On Women, Preaching and Church

In this post I will outline my position on the very controversial topic of the role of women in regards to preaching in church. This is an issue which draws ongoing debate  amongst evangelical Christians. We need to recognise that though this is not an all important issue, it is nevertheless significant for several reasons. To many it matters greatly as a matter of justice and opportunity for women to use their God-given gifts, while to others it matters greatly as a significant test case on our willingness to follow scriptural injunctions rather than cultural trends.

As will be explained, I take a conservative point of view on this issue, and the purpose of this post will be to explain why. Many theologians and church leaders I respect hold to an egalitarian position on this issue, such as John Dickson, Mike Bird and Craig Keener. It appears to me that the conservative position is not the “flavour of the month”, and more and more Christian people are openly critical of it. For what it is worth, there are many prominent theologians who do hold to substantially the same position as mine, such as Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and DA Carson. It is a distinctive of conservative evangelical denominations and church movements such as Sydney Anglicans, evangelical Presbyterians, and Acts 29 churches. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it is our responsibility to study the scriptures ourselves and come to our own convictions about them, rather than just following what other churches or people do.

The majority of this post will be taken up with responding to the most common arguments for women preaching (the “egalitarian” case). While people of different persuasions rarely change their minds on these sorts of issues, my goal in writing this is to at least express why I believe most arguments encouraging an egalitarian view fail, and to hopefully cause other people to understand and wrestle with this issue in a fresh light.

To begin, let me immediately respond to a few possible misconceptions. I acknowledge that women can probably preach just as effectively as men. I also acknowledge that not allowing women to preach effectively cuts your pool of preachers in two which doesn’t appear to be a very strategic move to encourage growth in churches. I also can only imagine that there must be a very significant degree of frustration and even anger commonly felt by gifted women who are restricted in their involvement in some churches on this issue. I acknowledge that to a younger generation not acquainted with this topic, my position must seem increasingly bizarre and totally antiquated.

I acknowledge the force of all of these arguments, and yet I still maintain that in fact women should have a restricted role in regards to the delivery of sermons in churches. Why? Simply because I’m unconvinced by all of the many arguments which respond to two key scriptural passages which appear to restrict the public teaching of women in church. The Bible must be our final guide, whether we like it or not, and whether we think it’s a good idea or not. This issue for me comes down to the matter of biblical authority, and is a challenging test in whether we are led by culture or led by God’s word.

Here are the two passages in question.

1 Corinthians 14:33-38.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 

 

1 Timothy 2:11-15

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

 

It is worthwhile simply citing the texts in question here, because these are the verses at the centre of this discussion, and often there is distraction from the issue by focussing at great length on many other verses which do not directly deal with the issue and only briefly touching on the main verses in question.  I will defend the conservative position simply by responding to the most common six counter-arguments made by egalitarians on why in fact women should indeed lead in preaching.

  1. Women in the Bible did something. Therefore they should be allowed to do everything.

This is a very common argument made for why women should be allowed to preach. We are pointed to the examples of Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla’s role in teaching Apollos, and Philip’s daughters prophesying (Judges 4-5, 2 Kings 22:14, Acts 18:26, Acts 21:9). But this argument does not follow. Just because women are reported doing something in the Bible doesn’t mean they are authorised to do everything- especially when there are other passages which do restrict them from doing something. No one is saying that women are not allowed to do anything. It is clear that women are allowed in certain contexts to do some activities, such as prophesying, yet there are also restrictions in some activities given. The examples of Deborah and Priscilla are both particularly poor as examples of women having equal authority to men. Deborah clearly urges Barak to take the lead; in his weakness he insists that Deborah come with him to bolster his confidence. This is not a clear example of a woman’s equality to a man in leadership. Rather, it is an example of a woman stepping up to assist a man in his lack of public leadership. Priscilla seems to have been the prominent influence in teaching Apollos, but she is rarely separated from her husband’s side. The passage would be far more indicative of her authority if she was mentioned on her own, but this is exactly what is not done. Furthermore, this is obviously a case of private counsel being given to Apollos; it is clearly not a public teaching role. Just because women are described doing something in the Bible does not mean they are encouraged to do everything.

 

  1. Women today are allowed to do something. Therefore they should be allowed to do everything.

This second argument is exactly the same as the first, except the appeal is made from current activities which women are involved in, instead of scriptural examples. For example, arguments are frequently made that since women are allowed to teach Sunday School, or lead secular companies, or lead worship, that therefore they should be allowed to preach as well. How does one draw the line between the “teaching” in a sermon, and the “teaching” in a testimony for example? It is a good question which will always be present in some way when you do try to make a restriction in some way. Where the line will be drawn will always be somewhat subjective, and open to charges of inconsistency. Yet, if the Bible is teaching that there should be a restriction in some contexts, then there will have to be a line drawn somewhere, and a church leadership will have to make a decision on what they believe to be an appropriate application of the biblical injunction in their cultural setting. To use this argument as justification for there to be no restrictions whatever in spite of the biblical teaching of course will lead just to the Bible being ignored when it gives these restrictions. Because women are allowed to do something in church today is not a justification for why they must be allowed to do everything.

 

  1. We must interpret the unclear passages in the light of the clear passages.

Here the two passages in question (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2) are labelled as “unclear” passages, and others, such as Galatians 3:28, Romans 16:7, and Acts 2:18 are labelled as “clear” passages. However, it is difficult to see how that decision is made. The two passages in question appear to be very clear in their explicit discussion of a woman’s public involvement in a church service, whereas none of the other passages are specifically in reference to a church service at all. Furthermore, there are numerous passages which speak in some way of a submission of women to men in some way- such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 18-19, 1 Peter 3:1-7. 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are not two passages which are exceptions to the rule of what scriptures teach elsewhere. Rather, they are specific applications of a principle of female submission in the context of church life. It is clear that Jesus also followed this pattern in his selection of 12 male disciples. The other passages are rather the unclear ones which need to be considered in light of these clear ones.

 

  1. Paul’s restrictions relate to a specific cultural situation, not a timeless ongoing pattern.

Clearly there is a cultural context for these two passages. 1 Timothy 2:9 for example, immediately before one of the passages in question, tells women to “dress modestly. with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds”. There is undoubtedly a cultural situation also influencing Paul’s instructions for women not to teach.

I think this objection is valid, but insufficient in itself to dismiss the instruction from having relevance to us today. Every single passage in the New Testament is influenced by first century culture; this does not mean that they all have no relevance to us today. What makes it difficult however to completely dismiss Paul’s restrictions for us today though is the nature of his appeals. He makes his argument in 1 Timothy 2 on the basis of the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall. It is not simply a case of “this is culturally dishonourable”. He argues- “13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” There is a symbolic meaning in both creation and the doctrine of the fall which is applied in a timeless way to leadership roles in church life. I personally think that the way we apply these instructions in our culture may well be different to the way they were applied in the first century, in a similar way that our views on appropriate hairstyles or jewellery might be different in our culture than what they were in the first century. The whole structure of our church service with a modern sermon is probably quite different to what was practiced in a first century church service. However, it is our requirement now to interpret and apply these biblical instructions in a way which are most appropriate for our cultural setting.

So the question might be- are Paul’s instructions restricting women from teaching (or speaking in 1 Corinthians 14) applicable to a sermon? At some point, a church leadership will need to determine how they will apply these instructions- whether they apply to teaching a Sunday School class or leading a small group, or to preaching a sermon in a gathered congregation. I would suggest that if they do not apply to a sermon, they do not really apply to anything at all in actual modern church life. Sermons are clearly the space of authoritative public teaching in the modern church, and so this is the most reasonable application of Paul’s instruction.

