There’s nothing like bad language to divide opinion. Back in the eighties when American Pastor and Professor of Sociology, Tony Campolo, took to the stage of Spring Harvest his audience were not prepared for what was coming. ‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘thirty thousand children are going to die of starvation, and you don’t give a shit. And more importantly, you are more offended by my use of the word shit than you are of those children who tonight will die.’ Campolo had made his point - but he’d also caused havoc for the organisers of the event!
Last weekend Stormzy, a 25 year old grime artist was the first British black solo artist to headline at Glastonbury. His performance electrified the audience and has gone down as one of the most notable performances in the history of the Festival. He started by saying, ‘We’re going to take this to Church and we’re going to give God all the glory now,’ before singing his hit song, Blinded By Your Grace. The performance has over 1,300.000 views on YouTube and it’s clear he is worshipping God and looking on in wonder as the crowd joins with him. It’s a rare moment in UK Pop Culture - and one that’s captured many emotions.
Later in the set he went onto to sing his latest song, Crown, where he suggests that standing for issues of social justice carries its own burden as the refrain: ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’ suggests. Now all this would be great: standing up for young black men; speaking out about the Grenfell tragedy; challenging institutionalised injustice - if he’d just stop cussing. His language causing him to connect with some and disconnect from others.
But we need to take a step back before rushing in, it's easy to step in and find fault but there were 100,000 people part of his congregation that evening.
Stormzy's music is making a connection with a new generation where many in the Church are not. Speaking as a Pastor I readily acknowledge we are living in a post Christian context and here we have half of Somerset singing:
Lord, I've been broken
Although I'm not worthy
You fixed me, I'm blinded
By your grace
You came and saved me
There in the midst of Popular Culture you have the echoes of grace reverberating across a field full of people. And he's not just dropped there - his platform has been borne out of his craft. The commitment to practising his art, of building his audience, of walking contemporary culture with all its challenges and opportunities. Perhaps in that world were cussing is a normative way of speaking we shouldn't be looking at his F bombs as much as his intentions. For sure the Faith Community to which his God songs align should be praying for this young man. Praying that fame won't spoil him, temptation won't ruin him, and success won't isolate him. What's for certain is we need people who are angry enough to speak up to the injustice around us and this is the role of the social prophet. He has his eye on a bigger goal - of speaking truth to power. Will he get it all right: no. Will his take always be correct: no. But at least he's coming across as some who does give a shit - and in this world of apathy and self-interest that has to be something to applaud.
A brief forage into the world of technology and it’s easy to feel daunted by the pace of change. In fact, if you are anything like me you probably feel like change is something that happens around you and your challenge is to simply keep up. A bit like sitting an exam that never quite ends. Futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote in 2001 that every decade our overall rate of progress was doubling but of the current century wrote, “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Now that's a lot of change - but from what we witness it feels closer to truth than fantasy. This is the technological age - we'd just better get used to it.
But technology is not the only thing evolving - so are you. Think about it. Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? Of course not. How we think about things has changed - evolved into a new normal, a way of viewing reality that adapts to the environment. Some people protest this - especially, but not exclusively religious people. I think it’s borne out of fear more than anything else. When I was a kid growing up in church some adults in the congregation believed video recorders were the work of the devil. A few years later and the vehicle of the devil was in the hands of the church playing the Cross and the Switchblade to its youth groups. Things change. As do attitudes.
I read the profile of Lyndon Bowring recently in Christianity magazine. Lyndon is a statesman within the Evangelical World, a campaigner of note whose contribution has been channelled through the Christian charity CARE which has been his life's work. Now, at the age of 81 he reflects on how he has changed - especially in relation to issues of sexuality. Of abortion he says, ‘But I think it’s compassionate caring that’s going to win hearts more than our campaigning. Thirty-one years ago, I marched through London with a banner that said: “Abortion kills”. I would never do that again.’ Regarding the LGBT community he commented, ‘I think we have changed our attitude. I think we were harsh in those days... somehow, we have got to show them that they are welcome and loved. And certainly, I’m longing to learn how to do that without changing my views.’ He continued, ‘If you are of that point of view, you think of the extremes of homosexuality and promiscuity. But when you encounter people who’ve fallen in love with someone of the same sex, and you remember what it was like to fall in love with someone of the opposite sex.... it’s not so much about sexual activity, it’s about tenderness and kindness towards each other.’
