Walls: Getting Your Head Round Nehemiah

Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.

But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.

Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.

In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?

All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.

The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.

The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.

This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.

In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.

More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.

It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.

And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.

It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.

Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.

The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.

God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.

Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?

Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.

But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.

This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.

I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.

And then those religious reforms.

This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.

What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.

And I have a problem with that.

What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.

Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?

Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.

Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.

The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.

This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.

I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?

Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.

It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.

The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.

Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.

If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.

It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.

Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.

And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”

Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

And with those six words, I’m probably starting a riot among my friends on social media. Especially the Americans.

Yes, 9/11 happened. Yes, the perpetrators called themselves Muslims. Yes, a large number of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations of the world actively persecute their national Christians in one form or another. Yes, Iran’s leadership consider America (and by extension the West in general) to be their enemies. Yes, all of that.

Even so, Christians are required to love Muslims. What part of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” did you think was optional? Did you think the parable of the Good Samaritan was told the way it was because Samaritans were really great people who loved the Jews?

Unlike most of the people spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric into my Facebook news feed, I’ve actually lived overseas in a Muslim-majority nation. I’ve been in a mosque. I’ve had Muslim friends. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert as such, but I can talk about what I’ve seen and experienced.

The country in question was in no way without its problems, but the people were almost without exception courteous and hospitable to this Western Christian in their midst. Hospitable to a fault, actually; the local tradition basically considered guests to be an expression of Divine trust and favour. You can be trusted to take care of guests properly.

I was there when 9/11 happened. I saw it through television reports in a majority-Muslim country.

No-one celebrated. The news coverage wasn’t “see how the Great Satan has fallen”; it was shocked disbelief that anyone could be evil enough to do such a thing.

Over the next couple of months, the streets around the US embassy filled with flowers for blocks in every direction.

My American wife (only she wasn’t yet my wife at the time) only had to let it out that she was an American for the sympathy to pour out.

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

-We hope you find the evil people who did this.

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

They weren’t doing this because someone told them to. They weren’t doing it because they were rebelling against some kind of Islamic tyranny. They were doing it because they were decent human beings and it’s what you do.

I’ve seen the clip that always gets played when people want to tell me the Muslim world was celebrating at 9/11. And I mean “the clip”; I’ve only seen just the one. It was somewhere in the Middle East, not where I was. And what I noticed about the clip was not that people were celebrating and dancing, but how few in number they seemed to be and who exactly it was that was celebrating.

What I saw was a group of no more than 50, and probably around 20, composed entirely of little old ladies and children. People who, not to put too fine a point on it, probably didn’t know any better. And only ever that one clip, which has somehow entered the American public consciousness as “the Muslim world were all partying in the streets”.

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

Every time I make a comment about Christians needing to show love and respect to Muslims, I get a barrage of comments telling me how “they hate us”, “they want to kill us”, “they hate Israel”, “you hate your wife and daughters”, etc. I’ve seen people posting ignorant memes that “Muslims have contributed nothing at all to world civilisation”.

Enough.

Yes, there are Muslim fanatics that hate America and/or Christians. Tell me there aren’t Americans and Christians that hate them. And we have far less excuse, because their religion does not command them to love their enemies. Ours does. In my experience, most of them just want to get on with their lives and don’t hate Americans at all.

But they can read, and they can see, and they can hear. They hear our claims that Christians love everyone, and they can see America emplacing entry bans on people from Muslim countries. They’ve also heard our claims that “America is a Christian country”, which reinforce their pre-existing beliefs shaped by the fact that places like Iran and Saudi Arabia really are Muslim countries in terms of the national and legal structures of the state being Muslim. That’s the way they tend to interpret our claims of Christian countryhood; they think that there’s no difference between the actions of the USA as a nation and the actions of the Christian church.

Many of them get frustrated by the church’s apparent blinkered support for the State of Israel. This is a thorny issue replete with biases and half-truths and unclarity on all sides including mine, and I don’t want to say a lot about it right here, but the fact is that many Muslims think we believe that the State of Israel can do no wrong, ever.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Note that I didn’t say that was an accurate belief, just that that’s what they think.

I’m not even going to dignify “you hate your wife and daughters” with a proper response. It’s a deliberately contrary-minded, ignorant comment that equates loving Muslims with support for the fanatics’ agenda. I’m a Christian and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ, but that does not mean I support the perverted agenda of every cultist who’s ever claimed to represent the True Church.

