The Great Commission or the Great Claim?

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Matthew 28:16-20

Today’s scripture is one of the most monumental—and controversial—scriptures in the entire Bible. Or, rather, it would be, if we truly took seriously what Jesus is claiming.

Most modern Christians refer to this scripture by the name, “the Great Commission.” That is because when we read this scripture, we focus on what Christ commands us to do:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19).

This command is important. It’s the reason I’m writing this post from Korea, for example. But focusing on the commission as the main point of this passage is a fairly modern misunderstanding. For the first 1,800 years of church history, no one referred to this scripture by that title.

And that’s preferable. Because as we’ve learned, scripture isn’t written as a revelation of ethics. Instead, it is written as a revelation of God’s character. When we read the scripture, then, we do well to focus first on who God is and what God does, before we ever turn our attention to us.

When we focus on God in Christ in this passage, we find what may truly be the most astonishing claim in scripture:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Christ claims (Matthew 28:18).

Note Jesus’ use of the word, all. Jesus claims to have all authority in heaven and on earth. He doesn’t claim to have “more authority than many others” or “a lot of influence.” He doesn’t even say, “In the future I will have all authority.” He says that all authority presently rests in his hands.

This means that Jesus is as much in charge of North Korea as he is in charge of your church.

“How can that be?” we ask. “People starve to death in North Korea! Christians are persecuted! Homeless orphans freeze overnight! What kind of God would choose to allow these atrocities despite having the authority and power to fix them!”

This question shows us that we’re on the right track. Why? It’s a question that God’s people ask time and time again in scripture (Revelation 6:10, Habakkuk 1:2, Psalm 13:1), with his encouragement: “Lord, why do you let the unjust flourish? Why will you not return to judge the world and make it right?”

Note that none of these authors doubt that God is fully in charge. In fact, it is because they know that God has full authority that they are troubled by the choices he is making.

“Why do you abandon us?” they ask. “Why don’t you avenge us?”

For much of church history, this claim has been the focus of Matthew 28:16-20—not verse 18. This is why, historically, when Christians have been persecuted and imprisoned, many respond with cheer and goodwill rather than fear—they know that Christ has all authority. Instead of titling this passage “the Great Commission,” then, we might consider calling it “the Great Claim!”

Nonetheless, this is a heavy claim to bear. Many of us may be tempted to walk away and say, “I love God, I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and I believe the world was created by God’s hand—but this I can’t believe.”

But we can’t walk away from it. This claim is fundamental to the Christian faith. We can believe that God created the world, that Jesus is the son of God, that Jesus’ blood washed away our sins and that Jesus rose from the dead. However, if we do not believe that Jesus possesses all authority on heaven and earth, we cannot call ourselves Christian.

Why?

If we do not believe that Jesus possesses all authority, then we are worshipping a different God than the faithful church that came before us—and a different God from the God of the Bible.

Scripture and church history concur with us on this point. Jesus tells us that he “hold[s] the key to death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). Peter tells us that God allows us to suffer for a little while—then lifts us up (1 Peter 5:10). Paul reminds us that God perfectly molded us (and the world around us) in the way that he wished, and that it is silly for us to complain otherwise (Romans 9:19-21). Early Christians “turned the world upside down” by professing a power greater than Caesar (Acts 17:6-7). During the Japanese occupation, many Korean Christians refused to bow to a portrait of the Japanese emperor because they knew God was the true sovereign.

But then how can he be a God that allows suffering? How did the early church understand this aspect of his character in a way that allowed them to rejoice in the midst of persecution?

The first thing we need to remember is that God does not ask for us to understand him.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” God says in Isaiah 55:8. “Neither are my ways your ways.”

Sometimes we think of God as a president; we think that he has a responsibility to follow our agendas of right and wrong. When we pray, we come to him like a lobbyist: Lord, I think we should get rid of communism, and here’s why; Lord, I think that all countries in the Middle East should become democracies and here’s why; Lord, I think that my candidate should be president and here’s why. This is perhaps because we have short memories: the reason why the world is in turmoil is because of our own corrupt sense of “right” and “wrong”.

