The New Israel (The Church)

It is plain in the Bible that Jesus did not come to start a new religion. The mission of Jesus Christ was “first for the Jew” (Romans 1:16 and Mark 7:27). His mission was to “bring Jacob back to (God) and gather Israel to himself” (Isa 49:5). Or in the words of Simeon, He came “for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32). His first mission was to restore Israel to its role as a “light . . . to the Gentiles” (Isa 49:6; Luke 2:32), a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:5-6), and a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). As the new Israel, He called twelve disciples (Matt 10:1-4), but He also called seventy (Luke 10:1), the number of nations in the world after the Flood (Genesis 10). From the beginning, His mission was also with an eye to the Gentiles.

But the question that was not settled at the beginning was this: “Would national, institutional Israel; the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, priests and scribes; embrace the Messiah and His spiritual vision for a restored Israel?” Jesus’ intention to include them is clear in His choice of twelve disciples and in His lament over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37—“How often I have longed to gather your children together. . .”). Even in Paul’s day it was still clear that “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:1-2). But early on in Jesus’ ministry, the leaders of national Israel “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:30) and instead plotted with the civil authorities how they might destroy Him and His mission (Mark 3:6).

If the leaders of institutional Israel had embraced the Messiah and His spiritual vision for them, they could have been the means through which a restored Israel would become a “light
. . . to the Gentiles” and a “kingdom of priests”, as God had always intended (see also Jeremiah 31:31-34). After all, His re-definition of Israel was not something new, it was a restoration of the original mission of Israel. But the leaders of institutional Israel rejected Jesus and His spiritual mission. From now on, Israel would no longer be defined in relation to its institutional leadership, but in terms of relationship with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. In rejecting a relationship with Jesus, national Israel rejected a role for itself in His restoration of the original mission of Israel. The disciples of Jesus, as a remnant of original Israel, would now take up the role that national Israel had refused to do (Matt 18:29-30; 21:43).

The New Israel (Jesus)

The mission of Israel as a nation was laid out in a nutshell in Exodus 19:5-6: “‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” All the nations of the world belong to God, but God chose Israel to be “a kingdom of priests” to the other nations of the world. A priest is someone who stands between God and humanity, helping to make connections between the two. Israel was intended to be a “kingdom of priests” that would help restore what was lost in the Garden of Eden and re-unite the whole human family of God.

This pronouncement to Israel at Mount Sinai was consistent with God’s promise to Abraham that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3). It was God’s intention that all the peoples of the earth would be brought back into God’s family through the witness and faithfulness of the descendants of Abraham. This promise to Abraham was a down payment on God’s promise to undo the consequences of the Fall (Gen 3:15). So the promise to Israel in Exodus 19 was part of a larger plan.

Israel as a nation, however, embraced its privileged position but did not live out the purpose of that privilege. So in one of the mysterious servant songs of Isaiah, God addresses both Israel (Isa 49:3) and the Messiah (Isa 49:5) as follows: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6). The promise to Israel remained. It was not too late for Israel to achieve its purpose, but already the notion of “Israel” was beginning to be re-defined. Israel’s mission would now be assisted by Yahweh’s servant, who would “bring Jacob back to (God)” (Isa 49:5).

At the very beginning, after all, Israel was not yet a national entity, it was a spiritual concept, designated by the name God gave Jacob after his wrestling with the “angel”: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28). Israel’s mission was from the beginning a spiritual one, to restore lost humanity to God. But Israel as a nation largely failed in its mission (though there were some positive examples of mission success, such as Rahab, Ruth, the Queen of Sheba, Naaman, and Nebuchadnezzar II). So Isaiah 49 predicted that God’s Servant would intervene to restore Israel to its original mission.

When Simeon saw the baby Jesus in the temple, he was moved under inspiration (Luke 2:27) to repeat Isaiah 49, but in a way that pointed toward a re-definition of Israel. The messianic child would now play the role that Israel was intended to play. He would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). The promise to Abraham and Israel would now be fulfilled through Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. He was a new Jacob, a faithful Israel, through whom God would bring light to the Gentiles and restore the human race to Himself.

