Today an Eternal Present was Unveiled in the City of David

Merry Christmas!

10 . . . The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen closely, for I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 Today your Savior—Who is Christ the Lord—was born in the city of David.”1

This is the day we celebrate the birth2 of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,3 Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.4

Joy to the world! / The Lord is come! / Let earth receive her King. / Let every heart prepare Him room / and heaven and nature sing.

A bit over two millennia ago, the eternal Word5 became the eternal-temporal Theanthrōpos,6 the God-man.7 Deity came in humility, clothed in humanity, born in Bethlehem. God the Father loved the world so much that He provided His one, unique Son8 as a sacrifice for us all, by ‘lifting Him up’ on the cross,9 so that everyone who believes in Him would not  perish, but would gain eternal life,10 adopted as God’s children.11 This entrance into eternality begins the very moment of initial belief12 and will remain for the overcomers—those enduring until the end.13

This day we should, in reverential awe, commemorate this glorious, eternally present,14 eternal gift.15 We should remember this selfless, sacrificial gift16 every day—but especially today. Those temporal gifts we give and receive—largely in celebrations overshadowing the true meaning of this season, this day—those temporal gifts we exchange, some by compulsion, will perish. But not this gift. This gift, available to all, has already been given—at such cost!17 The Giver of this gift is Himself the Gift,18 Who seemingly perished forevermore after being crucified.19 Yet He rose again!20 And He lives yet still.21

But this gift is more of an exchange—though a very one-sided one at that. To receive the gift of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement22—in which He has already paid the due penalty for all mankind’s sins past, present, and future23—one must repent,24 turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior,25 and then ‘take up one’s cross daily’.26 This means obeying Jesus’ commandments27 and following His path, to the point of physical death, if necessary.28 However, even if following Christ directly results in temporal death (which is an inevitable eventuality whether following Him or not) one receives the much more valuable eternal life. Yet, even more, as part of this exchange one receives God’s indwelling Spirit29—the Holy Spirit, the paraklētos,30 the Spirit of Truth31—in Whom one possesses both the navigational compass and the strength to endure His pathway.

Yet Jesus’ requirements are not burdensome.32 When the Christ-follower inevitably sins33—and one easily does so when living by one’s own strength rather than by and in the Spirit34—He is quick to forgive the penitent.35

To those who believe in and follow the Messiah, His Resurrection guarantees this eternal present;36 but, it was the conception37 and subsequent birth38 of the Eternal-temporal39 providing the necessary precursor. As Christians, as Christ-followers, let us remember this day for the momentous and joyous occasion it was and is: the arrival of the Gospel in the Gift wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger.40 To those with opened eyes He was unveiled.41 To the blind He remained veiled, but to those blind subsequently receiving sight He was revealed.42

Let us not be side-tracked by the temporality of contemporary glitz and glamour. Let us not take this day for granted. Let us take it to heart. Let us take its inherent message to the outer extremities.43 Let us be God’s instruments through which this Gift is unveiled, blind eyes opened.

The world awaits.44

——–

(If you think you might be experiencing a case of déjà vu, you are not exactly wrong. This is a lightly revised and slightly expanded version of an article I posted on Christmas day last year.)

