Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tsedaqah Righteousness in Deuteronomy

צדקה occurs nine times in the Pentateuch, and six times in the book of Deuteronomy. The other three pentateuchal occurances of צדקה are found in the book of Genesis (see “Tsedaqah Righteousness in Genesis”).

The first use of צדקה in Deuteronomy is found in Deut 6:25. This verse is very significant for understanding how righteousness was defined under the Mosaic covenant. In this verse Moses links stative righteousness with obedience to torah: “And it will be righteousness (צדקה) for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.” Israel’s covenant responsibility before God was to keep the stipulations of the covenant, i.e., to do torah. By walking in the way of torah, Israel would keep covenant with God, and as a consequence enjoy the status of covenant righteousness before God. In a covenantal context, righteousness is a legal status that applies to those who keep their covenant responsibilities. In the context of the Mosaic covenant, righteousness was a legal status bestowed by the Lord of the covenant upon those who (due to torah being written on the heart) were obedient to the stipulations spelled out in the law of the covenant. God’s bestowal of the status of covenant righteousness upon covenant keepers (through judicial proclamation) means that a concept of justification by obedience to torah applied under the Mosaic covenantal arrangement. This came to be known in Jewish parlance as justification by the works of the law. In other words, Deut 6:25 establishes the fact that a doctrine of the justification by the works of the law applied under the terms of the old covenant.

Even though covenant righteousness was demanded of Israel, and actually required in order to possess the promised land (e.g., Deut 6:18; 8:1), the book of Deuteronomy also states that possessing the promised land would not be achieved as a result of Israel’s righteousness. In Deut 9:4–6, the term צדקה occurs three times in three verses. Here Moses warns the people against spiritual pride:
“Do not say in your heart, after Yahweh your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness (צדקה) that Yahweh has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that Yahweh is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness (צדקה) or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations Yahweh your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that Yahweh your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness (צדקה), for you are a stubborn people.”
On the one hand, righteousness was required for Israel to enter and possess the land; on the other hand, Israel’s righteousness would not be the cause of such entry and possession. Reconciling these two elements, Israel’s righteousness would be an instrumental cause for entry into and possession of the land, but not the immediate primary cause. The immediate primary cause for Israel’s entry into and possession of the land was God’s desire to punish the wickedness of the original inhabitants of the land, as well as God’s desire to fulfill the promise that he made with the patriarchs. It should be noted that the righteousness in view in these verses is paralleled in v. 5 with uprightness of heart. An upright heart (inscripturated with torah) leads to obedience, which results in an enjoyment of the state of righteousness on the level of the covenant. Covenant righteousness is necessary for salvation; but, given that the obedience underlying such righteousness is a gift of God (see Deut 8:18), it is out of place to boast in one’s righteousness status before God as if it were the ultimate cause of one’s salvation. True righteousness knows humility.

צדקה also occurs in Deut 24:13. The pledge of a poor debtor, which often consisted of an item of clothing, was to be restored before nightfall. Treating the poor with compassion in this way would “be righteousness for you before Yahweh your God.” This can be viewed as a particular application of the principle stated in Deut 6:25: that obedience to torah results in stative righteousness on the level of the covenant.

In Deut 33:21, the phrase צדקת יהוה the righteousness of Yahweh occurs as part of Moses’ final blessing of Israel. This phrase is paralleled with the phrase his judgments: “[Gad] came with the heads of the people; he executed the righteousness of Yahweh, and his judgments for Israel.” In this verse, doing צדקה seems to denote executing justice. Here justice can be viewed as being a form of active righteousness on the part of Yahweh in his function as King and Judge. Functioning judicially, doing right means that the King must punish evildoers and accomplish justice. Gad would play a part in accomplishing God’s justice by fighting with his brothers against the Canaanites.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tsedaqah Righteousness in Genesis

In the post entitled “Tsedeq Righteousness in the Pentateuch”, we looked at the use of the noun צדק in the Pentateuch. But there is another word based on the צדק root that is also commonly translated into English as righteousness. This is the noun צדקה.‎ צדק is a masculine noun, whereas צדקה is grammatically feminine. In what way do these two terms differ from each other? I will attempt to answer this question over time as we investigate the use of the צדק family of words in the Old Testament. צדקה occurs nine times in the Pentateuch, and three times in the book of Genesis.

