An unfinished thought on what to do with biblical teaching that stresses urgency in a time of no urgency (1 Corinthians 7.29-31)

It is commonly assumed that first century religious thinkers such as St Paul believed in two Ages: the current Age which is rife with good, bad and ugly, and the Age-To-Come where everything is practically perfect in every way. In between the two comes the arrival of the Messiah who heralds in the latter Age, the first set to pass away.

The problem for Paul with the coming of Jesus as Messiah is that he is forced to acknowledge, not only a delayed start to the new age, but also a messy transition period where one Age shifts to another. This is what we call the now and not yet of the divine kingdom which is within and around, but will also not fully activate until Jesus returns in glory at some future point.

For the New Testament writers, this “future point” was felt to be imminent. This is perhaps why there is so much about keeping the faith, perseverance, and calming fears about believers dying before the Age-To-Come breaks through. The early Christians really believed Jesus was set to return any moment and make everything right.

Such an expectation brings us to 1 Corinthians 7.29-31 in which the Corinthian believers are compelled to radically rethink attitudes and action in light of the passing away of the current Age:

“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Coming in the middle of a chapter devoted to Corinthian concerns over sex, marriage and celibacy, in which Paul skates around from one possible solution to another, this passage might seem like a disclaimer: Don’t pull me down into all of this! There are bigger things going on here! And the appeal is to prepare oneself for the shifting of the Ages.

The extreme reversals in Paul’s appeal remind me of Matthew 5/Luke 6 where mourners will laugh and the hungry will be filled. And in, “let even those who have wives be as though they have had none” (7.29), there is also something of hyperbolic language used by Jesus when he says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

The message is clear: the incoming Kingdom (which is here, but also coming soon) brings necessary change in action and attitude. The first coming of Jesus turned everything upside down; now get ready for his quick return. I get that the hyperbolic language is possibly intended to be understood in a general way rather than picking out particular issues. But nonetheless, the point of the argument is the need to radically change because “the present form of this world is passing away” (7.31).

What happens to the content of urgent appeals such as 1 Cor. 7.29-31 when the urgency has gone?

Today, people do not really subscribe to a Two Age system like that of the New Testament writers, but even if we do, the Age-To-Come is a very long time in coming. Two thousand-or-so years and counting. There seems little impetus for such radical change and absolute reversal of attitudes and actions in the absence of urgency.

This is not to dismiss the need for reflection and personal examination in the light of Christ’s coming. We are involved in an continual process of change; and I think our experiences both bad and good can shape us more than we realise towards the Kingdom life (if we are open to that change). However, if a call to even more radical change – which involves putting life-partners to one side, swallowing down mourning, and so on – is based upon the belief that time is short, I am not convinced it is very helpful when it seems clear that time is not particularly short at all.

Further, in a time of actual struggle such as everyone has experienced this past year, it feels somewhat offensive to read in the Bible that one’s Covid-related mourning should be “as though they were not mourning” and that one’s precious moments of rejoicing during another lockdown should be stolen away and treated “as though they were not rejoicing”.

Indeed, to read this Corinthians passage leads me to question the wisdom of Paul’s words which are, he admits, his opinion rather than a command of the Lord (7.25). For instance, if we are married or in long-term relationships, would refraining from “being anxious about the affairs of the world… to please [husband/wife/etc]” really bring about “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (7.32-35)? Or, instead, might committed union between individuals somehow reflect the real nature of God-with-us through the struggles of life? Especially just now when we really need to enact the divine nature of love, patience and compassion.

The kind of teaching in the Corinthians passage – at this point in time – feels irresponsible. Surely now – stuck as we are in the midst of real trials which range from the medical to mental health to economic to educational – is a time for teaching that mourning those we have lost is both important and healthy, not something to be pushed down due to a perceived more important cause; that finding moments of joy and laughter is absolutely necessary in times of stress; and that companionship is of vital importance as a reflection of the ways in which God is with us.

So, I simply do not know what to do with this Corinthians passage apart from challenge it and perhaps use it as inspiration to connect more deeply with those people around me and, by doing so, connect more closely with the Lord.

Isaiah 55, Baptism, and the word not returning to the Lord empty

I was baptised about six months after my birth. My parents had no particular religious leanings but in the UK at that time, babies were regularly “christened” as a cultural practice. My family gathered in the Anglican church in a small Kentish seaside town one day; the water was splashed and promises made. And nothing else was ever said about it…

Some eighteen years later I started on my own journey with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As I have written elsewhere, I felt the divine presence seeking me out and drawing me in to something new and unknown to which (after some time) I responded –

As the years have rolled by, and the Lord has been with me through many dangers, toils and snares, I have been led to consider this from Isaiah 55.10-11 in connection with my baptism:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

On that day of baptism all those years ago, I believe something was set in motion. No one – perhaps only the minister conducting the service – had any idea of what could possibly lay ahead. Indeed, my becoming a Christian as a young adult was a shock to everyone in the family. But, apparently, not a shock to the Lord whose word does not return empty, but accomplishes what is purposed.

This is not to say that every detail of my life was fixed by divine calculation when baptised; but rather, through the word, water and oil, I was somehow connected to God in such a way that is hard to articulate. And this would appear true even though the rite was entered into by a family who did not necessarily believe in the words they were saying on the day, or reflect upon it afterwards.

