The Relationship between Jesus and the Church
Course: Church History I
We’ll just give you a minute or two to get this. You’ve got that. They’ve come around your way, have they? Okay. Good. All right. It’s always nice to see the back row is full. It’s how you can tell it’s years of practice at church, no doubt. Has anyone got any questions they want to ask me about the class so far or about the assignments or about anything?
Q. The early Christian doctrines were checked out. Is justification an acceptable doctrine?
Yes, of course. You’re going to find slight difficulty, I think, with that because the doctrine of justification wasn’t fully developed in the early church. However, if you want to make a start, I would suggest one place you could look. The ancient Christian commentary on Romans, chapter 1, verses 16 and 17. You know, the just shall live by faith. There’s a very long list of passages under that verse which tell you what the early church fathers thought about justification by faith. That’s one place to start. You might consider – I don’t know why early Christian doctrine – well, I do know why it’s checked out of the library, of course, but you might even consider buying it. It’s not that expensive. Does anyone know offhand how much it costs? 9.99? Yeah. You see, it’s really – you know, the price of the shoe leather to walk over to the library really. You know, 9.99 is worth getting. I do encourage people to buy books. I know it’s not a thing these days. You’d rather buy CD’s, but just think in 50 years’ time people won’t have books anymore so they’ll be sort of heirlooms, precious items. You know, people will sort of say, you know, grandchildren will say “what’s that?” and you’ll say “that’s a book.” You think I’m joking. Listen, I have a godson who is 18 years old. He has never seen carbon paper. In fact, you’ve probably never seen carbon paper, come to think of it. Yeah, I don’t mean to be rude but, you know, we’re of a certain age. We have seen it, yes. Not only that, we’ve actually used it. But you suddenly realize these things disappear, you know. Where did carbon paper go? I mean, when did it vanish? And stencils. Remember stencils? You see, young people today, they’ve never seen these things.
Anyhow. All right. Everybody got at the back there? Are we all happy, ready to begin? All right. Let’s pray together, shall we, and we can start. Father, thank you for all the many things that you give us and bless us now, we pray, as we work and as we study together. Help us this day to grow closer to you in all that we do, to become more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to understand his purpose in our lives and in the church that we might in all things be his servants this day and for the rest of our lives. For his precious name’s sake we ask it. Amen.
Today then I want to talk about what is perhaps the most crucial question that we’re ever going to discuss in this class and that is the question of the relationship between Jesus and the church. Now you may think, of course, this is fairly simple. The church is the church of Jesus Christ. It exists because of what he said and did. It bears witness to those things and why is this a problem. That is, what we might say, is the layman’s view. Once you start studying theology and you realize there are in fact deeper underlying questions which need to be addressed here because of the way in which this issue has affected our doctrine of the church, our understanding of what the church is.
And to figure out where we are today, to see what the spectrum is I think we have to begin with the classic Roman Catholic viewpoint on this. The Roman Catholic position, the classic Roman Catholic position is that, yes, Jesus did in fact intend to start a church. The church today is the extension, the direct extension of his ministry, and indeed the key moment in the life of Jesus – and I pointed this out the other day but I’ll say it again because it really does need to be looked at in some depth – is the incarnation. The day on which the son of God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born as a man, Jesus of Nazareth. This is the day of salvation. This is the beginning of the new world, the new reality which we call the Christian church, the Christian gospel, the Christian message. You name it, it’s all tied up together and it is fundamentally characterized by the great annunciation associated with the incarnation which is Emmanuel, God with us, that God is present in, with and among us.
Now this view is ancient. It’s not something that was dreamt up yesterday. It is also something which has penetrated quite deeply folk religion. By folk religion I mean popular religious perceptions or popular religious habits or perhaps I should say popular habits associated with religious ideas, and you may think what on earth am I talking about. What I mean, if I put it in blunt terms, is Christmas remains to this day the most important religious holiday. You see, if you look through the calendar and you look at all the sort of Christian holidays that there are and you sort of go through, you know, you might say Easter should be more important theologically, you see, Good Friday and so on. But Good Friday is so unimportant that Stanford University has classes on Good Friday. Don’t you think that’s shocking for a Christian university? I do. Anyhow, and say so too, regularly.
But anyway, you know, Good Friday, Easter you might think would be the most central things. And then you move on to things like Pentecost, you see. You might think, well, Pentecost is very important because that is the sending of the Holy Spirit, yet Pentecost tends to get forgotten, at least in terms of being a religious holiday. I know for some people that’s every day, but it’s something that tends to get into the background. And then, of course, there are all the really important ones like Halloween and Valentine’s Day and things like that, which, you know, people like to celebrate. But Christmas is, I think everyone would agree, the central one. Why? Because Christmas is the time when you send people cards. It’s the time when you give people presents. It’s the time when you get together with relatives you’d rather never see and pretend that you like them and so on, you know. Well, the season of goodwill, you know. Goodwill. You know what it’s like. But anyhow – come, roll on, New Year.
