The Bible

Is the Bible itself an evidence for God?  Well, one would be hard-pressed to find another 2500-year-old document that continues to influence the moral behavior of millions of people daily.  Why do you suppose that is?  Is it because standing against the cultural tide is somehow trendy?  Or that dying to yourself so that you can live for God is somehow ‘cool’?  Or, is it more likely that the Bible actually is God’s instruction for us, and that as a result, he has seen to its preservation for these millennia?

Whatever else you may think about it, we know the Bible is the most popular book in the world, by a lot.  That fact, by itself, doesn’t say anything about its accuracy or authenticity.  It does, however, say a lot about its impact on our civilization, certainly since the advent of printing.

The purpose of the book is to show us that, and who, God is, and how He operates; show us who we are, what our problem is, and how we, therefore, operate; reveal His plan for redeeming creation and its humankind to Himself, in spite of ourselves; and to instruct us on how to live with one another (2 Tim 3:14-17). The book, at its core, contains these messages.  So if we’re to evaluate whether God exists, we’ll have to understand what this ancient text has to say about Him.

Now, many Christians profess belief in the “inerrancy of scripture”, by which they mean that the book contains no untruths.  Despite its many apparent contradictions (cleverly depicted at this anti-biblical site), I would agree with this controversial interpretation as long as we’re talking about the book’s core messages (which we’ll look at, below).  So in other words, when you are reading the book and you encounter some detail that apparently contradicts another detail, don’t use it to excuse its primary narrative.  Whatever inconsistency you may observe is, I think you’ll find, absolutely meaningless to the larger story that’s being told.

They would also claim that it is “inspired” by God, meaning that one way or the other, God inspired what is written in the book.  This too I would agree with.  For me this is particularly evident when looking at the Gospel message in the New Testament.  It’s extremely difficult to imagine men, under any circumstances, much less the very hardscrabble, adversarial, punitive world the Bible depicts, somehow inventing the messages Jesus taught, not least loving ‘your neighbor as yourself’.  Given the accepted ‘tribute-for-favor’ understanding of ‘gods’ among the people of that day, it’s just far easier to conclude that that message originated outside of man himself, as it had (and has) no precedents.

What it is not is a history book, at least by current standards, or a scientific text.  Certainly, it contains some accurate history (as we know from other sources of the day that confirm much of its historical narrative).  But recording its events with precision was not its purpose.  Its events serve to highlight God’s treatment of people in response to their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, faith or disobedience; or, it serves to amplify some characteristic of God himself or His plan.

It contains a few passages implying a science, but describing them as one would expect of a science text isn’t its purpose either, and sound a lot more like poetry than calculus.  So, for my part, I’m not going to stress over whether, for example, there was a battle and one side (the good guys) was victorious because God intervened and killed 185,000 troops from the other side (the bad guys, Assyrians in this case, who confirm the result that they did not conquer Jerusalem, though not its details).  The question to ask is: “What is the message conveyed through there being a battle and the one side, quite improbably, winning?”  Or, more generically, who was involved in the event or story, what was its outcome, why, and therefore what is being taught that I should learn?

It’s not practical to give even an outline or summary of the various books of the Bible here.  That would require a book in itself, and there are already lots of those.   So I’m just going to give you my interpretation from 30,000 feet of some of its major themes that teach us something about God and His relationship to us, spending significant time looking at it’s crucial, but largely overlooked, teaching on the Kingdom of God.

God’s Covenant with Man

Once you get past the rather profound opening of the Bible, in which God creates the Universe ex nihilo (out of nothing, in agreement with physicists’ current understanding of the Big Bang), you’re led into the stories of the covenants He makes with the humanity He created.  A covenant in the Bible, of course, is a kind of contract which expresses a quid-pro-quo between God and His people: “if you do this, I’ll do that.”

We start with the implied covenant with Adam and Eve.  Here, the terms are a little different.  Here God says “I’ve already done this (created an earthly paradise for you to enjoy in My presence forever), and all I ask is that you don’t do that (eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil).  In return, you’ll get not only to live with Me eternally in this perfect creation, but have dominion over and be its steward.”   Of course they do eat the fruit of that tree (were talking about people, after all), and suffer God’s curse for their disobedience which consists, among other things, of expulsion from their paradise and the presence of their Creator, and a sentence of death[1].  The assumed collateral damage, though not explicitly stated, is that Creation itself has become corrupted through this disobedience – it was perfect but now contains imperfection.  Therefore, bad things (e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues) will happen, wild animals will attack people, etc.  And, of course, the descendants of Adam and Eve continued to do bad stuff starting right away with Cain murdering his brother Abel.  The pattern starts to emerge.

These events raised the question: If God intends His Creation to be a perfect and holy Eden, inhabited by faithful followers, how will He now accomplish that?  How will He cleanse it and return it to the way He intended?

Skipping over Noah and the flood[2] (and another covenant), we’re then introduced to Abram (who God will soon rename Abraham — father of a multitude).  Here God tells Abram that he is to pull up stakes in his home and move to a land which God will direct him to.  God tells him that (in return for his obedience) he, now 75, will be the father of many nations and importantly, that they will become “a blessing” to all the families of the earth.  Abram obeys and moves, with wife Sarai and nephew Lot, to what is now Israel – specifically Jerusalem.  Soon after arriving they have to migrate to Egypt to escape a famine, and years later return.  After some intrigue with Sarai’s servant Hagar, eventually Sarai (now Sarah) becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac, their only son, establishing Abraham’s lineage.