Now, in different people, this connection with God may not “bring forth and sprout” (55.10) for many years, or sometimes, apparently not at all in this life. Nonetheless, it seems to me that, at the moment of baptism, in some intangible spiritual sense,

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85.10)

I might put it this way:

In baptism, there is a meeting in the spiritual realms that anticipates being replicated in the physical. Perhaps the word “shall not return to [the LORD] empty” in the sense that divine purposes come to pass through promise, invitation, and opportunity which characterise the Kingdom of God.

By this I mean that, the divine kingdom is often described as now and not yet. As much as it is within and around us whenever God is active; the Kingdom of God also lays ahead, growing like the mustard seed, needing to be sought out like the treasure in the field. It is certainly possible for the Kingdom to come and for the divine will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, but because of the freedom given to humanity, there is always an element of invitation requiring a response. The promise unleashed at baptism spiritually must be responded to by the baptised individual in order for it to grow and bear fruit.

It is interesting in Isaiah 55, how the idea of active response runs through the chapter: “Come to the waters”, “Come, buy, and eat”, “Listen… incline your ear”, “Seek the LORD”, “Return to the LORD”. For all that the impetus of inviting and drawing-in might come from God, if someone is to respond, they must do something. Even Jesus actively went to the Jordan, going through the process of baptism from John (Mark 1.9).

And then, when he had come up out of the water, “a voice came from heaven, ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased'” (Mark 1.11). Now, of course Jesus was already the Beloved Son since the very beginning, but this word from the Father is surely also an invitation to something more. Again, think of the now and not yet of the divine kingdom Jesus came to model. With every positive response to the stirring of the Holy Spirit within; with every sacrificial act for the good of others; with every step towards the cross, the tomb, and ultimately, the right-hand of God; the identity of this Beloved Son shifts and flourishes. Jesus’ continual response to his heavenly Father enables his being involved in making this divine promise “accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55.11).


A few years ago, my mother sent my Certificate of Baptism to me. Looking at the date and the details of the event, I was moved. Thinking now about all that has happened in my life, personally I consider the day as momentous. But, despite that which was set in place on that day in the spiritual realms; despite my on-going response in the years following my baptism; I cannot say that God’s word has been returned fully. This is not a negative however. Rather, it is a reflection of the character and experience of the divine Kingdom which is here and there, clear and hidden, now and not yet.

A Revelation of Divine Presence on Epiphany (6th January 2021)

When we read the Bible closely, we notice patterns and connections that point to an overarching salvation story comprised of many salvation strands. Something that I noticed recently relates to Epiphany which the Church marks every 6th January (or thereabouts).

“…and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2.9)

This verse about the Magi following the star towards Bethlehem is very familiar, but the star going “ahead of them” might also prompt recollection of a much earlier passage from Exodus 13.21:

“The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.”

It seems as though the Lord is at work actively within nature, and this is not surprising as the Bible often describes a kind of Creator-Creation partnership.

(for more on this topic see: ).

But while the pillar of cloud/fire leads the Israelites to freedom, the star leads wise men from the east.

Is it the case that, in the Magi, God’s embrace has suddenly widened to include those previously left outside of the covenant people? And do the Magi, led by the Lord through the star to worship Jesus, represent a changing divine attitude toward the acceptance of all nations into the family of God?

While it is most certainly right to celebrate the welcoming embrace of God for increasing communities of people; a significant problem arises when Christians feel led to celebrate their own welcome and newly found freedom in Christ at the expense of those already embraced, that is, Israel, who were first guided to freedom in a pillar of cloud and fire.

In Epiphany terms, I might put it like this:

Rejoicing in the Bethlehem star should not lead Christians to reject the pillar of cloud and fire. God’s leading the wise men is an expansion not an alternative: the invitation now given to Gentiles is not in place of that offered to Israel.

For the celebration of Epiphany, I have phrased this as a revelation of divine presence. It is tempting to view the coming of something new as necessitating the rejection of what came before. So tempting in fact, that it is something of a revelation – an epiphany! – to consider that the opposite might be true.

Rather than seeing divine leading of the Israelites with cloud/fire and wise men with the star as examples of old vs new; I wonder if together they reveal the patterns of expanding salvation evident in the Scriptures. In the combined picture of cloud/fire and star, we realise not only that God has always been present in this world, but that God is always leading people forward to experience that which is bigger.

So, just as the wise men were led to meet Jesus Christ, the Israelites were led to meet the LORD at Sinai. In both cases God was with them, leading them to the divine-self. And this meeting with God reveals something bigger in the experience of God’s people, simply because God is bigger and the divine embrace is much wider than people have imagined.

The clues are there in Scripture, evident in a multitude of small sketches: creation from light to a world teeming with life – one human in a garden to a populated world – Abraham and Sarah to the Israelite people – an “exclusive” Israel shifting to expand and include Midianites (Zipporah), Canaanites (Rahab), and Moabites (Ruth) sworn enemies of Israel, Nineveh forgiven after the word of JonahSamaritans showing neighbourly mercy to captives from Judah and releasing them (2 Chronicles 28).

