Response to Renew’s Review (Part 1) of “Women Serving God”

August 10, 2020

I am grateful for the attention Renée Sproles, Bobby Harrington, and Daniel McCoy give to my new book, Women Serving God, at Renew’s blog (their blog is over 7700 words but it covers Scot McKnight’s book as well; my response is only 2700+). I am happy to engage the conversation they have begun, and I look forward to future installments of their review. Sproles has her own book on this topic, which I read as part of my own study, entitled On Gender: What the Bible Says About Men and Women–And Why It Matters.

I have a strong affinity for the work Renew is doing, especially their commitment to discipleship and disciple-making. I have attended Renew events, read their books, and enjoy friendships with many people associated with Renew. I am grateful for how they accentuate discipleship among churches through their organization. Yet, apparently, we find ourselves in a disagreement about the full participation of women in the assembly, which is the focus of my book.

I sense a basic concern is that somehow “Western elite values” are going to strip away biblical commands and render obedience to the will of God ineffective. Of course, I would oppose any such agenda myself. Yet, this, as I understand it, is part of the resistance to the full participation of women in the assemblies of the saints. I expect that we will see textual and theological arguments that demonstrate that is what is happening. I look forward to seeing the explanation.

I did not use the terminology egalitarian or egalitarianism in my book. I made no sustained argument about the relationship of husbands and wives (family) or church polity (bishops or elders). My focus was solely on the assembly and the level of participation by women in worshipping assemblies of churches of Christ. Sproles puts “egalitarian” in quotes. Though some may think she is quoting me, I do not use the term.

In relation to the assembly, it seems the only difference (as far as I can see at this point) between myself and Renew’s belief statement is the function of the “lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church” (a phrase that does not appear in Scripture). I’m not sure how the function of “elder/overseer” plays out in the assembly in Renew’s understanding. Are there gifts and functions in the assembly that belong only to the “senior minister/pastor” (as Sproles names it). Perhaps solo preaching? Policy announcements? Officiating at the table? I anticipate that will be clarified as we move along in the reviews.

Hermeneutics

Renée’s first topic is hermeneutics (since we have met, I’d rather use her first name as a friend and sister in Christ). Good hermeneutics and theology matter, and without one, the other is skewed. This is why I wrote Searching for the Pattern first because it lays out my understanding of hermeneutics in the context of the churches of Christ. I only briefly summarize it in a few pages in Women Serving God.

Seeking a Theological Point?

Without reading the first volume, I can understand how one might think I’m only interested in drawing out a theological point or even a “timeless theology” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words) from the “baggage of culture” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words).

As I suggest in both Searching for the Pattern and Women Serving God, the theological point, in agreement with Renée, is the coherent story of God, which is the drama of God from creation to new creation; it is the pattern of God’s activity within the biblical drama. I’m not looking to draw a “theological truth from a time-bound biblical command” (her words). Rather, I am looking for the theological story (pattern, which is the gospel itself) that gave rise to that command and seeking to live obediently within that story in conformity to the meaning of that command.

For example, I agree with her baptismal example. My Searching for the Pattern has a case study on that topic. We follow Jesus into the water, participate in the gospel through baptism, and obediently conform to the gospel when we are baptized. Baptism and the gospel of Jesus are deeply and pervasively linked in the New Testament and, I would add, by the backstory in Israel. We are not immersed because it is an abstracted command as part of a blueprint hermeneutic. It is a gospel-formed command to follow Jesus into the water that is embedded in the kingdom story. For more, see my case study in Searching for the Pattern.

Subjective?

The search throughout Scripture for this coherent story, which is Renée’s own hermeneutic, is mine as well. To call it “subjective” is unhelpful. Precisely, in what way is it “subjective”? My approach is no more subjective than every hermeneutical reading of Scripture, but it is not so subjective that it necessarily privileges “culture” over the story of Scripture itself (which I sense is the real concern). I look forward to seeing examples where I supposedly do this with the text and discussing them.

At the same time, everyone reads Scripture with some cultural discernment (is that the subjectivity?). That is why women don’t wear veils, congregations don’t require holy kisses, or women are not forbidden to wear gold in assemblies even as women participate in limited ways through prayer, testimonies, etc. (soft complementarianism). Is it possible that this rejection of wearing veils and resistance to holy kisses is a case of “stripping away the teachings of Scripture on gender” in light of “Western elite values”? Is the privilege of wearing gold to the assembly a “Western elite value” that ignores Paul’s expressed desire? Might not soft complementarianism also be a failure to resist “Western elite values” when the historic tradition of the church silenced women in the assembly (including limited participation as it is understood in soft complementarianism), insisted on head coverings for centuries until only recently, and the early fathers objected to jewelry?

Four-Point Hermeneutic

I agree with the four points in Renée’s stated hermeneutic, though we both would want to elaborate their meaning and application. I incorporate each into Searching for the Pattern (I only slightly touch on #4 in that book). Principle #1 is applied throughout Women Serving God, especially Parts 3-6. I assume her second principle is conducive to understanding the role new creation plays in the biblical story as the “rule” (or canon; Paul’s word) by which we walk as disciples of Jesus (Galatians 6:15-16). I also assume her third principle also asks, “what does this mean?” without attempting to “wriggle out of obedience” (is that what I am trying to do?). I also assume her fourth principle gives space to critique the understanding of the traditions of the church, even if they are very early (such as a monarchical bishop, or that the early church fathers were not soft complementarians). I would add a fifth point: to read Scripture through the lens of the act of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, the eschatological goal (new creation) and its presence in the world, and the pattern we find in God’s incarnate example and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. This is a major part of the coherent story, it seems to me. We might say it is part of the second principle, which I have accentuated and made more explicit. But perhaps that fifth principle (as I stated it) is the rub and is excluded or conceived differently. I’m not sure; is it? How does Renée’s hermeneutic think about the function of new creation in telling the story of God in the Bible?

There seems to be a misunderstanding that I make a claim to “move beyond” Scripture in some way (which Renée puts in quotation marks though I never use those words). I never say that or intend that in the book. I don’t want to “move beyond” the coherent story in Scripture or the pattern present in it. Scripture points us beyond some specific circumstances (Artemis cult in Ephesus, silencing women who are interrupting speakers in the assembly) and some specific applications (veils, wearing gold, washing feet, it is better not to marry [1 Corinthians 7], etc.), but we don’t move beyond the coherent theology in the text. I don’t want to move beyond but understand the commands of God rooted in the gospel and God’s story. The question is, what does Scripture teach?

There is a sense, of course, in which we all “move beyond” Scripture in that we address topics, problems, and issues that are not specifically addressed in Scripture. For example, where does Scripture address cloning? But we don’t “move beyond” Scripture in the sense that we abandon the coherent story of God or subvert it. Rather, we apply that story to the new questions and situations that arise as we follow Jesus in the present context.

