Why Greek Matters (Part 10) – Knowing the Love of Christ – Is it about “me” or “us”?

“It’s all about me and Jesus” — a sentiment frequently made to express the fervency of one’s personal relationship with God. Such fervency is, with no doubt, remarkably valuable. The question remains whether this is a sufficient statement of Christian faith (“it’s all about…”) or is even potentially misleading. In Ephesians 3:18, Paul prays for Christians, as translated in NASB, that they “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge…”

What is the focus of this prayer? That Christians would have personal experiences of the love of Christ? Is Paul’s focus on personal inward experience of love? The surrounding context should at least have us on the alert. Ephesians 2:11-22 describes God uniting Jew and Gentile into one new humanity in Christ, who are built together into a temple where God might dwell. Ephesians 3:1-12 describes the gospel whereby Jews and Gentiles are made heirs together and one body together. The passage following the prayer, Ephesians 4:1-6, urges believers to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Ephesians 4:7-16, emphasizes the purpose of Christian ministry as working towards the “unity of the faith” (4:13) so the whole church is a single body, unified and growing together. Thus, the prayer in chapter three is surrounded by long passages articulating the necessity of unity and love in the body of Christ, a love that is not merely personal and inward, but interpersonal and outwardly-moving.

In Ephesians 3:18, the word “comprehend” is καταλαμβάνω (katalambano). The primary meaning of this word is “to make something one’s own, to attain.” Paul uses this word in Phil 3:12: “I press on, if also I might make my own/attain that for which Christ Jesus made me his own.” “To comprehend” is to mentally make something one’s own, and is a nuance of καταλαμβάνω (katalambano) which is a relatively minor usage of the word. We should probably assume more common meanings for a word before selecting less common. Beyond this, if we look at Ephesians 4:13, we find a cluster of five words that also occur in this prayer:

…until we all (3:18 – with all the saints) attain to the unity of the faith (3:17), and of the knowledge (3:19) of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness (3:19) of Christ (3:17).

The word “attain” in this verse is καταντάω (katantao) rather than καταλαμβάνω (katalambano). Paul uses καταντάω katantao) parallel to καταλαμβάνω (katalambano) in Philippians 3:11-12 – “If somehow I might attain (καταντάω, katantao) to the resurrection from the dead…but I press on if also I might make my own/attain (καταλαμβάνω, katalambano) that for which Christ Jesus made me his own.” Is it possible that in light of the parallel use of these two words in Philippians 3 and the common words between Eph. 3:18 and 4:13, that Paul’s essential burden is the same? Is it possible that “attaining to the love of Christ” (3:18) and “attaining to the unity of the faith” (4:13) are parallel ideas?

What would happen if we keep in mind the focus on unity in the surrounding context and read this passage with καταλαμβάνω (katalambano) meaning “attain?” Christ “dwelling in your hearts” (the “your” is plural in Greek) refers not so much to the private experience of faith, but Christ himself living and expressing himself in the midst of the Christian community. To be “rooted and established in love” is not individuals, but the whole Church having its foundations laid in the practice of love, it’s entire life together shaped and guided by love. Thus Paul prays that the Church would “attain to,” and “live up to” the width, length, height, and depth of the love that Christ himself loves with. The church needs to be strengthened so they can walk out this kind of love. Then the church experiences (“knows” – Eph. 3:18) the love of Christ by loving others and being loved within the christian community. This does not exclude personal experiences of the love of Christ, or even the necessity of such. It merely places them in a larger context. It is as the Church lives up to and attains to the love of Christ, loving one another with Christ’s own love, that we become a holy temple which is filled with the fullness of God’s glory.

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Why Greek Matters (Part 9) – The Prodigal Son and the Resurrection of the Dead

Small details sometimes mean little – at other times they contribute significantly to the meaning of a passage. In the familiar story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, a verb occurs twice that often is translated  “get up” (NRSV, NASB) or “arise” (ESV, KJV). First in verse 18 when the son comes to his senses and says “I will arise and go to my father.” Then again in verse 20: “And arising, he went to his father.” This word in Greek (ἀνίστημι, anistēmi), is the common word for getting or standing up. However, it has a significant metaphorical usage for “getting up” or rising from the dead (Mk 8:31; 9:9f, 31; 10:34; 16:9; Lk 18:33; 24:7, 46; Jn 20:9; Ac 17:3; 1 Th 4:14). The name Anastasia comes from the Greek word for resurrection (ἀνάστασις, anastasis) which is derived from this verb.

