KERUX: A JOURNAL
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ISSN 0888-8513 May 1996 Vol. 11, No. 1
John 2: Structure and Biblical Theology
James T. Dennison, Jr.
The second chapter of John's gospel is a composite narrative: the miracle at the wedding in Cana; and the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. The two incidents are linked by the movement of Jesus, his mother, brothers and disciples. The two incidents undergo closure by the lack of movement on the part of Jesus. I will elaborate on these narrative elements after some remarks about the structure of the section.
Micro- and Macrostructure: John 2-4
John 2:1-11 contains an inclusio. You will notice the phrase "in Cana of Galilee" (Greek, en Kana tes Galilias), vv. 1, 11. In addition, the phrase "his disciples" (Greek, hoi mathetai autou) also appears at the beginning and end of the pericope (vv. 2, 11). Finally, the name of the chief character in the drama, Jesus (Greek, Iesous) also appears in vv. 2 and 11. The Cana narrative begins and ends in the same way. The story of the wedding at Cana is enclosed within distinctive literary markers, thus setting the incident apart as its own narrative unit. Within the brackets of the literary inclusio is a particular Johannine theological emphasis. When the inclusio marker has been identified, a narrative unit has been isolated. But this literary and narrative analysis
is but the prelude to the biblical-theological query. What is the theological purpose of the material within the inclusio? Structure is not an aesthetic device, nor is it an end in itself. Structure is unto theological insight. If the reader correctly identifies literary structure, his work has only begun. The literary and narrative structure is part of the writer's theological purpose.
Verse 12 sets the miracle at Cana apart from the cleansing of the Jerusalem temple. The verse begins with "after" (Greek, meta). A verb of movement or journeying follows ("descended" = Greek, katebe). Finally a place name is joined to the verb indicating the direction of movement ("to Capernaum" = Greek, eis Kapharnaoum).
Now verse 13 significantly begins as did verse 1, e.g., "and" (Greek, kai). In fact, verse 13 contains a double kai sequence—even as verse one, e.g., "and . . . and." Furthermore, verse 13 contains a place designation ("to Jerusalem" = Greek, eis Ierosolyma) as did v. 1 (i.e., "Cana"). And verse 13 contains the name "Jesus" (Greek, Iesous) as per verse 2 (cf. also Iesou, v. 1). In other words, verse 13 inaugurates another narrative section of the fourth gospel and it does so in parallel to the narrative of the miracle at Cana. The closure of the Jerusalem temple incident in verse 22 is similar to the pattern of closure in the previous narrative section (i.e., the miracle at Cana, witness v. 11). Notice the duplicate phrase in verse 22 ("his disciples" = Greek, hoi mathetoi autou) and the duplicate appearance of the name of Jesus (Greek, Iesous).
The parallel inception and conclusion of the Cana narrative and the Jerusalem narrative in John 2 is not coincidental. Something drastic is occurring in these two incidents. It is so dramatic that the apostle replicates the narrative structure. The dramatic thread is suggested by the recurrence of the key phrase "his disciples" (Greek, hoi mathetai autou), vv. 2, 12, 22. Verse 12 is indeed a link between Jesus' activity in Cana of Galilee and Jerusalem. Mlakuzhyil calls verse 12 a "bridge section." But as I shall attempt to show below, verse 12 is more than a narrative bridge; it is a keystone to the theological drama of the emerging new and eschatological Israel. John 2:12 is the centerpiece in an arch binding Cana and Jerusalem.
Verse 23 breaks the pattern—or at least interrupts the pattern emerging from the relationship of 2:1-11 to 2:12 to 2:13-22. John 2:23 begins with the adverb "when" (Greek, hos). While it contains a duplication of location and
festival (Jerusalem and Passover) a la verse 13, it breaks the narrative flow and caps the thematic development of chapter 2 with its own duplication of irony, i.e., "believed"/"entrusted" (Greek, episteusan, v. 23) and "was [not] entrusting" (Greek, episteuen, v. 24). Those who "entrusted" themselves to sign-faith, to them Jesus "was not entrusting" himself. The key phrase "his disciples" does not appear in verses 23-25. Hence Mlakuzhyil is incorrect in regarding these verses as a mere second "bridge section" linking the cleansing of the temple with the nocturnal interview with Nicodemus (3:1ff). Verses 23-25 are a cap (a break—a full stop) in Johannine irony upon these incidents of Jesus' manifestation to his disciples. Verses 23-25 do not link chapter 2 with chapters; they do not parallel the bridge verse 2:12. In fact, verses 23-25 form a well constructed contrast to verse 12 as an indication of genuine versus superficial discipleship. The persons in verse 12 who go down to Capernaum with Jesus following the display of his first glory-sign—these persons (his mother, his disciples, his brothers) remain/stay with him. The verb is emeinan (Greek). These ones who have beheld his "glory" (Greek, doxa, v. 11) are content to commit themselves, to entrust themselves to Jesus by abiding/staying/remaining with him.
Was this not the pattern of discipleship we discovered in chapter 1 (cf. Kerux 9/2 : 23-29)? The two unnamed disciples in 1:38 ask Jesus, "Rabbi, where are you staying (Greek, meneis)?" Jesus replies, "Come and see." And they stayed/remained (Greek, emeinan—the same word in 2:12) with him. True disciples stay with Jesus—abide with Jesus—have the desire to remain with him. Such followers indeed are his "mother" and his "brothers." But those who only believe the signs (2:23-25), Jesus knows have no root—are only superficial followers. They will form the vanguard of those in 6:15 who will attempt to take Jesus by force and make him king because he fed them with loaves and fishes. Jesus does not entrust himself to these, for he knows what is in them. Even as he knows that Peter is in truth Cephas ("the Rock," 1:42); even as he knows that Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no guile (1:47), so Jesus knows that this miracle-believing crowd will not remain with him. He knows his sheep and is known of them (Jn. 10:14), and those who will not abide with him are not of his sheep. This crowd at the end of John 2 is like the crowd in John 6. They provide a stark contrast with the true disciples who are not of the world, for the world has not known the Fa-
ther. But these have known the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Indeed they have known that the Father has sent the Son to abide/remain/stay with them.
John 2 is a further development of discipleship, a motif inaugurated in chapter 1 (the calling of the new and eschatological Israel); a motif destined to reach its climax in chapter 20 when Jesus will breathe the spirit of resurrection-life into this nuclear Israel; a motif which will find its continuing expression in the commission of the disciples in chapter 21 to feed, tend, pastor the new Israel of God. John 2 is a further development of discipleship by way of contrast and irony. The abiding witness of his glory and his resurrection contrasted with the superficiality of sign-faith which can be fickle and transient.
Verse 1 of chapter 3 begins a fresh narrative—a narrative which will focus on discipleship via birth from above. The conversation with Nicodemus begins with the Greek word en ("there was," v. 1). This word is duplicated in verse 23 ("he [John the Baptist] was"). Verse 22 divides the narrative of Nicodemus and the narrative of John the Baptist and the bridegroom with the word "after" (Greek, meta), followed by a verb of movement or journeying ("came" = Greek, elthen) and a place designation ("Judea" = Greek, Ioudian). In parallel to the bridge verse 2:12, so 3:22 is abridge linking the Nicodemus visitation with the Baptist's valedictory. As the miracle at Cana displays Christ's glory to those abiding with him; as the cleansing of the temple foreshadows Christ's resurrection-glory to those who abide with him; so the conversation with Nicodemus sanctions the heavenly/eschatological birth occurring in those who abide in him, while the Baptist's joy underscores the mystical union of those who abide in him. The bridge verses in 2:12 and 3:22 are a progressive unfolding of the nature of what it means to be born of God (1:13). It means that you experience the eschatological wedding; you experience the eschatological resurrection; you experience the eschatological birth; you experience the eschatological ecstasy of the bridegroom.
