Could having the correct, biblical view of our ultimate destiny be critically important for our growth to maturity in Christ? N.T. Wright believes so. In his book, “Surprised by Hope” (HarperOne, 2008), he makes a case for recapturing the New Testament vision of a future transformed creation, a new Eden, lovingly cared for by His saints who are possessed with incorruptible bodies like that of the post-resurrection Jesus.
The book is 295 pages of careful argument so I won’t attempt to repeat his reasoning here, though I strongly recommend you read the book if you are interested. Let me just briefly summarize that Wright argues that the competing idea, prevalent among us modern-day Christians, is that at death our disembodied spirits pass to another place, the heavenly realm, where God is and where we remain forever in His presence. This view, Wright believes, owes more to Plato and Aristotle than to first century Jewish or Christian understanding. He puts great emphasis on the importance of continuity with the Jewish understanding of God and His purposes, how God loved his creation and declared it “good” and how he desires the redemption, not just of humans but of all creation. Taking this view does seem to clarify certain New Testament verses, including Jesus’ prayer that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and the beatitude, “Blessed be the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
In regards to fostering Christian maturity, Wright warns that not embracing the original biblical view, causes us to see our life on earth as a only a place where we bide our time waiting for heavenly bliss, always mindful of the importance of keeping our nose clean so as not to ultimately miss out. In contrast the correct view, in Wright’s opinion, gives the Christian in this life a completely different understanding of the purpose of his life on earth. Instead of just passing the time, we are, through the Holy Spirit, early representatives of a new kind of life making its appearance in the world. Wright uses the metaphor of a traveler beginning his day in London in the early morning, then traveling west to New York and arriving before the dawn has come. He’s dressed and ready for the new day that he knows is already here, even though most everyone around is still asleep.
P.S. I truly appreciate the comments and the personal feedback I’ve received from some who’ve read the blog. If you’re so inclined, please write a comment and we can kick the ideas around.
One of my preoccupations is language and how it works. When Genesis says we are made in God’s image, in contrast to the other animals, part of what that means must have to do with language, and it is noteworthy that Jesus is described as the Word of God. For us to act rightly we must be able to think clearly. Thinking clearly requires we understand how to think about thinking and that requires some appreciation of language.
Take a look at this quote from N.T. Wright’s, After You Believe (p. 155), “What does this mean in terms of Paul’s vision of virtue? Virtue, as we have seen is hard work. It requires the building up of muscles. It is the learning of a new and complex language which, to begin with, people find it hard to get their minds and tongues around. But it isn’t a language you can learn parrot-fashion. Yes, it may help if you spend quality time with others who are also learning it. Yes, it will be good if you go to classes and listen to radio programs in the new language. But ultimately you have to get your mind around it: you have to think through its verb formations and sentence structure, learn how the vocabulary has arisen and why certain words now carry complex metaphorical associations you’d never have imagined at first sight. Only when you have thought it through will you become anything like fluent (emphasis in original).” I like that–“complex metaphorical associations”–it seems to acknowledge the power of language. That is the depth we are looking for in our pursuit of virtue, and I think it should be our aspiration in our use of language, too.
I wonder if we might be wise to move away from our era’s infatuation with “cleverness” and irony and embrace a more straightforward and sincere style in our speech. Wouldn’t that tend to set us apart from others and in a good way? I sometimes suspect that we don’t even recognize that there is an alternative to our current use of language. The Bonhoeffer biography gives some interesting insights into the culture of his home when he was a boy. Here are some recollections from his twin sister, Sabine, regarding their father, Karl (Granted that this may seem a little austere for our time, but I offer it only as an example of an alternative.) “...(our father) had too firm a grip upon his own emotions to allow himself ever to speak a word to us which was not wholly suitable. His dislike of cliches did at times make some of us inarticulate and uncertain of ourselves. But it had the effect that as adults we no longer had any taste for catchwords, gossip, commonplaces or loquacity. He, himself, would never have used a catchword or a ‘trendy’ phrase.” Or this from their brother, Karl Jr., “Of his qualities, I would wish that our children inherit his simplicity and truthfulness. I never heard a cliche from him, he spoke little and was a firm enemy of everything faddish and unnatural.” I think what he means is that his father never asked himself the question, “What could I say that would sound good right now?”, but rather when he listened he listened for the heart of the other person, and when he spoke, he spoke simply and from the heart, to the heart.
I recently read Eric Metaxas biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and before I begin to forget why it made such a strong impression on me I wanted to give a brief review and recommendation for anyone who, like me, has held a latent interest in the subject. The book I’d give a solid B, but Bonhoeffer gets the A+. If you want to “See one,” you might want to have a look.
The thing about Bonhoeffer is he was deadly serious about his faith. He was an aristocrat and an intellectual, but his life ethic was that of a simple sinner, redeemed by Christ. He was devoted to Bible study and daily devotion. He was a pastor and a church teacher. When he found his country and his church caught in the death spiral of National Socialism he worked in futility to free them. He “wrestled with God” over how to confront the evil represented by the Nazis, even waffling and flip-flopping before finally committing to active resistance, the least bad of a handful of terrible options. He was imprisoned and eventually executed, but buoyed by his faith he maintained hope. In his letters from prison you can hear the confident echoes of Paul in Philippians 1, “I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Bonhoeffer was the real deal. No “rice Christian” he.
The Acts 4:20 verse raises the question–what is it, after all, that we have seen and heard? Isn’t this a question that each of us must ponder in his own solitary heart, and doesn’t it require of each of us a uniquely authentic answer? And if we provide an authentic answer we will find that we are persuasive even when we speak with humility. Solomon said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” but most of us are not eloquent speakers. Peter says simply that we must be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks the “reason for the hope” that is in us. It is not necessary to provide our brother or sister’s explanation, or the explanation of the church at large. It is only necessary that we voice our own, our personal reasons, because Jesus is a person and He deals with us as persons. If, in his inmost heart a person can truly testify that he is receiving from the Lord healing, forgiveness, peace, purpose, relational restoration…, in a word “hope”, well, saying so doesn’t seem too hard, does it?
“…we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”–Acts 4:20
Everyone who has been through medical training will recall the maxim, “See one, do one, teach one.” It’s shorthand for “Learn something from someone more experienced. Put the new knowledge to practical use. Share the bounty with another learner.” The first couple of years of medical school are one long lecture after another, but the last two years are more like a huge conversation, the imparting of practical knowledge in the context of real world problems.
In this blog I hope we can have a similar conversation, not about medicine, but about life lived in light of God’s word and His promises. Admittedly, I will write about things that, for whatever reason, happen to be on my mind, my working out my salvation “with fear and trembling.” But I promise not to write at all unless I have something to say. And, as a fellow learner, I hope you will join in and teach me something as well. May our God be with us and bless us in every part of our lives and in this small corner, too.