The Kingdom of God Is Bigger Than Being Right
Two great leaders of the Reformation were Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. In their day, reformers were still taking their first steps away from the church at Rome, but Protestants also wasted no time in dividing among each other. And at the center of Protestant doctrinal disputes were Luther and Zwingli. Luther headed the German Reformation, and Zwingli the Swiss.
In an effort to unite Protestantism, a man named Philipp of Hesse invited the contrary theologians to meet at a conference in Marburg, Germany. After days of work, the two reached an agreement on every issue but one, the nature of communion. When the conference was over, because of this one matter, one man refused to shake the other’s hand. If there was ever a chance of the Protestant Church being one, it was lost that day.(1)
Each of these great reformers thought he knew God better than the other. Yet did these men act like they knew the Lord? If they did, certainly they would have left the conference as brothers rather than enemies. We can only wonder what Protestantism would be like today if the two had accepted each other in spite of their differences. Instead, Protestants continued to divide into what has become thousands of denominations.
The gift of God’s acceptance opens the door to accepting one another, too. Our differing beliefs so readily close what God has opened, however. The quest for light and truth is a good endeavor, but if we are not careful, it can lead us into the darkest parts of human nature. To understand why something as good as doctrine can have such bad consequences, it helps to understand how our minds work in the twenty-first century.
We are all subject to a paradigm, and our paradigm is the way we think. It influences everything from our culture to how we interpret the meaning of words. The book of Proverbs tells us that as a man “thinks in his heart, so is he.”(2) Whether we will admit it or not, we all have a mindset, and it helps to shape who we are.
The roots of today’s Western mind extend back to ancient Greece—we are Hellenized in our thinking. Though folks like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato lived a very long time ago, their influence on our worldview remains.(3) Out of ancient Greek thought came the medieval paradigm and then the modern paradigm. We live in a society that is a mix of modern and postmodern thought, and Western society has changed its mind many times. Whenever this happened, those of the old or previous paradigm thought those of the new had lost their minds.
In the time of Luther and Zwingli, the modern mind was flexing its muscles, exercising two characteristics of the modern paradigm: rationalism and individualism.
If someone in the ancient world experienced a thunderstorm, he might think some deity was displeased or speaking in some way. In the Old Testament, the false god Baal was the god of thunder, and the Canaanites believed a lightning storm was their god sounding off. Today, we think such thoughts are foolish—everyone knows thunderstorms happen when cold and warm air collide, right? When the ancient and medieval paradigms gave way to the modern mind, the supernatural gave way to the natural.
Additionally, we in the modern world are much more individualistic than our ancient brothers. We tend to define ourselves by what makes us unique, believing our individual talents, personalities, and opinions make us who we are. Thoughts like “I am who I am” come straight from the modern paradigm; we believe our opinion is the most important opinion. We also think our views are between God and us, so no one has the right to tell us what to believe. With the rise of individualism, concepts such as the priesthood of every believer came into focus. We proclaim that everyone has his or her own relationship with God, and we do not need someone to have a relationship with the Lord for us. We can all come boldly before God’s throne of grace.
The ancient world was much more corporate in its mindset. People who lived then would not look at themselves to find their identity as much as they would to their corporate community. We see this in the Apostle Paul’s “body talk.”(4) He said that Christians are part of the body of Christ, and being part of the whole defined who they were as individuals. For example, the body of Christ is favored and blessed, so each of its members is favored and blessed. The ancient world found its definition not as much in the “I” as in the “we.”
With the rise of the modern paradigm, the natural began to infringe upon the supernatural, and the “I” upon the “we.” This opened up many possibilities for good, but it also created new problems. And there was no place where these difficulties were more evident than in the church. Suddenly, in the eyes of many, a new threat to faith appeared: science! As natural explanations replaced supernatural explanations, it appeared humanity was kicking God out of the cosmos. The more we learned how things work, it seemed the less we needed God.
This feud between rational and mystical thought has continued for generations, and it is only recently that many are seeing that the natural and the supernatural need not be enemies. In fact, they can be partners in revealing God’s glory. As we discover more about the universe, we are seeing that God is more awesome than we ever imagined; the way the world exists and operates is a far greater miracle than the thunder god shouting in a storm.(5)
With the rise in rational thinking came an increased focus on hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) and critical analysis as people set out to better understand the Bible. Many believed that as we studied the scriptures, correct interpretations would become obvious and a united church would follow. We would all be on the same page with the same doctrine, and a glorious new day would begin.
However, there were other forces at work. The invention of the printing press put the Bible in the hands of the common person, revolutionizing Christianity and launching a golden age of evangelism. With each copy of a Bible came an individual opinion about its interpretation, however, and the doctrine that was supposed to bring people together ended up having the opposite effect. Protestants began to divide, and denominations were born in the aftermath of church split after church split.
Some still say a common interpretation of the scriptures is what will bring us together. One system of understanding just needs to dominate the others with the force of reason, and eventually, the best argument will win. Others have acknowledged that individualism is too powerful, believing the only way we can have unity is to throw out the divisive idea of absolute truth. Everyone has their own version of the truth, and we should just leave it at that.