God doesn’t desire for us to suffer, but it is something he allows to happen. Suffering is a byproduct of free will: With every breath, human beings are given the choice to bring healing to the world or extend suffering. We often choose the latter, and God allows us this. The most amazing thing, however, is that God manages to bend even our most heinous actions toward his purpose.

Individuals in scripture understand this. Furthermore, they know that God is fully capable of ending everything at any point in time. Their question is why God doesn’t just do this. As the saints shout out in Revelation 6:10, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?”

In other words, given that God has ultimate authority, why doesn’t he choose to end suffering by ending the world and reigning in his promised judgement?

Any Christian family with a child who has fallen away from Christ can give you the answer: because there are still people to save.

Saying that Jesus loves his enemies is too tame a phrase. Jesus is the good shepherd who will leave behind ninety-nine sheep to search out one lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7); he is the woman who leaves no cushion unturned when searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10); he is the father who ran and embraced the son who severely mistreated him (Luke 15:11-24); and he is the son of God who suffered death on behalf of his enemies. All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, and he uses this authority to reach out to his enemies.

And he uses us to do this.

“Now go,” he tells us, “unto all nations, and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

But Jesus doesn’t leave us to do this work alone. In verse 20, Jesus makes a promise to us that God has only made to the Abrahams, the Moseses, the Joshuas, and the Jeremiahs of Bible: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

When we take the gospel to God’s enemies, we will be humiliated, we will be attacked and we will suffer. But we will also have Christ with us—the very same Christ who was humiliated, attacked, and suffered on our behalf.

After all, if Christ had listened to the words of the saints and ended the world when they thought was right, none of the rest of us would have been saved.

 

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Why The Bible Will Always Lead Us Underground: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

 

One day there came into one of the mission stations a sturdy Christian from the north. After the usual greetings, he was asked the purpose of his visit. His reply was, “I have been memorizing some verses in the Bible, and have come to recite them for you.” He lived a hundred miles away, and had walked all that distance, traveling four nights—a long stroll to recite some verses of Scripture to his pastor, but he was listened to as he recited in Korean, without a verbal error, the entire Sermon on the Mount. He was told that if he simply memorized it, it would be a feat of memory and nothing more; he must practice its teachings. His face lit up with a smile as he promptly replied: “That is the way I learned it. I tried to memorize it, but it wouldn’t stick, so I hit on this plan. I would memorize a verse and then find a heathen neighbor of mine and practice the verse on him. Then I found it would stick.”[1]

What is the Christian life? What is the simplest way we may accurately and completely describe its purpose, nature, and course?

The Christian life is the hearing and doing of the word.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock,” says Jesus.[2] When Jesus says “these words of mine” he is referring most immediately to his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Indeed, it was these specific words that arrested so many early Korean Christians—not only the “sturdy Christian from the north” noted above, but also another sturdy Christian from the north, the great Kim Kyo Shin, who, upon hearing the words of the sermon, concluded that in learning to do them he could become a righteous man ten years sooner than if he followed the teachings of Confucius.[3]

But, like Kim Kyo Shin, whoever seeks to hear and do the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 will soon understand that those words—and Jesus—are inseparable from the Bible as a whole. “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life,” Jesus says. “But the Scriptures point to me!”[4] “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”[5]

In Revelation chapter 5, the Apostle John sees a scroll—the word of God. A strong angel asks, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But John says, “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” The Bible is completely closed to the understanding of the children of Adam. And so, John weeps.

The Bible thus possesses an indissoluble relationship to Christ, and likewise Christ possesses an indissoluble relationship to the Bible. So, to say that the Christian life is the hearing and doing of the word is not to say that Christianity is a life of Bible study. The Bible may not be studied, searched, or mastered as if it could be forced to yield up anything. The Bible may only be revealed, and the only one who can reveal it is Christ. He reveals it only on his terms, for his purpose. His revelation of the Bible is a revealing of the Triune God, for there is no revelation of anything in the Bible that is other than this.

God reveals himself to all who diligently seek him[6], and he must transform us in order to receive him. That transformation must take place in both our hearing and our doing.

