The Battle for Religious and Political Freedom – Part 3
Was Israel a Sacral Society?
The democratic government of ancient Athens, was an aberration. One only needs to examine Sparta, the rival and enemy of Athens, to see a classic sacral society. The societal conditions in Sparta, have given rise to the adjective ‘spartan’ meaning austere, strict, somber, tough, etc. This is because there was no individuality in Sparta. Everyone had to conform to the one supreme goal, which was, the interests and preservation of the state. And Sparta was the epitome of a sacral society. The other Greek city states were the same – and sacralism prevailed all over the ancient world. However, was the nation of Israel, the nation established by God, a sacral society? Was it structured differently from the rest of the world?
Was the nation that God organized, at Sinai, a sacral society? A society where there was no individual freedom. Would God create a society like that? Scholars who have studied sacral societies, find that ancient Israel, was indeed, a sacral society:
We turn our attention to the earliest days of the Old Testament and point out that here too we witness a sacral situation. In the oldest deposits of the Old Testament the sacral situation does not differ much, if indeed it differs at all, from the world in the midst of which the Old Testament took shape. Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, pp. 24, 25.
If we examine the social structure of ancient Israel, this is what we find:
- The members or citizens of Israel were all born into it. Only descendants of Abraham could be members – ancient Israel was tribal.
- Israel had a membership requirement – circumcision. This is typical of a sacral society, where quasi-religious membership rites are imposed.
- Israel had a sacred sanctuary service. Worship was communal not individualistic.
- Israel had very little in the way of developed theology, which is religion of the mind. Israel had a religion of action and ritual. Their religion was acted out in the sanctuary. In other words, it was sacramental. One was saved by taking part in these collective sacraments. One was not saved by individual religious practice.
- Ancient Israel was exclusive. Even though God wanted Israel to be an example, something to aspire to and want to join – in reality Israel was an exclusive society. Exclusiveness became the hallmark of the Jews – it became one of their distinguishing features.
- Because Israel was exclusive there was no need for mission. Working for the salvation of outsiders is not a priority in sacral societies.
- In Israel the political and religious roles, of leaders, was blurred. There was no separation of church and state. This is typical of sacral societies.
- Israel had the death penalty for many transgressions, many of which we would consider minor infractions today. Again, this is typical of sacral societies, because even minor infractions were considered to be so important that they were treasonous.
God’s Kingdom is Progressive
But just because the Israelites were a sacral society at Mt Sinai, that does not mean that they were supposed to stay at Mt Sinai. Our same scholar goes on to state:
…the redemptive enterprise of God begins on the level of things as they are. We must not be surprised, therefore, to find the movement from the sacral pattern to something other and higher to be a transition, passing from one stage of development to the other. Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p. 25.
God’s Kingdom is a progressive kingdom. It expands and grows. The progressive nature of God’s Kingdom is taught everywhere in the Bible. Perhaps the best example, of the Progressive Principle, is the parable that Jesus told, about the seed sown and growing into maturity:
And he said, So, is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come. Mk. 4:26-29.
Many people misunderstand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. They think that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. They think the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and law and punishment – whereas the God of the New Testament is a God of grace, mercy and love. When we understand that God’s Kingdom is progressive this false dichotomy in people’s minds disappears.
We do not force babies, to act like adults and neither does God. God even describes Israel as a baby that He found abandoned and uncared for- so He took Israel, cared for it like a Father and He set Israel on a journey, but the journey did not go well (see Eze. 16:1-63). And we hear God calling Israel hard-hearted and stiff-necked – because they never grew to maturity (see Deut. 5:29, 10:16, 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Acts 7:51-54; Rom. 2:29; Col.2:11). The seed that was planted at Mt. Sinai never accomplished what God intended. In Old Testament times the Kingdom of God was like a vehicle stuck in first gear.
