Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rejecting Caesar's Gospel

I’d like to talk about an issue that troubles me greatly.  Those of you who disagree with me are going to want to immediately dismiss what I have to say as soon as you find out what this is about.  But please keep reading – because this is about so much more.  This is about how we should respond in the wake of the Boston bombings, and it’s about the most important thing in life.  Before I get into what this is about, I want to warn you: before you throw my opinions out the window because of your disagreement, keep in mind that the Bible commands you to test out what I have to say:
I Thessalonians 5:19-22
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

And how do you test out what I have to say?  Jesus tells you:
Matthew 7:15-20
Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

So hear me out, and decide for yourself if what I have to say is something that will produce good fruit or bad fruit.

The whole gun rights debate mystifies me, on many levels.  It mystifies me that those who clamor to either keep the gun situation the way it is or want more guns on the streets will shout out “congress shall make no law!” and “right to bear arms!” but ignore the “well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” clause.  I then am further mystified that often, when you point this out to people, they begin to argue that the militia is all of us, completely ignoring both the “well regulated” phrasing as well as Article I, Section  8 of the Constitution itself which states that Congress (ahem…the Federal Government…) shall have the power:
Clause 15:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

Clause 16:

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

Boy, that sure sounds like the purpose of the second amendment was so that every individual could have a gun so that we can overthrow a tyrannical government, eh?  (#sarcasm)  It further mystifies me that despite the fact that all of President Obama’s proposals have majority support of the public – and specifically that stricter background checks are more popular than apple pie, baseball, and kittens – the government can’t seem to get any traction on passing any new gun control laws (actually I'm not mystified - the NRA owns the Republican party).

But what mystifies, and disturbs me most of all is that often the people shouting the loudest about how we need to protect the “right” to bear arms of any kind and firepower for anyone at all are people who claim to be Christians – followers of Jesus.  I just can’t understand how someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus could think that He supports the “right” to bear arms.  And I want to give a thorough explanation why, but please keep in mind the Biblical command to test out what I have to say for its fruits.

So why am I mystified by Christians who fight for gun rights?  It’s because of my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  See, Jesus taught us to love one another – in Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on the commandments to love God and love our neighbor.  And when asked who our neighbors are in Luke 10:25-37 (verse 29), Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who acted like a neighbor to an injured Jew, while the religious elites of Jesus’ day ignored him.  To put this into context, it would be like if Jesus told the story today and the Samaritan was a Muslim while the ones who ignored the injured man were an Evangelical Minister and a church deacon.  And Jesus further broadened the definition of the command to love our neighbor when he said in Matthew 5:43-48 that we should love our enemies as well.  And Jesus had already helped us to understand how we are to love our enemy when he said that we should not resist an evil person; if we are struck in the face we should turn the other cheek to allow them to strike that side as well; if anyone wants to sue us for our shirt we should give them our coat too; if anyone forces us to go a mile (Roman soldiers had the right to force a citizen of the empire to carry their pack for a mile) we should go two miles (Matthew 5:38-42).  But Jesus gives us more clues about how to interpret “the Law” when he tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, saying that if anyone has done an act of kindness for “the least of these” they have done it for Him.  And the Apostle Paul picks up on this clue in Galatians 5:14 when he says that the entire law is fulfilled in loving our neighbors.  And if we love our neighbor, Romans 13:10 says that we will do no harm.  Seems to me like Jesus wouldn’t be pushing for us to own guns, since they don’t seem to go together with not resisting, turning the other cheek, or not doing any harm.

But wait, there’s more.  I believe American Christianity has been deceived by a misconception that being a Christian is about escape – it’s about escaping this world and going to heaven.  But I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all.  I didn’t realize just how wrong this impression was until I understood what the gospel was.  See, if you had asked me before what the gospel was even 6 months ago, I would have quoted for you Ephesians 2:8-9.  And that’s a halfway decent answer, but it’s not the gospel – it’s Paul expounding on the gospel; unpacking it; exploring what it means.  I don’t think many of us understand the Gospel here in America because we’ve forgotten what the word itself means.

To understand, we have to understand the historical background of Israel being in captivity to the Roman Empire.  In the Roman Empire, when a new Caesar came to power, he would send out messengers throughout the Empire to tell them the news – basically they would go throughout all the corners of the Empire and tell the governors (the political elite) that “everything is going to be OK now – I’m in control of the Empire now, and I’m going to set things right.  I am Lord now, and you will be saved through me.  I am the savior through which you will find economic stability and safety from your enemies.  There will be peace and prosperity through me.”  This was called the “euangelion” – or, gospel – and it was good news for Caesar’s friends.  But to the new Caesar’s enemies, the news was not good. 

Jesus’ gospel was an answer to the gospel of a new Caesar, but it was a stark contrast.  When Jesus was born, an angel told Shepherds that there was “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  (see Luke 2:8-11)  Notice two contrasts here:
1)    The news does not come first to the elites, but to lowly shepherds.
2)    The news is good and causes joy for all the people.

Then, when John the Baptist began to “prepare the way for the Lord”, what did he preach?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (see Matthew 3:1-2)  Now, this phrase has also been translated into English as “is near”, “has drawn near to you”, and “is at hand.”  I, personally, prefer the “at hand” translation because I feel it is ripe with metaphorical imagery – it tells me that though the kingdom is not yet fully realized, it’s so close that if I were to simply stretch out my hand in faith I would be able to touch it; to grasp a small piece of that kingdom now, in this world and time.