This may seem like an incidental detail. However, when taken together with other features of this passage, a larger picture begins to emerge:

  • Twice the father says that the son was “dead and has come back to life” (Lk 15:24; 32).
  • Both of these statements from the Father come at the conclusion of the two major sections of the passage – the first concerning the younger son (vv. 11-24), the second the older (vv. 25-32)
  • The son describes himself as “perishing” or “dying” in v. 17 (ἀπόλλυμαι, apollumai)
  • The same verb is used in vv. 24 and 32 alongside the dead/alive contrast saying the son was perishing (“was lost”) but now is found.

Resurrection thus emerges as significant theme in this passage. The younger son is pictured as rising from the dead when he returns home, and the use of anistēmi underscores this, albeit in a subtle way. It is very possible that Jesus’ usage of the resurrection motif relates to Ezekiel 37, where the prophet Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones which come back to life. Ezekiel is told that this resurrection metaphorically depicts the restoration of the nation of Israel when they return from their exile and captivity. We can see numerous parallels between Israel’s story of exile, and the Prodigal Son’s story:

  • The son leaves home and lives in a foreign land, just as Israel was exiled in Babylon
  • The son’s departure was related to dissolute living, just as Israel’s exile was related to sin
  • The son’s occupation of feeding pigs, the stereotypical unclean animal, corresponds to Israel’s compromise with the manner of life characteristic of the Gentiles
  • The son’s return is associated with a confession of sin.
  • Israel is often depicted as God’s son (Ex 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1)

Taken together, Jesus seems to be telling a story, not simply about resurrection from the dead, but Israel’s resurrection from the dead – of their restoration to God and as God’s people. So what does all this mean? Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son in response to the Pharisees and Scribes grumbling about him eating with tax collectors and sinners (Lk 15:1-2), as eating with unclean social outcasts was a moral issue for them. This mention of eating is no small detail as the previous chapter has three parables about dining. Verse 15 makes explicit that these parables are about the Kingdom of God. The third parable (14:17-24), describes people who participate in a feast and others who do not, much like the older brother’s refusal to celebrate the return of the younger son, despite the father’s pleading.

The point of this parable seems to be two-fold:

1) Jesus’ practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners was no less than the beginning of Israel’s long awaited “resurrection,” which in Jewish tradition, had implications of global justice and restoration (Is 42:4; 49:6; Ps 96). The restoration of all things would flow from a restoration of Israel as God’s agents of justice. This restoration program was beginning through Jesus, however with the least likely – the social and moral outcasts. Yet, as they repent, they become the recipients of God’s rejoicing acceptance and they take a central role in God’s Kingdom purpose of bringing justice and restoration to broken humanity.

2) As amazing as this is, the more pointed message is directed at the Scribes and Pharisees, who initially provoked this parable and to whom it is directed. They believed the “tax collectors and sinners” were excluded from God’s purposes because they failed to scrupulously follow the Pharisee’s moral and ritual code (which in some ways went well beyond the law recorded in Scripture, and in some ways ignored major parts it – cf. Matt. 23:23). They were not primarily trying to earn their way into God’s favor (just as talk of earning does not come up in this parable), but were drawing the boundary lines to show who were God’s people and who were not. By drawing the boundary lines in the way they did, they maintained the sense of their own superiority by excluding most everyone else, thus entirely missing the purpose of God’s people – to exist for the sake of those outside, rather than being against them.

Jesus is saying that just as the older brother refused to come to the celebration, the Pharisees, by drawing the boundary lines in the way they were by trying to exclude others whom God had already reconciled, actually were excluding themselves from being in God’s house, and participating in the restoration of Israel. By insisting on their elitist boundary lines, they were placing themselves outside of the people who would be the agents of God’s glad reconciliation and restoration for the whole world. God’s work of resurrection and new creation was beginning in and through Jesus but more than not noticing it, the Pharisees were definitively placing themselves outside of it – remaining in the field, in exile so to speak, when the whole family is returning home with rejoicing.

