rarely like a SWAT team, though God does have one—even they can be delayed:

Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.

The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me…. Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me. And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me. Daniel 10:12-19 (ESV)

Conversion is a process, we are re-made as we work out the salvation we’re given “with fear and trembling.”

The argument of my previous session was essentially that all believers, by basis of their very acceptance of the Gospel, share the same unchanging standard, primary identity, and corporate mission. The following quote from Dr. Elmer Martens summarizes this point well:

The gift of the promise was received in faith (Gen 15:6) and issued in righteousness. Similarly, the Torah, God’s grace gift, when embraced by faith issued in righteousness (Rom 9:30-31). Clearly Jesus Christ, when received as God’s gift through faith, brings righteousness (Gal 3:26; Rom 10:9-10). The principle of faith-response to God (namely, orienting oneself totally to God via his gift) remains unchanged. The faith-response is essentially an embrace of God; more specifically, it is an embrace of his gifts, be they promise, Torah, or Christ. To embrace the Torah is also to embrace the promise; to embrace Christ is to embrace the preceding gifts of promise and Torah. It is this recognition that gives to law an abiding ethical claim on the believer.[5]

I also mentioned that Anglicanism’s via media was a major attraction for me, due to its insistence on keeping the main things the main thing.

Focus on the Primary Issues First

Listen, I’m not a dispensationalist but I sure do appreciate how they prioritize the place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan. I’m not an Arminian, but I dig their emphasis on personal holiness. I’m not a pacifist but I’m thankful for their reminder that peace is integral to the Kingdom of God. I’m not a Calvinist, but I rely upon the pre-suppositional apologetics that was their gift to Christian thinking. I’m not a liberal but they are correct that God cares about the deprived and the marginalized, and so should we. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I sure do admire how unashamed they are to be different from the world.

We all share a strong desire to be part of the group that has it right, don’t we? It would be so reassuring to find oneself part of the universal group that has it all figured out and whose theology is completely biblical. I must report to you, however, that I’ve been on a sort of life-long tour of Christian groups and while I’ve found something to appreciate everywhere I’ve been, no one had it completely right.

Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is too often dismissed for its simplicity, but I’ll never forget at least one thing he wrote:

“Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension.”[6]

Come back to that…it’s worth chewing on. I think it’s a normal part of human nature to want to resolve tension. We don’t want to live in some in-between-No-Man’s Land, so in our efforts to figure things out we tend to fall into one of two different mistakes. We either try to bring about now what God intends for the future, or we throw up our hands because we know it won’t be perfect till Messiah returns, and we do nothing (or give only token efforts).

When one considers all the various Christian groups it seems that God has managed to have all of His personality on display somewhere, in some corner of Christianity. On the other hand, each and every group seems to have at least one detail misapprehended. I’m increasingly suspicious that God has done this intentionally.

It often seems as if those who are willing to take radical action to correct real errors or to balance real disparity are driven by a theological anomaly that goes too far, bases its claim to legitimacy upon an errant idea, or follows some charismatic cult leader. Wouldn’t it be nice if for once radical action could be taken by those committed not to a date for the end of the world or some strange ethnic theology but by ordinary believers committed to nothing more complicated than the “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and the Gospel message, the Lord’s invitation and the Father’s instructions?

Granted, there will have to be something extraordinary about this group or else they would be no different than the majority of those who call themselves Christians, and who have continued on buying, selling, marrying and giving in marriage while the salt became useless and the light on the hill became indistinguishable from the multitude of encroaching suburbs.

Could this group live differently but stay in relationship with their mainstream brothers and sisters in Christ?

Unity is of Paramount Importance (Despite its abuse by liberals)

Why would they need to remain in relationship? Well, if it’s true that all of us get something wrong, then we need others with a different perspective to hold us accountable when our thinking focuses too heavily on one particular topic. Remember one of my favorite scholar’s claim that 20% of what he would teach would likely be wrong, but he just didn’t know which part it was? My dad used to suggest that we are most likely to be wrong about the things that make us most unique. That’s a sobering thought.

How do we determine where to draw the line between those who will compromise us and those who will healthily counter-balance us?

First, we must acknowledge, I think, that the proper correction to abuse is not disuse but correct use. Woah, I’m about to dive in the deep end!

Listen, it is clear from Scripture that God thinks of his children as a family or household. Let’s let Scripture affirm this reality for us:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:19)

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15)

Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian (Χριστιανός), let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God (οἴκου τοῦ θεοῦ); and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:16-17)

And look at the contents of God’s law…it seems very household-oriented, very day-to-day focused:

“When you build a new house…” Deut 22:8

“When you see your brother’s donkey…” Deut 22:4

“If any man takes a wife… Deut 22:13

“If there is an engaged woman…” Deut 22:23

“If a husband is jealous…” Num 5:14

“…rejoice in the wife of your youth,” Prov 5:18

“…come and be healed by dunking in this river…” 2 Kings 5

“…if something falls into an earthenware vessel…” Lev 11:33

“…when you harvest your crops…” Lev 23:22

“…every athlete exercises self-control…so I discipline my body…” 1 Cor 9:25-27

Could these words be any more mundane? “Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by his Son and sanctifies us with his commandments.”[7]

There are boundaries in life and we ought not to resent them but to embrace them. The culture surrounding us has rejected any sort of boundary, defining them as the opposite of freedom; this is a lie from the pit of hell. Freedom is found by living within the walls constructed by Him who loved us.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.[8]

God’s plan is that we might be sanctified by practicing normal life in an extra-normal way. This is the “divine program” I referenced previously. All that remains is for us to import God’s grand design into the 21st century…and that will be some hard work, but it will be for our benefit, and we are swimming in the grace that will be required to do it!

The amazing thing is how brilliant God’s plan is! It automatically challenges the American Way. But in order to apply it we must categorize and principilize it. I know, I just said two “bad words” in the Messianic movement. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to grapple with this reality. Remember, the proper correction to abuse is not disuse but correct use. I told you I was diving into the deep end of the pool. I’m now under water holding my breath; I pray you will extend me your hand and listen carefully for a bit longer.

Sometimes ambition, sometimes discontent, perhaps boredom, tempts us to abandon the practice of life where we are currently at for the sake of new vistas, new growth opportunities, or different experiences. We are so easily dissatisfied with the ordinary, longing for that elusive feeling of excitement that comes with a new task, new people to meet, new challenges to face. The repetition of the daily grind wears on us, luring us into thinking that nothing will ever change unless we break out of the fetters of routine and forge a “new” life. The demon of covetousness whispers, “Maybe this isn’t what you were meant for. I know your star could shine brighter somewhere else.”

