Tuesday 14 May 2013

Pentecost and the Plan of God

At the beginning of this month, I delivered the annual Alfred Edersheim lecture in Melbourne and Sydney. The title of the talk was 'Pentecost and the Plan of God'.  According to Jewish reckoning, Pentecost this year falls today, Wednesday 15 May. According to the Bible, Pentecost or Shavuot, falls exactly fifty days after the Sabbath following Passover, so it is the only festival of the Lord to which no date is assigned. Israel was to count fifty days from Passover, so that in celebrating Pentecost they would never forget the festival of their redemption.
The purpose of the lecture was to explore the relevance of the festival of Shavuot today in an attempt to relate the events that took place on the Day of Pentecost in the year 33AD to the plan and purpose of God for the world he created. What follows is the lecture.
According to Jewish tradition Pentecost, or Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is Zeman Matan Torateinu: the ‘Season of the giving of our Torah’. In Acts 2, Luke appears to depict the events of the Day of Pentecost as a second ‘Mount Sinai experience’ for Israel. For example, both the Torah and the Spirit were given on mountains: the Law at Sinai and the Spirit on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
In the account of the giving of the Torah in Ex. 19:18-20, fire and the sound of a trumpet accompanied the descent of God on Mount Sinai. In Acts 2:2-3, the descent of the Spirit was accompanied by fire and a sound; a sound ‘like a rushing, mighty wind.’ It is significant that Luke does not say there was a ‘rushing, mighty wind’ but a sound ‘like a rushing, mighty wind.’
According to the rabbis, the world was divided into seventy nations and in tractate Shabbat 88b, the Talmud states, ‘Every single word that went forth from the Omnipotent was split up into seventy languages for the nations of the world.’ In Acts 2:4-5, the disciples of Jesus spoke words in the languages of ‘devout men from every nation under heaven.’
There was, however, a significant contrast between the giving of the Torah and the giving of the Spirit. In Ex. 32, after Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, 3,000 men of Israel died because of the sin of the golden calf. By contrast, in Acts 2:41, when the Holy Spirit was given, 3,000’ received the word’ and were baptised; in other words 3,000 people became spiritually alive in Messiah. This contrast is developed by Paul in 2Cor. 3, where he contrasts the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, the Law and the Gospel, ‘the letter’ and ‘the Spirit.’ The Old Covenant, says Paul, ministered death whereas the New Covenant ministers life. The outpouring of the Spirit of God on that momentous day generated a movement which was to spread through the world, toppling an empire and ministering life to countless millions until ultimately the whole earth will be ‘filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.’
What I propose to do in this lecture is to demonstrate that he events recorded in the second chapter of Acts reveal that Pentecost was the fulfilment of five distinct Old Testament elements: a Promise, a Psalm, a Pattern, a Plan and, finally, Pentecost itself.
1. Pentecost was the fulfilment of a Promise
From the very first page of the Bible God’s Ruach – his ‘Spirit’ or ‘Breath’ or ‘Wind’ – is at work at pivotal points such as Creation, when the Ruach hovered over the unformed and unfilled earth. At the Exodus, the Spirit of God empowered Bezaleel and his helpers to construct the tabernacle and the things pertaining to the worship of God; in Num. 11, the Spirit empowered the seventy elders of Israel, and Eldad and Medad, to prophesy – an event that made Moses wish all God’s people were prophets, a wish that came true at Pentecost. The Ruach was also at work at the establishment of the Hebrew monarchy when he came upon David in power and enabled him to conquer the Philistine giant Goliath. The work of God is never accomplished by human might or power but always by the Ruach of God.
In the New Testament, the Spirit was central in the ministry of Messiah and his apostles. In Lk. 1:35, the Spirit overshadowed Mary causing her to conceive the Messiah; in Mt. 3:16 the Spirit anointed Jesus at the Jordan river, setting him apart as Messiah; in Mt. 12:28, Lk. 11:20 and Acts 10:38 the Spirit empowered Jesus for his messianic ministry; in Heb. 9:14 the Spirit sustained Jesus for his atoning death, and Rom. 8:11 states that the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Spirit of God was present at the beginning of the God’s mission to the nations. The pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was the fulfilment of at least two biblical promises made to Israel, the first being the promise of Joel 2:28-32:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit…
However, Joel 2 was not the only prophetic scripture fulfilled at Pentecost. The proclamation of the Word of the Lord to the house of Israel and the Ruach breathing life into 3,000 souls was a fulfilment of Ezek. 37:1-14, in which Israel is pictured as a heap of dry bones. In the vision, God promises to recall his people from exile, following which he will breathe life into them and cause them to become a great army. According to vv 27 - 28, God’s dwelling place will be among resurrected Israel; he will be their God, they will be his people and, when his sanctuary is in their midst forever, the nations will know that he is ‘the LORD who sanctifies Israel.’ Israel’s promised resurrection was to have an effect on the nations.
