Between Marx and Christ

marx

Karl Marx derided religion as myth. He described it as an opiate which is taken to help us cope with our oppressions and social injustice. And he attempted a better solution: He offered the hope of a classless society based on the belief that the problem with humanity is the acceptance of private property. The possession of property placed the owners in a class distinct from those who lacked property. The Bourgeois versus the Proletariat. The solution, therefore, is to abolish this thing called ‘private property and the animosity would vanish. All mankind would eventually work together to build a better world where there is neither lack nor surplus.

However, as the experience of several decades later would show, he only succeeded in replacing a ‘myth’ with another myth. The communist ideal actually produces in the societies that adopt it two classes: the dictator and his subjects. It replaces the supposed oppression of the capitalists with the tyranny of the despot, bringing along a whole sackload of torture, misery, and fear. Far from being a solution, the attempt to abolish classes only worsens the problem.

So, we need to look more closely at the ‘myth’ he attempted to replace.

There is little doubt that religion can indeed be (and often is) no more than an opiate for many. It relieves them from the harshness of their present lives. In fact, many scholars argue that this is why people believe in God in the first place: they desire someone who will resolve all the problems and inequities in human life and identify this being as ‘God’.

This is a distortion of religion, however. True religion, as the apostle wrote, is to care for widows and orphans in their affliction (James 1:27). Far from being an escape from the problems of life, true religion (which is biblical Christianity) is an encounter with the problems of life.

The Christian religion, when correctly understood, believed and practised, does not lead to oppression (whether via class, race, or gender). This is because it is centred on love: God’s loving us and us loving our neighbours without regard to their status or position. The central symbol of the Christian faith is the cross and the empty tomb. We find the holy God, who created all things, man inclusive, stripping down to take up our human nature with all its limitations and entering into our world with all its miseries. And he took upon himself all that was evil in our world (pain, misery, death), destroying them on the cross. Furthermore, he rose from the dead to herald the restoration of all things, a task to be fully consummated in the future when Christ returns.

So, we see that religion, true religion, is not escapist but transformative. God loves his world, broken though it is, and has come to renew it. When he entered into our universe, he held the hand of the weak, cured the pain of the wounded, healed the disease of the leper, and wiped away the tears of the sorrowful. And he leaves to all who follow him to follow in his steps.

Contrary to Marx, the problem with our world goes beyond class or private property; it reaches much deeper. It stems from the condition of the human heart. In the words of Charles Colson, “The world is not divided into white hats and black hats; it is not divided into good people and evil people. Rather, good and evil coexist in every human heart.”

And it takes religion, true religion, to deal with it. Christ did not abolish class because he knew that was not the problem. Neither did he condemn private property, for both concepts are parts of God’s good creation which have merely been distorted by sin. Renewal, and not elimination, is what our world needs.

False theories of salvation, like Marxism, will attribute the human problem to some aspect of God’s creation (such as class, money, sex, etc) and seek to eliminate that thing. The biblical Gospel, which is synonymous with true religion, correctly sees that all creation is corrupt and in need of redemption. And this is what God has both accomplished and is working out through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christ in Greek society

The coming of Christ turned the world upside down. As the fourth-century Christian bishop and writer Athanasius (296 – 373AD) points out, the impact of Christ upon early Greek society showed clearly that this was no ordinary person.


Athanasius 2

“When did people begin to abandon the worship of idols, unless it were since the very Word of God came among men?

When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth?

When did those whom the poets call gods and heroes begin to be adjudged as mere mortals, except when the Lord took the spoils of death and preserved incorruptible the body He had taken, raising it from among the dead?

Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of demons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth?

When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men?

In a word, when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth? In old times the whole world and every place in it was led astray by the worship of idols, and men thought the idols were the only gods that were. But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know.”


From The Incarnation of the Word of God by Athanasius of Alexandria (296 – 373AD). Available at <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.ix.html>

 

The Lord’s Song

35zpwmahroy-ryan-holloway

“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song
in a foreign land?”

(Psalm 137:1-4 ESV)

You can feel the sorrow, the anguish, and the pathos. This is the cry of the captive Jew taken from his homeland down to Babylon. ‘On the willows there/we hung up our lyres.’ How do you make music in captivity? How can you rejoice in the land of the oppressor? Jerusalem was the location of the temple, signifying the throne of God on earth. It was the privilege of the Israelites to be the chosen people of God among whom He dwells. The songs of Zion were songs of worship sung in the temple; they were unique to the people of God.