But anyway, this is what happens in the popular imagination. There are great festivities and so on, and the reason for this – we must never forget the reason for this is because it is a legacy of this theological belief that Christmas is the day of salvation. You see, this is the time when salvation has come into the world. And, of course, if you listen to the words of Christmas carols and so on, this is often the theme. Joy to the world, the Lord is come. You know, this kind of thing. The salvation has come to the house of Israel. And in Roman Catholic theology, this is worked out in their understanding, their doctrine of the church to the present time because the church is the body of Christ, the ongoing body of Christ. In other words, you see, within the church, of course, the great miracle of transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine at Holy Communion into the body and blood of Christ, this is the central act of worship. This is the sort of the focal point around which everything else revolves. Why? Because it brings back to us. It brings into our midst this fundamental reality, this fundamental belief that Christ is with us, the hope of glory, you see, that Emmanuel, God with us. And the church, of course, those who share in this, those who are connected with this, those who participate in this, are those who are joined in some mysterious way to this body of Christ which is a living, functioning reality.
Now the body of Christ, of course, can at different times get sick. It can have bits chopped off. It can develop gangrene in various parts, and so on, but none of this – I mean, this is quite true. I’m taking this as an analogy. None of this destroys the fact that it is still the body. You see what I mean? It may change and develop and grow over time just as any human body does. It is not protected in this sense from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I mean, you will, in fact, see the earthly body of the church go through different phases through human history, but the promise of God is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it and therefore the Roman Catholic belief is that the Roman Catholic church which is, of course, the body of Christ will continue as it is fundamentally despite all the changes and all the amputations and everything else over time. It will continue until the end, until it is taken up into glory at the end of time. That is the way in which they view this and, of course, they see this as the plan of Jesus from the beginning. That Jesus came into the world deliberately with the idea that this was what he was going to do and that his earthly ministry can only properly be understood as preparation for launching the church. In other words, he chose, of course, his disciples. His disciples were intended to be apostles. They were chosen with that purpose in mind. They were trained. They were prepared. They were sent out and, of course, after he ascended into glory they received the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they could continue the work which he had begun in them. They were given the power to teach – to preach and to teach, as he preached and taught.
And, of course, they were also given the power to transmit this preaching and teaching authority to their successors, and this, of course, is a key point because it is fundamental in Roman Catholic belief to this day that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. In other words, he is the representative of Christ on earth, the direct successor of the apostle Peter with the power given by Christ himself to Peter, the power of the keys. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, you know, and so on. So this notion, this close connection between earth and heaven – so close that what an earthly representative does on earth will be validated in heaven, you see. In other words, basically, the Pope has the power to determine what will happen in heaven in some way. Of course, they wouldn’t say it like that. They would simply say he has a special vision of what has already happened in heaven and merely executes it. Well, all right, but, you know, they’re so closely connected that what the Pope does is what happens in heaven. You see what I mean? And this is grounded ultimately in a theory of incarnation and it was intended by Jesus from the start. This is their point of view. All right? I’m not suggesting this should be your point of view; I’m simply saying that is what their point of view is and you need to appreciate this and understand what that point of view is in order to understand something else.
Now the opposite end of the spectrum, go right to the other end and what do you find? You find what we think of today as liberal Protestantism. Liberal Protestantism which basically developed its ideas in the early nineteenth century but which now dominates in the academic world, I think it would be fair to say, including among Roman Catholics which is odd but nevertheless true that you find academic type Roman Catholics who distance themselves from the church’s authority do tend to fall into this liberal Protestant mold but that is, of course, the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum. And they begin by saying Jesus did not intend to found a church. This was not part of his plan. In fact, liberal Protestants very often are not entirely sure what Jesus was planning to do, if anything. They would not see the life and ministry of Jesus in terms of future planning, that Jesus came as a witness to God and is an interpreter of the law of God within the Jewish context. He never really intended to move out of the Jewish context. In his earthly life there’s no sign or very little sign that he ever went anywhere beyond the bounds of Judaism and most of the signs that there are would be things like, you know, he went to the Samaritans which is hardly going very far beyond the sort of limits of what you think of as Judaism because Samaritanism, after all, was a form of Judaism. A kind of bizarre form but nevertheless a form. And, you see, this is the world in which Jesus operated. Jesus said this. He said, you know, I’ve come to the Jews and salvation is of the Jews. He told that to the Samaritan woman at the well and so on, and so you have this picture, you see, of Jesus who operates entirely within the framework of the Old Testament, the framework of the temple, and his mission and ministry can only be understood in a purely Jewish context.
What exactly Jesus wanted is a matter of speculation from this point of view. Some people would say Jesus was a great moral teacher and what he really wanted was a morally pure form of Judaism. Now there’s undoubtedly an element of truth in this. In fact, I should point out there’s an element of truth in all of these views and that’s the trouble. I mean, you know, views which have an element of truth in them are always much harder to handle than ones which have no truth in them. So here you have this. It is quite true that Jesus did in fact want to reinterpret the Jewish law or at least interpret the Jewish law in a way which would lead to a higher – what we would think of anyway, as a higher moral and spiritual plane. For example, in the sermon on the mount when he says, you have heard it said in old time, you know, though shalt not kill, but I’m telling you that even if you have a thought in your head against somebody else, you know, you’ve killed them already. I mean, this is clearly taking the ancient commandment and interpreting it in a way which is extremely or much more difficult to fulfill. I mean, if I asked you how many of you had actually gone out and committed murder, probably the answer would be fairly few, you know. Well, I know this is Alabama so I’m not saying that there’s nobody. Some of you may have your grandmother sort of under the planks in the kitchen. I know. But, you know, on the whole, thou shalt not kill is a relatively easy commandment to obey if you think of it in purely physical terms. I mean, most of us can probably tick that off and say, oh, yes, well, I’ve done that.
