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Can a Nation Be Christian?

The history of “Christendom” has referred to various nations as Christian. That history also reveals various conflicts between Christian nations–like a Protestant nation fighting a Catholic nation or a Christian nation fighting a non-Christian nation.

Jesus told his disciples that in the future many would come in his name, claiming that they were the Christ, and lead many astray (Matthew 24:5). The result would be nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (24:7). Some nations would claim to belong to the Christ, to be Christian; they would rise up and fight other nations; but their claims and wars would lead many astray.

Surrounded by such a world, Jesus told his disciples to preach–announce–his gospel, the gospel of the kingdom, throughout the whole world, as a witness to all nations (24:14). The Gospel of Matthew is full of Jesus’ teaching about his new kingdom: he is the anointed king (the Christ) and his kingship will rule over all his disciples, whom he will empower to live according to his commands. His final command to them, as the risen king with all authority, is to go and make disciples of (from) all nations, baptizing them in(to) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all that he commanded them (28:18-20).

New disciples in various nations will come to follow this new king, empowered by his gift of the Spirit; they will be his kingdom. But most people in all the nations/kingdoms of the world will not become disciples. Jesus warns his disciples that in fact they will be hated by all nations (24:9). Even many disciples will fall away from Jesus’ kingdom, a kingdom that loves even enemies. They will even betray this new kingdom by hating it and returning to their former loyalty to their old kingdom (24:10).

In other words, there is only one nation that is truly Christian. That nation is the kingdom of disciples from all the nations of the world; that nation lives a new life of love, kindness, and peace under the name–the presence and power–of God and God’s anointed king and the Spirit.

The Apocalypse and Locusts

With swarms of locusts now destroying fields in Africa, and of course with the corona virus pandemic, various Christians are saying the plagues of the apocalypse are upon us. The apocalypse meant by them is not just this time period and its end-time plagues, but also the biblical book of Revelation (the Greek word apocalypse is the first word in the Greek text of the book of Revelation, the last book of the bible, and is usually translated “revelation”). Indeed chapter nine of Revelation (the Apocalypse) does portray swarms of locusts.

While there was a literal Old Testament plague of locusts at the time that Moses was confronting the Egyptian Pharaoh (see Exodus 10:12-15), the locusts of Revelation are in a New Testament apocalypse. In the centuries right before Jesus (and the New Testament) there were many Jewish apocalypses, and then after Jesus many Christian apocalypses (Revelation is the main early example). In all of these apocalypses, fantastic visions are full of rich symbolism.

Both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings virtually overflow with cosmic symbolism, revealing the hidden mysteries of a universe full of conflict between heavenly beings and earthly “beasts.” Readers who interpret most of Revelation literally are thus misguided; they miss the symbolism that characterizes apocalypses.

So the scorpions of Rev. 9 are depicted as given power to harm or torture ungodly people–who don’t have the seal of God on their forehead (9:3-5). This harmful power seems to be evil but in the next chapter, two witnesses who speak for God are given power to harm their enemies with fire that comes from their mouth, as well as power to bring other plagues on an ungodly earth (Rev. 10:3-6).

I think this immediate context of Rev. 10 is revealing the symbolism of the locusts of Rev. 9. They symbolize prophetic voices that confront the evil in the world by speaking out against evil deeds and thus “torturing” those on earth. In the New Testament context, they likewise portray the ongoing prophetic witness that remains faithful to the witness of Jesus, who challenged the kingdom of Israel with his new kingdom of (or from) heaven (or God). Revelation is primarily portraying the faithful followers of Jesus who throughout the time until he comes again are speaking and challenging the evil kingdoms of earth.

God’s Weapons Versus Satan’s Weapons

In Ephesians 6:11 Paul writes about putting on the whole armor of God so that one might be able/strong to stand against the devices/wiles of the devil. At this time Paul is a prisoner in chains (Eph. 3:1 and 6:20). Probably Paul is in Rome under house arrest, with a Roman soldier guarding him (as in Acts 28:16). This arrest included being bound with a chain (Acts 28:20), a chain that bound Paul with the soldier guarding him.