2. Pentecost was the fulfilment of a Psalm
Commentators on the book of Acts recognise a symbolic significance in the sound like a wind and the tongues of fire, and various interpretations of the symbols have been suggested but few interpreters, if any, link the phenomena to Ps. 104:4, which states that God ‘makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire.’
In the readings for Pentecost, the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer includes verses 25-37 of Ps. 104 but, interestingly, not verse 4! But how fitting that with the coming of the Spirit, God’s messengers and servants should be initiated into their roles by the very elements God uses as his messengers and servants. God had spoken to Elijah 800 years before the events of Acts 2 through a ‘still, small voice’ rather than fire and a howling wind but at Pentecost he spoke with the unrestrained might and power of a spiritual tornado that uprooted three thousand observant Jews and Gentile proselytes from the kingdom of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of his Son.
3. Pentecost was the fulfilment of a Pattern
One of the most divisive issues within Evangelicalism today is Supersessionism or, as it is more commonly known, ‘Replacement Theology.’ Put simply, ‘Replacement Theology’ is the idea that ‘the Church’ has replaced Israel in the plans and purposes of God and that all the promises and privileges that belonged to the Jewish people prior to the coming of Messiah have been spiritualised and transferred to a new ‘spiritual’ Israel. Some years ago, on Whit Sunday, the churches in a small town on the south coast of England organised a street party, complete with party games and jelly and ice cream, to celebrate ‘the birthday of the Church.’ The idea was to attract locals in the hope (I presume) that they, like the crowd that gathered at Pentecost in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, would want to know how to be saved. Apart from the fact that the Holy Spirit is a hard act to follow, was the Church really born on the Day of Pentecost in 33AD?
Look up the word ‘church’ in an English Dictionary and you will probably read that the word is based on a medieval Greek term kuriakon doma, meaning the ‘Lord’s house’. Ask a Christian what ‘church’ is and the response will more than likely be that ‘Church’ is people not a building.’ Ask a non-Christians what ‘church’ is and the answer will probably be that it is a building. Theologically, the Christian is correct but from the point of view of linguistics, the non-Christian is right.
How would the disciples of Jesus have understood his declaration in Mt. 16:18, ‘I will build my church’? Although Mt. 16:18 is the first occurrence of the word ‘church’ in the Bible, none of the apostles asked what a ‘church’ was. The Greek word ekklesia, translated ‘church’ in Mt. 16, means an ‘assembly,’ or ‘congregation.’ But Jesus, of course, would have been speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, not in Greek, and the term he would have used was one with which his Jewish disciples would have been very familiar, Qahal.
In the Old Testament, Israel was God’s qahal, his ‘assembly.’ When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the third century BC, the translators of the Septuagint, as the Greek version was known, used ekklesia to translate qahal. ‘Church,’ in that sense, therefore, was a concept with which the disciples of Jesus were very familiar and, according to Stephen in Acts 7:38, God had an ekklesia, a ‘church’ or ‘assembly’ in the wilderness; that assembly being Israel. We must not think, therefore, that the Church was born at Pentecost in 33AD or that the Church has replaced Israel as the people of God. From the time of the Exodus, Israel was God’s ‘church,’ or assembly, and continues to be so.
If that sounds confusing, it might be helpful for us to look at the subject from another perspective.
Jer. 11:16 depicts Israel as ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit,’ and in Rom. 11:16-22, Paul draws on Jeremiah’s imagery to speak of Israel as an ‘olive tree’ of which Jewish individuals are the branches. Those Jews, or ‘natural branches,’ who refused to embrace their Messiah were broken off but believing Gentiles – like branches from an uncultivated olive tree – were grafted onto the cultivated olive tree of Israel. Whether cultivated or uncultivated, both varieties of branch are joined to the same tree and are nourished by the same sap that comes from the roots of the tree, namely the Patriarchs. At Pentecost, God did not cut down one olive tree and plant a new one, called the Church; he began to call people from all nations, not just from Israel, to be part of his beautiful green olive tree in order they might produce good fruit.