Trajectories in Scripture

I agree that salvation is both personal and communal, both individual and social; indeed, it is also cosmic. All my theological thought and teaching has been soaked in that very point for over thirty years. It is not “either personal salvation or new creation; it’s both.” I agree 100%. I’m not sure if Renée thinks I believe otherwise—she can’t get that from this book or my other writings. (In reading the review, sometimes I feel like my book is not is under review even though my name is associated with the idea. Perhaps this is the problem of reviewing two books at once as views and purposes are too easily conflated.)

The story of Scripture is God at work to transform persons, communities, and the creation; and the goal of that transformation is conformation to the image of Christ so that Christ fills all things. God will achieve that goal in the final consummation, and new creation is already at work in the church as a mission outpost of the kingdom of God here and now. In what ways does the final consummation (new creation) show up in the present? What is already present that belongs most fully to what is not yet? That is the reason for thinking about a new creation hermeneutical dimension—and I do so precisely because Paul did.

As Renée notes, there are trajectories in Scripture (e.g., movement from Mosaic to New Covenant; including—I would add—the inclusion of women as priests in Christ, how women now inherit without male instrumentality in Christ, rejection of polygamy, etc.). I suggest another is the movement from creation to new creation. There are key moments in that trajectory, including the Call of Abraham, Exodus, Incarnation, Cross & Resurrection, Pentecost, and New Heaven and New Earth. There are key texts within Scripture that interpret these moments.  Those texts help us understand the trajectory.

I don’t think I choose a text in the abstract. Rather, I am seeking the coherence of the story (Renée’s hermeneutical point #2) and how texts reflect, embody, or teach that trajectory within the story. What significance Galatians 3:28 has in the context of God’s coherent story is a matter for discussion. Highlighting that text is not necessarily cherry picking but paying attention to the movement toward new creation (new creaturehood in Christ) within the story of God.

Renée asks, “Why is the paradigm shift primarily to ‘oneness’ and not to citizenship in God’s kingdom or something else?” I only use the word “oneness” twice—once in terms of its reality in creation and new creation (p. 139) and about oneness at the table of the Lord (p. 146). I don’t suggest that citizenship and oneness are two ultimately different things but rather citizenship in the kingdom of God includes oneness and moves us toward the fullness of that oneness or unity we will experience in the new heaven and new earth. This is the goal of God from the beginning (John 17:20-26), and it is reflected in our union with Christ. It is the unity and fellowship of the Spirit.

Culture

There is always a danger that culture will reshape the theological story. This was part of my point in Part 2 of Women Serving God. The danger is not only found in present culture but in past cultures as well. For example, many leaders and teachers in the American Restoration Movement used 1 Timothy 2:12 to deny women the vote, silence women from leading prayer or speaking in any form in the assembly, prohibit women from teaching adult Bible classes with men present, prohibit women from teaching twelve year old baptized males in Bible class, exclude women from baptizing others, or exclude women from public careers in society. Renée and I are on the same page. We must not permit culture to subvert or override the coherent story of Scripture.

Anyone’s search for that coherent story can “lead us right off the pages of Scripture,” not just mine. Of course, the opposite danger is that some read Scripture so rigidly and in conformity to their traditions that they will, as Jesus put it about the Pharisees, make a convert “twice as much a child of hell as” the teacher (Matthew 23:15). To be clear, I don’t think that is what Renew is doing, but I don’t think I am leading people “off the pages of Scripture” either. But I do suggest that Renew might consider embracing full participation rather than a limited one for women in the assembly. Perhaps it is tradition that hinders that full participation rather than a coherent biblical theology.

While Renée seems to think that the net effect of my understanding is “to subsume the way of Jesus under the authority of a given culture,” I think that must be demonstrated. It is certainly not my intent. I assume we will see the evidence for this marshaled in future installments.

I think Renée misunderstands a significant point in my book. I am not opposed to the proper functions of authority within the community of faith that are rooted in God’s gifts to the community. Authority per se is not a bad word for me; I use it often in the book. When Renée states that I believe “hierarchy and authority are antithetical to equality, mutuality, and unity,” she is mistaken. I think hierarchy and authoritarianism (which is the word I used in the context she quoted) are antithetical, but authority and equality/mutuality/unity are not. Her extended quotes from my book come in the context of my opposition to sacerdotal hierarchical authoritarianism around the table and its misuse of “authority.” Contextually, I am referring to Jesus’s opposition to Gentile leaders who wrongly use authority (“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors;” Luke 22:25). Jesus contrasts that use of authority with how his disciples ought to relate to each other. The table is a place for the priesthood of all believers, shared places at the table, and mutual service.

Where we disagree, I presume, is that she understands Scripture to teach male authority over women (at the table?) in the assembly in some form or function. I don’t think that is part of the Bible’s coherent story. I look forward to the future discussion of the role of male authority in the assembly as well as the argument for grounding that male authority in creation ontology or essence (which I address in Women Serving God).

I do not, as Daniel & Bobby write, use Galatians 3:28 to undermine “authority.”  It does, however, undermine male authority just as it undermines ethnic authority (Jew vs. Gentile) and economic authority (slave vs. free) as boundaries for the pouring out of the Spirit’s gifts and the exercise of those gifts in the assembly.

It seems to me that Scripture is full of liberation, mission, and the hope of new creation: exodus, ministry of Jesus, resurrection, new creatures in Christ, and cosmic liberation of the creation (to name a few).  Let’s talk about what that entails for the giftedness of women in the assembly rather than projecting what it might mean in the hands of others. What does it mean in my book?

On Interpretation

It is unhelpful to say “Hicks interprets away the key texts,” as Bobby & Daniel do. (I imagine the only key text about which we might disagree in terms of the assembly is 1 Timothy 2, but I may be wrong.) That is a charge that needs demonstration, which I assume is coming in future installments. But why say that here, and why say it that way? It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument. I don’t want to interpret “away” anything. I want to understand the mystery of God (the gospel of godliness) revealed in those texts. Let’s talk about what my book actually says rather than deflecting the question to what others might do with it.  When we discuss the details of the book’s argument, then readers can decide whether something is explained “away” or not.

It is fair to call it a reinterpretation, though these texts have always been under various forms of reinterpretation and diverse understandings throughout history. The church has historically reinterpreted other texts (e.g., slavery, veils, holy kiss, wearing gold, washing feet, age limit on the support of widows, etc.). Perhaps some texts need reinterpretation (or the revival of old interpretations long forgotten) in order to hear the coherent story (including new creation) more fully because centuries of male authority have given us the wrong lenses with which to read the text. Perhaps we need a moment like Peter had at Simon’s house in Joppa to help us see what we could not previously see so that we might read Scripture more appropriately and more fully in the light of what God did in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this dialogue. I hope we can proceed with some reciprocity, respect, and mutual love without rhetorical embellishments. 