On the other hand, if you think to yourself, well, you know, have I ever thought in my heart, you know, anything bad about anybody else and then killed them already? Well, of course, I know perfectly well that – I know some of you will say, oh, yes, I’ve never had a bad thought about anyone else, and my answer to you is, well, do you have a driver’s license. Because anyone who’s ever driven has bad thoughts about all sorts of people, you know. The one in front, the one on the side, the one who’s just taken my parking place, and so on. And don’t tell me you don’t, you know, because all you have to do is get to see somebody behind the wheel and you see just how sanctified they really are. And the answer is “not very.” And the ones with little fish on the back of the car, they are the really dangerous ones. Go into the other lane when you come up behind someone like that.
Anyway, you know what I mean. This is something that affects every one of us. It’s something that we are guilty of. It’s something that, you know, if this is imposed on us, we say, well, my goodness, you know, it applies to me. And so Jesus – clearly, this is what Jesus was teaching. Jesus was telling the Jews of his time, you know, you have interpreted the law in such a way that it doesn’t really apply to you. You can walk around and you can tick off all the things and say, well, I did that and I’ve done that. I’ve done something else. That’s fine. And it doesn’t really hit you. It doesn’t, you know, actually penetrate your own heart and mind and conscience because of the way in which you have read it and understood it, and I am telling you this is what it really means, you see, and you’ve got to think of it like this.
Now there’s no doubt that Jesus did this. All right. And so the liberal Protestants who say this is what Jesus did are, of course, right when they say that. The issue at stake as far as we are concerned is, is that all that Jesus intended to do? In other words, was Jesus really trying to start some kind of renewal movement inside Judaism? Did he want, you know, a more sort of spiritualized understanding of the Jewish laws? Was this what he aimed for? Was his death a terrible mistake? Was he put to death because the Jewish leaders at the time couldn’t take this, they were threatened by this, or whatever reason there was, but basically he was put to death unjustly, mistakenly? His followers had no idea this was going to happen. They were totally sort of thrown by it and all the rest. And then after his death they sort of picked up the pieces and in effect rewrote the story of Jesus, created a myth of Jesus having come back from the dead because they couldn’t stand the thought that he actually left them and out of that created, you know, what we call the Christian religion today. Is this what Jesus was all about?
In other words, is the Christian church as we know it today the fruit of a misunderstanding? Either a misunderstanding or worse a deception, you see. I mean, did Peter and James and John and them, you know, sort of sit down and say, goodness me, you know, here we are in mid-career. We’ve given up our fishing and all that, you know, to follow Jesus. Jesus hasn’t worked out very well, you know. He sort of lost the tournament and – well, you know how it is. And he’s being crucified, and so on. What are we going to do now? You know, we can’t go back to Capernaum and so on. We’ll look like fools, so we’ve got to do something, so, you know, let’s make the most of this and, you know, what do you do with a failed business whether you rebrand and you turn it around and there you go. Is that basically what the disciples did and then produced a myth, you know, as I say, a myth which would sell to a wider public and obviously met a need in the ancient world. They hit the right level, and so on.
And for the last two thousand years they’ve managed to sell this product on the assumption that Jesus rose from the dead and is now ascended into Heaven and reigning in glory. And, you know, although this is not true, it’s sufficiently plausible and convincing, you know, to keep millions of people employed, shall we say, in this. Is this the right understanding?
Now this view which continues to exist – I mean, you’ll come across this is in various modified forms, of course – was challenged and modified further by a man called Albert Schweitzer, who was born in 1875 and died in 1965, so not that long ago. Schweitzer was very famous in his lifetime for many things. He was one of these all-around type people, you know, who was a brilliant musician. He was a brilliant theologian. He was a brilliant doctor and he went off to Africa in 1913 and spent the rest of his life in Gabon, what now the country of Gabon, where he was a missionary doctor and became very famous for that reason.
All right. But in 1906 Schweitzer produced a book which is one of the classic books of modern theological thinking called “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” And in this book Schweitzer basically tore apart everything that had been said in the 19th century, all about the idea that Jesus was basically a moral teacher, you know, somebody who wanted sort of higher standards and so on. He said this is typical of middle class German people. That’s what they want, that’s what they’re like, and so they have made Jesus over into their own image. The real Jesus, says Schweitzer – I mean, if Schweitzer had stopped there and said nothing else, you know, his book would be on the syllabus at Beeson. But unfortunately – well, no, his criticism of the 19th century was brilliant. He tore apart what the king said and did it very well. The trouble is he then went on to make his own suggestion which is unfortunately a little bit peculiar, and his own suggestion was that the real Jesus – if Jesus sort of came into our midst today – we would not recognize him, because the real Jesus would have been a sort of way-out hippie type. I mean, would be the closest thing, you know, that we would have. Sort of long hair, smelly, and basically running around preaching that the end is nigh, you know. Well, of course, today they don’t say the end is nigh. Today they say the oil is running out, but it amounts to the same thing. This kind of thing. The tree-huggers, the greens, you know, all those people. Right. If you don’t, just go down to south side and they’re there all over the place. Anyhow, this is the kind of thing that Jesus is supposed to have been.