And “Muslims have contributed nothing to world civilisation” is, if possible, even more ignorant. In the period of the Crusades, the Muslim world were far more advanced than the Christian nations, particularly in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. While the Christians were struggling to do simple arithmetic using the unwieldy Roman numerals, the Arabs had a place-notation that we still use today in modified form. It’s not for no reason that we call them “Arabic numerals”. Muslim astronomers like Avicenna (ibn Sina, to use the proper form of his name) made observations of the heavens that wouldn’t be equalled in Europe for hundreds of years. And well into the 1600s every European court had its Arab or Moorish (ie black North African Muslim) physician, because the Christians were dangerous incompetents more interested in bleeding you than healing you. Most of what Western Christian and post-Christian scientists have discovered about science builds off of work done by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages.

But even if they were just as ignorant and stupid as we are, still we would be required to love them.

It is, after all, one of the commands of Christ. How can we claim to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus if we obey everything except the bits we don’t like? If we love only those who love us, how are we better than demon-worshipping pagans?

We’re commanded to love our enemies. There’s no listed exception clause that says “but if they hate your country then you don’t have to”. There’s no exemption for people that don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; in fact, the focus is specifically on those who do not believe. The ones who were persecuting and spitefully abusing when Jesus said those words were pagan Romans, many of whom thought the Jews were too troublesome to live, and the Christian sect of Judaism was even worse.

If we are going to call ourselves His followers, we do not get to pick and choose who we love.

We don’t have to support the agenda of the radicals. We don’t have to decide that they’re right in what they believe. But we do have to love them.

This begins with being respectful. Being friendly. Taking the time to get to know the alien and stranger in our midst, about whom even the Old Testament Law was quite firm: “do not despise an alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt”. Find out what help they need. Act like a good neighbour. It’s not rocket science.

They aren’t robotic avatars of The Islamic Threat, or whatever you think is driving them. They’re just people, like you and me. They have kids that they want a better life for, they have sports fandoms and hobby interests, they mistrust the secularising influences around them just like many Christians do. God made Selim just like He made Simon, in His image and likeness. God loves Aisha just as He loves Alice. Muslims really aren’t that different from you and I. Just people whom God loves and wants to come to a better and deeper knowledge of Him, made in His image just like me.

And Jesus commands us to love them. Hadn’t we better be about it?

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Eschatology is a potent and rich field of theological study.  The investigation of what the Bible has to say about the “last things” is profitable for numerous reasons, not least of which that it frequently puts our own troubles into perspective and acts as a caution to the idea that we can metaphoricalise the alchemists’ ancient dream: we can make golden ages by our own power and goodness.

More, the return of Christ is something we are instructed to earnestly look for and expect imminently, and we know that the Bible places this coming at “the end of the age”.  Revelation is the only one of the sixty-six books which specifically proclaims a blessing on those who read and take to heart its message.

Eschatology is also, however, one of the fields of theological study which cause most dispute, upset and plain error, as we falteringly try to grasp and make sense of the prophetic language in which the Biblical material deals with the Last Days and relate it to the world we see.

In our own day, we see this fascination with teaching on blood moons and the idea of national judgments connected with the heptannual cycles of the Hebrew calendar.  We see a peculiar certainty that ours is the last generation, that events are even now occurring that harbinger the social chaos out of which the new world order of the antichrist will arise.  We see detailed charts of the events of the Biblically-foretold Great Tribulation and its surrounders, charts in which the Son of Man sometimes appears to bounce up and down like some sort of celestial yo-yo.

I personally find some of these just a little irreverent in their suggestion of a “bouncing eschatological Jesus” (my term), but there you go.

There are two main kinds of error into which it is possible to fall regarding the Last Things.

The first is to ignore them, the second is to hyper-focus on them so that we are in danger of ignoring anything else.  I’ve been guilty of this second error, and I’m sometimes now guilty of the first in the way I live my life, but like all who call on His Name, I’m trying to align my perspective with Christ’s.