Again and again in the Scriptures, God is present, leading people forward to a better understanding and a bigger experience of light and life. By reading the whole Bible carefully, we also may be assisted towards better understanding and a bigger experience when we notice the signs and relate them to our own life. Who, we must ask, in light of a revelation of divine presence, is rightly to be excluded from the love of God – is there anyone?

Let us not fall into the trap of failing to read carefully but rather, be guided by the Word as a lamp to our feet that leads us towards light and life; in other words, towards God in Three Persons who has revealed and modeled a deeper love and a wider embrace since the very beginning.

Fleeing to Egypt, Henry Vaughan, and an Absence of Peace after Christmas (Matthew 2.13-15)

The baby is born, the Magi have knelt before him, and now the holy family must run for their lives.

“…An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.'” (Matthew 2.13)

St Matthew’s Joseph the dreamer responds to a night time visitor (as in 1.20 and 2.19-20) and takes his family to Egypt for safety. Although most famous in the Bible as a site of oppression in Exodus, Egypt was first a place of salvation for another dreamer called Joseph (Genesis 39-50). Even baby Moses was drawn out of Egyptian water to safety and would later draw the Israelites out of danger in Egypt (Exodus 2-14). Elsewhere in the Bible, troubled Israelites kings often looked to Egypt for refuge (e.g. 1 Kings 11.40). So, in biblical terms, fleeing to Egypt – rather than anywhere else – is not unprecedented.

It is important to note that in the Bible, Egypt is always linked with trouble. Something goes wrong causing the biblical character to look to their powerful neighbour for help. In Genesis, Joseph only ends up in Egypt because of the violence of his brothers; Abraham due to a famine in Canaan (Genesis 12.10); the people of Judah because they feared the Chaldeans (2 Kings 25.26); and here in Matthew, it is the threat of Herod which prompts the escape from Bethlehem.

And this trouble is what stands out to me as – my goodness – we have all seen some trouble this year! Fear – check. Stress – check. Fatigue – check. Loss of security – check. And so on… it has been a year of trouble. Maybe that is just the way life is for us at a time of coronavirus, climate change, shifting political landscapes, and Brexit. And really, history reveals that people always have trouble. 2020 feels extreme for sure, but none of the things thrown at us are necessarily surprising; it is perhaps more to do with the combination of factors coming together in one single year that has knocked us all off-balance so severely.

In any case, back to Matthew 2.13 and I am confused as to why the coming of Jesus at Christmas is surrounded by trouble: shouldn’t the birth of Christ be the one thing not cloaked in darkness and struggle? However, the holy family need to flee to Egypt in fear of Herod, having already faced the possibility of public disgrace with regards Mary’s mysterious pregnancy, and the trials of a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The coming of Christ appears as problematic as any other human experience, and the divine intervention comes in the middle of factors such as human prejudice, power struggles, fear and violence.

In the lead-up to Christmas I read some poetry by Henry Vaughan published in the 1650s. One particular line, from The Nativity, has been rattling around in my head throughout the festive season:

Peace? and to all the world? sure, One

And He the Prince of Peace, hath none.

That is, the One arriving as God-with-us bringing a promise of peace, himself experiences no peace. The troubles surrounding events at Bethlehem already mentioned, reveal something of the truth of this verse. And in fact, the restlessness of Jesus extends far beyond his birth alone. Vaughan goes on:

He travels to be born, and then,

Is born to travel more again.

These words make me consider the journey from an eternal, heavenly existence of the Word to the foetus growing in the womb of Mary. Then, I think about how Jesus’ life recorded in the Gospels appears as one lived in almost constant motion, confrontation, and sacrificial giving. His lack of peace is painfully familiar to me during this time when I feel no peace. In some ways it may even be reassuring.

I might put it this way:

In order for the coming of Christ to be meaningful, he must embody the human experience truly and absolutely. In doing so, Jesus, as God-with-us, accompanies us in our troubles – even those of a deep and profound nature.

The picture in Matthew 2.13-15 of the holy family scared, running for their lives to Egypt, reveals something of the true nature of God-with-us. It is similar to the sign offered to us each Christmas of the pregnant woman and the child called God-with-us (Matthew 1.23; Isaiah 7.14). Both show the vulnerability, dependence, strength and struggle common to humanity. They reveal God-with-us as actually God present in all that we experience. The fleeing parents help their baby, but also require help from the angel and in the temporary safety of Egypt. And in Henry Vaughan’s poem The Nativity, it is the baby’s “restless mother”, “oppressed with troubles” who gives Jesus rest upon her “chaste lap and sacred breast”.

There is no peace apart from that received from another who themselves is lacking in peace. Indeed, this seems to be the model of Jesus’ life recorded in the Gospels: he gives of himself through compassion, and is awoken from sleep to save the disciples. But at the same time, he allows himself to be blessed by others, all of whom had their own struggles. Again, there is no peace apart from that received from another who themselves is lacking in peace.

And I think it is here that I find myself without excuse for not enacting God-with-us. My own troubles from this year and lack of peace do not give good enough reason to disengage from interactions altogether! That is, I cannot claim to be “damaged goods” not fit for purpose because, the ways in which 2020 have left me hurt, cynical, and tired, will surely be exactly the ways through which others can engage with me, help me or indeed be helped by me.