A further argument for the application of Paul’s instruction beyond a specific cultural setting of the first century is the strength of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14. Immediately before his statement on women’s role in church, he includes these words: “As in all churches of the saints”. This would appear to make the following statements apply to all churches no matter what their cultural setting. Furthermore, immediately after restricting women from speaking in the church service, he includes these forceful words: “37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” These are strong words, and I find them hard to dismiss with the lack of consideration which is commonly given to them.

 

  1. Junia was an apostle. Therefore, she would have been allowed to preach.

Romans 16:7 is considered by many egalitarians as an extremely important verse for their case. “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I.” The argument is that Junias was most probably a female, and she is said to be an apostle. Therefore, she must have been accepted as a church leader, and surely allowed to preach.

I find it strange that such a verse should be the key verse which dominates the whole discussion. There are at least two big problems which throw doubt on the use made of this verse by egalitarians. Firstly, the key phrase “outstanding among the apostles” (NIV) is translated as “They are well known to the apostles” (ESV), or, “They are of note among the apostles” (KJV). Clearly, the phrase is ambiguous in its meaning. Given that Jesus appointed only male apostles, it is queer to make a strong argument from this incidental verse that Paul instituted a new policy of appointing female apostles. Secondly, there are different senses of the word “apostle”. It can be used in the sense of a “messenger”, as seen in Philippians 2:25 and 2 Corinthians 8:23. Again, the case would be stronger also if Junias was mentioned clearly as an apostle apart from Andronicus who was probably her husband. Even if Junias was an “Apostle”, this still does not say anything about her role in a public church service. There are many women missionaries today who serve solo in traditional societies who take roles of leadership and yet honour the cultural setting by not taking a public role in a gathered church service.

 

  1. Women can preach if they are given authority to preach.

A final argument I will respond to is this common response that if an eldership empowers a woman to preach, then it is no longer an issue of authority. However, the problem is that this is exactly what Paul says we are not to do! Imagine how Paul would respond if Timothy was to write a letter back to Paul and say the following: “We note Paul that you said we were not to allow a women to teach or have authority over a man in our church service. We have decided to put this into practice by giving them authority to preach because we would like to have them preaching”. This would just be at best ignoring Paul’s instructions or at worst disobeying them. Compare the topic of sex being limited to marriage. The biblical requirement is that sex should be limited to a marriage relationship. However, if a church wanted to get around this, they could say that really the issue is one of commitment, and if a couple are committed to one another, then the church will grant them permission to have a sexual relationship before marriage. Of course, this is just changing the Bible’s requirements of marriage to suit our own standards of commitment, for the Bible’s standard of commitment is in fact marriage. Similarly, to say that we’re not going to treat teaching as an act of authority is simply changing Paul’s instructions for he appears to be saying that it is indeed an act of authority which should not be allowed.

 

Conclusion

Much more could be said on this topic. It is not the most important issue which confronts the church, nevertheless I believe it’s an important test case on our submission to scripture. It seems to me that the six arguments I have responded to above provide a very weak foundation for a case for women to be allowed to preach, yet these six arguments are frequently presented as providing sufficient reason. The conservative position will not be a popular one and as our society slides further into a secular worldview, it will be more and more subject to ridicule. However, I contend that the conservative position on this topic is more faithful to the guidance of scripture and therefore should be followed, even at the cost of the misunderstanding and disappointment of many who find it hard to agree with.

 

Top 10 Pre-Trib Arguments Examined

Pre-trib vs post-trib? It’s a slightly old fashioned argument which doesn’t get discussed much these days, at least not in the circles I move in. This debate was a liberating one for me where I first learned to really evaluate what the scriptures teach for myself and stopped just assuming that what I had always been taught was right. I write this series on eschatology simply so I can have something to point people to for those who from time to time bring the issue up. For those who question whether the issue matters at all, I refer them to my post “Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist”.

The Burden of Proof

I come to the subject via a consideration of the burden of proof. Everybody agrees that Christ is returning at the end of time, unless maybe you’re a preterist, but that’s a subject for another day! The complication is that pre-tribulationists believe that Christ is returning twice, once before the tribulation period, and then again after the tribulation at the end. No one disagrees with the coming after the tribulation. The only question is whether there is any evidence for the coming before the tribulation. So, in my view, the burden of proof is on the pre-tribulationist to demonstrate why a second second coming is required. Often they will appeal to verses which they suggest may apply to a pre-tribulation rapture. But verses which show that such a rapture as a possible interpretation is not enough. They need to show that such verses cannot refer to the post-tribulation rapture, because having only one return of Christ is the simpler and more straightforward position. My approach then in this post will be to simply go through the top ten arguments used by pre-tribulationists and show that a post-tribulation interpretation is still possible, if not preferable, and thus there is simply no need to complicate our eschatology with another return of Christ besides the one we all agree on. It is up to the pre-tribulationist to show that the post-tribulation position is insufficient and there must be another return of Christ before the tribulation.

Argument 1: The 70 Weeks Prophecy- Daniel 9.

I refer to this argument only because it seems that many people think this is an important passage in the debate. However, it doesn’t necessarily even relate to the pre-tribulation debate. That is, a post-tribulationist may interpret the prophecy of the seventy weeks exactly as does a pre-tribulationist in terms of how the seventy weeks play out. A post-tribulationist may believe that the sixty ninth week refers to the death of Christ, and there has been a parenthesis in the present age, which corresponds to the period of “blindness” of Israel referred to in Romans 11. At some point however, the 70th week will resume when God turns his attention to Israel again, coinciding with a renewal amongst the Jewish people to faith in Christ. The pre-tribulationist asserts that this 70th week is initiated by the rapture of the church. However, clearly Daniel 9 has nothing to say about any such rapture. At the end of the day, to make any strong argument from such an obscure prophecy is to build a house with shaky foundations. As will be seen, it is a pattern of many pre-tribulationist arguments to base a lot of confidence in passages which are at best obscure in their interpretation.

Argument 2: Watch and Be Ready- Matthew 24.

One of the most common arguments for the pre-tribulation rapture is the argument from imminence. The Lord’s return is said to be able to happen “at any moment”- that is, imminently, and if the Lord’s return must be preceded by the tribulation, then this could not be the case. However, what is the evidence that the Lord’s return is indeed imminent? The answer given is that we are told in a number of ways to look for the Lord’s return- to watch, wait, hope and look for it. The clearest example of this is in Matthew 24:42- “Therefore, keep watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come”.

There is a simple response to this which removes the force of this argument entirely. That is, there are numerous passages which clearly use the concept of “looking for” and “waiting” for the Lord’s return after the tribulation. Therefore, it cannot be argued that such language must be imply an imminent rapture, for clearly at least some passages do not. If some cases do not, why must any passage? In fact the verse quoted above, although it sounds so imminent, in fact is clearly made in reference to the Lord’s return after the tribulation. Other examples include 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 16:15. The fact that such a concept does not imply imminence in relation to the Lord’s return may be seen in James 5:7-8 where our waiting for the Lord’s return is compared to a farmer’s waiting for harvest time and rain. Clearly one can be looking for something and waiting for something that is not imminent- such as looking forward to school holidays or waiting for a baby to be born (an image of the end times which is in fact used in Mark 13:8). In both of these cases, something bad has to happen before the event we are looking for occurs, as in the case of the tribulation which must precede the Lord’s return.

Argument 3: The Nations that Remain- Matthew 25.