After Jesus was baptized by John, he was tempted, and after he was tempted, Matthew 4:17 tells us that he began to preach “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

Later on, in Matthew 10:7-8, Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and he tells them to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.  Freely you have received; freely give.”  See, these are all signs that what they are saying – that the kingdom of heaven is at hand – are true.  This is another contrast to Caesar’s gospel - Caesar proves his gospel through violently destroying his enemies.  Jesus proves his gospel through healing and restoration – even for his “enemies”.

This message is repeated all throughout the New Testament, and this should indicate to us its importance!  Not only is the message “the Kingdom of Heaven/God is at hand” repeated throughout all four gospels and then later on in Acts and even the epistles, but most of Jesus’ parables start out with “the kingdom of Heaven is like….” 

Now, as a side note, it should be noted that the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” is often replaced by “the Kingdom of God”, and this may cause some confusion, but it is easily explained.  When Moses asked God what His name was, God says “I Am Who I Am” – this isn’t really a name.  And God never really gives himself a name, though the Jews used many names for Him.  But the phrase, “I Am Who I Am”, is often represented by the Hebrew letters “YHVH”, which do not produce a pronounceable word, or name.  Many Jews believed that this, in conjunction with the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, meant that they should not ever say the name of God, and so they would substitute the word “Heaven” for his name.  So when Jesus preached, he kept his audience in mind, and in some areas he would say “Kingdom of God” – because they had no qualms with that phraseology there – and in other places he would say “Kingdom of Heaven”. 

But what I’m getting at is that the goal of American Christians to “get to heaven” is not Biblical!  Our goal is not escape – our goal is to bring “heaven” to earth as citizens of the Kingdom of God!  Don’t believe me?  Then why does Jesus say to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33), and when He teaches us to pray, why does he use the phrase (in Matthew 6:10):
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven. (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, in Colossians 1:15-20, Paul uses political language that is lost on us today.  It was a very politically subversive message – in Rome at the time, Christianity was a very small percentage of the population.  But Paul is turning things around in verses 16 and 17 by saying that, because – through Christ – God created everything, Rome is just a small piece of God’s kingdom.  Then Paul says that Christ is the “head of the assembly” (note: many translations use the word “body”) in verse 18 – this was political language.  In Roman, their legislative branch was known as the “assembly” and Caesar was the head of it.  This language is all too often lost on us today, and it is to our detriment as we seem to believe church is all about singing songs and praying.  Which I’m not knocking – those things are beneficial.  But that’s not the end goal – the goal is to be a citizen of God’s kingdom, and to act as if we have responsibilities to inaugurate His kingdom on earth.  You see, because we believe in “heaven escapism” we push Isaiah 2:4 into the future and think we have no responsibility for it:
The Lord will mediate between nations
    and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
    nor train for war anymore.

Do you understand the imagery of hammering swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks?  What that means, as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, is that we are supposed to turn away from instruments of destruction and violence and turn towards instruments of cultivation, and we ought to encourage everyone in the world to do the same, since “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1 and I Corinthians 10:26)

You see, we’re supposed to be followers of Jesus.  And Jesus showed us how to make peace.  When the soldiers came to arrest him and take him away to the cross, and Peter cut off the soldier’s ear, Jesus rebuked him and said that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”  And then Jesus said that if he wanted, he could call on His Father and twelve legions of angels would come down.  (Matthew 26:53)  Jesus had more power in his pinkie than an AR-15, but he gave it up and took up the cross.  Going back to the politically subversive imagery in Colossians 1:15-20, in verse 20, Paul says that “He (Christ) made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”  Caesar makes peace through the cross – if anyone is stupid enough to defy Caesar’s rule, he hoists people up on it.  Caesar makes peace through violence.  Jesus makes peace by giving up His power and subjecting himself to violence.  And the New Testament is full of commandments for Jesus’ followers to die to self and take up our cross.  After all:
[Jesus] [w]ho, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
(Phillippians 2:6-8)

And yet we have people here in America calling themselves followers of Jesus who wish to make peace through violence – who preach that the only way to have peace is to have more instruments of violence.  My friends, this is a false gospel – it is false prophecy and it bears the fruits of fear, anger, hatred, and violence, and I refuse to remain silent but will call it what it is.  We have people insisting on grasping at power in the form of weapons, and seeking to save their lives in this way.  But Jesus said that we must take up our cross and follow Him, for “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:34-35)  People keep telling us we need to take refuge in guns, but "I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'"  (Psalm 91:2)  If I were to take up a gun, or to encourage another to do so, I would no longer be preaching Jesus’ gospel, which proves itself through healing and restoration even towards my enemies – I would be preaching a false gospel.  But I reject Caesar’s gospel that says peace comes through violent means.  I say this is Jesus’ kingdom, and He brought peace through showing us how to love.

Matthew 5:9
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.


  1. Bravo! Your insights are spot on.
    Re: your wondering why certain Christians seem to put their trust in guns instead of in God, see this reflection that I wrote. Peace.
    websearch: "patheos kinder gentler easter"

    -- Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity

    1. Thank you Roger! I consider it high praise. I did read your easter post, and found it very beautiful. I must confess - I've never seen all of "The Passion of the Christ" - I can't stand watching long, drawn out crucifixion scenes. It breaks my heart too much.