I dedicate this to Winston Ruiters, a carpenter I met yesterday. We spoke about God, cave paintings, my African ancestors and some other things.
Whilst thinking of Winston early this morning, I was reminded of another carpenter.
This man loved God more than any other human ever had. Yet he chose a carpentry shop instead of a religious seminary to prepare himself for God’s work.
This man had greater abilities to build a religious empire than all the world’s televangelists put together, yet he never took up an offering.
This man had greater stature than the Pope, yet he hated organised religion.
This man could assemble a crowd in seconds, yet he avoided them.
This man had more wisdom and knowledge than one can find in all the world’s libraries, yet he had no title or credentials.
This man could actually do the miracles that faith healers can only dream of, yet he rebuked those who wanted him to hold a miracle crusade.
This man had the ability to bring God into politics, yet he took Him out of it.
This man managed to attract the attention of the rich and famous, yet he chose to befriend the poor.
This man had the ability to save his life, yet he gave it as a ransom for many.
So I ask you, how can any human being not love this man?
5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 5:12-6:6
I recently contributed to a discussion on verses 4 to 6 above, and thought it would be helpful to share some of my thoughts here for those who are interested.
As you may know, these verses have proven to be a major stumbling block for many believers. They seem to suggest that it is impossible to repent and come back to the Lord after having “fallen away”. This is an obvious problem for those who have “backslidden” at some or other stage of their Christian walk, and who are trying to come back to the Lord.
It is also, and especially, a problem for those who have come back to the Lord after a period of backsliding, and who are haunted by the possibility that the Lord has not accepted them back or fully forgiven them.
Theologians generally try and escape the severity of these verses by going one of two routes:
1. They argue that the term “fall away” implies a total apostasy and denial of the faith, and not just a falling into sin.
2. They argue that the people referred to by the author were not really saved to begin with, and that they rejected the fullness of the revelation or enlightenment intended to bring them to salvation. If you reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit at such a level, then there remains nothing else that will convince you, hence the “impossibility”.
A Third Approach
However, there is a third way to approach these verses, and that is to look at the “big picture” of Hebrews. When we interpret the passage against the backdrop of the entire letter, especially with due consideration to the immediate context of verses 4 to 6 (beginning in 5:12), we find a message that is immensely positive and encouraging, and actually means the exact opposite of the above interpretations.
Let me start by pointing out that the error of both interpretations is the failure to interpret verses 4 to 6 in the light of verse 1. Does it not strike us as odd that the re-repentance that is prohibited in verse 1 is suddenly portrayed as a desirable but unattainable ideal in verse 6? In verse 1 we are told that repentance should not be repeated. In verses 4 to 6 we are told that repentance cannot be repeated. The author seems to be telling his readers that they are trying to do something that cannot be done, and that it cannot be done because it should not be done. Herein is the solution to the dilemma, as we will see in a moment.
“Once” and “Again”
To understand this, we need to understand the way in which the author juxtaposes the words “once” and “again” throughout the letter (e.g. 9:25-10:14). “Again” signifies the imperfection of the Old Covenant sacrifice, and “once” the perfection of Christ’s.
Keep in mind that the recipients of this letter were Hebrews, i.e. Jewish Christians. Also keep in mind that the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Christ due to the fact that they could not make sense of Christ’s Messiahship against the backdrop of their own religious traditions. The very shadows and types of the Old Testament that were intended to prepare the way for the Messiah actually blinded them to the Messiah. Jewishness, if not correctly understood, can prove to be a handicap in one’s grasp of New Covenant truths. It would appear that this was the problem addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.
To view the cross through an Old Covenant “lens” is to underestimate the finality of it. It is to see it as a sacrifice that should ideally be repeated regularly, in line with all the other sacrifices of that dispensation. This view would, quite obviously, manifest as an understanding of repentance as an associated act that also needs to be repeated again and again (repentance being the subjective response to the objective act of sacrifice).
And so the Hebrew Christians were not advancing towards maturity as they were laying again and again a “foundation of repentance from dead works” (verse 1, boldfaced in the text), in line with their understanding of a sacrifice as something that needed to be repeated again and again. This manifested itself as a need to have the “basic principles” taught to them “again” (5:12) which is, according to the Hebrews author, tantamount to feeding on milk, i.e. the first step associated with growth.