Something new did come into existence at Pentecost, however: a spiritual temple. In the Old Testament, a developing pattern may be discerned in the way God meets with his people. Before the Fall, God met and communed with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After the expulsion from Eden, Cain and Abel approached God as individuals, each at their own altar. After the call of Abraham, worship began to take place at a family altar and the mark of the faith of the patriarchs (as we observe in Gn. 12:8; 13:12; 26:17, 25; 33:18-20) was that they each pitched their tent, built their altar and called on the name of the Lord
At the Exodus, the family altar was replaced by a national shrine. The people lived in tents and, under the direction of the Lord, a tabernacle was constructed where his people might meet with their God. When the people settled in the land and began to live in permanent dwellings, Solomon erected a temple of stone to serve as the house of God.
Following the destruction of the temple in 586 BC, God foretold in Ezek. 40-48 that a better, bigger and perfect temple would be constructed, out of which would flow a river of healing water (47:1-12). There are biblical interpreters who insist Ezekiel’s vision must be interpreted in a strictly literalistic manner but such an approach raises a number of serious difficulties. According to Ezekiel's measurements, the temple will be so large that both the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives will have to be enlarged and expanded in order to accommodate it. A clue to understanding the true nature of Ezekiel’s vision can be found in Jn. 2:19, where Jesus speaks of his body as the temple. And in Jn. 7:38, on the final day of the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus declares: ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”.’
‘This,’ says John, Jesus ‘said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ The Spirit was ‘given,’ of course, at Pentecost but which ‘Scripture’ foretold the Spirit flowing like a river of living water out of the hearts of those that believe in Messiah? The only Old Testament passage that speaks of ‘living water’ flowing out of anything is Ezek. 47:1-12, in which a river of water flows from the temple of God bringing life to wherever it flows.
A series of New Testament texts, including Mt. 24:1-2; 26:61; Acts 6:14; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-8; Rev. 22:1-5, lead us to conclude that The Body of Messiah, comprised of living stones, is the new temple, a ‘habitation of God in the Spirit’, out of which flows living water for the healing of the nations. At Pentecost, the Spirit began to flow from the followers of Jesus in the temple where multitudes were observing Shavuot, to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and, ultimately, to the uttermost parts of the earth.
In Ex. 40, when the tabernacle was erected, a cloud of glory authenticated it as the dwelling place of God. When Solomon dedicated the temple in 2 Chron. 7, fire fell from heaven and the glory of God filled the place. In Acts 2, God authenticated his new, living temple with a glory even greater than that of the previous temples. At Pentecost, God dedicated and authenticated his living temple that was destined to fill the entire world, not simply the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. And whereas, in times gone by, God was encountered in particular locations such as Eden, the altar, the tabernacle and the temple, since Pentecost Jews and Gentiles may meet with him not so much in a universal temple but as living stones in that temple.
The temple reminded people of Eden. It was built on a mountain from which flowed the Kidron stream and its architecture included cherubim, palm trees, gourds and other plants and flowers. It was a representation of Eden from which had flowed four rivers. The single river that flowed from Ezekiel’s temple caused trees to grow in the wilderness, the leaves of which brought healing. In John’s parallel vision in the final chapter of the Bible, the river flows from a temple city, the New Jerusalem, and on either side of the river grows the tree of life with twelve kinds of fruit, yielding fruit every month. Even the leaves of the tree bring healing to the nations. Little wonder, then, that the hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote that in Jesus ‘the tribes of Adam boast more blessings than their father lost’!
4. Pentecost was the fulfilment of a Plan
Immediately after the fall of man, in Gn. 3:15, God announced his plan to redeem his fallen creation. The call of Abraham was part of the divine redemptive plan, the end of which was that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gn. 12:3). Israel’s calling was a missionary calling and the nation is described in Jer. 2:3 as ‘the firstfruits of [the Lord’s] increase’ that is, the firstfruits of God’s harvest from among all nations.
In Jer. 4:1-4, the Lord declared that Israel’s relationship to him would have a beneficial effect on the Gentiles:
‘If you will return, O Israel,’ says the LORD, ‘return to Me; and if you will put away your abominations out of My sight, Then you shall not be moved. And you shall swear, ‘The LORD lives,’ in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness; the nations shall bless themselves in Him, and in Him they shall glory.’
God’s plan of redemption is fundamental to understanding Ps.67:
God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us. That your way may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise you. Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For you shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations on earth… Then the earth shall yield her increase; God, our own God, shall bless us… and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him.