When Isaac is a small boy, God asks Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice.  Abraham famously obeys right up to the moment the knife in his hand is stayed by God.  God instead provides a ram for the sacrifice.  Because of this demonstration of the depth of Abraham’s faith in God, God reiterates his promise to “multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”[3]

Just as Adam is the poster boy for disobedience to God, Abraham is the Bible’s rock star of actionable faith in God and, as a consequence, unfailing obedience. This is why God’s Abrahamic covenant is sometimes referred to as the covenant of faith, and is a foundational message of the Bible.  Israel, in reciting the scriptures containing the promise to Abraham of nations and their destiny to become a blessing, saw itself, since they were in his family tree, and had been, in fact, called out specifically and “redeemed” in the Exodus story.  As the vast majority of the Old Testament relates, however, the Israelites repeatedly failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

Israel’s Disobedience

Tracing through the Old Testament’s (OT) story of God’s people, perhaps the most persistent theme is the sinfulness and disobedience of the Jews to their God.  Beginning with their rebellion in the desert exodus from Egypt, and continuing throughout their habitation in the Promised Land, these folks just didn’t want to get with God’s program.  Repeatedly they ignored His laws, moral and otherwise, practiced deceit and lack of charity, and took up the worship of other gods.

These behaviors sent their prophets over the edge, railing against their “whoring under every tree” and worshipping false gods on every mountain top.  In response to their disobedience, God strengthens their enemies, leading to their defeat and banishment (exile) from the land; first by the Assyrians, later by the Babylonians, and eventually by the Romans.  But in between these major catastrophes they were continually besieged by one (gentile) enemy after another.  The recurrent theme here is: The Israelites repent of past sins and return to faith and obedience for a time; then they fall away, ignoring God and His prescriptions for living, practice idol worship, immorality and general iniquity; God imposes His discipline for their iniquity by exiling them (initially out of the Garden of Eden, out into the wilderness after Mt. Sinai, out into the hands of their enemies, and ultimately out of the land completely after the Romans in 70 AD.

One of the messages you have to take from these sagas is that if this is the best the people chosen by God himself can do, having received his promises, seen his miracles, experienced his blessings, had Him literally live among them, then we’re all in a lot of trouble.

A quick digression regarding reading the OT:  I think it’s important in reading these BC scriptures to keep in mind the context in which they were penned.  Unlike our routine safety and plenty, these folks lived a daily struggle for existence and safety. They lived in small enclaves that treated people outside their enclave as “them”.  Expanding the enclave/tribe to the nation (people group) of Israel, there were many hostile “them” surrounding their land – all the regional “ites” on both sides of the Jordan River, the Assyrian Empire to the north, Babylonians to the east, Philistines to the west, Egyptians to the south and, when they came, the Romans, who seemed to have taken over everywhere.  Civilization then was primarily tribal.  And tribes often fought.  The persistent threats to daily life included finding/growing sufficient food for yourself and your family, not dying of disease or childbirth, or having your children die, and not succumbing to your hostile neighboring nations’ (tribes’) attacks as they attempt to slaughter you and take all your stuff.

This is the common existence that results in what we read in the OT.  So while there is some absolutely exquisite prose and poetry (e.g. Ps 23, Song of Solomon, various prayers of reverence in the Prophets), there are many, many pleadings to God to vanquish their enemy and preserve (save) them, and calling on God to send rains to sustain their flocks and produce crops, etc.  Nearly always, these petitions are presented in terms of asking these favors of God so that God’s righteousness and power will be shown to their oppressors – their version of God’s quid-pro-quo in the deal.

My point in bringing this up is that this material can sound a little petty at times – “Hurt them to show yourself great”.  But I believe you should reserve your judgement on this, for a couple of reasons:

  1. In many of the situations from which these petitions arose, God was literally their only hope of being restored to some semblance of normal life: without His intervention they were either going to die (e.g. the Assyrian invasion and the decimation of every town in Israel except Jerusalem), starve (in frequent draughts) or remain prisoners in another land, and
  2. recall that their calling, as the people of God’s covenant with Abraham, was to be a blessing to the nations. What better way to bless your enemy than to show him the power and reality of the real God of the Universe?

Now it seems to me that for those who subscribe to the doctrine of a super-sovereign God (discussed briefly earlier), in which we literally have no ability to affect our relationship with Him, it’s weird that the OT overflows with these petitions begging for salvation from these clear and ever-present threats.  Why would the Inspiration for the book (if not its literal Author) choose to devote so much emphasis, so many stories, so many lessons on the consequences of disobedience to Him, if faith in and obedience to Him was not in our effective control – not our responsibility?  When we’re looking at the grand themes of the Bible, obviously the Israelites’ persistent failure to live according to God’s instruction, and subsequently to seek His forgiveness, is certainly one of those major themes.  In trying to develop a deeper understanding of God and His plan, it’s worth asking yourself what this theme is meant to teach us?