Many Christians accept that transformation must take place in our hearing. This is why they undertake Bible study, which they conceive of as an interior, or spiritual, discipline. They set aside time each day to read the Bible and pray. They use phrases like “hearing from the Lord.” Some people call this QT, or quiet time.

But Jesus has a different name for such a practice. He calls it FT, or foolish time:

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.[7]

Or as James writes:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.[8]

Jesus and James are not simply urging Christians to try harder to apply what they read in QT. They are testifying that the hearing and the doing of the word are inseparable; God is revealed only through their conjoining.

This is the lesson of the sturdy Christian from the north. When he sought only to hear the word, it would not “stick,” even though he tried to memorize it. But when he practiced each verse on a heathen neighbor, it “stuck.”

What is it that “stuck”? The words? The meaning? The behavior change? What does this sticky thing stick to? Our memory? Our spirit? Our will? How does the sticky thing stick to that to which it is stuck? And can it stay stuck, or will it soon fall away?

Such questions are crucial to understanding the Bible and the Christian life, and why both inevitably lead us underground. In order to answer these questions, we must understand the world and ourselves and that to which the word is sticking, or not sticking, and why.

The world is fallen, and we are fallen along with it. Our bodies are captive to sin. Our minds, wills, and emotions are darkened, unable to comprehend or act upon the things of God or even hear his voice. However, because God originally created humans in his image[9], and because he is not far from each one of us and it is in him that we live and move and have our being[10], there arises in us, even in the midst of our complete captivity to sin, an inchoate awareness that something in us is not right. When this awareness is followed by a seeking for righteousness, or what the Apostle Paul calls a groping for God[11], or what Jesus calls a “hunger and thirst for righteousness”[12], then God accounts this as a diligent seeking of him, and he gives his reward.[13] As Jesus says, he fills them.[14]

But what is the reward? With what are they filled? The answer is consciousness and conviction of sin, which is one of God’s greatest and most miraculous gifts to sinners, given through the Holy Spirit.[15] It is a gift that should never be despised. For there are only two possible responses to consciousness and conviction of sin. One is a broken heart and a contrite spirit. God will not despise this and will in fact accept it as a sacrifice.[16] It is an act of purity of heart to agree with God that we deserve death. To the one who so agrees, Christ reveals himself through his word; as he promises in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”[17]  The only other possible response to the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin is self-deception. This is what Jesus calls loving and practicing a lie. Those who do this are eternally excluded from his presence.[18]

When the Holy Spirit’s consciousness and conviction of sin are met in us with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then Christ appears: we see God. In what form do we see God? In the form of his word, the Bible, which he reveals to us. The word, quickened by Christ, enters us and becomes incorporated into us. This is more than us receiving a moment of insight or being able to understand or memorize a text; as James notes, we would soon forget such things. When the word is revealed by him, rather than simply read off the page by us in an effort to memorize, study, or master it, “it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”[19] The word is God’s sanctifying agent. Sanctification is the name of the process by which the word binds itself to our fallen mind, will, and emotions, The word infuses our darkness with light, repairs our breaches, rebuilds the ancient ruins that once were the image of God in us.[20] This process happens as the word revealed by Christ is enabled to dwell richly in us.[21] As we will see in a moment, this whole process is initiated through baptism and dependent upon our regular remembrance of our baptism, which is why Ephesians 5:26 calls this “washing with water through the word”.[22]

With this framework in mind, we are able to return to our question about stickiness.

What is the sticky thing? It is the word revealed and quickened by Christ. To what does it stick? It sticks to our broken and contrite heart, which includes our mind, will, and emotions. How does it stick? Through baptism and regular remembrance of our baptism, a rich place is created for the word to dwell. Does it stay stuck or does it soon fall away? It stays stuck when, as James says, we continue in it, not forgetting the word we have heard, but doing it. Just as the word infuses the darkness inside us with light, Christ intends us to be the light of the world. Just as the word repairs the breaches and rebuilds the ancient ruins inside us, he intends us to be repairs of the world’s breaches and rebuilders of the world’s ruins. In this way, humans restored in the image of God, indwelt by God, fulfill their original purpose of exercising dominion over the earth.