The history, experience and mission of Israel would now be centered in the person of Jesus Christ. He would experience what Israel experienced, succeed where Israel failed, and reap the consequences of Israel’s failure. Jesus embraced His role as the new Israel by selecting, not eleven or thirteen, but exactly twelve disciples, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28). Like the original Israel, Jesus came up out of Egypt (Matt 2:13-15; Hos 11:1-9), passed through the waters of baptism (Matthew 3 and Luke 3), spent 40 days in desert (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; Num 14:33-34; 32:13; Deut 2:7, etc.), and then gave the new Torah for a new Israel on a mountain (Matthew 5-7, note especially Matthew 5:1-2). His death and resurrection would truly be a new Exodus for a new Israel (Luke 9:30-31). But Jesus was not to play the role of a new Israel by Himself. Israel would be re-defined in relation to Him. To be continued. . . .

Israel, Jesus and the Church

I apologize for a long period of silence on this blog. I have been involved in so many fresh writing and speaking project I just haven’t been able to dedicate time to one more thing that doesn’t have a deadline attached to it. With this blog today, I will share a summary of the revolutionary things I learned in Seminary from my favorite teacher, Hans LaRondelle (1973-1975, 1981-1987). His concept of Christ-Centered typological interpretation was like taking the blinders off in my reading of the Bible. Obscure prophetic texts suddenly made sense. There was a coherent unity to the Bible I had never seen before.

LaRondelle’s major contribution to my understanding had to do with the relationship between Israel and the church in New Testament interpretation. Many Christian scholars understanding that the unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament must be fulfilled in detail in the Middle East, exactly the way they are written up. This leads to conclusions related to what some call the Rapture theory. Larondelle pointed out that the writers of the New Testament did not read the Old Testament prophets in that way. Readers of Revelation should read the Old Testament the way the rest of the New Testament writers did. In this series of blogs, I will try to summary that perspective and its implications for my understanding of Revelation.

One of the great honors of my life was to have Dr. LaRondelle trust me enough to request from his death bed that I work with his final book manuscript and bring it to a conclusion. This was published electronically through the Logos software as The Bible Jesus Interpreted. It has since been updated and published in book form as Through Jesus’ Eyes (Safeliz, 2020). I will try to summarize the main insights of that book here.

Thoughtful Believer/Scholars and the Fate of Sinners (Rev 20)

Thoughtful believers live with a tension. On the one hand, believers, by definition, feel like they have enough evidence to make serious commitments regarding the Bible, theological positions, or a particular denomination. At the same time, thoughtful believers have a scholarly side that recognizes that they have a lot to learn and that on some points they could be wrong. It is very difficult to be true to both sides of this tension at one and the same time, yet I, for one, feel that a truth-based belief is never totally settled and that in eternity we will continue learning and growing (for those who appreciate Ellen White, the last chapter of the book Education is an instructive read on this). If that is true in eternity, why wouldn’t it be true now?

When it comes to the fate of sinners, there are three main options, universalism, annihilationism and eternal torment. The more carefully one examines these options, the more it seems clear that none of them is exegetically compelling in the sense that any honest reader would see that the biblical data is perfectly clear, no questions asked. The “slam dunk” texts offered up by each position, when examined with care, require choices and assumptions that adherents of the other two views will find far from compelling. On the other hand, all three approaches are exegetically defensible, in the sense that one can select and order texts in a way that the position could be claimed as the biblical one and garner adherents in large numbers. In such a context, the believer/scholar is free to make theological commitments, guided the by Holy Spirit (at least in one’s own perceptions). But it would be unwise to be so committed that one ignores evidence to the contrary. In the words of one of my mentors, Robert M. Johnston, “It isn’t hard to have strong opinions on any topic as long as you are willing to ignore some of the evidence.” So while I have my own theological commitments on this issue, I choose to treat those who disagree with respect and deference, sharing together in the hope that at least one of us might learn something. When minds close and neither side is learning, conversation is pointless.