The Faithful Remnant

Throughout their tribulations, the Bible always notes that there were “a few” (see e.g. Is 1:9, Jer 42:2) Jews who maintained their faith in YHWH (the consonants of God’s name translated from their Hebrew characters) and were steadfast.  This becomes important as a Biblical theme for a couple of reasons.  First, that there remained a continuous presence of faith in Israel on whose behalf a restoration of their land and life was justified. Paired with God’s love for His chosen, though disobedient, people, it certainly helped justify the case for their redemption as a whole that there were a few faithful who never threw in with their disobedient brethren.  This continuity of faith becomes important in understanding that God’s favor to Abraham, and his descendants in Israel, was steadfast because of His character – His love, but was justified because there were among the Jews a remnant that never wavered, despite the waywardness of their countrymen all around them.  Crucially, this remnant of faith culminated in Jesus.

Second, for believers, that this line of faith was unbroken, despite unrelenting hardship.  It presents a life lesson for all of us that are searching for a model of how to endure life under the onslaught of bills, illness, losses, broken relationships, and attacks of all kinds.  It forces you to ask the question “how did these people have such patience with/on God to endure as they did?”, and gives us a first-hand look at the power of faith.

God’s Faithfulness and The Promise of a Messiah

God says in many places that He will ultimately send a Messiah (literally, an “anointed one”) to rescue ‘His people’.  Isaiah (especially chapter 11) is full of prophecy of a coming savior of the Jews.  Isaiah 53 (the infamous “forbidden” chapter of the Hebrew Bible) contains the prophecy of the “suffering servant”.  Jews have rationalized this chapter, and thereby their rejection of Jesus and this chapter from their Bible, by reading into the “suffering servant” the entire Jewish nation (based on similar attributions in other parts of the book).  Christians, of course, see in the “suffering servant” the person of Christ.

Now it has been pointed out that the Bible, in fact, refers to many “Messiahs” – many “anointed ones”.  David, for example was anointed by God, as David himself attests in his Psalms.  True.  But the Davidic Messiah (Is 11:1-9, Je 23:5, Zc 3:8), the one who was to redeem Israel and give it rest from its enemies, was the One who, according to Daniel (Dn 9:25-26) had to show up sometime before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, which occurred in 70AD.  The only person who fits that description and timeline is Jesus.  God was faithful to the fulfillment of His promise of a righteous king for the “peoples” starting with the prophecy of Jacob, way back in Genesis 49:10.

To the Israelites, the Messiah was the one who would subdue their enemies and in fact cause them to stream into Israel to be blessed by the Israelite God, and offer up to the Israelites all of their possessions[4].  Their Messiah was a conqueror: more of a military leader than a redeemer:  more of a general than a servant, suffering or otherwise.

Little wonder, then, that most of them rejected Jesus as their Messiah when He finally came.  He just didn’t fit the popular profile of the triumphant national savior come to overwhelm Israel’s enemies, especially after He was murdered.  They were expecting the “Day of the Lord” scenario, that the Messiah would sit on David’s throne, vanquish the Romans, and restore prosperity and tranquility forevermore to the Israelites.  None of that happened.

For me, the entire sweep of Israel’s 1500 or so year pre-Christ history was God’s plan for showing us that we are not capable of living as He intends us to.  Time and again we see brief instances of Israel’s leaders, or, less frequently, the entire nation, doing as instructed by God, and being rewarded, only to immediately fall back into extended periods of disobedience, and the inevitable repercussions.  After a millennia or so of these hammer blows, you would think that they (and now us reviewing their history) would have figured out that their very nature was the problem.  But they didn’t, aside from a few of their prophets, who the people rejected and in some cases tried to kill.  They figured it was their individual ‘sins’ (e.g. idol worship, intermarriage with idol worshipers, etc.) that caused God’s rebuke, not that they were by nature incapable of meeting God’s intent for them.  God had painfully set the stage for His solution – His redeemer of mankind.  But Israel missed it, continuing to expect their Messiah to appear to vindicate them as the ‘chosen’ people and to vanquish their oppressors (a figure for whom they are still waiting).

Israel was, indeed, chosen.  But they were chosen not for their own blessing, but to prove to them and to the world it needed a Redeemer, who was one of them, and in so doing to live out their destiny to be a blessing to the world — the rest of us.

Paul Gets It

One of those who vehemently rejected Jesus during his life was Saul of Tarsus who went from being a Pharisee (a religious Poo-Bah), a Jew-among-Jews, an ardent persecutor of Christians (Gal 1:13) and participant in the murder of the Apostle Stephen, to the most important champion of Christ in history.  Until his Damascus Road experience, he held firm to a belief in the “chosen” or “elect” status of the people of Israel, the righteousness of those who followed the laws of Moses and the indivisibility of the One God, YHWH.  His view of salvation, like other 1st century Jews, was that God would eventually return to Zion, calling all his Jewish children back from wherever they had been exiled/dispersed, and avenge Israel’s (gentile) enemies (notably to Paul, Rome), even making them subservient to the Hebrews.  He was well aware that the prophets had called for a savior, a Messiah, to intervene.  But his understanding of the role of this Messiah, like that of most 1st century Jews, was to lead the armies of God against the Jewish oppressors and vanquish them – to save Israel.

Fortunately, Christ knocks him off of his donkey on his way to Damascus and gives him the briefing.  It is only then (and in the 4 or so years afterwards that he took to rethink what he had grown up believing and practiced as a Pharisee, in the context of what he now knew) that Paul realizes that he had completely underestimated the sheer magnitude of the problem God was to solve through His Messiah.   It wasn’t just a problem of Israel’s disobedience and resultant persecution that needed correcting.  It was that all mankind was disobedient and needed a way to be restored to God, their Creator.