So Paul is in a position of weakness, a position imposed by a powerful soldier, who is covered with the armor of helmet, breastplate, shield, and sword. And this soldier represents powerful forces: this includes not only the Roman emperor but even heavenly forces, the rulers and authorities and principalities that empower the world’s rulers and powers (Eph. 6:12). Paul views Satan and his heavenly demons as powers behind the thrones (and swords) on earth. So the struggle of Paul and others like him is against more than flesh and blood.

The good news is that when Jesus was raised from the dead God made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power (the dark forces in the lower heavens) (Eph. 1:20-21). And the surpassing power of God and his Christ are then transforming some who were following the prince of the power of the air (Satan) (Eph. 2:1-2). This power of God is the grace that saves some from the dark deeds and consequences of their former bondage to Satan (Eph. 2:3-10).

So Paul is not in such a weak position after all. As he faces his well-armed soldier, he also has weapons, weapons more powerful than those of the soldier. Although he is under arrest because of lies and deceit from Jewish and Roman rulers, his weapons include a belt (around his waist) of truth, a truth that includes the sword of the Spirit, who speaks the word of God through Paul. Likewise, his helmet is the salvation that has come from the powerful grace of God that saves him from his former dark deeds, and his feet that once traveled as an enforcer to punish and imprison Christians are now covered with the gospel of peace. His faith in the power of God and his Christ is his shield against Satan’s powerful lies and punishments. And his breastplate is the new righteousness of love and peace that comes from the highest heaven.

Thus those in the world who stand proud in their powerful rulers and soldiers and weapons need to hear the truth that their elevated position is not so great after all. Those who have received God’s weapons will stand strong and speak the truth that the highest powers of heaven are against those lower spiritual (and physical) forces of darkness. And that truth will be spoken with love, for the truth is the gospel of peace, a righteousness that comes from a Christ who died so that some people from all over the world (both Jews and Gentiles) might receive this salvation and live together in peace (Eph. 2:11-22).

Jesus and Swords (Guns)

In Luke 22:36 Jesus tells his disciples that a more difficult time has come; it’s time for them now to take a purse (to put money in), a bag (to put food or other provisions in), and to buy a sword. For they are in Jerusalem, and he has already warned them about what he would suffer there: mocking, flogging, death, and resurrection. All these things will fulfill what was written in the prophets (in the Old Testament) (Lk. 18:31-34). Similarly, in Lk. 22:37, Jesus says that the purse, bag, and swords of 22:36 will fulfill what was written (in the prophet Isaiah): “and he was counted among the lawless” (Isa. 53:12).

In fact, some disciples have already bought two swords; they tell Jesus, “Lord, look, here are two swords” (Lk. 22:38). Jesus responds: “It is enough.” In other words, there is no need to buy more swords since the two they have just bought are enough to fulfill what was written in Isaiah. His own disciples are now the “lawless” ones (transgressors) that are counted as his close associates.

Jesus’ disciples then followed him to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus told them to pray so that they would not enter into temptation (Lk. 22:40). But they end up sleeping while Jesus prays; so when Judas (the main “lawless” disciple, who betrays him) arrives with the temple authorities and police, all carrying swords and clubs (22:52), one of his other disciples (identified as Peter in John 18:10) takes his sword and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest (22:50). But Jesus steps in quickly to tell Peter, “No more of this!” Then Jesus heals the slave’s ear (22:51).

Peter has given in to temptation and used his sword against his enemy. Earlier, at the last supper, Jesus told Peter (Simon), that Satan has asked to sift the disciples like wheat. But Jesus has prayed that after this temptation or testing from Satan that Peter would turn back (from his lawless action) and then strengthen his “brothers” (the other disciples (22:31-32). Even earlier, Satan has entered into Judas as he meets with the temple authorities in order to betray Jesus (22:3-4).