Peace and grace from our Lord Jesus Christ to my siblings, Renée, Bobby, and Daniel. Rick, my dear friend, I suppose I’ll see in you in future installments. Peace to all.


Video Course: Searching for the Pattern

July 23, 2020

Designed for small groups, Bible classes, or even personal use, these six videos introduce interested learners to the basic principles of my recent book.

The Tokens Show, led by Lee C. Camp, has released a video course based on Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Understanding the Bible.

There are six videos. Each is accompanied by discussion questions, transcripts, and other materials. The topics cover:

  1. Looking for the Pattern
  2. How Did Paul Read the Bible?
  3. Finding our Lens for Reading the Bible
  4. The New Testament: Rule for Faith & Practice
  5. How Did Jesus Read the Bible
  6. How Do We Read the Table?

Women Serving God: A Study Guide

July 10, 2020

Does God invite women to fully participate in the assemblies of God?

My new book, Women Serving God, addresses this question. It is now available on Amazon in both Kindle ebook ($9.99) and print ($14.95).

In addition, I have produced a teaching/discussion study guide for the book designed for small groups or Bible classes.

Among churches of Christ, the voices of women are typically silent and excluded from visible leadership in assemblies gathered for prayer and praise. In this book, I tell the story of my own journey to understand how women have served God throughout the unfolding drama of Scripture. I describe my movement from the exclusion of the voices of women and their leadership in the assembly to a limited inclusion, and finally to the full inclusion of those voices and their leadership. Along the way, I describe some of the history of churches of Christ as well as my own history but ultimately focus on the meaning of biblical texts and how they support the full participation of women in the assemblies of God.

Three women, Claire Davidson Frederick, Jantrice Johnson, and Lauren Smelser White, respond to and extend John Mark’s thoughts.

John Mark is detailed, fair, and vulnerable about his own journey and our collective journey in Churches of Christ. I recommend John Mark as a trustworthy guide. Dr. Sara G. Barton, University Chaplain, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA

Do we believe that the Holy Spirit equally equips both women and men to carry out Jesus’s message of reconciliation? Dr. Hicks is a trusted guide in navigating the depth of scripture and the complexity of our cultural moment. Drink deeply from this well! Dr. Joshua Graves, Otter Creek Church, Brentwood, Tennessee.

With characteristic depth, rigor, and generosity, Hicks offers his own journey toward embracing the inclusion of women’s voices in the assembly. Hicks writes with a familiarity of Restoration Movement history that few can boast, with an accompanying dedication to searching the scriptures. Amy McLaughlin-Sheasby, Instructor in the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry, Abilene Christian University.

This book is a gift to twenty-first century Churches of Christ. Part autobiography, part history, part exegesis, and part biblical theology, Hicks’s exploration of the Bible’s teachings on the role of women in congregational gatherings offers several invaluable components. Dr. James L. Gorman, Associate Professor of History, Johnson University

JOHN MARK HICKS is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. He has taught for thirty-nine years in schools associated with the churches of Christ. He has authored or co-authored eighteen books, lectured in twenty-two countries and forty states, and is married to Jennifer. They share five living children and six grandchildren.


Special Offer

April 2, 2020

During this difficult time, I am offering–with the generosity of my publisher–free access to online materials (videos and ebook) for small group discussion through a digital platform based on the book, Anchors for the Soul: How to Trust God in the Storms of Life.

Watch the introductory video here.

A completely online, small-group experience to help you connect with others as you process loss, grief—and isolation.

We’re offering this special experience to help you, the church, comfort one another and bring people together online.

Included in this limited-time offer is:

– Free access to 10–15 min videos of the author (available by video streaming).
– Free eBooks of Anchors for the Soul for each participant.
– Free access to author and teacher John Mark Hicks author via one live Q&A session.

Register your group here ===> https://himpublications.com/anchors-video-course-special/

This is a digital-only experience of the Anchors for the Soul Video Course with group access to ask John Mark Hicks questions.

It’s a six- to eight-week video series for groups.

You and your group of 10–30 people can interact with each other as you watch a video series and ask John Mark Hicks questions.

Sign up now (space is limited): https://himpublications.com/anchors-video-course-special/


Gathered into the Name of Jesus

March 24, 2020

A selection from A Gathered People by John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton, and Bobby Valentine.

Just as Matthew begins his Gospel with the assurance of divine presence in Jesus (Matt 1:23), so he ends his Gospel with the same assurance. When he commissioned his disciples to disciple all nations, he reminded them: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Disciples minister with the confidence that Jesus is with them; God is present in their ministry and life. Indeed, when disciples minister to people by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, they minister to the presence of Christ in the needy (Matt 25:20, 45).

While disciples rest in this confidence, they are also promised the presence of God through Jesus when they assemble (Matt 18:19-20):

Again, I truly tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

“Two or three” indicates that it is not the size but the intention of the gathering that is significant. When disciples gather (sunagagein) Jesus is present. But it is not just any gathering. Rather, intentionality shapes the nature of the gathering. When disciples pray together, the Father listens, and he listens because Jesus is present among disciples gathered “in” his name.

Matthew 18:19-20 needs careful unpacking. While the context is church discipline (Matt 18:15-17), the “again” of verse 19 separates this saying from the context much like a principle can be separated from any particular application. Discipline by the assembly is grounded not only in the principle that God has already confirmed their decision in heaven (Matt 18:18) but also in the correlation between communal prayer and divine presence through Jesus. The church’s discipline is rooted in the experience of the Father’s answer to prayer—God will grant the wisdom to make such decisions. But that the Father answers such prayer is rooted in the presence of Christ among the gathered disciples. In other words, the principle that Jesus is present among gathered disciples is a broader truth than any specific application to disciplinary action. It applies to prayer meetings. It applies to any gathering of disciples “in” the name of Jesus.

The theological point is significant. Our prayers to the Father are mediated by the presence of Christ. The Gospel of John makes the same point by directing disciples to pray in the name of Jesus (cf. John 14:13-14). But Matthew’s emphasis is more than just answers to prayer. It is about the presence of Jesus among the gathered disciples. This is parallel to some early Rabbinic sayings. Though they are of uncertain date (perhaps first century though more probably second century), they illuminate the point that Matthew is making in the Jewish milieu of his Gospel.[1] Mekhilta, the midrash on Exodus 20:24, states: “Wherever ten persons assemble in a synagogue the Shekhinah is with them, as it is said: ‘God standeth in the congregation of God’ (Ps 82, 1).” And, in Abot 3, 2b, Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradynon says: “if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekhinah is in their midst” (cf. Mal 3:16). And, in Abot 3, 3; Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says: “When three eat at one table and do speak words of Torah there, it is as though they have eaten from the table of God.”