The first use of צדקה in Genesis occurs in the famous verse Gen 15:6: “And [Abram] continued to believe Yahweh, and [Yahweh] counted it to him as righteousness (צדקה).” The noun צדקה is best understood here as denoting stative righteousness, i.e., the state of being in the right with God. Abraham’s faith response to the word of God was the right response to God’s revelation. This right response led to Abraham being considered by God to be in the right in terms of his relationship with God. It should be noted that the צדקה attributed to Abraham in this specific instance was not an alien righteousness. There is no sense of the alien righteousness of Christ apparent in the narrative in Gen 15. That is not to say that the alien righteousness of Christ is not present in the wider theological context—it is always presupposed in the background in the wider canonical context of the Scriptures—but it should not be imported into the term צדקה in Gen 15:6, which speaks of the state of personal righteousness that Abraham enjoyed before God on the basis of his faith in the word of God. The Apostle Paul’s treatment of Gen 15:6 in Rom 4 and Gal 3:6 has often been interpreted in terms of the alien righteousness of Christ, but I have problems accepting that Paul would have distorted the original meaning of Gen 15:6 by importing a concept of alien righteousness into the text. That is not the focus of Gen 15:6 in its original context.

The next instance of צדקה in Genesis occurs in Gen 18:19. In Yahweh’s self-deliberation as to whether he should tell Abraham about his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he says: “For I have known [Abram], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness (צדקה) and justice, so that Yahweh might bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” Yahweh chose to enter into an intimate covenant relationship with Abraham with a view to Abraham commanding his extended family (including future generations) to keep the way of Yahweh. Abraham and his family would keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice. The concept of doing righteousness is a key concept in the Old Testament. To do righteousness is to do what is right, to do righteous deeds. In Gen 18:19, צדקה denotes active righteousness, i.e., righteous acts, behavior that is right from God’s perspective. צדקה is paralleled here with justice (משׁפט ), which is behavior that is in accordance with the legal judgments pronounced by God in his role as King. Significantly, Gen 18:19 speaks of doing righteousness as the way by which God would bring about the fulfillment of his promise to bless Abraham, Israel, and the families of the earth (Gen 12:2–3). Obedience or keeping the way of Yahweh has always been necessary on the part of God’s people in order for the promised blessings to be realized (see also Gen 22:16–18).

The third and final instance of צדקה in Genesis occurs in Gen 30:33. In his negotiation with Laban concerning wages to be paid for looking after Laban’s flocks, Jacob proposed that he receive the speckled sheep and goats, and black lambs, as his wages. This would make it easy for Laban to test Jacob’s righteousness. As it is recorded in Gen 30:32–33, Jacob said to Laban: “Let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep, and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. So my righteousness (צדקה) will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” Here Jacob’s צדקה is his right behavior, in particular, his honesty in only taking the speckled and black sheep or goats as his wages. This is ironic given that Jacob will use underhanded means and selective breeding by which to swindle Laban (see Gen 30:37–42)!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tsedeq Righteousness in the Pentateuch

The noun צדק, normally translated into English as righteousness, occurs twelve times in the Pentateuch. All but one of these instances of צדק occur in legal material.

The first use of צדק occurs in Lev 19:15: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness (צדק) shall you judge your neighbor.” Here צדק is portrayed as the right standard of legal judgment. Judging with צדק contrasts with doing עול in judgment. עול is wrongdoing or unrighteousness. צדק can denote, therefore, what is legally right or correct. It was the legal standard of justice that God required the judiciary of Israel to uphold in their courts of law.

The idea of צדק as a right standard in legal judgments is also found in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses uses the language of judging righteousness to describe the key task of the judiciary: “And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously (צדק) between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him’” (Deut 1:16). He also uses the language of judging a judgment of righteousness: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that Yahweh your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment (משׁפט־צדק)” (Deut 16:18). Judging a righteous judgment involves not taking bribes to pervert the course of justice (Deut 16:19). Given that צדק can express a right standard in legal judgments, the word justice can be an adequate translation into English: “Justice (צדק), justice (צדק), you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that Yahweh your God is giving you” (Deut 16:20).

צדק was also to characterize business transactions, and particularly weights and measures: “You shall have just (צדק) balances, just (צדק) weights, a just (צדק) ephah, and a just (צדק) hin” (Lev 19:36). צדק here denotes the quality of that which is right or correct. This idea also occurs in Deuteronomy: “A full and correct (צדק) weight you shall have, a full and correct (צדק) measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you” (Deut 25:15). Like in Deut 16:20, the length of Israel’s inhabitation of the promised land is linked with the presence or absence of צדק in Israel.