The Progressive Principle in the New Testament
However, the progressive nature of God’s Kingdom was clearly set out in the New Testament, by Jesus. When Jesus came, the Kingdom leapt into top gear. Jesus said, “You must be born again” (Jn. 3:6). In other words, in order to bring forth the new life, the seed first has to die, but when the seed dies, it also springs forth anew – it is born again and it grows into a completely new life. John the Baptist told the Jews the same thing, when he said:
Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. Lu. 3:8.
The physical connection to Abraham was no longer good enough. The Kingdom of God was switching gears – it was upscaling – the proof of entry into the Kingdom was now a changed life – the born-again life.
Jesus often explained, that just because things, were as they were, that did not mean they were supposed to stay that way. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, He explained to His audience the depth and breadth of the Law. He was explaining to the people, that the law, was not just to be practised literally, but also spiritually. The law was not just to be practised with the feet and the hands, but also with the mind. Jesus was attempting to progress the people from having to keep the law, to wanting to keep the law – to desiring to keep the law. Jesus was attempting to change their sacral mind-set (where they did everything collectively) to encouraging them to practise their religion individually. Jesus wanted to plant the law in their hearts. Jesus wanted to take the law off the tablets of stone and plant it, “in fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was appealing to the fleshly tables of the heart. He constantly contrasted what was acceptable in the past, with what was acceptable in the present. The Kingdom of God was transitioning from one stage to the other. The Kingdom of God was moving from first gear to top gear. It was time for the people of God to do the same. Therefore, what was acceptable in the past was no longer acceptable in the present. For example, at the time it was commonly understood, that an injury was paid back in kind – expressed as, ‘an eye for an eye’ – but Jesus said:
That has now changed – now we are going to bear the injury and turn the other cheek. Matt. 5:38, 39.
Jesus told His audience that in the past they were taught to hate their enemies:
But now that is over – now we are going to learn to love our enemies. Matt. 5:43, 44.
Jesus said that in the past the people were taught that they should not kill – but now Jesus wanted them to understand that:
Being angry with a brother was the same as killing a brother. Matt. 5:21:22.
Anger was the beginning of the process of murder – it started in the mind. In the same vein Jesus taught that sin begins in the mind, when He said:
Even looking at someone with lust in the heart was just the same as committing the act. Matt. 5:27, 28.
Jesus was teaching the people that true righteousness was not about a rigorous observance of the law. He was calling them to a higher plane of moral standards. Jesus was encouraging the seed to sprout and grow and mature. He was advancing the cause of the Kingdom, by calling the members of the Kingdom to a higher, more advanced elevation. Jesus was launching the Kingdom on a trajectory towards perfection. That is why He summarized this section of the Sermon on the Mount with these words:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Matt. 5:48.
These changes were clearly expressed by Jesus when he spoke about ‘new wine’ – He pointed out that new wine was unpalatable, to most people, and they preferred the old (see Lu. 5:37-39). By using the illustration of new wine, Jesus was referring to his teaching, which had to go into new bottles, because it would break the old bottles. The old sacral system could not tolerate the new individualistic system. As events unfolded the old bottle turned out to be Judaism and the new bottle turned out to be Christianity.
Christianity is a progressive religion – it moves, expands and grows on many fronts. On the physical front Jesus said,
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you… Matt. 28:19, 20.
On the knowledge front, Paul tells us to stop drinking milk and start eating meat:
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Heb. 5:12-14.
Paul is of course, comparing the growth of a baby, which only uses milk, to the growth of Christians, who ought to dispense with the milk, as soon as possible and get on to the meat of the Gospel. If they do so, their ability to discern, between good and evil, will grow.
There is yet another front, upon which the Kingdom of God grows and develops and that is the spiritual front. The purpose of growth in knowledge, is not just for the sake of knowledge. The purpose of knowledge is to facilitate an increase in spiritual growth. After Paul explained, that the newborn Christians, needed to get off the milk and unto the meat, in the next verses he explains why:
Therefore, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit. Heb. 6:1-3.
