Thursday, December 31, 2020

That's not enough!

The point is that the transition from otherworldly salvation to a holistic understanding of the kingdom of God is impossible without personal transformation. The shift to a truly biblical understanding of salvation cannot be limited to head knowledge without moral responsibility. To put it another way, we cannot separate eschatology from ethics.

If we omit the ethical challenge of the kingdom, our newly found this-worldliness will simply confirm our selfish consumerist/materialistic, upwardly mobile, late—modern lifestyle; that is, our affirmation of the world (our holistic vision of salvation) will be construed to benefit us (whoever we are), while we ignore the needs of the wider world, especially the concrete needs of people who are different from our favored in—group. The tragedy is that many upwardly mobile North American Christians today often hoard and guard their religious identity and economic privilege, with little concern for the poor or for immigrants, or those of other nations, cultures, or religions. This problem is, of course, not limited to North Americans or even specifically to Christians. But, given the primary audience of this book, and the extraordinary religious and economic privilege of those living in North America, we need to take this challenge seriously.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 273

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Not yet, but getting there…

The fact that John died in prison should warn us of the difference between a biblical understanding of the kingdom and the triumphalistic assumptions of much that goes under the name of the “health—and-wealth gospel” or the “prosperity gospel.” Jesus himself endured rejection and death before resurrection, thus paralleling Israel’s experience of bondage in Egypt before deliverance and their exile in Babylon before return to the land. Paul himself says that we must suffer with Christ in order to attain to the resurrection (Phil. 3:10–11). Indeed, all creation is groaning in its bondage, awaiting liberation (Rom. 8:18–25). In other words, while resurrection, healing, and holistic restoration constitute the appropriate Christian hope——and there is substantial healing and restoration possible in the present—“hope” means that we trust in what is coming but is not yet with us in its fullness. We live between the times, after the inauguration of the kingdom but before its final consummation.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 272 n. 11

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Great News!

But this vision of holistic salvation is only initially disorienting. It is ultimately good news—even great news! For if we are honest about it, the kingdom of God is exactly what we need, since it addresses both our present brokenness and our deepest yearnings for restoration and renewal. We know that brokenness pervades church and society, at individual and communal levels; this includes failed marriages, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence, racism, poverty, disease, war, genocide, greed, and despair. And we yearn and hope desperately for God’s healing and shalom. If only we would dismantle our ingrained bifurcated habits of mind and life (our division of reality into sacred and secular, into spiritual and earthly), then we could begin to open our hearts to the power of God’s holistic salvation; for the good news is that God wants to heal all our brokenness, both internal and external, whether personal or social.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 272

Monday, December 28, 2020

There's more to the gospel than that!

What John [the Baptist] did not understand was that the kingdom does not come all at once. John was in danger of stumbling over Jesus on this point. He expected too much, too quickly.

Historically, however, many Christians have had the opposite problem. We have not expected enough. And what we have expected, we have often delayed until “heaven” and the return of Christ. We have not really believed that God cares about this world of real people in their actual historical situations, which often are characterized by oppression and suffering. Our understanding of salvation has been characterized by an unbiblical otherworldliness. So our expectations of the future have often not reflected the full-orbed good news that Jesus proclaimed at Nazareth.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 271

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Ad fontes!

Whereas in the beginning Israel was simply one (admittedly unique) nation among the other nations, the term “nations” (= gentiles) came to be reserved for non-Israelites. This parallels the split between clergy and laity in the history of Christianity. Although originally those with a pastoral leadership role were simply one group among the people (laos) of God, the term “people” (= laity) came to be reserved for those who were not clergy. In both cases this terminology serves to distance one group (with a distinctive mission) from the larger group of which they were originally members. Election for ministry or service becomes transformed into an elite or even oppositional sense of identity, which ends up subverting the original purpose of the distinction (which was about function, not status).—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 266

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Don't limit the good news!

But the message of Jesus was good news not just for his original hearers; it is good news for us today as well. Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom at Nazareth can help us unlearn dualistic habits of mind that shackle our reading of the gospel and limit the scope of God’s salvation. But it does more than change our understanding, important as that is.

The message of the kingdom that Jesus brings is good news most fundamentally because we, no less than his original hearers, desperately need the healing and redemption that he came to bring, a redemption that touches all we do. For we are, in multiple ways, caught up in the brokenness of the world, complicit in sin not just at the individual level but also as part and parcel of the fallen social order, which is out of whack with God’s purposes, living in a creation that is groaning for redemption. And we yearn for healing. The good news is that the coming of God’s kingdom impacts the entirety of our lives—our bodies, our work, our families, all our social relationships, even our relationship to the earth itself. The good news of the kingdom is nothing less than the healing (literally, the establishing) of the world (tikkûn 'ôlām), in which we are all invited to participate.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 261–62

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

But you are starting with the wrong assumptions!

The trouble is that many contemporary Christians understand eternal life primarily as a reference to life after death (often connected to the idea of dwelling in heaven forever) and then use this un-biblical concept to interpret the kingdom of God. But this puts matters precisely the wrong way around.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 246

Monday, December 21, 2020

Nope, that's not heaven!