The authorities like this lawless disciple and give him money (for his purse) (22:5). Later Jesus sends Peter and John into Jerusalem to prepare for the last supper (requiring a bag for the provisions) (22:8). So when Jesus tells them near the end of the supper about taking a purse, a bag, and buying a sword, all of that has already been done (by Judas, and then Peter and John). Because of the actions of these disciples, the authorities count/consider Jesus as leading a rebel movement that is armed and dangerous (22:52, where a “bandit” is used as a code word for rebel).

Jesus is thus not telling all his followers in the future to buy swords when the going gets tough. He is acknowledging that some have already taken a purse and bag, and bought a sword and thus are fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy this one time. Since the modern day equivalent of the sword would be the gun, this passage in Lk. 22 should not be used to justify buying guns (and using them against enemies).

Jesus’ New Testament

Jesus brought a new covenant, a new testament, that both fulfilled the old covenants of the Old Testament and transcended those old covenants. The new covenant of Jesus introduced new commands and new promises, different from most of the commands and promises of the old covenants. This was especially true for the old covenant of Moses (the “law”), with its hundreds of commands and related promises of blessing or curse, depending on how Israel followed or didn’t follow those commands.

But those differences between covenants, between testaments, are often ignored by Christians who want to be biblical, and thus think they can be faithful to the Old Testament covenants as well as to the New Testament covenant. Such faithfulness is impossible because obedience to various commands of the law covenant of Moses would mean disobedience to commands of the new covenant of Jesus.

For example, Jesus (in Matthew 5:38) says his fellow Jews (Israel) have heard the command about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (in Exodus 21:24 as well as Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21). This command did limit revenge to an equal response to the original harm. But Jesus goes on to give new commands that involve no revenge at all. Jesus says if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also (Matthew 5:39). So Christians cannot obey this Old Testament command and the command of Jesus at the same time.

Another example is then given by Jesus (in Matthew 5:43) where he again says his fellow Jews have heard the command about loving their neighbor but hating their enemy. The first part, “love your neighbor” is in fact from the law of Moses (Leviticus 19:18); and the neighbor there is defined as “your brother,” or “the sons of your own people.” As with the rest of the law of Moses, this command applies to those in the kingdom of Israel; those outside, the Gentiles, are not neighbors or brothers since they are not “the sons of your own people.” And thus there is room to hate their enemies, other nations that threaten them.

But Jesus commands that his disciples love their enemies (Matthew 5:44). For Jesus’ new covenant is going to include people from every nation, and is thus a very different kind of kingdom than the divisive and exclusive kingdoms and nations of the world, including the kingdom of Israel. All those other kingdoms have enemies and policies of hate, revenge, and war that are meant to protect them or prosper them. The new kingdom of Jesus and his disciples means going out to all the nations and making new disciples by teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught them, including to love those in other nations that had been enemies (Matthew 28:19-20).

Christians who value their own kingdom of earth more than Jesus’ new kingdom of faithful disciples end up reverting to the covenants of the kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament. The result is, however, rejecting Jesus and his new covenant, new kingdom, new commands, and new promises. For one new promise of Jesus is that his meek (gentle) disciples will in the end inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). That is much better than becoming violent patriots who fight for rewards like power over other nations and their resources, presuming they are nevertheless pleasing God.

Old Testament Churches

Christian churches generally view the whole bible as the most important authority for what they do. In practice, this often turns out to give Old Testament passages just as much authority as New Testament passages.

For example, most churches think they need to build a worship center in order to exist. This practice, however, is based on Old Testament passages about building a tabernacle as the focus of their worship, or later building a temple. When they see Jesus entering the temple courts or a synagogue, they think Jesus also accepted such buildings as foundational for worship.

But Jesus told his disciples, when they were once admiring the impressive temple in Jerusalem, that every stone would be thrown down in the near future (Matthew 24:1-2). And Jesus never told them to build a new temple in the future. Instead, he referred to his own body as “this temple” (John 2:19)–right after upsetting the money-changers’ tables in the temple and driving out the animals (John 2:14-16).