The only other mention of צדק in the Pentateuch occurs in the expression sacrifices of righteousness (זבחי צדק) in Deut 33:19. In his final blessing of the people, Moses blesses Zebulun and Issachar, and says: “They shall call peoples to the mountain; there they will offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they will suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand.” If this is a reference to the calling of the Gentiles, then perhaps what is in mind is that the Gentiles would come to offer right sacrifices to God (as opposed to illegitimate ones offered to false gods). The phrase זבחי צדק also occurs in Ps 4:6; 51:21, where the expression seems to incorporate not only the idea that the sacrifices are rightly offered (i.e., offered in accordance with the law of the one true God), but possibly also the broader idea that they function to restore people to a right standing before God in terms of the covenant.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Vision of the New Temple in Ezekiel 40–48

I sometimes wonder if life would be easier to endure just by switching off whenever the news is being broadcast. How many instances of sadness, suffering, and death bombard us each day through the avenue of the daily news, whether it be on tele, on the radio, or in the newspapers? Yet even if we were able to cut ourselves off from the suffering of others, we can’t cut ourselves off from ourselves, and our own experience of suffering. Even though we believe in God, the world situation and our own personal problems, whether it be problems in the family, financial difficulties or bad health, these things can easily drag us down.

Back in the sixth century B.C., there were many Jews who were having a hard time. A large number of the Jewish people had been captured by enemy forces, and taken over 1,000 km away from their homeland to live in a foreign land. They had become exiles. Furthermore, they knew that Jerusalem, the capital city of their country, had been burnt to the ground; and this included the temple, their most sacred site. I’m sure, if we were to put ourselves in their shoes, we’d feel absolutely terrible; and perhaps even on the verge of depression.

And for people of faith, the suffering (if anything) is intensified, because God’s character and purposes are called into question. Hadn’t God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bless their descendants, the people of Israel? But now the terrible reality in which Israel found herself—defeated and destroyed—it was the complete opposite of blessing. Instead of blessing, they felt like they’d been cursed. Had God changed his mind about Israel? Is it that God had had enough to the point that he’d turned his back on his people and his promises towards them? Or maybe God was still for them, but just didn’t have the power to bless his people as he had promised. Was God too weak to keep his promise of blessing?

Ezekiel too would have been deeply concerned about such issues. He was destined to be a priest by occupation; but now the temple had been destroyed. He was out of a job, and had lost his homeland. But even more important than any personal hardship was the question of God’s faithfulness to his people.

The book of Ezekiel, like most of the Old Testament prophetic books is concerned to answer such questions. Through the prophetic books, we are assured that the problem of the suffering of God’s people does not exist because of a problem in God. It’s not that God is not faithful, or that he is not powerful enough. God is not the problem.

But if God is not the problem, who or what is? The answer is clear. The problem actually lies with us and our attitude to God. The problem is humanity in rebellion against God. The Bible teaches that all human suffering ultimately stems from the fact of human disobedience. The ultimate cause of suffering is sin. And when sin gets hold of God’s people, as it did Israel of old, then disaster is on its way. When sin gets hold of God’s people, there will be judgment. We see an example of this principle with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 B.C. What happened to Israel at this stage was a replay of what happened to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but on a much larger scale. We’re no longer talking about just two people, but a whole nation which was removed from God’s presence, and who suffered greatly in the process!

Even if you’ve never suffered from depression, all of us have had our moments of being sad and sorrowful. Apparently there’s a Chinese proverb that says: “a day of sorrow is longer than a month of joy.” How true that is! How time seems to drag on when things are going wrong. Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse, went through a stage in her life when she was deeply depressed. Four years before she went to a city in present-day Turkey during the Crimean War as a nurse to look after wounded soldiers, she wrote: “O weary days, O evenings that never end! For how many long years I have watched the drawing-room clock and thought it would never reach the ten! ... In my thirty-first year I see nothing desirable but death.”

When things are going wrong, we’re often tempted to despair of life. We start to doubt God’s goodness, or to doubt his power, or even at times to doubt his very existence!

But thanks be to God that in the middle of the sadness and depression of life, God is ever ready to give us a vision of a better future. In 573 B.C., 24 years after Ezekiel had been taken off in exile to Babylon, and fourteen years after the complete destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was given a grand vision of the nation of Israel restored to life in the holy land. This wonderful vision is recorded in Ezek 40–48.

In these chapters we read that Ezekiel was taken in the Spirit to the land of Israel, and placed on “a very high mountain,” and on this mountain was a city. This is seen in Ezek 40:2. We have here, like in the early chapters of Genesis, a holy land, a mountain sanctuary. We should note that the mountain sanctuary in Ezekiel’s vision has a number of things in common with the garden of Eden. Like Eden, Ezekiel’s mountain has streams of water flowing from it (Ezek 47:1–12). Significantly, however, the underdeveloped garden has now developed into a city (Ezek 40:1–2); and best of all, the name of the city is Yahweh-shamah, which means the Lord is there (Ezek 48:35—the very last verse of the book). This permanent presence of the Lord contrasts with the garden of Eden, where God used to come to visit only once a day. But at the end of history, as Ezekiel sees it, the garden of Eden will have developed into a city; and this city will be the center of the world as God always intended things to be when he originally created the world. God created this world with the intention that it would be his temple palace, where in the end, after the ups and downs in this love story between God and humanity, God would come to dwell permanently to have eternal fellowship together with the special creature made in his image, us human beings.