Continuing my remarks on the structure of John 2-4, 4:1 again begins with the adverb "when" (Greek, hos)—even as 2:23 did. We have, therefore, a marker which breaks the narrative, closing off the two incidents in chapter 3 while preparing us for an altogether new form of discipleship in chapter 4— the discipleship of a Gentile adulterer and a Gentile official. You will note
that 4:6 contains the Greek word en again ("it was"). The three sections, all beginning with the verb en (3:1; 3:23; 4:6), form a litany of witnesses to the Son of Man (3:13, 14), the bridegroom (3:29), the fountain of living water (4:10, 14). Each narrative will develop the relationship with Christ in a deeper Christological, soteriological and eschatological dimension.
Chapter 4:43 replicates the pattern of the previous bridge sections: 2:12, 3:22. The opening word is "after" (Greek, meta) followed by a verb of movement or journeying ("went down," "came," "went forth") and a place name ("Capernaum," "Judea," "Galilee"). 4:46-54 concludes by framing everything from chapter 2-4. In other words, 4:46-54 contains an inclusio which envelops John 2-4 in its entirety. Chapter 4 ends in Cana of Galilee, even as chapter 2 began. Chapter 4 contains the second miracle-sign that Jesus performed in Cana even as chapter 2 contains the first. In chapter 4, the father "believes" in Jesus, even as his disciples "believed" on him in chapter 2.
John 2-4 is a bracket, an envelope, an inclusio—from Cana to Cana— from one spectacular miracle to another—from one group of believers to another. Within the brackets, inside the inclusio, discipleship is exploding in all its redemptive-historical richness. Thus John 2-4 is a unit. Within that unit, the new order of redemption in the Son of God is breaking into history.
Narrative Analysis and Beyond
But there is more. A narrative analysis of the miracle at Cana will note: the setting, the occasion, the dramatic personae ("persons of the drama"), i.e., the mother of Jesus, Jesus himself, the disciples, the servants, the bridegroom. The plot of this wedding narrative will focus on the crisis involved when the wine runs out. The narrative will develop via dialogue—Mary with Jesus, Jesus with Mary, Mary with the servants, Jesus with the servants (twice), the headwaiter/steward with the groom. Characterization within the narrative will demonstrate: a pushy Mary tragically out of her proper role; a Jesus firmly in control; a headwaiter who witnesses and testifies to the miracle.
But there is more. Geerhardus Vos has taught us that eschatology is prior to soteriology. And in the history of redemption, eschatology intrudes into the temporal arena. In other words, the breaking in of the new aeon—the new
order—is fundamental to a Reformed biblical-theological approach to revelation. In John 2, that eschatological intrusion breaks in miraculously and somatically. Jesus comes to a wedding at Cana of Galilee and the new age in the history of redemption is revealed. Jesus comes to the temple at Jerusalem and the new era in the history of redemption is manifest. What water is transformed at Cana? What temple is to be transformed at Jersusalem? The answer to these questions focuses on the beloved apostle's theology of the history of redemption.
The Sign at Cana
The inaugural Johannine sign (2:1-11) stands in vivid contrast with the inaugural sign of the age of the law. As the church fathers pointed out, the first miracle-sign of Moses was turning water to blood. But this better age—this era of grace-truth (1:17)—is inaugurated by one greater than Moses. And he turns water into wine—benediction, not malediction! Moses and the law cannot be absolutized; Moses and the law must be eschatologized. The history of redemption does not cease with Sinai and the theocracy; the history of redemption progresses to incarnation and fulfillment. We have not come to a mountain blazing fire, to darkness and gloom; rather we have come to Mt. Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the first-born enrolled in heaven (cf. Heb. 12:18, 22).
Water in Jewish waterpots—Jewish ritual cleansing waterpots. Jewish ritual, Jewish pots—that water ritual is transformed, displaced, replaced. The Jewish age is over, finished, transformed, replaced. Better things have come! Jesus says at Cana, "I bring you the taste of the age to come; the wine of the gospel; the celebration of the feast of gospel joy. Not blood; not the curse— wine! The blessing of the best wine of all. And I bring it lavishly, abundantly— more than 120 gallons of the best wine you have ever tasted." Jesus says at Cana, "I have given you a sign of my glory—the glory I have brought into this present age. It is the wine-glory of the age to come in your very midst. Oh taste and see that this wine is the best of all. Only heaven's cup itself shall be sweeter. But I have given you a taste—a foretaste even now of that heavenly wine. This era will grow sweeter and sweeter as you drink more and more deeply from the wine of the gospel age."
John 2 is the "beginning of signs" (v. 11)—a beginning which marks a new beginning. It is a semeion not a dynamis. John never uses the Greek word dynamis, a word used by the synoptic writers to describe Jesus' miracles. In the synoptic gospels, the miracles of Jesus are dynamite (dynamis)—explosions of the in-breaking and irruption of the kingdom of God ("if I by the finger of God cast out Satan, you know the kingdom of God has come upon you," Lk. 11:20). The miracles of Jesus in the fourth gospel are semaphores—signals of identification, transformation and anticipation. The semeia of John's gospel are "signs" of who Jesus is (identification), "signs" of what he brings (transformation), "signs" of what lies ahead (anticipation). The signs in the gospel of John are Christological (identification), soteriological (transformation) and eschatological (anticipation).
All the gospel miracles—synoptic as well as Johannine—may be summarized by the following paradigm: apologetic (identification), Messianic (transformation), eschatological (anticipation). The apologetic aspect of the miracles of Jesus (what I call the "Nicodemus connection" and John Locke called "the credit of the proposer") is featured in John 3:2: "we know that you have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do these signs (Greek, semeia) that you do unless God is with him." Nicodemus knows. He knows because the evidence of the miracles attests that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. Jesus has not been sent from Satan; he is not a son of Beelzebub (cf. Lk. 11). Only one "from God" can do miracles. Nicodemus knows that miracles identify the messenger as God-sent. Moses was identified as God-sent by his miracles. The Egyptian magicians and charlatans confess that Moses is out of their league: "this is the finger of God" (Ex. 8:19). The widow of Zarephath acknowledges that the miracle-working Elijah is God-sent: "now I know that you are a man of God" (1 Kgs. 17:24). But this God-sent gospel miracle worker does what no Moses, no Elijah, no other miracle worker does. He claims to be God! In the cause of this miracle worker, the apologetic becomes the Christological: "I am that I am" (cf. Jn. 8:58). The Christological claim of Jesus of Nazareth is apologetically authenticated by the miracle-signs he performs. These Johannine signs are apologies for who Jesus is. His identity is attested. He is the Christ (1:41), the Son of God (1:49)!
At Cana of Galilee, Jesus gives us a sign—a sign of who he is. He is God, the Lord of creation; able to do what only God the Creator can do—change
water into wine! At Cana of Galilee, the Son of God evidences his identity through an act of creation: "the water recognized its Creator and blushed" (Richard Crashaw).
In the second place, the miracle-signs of Jesus display the presence of the Messianic era. They are fulfillment aspects of Old Testament Messianic prophecy. The prophets project an era in which the blind will see and the deaf will hear (cf. Is. 35:5). Jesus miraculously signifies that the Messianic era has arrived. He is the bringer of a new creation. In him, the blind see and the deaf hear. At Cana of Galilee, Jesus gives a sign that he is the Messianic Lord of the new creation. Joel (3:18), Amos (9:13, 14) and Jeremiah (31:12) longed for the Messianic age in which wine would flow in abundance; an era in which new wine would drip from the mountains. At Cana of Galilee, Jesus gives a sign that the age projected by the prophets has arrived. The Messianic age of gospel-wine—abundant, brim-full, gospel (not Jewish ritual) wine—is here!
In the third place, the miracles of Jesus are anticipatory revelations of the glory yet to come. There is a day coming when there will be no more blindness, no more deafness, no more sickness—for these former things will have perfectly passed away. The miracles of Jesus are signs that he is Lord of coming/eschatological glory. No more curse forever in that kingdom of glory. And at Cana of Galilee, the eschatological vector of the sign is the wedding— the eschatological wedding feast—the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7, 9)
We are being summoned to the faith by which the disciples beheld his glory and believed on his name (Jn. 2:11). The miracle at Cana is not a text to be applied to our own charismatic performance of signs and wonders. The miracle at Cana is a sign of who Jesus is. We believe on him as God—God the Son, the Lord of Creation. The miracle at Cana is a sign of what Jesus brings us. He has made us a part of the new creation—the Messianic age of fulfillment is ours through this one who is revealed as the Lord of the New Creation. And the miracle at Cana is a sign of what Jesus will yet bring us. We believe that he has prepared a wedding banquet in glory, that we have been invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb, that the Lord of Glory will not be a guest at that wedding feast (as he was in Cana)—rather he will be the host—the eschatological Bridegroom. And we will be his Bride!