Now what Schweitzer argued was that Jesus was so way out in this respect, you know, so sort of un-absorbable by ordinary people that what the disciples did – I mean, he agreed basically with the liberal view that, you know, when Jesus died, I mean, he just died and so on. And the disciples after Jesus’ death rewrote the story. But rather than turn it into a kind of fairytale, a moral teacher into some sort of fairytale, what they did was the opposite in a way. They toned it down. They said Jesus was actually much weirder than what Peter and the other apostles preached. So what they did was they kind of domesticated Jesus. They turned Jesus into somebody who was acceptable. In other words, they dropped all the stuff about hugging trees and that kind of thing, you know. I mean, it’s there, of course, if you look in the New Testament carefully and read between the lines, you know, the lilies of the field and all that. I mean, you can kind of see, you know, that Jesus was a bit trendy, if you look at that very carefully. But they tried to write this out as much as possible and basically turned Jesus into a respectable rabbi. You know, somebody with teaching which could be followed.
In other words, what Schweitzer did was accepting the same basic idea that Jesus had no idea that there was going to be a church. He didn’t intend to found a church. You know, he was a sort of apocalyptic “end is nigh” kind of person. The sort of person, you know, who stands with sandwich boards on the back and front saying “repent for the kingdom is coming” and so on and stops all the traffic outside Wildwood. You know, you’ve seen them up there from time to time. He was this kind of person, you know, and they just had to turn him into somebody whom you would let inside your church. You know, some nice guy, harmless and so on, so they turned him into the son of God, figuring that, you know, this would be much more acceptable. But it’s a toning down of the original version, you might say, a kind of sanitized equivalent.
And these views have competed in the 20th century for attention. The basic underlying common theme, however, is that there is a huge gap between Jesus of Nazareth and the church, and you’ll see this constantly in theology today coming out in different ways. The Jesus of history versus the Christ of faith. You get people writing books. Volume 1 is called Jesus. You know, in other words, the earthly life of Jesus. And Volume 2 is called Christ. In other words, what the disciples, apostles or whatever made of Jesus after his death.
Now it is interesting to think about this because we have to come to some kind of decision on this matter. What is the connection between Jesus of Nazareth – the man who walked around in Galilee preaching and teaching and gathering disciples to himself – what is the link between this person and the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ? Are they one and the same?
Now, of course, any true Christian – any orthodox Christian – must answer yes to this. Because if the God whom we worship is not the Jesus of Nazareth who walked around in Galilee, if the God whom we worship is some kind of construction made up by the apostles after the person’s death, then, you see, we are in big trouble because we have lost the connection with this. Having said that, is the Jesus of Nazareth who walked around on earth – I mean, what is our connection with him? What is our link with him? And this is another thing which is not altogether as simple as it sounds, you see. Say, well, that’s our savior. That’s our Lord. Well, yes, of course, this is true, but does the resurrection and ascension and so on make no difference? Would we have been better off – let me put it like this. Would you and I have been better off if we had known Jesus in the flesh? Are we losing out because we can’t see him as a human being? Now some people think we are. You know, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had gone back to first century Palestine and walked around and actually met with Jesus, you know. We sat there on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and counted the 153 fish. I mean, wouldn’t that have been great. And there are people who think like this.
Now the truth of the matter, of course, is if you actually read the New Testament that almost certainly if you had lived in the time of Jesus you would not have recognized him even if you had seen him. In fact, if you had grown up with him in Nazareth, you would have been least likely to recognize him, as we know from the text. You could have spent the longest time with him and yet not had any idea who he actually was. Jesus also tells us – well, he doesn’t tell you and me particularly, but he tells the disciples in John 14, 15, and 16 – “I must go away. It is better for you that I go away, because when I go away the Comforter will come and He will lead you into all truth.” So Jesus holds out to his disciples the prospect of something better to come in the future and that they should not try to cling onto him or hold him or keep him here on earth, that he is on earth for a time and for a purpose but this time and this purpose will come to an end and we will move on to something else.
I say this because the idea that the earthly Jesus is somehow more desirable is one which keeps coming back and it keeps coming back in the oddest ways, you see. You get people, for example, who say things like I have a healing ministry because Jesus had a healing ministry, and therefore I’ve got to have one too, as if this follows naturally, you see, because I have to live in the way that the earthly Jesus lived.
You get people – oh, I gather this has gone slightly out of fashion now just looking around the room. But, you know, there was a time not long ago when people would wear armbands with WWJD on them. I must confess the first time I saw this, I thought it was a country music station. No, really, I did. I thought, you know, there’s WDJC and there’s W-this and that, so I thought, well, WWJD, it must be a new station. You know, is it FM or AM, and so on. But anyhow, I soon discovered to my horror that it was nothing as simple as that. You know, What Would Jesus Do. And, of course, the trouble with this is (a) we don’t know, and (b) even if we did know, it wouldn’t necessarily apply to you and me, you see, because what Jesus might have done in a given situation is not necessarily what you or I would do or should do. The real question is not what would Jesus do but what would Jesus want me to do, you see. And you say, well, why? Well, because what Jesus did was done in the context of his ministry which was a ministry when he came to earth for a particular purpose and that purpose is different from the reason we are his followers. You see what I mean? We have been called to a different purpose. We have been called to follow him but the way we are meant to live is not the same. I keep pointing out to people but I’ll point it out to you because I’m sure I haven’t told you before that you can see the truth of this if you realize that if Jesus were alive today he would be thrown out of Stanford University. He wouldn’t be allowed to come here as a student, certainly not as a professor. And you say to me, what do you mean he’d be thrown out of Stanford? Surely, Stanford exists to glorify him. Why would he be thrown out? I’d say, well, it’s very simple because all he would have to do is go to a wedding in chapel and the minute he started turning water into wine he’d be out the door, you know.