So wonderful is the prospect of God coming to live again with his people that the description of this temple palace is savoured in quite some detail in Ezekiel. Next in the vision, recorded in Ezek 40:3, we see an angel, who looks like a surveyor with measuring instruments (a cord and a rod) taking Ezekiel on a tour of the city. Ezekiel was taken on this tour in order that he might tell “the house of Israel” what he saw (Ezek 40:4).

Now the content of what Ezekiel saw is recorded in the next seven and a half chapters (from Ezek 40 to the middle of Ezek 47). The first stage of the tour involved Ezekiel following the angel surveyor as he measured the dimensions of this new temple. The general impression is one of grandeur, although the dimensions of the sanctuary of Ezekiel’s temple importantly were identical to the dimensions of the sanctuary in Solomon’s temple, the one that had recently been destroyed. The meaning of all of this is clear. The temple had been destroyed, but God promised Israel that it would be rebuilt!

After the measurements were completed, Ezekiel was brought back to the east gate, from where he saw “the glory of the God of Israel” coming from the east, from over the Mount of Olives where God’s glory had temporarily withdrawn while Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezek 43:2). According to this verse, the “sound of [the Lord’s] coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.” According to Ezekiel in Ezek 43:3, this new vision of God’s glory was identical to the vision of the likeness of God’s glory that Ezekiel previously saw leaving the temple, back in Ezek 1–10.

Once again we see that this vision is a prophecy given by God to assure his people that there would be a new temple as the focal point of a new land, to which God’s people would return to dwell in security and peace, and to which God himself would also return to dwell forever more among his people. God would return to his people! This is the significance of Ezek 43. God’s glory entered into the temple, and the temple was filled with God’s glory (Ezek 43:4). Ezekiel then heard God himself speaking from inside the temple. As recorded in Ezek 43:7, God identified this new temple as being his eternal dwelling place among his people Israel. This is, as God put it, “the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel for ever.”

God had allowed the first temple to be destroyed as part of his judgment upon rebellious Israel; but in the end, there would be another temple. This is the significance of this vision. God’s plan to dwell in the midst of his people forever would not be annulled by the sinfulness of his people. In the end, God’s glory and presence will be present among his people.

Now maybe you’re thinking: well, this is an interesting vision, and I can see its significance, but when is this new temple going to be built? Well, it’s true that there are some Christians who think that this vision of Ezekiel’s is a prophecy that is going to be fulfilled literally when the so-called third temple is built. The first temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The second temple, built by Ezra and friends, and renovated by King Herod, was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. From the year 70 on, the Jews haven’t had a temple. Some believe that the third temple is on its way. The only problem is that there’s currently a Muslim shrine right on top of the place where any third temple would have to be built. It couldn’t be built without first destroying the Muslim Dome of the Rock, but doing that would possibly cause World War III.

Today there are people around who are promoting the building of the third temple. One of these groups calls itself the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement. On October 16th 2000, this movement planned to anoint and lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple; but due to the tricky political situation at the time, the Israeli authorities decided that the ceremony couldn’t be performed. Instead, the crowd could only congregate in the Western Wall Plaza to march together and demonstrate. As they did so, they swore faithfulness to the God of Israel, to his word, to the Temple Mount, to Jerusalem, and the land of Israel. They promised to never give up their “godly historical task to rebuild the House of God on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem.” They think that this temple must be rebuilt before the Messiah comes. This movement isn’t a big group in Israel; but they receive significant support from some evangelical Christians that have similar views.

Is this vision of the new temple in Ezek 40–48 the architectural design for a third temple that will be built in Jerusalem? Well, a third temple might be built in Jerusalem—we’ll have to wait and see, but 2 Thess 2:4 possibly suggests that there will be—yet a careful reading of Ezek 40–48 shows that, in giving Ezekiel this vision, God has used language familiar to Ezekiel and his fellow Jews in exile to speak about how God would return to dwell among Israel, but in a greater and more permanent way than before. By way of contrast with the old temple, where the most holy place was confined to the inner sanctum of the temple, the whole of the new temple, and even the land surrounding it, would be considered to be “most holy” (Ezek 43:12). Also, the geographical location of the tribes is “rearranged” so that you have six of the twelve tribes of Israel situated to the north, and six tribes to the south, putting the sanctuary right in the centre of Israel. This is an idealized picture of Israel, different from the old historical arrangement where there were two tribes located to the south, and ten tribes to the north. There would also be a river of life emanating from this temple that would bring life to the fish in its waters and to the fruit trees along its banks, and the fruit of these trees would be used as food, and its leaves for healing (Ezek 47:1–12). Furthermore, the city would have twelve gates, each bearing the name of one of the tribes, and the name of the city would no longer be Jerusalem but Yahweh-shamah. These differences suggest that more is involved here than just a physical third temple.