The first two verses of Ps. 67 remind us of the High Priestly benediction of Num. 6:24-26:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.
They also bring to mind Gn. 12:1-3:
Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
God repeated the promise to Isaac in Gn. 26:4: ‘… in your seed all nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ He made the same promise to Jacob in Gn. 28:14: ‘… in you and in your seed all families of earth shall be blessed.’
According to Genesis, before the nations could be blessed, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had to be blessed. At every festival the high priest blessed the people and in Ps. 67 the promise of the blessing of the nations is clarified. The blessing God has in mind for the nations is nothing less than their salvation. Could God have had anything less in mind when he promised to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants? Could he have anything less in mind when he blessed the people through their High Priest?
The psalmist recognised that although God had blessed Israel in many ways, the nation did not possess the blessings invoked by the high priest in their fulness. Moreover, the nations were not saved.
Israel could not enjoy the blessings of Num. 6:24-26 in their fulness, nor could the nations be saved until Messiah, the seed of Abraham came. And Ps. 67 is a prayer that Israel will be blessed fully and that the nations will know God’s salvation, his Yeshua! In the songs recorded in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, it becomes evident that with the birth of Yeshua, the invocations of the Aaronic benediction and the pleas of Ps. 67:1-2 were being answered.
In Ps. 67:1, the Hebrew poet appeals to God to show chanan grace, or mercy to Israel. In the Magnificat of Lk. 1:46-55, remembering that Mary spoke Hebrew, she sings:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour… his mercy [which in Hebrew would have been chanan] is for those who fear him from generation to generation… He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy [chanan], as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
In Lk 1:67-79, the blessings of Ps. 67, the high priestly blessing and the promise to Abraham all come together in the Song of Zechariah:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
According to Ps. 67, as it goes with Israel so it goes with the nations, and the Psalmist appeals to God to bless Israel. Before the nations can be blessed through the knowledge of Yeshua Israel must be blessed and the New Testament constantly emphasises the principle ‘to the Jew first,’ as Peter declares in Acts 3:24-26:
All the prophets… proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness."
There is a pattern in Ps. 67: Israel is blessed; then the nations are saved; then ‘Israel’s God’ blesses Israel. Paul reveals a similar framework of thought in Romans 11: Israel has been blessed but has rejected the blessing; the nations are being saved and are rejoicing in God’s salvation and this will ‘provoke Israel to jealousy’. At the moment, says Paul, only a remnant of Israel believes the gospel but that will not always be the case. There will be a fulness. ‘All Israel will be saved’.
God has called Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy. That is our duty.
Although tongues might at first reading appear to be the predominant phenomenon on the day of Pentecost, tongues were not most important feature; the preaching of the gospel was the crucial factor on that day. The gospel was preached to the Jews first but by the time the book of Acts closes the nations are blessing themselves in the Lord and glorying in him. Pentecost was the launch pad for the final stage of God’s plan for world redemption, a plan that has nothing less as its goal than the salvation of the nations and the liberation of the cosmos itself from the effects of the fall of Adam.
5. Pentecost was the fulfilment of Pentecost
Shavuot/Pentecost, like the other festivals of the Lord, was highly symbolic festival. It was the second of the annual pilgrim festivals at which every male Israelite was to appear before the face of God at the house of God in Jerusalem. The ‘place’ in which the 120 believers were when the Spirit fell on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 was the temple. The temple was the only place in which observant Jews would have been on the morning the Ruach of God came upon the disciples of Jesus. Had the 120 been in an upper room in another part of Jerusalem, those in the temple would have been unaware of the sound of the wind and the tongues of fire, and Peter certainly would not have been able to address thousands of his fellow Jews in the confines of Jerusalem’s narrow streets.
Shavuot was originally a harvest festival but by the first century of our era, as the Jewish people had become scattered among the nations, the festival had lost its primary harvest significance and become ‘the season of the giving of the law’ at Sinai. It is surely significant, then, that at the time when the Torah passage for Shavuot was being read in the temple the Spirit came down on Mount Zion. The Torah reading would have included Ex. 19:18:
Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain.
Nevertheless, the harvest significance had not disappeared and two wheat loaves made from the firstfruits of the wheat harvest were waved before God in the temple.
At both Passover and Pentecost, firstfruits were presented to God as wave offerings in the temple. The offering presented the day after the Sabbath of Passover week, as specified in Lv. 23:10-14 was the firstfruits of the barley harvest, and barley was considered the poor man’s food. The firstfruits offering at Shavuot was from the wheat harvest, and in Ps. 81:16 wheat is the rich man’s food. In 1 Cor. 15:21-23, when Paul describes Messiah as the ‘firstfruits from the dead’ he is likening Messiah’s resurrection to the Passover firstfruits offering, which was presented to God on the very day Jesus rose from the dead.
The Shavuot firstfruits offering was a different picture. The firstfruits of the wheat harvest was offered in the form of two loaves with leaven. It would seem that this offering is a picture of the believers – Jews and Gentiles – being incorporated into the body of Messiah at Shavuot. And as the poor man’s food signified Messiah and the rich man’s food represented believers in Messiah, we are reminded that, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 8:9, Messiah became poor for our sakes that we might become rich in Him.
There is a further significance to the fact that two loaves were offered. The number two is strongly associated in the Bible with witness. In Dt. 19:15, at least two witnesses were required for an acceptable testimony in a court of Israelite law and the principle finds a variety of applications within the New Covenant as, for example, in Mk. 6:7 when Messiah sent out His disciples by twos in order to preach the Good News. According to 1 Tim. 5:19, congregations are not to receive an accusation against an elder without at least two witnesses and, says Peter in
1 Pet. 3:7, in the marriage partnership there has to be agreement between both spouses for prayer to be accepted by God. Without two witnesses there is only opinion and following Pentecost God had both Jews and Gentiles as his witnesses to the world.
Moreover, the offering of the loaves was accompanied by a number of sacrifices including, as we read in Lv. 23: 19, a peace offering, in Hebrew a ‘shalom’. When the Apostle Paul speaks to Gentile believers at Ephesus, he says in 2:14-18:
For [Messiah] himself is our peace [offering], who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
The Sages of Israel recognised that the nation’s destiny was to bless the world, and regarded the coming of Ruth the Moabitess into Israel as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Gentiles into the blessings of Israel. That is why the Book of Ruth – which celebrates the coming of a Gentile into the commonwealth of Israel at harvest time – is read in synagogues at Shavuot. Ruth was blessed by becoming a member of Israel and Israel, in turn, was blessed by her becoming the ancestor of King David and the Messiah. At Pentecost in 33AD, there were Gentile proselytes, as well as natural Jews, incorporated into the commonwealth of Israel. According to Rom. 11:11-15 and 25-26, Gentiles have been blessed by Israel and are, in turn, called to be a blessing to the Jews, not least by provoking them to jealousy.
The 3,000 Jews and proselytes who believed Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost were the firstfruits of a harvest that would culminate in a world-wide ingathering from all lands. Rev. 7 refers to the Gentile converts as a ‘great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues’ (note the many ‘tongues’ of Acts 2). In Rev. 14:4 the 144,000 are identified as ‘firstfruits to God and to the Lamb’ and it is to them, the first generation of Jewish believers, that James addresses his epistle. According to James 1:1), his readers were from ‘the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad’ and, as he says in v.18 ‘a kind of firstfruits of His creatures’. While Peter, James, John and the other apostles continued to reap the firstfruits of God’s harvest within the house of Israel, Paul says in Gal. 2:9 that he and his companions were reaping a harvest from among the nations.
What, then, do the events of Pentecost as recorded in Acts say to us? The events of that day bring together a number of threads from the Old Testament scriptures that hints (some more strongly than others) at God’s plan and purpose for his creation. The teaching of Pentecost encourages us to trust that God’s purposes for creation will continue to unfold until at last all Israel is saved, the people of God from all nations are gathered into the kingdom, and ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.’
However difficult the task, however dark the days, the harvest nature of Pentecost encourages us to pursue mission in the knowledge that the firstfruits of God’s harvest which was presented to him on Mount Zion 2,000 years ago, guarantees a full harvest from all nations that no man can number. Therefore, we cannot afford the luxury of pessimism. In all our service, we can be ‘steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord our labour is not in vain.’ The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and his Messiah!