Paralleling these statements, Matthew 18:20 affirms that Jesus is the Shekhniah presence when disciples gather “in” his name. He is the new temple presence, the new glory of God among his people. The divine glory shines through the presence of Jesus among his people. When disciples gather, they become a house of prayer, just as Israel’s temple was a house of prayer (cf. Matt 21:13 quoting Isa 56:7). In the person of Jesus one greater than the Jerusalem temple is present because he himself is the Shekhniah glory of God (cf. Matt 12:6).

Further, “in my name” replaces the Torah in the rabbinic sayings. Instead of gathering to talk about or read the Torah, disciples gather “in [Jesus’] name.” A literal translation would be “into (toward, eis) my name.” The phrase expresses the purpose of the gathering—it is a gathering toward the name, perhaps “in devotion to the name” or person of Jesus, or to worship the person (name) of Jesus.[2] Indeed, Jesus is worshipped in the Gospel of Matthew more than any other Gospel (cf. 14:33)—most significantly as resurrected Lord in Matthew 28:17-20. Disciples worship Jesus, are called to participate in the mission of Jesus to disciple all nations, and are assured of his presence to the “end of the age.”

The phrase does not mean “by the authority of Jesus” as it might with the use of the preposition “in” (en). Here eis (into) signifies motion toward, devotion or commitment to the person of Jesus who is “God with us.” Into (eis) the name “expresses the conscious choice of identification with what has been involved in Matthew’s story: the action of the Father through the Son and by means of the Holy Spirit.” It is a “comprehensive commitment to Jesus and what he has brought, done, and stands for”—his mission in the world.[3] Disciples follow Jesus by participating in his mission and they gather “into his name” to worship (20:19—to pray), profess their commitment, and, as a result, to enjoy his presence. When they gather, the Shekhniah glory of God is present among his people through Jesus. Assembled disciples enjoy the presence of God.


[1] The Rabbinic citations are from Joseph Sievers, “’Where Two or Three…’: The Rabbinic Concept of Shekihnah and Matthew 18:20,” in The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy, ed. Eugene J. Fisher (New York: Paulist Press, 1990) 47-61.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004; revised and expanded) 2:233.

[3] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 750.


Gathered in the Spirit

March 21, 2020

Part of chapter 6 in A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter.

Whatever God accomplishes through Jesus, God does by the power of his Spirit. We experience new birth through Baptism because we are born “of the Spirit” (John 3:5; cf. Titus 3:5). We eat with Christ at his table through the communion of the Spirit (1 Cor 10:16; 2 Cor 13:14). We worship the Father gathered into the name of Jesus in the Spirit (John 4:24). Just as the Spirit mediates the grace of God through Baptism and mediates the presence of Christ through the table, so through assembly the Spirit mediates the presence of the Father and Son as we are transported into the heavenly sanctuary by his power.

Mediated by the Spirit

As previously discusssed, “in spirit” in John 4:23-24 is best understood as the Spiritual dynamic of worship. The Holy Spirit gives life to worship through the personal presence of God by his Spirit. The Spirit is the living water which Jesus promised would well up inside his disciples to offer praise and glory to God unto eternal life (John 4:10-14; 7:37-39).

This idea, however, is not limited to the Gospel of John. Jude (20), for example, encourages believers to “pray in the Holy Spirit.” Paul probably stresses the role of the Spirit as the means by which believers worship God more than any other. We are baptized “in” the Spirit (1 Cor 6:11; 12:13) and renewed by the Spirit whom God pours out on us generously (Titus 3:5-6). In this way we are initiated into the life of the Spirit and as a result our very existence is rooted “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9). We live in him and he lives in us (Rom 8:11; cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2 Tim 1:14), and we live by his power (Eph 3:16; Rom 15:13). Thus, we continually confess Jesus “by (en)the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3) and wait in hope “through the Spirit” (Gal 5:5). Given this abundant Spirit-language where believers live and move in the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God lives and moves in them, Paul characterizes Christians as people who “worship in the Spirit of God” (Phil 3:3).

Ephesians demonstrates how prominent the role of the Spirit is. For Paul the Spirit’s function is to not only mediate divine redemption to the people of God but also to mediate our fellowship with the Father and Son. The Father elects through the Son and seals us by the Spirit (Eph 1:4-5, 13). The Father redeems through the work of the Son and applies that redemption to our hearts by the indwelling Spirit. Indeed, we are the habitation—the dwelling place—of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:22). The Spirit of God strengthens our inner life as he dwells in us and empowers us for holy living (Eph 3:16). The Holy Spirit transforms us into holy people as he works within us. Just as divine action originates with the Father, comes through the Son and is applied by the Spirit, so our access to the Father is through the Son “in one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). In the power and ministry of the Spirit we are connected to the life of God and raised up to sit in the heavenly places with the Father and the Son (Eph 2:6). We pray “in the Spirit” to the Father “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph 6:18). The Spirit unites us with God and with each other (Eph 4:3).

While certainly more could be said about our Spirit-saturated existence in Christ, the long sentence of Ephesians 5:18-21 teaches that we worship in the Spirit. Though the context of Ephesians 5 is the ethical life of the new creature in Christ, the epistle is designed to be read within a Christian assembly and the language assumes a context where believers submit and speak to each other as they sing to the Lord Jesus and give thanks in his name. The words assume that the saints are gathered to hear the reading of the letter and praise God in song and prayer. The structure of the text is outlined below.

Ephesians 5:18-21

      “Be filled with the Spirit” (imperative)

                        speaking to each other in psalms, hymns, and songs

                        singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

                        giving thanks to God in the name of Jesus

                        submitting to each other in the fear of Christ

The command to “be filled with the Spirit” stands in contrast with “do not get drunk with wine.” The enthusiasm and energy of the Christian life is drawn from the Spirit of God rather than the chemicals of fermented juice or the spirit of Bacchus, the god of wine. The command means that believers take some responsibility in seeking out the life of the Spirit, but the participles indicate the means by which we pursue this filling of the Spirit or perhaps the result of being filled with the Spirit. Paul believes that when we sing to the Lord and give thanks to God we are filled with the Spirit. When we speak to each other in song and submit to each other in the fear of Christ we are filled with the Spirit. The Spirit is an active participant in the dynamic of singing, praying, speaking, making melody and submitting. The dynamic of worship and the presence of the Spirit are intimately connected.

The Spirit in our assemblies mediates our worship to God and God’s presence unveils the relational dynamic of the worship assembly itself. God is no mere spectator in the assembly as if he sits on his throne passively receiving our praise as an ego-trip. On the contrary, through the Spirit, the Father and Son are engaged in communing, rejoicing, enjoying, singing over and delighting in our love as we commune, sing, praise, honor and delight in their love. Sacramental encounter is a moment of mutual delight—an experience of mutual indwelling. The Spirit initiates and enables our praise and at the same time brings to our hearts the delight and joy of God’s own communion. The dynamic work of the Spirit brings us to God and it also brings God to us. Worshipping assemblies are events where God and his people are engaged in a mutual and relational “love-fest” through the active presence of the Spirit. The Spirit is the bond of love between God and his people.