When it comes to the issue before us, I am least attracted to the eternal torment position. To me, the concept of eternal torment, with or without literal flames, is repugnant and paints an awful picture of what God is like. I would never want to be the agent or eternal torment for my parents, my wife, or any of my kids or grandkids). Yet I am to believe that God has the capacity in His character to do exactly that to children of His that He knows far more deeply than we know each other. Am I more moral and gracious than God? I cannot believe that. And such a view does not seem compatible with Hosea 11:8-9, ESV: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God’s compassion is far greater than mine. Far be it from Him to torture His own children for eternity (cf. Gen 18:25)! God, like us, must avoid the appearance of evil. At the same time, many of the Nursing students in my Christian Beliefs class this quarter have a rock-solid commitment to eternal torment, which they support by many texts. Shall I treat them as ignorant fools? Or shall I recognize that they and I are on a journey together where there is the wonderful possibility that at least one of us might learn something? What kind of conversation might leave open the possibility that any of us might learn something? For those who appreciate Ellen White, 6T 121-123 is very instructive. So is 2 Timothy 2:24-26.

I am much more attracted to universalism and very interested in an aspect of it that claims not to undermine free will. But I have not committed to that perspective for at least two reasons. First, I have difficulty getting my head around the idea of people having to deny who they have become in order to fit into a universe they never wanted. I would prefer that a God who loves me would allow me to determine my own future and accept the consequences of that choice. The idea of a free-will universalism is intriguing and I hope to study up on that option in the future. But at this point I find it hard to imagine that, given genuine freedom, everyone would end up choosing the same thing. But that’s just me. I’ll continue listening. Second, and much more important for me, is a practical issue. If we have three options and none of them is a slam dunk, which option has the least potential for damage. The eternal torment approach has driven many people away from God on the very face of it. Dangerous choice. Promoting universalism has many attractive features. But what if, in the end, it turns out to be wrong? What it cause some people to relax in their pursuit of holiness because in the end it won’t matter anyway? It would be tragic to arrive at St. Peter’s gate (or more likely the great, white throne—Rev 20:11) and discover only then that you had one chance and you blew it off because you were counting on having some fun first and then fixing it later. Perhaps this argument is more trivial than I realize, but that is where I am today.

This leaves me with the annihilation perspective, in which God desires earnestly that all be saved (2 Pet 3:9), and waits so that as many as possible might be saved. But when all are satisfied that God has done all He can to change minds, and yet many are hardened in their opposition and rebellion, God puts/allows them to sleep in a way that has no waking up. On that day He will weep and so will the saved. But for all it will be the best possible outcome under the circumstances. I do find some challenges in the annihilationist perspective, and I am working through some of them as I study Rev 20. But of the three options it seems to me the one with the least potential downside.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this particular issue, so I won’t mind if you take all of this with a grain of salt. But the crucial thing for me is not so much the outcome (we’ll know in the end anyway), but the way we go about studying the Word and sharing what we’ve learned so far. When people get too confident in their own view of things, even biblical things, they tend to stop leaning and growing and they may no longer be worth listening to.

Is God’s Wrath Active or Passive?

I apologize for the long silence. There has been so much going on I haven’t had the “bandwidth” to focus on the blog. But publishing the below is necessary as a background to discussion I am having with followers of the Facebook Commentary.


When Revelation speaks of the wrath of the nations (Rev 11:18) and the wrath of the dragon (Rev 12:12, 17), it is not a compliment. It represents irrational fury grounded in hatred and diabolical desire to destroy both lives and the environment. To then turn around and apply the same term to God can be unsettling (14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15). Can God be irrationally destructive too? Does God have a dark side? Why is the book of Revelation so full of divine wrath? How can we reconcile God’s wrath with the idea that God is love?

