And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The uniquely born God, who is close to the Father, has explained Him.
2 Corinthians 3.14-16:
But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the breading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
2 Corinthians 4.3-4:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Christianity in the United States is in the midst of a slowly, unveiling crisis (along with the West more broadly). For many years now, church leaders, ministers, theologians, etc. have bemoaned the increasing secularization and lack of faith in the American population, particularly among the younger generations. Many plans have been put forward to try to address the wave of increasing secularization and try to reach the younger generations, more particularly. Yet, nothing has seen to have taken hold and solved the perceived problem.
What I want to put forward, however, is that what is perceived as a problem may actually be the will of God. What if God has actively put so many churches that claim His name into an ongoing exile? What if it is God’s will to empty many of the churches now, not for the sense of an ultimate abandonment of Scriptural faith, but to bring about a spiritual exodus from forms of Christianity that have ultimately strayed farther and farther from the heart of God to lead towards a genuine renewal that isn’t simply rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic?
This is a bit of speculation on my part, but rooted in what I understand in how God will act and operate in the Scriptures. For instance, in Leviticus 26.30-31, we see God telling Israel that if they persist in acting hostile towards God, He will bring about the tearing down and desolation of their places of worship. Jeremiah laments the fact that God had abandoned the Temple to destruction (Lamentation 2.7). Ezekiel speaks a word against Israel, saying that God would strike down their places of worship, implicitly due to the idolatry that was taking place, among other reasons (Ezekiel 6.3-6). In brief, when the people who lay claim to God act against God and even raise up idols, God may go so far as to render desolate the places of worship. What if that is what is happening today?
To be clear, if this is the case, it isn’t due to overt forms of idolatry in the stricter sense of the term. While we do occasionally see various forms of power, whether it be money, nationalism, etc., given worship in the name of God, most churches do pay homage to the name of God of the Scriptures alone. Yet, what if these portrayals of God that we see across the Christian landscape is semi-idolatrous in its nature, saying things about God that are foreign to what God has clearly made known about Himself? What if the problem is that those who bear the name of God are not speaking clearly about God in the way God has already spoken and acted?
This is part of the problem that the Apostle Paul is facing in his proclamation of the Gospel. He recognizes a zeal for God among many of his fellow Jews, probably most significantly the more zealous of his former, Pharisaical colleagues, yet his criticism of them is that in ignorance they have constructed systems of righteousness that opposes what God has made known of Himself (Romans 10.1-4). Some Jewish sages thought they had in the Torah a basis for confidence in their relationship to God, believing they could know His will, and having access to knowledge and truth, yet Paul notes that their moral hypocrisy leads to the blaspheming of God by the Gentiles (Rom. 2.17-24). Because they thought the Torah was a source of righteousness, rather than what Paul calls the knowledge of sin, they could not recognize God’s own revelation of Himself and His righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.20-26). Elsewhere in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that when the Torah was read, a veil was laid over the hearers’ minds (2 Cor. 3.14-16). They were unable to perceive the glory of God in Jesus Christ because of their adherence to the Torah.
Because of this, Paul warns in Colossians 2.8 for his audience to not mislead by philosophies and empty deceptions that were transmitted by human speech and traditions that could take them away from Christ.1 It was customary among his former Rabbinic colleagues to prescribe various ethical rules and principles about what one should not eat or touch so as to keep oneself clean and pure (it is these type of traditions that Paul likely has in mind when he talks about the “works of the Torah”). Yet, for Paul, the traditions of his Jewish background were a source that could lead people away from Jesus Christ. It isn’t that the Torah was opposed to God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. In fact, the Torah and the Prophets actually pointed to Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.21). However, many Jewish teachers thought they could divine the will and purposes of God through their deeper study of the Torah that would lead to the formulation of various principles and practices to guide people in Torah observance. In other words, the teaching of the Jewish sages and scribes functioned to obscure their hearers from beholding Jesus Christ because the systems of righteousness they taught conflicted with what was to be beheld in Jesus.