__________________________

1 Luke 2:10-11, my translation.
2 It is very unlikely, though, that December 25 is the actual day Jesus was born. See When was Jesus Born?
3 Luke 2:10-11; Matthew 1:25; cf. Micah 5:2.
4 John 1:41; 4:25.
5 John 1:1.
6 From Theos = God, anthrōpos = man.
7 John 1:14.
8 John 1:14; 3:16.
9 John 3:14 (cf. Numbers 21:8-9); John 12:32-33.
10 John 3:16-17; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4; 1John 4:9-10.
11 John 1:12.
12 John 5:24-25.
13 Matthew 24:13; Revelation 2:7, 10-11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 10-12, 19-21; 14:12.
14 John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3.
15 Revelation 13:8; cf. Revelation 17:8. There is ambiguity in the syntax of the Greek in 13:8. Is it that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, NIV, e.g.), or is it that certain names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (ESV, NASB, e.g.)? [This implies there are yet others who were written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (cf. Rev 3:5).] One could harmonize this with the words whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world from 17:8 to resolve this, yet it seems difficult to have a book of life without the Life Giver’s substitutionary atonement (Hebrews 2:17) having been provided first. So maybe both are true? Resolution is not even found in John the Baptizer’s words in John 1:29 regarding the “Lamb of God” (cf. Rev 5:6-14), for the verb airōn, takes away, is a present active participle, which grammatically indicates durative action (imperfective aspect), but the temporal reference is unclear. Is it yet-future from the Baptizer’s words (in then-current context looking forward to the cross), or is John stating that it is already in effect? Relatedly, this verb airō can connote being taken ‘up’ as well as taken away, which can provide a bit of—likely intended—double entendre, polysemy. In other words, sins are taken up/away as He is taken up/away. This double meaning likely applies—unknowingly by the speakers and in ironical fashion with the benefit of hindsight—in John 19:15 when “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) responded to Pilate’s statement “Here is your king!” with aron aron, staurōson auton, “Take up/away, take up/away; crucify him!” Their command resulted in Him being glorified (John 12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1) and thereby receiving the name above every name (Philippians 2:9-11; cf. What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion).
16 Philippians 2:5-8.
17 Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15. Each and every one of us—at and beyond the age of accountability, at the least—has played his/her part in lifting Him up on that cross.
18 John 11:25; 14:6.
19 Matthew 27:48-50; Mark 15:36-37; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-30.
20 Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8[20]; Luke 24:1-49; John 2:19-22; 10:17-18; 20:1-31; 1Corinthians 15:1-4.
21 Revelation 1:18.
22 Hebrews 2:14-18.
23 Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:11-15, 26-28; 10:12, 19-24.
24 Matthew 4:17; Luke 3:8-14; Acts 2:38; 3:19; Romans 2:4.
25 But this cannot be done in one’s own strength; see the words of Jesus in John 6:44: No one is able to come to Me unless the Father, the One Who sent Me, draws him[/her].
26 Matthew 10:38-39; 16:24-26; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23-24; 14:27; John 12:25-26.
27 Matthew 4:17; 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; John 8:31-32; 13:34/15:12; 15:10; James 2:8-11; 1John 5:3.
28 Matthew 16:24-26. See What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?
29 John 3:3-8; 14:17; Romans 8:15-17; 1Corinthians 2:12; 3:16; 6:19; 2Corinthians 6:16.
30 John 14:15-16:15; Acts 1:8; 2:1-39; 1John 4:1-6. See also Who is the Holy Spirit?
31 John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1John 4:6; 5:6.
32 Matthew 11:28-30; 1John 5:3.
33 1John 1:8-10.
34 Galatians 5:16-26; 1John 1:6-8.
35 Hebrews 10:22-23; 1John 1:9-2:2.
36 1Corinthians 15:20-23.
37 Luke 1:34-35.
38 Luke 2:1-7.
39 John 1:1, 14.
40 Luke 2:10-12.
41 Luke 2:8-20.
42 John 9:1-41; 2Corinthians 3:14-18.
43 Matthew 28:19-20.
44 John 3:16-21, 31-36; Romans 8:18-27.

The Kingdom of God is at Hand, part I

[see part II here.]

Jesus Himself stated, “The kingdom of God is at hand” in Mark 1:15 [NIV]; however, it is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew that He also said “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [Matthew 4:17, 10:7 NIV] A quick examination of Scripture leads to the conclusion that the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are synonymous. So, is the kingdom of God NOW?

Most first century Jews, according to their understanding of Scripture, were looking for a Messiah who would provide theocratic rule thus delivering them from Roman oppression and immediately establishing the Kingdom of God – the Age to Come. The then-current age – “Satan’s Time” – was one of sin, sickness, demonic possession, and evil in which evil men were triumphant.[1]

Consequently, even though Jesus Christ healed the sick, drove out demons and even claimed to have forgiven sins, the majority of religious leaders did not recognize Him as the Messiah in part because He did not try to overthrow Rome. Since many of the Pharisees – one of the religious parties of the day – did not believe Jesus’ claim as the “I Am” [John 8:58] they wanted to stone Him for blasphemy!