Regarding the wrath of God, I can think of at least six circumstances in which God’s wrath is invoked in the Bible, some of them actively and others passively. First, God sometimes speaks of destructive things Satan or the nations do as if He Himself had done them. In other words, He takes responsibility for actions that He simply allows to happen. A good example of this is the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchanezzar. God speaks of it as an active judgment, but then makes clear that He is simply allowing Nebuchanezzar to do what he wants to do. God withholds His protection from His people because of their rebellion against Him (Jer 20:4-5; 21:2-10; 25:1-11). Second, the “wrath of God” in the Bible is often His sadly turning away from people who don’t want Him, allowing them to reap the consequences of their own decisions and actions. This is illustrated in Romans 1:18-28 where the wrath of God against human rebellion (Rom 1:18) is explained as God “giving them up” to the consequences of their rebellion. Third, wrath is sometimes use to describe God’s aggressive action to deliver His people, as in the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15:7). Fourth, God sometimes acts aggressively to restrain evil when it is in danger of getting out of control, as in the Flood story. Fifth, God sometimes acts aggressively in order to get people’s attention. Sixth, God sometimes acts or doesn’t act in order to reveal the characters of Satan or of Satan’s followers. The big question here is, which of these motivations lies behind the wrath of a loving God in Revelation 16? How do you reconcile the seven last plagues with the love of the God who is most clearly revealed in the gracious, forgiving and self-sacrificing actions of Jesus Christ?

The seven last bowl-plagues at first glance seem to be direct actions of judgment on God’s part. Each of the plagues results from an action that originates in the heavenly sanctuary. The Exodus background of the bowl-plagues reminds the reader of God’s direct intervention in Egypt. The purpose of that intervention was to deliver God’s people from slavery. Read in this way, the seven bowl-plagues would be interventions of God to deliver His people from end-time Babylon. Allusions to the ancient fall of Babylon in the sixth and seventh bowls would support the same theme. A loving God acts to deliver His faithful ones from their oppressors.

The bowl-plagues fall on the earth after the close of human probation (the empty temple in heaven—Rev 15:7-8). If they are, as the text seems on the surface to suggest, active interventions of God, what is the point of such plagues if human beings are no longer willing to repent? It would be to expose the reality of their characters. In spite of the final proclamation of the gospel (Rev 14:6-7), in spite of desperate threats (Rev 14:8-11), in spite of everything in their lives going wrong (the bowl-plagues), the wicked ones’ defiance toward God and stubborn refusal to repent only increases (Rev 16:9, 11, 21). The bowl-plagues demonstrate that the character of those who oppose God and His people has become hardened in unrepentence. No amount of time or effort will win them back. A loving God does not force people into relationship with Him. If they stubbornly refuse to repent, He eventually lets them go to reap the consequences of their choices.

Sigve Tonstad offers another way to read Revelation 16. He sees it as an end-time revelation of Satan’s character. Tonstad admits that at first glance Revelation 15:7 – 16:1 implies that God is about to do something terrible. But rather than simply accept a surface reading of the text, he suggests that in the seven bowls God is permitting Satan to take nearly total control of this earth and to thereby demonstrate what his government of the universe would be like if he achieved his goal to “be like the Most High” (Isa 14:14, KJV). He points to Revelation 16:13-14 as direct evidence that demonic activity lies behind the fearsome plagues of the chapter. The surface current of Revelation reads as if the seven bowls-plagues were active, punitive judgments of God on the unrighteous after the close of human probation. But the demonic undercurrent of the book may be more important in this chapter than most commentators have allowed in the past.

Tonstad points to the clear parallels between the seven bowls and the seven trumpets. The seven trumpets also read, at first glance, as active judgments of God. But there is abundant evidence in the seven trumpets that it is the operation of Satan that is the cause of the destruction, not God (Rev 8:10-11; 9:1-5, 11, 14-15). God releases His tight control over Satan to allow him to reveal his destructive character. Tonstad reasons, from the strong parallels between the trumpets and the bowls, that they also should be read in terms of divine permission for the “Destroyer” (Rev 9:11) to reveal his destructive character. Both the trumpets and the bowls are completing a process that begins with the crisis in the heavenly council over the character and government of God (Rev 15:2, 7, cf. 5:1-5). The deceptive and destructive character of the one who slanders the character of God must be exposed (Rev 16:14) that the true character of God may be revealed (Rev 15:3-4). In the larger scheme of things (the cosmic conflict), God loosens His restraint of Satan in the trumpets and bowls so that the character of Satan can be fully revealed. A loving God wants His creatures to know the character of their adversary, so they will not place their trust in his leadership or in the words that he speaks against God. The images of Revelation can be disturbing at times, but from the perspective of the cosmic conflict, they are consistent with the actions of a loving, other-centered God.