The impossibility of “repenting again” (6:4-6) is stated to emphasise the doctrinal absurdity of the idea, as unthinkable and impractical as “crucifying once again the Son of God” (6:6; 9:25-26). It is NOT stated as something that needs to happen but is now prohibited by an angry God who has run out of grace. In the New Covenant the repentance of regeneration happens once, because it is not the effortful turning of a human being, but rather the “perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified” 10:14. (This type of foundational repentance should not be confused with daily and ongoing “repentance”, which is legitimate and necessary, and not referred to in these verses.)
This is confirmed by the words in verse 1 “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works”. Thus the entire passage speaks against re-repentance, and identifies it as the cause of the Hebrews’ spiritual immaturity. The “impossibility” of verse 4 is intended to reinforce this truth, revealing that the New Covenant was never intended to provide an opportunity for re-repentance (Also see 10:26). In fact, this is not merely undesirable but impossible as we are no longer the ones overseeing the act of sacrifice. This Lamb was provided by God, and he only provided one.
The reason for a single sacrifice, resulting in a single repentance, is simple, and clearly stated in other passages in Hebrews:
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (10:25-26)
He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:12)
And the clincher:
Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:1-4, 10)
Note that Christ came to not only forgive our sins, but to “put away sin”, to secure an “eternal redemption”, and to sanctify us “once for all”. Also note that the Old Covenant sacrifices could not provide any of this. If they did, two things would have happened:
1. They would have stopped being offered. In other words, the “repetitious” cycle would have ceased.
2. The worshipers would no longer have any “consciousness of sin”.
Clearly the Hebrews never understood this. The absence of both these elements in their (Old Covenantal) understanding of the cross manifested itself in a constant need to re-repent. Indeed, the need for repentance flows from a consciousness of sin. If the sin is not “put away”, the effects of the repentance would be short-lived.
The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice is thus best expressed in a new type of repentance that mirrors the completion and perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. The repentance on earth is what the sacrifice is in heaven. It reflects the perfection thereof, and thus it cannot be repeated.
The point is that these “problematic” verses of chapter 6 are intended to liberate, not condemn. They have nothing to do with the unpardonable sin, and everything with the glorious reality that to fall into sin is not to entirely undo the benefits of the cross, calling for a ritualistic repetition thereof. All that is needed is to get up and carry on, mindful of a secure salvation that has perfected us, even though we stumble and fall regularly.
Much of my early Christian life was spent around believers who regularly ended up on the carpet between the front pew and the pulpit of the church, crying and begging for forgiveness. Sundays were mostly “repentance day”. We were evangelized. And then we were evangelized again, and again, and again. I think part of it had to do with the revival culture of the denomination, and the romance of tent evangelism, and the sovereignty of the altar call, and the centrality and supremacy of the sinner’s prayer, and so on.
As a kid I was given a little red Gideon’s New Testament containing a neat blue line on the back page where you were supposed to enter your “salvation date”. I changed that date so many times that I eventually lost track.
Strangely, in the midst of all the feverish activity there was a severe lack of spiritual maturity, both in my life and the lives of many others.
I could never understand this strange dichotomy, until I discovered the letter to the Hebrews. And then it became clear. We were like a man who got stuck in a revolving door. We were running, yes, but we were running in circles. We kept on repeating our entrance, and we never got anywhere. The very thing that was intended to make our spirituality “take off”, anchored it to the ground in a devastating way.
And oh boy, were we ever “conscious of sin”!
The letter to the Hebrews blew my mind. It provided a blue print for spiritual growth, and taught me that faith is to grasp the reality and finality of my own salvation. It showed me that humans once were the active agents in the ritual of sacrifice, but that God took over from us with one final, perfect sacrifice. We were now at rest, for God had finished his work. And it was so perfect that even the very thought of trying to repeat it bordered on blasphemy.
In fact, I began studying the book of Hebrews so much that I believe I have found a most likely candidate for authorship, but that is another story for another day…
(Please note that this short explanation merely scratches the surface and obviously does not deal with any of the questions that will/may arise from it. Yet it provides a basis from where one can do your own study. But feel free to ask questions. I’ll gladly respond.)