The Cleansing of the Temple
The incident of the cleansing of the temple is set off by literary markers which distinguish the section as a unit of its own. The location (Jerusalem) and the festival (Passover) form an inclusio to Christ's inaugural appearance in the capital (2:13, 23). Within the boundaries of the narrative inclusio is another dramatic displacement/replacement motif.
The temple which Jesus "cleansed" was the Herodian addition to the second Jewish temple. Solomon's temple having been leveled by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 B. C., the returning exiles under Zerubbabel had erected a second temple after prodding by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (516/515 B.C.). As a political sop to the Jews, Herod had begun the expansion of this post-exilic structure about 20/19 B.C. When Jesus entered it (Jn. 2:14), the expansion had been underway for 46 years (i.e., ca. 27/28 A.D.; cf. Jn. 2:20). Although the main temple structure was completed by 9 B.C., the surrounding temple complex was never finished. By 64 A.D., it had reached one and a half million square feet (more than three football fields in length). When Titus leveled the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Herod's magnificent temple complex suffered like fate.
Jesus enters the Solomonic/Zerubbabel/Herodian temple as the Lord of the Temple. His authority over this "sacred space" is sovereignly displayed. Driving out the money changers (no Mahatma Gandhi act!) with whips, Jesus is possessed of the "zeal of the Lord" (Jn. 2:17). The temple had become a business, a corporate enterprise, a money-making complex with management experts at the helm. These crooks, thieves and robbers were cheating the people of God, robbing them of their substance and diverting their attention from the Lord to the gold, from the transcendent, to the imminent, from the heavenly, to the earthly. Church growth managers of evangelical mega-churches are nothing new. Their predecessors, who first fleeced the people of God, are found in John 2:14-16.
More significant than the non-pacifist Jesus is the Jesus who is the temple. That which the apostle has signalled in the prologue (1:14) is more fully developed here (2:18-22). The temples erected by Solomon, Zerubbabel and (expanded by) Herod were incarnational loci. God himself condescended to
identify with his people in a place where his people gathered under the mediation of a priesthood. In this meeting place, God further humbled himself to enter into communion with his people. And it was to this most holy place that Israel of old looked for the dwelling of God in the midst of men. The temple was the sign of God's coming down, God's communion, God's abiding with his people. Now, in John 2, in the fullness of time, God the Son comes to the type and declares himself the glorious antitype. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God has once and for all condescended to come to us; in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God has once and for all come to meet with us and commune with us in our very nature; in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God has once and for all come to dwell among us. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the temple (2:19). Every aspect of the meaning of the Old Testament temple is fulfilled in Christ. The temple now becomes superfluous. After Christ, a temple is needed no longer. Jesus is the eschatological temple! When his temple-body is raised on the third day, the locus of the temple is shifted to where he is—at the right hand of the glory on high. Our temple is in heaven (cf. Rev. 21:3, 22), not on the earth. Our temple is in the Jerusalem above, not in the Jerusalem below. The Old Testament temple has been displaced, replaced, annulled via fulfillment because Jesus Christ, the Son of God is all the temple we need. He has come down to us; he is the one in whom God and man meet; he is the one who abides with us. Indeed, a greater than the Jerusalem temple is here!
The discipleship to which John 2 summons the Israel of God of the end of the age is a discipleship of the wedding banquet—a discipleship of the tabernacling of Emmanuel. Dear Christian reader, the fourth evangelist wants you to find your life in this drama—the life of a guest at the wedding feast tasting the wine of eschatological joy—the life of being raised up together with the eschatological temple—Emmanuel. May it please God that you find your story within the structure of John's story of Jesus!
Suggestions for Further Reading
James T. Dennison, Jr., "Understanding the Miracles of Jesus." Banner of Truth 135 (December 1974): 16-19.
George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. Rome: Pontifical Institute, 1987.
Is Wisdom Literature Eschatological?
Although he probably was not a Christian, John Steinbeck once wrote a novel called The Wayward Bus that offers an interesting critique of people in the twentieth century. Steinbeck presents a diverse group of people who are traveling on an old bus from the town of Rebel Corners to Los Angeles. Assembled on this bus are a salesman, an old grumpy man, a stag party stripper, a waitress, a businessman, his wife and daughter, the bus driver and his garage handiboy.
On the way to their destination, the bus driver, under instructions from the common mind of the group, tries to take a short cut from the main road and the bus ends up stuck in the mud. As the driver wanders off, telling the group that he is going for help, the passengers are left to themselves and they take shelter in a nearby cave.
Now written on the top of that cave in large, capital letters is the word "REPENT." The word had been written, says the narrator, by a wandering preacher who had, "Let himself down with a rope to put that great word in black paint, and he had gone away rejoicing at how he was spreading God's word in a sinful world."
Here then are these passengers, representing a broad cross section of America, staring directly at this word "REPENT" as they exit the broken down bus which has fallen short in its attempt to deliver them to the City of Angels.
And yet, hardly anyone pays any attention to it. They are completely oblivious to it. In fact, only the businessman even glances at the warning, and that only for a split second. He wonders instantaneously who had financed such a venture, perhaps a missionary he concludes, and then the thought is gone.
The people are completely oblivious to this word because it does not speak to them. It is part of a dead language. It is part of a pre-modern language. This word is not a part of their vocabulary for it belongs to another age. It belongs to an age when people believed in another world, when people believed in heaven and hell. But for the people in the cave the word "REPENT" carries no meaning. They believe that there is only one reality—the here and the now!
You see, they have no eschatological consciousness and that makes them indifferent to this word and its message. You only repent; you only change your life and your ways; you only turn from sin and turn in new obedience to God if you believe in reward and judgment in another life. Repentance implies that our lives have meaning and that history is moving towards a goal, the climax of all things and the beginning of another world.
But these people have no faith in another world. To survive, they have willingly entered into a cave—Plato's cave, if you will—thinking they have eyes to see in the darkness. All the while, they ignore the eschatological message given to them.
Now this brief story from Steinbeck presents us with an ideal foil because many so-called Christians today are telling us to ignore the eschatological message of the Bible. In particular, the pressure is being applied to the church in regard to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Many individuals in Christendom are telling us that such books as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon have no interest in a future life. According to these people, the books of Wisdom have no interest in heaven or hell. Rather, Biblical wisdom literature only has regard for the present—the here and now.
For example, that was the opinion of my professor who taught the class on the wisdom literature at Duquesne University. My professor believed that the wisdom literature has no interest whatsoever in a future life. Rather, the goal of wisdom was living to your potential here and now. And you do that,
you live to your potential here and now, by experiencing a full range of emotions daily—you laugh, you cry, you hug. That is what the wise person does in experiencing the full range of human emotions day by day.
Consequently, my professor believed that the glory of God should not be the primary motivation in living one's life. When you make a decision, you think about the upside for yourself, you do not think about glorifying God. Nor do you think about the reality of God's judgment as a motivation to refrain from sinning. Instead, you think, "How can I feel better today? How can I reach my potential today?"
Along these lines, one of the many theologians my professor quoted was Walter Brueggemann and his book on the wisdom literature, In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith. In that book, Brueggemann wrote:
The life which wisdom sees as the goal and meaning of human existence is the well-being of the community and each of its members, i.e. shalom. Moreover, 'peace' for the whole community is intensely here and now. There is no 'reward' in heaven, no deferred dividend . . . This anticipation of an extrinsic goal, heaven, which has sometimes dominated the church has also played a great role in western culture. It is one of the sources of uninvolvement and social indifference. Wisdom represents a protest against such a deferred goal. It is pragmatic and impatient. It affirms that life's values are embraced or rejected here and now. Any talk of the will of God which doesn't lead to life for the community here and now is idolatry (pp. 15-16).