Eschatological Assembly

If we draw near to God as an assembly through the Spirit, what does this mean for the worshipping assembly? The point is not about the presence or non-presence of charismata (e.g., speaking in tongues, prophecy, or even teaching, showing mercy, generosity and singing as expressions of giftedness; cf. 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12). We do not intend to debate the legitimacy, number and nature of the charismata (spiritual gifts). Rather, we are focused on something more fundamental. To worship “in the Spirit” is the foundation for the use of all gifts—whether it is the gift of teaching or speaking in tongues. The role of the Spirit is more fundamentally about presence and transformation. Indeed, the primary work of the Spirit is presence—God dwelling in his people and communing with them. Through that presence the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ and gifts us to minister. Transformation should shape the use of gifts from the Spirit. The Corinthians used their gifts in the assembly without the transforming love of the Spirit. Consequently, 1 Corinthians 13 (about love) comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (about gifts and their use).

But presence is foundational. Without presence there is no transformation or gifting in the new age. Without presence, there is no worship because worship happens in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the mode of communion between God and humanity. Through the fellowship of the Spirit—through praying in the Spirit, singing in the Spirit, eating at the table in the Spirit—we commune with God and he communes with us. Through the Spirit we enter the heavenly sanctuary and encounter God. There we delight in the love which the divine community lavishes upon us and God delights in the love that we lavish on him. The Spirit is the relational connection between heaven and earth.

When the people of God assemble on the earth, they are no longer located in a particular place or time. Instead, they are “in the Spirit.” They transcend space and time as they are lifted by the Spirit into the heavenly sanctuary. The church finds itself in the divine throne room. The preacher describes this moment in Hebrews 12:22-24a with language that contrasts the “Day of Assembly” in Exodus 19-24.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus.

The absence of the Spirit in this description is not surprising if one remembers that the Spirit takes us there (just as he did the Son on the cross; cf. Heb 9:14). We draw near (Heb 12:22 uses the same word as Heb 10:22) to a different mountain than Sinai. It is no longer on earth, but in heaven where God lives in the heavenly Jerusalem. There myriads of angels surround the throne in festive celebration. There the universal church scattered all over the earth is gathered as assembly. There the perfected saints who have passed through the veil of death are gathered. At Mount Zion, the assembly on the earth is gathered to God and to Jesus. The Spirit gathers the people of God and presents them to God and his heavenly hosts, both angelic and human. When the saints assemble, they assemble with the church gathered from all over the world and with the saints that have gone before.

This is the picture in Revelation 4-7. A gathered host praises God—the four living creatures, the twenty four elders, the thousands of angels, and a great multitude that no one can count. In Revelation 4 the host gathered around the throne cry out to the one who sits on the throne, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and praise, for you created all things” (Rev 4:11). In Revelation 5 the host acknowledge the presence of the slain lamb and cry out to him, “You are worthy…for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In Revelation 7 the saints on the earth are sealed and protected from the coming judgment (Rev 7:1-8) while at the same time “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). This great multitude proclaimed, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). This great multitude around the throne is the eschatological assembly—“they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple” (Rev 7:15). Even now that great multitude praises God and the Lamb!

The Christian assembly on the earth gathered to God—gathered to worship the Father into the name of Jesus in the Spirit—transcends time and space to join this eschatological assembly. It transcends space so that the assembly is no longer “here” but “there” on Mt. Zion. It transcends time so that it not only includes the present saints upon the earth but it also includes those who have died in the Lord. It transcends time in that the assembly even now participates in the future eschatological assembly around the throne of God. When Christians meet together, they join the future—they see the future, experience the future, are emboldened to live in the present because of the future, and live in the present as if the future has already dawned. In that future God will shelter us and the Lamb will shepherd us—a future where “God will wipe away every tear from” our eyes (Rev 7:17).


The Duty to Assemble?

March 20, 2020

Are believers required to attend a weekly assembly of the church? Why should believers “go to church”? Or, more specifically, why should believers regularly attend an assembly of believers?

[This post is Case Study Two in Searching for the Pattern.]

I address this question often in my ministry. People ask about the significance of “going to church.” Typically, they don’t see its importance, and they think it is a secondary, even tertiary, dimension of following Jesus. Also, they are discouraged by what they experience when they attend a church. They see hypocrites, squabbles, and a lack of dedication to the gospel as they understand it.

My response, briefly, goes something like this. I affirm their sense of discipleship and commitment to the gospel, and I ask, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” “Yes,” they respond, “I follow Jesus.” “Then,” I reply, “go to church because Jesus did.” The look on their face is sometimes priceless—they are either disturbed, think I’m crazy, or a light bulb turns on. Let me explain.

Jesus went to church. What I mean is that he gathered with the people of God regularly, even weekly as well as on special occasions. He went to the synagogue or the temple even though it was filled with hypocrites, squabbling, and misguided devotion to God. If Jesus went to church, and we are disciples of Jesus, then we will go to church as well.

But we are ahead of ourselves here. Let’s slow down and consider the above question in some detail. Are disciples of Jesus required to attend a weekly assembly of the church?

If we follow a blueprint hermeneutic, we immediately recognize a startling reality. Though I have often said and heard that we are commanded to attend an assembly of the body of Christ every first day of the week in order to break bread at the table of the Lord, there is no explicit command in Acts and the Epistles that obligates believers to participate in a gathering of believers every first day of the week,

The only text that might qualify as an explicit command to assemble is Hebrews 10:25, which counsels against giving up the habit of assembling and actually calls for believers to attend more frequently as they see “the day” approaching (identifying “the day” is highly disputed). This expression (using a participle—“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”) modifies an exhortation. It is a warning. Even if we understand it as a command (which is possible), it does not identify the frequency nor the specific meeting to attend. It is a general encouragement to continue meeting together—to persevere and not give up. While it encourages greater frequency, it does not specify what frequency is expected or required.

I was taught, and I also taught, that the example of Acts 20:7 was an implied command for the weekly gathering of the church around the table of the Lord, and this specified the frequency intended by Hebrews 10:25. But the conclusion that every believer ought to break bread every Sunday in the assembled church is itself an inference; it is nowhere explicitly stated. It is inferred from (1) the assumption that the church gathered every week (based on a particular but disputed understanding of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) and (2) the church gathered every week for the specific purpose to break bread (based on the implied command of Acts 20:7). Those inferences depended upon numerous rules such as generic/specific, coordinates, and how to identify expediency (among many others, as I detailed earlier). Thus, we concluded, by way of inference, that believers everywhere and at all times are obligated to break bread every Sunday in an assembly of believers. This inferred obligation is based on a series of assumptions. Each one is controverted, and none are indubitable.