Stephen Crosby’s blog post earlier today To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the Question not only blessed me (How much longer before we “get” this?), but inspired me to dig into some old files for a research paper I delivered over a decade ago at a theological seminary in Cape Town. I found it, and thought I’ll add my voice to Stephen’s.
The Difference Between Christian and Secular Leadership
I know of few Christians who would question the implied proposition above. The church of Jesus Christ is generally in agreement that there is a marked difference between Christian and non-Christian methods of leadership. Yet, when questioned, many believers struggle to explain what these differences are. Christian leaders themselves don’t fare much better, a fact which becomes especially evident when we survey much of the so-called Christian leadership literature doing the rounds in evangelical circles today. Oftentimes these are little more than a rehash of conventional secular wisdom, sprinkled with Bible verses so as to sanctify and legitimise their use.
If there is a difference between secular and Christian leadership styles, then what is it? Furthermore, how big is this difference? Is Christian leadership complimentary to secular leadership, or does it present an alternative to secular leadership? To put it in picture form: Is it the roofrack of the vehicle, or is it another vehicle altogether?
It is my conviction, and the thesis of this paper, that the difference between secular and Christian leadership is the very difference separating the Kingdom of God from the fallen empires of this world. It is, in other words, that difference that contrasts light and darkness, life and death, Christ and Satan. To put the two together as though they are variants of the same species won’t do. They stand unalterably antithetical, and so they will remain until the day of the Lord.
The Worldliness of Secular Leadership
If the above sounds like an unnecessarily harsh assessment, let us consider for a moment the adjective we employ to describe the type of leadership that is not ‘Christian’. The word ‘secular’ is derived from the Latin saeculum, which is one of the Latin words for world. It refers to our existence as material beings in the material cosmos. Secular leadership is really nothing but worldly leadership. As such it is not merely practiced by ‘worldly’ people, but it has the world as both its beginning and end. Its philosophical premises and presuppositions are thoroughly worldly and so also their logical conclusions. Ideas have consequences, or ‘legs’ as Francis Schaeffer used to say, which means that ideas go places. And the places they go are more often than not determined by the places they come from. Ideas that begin with the world are doomed to end with the world, both in the philosophical and eschatological sense.
Christian leadership, on the other hand, is a leadership away from the world. It is not utopian, has no business with social engineering, and certainly does not believe that politics presents the answer to the ailments of society, the worldview expressed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s maxim ‘the state is the agency of emancipation’ (Cited in Colson 1999: 171). Rather, it longs for a better country – a heavenly one, and it does so in true Hebrews 11 fashion. This type of non-secular leadership is best exemplified by the image of Moses leading the Israelites away from Egypt in search of a land promised and ruled by God.
The Influence Leadership Vision has on Leadership Style
One might wonder what this has to with the actual how-to of leading. Do the different visions of the church and the world influence their leadership methodology, ultimately necessitating different leadership styles? In other words, has leadership anything to do with the particular policies of the leader, or is it purely neutral? And if it has, to what extent?
We have all heard it said that Hitler was an excellent leader. By this it is usually meant that he had great charisma and even greater powers of conviction. He managed to lead thousands, and so we conclude that he was a great leader. The fact that he led them to destruction is besides the point. It makes him a poor theorist, perhaps, but not a poor leader. He could get people to follow him, and this is the litmus test of leadership. As I once heard a Christian leadership guru put it: “If no one is following, you are not leading, but merely taking a walk.” We could turn that around to mean that as long as people are following, you are definitely leading.
Of course not everyone is comfortable with such a pragmatic view of leadership. Stephen Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’ (1992) is a case in point. According to this school leadership is more than the sum of certain morally neutral traits that are both inborn and acquired, and have produced military and political leaders stretching from before Alexander the Great through Napoleon and Hitler to modern leaders like Bill Clinton. “We need to place character back in leadership”, its proponents say; “we need to live by the compass rather than the map.” In spite of the inward focus and oftentimes spiritual emphasis of this school (Covey is a Mormon), we are not offered any insight into the difference between Christian and secular leadership, due to a lack of any religious homogeneity amongst its advocates. Furthermore, we are offered no answer to the question of whether the different visions of the church and the world have any bearing on their leadership methodology and style.