We see a similar sentiment expressed in the prologue of the Gospel of John. The tension between law and grace in John 1.14-18 can best be explained not as two oppositional poles that conflict with each other. Instead, it is the grace of Jesus Christ that explains fully God’s purposes in the Torah, because Jesus is the one who is close to the Father. As a consequence, to understand God, one had to understand the grace that was seen in Jesus Christ, not as some ethereal power or force that affords us salvation, but the very way that Jesus in His flesh and blood related to people. It is Jesus’ abundant kindness and concern for the life of others demonstrated throughout the Gospels that we get an exact portrayal of who God is and what God is concerned about, including what He expressed in the Torah. To know God’s will, to know God’s righteousness, to know what it is that God is seeking after and wants, one begins to behold this by coming to understand and comprehending the person of Jesus Christ, in what He said, in what He did, and in what the Father and the Holy Spirit did in Him and through Him.
It is for this reason that when Paul originally proclaimed the Gospel in Corinth, he was concerned only to tell the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and not try to mix it with words of wisdom (1 Cor. 2.1-5). To perceive and know God’s power, one had to know the story of Jesus, not some human thoughts about God. Similarly, in the greetings to 1 John, it is stated that the Word of life was seen, heard, and touched and the witness to Jesus transmitted this (1 John 1.1-3). What was most significant and crucial for the Gospel was that people know what Jesus said and did, that through coming to know what Jesus was like, one was coming to know who God was. Jesus Himself alluded to this reality in saying that those who continue in His word would come to know the truth (John 8.31-32), to only later tell his disciples in a private dinner that He is the truth that His disciples have come to know (John 14.6-7).
For the apostolic Church, it was vital that people come to know God by knowing God the way He made Himself known. Other sources of trying to describe what God’s will and purposes were, including even the Torah when it treated as the embodiment of knowledge and truth, were a source of distraction away from the true and living God known in the fullness of Jesus Christ. However, this distraction could come from non-Jewish wisdom also. When Paul talks about the god of this age blinding unbelievers from beholding the glory of Jesus Christ in the Gospel story, he is most likely making reference to the way that popular Stoic philosophers had taught about the idea of one god who the whole cosmos ultimately inhabited and could be known from (Stoic theology was essentially pantheistic or panentheistic). Consequently, Gentiles that had been accustomed to thinking about one God in terms of the Stoic wisdom would be resistant to comprehending how the glory of God was known in the person of Jesus.
What is the point of this as it relates to today? It is my contention that in the Church today we have a semi-idol that is similar to Jewish tradition and Stoic wisdom. It is called theology and tradition. Not that all theology or all tradition is automatically wrong to use. Jesus did not universally eschew scribes who were familiar with Jewish traditions but thought they could potentially be a great source of insight (Matthew 13.52). Even though Paul would not proclaim the Gospel in a form of intellectual wisdom, he was certainly capable and willing to teaching wisdom that was taught by the Spirit among those who were more mature (1 Cor. 2.6-16). Yet, the problem is the way the traditions and wisdom were what people leaned on to understand God, much in opposition to what sage speaks in Proverbs 3.5-8. Similarly, when our introduction to the Gospel comes through theological and ethical ideas we find to be significant when growing in discipleship and maturity in Christian faith is taken to be consistent with mastering the theological traditions, etc., it can have the same effect that Jewish traditions and Stoic wisdom have: to blind people’s eyes to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
At one level, it functions to distract people to seek the wrong sort of knowledge, distracting us from what we can know of God in Jesus to what we think we know about God in the form of abstract knowledge. To illustrate, consider this example. The most basic, fundamental way we grow to learn about a person we love is to engage our five senses when it comes to the person we love and then our minds interpret this information to tell us something about the person. Yet, we could be tempted to have a different sort of knowledge about people in the form of abstract knowledge, such as psychological, sociological, spiritual knowledge, in which we focus on how a person or people fit into specific general categories we have about humans. While such abstract knowledge may be fruitful in helping to get to know people, such as a psychiatrist whose expertise in medicine and psychology can help them to identify the core medical and mental problem at the heart of a person’s malady, the abstract knowledge is used in service of the personal knowledge of that person, principally through conversation, to identify patterns in the information obtained about the person. To love a person in order to get to know them entails that one knows a person as they are in all their concrete realities and specific disclosures. Similarly, to get to know God in loving Him entails knowing God the way He made Himself known in those concrete realities, particularly the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the specific disclosures God made of Himself in those realities. While abstract theological knowledge may be helpful in certain instances to help people to perceive patterns in God’s own self-disclosures, when used as a source of knowledge of God in and of themselves, they distract people away from the concreteness of God.