Micah 5.2 at Advent: Caught in the Cycle of Salvation

This year, Advent feels a bit like an in-between space. I can look back and recall the excitement felt about my faith before, and I might scrape some enthusiasm for what may possibly lay ahead. But for now, due primarily to the unprecedented run of events in 2020, it is tempting to think of myself as temporarily annexed, exiled, or even abandoned, until the coming of the Messiah at Christmas.

However, reading the great messianic prophecy in Micah 5.2 recently, has given me cause to hope and rethink being caught in-between old and new at Advent.

The words of Micah 5.2 are familiar from chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel, but in the Old Testament book of minor prophet Micah, it reads like this:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, the least among rulers of Judah; from you shall come one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

We might connect Christ Jesus with these words by our knowledge that he is “Son of David” through the family tree of Joseph (e.g. Matt. 1.1-16; 20) who needed to return to Bethlehem at the time of the census (Luke 2.1-4). But we also might dare to believe and confess that Christ is from even older “ancient days”: the Word who was with God and was God in the very beginning (John 1.1-5), and the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1.15).

The words of Micah 5.2 relate to the davidic and cosmic dimensions of the Christ. The prophecy reveals that the coming Messiah enters into the story of Israel as one who has already been present in the earliest story of the universe itself.

The fact of Christ entering Israel’s history at a certain point, whilst also having been present since the beginning is significant, particularly during this Advent when I am struggling to centre myself following the year’s events.

There is a commonly held belief that Jesus arrived in Bethlehem following a period of great darkness. Certain Christian groups refer to “400 years of silence” when the divine voice was not heard in between the two testaments. In biblical terms, the theme of “Exile” is of profound importance, in terms of the actual Babylonian exile and its aftermath, but also an identity-defining concept lasting into later Jewish tradition. In all of these ideas, the underlying assumption is that the divine presence has temporarily left the people of God as a consequence of their long-standing disobedience.

In a year when it seems that almost everything has gone wrong, it is difficult to avoid arriving in Advent with ideas of darkness, silence, and exile in mind. Yes, I look ahead to the light of Christmas morning, but for now, I blame myself for causing the Lord to stay silent or even abandon me to some spiritual exile. But actually, I am not convinced this is the case at all.

Earlier when considering Micah 5.2, I found that the Messiah comes into Israel’s history at a particular moment in time, having already been present since the very beginning. This should provide much encouragement on the issue of divine silence/abandonment as it actually solidifies a pattern of unseen-yet-constant presence and tangible intervention that makes up the Israelite story of salvation.

It is crucial to remember that the Bible presents a rich variety of perspectives on many topics. For every verse declaring that God will abandon Israel, there is another proclaiming everlasting love and protection. Even within Micah itself where 5.3 states, “he will give them up until the time when she who is in labour has brought forth”; we also learn in Micah 4 how the people will arrive as exiles in Babylon where, “there you shall be rescued, there the LORD will redeem you from the hands of your enemies” (4.10).

And, looking at the scriptures more widely, it seems evident that, rather than giving them up to exile, the presence of the LORD actually travelled to Babylon with Israel (e.g. Daniel); returned with them to the land decades later (e.g. Ezra, Nehemiah); and even remained with those of the community who did not return (e.g. Esther).

These stories I mention above present themes of suffering and restoration, darkness and light, death and life in a kind of cycle of salvation. Round and round these salvation stories go in a circling, spiraling motion, which work together in revealing a single message that the LORD, though often unseen, is always with Israel and at certain points clearly intervenes on their behalf to save and make new.

Christians can understand these things as signs pointing to the ultimate expression of darkness turning to light in the coming of Christ. To me, this is immensely reassuring. It tells me that in feeling a temporary sense of abandonment/exile I am somehow sharing in an experience common to people of faith through the ages; a pattern which involves reckoning with the mysterious character of God but which will eventually culminate in the divine presence coming through powerfully for the covenant people.

So I wait for Christ’s arrival on Christmas morning expectant and hopeful of new things that lie ahead. But I wonder if this in-between moment of Advent requires a balanced, more disciplined acknowledgement of the divine presence. Perhaps for now, it is necessary to simply look back over the cycle of salvation playing out in the stories of ancient Israel, in order to remember the patterns of lament and joy in which I share.

But the discipline of “remembering” that Christ has always been present in my story, just as he is preparing to enter afresh and make it new, comes with real implications.

First is the immense challenge of wrestling through the ways in which Christ has accompanied me in this year of trials. Do I actually want to seek him out in the mess of 2020; or would I prefer to wallow in an assumed spiritual exile, navel-gazing my way towards the hopes for restoration?

And second is this point of great significance:

The Christ, the Ancient One, has been present. Is present. Will be present. Every story is his story – even our own. This realisation can begin lifting us out of our dismay and cause us to extend our gaze outward in search of the divine presence in other people. And perhaps an active seeking for Christ’s presence will involve us becoming the presence by being the hope in someone else’s despair and the joy in another’s sorrow. In this way, we become truly caught in the great cycle of salvation.

The Race to Bethlehem: Starting Advent with John Milton

The prelude to John Milton’s 1629 poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” begins:

This is the month, and this the happy morn,

Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,

Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring.

From this grand opening however, the poet quickly faces a problem of inspiration regarding what to present the new-born king. He asks his Heavenly Muse, “hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain, to welcome him to this his new abode?”