In order to answer this question, we need to turn to the communication sciences, and to one person in particular: Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who became famous for his aphorism, “the medium is the message”. According to McLuhan, any chosen medium selected for the purposes of communication serves not only as a carrier for such communication, but actually dictates the content of the communication. Neil Postman illustrates this by his story of American Indians communicating via smoke signals, yet finding it impossible to discuss deep philosophy this way. ‘Its form excludes the content’, Postman points out. (Postman 1985: 7).
In the same way styles of leadership, which are forms of discourse, regulate the content issuing from such styles. The leadership style of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace made it possible for him to convey a message to the masses that many of his contemporaries could not convey. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood version of his life was dubbed Braveheart, for in this title we find the reason behind his uncanny ability to call his people to bravery. Perhaps the best shorthand summary of this principle is to be found in a statement attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Who you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Particular forms of leadership, in other words, favour particular kinds of content, or, to change McCluhan’s adage slightly: The leader is the message. This is true in any context, even where the message is of such a nature that it makes little demands on the medium of leadership, for instance in the case of the Senior Bookkeeper whose expertise is limited to the world of accountancy. Her subordinates expect no bravery from her, knowing full well that even great cowards can make great bookkeepers. Her authority is derived from what is called ‘expert power’ (Lund & Henderson 1994: 12), and rightly so, for this is what her particular environment demands. However, in the political arena expert power is not sufficient to rise to a position of leadership. Here ‘personal power’ becomes a requirement, namely that ‘mystical combination of attributes that marks some people as born leaders’. (Lund & Henderson 1994: 13). Different settings demand different forms of communication, which in turn demand different leadership styles.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that the radically different message of Christianity demands and necessitates a radically different leadership style in order to be conveyed. Where we are heading will therefore determine how we lead, and it is this truism that disengages Christian from secular leadership.
The Strangeness of Christian Leadership
When we turn to Scripture we find that the God of the Bible assumed a connection between the medium and the message long before McCluhan did. This is evident from the gospel of John, where we read that a particular message from God, simply called “the Word”, demanded a particular medium for its effective conveyance, simply called “the flesh”. The “Word became flesh” means that the message became the medium, and that the two are inseparably linked. Reading further into the gospels we are struck by God’s condemnation of people who ignored this principle by preaching the gospel without living it (Matt 23:1-4). Believers are referred to as living epistles, and one can only wonder why John wrote “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” Did the spiritual nature of his message perhaps demand a different medium of discourse, namely talking ‘face to face’? (3 John 13-14).
Christianity, in other words, is to be lived in order to be proclaimed. The word must become flesh, and the formation of that flesh must be determined by the content of the word. This is especially true in the case of Christian leadership, which is nothing but an extension and disclosure of the Christian message. True Christian leadership can only be so if it embodies and exemplifies the profound gap between the Christian and secular worldviews.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that Christianity turns the worldly concept of leadership upside down. The stark contrast between Christian and secular leadership is drawn by Christ himself in Matt. 20:25-28, in response to his followers who seemingly noted no distinction between the two: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave…” It cannot be stated clearer than this. Christian leadership is not an exercise of authority, but an abdication of it. In this it stands opposed to ‘gentile’ forms of leadership and authority.
Yet not only secular, but also religious forms of authority are challenged by the Christian paradigm of leadership. The era of the Spirit, according to Jeremiah, signifies not only the end of the law but also the end of human mediation: “No longer will a man teach his neighbour…”, the prophet says, “because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” (Jer 31:34). In 1John 2:27 we read: “…the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” (1 John 2: 27). The Christian message implies that with the advent of the Holy Spirit came a subjective authority hitherto unknown to humanity, resulting in an independence from traditional forms of authority, both secular and religious.
Christian leadership, therefore, is in reality a form of anti-leadership. It’s aim is not to gather a following, but to challenge the herd mentality so basic to human nature. Christian leadership is never the emperor parading before the masses, but always the little boy crying out “The emperor is naked!” It is strangely subversive and radically countercultural. It is a leadership of liberation, freeing the captives and prisoners from their enslavement to the ideologies of this world, and setting them on a narrow road where no one has gone before, for which no maps are available, and where progress is only possible by following the guidance of God’s Spirit.
