Do you want eternal life…or the Kingdom of God?

There are two types of Gospels. We call the first type the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means something like “looking with.” We call these three the Synoptics because they look at Jesus in a similar way. This leaves the Gospel of John as the other Gospel.

In fact, only about 8% of the Gospel of John overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels. The chronology is different, the few events are different order, and the style of Jesus’ ministry is different. Rather than showing Jesus performing many miracles like in the Synoptics, John focuses in on 7. Rather than short teachings grouped together with stories, John is mainly comprised of long discourses of Jesus, often in ongoing discussion with Jewish religious leaders.

One difference of interest: eternal life.

Kingdom of God vs. Eternal Life

Matthew, Mark, and Luke characterize Jesus as teaching about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew). The summary statement of his ministry is “repent, for the Kingdom is at hand” (Matt 4.17 and parallels).

In John, by contrast, Jesus regularly speaks about eternal life.

What are we to make of this? Did Jesus have two different ministries? Why are John and the Synoptics so different from each other on this point?

Two sides of the same coin

Before answering this, consider for a moment the following two statements:

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I am a follower of Jesus.

What is the difference between these two? While the language is distinct and they certainly have different emphases, they are basically equivalent. I prefer the second expression to the first because I think the identity “Christian” has too much cultural baggage associated with it to be useful in many contexts. But, both expressions are essentially synonymous.

I contend that this is what we see in kingdom of God and eternal life in the Synoptics and John. Two different ways of expressing the same basic idea. And ways that would make sense to different sorts of people.

Kingdom of God and eternal life in the same context

Consider John chapter 3. In John 3.3 and 5, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about entering the Kingdom of God:

3.3 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

3.5 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God

All well and good. This sounds like Jesus from the Synoptics. But note that as the conversation continues, suddenly the topic changes. In John 3.14-16 we read:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In this one conversation Jesus and Nicodemus move from discussing entering the Kingdom of God to having eternal life without any obvious break in the discussion. This suggests that these two phrases represent the same basic idea.

This suggestion is confirmed in Mark 9.42-10.31 where we again see kingdom of God and eternal life occurring in close connection.

Mark 9.47: And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell

Then again, the Rich Young Ruler comes and asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10.17). In the follow up discussion Jesus has with his disciples, he tells them,

“29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

In between those two mentions of eternal life, Jesus says this:

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!

The takeaway? The Kingdom of God and eternal life are two different ways of talking about the same central reality.

The Kingdom of Life, the eternal kingdom

There are a couple benefits from recognizing that “kingdom of God” and “eternal life” are similar concepts.

First, it helps us to see that although the Gospels are different from each other in a variety of ways, some of the differences are more cosmetic than actual. It appears that John, in writing his Gospel, used the “preacher’s prerogative” to shape his message to his audience. The language of eternal life requires less Jewish and OT background to understand what it means as part of God’s plan.

Second, it reminds us that the language and concepts we have for understanding humanity and God and the relationship we are created to have through Jesus is flexible. We are not stuck with just one idea.

Growing up, I don’t remember hearing much Kingdom of God theology, but lots about eternal life. I personally find “kingdom of God” more evocative and prefer that. Both are right ways to understand truths about what it means to follow Jesus. They bring distinct nuances.

As we think about our personal lives and about explaining and living gospel truths before others in our lives, it can pay to be flexible. We have more than one set of conceptual tools in our toolbox for understanding how we, and other people in our lives, are meant to relate to God in this life and in the life to come.

The guests at the parable of the banquet, part 2

undesired guests at the party

In part 1 of this two-part post we revisited the Old Testament (OT), with a special focus on the difference between sin (narrower category) and impurity (broader category). Now we will take this background and use it to enlighten what is going on in Jesus’ parable of the banquet as found in Luke 14.

What does Jesus do?

With this paradigm of purity, we have a different set of concepts for thinking about the significance of what Jesus did in his ministry.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of how the parable works. In Jesus’ story, the invited guests miss out on the feast because they don’t respond when it is ready. In anger, the feast-giver has his servants go out and bring in the “poor and crippled and blind and lame” to share in the feast.