So, you see, Steinbeck's passengers are not alone in thinking that this present reality is the only reality. There are theologians in Christendom saying that the wisdom books of the Old Testament teach the same thing. They are telling us, "Forget heaven, forget hell, forget judgment and forget reward! They do not exist. All that exists is here and now, and the Bible is telling us that in the wisdom literature. And if we believe otherwise, that is idolatry. If we read Job, or Proverbs, or any other wisdom book of the Old Testament and
we interpret the message eschatologically, then we have forsaken the true God for the worship of an idol."
Obviously, conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Christendom is at odds with such a view of life. We believe that our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. And we believe that living wisely always has reference to God and to the future. This life is but a breath, and then the breath is gone. But during the time we are on this earth, we do not strive for earthly treasures. Rather, we strive for everlasting treasures in that we have been born from above in and through our Savior Jesus Christ.
So there is the conflict. Some theologians are saying that the Bible is teaching us from the wisdom literature to ignore heavenly things, to ignore future things. Are they right? Are we wrong? Does the wisdom literature have no interest in the future? Are we to abandon all thoughts of another world if we are to live wisely? In seeking to answer these questions, I would like to examine the eschatological message of one of the wisdom books—the book of Ecclesiastes.
It is of the utmost importance for us to determine the author and the setting of the book if we are to understand its redemptive significance. In this regard, the opening verse of Ecclesiastes supplies us with the author. These are "the words of the preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem." Simply put, the historic church has always believed that these are the words of Solomon.
Knowing that, we next need to ask ourselves what characterized the historical situation during the time of Solomon's reign. The setting for the reign of Solomon comes into focus in 1 Kings 8. In this chapter, we are told that Israel had finally received the blessing that God had promised to her (vv. 54-56). The Israelites were in the land. Their enemies had been defeated. The holy city was theirs. The temple had been completed and the ark was in their possession. God had blessed them and given them rest. It was a time of peace, permanence, and prosperity. This is what Solomon tells the people in a loud voice, "Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised" (v. 56).
In such a setting (i.e., one of rest and prosperity), you see the utter need that the Israelite people have for wisdom in that they have never been in this
situation before in their history. This is all new to the people of God. Previously, they had been slaves in Egypt. God had redeemed them from Pharoah, but they were still not in the land. Then, they were in the land, but their enemies were not defeated. They were given a king, but they had no temple. But now, finally, everything has come together. They have a king, they have the land, they have the temple and the ark, and they have rest from their enemies.
Consequently, this new situation created the need for wisdom for the Israelites found themselves confused as to how they should live. In light of this new setting, the supreme question in the minds of the Israelites was, "How do we now live in light of the fact that the promises have been fulfilled?" We know how to live when we are on the run. We know how to live when everyone's beating up on us. But how do we live now?
This, then, is the message that God gives to his people through Solomon. But what is shocking is that we look at Ecclesiastes and we realize that its message is one of frustration and despair. "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (1:2).
What has led Solomon to this conclusion? It is death. The reality of death has led Solomon to this conclusion. Yes, God had given his people rest, but something was still missing because people were still dying. Wise and godly men who obediently kept God's law were still dying. It is not just the stupid who are dying; it is the wise and stupid alike who are dying; and still other people are ill and suffering at the doorstep of death. We can hear the cry of the people, "Lord, we didn't think it would still be like that since the promises have been fulfilled."
Solomon realizes that something is still missing. Something's not right because all classes of people are still perishing, wise and stupid, young and old alike. What we have, then, in chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes is this—Ecclesiastes 12 serves as a microcosm of the whole, giving as it were in a brief section, a summary of the whole book.
This chapter begins with Solomon, the preacher, exhorting a young man. He is speaking to this young man and he tells him, "Remember also your Creator. " The force of this imperative is to remind this young man that the end of his days is connected with the beginning of his days. From dust he has
come, and to dust he will depart. Solomon wants this young man to enjoy the blessings of the present day, but yet, at he same time, he wants this person to consider his frailty and the fact that death lurks around the corner.
The fuller meaning of this imperative—"Remember also your Creator"— is found in the three qualifying "before" clauses (vv. 1, 2, 6). In these three verses, Solomon presents three situations which will inevitably await this young man in old age. In v. 1, Solomon tells him to "remember also his Creator" before the evil days come in which no delight is to be found. That is, the evil days will bring with them the loss of power. For example, previously, as a farmer, you could carry a fifty pound bag of feed under each arm, but now you struggle to carry one. Previously, you could work from dawn to dust, but now you need a nap or two to get through the day. There is no delight in this time when your power is fading.
In v. 2, the "before" clause centers around the coming of stormy weather for those in old age. The frailty that accompanies old age is like a storm front that comes and never leaves. For example, as soon as your injured arm gets better, your leg hurts. As soon as your leg gets better, your back hurts. If it is not one thing, it is another. It is as if a storm front has settled over you in old age and as soon as one storm is gone, another comes.
The third "before" clause in v. 6 points out to this young man that death may be without warning, cutting short the enjoyment of the present day. The broken cord and the crushed bowl picture the final extinguishing of the light of life in the body. With death, the well is shattered and the water coming from it is no longer available to be drawn up or carried.
These three verses, then, present variations of the same truth. Solomon is warning this young man he will not always remain strong. Death is coming. This young man must remember his Creator for from dust he came and to dust he will return.
Solomon completes this thought by adding a parenthetical section in vv. 3-5. He is again speaking about the onslaught of death. Here the overriding thought is that death is stalking. Death is pursuing the young man and there is nothing that he can do about it. It is a fact of life.
Solomon is exhorting this young man not to run away from this fact of life. Death and decay are going to stalk you and they are going to catch you. You are going to go to the dark house, the "eternal house" (as it reads in v. 5.)
So what has happened here in Ecclesiastes 12? Why this despair? Why this relentless emphasis concerning death? Solomon's readers need to learn the value of wisdom for if everyone ends up dying in the end, what is the use of wisdom? Solomon himself had asked for wisdom and had gotten it from God. But now he is saying, if everyone ends up dead, what use is there in being wise? If this is the case, if life is a death march to the dark house from the day that we are born, then all is vanity. "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity."
Herein lies the brilliance of this book and its message. Through negation, Solomon has prepared the saint who reads this book in every age to learn what true wisdom is. Through negation, he has prepared believers of all ages for the coming of the Wonderful Counselor, Jesus Christ. The words in Ecclesiastes prepare us for Christ in a negative way just as they prepared the Jews in Solomon's day.
The key to understanding this book is its redemptive setting. Remember that Israel had entered into rest for the first time. Everything seemingly was theirs. They were in the land. Their enemies were defeated. The temple was built. The promises were being fulfilled. The author of 1 Kings 4:25 tells us that every man in Israel was under the shade of his own fig tree. The expectation of such a man in such a setting would be that all of his problems had ended. Here was life at its best.
But suddenly, this Israelite realizes that his problems are still there. His family and his friends are still dying around him. The man realized that what he has hoped for is still something temporal. It is that realization that is devastating! Can you feel the despair? "This is what I put my hope in? This is nice, but I was expecting a little more—I was not expecting to die!"
The problem the Israelite still faces, despite all the blessings that he had been given by God, is that of sin and death. Unless one comes to defeat sin and death, life has no meaning. The collapse of wisdom stares the Israelite in
the face unless something is done. Wisdom has no meaning here and now unless sin and death are vanquished.
So what Solomon through negation has done is to point to the answer. The answer is found in the coming of the Messiah and his resurrection from the dead. God has sent his Son. This Son—through his active and passive obedience, through his resurrection from the grave—has defeated sin and death.
The vanity of life is answered only in the resurrection. To fear God and to keep his commandments does not solve the problem. The good Jew did that, but the problem of sin still remained. Inspired by God, Solomon is telling the Jew of his day: if you are content with what God has done short of the coming of the Messiah, then your life has no meaning. Instead, place all of your hope in the future coming of God. You are alive even now by faith in the coming Messiah and he is the reason and the source of why you fear God and keep his commandments. In other words, faith in the Messiah's work in the future is the basis of all Old Testament wisdom.