This means that Christian leadership is ultimately self destructive. Once it has challenged the status quo, it points to another power and authority altogether and removes itself from the platform. Nowhere is this strange type of leadership better illustrated than in the ministry of John the Baptist, and nowhere better put than in his own words: ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ (John 3:30) Ministers and Christian leaders would do well to look in the mirror from time to time and say out loud with the prophet: ‘I am not the Christ but am send ahead of him.’ (John 3:27). Indeed, preparing the way for Christ is what Christian leadership is all about.
Some Practical Considerations
How does the above work itself out in practice? Much can be said about this, but for the purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to a few remarks made by Christ and Paul, and some more recent comments of Eugene Peterson.
Christ washed feet (John 13:1-17) and spoke about children (Matt 18:15) and servants (Matt 20:26, Matt 23:11) in order to illustrate what greatness means in the Kingdom of God. Like Jeremiah he challenged the notion of human mediation (See Matt 23:8-10), which is in reality nothing but a worldly model of leadership that subjects and enslaves the masses to an elite inner circle of spiritually enlightened pundits. As Os Guinness has noted: “…the dominance of the expert means the dependency of the client.” (Guinness 1993: 71). Indeed, religious punditocracy came to an end the day that the new covenant came into effect and all believers were made kings and priests. Titles reserved for traditional religious leaders were now bestowed on the laity, and for no other reason than the fact that external forms of authority were internalised through the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
The apostle Paul calls the Christian church to humility, and instructs them to have the same attitude as Christ, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”(Phil 2:-7). His famous statement “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am Of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1 in the KJV), can easily be interpreted as “Do not follow me, but follow Christ”, an interpretation that seems to be confirmed by his earlier rebuke of the Corinthians for their “I follow Paul…I follow Apollos.” (1 Cor 3:4). This particular rebuke he concludes with the assertion that both he and Apollos are mere “servants through whom you came to believe.” (v5). Indeed, his argument reminds strongly of John the Baptist’s. It is a leadership that says: “I am only here to point you to Christ.” In his second letter to the Corinthians he actually states this conviction: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5).
In line with this thinking, Paul presents the Christian church with a list of leadership traits that totally contradicts conventional secular wisdom. In the place of intelligence, initiative, self-assurance, determination, visionary capacity, ability to influence, ability to see the big picture and so on, he lists traits like humility, holiness, hospitality, and being free from the love of money, as conditions for Christian leadership (See 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1).
Eugene Peterson has pointed out that Paul’s list is “clearly more a matter of character than of skill” (Dawn & Peterson 2000: 202), and anyone would be foolish to disagree. He quotes Henri Nouwen in this regard: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” (p 190). Peterson goes on to say: “What we call the ability to lead has almost nothing to do with it. If we want to develop community in Christ, we have to scrap most of what we are told today about leadership.” (p 203). He concludes his remarks by saying that we should recognise the sphere of leadership among the “poor in Spirit” (p 203), and that it is “almost always a mistake to recruit exceptional people for leadership” (p 204).
I could not agree more. CEO leadership is the worst imaginable model of leadership that the Christian church can choose to follow.
The thesis of this paper is that a spiritual message cannot be conveyed by an unspiritual medium anymore than deep philosophical ideas can be conveyed by smoke signals. The form of secular leadership excludes the spiritual content of the gospel message, and is therefore an unfit medium of conveyance. True spiritual leadership is the servant leadership of Jesus Christ and Paul. It has as its source not expert power or personal power, nor resource power or positional power (See Lund & Henderson 1994: 6), but spiritual power. This power favours no particular personality types and more often than not displays itself in weakness, leaving no doubt as to where it comes from. (We are offered a vast array of testimonies throughout both Bible and church history of highly unlikely characters who were greatly used of God in leading capacities.)
With the above in mind it is clear that the church would do well to rethink the issue of Christian leadership. Ours is a situation not unlike that of Israel who demanded a king at a time where God was to be their King, and perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have not fallen into the same trap through our over-reliance on human leadership.