How does the Psalmist describe the blessed person?

[T]hey are like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. Psalm 1:3 (ESV)

What am I saying to you? Regardless of whether it is pain and hurt, greed and ambition, or pride and privacy, the patterns of this world prevent us from embracing the Way of God. Where, we are tempted to ask, is my best life now? “I’m so tired of doing the same thing over and over; every day seems the same.” “I don’t really need more teaching, I just need to socialize.” “Why does it seem like life is so hard?” “I just can’t do this anymore.” “This is not what I’m created for.” “This job doesn’t play to my strengths.” “This doesn’t feel like my calling.”

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)

In contradistinction to the siren songs of our culture, God’s grand plan for our formation into the image of His Son is the sanctification of the seemingly mundane stuff of life.

I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a friend, I’m a pastor—I hear the private cries of my wife, my children, my friends, my parishioners, and of many who respond to the call of God on my life without having a regular place in my community. I hear firsthand the brokenness that the evening news tells us is everywhere, but more importantly is in your life and in my life. The greatest grief I bear is the broken-heartedness of many Christians close to me.

The shattered nature of our souls indicates the presence of a grave problem at the very foundation of our understanding and practice of the Gospel. Many of us sense this—otherwise you might not be in this room. We cry out against the injustice of working for a far off benefactor who doesn’t seem to care about us as people; we ache for community, we pine for divisions to somehow be reconciled, we lament our own addictions (don’t pretend: you have them too, as do I—we just practice the “Christian” ones, or hide those too “bad” to acknowledge), and keep on putting one foot in front of another, because what other choice do we have? We are slaves to our lenders, to grocery stores that provide foods nowhere close to in season, to clothes sold to us cheaply, made by the hands of destitute Bangladeshi children now resting in concrete graves.

God’s commandments prescribe a way of life that protests and prevents the practices of secular humanism. Had we heeded its wisdom we could have prevented the insidious infiltration of greed and godlessness into our lives.

The practice of real community, of normalcy, of stability—of the stuff of life itself—of fences and chickens, clothes and vehicles, nesting birds, vindictive women and jealous husbands, fabric, homeschool curriculum and particular prayers—is the means by which where we live becomes a sanctuary of God’s presence. Without the gift of God’s presence holiness is only a pipe-dream to which humans aspire. But God’s presence must be acknowledged and cherished. Without recognizing, naming and giving thanks for His presence the place where we are at will seem barren. The birthplace of holiness is God’s grace lived out in personal commitment by broken individuals in the process of being healed.

The primary crucible for transformation is life with other people who are every bit as broken and messed up as we are. We learn to dwell with God and to imitate Him by learning the practices of hospitality, listening, diligence, forgiveness, responsibility, rootedness, and reconciliation—the daily drudgery of life with other people. But sometimes we recite those lofty character traits and forget that they are practiced in the context of fixing lunch, doing taxes, mopping floors, wiping bottoms, shaving, sweeping, driving, eating, rising early, and praying often. Life in Messiah is designed to be a pattern of positive habits or intentional routines engaged in for God’s glory.

We have Skype, smartphones, and Facebook—all designed to keep us in constant contact. We have forums, chat rooms, blogs and Twitter accounts all designed to form virtual community, yet most of us still feel disconnected and lonely. We’re estranged from our neighbors, unsure of where we really belong. Not sure if we’re part of Messianic Judaism, the Church, Israel, this denomination or that one; are we patriots, conservatives, or libertarians? Where will we send our kids to college? Who will our children marry?

Though we long for community, we actually practice largely disconnected and isolated lives. Mostly gone are the days when everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business—of course this was annoying at times, but it provided a built-in accountability that was healthy for the individuals who made up the community. Suburban homes are next to each other, but cut off; we drive into our 2 or 3 car garages, shut the door with the push of a button, enter our home through an interior door and often go weeks—perhaps even months—without even waving to our neighbors, let alone talking to them.

Consequently, within the walls of our well-insulated homes we practice an individualized spirituality that “works” for us, or so we imagine. We clamber to establish a personal sense of tranquility all the while ignoring God’s preferred plan for spiritual formation—life in community, transparency of action and motive. This must partially explain why books on spirituality are racing up the best seller list even as church attendance is dropping like the thermometer in January. Choosing a personal path seems so much easier than learning to actually know and understand the people who show up next to me in the pew. After all, we think, my life is complicated enough as it is!

“Community is always a risk,” Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “We cannot know beforehand who will stay and who will leave. But each decision to stay—every prayer lifted up from our half-born condition—can be seen as an act of faith that our God will give us what we need.”[9]

How does this apply to our life? How shall we advance in imitating Christ? First, let us embrace, indeed not just embrace, but commit to community one with each other. Secondly, let’s determine to practice the sanctification of our day-to-day normality because this is where Christ shows up. Let’s stop imagining the far off, the grandiose, the heroic as that which will help or fix us. St. Paul wrote,

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 1 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV)

Og Mandino writes:

As a child I was slave to my impulses; now I am slave to my habits, as are all grown men. I have surrendered my free will to the years of accumulated habits and the past deeds of my life have already marked out a path which threatens to imprison my future. My actions are ruled by appetite, passion, prejudice, greed, love, fear, environment, habit, and the worst of these tyrants is habit. Therefore, if I must be a slave to habit let me be a slave to good habits. My bad habits must be destroyed and new furrows prepared for good seed. I will form good habits and become their slave.[10]

What was it that St. Paul said? I am a bond-servant of Christ. “[P]resent yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life!” … just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness … so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” (Romans 1:1; 6:13, 19)

You haven’t been a part of my local congregation, but hopefully you can understand why I so often belabor the point of kavannah—the purposeful directing of one’s heart in the application of intentional, personal meaning to pre-crafted words. If we cannot learn to embrace the mundane regularity of liturgy as a tool for worship (and transformation) then we will not learn to see Messiah in the acts of scolding children, washing dishes, pounding nails, or completing paperwork; we will miss the opportunity pregnant in the need to repent of unkind words, or in the repetition of rising yet again to a job you don’t necessarily appreciate. We must capture the ability, through practice, of embracing these tools of day-to-day life because God intended them for our sanctification. It is His preferred, indeed, His most common method for transforming us into Christ’s image.

We urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.[11]

Now do you see why I emphasize the critical need to acknowledge first and foremost that all of God’s children are expected to fashion their lives in comparison to His eternal standard of holiness? We are bleeding for lack of it, brothers! We cannot heal the world, because we are broken and compromised. I care not for secondary discussions when the primary need is being largely ignored.