Note that “the air” (where believers are to meet Christ) is not “heaven” in contemporary Christian theology. Classical Greek authors often used the term aēr (which Paul uses here [1 Thess 4:17]) to refer to the lower atmosphere (below the moon), characterized as dense and misty, in distinction from the aethēr (the pure upper region of the stars). While we cannot simply attribute this understanding of the air to Paul without further ado, the New Testament sometimes associates the air with the domain of Satan, who is called “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), a phrase essentially synonymous with the Johannine expression “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30). Note also the association of birds (which inhabit the air) with the evil one/Satan/the devil in different versions of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:4, 19; Mark 4:4, 15; Luke 8:5, 12). If any of these associations is relevant to 1 Thess. 4, Paul may be intending to say that redemption occurs on the devil’s “turf,” and he is powerless to impede it.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 222–23 n. 12

Friday, December 18, 2020

You don't want to hear this

The apocalyptic pattern emphasizes that until Christ returns, salvation is only partial; Christian hope thus involves waiting patiently for the unveiling on the last day. To be faithful in the interim, as we live toward the parousia, Christian discipleship will be cruciform, following the pattern of Christ’s life, and will therefore often be characterized by suffering and sacrifice; this is because of the ethical tension between the promised kingdom of God and the powers of the present age. The cruciform pattern of the Christian life is very hard for contemporary Westerners to hear, since we (and I include myself here) typically want quick fixes, and we somehow think that our (presumed) faithfulness should make us immune to suffering. It turns out, on the contrary, that faithfulness to Christ and our love for others will often require a voluntary taking up of suffering on our part in order to live ethically in this fallen world.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 211

Thursday, December 17, 2020

It's being prepared

N. T. Wright nicely illustrates this point [about the city of God being prepared in heaven] with his analogy of a parent telling a child in advance of Christmas that there is “a present kept safe in the cupboard for you.” This does not mean that once Christmas comes, the child has to “go and live in the cupboard in order to enjoy the present there.” Rather, the present will be brought from the cupboard to enrich the life of the child in the day-to-day world.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 220

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Public service announcement

Authors: Please, please, please remember this:

In a title/subtitle and bibliographies, the word "Its" and all forms of the verb "to be" are capitalized!

That is all. Thanks! It would save copyeditors a ton of time.

Colonizing the earth

It is worth noting that Philippi was a Roman colony and that many in the Philippian church would have been Roman citizens. In drawing on the analogy between Roman citizenship and citizenship in heaven, Paul not only was designating Jesus as the true “Savior” and “Lord” in contrast to Caesar (who was often described by these titles); he was also undoubtedly aware that Rome was crowded (indeed, overcrowded), and its citizens who were spread throughout the empire did not expect to settle in Rome one day. Instead, they expected to live out their citizenship wherever they were, as representatives of the empire. Likewise Christians, whose citizenship is in heaven, are expected to live as representatives of the kingdom of God on earth, manifesting Christ’s rule, until the day when the true Lord returns from heaven (the mother city) to liberate them from their enemies and fully establish his rule in the colonies. Or, to put it in terms of the Lord’s Prayer, the day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 218

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Is it broken? (the heart rate monitor, not the system!)

Last week I went to the doctor because I couldn't get rid of an infection; it required anti-biotics. I rarely use them, as I don't want to assist in the creation of super viruses, but sometimes they are necessary. But that's not the story here…

After going through the Covid-19 verbal questions and sitting in the appropriately spaced waiting room, the nurse called my name and escorted me back to the preliminary screening area where they check your weight, height, pulse, temperature, and who knows what else those things monitor now. Anyway, the pulse monitor said my pulse was 55, which is high for me, but I suffer from "white coat syndrome," which is a fancy term for the fact that I get elevated blood pressure, faster pulse, and all the rest of the stuff related to stress, when I visit a doctor. But that pulse caused the nurse to look at me and ask in somewhat alarmed voice, "Do you normally have a low pulse?" I assured her that my resting pulse was actually lower than that (about 45–50). She shook her head, readjusted the finger monitor, and then, because it didn't change, she manually checked my pulse. In an unbelieving tone, she said, "Hnh. It's correct."

OK, I thought it was humorous. Your mileage may vary. But I guess it just shows that clinics aren't used to getting healthy people—or maybe there just aren't enough of us left anymore? After all, they say that 2/3 of the people in the US are overweight and 1/2 of those are obese. There's no way that someone carrying around all that extra weight will have a pulse rate below 60!

On the throne!

And Paul, living after the death/resurrection and victory of Jesus, understands this risen and ascended Messiah to be presently reigning as Lord of all; yet Paul anticipates a further stage in redemptive history when the Messiah, having subdued all powers that oppose God (including death, the final enemy), will hand the kingdom over to the Father (1 Cor. 15 :24–26). Then, according Revelation 11:15, the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of God. And God, says Paul, will be all in all (15:28). Then the created order will once again respond in obedience and praise to its maker. In the end, the Bible envisions nothing less than the eschatological transformation of heaven and earth.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 210

Monday, December 14, 2020

Universal? Yes, the call is, but…

The call [to salvation] is absolutely universal. But you need to be thirsty; you need to want that water. And both the Bible and human experience suggest that some are not thirsty. Not all yearn for that water. I would like to think that universal salvation might be true—and surely God’s mercy is beyond our understanding¶mdash;but a biblical understanding of holistic salvation suggests that this is wishful thinking.”—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 208–9

Friday, December 11, 2020

There will be no more sea!