The passage concluding the Olivet discourse concerning the sheep and the goats has a very unique interpretation from pre-tribulationists, and it is claimed by some that the details given in it deny the possibility of the rapture being at the end of the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist suggests that this is a description of a judgement that occurs at the Lord’s second coming but before the Millenium commences. It is asserted that the post-tribulationist here has a problem. Here the entire world’s population is divided into 2 companies; the sheep and the goats. The pre-tribulationist’s poser for the post-tribulationist is this: if all of earth is divided into two companies at the Lord’s second coming, being either raptured and glorified (the sheep) or cast into eternal fire (the goats), then who are the unglorified humans who we read about existing on earth during the Millennium? Where did they come from? Clearly from neither of the above two companies.

The pre-tribulationist schedule solves the problem perfectly, it is claimed, whereas the post-tribulationist theory has no answer for this question. The pre-tribulationist has a rapture and glorification of one people of God (the church) seven years before the second coming of Christ to earth. Thus there are seven years for the non-church Gentile people of God during the tribulation to grow in number. These will be gathered at the “Judgement of the Nations” as the above event is described, and will be the “sheep” who are commended for their treatment of their Jewish brethren, continuing on after the judgement in their nonglorified bodies on earth during the Millenium.

The crucial point in this particular argument by the pre-tribulationist is what happens to unbelievers at the Lord’s coming. The pre-tribulationist claims that all unbelievers are sent to Hell, whereas all believers (according to post-tribulationism) are glorified, and so there are no natural humans left to repopulate the earth during the Millennium. However, there is abundant evidence in both the Old and New Testaments that in fact not all unbelievers will have vanished from the face of the earth at the beginning of the Millennium (eg Micah 4:3, Zech 14:16-18, Rev 19:15). When this point is understood, the pre-tribulationist challenge evaporates. The nonglorified humans who are present on the earth during the Millennium are unbelievers who came through the Second Advent of Christ and live on in the new world in the Millennium. Like many of the judgement passages in the gospels, it must be understood that Matthew 25 is a summary description of a complex event, not a comprehensive one.

 Argument 4: In my Father’s House- John 14.

John 14:1-3 is one of the favourite pre-tribulationists texts raised in defence of their theory. It is said by many that this is a definite reference to the rapture by the Lord in the gospels, and that it proves the fact convincingly that the Lord will return prior to the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist argument is as follows. Here the Lord Jesus promises to return for His people, but the promise is to take His people back to Heaven with Him, after He has come. There is no way in which this can be made equivalent to the post-tribulationist coming, for there is no mention of a return to Heaven in a post-tribulationist return. Rather, after the tribulation, the Lord will return to reign on the earth. Therefore, John 14:1-3 must be referring to a different coming again to His return at the end of the tribulation. There must be a coming before the tribulation in which the Lord takes His people (the Church) back to Heaven with Him.

However, once again, a little critical analysis and consideration of alternative possible interpretations show that there is nothing compelling for the pre-tribulationist here. In making this argument, the pre-tribulationist has a number of problems to overcome before credibly being able to find fault with the post-tribulationist position. First of all, if this verse is teaching that Jesus was dying and going to Heaven so that we could have a “mansion” in Heaven, it seems strange that it is only going to be for a seven year temporary stay before suddenly it is deserted for a thousand years in the millenium on earth. Are these verses just referring to the 7 years stopover in Heaven we will have before the millenium – is that all that was Jesus was “going to prepare” for us?

Secondly, the methodology of building an entire system of prophecy on these 2 verses in John seems fairly questionable. There is very little detail about the timing and events which are in such abundance in the other gospels. All these verses really contain is a promise that the Lord would return. An understanding of the Lord’s coming should be built upon the large expositions given in the other gospels, not just 2 verses which are fairly scant on the details.

Thirdly, the pre-tribulationist has once again the problem of “Who’s who” in just arbitrarily assigning the disciples to represent the church here, but Israel in the other gospels. Just how is it decided that the disciples represent the church here but Israel in the other gospels ? Is it really feasible that the Lord would chop and change the disciples identity continually without even telling them? Just a few days earlier the Lord was telling them that they would go through the tribulation before the end would come, and that they must endure to the end. Now the Lord is (supposedly) telling them that they won’t go through the tribulation at all but will go to Heaven instead! In fact, we know that the Lord spoke these words in John 14 to the disciples on the same occasion that He spoke to them in Luke’s gospel (22:29-30) as to the representatives of Israel! There they are told they will judge the 12 tribes of Israel, apparently just after being told they were going to Heaven as the Church. If it is as the pre-tribulationist suggests, the disciples must have been completely muddled up about just who exactly they really were!

A final problem with the pre-tribulational argument which we shall enlarge upon below is that the text does not quite spell out exactly what the pre-tribulationist claims it says. The pre-tribulationist claims it says that at Christ’s return, He shall take us back to Heaven with Him. But the text never actually says that; what it does say is only three things. Firstly, it says that Christ has gone to prepare us a place in the Father’s house (which it is assumed means Heaven). Secondly it says that Christ will return for us. Thirdly, and most crucially, it says He will take us to Himself, that we may be where He is. The pre-tribulationist assumes because of the first statement that this means that we must be taken back to Heaven. But as we show below, there is another scripturally sound option of how this may be understood.

There are several possible ways of how the “Father’s house” may be understood from a post-tribulation perspective, including the temple in Jerusalem (cp John 2:16) or our spiritual abiding place of Christ in us (eg eg14:10,14:17, 15:4,15:6, 15:7, 15:9,15:10). However, I suggest a view which is not only simpler than both of these views and fits the text in a very neat manner, but it even goes so far as to grant the pre-tribulationist the assumption that Heaven is being referred to by the words “my Father’s house”. What if the Lord was not returning to take us to the Father’s house, but rather He was returning to bring the Father’s house to us, and us to Himself in His Father’s house?

This is referred to on three occasions in Revelation.
“He that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and He shall go no more out: and I will write on Him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which comes down out of Heaven from my God, and I will write on Him my new name.” Revelation 3:12
“Then I John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband” Rev 21:2
“And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of Heaven from GodRev 21: 10.

These verses clearly teach that the eternal home will come down out of Heaven to us, not we up to it. John 14 is ambiguous about how we shall enter Heaven; all it says is that it has been prepared for us. It certainly never says that the Lord shall turn around and take us back to Heaven there and then at His second coming. However, in Revelation it is very clearly spelled out that the holy city shall descend down out of Heaven to earth. Thus there is no need to propose that in John 14 a return trip to Heaven is required for us at the Lord’s coming. All it says is that Christ has gone to prepare it for us, and that we will be with Him when He comes.

It is difficult to see why this should not be a plausible interpretation and even superior to the pre-tribulationist one, in the absence of other pre-tribulationist verses speaking of Christ taking us back to Heaven. The post-tribulation position is maintained.

Argument 5: In the Twinkling of an Eye- 1 Corinthians 15

This is probably one of the weakest arguments, but it’s a well known passage in the understanding of the rapture. The argument is that the rapture is said to take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52), and this according to William Macdonald, “strongly implies that it will not be witnessed by the world”. Therefore, in contrast to the public return of Christ after the tribulation, there must also be a secret return which is believed to occur prior to the tribulation. But this argument once more reads a whole lot more into a small passage than is warranted. All that this verse necessarily refers to is the moment in which we shall be transformed into a glorified body, and it has nothing to say on whether it will be public or private at all. It certainly says nothing about the timing of the coming of Christ in regards to the tribulation.