Primary vs. Secondary Distinctions

Contrary to much propaganda the majority position of the Church throughout history has always been that the moral imperatives of God’s Law apply universally to all believers. While Luther produced a movement that introduced a strong dichotomy between Law and Grace, the overwhelming majority of Christians continued to insist that the third and primary use of the Law was to instruct believers in the proper way of living, to aid them in more closely reflecting God’s image. Only since the advent of dispensationalism did the idea that the Law has actually been annulled gain any popular consensus.

Much of the discussion surrounding how we relate to God’s Law focuses on who has an obligation and whether we are part of the same group or not. May I settle this once and for all? We are all obligated to keep God’s Law perfectly. We all fail; therefore Yeshua kept it perfectly for us. On the other side of our acceptance of that truth, we are all charged to imitate Him…He kept God’s law. End of discussion. Now that we’re all in agreement, let’s move on to how.

Concerns over whether the law can be legitimately split into civil, ceremonial, and moral categories are likewise often misdirected, though some have undoubtedly misused this conversation. Today’s reality is that God does not consider those imperatives of the Mosaic Code that can be accurately described as pertaining to civil issues as binding on any secular government. Similarly, without a functioning Temple, without a ritually pure Aaronic priesthood, etc. no ceremonial imperatives regarding the practice of Temple-worship are presently demanded. So if, a Christian asserts, as does the London Baptist Confession of 1689,

The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.[12]

in my opinion, we ought to heartily agree with them, not condemn them for faulty theology. They may define the contents of the “moral law” differently than do we, but that is a variance you will find among every believing community everywhere.

While the specific demands of the law clearly vary based on sex, geography, time, ethnicity, and role, God’s general demand of obedience to His Law is universal and does not vary based on ethnicity. The Scriptural distinction is one of application not of obligation. When it comes to New Covenant participation/obligation the Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Peter was crystal clear:

“He [God] made no distinction between us and them,” (Acts 15:9a).

For sure, the demands of Torah differ depending on one’s relationship to Messiah, meaning that the “demand” of Torah to someone under the Old Covenant is condemning, while the “demand” of Torah to someone in the New Covenant is enlightening. I read somewhere recently that “Grace is the bridge from Law as mirror to Law as Lamp.” But still that obligation remains: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15; John 14:21; John 15:10; Romans 13:9; 1 John 5:2; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6)

The only proper distinction is secondary rather than primary. The motivation of the Apostles to mandate a grace-filled approach to law-keeping was practical (and an imitation of God’s approach), “tell the uneducated, new believers to be concerned with x,y,z.” These Acts 15 specifications for immediate observance would have prevented table fellowship, the common denominator of regular, daily life, and soon to be the central observance of the fledgling sect (after the destruction of the Temple).

The distinction the Apostles make between Gentile converts and Jewish believers doesn’t need to be “wrestled” with; it’s obvious. I expect my son to obey me in all things, yet I begin only with high-chair manners, and slowly add to the “burden” of obedience as his understanding progresses. When I say to my 1 year old, “eat your food” that does not mean I don’t also expect him to be kind to his sister as soon as he understands kindness, etc., etc.

Because I have a different standard of obedience for my 2-year-old than I do for my 9-year-old, does not mean that both are not obligated to obey. These are differences in application not in obligation. The primary question is does God Law apply to the redeemed? The answer is a resounding, Yes. The secondary question is how do we apply it in a particular time and place, to a particular person or persons?

…and that’s a complicated issue we shall try to tackle in the following minutes.

The Daunting Challenge of Application

Perhaps starting with a real life example would be the best thing. I received this letter a couple of years ago.

Nate,

At what point is the OT obsolete?

I just got done reading Lev 19….my son (against my wishes, as my wife is an unbeliever) is in public school.  There are several classes that are making totem poles.  Now, you may think I am crazy, but it clearly says in Ex 20:4:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”

You may think I am tripping, but I will not allow this….he is my firstborn, first born unto God….this will not be tolerated! …..anyway, so I was just browsing around Leviticus this morning and thought to myself…what the heck?

Where do you take it (OT)? (to what point)

Regards,

Frustrated

My reply was as follows:

Dear Frustrated,

Well, you have a legitimate dilemma on your hands.  The first thing I would answer is that the traditional, historic position of the Church-universal is that the Old Testament never becomes obsolete. In fact, a famous 14th century philosopher (and monk) named William of Ockham (you may have heard of Ockham’s Razor – entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem – which basically means the simplest answer is likely to be the accurate one) suggested that stealing was evil simply because God said that it was, which sounds good so far, right? But what Ockham meant is that God could have decided the opposite; He could have decided stealing was ethical, and it would have been. The Church rejected this as heresy and said that no, the law of God was an expression of God’s very nature and could no more change than could God. Therefore, since God is immutable, His law is immutable (not subject to change).  Since no one questions whether God is immutable, I guess that much is decided.

The big question is, since some things in Scripture obviously change (for example, Adam and Eve could only eat fruits, vegetables, and seeds; but after Noah everyone was allowed to eat meat) what is part of God’s eternal law and what is not?

A majority of the Church throughout history has answered that God’s moral law is eternal. The Anglican Church expressed it this way in the 39 Articles of Religion (written over a 30 year period and finalized in 1571):

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore they are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.[13]

So now we have yet another question: which commandments are the moral ones? I have never run across, nor do I have, a bullet-proof answer to that question, which is why at St. Patrick’s-by-the-Rivers we’ve developed the following guideline:

We believe the Bible is a revelation of the righteousness of God, and a description of the lifestyle of the redeemed community throughout history. While God’s commandments are to be considered prescriptive, we acknowledge that they require adaptation from generation to generation.

We see a precedent for this in the Gospels, where Jesus declares to the disciples that in the context of a council of elders they can count on His guidance (via the Holy Spirit) and actually have the authority to determine what will be a permitted way of walking out God’s Law (compare Matthew 18:18-20 and John 20:21-23).

This is why the church has often said that the three pillars of decision making should be Scripture, Reason, & Tradition. They understood that as godly elders made community rulings throughout history, they formed what we know as Tradition, and it should be one factor we take into consideration as we try to figure out how to live out God’s laws in this place and time.

Soo…so much for introduction to the problem itself. Now let’s consider the specific scenario at hand. Clearly God said in the 10 commandments (which everyone considers part of the moral law – except for those who exempt the Sabbath from that category) that we are not to make for ourselves a carved image. HOWEVER, what does that mean–does this prohibit all statues or sculpture? Does this prohibit all art and photography? I don’t think so; why not? From analyzing the language of the passage and keeping verse 4 in the context that includes verse 5, it becomes apparent that God is prohibiting the making of a carved image for purposes of worshiping it. Clearly this is not a blanket prohibition on sculpture.