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Why Greek Matters (Part 8) – Leading Many Sons and Daughters to Glory

Hebrews 2:10 - For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons (and daughters) to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (ESV)

What picture does the idea of Jesus “bringing many to glory” conjure in your mind? Perhaps you see yourself in the bottom of a pit, stuck and helpless. Jesus standing at the top of the pit, reaches down and pulls you out. Or perhaps we could use by analogy the common way of saying someone “brought me into their office/house/etc.” If we follow these examples, we are in one place (which incidentally, is a pretty bad place), while Jesus is in another (a good place). Thus in saving us, Jesus brings us from the place we are to a different place. The focus of the movement is us. We are the ones who are brought from one place to another. Jesus does not move. His position is relatively static and motionless.

In this verse, the word “bringing” could also be translated “leading” (from the word ἄγω, agō). Jesus leads many sons and daughters to glory. Rather than standing at the top of a pit and pulling us out, Jesus is shown as the one who fully enters into our situation and leads the way out. Jesus, because we as humans share flesh and blood, he also partook of them (Heb. 2:14). But his entrance into our situation was not limited to physicality itself, but all the weakness and frailty that comes with being made of “flesh.” Jesus experienced suffering and temptation (Heb. 2:18), which undoubtedly had physical, mental, and emotional dimensions.

Not only does Jesus come down and fully share our experience, he goes ahead of us to lead us into our future. He is our forerunner (Heb. 6:20), the one who runs ahead as a precursor or predecessor. He is leading us to “glory,” a term which has already been used twice in the previous few verses, first to describe the exalted state God intended for every human being in creation (Heb. 2:7), and second, to describe the exalted state Jesus possesses in his resurrection and ascension (Heb. 2:9). In being raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand, Jesus became something as a human being, that was originally purposed for all human beings to share.

As Jesus overcomes the pangs of death, bursts the bonds of decay, and ascends to a place as God’s vice-regent over the entire created order, he treads a path we are all meant to follow. He is leading us to glory. As the image of God so gloriously endowed to the human race has been so corrupted and muddled by a long history of violence, hatred, exploitation, and death, Jesus embodies within himself, the full restoration of that image, the full liberation from its debilitating corruption. He escapes the tyranny of sin and death, and becomes an agent of God’s gracious and life-giving rulership on Earth. In such, he beckons us to follow him into the future we are meant to share with him. Charles Wesley captures this so well in one my favorite hymns, as he echoes this invitation:

Soar we now where Christ has led // Following our exalted head // Made like him, like him we rise // Ours the cross, the grave, the skies!

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Reading the Bible in Widescreen

Definitely a first world problem — you want to watch a movie and the only DVD available is in the dreaded full-screen edition — the version that chops off the edges of the film to make it fit into a square TV shape. Anathema to a film connoisseur, but perhaps favored by one preferring their television to lack black swatches on top and bottom, what is really at stake here? Two of the main problems are when one cuts the sides off the original film, the number of characters one sees is potentially reduced and this exaggerates the significance of what is left on the screen.

Does something similar happen when we read the Bible? Recently I was leading a discussion for a group of about a dozen Bible students. I had them read out loud in turns, starting at the beginning of Colossians and continuing through chapter three. I then gave them three key words, which if I was to do this again I would add a fourth, so I’ll include it here:

Corporate – having to do with a larger group of people than just one’s self, namely those one is in relationship with, an entire congregation, or the larger Church

Bodily – having to do with the physical and sensory world of bodies, not just the “soul”

Cosmic – having to do with the entire creation beyond humans – animate and inanimate

Eschatological – understood in the broadest sense of anything having to do with God’s big future for the world in which he will restore all things and make all wrong things right (cf. Rev. 21:1ff)

I instructed the students, that as we read, anyone should simply shout out the word when they heard something spoken that related to one of these words. You may have already noticed what all these words have in common: they all focus on issues that are larger than the individual person and their internal spiritual life. As we read, the chorus of outbursts was at times incessant. We could hardly get through a single verse without one (often more than one) of these words blurted out. Sometimes it was readily obvious. Other times I gave some brief instruction to see how a certain concept was eschatological, corporate, etc. (see for example, “Christ in Y’all the Hope of Glory“).

Beside being a rollicking and hilarious fun time, there was for many, a big “Ah ha!” They were seeing how often the Bible addresses these issues. They were “reading the Bible in widescreen.” Young believers are often told that their faith is all about “you and Jesus,” or that the Bible is essentially a “love letter” from God to them. While I understand the well-intent, the difficulty with all this is the degree of disappointment we set people up for when they actually begin to read the Bible. One only needs to read a few pages of the Gospels or a Pauline letter (no less 1 Kings!) to realize that what they are reading is not immediately about them individually. It does not sound like anything approximating a “love letter.” They are left with the daunting task of reinterpreting everything they read as being about “me and Jesus,” which often ends in discouragement because, I imagine, they intuitively sense how much of a stretch this is. Tragically, many conclude that the problem either lies with them — they are too stupid, too dull, too unspiritual, too immature — or with the Bible — it is boring, confusing, irrelevant.

