THE GRAND VISION AND THE GREAT DREAM – THE FUTURE OF THE NATIONS.
By Peter Corney
(This address was first delivered on the 20/10/13 at St Hilary’s Kew on the occasion of the launch and dedication of the Persian /English parallel N.T. produced by the Rev Khalil Razmara.)
The focus is the vital importance of people hearing the Gospel in their own heart language. It also deals with:
: The strategic importance of ethnic church planting in multicultural Australia.
: The dangers of the cultural trap.
: The unity of the body of Christ.
: God’s plan for the healing of the nations.
We sometimes forget that almost all of the first Christians were Jews, the twelve disciples were Jews. It is also easy to forget, at our distance from the first century, the cultural challenges they faced in embracing the Gospel.
The second Temple Judaism they were raised in had become narrow, inward looking and exclusive. The very design of Herod’s Temple itself bore witness to this. Surrounding the Temple proper was a great courtyard known as the courtyard of the Gentiles. This is where Jesus took his radical action against the money changers and sellers of animal sacrifices. Within this courtyard, separating it off from the Temple itself, was a stone balustrade on which were inscribed words in both Greek and Hebrew that forbade any non-Jew, on threat of death, from entry to the Temple courts. This was not in the original design of the Temple given by God in the OT and was certainly not exactly welcoming to a non-Jew! This was the Judaism in which the first Christians were raised.
Right up to the time of Jesus’ ascension the disciples were still asking “Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Their view of the Kingdom was restricted and ethnocentric.
It took the dramatic power and work of the Holy Spirit to break them out of their narrow ethnocentrism.
For example Peter’s exclusivism was blown apart by his dream and vision of all the food unclean for a Jew but which God commanded him to eat. The Spirit then sent him to the house of Cornelius , a gentile and an officer in the hated army of occupation. While Peter is explaining the gospel about Jesus to them the Holy Spirit falls on all in the house. Amazed, Peter baptises Cornelius and his household. Later, when he is criticised for entering a Gentile’s house and baptising them, Peter recounts the whole story and how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household. The critics startled response is recorded in Act 11:18 in these words: “So then, God has granted even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”
Then there is the fanatic Pharisee Paul who led a campaign to purge the new Christian sect from Judaism. He is confronted by Christ in a powerful and extraordinary vision on his way to Damascus to persecute the Jesus followers there. Thrown to the ground and struck blind he hears Christs voice questioning him, he is later healed by one of the very people he came to arrest! Dramatically converted, he is then called to be the primary messenger to the Gentiles, his life turned completely upside down.
Think about the infant Church, very early on in their care for the poor widows in the Jerusalem church. Acts 6. records that the Hellenist or Greek speaking widows complained because they were being put last in the queue for assistance, the Jewish widows were being given preference! Then in Acts 15 they have a major conflict over how much of the Jewish law the new Gentile converts should follow. They call what must be the Churches first council of leaders to resolve the question.
Just like us they didn’t find it easy to overcome ethnic and cultural prejudice, a prejudice reinforced by the first century theological exclusivism they had grown up with.
Remember also they were members of an occupied country trying to preserve their culture against the overwhelming homogenising force of the Roman Empire, at that time the greatest imperial, economic, cultural and military power the world had ever seen. It was like the way many Christians feel now in Western culture in the face of Post Modernity, aggressive secularism and the popular media as we struggle to preserve our identity and values and our children’s faith.
But the Holy Spirit changed their hearts and minds and opened them up to the great vision of God for all the nations, the vision that began with the promise to Abraham that through his family “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.”
It was to this group of Jewish Christian converts that Jesus gives this commission shortly before he leaves them: “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (Gk. ‘all ethnicities’), baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Math28:18-20)
This is then reinforced with Jesus’s exhortation in Acts 1:8 at his ascension; “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
But to reach the nations (‘all ethnicities’) the Gospel had to be brought to them in their own heart languages, they had to hear it in their own tongue.
The day of Pentecost is a dramatic expression of their new mission and its international, interracial, and intercultural scope.
Acts 2:1-11 says: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly from heaven there came the sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians , Medes, Elamites, and the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another “What does this mean?”
The Christian faith is essentially relational; it is about entering into a personal relationship with God through Christ, loving God with all our heart…and our neighbour also. And so to understand it properly we need to hear it explained it in the language of our hearts, our own relational language, our own tongue.
That is why Christians have worked hard at the task of the translation of the Bible and the Gospel into people’s heart languages. To date we have translated the Gospel into 2,798 different languages. There are 518 complete translations of the Bible and the work continues through the Bible Society, Mission agencies and Wycliffe Bible Translators.
This work of Khalila’s that we celebrate and dedicate today is part of that great tradition, a tool to help one culture speak to another about Jesus in their own tongue.
Nevertheless in spite of our positive history in the work of translation we should never underestimate the power of language and culture to trap us and limit us.
Judaism has a sacred language – Hebrew. Islam has a sacred language – 7th C Arabic. But Christianity has no sacred language and yet at times Christians have forgotten this. The mediaeval Church and its scholars trapped the Bible in Latin and it took the courage of people like Wycliffe and Luther to break out of that and put the scriptures back in to the language of the ordinary people.
Some Orthodox traditions have trapped their liturgy in forms of Slavonic, Georgian, and Greek that people no longer speak or understand, a dead language has become sacred! They have even developed a whole theology of worship to justify this as a heavenly language of worship. The divine service of the communion of the saints united with the heavenly worship by the use of a special language that transcends the divisions and limitations of living earthly languages. This special language is of course generally only known by the priests. While this idea contains an insight about our unity in Christ the cost of this to evangelism and generational transmission of the faith has been very high for many branches of Orthodoxy, with whole generations now missing or with little understanding of their faith because the language of their worship is not understood by them.