For example, the disappearance of the sea in Revelation 21:1 (“and the sea was no more”) is not making the point that no one goes swimming in the new creation. Rather, the sea is a traditional symbol in the ancient Near East for the forces of chaos and evil (thus in Rev. 13:1 one of the beasts comes from the sea). The point is that the forces of evil and chaos will be eradicated. Beyond the traditional background of this image, the book of Revelation previously mentioned the exploitative sea trade of the Roman Empire, which will end when Rome, the great city (called, symbolically, “Babylon”), falls (18:11—18); that is why among those who mourn the passing of the city are “all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea” (18:17—18). It is therefore good news that in the eschaton the sea (which facilitated the economic expansion of the Roman Empire) will be no more.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 169

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Cool of the evening? Or in the midst of the storm?

It is traditional to interpret Gen. 3:3 (which introduces God’s judgment) to mean that the first humans heard the sound of YHWH God walking in the garden in “the cool of the day” (literally, in the ruaḥ of the yōm), which makes some sense since ruaḥ can mean “wind,” and a wind brings lower temperatures, while yōm normally means “day.” This interpretation goes back to the Septuagint, which renders the phrase “in the evening” (to deilinon). However, there is a secondary (less common) meaning for yōm given in some lexicons (derived from an Akkadian word), “storm” (hence the expression might mean “the wind of the storm”). Thus, instead of describing God as taking a leisurely evening stroll in the garden, the “sound” the first humans heard might well be the trees whipping around in a tempest, which is the physical effect of God’s coming in judgment. This would fit the pattern of theophanies in the Old Testament, which areloften accpmpaniedi by a storm, with great noise.(for a classic storm theophany in a forest, with trees splitting and crashing, see Ps. 29).—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 164 n. 16

Monday, December 07, 2020

Look in the mirror! You are pharaoh…

It is important here to understand the logic by which Paul includes the nonhuman creation in God’s salvific plan. In Paul’s picture the human race implicitly takes the place of Pharaoh; we have subjected creation to futility or frustration, much as the Egyptian king oppressed the Israelites. According to the first chapters of Genesis, humanity was granted stewardship over their earthly environment. But then came the fall, which distorted but did not abrogate our stewardship. Just as an abusive parent can destroy a family or a dictator can devastate a nation, so human corruption has affected that which has been entrusted to our care, with the result that the nonhuman realm is now “subjected to futility. There are echoes here of the curse on the ground in Genesis 3:17, stemming from human disobedience, and the effect of rampant human violence in corrupting or ruining the earth at the time of the flood (Gen. 6:11).—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 160

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Your God is too small!

Sure, that's the title of a (very good) book written by J. B. Phillipps (Epworth Press, 1952), but he's correct. How wide is God's plan for salvation? This wide:
Salvation is here conceived as reconciliation or making peace between those who are at enmity, presumably by removing the source of that enmity, namely, sin. Indeed, [Col 1] verse 20 contains the idea of atonement through the blood of Christ; this is how reconciliation is achieved. But in contrast to much Christian preaching, which emphasizes that the blood of Christ was shed for “me” (and we are told to put our name there), Colossians 1 does not myopically limit the efficacy of Christ’s atonement to the individual or even to humanity. Without denying that the atonement suffices for individual people, the text applies the reconciliation effected by Christ’s shed blood as comprehensively as possible, to “all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”

This wording brings us back to verse 16 (just four verses earlier), which affirms that in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created.” When Verse 17 goes on to say that “in him all things hold together,” we are warranted in thinking that the reconciliation spoken of in verse 20 continues and brings to completion Christ’s unifying work as creator, which has been disrupted by sin. The point is that redemption is as wide as creation; it is literally cosmic in scope.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 158–59

<idle musing>
That's pretty big, isn't it? And you are worried about anything? Then your god (lower case "g") is too small!
<idle musing>

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The restoration

It is in God’s purposes from creation that the unbreakable linkage between resurrection and the restoration of rule is forged. From the beginning, God’s intent for human life was centered on the royal status of humanity and our commission to image our creator in loving and wise stewardship of the earth, which has been entrusted to our care (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15; Ps. 8:4—8). This is the cultural mandate, our sacred calling to develop earthly life in a manner that glorifies God and reflects his intentions for a world of shalom (as we saw in chap. 2 above). God’s intent was for the holistic flourishing of embodied people in the entirety of their earthly, cultural existence. Since resurrection is God’s restoration of human life to what it was meant to be, it naturally requires the fulfillment of the original human dignity and status, which have been compromised by sin. Resurrection, therefore, when biblically understood, cannot be separated from the fulfillment of the cultural mandate.—J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 154