Each year, Advent offers a fresh opportunity to prepare for the coming of Jesus. But Advent also presents challenges: How do I prepare? How do I enter the celebration? With what should I present the baby? Certainly, this year when I personally have faced two lockdowns across two continents, family stresses and tragedies, extended periods of no school for children, etc; I approach Advent in a kind of covid-malaise, with little inspiration or enthusiasm. Indeed, I find myself at a loss, looking up to an imagined Heavenly Muse to assist me in finding a meaningful way of preparing for Jesus’ birth.

Turning again to the poem, Milton is helpful. Although lacking sufficient inspiration for an appropriate welcome for the “Infant God”, the poet senses the import of the effort. Finding a welcoming gift – his “humble ode” – is not only necessary, but somehow, urgent:

See how far upon the eastern road

The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:

O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,

And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;

Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,

And join thy voice unto the angel quire,

From out his secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.

The Magi haste to present their sweet-smelling gifts to the baby, and so too must the poet’s “humble ode” be brought with speed. Indeed, with more speed than the wise men, so that he may have the honour of being the first to greet the Lord. This then, is a race to Bethlehem!

Of course, running the race language is familiar from the New Testament letters (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Galatians 5.7; Hebrews 12.1) where it is employed with reference to perseverance, and keeping the faith amidst trials in order to “receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1.12). But here I am thinking of the following notion:

By competing in the race to reach Bethlehem before any other can do so; and, laying our gift at Jesus’ “blessed feet”, we may gain the honour of being the first to greet the Lord.

For me this is a new idea, and it is one that I find rather exciting! It reminds me of pregnant Mary rushing to visit Elizabeth and the shepherds hurrying to the stable. Indeed, this idea of racing to Bethlehem might even lift me out of my lockdown-induced-discontent! Imaginatively stepping into the biblical world, I want to make my way to the stable with as much haste as I can manage, eager to present my gift to the baby – who is also my Lord – and greet him first. Approaching Advent once again, I desire to summon up the energy, reach him before any other, and say, “this year I offer you…”

And here I must pause, a fresh anxiety rising up within me: What do I present to him this year? What will be my “humble ode” that can be laid at his “blessed feet”? Is there anything from this most unusual year of 2020 that can be drawn out of my experience and offered to the newborn king in the faithful hope that it will be received and made new?

Maybe the task of Advent is to discover the gift we each have to give and then, when it is found, to race toward Bethlehem, delivering it to our Lord in eager anticipation of his receiving our gift and using it to transform us, yet again, in the year ahead.

Some Issues with Religious Zeal (Numbers 25; 1 Maccabees 2)

There is a word that increasingly makes me feel uneasy: ZEAL! Associated with a passion/fervour/enthusiasm for a particular cause, these days being zealous is regularly connected with terrorists and those involved with acts of religiously motivated hatred. Perhaps this is an unjust association, but a quick look through the Scriptures makes it understandable nonetheless… Yesterday (20th November 2020) was Transgender Day of Remembrance in the UK when all those in the trans community who have suffered and died at the hands of bigotry, prejudice and hatred are remembered. Some of these violent acts are motivated by a religious zeal causing people to attack those who are perceived as unacceptably different. Whatever our personal views might be on another’s difference to us, we surely cannot support the idea that a passionate commitment to God leads to acts of violence and persecution.

One perspective found in the Bible is that religious zeal is not just desirable for the people of God, but an attitude leading to action intrinsic to the Israelite identity. Indeed, it seems that the urging for the Israelites to be zealous for the LORD is an appeal for them to reflect the nature of their Lord, YHWH who is zealous and jealous and uncompromising in defence of the divine name and passionate love for the covenant people.

The classic story of religious zeal is in Numbers 25: the Israelites have been mixing with Moabites resulting in the worship of their god, Baal-Peor. Disgusted, the LORD tells Moses to impale all the Israelite chiefs as a punishment, but – as elsewhere – Moses softens this word ever-so-slightly, instructing the judges to kill only those “who have yoked themselves to the Baal” (25.5). When an Israelite appears with a Midianite woman in front of the whole community, Phineas grabs the nearest spear and stabs the two of them in the belly. This act serves to stop the divine anger; while Phineas is praised for his zealous action and given a covenant of peace and everlasting priesthood by the LORD “because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites” (25.13).

Phineas thus becomes the example of praiseworthy religious zeal in later tradition. It is notable in the Apocryphal 1 Maccabees 2.49-68 where Mattathias refers to Phineas in his deathbed speech to his sons alongside Elijah and other Bible heroes. But also, Mattathias’ own zeal is described in the book as follows: “Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phineas did against Zimri son of Salu” (2.26). Briefly, here is the story from 1 Macc. 1-2…

The appalling foreign ruler Antiochus sets his face towards Israel, instructing the people to abandon their faithful practices on pain of death. When the king’s officers arrive in Modein to enforce royal commands, Mattathias the priest is horrified and declares that he and his sons will never desert the covenant of their ancestors. Embarrassingly, immediately after this stirring speech, “a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar at Modein, according to the king’s command” (2.23). Mattathias – burning with zeal – runs to the altar and kills the one who had gone forward, as well as the king’s officer.