Culturally we seem to be more in danger of this second error at the moment, but even so we can fall prey to this first danger by living as if Jesus isn’t coming back, treating our national and this-worldly concerns as if they are absolute.  Beside the coming End, even the prospect of the potential accession to the US Presidency of a notorious mocker like Donald Trump is, if you will pardon the pun, not the end of the world.

Our small concerns are rendered petty and unimportant alongside the great events of His Kingdom; what does it matter that the United States lose a little of its power in the world, if Jesus is coming back to put an end to all of our Republics and Kingdoms and Empires and Federations?  What does it matter that this or that political party come to power in one of many nations on the Earth?  Is God constrained to work only through one political party?

This is not to say that followers of Christ should be indifferent to politics and government, but neither should we treat the process as if it is God’s own major project.  We live in the world, as the Scripture says, and rightly maintain a concern for God’s will to be done “on Earth as it is in Heaven”, but we must take care not to be captured by the world, to fall into the trap of believing that our agenda is necessarily God’s.

The second error into which we may fall is to become captivated by echatology to the diminution or exclusion of much else.

We are specifically warned against inquiring too much into “the times and dates which the Father has set by His own authority”, and that even Jesus, quizzed by the Eleven, didn’t know when the End would come.  Some of our modern (and ancient) attempts to read the signs come perilously close to this error of date-setting, if they do not actively constitute that error.  Interestingly, no-one seems to want to set a date that is far removed from their own generation; the practice invariably seems to lead to a date within a few years of its being floated.

Attempting to set a date, of course, counteracts one of the main thrusts of Biblical teaching on the Last Things: namely that we must be ready at all times, not only a select few dates, for “the Son of Man comes at an hour you do not expect”.

But attempting to determine the day and the hour is only one of a cluster of eschatological errors that can be caught up with overfocus on it.  There are probably as many perspectives on the Last Days as there are theologians, and Christians disagree with one another on the relative timing of the Rapture of the Saints, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium and the Last Judgement, so that a great confusion can sometimes result among the unschooled in such things.  The temptation, with so many conflicting views, to side with one and go forth to do war against the others, is a very real one, and one to which we none of us are immune.  Despite the fact that some even among our sisters and brothers in the faith can view the whole debate as an abstruse theological argument rather like discussion over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we want to be right and to visibly conquer wrongness wherever we find it.

The simple fact of the matter is that until that which is prophesied actually occurs, all that we have is speculation.  We try hard to make it informed speculation, but it is speculation nonetheless.  Whether those who follow Christ will be caught up to meet Him in the air before, during or after the Great Tribulation (“time of great troubles”) we cannot know until it actually happens.

At which point all of our disputations necessarily become moot.

Increasingly, I find my question to be “what does the Kingdom of God gain by numbers of us engaging one another in verbal combat over our divergent speculations?” The only one who would appear to gain by that is our enemy the devil, sowing discord among the Body of Christ and distracting us from the task of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.

Some people go so far as to stockpile food, money and even weapons so that they will “be prepared” for the social chaos which they presume will occur before the end and out of which the Antichrist will rise to power.  This, again, would seem to me to be a distraction from our main task, and evidence of a lack of faith in God’s ability or willingness to take care of us.  The Lord really does know all our tomorrows, and will take care of us so that we may trust that whether by life or by death we will glorify Him and be known as His.  Or as the Bible puts it in connection with the End, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go”.  Your guns and food and stockpiled money will not thwart God’s plans, and He really is in charge of these things.  Stockpiling “just in case” would appear to be exercising the spirit of worry and unbelief rather than the “patient endurance” that the same Bible passage says is called for.

Simply put, I believe that enough is written so that we’ll recognise it when we see it.  Indeed, if we have eyes to see we will hardly be able to keep from recognising it; it is those who wilfully close their eyes who will be caught napping.

Are we doing what the Lord has charged us with doing?  Then even if we are taken by surprise we need have no worries when the Master of the House returns.

Are we “beating the other servants” with our own speculations about when and how He will be coming back, drunk on our own certainty and disengaged from the task?  Are we trying to begin the feast on our own rather than extending the invitation to those who haven’t heard?  Well, Jesus’ parable doesn’t have good things to say about that servant.