There is another possibility. It could be rather than the problem lying essentially within ourselves or with the Bible, the difficulty lies in the lens through which we look at the Bible. Often our ability to understand others has much to do with our set of expectations regarding what is being said and predictions about what will be said. If I am convinced that a friend of mine is talking about one thing, while in reality they are talking about something significantly (or even subtly) different, I will be notably confused. The problem is not  with my own stupidity nor with them. Rather, the “mental overlay” I am placing on what they are saying creates a degree of incongruity that is difficult to reconcile. The issue is not so much that I do not understand what the other is saying, as much as what they are actually saying does not fit well with what I expect them to be saying.

In similar fashion, when we read the Bible in “fullscreen” rather than “widescreen,” we distort the message of Scripture by chopping off the larger context of corporate, bodily, cosmic and eschatological life. The result is — surprise! — an exaggerated emphasis on one’s self. In our obsessively narcissistic culture, we should not be amazed that our reading of Scripture is twisted in this way. However, when we widen our lens, and rediscover the corporate, bodily, cosmic, and eschatological dimensions of the Gospel concerning what God has done in and through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, we find, as the Psalmist, that we are “brought out into a broad and spacious place” (Ps. 18:19). We breathe freely in the wide open world which God created and loves. We emerge from the cramped and anxious confines of our individual and isolated self. We rejoice in bodily, relational, and earthly life as central, rather than hostile, to God’s good intentions for us. We discover God’s love afresh, not exclusively for our individual selves, but precisely for the individual as integrated within the entire creation which God in his love will reconcile, redeem, and restore — drawing us out of the despair and brokenness of our present age into the unending and exhilarating feast of eternal life.


**For the widescreen/full-screen analogy I am indebted to Beverly Gaventa’s article “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” in the July 2004 installment of the journal Interpretation.

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Understanding (the Bible) is an End in Itself

Picture this scene and imagine how many millions of times it has happened – after an extended conversation between a married couple, one of them with shoulders dropping and the pitch of their voice falling says, “but you’re not listening to me.” Without batting an eye, a retort is heard, “I certainly have, I’ve presented numerous practical and workable solutions to your problem.” The other responds with a hopelessly resigned shrug, “but you’re not listening to me…”

I have heard it said that understanding the Bible is not an end in itself, as if you don’t apply or experience the things in the Bible, it is pointless. However, in relationships, understanding what the other is saying is indeed an end in itself, and is not merely functional. Ask people about the quality of their marriage when a person only listens to their spouse for some other end, perhaps to solve their problem or to get some kind of “intimate experience,” rather than primarily to understand them as an end in itself. The problem in these relationships is that understanding is seen as only a means to an end rather than also possessing its own immense inherent value. The consequences of such an approach to the relationship are frequently disastrous.

What is at stake here in the process of listening and understanding is the ability to know and be known. When hearing another, we can opt to be primarily in problem-solving mode — I will listen in order to solve your problem — or I will listen to solve my problem. When listening is only functional towards some other concrete end, it demeans the value of the person speaking simply to be known. Understanding for its own sake is to know another. To be sure, there are times to be functional. But when understanding, namely knowing the other person, is constantly crowded out by a flood of other intentions, we may sense that the person speaking is being devalued by the one listening — that they are not worthy of being known.

Likewise, in our relationship with God, understanding God is an end in itself. If we believe that the Bible is indeed the Word of God, and by it God is talking to us, then we must pursue understanding it as an end in itself, as understanding it is to understand God. Furthermore, in the absence of such a pursuit, we must conclude that our relationship with God suffers the same state as the marriage described earlier.

To say pursuing understanding the Bible is pointless without applying it, is like saying a husband listening to his wife is pointless unless he solves her problems. Additionally, to say understanding the Bible is meaningless apart from experiencing it, is analogous to saying that understanding one’s wife is pointless unless you also have “an experience” afterwards. All of this, especially with the language of “pointless” or “meaningless,” communicates that the process of understanding and knowing God is of minimal, if any, significance.