Similarly, in the New Testament, St Paul describes his violent persecution of the church in terms of his being “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1.13-14). Of course, many of those persecuted are Paul’s (then, Saul) own people. But, like Zimri in Numbers 25 and the individual ignoring Mattathias, those persecuted by Saul/Paul have seemingly challenged the commands so essential to Jewish tradition and identity:

I am the LORD your God… you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents…but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20.2-6).

So, according to the Phineas-Mattathias-Saul/Paul strand of tradition, to be a true Israelite is to cling to these commandments, being passionately exclusive to the point of persecution, in order to defend Israelite identity which is bound up in the person of YHWH. If fellow-Israelites reveal themselves as unfaithful, perhaps they cease to be an Israelite at all, and therefore are perceived as worthy of treatment such as is prescribed for the Canaanites who were to be rooted out of the land. In other words, they become “the Other”.

Not content with “Othering” (ex-?) members of Israel, such zealous protection of Israelite identity easily spills over to endangering actual “Others”. This is apparent in Numbers 25 when the Midianites are to be hunted down and destroyed for tricking the Israelites into false worship. Although Phineas’ life-taking zeal somehow atoned for Israel; it was not enough to cover Midian. Likewise, Mattathias and his followers responded to Antiochus’ reign by striking down “sinners”, pulling down altars and forcibly circumcising boys in Israel (2.42-48). I wonder if a similar thing might be said about Saul/Paul’s approval over the martyrdom of Stephen, a Greek-speaking, or Hellenistic, Jew, in Acts 6.5-8.1.

Today, I suppose it may be possible to confuse some of the ancient religious-identity issues in texts such as those I have mentioned, and apply them haphazardly when approaching groups considered to be “Other” to ourselves. Such people, being so different, somehow threaten the identity, and thus perhaps the very existence of the group we call “Us”. To defend the name of our God (and protect ourselves), we must exclude and maybe even attack. Indeed, in extreme cases of religiously motivated hate crime, this seems to be exactly what has happened.

The key issue in the texts is the perceived threat to Israel’s identity by a breaking of the covenant relationship with God, usually by infiltration of outside influences. I am not convinced this is that great a danger to us today as, since its beginnings, Christianity has existed in relationship with many expressions of changing culture. The interwoven threads of spiritual and cultural influence upon each other are difficult to unravel. There have been many points about which groups of Christians have set an identity marker – slavery, women in leadership, sexuality and gender issues. On these things, often the Church has said – this is who we are, to change is to lose our identity – and the challenge of difference is felt. But then, inevitably, changes come in some form or another, and a reshaped Christian community sets to work widening its embrace.

Almost twenty years ago, in The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (who passed away earlier this month) wrote: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”

Here then, difference in our communities becomes an opportunity to widen our embrace and enact the kingdom of heaven, celebrating the significant challenges of diversity as a representation of divine creation! Far from shutting down and looking inward, threatened and scared by what is lurking outside supposedly trying to infiltrate and destroy us; we build the kingdom of heaven by looking for the divine image all around us.

I wonder if the real threat to religious identity – that is, our becoming who we really are created to be – comes from shutting people out, seeing them as “Other” and trapping them on the outside.

The kingdom of heaven exists only in relationship; and relationships always twist, turn and change. By confronting the “threats” outside, and really seeking the divine activity therein, the kingdom comes. Building the kingdom requires considerable effort: it might involve self-giving and repentance for those who have been excluded and abused before. It may require significant searching, as for the pearl or the treasure buried the the field. Is this type of kingdom-building a different positive kind of zeal? Perhaps a being “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2.14)? I don’t know… Today, I feel as though finding the right language is perhaps not as important as performing right, loving action.

A Quick Thought on “Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6.10)

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus launches his ministry by announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4.17). The kingdom of heaven might be described simply as the experience of divine activity (where, when, how-ever it comes). Jesus announces the kingdom practically, by enacting it in all he says and does. Immediately after the announcement in 4.17, Jesus calls the fishermen and cures “every disease and every sickness among the people” (4.18-25). And on he goes, enacting the kingdom to the cross and beyond.

In Matthew 6, when teaching the people how to pray, Jesus says: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (6.10). His saving actions through the Gospel, embodying the kingdom, reveal the desperate need for the prayer “your kingdom come” to arise from God’s people. That is, because people live with darkness we need the light to shine (4.15-16). It was the work of Jesus in the Gospel, and it is the on-going work of his followers who are called the light of the world (5.14). When the kingdom comes through proclamation, teaching, and healing; the perfect existence of heaven meets the imperfect experience on earth.

The prayer for the kingdom to come seems closely related to “your will be done” because the kingdom is experienced when the will of God is sought. I might put it this way:

The kingdom of heaven is the will of God enacted: when the divine will is practised, the kingdom comes.

This seems apparent in the example of Jesus in the Gospel who announces the kingdom by doing the will of God. The relationship between kingdom work and divine will is made most explicit in the Gospel of John where Jesus speaks of only doing what he sees the Father doing (e.g. John 5.19-20), and we assume that the same thing is taking place across the four Gospels. It is important to think of both divine will and kingdom involving relationships. Just as Jesus speaks elsewhere of a deep communicative relationship between Son and Father (and also the Spirit, e.g. John 16.13-15); in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus announces the kingdom by moving among the people, relating to them in compassion as a teacher and healer. Further, he declares a close kinship with those who do the will of the Father in heaven (12.50).