However, the Indians made totems for idols. Or did they; the evidence seems to indicate that they did not, although culturally ignorant missionaries tended to view the totem poles as idols, that wasn’t what they were to the Indians.

Furthermore, are the school kids carving the totems for idolatry? I doubt it. Since it seems that there is not a black and white, hard and fast, no-questions- asked commandment against making totems, I begin to ask myself further questions. Questions like, “How will my wife perceive this if I deny my son from participating?” “Will it seem to represent a God of grace and mercy to her, or seem more like a tyrannical, dictatorial God that I am using/abusing to bolster my quest for male power and dominance?”  Of course, I don’t suggest that is true, only that it could be misperceived in that fashion.

Clearly, there are lines that cannot be crossed; if the school is teaching that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle alternative than I will have no choice but to exempt my son from that class, and it would be preferred to remove him from that school. But the situation with totem poles is not one of those black and white issues.

Soo…I cannot tell you what the right decision is in this scenario, but I can tell you that from an outside-the-situation analysis it seems to me that I would probably allow my son to participate, depending of course, on what is being said about the totem poles.

For the Father – In Messiah – By the Spirit,

Nate

Now I don’t know what you think about my “halachic” decision—which I also nicely evaded at the end there, don’t you think? This man is not a part of my community, by the way, which also played a part in my thoughts to him, but the main point is the real life difficulties involved in making decisions about how to apply God’s law.

Certainly no directly literal application is going to fly. For one thing we are not living in the Land, we are not under a theocratic government, we are living in Exile, we have no Temple, there are no Torah courts with jurisdiction, and in many cases God was giving enduring principles with specific application to 13th century BC.

Some insist that a literal application is necessary. To them I ask what the parapet around the roof of their house looks like.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. [14]

So let’s analyze this command. If we are expected to imitate God’s character along the lines of what this specific command teaches us, what is our obligation in 21st century New England or Indiana?

My understanding is that at the time the Torah was given, they commonly used the roof of their homes the way we use our porch or deck. So you might invite the neighbor over for some barbecue beef and a beer and enraptured with the taste of your brew and your wife’s marinade, after a couple plates and couple mugs, he might tip backwards and fall off the roof, and if you didn’t have a railing, well, you were guilty of manslaughter.

Well, there is no access to the roof of my two-story home, and the pitch of the roof is too steep to enjoy any time up there anyway, so my specific application is that when it snows I shovel and salt my sidewalk. If I had a deck instead of a patio, I suppose I would make sure to put a railing around it. If I had a pool, I would fence it in too—that tends to be a municipal law anyway.

Conclusion

Gracious, we have covered a lot of ground. What am I trying to convey?

“… the law may be viewed from three perspectives: theologically, anthropologically, and soteriologically. Theologically, the law is an expression of the will of God…. Anthropologically the law bonds a community…. Soteriologically, the OT asserts the life-brining function of the law. The NT concurs, emphasizing that this conclusion is warranted only when the law is embraced in faith….”[15]

Our primary identity must be in Messiah. In Messiah we are called to imitate his character. The commandments of God found throughout Scripture, lived out in perfect example in the pages of the four Gospels, and amplified in the commentary of the Apostles to their fledgling congregations, are to be our constant guidelines and the standard to which we compare ourselves.

We cannot live in perfect harmony with every branch of God’s Body, but we can focus on that which we hold in common, and intentionally associate with the broadest possible group that does not compromise our convictions, even if that means we will have distinctive congregations within that larger body. Furthermore, we ought to acknowledge that God often gives a prophetic call to a particular person or group within His body that is not our call, but we should be slow to condemn and quick to look for the fruit of the Spirit.

Our call is not to wild fantasies of fantastic, herculean effort but to quiet, faithful living. In the midst of the crises of normal discipleship we will see God performing wondrous miracles—they will always be to His glory not ours. God divinely anticipated our every need and devised a way of living that will often, perhaps will always, force us to form counter-cultural communities. Our communities are to be colonies of heaven in the midst of a culture of despair. As we sanctify the daily drudgery of mundane life the Kingdom of God will break out amongst us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that He may grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, and that the Messiah may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know the Messiah’s love that surpasses knowledge, so you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think–according to the power that works in you– to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21 (HCSB)

Part One here.


[1]Dallas Willard. “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 28, no 4 (2000): 256.

[2]James C. Wilhoit. Spiritual Formation As if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community. Baker

[3] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (2010-09-01). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (p. 35). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid. 109-110. (refers not just to the ending exact quote but the preceding two paragraphs)

[5] Elmer A. Martens. “Embracing the Law: A Biblical Theological Perspective,” in Jon Isaak, ed. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009. 25.

[6] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. p 162

[7] Nathan A. Long. The Offerings of Our Lips: Daily Prayers for In(habit)ing Communities. Fort Wayne, IN: In(form) Press, 2012.

[8] Luke 11:17

[9] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (2010-09-01). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (p. 25). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.

[10] Og Mandino. The Greatest Salesman in the World. p. 53.

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12 (NASB)

[12] http://www.1689.com/confession.html#Ch.%2019

[13] VII. Of the Old Testament. “Articles of Religion.” The Book of Common Prayer. New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1929. 604

[14] Deuteronomy 22:8

[15] Elmer A. Martens. “Embracing the Law: A Biblical Theological Perspective,” in Jon Isaak, ed. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009. 26-27. I could not say what Dr. Marten did any better, so I’ve used his words, but it is important to note that by leaving out what I did, I’ve significantly altered the primary thrust of his quote.

Identification With Messiah – Part 1: Invitation to Imitation

Delivered to the 2013 New England Messianic Conference

We live in an age when far too many people have experienced either a bent and sugary love devoid of boundaries, or a stern and legalistic law divorced from grace. Too often these extremes are practiced by those who most vigorously proclaim their exclusive possession of “The Truth.” Not only is the world largely unimpressed with our faulty display of God’s nature, but our pews are increasingly abandoned by disillusioned and disappointed seekers and hearers. I can’t imagine a time when it is more important for these indivisible aspects of God’s character to be experienced together.

Undoubtedly the recovery of the Jewish Roots of the Christian faith has been a move of the Spirit for our era, but like most times when the Spirit blows, there are many divisive, confusing and competing spirits striving to distract, discourage, and destroy the legitimate work of God. In times like these a sure and steady course can be set by relying upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit to bring to our aid the tri-fold tools of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition (properly used in that order of priority).