Colson, C & Pearcy, N 1999. How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton: Tyndale
Covey, S R 1992. Principle Centered Leadership. London: Simon & Schuster
Dawn, M & Peterson, E 2000. The Unnecessary Pastor. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing
Guinness, O 1994. Dining with the Devil. Grand Rapids: Baker
Lund, B & Henderson, E 1994. Leading Your Team, Book 10 of Managing Health Services. The Open University
Postman, N 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Methuen.
Picture of Christ & Hitler: http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/871800/
You can subject someone to your tyranny by portraying your wisdom as an indispensable factor for the flight from tyranny.
One of the best places to hide is behind the future. The future holds more promise than the present or the past, and so it lends itself to magical thinking. The promise of the serpent is always a promise of the future, and so Satan himself hides behind it. There is no smokescreen quite so effective as the future. We can hide our true selves behind it, and we can hypnotise people with it.
The way of deliverance is to understand that God exists in the present, and that he wishes to interact with us in the present. The cure for hypocrisy is through an engagement with the present. It is very difficult to lie in the presence of the present, for the present is real. He who lives in the present is not easily fooled by others, and least of all by himself. The person of the present is honest. He sees the world as it is, not as it can be.
What about the future then? What about the hope of the Christian, both for his work in this world and his rest in the world beyond?
The answer is simple. The true future lies in the present, and it is beheld through the present. When the future is beheld apart from the present, as Eve did when she blotted the eternal and ever-present word of God out of her mind, it is on the same par as the illusion of the magician. The appearance of magic depends on the disappearance of that which is present and real. Herein lies the secret of magic. You can only show it to those whose eyes you have first blinded. Detract from the real and present, and the illusion will take its place.
When the present is beheld, the future becomes its child and not its enemy. The only people who have some sense of mastery over their future, such as the wise man of Proverbs who works his land, are those who have the firmest grasp of the present. But the fool of Proverbs is the one who chases fantasies, and who will have his fill of poverty. He is the one who has made the present a child of the future, and in the process he has forfeited both the present and the future. To tranquilise oneself through dreaming is to become blind and numb to the demands of the present.
Satan blinds us to the present, for God is in the present. What distinguishes Christianity from other religions is the arrival of a kingdom that remains out of reach for all other religious pilgrims. God is with us, and he is so in the now, not the tomorrow. The Christian’s pilgrimage is a walk with Christ, not one towards Christ. And so Christ was the greatest proponent of the present. “Do not worry about tomorrow”, he said, and likened such concerns with the world of the gentiles. Whilst Philip was asking for and anticipating a view of the Father, Christ was teaching Philip that he was busy looking at the Father. I am not in your future, Philip, but in your present.
In fact, the very word “presence” is derived from the present. It is not possible to be present and anticipated at the same time. For Christ to be “with us” is to no longer wait for him, or anticipate him in some idealised future setting. This is why Christ answered: “The kingdom is in your midst”, when asked “when” the kingdom of God would come. (I am not referring here to the Lord’s return, the new heavens and earth, and our anticipation thereof. Such an expectation is entirely legitimate, even compulsory. My focus above is on the presence of Christ in the here and now, and the present reality of the Kingdom of God.)
This explains the prohibition of images in the Bible. The image compensates for the absence of the real, and so it magnifies that absence. To make an image of God is to declare that God is not with us, and that we should at least have the freedom to interact with a projection of him. Of course the lure of the image has to do with the anticipation that the projection would at some stage be replaced by the real, that the image would become alive as it were, and so the image becomes our link to the future and our escape from the present.
Idolatry is always intended as an escape, and so it relies on images to make the ideal concrete. The image captures the imagination’s flight and forces it from an idea into a reality. It subjects the evasive God to our power and control, and turns the future from the unknown to the known. In its final analysis, idolatry denies the sufficiency of God, the perfection of his provision and the completion of his works.
Of course there is one other way to escape from the present, and that is through the past. Here, too, Satan is the guide on the journey. If he cannot get us to join him in constructing an idolatrous future, he incites us to dwell on the past. This he does through accusation, and oftentimes through nostalgia, but that is another story for another day.
Last week I stumbled upon a “tribal chart” compiled by a leading Neo-Calvinist of the Young, Restless and Reformed variety. It aimed to delineate the differences between the major tribes of evangelicalism.