Argument 6: Saved from the Wrath to Come- 1 Thessalonians 1

Here is another very common argument, but a few critical questions quickly sees the argument evaporate. The pre-tribulationist argues that here we are told the church will be saved from the wrath to come, which of course must mean the tribulation. But- why must it mean the tribulation? Why could it not mean the judgement coming at the return of Christ? That this verse could well mean that can be seen from a comparison with 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7, where Paul explains how God will judge those who persecute the church and give relief to them from their persecution. This is said to happen “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels”. The question must be asked- if Paul can describe the judgement to come in reference to the second coming of Christ in 2 Thessalonians 1, why must the phrase “the wrath to come” in 1 Thessalonians 1 refer to the tribulation? It could conceivably do so, but how does one argue that it must do so?

Well, some answer that question by going to chapter 5, where Paul gives more detail about our “salvation from wrath” (5:9). The argument here sometimes is made that the wrath is in reference to the “day of the Lord” (5:2), and the day of the Lord is a reference to the tribulation period. But here we have the same problem. Why must the day of the Lord refer to the tribulation period? Let us assume that “the day of the Lord” may sometimes refer to the tribulation period. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an adequate defense of that proposition explained. However, the problem is that clearly there are places where it does not refer to the whole tribulation period. For example, Joel 2:31 says that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord”. These heavenly signs appear to be described as tribulation events in several passages, such as Matthew 24:29 , Revelation 6:12 and 8:12. Therefore, the day of the Lord at least in some passages comes at the end of the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist is left needing to show why the day of the Lord must refer to the whole tribulation in 1 Thessalonians 5.

 Argument 7: Caught up in the clouds- 1 Thessalonians 4

Many pre-tribulationists see a lot in the details of the rapture given in 1 Thessalonians 4. Some contrast the fact that Christ is only coming “to the air” in 1 Thessalonians 4, whereas in Matthew 24, He is coming to the earth. However, this is an argument from silence, as 1 Thessalonians 4 says nothing of where the Lord is going after collecting his saints in the air- whether back to Heaven or on to earth.

Other see a contrast in Jesus coming “for his saints” at the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4), and “with his saints” at the return of Christ to earth. Again though, this is a fairly superficial contrast, as there is no reason why Christ could not come firstly for his saints, in drawing them to Himself at the rapture, and then also “with his saints” as He continues on then to earth to bring his saints to reign with Him triumphantly in glorified bodies.

Argument 8: The Restrainer Removed- 2 Thessalonians 2

This passage could perhaps be read in a way friendly to a pre-tribulationist scheme, interpreting the “restrainer” as the church, which needs to be removed. However, the problem is that it is such an unclear reference, that to build one’s case on this is going to always leave room for significant doubts. Other options include the presence of law and order, the Roman empire, the archangel Michael (cp Daniel 10:13-21), and the preaching of the gospel to the nations. The fact is that the identity of the “restrainer” is simply not spelled out and the idea of it being the church is just as much a speculation as the other alternatives listed. Without significant support elsewhere, there is no strong argument for it being the church.

While here in 2 Thessalonians 2, perhaps we should mention that some argue that the word “rebellion” (NIV) can be translated as “departure”, and some argue that this is a reference to the rapture. Thus the sentence reads: “that day will not come until the “departure” occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed. Again here is another argument from suspiciously vague sounding language. However, there is little reason to translate the word as departure, rather than “rebellion” or “apostasy” as most versions translate it. The word elsewhere always refer to a departure from the faith in both Greek Old and New Testaments, and this fits the context of 2:8-12. Furthermore, this fits the parallel teaching about a “falling away” preceding the second coming as given in the gospels (Matthew 24:9-13).

Argument 9: Kept from the Hour of Tribulation- Revelation 3

This is probably the most well known and referred to argument. It is said that here Jesus promises the church that they will be kept “out of” (literally) the hour of tribulation that is coming on the whole world. “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10). But like so many of the other examples we have examined, this verse could conceivably refer to a pre-tribulationist rapture, but there are several other interpretive options which are just as good as it, if not better. For example, if this paragraph written to the church at Philadelphia is indeed meant to be applied to the whole church, how does one demonstrate that the “hour of trial” refers to the entire period of the tribulation, rather than just the final judgement of the Lord’s coming at the end of the tribulation? It is conceivable that it could be. In numerous places in Revelation, the focus of the judgement which the people of God are rescued from is the final judgement at the return of Christ, not the whole period- see for example 6:9-16, 11:12-15, 14:1-20, 16:15-16, etc.

Even more powerfully though is the likelihood that this verse does not mean an escaping from the tribulation itself, but rather a preservation through the hour. This can be seen by a comparison with John 17:15. “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them (out) of the evil one.” Here exactly the same words “keep out” are used, and they clearly carry the sense of preservation through the midst of the evil, as this is contrasted explicitly with the idea of being “taken out” of the world. There is every reason to interpret Revelation 3:10 in exactly the same way, especially when this is the image which is given throughout Revelation to how the saints will be sustained in the midst of the judgements coming on the earth, as for example we see in Revelation 7.

Argument 10: The Church in Heaven- Revelation 4-19.

The final argument is an assortment based around the structure and events found in Revelation 4-22. It is suggested that the word “church” is found frequently in Revelation 1-3, but is absent after Revelation 4, representing the fact that the church has disappeared from earth once the tribulation begins in chapter 6. It is suggested that the rapture of the church is pictured in the “rapture” of John the Apostle in Revelation 4:1 (“Come up here”), and the presence of the church is symbolised in Heaven by the twenty four elders wearing crowns on their heads. Finally, it is suggested that the marriage supper of the lamb to which the Bride (the church) is invited in 19:7-9 shows the presence of the church in Heaven during the tribulation, not on earth.

This like many of the other arguments only sounds impressive until it is examined more carefully. The word “church” is used in chapters 1-3 to refer to local churches, and it refers to them because there are specific letters addressed to them. It never refers to the church in the universal general sense that the pre-tribulationist is using it in chapters 1-3. This argument is like saying that the letter to the Romans is addressed to Israel in chapters 1-15, not the church, because the word “church” is entirely absent in every chapter but the last, or 1 Thessalonians is addressed to Israel in every chapter but the first, because the word “church” only occurs in chapter 1. There needs to be actual evidence for such a change of focus- it is arbitrary to argue on the presence or absence of the word “church”. Furthermore, the descriptions of the seven churches in chapters 1-3 contain precisely the sort of terms which are relevant to the people of God in chapters 4 onwards. They are described as needing to persevere through tribulation, and to be watching for the return of Christ. What good reason is there for assuming that the rest of the book is not about them?

To read the rapture into Revelation 4 of course is purely supposition. One could alternatively argue that the rapture is represented in the rapture of the two prophets in Revelation 11:12, or in the escape from out of the tribulation of the people of God described in chapter 7. If one was trying to match the rapture up with an event in Revelation, these would be better matches, and there is nothing clear in the twenty-four elders which shows them as a symbol of the church. Finally, the marriage supper of the lamb referred to in chapter 19 gives no evidence of being an event occurring in Heaven to the church during the tribulation. Indeed it appears to be rather commencing with the second advent of Christ, and a blessing being given to those invited to it.

Conclusion

Our examination of the top ten arguments for pre-tribulationism comes to an end with the conclusion that we have not found any reasonable argument that shows a pre-tribulation rapture is necessary. Therefore, the burden of proof upon the pre-tribulationist remains, and we can be confident in the simpler assertion that there will be just one return of Christ at the end of the tribulation. In our next article, we will present a positive case for a post-tribulation rapture, and examine the top ten scriptures which affirm that this simplest view is indeed the correct one.

See also: Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist.

 

Should we be afraid of God?

