Christ’s Cultural Revolution

Introduction

Most people including self-professed Christians have no inkling of the enormity of the transformation of their everyday existence Christ prescribed.  His prescriptions so thoroughly upended the culture of first-century Jews that they concluded He had to be eliminated.

Now as moral matters go, comparing the practices of first-century Israel with the modern day West isn’t even a contest.  We in the West have chosen to enfranchise the practice of homosexuality; the practice of infant mutilation and murder; the practice of lying and cheating (with the knowing wink and a nod); the near-universal abdication of the sacrament of marriage, choosing instead an easily and frequently unwound civil contract, and the near-total elimination of God from any meaningful influence on at least six of the seven days of our normal week.

The culture (the pattern of human interactions) Christ prescribed were the near-complete opposites of the way we have chosen to live today.  On the oft chance that perhaps there are some who simply haven’t been told what He taught, rather than having heard and rejected it, we’ll break it down.  Then you can choose.

Basic Biblical Admonitions On Living

The first thing we have to establish is that Christ’s teachings on how people were to live with one another were not new.  God had been articulating his admonitions starting with Moses and the Law, down through the Judges and early prophets, and on to the later prophets. And the message was basic, and always the same.  It is typified by this verse in Micah 6:8 (see also Dt 10:12):

[8] He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

These messages comprise the core of Christ’s message.

We need to notice that these admonitions are something we need to do.  They’re not something God is going to do for us, at least yet.

The other thing to note is the simplicity of this prescription: “do justice” (think “Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you.” [Mt 7:12]), “love kindness” (think the parable of the Good Samaritan [Lk 10:25-37]), “walk humbly with your God” (think the scene of Jesus washing the Disciples’ feet [Jn 13:1-17]).

But despite these having been the teachings of God to His people from the beginning, they had nevertheless been nearly universally ignored, as this verse exemplifies; Zechariah 7:9-11

[9] “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, [10] do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” [11] But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.

These are some of the counter-cultural themes that Jesus came to reemphasize to wayward Israel (and to finally deal with through His ministry, death, and resurrection).

Here are some others.

Christ’s Reassertion of God’s Admonitions

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

This was God’s decree from essentially the beginning.  We find it first in Leviticus 19:18

[18] You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

But, of course, people didn’t love[i] their neighbors.  Not only didn’t they love them, but they also tried to gain an advantage over them through guile, deceit, and fraud (Jer 9:4-9).

Humility/Submission and Service

The Micah verse, above, says “walk humbly with your God”.  Humility was similarly in very short supply among the Jewish leadership (Pharisees, Sadducees) of first-century Israel.  On the contrary, their pride in themselves was founded both on the Mosaic Covenant of God with Israel at Horeb that they were His covenant, “elect” people, and that they enjoyed personal status (e.g. as priests, leaders) within that chosen people.

But this assumption abdicated God’s requirement that they “walk humbly with your God”.  They did not walk humbly.  In fact, they walked pridefully.  And this behavior resulted in Jesus’ condemnation of them (Mt 23:2-8).

The Gospels contain several disputes on essentially this issue between Jesus and the Israelite rulers. But perhaps the best teaching given by Jesus to exemplify the idea of adopting a mentality of humility and service to one’s brethren is found in His upper room foot-washing story, in Jn 3:3-15.

Certainly, Jesus shocked His disciples by His action of washing their feet (as He did the readers of John’s account of it).  This was not culturally normal.  Why?  Because it was the lowest of household servants who were charged with washing the feet of its guests (see this discussion in this blog piece).

Servanthood

In ancient Israel, as in the entirety of the ancient world, serving was done by servants.  A person might be your servant because you conquered him in battle; he owed you money that he could not repay; or he volunteered to serve you in exchange for you providing for his needs.  The cultural context of serving was therefore of one under some sort of duress attending to their “master”.

That’s not how the Bible saw the vocation of serving.  The Hebrew Bible primarily saw service as a thing to be done to/for YHWH, as opposed to “foreign gods” and their idols.  However, it is not silent in painting the picture of true service to another as a moral imperative.