However, some theologies and traditions go further than just simply distracting people from knowing God the way God makes Himself known. They, instead, actively teach things that actually conflict with the way God makes Himself known. Most notable in this is the idea that any sin, no matter how light or severe, makes one deserving of God’s eternal wrath to send one into an everlasting hell (unless one then believes in Jesus as a punishment in our place). Noticeably, this idea is absent within the Scriptures, but is read primarily as an assumption as the meaning behinds various passages, such as the idea that a person can be righteous only be being morally perfect (a definition that is never stated as such in the Bible). Yet, this idea of a quick-to-wrath God is opposed to what Israel learned about God after the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 34.5-6). But, even more significantly, when we look at the person of Jesus Christ, we do not see such universal wrath towards everyone, as everyone had sinned at some point. Jesus was gracious, merciful, and gentle, showing us that God is not a wrathful God hell-bent on sending everyone to hell except those who believe. As a consequence of this very wrathful, condemning picture of God, there are many people who struggle to hear Christians talking about God. In fact, many of these people witness the hypocrisy and great sin of many teachings of this wrathful God and reject both the teachers and blaspheme God because of this portrayal. As Stephen Crane’s poem “A god in wrath” reads:
A god in wrath
Was beating a man;
He cuffed him loudly
With thunderous blows
That rang and rolled over the earth.
All people came running.
The man screamed and struggled,
And bit madly at the feet of the god.
The people cries,
“Ah, what a wicked man!”
“Ah, what a redoubtable god!”
At the end of the day, perhaps much of what we are hearing in churches in the United States is more rooted in the various theologies and ethical frameworks that people are eager to teach and transmit as the truth that people need to vitally hear and accept, rather than come to know God in the very way God makes Himself known. Consequently, maybe we are existing in a state of spiritual exile, where God Himself isn’t going to be leading a new wave of people to the sanctuaries and fellowships of those whose talk about God is controlled by theology. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t churches being deeply faithful to God; there are many reaching out to new people, including the church I presently attend that I feel is much closer to teaching people to know God the way God makes Himself in Jesus Christm and even through other people in whom the Spirit truly inhabits and leads. However, if we are indeed in a semi-idolatrous state in the United States as a whole, why would we expect God to abundantly call and lead people into such congregations? Should we not expect God to, at the least, let the churches die a slow death and even potentially becoming a reproach so that God can raise up new ministers of the Gospel who can then be distinguished from so much of what has been bandied around as Christian faith, both in progressive and “evangelical” forms?
Such a possibility would sound abhorrent to those who believe that everyone but those who believe are destined for hell. But if Paul recognizes that there are people who, even though they don’t believe, may stand at the judgment day because they sought what was good (Rom. 2.7-16), then perhaps the exile of the Church in America isn’t a sentence to hell to those who do not believe. Maybe it is an act of God’s grace to save people from being made twice the child of hell insofar as the churches have failed to represent God but instead various other interests, including selfish ambitions, which has lead to a litany of stories of abuse and harm throughout congregations and ministries that have used the name of Christ to their benefit (Matt. 23.15; cf. Matt. 7.21-23). Could it be the case that the exile of the Church is saving people from God’s wrath judgment to those who obey wickedness in the name of God, while God at the same time will raise up people who truly proclaim the person of Jesus Christ in His extravagant, abundant, gracious, merciful, patient, gentle love, and not the ideas and benefits we want to associate with God and Jesus? If that be the case, may we pray and hope that God is raising up many people to lay afresh the foundation of Jesus Christ Himself in all His glory so that people can come to have a “justified” assurance and certainty of their justification in God’s eyes by being in/joined to Christ in His death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit, all of which brings about a sanctified harvest of righteousness in the course of time.
- Paul uses the phrase τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου in Colossians 2.8 and 2.20, along with Galatians 4.3. While this phrase has been taken to refer to basic pedagogical principles, elements of the cosmos, etc., the most likely reference that Paul has in mind is a diminutive reference to the oral teachings from Jewish traditions as being basic utterances of human speech that are meaningless, that is like babbling.