So on the one hand, we need to remember that Jesus is indeed coming soon, that our this-worldly concerns aren’t necessarily at the centre of His agenda nor our earthly fears actually absolute.  But on the other hand, we need to remember that what we are told about His coming we were not told so that we could spend all of our time trying to fit all the pieces together ahead of time, but so that we would recognise it when it comes.  We need to recognise that His coming places a time limit on the task He’s given us: we do not have forever to accomplish the Great Commission, nor is He going to put up with human sin continuing to hurt those He loves for the next aeon.  This world is not all there is, and time does not go on forever.  There will come an End.

And that is a Good Thing.

The Time Between

We’re now a little way into the forty days between Easter and Ascension, and so I turn to a question that has puzzled me for a while.

What happened in that time between? What was it like?

From the glimpses we’re given in the Scriptures, it seems rather different from the pre-Easter life. For a start, Jesus was here sometimes, then He’d be gone. His presence seems to be a series of Appearances, not an ongoing thing like before.

It’s difficult to imagine the post-Resurrection Jesus falling asleep in the bottom of Andrew’s fishing boat, or teaching in the Temple courts, or laughing at Peter’s jokes.

It’s difficult to imagine Peter making jokes. In the time between, things are a lot more serious and weighty.

But my questions boil down to two, really. Number 1: what was Jesus doing when He wasn’t appearing to His disciples? And number 2: what was Jesus doing when He was appearing to His disciples?

The first one is a lot more difficult to answer, but the second one we are given a few clues about.

The Scripture says that He appeared to them over a period of 40 days and “gave many convincing proofs that He was alive”. Including, no doubt, spending several days at a time with them, so that they would lie down to sleep with Jesus among them, and wake to find Him still there. Including eating with them, walking with them in the clear light of day, interacting with people outside the immediate group. Including actually using the door, even though He’d proven He no longer needed it.

But then He’d be gone for a bit, and appear somewhere else. Just like CS Lewis’ Narnian Christophany Aslan, He’s not a tame Lion. Not someone who comes and goes as you please.

Secondly, based on what He did with the two on the road to Emmaus, I imagine He was taking them through the Scriptures, opening their minds and eyes to see all the passages that were talking about Himself. Giving them understanding of who Messiah really is and what He is about.

Thirdly, He’s preparing them for when the Holy Spirit comes. Instructing them not to go off in their own strength to try and start inaugurating God’s Grand Master Plan that they suddenly, finally comprehend, but to wait for the One who was coming after Him, Who would give them power.

Which leads me to my first question. What is He doing in those times when He isn’t appearing to His disciples?

Perhaps He’s beginning to prepare them for the time when He won’t be with them bodily. He knows that time is coming soon; five short weeks and most of a sixth, then they will see Him no more. They are going to have to operate without His physical presence.

Or perhaps He’s showing them that the Crucifixion was not something they had imagined. If He were back permanently, I can imagine that after a week or so, you’d start to wonder if He’d really died, or if He’d just swooned. It’d be like His death was a sort of illness (“I’m better now”), rather than an enemy that He had gloriously conquered.

No, death is still death, but it’s not the end you thought it was. I’m not back like Lazarus was, only to die again. I’m back in a different way, victor over death rather than snatched from its grip. And so I won’t be here in quite the same way.

In short, another of the “convincing proofs” that He is alive.

I don’t know that this is so, of course. I’m speculating. But it seems reasonable speculation.

O Families of Nations

My regular Bible readings took me to Psalm 96 yesterday.

It’s a fairly familiar Psalm, beginning “Sing to the LORD a new song”. And the thing about fairly familiar passages is that they are easy to gloss over. If we’ve been following Jesus for any length of time, we can have a tendency to read them almost by rote, not really taking it in but just letting the words wash over us.

What struck me today about the passage was its evangelistic, missionary emphasis.

We can tend to think that in the Old Testament, God is exclusively concerned with Israel. They are the people with whom He has made a Covenant. They are the people He calls His own. They are the nation of faith. All the stories of Joshua, Gideon, King David, Elisha and the rest are all stories of God fighting against the evil pagans who are attacking His people.

Right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, God is certainly concerned to maintain His Covenant with His people. Even when they are faithless, He remains faithful.

So He’s going to defend them. He has a purpose and plan for them that is not served by their destruction. More, He genuinely loves them and wants their good.

But it never has been solely about Israel. They were and remain God’s chosen people, but chosen for what purpose?