Consider looking at this problem another way: what we need to throw out is not truth but self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the self masquerading as God. In Jesus’s day, when people like the Pharisees condemned others for not keeping Torah, they thought they were holding up God’s standard. In reality, they were making themselves the standard. If they were really holding up God’s Law, it would have revealed that they needed grace just as much as anyone else.
Self-righteousness does not always have to be about behavior; it can also be about beliefs. Just as the Pharisees thought their superior deeds brought them closer to God, some today think their superior doctrines make them God’s favorites. These Pharisees of the modern paradigm make their own understanding the yardstick by which they measure others: there are those who are right and there are those who are wrong, and God loves one and hates the other. This is the same “us and them” of the first century in different clothing. It is still self-righteousness and it is still contrary to grace. If our closeness to God is God’s accomplishment, there is no room for boasting, either in our deeds or in our understanding.
Accepting God’s gift does not mean our beliefs and actions do not matter, however. The search for understanding is one of the noblest pursuits in life, but we must be careful where this journey takes us. If our quest for truth is our attempt to grasp God, it will most certainly lead us away from God no matter how pure our doctrine becomes.
Any efforts to corral or obtain God, whether through good behavior or good understanding, invariably lead to self-righteousness. We will always look down upon those who do not comprehend God as well as we do. Alternately, when we see God has grasped us in Christ, the shackles of self-righteousness fall away, and we are free to love God and our neighbor. His hold on us matters far more than our hold on Him. I Corinthians 13, the love chapter, speaks of these things:
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (I Corinthians 13:2)
If our advanced understanding leads us to hate, what good is it? Great wisdom should not cause us to devalue our brother; it should open our eyes to our brother’s worth. If we think understanding the Bible makes us better than our brother, we do not understand the Bible at all.
Someone once called me a “book snob.” I think it was because this person always saw me carrying around books that were as heavy in physical weight as they were in theological content. Ordinary books that everyone else was reading would not do. I had to be on the cutting edge of the best ideas about God.
Knowing a lot about the scriptures impresses people, and when I was very young, people told me I had wisdom far beyond my years. Knowing more gave me a place in people’s hearts, and I thought it would give me a place in God’s heart, too. In my mind, being close to God was just one more revelation or one more book away.
Unfortunately, I did not understand one of the most important concepts: what impresses people does not impress God. The Lord wanted me to see something, but its wisdom was so simple a child could grasp it. In fact, many of “the least of these” understood God’s mind far better than me. I did not need another book, another good deed, or another spiritual experience to get close to the Lord; the Lord’s presence is a gift God gave a long time ago at a place called Calvary. I spent years trying to learn or work my way closer to God. What I needed was to see that I was already there.
I still enjoy being on the cutting edge of the latest “educated” thoughts on God, but now my view is very different. Instead of seeing myself as special because of my knowledge, I see how special everyone is because of Christ, and it is a sight to behold. This is perhaps what Jesus saw when He looked at the Torah breakers of His day, and this is what we should see when we look at those with less-than-perfect doctrine today.
A little help from our ancient friends can help us determine what it truly means to know God. Their words reveal that knowing God is far more than having good doctrine.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (I John 4:7–8)
John’s statement illustrates another difference between the ancient Hebrew mind and the modern mind. We often equate “knowing” with having our facts straight and believe we can come to know something by reading a book or by listening to a teacher’s lecture. To the ancients this alone was not knowing; to them, knowing was participating in and partaking of something. For example, when the Bible says a man “knew his wife,” it was not saying he had read a book about her!
We see this in the first century rabbi/disciple relationship. A disciple’s goal was, of course, to learn a bunch of facts from his rabbi, but he did so in tandem with the goal to become like his instructor in every way possible.(6) A successful disciple was one who could both pass an exam and behave like his teacher.
Understanding the ancient concept of what it means “to know” brings to life John’s statement about knowing God. Biblically, a person who knows God is not the one with perfect doctrine; knowing God is participation in who God is. Therefore, if God is love, the measure of how much we know Him is how much we love.
We sometimes wonder why God loves us, looking at ourselves to try to find the answer. Commonly, we take stock of our good deeds and our good doctrines, but the better place to look is at God. He loves us because, wonder of wonders, He is love. We can no more stop God from loving us than we can stop God from being Himself. He is what He is, and He has given us no say in the matter. Therefore, His love is without “becauses.” God does not say, “I love you because you do this or because you think that.” He simply says, “I love you.”
Most of the people reading this book do not know me, the author, very well. On these pages are my best thoughts and ideas, and if someone only sees my best, they might find me easy to love. My friends, on the other hand, know my best as well as a little of my worst. Still, they love me. And it is a small miracle that my wife, who knows more of my worst than anybody, loves me. (She might say that it is a big miracle!)
God is in a category all by Himself because He fully knows us and fully loves us no matter what. It has been said that if our friends could read our minds, we would not have any friends. Nothing is hidden from the Lord; He knows my thoughts, and all I have ever done or ever will do. Yet He loves me more than anyone does. Astonishing!