In conclusion, the love of God is essential to His character. It has been there from eternity past. Wrath is not essential to God’s character, it is a reactive force grounded in God’s love. As one who cares deeply about the welfare of His creatures, God is distressed when His creatures hurt each other and hurt themselves by their behavior. But He does not force constructive behavior, instead he persuades; sometimes by intervention and sometimes by allowing sin to take its course. But even his aggressive interventions are grounded in His other-centered character that desires what is best for His creatures, but does not force them to adopt His ways of thinking and acting. As we approach the close of earth’s history, the book of Revelation seeks to arrest the attention of the world by demonstrating the consequences of rebellion and self-centeredness. Whether one sees the seven last plagues as active or passive judgments, a loving purpose lies behind.

Summary: If Jesus Had Never Been Born, How Would Things Be Different Today? (What If—24)

Let me sum up the impact of Jesus on today’s world in a series of statements based on what has been said in the previous 23 blogs.

If Jesus had never been born:

There would be an 85-90% chance you wouldn’t be able to read. If you are a woman, there is a 99+% chance you couldn’t read this blog or anything else.

There would be no Harvard University, no Oxford University, and definitely no Loma Linda University, the place where faith and science are at home together.

There would be no science as we know it and no Scientific Revolution that has totally transformed daily life for most people.

There would be no civil rights for anyone but the elites of every society.

There would be no modern medicine with its amazing cures and preventives.

There would be no Mayo Clinic, no Johns Hopkins and no Loma Linda University Medical Center.

There would be no eyeglasses and no contact lenses.

There would be no antibiotics and no hospitals as we know them.

The defective, the ill, and the aged would likely be marginalized or terminated.

There would be no cell phones, no social media and no internet (maybe that would be a good thing).

There would be no electrical grid and no central heat or air conditioning.

There would be no hot, running water in your house.

At least one of your siblings would have died in childhood.

Most people over 40 years of age would be dead.

Most people over 35 would have no teeth.

There is a 40% chance you would be a slave, regardless of race or ethnicity.

You would routinely experience what it is like to be hungry and not be able to do anything about it.

If you are female, it is likely you wouldn’t be allowed to own land.

If you are female, your father would likely have sold you to your future husband and you would be regarded as his property.

Most people would make a living by working all day with their hands.

Most societies would be brutal and violent.

Sports like “The Hunger Games” would probably be a reality.

The most efficient form of transportation would be horses.

What’s the point? None of this proves that there is a God and that Jesus Himself is God made flesh, the greatest revelation of what God is like. Nor does it prove that everyone in the world should follow Jesus. But it does demonstrate that, purely as a human being, Jesus did more to influence subsequent history than any other person who ever lived. And He claimed that His revolutionary teaching came directly from God. If that is true, the decision you make about Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make. And if you have chosen to follow Jesus you are not a fool, you are simply following where the evidence leads.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom III (What If—23)

The next main development on the way to the American experiment was The Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a religious revival in the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. It was so successful that it seems to have united all the American colonies in a common spirit, regardless of denomination. The basis of that common spirit was a common authority, the Bible. The Great Awakening was opposed to tyranny in all forms and promoted liberty of conscience for all. This set the stage for the American Revolution, which was birthed by the pulpits of New England and, in many ways, led by Christian preachers.

There is a strong biblical foundation to the ideas articulated in the Declaration of Independence (AD 1776), which includes these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Wide awareness of the principles of freedom, equality, fundamental rights, rule of law, and religious liberty were grounded in the Great Awakening and the Scriptures. Many signers of the Declaration, including John Adams, Patrick Henry and John Witherspoon were deeply committed Christians. Even those like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose Christian orthodoxy was questionable, were deeply influenced by the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.

This was followed soon after by the American constitution, which was grounded in the above principles and also in the Presbyterian model of government. There are at least five biblical principles at the foundation of the American constitution. 1) Government is by law rather than the whim of a ruler, and that law must be grounded in the law of God. 2) All members of society are equal under the law. 3) Human rights are grounded in creation and in the ten commandments. Human rights derive from the fact that human beings were made in the image of God. 4) The protection of individual liberty was essential. 5) While humans are made in the image of God, they are also fallen and sinful, therefore humans cannot be trusted with power. This led to the principle of separation of powers which would provide checks and balances to prevent any one person from abusing their power or the majority from abusing the minority.