My concern with such ideas is that they may represent a subtle denigration and devaluation of the Scriptures and their significance in the life of the people of God. Though perhaps that is not the intent of people who say them, it nevertheless seems to have that effect on people. They also introduce a false dichotomy between the Scripture and experience which is not present in the Bible and the early church (not even in John 5:37-40!). It seems inescapable to me that this will result in negative consequences in peoples’ relationships with God.

We need a new vision of what the Scriptures are to us and to the Church that can overcome our discouragement and confusion when dealing with them. If our life experience tells us anything, it is that the process of communication and understanding others can indeed be challenging. This is normal. Therefore we can forgo villanizing ourselves for struggling with understanding the Bible. We can also be free from the compulsions to subtly devalue the Scripture in order to relieve us of such discouragement. It is normal for people to read books, take classes, join small groups and get counseling primarily to enhance communication in their most important relationships. This is all very normal.

The Bible is the Word of God. This means God is not just speaking to us through the Bible, but in the words of the Scripture itself we are hearing God speak. This hearing occurs whether we “experience” it or not. If we believe that the Bible is thus the Word of God, by seeking to understand it we have the ability to radically improve the quality of our relationship with God. And this process of understanding God through the Scripture is a most beautiful and precious end in itself.

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Finding Your Calling in an Age of Anxiety

In an age anxiously obsessed with “personal faith,” “personal calling,” and “personal vision,” the letter to the Ephesians points us in a curiously different direction. At the beginning of chapter four, Paul urges believers to “walk in a manner worthy of their calling” (v. 1) — in other words, to live in a way that corresponds to the glorious Gospel he has explicated in the previous chapters. Conventional wisdom might suggest that living as faithful followers of Christ would entail a vibrant personal faith, a strong sense of personal calling, and an expansive personal vision. The text rather directs us beyond ourselves to our interpersonal relationship with other Christians, that we must live “with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love” (v. 2). Then as he continues his description of faithfulness to God he calls us “to make every effort to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). The phrase “make every effort” strikes me. It could alternately be translated “proceed quickly, hurry, be zealous, be eager, be conscientious or take pains.” This eagerness, conscientiousness, zeal and effort is to be directed towards the promotion and preservation of unity amongst Christians. As the previous chapters make clear, this does not only refer to relationships in individual congregations, but to the major divisions that separate Christians. The specific issue in this book is the division between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph. 2:11ff.; 3:6). In our day, however, Paul’s burden can and must be brought to bear on all kinds of divisions relating to gender, ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, theological, and denominational divisions, as other biblical texts show Paul was already beginning to do (cf. Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:13). Paul here expresses that a manner of life that is faithful to Christ would “make every effort” to overcome these divisions and experience a loving unity with Christians that are different from ourselves.

My question is, do we really believe that to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we must make every effort towards unity? “Making every effort” is somewhat extreme. It’s not something you do once a year at a big event or think about every so often. To “make every effort” means it is one of our highest priorities, a concern that is regularly and consistently on our hearts and minds. It is something we earnestly desire, pray for, and work for. Are we content to see other Christians that are different from us and dismiss them because of their “deficiencies” (translate: the ways they express their Christianity differently than us)? Or are we content to see other Christians as a threat to us and our ways rather than seeing them as key to our experience of the fullness of Christ? When we understand what Paul is saying, we see Christian unity not as a luxury, not as something that might be nice, but as an absolute essential.

Perhaps our difficulty with unity lies in a different conception of Christianity. Paul grounds his appeal to unity and love in a beautiful, almost poetic statement:

One body and one spirit;
Just as you all were called in one hope of your calling.
One Lord
One faith
One baptism
One God and Father of all
Who is over all, and through all, and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Where we often talk about a “personal faith” unique to each person, Paul speaks of the Church having “one faith.” We fret over individual callings while Paul speaks of the Church’s one calling. We ground our faithfulness to Christ on having a personal vision for our lives. Paul directs us to faithful living by giving us a common vision for the one Church. While the personal dimensions are important, when they become paramount to the minimization or exclusion of the corporate nature of the Church, its faith, and its calling, our understanding and expression of Christianity is twisted and distorted. Every personal expression of faith, calling, vision, and gifting finds its meaning, significance, and goal within the larger context of the oneness of the Church, rather than vice versa.