Attitudes change because life is not static. Perceptions are challenged often by new evidence coming to light. If things don't work in the way you were told they would - or should then you can only hold the position for so long before your integrity is compromised. At that point you have to either change or simply drift off into irrelevance wrapped in the shroud of naivety known as self-righteousness.
I've found much of this to be true in my own life hence the title - Embrace Your Evolution. We need to recognise that things change - you change, biblical interpretation changes, the way we see and understand the world evolves over time. The concern is if we don’t recognise this you have a higher chance of derailing faith - possibly your own and certainly the faith of those whom you lead and particularly your children. You may consider this to be a terrifying prospect, but the reality of the alternative is already well documented. You can only live consistently with what you believe to be true otherwise you will kill your soul.
To thrive you must enable people to handle complexity well. Of holding what might appear to be opposing positions in tension. If you fail to achieve this then you create untenable dilemmas, and I fear my own world of Christian fundamentalism has in many ways served to fuel this. To my mind there are several things that have contributed. Biblical literalism, consumerist Christianity and the explosion of the internet, to name but three have created environments in which Faith has been challenged in ways not experienced in my lifetime, but it’s not only these.
We must learn to engage with the world as we find it not as we would like it to be and that means developing faith that is robust, righteous and real. We all display our best side - the superficial aspect of our achievements, possessions, the way we are present in public, but this is not the real you or me. Our lives are lived in the grey areas of doubt and fear. We ponder on mystery, and yet wonder why there is so much suffering the world. Those we love lose jobs they have worked hard for or fail in business; are wrecked by an affair or broken marriage. We pray for those close to us only to see them die. If we don’t pastor well through complexity and pain, then we fail to create enough safe space for people to find redemption in their own brokenness. A robust faith that gives context for suffering and opens the pathway to mystery is what we need. This needs to be reflected in the songs we sing, the sermons we preach and the communities we create. We must do better.
In part two of Embrace Your Evolution we will look at the things I consider keys to a developing a faith that provides a pathway to navigate the complexities of the modern age and how we can evolve in our journey.
At least these are my thoughts! As usual the comments section is open!
Consider me sentimental but I always feel sad when something comes to an end. It might be my personality that I feel this way - or the fact I grew up in a stable environment, I’m not sure. I lived in the same house until l left home at 19 and cried when I did. I always feel choked when someone I am close to leaves, and often have to hold back the tears during a moment of change. I’m the guy you don’t want to take to see a sad film! I failed miserably in mastering the art of the stiff British upper lip. For me, change can be unnerving or unsettling – or perhaps both. And yet change is an inevitable part of life – we change, we need to change – and if we don’t embrace it – then change embraces us. We don’t live in a static universe.
In truth I have undergone my fair share of change and despite my reservations have worked with it to move on and forward in life. Something of which I was reminded this week with the demolition of the old St Francis Church Complex where we worshipped as a congregation for fifteen years. I remember negotiating the lease to take on the old hall and the long hours of refurbishment to get it fit for purpose. I was inducted into ministry in that place, married Jo there and dedicated our three children – all in that one hall. It has some history for us. I preached at least 40 sermons a year for 15 years there – we go back a long way with Franny’s. And now it’s all gone. Demolition has put an end to what served us well for all that time. That’s why I had to rush and get some photos – perhaps for posterity, maybe for memories and certainly as a record of history. It serves as a reminder that nothing lasts forever.
Yet that’s not all, for death is an important part of embracing something new. Would I go back there – no: but being there helped shape what and who we are now. Franny’s is part of the journey, chapters wrapped up in the mystery of what it is to be alive; to have hope and dreams, to work for what we believe in. It’s all rubble now. Broken bricks and twisted steel waiting to be recycled into what will come next. Photos hold our history – capturing memories of how things were, and how over time they pass away. They shaped us those bricks, those steel girders and wooden floors. They are part of us and in the letting go, in the moving on, space is given for something new to emerge. It is part of the circle of life.
At a deeper level it serves as a reminder that resurrection lies on the other side of death. ‘Unless a seed falls into the ground it remains a single seed,’ said Jesus. Sometimes we must let go to arrive at a new place. We can all be guilty of holding on too long, of staying put and letting life pass us by rather than learning to seize the moment. There can be sadness in seeing something pass that has existed for a long time – but on the other side of sadness is the opportunity of what is yet to be.
When it came to the final session of the recent blog series - What is the Bible? On reflection it made sense to present it as a podcast rather than a blog post since it flowed better that way. So that's what I've done. You can find it in the podcasts on my side or directly from Podbean via the link - https://stephenhackney.podbean.com/ Hope you enjoy it!