For example from the book of Ruth we have one of the most inspiring depictions of voluntary devoted service (of Ruth to Naomi) in the entire Hebrew Bible when Ruth, a Moabite, refuses to abandon the elder, widowed Naomi as she elects to return to her own people in Israel; Ruth 1:16-18

[16] But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. [17] Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” [18] And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

This story introduces the very powerful dynamic of selfless giving of one to another through service and extols it as praiseworthy.

We also have the story of Esther’s loyalty and service to Mordecai.  Having been told by Mordecai of the Persian official Haman’s plan to kill all of the Jews in his kingdom, and the need to alert the Persian King (Ahasuerus/Xerxes) of this plot, Esther, knowing she may be executed, responds; Esther 4:16

[16] “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

In this case, Esther’s service wasn’t limited to her cousin/uncle Mordecai, it was to the entire Jewish population of Persia.  Again, it was selfless, as Esther faced the prospect of her death for her act of loyalty.

The characteristic feature in both of these examples is the selfless abdication of one’s rights and possessions (peace, security, safety) for the benefit of others.

These examples highlight precisely the teaching of Jesus.  We’ve already seen just this message in the Upper Room washing of His Disciple’s feet.  We can also see it in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), and in Jesus’ admonition to His disciples Matthew 20:25-28:

[25] But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. [26] It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, [27] and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, [28] even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Here Christ inverts His culture’s standard (and ours) of service and servanthood.  The servant — the one who serves another — is the one who will “be great among you”.  In Christ’s Kingdom, the one who serves gets all the accolades, while the one served gets none.  So much for society’s class structure.

Gift Giving

This one is a bit more nuanced but no less profound as an inversion of ancient culture.  Gift giving in the ancient world was reciprocal and designed to establish or preserve social bonds between people(s).  The idea was that one gave a gift to another in the expectation that he would reciprocate with a gift of equal or greater value in the future.  Rinse and repeat.

Importantly, this practice was essentially self-serving.  If you had giving relationships with many (perhaps influential) people, at any given time some of those people owed you, and you could call in their gift debts to aid yourself.

We are perhaps most familiar with this practice as implemented by rulers to/with other rulers; i.e. giving one’s daughter in marriage to a foreign King, sending tribute to a foreign ruler in expectation of his assistance when you’re invaded, etc.  This mode of gift-giving was the ancient, quid-pro-quo-based, norm.

The Hebrew Bible, however, saw giving differently.  Here are a couple of rebukes: Proverbs 3:27

[27] Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

when it is in your power to do it.

And, Proverbs 22:9:

[9] Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed,

for he shares his bread with the poor.

Jesus thought, and taught, similarly. For example, Luke 6:34-35:

[34] And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. [35] But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

And this: Luke 6:30-31

[30] Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. [31] And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Obviously, these were and are strongly counter-cultural.  There’s no reciprocity here, no tit-for-tat.  It’s a completely different and revolutionary worldview.

Equality of People Before God

The ancients were hyper-conscious of societal position.  Men were superior to women, socially.  Masters were superior to their slaves/servants.  Jews were superior to the Gentiles (goy ‘im).  Rulers (whether political or religious) were superior to laymen.  The rich were superior to the poor.

We saw Jesus’ take on this, above, in Matthew 20 where he admonishes his hearers to be servants.  Paul takes God’s indiscriminant view of people to another level in Ephesians 4 (about which I’ve written here).  It’s hard not to feel the immense impact on Paul’s first century, social-position-conscious readers of this declaration of people’s equality before God.  Paul encapsulated this message of indiscriminant equality before God in Galatians 3:

[27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Jesus Ups the Ante Against Ancient Cultural Norms – “You’ve heard it said…but I say”[ii]

So far we’ve looked at several counter-cultural teachings of the Bible originating in the Hebrew Bible that were reinforced by Jesus and His Apostles’ teaching.  But Jesus didn’t stop there.

Jesus was here to usher in a completely new way of living, one that would not be possible simply by human dedication and effort.  He was here to proclaim a pattern of living that would require His very own Spirit to enable His followers to experience.  This was His message of the Kingdom of God invading earth that the prophets had prophecied centuries before (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36: 26-27): Mark 1:15

[15] and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

We have Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount laying down a series of seemingly impossible-to-follow commands, which serve to focus our attention on our abject inability to live them out, and, therefore, our total dependency on Him to supply a Helper[iii], His Spirit, to enable us to be successful in this new life.