I had an older brother who was very wicked in many respects, and it was a provision of God, because it has given me plenty of good sermon illustrations. One very wicked thing I remember witnessing my brother do one day was the time our youth fellowship visited a young family from our church. They had a little girl about 5 years old, and this little girl had an imaginary cat she was quite attached to. Apparently it is quite common for children, particularly when they are an only child, to play with an imaginary friend. This little girl, Joanne, had an imaginary cat she was devoted to- she would pat it, feed it, sleep with it, take it everywhere, and show it to everybody.

We were sitting round this family’s lounge room, and someone suggested that Joanne introduce us to her little cat. She very foolishly agreed to let us pass it around the room, and each of us had a pat and said something complimentary about it- until it reached my brother Stephen. Stephen I guess had a strong conviction that kids should face reality, and get over their imagination, so Stephen received the cat, gave it a few pats, and then promptly put it into his mouth. He gave it a few chews, and then with a big gulp, swallowed it. At first poor Joanne thought it was a bit of a joke, but when she asked for her cat back, Stephen said, “I’m sorry, I’ve eaten him. I can’t give him back- he’s scattered throughout my digestive system”. I think even Stephen felt a little guilty after seeing Joanne break down into wails of grief on the passing of her imaginary cat.

Today I want to do what my brother did to Joanne that day- to snatch from you, not an imaginary cat, but an imaginary god which you may carry around with you. I want to confront you with the brute reality of what the true God is really like. Because many Christians carry around with them an imaginary god- and they have ceased to worship the true God.  Moses over and over again warns the Israelites of the danger of idolatry- and what is idolatry? It is creating an idol and worshipping it instead of the true God- it is dumbing God down, and creating an imaginary God, a god who conforms to what they might like to imagine what God is like- instead of what the true God is really like.

A few years ago a survey was done in Australia about teenagers views on life and religion, and they found that consumerism reigned supreme. Most teenagers viewed God as a sort of heavenly butler- a God who exists to serve them when they are in need, a God who may be called upon, but who preferably should stay out of sight except when required. He is like an imaginary cat we carry around with us, to comfort us, to speak to when we get lonely, to make us feel better. He exists to come to our rescue when we get in trouble. He is a teddy-bear God. He is a God who never gets angry, He never makes demands of us, other than suggesting we try to be nice, and try to make ourselves happy.

Similar to this is the “old man upstairs” God or the “my best mate” Jesus. A classic picture of this idea of God is in the movie Bruce Almighty- where Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter, is having a rough time in life, and so he complains that God isn’t doing his job very well. Consequently God, appearing just as a laid-back humble sort of guy dressed in white overalls, meets up with Bruce,  and says to him, “Well, if you think it’s so easy being God, I’ll give you a go of being God and see if you can do any better”. So he lets Bruce be God to see what it’s like. And what is God like according to Bruce Almighty? God just wanders around, appearing to people sporadically to give them a little gem of wisdom here and there. When Bruce blasphemes to God’s face, God just responds with a little chuckle, and plays a practical joke on him to get him back. God is just a very tolerant friendly fun-loving family uncle who tries his best, who never gets angry, who finds it hard to get around to listening to everybody’s prayers, let alone answering them, who needs to go on holidays every now and then, and who exists to provide amusement  to people he takes a shine to.

What is God really like? Well, God is a God of love. God is a God of faithfulness. God does care about us. God is always near to us. It is right that we call to him when we are in times of trouble. But God is also a God of holiness and righteousness. God is a God of great majesty and power. God is a God we should fear. God is  a God of anger and judgement. Really? An angry God? Well, does it anger you to hear of terrorist madmen beheading and crucifying random individuals for the most trivial of crimes? Does it anger you that the most common offence local courts deal with is possession of child pornography and sexual assault? Does it anger you that now one of the biggest types of child abuse comes from children abusing other children in the playground because they have become so messed up? Should it anger you that there are so many countries in which the masses are living in abject poverty, and yet they are run by a corrupt dictator who uses his people’s suffering to live a life of luxury in a palace?

God is a God of righteous anger. God is a God of jealousy- righteous jealousy. This is the God which Israel encountered at Mt Sinai. And when Israel meets God at Mt Sinai, and God gives them His 10 commandments to live by. What happens? Israel starts trembling. The people of Israel think they are going to die. God is a God who makes us afraid when we come near to him.

Should we fear God? I’ve heard many Christian people want to back away from this thing about fearing God. And they say, fearing God is not actaully being afraid of God. Wait a minute. What is the difference between having fear and being afraid? Isn’t it exactly the same thing? And at Mt Sinai, weren’t the people afraid? Some people say, fearing God is just respecting God. But I’d want to say it’s more than respecting God. Reverence is getting closer, but I’d say it is still not close enough. Awe? Yes, but does awe make you tremble? Does awe make you feel like you’re going to die? That’s what happens in the Bible when people meet God.

When Jesus’ closest disciples see Jesus revealed in glory up the Mount of Transfiguration- what is their response? It says they were terrified. John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, He walked with him for 3 ½ years, He is so close to Jesus that he lays his head on his breast to show his affection. That was before Jesus died. But when John sees the risen, exalted glorified Jesus, Revelation 1 tells us he falls down at his feet as if he was dead. He was overwhelmed. He was speechless. He was overcome.  And Jesus touches him, and says, “do not fear”. You see, his natural response was utter fear. Then Jesus lifts him up, and says, ‘you may have confidence in my presence’. But you know what we have lost- we have lost that sense of natural fear.

No one has explained this better than CS Lewis in the Narnia tales when the 2 beavers are describing who Aslan is to the 4 children. Lucy says, ‘Is Aslan a man?’ ‘Certainly not’, replied the beaver. ‘Aslan is a lion- the lion, the great lion, the king of the beasts’. ‘Oh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake’, said Mrs Beaver. ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ asked Lucy? ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the king’.  “I’m longing to meet Him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point” said Peter.

Should we fear God? Yes, we should fear God. But of course, there is something more which Christians can also do. We can also love God. If we just fear God, we will run away in terror from Him. But if we fear God and love God, then we will be drawn to worship Him. Because that is what worship is- it is a response to God of the fear of God and the love of God perfectly mingled together.

Do you fear God? You should. Because you don’t even have to read the Bible to discover that at the heart of our universe, at the heart of our existence, there is someone who is infinitely majestic and awesome. At the heart of the universe is someone who is infinitely great. Behind this physical world we see and touch, there is something or someone utterly majestically awesome. At the heart of our universe, exists a being who is unimaginably powerful- He is the one who created a star in the sky for us which lets off a 400 million tonne hydrogen  bomb every second in its core, to keep us nice and warm on planet earth.  He is the one who is unimaginably big- not in his physical size, but in his scope, the extent of His influence. He created a universe that is at least 100 billion light years in diameter. You could travel nonstop at 8.5 million miles per hour during a lifetime of 80 full years, and the distance would total about one light year – and that’s just all we are able to see at the moment- who knows how bigger the universe actually is. I think it’s telling that God allowed us only to discover how big the universe actually is in the twentieth century, when our human arrogance and pride with its technology reached a maximum, just so that we would know something of how puny and insignificant we are in comparison to Him.

He is a God who is infinitely clever – He has written the code for the DNA for each living thing on earth, and it is vastly more complicated than all the computer programs we have ever written put together. Do you know if you were to get hold of a tiny piece of our DNA, the size of a pinhead, and write out the information content of that tiny DNA, how many average size books would you need to write it all down? 10 books ? 20 books? A stack of books as high as the ceiling? No, as high as the distance from earth to the moon, and back- multiplied by 500. He is an infinite God.