We carry our doubts, fears, worries and concerns - the shackles that bind and blind. But Good Friday arrives, and all are absorbed into the mystery of Christ.
This is Good Friday.
It’s called Good Friday for a reason. It’s good because the badness of the world was dealt a comprehensive blow - good because this was the day death died. Christ dealt with sin that he might conquer death - to take victory from him who held the power of death: the devil. As it says, ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’
The Apostle Paul writes, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.’ But the law only has power over those who can't keep it. To deal with death, sin must be extracted and for sin to be extracted the law must be upheld. So here comes the one who has ‘been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.’ The law is kept so the power of sin can be broken. And finally, the sting is removed, absorbed through Christ on the cross. The absorption of sin renders death powerless. The cycle is broken: ‘The death he died, he died to sin once for all.’
What’s more, ‘we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.’ The seed of death sown through sin - over which the devil held power is dealt its final blow and all heaven cries Hallelujah. The serpent is surpassed, his scheming ways crushed by the mystery of Christ. John exclaims: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.’
'It is finished'.
This is Good Friday.
It’s good not simply because it’s an historical event - but because it’s a living experience. Christ's death offers new life - the old has gone and the new has come. We enter this as someone passing from death to life. As those leaving slavery and walking into freedom.
In the final triumph its exclaimed, ‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’
All things are being made new. The story continues - Good Friday is not the end, only the beginning of God's intention. Death's power is broken – whilst we still live under its' shadow as we wait the fulfilment of all things. 'When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
This is Easter's cry. Hope emerging from the tomb, rising, declaring – shouting:
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is GOOD Friday.
(Bible References in order: Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:56; Hebrews 4:15; Romans 6:10; Romans 6:9; 1 John 3:8; Revelation 21:5; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57.)
Millions of us watched yesterday as the the great spire of Notre Dame fell prey to the flames of the fire that reduced it to ashes. And this on the second day of Holy Week that time when traditionally we recall Jesus entering the temple courts at Jerusalem and clearing out those selling proclaiming, “It is written,” he said to them, “ 'My house will be a house of prayer' ; but you have made it 'a den of robbers.'” You can imagine the doomsayers and what their blogs will be filled with today.
Jo and I visited the great Cathedral some years back and in truth I left feeling less inspired. But then for someone who came to faith in an overgrown shed, the architecture was somewhat lost on me at the time which feels rather like sacrilege today! So my feelings caught me by surprise when I saw the flames engulfing the the great Gothic House of God, and not least because Jo had pointed out the model version of the Cathedral on our visit to Legoland with the kids when some ten minutes later I received the BBC notification on my phone to say it was ablaze.
There’s something quite moving about an old, historic building consumed by flames. The destruction is so palpable - so quick and permanent. That which has stood for centuries crumbles before our eyes and suddenly we’re all bothered because it carries a clear message: How fragile life really is. Here one minute and the next gone. Something which we’d expect to remain for ever is taken in a moment and we are shocked.
Our inner longing for permanence and certainty is carried in buildings like Notre Dame. We may feel indifferent towards them; moved by them or simply neutral but their loss speaks its own message that resonates with the soul. All things are passing away and for life to have any semblance of meaning we have to dig deep into the heart to make sense of the temporal. Great architecture should inspire and move us beyond the aesthetic to stir our spirits. That’s why these places were built in the first place - to point us towards God; to remind us there is something bigger and greater than any one of us.
For generations the great architecture of the Church has inspired millions; people find peace, tranquillity and hope inside their beauty and consistency and we take this so much for granted until it’s taken away from us. Today as we look upon the destruction of Notre Dame we might find our hearts strangely moved and wonder why. Albeit from a very different context the Apostle Paul pondered such realities when he wrote, ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Notre Dame will rise from the ashes to once again remind a generation of the value of what can so easily be lost. No doubt Jo and I will be amongst its visitors and next time I am sure to view its beauty through different eyes.
A total of 613 laws made up the Torah and the job of the Rabbis was to interpret them to the people, so they could live holy lives before God. They were split into positive and negative commands as we are reminded here ...
The Talmud tells us (Tractate Makkot 23b) that there are 613 commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah; 248 Positive Commandments (do's) and 365 Negative Commandments (do not's). However, the Talmud does not provide us with a list of these commandments.
The burning question of the day was, of all the commandments: What is the greatest? Do they all carry equal validity? The nature of the debate was to get to the meaning of these rules and discover what lay at the heart of the commandments: What was their purpose?