But having said that, what about us, roughly three thousand years removed from the days of Solomon? Does wisdom still have an eschatological focus for us? Yes, it does. We, the church, the new Israel of God, find ourselves in the same empty situation as some did in Solomon's day. If we are totally satisfied with this life and do not hunger and thirst for the consummate righteousness of heaven, we will succumb to the same vanity that overwhelmed the Israelites in Solomon's day. Yes, wonderful blessings are ours presently though the person and work of Jesus Christ, but his coming again to sum up all things still remains. In our redemptive situation presently, we blessedly participate in Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension, but our focus is still on the future as we await the return of the Son from heaven and the consummation of the age. Is that not our prayer daily—that our Lord would come quickly so that sin and death would be no more and we will receive true and final rest with God forever?
Truly, may God save us, the church, from imitating those people in the cave who have turned their faces from God's eschatological word. We too are on a journey from Rebel's Corners to the City of Angels, but our eyes are focused on our risen Savior in heaven as we strive daily to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Wisdom is eschatological in that we find our lives in Christ,
that one who has defeated death. And it is out of our union with him the risen Lord, that our lives have meaning, that wisdom has value, that our labor is not in vain. Is this not, my friends, what Paul tells us at the end of his great chapter on the resurrection of Christ? In I Cor. 15:56-58, speaking of the resurrected Christ and what he presently means to us, Paul solves the riddle of the despair of the book of Ecclesiastes:
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work in the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
True wisdom is eschatological because true wisdom in every age rests and resides in Jesus Christ, that one who because of his resurrection participates fully in the eschaton even now.
Suffering and Eschatology
With the recent emphasis in North American evangelicalism on a gospel of "Health and Wealth," and the "Name it Claim it" mentality, it appears that the real biblical teaching on the place of suffering and hardship in the Christian life has been lost. This should not strike us as strange, however, for from the very earliest days of Christianity this type of a triumphalist gospel has threatened to obscure the call to true discipleship—the call to identify with the humiliation of the cross in order to show forth God's glory and participate in Christ's resurrection.
In this article I will seek to show that Christian suffering can only be properly understood and undertaken from a biblical view of eschatology.1 We will be focusing our discussion on 2 Corinthians 4, taking into account the context of Paul's discussion.
There has been much debate over just who Paul was responding to in his letter of 2 Corinthians.2 In this regard Hafemann appears to have shed some light on this debate in a detailed, exegetical study of key passages. He maintains that the opponents in 2 Corinthians appear to have been teaching that
1 I refer the reader to my Master's Thesis entitled "Suffering and Eschatology: A Critical Study of 2 Corinthians 4 with Particular Emphasis on the Relationship of Suffering and Eschatology in Paul" submitted to Calvin Seminary in May 1989. In this study, I am able to explore in much more detail the nuances which Paul brings to bear on this timely subject.
2 Dieter Georgi, The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).
suffering in the Christian life was evidence of a lack of the presence of the Spirit, and thus Paul's apostleship was in question, since he obviously suffered wherever he went!3 I think that we can see definite parallels between the Corinthian situation and present day "spiritual enthusiasm." In Latin America, where I work (and I believe in North America as well), "charismatic" tendencies often demonstrate three elements: 1) A kind of "realized eschatology," a triumphalism, but usually only in the personal sphere. Emphasis is laid upon complete healing in all circumstances (thus suffering is due to lack of faith). Poverty is seen in the same light. 2) There is paradoxically a tendency toward legalism. The "initiated," blessed with the added gift of the Spirit, seem to look for added rules to keep in order to demonstrate their spirituality. The law may have functioned this way for the Corinthian opponents, and thus Paul's detailed discussion in 2 Cor. 3. 3) Under the baptizing power of the Spirit, there arise many self-proclaimed "apostles" claiming the unction of the Holy Spirit, claiming direct revelations and usually demonstrating some highly visual and sensational gift (healing, prophecy, tongues, etc). What I have observed first hand seems to provide very close parallels with the Corinthian situation. Spiritual enthusiasm of any age may demonstrate the same tendencies. The "super-apostles" that Paul mentions in 2 Cor. 12, and his discussion on "boasting" in chapters 10-12 appear to assume a party in Corinth which sat in judgment of Paul's behavior, principally his apparent lack of "power," which would imply a lack of the Spirit.
Turning to Paul's answer, then, we see that Paul carefully balances what has been called the "already" and the "not yet" in his response to the faulty view of suffering. In 2 Cor. 3:17, 18, Paul affirms the "already " of the gospel, in that the Christian is being transformed by the Spirit of Christ from glory into glory. This transformation is marvelous, and results in a tremendous spiritual power unleashed in the Christian's life. As Paul says a little later: "afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed."
Nevertheless, the "already" of the Christian life must be strictly balanced by the "not yet," and Paul details this aspect in 2 Cor. 4:7-18. The glorious
3 See Scott Hafemann's excellent work in his doctoral thesis, Suffering and the Spirit (Tubingen: J. D. B. Mohr, 1986).
gospel is communicated in "jars of clay," and Paul's existence is a paradox of cross/resurrection. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that there is a logical connection between his suffering and the spread of the gospel. In verses 10 and 11, Paul says that the death of Christ is manifested in his body so that Christ's life might also be manifested.4 And in verse 17, Paul states boldly that his sufferings are producing an eternal weight of glory in him. These statements merit a much more detailed treatment than we can give here, but serve to show that for Paul the eschatological realities—"already/not yet"—had an intimate relationship to each other, and a particular relationship with his suffering. The inaugurated redemption of Christ is accomplished through an historical process that Paul defines as a "crucifixion." Christ passed through Golgatha on his way to glory, and he takes the whole Church with him. The suffering of the Christian, then, is far from a proof of the lack of the power of the Spirit. Quite the contrary, says Paul. Suffering for the Christian is proof of his unity with Christ, and his "resurrection-transformation" takes place by means of becoming weak in the eyes of the world, in order to show that "the all-surpassing power is from God, and not from us." Only when we understand the true nature of the eschatological realities inaugurated by Christ, can we comprehend the usefulness of the suffering of Christ's church. The very weakness of the Christian is the channel by which God manifests his grace and power, and so Paul says that he will boast in his weakness: "for when I am weak, then I am strong."
Much of Latin American evangelicalism has been distorted by a blind importation of a North American triumphalist gospel. I believe, however, that we are already seeing the burning out of much enthusiastic religion. Their quick and superficial solutions are less and less credible. I also believe that we are seeing a spreading of a biblical sensitivity to the Church's calling, to be a firm witness to the Resurrected Christ and his kingdom, even when that calls for bearing a cross. I have personally spoken with fellow Christians who have
4 Most commentators tend to water down verses 8, 9, considering that Paul feels that even though he might be battered, nevertheless God would always keep him safe (cf. for example R. P. Martin, 2 Corinthians [Waco: Word Books, 1986], p. 86). But this is far from Paul's thrust. A careful study of the words used show Paul to be saying that even if physically he is crushed, even killed, yet God will never forsake him, and his ministry will bear the fruit that God desires.
been taken captive and tortured because of their participation in deeds of love toward the poor, labelled by their governments as subversive and even communists. These brothers know very intimately what Paul was talking about. The Church today needs to recover a biblical perspective on suffering, if we are going to be effective witnesses. Not only the enthusiastic tendencies I have mentioned, but many of our own views, are essentially a capitulation to a worldly view of suffering—that which is the unexplainable and undesirable. Let us recover a biblical perspective of suffering as that necessary process through which the Church must pass on the road to glory. Let us be valiant, let us support one another better in our suffering, and let us above all be faithful to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Iglesia Christiana Reformada
San Jose, Costa Rica
Biblical Theology and the Culture War
David Van Drunen
One cannot read far into most evangelical or politically conservative publications before coming upon a discussion of the "culture war." The perceived existence of this culture war sends distress signals among not only the religiously conservative, but even among many who are little interested in religion. Though there be some who point to the Republican takeover of Congress or polls which show that more than 90 percent of Americans still believe in God as proof that America is essentially healthy, many more see the stubbornly high rate of drug use, the onset of political correctness, the rise of illegitimacy, and the corresponding breakdown of the family as much clearer signs that our culture is in serious decline and that, apart from a turn from the current direction, our nation may not long continue to enjoy the great measure of prosperity and freedom that it has enjoyed since its inception.