While much, much more could be said about this, it at least alerts us that the common attitude of passion for one’s own gifting, vision, and calling, alongside a bitter, critical, or simply indifferent attitude towards “the Church” is thoroughly non-Pauline and entirely discordant with any form of Christianity the apostles would have recognized. It beckons us first and foremost to cultivate a love, vision, and passion for the singular faith and calling of the unified Church whom Christ loved and gave himself for. When our passion is primarily for the splendor and glory of the Church, rather than the expression of our own gifts and callings, we know we are on the right track and are aligned with Christ’s own priorities (cf. Eph. 5:26-27). When this happens, our personal experience of faith, vision, and calling will acquire a beauty, depth, richness, and stability we may have never previously known.

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Why Greek Matters (Part 6): Christ in Y’all, the Hope of Glory

I am not from Texas. I am not remotely from anywhere in the South. I am a Yankee to the core. Nevertheless, I believe one of the primary deficiencies of my version of the English language is the lack of a word like “y’all.”

The Greek language (like many languages) has (at least) two forms of the word “you,” a singular form and a plural form (akin to y’all). However, you would never know this reading an English Bible. The following verses (plus scores others) all use a plural form of “you”, but from the standard English translation you would never have any idea:

Matt. 5:13 - You (y’all) are the salt of the earth…You (y’all) are  the light of the world.

Matt. 7:2 – “For in the way you (y’all) judge, you (y’all) will be judged; and by your (y’all’s) standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

Rom. 12:2 – (y’all) do not be conformed to this world, but (y’all) be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you (y’all) may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and  acceptable and perfect.

1Cor. 1:4    I thank  my God always concerning you (y’all) for the grace of God which was given you (y’all) in Christ Jesus…even as  the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed  in you (y’all), so that you (y’all) are not lacking in any gift…

1Cor. 3:16    Do you (y’all) not know that  you are a (singular) temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you (y’all)?

This “plural you” has significant implications for how we interpret verses on almost every page of the Bible. For example, in Romans 12, is Paul’s goal that each individual would be able to personally prove what is the will of God for their individual life? Or is this discernment process something that “y’all” do together in community? Are you individually the salt of the earth and the light of the world, or are the people of God collectively the salt and light?

Luke 17:21 is an oft quoted verse in which the KJV, NKJV and the NIV read, “the kingdom of God is within you.” This is frequently interpreted as the Amplified Bible has in its gloss “the Kingdom of God is within you [in your hearts]…” Is the Kingdom of God in our hearts? This idea was strongly promoted in the nineteenth century as classical theological liberalism approached its height. It is precisely what Adolf von Harnack says in What is Christianity?:

“The kingdom of God comes by coming to the individual, by entering into his soul and laying hold of it. True, the kingdom of God is the rule of God; but it is the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals…From this point of view everything that is dramatic in the external and historical sense has vanished; and gone, too, are all the external hopes for the future.” [Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity? Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1956, 56]

Ironically, when evangelical Christians talk about the Kingdom of God being “in their hearts,” they are in essence spouting off, not Christian orthodoxy, not something a first-century Jewish man credibly could have said, but essential classical theological liberalism, the same theological liberalism which is ready to dispense with the deity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the second coming of Jesus, the new creation of all things, etc. In Harnack’s mind, the notion of the Kingdom being “internal” was very much related to the way he jettisoned “all the external hopes for the future,” i.e., the New Creation of Heaven and Earth.

Because the “you” is plural, Jesus’ saying would be better translated (as the NRSV, TNIV and NASB do), “the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” The Kingdom is not a “spiritual” principle, but the demonstrable intervention of God in time and space to restore and renew life on earth. Thus the purpose of the saying is not to describe an “internal” reality of the Kingdom, but rather, the demonstration and experience of the Kingdom of God in the shared life and experience of God’s people in the public world.

A related verse is Colossians 1:27, which is often translated, “Christ in you, the  hope of glory.” I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that the “you” in this verse is also plural, although you would never know it from your English Bible. Paul is not saying that “Christ-living-inside-of-you” is the hope of glory. While of course he would not deny the reality of Christ dwelling inside the believer, this is not the point of the verse. Rather, it is Christ in the midst of the Church, the experience of the Messiah in forming a redeemed and redemptive community of self-giving love, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, restoration and renewal, that is the hope of glory, namely, the sign in the present that gives us expectation for the fresh work of grace God will accomplish when he makes all things new at the end. The presence of Christ in the community of the redeemed is even now the present experience and advance pledge of the restoration of all things which fills our hearts with confidence and eager expectation of its certain consummation.

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