So, they would debate them. And they were debating them when Jesus came. The two principal schools of rabbinical teaching during the time of Jesus came from Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel.
Rabbi Shammai was active in 1st Century BC and known for his strict approach to interpreting the laws of the Torah. Rabbi Hillel lived slightly later and he was known for his gentleness and moderation in the interpretation of the law.
Let’s notice how Hillel summarized the law to the way Jesus summarized it 40 years later. One day an impatient Gentile asked Hillel to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot! Hillel's response was: ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.'
When Jesus came, he said, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’
This, the Golden Rule as it was known was a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18.
18 ‘“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Which we will come back to later….
When Jesus came, he exposed the hypocrisy of the system that had built around the Pharisees and the religious system by showing how readily they missed the point.
Here’s a prime example from Mark 7
He pointed out how they were using a religious term Corban to justify not looking after elderly parents.
7 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’
6 He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘“These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.”
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
9 And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, “Honour your father and mother,” and, “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’
Thus… Using the Oral Torah (their own Traditions) to allow people to devote to Temple worship what they should have been using to care for their elderly parents.
…. And you do many things like that.
Many things - like - that.
They were missing the point.
Not only did Jesus point out but also entered into the debates of the day like around divorce for example when he sided more with Rabbi Shammai in terms of his own interpretation.
Jesus' Own Interpretation of the Law
Jesus seeks to take his followers back to the heart of what Torah was all about and he does this by rewriting parts of it. Like in this example here…
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
And by highlighting how they were missing the heart of what Torah was all about ....
23 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
And so to Matthew 22
The Greatest Commandment
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
37 Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
So, there we have it - the whole 39 books of the Hebrew scriptures hang off two hooks - and both are based around love. Which Paul points out here:
14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
1 John 4:7-12
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
So, what does love look like and what does it mean to love well? For us all 1 Corinthians 13 would be a good place to start!
As society continues to change there is real pressure on the church to adapt in order to stay relevant. Engagement will continue to drive growth and authenticity will be key to connecting with people. In observing both society and the place of the church within it and having served my own church at Hope for over two decades here are 12 observations I see as we move forward in a post Christian context.
These observations formed part of a wider talk on the church which I gave at Hope. You can listen to the talk in full here - www.hopechurchnottingham.org/2019care5/
• Expect the church to discover ways to integrate itself back into communities. Congregations will grow as communities are served and relevance is established. There is no short cut to this. The fact is a certain amount of transfer growth and immigration has propped up church statistics across the UK and particularly in our larger cities. The truth is seeing unchurched people come to faith is hard work which is why every church should have a strategy to reach the young - we must win the hearts and minds of the young or the church has no future. Period. NB the recent decision of the General Synod to reestablish the church in significant housing estates across the UK. is a great step forward in this regard.
• Expect the church to both shrink and grow at the same time. Nominal Christianity will see decline whilst at the same time a relevant form of faith will emerge. There will be fewer churches - but the churches that are left will exist because they are engaging.
• Expect to see an increase in the idea of people belonging before they believe. There will be the merging of boundaries and as churches form community hubs people will be attracted to join thus blurring the traditional areas of ‘in’ and ‘out’.
• The longings of the human heart are not going anywhere soon. If the church continues to address the big life issues: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? She will maintain her voice in the market place - but will have to compete with a growing plethora of other voices in a newly emerging interest in spirituality.
• Expect the church to move towards narrative based theology. Stories are the future - you can see this in the revival of cinema and the rise of mediums such as Netflix and You Tube. People are looking for experiences - stories are what best convey these experiences. Notice how Christian organisations are positioning themselves for this. NB the introduction of NT Wright as an article contributor for Premier Magazine is a case in point.
• Expect to see more churches put their services online as they seek to engage with people via the internet - the church is migrating towards the mobile phone for both millennial's and the young. NB the introduction of Churchome Global – A New Way to Church is a clear example of this emerging trend.
• Expect modern scholarship, archaeology, big data, and collaboration to change the way we both view, read and interpret scripture and move contemporary theology to a more Christocentric hermaneutic where the teachings and life of Christ trump other biblical texts and provide the platform for re- engagement and evangelism. Fundamentalism will continue to lose ground, especially in the West to a more progressive theology. NB - Andy Stanley’s latest book Irresistible is an example of this growing shift.
• Expect the church to start to take a greater check on its excesses as people grow increasingly suspicious of such fringe teachings like the prosperity gospel. NB Joyce Meyer's recent statement where she addressed some of her own excess highlights this shift.