People don’t think like this, do they? I mean, they don’t sort of realize the consequences of what appears to them to be very simple and straightforward. But the truth is, you see, that Jesus did what he did and lived the way he lived because he came into the world for a specific purpose and that specific purpose was to die on the cross.
So we must retain this much. You see, we must say that the death of Jesus Christ was not an accident. It was not something which happened against his own will. It was not something which intervened to throw a promising career off course. This was his career. This was what he had come to do. And what he had come to do on that cross was to die for the sins of the world.
Now when you say this, you see, when you say he’s come to die, you are already making a statement about the relationship between Jesus and Judaism. In fact, you are explaining perhaps without realizing it why the followers of Jesus could never be just another Jewish sect. Why couldn’t the Christians be like the Samaritans or the Sadducees or the Pharisees or some group like that? Why did they have to go off and be completely different? Well, the reason is because the death of Jesus Christ strikes at the very heart of Judaism. Judaism – which at its center has the temple, a temple in which the sacrifice of atonement is made once a year by the high priest – this is the high point of the Jewish year, as it were. The high priest alone can go into the holy of holies, take the sacrifice, make the sacrifice there, and so on, for the sins of the people and he goes away and then comes back the following year, does it again, and so on. This is the ritual, the supreme act around which the rest of the Jewish world, the whole way of thinking, is constructed. Jesus comes in and says I am the temple. I am the sacrifice. My death is the death of the sacrificial lamb which in effect removes the need for the high priestly sacrifice. You see, what was foreshadowed in the law, what was portrayed there, is now completed. It is finished. It doesn’t have to be done again, and therefore those who believe in me – those who follow me – can rely on me, the paschal lamb, the true sacrifice, the true high priest, because I open the door for you into the presence of God.
Now once you accept that idea, once you come to that kind of faith, then Judaism ceases to have any relevance because, as I say, the whole way in which it’s built, the structure around which it revolves, has been replaced. And this is what Jesus came to do. This is what he came to preach and to teach and to accomplish in his own life.
Now that is not, of course, the end of the story. You must never end the story of Jesus with the crucifixion, central and important though that is. The crucifixion cannot be understood without what followed which is the resurrection, first of all, and then the ascension. In fact, it is the ascension of Christ which is the key moment in the transition between the earthly ministry of Jesus and his present heavenly ministry. It is the ascension which creates the circumstances in which the Christian church can be born. You see, in which the Christian church has its life, has its reality.
Now you see this, of course, if you read the Bible. So few people seem to do it. But anyhow if you read the Bible you will see that – it’s amazing, you know, they carry them around – big and black and so on – but don’t actually read them. Between the gospels, you see, which end with the ascension, the last event occurring in the gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles which start with the ascension. The ascension is the hinge which unites the earthly ministry of Jesus with the heavenly ministry which is manifested on earth in the life of the church. Therefore, it is the key thing, you see, which we have to understand.
Now what is the ascension, what happened at the ascension, in Ephesians 4:8, you read, quoting from Psalm 68, you see. When he ascended into heaven, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. He led captivity captive. He took your sin and my sin, paid for in his body, paid for in his death on the cross. He took these things to his heavenly Father, presented them to him, was accepted by him – by the Father, the sacrifice was accepted, which means, of course, that he now sits at the right hand of the Father, to use the biblical imagery. But what we are talking about here is that he has taken up his kingdom. He reigns in glory and his sacrifice, the wants for all sacrifice accomplished on the cross, remains in glory as the basis, the assurance that you and I have access to the presence of the Father. I can pray “our Father.” I can pray to God as my Father. Why? Because between me and the Father stands Jesus Christ, the mediator, whose sacrifice is my plea for my sin. Because when I pray to God, I cannot pray to God as a righteous person. I am not a righteous person. I am a sinner. I can have no right to enter in to God’s presence. I cannot stand there by myself. There’s no way I can do this. I have to be covered with his righteousness.
You know, it’s a bit like going into a blast furnace or something like that. You have to wear special clothing. You have to be protected because your own natural self is unable to withstand the heat and so on of what it is you are confronting. This is the righteousness of Christ which covers me in the presence of the Father. I cannot stand in his presence by myself. I need that righteousness, that blood which was shed for me, to cover me and protect me, and this is what he does for me now. All right? Of course, he died on the cross 2,000 years ago and that’s vitally important, but what matters now is that he is in heaven pleading this sacrifice, showing this sacrifice, using this sacrifice, for my benefit. And it is because of that that I am able to stand in the presence of God. It is because of that that I can be united to God in Christ, you see. This is what the Christian church really is. The Christian church is the body of people who are united to Christ on the basis of the sacrifice which he made for you and for me.