Jeremiah would go on to deliver a message to these captives, encouraging them to seek the good of the city, in spite of their captivity:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7)

Yes, they were captives. And, yes, they were forcibly removed from their homeland. Yet, God was using their presence as a means of blessing their captors. Here was the Jewish community, God’s chosen people, bringing God’s blessings to the gentiles. Here was the seed of Abraham blessing the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). This was the Gospel in infancy. Prior to this time, God’s saving grace was largely confined to the Israelites. Now it was flowing out to the nations.  As Paul would later write in Romans 11, the gentiles were being grafted into the tree of the original Jewish church. And as that happens, we cannot help bursting into praise alongside Paul:

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33)

The songs of Zion were becoming the songs of the nations.

Isaiah wrote of a future time when the captive Jews will return to their homeland and be able to sing the song of Zion once more:

“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa. 35:10)

But the very context of this passage indicates that this passage points beyond the return of the Jewish captives to their homeland in 538/539 BC. It looked forward to a time when ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped’ (v. 5), a reference to the ministry of Jesus. It also speaks of when ‘waters shall burst forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert’ (v. 6), a picture of the era initiated by the coming of Christ and to be completed at his return (cf. Isa. 43: 19; 44:3-5; Joel 2:28).

What was confined to the Jew has been made available to all nations. The dwelling place of God is no longer just with Israel, it is being extended to all – to all humanity who place their faith in the Redeemer. And eventually, all humanity shall come together to sing that song of Zion. As John observed in his vision of the end of history:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and he will be their God.” (Rev. 21:3)

God’s revelation leads us to look forward to that time when the Lord’s song will be sung by a great multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9)

And what song would they sing?

“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (v.10)

May we, through faith in Christ, be found a part of that joyful choir.

The King who rode on a Donkey

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38)

Triumphal entry

I wrote in an earlier post about how Jesus turned the world upside-down, especially in relation to power. And there are few incidents in his earthly ministry which portray this like his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Here was the King of the Jews about to make an entrance into the capital city of his nation. His preferred vehicle? A donkey. Kings in the ancient world don’t ride on donkeys; they ride on stout, well-maintained horses. Their vehicle was a symbol of their glory, power, and prestige. Just imagine a modern president riding a bicycle to a state function.

The procession of Jesus into the city was no doubt as subversive as his entire teaching was. He was going against established customs and traditions which were contrary to God’s revelation. And one such area was in the use of power. He had warned his disciples to avoid the oppressive use of power:

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Power was not a tool for oppression but for service. God though He was, Jesus had come to serve and not be served (Matt. 20:28). After he had ascended into heaven, his disciples would recall how he went about healing people oppressed by the Devil (Acts 10:38). For Jesus, power was a tool for liberating the captives, and not for enriching or promoting oneself (Isaiah 61:1). He was a King, but a different kind.

And this was precisely what he demonstrated on that first Palm Sunday. A King on a donkey was a contradiction in terms. Yet, here was the power of God’s kingdom. It advances through the humble and faithful efforts of Christ and his disciples, not the machinations and strategies of earthly power. And the redemption which Christ accomplished was itself the climax of a lifetime of selfless service. Can we attempt to do otherwise?

 

The Secret Christian

 

Nicodemus and Joseph

I find it interesting that the two men (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus) who are on record as being so helpful with the burial of Jesus were ‘secret’ disciples (John 19:38-42). They followed Jesus and believed he was the messiah, albeit secretly because they feared the Jews. They didn’t want to be accused of blasphemy by following a man who claimed to be the Son of God. And so they followed him ‘secretly’. Most likely, they saw the burial as the highest act of devotion they could show to Him. They probably said: “Here hangs our ‘secret’ master on the cross; let us prepare Him for a decent burial.” So they brought the spices, and placed him in a new tomb which was owned by Joseph (Luke 23:53). For them, that was the end of a ministry. A great ministry, no doubt, but still it was the end. Their master was dead.

In God’s agenda, however, this was not the end. Something greater was in view – a Resurrection. Life overcomes Death; Resurrection supercedes the Burial. But where were the secret disciples? Devotees to a lost cause, they were no longer around. The task of proclamation was given to those who were willing to identify with Him publicly (though one of them was tempted to become a secret disciple shortly before He was crucified). These were the true followers; they who loved not their lives to the death. They had counted the cost and had decided to pay, by the help of the Holy Spirit. In obedience to Jesus’ command, they were willing to lose their lives for His sake.