We also need to consider how the New Testament interprets this vision, particularly in the book of Revelation. The vision of the New Jerusalem (as it’s portrayed in Revelation) has much in common with Ezekiel’s new city, and can be viewed as a reinterpretation of Ezekiel’s vision. That the two visions are basically the same can be seen in that they both portray the city as having twelve gates with the names of the tribes of Israel inscribed on them. They both have the river of life, and fruit trees that provide healing. But the two visions differ in one very important aspect. In Rev 21:22, we read John saying: “But I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”

In Ezekiel’s vision, the temple was the focal point; but in John’s vision, the temple is identified totally with God, and in particular with Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain but who lives again. In this way we see that the Apostle John understood that the temple in Ezekiel’s vision is not the architectural design of a third temple, but rather a picture of the new creation described in terms of a temple with Christ at its core. The intriguing detail in Ezek 44:1–2 about the permanent closing of the eastern gate proves our point: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it” (Ezek 44:2), the implication being that God has entered the temple never ever to leave again. It is as if God had said: “Shut the doors; I’m never going anywhere again!”

In other words, the new temple in Ezekiel is a picture of God coming to dwell permanently with his people. It is a vision of the new creation, which Christians believe has been fulfilled in the Lord Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection was the commencement of the building of the new temple, and through him we await the full revelation of the new temple, of the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness will dwell. In Jesus, the glory of God has returned from his temporary withdrawal over the Mount of Olives to enter permanently into the heavenly temple, which one day, in God’s good timing, will be located on earth.

It is appropriate that this last vision in the book of Ezekiel, the very last vision given by God to Ezekiel (as far as we know) corresponds to the very last vision recorded in the Bible. Both of these visions are a picture of heaven on earth. Here we need to understand that heaven on earth, Emmanuel, is actually God’s end purpose for the world. The final picture we get in the Bible, in the book of Revelation, is the New Jerusalem with God’s throne coming down out of heaven to be established on the new earth. Emmanuel, God with us.

This is what Ezekiel’s vision is about. It’s a picture of the kingdom of God. It’s a picture of God and humanity reconciled. God is there among his people, eternally so, because, as we read in Ezek 43:7, God’s people would never again defile God’s holy name by idolatry. Through the outpouring of God’s Spirit, their hearts will have been changed. And with the transformation of the human heart would come a transformation in the relationship between God and humanity.

Thomas More, Lord Chancellor in England at the time of the Reformation, once said: “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” Is there sorrow in your heart today? Do your days feel weary and your evenings endless? How many times has the thought of the clock ticking over driven you to despair? How many tears? How many instances of death have you had to face? But the heavenly vision tells us of a time when God will comfort his people, when “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). After judgment and exile, there will be a new temple. God will not abandon us forever. The light of his heavenly glory will shine among us, and we and the world will be transformed.

We human beings might try to seek comfort in various places, but heaven is the only place that can heal our earthly sorrow. God gave Ezekiel this vision to assure all of God’s people that God’s plan for the coming of his kingdom, God’s plan for the ultimate unity of heaven and earth, will be achieved. This vision of heaven on earth has been given, not only because it’s good to know where we’re heading, but also because its has the power to cheer the heavy heart. We know that for us in the here and now, the full reality of heaven on earth is still off in the distance. At times it might feel as if God has abandoned us, but this is not true. Think about how God’s glory has returned to us in the person of Jesus, and think about the unveiling of the fullness of his glory at the return of the Lord Jesus, when heaven and earth will finally be one.

The only solution to our tears is the vision of heaven which God promises us through Ezek 40–48 is the eternal destiny of our planet! So in the midst of sorrow, when the walls are tumbling down, meditate! Meditate day and night on the wonderful promises of God! Bring to mind daily the thought of better things to come, the thought of a new temple, who is the Lord himself, dwelling together with us forever and ever and ever more! Always remember that in Jesus, Yahweh-shamah! This vision of heaven on earth can bring true comfort to the sorrowful, as well as motivate us to flee from all forms of idolatry, to trust solely in God, and to worship him as we ought.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Age of the Spirit per Ezekiel 36:16–32

One of the things that I believe we often lack as Christians is an understanding of the bigger picture. In my experience teaching the Old Testament at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney for 8½ years (until my employment finished there in 2010), I was often struck by the way in which students would come to college knowing many of the details of various stories of the Old Testament, but not understanding with some degree of clarity the bigger picture of the Old Testament. This is understandable to some extent, given the size of the Old Testament—it’s a big collection of books—but it is in understanding something of this bigger picture that we come to understand the Bible with greater clarity, and to experience the power of the word of God to a greater degree.