As one would expect from a visionary “tribal chief” (the compiler’s term for the leaders of the packs, including himself), the clarion call was to understand and learn from each others’ tribal preferences, avoid disagreements about trivialities and work together with those who agree on the primary issues of the faith.
Whilst momentarily enjoying the weirdness of seeing the names of Joel Osteen, John MacArthur, Scot McKnight, Joyce Meyer, Al Mohler and T.D. Jakes all on one page, I became aware of a strange sense of unease.
I was mystified. Surely this passionate call to Christian unity is an extremely noble and worthy one? Why was I feeling uneasy? But then it dawned on me. There was no category for those who had left the tribes. I wasn’t on the page, and neither were any of my non-tribal brothers and sisters.
Don’t get me wrong. My unease was not inspired by being ignored or dismissed. Where I find my spiritual home anonymity is highly regarded, and so offense had nothing to do with it.
No, it was the message underlying the omission that got to me.
The tribes were encouraged to intermingle, not to question the legitimacy of their tribal identities. It was okay to follow Cephas, as long as we appreciated and learned from the Appolians and Paulines. It was fine to follow Paul, as long as we gained a healthy working relationship with the Cephasites. It was fine to have tribal chiefs and a tribal identity, as long as we acknowledged the rights of others to have the same.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it turns the order of the body upside down. “From Him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work”, Paul wrote to the Ephesians.
Note the words “from Him.” They tell us that the body members discover their working relationship with one another through their connection with the head. They don’t discover the intention of the head by being joined to one another.
The difference is monumental. You don’t make a functioning head by sewing body parts together. You make Frankenstein’s monster that way.
I know, I know. How dare I suggest that you are not connected to the head because you are proudly wearing a tribal badge? Well, I’m not really. I’m just slightly befuddled that you define your connection to the head through your connection to something that is infinitely inferior to it. Does Apollos contain Christ, or does Christ contain Apollos? Who defines who here?
And no, I don’t really buy the “I love soccer and Man United is my team” line, as though it is entirely legitimate for believers to be united in their passion but divided in its expression. Christianity is no contest. Allow your body parts to compete with one another and you may end up looking like a cross between a Giraffe and a T Rex, with a neck that is twenty times the length of your arms.
The soccer analogy is only honest when you consider that all believers belong to one team, and that the call to unity is embedded in a single name that defines the entire team as well as its individual members. (Man United – just in case you missed it.) And so, if we stick to the analogy, a whole lot of ecclesiastical attitudes out there would be better expressed in statements like: “Of course I submit to my coach and honor the team, but I’m going fishing if anyone takes my ball.”
The point is that the game plan was developed for a single team, and that there is no real game to be played once you exit the team. Unless you cross over to the other side, of course. But who wants to do that?
As for the snooty attitude underlying the exit, I understand it well. It defined me for many years as I travelled through the tribes, determined to find the perfect one. I went from Dutch Reformed to Classic Pentecostal to Renewal to Charismatic to Baptist to Reformed Baptist.
In the process I discovered my own wicked heart, but I also discovered something else: Inevitably, I made many wonderful friends along the way. Inevitably, old friends would sometimes meet new ones. Inevitably, I learned much during those meetings.
I remember a very serious Pentecostal friend who laughed uncontrollably when he heard that I had become a Baptist. I remember a Charismatic friend and outstanding worship leader who helped out with the music in the church I pastored during my Reformed Baptist years, and how no one knew where to find the words for the spontaneous “new song” that he began singing whilst leading worship.
I remember many other things.
I also remember sitting in a coffee shop and mistaking the little decorative white stones in the center of the table for sugar cubes. I remember stirring, and stirring, and stirring….
Some things just don’t mix, no matter how hard we try. That’s a dear lesson I learned during my ecclesiastical wanderings.
Egos are like that. They don’t mix, unless they are first pulverized. The day that I understood this, I understood why the temple was built on a threshing floor. You can never be part of God’s building process unless you have ceased to exist.
Only when your own identity perishes, and that includes your extended “tribal” identity, can you become known by a name that is bigger than your own.
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)
Nelson Mandela, the “father” of the country I live in, has died.
He died because he was a mere man. An extraordinary man, but a mere man.
As I watched the footage covering his life and death, I was reminded of the passage above. Have you noticed that the error of deifying a mortal was committed by the people and not by Herod? The passage never suggests that Herod thought of himself as a god. It was the people who committed the sin of idolatry.