The apostle Paul also used the word temple to describe the new community of Christians, who followed Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19). While Paul also entered synagogues, he challenged them with his new gospel and was usually thrown out within a few weeks. That was no problem as far as having a place to worship, because his new communities, his new churches, met in homes (for example, 1 Corinthians 16:19).

So there were no Christian church buildings used by New Testament churches, nor was there any word about building such “churches.” And Christians continued to meet in homes for many decades, with the first church buildings appearing around the second or third century.

When buildings do appear, this leads to further Old Testament practices such as the need for tithes and offerings (for the building and its special “clergy” that administer the building, like the priests and levites in the Old Testament). This in turn leads to the major issue that even Old Testament prophets raised continually: worship services become separated from daily obedience to God. Because the focus becomes what happens in holy buildings with holy clergy sermonizing holy words, what happens in the daily world where every Christian encounters others through his words and actions is viewed as of less importance to God.

The Message of the Angels and the Greater Message of the Son

The message declared by angels (in Hebrews 2:2) refers to the main old covenant, the law of Moses. Compare Stephen’s defense before the Jewish high priest and his Jewish “brothers and fathers” in Acts 7, where he says they “received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:53). Likewise, Paul refers to the law as “ordained by angels through an intermediary” (namely, Moses) (Galatians 3:19).

The law of Moses was full of various laws and the punishments for disobeying them; the disobedient house of Israel did not do well at keeping this law declared by angels (Heb. 2:2). But Hebrews 1:5-14 has contrasted the new ruling Son and his eternal righteous kingdom with the former temporary messenger angels. For the kingdom of Israel did not keep the law delivered to it by angels.

The message of the Son, the new Lord, has declared a much greater kingdom and salvation (Heb. 2:3). This Son, Jesus, gathered disciples who directly heard his message and could later confirm its truth, as they passed it on to others. Those earliest disciples faithfully passed on that message to new disciples–and that message has now been written in the form of the New Testament, the collection of writings authored or influenced by those earliest disciples.

The message of the angels (the law given to Moses) is the basis for much of the Old Testament, the foundation for the covenant given to the nation of Israel. The greater message of the Son is the basis for the New Testament, our foundation for the new covenant given to Jesus’ new kingdom of disciples. This greater kingdom and salvation now features heavenly gifts of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:4). The Spirit is active in disciples, empowering them to pass on the message, through gifts like teaching, exhortation, and prophecy (from prophets who are messengers of the Son). The Spirit likewise empowers disciples through gifts like showing practical love to those in need, giving generously to the most needy among themselves, and elsewhere.

If this great salvation ends up neglected, the consequences will likewise be greater than the punishments of the law of Moses (Heb. 2:3). The original Hebrew Christian readers must not suppose they can just revert to the law of Moses and a comfortable Jewish culture of family and friends. That would mean preferring the former message of the angels over the greater message of the Son.

Hebrew Christians and Their Bible

The New Testament book of Hebrews was written to Hebrew/Jewish Christians, who had grown up treasuring their bible, the Old Testament. Thus Hebrews began by remembering how God formerly spoke to the (Jewish) fathers through the prophets (Heb. 1:1). After a long history of God’s servants the prophets speaking to usually disobedient fathers, especially the leading or ruling fathers of Israel, God at last has spoken a new word through a Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Unlike the ruling fathers and sons of Israel, who passed on their power from generation to generation, this Son will inherit all things. For it was through this Son that God created the universe (1:2). Much more than the Hebrew nation is at stake now.

While Jewish prophets spread light by speaking truth to power, the Son was the radiance of the shining glory of God (1:3). The Son has come into the world he created, the world he will inherit. As the man Jesus, the Son not only confronted the sins of Israel; he brought a purification of sins. He was without sin; he perfectly represented the righteousness of God on earth; and he was obedient unto death, a death that was the supreme sacrifice for sins.