Now once you start to think like this, once you start to think in terms of the atonement and the significance of the atonement for the life of the Christian fellowship, the Christian church, your whole way of thinking about it will change. You will look at the Roman Catholic point of view, for example, and you will say, but you have left out the ascension. You see, you are talking about Emmanuel – God with us – and, of course, we agree with this. I mean, we’re not disputing this. We do believe that the coming of the son of God into the world and Jesus Christ is the beginning of our salvation. Yes, we accept that on earth Jesus of Nazareth walked around as the Lamb of God, you know, ready for sacrifice and so on. Yes, we agree with this. But we don’t agree that this sacrifice has remained here on earth or that this sacrifice can somehow be brought back to earth by the action of the priest, you see, who changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. We do not accept this. Why do we not accept this? Basically, because of the way we understand the ascension. Because we say he led captivity captive, he took his body and his sacrifice therefor into heaven, where it remains. And that in the life of the Christian church it is not so much a case of God coming down to earth as of us going up to heaven, you see, that we are integrated into the heavenly fellowship, the eternal reality of God and of Christ who is pleading for you and for me at the right hand of the Father now. This is the present reality and we want to insist that the ascension has made a difference. All right?
So then you say to yourself, yeah, but we’re still here on earth. What do we do? We are in earthly company. We don’t actually sort of levitate every time we pray. Well, that’s what some people do but you wouldn’t get into Beeson if you put that on your form. Well, you wouldn’t really. People would sort of say, “Oh, we don’t want that.” So, no, we have to see the other side. The other side is he gave gifts to men – Ephesians 4 – and this, of course, is Pentecost. Because the fruit of the ascension, the working out of the ascension in the life of human beings still on earth, is brought to fruition at the time of Pentecost, the feast of the first fruits. And Pentecost has to be understood in the light of the ascension. It is the ascended, the risen, ascended and glorified Christ, who sends his spirit into the world so that we might be united with him spiritually in that way. And this is why Pentecost is the beginning of the earthly church, you know, what we call the church militant here on earth. This is where it comes from. This is where it starts. And this is what the connection is.
Did Jesus intend to do this? The answer must be, yes, he did. He did come into the world knowing that he was drawing a people to himself, that he was calling people to himself. But the link between the earthly preaching of Jesus and the post-Pentecostal mission of the Holy Spirit is more complex than Roman Catholic theology allows. In other words, the transition from it being a disciple to being an apostle is not as straightforward as you might think. First of all, of course, it didn’t happen to all of them. There was one rather famous disciple who never quite made it to being apostle and this was Judas Iscariot. You know, we have to somehow account for this. How come Judas fell out? Why was this possible, and so on. So this is one thing that has to be borne in mind.
Also we learn from the New Testament – and this is one of the most interesting things about the gospels, in my opinion – is that the portrayal of the disciples there, which we must never forget was actually written many years later when the disciples had long turned into apostles, it was quite different. The portrayal of the disciples in the gospels is of men who were basically ignorant of what it was they were supposed to be doing. I mean, at every stage of the exercise, you find they sort of say, “Well, what’s going on? You talk about the Father. Show us the Father. Who is this Father you keep talking about?” And again, it’s actually I think quite encouraging because, remember, these people spent every day and every night with Jesus for three years. They heard all his teaching. You know, they got the best theological education you could ever imagine anyone getting and they came out at the end after three years and didn’t understand a word of it. Well, I mean, you know, that is encouraging, isn’t it. Because it still happens today.
So we see this, and yet the reason for this is simple in the sense that Jesus is fulfilling his purpose, his mission, but the disciples were not meant to understand it until after his resurrection. And notice that one of the things that happens in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension, it tells us at the end of the gospels that Jesus taught his disciples the meaning of everything which had taken place in his earthly ministry. In other words, he gave them an understanding of this and then he told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit should come, until it would be filled with power so that they would be able to preach the meaning of what it was that Jesus had done. And, of course, if you read the preaching of the Acts of the Apostles in the early chapters, what it is, is an explanation of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a kind of putting this into context giving it meaning.
And those who had been with Jesus – those who had seen him in the flesh, those who had walked with him and had heard him talk – now say, well, this is what it was all about. We can bear witness to this because we have seen it fulfilled. You see, we’ve seen it worked out and this is what it means and this is why we are here now doing what we are doing. And so right from the beginning, you see, Peter and John and the others knew that they were a new community. They knew that there was something different about them that life had changed for them in a fundamental way and there could be no going back.
Now having said that, of course, it is also clear from the New Testament that there were certain circumstances that had to be dealt with, and the disciples were not given clear answers to every question on Day 1. You know, there were issues that had to be worked through. And, of course, the most fundamental of these was the relationship with Judaism. Now I’ve already explained that theologically the relationship with Judaism was such that if you fully accepted and understood what Jesus had done, what the meaning of Jesus’ life and death was, you would not be able to continue in Judaism, at least in Judaism as it had been understood for very long because you would be focused in a completely different place. The temple and all the temple meant to Jews would cease to have a meaning for you because you would look for what the temple had to offer in an entirely different place. In other words, in the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. And that fact by itself would be enough to make Judaism seem obsolete as far as you were concerned.