Chosen so that through them God might display His glory to the world.

Abraham was blessed as the father of many nations, ancestor of Israel and father to the nation of faith. But the corollary of that was always that “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed”.

Psalm 96 makes it clear that God wants the praise not just of His Covenant people, but of all peoples. “The gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” is basically evangelistic in tone. Turn away from these worthless things that you have been serving! There is a real, Living God that made the heavens and can actually do something to help you!

“Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations/Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength/Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name” continues the theme. Giving glory to the LORD is right not just for Israel, not just for His Covenant people whether Old or New, but for all the earth and its families of nations. He made the whole world; He has a right to the praise of the whole world. More, “the gods of the nations are idols”, and ascribing God’s majesty and attributes to a created thing is enslaving yourself to a lie.

It doesn’t much matter if that created thing is money, sex, power, the stars and planets, a carved block of wood or a human philosophy or ideology, it’s a made thing, not a Maker. And when you attribute to it that which is rightfully God’s, that’s the point at which it becomes an idol.

And the passage goes on even more remarkably: “Bring an offering, and come into His courts”. This is, of course, a reference to the Temple worship in Jerusalem.

Under the Law of Moses, Gentiles were forbidden from coming into the Temple beyond the outer court, known as “the court of the Gentiles”. They could observe and listen, but they were outside the Covenant and barred from participation unless they became a Jew by being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses. “Bring an offering and come into His courts” is especially shocking because it follows on from “Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations”. In Hebrew, the words “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same, so the sense is pretty clear. Here is King David, prophetically reaching forward to a time when Gentiles will no longer be barred from the worship of God. A time when the invitation to “bring an offering and come into His courts” is for everyone, not just a chosen few.

Part of what the Cross does is open doors and destroy barriers. The sacrificial death of Jesus opens the way for the Gentile, the outsider, to be brought all the way inside the promises of God. And what Psalm 96 helps to show is that this was always the plan. The Gentile Church wasn’t a surprise to God. It was already in the plan. It was the plan: no division any more, but one people worshipping one God.

We can see foreshadowings of it with the Egyptians who chose to go with Israel (ref), with Rahab (a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite), Bathsheba (probably a Hittite), Naaman (a Syrian) and others. All the nations of the world being blessed and coming to know God.

“I Cannot Go In These”

I’m currently breaking in a new pair of work boots.

The thing about work boots, of course, is that they’re usually really uncomfortable when they’re brand new. The leather hasn’t yet properly stretched and moulded to the precise shape of your feet, and so they rub on the heels, or pinch your toes a little bit. Trying to put your feet through the fairly intense workout mine get of tramping all over about a square mile’s worth of rough ground on a jobsite (hard rough ground, too, at the moment; the site is practically all solid rock) for a whole day with a brand-new pair of work boots is a recipe for blisters.

You have to wear them in gradually; a couple of hours at first, half a day, as long as your feet can stand them without getting damaged, so that the leather can start to fit itself to your feet and your feet can get used to the shoe. In some cases you have to wear them around the house just for sitting in a chair for a day or so. Depending on how much you wear work boots, you might have to keep this up for a week, two weeks, a month.

The alternative of getting work boots that you can wear immediately without them rubbing your feet is actually worse, because as you continue to wear them, the leather will inevitably stretch and you’ll end up with boots that rub holes in your feet all the time, rather than just for a week or two at the start.

I bring this up because it rather put me in mind of David going out to fight Goliath. King Saul tried to dress David in his own armour, which was an incredibly high honour. Later in the time of Esther, King Xerxes would honour Mordecai by dressing him in a royal robe and seating him on a horse that the king had ridden.

But David straps on his sword over his armour and tries walking around, then says “I cannot go in these; I am not used to them”.

Much has been written about this, about how it shows David’s refusal to trust in physical might and armour, how it shows a heart unlike that of Saul, who feared the people and was concerned with outward appearances.

This is all great sermon material, but in my new work boots, I’m much more put in mind of the second part of his statement. “I am not used to these”.

There’s nothing wrong with armour per se. Jonathan would later dress David in his own princely armour, probably an expensive coat of overlapping hard bronze scales, both protective and flexible. David is not recorded as refusing that kingly gift; it’s not that it would have been intrinsifcally wrong to wear armour.