• The church has dealt poorly with the issues of sexuality often acting as judge and jury over sexual ethics. Recent exposure of the churches hypocrisy in this area has caused deep and lasting damage and the scandal has embraced many of the mainstream denominations, with the Southern Baptist Convention in the US becoming the latest with 400 members facing sexual misconduct allegations resulting so far in 220 convictions. How can we expect to be heard if we are not able to keep our own house in order? A new humility will need to emerge from this brokenness if we are to rebuild trust. Such scandals arise at a time when the church does not have the same voice in mainstream culture - the outcome from this will be interesting to observe.
• Expect a softening in tone within the church towards sexuality as we go through a generational leadership shift and she tries to work through the biblical and pastoral responses to those who live with same sex attraction and those within the LGBTQ community generally. NB the latest report from the Ozanne Foundation shows that of 4600 people interviewed, 458 people had undertaken conversion therapy to try and ‘become straight’ and 91 people had attempted suicide. The issue of human sexuality in a broken world is deeply complex and challenging. If we don't want to be side lined as bigots or cast off as irrelevant then we will need to think deeply about our language and the way we speak and act otherwise we will lose our place at the table and the dialogue will continue without us.
• Expect a rise in the importance of connecting with the historical roots of the faith as people look for greater tangible realities in an ever secularised and shallow world. Orthodoxy will play a growing role in anchoring the tenants of faith around the historical Jesus whilst at the same time the 'fundamental' doctrines of denominations will become less important as people place experience over doctrine.
• Expect the church to engage in experiential Christianity - tying real lie issues to faith borne out of real experiences with God and his Spirit. Apologetics is not the answer to an experience hungry culture - encounters are. The church will continue to create atmospheres that allow for encounters with God.
So there we go - my 12 observations of the challenges and changes for the church as we move forward.
Like most things in life, to grasp a sense of the whole is to understand the big picture from which everything else make sense. The Bible is no exception to this. That’s why appreciating the Garden of Eden, the first story in Genesis as a metaphor for a temple is important. It’s the place where heaven touches earth – where divinity walks with humanity.
So it should come as no surprise to see many such images through the scriptures. The story of Jacob is such an example. In Genesis 28 we read…
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it…. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Broken down, the word Bethel means, Beth – House; El – God. Put together Bethel is the house of God – the place where humanity and divinity meet. It’s a picture of the temple.
As is the Tabernacle
Of which the writer of Hebrews speaks in this way…
They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’
And the first Temple
Which was built by King Solomon after his father, David had been disqualified on the grounds of spilling too much blood in battle.
And the second Temple
Otherwise known as Herod’s Temple.
It was built in the years after the Exile from Babylon, starting around 538 BC and Herod began an extensive rebuilding project around 20 BC that lasted about 40 years. It was this temple that existed during the time of Jesus.
As you can see its all about temples because it’s all about heaven coming to earth. And we need temples to act as the conduit of the divine presence.
Creation itself (heaven and earth) is the ultimate temple – and this is what Jesus comes to save, as we are reminded by the words of Christ himself, ‘For God so loved the world (Cosmos) that he gave….’
The Temple – Garden, Tabernacle, Solomon’s, Herod’s are small working models of God’s ultimate intention. It is a microcosmos – a picture of something much, much bigger.
And so, as NT Wright notes, ‘The Israelites become the pilot project - as a sign to show what he will do for the rest of the world.
And then Jesus is born
Jesus is the new temple in person. He doesn’t offer the sacrifice – he is the sacrifice.
Where before heaven and earth is held together by the Torah and the Temple – it is now held together by Jesus and Spirt.
Again, Wright notes, ‘The ascension of Christ and the descending of the Spirit is temple imagery – when he ascends this is heaven and earth uniting – it is the joining of heaven and earth in his body. When the Holy Spirit descends - this is heaven coming down to earth.’
Which is referenced in places like here…
This is what the Lord says:
‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting-place be?
And then Stephen picks up on this in the book of Acts ….
‘Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling-place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
‘“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?”
Indeed – what kind of house? What sort of temple is God looking for? So enter the church.
The church is the place where heaven and earth are meant to come together as microcosms of God’s divine intention and from there to colonize the earth.
And from where the reality of Christ’s mission unfolds – like here in Ephesians 1
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
And again here….
1 Corinthians 6
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies.
And finally, the pinnacle of the divine intention unfolds with these words.