Why did God create the world? Why has he structured history in the way that he has? Why spend 2,000 years of human history focusing only on one relatively small nation in an obscure part of the Middle East? What was the purpose of God’s election of Israel, and what is the point of the Old Testament? It’s important that we ask these questions, because doing so will lead us to a greater reflection on, and understanding of, the word of God.

The story of Israel in the Old Testament is a detailed description, written out on the pages of human history, of what happens to human society when God’s word is not in the heart of human individuals and human society. Without the word of God, human society reverts to the default position of Gen 1:2. Back then the earth was formless (chaotic), empty (without life), and full of darkness; yet the Spirit of God was present. Unleashing the power of his word and Spirit, God said, “Let there be light”! Through the word of God, darkness was turned into light, chaos was transformed into order, and emptiness was overcome as God created living creatures to inhabit and fill his world. Always the Teacher, even the way in which God created the world was a lesson designed to teach humanity that the word of God brings light and life and order; and that without the word of God, the world will be plunged into disorder and death and darkness.

This is something that Moses, the founder of Israel, understood. After proclaiming the word of God in his final address to Israel, Moses stood before the assembly of the people of Israel, calling upon them, pleading with them: “See, I have set before you today, life and good, death and evil … Choose life” by following God’s word (Deut 30:15, 19).

Yet what did Israel choose? Did Israel choose the word of God? The Old Testament stands as a historical record of the fact that Israel chose the way of the world around them rather than the word of the Creator of the universe. Created to experience God’s blessing, Israel ended up experiencing the curses of the covenant: darkness, death, and disorder.

The problem of sin, and the effects of this, is reflected in Ezek 36:17–19. Israel through their rebellion (especially the sins of idolatry and bloodshed) defiled the land given to them by God. God’s wrath came upon them, and they were scattered and dispersed among the nations.

Ignoring God, and chasing after idols, Israel deserved this punishment; yet judgment for God’s people was not where God would stop. The very fact that Israel was in exile meant that God’s name was being profaned among the nations. The military defeat and exile of Israel had led to people in the surrounding nations having a negative opinion about the power of the God of Israel: “These are the worshippers of Yahweh. The God of Israel, he must be weak. He couldn’t defended his land or save his people,” (Ezek 36:20).

Now the nations might laugh and sniggle; but God, being God, would not let this situation endure forever. God is concerned about his reputation, and that his name be honored. That may sound a little selfish; but after all, God is God! He has every right in the world as the Creator of this world to expect that his name be respected and honored.

So God would act for the sake of his name. God would act to deal with this unacceptable situation by bringing his people back to the promised land. There would be judgment; but following the judgment, there would be restoration. But how was God going to bring his people back to the land?

The average person may not have thought about this much, but how we can get back into the presence of God is really the big question of human history. The human race lost the right to live in God’s presence when our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, sinned against God, and were expelled from God’s land, the holy land of the garden of Eden. Israel, being saved out of Egypt, were given a chance to come back into the land; but even in the land their access to God was restricted. Access into the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctum of the temple in Jerusalem, was restricted to one person, the high priest, who could go into the Most Holy Place yet only once a year. This temporary access of Israel into God’s presence (corresponding to the limitations of the Old Testament sacrificial system with its use of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats) was later reflected on a physical level when Israel, like Adam, lost the right to live in the presence of God because of rebellion.

This two fall theology of the Old Testament was understood by the Apsotle Paul. Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:20, that the law was added in order to increase the trespass, is a summary of the whole of the Old Testament in one short proposition. The law of Moses was given to Israel to compound the problem of the trespass of Adam. The story of Israel replicates the story of Adam.

So the Old Testament is a story of two falls: the fall of humanity in Adam, and the fall of Israel through Moses. Both Adam and Israel lived in God’s land, but both ... only for a time. Adam for a few days—we aren't told how long, but the impression is that it wasn’t very long—and Israel for 700 years or so. In each instance the problem that led to exile was ... sin. The problem was disobedience to God, and this was the result of not having God’s word written in the heart.

Without the word of God in our hearts, humanity cannot live in the presence of God. But God made us in his image, so that he might live with us. So any expulsion of humanity from his presence must be temporary. If not, then Satan has won.

Therefore, God’s people will be brought back; and that is the overall message of the book of Ezekiel. The exile will be reversed, and Israel will return to live once more in the presence of God. A key motivation in doing this is God’s regard for his own name. God would act to bring his people back to life in the land, thereby “vindicat[ing] the holiness of [his] great name” (Ezek 36:22–24).