How are we as Christians to respond to the often quite frightening reports we read? What is a proper response to the very real problems which threaten to change our lives and those of our children? Increasingly the response is political: organize ourselves into political groups; get out the vote; elect a party into power which will crack down on criminals; prohibit abortion-on-demand; eliminate welfare abuses; re-legalize prayer in public schools; and support a host of other initiatives which fall under the rubric of "family-values." The appearance of groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in the past two decades evidence the seriousness of those adhering
to a political approach, and the elections of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and of a Republican-controlled Congress in 1994 show both the potential and actual power of such organizations. Many Christians and non-Christians alike have beaten a path to political conservatism. They have realized that though there has been so much "progress" and "advancement" in the past decades, those who lived fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred years ago were in many ways much better off than we are today. At least then there was a higher degree of public virtue, a better educated youth, a lower rate of crime. To preserve our culture, they believe, we must turn back the clock, or at least recognize anew the value of families, churches, and traditional models of education, things which made our culture strong originally. Many have recognized that such things are inherently apolitical and have correspondingly supported a reduction in the size of government, thus creating the interesting phenomenon of a movement which seeks political authority, so that under its watch the extent of political authority can be decreased.
Yet, for all the prospects such a movement may seem to hold, there are more than a few potential problems. A study of history reveals few cases in which those in authority actively sought to decrease the extent of their power. Human nature being what it is, it seems much more likely that those in power will seek not only to keep their office, but also to increase its sphere of authority. We need only to observe the sudden hesitancy of new congressmen who, before the last election, were so opposed to pork-barrel politics and so enthusiastic about term-limits. Opposing the former and supporting the latter might mean a short stay in Congress, and sinful men tend to give up the power which they possess only with a struggle. On a less theoretical and more practical level, we might justly ask what social problem was really solved by uniting forces to elect the correct presidential candidate for three straight elections? Despite billions of federal and state dollars spent, the drug problem remains as intractable as ever. The decision of Roe vs. Wade still stands as the law of the land. Welfare recipients and their social workers do not let go of government money easily. Schools seem to have further degenerated. Will the next round of conservative government be much more effective in implementing what it has proposed to do? Will the fickle electorate even let it survive more than two years? Perhaps the stark realities of the political world should cause us to reevaluate our attitude toward the culture war. Perhaps a
Reformed biblical theology should too.
It may seem at first glance that looking at Scripture redemptive-historically actually rules out much hope of gaining biblical guidance in waging a culture war. Any moralistic approach would appear more potentially fruitful. After all, fighting a culture war is about action. Interpreting Scripture as if it centers around the redemptive work of God through Christ, as useful as it might be for understanding the Gospel message, does not immediately strike us as providing fertile ground for a development of social ethics. Perhaps this is why an evangelical Christianity so desperately seeking to be relevant finds a biblical-theological approach at best somewhat interesting theoretically, but quite unusable when it comes to setting forth the bottom-line. And how to live life here in the world, a topic under which social ethics falls, really is the bottom-line. Or so thinking tends to go.
The critic of biblical-theology is correct to a point. A redemptive-historical approach does not offer an immediate or easy answer to problems of social ethics, and if living life in this world is the bottom-line, then biblical-theology is somewhat irrelevant. Yet, biblical-theology would argue that living life in this world is not at all the bottom-line. And it would also argue that though it offers no easy and immediate answers to problems of social ethics, it provides the only firm foundation for discussing such issues, without which the Christian ethicist will sooner or later go wrong. Perhaps at times biblical-theology is short on specifics, but it is only by recognizing the big picture which biblical-theology provides that one has a solid basis on which to discuss specifics.
How is the Christian to view culture? This is a perennial question, of course, that has received a multitude of answers. A Reformed biblical theology answers that question, and it answers by giving us the big picture and an overarching worldview. Without it we will never find the correct specifics. With it the culture war becomes much more explicable.
Perhaps there is no better place to learn the biblical view of our culture than Jeremiah 29. This chapter consists of a letter which Jeremiah wrote to a group of people that was asking many of the same questions we are asking today. For nearly a millennium the Israelites had lived in the Promised Land of Canaan under the Mosaic Law and a Davidic king. They were God's cho-
sen covenant people. To them all of life was holy. God's revealed law was to regulate every part of life, and no one transgressing this law, no covenant breaker, was allowed to live. The question of culture was easy for the Israelites in the Promised Land: all of societal life must conform to the Mosaic Law, and anyone breaking this Law should be put to death. It was really quite simple.
The question of culture did not arise until they were deported to Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. Suddenly all the things that had been taken for granted were thrown into confusion. They were no longer living in the land promised to their race by God. The Mosaic Law was no longer the constitution of their country of residence. Their head of state was no longer a Davidic king, but a pagan Gentile. What were they to do? They had seldom been faithful as a society while they lived in their own land, but at least the answer to that problem was always readily available: reform according to the Mosaic Law. Were they now to seek to reform Babylon according to the Mosaic Law and turn it into a new Promised Land? Were they to resist the Babylonians and attempt forcefully to return to Canaan? Were they to meekly give up their consciousness as God's chosen people and become Babylonians? The answer was not clear. Undoubtedly some were promoting each of these views.
A Reformed biblical-theology demonstrates how their situation is so closely aligned with ours. Their situation was, in fact, typological of ours. We understand that the Promised Land of Israel was a new Garden of Eden, a holy theocratic land whose very ground was sacred. Only those in good covenant standing with God were allowed to remain there. Both these in turn were the protological types of the eschatological, eternal heavenly kingdom of God. We understand as well that the exile to Babylon was a new expulsion from the Garden of Eden. As Adam was convicted of being a covenant breaker, and no longer fit to live in the holy land, so the people of Israel, convicted of transgressing the covenant God made with them through Moses, were no longer fit to live in their holy land. Both these in turn were types of our situation today. There is no geopolitical nation today which can be called God's special holy land. We are a people in exile. We are a people who live with Adam east of Eden. We do not live under a Davidic king. The Mosaic Law is not our constitution. We, like the Israelites, live in Babylon. Little wonder is it, then, that New Testament writers used the term "Babylon" to represent the alien
city in which God's church dwells (e.g. 1 Pet. 5:13, Rev. 18). We do well, then, to listen to Jeremiah's instructions to his people in exile.
In verses 5 through 7 of Jeremiah 29, the prophet lists a number of things which the people were to do in regard to Babylon and the culture which surrounded them. He tells them to build houses and settle down, to marry and have children, and to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city where they lived. What strikes us about these instructions is their seemingly high regard for life in Babylon. The people were not to reject relations with the Babylonians and seek a violent return to their land. Rather, they were to get involved with the commerce of Babylon, increase its population, and actually pray for its well-being (though it was the city which ruthlessly destroyed the Lord's temple and dragged them into exile). In verses 8 and 9 Jeremiah instructs them to ignore the prophets who were speaking lies to them in God's name. Undoubtedly he had in mind here men such as Hananiah, whose story we read in the preceding chapter. He had prophesied that within two years the yoke of the Babylonians would be taken off the Israelites. He was a false prophet, however, and God condemned him to death two months later through Jeremiah. Israel was not to expect just a short stay in Babylon. They were to settle down and were responsible for establishing "normal" lives for themselves and their families.
Not only were the Israelite exiles not to shun interaction with the Babylonians, but they were also not to seek to reform it according to the Mosaic Law. Time and time again while the people were in Palestine God commanded them to return to the law. Here no mention of it is made. They were to seek the peace and prosperity not of their holy, theocratic nation, but of Babylon, the pagan nation. They were even to pray for it, because upon its prosperity their prosperity depended. Clearly times had changed for Israel. One can hardly conceive of God commanding the people to pray for the peace and prosperity of their own nation when it rebelled against the Mosaic Law. Such a situation would have called not for prayers of prosperity and peace, but of prophetic calls for judgment and repentance. Here in exile, however, they were to pray for Babylon as it was and recognize that it could never be a new Promised Land.