And then back to Ephesians.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Ephesians 2
Until ultimately the story arrives at its final destination.
Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’
So, there we have it – the trustworthy and true climax of the divine story where heaven and earth become one – just like it was always intended to be.
And that’s what the Bible testifies to.
God is at work in the world reconciling all things to himself – this is the message of the Bible. The fact it can get lost in a smaller story of personal redemption and a heaven vs hell narrative is proof in point that we are overlooking the beauty and wonder of the good news.
As a pastor, I’d wrestled for many years over the divine intention and how that’s best understood and expressed. The traditional ‘gospel message’ of getting ‘saved’ in order to go to heaven when we die felt less compelling than in the days of my youthful passion as a hell fire preacher! God’s call to greatness; the concept of original glory coming before original sin, started to fire my own imagination as to the purpose of God in the world – something which has only grown stronger with time but still lacked a meta narrative to capture it. In more recent times I’ve been helped greatly by the work of N.T Wright in this regard opening my eyes to the purpose of God in creation and reconciliation more completely.
This, along with a deeper appreciation of Jewish history, customs and teaching and insights into Eastern thought and symbolism served to warm my own heart over this great and glorious story. Most striking of all this is the concept of Temple theology and the idea of the whole of creation being a temple inhabited by God. And we – you and I being the image bearers of God as we live deeply out of our identity of a new creation in Christ.
This temple theology is at the heart of the teaching of Wright and this article is indebted to his insight and thinking which embraces the whole of Scripture in the most wonderful way as he describes, what he calls the Divine Drama.
He sets the scene beautifully.
The emphasis I want to insist on is that we discover what the shape and the inner life of the church ought to be only when we look first at the church’s mission, and that we discover what the church’s mission is only when we look first at God’s purpose for the entire world, as indicated in, for instance, Genesis 1—2, Genesis 12, Isaiah 40—55, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 1 and Revelation 21—22.
This is where my proposal about a ‘five-act’ hermeneutic comes in. … The Bible itself offers a model for its own reading, which involves knowing where we are within the overall drama and what is appropriate within each act. The acts are: creation, ‘the fall’, Israel, Jesus, and the church; they constitute the differentiated stages in the divine drama which scripture itself offers.
He goes onto frame the drama of the scriptures within a Temple Metaphor which runs deeply and centrally to the whole story.
In our previous blog in the series we finished by introducing the image of a temple as found in Genesis 1-2. It’s a garden temple, where the beauty and intimacy of God interacts with the creation itself. It’s the place where heaven comes down to earth. The place where divinity touches humanity.
And then we have the fall.
The fall breaks and pollutes the human heart and results in Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden – they now live east of Eden, but still carry the identity and heart of Eden people.
The image bearing has been broken – the angled mirror, reflecting God’s image into the world through those made in that image, and then in return back to God through worship, is marred.
The heaven and earth project falls apart and God’s intention is to bring them back together – something of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 1, starts to unfold as the story continues.
The book of Genesis is spilt in two main sections. Genesis 1-11 – is pre Abraham; it is the OT of the OT if you like. Genesis 12 and through to the end of Malachi – is the start of the rescue plan. One section is a reflection of the other showing how God works to put things back together. As we will see the Babel of Genesis 11 reappears as the Babylon of the exiled people.
One is put together as being a picture of the other. We are place in a wonderful garden – a temple where heaven and earth meet but then things get messed up. Of course, this is not only the story of then – but of now. Of how life has been fractured and heaven and earth divided.
When these stories were written we may not be sure, but they were pulled together and edited during the time of the exile to Babylon. Their compilation brings cohesion to a people struggling to keep hold of their identity. Their story as an exiled people speaks of this original story – it’s the story of Israel in the promised land - and where do they end up – in Babel which is Babylon. Which means confused!
We all end up at Babel – confused. We all find ourselves in Babylon – exiled. We’ve lost our way from the Promised Land. We’re all living East of Eden.
Like Adam and Eve, we’re all part of the fall.
The garden temple is broken because the very thing needed to keep it working is obedience – and disobedience won. The temple image is broken – but not lost. God is still in the business of bringing heaven to earth.
So, God announces his rescue plan in Abraham – he calls childless nomads. He calls a couple who have nothing to become the conduit of blessing to the whole story of creation. It’s out of this – and those promises that everything else flows.
Next time we will build on this temple metaphor and see how it flows through the scriptures to present the ultimate intention of God which is not so much getting us to heaven as it is in getting heaven to earth – and getting it into us.