He is a God who is infinitely beautiful. Do you know why all around the earth everywhere we look, we see things of beauty? Because God Himself is an infinitely beautiful being- His creation is an expression of His nature.  Furthermore- God is also infinitely pure and righteous and holy. He is perfectly loving.  Our levels of morality just do not cut it. No wonder the Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No wonder that when God gave his 10 commandments to the Israelites at Mt Sinai, their response was one of fear.

Some people ask- where did God come from? Answer- He has always existed. Some people ask- why does God exist? Consider this- God is the source of existence itself. God is self-existent. Existence comes from God. The question should be- why does the concept of existence exist? The very property of existence comes from God.

Can you see why it is right for you to fear Him? Can you see why, when you are brought into His presence, you will fall down, and you will be speechless? Can you see why in Revelation 4, we read about 4 living creatures, angelic creatures- they are in God’s throne room, and all they ever do, day in, day out- year after year, century after century- all they ever do- is cry out “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. ” You see, a really good movie, a really good football game, it might keep us captivated for an hour or two- eyes to the screen. But if you are in the presence of God, you will be overwhelmed and awe-struck with the infinite beauty and glory of God- it will captivate you for all eternity. Do you follow?

Can you see how blasphemous it becomes to commit idolatry, and bring God down to our level, and make Him our heavenly butler, who exists to serve us? Can you see how wrong it is to trivialise God, to say, “I’m doing fine in my life, I don’t need to worry about God too much”. The question is not whether we need God- of course we need God. The real question is, ‘how much do you owe God?’ The answer is an awful lot. An infinite amount.
There are many people in our society, they don’t worry too much about God. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought like this- most people don’t worry about God, and they seem to get on okay. You know, they never really talk about God on any of your morning breakfast shows, yet they seem to be happy sorts of people. The consensus of our society seems to be that the main thing in life is to try to be a decent person, but if you want to talk about God, well, that’s just an optional extra. It’s not important. But do you know, there is something more powerful and more compelling than the consensus of our society that we don’t need to worry about God. That is, the reality that there is an infinitely glorious and holy God. His glory compels us to worship Him- no matter how many millions of people around us neglect him.

You might go through times where you think- I have tried Christianity, it hasn’t worked for me. My life is no different from a non-christian. My Christian life is just a struggle, and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the bother. But there is something greater than our disappointments and failures- the infinite glory of God still compels you to worship him, whether you have made something of your life or not. You may have been hurt and discouraged by the behaviour of other Christians in your life- and you think, if that is how Christians can behave, I’m going to forget about Christianity. But there is something that transcends the many failures and sinfulness of other Christians- the infinite glory of God compels you to worship Him, whether you have been wounded by the sins of Christians or not.  You might say, I have unanswered questions which trouble me from time to time. Ok, that’s fine, but the reality of an infinitely glorious God still compels you to worship him, whether you ever get those questions answered or not.

God is a God whose nature demands your worship. When the day comes in which you stand before Him, you will be full of fear, because suddenly you will be full of an awareness of how miserably inadequate you have lived your life, how you’ve failed to live up to the 10 commandments, and how you are deserving of his judgement. But there is one more thing. There is another mountain in the Bible where God revealed Himself at. Just like Mt Sinai, this mountain surrounded by darkness, there were earthquakes, people were trembling. But God didn’t descend from a cloud and speak from Heaven. This time the great infinite God of the universe had taken upon Himself a human body- just like you and me- and His destination was a wooden cross at Mt Calvary. There 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ, God in human body, was crucified. And in the death of God the Son, an amazing transaction was completed- the penalty was paid for all our failures and sinfulness, and sinful human wretches like you and me can now stand accepted and forgiven before an infinitely perfect God.

The Bible says, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. All that we have to do is place our faith in Jesus, who did this incredible act on our behalf, so brilliant it could only have come from the mind of God- we must place our faith in Him, and we will stand accepted, and forgiven before God- and we will not only just fear God, but we will also love him, as our Heavenly Father.

We cannot trivialise God. We dare not procrastinate with God. The infinite God of the universe demands your worship, your allegiance, your obedience. Maybe you realise that you’ve just been treating God as a low priority amongst all the other busy things of your life- and you realise that in fact you’re guilty of idolatry- because you have trivialised God of His glory, and imagined him to be far less glorious than what he really is. You have imagined him to exist for your purposes on the rare occasion that you need Him, rather than realising that you exist totally for his purposes. If that’s you, then you need to repent, before you come under the judgement of a totally holy God for your idolatry. There is mercy for us in Jesus, freely available for us all- but we must not, we dare not take this mercy lightly. We must cast ourselves upon it while we may.

The Gospel of the Kingdom

If you had 10 words to share with the world, what would be the most important thing you could say? Of course, in days gone by that would be a totally hypothetical question, but in today’s world, it’s a very real question. Everyday we are now bombarded with  hundreds of little 10 word sayings from social media, each of which have the potential to take off and get millions of views, if only we get enough other people to pass them on. So, if you had to reduce the most important thing in the world to just 10 words, what would you say? I want to suggest to you that we have 10 words from Jesus in Mark 1:15 which sums up his whole message. So, what does he say?

Jesus uses different language to the way we put things. We develop our own little Christian clichés and slogans to talk about Christianity- we talk about inviting Jesus to be our “own personal Saviour”, we talk about “Asking Jesus to come into your heart”, we talk about “going to Heaven when we die”. Some of these slogans are ok, some are better than others. The problem with Jesus’ slogan and His terminology is that I’m not sure it is an incredibly catchy slogan today. It’s not all that clear what he means, it doesn’t relate instantly to our culture. But if we are really going to understand Christianity properly, it really helps to go back to what Jesus was on about- even if we then adapt his language for our society today.

What is Jesus slogan? He says, “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel.” Let’s think about these first 5 words – “the kingdom of God is near.” The gospel according to Jesus is that the kingdom of God is arriving. This doesn’t relate hugely well to us, because we don’t live in kingdoms anymore- well, technically we do- long live the queen- but really we have prime ministers, and elections, and senates, and double dissolutions- and kingdoms don’t really enter too much into our thinking these days. But the kingdom- this is Jesus’ gospel. This is really the message of the whole Bible- starting back in Genesis 1, where God tells man to rule the earth in his image- on through to the reign of King David in the Old Testament, whose kingdom was said to be an everlasting kingdom- Jesus in the gospels, Paul in Acts- right through to Revelation- where Jesus is said to be king of kings and lord of lords. If you look through Jesus’ teaching in the gospels- kingdom is the slogan used again and again, kingdom is the core concept which everything revolves around.

Jesus comes preaching the gospel about his kingdom. Gospel of course means great news- it was the word which was used by the Romans often to signify important news about the emperor- a messenger would come to a town proclaiming the latest important news about the king- our king has been victorious in battle; a baby has been born to the king; we have a new king who has been crowned today. It was the latest big news. So when the New Testament writers talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is this in the background- there is a new king who has come- He is the greatest king of all- His rule will change everything- His name is Jesus Christ. But the other background to the word gospel comes from Isaiah 40, where Mark quotes from in verses 2-3.

Isaiah 40 starts a new section of Isaiah- and it starts with good news. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” What’s he saying? The hard times are over. Judgement is past. Verse 3: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is coming. Look at v9. “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” 10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” There is it- the gospel is that God is king, and He is coming. One more verse from Isaiah. 52:6- “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” This is the gospel. And so, when Jesus says- the kingdom of God is near- repent and believe the gospel- this is the gospel he is talking about, and He is claiming to be the one Himself who brings God’s kingdom to earth. The kingdom of God is coming- in Him, right now.