Historical background

Writings of the Intertestamental Era

400 years had already elapsed between the writing of Malachi, the last Old Testament book to be recorded, and the era of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In the intertestamental period (the time between the Old and New Testaments), the Jews were not a free people most of the time instead subjected to the rulership of various empires. There were no prophets providing correction or guidance; and, consequently, it was a rather unhappy time. As a result, it was a period marked by a surge in the production of literary works, the most important of which were the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Tanakh – what Christians know as the Old Testament (abbreviated LXX)[2], the Apocryphal & Pseudepigraphic writings (some of the Apocrypha were translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic and included as part of the LXX)[3], and the Dead Sea Scrolls.[4]

The word Apocrypha, from Greek derivation, means “hidden” which has a view of the works being either esoteric and only to be understood by the initiated or, “hidden” in that the nature of the writings are questionable or heretical[5]. The term Pseudepigrapha is usually applied to Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) writings from 200BC to AD200 and comes also from Greek etymology meaning the writings were attributed to fictitious authors[6] although some have authorship ascribed[7]. From both groups of works the subject of eschatology has a significant role. Taken all together, this literature appeared to have a profound effect on the pre-Christian and the immediate post-Resurrection era[8] up through the destruction of the Second Temple in AD70[9]. [Note: for the purposes of this article the “New Testament Apocrypha” including the so-called “Lost Gospels, ” Acts of Andrews, Epistles of the Apostles, etc. are not considered.]

…These and other writings emerged during the long silence that fell between the death of the last OT prophet, Malachi (about 400 B.C.), and the appearance of John the Baptist. To some extent these writings attempted to discern what God was saying to a nation that, though it had repudiated idolatry, still suffered under the dominion of a succession of pagan powers… [10]

At the Council of Jamnia in AD90 Jewish rabbis rejected the Apocrypha (of which parts were included in the Septuagint) as canonical[11]. Yet, some of the Apocrypha are included in the Catholic New American Bible as Deuterocanonical (meaning later added to the canon) books[12]. Some of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine such as purgatory, masses for the dead, and obtaining the merit of God through good works come from these Apocryphal works[13].

The OT canon accepted by Protestants today was “very likely established by the dawn of the second century,” some time after the destruction of Herod’s Temple in AD70. However, the Apocrypha was still in common use by most Christians until the Protestant Reformation[14].

Societal Developments of the Period

Even though the Second Temple was in operation from 516 BC[15] until AD70[16,17] geographical constraints and oppressive regimes prevented easy travel for the typical Jew. Thus the synagogue was born. Synagogues can be likened to our modern day church buildings as they provided a convenient way to gather socially and to worship. Jesus Himself visited local synagogues [Luke 4:14-21; Matthew 12:9; Mark 1:21]; and, the Apostles [Acts 9:20, 13:5-43] and early Christian missionaries preached in them as well[18].

The Sanhedrin was a committee of Jews with recognized executive, legislative, and judicial power over Jewish faith and lifestyle during the Seleucid Empire (196 – 167BC), the Maccabean revolt (168 – 143BC) and within the limits imposed by Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, and Roman procurators during the Roman Empire (44BC – AD66).[19,20] Subordinate to the Sanhedrin were the religious parties or sects known as the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and the Qumran community[21]. Since the Sanhedrin had authority over these sects and ultimate authority over capital cases (yet subordinate to Rome during Roman occupation), Jesus’ trial is seen as being conducted illegally[22].

Beliefs of the Sects

Not much is known about the separative and isolationistic Essene group except that they were very legalistic living both frugally and communally while limiting contact outside their sect. While they did not condemn marriage in principle it was avoided and celibacy was celebrated. Their sect was continued on by the adoption of children. There was an expectation of an impending apocalyptic battle between good and evil. Evidence of a soon to emerge Messiah is in their writings also[23].

Even less was known of the Qumran community until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) which were first unearthed in 1947. The Qumranians are likely a sect that broke from the Essenes. This extremely sectarian group rejected the Jewish leadership referring to them as “sons of darkness” and “men of the pit” while referring to themselves as “sons of light” and “sons of truth.” They firmly believed they were living in the end times[24].

From the DSS it is evident that the Qumranians were highly legalistic with a commitment to study the Torah. The Qumran group believed they were living in the end times and accepted the guidance of a certain teacher of righteousness [ed: probably based at least in part on Malachi 4:5] who was presumably preparing them for the Messiah. Their own writings about this “righteous teacher” are too sketchy to determine the exact role of this figure; however, it is apparent that the community accepted his interpretations of the prophetic OT books regarding eschatology. Since the Qumran believed in a resurrection of the dead, it may be assumed in studying portions of the DSS that they expected the “teacher of righteousness to be martyred and eventually raised up[25]. Their Messiah figure, on the other hand, was more of a human son of David concept rather than a divine apocalyptic Son of man[26]. Some scholars construe that the Qumran belief system supports two or three Messianic figures[27,28].