Herod’s sin was not one of commission, but of omission. He failed to correct the people’s error.
The passage stands in stark contrast to a similar incident recorded in the book of Acts, but with a very different outcome:
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:11-16)
Us humans have a long history of getting our gods and heroes mixed up. It’s a silly idea that was first suggested by a serpent, but we bought into it and allowed it to determine most of our religious development throughout the ages. Frazer’s The Golden Bough does an excellent job of documenting our follies in this regard, especially when it comes to those who rule over us. (See his Incarnate Human Gods to find out more about the elephant headed god Gunputty and Queen Victoria’s divinity. And please ignore his conclusions about Jesus Christ. Frazer is an excellent historian but a poor theologian.)
As Montaigne famously quipped: We do not know how to make a maggot, but we create gods by the dozens.
It is noteworthy that the passage from Acts never disputes Herod’s greatness. It was the origin of that greatness that was at stake. Similarly, Paul and Barnabas’ abilities were not downplayed. Rather, the passage directs the attention away from them and to God as the source of life and goodness.
This is the lesson, and we shall do well to take note of it in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s passing.
Was he a “great man”, according to human standards? Certainly. In fact, he was one of the greatest, and so shall he be remembered.
Did his greatness originate in himself? Certainly not, and we dare not remember him as though it did.
Perhaps you find it disturbing to imagine that Nelson Mandela was a mere mortal that was greatly gifted by God to do what he had done. Perhaps his accomplishments were slightly too “unspiritual” for you to draw such a conclusion. I mean, he did not even confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Why would God allow a man to be filled with power, wisdom and humility without bringing such a man to his knees and publicly declare Christ as Lord?
If you struggle with such questions (and many Christians do), then I wish to remind you of a passage from the Bible that deals with the “calling” of a man who did not worship God:
This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:1-7)
Cyrus II of Persia, like Herod, was known as “the great”. At the time of his reign he created the largest empire the world had ever seen, and his other accomplishments were numerous and legendary. His Biblical significance had to do with his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.
Put simply, Cyrus was raised up by God and made “great” to be an instrument for delivering God’s people from their captivity in Babylon. All his other feats were circumstantial to this one great purpose of his life.
Was it necessary for him to be a converted Jew in order to obey this calling? Not at all. God had a purpose with Cyrus and that purpose was fulfilled in and through Cyrus’ life. Cyrus was great because God made him great, and God made him great for God, not for Cyrus.
None of this should sound strange. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (note that this was Rome) he wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-4). He goes on to call the authorities “God’s servants” and “agents”.
If you are looking for a historic example of a deeply spiritual human government, please skip Rome. If ever a government embodied the spirit of the Antichrist, Rome was it. Yet they were there because God established them, and he did so for his own purposes.
So why on earth would God raise up a “great” man at the southern tip of Africa to guide a country through democratic elections and prohibit a bloody civil war? To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think anyone has a clue. Maybe one day we will know, but I do not believe that we do at the moment. My best guess is that it is either because of past prayers or future plans that God may have for this country. Or perhaps a bit of both. But I cannot say for certain, and I don’t believe anybody else can.
You may suggest that it was to deliver the oppressed masses, but I don’t think that was the only reason. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place”, Jesus said to Pilate.
God is not in the business of freedom fighting. He is not on the side of the ANC, or, for that matter, on the side of any government. He has established them for his own purposes, but that says no more about his affections for them than it does about his feelings for Rome during the time of their governance.
Of course God is on the side of the oppressed. But his delivery of them is much greater and more inclusive than what we have seen in South Africa. South Africa is not quite the Kingdom of God, and it will never be. Furthermore, many oppressed worldwide will remain oppressed until the coming of Christ. That does not mean that we should be apathetic about their lot, but simply that we should not confuse our humanitarian efforts with the sum total of God’s agenda.
Nelson Mandela was great because God made him great, and he did so for his own purposes. If anyone should get the glory, praise and honour for Mandela’s greatness, then it is God.
Let us not fall into the same error as the crowd in Herod’s day. Let us give praise where praise is due.
And let us not fall into Herod’s error and be quiet about the crowd’s error.