Whether the problem was that it was Saul‘s armour is another question, but David is always respectful in his dealings with the king he had been anointed to replace, and I just can’t see him turning his nose up at this honour and expression of royal imprimatur on David as the Israelite champion just because “eww! Some sinner has been in this!”

From a practical point of view, David isn’t used to armour. It’s like a pair of new work boots, only all over the body. If you’re not accustomed to it, it will rub over here, chafe over there and generally hurt. Knights in the Middle Ages wore padded undercoats to protect them from the chafing of their armour, and they were fully accustomed to wearing it. Furthermore, armour is heavy. A Mediæval foot armour weighed between 50 and 70 kilograms, and bronze is heavier than iron for the same volume of metal. Clanking around in a long coat made out of heavy metal scales isn’t easy to do when all you have to do is walk around. If you actually have to fight for your life, that sort of encumberance is only helpful once you’re used to it.

There’s something to be said for the tried and true, for that which we’re used to, for the comfortable. It’s been said that a good sermon should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; we can often go from there to the idea that God wants us to be uncomfortable. That whatever He’s calling us to will chafe us. That it will be difficult and painful, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. That it won’t be anything we’re used to.

This sort of low-level sadism on God’s part is nothing like the loving Father we find in the pages of Scripture. Yes, sometimes what He calls us to do does not come naturally: it’s only through the Holy Spirit that we can put aside the desire for vengeance and forgive someone who hurt us. Yes, sometimes what He calls us to will be unlike anything we’ve done before, and something we need to inure our metaphorical feet to wearing. But His calling is not to a place of permanent discomfort.

On the contrary, Jesus said “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light”.

Rest, easy, light and gentle are not the words of one who wants us to be uncomfortable.

Lately there’s been a lot of focus in our churches on “moving out of our comfort zones”. The Hillsongs worship song Oceans takes the imagery of Christ’s invitation to Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water to Him and turns it to a song about God’s invitation to move out of our comfort zone, out on the waters “where feet may fail”. Trusting God does sometimes lead us into situations where the ground seems to be shifting like water underfoot and where the only constancy is the Master walking beside us.  But if this is our primary image of what it means to follow Christ, if God is always “out there” in the storm, on the uncomfortable shifting waters, we may be going beyond where the Bible does.

It’s like what a wise friend once said about finding God’s plan for your life: “If you’re 4′-2”, God probably isn’t calling you to be a basketball player”.

When we’re trying to make something work in our own strength, it’s hard. It’s a burden, a labour, something you strive at. It’s death-bringing, not life-giving.

When we’re doing what we’re called to, it’s a place of ease and rest. Not that there aren’t difficulties or problems, but that there’s an ease, a refreshment in the doing. It’s life and peace.

There are probably people doing missionary work or being preachers or any other “Christian service” who are trying to do it in their own strength and finding it to be chafing. Likewise, there may be people who are called to those things who are finding work as a banker or a construction worker to be a labour of death.

The bottom line is that God is a lot less concerned about what precisely we are doing with our lives than He is about whether we’re doing it in the obedience of faith or not.

As it is written, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all to the glory of God the Father”.

Allah and the God of the Bible

In my last post I addressed the reactions of many to the story about a Colorado high school and its once-off leading of the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, including the words “under Allah”.

In sifting through the comments made on this story, I came across the statement that “Allah and God are not the same; they are totally separate beings.”

It’s made as if it’s a fundamental Article of Faith; as if it’s something that does not need to be proved because it is beyond challenge.

Seeing as how part of my argument rests on a personal challenge of this statement’s veracity, I thought it would be a good idea to address it directly.

Are God and Allah one and the same?

Well, firstly we need to define terms. For Arabic-speaking Christians, the word for “God” is “Allah”. So in the Arabic Bible, Genesis 1:1 reads “In the beginning [Allah] created the heavens and the earth.” It’s just the normal word in Arabic for God, and is thus the logical word to use to translate the Hebrew “Elohim”. It even comes from the same root: the Hebrew Elohim is a plural form (engaging in a Hebrew linguistic practice called a “plural of majesty”, ascribing a plural form to a particularly great singular being. In non-Biblical literature of the same period it was sometimes applied to great kings and pagan gods as well) of “Eloh”, which in the Arabic form of the Semitic language family is “Allah”.