Try to imagine for a moment the enormity of the transformation in thinking that had to occur in Paul (Saul).  Now he sees that those chosen of God through Abraham are not all Jews, but those with abiding faith in God among Jews and gentiles alike.  Now he sees in Christ the Messiah not a conquering general, but a servant who dies and is resurrected, and not just a man but of God himself.  And that not only was the problem that needed solving the un-rightness (sinfulness) of his fellow Jews, but the un-rightness of all people and indeed of Creation itself.

Because of the magnitude of the problem, the only possible resolution, he reasoned, was that God, in His incarnation as Christ, had to take on Himself Creation’s un-rightness and His consequent judgement against it, be sacrificed and then raised up from the dead, defeating the curse of death humanity had incurred since Adam.  That God would sacrifice His incarnate self – His Son – must have completely blown Paul away (as it should us). Little wonder then that Saul’s zeal, once displayed for his faith and God, underwent a significant change in direction toward Christ and His Holy Spirit, resulting in Paul professing the life, death and resurrection of the Christ, and belief in it as the requirement by which not just his fellow Jews, but all of Creation would one day be redeemed.  Truly and utterly amazing.

Following Jesus’ life, however, Paul announces that, in keeping with the faith that Abraham displayed, those who held such faith in Jesus would be Abraham’s “seed” – his spiritual offspring (Gal 3:16-17).  While the Jews continued to invoke their “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, it was lost on them that these three men, and others in their lineage, were paragons of faith (in the sense of reliance) in YHWH.  And it was their faith that set them apart, not their genealogy.  Faith had been the basis of God’s covenant with Abraham from the get-go.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

Jesus is the message throughout the Bible.  And the foremost theme in the NT that He wanted us to get was the presence and availability of the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of the Heavens.  And just so you don’t think this “Kingdom thing” is some kind of ethereal, ‘out there’ mumbo-jumbo, keep in mind that to the first century ear, the term “heavens” included the space right in front of your face, as well as the place of God’s habitation.)

I became interested in understanding the Kingdom of God, and more specifically the “now” implementation of it (as contrasted with its perhaps more familiar end-of-time context), fairly recently.  The catalyst was my involvement with a charity we formed to serve the people of Southern Ethiopia.  As I learned more about third- (or “majority-”) world development, I continued to bump into references to God’s Kingdom as the archetype for Christian development efforts among the poor.  The confusion for me was Christ’s declarations that the Kingdom had been established here, and was here now.  Yet, as we all know, the world is a pretty corrupt and unrighteous place.  Naturally, this raises questions that need answers.

The Kingdom Inaugurated

The first words of Christ in Mark’s gospel are:

Mark 1:15 (ESV) and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

Jesus preached the Kingdom constantly throughout his ministry, as did his disciples following his crucifixion.  From this we can be assured that the Kingdom of God (/the Heavens) is a paramount teaching of Christ.  He announced it as being here now – the fulfillment of the many promises of earlier prophets (see e.g. Daniel[5]).  Christ said that the Kingdom was “in the midst of you”[6] (other translations incorrectly render this “is within you”), but also said it was “not of this world”[7], and he said that it is the first thing you should seek.[8] But then he never defined precisely what it is.

The Kingdom of God has three realities.  The first reality was its inauguration into the world in the person of Christ.  Through his preaching and miracles, he instantiated the power of God on earth, and declared the Kingdom in which he reigned.  Then Jesus taught what we had to do to enter it, and what our work there was to be, so that following his departure we had a kind of roadmap.

The Kingdom Now

The second reality, then, is of the Kingdom “in the midst of you” following Christ’s inauguration of it, which is available to all of us in the present – the Kingdom “on earth” as it were (“as it is in Heaven”).  The Kingdom here and now has caused people the most confusion from the beginning, even among Christ’s disciples following his resurrection.[9]  I certainly cannot claim any special understanding.  But I have built my belief on what the New Testament has to say about it, as well as what others way more learned and devout than me have concluded after much study and prayer.

The first thing to note about the Kingdom now (but before the “Day of the Lord”) is that it was ushered in by the provision and actions of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.[10]  Now the Spirit of God was at work for the faithful prior to His outpouring on Pentecost.[11],[12]  So what changed on that day? He became an indispensable enabler and helper, for all those having faith in Christ, to enter and make their new home in His Kingdom.  And He was made available to anyone who believed, not just Israelites.  Here we confront the entire Christian gospel.  The Gospel of John is as good a place as any to hear this:

John 3:3-5 (ESV) Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:16-21 (ESV) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”

Here we learn two requirements for entry: 1) One must be “born of water and the (Holy) Spirit, and 2) “whoever believes in him” (Christ, God’s “only Son”).  The first verse is, of course, the source of the phrase “born again” and states clearly that baptism by the Holy Spirit is a requirement for entry into the Kingdom.  In my understanding and experience, one cannot do anything pleasing to God in and of himself.  (The Bible characterizes such attempts as “filthy rags”[13].)  Jesus himself teaches this.[14]  The Holy Spirit must be the force that animates and enables you to take an action before that action is pleasing to God and in his will.  You must first ask the Holy Spirit to take over your life, and then subsequently you must ask Him to (and work with Him so that He is permitted to) take control your life in order for your life to be in the will of God.  This is called ‘submission’ to God, and is probably the single greatest turn-off to the modern (or possibly any) ear.  (We’ll talk more about this later, but for now, if you’re one of those who winces when reading that word, just keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the one who does all the heavy lifting.  Your end of the bargain is simply not to fight Him. ;))

The second verse requires a little “unpacking”.  The first point to focus on is the word “believes” in John 3:16. This word is the translation of the Greek pisteuō (present tense, indicating current and on-going action), whose definition is:

From G4102; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), that is, credit; by implication to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ):—believe (-r), commit (to trust), put in trust with.