I think Paul of Tarsus, John the Beloved, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyon, and American Dispensationalist Charles Ryrie are examples we might look to for imitable patterns of the exercise of God’s love and law.

In these pages I hope to outline three points upon which I believe the Church must agree in order to be effective in honoring God, and creating disciples of Messiah. Though I don’t believe a robust unity requires absolute uniformity, it seems there must be some sort of foundation upon which to base our common labors. I believe we need, 1) an unchanging standard, 2) a primary identity, and 3) a corporate mission.

I shall take the late Bishop J.C. Ryle as my model in this endeavor, who, noticing the deplorable lack of sanctification that characterized the late 19th century English Church, worked to “[restore] biblical breadth and depth to evangelical minds that had been swept away by fashionable holiness teaching that was actually extreme, shallow, biblically incorrect, and a hindrance to growth in grace. Ryle’s response was not to cross swords with its exponents, but to lay out afresh, biblically, systematically, and in practical terms, the true fundamentals of Christian sanctity, with constant appeal to…others…who had trodden this path before him.”[1]

I will assume that this audience exists precisely because we have recognized the necessity of an unchanging standard. Therefore, I will first attempt to establish a primary identity to which we can all subscribe and which, I believe, must be in place before subsequent conversations can take place in a constructive manner. Pertaining to a corporate mission, I hope to evidence that the Great Commission is phase two of God’s original purpose: an expansion of God’s phase one mission for Israel.

If you will allow, despite our agreement on the necessity of an unchanging standard, perhaps a slight excursus on the topic would be appropriate. We need to be careful that our language does not leave people puzzled. In my experience, 80% of Americans to whom I say “law” actually hear “legalism.”  This is a problem. Regardless of what I mean, regardless of how diligently we have labored to point out that law and grace are allies not opponents, if our audience hears “bears” when we say “pears” then we are left anticipating and they are left distressed!

Now you and I realize when we speak of the law as God’s unchanging standard that love is intrinsic to God’s law. But it may be wise on our part to speak of God’s character as the unchanging standard.

God is completely loving and entirely lawful. He cannot be otherwise, for His personality is the definition of both love and law. If we embrace God’s love without embracing his law, we end up redefining love in our image rather than in his and are therefore robbed of true love. If we embrace God’s law without embracing his love, we pervert his law into something burdensome instead of life-giving, and are robbed of the full experience of His character.

God’s character, as expressed in love and described by law, outlines the only form of conduct that fully satisfies human nature. So we, being made as we are, in His image, only find fulfillment in the full embrace of the twin legs of God’s indivisible character: His law and His love. This is what we were both made and redeemed for.[2]

Love and law are not opponents but allies, forming together the axis of true morality. Law needs love as its drive, else we get the Pharisaism that puts principles before people and says one can be perfectly good without actually loving one’s neighbor. … And love needs law as its eyes, for love … is blind. To want to love someone Christianly does not of itself tell you how to do it. Only as we observe the limits set by God’s law can we really do people good.[3]

If love emphasizes people and law emphasizes principles, without the dynamic interplay of both aspects of God’s character, we get an unhealthy (i.e., sinful) imbalance. Therefore, if it is lawful, “so far as it depends on you,” to “live peaceably with all,” then it seems it would be loving to use language that puts, “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”[4]

So I suggest that we might helpfully speak about the unchanging standard as being God’s character, which is equal parts loving and lawful.

God’s love gave us the law just as his love gave us the gospel, and as there is no spiritual life for us save through the gospel, which points us to Jesus Christ the Savior, so there is no spiritual health for us save as we seek in Christ’s strength to keep the law, and practice the love of God and neighbor for which it calls.[5]

So where shall we begin? Let’s start by noting the environment in which we find ourselves.

The Western Church is Severely Compromised

All men of the modern world exist in a continual and flagrant antagonism between their consciences and their way of life.”[6]

It may come as no surprise to you were I to declare that there are significant forces arrayed against the Church in North America. And, indeed, that the integrity of the Church in the western hemisphere has been severely damaged. We are vulnerable to both internal and external forces. The evangelical church is hemorrhaging 2.6 million people per decade. We’re not winning converts fast enough to keep pace with the population growth, and earnest evangelicals are increasingly defined by what they are against. Conversely, many of the so-called “neo-evangelicals” are rapidly compromising

Internal:

  • Our movement is hemorrhaging 2.6 million people per decade.
  • We’re not winning converts fast enough to keep pace with the population growth
  • Earnest evangelicals are increasingly defined by what they are against, conversely, many, the so-called “neo-evangelicals”, are increasingly compromising on issues like the atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, and sexual morality. This is the same old fundamentalist/liberal divide.

External:

  • The external climate is turning rapidly and vigorously against evangelicals. The fastest growing subcultures in the US express a militant antagonism against Christians who take the Bible seriously (law enforcement example, Exodus International).
  • The remaining smaller, shrinking, strapped church is splintering and splitting itself over politics, theology, strategy, daily practice, and postmodern views.[7]

Journalist turned pastor, John S. Dickerson writes, “The decline of evangelical Christianity is not just that we’re failing at evangelism or just that we’re failing to keep our own kids or just that we’ll lose 70 percent of our funding in the next thirty years. It’s all those factors (and more) combined and gaining speed simultaneously.”[8]

“It is clear that the church faces many threats to its faithfulness,” writes Professor Jonathan Wilson. “Words are important here. The gospel is never threatened by changing circumstances; God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is being accomplished and nothing can hinder that. All authority has been given to Jesus Christ. However, what may be compromised is the church’s faithfulness to the gospel.”[9]

It is tempting for folks like you and I, people who have been engaged in extended efforts to intentionally transform our lives by the renewing of our minds according to God’s word, to imagine that we have somehow escaped from the clutches of the world and are now among those who see straight. But I believe this is a very dangerous notion to entertain. I know I have been surprised again in the last twelve months as God brought to my eyes after ten years of fervent, intentional labors to disentangle from the ways and the thinking of the world, just how compromised our family remains.  I am increasingly convinced that the real power of being convicted of the ongoing necessity of God’s law as a normative part of the sanctification of the redeemed is that this great, eternal standard of God’s character keeps any of us who are honest and earnest on our knees, overwhelmed by the impossibility of keeping His precepts perfectly, and undone again in how completely dependent we are upon the crashing waves of His grace, suffusing, indeed enabling, our continued existence.

Radical Action May be Required

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.”