There is reason to believe that the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) were based, in part, on Isaiah 33:22: “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us.” In Israel, all three roles resided in the king, which did not turn out well. As outlined in the American Constitution, the executive (president and cabinet), legislative (Congress), and judicial (Supreme and lower courts) branches of government provide separation of powers, with each branch being checked and balanced by the other two.

I find it interesting for our situation today to contrast the American Revolution with the French Revolution, which happened shortly after. In American, while church and state were to be separate in terms of law, religion and liberty were not separable. Liberty was grounded in the principles of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. In France, on the other hand, religion was seen as the adversary of liberty, human freedom would only be achieved in the absence of religion. In France, the end result of democracy in the absence of Christian morality was the tyranny of the Reign of Terror (AD 1793-1797). Democracy without restraint quickly led to the same kinds of abuses that resulted in the death of Socrates. As noted by Edmund Burke: AHuman behavior needs restraint, the less within, the more is needed without.@

With the waning of the Protestant foundation of American society today, a strong tension has arisen between equality and freedom (religious or otherwise). Equality of opportunity and freedom are very compatible. But when equality is expressed in terms of equality of outcome, it is in tension with freedom. Genuine freedom tends to result in inequality of outcome because some people are smarter than others and some people work harder than others. Given that reality, the only way you can achieve equality of outcome is by force, which is the antithesis of human freedom. It will be interesting to see if religious liberty can survive in a society moving away from the teaching of Jesus.

If Jesus had never been born, freedom as we know it would likely not exist. And if it did, it would probably be only for the elites. Genuine civil liberties today exist primarily in countries with a Protestant or a Jewish base. When it comes to religious liberty, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim countries tend to be quite restrictive compared to the countries with Protestant and Jewish origins. Like Christianity, the American experiment is flawed. It has changed the world for the better, but it is still struggling to apply the principles to itself.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom II (What If—22)

The teachings of Jesus about human freedom had a strong impact on the church in the next centuries. The church father Tertullian of Carthage (ca. AD 155-220), the first to write extensively in the Latin language, spoke out strongly in favor of freedom of conscience, even though the Empire was not friendly to the church at the time. A significant moment in human freedom was the altercation between the church father Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and the Christian Emperor Theodosius, around AD 390. After rioting in Thessalonica took the life of the Roman governor, Theodosius responded by sending in the army and slaughtering 7000 civilians who had gathered in the local hippodrome. When he heard about this, Ambrose sent Theodosius a letter rebuking him for this brutality and telling Theodosius that he would be refused communion until he demonstrated repentance. The key point in the letter is Ambrose telling Theodosius that “no one is above the law”. Even kings are subject to a higher court, namely the judgment of God. This concept is crucial to western democracy today. Around the same time, Augustine (ca. AD 400) extended the concept of liberty to pagans, arguing that they should not be forced to accept Jesus.

While developments in the Roman world were important, it was in the British Isles that the fruit of Jesus teaching on human freedom would have the biggest impact on our world today. Through the efforts of Saint Patrick (arrived in Ireland around AD 432), the Ten Commandments became the foundation of civil law in Britain. By the time of King Alfred (ca. AD 890), the Ten Commandments and the golden rule had become the foundation of English law. But the key turn for human freedom was the Magna Carta, a thoroughly Christian document written in AD 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I enshrined freedom under law as a key element of British governance and became the inspiration for the United States Constitution five and a half centuries later. So it was in Great Britain that the early Christian advances in the realm of human freedom were passed on from the Mediterranean world to modern times.

The next key development in the march of human freedom was the Reformation, particular the branch of the Reformation centered in Calvin’s Geneva. John Calvin set up an organizational structure for both the church and the city that was based on the Scriptures, particularly the principles taught by Jesus. The Presbyterian model of church governance that arose in Geneva (and followed to a great extent by the Seventh-day Adventist Church) included government by law and elected representatives that included checks and balances. Based on his reading of the Bible, John Calvin was well aware of sinful human depravity, so he did not trust a government without checks and balances against the abuse of power. This was a very important advance in human governance.