The English word “believes” is so inadequate to convey the intended meaning of the action in this crucial verse.  For English speakers, “believe” is an intellectual action – someone presents an argument and we say “Yes, I believe that”, or “No, I don’t believe that”.  We agree (or not) that the argument is true.  That is not what the verb pisteuō is communicating here.  The proper sense of the statement is that whoever enters into and remains in a commitment of trust in Him shall not die, not just that the hearer agrees that Jesus was in fact the Son of God. (Even Satan believes that[15]).  I’m afraid that there are multitudes of self-identified “Christians” who have made this devastating mistake, and it’s not entirely their fault alone.  (Feel free to correct somebody you love, perhaps when the next “John 3:16” sign is shown behind a goalpost during a TV football game.)

The second thing in this verse to notice is its last sentence: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”  What He is saying here is that for those that have prayed for the Holy Spirit to take them over, that they will do things (because they have been enabled by the Holy Spirit) that demonstrate God’s will in the world, as He intended.  The message is: You’ll know such believers by their actions.

So we see that one has to have prayed in repentance for the Spirit to indwell them and take over their lives (baptism), and that one has to entrust his life to Jesus ChristThis is nothing more than the traditional Christian gospel, but one that had, at the very least in my case, but no doubt in millions of others’ too, been horribly misunderstood for decades.

Perhaps an analogy will help sharpen the reason for this tragic misunderstanding.  If your doctor tells you that you have a life threatening condition requiring immediate surgery that itself could be life threatening, you “believe” him, probably after getting a second or third opinion, in the sense that you agree with his diagnosis that your condition requires prompt surgery – he is the expert.  However, when you are on the table being rolled into the operating room, you entrust yourself to him.  You are committed to him and his capabilities.  He becomes the single person on whom your whole life depends.  This is the meaning of John 3:16, that you place Christ as the person to whom you cede control of your life and on whom you are totally dependent for that life.  For the true Christian, this is life: total reliance on Christ.

The people that meet these “requirements” are the citizens of the Kingdom. This Kingdom of God, then, is the state in which people under the influence of God’s Holy Spirit interact with Him and with one another.

How It’s Established

Jesus described the Kingdom in parables, and about this tactic he says:

Mark 4:10-12 (ESV) And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.

This is strange. Jesus seems to be saying (quoting Is. 6:9-10) that he’s intentionally obscuring his truth from the people, but not from his disciples.  This teaching provides great insight.  For the disciples he spelled everything out in plain language.  But he used parables in addressing the people so that they had to believe and exercise their minds to discover the truth the stories contained.  In other words, those who accepted and expended effort seeking the truth in listening to him would find it.  Those who didn’t wouldn’t.  And despite the fact that this event (Jesus preaching from a boat in Capernaum) occurred before he had sent the Holy Spirit to the people, the principle was and is still true.  You will never understand, let alone agree with, God’s truth until you sincerely seek to find it.[16]

In his most famous parable, that of the mustard seed, we get a vision of how Christ intended for his Kingdom to be manifested on earth.  In this parable (Mk 4:30-32[17]) the seed (that is symbolically Christ) is sown and grows into a great bush or “tree”, sufficient to shelter birds in its shade.  But as we know the plant does not go immediately from seed to grown tree, but first sprouts a few small branches which themselves grow branches and so on until ultimately, in its full dimension, it can shelter birds.  The parable seems to teach that the Kingdom is organic – that it grows and spreads until ultimately it houses in its shelter those who seek its sustenance – those people seeking a righteous place to live.  At this point Jesus hasn’t commissioned his disciples to “make disciples of all nations”[18], but this parable seems to set the stage for it and establish Jesus’ expectation for how his Church would spread and grow up.  The disciples (as the first branches) knew “the secret of the Kingdom of God”, and in their post-resurrection ministries were equipped to spread it and watch it grow.

Like a Child

Mark[19] and Luke (Lk 18:17) describe the scene where, after healing a blind man near Jericho, the crowds were pressing in on Jesus with their children who were held back by his disciples.  Jesus rebukes the disciples and says “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” A casual reading of this statement would likely leave the reader (as it initially left me) with a warm fuzzy feeling about “receiving” the Kingdom as children, in their purity and innocence.  But it’s likely that’s not what Jesus was teaching here, since even as kids we’re not pure or innocent, as Christ well knew.

Bruce Chilton[20] points out (p 83-85) that the term rendered “receive” is the Greek dechomai, which itself is likely a rendition of the Aramaic “teqep”, which can mean either to passively receive, or it can mean to forcefully take.  Chilton argues for the later, based on Jesus’ likely use of it in Mt 11:12 and his unsympathetic characterization of children playing and squabbling in the marketplace in Mt 11:16-17 & Lk 7:32.  The image is one of normal, aggressive kids playing hard and grabbing forcefully what they want.  Chilton concludes:

“Making the kingdom one’s sole object of interest, the way a child fixes on a toy or on a forbidden object, makes one pure enough to enter the kingdom…In Jesus’ conception the purity required by the kingdom is a purity of response, of being like children at rough play in grasping at the kingdom.”