Proverbs 27:23-24 (NIV84)

We have great examples to draw from in both ancient and recent history.  We can draw both practices to imitate and patterns to avoid from these examples. The fundamentalist/liberal controversy of the 1950s is a recent example we ought to examine. There is much to be appreciated as well as many mistakes to be grappled with in this history, and I would contend that our closest cousins were the evangelicals who chose an intentional path right between Fundamentalism and Liberalism. Men like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Vernon Grounds. Men who have been followed by the likes of Walter Kaiser, Jr., Dwight Pryor, and Robert Webber.

These men and so many others gave us an example of prizing the inerrant truth of scripture, but of staying in relationship with one’s brethren in Messiah. Ultimately, the results of their efforts are waning. It seems that all powerful movements of God, no matter how necessary at the time of origin, no matter how fervent in their reforming zeal, always sputter and eventually distort into something that would have turned the stomach of their founder. One wonders what Cotton Mather would think of Harvard now? One imagines the heights of eloquent exhortation John Wesley might climb to, were he present at a Methodist General Conference today.

The great Thomas Cranmer recanted the very beliefs he held most dear after years of alternating imprisonment and flattery at the hands of Bloody Queen Mary’s henchman. Having publicly declared the documents he had previously signed to be false, and chained now to a stake, Cranmer stretched out his right hand, and held it unshrinking in the fire until it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, “This unworthy right hand.” What might this mighty martyr think were he to stumble into the General Convention of today’s Episcopal Church?

Unity Without Uniformity

Indeed it seems that God must intentionally use errant movements in His grand scheme. One thinks of how dispensationalism corrected the 19th century church’s ambivalence toward Israel after the flesh. I think, however, that God calls us to learn from history, and in evaluating the efforts of our evangelical forebears, I suspect we can identify a few key missing components of their efforts. As their descendants, it would behoove us to see if we can preserve something of the legacy they left us, while still improving upon what we’ve been given.

And, indeed, they did leave us a legacy. A couple years ago I wrote an article titled “Considering Dispensationalism”[10] in which I attempted to outline the tenets of dispensationalism and why I had moved from there to a place in the greater Reformed stream. As part of that process I re-read Charles Ryrie’s classic book Dispensationalism Today. In the closing chapters of the updated edition, now titled simply Dispensationalism, Ryrie writes:

It may help to be reminded of some of the important doctrines to which dispensationalists subscribe wholeheartedly. After all, dispensationalists are conservatives and affirm complete allegiance to the doctrines of verbal, plenary inspiration, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, eternal salvation by grace through faith, the importance of godly living and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the future coming of Christ, and the eternal damnation of the lost…. As already noted, some doctrines are more important than others, so it particularly behooves us not to cut off our fellowship from those who share similar views about these important doctrines. There are few enough these days who believe in the fundamentals of the faith, and to ignore those who have declared themselves on the side of the truth of God is unwise. Something is wrong with our circles of fellowship, sense of priority, or doctrine of unity when conservatives view fellow conservatives as the opposition party and then find their theological friends among those who are teaching and promoting error.[11]

I remember sitting next to Charles Ryrie at the dinner table while he was a visiting professor at Word of Life Bible Institute. He was there teaching a class on 1 and 2 Corinthians, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It was his humility that really struck me. I suppose this was partially due to the visiting professor Ryrie was being contrasted with, a KJV-only guy who had memorized the New Testament but left a really bad impression with me. Now you have to understand, this was “Charles Ryrie.” My Opa (my grandfather on my mother’s side) gave me a copy of Ryrie’s Balancing the Christian Life before I went off to Bible School, telling me that it had been the most influential book in his Christian life. I grew up with the Ryrie Study Bible, my grandfather on my Dad’s side also spoke regularly about Ryrie’s views on this and on that. So, when Ryrie himself came to the verses on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7—paused, and told us that he would be happy to share his view on this passage, but that other believers whom he respected disagreed over this passage and that we would be held accountable by the Holy Spirit to determine for ourselves what we believed God was saying in these verses—I was captured by his humility.

I started this anecdote at the dinner table, and you may be wondering why…never fear, we are returning. You see Dr. Ryrie’s humility was maintained in the face of ridiculous scenarios like the one I witnessed in 1993. I was fortunate to be the RA on duty at the head table that evening, so myself and seven or eight other students sat around soaking up everything the great Charles Ryrie had to say, some were even taking notes. Dr. Ryrie asked if someone would pass the salt, and one fellow looked up from his notebook long enough to say,

“Oh that’s great! Yes, we’re supposed to be the salt of the earth!”

You could hear several other affirming murmurs around the table. Dr. Ryrie, glanced at the young man, and replied,

“No, no, I mean would you please pass the salt.” and made no more fuss about it.

So later that year, when I began to question the Dispensationalism upon which I had been practically breast-fed, I was forced to wrestle with the fact that while I no longer agreed with Dr. Ryrie’s interpretation of Scripture, a young man would not go wrong in patterning their life after what I knew of his character. In the formation of my faith, this was a sign-post along the way.

This was a wonderful dilemma to face. I thought of it again when, upon reading Book V, Chapter 24 of Eusebeius’ Ecclesiastical History for the umpteenth time (3 years or so after the first time I read through that primary account of the Quartodeciman Controversy), I finally noticed a phrase that struck me for the first time. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna had traveled to Italy to meet with Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, and while neither man was able to convince the other of the necessity of their viewpoint, Eusebius records  that they “parted in peace” after Anicetus honored Polycarp by asking him to preside at the communion table. I was thunderstruck; prior to that moment I had been thinking of Anicetus as the “bad guy” who first instilled paganism into the Church’s celebration of the Passover.

Awakening to the Hebraic Roots of the Christian Faith is an incredibly invigorating experience. For myself, a faith that had basically gone into pause mode as I waited for the Lord to make Himself known was revived and impassioned. For the first time in over ten years the Bible suddenly made sense and the desire to consume the Scriptures came roaring back to life.

However, it can also open a significant “can of worms.” Suddenly one becomes aware of truths that seem to have been suppressed by the very Church who nurtured you. Relationships with parents and friends can become strained as with the fervor and excitement of the recently enlightened, you seek to convey the “new” truths the Lord has revealed to you.

Similarly, an entirely new set of questions springs up to plague you. If the Torah is good, and for our benefit, what does that mean for our day-to-day lives? Should we still go to church on Sunday or is that evil? What about communion? Is that a Roman Catholic, pagan, mystical innovation, meant to displace the Passover? Oh my goodness, what about Easter, the pinnacle celebration of the church year? Doesn’t the pastor realize that a Sunrise Service is continuing the worship of Sol Invictus – the Indomitable Sun!?