This return is associated with God cleansing his people, and giving them a “new heart” and a “new Spirit,” so that they might be able to obey him. Ezekiel 36:25–28 speaks about a heart transplant operation that would be performed by the Holy Spirit. The stony, unresponsive heart with its arteries clogged by the fat of sinfulness would be replaced with a new, responsive, beating heart of flesh. Animated by the power of God’s Spirit, this new heart would be responsive and obedient to the word of God.

The key to the future blessing of God’s people, according to Ezekiel, is a new heart and a new Spirit. If Adam and Israel failed, and (using the words of Isa 63:10) grieved [God’s] Holy Spirit because the word of God wasn’t in their hearts, then God would solve the problem. Ezekiel 36:26–28 is very significant in the bigger biblical-theological picture of the Bible, identifying the solution to the universal human problem.

The solution is that at some time in the future God’s Spirit would poured out in a comprehensive way in order to act upon the hearts of God’s people in a powerful way, so powerful in fact that God’s people would be transformed from being law breakers to become law keepers. How? Through the law of God written in the heart! Just like back in Gen 1. What is the key to life? It is the word of God.

The prophet Ezekiel, therefore, looked forward to a day when God’s Spirit would be so powerfully pervasive that God’s people would be cleansed of their sin, and moved to obedience, the result of which would be the coming of the blessings of the covenant, with God’s people dwelling secure as the obedient people of God. In fact, as Ezek 36:29–30 shows, these blessings would not be only for Israel, but creation itself would be transformed. No more famines, but fertility and fruitfulness. God’s people would repent of their sins (Ezek 36:31–32); there would be rebuilding and replanting (Ezek 36:33–34), so much so (according to Ezek 36:35) that it will like returning to the garden of Eden! Through the work of God’s Spirit, paradise lost will become paradise restored.

This prophecy regarding the future restoration of Israel is very important for understanding that God’s intention is to bring about a perfect world. Imagine what it would be like to be perfect: a perfect husband (no more dirty clothes left hanging around the place), a perfect wife (no more nagging), perfect kids (you would have to raise your voice), a perfect world (no pollution; no more colds; no more floods or fires or earthquakes or tsunamis; no more terrorism; no more war). I reckon it sounds pretty good. John Lennon could only imagine such a world, but Christians believe that a perfect world will one day be reality. For some it may be a pipe dream, but someone once said that baptism in the Holy Spirit “will do for you what a phone booth did for Clark Kent—it will change you into a different human being”!

Thankfully God doesn’t require us to get changed into Superman gear in a phone booth, but he does require his Spirit to be present in order for life to be experienced. The simple fact of the matter is that “the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6); and God gives his Spirit in abundance to those who submit to Christ as Lord, to those who have the word of God at work in their lives. The human race has always been tempted to look for life in all the wrong places, but the Bible says that life is found in the Spirit and word of God.

Jesus taught that the Spirit gives life (John 6:63). Indeed, the message of the New Testament is that the age of the full outpouring of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets looked forward to … this Age of the Spirit that will accomplish God’s plan for a perfect world … this has come with the coming of the Lord Jesus!

According to John 3:34, God the Father gave the Spirit to Jesus the Son “without measure” in order that he might fully reveal the word of God to the world. Jesus performed miracles like no one else has, because he was filled with the power of God’s Spirit beyond measure. And having himself personally dealt with sin and death through his death on the cross, Jesus, the Spirit-filled Second Adam, has led humanity back into God’s land, back into the presence of God. This was achieved through Jesus’ ascension into heaven. And having gone up into heaven, Jesus received the authority promised by the Father in various Old Testament passages to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church at the day of Pentecost, and since that time the promised Age of the Spirit has begun.

During this time, God’s Spirit has been at work in a much more comprehensive way than previously. God’s Spirit has been increasing his influence throughout the world, empowering the growth of the kingdom of God on earth, as the church, the Community of the Spirit, has grown throughout the world. And Christians, becoming members of Christ’s church through faith and baptism, share in this baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is why in 1 Cor 12:13, the Apostle Paul says: “by one Spirit, we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

The New Testament proclaims that, with the coming of Jesus, the Age of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets looked forward to has begun. And present-day Christians have been blessed by God to participate in its unfurling. By the way, unfurling is an important concept to grab hold of here, because the question can be asked: if the Age of the Spirit has begun, then why is there still a struggle with sin in my life? Why do I still see sin in the life of God’s people? Why do I still get sick? Why do I see disease and war and famine and death throughout the world?

The answer to this question is: the Age of the Spirit has begun, but it has not yet reached its climax. The Age of the Spirit has begun in the sense that human hearts throughout the world are now coming under submission to Christ as the gospel is being proclaimed, and as disobedience is slowly being rooted out of the lives of God’s people. But what we see now is only a small picture of what will be on the day when Jesus returns, when the Spirit of God will be unleashed to his maximum capacity so as to fill the universe to overflowing.