What did Jesus mean by saying- his kingdom was near? Because last time I looked,  our world is still a pretty messed up place. Let me summarise what Jesus meant by the gospel of his kingdom with 5 statements.

1. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.
When people heard Jesus say- the kingdom of God is near- they probably thought of a soldier riding into Jerusalem on a warhorse. Jesus teaching of the kingdom is very different. In Mark 4- he explains how his kingdom will come- and he doesn’t use the image of a soldier, he uses the image of a farmer, planting seeds in a field- and those seeds slowly growing over time- until at the end of the world, there will be harvest time. Then there will be a public, physical kingdom- and there- evil, corruption, injustice, death itself will be done away with. But the present nature of the kingdom which Jesus was instituting was a spiritual one. Jesus was not coming to set people free from Caesar, or Herod, or any other earthly human ruler. Jesus was coming to set us free from our spiritual slavery- because that is our big problem- not our political system, or our educational system or our economy. The big problem we have is we have a heart which is enslaved- we worship idols of money, of sex, of religion, of status- idols which we don’t even know about- we are addicted to loving ourselves, we are in slavery to sin, and ultimately, we’re enslaved to Satan. Jesus comes to interrupt our world on a spiritual level, by setting individuals free- and bringing them into a new spiritual kingdom of freedom.

2. We need to enter into Jesus kingdom.
Jesus talks a lot about entering his kingdom. Usually, he talks about our entering the future kingdom- “going to Heaven when you die” if you like. Sometimes he talks about us being in his kingdom now. For example, Mt 11:11- “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Jesus talks about how we enter his kingdom- he gives several different images for how we do that. For example- Mt 18:3- “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn andbecome like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Later Paul describes us who are Christians as being already in God’s kingdom- Col 1:13- He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

So the question we need to ask ourselves is- do I belong God’s kingdom yet? Have I entered into it? Are you a citizen of Australia?  The answer is yes or no, not I hope so. Yet many people say they hope they are a Christian. You are either in God’s kingdom or you’re not in God’s kingdom yet. And if you never become a citizen of God’s spiritual kingdom in this life, then you will never enter into God’s physical kingdom in the world to come.

3. God’s kingdom enters into us.
Not only do we enter God’s kingdom, but God’s kingdom enters into us, and demonstrates its presence in our lives and in the world around us. Luke 18:17-  “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” We receive the kingdom of God- it comes within us- and Jesus starts to be Lord in our life. And the kingdom of God makes its presence felt around us. Mat 12:28- But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 10:8 “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” As God’s people live in our world, people should see the kingdom of God bursting out of us in all of its life, and so, they see the kingdom of God coming near to them.

Like in the novel- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- Aslan has arrived to rescue Narnia from reign of White Witch. The children are on a hike through snow to meet with Aslan- and what do they see? They see the snow melting, flowers starting to bloom, birds start to chirp, and signs of spring are everywhere to be seen. Why? Because Aslan is on the move. His kingdom is coming, his kingdom is invading. God’s kingdom invades our world now- the signs of the future kingdom are to be revealed in us right now- as God’s people show the beauty of God’s coming kingdom- in way we live, in compassion we show, in way injustice is dealt with. The kingdom of God is appearing, in our lives, and through our lives around us. A really good question to consider- what would it look like for the kingdom of God to invade my workplace? Where does the kingdom need to come? Where is there sin? Injustice? Sadness? Fear? How does God want me to announce his kingdom?

4. God’s kingdom is a subversive kingdom.
God’s kingdom operates differently to the kingdoms we are used to. Jesus says some fairly outlandish things. He says- in my kingdom- blessed are the poor in spirit- for theirs in the kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. He say- in my kingdom the first shall be last, and the last first. The rich will barely find a place in the kingdom. The religious will often be thrown out, and sinful no-hopers will be rescued. In my kingdom it is more important to serve than it is to be served. It’s more important to be generous than it is to be rich. It’s more important to be pure in your heart than correct in your theology. God’s kingdom is one which will challenge our natural way of thinking over and over again. It challenges our selfishness and the way we live.

It’s a little bit like Jarryd Hayne, Rugby League superstar, returns to break into the NFL- American football- for his second season. And when he returns, he gets interviewed by a reporter, and he says- I’ve got an important announcement. The days of the NFL are coming to an end. The NRL is coming to America. He says- at the end of this season, I’m going to return to Australia, I’m going to bring back an incredible team, called the NSW Blues, we’re going to play another fairly crummy team called the QLD Maroons, and when all America sees how we crush the Maroons, they will never play NFL again, they’ll all just start playing NRL. The NRL is coming. So now- Jarryd says- the time has come guys. I have come to set you free- from your shoulder pads and helmets. You need repent of all these forward passes you’re throwing. From now on, you need to stop all this constant subbing on and off- everybody gets to play all the time, except you get 4 on your interchange bench, but just 4, no more. And the ball, it’s going to change shape, it’s too pointy. A new era of true football is coming, and it begins now. God’s kingdom has invaded our world in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus people, the kingdom of God continues to invade and express itself, showing a glimpse of the future to come.

5. God’s kingdom is entered through death and resurrection.
The most surprising thing of all about Jesus kingdom- is that his kingship is inaugurated through the death of the king. The king dies for the sake of his subjects. Above Jesus head, there was the sign placed- this is the king of the Jews. Ironically, they were proclaiming a central truth of God’s kingdom without even knowing it- that God’s kingdom is begun and is experienced through the death of its king, and through his resurrection. And for us, we enter God’s kingdom and experience God’s kingdom through our death and resurrection- coming to an end of our old life, and beginning a new life through His Holy Spirit within us. Jesus says- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

This is Jesus message for the world. His kingdom is near. And so, the mission Jesus has entrusted us with is to declare this truth- God’s kingdom is here. God’s kingdom is breaking in. God wants to pull us further into his kingdom, He wants to push his glorious kingdom deeper into us, and through us to the world around us.

Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist

It’s a common response which is rolled out when the subject of the Lord’s return gets raised- “I’m a pan-millenialist: it will all pan out in the end”. OK, we do need to acknowledge that your interpretation of the Lord’s return is not the most vital issue of all. It does fall into the category of one of the non-essentials which it is normal for Christians to have differing views concerning. It is also a rather imposing subject, with many people just struggling to understand all the different views starting with “pre”, “post”, and “a”s.

However, this does not mean that the issue does not matter. “Pan-millenialism” really is just a means of shrugging your shoulders and hoping the issue goes away. Eschatology is admittedly a challenging study with lots of difficult issues of interpretation. However, that does not mean that we should not pursue it, or have some convictions which we may hold to. It’s my opinion that while some issues of eschatology are fairly inconclusive and not worth being too dogmatic about, other issues are indeed worth discussion and contending for, and there are odd ideas which are strangely common.

While I find the views of amillenialism and postmillennialism worthy of dispute also, here I will share five reasons why I think that dispensational pre-tribulationism is especially deserving of critique.

  1. It has been estimated that at least 25% of the Bible is concerned with the subject of eschatology. Surely we should have a handle on a subject that is given so much importance in the Bible.
  2. The issue does not just stop at the simple question “will there be a pre-trib rapture?”. Dispensationalism has major ramifications upon how the whole storyline of the bible is to be understood, right from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore the issues under discussion have fundamental importance in understanding the big picture of the Bible.
  3. Pre-tribulationists employ an evangelistic strategy of warning people about the danger of “being left behind at the rapture”. This appears to be very effective, so much so, that there are large numbers of Christians who report in their testimonies that the major factor that drove them to Christ was waking up as a child and being afraid that their parents had vanished. Surely it is important to ascertain whether such a doctrine actually has solid foundations or not, rather than just using it “because it works”. Our preaching must be biblical, especially when it involves the all important task of leading people to Christ.
  4. At a very practical level, we must prepare ourselves in the right way for the future. Is the pre-tribulationist right in declaring that at any moment we could all be whisked away from planet Earth? Or is the post-tribulationist right in asserting that there is a time of trouble to hit planet Earth before the Lord comes, and it is our duty to be on the watch for the signs of His coming. Depending on which we believe, our lifestyle in preparation for these events will be very different, and those following the wrong doctrine will be caught unprepared for the future events when they occur.
  5. It is my contention that the pre-tribulation doctrine is guilty at many points of very speculative interpretations of scripture. This gives rise to a very poor technique for interpreting the whole of the Bible.