I don’t know about you but I much prefer the image of natural children grabbing for themselves that which they prize.  It’s certainly a more honest characterization of children, and a far more forceful metaphor to describe what the response of the believer should be.

The upshot of most of Christ’s sayings regarding the Kingdom had to do with who was in it, not what it was.  So we can conclude that it’s key characteristics are:

  1. The commitment, obedience and devotion to God of those who have pleaded for its entry through Christ Jesus and;
  2. The nature and purpose of its King.

In religious terminology, the Kingdom “now” is His Church, meaning the collection of people who have asked for and been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and committed themselves to live for Christ, and that then actually do it.  This is to distinguish it from the church – the collection of people who, for example, happen to meet on Sunday mornings in your local church building.  Sadly, these are two quite different sets of people, as Christ taught 14.  Certainly there’s some overlap in the two groups.  But as mentioned above, clearly there are millions of Americans (to pick on us) sitting in pews Sunday morning that are no closer to the Kingdom than your non-Christian neighbor on that same Sunday morning with a beer in his hand, screaming at the NFL game on his TV.  It’s not a stretch to believe that the source of a lot of the disdain with which modern society views the organized church today is because they see no difference in these two.

I mentioned earlier that I was drawn to the topic of the Kingdom of God by allusions to it by some Christian developers operating among the poor in the majority world and elsewhere.  There is a long tradition in “liberal” Christianity of working to implement the Kingdom of God on earth through human devices and works.  These efforts took all manner of forms.  The premise of Cromwell’s representative government system in Britain was as a vehicle by which the Kingdom could be implemented.  They thought that an organized mechanism for caring for the poor and disaffected would, administered by a Christian government, itself lead to a higher morality that would usher in a man-made Kingdom of God.  Later, the advent of the “Social Gospel” movement in America took hold in which the work of Christians was thought to be the missing ingredient that had prevented the creation of the Kingdom on earth and with it, the social perfection of man.

The Social Gospel movement spawned missionary efforts sponsored by western churches and church-supported organizations to support the poor in the majority world and, of course, “reach them for Christ”.  Over time, these efforts have in the main (though there are fairly recent notable exceptions) had the effect of destroying whatever God-given dignity their recipients may have had by converting them to aid-dependent serfs of our western good intentions.  Simply put, missions seeking to raise people from poverty have created many more horror stories than stories of vibrant, self-supporting Christian communities left in their wakes.[21]

The Kingdom “Not Yet”

The Bible is clear that ultimately, Christ will return to rule his Kingdom on earth[22],[23].  This final judgment and the gathering of Christ’s Church to life in him eternally has had the effect of convincing some Christians that they need do nothing but wait – be pious, live decent lives and be patient.  They see no point, despite the admonition of the gospels, in trying to advance the Kingdom on earth now.  This attitude carries over from the beliefs prevailing in Victorian Europe.

This attitude, I’m afraid, has two tragic flaws.  First, it makes their earthly life quite meaningless, a kind of protracted waiting room.  Second, it is disobedient to God. For most of history the traditional Christian belief has been that our purpose here is to glorify God by serving as his agents on earth.  If we remain unengaged from this world, we disobey.  We won’t all work to “make disciples of all nations”[24], but service to God is not limited to missionaries.  It’s available on a nearly minute-by-minute basis throughout each of our lives.  Simple, everyday interactions with people are exactly the times where God would have us model Him to our neighbor.  All we have to do is just submit to Him and let Him live in us.

Miracles – “Signs and Wonders”

You likely won’t find ‘Miracles’ listed in most lists of major themes in the Bible.  But I think they are just that, especially when we’re exploring the Bible as an evidence for the existence of God – from the plagues in Egypt to Jesus restoring the sight of the man born blind, at Siloam.

There has developed a certain disdain in the modern mind toward all things ‘miraculous’.  You know, such things are just fantasies of the weak minded.  Rating particular contempt are those miracles ascribed to Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament.  (It’s even easier to blow off Old Testament events as they are in the more distant past and more potentially self-serving for their beneficiaries – the Israelites.)  These things, this mind reasons, are simply stories invented to puff up these people’s delusion of being chosen, thus underscoring their own importance.  After all, who among us hasn’t heard of dozens of tall tales told by, say, politicians (just to pick a class of people at random) designed to build their appeal (e.g. prior military/war service, Indian heritage, charitable donations, denial of sexual indiscretions, etc.) that turned out to be utter fabrications?

I understand the skepticism.  But the skepticism is from those who don’t believe there is a God; who don’t accept the premise that the universe was created.  Think with me for a moment: If the universe was created by the being we call God, what possible problem could it be for such a being to either cause locusts to devour all the crops of the Egyptian delta, or even kill off the first born of those Egyptians, or knit the cells in an ocular nerve back together to restore the sight of a guy who had never had it.  Certainly a God who could create all the sub-atomic particles, moments after the creation “bang”, that would 14 billion years later be assembled into the atoms and molecules that comprise you (and, do so for the purpose of creating you, specifically) would have little difficulty marshalling some locusts, suspending some lives, reanimating other lives (e.g. the ruler’s daughter, Lazarus, Jesus Himself), or repairing some damaged cells.

Now the skeptic would no doubt counter: “If it’s so easy for God to perform ‘miracles’, why doesn’t he just wipe out cancer, or ISIS, or any number of other threats to our comfortable existence?”