The advances in human governance achieved by the Reformation had a strong impact on the “American experiment”. This impact began with the Mayflower Compact, put together by the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts (AD 1620 and following). These earnest followers of Jesus decided that rule in the new settlement was to be by mutual agreement. All were to be equal under law and there was to be no aristocracy among them, a major step for people accustomed to British nobility. But in spite of the important concepts in the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts Colony was not a bastion of religious liberty. Deviations in theology from the Presbyterian authorities was punishable. So Roger Williams (AD 1636) had to leave the colony and settle in Rhode Island to establish a beachhead of religious liberty on the American continent. Soon after, in Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn guaranteed religious liberty in that part of the colonies. Pennsylvania welcomed people of all religious persuasions from AD 1682 on and in AD 1701 Penn established the Charter of Privileges, which spelled out the religious liberties the colony would protect. So by 1700 religious liberty had established strong roots in the American colonies. But that was only the beginning.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom (What If—21)

I apologize for the long silence. I have been chasing many things lately and these blogs do take significant time to write. Hope they are worth the wait.

People think of Athens as the birthplace of intellectual freedom and democracy, and in a real sense it was. But the freedom that Athens initiated was only for the elites of society, it didn’t apply to the common people. And it was fairly limited even for the elites. The elites of Athens could vote but they had no protection against abuse by the majority, whatever they decided. The state was considered more important than the individual. That meant that the individual of Athenian society was subject to the whims of the collective body. It was the “tyranny of the majority”. There was no idea of “individual liberty” in Athens. The classic example of that was the fate of Socrates, who was condemned to death by a vote of 280 to 220. So Athens made some important contributions to the idea of human freedom, but did not go nearly far enough.

The Jewish world in ancient times contained many examples of abusive leadership in both the political and religious spheres (think Rehoboam and Caiaphas, among others). But the Israelites had a strong love for freedom, grounded in the Exodus experience. They remembered that they were slaves in the land of Egypt and that God had brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21, etc.). The same God also instituted the Jubilee, a once-in-a-lifetime event when liberty was proclaimed throughout the land (Lev 25:10).

An additional Jewish contribution to human freedom was the idea of human equality. After all, if everyone was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), no one is less so than any other. Equality was reinforced by Deuteronomy 10:17-19, where God is declared to show no partiality. His love is not centered on the rich and powerful, He loves orphans, widows, and foreigners, people who can usually offer nothing in return.

God’s commitment to impartiality and freedom is also seen in the law of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:25). We recognize that having two or three witnesses to establish the truth of a matter is a good idea. But the implications of such a law go even further. Requiring two or three witnesses meant that no one, not even the king, could arbitrarily deprive someone of life and liberty. This was a shocking limitation on kingly power in the ancient world. It also meant that no one is above the law, not even the king. This was a radical idea in ancient times.

Finally, it could be argued that the Ten Commandments are the very foundation of universal human rights. The Ten Commandments meant that Israelite law was designed to protect the family (commandments five and seven), to protect life (commandment six), to protect property (commandments eight and ten) and to protect truth (commandment nine). From these flow a high regard for human rights to life, liberty, property, and the family as the glue and backbone of society.

Then Jesus came. Building on the foundation of Judaism, He underlined the importance of freedom, equality and equal treatment of all. In John 8:32, 36 He noted that the purpose of truth is not to restrict people but to truly set them free. Paul underlined this teaching of Jesus when he wrote that wherever the Spirit of God is found, there is true liberty (2 Cor 3:17). In Matthew 22:21, Jesus articulated the importance of keeping the church and the state separate. His followers were to be supportive of the highest goals of state and society while keeping the things of God central to everything they did. He highlighted the character of God, which is exhibited in the sun and the rain, realities that affect all people equally (Matt 5:45-47). He encouraged all to be like God in His impartial treatment, even of those who are opposed to His principles (Acts 10:34-35). There is no more distinction of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Followers of Jesus and Paul were to treat everyone equally, without distinction of gender, race or social standing.