So I contend that the topic of eschatology should be a topic for healthy discussion and engagement with different positions, speaking the truth in love, and growing to a closer understanding of God’s word. Pan-millenialism is not the right option to go with.

Is the land of Israel still significant?

Some people, who usually hold to a theological position known as dispensationalism, believe that the land of Israel does indeed have significance in the plans of God for the purpose of history, and in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Their main argument for this is appealing to a commonsense literal interpretation of the text. All throughout the Old Testament, the land is referred to, as it is originally in Genesis 12, as a literal land. It is promised that Israel will be sent into exile away from her land, which literally happened, and then it is promised that Israel will return from exile back to her land, which will have the Messiah come to reign from it over the nations of the earth. Furthermore, Jesus talks about the future of Jerusalem in a similar literal way in Luke 21:20-24. So there is no good reason to interpret it as anything other than literal.

Other people, who usually hold to a theological position known as covenantalism, hold that there is no longer any significance in the physical land of Israel today, as in the New Testament, the land of Israel is nearly always interpreted as a symbolic picture of Heaven to come. For example, in Hebrews 3-4, the writer tells us that the story of Israel’s failure to enter the land of Israel under Moses was a picture of our need to be sure that we will enter God’s “eternal rest”, which is Heaven. Furthermore, throughout Hebrews and also in Galatians 4, we are pointed to the “heavenly Jerusalem”, rather than an earthly one to look forward to. In Hebrews 11:16, we are told that Abraham himself would find the ultimate  fulfillment of the promises of the land to be given to him in “a heavenly country”, not just an earthly one. This fits with the general theme found in the New Testament that “we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ in heavenly places” in contrast to the earthly promises of the Old Testament. Thus, it is suggested that just as the Old Testament system of sacrifice was a picture of the final sacrifice of Christ to come, the Old Testament language of the land is a picture of Heaven which we will enjoy Christ’s presence perfectly.

My position is that there is truth in both these views, and they can be united in a way which allows for the strong points of both positions to be expressed. This is by recognizing very simply that the Bible speaks of the future uniting of the earthly and heavenly land. This is a position held in a variety of midway theological positions, such as progressive dispensationalism, and historic premillienialism.

For example, we see this in the following passages. Isaiah 65:17-25 and 66:22-24 speaks of the future land of Israel as “new heavens and new earth”, yet this phrase in the New Testament is usually interpreted to refer to the eternal Heaven (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1). Revelation 20, a description again of this new heaven and new earth is full of allusions to Isaiah 60, a passage describing the future land of Israel.  We see the uniting of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalems explicitly described in Revelation 3:12 and Revelation 21:2,10.

Rev 3:12- I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God;
Rev 21:2-3, 10- I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

What about the land of Israel today? Does it hold any significance? My position would give a qualified “yes”. It is not significant in its political influence and in the application of Old Testament religious ritual which take place there.  However, it is significant as being the central home of God’s national people, the centre of God’s activities on earth in history and where we may well expect to see an ongoing revival amongst Jewish people take place as more Jews place their faith in Christ as their Messiah. For Jewish believers, it may take on a memorial significance, when believers like Paul (Acts 20:6, 16, 21:26, 24:17), celebrate their Jewish heritage and reflect on how Christ has brought the fulfillment of the ceremonies laid down in the Old Testament.

A related question is whether there is any significance in being Jew or Gentile today, but that question will have to wait for another post.

Why did God put the tree in the garden anyway?

adam-and-eve

It’s a good question, and I think the first answer to give is that we actually don’t know because we haven’t been told. I suspect that this is a question above our paygrade. However, we can speculate, and so here all we will be doing is offering some speculations about this question.

The most common answer to this question is that God didn’t want Adam and Eve to be robots, he wanted them to have a chance to use their free will. But a little bit of scrutiny suggests that although there is some truth to this, it is a little bit of a lame answer. Would God really want to put a temptation in the way of his dearly loved children just to see how obedient they were? It sounds a little bit like testing your children’s obedience by putting a bomb in front of them, and a box of matches to light it, and telling them not to light it. Why put it there in the first place?

What perhaps may begin to help explain the situation is the fact that the creation of humanity was not the first event in the history of revolt against God. We know at some point that Satan had rebelled against God, and in fact, we find in Genesis 3 that Satan is already present on earth. In effect, God is saying to Adam and Eve- “you have a choice. The war against me has already started, and it is inevitable that you will be tempted to join it. So, here is your choice. Will you live in perfect relationship with me, or will you join the other side and rebel against me, tasting evil?”. Of course, this does not explain how Satan sinned, or what the nature of his temptation was. That question will likely always remain out of our grasp, at least while we are in this life.

I will add one last possible deeper explanation. We know that the means by which God has chosen to defeat Satan was through humanity. We know very little about the nature of Satan’s sin against God, but it seems that Satan was an angel of God who rebelled against God. Why? He wanted to exalt himself to be like God. The kingdom of Satan is all about self-exaltation. And so when Satan tempts Adam and Eve to sin, what does he say? He says- if you eat of the fruit, you will become like gods. It’s all about self-exaltation.

How does God respond to Satan’s sin? Well, he could have made a very simple response: Zzzzz- (explosion, thunder, lightning, sizzle, smoke.) But in God’s infinite wisdom, He didn’t. He responds by creating another beautiful world- a material world, a lesser world, of dirt and water, flesh and blood, our world. And Satan intervenes into our world to bring his kingdom of self-exaltation into it- and He succeeds, and brings corruption into it, as humanity rebels against God, and chooses self-exaltation rather than self-surrender. The history of our world rolls on, and sinks into more and more chaos, but God has a plan, and is at work. And at the climax of world history, probably to Satan’s astonishment and bewilderment- God the Creator becomes a human baby. God stoops low and takes on flesh and blood, born into human poverty amongst the dirt. And Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, grows as a man, and then, if God humbling himself to become a man was bad enough, now Satan is rubbing his hands in glee- as Jesus submits himself to the hostilities of men- and is arrested, mocked, beaten, whipped, and then crucified. And Jesus Christ, the eternal God of our universe become flesh- dies as if he was the scum of the earth.

But it is in this death, this ultimate act of self-surrender, that Satan’s kingdom is ultimately defeated. This is how God chooses to defeat the kingdom of self-exaltation- by a graphic demonstration of the glory of self-surrender. And Jesus in his self-surrendering death doesn’t just pay the price for sins of humans- He also in the most emphatic way possible- responds to Satan’s act of treacherous self-exaltation with an act of incredible self-surrender- and this is the means which God chooses to defeat Satan.

So the means God chooses to defeat Satan is through the creation of humans, and their own alliance with Satan. But then Jesus demonstrates the full glory of God in becoming a human and defeating Satan in a death of humiliation before a resurrection of glory. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the first step along the pathway for the fulfillment of God’s plan to defeat Satan and demonstrate once and for all the futility of the kingdom of self-exaltation.