The great pastor Irenaeus of Lyon writes of a story his mentor, Polycarp, passed on about the Apostle John.

John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, ‘A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.’(Titus 3:10)[12]

We can easily relate with that sort of action. Remain unstained by the world! Let us refresh our memories as to what sort of man Polycarp was, reading again from the pen of Irenaeus, who grew up in the church of Smyrna:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. … Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.[13]

And this is the very man, a contemporary of John the Beloved for some twenty years, who went to Rome to discuss the Passover or Quartodeciman controversy with Anicetus, bishop of Rome, and “parted in peace.” I was brought up short because I could not imagine that St. Polycarp would have parted in peace with someone who was infiltrating the Body of Messiah with paganism. I was forced to reevaluate my thoughts on who I should separate from and who I should embrace as a brother.

Irenaeus records the parting of Polycarp and Anicetus:

And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not.

So we have on the one hand, St. John running out of a bathhouse and on the other hand, Polycarp making peace with a church that waited to observe the Passover feast till the following Sunday, rather than specifically on the 14th of Nisan. What shall we make of this? I think we can find a principle consistent with that of the evangelicals of the 1950s and 60s, though we may also discover that which was missing from their platform.

Who Are We?

There is something going on in evangelicalism where everyone is always reacting against whatever error they encountered in childhood. A lot of people who grew up in legalist, performance-based churches are over-reacting with an antinomian, repentance-lacking gospel.”

“The problem biblically is: legalism sends people to hell and antinomianism sends people to hell.”[14]

How interesting is it that the Evangelicals of the 1950s seemed to have a primary identity and a common mission, but lacked an unchanging standard (or firmly held to its unchanging nature, but heeded only a portion of it), while too many within the re-awakening of the Church to our Hebrew Roots seem to have a sort of kaleidoscopic grasp on some combination of our three main points.  Some it seems have regained an unchanging standard, only to get crosswise regarding our primary identity. Others have our primary identity and an unchanging standard locked in well, but begin to claim a unique mission. It seems some new permutation pops up on a blog, a forum, or in some book every other month.

In the following minutes I hope to convince you that we might most accurately identify ourselves as those who were created to imitate, commune with, and glorify God; as those who having fallen from our purpose, have accepted the offer of His strong right Hand extended in salvation, and have been subsequently re-joined to the family of those who are invited and enabled to imitate Messiah, in order that all who are willing from the watching world might also come to know Him for Who He Is—the Good News of God: All-Holy, All-Loving: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”[15]

“My word,” you might say, “that sounds like the Gospel.” Indeed? Ought it not! I cannot think of an identity more fitting than one with the fragrance of the Good News; one that in its very name speaks of He upon whom all my hopes rest.

Who is the Family of God?

God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem

Gen 9:27a

So, perhaps I’ve been carried away in the passion of my point, but it is necessary to be clear on this matter. We need to ask, “Who is the Body of Messiah?” And I need to speak carefully and clearly here.

First, the Body of Christ is all who believe regardless of what era they have or will live in, and regardless of their ethnicity (Gal. 3:6-9).  In other words, when it comes to the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:15-16) and the “Church”, these are one and the same; a testifying body of those who have been made new in Messiah (2 Cor. 5:16-17). At least so far as primary identity.

There is a valid secondary difference, or theological distinction which should be made. For example, while on the macro level the “Israel of God” and the “Church” are the same edah/ekklesia (witnessing body)[16], on the micro level one should accurately distinguish between Israel, the body to whom, “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises,” and the Church, that portion of Israel (and her descendants) upon whom the Holy Spirit descended with an anointing to expand the household of God beyond Israel after the flesh, to in fact, carry news of God and his promises to every nation.

Israel, then, received that precursor to the Great Commission so well summarized in Jeremiah 7:23, “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you,’” and to which we might append, that “all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD” (Ex 34:10b).

It was the Church, on the other hand, who—empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost with a new emphasis (the spreading rather than simply the keeping of God’s Way)—inherited from the disciples our revitalized mission: “Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”[17]

In other words, the New Covenant—God’s plan to accomplish His original goal—was first revealed near the beginning of the world. It was hinted at in that promise made to the serpent, “The seed of the woman shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” It was more plainly spoken to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And thus we see that it has always been evangelistic—witness-oriented—and that it was a mission intended for all nations to participate in.

Genesis 12:3 has always contained the seed of God’s singular mission: “a divine program to glorify the Lord by bringing salvation to all on planet earth.”[18] This primary mission was expressed at times in secondary strategies. The time-bound focal point of God’s commission to Israel after the flesh (though the eternal plan of universal inclusion was foreshadowed even then in individuals like Rahab, Ruth and Caleb, and in the message of prophets like Isaiah, Jonah and Obadiah) was for the world to marvel at the revelation of God as He worked on behalf of Israel, and to witness God’s character incarnated in the lives of His law-abiding people, in the midst of a land He would give them:

Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

Observe (shamar) what I command you this day. … Take care (shamar), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst.

… for the LORD, whose name is El Qanna (Jealous), is a jealous God, lest you…whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.”[19]

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?[20]

What is our purpose? Why were we created in His image? Because He designed no other image-bearers! If we confound the reflection of His loving and lawful nature, how is this world to believe in Him they have never seen accurately?

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”[21]

Note that Paul, intriguingly, starts out his plea to spread the Gospel with a declaration that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; this in the midst of a passage that conflates the Gospel message itself with Deuteronomy 30: a description of the New Covenant declared to Israel, long before Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37.

Israel and the Church Share a Common Mission

“And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.”

Mark 13:10

Israel is given a mission: in the Land that I will give you, witness of me, guard and faithfully observe my commandments that the world might know me. The Church is given the same mission in an expanded fashion: you are the heirs of an unfaithful family that has experienced judgment; as you, therefore, wander outside the Land I will once again restore to your family, make faithful observers of all peoples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

How will your light shine? Same passage, next verse:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17

In other words, this shared mission of imitating and proclaiming our Father requires a common and unchanging standard. Otherwise, the people of God will not be identifiable by the watching world. Of necessity, those who aspire to the same goal will adopt a mutual primary identity.

What Plagued Israel and the Evangelicals?

Two errors hampered Israel in the time of Christ and the Evangelicals of the 1950s.

In the context of community, traditions enable the living out, or the inhabiting, of the Gospel.