As supernaturalists, the Pharisees believed in angels, demons, bodily resurrection [Acts 23:8], and immortality with reward for the righteous dead[29] in contrast with retribution for the unrighteous[30]. They were legalistic to the point of going beyond the Scriptures in attempting to adhere to the Torah; and, to this end added their own oral tradition to keep various points of the law. A good example of this is their view of the Sabbath [Mark 2:23-28]. The Pharisees “neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” [Matthew 23:23 NIV] creating a more works-based religion than one with a personal God.

The Pharisees believed both in man’s free will and the sovereignty of God yet thought neither would cancel out the other. Ethics such as human equality were emphasized in their teachings but not necessarily from a theological standpoint[31]. They expected the Messiah to restore Jewish freedom[32].

One credible source stated outright that the Pharisees believed in reincarnation[33]; yet, the general consensus among Christian scholars is that Pharisaical belief regarding immortality adhered to orthodoxy instead. However, in the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphic literature there are references to reincarnation[34]. In some camps, the Kabbalah was thought to be in use as early as the time of Moses as part of an oral tradition and reincarnation is one of the tenets of Kabbalistic doctrine[35]. While there are certainly some Jewish sects who currently espouse reincarnation[36], it is not clear when this doctrine first came about. The Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, or Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach[37], contains a warning against such esotericism [Sirach 3:20-22].[38]

The common people were predominantly middle class and identified mostly with the Pharisees in part because this party was of the same class[39]. It should be noted that not all Pharisees were of the same ilk as those represented in the NT. Some contemporaries within their own party recognized their hypocrisy and rebuked them for it[40]. Gamaliel appeared to try to honor a personal God with his words [Acts 5:33-41]. Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, would, of course, become the Apostle Paul.

The Sadducees, more than any of these groups, had an interest in Temple ceremonies and sought a literal interpretation of the Torah. They appeared to reject extra-canonical sources for doctrine. As the most affluent of the religious groups, the Sadducees wielded political clout disproportionate to their relative size[41]. It is assumed that they held a large percentage of seats on the Sanhedrin.

The Sadducean view of eschatology was quite simplistic and widely divergent from the other sects as they did not believe in a resurrection [Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27] or an afterlife and even denied the existence of a spiritual world altogether [Acts 23:8] attributing everything to free will[42].

Eschatological Views of the Pre-Christian and Immediate Post-Resurrection Era

With the exception of the Sadducean view, the predominant Jewish belief of the pre-Christian era included the imminent arrival of a Messianic figure (or figures assuming one of the viewpoints regarding the Qumran group) to deliver them from their Roman oppressors and immediately establish the Kingdom of God. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stewart, in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, describe the Jewish eschaton (view of the end of time) as the belief that the Messiah’s coming would usher in the “Age to Come” to be “characterized by the presence of the Spirit, righteousness, health, and peace.”[43]

Since Jesus Christ’s disciples/followers came directly from Jewish heritage or were familiar with Jewish eschatological beliefs, they were also expecting Him to soon usher in the Kingdom and overthrow Rome[44] while He was still on the earth. Consequently, Jesus’ arrest and subsequent death on the Cross was met with immense disillusionment among His disciples in part because of this assumption [Luke 22:61-62; 23:27, 48-49; 24:17-21]. However, their sorrow turned to joy with His Resurrection and Ascension!

Yet it was apparent that the end of the age had not come in full:

“Very early, beginning with Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, the early Christians came to realize that Jesus had not come to usher in the ‘final’ end, but the ‘beginning’ of the end, as it were. Thus they came to see that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, and with the coming of the Spirit, the blessings and benefits of the future had already come. In a sense, therefore, the end had already come. But, in another sense the end had not yet fully come. Thus it was already but not yet. [45] [emphasis in original]

First century Christians had to adjust their eschatological thinking to fit the events of the Resurrection and Ascension. However, apparently some were expecting the imminent return of Jesus Christ prompting the Apostle Paul to write the two Thessalonian letters to provide markers of what first must take place before His return. They still had a “kingdom now” mindset. This expectation of imminency with regard to Christ’s return continues in the mindset of most Christians today.