But Jeremiah's words do not end here. In verses 10 through 14 he goes on to tell the people about Babylon's future. "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place." Babylon had only a certain amount of time allotted to it, and no more. After seventy years of exile God would come and bring the Israelites back to their Promised Land of Israel and bring judgment against Babylon. What an important message to append to the instructions of verses 5 through 9! Jeremiah instructs the people to involve themselves with Babylon's culture only with certain other things in mind. They were not to simply blend in as they mixed with the Babylonians. They were certainly not to lose their identity as Israelites. Though they were to be involved with their culture, their culture was not the end of their existence. In seventy years this culture in which they were established was going to be destroyed. In seventy years they were going to return to the Promised Land with hope of again living under the Mosaic Law and a Davidic king. In the oft misapplied eleventh verse God through Jeremiah promises the people that he has plans to prosper them, to give them a hope and a future. But this hope was not to be realized in their life in Babylon. Rather, their true hope, future, and prosperity were tied to leaving Babylon and taking up residence anew in the Promised Land. Exilic life in Babylon was only temporary.
Two extremes they were to avoid. First, they were not to shun involvement in pagan Babylonian culture. Second, they were not to become so involved that they lost sight of their true destiny or the true destiny of Babylon. Instead, they were to do their various cultural tasks, building homes, planting farms, raising families, while all along recognizing the temporary and limited nature of the work they did.
What a timely message for the church today as it lives in Babylon. The two extremes mentioned above have been with the church throughout the Christian era. There have been many who have rejected the validity of the existence of a secular and alien culture. They have chosen many different responses, whether shunning the world through residence in monasteries or seeking to radically transform the world along the lines of the Mosaic Law or some other distinctly Christian agenda. But ultimately the viewpoint is the same: Babylon has no right to exist. There have been many others who have adopted exactly the opposite approach, not only accepting the existence of
Babylon, but so wholeheartedly adopting its ways and involving itself in its life that they seldom give a thought to any possible life beyond. They too have chosen different agendas and attached themselves to various causes, but ultimately here too their views coalesce: Babylon is all there is. Anyone with an eye for the various positions of those who call themselves Christians today will recognize that these two dangers with their temptations lurk very near us still.
We must take care to heed the instructions of Jeremiah yet today. That these really are still applicable to the New Testament church is confirmed in passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 : "What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away." Paul here makes a number of assumptions. He assumes that the people to whom he is writing will be getting married. He assumes that they will be saddened and gladdened by the things of the world. He assumes that they will be buying and using things of the world. In short, he assumes that Christians will be involved with the day-to-day life of the culture around them, and he nowhere hints a condemnation of this. What he does condemn, however, is doing all these things as if they were the most important things, as if they were ends in themselves. Our belongings are not to engross us and are not things that we are able to keep. What is the motive for such an attitude? Simply this: the world in its present form is passing away. How similar this is to Jeremiah. Marry? Yes. Buy? Yes. Use? Yes. But let these things engross us or forget that we cannot keep them forever? Never. For just as the Babylon of Jeremiah's day was legitimate, so is the Babylon of ours. And just as the Babylon of Jeremiah's day was soon to be destroyed, so the Babylon of ours is passing away. As the hope of the Israelites in exile was a return to the typological Promised Land of Canaan, so our hope today is arriving at last at the antitypological Promised Land of heaven when our Lord Jesus Christ comes a second time.
Which brings us back at last to the culture war. This brief look at biblical theology should teach us a number of things about this battle. Most important of all, it teaches us that the culture war rages in Babylon, not in the Promised
Land. A number of other important considerations arise from this. For one thing, it reminds us that in any of our cultural struggles we are not to set as a goal the annihilation or even the radical transformation of society. The existence of Babylon is completely legitimate. This is a particularly relevant message for Americans especially to heed. America is portrayed as the Promised Land so often—it is the hope of the world, the shining city on the hill, with liberty and justice for all. It is the refuge for the teeming masses of distant shores yearning to be free. It is a land of never before attained prosperity and military strength. America certainly is a great land, and patriotic affections are good and healthy. But it is not paradise, and never was. And neither is any other place on earth. To view any earthly land as the Promised Land is to set our sights both too high and too low at the same time: too high for our nation's prospects and too low for what the Promised Land really is. People wage culture wars in Babylon, and to whatever extent they win or lose, Babylon continues to be just that—Babylon! It will not be annihilated, and it will not be transformed into something else.
To understand this is to put things into perspective. If the America of 50 or 100 or 200 years ago was Babylon, and if the America of the next generation, apart from the outcome of this culture war, will still be Babylon, should we not conclude that culture wars really are not won or lost, at least not absolutely? Living in Babylon by definition implies living outside of Paradise in a land which does not in any special way belong to the church, and as such is more or less filled with injustice, immorality, and any number of other depravities which motivate the culture warriors. As long as the church has lived in Babylon, it has been involved in cultures with marks of degeneracy. And as long as it continues to live here, it will face the same thing. It is only at Christ's return that wicked culture and its supporters will be abolished completely: "God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (2 Thess. 1:6-7). The culture war has been raging for ages and it will not end until Christ returns. Why do we so often act as if the 1960's, with the corresponding rise of the drug culture and sexual promiscuity, marked the beginning of this war? Perhaps the battle rages more fiercely and more visibly now, but even Christians living in Norman Rockwell America should have realized the existence of the culture war—the
same culture war which rages around us now. As a wise man long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun.
This being true, the attitude with which the culture war is currently being waged certainly deserves some critical scrutiny. So many who are on the front lines speak as if America once was in some manner the Promised Land and that the culture war has been engaged recently to restore America to that position it once held. Such talk is not only remarkably short-sighted but also theologically untenable. America never was paradise, never will be paradise, and the culture war is not some recently begun phenomenon which will terminate anywhere short of the supernatural intervention of Christ's coming. If we choose political tactics in fighting the culture war, then we should be prepared to keep using them indefinitely, because the political challenges to our cultural dreams will never die.
However, this is not to say that we as Christians should not participate in the culture war, and it does not mean that all the methods or goals of those on the frontlines of the culture war are wrong. Not at all. God commanded the people in Jeremiah 29 to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived, and this applies to us as well. We know that a nation with increasing numbers of cocaine-addicts, abortions, thefts, child-abuse cases, illiterates, etc., etc., will not retain desirable levels of peace and prosperity for long. Therefore we do have an obligation to do things which will, if not eliminate such things, at least substantially reduce their rate of occurrence. The peace and prosperity of our society, not to mention our personal peace and prosperity, depend on it. And the political sphere certainly is one of the institutions of culture which will make its indelible stamp on the peace and prosperity of the society. Christians therefore should have an interest in the political process when their form of government allows it, as ours does. To turn our backs on politics would mean to turn our backs in part to the command of God to seek the peace and prosperity of our nation. We may debate amongst ourselves which political positions to promote and how much emphasis should be given to the political process, but the interest and involvement in politics which we see among the "religious right" is in itself a good thing. But, it must always be accompanied by the realization that we are participating in the politics of Babylon. What should we hope to gain by our cultural, including political,
activity? Only a relatively better life for society, ourselves, and our children in the years to come than what we would otherwise face. We seek not the destruction of our enemies, but simply a modestly better society which in the future will face exactly the same kinds of threats and require the same sort of opposition. Perhaps we can turn America back to the culture of the 1950's. But the 1960's will always follow.