But on the other hand, Muslims don’t understand Allah in precisely the same way we Christians understand the God of the Bible.

This, I presume, is where the whole idea that Allah and God are two separate beings traces back to. It’s true up to a point. Anyone who is not totally ignorant or an idiot can see that there are some crucial differences between what a Muslim believes about Allah and what a Christian believes about God. These mostly revolve around what it means for God to be Father and how we should understand the Triune nature Christians attribute to Him.

Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe, at least in their typical, “orthodox” understandings, that God is one, that God created the universe, that God is sole unrivalled ruler of the Creation, and that God will eventually bring the universe to an end and judge the world. We all believe, theoretically if nothing else, that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at all times).

Jews and Muslims further believe that God is one absolutely, without division or multiplication, whereas the Chrstian understanding of the Trinity is more complex. So complex, in fact, that Muslims often accuse Christians of worshipping three Gods. A full explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity for Muslims is outside the scope of this post; I’m more focused on this strange idea some Chrstians seem to have that Allah and God are two different beings. What’s interesting for the argument that Allah and God are separate beings is the fact that we as Christians readily acknowledge that the God of the New Testament is the same as the Elohim of the Hebrew Bible. We believe we worship the same God who was the God of Noah, of Abraham, of King David, of Elijah. And yet a Jew who does not believe that Messiah has come in the person of Yeshua (or in the Greek form, Jesus) has many of the same differences of perspective on God’s character and nature that we point to in the Islamic understanding and say “see? God and Allah are not the same!” It’s kind of a double standard.

Christians, particularly in the modern time frame, focus on God’s omnipresence. Our primary understanding of God is as Father, as God With Us. Yes, God is omnipotent and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. Our worship to God is all about how near to us God is; I’d even say we over-emphasise it sometimes and are in grave danger of bringing God down to our level as if He’s nothing more than a man.

For Muslims, the focus is God’s omnipotence. Probably the single most recogniseable Muslim statement is “Allahu akbar”: God is great. Yes, God is omnipresent, but what’s important is that He’s great. The focus on God’s omnipotence is so great, in fact, that I’d venture to say that it affects perception of His righteousness. For many Muslims, it’s not so much that righteousness is some kind of objective standard to which even God adheres – to suggest that there is anything higher than God, even the idea of righteousness, is an offence against His greatness – but that God is so powerful that whatever He does is right because it’s Him doing it.

This is, in fact, one of the fundamental differences between Chrstianity and Islam, at least concerning our understanding of God.

Does it mean that the God of the Bible and the Allah of the Qur’an are different, then?

Define what you mean by “different”. Are there differences in the Christian and Muslim understandings of God? Undoubtedly. Does this mean that the God of the Bible is one being and the Allah of the Qur’an is another? Well, that’s a separate question.

How many omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator-Sovereign-Judges do we believe there are? The Allah of the Qur’an and the God of the Bible can’t coexist as separate beings. It’s logically impossible. Besides, belief in more than one God is polytheism. If there is truly one God, then “Allah” and “God” have logically to be understood as referring to the same One Being.

Which is not to say that the Allah of Muslims is identical to the God of Christ-followers. Christians, as I said, understand God as Father. Muslims generally understand this to mean that God physically fathers children in the sense of Zeus and the other lustful pagan deities. So when we call Jesus “Son of God”, they understand this to mean that God looked down from heaven, saw Mary, lusted after her and physically fathered her child, which any Christian who is not a heretic of the first magnitude will recognise as a blasphemous notion. Rather than just saying “That’s wrong. You Muslims need to accept that Jesus is the Son of God”, the onus is on us to explain better in what sense Jesus is God’s “Son”.

Both the Bible and the Qur’an refer to Jesus as the Word of God. But the Bible goes further. Proceeding directly from God as a physical son from his father, the Bible says that the pre-existent Word of God which was in the beginning “became flesh and made His dwelling among us”. The Fathering of Jesus by God is a description in human words of a transcendent spiritual reality. Even most Christian heretics don’t understand it as a physical event.

Let’s take this out of the question of the Islamic understanding of Allah for a moment.