I wonder then, if the example of bringing about the kingdom among the people in our communities by following the divine will, is set by the nature of the relationship between the divine persons. Maybe we can learn how to enact God’s kingdom by considering God’s character.

In the eternal reality of heaven, the Trinity exists in constant loving relationship. In the last part of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar described this as a relationship of “absolute self-giving of the Father to Son, of Son to Father, and of both to the Spirit”.* And it is here, I believe, that we find a model for beginning to understand “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

The absolute selflessness expressed between the persons of the Trinity in the heavenly realms, demonstrates precisely the divine will for human interactions that might herald in the kingdom.

When we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are seeking the example… perhaps even the presence of the divine Trinity which models the relationship necessary for divine will and kingdom to be enacted. And when we live in such a way that demonstrates a self-giving love to others, whilst also allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to receive that love in return; we do the will of God, thus proclaiming the kingdom. As such, the space between heaven and earth reduces significantly. Indeed, the two may even meet.

*H. Balthasar, (1998) Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory V: The Last Act. Translated by G. Harrison, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p. 245.

History and Memory: a Thought on the Exodus Event During a Time of Remembrance (November 2020)

It is a strange thing to be asked to “remember” events which we were not alive to experience. We tend to think of remembering in terms of one’s own personal bank of memories. Even something in the collective memory would seem to require everyone in the community to have experienced the event in order to remember it. But in many countries, each November we are invited to remember the two world wars and experience again the great sacrifice made by those who participated in the conflicts.

When it comes to understanding this confusing idea of remembering that which we did not personally experience, some assistance may be found in the pages of the Bible.

The book of Exodus relates how the LORD directs Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and towards a new existence as the covenant people of God. Later, in Deuteronomy, as the people stand on the border of the promised land, Moses compels them to remember the exodus event. Which is fine, except… some forty years have passed since Israel left Egypt, and that original generation has been wiped out due to various misdemeanours (Numbers 14.28-30; Deut. 2.14-15). Those now addressed by Moses in Deuteronomy did not pass through the waters of the Reed Sea. They are a new generation ready to commit to the word of God and enter the promised land.

Nevertheless, throughout Deuteronomy Moses says things like: “do not forget the things you saw with your own eyes” (4.9), and “it was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today” (5.3). History takes second place to memory in order that this, and every, new generation is enabled to experience the exodus and the giving of Torah for themselves. And this is essential because the identity of Israel as a covenant people is formed intrinsically around these central events.

This kind of time-lapse collective memory takes place through the practice of recital and ritual. The Israelites must observe Passover and teach their children, reciting the LORD’s instruction, “at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6.7).

And so, I wonder if it is in recital and ritual today that we somehow experience the memory the world wars. We may wear poppies and stay silent for two minutes at the eleventh hour. In the UK, we read poetry from World War I in schools and hear the steady voice of Churchill speaking again to the nation. We see grainy photographs and listen to crackling recordings. Further, the experiences of family and friends, now passed, once shared with us as stories, become our own. There is perhaps a responsibility to receive these things and push them further to those who are to come. The generation who remembers also shares the experience; we become the generation, and the memory shapes who-we-are.

The honour and tragedy, the coming together in community to push through difficulty known as “Blitz Spirit”, and the unprecedented sacrifice of those who gave themselves up for greater good. These are things that the British in particular respond to and recognise as our own. We might identify them recently in the outpouring of gratitude for NHS workers during the pandemic and recognition by the Queen of public figures who have selflessly helped others.

The immensity of these identity-forming events such as the world wars or the biblical exodus event brings a responsibility for each generation to receive and transmit the memory as, to forget would be to somehow lose ourselves. But in the Bible, the call to remember the exodus has been complicated by writing of a fixed scriptural record. In other words, it feels as though history has defeated memory.

The way in which the story is told in the text has become the story. And this is problematic because a written record of events – even an official version – is still only one perspective. I am imagining the many varieties of exodus stories told to the Israelite children by their families before any written record was set in place. And what if the written record somehow fails to encapsulate the memory of the entire community, only certain members?

What has struck me, reading the exodus narrative again at this time of Remembrance is just how militarised it is. We know the familiar theme that the LORD is fighting powerfully for the Israelites and they have only to be still (Exodus 14.13-14). But did you ever notice for example, that in Ex. 13.18 the Israelites are armed when they leave Egypt? Or that the pillar of cloud in 14.20 comes between “the army of Egypt and the army of Israel”?

It reads like a historical record that glorifies war: God is the ultimate warrior. God’s people are armed and ready for battle. And together they claim ultimate victory over Egypt with not a single Israelite casualty. This prepares the way for the conquest and defence of territory which is to come throughout the remainder of the Old Testament. The language used in this official record of the exodus, influences how we, as people of God, remember and share in the event. Because the written word appears so authoritative, we are unavoidably guided towards a narrow reading of Us against Them. And, of course, this impacts how we enact the story as part of our lived faith.