Our first hope naturally is for the peace and prosperity of our nation. But perhaps we should be secretly pleased when these turn into disorder and depression. We have noted how many Christians today yearn for the days of public virtue present years ago in our nation's history. It seems that there is little doubt that as far as public virtue goes America has seen better days. But when we see how such memories distort the biblical understanding that we live in Babylon, when we see how they cause our hopes to seek fulfillment not in the next world, but in this, when we see how they paint a falsely idyllic picture in our minds which we ignorantly project into the future, does it not make us at least wonder how much good such relatively peaceful and prosperous days really do. If God answered our prayers and blessed our cultural efforts by bringing us days of unparalleled peace and prosperity, would that not in itself be a tremendous temptation to set our sights no higher than Babylon? Are not days such as ours good reminders of what Babylon really is—a pagan, depraved, and hopeless place over which an angel from heaven will one day shout: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great" (Rev. 18:2)? The Israelites were apparently satisfied with the peace and prosperity of Babylon— only a tiny fraction of them returned to the Promised Land when the opportunity came. Will we as a church do any better?
Yes, let us pray for the peace and prosperity of our land for the sake of the physical well-being of ourselves and our children. But let us also be thankful for God's often disappointing answers for the sake of the spiritual well-being of his church.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994, 375pp., cloth. ISBN: 08010-2586-9.
If the title of this book itself (Christ-Centered Preaching) is not enough to cause the avid biblical theologian to applaud, then certainly what is written in the preface makes such a response all the more tempting. For in the preface, Chapell insists that only Christ-centered preaching is able to redeem the expository sermon from its two chief enemies, erosion of authority, and mere moral instruction.
However, a closer examination of this book shows that such unqualified approval would be both premature and unwarranted. The things within this book that can and should be applauded are: the author's sincere desire to preach Christ from every text of Scripture; his emphasis on salvation by grace alone; his desire to avoid moralistic and legalistic preaching; and his desire to uphold the integrity and authority of Scripture. However, what becomes clear in reading this book is that one man's notion of Christ-centeredness is not necessarily another man's notion.
I feel safe in saying that Chapell's idea of "Christocentricity" is quite different from that of Geerhardus Vos. Chapell's two-world cosmology along with his method for applying the Scripture, are inconsistent with the views that Vos held. They appear to be identical to the views held by Sidney Greidanus (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text) and J. R. W. Stott (Between Two
Worlds).1 His twenty-one references to the writings of Greidanus, along with sixteen references to Stott (which permeate the book's entire 375 pages), contrasted with four references to Vos (all located in but one chapter) tend to demonstrate with whom Chapell's loyalties lie.
Chapell believes there are two worlds (ancient and contemporary) between which a cultural gap exists. He insists that in order to preach Christ, one must extract the redemptive truths from past Biblical history and contextualize them for today's modern listener. Moreover, he insists that the foolproof method for properly extracting relevant redemptive truths is by focusing each sermon on some portion of man's fallenness. Chapel states that Fallen Condition Focus "is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage" (p. 42). Chapell continues: "Our hope resides in the assurance that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus" (p.41). Chapell further believes that the discovery of a passage's Fallen Condition Focus is what naturally leads to (even drives home) the sermon's application: "Facing the fact that every passage was written to address a fallen condition in its original context and in our present situation" (p. 265).
Application is the subject that he immediately addresses following his description of Fallen Condition Focus. "Clear articulation of a [Fallen Condition Focus] drives a message's application and insures the Christ-centeredness of the sermon" (p. 45). Furthermore, "the preacher who identifies a passage's [Fallen Condition Focus] for his congregation automatically gears the listener to consider the Bible's solutions and instructions for contemporary life" (p. 44).
Chapell tells us that the application of the sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it but is the main thing to be done in preaching. Thus it would appear that Chapell's goal is for the preacher to drive redemptive truths out the door of the ancient text across the Fallen Condition Focus bridge and to place them in the homes of, and to match them with the decor of, the contemporary audience. Fitting these redemptive truths
1See the book review of Greidanus's, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature by Charles G. Dennison in Kerux 4/3 (1989): 44-52.
(as if they were furniture) into the homes of the contemporary audience is evidently what Chapell has in mind when he speaks of application. These applications, extracted from the ancient text and driven across the Fallen Condition Focus bridge are apparently our only relevant way to connect with our post-enlightenment listeners.
The difference that exists between Chapell's view and Vos's view of the world need now to be identified. Both agree that there are two worlds that are separated by an enormous gulf. But there is no agreement as to the nature of these two worlds, or as to the nature of the gulf between them. Chapell's two worlds are the non-contemporary (i.e., ancient) and contemporary worlds with their conflicting cultures. Thus, according to Chapell time is the gap that separates the modern day believer from the Biblical world. The preacher's job is to somehow make the ancient Scriptures timely. To do this one needs a bridge— the Fallen Condition Focus bridge.
The two worlds of Vos are very different from those that Chapell describes. Vos believes in the world that is and is to perish, and the world that is to come. Sin has taken its toll on the former world corrupting it and alienating from God those who belong to it. Thus, it is reserved for destruction. The latter world is heavenly, eternal and incorruptible (i.e., imperishable). What separates the perishable from the imperishable world is man's sin (see The Pauline Eschatology, chapter one—"The Structure of the Pauline Eschatology").
While Chapell remains forever busy looking for a bridge with which to apply ancient principles to the modern world, Vos finds the ladder that connects heaven to earth, God to his people. Christ is that ladder!
These contrasting two-world cosmologies inevitably lead to contrasting methods for applying Scripture. Chapell's method of application works both against his sincere desire to maintain Biblical authority and to preach Christ from all the Scripture. It undermines Biblical authority for several reasons. 1) It views the Bible as old and antiquated (an implicitly liberal notion). 2) It violates the notion that all Scripture (not just the relevant applications) are profitable (see 2 Tim. 3:16). 3) This method of application forces both preacher and audience to disregard the organic unity of Scripture. For it is an atomistic and fragmentary approach that encourages us to look for mere chunks of Scrip-
ture that can somehow be recast to serve us in this day and age. 4) Very dangerous is the way this approach removes the meaning of Scripture as well as the contemporary audience from its history.
Chapell's method of application also undermines the Christ-centeredness of preaching because it attempts to build bridges instead of holding on to God's eschatological ladder. This bridge-building enterprise further suggests that the ladder is somehow insufficient, which is an implicit denial of Christ's sufficiency.
Application sets itself on the wrong course each and every time it tries to draw hard lines of distinction between a present and an earlier audience. When proper attention is being paid to the unity of the human race, the one covenant of grace, the promises of God, the Church universal, and the eschatological age in which all saints live, we then realize that all of God's earlier and present audiences are essentially one in the same. We were in Adam. Thus legitimate application of the Scripture causes us to feel the guilt that Adam felt, to see ourselves as Adam saw himself standing outside of Christ. It also causes us to see ourselves in Christ, as Christ saw himself—a Son bent on pleasing his heavenly Father. We see ourselves in Abraham whose covenant, journey, inheritance and destiny are the same as ours connected to the city whose builder and maker is God.
Therefore, legitimate Biblical application must cause people to identify with Biblical history (must join them to it) and must connect them with God's visitations to earth throughout its history. Such application preserves the integrity of Scripture so that each and every passage carries us to Christ—the ladder on which we are carried heavenward to God.
Most homiletitians (including Chapell) use the terms "application" (singular) and "applications" (plural) interchangeably. However, a true appreciation for Christ-centered preaching may actually require us to view these terms as antonyms rather than as synonyms. Regarded in this fashion, Biblical "application" has the ability to accommodate the two-world cosmology of Vos, whereas "applications" can never accommodate his cosmology. For these applications are forever being driven by the very cosmology Chapell endorses.
Application of the text belongs to the text as text, involves bringing the listener into the text to experience its history, to see himself there, to locate the ladder that brings him heavenward to God, the very same ladder (Jesus Christ) that God uses to climb down to visit man. Applications on the other hand, belong neither to the text nor to its redemptive and historical context. Applications (we might say amputations) result from surgically severing portions (principles, truths, solutions) of a passage from their historical context, and then recasting (we won't say demythologizing) them into what is said to be a vastly different contemporary situation.
Christ-Centered Preaching is a wonderful name for a book! If only this book were as wonderful as its name. If only this book were satisfied to have men hold the eschatological ladder and not build any more unnecessary bridges. Pray that a book is soon written that promotes for us true Christ-Centered Preaching.
Orthodox Presbyterian Church