Appropriate traditions will enable us to live out God’s commands in this time and place. Tradition often gets a bad rap in today’s world, but without it we could not function. What’s more, without a collection of consistent practices we will be unable to successfully reflect God’s image to the watching world, because we don’t reflect as individuals so much as we reflect as a Body.

Everywhere and always, wherever there have been believers, tradition has been a part of the three-legged stool that supports the lives, decisions, and practices of God-followers.

As we have mentioned, the three legs of that stool are Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. All three are used under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit to form the basis of our decision-making. The Scriptures are the words of God, written by the pens of men as they were carried along by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Throughout time the community of the faithful has continually recognized and affirmed the inspired nature of these words, and they came to be known to us as Scripture—the inerrant and reliable words of God to us His children.

These words, however, were written to different cultures than our own, between 2000 and 3000 years ago, to people who spoke different languages, and lived in a different part of the world under very different conditions than our own. As a result, in the process of wrestling with the meaning and significance of these very words of God, we consult the way that believers who went before us understood and applied them. The practices of those who have gone before us are known as Tradition.

Tradition, by its very nature, is a flexible, changing collection of practices. Traditions exist to aid in the honoring and observing of God’s way, and they vary from location to location, from time to time, and from society to society. Consequently, we must use our Reason to contemplate the words of Scripture and the history of Tradition in seeking to ensure that our practices continue to serve the same purpose for which they were created.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle that is obedience to our Father, God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results—a new law is created.

This is what had happened to Israel at the time of Christ. Because their identity was more, “we are Israel” than “we are those rescued by God,” they grew proud in the accumulation of their efforts to be godly. Prompting Yeshua to rebuke them vigorously, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”[22]

Similarly, having largely abandoned the idea that God’s law, as the description of His character, serves as our eternal standard, the Evangelicals of the 50’s ended up accumulating a collection of practices that helped them remain distinctive from the world, but in the absence of God’s law, their traditional applications became the engine of a new legalism. We are created to be law-abiders; if we forsake God’s law, we will fashion our own.

The Evangelicals were further destabilized in the process of interpreting God’s Word, by a failure to understand themselves as late-coming inheritors of Israel’s promises, but rather saw themselves as new and distinct from Israel, an interpolating entity, designed to propagate God’s message of repentance and salvation to the Gentiles, while God held Israel in abeyance, blinded and judged for their failure to recognize the Messiah.

In other words, while both Israel in the 1st century and the Evangelicals in the 20th century identified with at least a portion of a common mission—Israel emphasizing the call to obey, and the Evangelicals emphasizing the call to go and witness—they were each shaky as it pertains to God’s law and their primary identity.

I suspect that if we can maintain a balanced and biblical perspective on these three presuppositional ideas, then this movement may burn brightly for longer than the historic norm, or even, by God’s grace, usher in the longed for olam haba (world to come).

Conclusion

“My strong conviction is that the Lord is restoring the Hebraic foundations of the Church so that together we all can move forward in greater faithfulness and maturity in the service of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Toward that end we should be Father-focused, Christ-centered and Spirit-saturated. We should stand with and pray for Israel. Our teaching should strive to be biblically balanced and theologically sound.” – Dwight A. Pryor

The unchanging standard of God’s character, expressed in love and described by law, condemns all those alienated from Messiah, and instructs all those brought near to Him by grace through faith. Resting in thorough assurance of Christ having fulfilled the requirement of matching God’s character on our behalf, and subsequently planting His nature within us, we enthusiastically aspire to imitate Him ever more faithfully, as those declared brand new, set apart for God’s purposes, empowered and released to the process of transformation, and entrusted with ambassadorial responsibility—God making His appeal through us.

While the Church has many parts with different tasks and varying emphases, it is a single body, with a coalescing identity and mutual purpose: to imitate and share the good news of God, his existence and his nature. This universal congregation is to be formed by the immutable character of our shared Savior, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to a common mission, envisioned by God from the beginning and progressively revealed through the pages of Scripture.

While the Body of Christ is comprised of both natural-born and adopted children, it is crucial for us to commonly maintain our deepest identity as those re-born in Messiah. Ethnic variation is good and should be cherished, but in the economy of God it is a secondary identity that gives benefit to the whole Body only as it recognizes its subsidiary place. The inappropriate emphasis of Jewish or Gentile identity will inevitably result in aberrant theologies.

On the other hand, it is imperative for Gentiles to remember that we share an existing purpose. That we former strangers to the covenants join an old history, are adopted into an ancient family, and participate in promises made to Israel. May we never forget that in Messiah we are brought near to a continuing commonwealth, and that we never replace her, but rather, are blessed along with Israel, and anticipate her full restoration.

The Scriptures describe our corporate mission variously, but it may be accurately and succinctly expressed as an invitation to imitate Messiah, in order that His character will be reflected to those who do not yet know Him, and that His name may be exalted by the observation of His actions on behalf of His beloved people, Israel. We must, therefore, be singularly identifiable, compared to a common standard, and pursuing the same purpose. We are invited in order to invite, redeemed in order to redeem, and healed in order to heal.

In Part II, let’s explore God’s plan for how to bring about the reflection of His character in the lives of His children. I like to call the divine plan the Sanctification of the Mundane.


[1] J.I. Packer. Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002) 10.

[2] This is my re-working of comments made by J.I. Packer; c.f., Growing in Christ, 232.

[3]  J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994. 232.

[4] 2 Corinthians 6:3. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from the ESV®,  © 2001 Crossway.

[5] J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1996, 1994. 222.

[6] Leo Tolstoy. The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press 1936). 136[2], in Kenneth O. Gangel and Jim Wilhoit. The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1994. (chapter 18 by Dallas Willard, “The Spirit is Willing: The Body As a Tool for Spiritual Formation”)

[7] John S. Dickerson. The Great Evangelical Recession. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013. 22.

[8] Ibid. (for a synopsis of the book see the interview at:  http://bit.ly/WDaCzm)

[9] Jonathan R. Wilson. Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World. Eugene: OR, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007. 3.

[11] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 246.

[12] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus Against Heresies” (Adv. Haer. 3.3-4), in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 416.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, http://bit.ly/NvtmjX, accessed 06/25/13 at 19:46

[15] Exodus 34:6 (ESV)

[16] It should not be missed that עֵדָה (edah – congregation) and עֵדוּת (edut – testimony) share the same root, עֵד (ed – witness).

[17] Matthew 28:19-20 (author’s rendering)

[18] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. xix.

[19] Exodus 34:10-16 (ESV)

[20] Deuteronomy 4:5-8 (ESV)

[21] Romans 10:12-15 (ESV)

[22] Mark 7:8