Don’t Be Angry With People – Mt. 5:21-22

[21] “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ [22] But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Everybody can choose not to murder.  That takes no moral strength.  But never being angry with or insulting another?  That is only possible with divine help.

Don’t Tolerate Sin – Reject Your Penchant to Sin – Mt. 5:27-30

[27] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ [28] But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [29] If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. [30] And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Here Jesus launches into a bit of hyperbolae with His admonitions in v 29-30 to self-mutilate yourself if the mutilated member is causing you to sin.  Given His style of exhortation, few Biblical scholars consider Jesus to be literally admonishing His hearers to multilate themselves.  But His message couldn’t have been expressed any more clearly: “Don’t submit to sin, and don’t allow yourself excuses for that sin.”

Love Your Enemies – Mt 5:43-48

[43] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [44] But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [45] so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [46] For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [47] And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [48] You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Some have argued that these “You have heard it said”s are simply hyperbolae because they are so self-evidently impossible to live up to naturally.  But Jesus doesn’t allow that conclusion as an option.  Here He says, effectively: “Anybody can love his friends and brothers.  Even the Gentiles do that.  No.  You’ve got to give My love to those who seek your harm.”

When You Give, Keep It To Yourself

Ancients and moderns alike seem to take great pride in making their gift-giving known to those around them.  This is just human nature, and an affectation of our innate ego.  Everyone, it seems, wants to proclaim themselves to the world as a “good person”, one who is compassionate; caring; giving.

Jesus would have nothing to do with this.  Matthew 6:1=4

[6:1] “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

[2] “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [3] But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4] so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Takeaways

Christ’s teachings were designed to turn our, and the first-century Jews’, cultural priorities upside down.  The Kingdom He announced was a venue in which its cultural values were a guileless love of God and neighbor, and the total submission to the will of God, as articulated in the Scriptures, by Christ, and through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Citizens of this Kingdom effectively abandoned themselves — their self-interest — (“deny himself, take up his cross and follow me – Mt 16:24-26), and so were made immune to the cultural mandates of their world.

But people are incapable to do such a thing naturally.  They need assistance.  And God has provided this assistance in the form of His Spirit to live within each believer and to lead him into the life that Christ would live if He was them.

The Spirit of God indwelt in His believers is the headline, and is the fundamental foundation of this counter-cultural revolution – the Kingdom of God.


[i] I have written here an explanation of the love described in the Bible.  It is not what we moderns think of when we use the term.

[ii] The phrase “You have heard it said…but I say” turns out to be a common rabbinic idiom of that period used to expound a futher interpretation/insight into the law being cited.

[iii] John 14:16: 3875. παράκλητος paráklētos; gen. paraklḗtou, masc. noun from parakaléō (3870), to comfort, encourage or exhort. It is properly a verbal adj. referring to an aid of any kind. In the Greek writers, used of a legal advisor, pleader, proxy, or advocate, one who comes forward in behalf of and as the representative of another. Thus, in 1Jn 2:1, Christ is termed our substitutionary, intercessory advocate. Christ designates the Holy Spirit as Paraclete (Jn 14:16), and calls Him állos (243), another, which means another of equal quality and not héteros (2087), another of a different quality. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is designated by Jesus Christ as equal with Himself, i.e., God (1Jn 2:1). This new Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, was to witness concerning Jesus Christ (Jn 14:26;16:7,14) and to glorify Him. The Holy Spirit is called a Paraclete because He undertakes Christ’s office in the world while Christ is not in the world as the God-Man in bodily form. In addition, the Holy Spirit is also called the Paraclete because He acts as Christ’s substitute on earth. When Christ in Jn 14:16 designates Himself as a Paraclete, the same as the Holy Spirit, the word must not be understood as applying to Christ in the same sense as in 1Jn 2:1 where it refers to our substitutionary Advocate who pleads our cause with the Father. It should rather be taken as He who pleads God’s cause with us (see Jn 14:7-9). The words parakaléō (3870) and paráklēsis (3874), the act or process of comforting or advocating, do not occur at all in the writings of John.

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