Consequently, if there is no explicit command to assemble every first day of the week, and the claimed obligation for a weekly table gathering is based on inferences, are believers obligated to assemble? If not, why should disciples of Jesus assemble regularly and how often? I remember my own fear about this question. I wondered that if I let go of the certainty of the implied command and its obligation whether anyone would actually attend the assembly any longer. If there was no absolute and certain obligation, if there was no consensus on the command, if there was no consequence to disobedience, then would anyone actually come together for an assembly? Would anyone actually “go to church” anymore if it were not absolutely, legally, and certainly required? But I had to admit there is no explicit, certain, and clear command to assemble every first day of the week in Acts and the Epistles.

If the blueprint hermeneutic is inadequate to establish that certainty, how does a theological hermeneutic answer the question?

Let’s start with Jesus. When asked why I “go to church,” my first response is because Jesus did and does. As a disciple of Jesus, I follow Jesus, and consequently I go to church, too. That needs a little unpacking.

Jesus went to church. How could Jesus go to church when there was no church while Jesus lived? But there was. The word “church” (ekklēsia) simply means assembly or gathering. It is a gathered people. Israel was the assembly of God that regularly gathered in the presence of God at the temple for the great assemblies in worship (Psalms 26:12; 107:32; 149:1), at tables where communities gathered to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to God at Passover, thanksgiving sacrifices (Deuteronomy 27:7) and other festivals, and, at the time of Jesus, in the synagogues where they studied the Torah and prayed together (Luke 4:16-20). Israel was “God’s assembly.” In fact, Stephen described Israel as the “church (ekklēsia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

This sense of “assembly” began when Israel gathered at Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 and 18:16 call it the “day of assembly,” and on that day God spoke to them. Israel was the church of God, and God’s church assembled. In Leviticus 23, God called Israel to regularly convene in “sacred assemblies” or “holy convocations” for Sabbath, Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles in addition to many other assemblies occasioned by special events and situations (for example, 1 Chronicles 29:1; 2 Chronicles 5:2; Nehemiah 8:1; Deuteronomy 27:1-7). The rhythm of regular assembly was embedded in Israel’s spiritual practices, and it formed Israel as they praised God, encountered God, and encouraged each other in these assemblies. These practices had a major role in Israel’s spiritual formation and its relationship with God. Israel was not fully Israel without assembly because they were the assembly of God. In the same way, the church is not fully the church without assembly.

Jesus participated in the festivals of Israel and weekly assemblies with other Jews. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus celebrated the Passover (John 2:13), the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10-14), and the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22, which is not even in the Leviticus; also known as the Feast of Lights). As the Gospel of Luke notes, Jesus attended synagogue every Sabbath day (Luke 4:16). Jesus, we might say, went to church every week.

Why did God institute such practices for Israel, and why did Jesus attend so regularly? These practices were rooted in the mighty acts of God’s history with Israel. The Sabbath, for example, arose out of both creation (Exodus 20:10-11) and Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). The Feast of Tabernacles reenacted Israel’s wilderness experience, and the Passover remembered their deliverance from Egypt. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated God’s providential provision of an abundant harvest for their sustenance. The Day of Atonement humbled Israel before the holiness of God and extended forgiveness. The Feast of Purim, unknown in the Torah but added at the time of Esther, celebrated the faithfulness of God in preserving the Jews in Persia (Esther 9:26-31). The Feast of Dedication, which is not commanded in the Torah either, celebrated the cleansing and renewal of temple worship in 164 B.C. The rhythm of assembly tied Israel to God’s mighty acts in their history and their relationship with God. These assemblies rehearsed the story of God. They were moments of grace, humility, encounter, and remembrance. Through them Israel professed their faith, experienced God’s gracious presence, and renewed covenant with God. They remembered God’s mighty acts.

Why did Jesus participate in these assemblies? We might say it was for the benefit of the attendees as Jesus taught in the synagogues, but that would not be the whole story. As both a human being and an Israelite (indeed, the true Jew), Jesus also needed community, celebrated the history of God’s people, and worshipped God. The temple was a place of prayer for Jesus, and he also ate the Passover and sacrificial meals in fellowship with God and the community at the table. Whatever the reason, Jesus participated in the communal life of Israel from the weekly synagogue service on the Sabbath to the annual Passover, and if Jesus participated, as disciples of Jesus it might be good for us to participate in the assemblies of God’s people as well.

But there is more. Jesus also goes to church. This may sound rather awkward as this is not how we typically think about assembly. Hebrews makes this point in several ways. Hebrews is probably a sermon delivered to an assembly of discouraged believers. Some had abandoned their faith, others were drifting, and a few were persevering. The sermon is filled with language that indicates it was originally an oral presentation, or at least intended to be read, to an assembly. For example, “time would fail me” (Hebrews 11:31), the preacher said. Or, “we have much to say about this” (5:11), or “even though we speak like this” (6:9). In fact, the preacher calls his work a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22), which is how synagogue sermons were described (for example, Acts 13:15).

When we recognize that Hebrews is a sermon spoken to an assembly of God’s people, this deepens the significance of its language. Jesus is present in this assembly. Indeed, according to Hebrews 2:12, Jesus participates in the assembly as one who praises God “in the midst of the congregation” (ekklēsias). Jesus proclaims the name of God to the assembly. Jesus shares the assembly with believers and stands among them as one who lifts up the name of God in the assembly.

While we may call this “Jesus goes to church,” it is probably more accurate to say “the church goes to Jesus.” In Hebrews 12:18-24, the preacher parallels the day of assembly at Mount Sinai with the present assembly of the saints. While the former was a mountain the people could touch (a physical mountain), the mountain upon which believers in Jesus assemble is Mount Zion in the heavenly Jerusalem, a mountain they cannot physically touch. When we ascend Mount Zion, we enter the city of the living God. We draw near to God, and when we do so, we go to church. Specifically, the preacher says that when we draw near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, we also come “to the assembly (ekklēsia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). In this sense we “go to church,” that is, we approach God and Jesus in the heavenly Jerusalem where the whole assembly of God is gathered, where the whole church is assembled.

Some call this an “eschatological assembly.” This is a helpful phrase because it identifies the exact nature of the assembly described here. The word “eschatological” comes from the word eschaton, which means last. It refers to the “last things.” In other words, it refers to God’s future goal, that is, what God will bring about in the future. More than this, the word also refers to the way in which the future is already present since we are already living in the “last days” (eschatou; Hebrews 1:2). This is similar to Paul’s language of new creation, and just like in Romans 8:23, there is a sense in which the future is already present (we already have the first fruits of the Spirit, for example), but that future is not yet fully present (we do not yet have resurrection bodies).