This is the reason why the Bible and the Christian life of hearing and doing the word inevitably lead us underground. God created humans to have dominion not only over their own minds, wills, and emotions, but over the whole earth. Just as his word sticks to the broken places in us, he makes us to stick to the broken places in the world. Like the sturdy Christian from the north, Christ sends us to our heathen neighbors and commands us to practice our verses on them. This is not QT. In fact, there is nothing quiet about it at all. As noted in the previous volume, the underground church is not a church in hiding. It is a church unplugged from the systems of this world, so that its practice of verses on the world for the sake of the world is in no way constrained by the world’s systems.[23] As noted in the final chapter of this present volume, and as experienced by the earliest Korean Christians and Christians of every age and place, we can and should expect that our practice will meet with persecutions.

This is a very sobering thought, and one that every Christian should take seriously:

The more Christ blesses our practice of hearing and doing the word, the greater the likelihood that we will suffer in the flesh.

The way that he prepares us for this suffering in the flesh is through the spiritual process of dying to self.

[1] G.H. Jones, Korea: The Land, People, and Customs. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1907, pp. 99-100.

[2] Matthew 7:24, ESV.

[3] “Recollection of Kyo-shin Kim,” p. 1. Accessed June 29, 2017 at http://www.biblekorea.net/articles/Recollection_of_Kyo-shin_Kim.doc.

[4] John 5:39, NLT.

[5] Luke 24:27.

[6] Cf. Hebrews 11:6.

[7] Matthew 7:26-27, ESV.

[8] James 1:23-25, NIV.

[9] Cf. Genesis 5:1-3, where Adam and Eve are created in the image of God but their offspring are created in the form and image of fallen Adam.

[10] Cf. Acts 17:28.

[11] Acts 17:27.

[12] Matthew 5:6, NKJV.

[13] Cf. Hebrews 11:6.

[14] Cf. Matthew 5:6.

[15] Cf. John 16:8.

[16] Psalm 51:17.

[17] Matthew 5:10, NKJV.

[18] Cf. Rev. 22:15.

[19] Isaiah 55:11, NIV.

[20] Cf. Isaiah 58:12.

[21] Cf. Colossians 3:16.

[22] Ephesians 5:26, BSB.

[23] Cf. E. Foley, Planting the Underground Church. Seoul: Voice of the Martyrs Korea, 2017, pp. 68-81.

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What is the Feast of Tabernacles?

To watch other Voice of the Martyrs videos, visit the Voice of the Martyrs Video Page!

John 7:37-39

This week’s scripture is only three verses, but they can be a confusing three verses—especially for modern audiences with little or no knowledge of Hebrew culture. After all, the events of John 7:37-39 happened in another time, culture, language, and (for many of us) country!

These questions are about ‘context,’ the second of the six questions we always ask when reading the scripture. Context questions include all the things we don’t know off the top of our head when reading scripture—places, people, reasons, festivals, etc. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a degree or an expensive library of theology texts to answer questions of context. All you need is a Bible, a prayer, and a willingness to learn.

If you have a question about context, you will want to read the passages that come before and after your scripture. The more you read, the more you will understand. Take John 7:37-39 for example. If we go back and read John 7, we will find the answer in the text:

After this, Jesus went around in Galilee. He did not want to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him. But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do”(John 7:1-3).

Jesus stands up on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. But why is this information important? Obviously Jesus’ audience seems to have made some connection between Jesus’ words and this festival—immediately after hearing him, people begin to debate about whether he is the Messiah or not. What are we missing?

What is the Feast of Tabernacles?

The best method of understanding scripture is building a repertoire of scripture during your daily devotion time. If you do this, you will find yourself identifying relationships between scriptures that you would have otherwise overlooked.

By applying this method, you’ll discover that Leviticus 23:33-43 explains what the Feast of Tabernacles (also known as Sukkot) is. Every time you find a different scripture that relates to your passage, you should look it up—it often sheds a different light on your original scripture. In Leviticus 23, for example, we learn that the Feast of Tabernacles is a joyous and festive occasion in which the Jewish people look back and remember their ancestors’ Exodus.