This “tension” between the already but not yet is an important hermeneutical tool in interpreting the New Testament[46]. Passages such as Colossians 3:1-2 illustrate this quite well:

1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. [NIV]

We are already raised up with Christ, yet we are still physically here on earth. However, since we have the future expectation of being raised with Christ, we are to already set our hearts and minds on heavenly things. Similarly, when Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” He was using this same principle. The Kingdom era has already begun; but, the consummation is yet to be fulfilled.

There are those today who are attempting to hasten Jesus Christ’s return by taking the not yet into their own hands. It is the doctrines of some of these which will be compared to the doctrines of the groups above in the second part of this article.

See Part II here.

Endnotes:

[1] Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stewart “The Gospels: One Story, Many Dimensions.” How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. second edition, 1993; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; p 131

[2] Gaebelein, Frank E., Gen. Ed. “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1. 1979; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; pp 164-174. This section features Bruce M. Metzger as contributor.

[3] Gaebelein, Frank E., Gen. Ed. “Between the Testaments.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1. 1979; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; pp 179-192. This section features Harold W. Hoehner as contributor.

[4] Barker, Kenneth; Burdick, Stek, et. al. “The Time between the Testaments” NIV Study Bible. copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; pp 1424-1425

[5] Gaebelein, Op.cit. p 161 Metzger

[6] ibid. pp 162, 170

[7] Marshall, I. Howard; Millard, Packer “Pseudepigrapha” New Bible Dictionary. third edition, 1996; Intervarsity, Downers Grove, IL; p 985

[8] Gaebelein, Op.cit. pp 173-174 Hoehner

[9] Richards, Lawrence O. “Apocrypha” Richards Complete Bible Dictionary. 2002; World Bible Publishers, Iowa Falls, IO; p 76

[10] ibid.

[11] Marshall, Op.cit.

[12] Gaebelein, Op.cit. p 162

[13] Richards, Op.cit.

[14] Barker, Op.cit. p 1425

[15] Richards, Lawrence O. “Ezra” Richards’ Complete Bible Handbook. 1987; Word, Inc., Dallas, TX; pp 233-234

[16] Wikipedia The Second Temple <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Temple> para 1; as accessed 10/17/10

[17] Richards, Op.cit. “The Second Temple” Bible Dictionary p 967

[18] ibid. “synagogue” pp 957-958

[19] ibid. “Sanhedrin” pp 894-895

[20] Gaebelein, Op.cit. pp 184, 189-191 Hoehner

[21] ibid. pp 192-193

[22] Richards, Op.cit. p 895

[23] ibid. “Essenes” pp 346-347

[24] Gaebelein, Frank E., Gen. Ed. “Dead Sea Scrolls.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1. 1979; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; pp 395-398. This section features William Sanford LaSor as contributor.

[25] ibid. pp 399-401

[26] ibid. pp 400-403 [The bulk of this information on the Qumran is from the work of William S. LaSor titled The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972]

[27] Barker, Op.cit. p 1427

[28] Hanson, Kenneth “The Wicked Priest” Dead Sea Scrolls: the Untold Story. 1997; Council Oaks Books, Tulsa, OK; p 82

[29] Richards, Op.cit. “Pharisees” p 782

[30] Barker, Op.cit. “Jewish Sects” p 1473

[31] ibid.

[32] Richards, Op.cit.

[33] Gaebelein, Op.cit. p 192 Hoehner

[34] Gaebelein, Op.cit. p 165 Metzger

[35] Wikipedia “Primary Texts” Kabbalah. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabbalah> para 2, also “History: Origin of Terms” para 1; as accessed 10/17/10

[36] Rich, Tracey R. “Resurrection and Reincarnation” Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife. <http://www.jewfaq.org/olamhaba.htm>  Copyright 5759-5760 (1999); Tracey R. Rich; para 4; as accessed 10/17/10

[37] Gaebelein, Op.cit. p 166

[38] Confraternity of Christian Doctrine “Sirach” New American Bible. <http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/sirach/sirach3.htm> 2002; Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC; Sirach 3:20-22; as accessed 10/17/10

[39] Richards, Op.cit. “The Common People” Bible Handbook p 443

[40] ibid. “The Pharisees” p 442

[41] Gaebelein, Op.cit. p 192 Hoehner

[42] Richards, Op.cit. “Sadducees” p 885

[43] Fee, Op.cit. p 132

[44] ibid.

[45] ibid. pp 132-133

[46] ibid. p 133

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