Because God loves us so, the more we know Him, the more we love without “becauses.” And if God is our reason not to love people, the image we have of God is not God.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43–48)
Jesus said we are to love our enemies, though He could just as easily have said that we are to love those who disagree with us. Which is the greater proof that we know God, loving someone with whom we agree or loving someone with whom we disagree?
The kingdom of God is not the dominance of one idea or doctrine over another; it is the reign of love. We see this clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”
And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25–37)
We often read of the regions of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the Gospels because each had its own predominant religious climate. The Judeans, for instance, thought they had a lot going for them because they kept their Hebrew heritage intact more than people in the other regions of Palestine and they could confidently boast that they were pureblooded descendants of Abraham. Judea was also the home to Jerusalem, God’s most holy city, and the Temple, which was the center of Jewish religious life. To many, being closer to the Temple meant being closer to God. It is no wonder some Judeans thought they were God’s favorites.
To the far north was Galilee. The Galileans were not quite as pure as their Judean neighbors to the south, as they tended to be more Hellenized or Greek in their thinking. The folks in Judea might have accepted the Galileans, but just barely.
Sandwiched between the two other regions, the Samaritans were in a different class altogether. They had intermarried heavily with pagans, and they had some pretty strange ideas. They practiced some of the Jewish customs, but their neighbors to the north and south believed their estranged brothers did things all wrong. The Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, for example. The Temple was supposed to be in Jerusalem, but the Jewish inhabitants of Samaria believed Mount Gerizim was God’s chosen place and the only true center for worship. They called it the “navel of the Earth” because they believed that Adam sacrificed there. To the Samaritans, Moses was the only prophet and intercessor in the final judgment, so they limited the scriptures to the Pentateuch. And they followed their strange beliefs and strange practices with a strange eschatology (beliefs about the end of the world, judgment, and the resurrection). The Samaritans were certain that 6,000 years after creation, a Restorer would come and live on Earth for 110 years. On the judgment day, God would resurrect the righteous to paradise and cast the wicked into eternal fire.(7)
The Samaritans had bad doctrine, and the Judeans hated them. If a Judean needed to travel north to Galilee, he would take a much longer and more dangerous route around Samaria. In contrast, the Gospels often portray the Samaritans as heroes, and this alone should tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of God.
Jesus filled His parables with irony, and none is more ironic than the story of the Good Samaritan. Since the priests were intercessors between the Lord and His people, they were closest to God—or so people thought. The next closest might be the Levites, who assisted the priesthood, and without a doubt, the furthest from God were the Samaritans, who could not get anything right. Yet who was right in this parable? Who really knew God?
Jesus told this story to answer the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor;” in other words, “Who should I love as myself?” Jesus came to make the neighborhood bigger than anyone imagined, and it included the Samaritans and, later, the most unloved of all, the Gentiles. And still today, the kingdom of God extends far beyond being right, offering the greatest proof of its presence through loving people who are wrong.
We tend to believe that Christians have to be alike to be one, so we create “statements of faith” to make sure we are all on the same page. In Jesus’s day, this would be like making the Samaritans the same as the Judeans so Israel could be one. “We” would triumph over “I,” and there would be peace—supposedly.
Such methods always fail, however. In fact, the more we seek docturnal unity, the more it seems to elude us. We have the choice to fight for “the truth,” isolating ourselves in even smaller circles of fellowship, or we can take up the greater challenge of God’s kingdom: we can make it our goal not to get everyone on the same page but to love those with whom we disagree. In doing so, God will open our eyes to truth that goes beyond being right. Just as love covers a multitude of sins, it also covers bad doctrine, freeing us to see those who are “wrong” as our brethren.
Jesus did not come to make the Samaritans like the Judeans or the Jews like the Gentiles; He came to bring a kingdom where diverse people can love each other as if they were alike. He did this by making our unity His accomplishment on the cross 2000 years ago. Who Jesus is and what He has done makes us one. Our unity, like God’s love, simply is.
1. It was Luther who refused to shake Zwingli’s hand, and it is said that Zwingli wept openly because of it. Lest we pat Zwingli on the back too much, he continued to oppose Luther and later refused to join forces with the Lutherans. Ted Byfield has a wonderful series of books on the history of the church called The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. Volume 9, called A Century of Giants, ad 1500 to 1600 (Christian History Project, Inc., 2010), has outstanding material on the reformation. The book The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, by Michael Reeves (B&H Academic, 2010), is also very good.
2. Proverbs 23:7.
3. For a whirlwind tour of the growth of the Western mind, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, by Richard Tarnas (Ballantine Books, 1993), is exceptional.
4. For an enlightening study on Paul’s body terminology, I recommend The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology, by John A. T. Robinson (Bimillenial Press, 2002).
5. To catch a mind-blowing glimpse of the cosmos, pick up a copy of The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).
6. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin (En-Gedi Research Center, 2005), gives wonderful insights of the Jewish Rabbis of the first century.
7. Holman Bible Dictionary (Holman Bible Publishers, 1991).