When Christians gather as disciples of Jesus and for the glory of God, we participate in this eschatological assembly. It is already present in our gathering, but it is not yet fully present. When we gather, we are lifted up into the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God even though we do not yet live in that new Jerusalem in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). When we assemble, we join the heavenly chorus around the throne to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and we join the whole church from all over the world in the heavenly throne room and become, by the Spirit, part of that number that cannot be counted (Revelation 7:9-10). Moreover, we join the multitude of those who have already finished the race and are now present in the throne room of God. We join the “spirits of the righteous made perfect,” that is, we join Moses, Rahab, Mary, Peter, Paul, and Phoebe around the throne of God. We join all those who have died in faith before us. We assemble with the whole church, living and dead.

Returning to Hebrews 10:25, the verb (“draw near”) in verse 22 is the same verb as in Hebrews 12:18 and 22. When we “draw near to God” (10:22), we enter the throne room of God, the Holy of Holies (10:19), through the veil of Christ’s flesh. We enter the heavenly temple and join the host of heaven around the throne to worship God. Consequently, the preacher exhorts this discouraged church to draw near to God in full assurance of faith, hold fast their confession of hope, and stir up one another in love to good works (10:22-24). The assembly is the eschatological moment when we, as a community, participate in the heavenly assembly around the throne and, at the same time, profess our hope and lovingly stir each other up to good works as we encourage each other and are encouraged by God’s presence. We enter the presence of God for praise and prayer, and we stand there together as a people in hope and love.

Hebrews 10:25 urges believers to continue to assemble and encourage each other because something happens when they assemble. Or perhaps it is better to say, someone happens, that is, we encounter God as the community of faith enters the heavenly temple together to praise God in the Holy of Holies.

Hebrews 10:25, then, is not so much an explicit command rooted in an assumed blueprint that the church must obey as a matter of faithful obligation as much as it is an exhortation to embrace the eschatological reality into which we have been invited. In other words, we are invited to participate in the story of God through assembling together and joining the heavenly chorus of angels, the church universal, and all the saints of the past to praise God, confess our hope, and encourage each other. Indeed, it is better to hear the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25 in the context of the story of God rather than isolating it from the story as a proposition in a syllogism that identifies part of the blueprint. The story gives meaning to the exhortation, and this meaning is more transformative than an inferred blueprint obligation.

Why should believers in Jesus go to church? We may answer this question in several ways from within the story of God. No doubt others could be added as well.

(1) We are part of the story of Israel, and God invited Israel to assemble in God’s presence for praise, prayer, encounter, and remembrance (cf. Deuteronomy 4:10; Psalm 50:5). These assemblies were grounded in God’s mighty acts and called Israel into an ongoing relationship with God. We assemble because Israel assembled, and we continue this practice because we have been grafted into the story of Israel (Hebrews 12:18-24). The practices of Israel guide us in the development of healthy and formative spiritual and communal practices.

(2) As disciples of Jesus, we follow Jesus into the assemblies of God’s people. Jesus participated in Israel’s assemblies (John 2:13; 7:14-15), and he shared the rhythm of that life with God. In addition to times with small groups (his disciples) and solitude (alone with God), Jesus habitually assembled with the people of God. Jesus did not neglect assembling, even though he knew they were neither perfect nor necessarily loving or welcoming. If Jesus needed this communal life through assembling with others, we need it as well. Just as we follow Jesus into the water of baptism, so we also follow him into the assemblies of God’s people.

(3) Jesus is present in the assembly with the community of faith and participates in the assembly. As the firstborn from the dead, Jesus praises God with the people of God as he sings with us in the midst of the congregation (Hebrews 2:12). As divine, Jesus receives our worship alongside of the one who sits on the throne. In both senses, Jesus is present in our assemblies as the enthroned Messiah as well as the Son of God who receives our worship (Matthew 18:19-20). In either case, Jesus is present in the assembly as participant, host, and Lord, much like Jesus is present at the table in his kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, disciples follow, and Jesus goes to church both in the past and in the present.

(4) In our local assemblies, we assemble with all the saints, past and present. In our present assemblies, we anticipate the future as, by the Spirit of God, we participate in the present heavenly assembly around the throne of God (Hebrews 12:22-24). This is the work of God’s new creation which is already present but has not yet fully arrived. We await the future Messianic banquet and the fullness of God’s new Jerusalem, and, at the same time, we are privileged to enjoy that banquet and divine presence even now when disciples of Jesus gather as an assembly. That assembly transcends space and time as it includes all disciples everywhere (whether Singapore, Nairobi, or Chicago), whether living or dead.

When we fail to assemble, what is the most significant problem? It is not so much the violation of a command or an obligation as it is the loss of encouragement, the loss of encounter with God, the loss of God’s presence in community, and a failure to follow Jesus who participated in the assemblies of God’s people during his ministry and is present as the enthroned Lord in all the assemblies of God’s people.

But when should Christians meet? If it is important for Christians, like it was for Israel and Jesus, to assemble regularly and habitually, when should they do so? Are there any commands or prescriptions to guide our practice? How does a theological hermeneutic address this question?

As we saw previously in this book, there are good theological reasons for breaking bread every first day of the week as the assembled people of God. This assembly does not necessarily assume an institution, church building, or organizational structure. Rather, at its most basic level, it is an invitation to assemble with other believers to break bread every first day of the week. The conjunction of (1) the first day of the week, (2) resurrection, and (3) breaking bread in Luke-Acts provides a strong, even compelling, reason to eat the Lord’s supper every first day of the week. At the same time, my judgment about the strength of the point is inferential rather than explicit. We might appeal to the significance of the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10. But we don’t know with any certainty whether John is referring to the first day of the week (though I think there is good reason to think so) or to something else (like an annual event, or even the day of divine judgment).

Nevertheless, Israel’s weekly Sabbath and festivals, the inbreaking of new creation in the resurrection of Jesus, and the function of tables in the story of God (from Israel’s sacrificial meals to the eschatological Messianic banquet) ground a weekly table of the Lord, and I invite all believers to embrace this practice because of the theological meaning of the table as communion between God, those assembled, and with each other.

At the same time, Hebrews 10:25 suggests more frequent meetings, and there is reason to believe the preacher envisions daily assemblies or at least daily mutual exhortation (as in Hebrews 3:13).

Assembly is important, and it has theological significance. We participate in the story of God when we assemble, and we encounter God when we assemble as a community of faith. This is true wherever we assemble (home, building, or under a tree; whether three people or three thousand) because when disciples of Jesus gather for praise and prayer, Jesus is present (Matthew 18:19-20), and wherever Jesus is present, he invites us to sit at his table in his kingdom (Luke 22:29-30).

Similar to how Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the gift to the poor saints in Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation, so God invites us to assemble with others in the heavenly Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation. While there is no absolute command, there is a divine invitation.