After first acknowledging that nobody “knows the mind of God”[25], I think we can learn from the earlier-reported miracles as to their purpose.  Cleary they were used to make the statement that God was the presence accomplishing the miracle, thereby educating those who saw/experienced it, and glorifying Himself.  (And before judging such things as self-serving on God’s part, remember that at the time these things happened, there were dozens of gods for every tribe and nation.  So if the people were to be made to understand the power of Israel’s unique Creator-God, in contrast to their own carved images, they would hugely benefit from knowing that there was one true God.)  He was also, preeminently with Jesus, using these miracles to show that Jesus was, in fact, His son, the one who had come to fulfill the covenant.

Now if He were to suddenly decide to eradicate cancer, what do you suppose our modern society would conclude was the “why” of cancer’s sudden absence?  Can you imagine that the consensus would be that “God must have done it!”?  That possibility seems laughably remote to me.  That’s just not the way people think today.  Because of our cultural prejudices, we would have to come up with some natural explanation that was at least plausible, or, more likely, doctors and scientists would simply leave it at “We simply don’t know”, and that would be more than good enough for the public.  To explain a profoundly good thing “I don’t know” is an adequate answer.  To explain a disaster, like AIDS or the Zika virus or a mass shooting or whatever, the modern mind needs something to be at fault.  And in the case of natural disasters and plagues, God is often the accused even among atheists, if subliminally.

But, of course, miracles do continue to occur when they serve God’s purposes.  It is true that today they don’t affect huge collections of people such as in the days of the Exodus.  But they are no less unexplainable and impactful in the lives of those they do affect.

Jesus’ Death, Burial and Resurrection

The entire sweep of the Bible points to the need for there to appear on the scene a champion for the Jews who doesn’t just atone for their iniquity, but for the world’s – all of us.  And that guy is Jesus.  Despite His miracles, despite His describing a state of peace and wholeness for humanity that He was making possible, and despite His explanation of the completely unnatural ‘economy’ of the Father’s Kingdom (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount – Mt. 5), He was still dismissed as a heretic and blasphemer, and sentenced (without a formal declaration of guilt) to a brutal death.  Here we have the Son of God, the essence of God himself, shredded and nailed on a post to enable us to live eternally with Him in joy.

That scourging and death on the cross would, however, have been totally obscure and completely pathetic without the miracle that followed, that of God raising him to Himself from the dead.  The Bible recounts not only His disciples and close followers seeing Him after his resurrection[26], but hundreds of others[27].

Here we have the critical story of the Bible.  Either it’s true, or it’s not.  If it’s true, as Christians believe, then it’s game over. All the rest of the story then fits tightly into the Bible’s story of God’s plan for His people.

The reasons not to believe it are familiar: it’s self-serving (by his followers) designed to validate them; it’s an ancient fantasy – dead people don’t re-live; there were lots of miracle workers reported in that day: what should that tell you about this one – Jesus?, etc.  Why should I ever believe this ridiculous claim?

The first reason is a little obscure:  the first witnesses of the resurrected Christ were…women.  In the year 30AD, the word of a woman wasn’t even valid evidence in court.  It wasn’t even hearsay.  So why would the biblical authors credit women (Mary and the Magdalene) with being the first witnesses of the risen Jesus if they were only trying to substantiate an otherwise fraudulent story?  Perhaps because that’s who the first witnesses actually were?

The next reason is more straightforward.  Of the twelve disciples who lived daily with Jesus for His three years of ministry, all but John (who died in exile of old age) are reported in various sources to have been killed for their belief.  The natural question to ask is:  why would anyone, let alone the 11 men who knew Him the best (plus His half-brother James), die for a story they knew to be a lie?  These men had intimate knowledge of Jesus and of His appearance to them following His resurrection.  And through this knowledge, they knew that their own physical death would be nothing more than an inconvenience before experiencing everlasting joy with Him in eternity.  I can’t think of any reason they would subject themselves to death if it was just a fabricated story.  I can think of maybe one or two situations that I would give my life for.  But I can’t think of any that would be to substantiate a lie.

The Second Coming

When the Jews of the OT thought about God intervening in their future, they saw one of two scenarios: 1) God returns to judge the sin of all, including (perhaps most especially) Israel themselves, and 2) God would once and for all step in, assisted by His Messiah, and redeem all Israel, vanquish Israel’s enemies, and inaugurate a time in which God lived with them (in His Temple) while they safely lived out their lives on the land He had given them.  Both events were called the “Day of the Lord”[28], and for some at least, they were one-and-the-same action.  Whatever the outcome for individual Jews, this was going to be the end of things as they had been, which to some would yield better results for them than what they were currently experiencing (even if their personal outcome was simply death – oblivion.  Life after death was not an accepted concept by Jews until late in the second temple period, and then, as today, only by certain groups).

After Jesus arrived and taught about this event[29], the whole concept (eschatology) came into a sharp focus.  There would be a judgement (determining who’s a ‘sheep’ and who’s a ‘goat’).  And there would be two entirely different sentences pronounced depending on how one was judged.  Jesus’ apostles picked this up and made it a major theme of the NT[30],[31].