While these principles could be found within the teachings of Judaism, there were seriously absent in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born. One of the first things one would notice about the Roman Empire is that it was not a free place. More than seventy percent of the inhabitants of the Empire were slaves. The Emperor had power of life and death over just about everybody. And slaveholders had power of life and death over their own slaves. The inklings of freedom and democracy that had stirred Athens were long gone by the time Jesus came. As in so many other areas, His arrival was a turning point in human history.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights III (What If—20)

If the message of Jesus was the key to the abolition of slavery, why did it take nearly 2000 years to achieve that goal? I would argue that the teaching and practice of Jesus on the treatment of others was truly revolutionary. But the early church was powerless in human terms. Many Christians were in hiding and they had little influence on the laws and actions of the Empire. When the Roman Empire turned toward Christianity in the early fourth century, it could have not only abolished the branding of slaves, but abolished the institution of slavery itself, along with abortion, the gladiatorial games, infanticide and crucifixion. But whenever the church is melded with the state, politics and economics enter into the calculation and doing the right thing can be very difficult. Slavery was so embedded into the social order that many feared its abolition would destroy the economy and the whole social order.

But the foundations upon which slavery was built had been shaken. A powerful theological voice arose in central Asia Minor (Cappadocia), Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395). In AD 379 Gregory articulated a power argument for the abolitions of slavery as an institution. He condemned institutional slavery on three biblical grounds. 1) Since God owns everything, owning slaves robs God. That is a very serious charge. 2) Every human being is made in the image of God. When you mistreat another human being, you are mistreating God. 3) Every human being was given dominion over the earth at creation. So when you buy a slave, there is a sense that you are buying the whole world, and the richest person on earth cannot afford to do that. While the third argument may seem a stretch to us today, the first two eviscerate the whole argument for slavery for anyone who accepts the inspiration of Scripture.

So in the big picture of Christian history, something crucial had changed with the coming of Jesus. In the Greco-Roman world slavery was the norm and was to be accepted as such. But in the early church, slavery was now seen as evil, contrary to both God and Scripture. But given the realities in the world most felt that this evil must be tolerated until Jesus comes and wipes the institution of slavery away. This set the context for people like Pastorius and the Quakers in colonial America. They felt the call of God to eradicate slavery NOW. The teachings of Jesus propelled them not to wait for the Second Coming but to follow Jesus in the present and carry out the principles he taught and lived.

But if the anti-slavery movement arose in Seventeenth Century America, why did it take nearly 200 years to finally abolish the institution? It has to do with deep political divisions within the territory from the first. New England was settled by conservative Christians from the lower classes in England. Virginia and the South were settled more by the upper classes, who were used to letting other people do the work. Slavery began in Virginia as a form of indentured servitude, new settlers working for a time to pay off debts. But the Deep South instituted a harsher form of slavery imported from the British territory of Barbados.

When the thirteen American colonies won their independence from Great Britain, they were deeply divided over the issue of slavery. There would have been no union between the states if the northern states tried to abolish slavery, as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania would have been happy for the new nation to do. So a series of political compromises left the slave system in place, even though roughly half the country was against it. It seems, however, that the Civil War became inevitable when the union was created without truly settling the issue. So while America was the place where abolition of slavery was conceived in modern times, it was slower than England to actually carry it out.

A note on the fascinating role of Thomas Jefferson on all this. Abolition might never have happened in America or England were it not for his powerful words “all men are created equal”, which inspired many. Yet he was a slaveholder all his life. He freed some of his slaves while he was still alive and all of them in his will. Why was he so slow to act to act on his convictions? He believed that sudden freedom would be harmful to them. They needed life skills in order to survive. So he hesitated, at the expense of his own legacy. But his convictions were not a sham. On one occasion he said: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us (the slavemasters) in such a contest.@ He advocated no slavery in any new territory (this motion lost in Congress by one vote—the country was so evenly divided). When the Northwest Territory (today’s Midwestern states from Ohio through Wisconsin and Michigan) was established in the 1780s, he successfully supported establishing it slave free. So Jefferson’s words inspired freedom for the slaves, but his actions feel short of his ideals. I can relate to that myself.