A New Garden in a New City on a New Earth

January 23, 2020

The new earth has a new garden in a new city.

In the next to last chapter of the Bible, John sees a “new heaven and new earth” where God’s new Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth. In other words, heaven comes down to earth. At that moment, the whole earth is filled with the glory of God.

There is no more chaos, which is represented by the absence of a sea. There is no more death, pain, or mourning because all of that has passed away and everything has become new. As God says, “I am making all things new.” God does not make new things, but God makes all things new. God renews what God made in the beginning. And this fulfills God’s promise to Abraham, and God invites the children of Abraham to “inherit these things.”

When heaven comes to earth, heaven and earth become one. That union of heaven and earth—the union of the dwelling of God with the dwelling of humanity within the creation—is the moment when the glory of God will fill the earth. Everything within it will be called holy and the earth will know the righteousness, justice, and peace of the fullness of the kingdom of God.

This was the hope of Israel. They yearned for a time of peace and justice, of righteousness and love. They hoped for a time when the wolf and the lamb would lie down together. They expected a time when all the nations would bow before their God and learn war no more. They trusted that God would reign fully in the earth. These are the promises and prophecies that will be fulfilled when God renews the heavens and the earth and comes to dwell with the heirs of the promise on the new earth.

The new earth has a new city, the new Jerusalem. This is the city where God dwells. There is no temple in this city because God dwells there. There is no night there because God is the light of the city. The whole earth has become the temple of God as the new Jerusalem fills the earth.

This new city also has a new garden which gives life to God’s people. The tree of life is there, and there is abundant provision for all peoples.

In this new city, with its new garden on a new earth, the people of God serve God day and night. I don’t know exactly what that means. In what ways will we serve God? Perhaps we will take up our original commission to reign with God over the creation, and this means we will continue to develop it and care for it.

Perhaps we might imagine that we continue to write new songs, create new art, make new history, build new buildings, and develop new relationships with people and diverse nations. Perhaps we will finally learn to enjoy the diversity of different cultures and peoples. To serve God is to continue in the ministry God gave humanity, to function as royal priests within the creation. We will lead the creation in the praise of God, and we will care for the creation and develop its potential even further.

Exactly what will that look like? I don’t know, and I hesitate to speculate. But I am confident of this: it will be a grand adventure that exceeds all that we might imagine and more than anything for which we might ask. It will be a great adventure, and the story of God will continue and blossom into eternity.


Hermeneutics is Always Inferential

January 21, 2020

Below I summarize the point of Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.h

Growing up in Churches of Christ, I embraced and practiced a hermeneutic that sought an implicit blueprint for the work and worship of the church in Acts and the Epistles. Through a filter of generic/specific distinctions, coordinate associations, the law of silence, and expediency (among other rules for authorization), I shifted through the commands, examples, and inferences within the New Testament to deduce a blueprint, which then became the standard of faithfulness and a mark of the true church.  And if everyone agreed upon and practiced the blueprint, we would be united! Part I of my book tells this story.

The inadequacies of this approach as well as its subjectivity (every conclusion and most steps along the way were inferences) created doubts. This is not how the apostolic witness called people to gospel obedience. They did not read Scripture or write Scripture with a blueprint lens. Something different was going on. This is described in Part II of my book.

The problem is the location of the pattern. The pattern is not found in an implied blueprint in Acts and the Epistles. Paul does not call people to obedience based on a blueprint located in the practices of the church. Instead, he calls them to obedience based on the pattern manifested in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. This is the gospel we obey—the story of Jesus—rather than a blueprint we have inferred from the text but is not explicitly there. This is my point in Part III of my book.

Hermeneutics, even a theological hermeneutic which I promote in the book, always involves inferences. We cannot escape them; every application is an inference. But here is the significant point: the pattern is not an inference. On the contrary, it is the story in which we live. It is the narrative air we breathe. The pattern of God’s work through Christ in the power of the Spirit is clear, objective, and formative. It is the story told in Scripture; it is an explicit pattern.

We will find unity when we confess the same pattern, and the shame of our division is that we already confess the same pattern.  Our pattern is God in Jesus through the Spirit, or our pattern is Jesus. Here we are united, and our hermeneutics (whether blueprint or theological) must not undermine that unity but provide ways to embody it.  That is the point of Part IV of my book.


Communal Life

January 20, 2020

The goal of God for human life is transformation into the likeness of God and participation in the communal fellowship of the Triune God. When humanity fully participates in the circle of God’s loving fellowship, then the reign of God has fully arrived.

This does not entail a loss of finitude or creatureliness. When glorified in the new heaven and new earth with glorified bodies that conform to the glorious body of the resurrected Lord, we will not be saved from finitude but invited, as finite creatures, to share in the divine fellowship of the Triune God. We will not become omniscient or omnipotent because we will not participate in the divine essence; we will not become little gods. But we will become Godlike, that is, full participants in the divine love.

At the same time, our participation in the divine love—because it is experienced as finite creatures—is a journey into the heart of God, deeper into the fellowship of the divine persons. Every morning God will be new to us because as finite creatures the infinite God will always have more to share with us and we will experience that love more deeply. God is like a bottomless well from which we will drink—we will experience daily filling of joy and satisfaction, but there is always more to drink. God will give us more moment by moment throughout eternity.

As community, we will grow more intimate with each other. The relationships we begin now will continue into glory. More than that, they will grow deeper, wider, and more inclusive. Our relationships will not remain static but deepen and expand. We will know not only those with whom we have relationships now, but we will also initiate new relationships with people we have never known. The fullness of the kingdom of God as a community is an interactive web of relationships which will provide opportunity for growth in the new heaven and new earth.

Moreover, the glorified community is not a static accomplishment as if we attain “perfection” and thus there is no more work, no more loving, no more growing, no more knowing, or no more connecting to be done. Rather, the fullness of the kingdom of God involves a dynamic growth into the heart of God as well as a dynamic growth among the people of God. When God recreates, just as God created in the beginning, the Triune God will create a dynamic reality that invites the redeemed community to pursue growth, intimacy, fellowship, and relationship within the new creation.

The oneness of the people of God will emerge brightly upon the new earth, and the unity of the body of Christ will be recognized as a gift of God’s gracious work. But the oneness does not entail some kind of Stepford human beings who are all identical. Rather, the oneness, like the oneness of the original creation, includes a diversity and a dynamism that reflects the reality of God who is both three and loving while at the same time remaining one.

The fullness of the kingdom, then, is a communal reality created in the image of God’s Triune fellowship. It is the experience of intimacy without fear, love without suspicion, and trust without doubt. It is love because God is love. There are no more barriers, no more ethnic bigotry, no more snobbish class wars, and no more alienation or marginalization. The kingdom of God will experience community in a way that images the community of God’s own life and participate in the community of God’s life.