Most of the Jews of Jesus’ day could not accept Him as their Messiah precisely because they didn’t see Him effect their version of the “Day of the Lord”.  They had in mind the final end game – the Day of Judgement applied to all (or at least their enemies).  They needed and were looking for a permanent, physical fix.  Not only didn’t they see that, they saw Him crucified and put in a tomb, not sitting on the throne of God passing judgement on the world.  Shortly thereafter they experienced the destruction of the Temple and all of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the decimation of Israel and banishment of the few remaining survivors in 133 AD.  These two events only served to underscore to the Jew God’s ongoing enmity with their rebelliousness, certainly not their redemption. So they can be perhaps forgiven for not recognizing their Messiah.

But the problem in their understanding was that the arrival of the Christ before the Day of the Lord had never been explicitly foretold.  They, like their countryman Saul/Paul, couldn’t see the need for total spiritual redemption and renewal applicable to all mankind, in order fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, having to do with the peoples and life on this earth; before the end of days.  In Paul’s case, as we saw, he only got it after being told face to face by Christ.

Of course there will be a Day of the Lord (ushering in the Kingdom ‘Not Yet’) which, depending on your apocalyptic (end times) doctrine, may lead to a thousand-year reign of God on earth, but in any event leads to everlasting joy for those who believe.

Why?

We’ve only skimmed the surface of this amazing story here.  But even at this level you would be excused for wondering “why”?  Why would God create?  What could He possibly have in mind that would make all the hassle of creating a universe for us to be able to live in, creating us, and dealing with the centuries of our ignorance, disinterest and outright rebellion not only worth it, but desirable to Him?

While being mindful of the earlier note25 which states, in so many words,  “you don’t know”, I don’t think its forbidden to speculate, so I will.

The first thing to wrap our minds around is God’s absolute perfection.  Now I realize we can’t really do that.  But let’s at least not handicap ourselves in the task by projecting some anthropomorphic persona on Him – you know, the strict, grumpy grandpa, the guy with all the rules, the guy who wrote the book on wrath, etc.  God surely bears virtually no imaginable similarity to anything we know (Is 55:8-9).  So let’s not make it harder on ourselves than we need to by trying to fit him into some man-like caricature.

Now I would have to believe that intelligent perfection would desire to share itself with other intelligence, for mutual benefit.  It’s pretty clear to see what the benefit to us is in this relationship.  But what’s in it for God?  This, quite possibly, is the underlying concept behind the biblical theme of God’s “glory”.  In fact the Bible tells us that we were created for God’s glory[32].  John Piper (he of the reformed school) defines God’s glory as: “the going public of his infinite worth”.  So perhaps this idea of the glory of God is something like the sound of a tree falling in the forest: if there is no one there to perceive it…

OK, so there’s at least a plausible reason for God’s desire to share His perfection.  But then why did he create such a pathological species to work with?  (Here I don’t want to offend those who see in the Bible the creation of a ‘perfect’ species in Adam, who then fails, leading to our inheritance of this ‘fall’ of mankind.  It is surely all throughout its pages.  All I’m noting is that whatever the cause, what God has made us and what we have always been (including Adam), is a rebellious, disobedient species.)  Here we have to go even farther out on our limb.

Try this thought experiment.  Let’s say God’s creation was perfect in the sense of being continuously observant of and obedient to all His wishes.  I’ve characterized this scenario as like an ego-driven (though insecure) boss surrounding himself with a staff of sycophantic “yes-men”.  They, in fact, have no ability to do other than agree with and carry out the boss’ wishes.  Where do we find “glory” here?  Is this arrangement maximally glorious as seen by God?  I think not.  Somehow I just don’t see why God would design such an arrangement.  And obviously He hasn’t.

So there’s something “better”, to God, in the current arrangement.  Might it be that more glory is spread when imperfect (to put it mildly) objects of His creation, despite their native ignorance of, indifference to and, for some, outright hostility towards God, are fundamentally changed to want to seek, love and serve Him?  That’s my guess.

Next we’ll look at some scientific evidence for the existence of God.  Enjoy.

[1] Genesis 4:14-24 ( ESV )

[2] The Flood story is important in its own right.  We’ll look at it a bit in the next installment.

[3] Genesis 22:17-18 ( ESV )

[4] Isaiah 60:11 “Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations, with their kings led in procession.”

[5] Dan 7:14 (ESV) And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

[6] Luke 17:20-21 (ESV) Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

[7] John 18:36 (ESV) Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

[8] Mt 6:33 (ESV) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

[9] Acts 1:6 (ESV) So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

[10] Acts 1:7-8 (ESV) 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

[11] Ps 139:7 (ESV) Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?

[12] Ps 51:11(ESV) Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

[13] Is 64:6 (KJV) But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

[14] Mat 7:22-23 (ESV) On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

[15] James 2:19

[16] Mt 7:7-8 (ESV) “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

[17] Mk 4:30-32 (ESV) And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

[18] Mt 28:19-20 (ESV) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

[19] Mk 10:15 (ESV) Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

[20] Bruce Chilton, “Pure Kingdom – Jesus’ Vision of God

[21] Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, “When Helping Hurts – How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself

[22] Acts 1:10-11 (ESV) And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

[23] Rev 22:3-5 (ESV) No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

[24] Mt 28:19 (ESV) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:16 ( ESV ) 16£“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

[26] Luke 24:36-43 ( ESV )

[27] 1 Corinthians 15:6 ( ESV)

[28]Joel 2:30-32 ( ESV ) 30“And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.  32And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

[29] Matthew 25:31-34 ( ESV ) 31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

[30] Romans 14:10-12 ( ESV ) 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

[31] A little Hell, Fire and Brimstone: The Judgement

[32] Isa 43:6-7 Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”