And in doing so they became witnesses.

The church needs to ‘come out’. Not to a perverted sexuality nor to a confusion of gender roles, but to her true identity as the people of God and the followers of Jesus. Enough of living by double standards: we serve God in the church and our homes, while serve Man in our workplaces and in the larger society. We are the light of the world; we have a unique vision of human life under the sovereignty of God. We have the truth of the gospel for restoring God’s purpose in the society. God has given us his word , and it is relevant for every aspect of human life be it work, politics, family, or education. It is our responsibility to live by this truth and proclaim it to the world.

God does not need ‘secret disciples’; He wants witnesses.

We need another Reformation

Luther at wittenbergSeveral centuries ago, on this date, an unknown monk, professor and preacher posted a document on the door of the castle church in the town of Wittenberg in modern day Germany. It was a simple call for discussion and debate of some important topics and issues. Unknown to him, the material would be taken by some individuals, printed, and widely circulated among the people of his nation. This singular act would have tremendous impact on the entire European continent. That man was Martin Luther (1483-1546).

If there is one thing to thank God for about the Reformation, it was the recovery of the Bible.

Of course, the Bible was believed by the Roman Catholic Church. The problem was that very few people had ever seen it, let alone read it. Whatever portion was available was in a language which only scholars and priests knew – Latin. Consequently, whatever was known of the scriptures was mediated through the church; it was handed down through the priests. Whatever the Church taught, therefore, was the truth, because only the Church had access to the scriptures. In such a situation, all kinds of doctrines and beliefs sprung up, and the people were obliged to believe and obey. With the Church also dominating society, every realm of human life was molded by her teachings. But the light of God’s revelation was kept at bay.

With the protest by Luther, and the changes and developments by other figures like John Calvin, William Tyndale, Martin Bucer, etc, there was an end to the status quo. God, rather than the Church, became central, and his word became the formative influence among those who accepted the Reformation. The Reformation  restored divine revelation to its authoritative place in the Church and in society. And after centuries of ecclesiastical rule, the Bible was liberated and made the rule of faith and life.

Five centuries later, there is a new god on the throne. And that god is Man. While the Reformation sought to place God and His word at the centre of all life, our secular age has dethroned Him and put Humanity in charge. The consequence has been staggering. In the words of Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, it has resulted in ‘a world of war, hatred, lust, greed, competition, imperialism, and environmental destruction.’* We have sought peace and prosperity by making ourselves the centre, but we have lost meaning and purpose instead. What our world needs is to once again make God the centre, like Calvin did. What we need is a recovery of God’s pure revelation for all men, like Tyndale did. And what we should do is confess our failure and receive  life through repentance and faith in Jesus, like Luther did.


*Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision, p.129.

 

A Play in Six Acts: The Message of the Bible

Theatre-stage


This outline is adapted from a paper presented by Michael W. Goheen, Theological Director at the Missional Training Centre in Phoenix, Arizona (USA). It is a very brief overview of the biblical story presented as a play in six acts. So when next you pick the Bible to read, ask yourself what act of the play you are reading!


Act One

God calls into being a marvellous creation. He creates human beings in his image to live in fellowship with him and to explore and care for the riches of his creation.

Act Two

Humanity refuses to live under the Creator’s word and chooses to seek life apart from Him. It results in disaster; the whole creation is brought into the train of human rebellion.

Act Three

God chooses a people, Israel, to embody his creational and redemptive purposes for the world. Israel is formed into a people and placed on the land to shine as a light. They fail in their calling. Yet God promises through the prophets that Israel’s failure will not derail His plan.

Act Four

God sends Jesus. Jesus carries out Israel’s calling as a faithful light to the world. But he does more: He defeats the power of sin at the cross, rises from the dead, inaugurating the new creation, and pours out His Spirit that his people might taste of this coming salvation. Before he takes His position of authority over the creation, he gathers his disciples together and tells them: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (John 20:21).

Act Five

Here we learn of the story of the church’s mission from Jerusalem to Rome in the first hundred or so years. But the story ends on an incomplete note. The story is to continue; the church’s mission is to continue in all places until Jesus returns. We are invited into this story to witness to the comprehensive rule of God in Jesus coming at the goal of history.

Act Six

… Jesus the King returns. Redemption is completed!