However, Judaism was much more than just a theological standpoint on questions of atonement. You must remember that Judaism was and indeed still is an entire culture and that those who were chosen, those who became disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ, those who saw the resurrection and initially, incidentally an apostle, was a witness to the resurrection. That was the key thing at the beginning. Someone who saw the risen Christ, and there were up to 500 of those at any one time. All right. These people were all Jews, and so therefore the issue of distancing yourself from Judaism was not that straightforward because if everybody who belongs to the Christian church is a Jew – I mean, all right, you may disagree theologically with the Jews and so on and have a completely different standpoint, but your precise relationship to them will remain complicated. I suppose you could see something of this in the modern scene where you get heretical groups which split off from Christianity. Mormonism, for instance. Jehovah’s Witnesses and people like that.
Now, of course, if you are theologically clued up, you realize these are heretical groups. They are cults. They are not Christian, and so on. All right. But to people who are not so clued up, to people who look at this from the outside, indeed to people who belong to these groups very often, they see it differently. I mean, Mormons think they are Christians. They go around telling everybody they are Christians. So do Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, say, a Muslim looking at this would probably find it very hard to see why a Mormon was not a Christian. You see what I mean? Because from their standpoint looking at it from totally outside, there would be enough in common, enough similarity that to them it would just seem to be a slightly odd version perhaps, but nevertheless part of the same overall culture phenomenon, you might say. All right. Just as we would look at Islam and although we may be vaguely aware that there are different types of Muslims – there are Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims and then you have Ismailis and Alawis and different little groups like this – we tend not to be very clued up as to what these differences are nor does it matter very much to us. Of course, to them it’s all important but to us we think, well, they’re all Muslim, even if the Sufis are a bit weird and so on, and what do you do with something like Baha’i. We may be vaguely aware that Baha’i is not really Islam but precisely why it’s not Islam is not something that we spend a lot of time thinking about. Do you see what I mean? And the early church would have appeared to many people like this.
Theologically it might have broken with Judaism, it might have broken with the Jewish ritual temple sacrifices and all that, but as long as everybody who was a Christian was also a Jew, this distinction, this difference would not have been very clear to outsiders. Nor would it have been very clear to many Jews because again, you see, we have to stop and think about this a little bit. To you and me, religious belief is something that essentially we decide for ourselves. If we give it up, we give it up. Or if we go somewhere else, we go somewhere else. But, of course, Judaism was not like that. In Judaism, you were born into it. It was something that marked you from birth especially if you were a male because you would be circumcised on the eighth day and this would be a mark which would stay with you for life.
Judaism was not something you could just resign and go off and do something else. Even today, if you think about this, I mean, we all know that most people who call themselves Jews are not really terribly religious. I mean, Judaism to them might mean eating gefilte fish and matzos and things like that but not much else. You see what I mean? But nevertheless, however secular they may be, there is still some kind of identification. We recognize that, yes, they’re somehow Jewish. They may not go to synagogue. They may not believe a thing. They may even be anti-Israel. I mean, who knows. They could have all sorts of beliefs or non-beliefs, but there is something about them that has Jewish written all over it. You can’t just get away from it like that.
And, of course, in the ancient world, it was even more so because Jews stood out as absolutely unique and, as I said, to the pagan world around, the fact that Christians continued to worship the one God of Israel was far more important than the fact that they had a different theory of atonement. You see what I mean? Because theories of atonement wouldn’t mean anything to the average Greek or Roman or something like this. They would just simply say, well, of course, you’re Jewish. You must be Jewish because you worship one God and you read the Bible, the Old Testament, and so on. You see, to them it wouldn’t appear like this. And indeed the separation out of the Christian church from its Jewish roots was a slow process, something which did not happen easily or overnight and indeed was not necessarily desired by the apostles themselves. Peter, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, was not happy about the idea of letting gentiles into the church. He was Jewish and he knew he was Jewish, and it never really crossed his mind that the gospel should go anywhere else. I mean, it wasn’t that he had anything against gentiles as people and so on, but you don’t cast your pearls before swine and you just don’t preach to gentiles. You know what I mean? You just don’t do that.
And it took a tremendous effort really, and a psychological change which God had to work on in Peter, and of course Peter is held up as the example but you can imagine if that’s what Peter was like what the rest of them must have been like – would have been even worse, sort of lower down the scale. That they had to completely rethink their entire position in order to acquire an identity, a sense of being Christian, as opposed to being Jewish. So therefore, of course, we see this in the New Testament but I don’t think we appreciate fully the importance of it, the idea that you can enter the Christian church without going through the rituals of Jewish initiation. It took the Christian church quite a while to work that one out publically, fully. You see, it didn’t happen overnight. Of course, you could argue, well, in the early days it wasn’t important because they only preached to Jews so the question of whether you should be circumcised or not didn’t arise. They already were.
But once you start getting gentiles involved, what is their status going to be? Are gentiles going to be second-class Christians? You get curious instances. For instance, in Acts 8, Philip who goes down to Samaria and preaches the gospel in Samaria and some of the Samaritans believe and they’re baptized, but then it turns out they’re baptized only in the name of Jesus and the apostles have to go down from Jerusalem and lay hands on them so that they’ll receive the Holy Spirit. Why were they baptized only in the name of Jesus? Well, Luke doesn’t tell us. It’s one of the interesting things that we aren’t actually told but quite likely the reason was that Philip didn’t really think Samaritans should be let into the church on quite the same basis as everybody else. You know what I mean? There was a sense, well, yeah, all right, we can’t keep you out but you are, after all, a Samaritan. And so you kind of come in as a sort of second class, sit-at-the-back-of-the-bus type Christian, and there was this tendency there.