During the Feast of Tabernacles, people would construct and live in temporary houses, called Sukkah. They would eat, sleep, and live life in this Sukkah. Every morning, they would also travel to the temple to attend the Water-Drawing Ceremony, or the Simchat Beit Hashoeivah.

Every morning, water would be brought to the Temple from the Pool of Siloam. A priest would pour this water upon the altar and the people would joyfully shout Psalm 118:25-26. When Jesus stands up to speak with the crowds, this ritual has already happened seven times. The Jewish people had shouted the Psalms, lived in temporary shelters, and thought of the Messiah for seven days.

How do we know that they thought of the Messiah?

Psalm 118:25-26, the passage that the Israelites shouted each morning, included mention of the Messiah: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is because the Feast of Tabernacles is not only about remembering the past; it is about looking forward to a future in God’s kingdom when no one will have to live in a temporary shelter ever again. Naturally, then, they thought of the Messiah who would bring this new world into being.

Then Jesus stands up.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” he says. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’”(John 7:37-38).

For modern readers like us, this might be confusing. John explains to us that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit (John 7:39), but this doesn’t explain why the Israelites know exactly what Jesus is talking about. How could they possibly conclude that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah from his claims of living water?

If we return to the Old Testament, we will find that there are several scriptures where “the Spirit of God” is associated with water. Isaiah 44:3, for example, says, “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring” and in Zechariah, we find the following:

“It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.”

“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.”

“The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name”(Zechariah 14:7-9).

When the Jewish people heard Jesus speaking of living water, they knew Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. This is why they begin to debate the truth of his claim.

Jesus is offering an amazing gift. As Christians, we know that the gift can only be given through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. This gift is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Here’s a question for you: If you could choose Jesus being physically present or the Holy Spirit living within you, which would you choose? The intuitive answer is Jesus, but Jesus assures us that this isn’t true. In John 16, Jesus says, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you”(John 16:7).

Jesus tells us that having the Holy Spirit living within us is much better than having him be physically present among us. If this is the case, the Holy Spirit must be very special indeed.

Scripture tells us that it is through the Holy Spirit that God makes his home in us. John 16:13 says:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit does not tell us what he wants to tell us—he only tells us what he hears Father and Son saying. How do we know this? The Nicene Creed tells us this: “[the Holy Spirit] proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Through the Holy Spirit, we are given a relationship with God.

Going to church every Sunday is wonderful. So is attending Bible studies or listening to Christian teachers. And there is something even more wonderful than these things: learning from the Holy Spirit. Scripture says that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things about Christ. The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, and inspired the writers of the scriptures—without the Holy Spirit, we cannot understand the scripture.

The Holy Spirit helps us to understand the mind of God. He is the reason why Christians experiencing great suffering and persecution can be filled with such joy and love. He gives us life, sanctifies us, and helps us to pray. Through the Holy Spirit’s instruction, we become more like Christ.

Although the Holy Spirit is the most misunderstood member of the Trinity, he is also vitally important. Through the Holy Spirit, we learn that our God is not a distant God. He is not an abstract principle. He is involved in every aspect of our existence—so much so that he lives inside of us.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will be given to all who believe in him. It is interesting to note that Jesus says “who believes” and not “who has faith.” Believing is a verb—not a noun. Believing is not a mental assent. Even Satan knows that Jesus died, resurrected, and ascended into heaven. Does this make Satan a Christian? Of course not. Believing is more than just knowing.

Believing means (1) knowing God’s word and (2) doing God’s word. Sound strange? Let’s consider an analogy. I know that brown rice is healthier for me than white rice. I’ve read several reports of how brown rice supports healthy sleep patterns, weight loss, and energy levels. But if I know this and only eat white rice, it doesn’t matter what I knowMatthew 7:24-27 tells us that our relationship with God is very similar.

Jesus calls for us to actively believe in him, not to passively acknowledge him. Perhaps this is why he calls the thirsty to come to him rather than declaring that he will come to all who are thirsty.

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