Thursday 9 May 2013

Former CWI Director slams Church of Scotlands Israel report

Former Free Church of Scotland Moderator Rev Dr John Ross (above) reflects on a controversial report from the Church of Scotland which denies any special privileges for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

‘The inheritance of Abraham?’, cobbled together by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council has been removed from the Kirk’s website because it is being rewritten by Church of Scotland officials.
Dr Ross was awarded his PhD for research on the Scottish Mission to the Jews, and previously served as General Secretary of Christian Witness to Israel and was the European Co-ordinator of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism.

The Church and Society Council’s report for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said John Ross, was ‘patronising and deeply offensive.’

The Times said it was ‘a slap in the face.’ The Jerusalem Post saw it as an ‘Anti-Jewish text [that] will shame the Church of Scotland’.

The Jewish Chronicle spoke of it as breathtaking arrogance and with impeccable logic, the evangelical Cranmer blog argued that the ‘Church of Scotland report denies Jesus was the promised Messiah’. I agree, but I am not in the least surprised.

Sally Foster-Fulton’s (Church and Society Council convener) report is both highly controversial and utterly superficial. It provides further proof of how a growing antisemitic tendency within the Kirk is leading to a deliberate rejection of the Church of Scotland’s historic missionary priorities.

In his critique of ‘The inheritance of Abraham?’, John Ross provides a very useful historical background to the report.

Here, then, is another stage on the Kirk’s inexorable journey away from is historical commitment to the Bible as the Word of God, its confessional theological heritage, and its erstwhile evangelical missionary commitments.

To all intents and purposes the Church of Scotland’s missionary interest in the Jews ended in 1981. That year the General Assembly redefined its relationship to the Jewish people in terms of dialogue with the community rather than the evangelisation of individuals. But this much vaunted high level project, considered so strategic, was stillborn.

In 1985 this reorientation gave rise to the Board of World Mission and Unity’s report, ‘Christians and Jews Today’. This report was sent down to the Kirk’s presbyteries for consideration, but two years later less than half had bothered to respond.

For most, the Church of Scotland’s historic relationship to the Jewish people was unimportant and uninteresting. Enthusiasm for Jewish missions, which had been sustained for a hundred and fifty years, had finally been overcome by inertia.

In the years that followed, the Kirk’s Board of World Mission and Unity ceased to make an annual report to the General Assembly on Jewish related issues. The historic view of Israel, as the Jewish people, both in the Land and the Diaspora, was jettisoned.

Israel was now seen as synonymous with the State of Israel and support for Israel was mischievously misrepresented as a tendency to uncritically rubber stamp any old Knesset policy.

By 2000, the Kirk’s interest was refocused on the political situation in the Middle East. Its reports extended a biased support for Palestinian cause, dropping the term ‘Israel’ in favour of a mythical entity called ‘Israel/Palestine.’

It is significant, therefore, that the 2013 report comes not from the World Mission Council, but the Church and Society Council, the Jewish people being no longer of any missionary interest to the Kirk.

The most grievous omission of the current report is its total neglect of the Church’s historical recognition of the great debt it owes, under God, to the Jewish people. Recognition of this fact need not lead to uncritical approval of everything done by the State of Israel.

Indeed it is the prerogative of friends to offer strong constructive criticism. But today’s Church of Scotland is no friend to the Jewish people, on whom it has turned its back.

If this report is accepted, it will prove that the Kirk has turned St Paul’s ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ (Romans 9:2) for the Jewish people, into scorn and rejection. How different the stance adopted by Thomas Chalmers, who, in his Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, described a sensitive sharing of the gospel with the Jewish people as ‘the first and foremost object of Christian policy’.

The downgrade we are currently seeing in the Church of Scotland in this, as in many other areas, is inevitable and it will get worse.

Remove the lynchpin of Scripture as the Word of God, as the liberals did, and in time the wheels fall off the ecclesiastical vehicle.

Dr Ross's comments are covered this morning in The Scotsman and in the Church of Scotland's Life and Work.

Rev Stephen Sizer predictably and enthusiastically praised the Kirk report and appeared on the Iranian-run Press TV to endorse the report. He also used the report to promote his own anti-Israel material.