Remember Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is really the realm of the special operations of God’s Spirit, the zone where God’s will is being done on earth as it is currently being done in heaven. Remember how Jesus describes the kingdom of God in his parables? God’s kingdom is like a small mustard seed that grows into a tree (Matt 13:31–32). It is like dough that expands to become a loaf (Matt 13:33). Jesus wants us to understand that the kingdom starts out small, but gets comparatively much much bigger as time goes on. This growth, this development of the kingdom of God over time and throughout the world, is how the Age of the Spirit will unfold. The new Spirit-filled world order is currently being unfurled, but the mind-blowing time will come when we will see the climactic totality of God's plan of universal blessing revealed before our eyes.

This fullness of the Spirit will come in God’s good time; but in the meantime, the important thing for Christians to realise is that we need to be participating in the Spirit! How important is it for you to participate in the Spirit? Have you been working at being as filled with God’s Spirit as much as you possibly can? Or are you busy pursuing other things in life? Christians have the privilege of participating in God’s Spirit, but we also need to pursue an ever greater filling of God’s Spirit. If we are not concerned about growing in God’s Spirit, we need to be careful lest we end up grieving God’s Spirit. Here we can take warning from the historical example of King Saul. He began with God’s Spirit, but ended up grieving God’s Spirit through rebellion (1 Sam 15:23, 26; 16:14). And Israel? All who passed through the sea drank the spiritual drink, says Paul, yet God was not pleased with the majority (1 Cor 10:1–5).

As Christians, we share in the Spirit; but through neglect, it may be that our tank is pretty close to empty. Do you feel today as if you’ve been drained of the Spirit, as if you’re almost running on empty? Well, you need to be topped up! But how does this happen? How can I be refilled with the Holy Spirit?

The answer to this question is straightforward, but it requires some co-operation on our part. Being filled with the Spirit is not necessarily a matter of being able to speak in tongues. Being filled with the Spirit actually correlates to how much God’s word is in our hearts. Being filled with the Spirit results in the fruit of the Spirit (Eph 5:18–21). If we have God’s Spirit, then we will be producing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, things such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23). But the key to all of this is the simple yet profound idea of having the word of God written in our hearts. When you combine Ezek 36:26–28 with Jer 31:31–33, you get Ezekiel’s idea of the new heart, new Spirit, and new obedience matching up with Jeremiah’s idea of the law written on the heart of God’s people as part of the new covenant. This is why filling with the Spirit in the new covenant age corresponds to the extent to which God’s word has been written on the heart.

Ultimately the writing of God’s word in our heart is a work of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is the one who must do the writing, that’s true. But he can’t do the writing if we’re not doing the hearing (Rom 10:17). God’s word will never be written in our hearts (apart from direct revelation) if we never spend time meditating upon the gospel, or if we never spend time reading God’s word and thinking about it. Why do we read and teach the Bible in church? Why do we sing psalms and Bible-based hymns rather than the latest hit pop song (the majority of which these days are fixated with sex)? What Christians do in church is based on the word of God, because we believe that, as we do so, that is the way that God’s word and Spirit come to fill our hearts.

Back at the end of the second century, there was a Greek boy born into a Christian family in present-day Turkey named Irenaeus. As a young man, Irenaeus grew up in the faith, and moved to Lyons in France. He became a clergyman, and eventually became the Bishop of Lyons. He is famous as one of the Early Church Fathers, and he wrote a number of important works defending the church against heresy. In his writings, he wrote concerning the relationship of the Holy Spirit and the church. One quotation that comes to mind is the following: “If you do not join in what the Church is doing, you have no share in [the] Spirit … For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace.”

The simple truth of the matter is that the Spirit gives life. It is important, therefore, that all people pursue the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. That can only happen by submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. And then, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Son, Christians need to walk in the Spirit, and to pursue an ever greater filling with the Spirit, through joining in what the church is doing, and by meditating regularly on God’s word in prayer and in song. Without the Spirit of God, life does not exist. And without the word of God in our lives, we cannot be filled with the Spirit. How serious have you been lately about surrounding yourself and the lives of your loved ones in the word of God? Just as a car needs petrol, so too we need the Spirit of God.

Therefore, pursue the Spirit! Do so with all of your strength! But you do that by listening to the word of God.

Recall what Moses said to Israel. Look, this might be my last sermon before I die, but I’ve proclaimed the word of God to you today. I’ve set before you life and good, death and evil. Choose life by following the word of God!

Brothers and sisters, pursue the word of God! Pursue participation in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus! The word that gave life to this universe back in the beginning is the word that gives life to us today.