His death was also the beginning of his universal power: he sat down at the right hand of the Majestic God who rules on high (1:3). He is higher than all the heavenly angels of the universe, for he is the Son who is the heir (1:4); he inherits all things; he rules over all the things he created, including the angels.

This strong Son bears/upholds all things, especially all those in the world who have been drawn to his radiance and power (1:3). The ruling Jesus especially “brings along” all those whom he has purified and brought into his righteous family. Through the word of his power, his new family is purified and empowered to remain faithful in a universe still darkened by fallen angels and unruly fathers.

The scope has expanded exponentially. The limited scope of the Hebrew prophets and fathers and nation–and the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament–has been transcended by the Son who created all things and is heir of all things. Now his majestic heavenly power has begun to build a new family all over the world, a purified people who are empowered by the word of his power and remain faithful to the ruling Son.

Believing Includes Obeying

Most Protestants know that salvation is by faith and not by works. And faith means simply believing in Jesus, especially in his death for our sins.

Martin Luther led a Protestant Reformation that focused on justification by faith (interpreted as God crediting Jesus’ righteousness to those who believed in Jesus’ righteous sacrifice for them). Ever since then, Protestant pastors continue to focus on that simple message: accept Jesus as your Savior and have your sins forgiven.

The Protestant founding fathers also focused on the authority of the bible in order to discount Catholic traditions (like indulgences, for Luther, and like the Catholic sacraments). The bible seemed to have only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s supper. Baptism celebrates our new faith in Jesus, and the Lord’s supper remembers his sacrificial death for us.

The problem is that the bible is primarily about two covenants, two testaments. Despite the fact that the New Testament describes the Old Testament–and its predominant covenant, the law of Moses for the nation of Israel–as the main example of works (works of the law) that do not and can not save, the authority of the whole bible causes Christians to think that the Old Testament is an authority on the same level as the New Testament (and useful for guiding our own nation, the U.S., seen as a new Israel).

Jesus as a law giver, who focuses on love for neighbor–and defines neighbor as even our enemies, even foreigners–is thus not required reading. Jesus’ new covenant that is for people from every nation and ethnic group, and that requires these diverse factions to unite into a fellowship of love sounds nice–but working it out is just works. Paul, however, defined true faith as faith that is working through love (Galatians 5:6). This means true faith is a believing in Jesus who loved us and who commanded us to love–and is focusing on the presence and power of the living Jesus, along with his and our Father, the living God, along with his Spirit poured out each day on us, to help us actually do acts of love. All of that is what true grace is; such grace enables true faith and obedience. For Jesus and Paul, and the whole New Testament/Covenant, believing in Jesus includes obeying Jesus.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

On Memorial Day Americans remember especially soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because they gave their lives to fight for our freedom, we remember them, we celebrate them.

When Jesus, however, was about to give up his life for us, he told his disciples to remember him through breaking bread (his broken “body”) and drinking wine (his “blood”) together. His ultimate sacrifice fulfilled all the animal sacrifices (for sin) found in the Old Testament. Jesus’ sacrifice epitomized his new covenant of love, a love that was pure in heart and full of compassion.

Because Jesus sacrificed his life out of love for even his enemies, we should remember his death as distinctly different from the deaths of soldiers who risk their lives out of love for their countries–and hate for their enemies, the ones they are fighting. Jesus’ death is a basis for forgiveness of sins, including sins of hate, violence, and killing of another person. And Jesus’ death is an example for his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, willing to give up their lives but not willing to take another life.

So let’s remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice as the major reason that we refuse to sacrifice others. To kill enemies of our country is applauded by our powerful leaders (“fathers”). But the desires to kill and destroy are sins to be confessed to the most powerful of all, God the Father, who raised Jesus from death. Jesus is Lord. And Jesus’ ongoing presence and power can give us freedom to follow his way of love. Jesus’ kingdom, not earthly kingdoms and their “freedom,” is the ultimate.