This guest list is what triggers a connection back to the passage in Lev 21. When we read the parable as a transparent description of the question, “who will be at the feast celebrating God’s fulfilling of his joyous promises,” we find that the people there are the very ones excluded from access to the holy in the priestly service. This is surprising: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Access to the holy is reworked in line with Jesus and his work, which shares both continuity and discontinuity with the Law from the OT.

This passage is by no means the only place such an emphasis appears in the Gospels. In fact, it is something of a theme running through Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Jesus’ Table Fellowship

Jesus shared regular table fellowship with “sinners” and other social outsiders. This is part of where he got his reputation of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

In the ancient world, who you ate with had significant implications. Sharing a meal in someone’s house meant social acceptance of the other people with whom you were dining. One author notes:

“a scrupulous Pharisee would not eat at the home of a common Israelite since he could not be sure that the food was ceremonially clean or that it had been properly tithed”

Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels, 477.

Here we are with purity again. To remain ritually pure, and thus have symbolic access to the holy, required careful obedience. Since they could not control whether their host was doing the right things with their food, pious religious types only shared meals with others who were also pious on whom they could count to not bring impurity upon them through a failure to have ceremonially clean food.

Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners sets this view on its head. In fellowship with sinners Jesus was, of course, opening himself up to ceremonial impurity. What differed, though, is that Jesus came to bring access to God on a different plane. The coming Kingdom of God means free salvation to all who respond in faith. One might say that it brings open access to the holy that is no longer dependent on how pure/impure the individual is in their obedience to the Law. Jesus is able to “give purity” rather than to be defiled when he comes in contact with the impure. We see this, for example, in the way that Jesus heals people of skin diseases and raises the dead without ever becoming impure. Since Jesus has a super-abundance of purity, he is able to give it to all who will follow him. Therefore all alike, regardless of personal purity, are able to have access to the divine, that is, to God.

The Kingdom of God as restoration

One other point is worth brief mention here. On the guest list in Jesus’ parable are the blind and crippled. As pointed out in part 1, being blind and crippled was not in itself sinful. Though it results in being unclean for priestly work, it was not sin. However, during Jesus’ day we see evidence that thinking had developed linking physical ailments with sin. Consider the man born blind from John 9. The disciples ask Jesus,

“who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The association is that the state of being blind—though not inherently sinful—was punishment for sin. Of course, there is precedent for this way of thinking in the OT, but the record is complicated. For example, Job was stricken with various ailments, but that was not related to sin. But King Uzziah was struck with leprosy (some sort of skin condition, which may or may not have been what we now consider leprosy) for transgressing his boundaries and approaching the holy even though he was not a priest authorized to do so (2 Chronicles 26). While the precedents are mixed it is easy to see how people would take God’s promises to bless and curse the nation based on its sin and individualize that (see Deut 28, for example). If God brings punishment such as plagues, difficulties in childbirth, etc. for the sin of people groups, then the sin of individuals must also be expressed in their physical circumstances in life.

This line of thinking provides a second helpful background for understanding Jesus’ ministry and the import of the parable. Jesus regularly healed people with physical ailments: blind, lame, crippled hands, etc. These were people whose physical circumstances would have (in the case they were from the tribe of Levi) rendered them unfit for access to the holy in priestly duty. They were also hindrances to participation in community life. They were also interpreted as symbols of God’s judgment for sin. Taken together, the blind, lame, and crippled were symbolic of the downtrodden and outsiders who neither had access to the goods of society nor access to the holy.

Jesus comes with a ministry of healing and restoration. Quoting from Isaiah, he describes his ministry as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4.18-19, ESV)

One of the ways in which Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom of God as restoration was in fellowshipping with and healing people whose physical infirmities placed them in various states of impurity, thus excluded from access to God, thus excluded from the expected blessings which God promised.