So, digging deep; when re-reading the exodus narrative this week of Remembrance, I purposely think of the tragic Egyptians who, by the time they get to the Reed Sea, have already suffered plagues, loss of economy and the death of the children, before finally:

“Moses held his arm over the sea… the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the LORD hurled the Egyptians into the sea” (Ex. 14.27)

And I wonder whether any of the Israelites looked back in sorrow. Did any of the stories told to the children and grandchildren contain a sympathetic note about this ultimate destruction of the Egyptians. If they did, such elements have been forgotten and discarded by the written version which serves only to highlight God’s power and Israelite victory.

While it may appear as though a one-sided written history has finally done away with memory, the Bible is never as simple as we might think. And despite its lifeless appearance on the bookshelf, it remains a living, dangerous, and challenging word. If we read the Hebrew Scripture with enough care, we will find cause to ask sensitive questions about the supposed enemies of Israel – whether Egypt or Philistine or Amalek – that help us to reflect more meaningfully upon our own collective memory of war, and subsequently, how we relate to one another as human beings.


When we remember those who gave of themselves in two world wars for a greater good, we surely acknowledge that war is always a tragedy. It might sometimes be necessary, but it remains a tragedy. There are no ultimate victors. No one side appears without a single casualty. This is the stuff of propaganda. Rather, in remembrance, there are as many stories of heroism and self-sacrifice and suffering and pointless destruction on one side as on the other. Together, we remember what humans do to each other and also what we can do for each other.

Bad News, Big Decisions, and Divine Abundance (Matthew 14.13-21)

It has been said that these are surreal and unprecedented times. It has been said over and over by many people in reference to continued attempts to deal with coronavirus, because it is true. These are times of bad news and big decisions, in which the way things appeared last week – or even in the last 24 hours – can suddenly take on a completely new character. When reading the Feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14.13-21 this week I have been led to reflect again upon this season through which we are all currently struggling.

The story begins with Jesus receiving the news of John the Baptist’s death. It is both tragic and relatable that he withdraws by boat to a deserted place. Surrounded by crowds, accompanied by disciples; when is there ever time for him to process all that is happening? It is good to consider that (according to the Matthew’s presentation of events anyway…), since coming out publicly with the good news of the kingdom of heaven (4.17), Jesus has not stopped. He has moved from teaching to healing to arguing with authorities, collecting more followers everywhere he goes.

I am struck again by Jesus’ human desire to be alone and grieve the loss of John. Why should we assume that he would receive this news and just carry on with the work? Indeed, why should we assume that those in leadership are unaffected by events, and are somehow able to carry on regardless simply because of their calling to leadership?

In any case, the crowds discover Jesus’ whereabouts and follow him “on foot from the towns”. It is interesting to me – and demonstrates further how, in Jesus’ decision to “empty himself, taking on the form of a slave” (Philippians 2.7), the allowance for rest and respite has been removed from him – how Jesus hears and responds to the news of John’s death, and is sought out by the crowds, all in one single verse (13). Life moves pretty fast.

Of course, the divine love active so clearly within Jesus moves him to compassion and he “cured their sick” (14.14). In the evening, the disciples appear with a problem that needs solving: the crowds are hungry and there is nowhere to get food. Again, there might be something further to say about the cost to Jesus from expectations of his always being ready to heal and solve practical problems and everything else thrown at him; but here I am interested in the peoples’ decision to spend the day out in that deserted place with Jesus. They were not invited to join him, but chose to seek him out, and then found themselves hungry after some hours had passed by.

We know the story: the loaves and fish are shared between the people and twelve baskets are leftover. The great abundance of God is revealed! But it seems to me that it is revealed in the context of the peoples’ questionable decision to spend the day having their needs met by Jesus without any thought given to practical things such as the food they will need later in the day. Be this as it may, Jesus responds to them and they are provided for abundantly.

This makes me consider the human relationship with God in a wider sense. How much does God hold the exact plan for every detail of our life and how much does God respond to what happens to us, the decisions we make, etc.? Of course, there may be times of clear direction and times of divine response… clearing up the mess we have made! The point is that God is at work within and around us. The abundance of God is evident even, perhaps especially, when it is not clear whether the Lord has led us on a particular path, or is responding to make good our own plans.

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8.28)

The mystery of living in relationship with God means that this “good” St Paul refers to might not look very good to us! Indeed, there will be implications from what we do and lessons to be learnt that are sometimes severe. However, we live in the hope that the immense divine love is active in making all things good (whatever that “good” looks like in our perspective). We have this hope because we trust that our weaknesses are known by God and that “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8.26). As such, Paul asks:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8.35)

In the context of coronavirus that has involved lockdown and loss of employment, security, and in many cases across the world, loss of life; we are put into a position of making quick decisions often in response to bad news without the clear assurance that God is leading down this path or that, by some pre-ordained plan.

Here is a thought to ponder:

Because of the divine love from which we cannot be separated; as we respond to impossibly difficult scenarios involving self, family, livelihood; God also responds to us with an impossibly mysterious abundance that we may not immediately appreciate.

I feel that it is of absolute importance that we do not punish ourselves or others for decisions made during this season. Research is beginning to show that there has been a great deal of negative impact upon peoples’ mental health during lockdown. Christians should not wish to add to stress and anxiety – their own or that of others – either by simply parroting that “God is in control!” or by judgment about what may be deemed not the best way forwards. What, why, who, where… nothing can separate us from the divine love. Let us try to rest there for now.