Let’s pretend that we have been suddenly set down in the midst of a hypothetical pagan tribe who worship numerous gods or local spirits. They have “gods” for food and war and the sun, moon and stars, and for everything else. They understand these gods as both limited in scope (only concerned with a particular sphere of life) and in power (their will can be successfully resisted). They fear these dwarf powers and make regular sacrifices designed to keep the gods off their backs.

In addition, behind these local spirits, they acknowledge a virtually unknown “high god” that they call Movo (I’m making this name up), who created the world. The high god is understood to be like the other gods in that he is limited in his presence (can’t be everywhere) and even in his power (can’t, for whatever reason, bridge the gulf between himself and people), but he’s acknowledged as the world-maker and is known to be far greater in power than the tribal spirits.

Most of us would immediately identify Movo with the God of the Bible, even though Movo isn’t known by them as being omnipresent or even omnipotent. We would want to come in and, like the Apostle Paul in Athens upon finding an altar “to an unknown god”, start with their understanding of Movo and build on it to proclaim the true One God. What you worship as something unknown, we now proclaim to you.

So why are we willing to grant a pagan tribe the courtesy of believing that they are worshipping God, though in ignorance, but we aren’t willing to do the same with Islam?

A lot of it, I believe, is just sheer mental laziness. If we make the blanket statement that “The Allah of Islam is not the same as the YHWH of Jews and Christians” or “God and Allah are two different beings”, we don’t have to think. We can lump all Muslims together as “enemies of God” and ignore them, rather than wrestling with the idea that most of them are just trying to serve God according to the way they’ve been taught. It becomes easier keep up our pretence that “enemy of God” and “enemy ofAmerica” are the same thing. We get to maintain the illusion that Islam is 100% wrong and Christianity is 100% right. We don’t have to examine our attitude to the fairly vehemently anti-Messianic State of Israel (not that they don’t have reason); aren’t they also opposed on a root level to the idea that Jesus is God’s Son?

Saying that we are worshipping the same God is not the same as saying that Muslims don’t need to be saved, or that Christianity and Islam are somehow the same thing. They aren’t. There are still crucial differences, and we need to recognise those. But to me at least, there’s more than enough commonality in what we believe about God, and enough logical reason in that they can’t coexist separately, to believe that we’re worshipping the same Being.

Does that mean we believe the same things about how we get to be counted righteous? Absolutely not.  As I understand it, Islam is at its base a legal code: it tells you all the things you must do to be righteous before God, in minute detail. Christianity, at base, isn’t. According to standard Chrstian teaching, what you must do to be righteous before God is to repent/believe. To turn the focus of your life off of yourself and your own ways and your own legalistic righteousness and believe and accept the perfect righteousness that comes from God through the work of Jesus and is by faith. There are still big differences between Islam and Chrstianity. But let no-one deceive you; there’s a lot of common ground too. Saying that we have differences of understanding between the Muslim conception of Allah and the Christian conception of God is one thing. But saying that they are two entirely separate beings flies in the face of all reason.

Some Christians say, in effect, that “we know that Allah is a false god because Al-Lat was the name of a pagan moon god from the pre-Islamic period”. This is, to my mind, a little beside the point. As I alluded to before, “El”, the word for God used in the Bible and the root word of the Divine name Elohim, was also the name given by the Canaanites to one of their pagan gods. This fact gives us a new understanding of just why the ancient Israelites may have had such a problem with chasing after pagan gods. Canaanite “El” kept getting confused with Biblical “El”. But the point is that the present meaning of the Arabic name Allah is entirely unconnected with pagan moon deities, just like the present Hebrew name El is completely divorced from its ancient Canaanite associations, and the English name God is completely divorced from its pagan associations as a name of Woden. If you’re going to deny the use of Allah based on word origins, then to be fair you have to also deny the use of the English word God and the Hebrew word El. Let’s be grown-ups about this.

If there’s common ground between Islam and Christianity, so much the better for Christianity. It gives us an inroad to talk about the things we believe that are different in a way that they can actually understand and have a chance of accepting.

We both believe that Jesus is the Word of God. We both believe that Jesus is Messiah, something Christians and Muslims hold in common that most Jews don’t believe. We both believe that Jesus is Healer and Judge. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus lived a sinless life.

It really shouldn’t be too difficult to go from there to the idea that Jesus is Saviour, and all that that means.