Tying it all together

Thinking about the parable of the banquet, we find that there is a multiplex of significance in the composition of the guests who end up at the banquet. More could be said on this front, as we have ignored the last stage in the parable where the servants go out to the hedges and highways to bring people in. The concept of purity turns out to be a helpful OT background for understanding why Jesus uses these categories as those who make it to the banquet.

The infirm map well onto the categories of priests who could not carry out temple work because their physical infirmities rendered them of insufficient purity to approach the holiness of God’s presence. The further theological implication that physical infirmity was tied up with sin added greater depth to the notion of people being impure. Jesus presents the very group assumed to be unworthy to enter into God’s presence as the one which gets to enjoy the joyous fulfillment of God’s promises to his people.

In Jesus’ parable, as well as in his ministry, he laid an example that access to the holy was being redefined in surprising ways. That is a call which we must never tire of hearing. In Jesus’ day, people who were certain that their approach to life was the one which led to access to the holy struggled with Jesus’ ministry. Jesus challenged them and pointed to a different way, as hinted at and promised in the OT—a way of faith and a way of God’s own making. Lest we be guilty of the same struggle, we must ourselves be aware of the human tendency to limit the path of access to God in ways that God doesn’t. We have a tendency to mix standards of our own behaviors and expectations in. We end up saying something like, “in order to come to God you have to do x, y, and z.” It is no coincidence that the steps we add tend to map onto the way that we live life.

Jesus is no more impressed by Christian versions of an “access to God through following prescribed purity codes” than he was of those of his day. While purity and holiness were and always will be important, Jesus challenges us to check where our hearts are at, because they can all too easily miss being at the place where God’s heart is at.

The guests at the parable of the banquet, part 1

undesired guests at the party

What on earth does having damaged testicles have to do with the message of the Kingdom of God? Or for that matter, running sores, being a hunchback, or having an eye defect? Perhaps you thought about this as we looked at the parable of the banquet from the Gospel of Luke.  Someone raised the question last week after the service about what connection the passage read from Leviticus has to the Parable of the Banquet in Luke. Here are some thoughts on this question.

These questions are raised from Leviticus 21.17-23. I suggest that this passage shows an important backdrop to understanding the profound nature of what Jesus came to do, did, and is still doing today. It fits within a larger pattern in Jesus’ ministry of sharing table fellowship with sinners and social outsiders. But it takes a little to work our way back into understanding how these hold together.

The place to start: Old Testament (OT) purity laws.

To avoid an over-lengthy post, I am splitting this discussion up into 2 parts. Part 2 can be accessed here.

OT purity

These OT purity laws are really important to help understand how novel, surprising, and meaningful Jesus’ actions of dining with the sinners were. To start with, here is the Leviticus text (21:17-23):

16 The Lord said to Moses, 17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’”

At issue in this text is the priests. No man in the priestly family with one of these defects could bring sacrifices in the the tabernacle or temple. While they could eat the food set aside for the priests, they did not get to serve in the temple. Why? Is God prejudiced against handicapped people or people who happened to receive a major injury at some point in their life?

While that may stand out as a reason, the explanation lies deeper than just “you look bad, so I don’t want to see you.”

Orienting ourselves to the Law

When Christians talk about the OT Law, we tend to talk about it in terms of sin. The Law prohibits certain things, breaking the Law is sinning, and Jesus is the savior from sin that God provides. This is all well and good, as far as it goes, but it is far from a complete picture. In the NT, the Law often is talked about in terms of sin, but the category of sin does not exhaust what the Law deals with. In fact, a lot of the laws in the Exodus-Deuteronomy chunk of Scripture do not deal with sin, but what would better be described as purity and impurity (or clean/unclean).

Consider this following brief description:

“On the basis of Levitical law, everything in life was either holy or common for the Hebrews. Those things determined common were subdivided into categories of clean and unclean. Clean things might become holy through sanctification or unclean through pollution. Holy things could be profaned and become common or even unclean. Unclean things could be cleansed and then consecrated or sanctified to be made holy.”

Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed, 132.

Sin is only one way for a “common” or “holy” thing to become unclean. Disease, infection, contamination, etc. were other ways. There is an underlying logic standing behind laws about mildew in walls and on garments as well as laws on impurity caused by menstruation and ejaculation. They are not sin issues; rather, they are issues of clean/unclean. While an obvious and satisfactory reason uniting all the different purity laws is evasive, there are some major trends which run through them. Two of these are (1) life and death and (2) order/disorder.

Life and death

First, purity laws often relate to the categories of life and death. Semen and menstrual blood relate to the production of life, and thus result in being unclean, while sweat and breast milk do not, thus do not result in being unclean.  

Order and Disorder

Second, the concept of order and disorder stands behind such laws as dealing with mildew in a house or on fabric as well as laws about physical impediments.

Why bother with all this clean/unclean stuff?

Purity as access to the sacred

In short, purity and impurity have to do with access to the sacred. In practice, this means someone who was not clean could not go into the tabernacle or temple. The closer one came to the temple, the greater the purity requirements. For the average Israelite, maintaining a generic state of purity would probably not have been that difficult. Think more like the effort required to keep up with the rules in a Homeowners Association than the sort of herculean effort people often make keeping the Law out to be. While the rules for the HOA may look and sound onerous on the outside, when everyone around you is doing it to, it is just the way things are. For the Israelite, life was arranged to keep general purity and to deal with impurity when it came up.

However, purity/impurity was a constant factor in access to God. As God dwelt symbolically among his people in the tabernacle and then the temple, there was a geographical place at the center of relationship to God. Of course, people learned about, followed, and worshiped God more than just at the temple. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that attendance at the temple was a regular feature for most Israelites in their lives at any point in its history. But, the center point was a place. And to get to that place required ritual purity because only the pure could enter into the presence of the holy.

The priests are special

The passage in Leviticus cited above is about the priests. The priests have a special set of guidelines, because they have a special relationship to the holy. While an ordinary Israelite could maintain generic purity without too much effort, priests required a greater level of purity because their role kept them in more constant contact with the holy. And this higher stringency is reflected in the laws regarding physical health among priests.

There is nothing sinful about having a skin disease, or a hunchback, or even damaged testicles. Members of the priestly families with these health conditions and/or handicaps and/or injuries were not excluded from priestly service because they were sinful, but because they fell short of the requisite purity for their job. This sort of purity seems to operate under the logic of functionality and orderliness. An orderly and functional human body does not have a hunchback; thus a hunchback is a departure from the norm, thus unclean for the purpose of priestly work.

One might think of it this way. Physical handicaps and broken bodies are embodied representations of the marring effect of human rebellion against God. To have a physical handicap or injury or ailment is not itself sinful, but it is a lived-with mark that the world is broken. To approach God as a priest required a level of purity which did not allow bringing broken bodies into the service. That sounds harsh to us (even though in our society we tend to de facto segregate people with handicaps and physical ailments aside anyway), but that is the logic at work in the OT Law.

Summary on purity and the law

While the Law does deal with sin and morality, this is just one category within the broader paradigm of pure/impure, clean/unclean. A lot of the violations which render one unclean are not moral/sinful, they are just pure/impure. However, the very existence of purity and impurity is an embodied reminder that access to the holy—access to God—is ruptured. Adam and Eve, we are told, had access to God in the Garden of Eden. They talked with him, and it is implied that they regularly had interaction with him, in whatever form that would have taken. For everyone after the rebellion against God, we live in a constant state in which our access to God is (mercifully) cut off because if we were to come into contact with the holy in our impure state, we would die. The Law, among many other things, provides the means to stay pure/clean to a proficient degree in order that the people of Israel could bear God’s name and have him in their presence. Even this generic level of purity, though, is not sufficient to gain access to God. For that, people are too impure.

This paradigm of purity serves as a key background for understanding Jesus’ ministry. To that, we turn now in part 2.