Now you might say, well, this is terrible. Imagine thinking like that. Well, yes, but remember these people have been brought up this way. This is their entire background and heritage. It would never enter their minds to go outside these boundaries, and if you believe as of course they believed, and they were right to believe, that the mission and life of Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament, why would it go beyond Jewish boundaries? I mean, if you hadn’t had the Old Testament, what would fulfillment of the Old Testament mean? I mean, if somebody came and knocked on your door and offered you something or other and said, “This is the fulfillment of Confucius,” you’d kind of look at them and say, “Well, that’s nice.” What does that mean? You see what I’m saying? It would have no application because you don’t even know what Confucius is. As far as you’re concerned, Confucius is something that you get out of fortune cookies at a Chinese restaurant or something like that. And you think, well, what’s the relevance. Although this happened, you mustn’t think it’s because they were stupid or thick or anything like that. It’s simply because if you take the basic principles – fulfilling the promises of God made to Moses, made to the prophet, made to the patriarchs and so on – logically it doesn’t apply to people who didn’t have those things. And indeed when the Christian church went beyond the Jewish world, this became the big issue. How much of Judaism did gentiles have to take on board? And, of course, this is still today one of the big questions in theology that we have to ask. We would ask it differently, but we would say what is the place of the Old Testament in the life of the Christian believer?
Now this is not an easy question to answer. I mean, I know you’ll have some sort of idea about this but think about it for a little while because it’s all very well to say, well, the Old Testament is actually three-quarters of our Bible so it must mean something. And we have to take Hebrew in order to graduate so there must be some reason behind this. But what actually does the Old Testament do for us? What is its place in our theology, particularly if we don’t have to do what it says? This is the key. It’s one thing if you are under the law – if you have to get circumcised, if you have to eat only clean things and not unclean things, and you’ve got to give up ribs for the rest of your life because ribs are pork and you don’t eat pork. That’s why there are no Jews in the South. You see, I knew there was a reason.
But anyway, you have to give up these things and so on. All right. Then you can see there’s some point to it. But why should I read all those food laws in Leviticus only to turn around and say, well, of course, it doesn’t apply to me. You see what I mean? And the early Christians, the gentile Christians, had precisely this problem. They sort of say, well, that’s all very well for you, but how can you go around and say this is now redundant. This has been fulfilled. You don’t have to do this anymore. Oh, but you’ve still got to believe it. It’s still the word of God. It still has a spiritual message for the life of the Christian church today. You can’t just forget it. And gentile Christians are then confused because you’re faced with reading all this stuff that then doesn’t apply to you.
And we’ve got used to this over the millennium, you might say, but it is still a problem today, because how should we interpret the Old Testament in our Christian life? Why should I take one thing from the Old Testament like “thou shalt not kill,” for example, but not something else, like you aren’t to eat prawns or weasel? You know, there’s a prohibition on eating weasel. But again, I know, this is the South. People eat weasel, but I mean, what does this got to do with it? You see what I’m saying?
And so we need what we call a hermeneutic. We need a way of interpreting the Old Testament which is faithful to the teaching of the Old Testament which doesn’t say that the Old Testament has no relevance to us but which can incorporate the changes which Christ has brought about, the different way of applying this in the life of the Christian church which enables us to say, for example, that Abraham is the father of our faith but does not permit us to be polygamous as Abraham was, you see. You probably never thought of it like that, have you? But Abraham is the father of our faith, so therefore we have to imitate Abraham. We are children of Abraham. But there were things Abraham did and got away with like polygamy which are forbidden for us.
Now we reconcile this. We can read about Abraham. We can talk about Abraham. I mean, David – look at David. I mean, he makes Bill Clinton look like an also-ran, doesn’t he, really. No, really. I mean, David just – everywhere he went he picked up somebody. But anyway. I mean, it’s true. You read the stories of David and yet David, you see, we can hold up as a model for our faith and teaching and so on, and yet not take on board that side. How do we do this? How do we reconcile these things? How, in other words, do we go on using the Old Testament as God’s word after the coming of Christ? And this is basically at root the question of how does the Christian church relate to Judaism? Are we Jews who have somehow changed and grafted into the people of Israel. What about the people who go around today calling themselves Jews? Are they part of God’s plan or not? Does post-Christian Judaism have any purpose in God’s thinking or is it just simply the history of 2,000 years of continuing rebellion? How can Christianity and Judaism relate today? How do they relate? What is the connection? You know, what sort of relationship can we, should we, and do we actually have?
This is something, as I say, which continues to be a living issue in the Christian church to this day, and all I wanted to say to you this morning, and I’ll say it as I go away, is it’s rooted in the life and death of Jesus Christ. You know, it starts from there. It’s connected with that. Take that away and the whole structure of Jewish-Christian relations is altered. It becomes a different thing altogether. But put Jesus in the picture and the trouble starts. Well, really, because at the end of the day, you have to say that Christians are people who accept that Jesus is the meaning of Judaism and Jews are people who don’t accept that. You know, nice though they may be, they do not accept that. And on that happy note, I have to let you go.