There are also Anna – Baptists who today still use old High German in their worship, a language no longer generally spoken.
When I trained for the ministry in the 1960’s Anglicans were still stuck with the Elizabethan English of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, beautiful but no longer spoken except in Shakespearian theatre companies!
Kenneth Bailey in his classic commentary “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes” makes this insightful observation on Jesus’ use of every day Aramaic when he taught his disciples to pray.
“The Lord’s prayer begins with the Aramaic word ‘abba’ and therefore we can assume that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the Aramaic of daily communication rather than the classical Hebrew of written texts. The Aramaic – speaking Jew in the first century was accustomed to recite his prayers in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Similarly, Muslim worshipers always recite their traditional prayers in the classical Arabic of seventh century Arabia. Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language. Christianity does not. This fact is of enormous significance.
The use of Aramaic in worship was a major upheaval in the assumptions of Jesus’s day. It meant that for Jesus no sacred language was ‘the language of God.’ Jesus lived in a world where the public reading of the Bible was only in Hebrew, and prayers had to be offered in that language. When Jesus took the giant step of endorsing Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship, he opened the door for the New Testament to be written in Greek (not Hebrew) and then translated into other languages.
It follows that if there is no sacred language, there is no sacred culture. All of this is an outgrowth of the incarnation. If the Word is translated from the divine to the human and becomes flesh, then the door is open for that Word to again be translated into other cultures and languages.”
The primary task of the Church is mission – to speak the Gospel to all the nations. That is why communicating the Gospel in peoples heart language is a strategic priority for the Church. It is also why ethnic Church planting in our multicultural Australia is a strategic priority, especially at this time when we are experiencing major immigration of people from very different cultures and language groups.
But even within this strategy we must beware of the cultural trap. Every ethnic church must eventually transcend its ethnicity and language and the culture that accompanies it and understand that it is part of something bigger, the international body of Christ and the communion of the Saints in which, as Paul expresses it in Gal 3:28 “…there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus”.
We are saved by grace not race!
Every ethnic church that is planted in a dominant host culture like Australia, whether Chinese, Korean, Iranian, Tamil, etc., must plan ahead for its young people whose life will be shaped not only by the ethnic church but by the host culture in which they will be educated and the new language and culture they will absorb. The ethnic church must be willing to embrace change in their worship style and music, and create parallel services and youth groups in the language and style their children will be immersed in through their school and popular culture. If they fail to do this they will lose the next generation, a sad pattern we have seen repeated over and over again in immigrant churches. This strategy must be insisted upon by the host churches from the dominant culture that initiate or assist ethnic churches to be planted under their sponsorship.
This is not an easy task for immigrant churches who value the traditions and language of their cultures of origin, but when the main preoccupation of an ethnic church becomes the preservation of their language and culture they are on their way to spiritual death and irrelevance. They have lost the heart of the Great Commission. Of course it must be said that established churches in the dominant host culture can fall into the same trap when they become locked in a sub culture that has lost its relevance and connection with the main stream of society.
Behind the command of Jesus in Mathew 28 lies the greatest dream of all, the brightest, most holy and most precious vision of all, which is the ultimate purpose of the Gospel – the reconciliation and unity of all things to God. This plan, that arises out of the heart of God’s love for his broken world, is to reconcile us to himself through Christ, and then with one another in a unity that will never again be broken by prejudice, fear, pride, racial ambitions, war and conflict. It will also restore to harmony the very creation itself from its brokenness, as Paul expresses it so majestically in Romans 8:18-28, and make us once again its responsible stewards. This great purpose will lift from us the judgement of confusion and division laid upon us at the Tower of Babel because of our vaunting pride and rejection of Gods authority, creating a rich unity in diversity. This is one of the great goals of the Kingdom of God.
The great prophetic visions in the OT speak of a day when all the nations lay down their weapons, gathering in a great celebration of unity and peace.
Micha 4:1-4 “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not rise against nation, nor will they train for war anymore”
Isaiah 25:6-8 “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken”
As we think of the people of Syria today in their suffering we long for the realisation of Isaiah’s vision and hope.
And then the final great vision of the book of Revelation.
Rev. 7:9-10 “After this I Looked, and there before me was great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and nation, people and language, standing before the throne and the Lamb……they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the lamb.’”
When the people, gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost from all over the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, heard the disciple’s speaking in the power of the Spirit in their own languages, they called out “What does this mean?” Peter answers them in the words of the prophet Joel “In the last days I will pour out my spirit on all people…..and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2)
“What does this mean?” This is a foretaste of the final fullness of the kingdom of God, the ultimate purpose of the Gospel, that one day God will unite all people from all nations and all tongues who have put their trust in Christ in a great unity of love and peace in the fully consummated Kingdom of God.
Augustine in his book “The City of God”, written as the old order of the Roman Empire was disintegrating in the 5thcentury, describes the disunity, conflict and rivalry of the nations as the fragmentation of Adam. “Adam lies scattered over the earth…..he has fallen. Having been broken to pieces, as it were, he has filled the universe with his debris and disunity. However, God’s mercy has gathered together from everywhere his fragments and by fusing them in the fire of his love, he has reconstituted their broken unity.” The focus of that fire of love is in the cross of Christ.
But now we, the disciple of Jesus, must be the anticipation of this unity in our life and mission, and a witness to the truth that we are saved by grace not race.