Here we are introduced to that word again, the word that many Christians shy away from – ‘perfection.’ Paul says let us go on unto perfection. Let’s not keep reviewing and rehashing the fundamentals of the faith – let’s move on to perfection.
The Goal of the Kingdom
Perfection is not something we need to be apprehensive about. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote that he had not yet attained to perfection, but that he strived after it – then he followed up, by saying, something very encouraging. He said all those who were like minded, are already perfect (see Phil. 3:12-15). In other words, if the members of the Kingdom stay on the narrow road, that Jesus spoke about (see Matt. 7:13), they are always considered perfect, in the eyes of Heaven. It matters not whether they are starting the journey or finishing it, they are always considered perfect. This is entirely reasonable, because the seed cannot be immediately mature – it goes through a period of growth – from one stage to another – and at every stage it is perfect. Paul is simply repeating what Jesus said, that the crop would grow and no one would know exactly how it would grow, but eventually it would reach maturity – it will be perfected – ready for the harvest. If we turn briefly to the Book of Revelation chapter 14, we find that, first a series of messages are introduced by three angels. When the preaching of these three messages are finished, we are told:
Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. Rev. 14:12.
So, here we see the Kingdom of God has come to maturity. The crop is ripe for the harvest. And that is exactly what follows, the harvest takes place:
And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe. Rev. 14:14, 15.
“For the harvest of the earth is ripe” – God has brought his kingdom to perfection. It is time to reap the harvest of the earth and the next stage of God’s kingdom can begin in heaven.
So, the Principle of Progression is a vital part of God’s Kingdom. Please note, this is contrary to the principles of Plato’s philosophy, where progress must be arrested, because according to Plato going forward is the wrong direction – we must go in the opposite direction – back to the ideal society of Atlantis.
The Individuality Principle
There is another principle of God’s kingdom, that is in direct conflict with Plato and that is the Principle of Individuality. God’s Kingdom is not made up of congregations, communities or nations – it is made up of individuals. God does not save people in aggregates; he saves us as individuals. Jesus said:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Jn. 3:16.
Jesus said that God saves ‘whosoever’ – whosoever is an individual – God saves individuals and individuals only. This is consistently taught all through Scripture. For example, Jesus said:
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matt. 16:24.
Jesus is looking for courageous individuals, people who are willing to bear whatever burdens they must, in order to follow him. Jesus is looking for people who listen to what He said in the Sermon on the Mount and are prepared to drink the ‘new wine.’ Jesus also said that he is not looking for families or communities he is looking for disciples:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Lu. 14:26.
Here Jesus is saying people must be prepared to forsake all community ties, including the closest ties of all, that of family, in order to be a true disciple. This is why He said elsewhere to count the cost of discipleship (see Lu. 14:28). The cost of becoming a disciple of Christ can be great. One can lose one’s family, one can lose one’s employment, and one can lose ones’ friends. Ultimately, a Christian has to be prepared to stand alone. A true Christian is always first and foremost an individual – someone who is willing to break all sacral incumbrances.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, gained first-hand knowledge what it meant to be a disciple of Christ, when he actively opposed Hitler and the Nazis (the Nazis were sacralists). Before he was executed, he wrote a book called ‘The Cost of Discipleship’. In this book he wrote: “Through the call of Christ, men become individuals.”
We can learn something fundamentally important, from this simple statement from Bonhoeffer. What we learn from Bonhoeffer’s statement is that, sacralism is still alive and well, even in our modern, democratic, western civilised nations. For example, sacralism manifests itself in attitudes that have been labelled ‘political correctness.’ Political correctness is the attempt to impose the collective approved opinion on all issues. In other words, the sacral position/opinion. Anyone, who has a contrary opinion, stands outside the collectively approved opinion and he becomes an outsider – a heretic. Political correctness is modern sacralism.
By becoming true followers of Jesus, we step outside the collectively approved opinion of society and we stand as individuals. What were we, before we decided to follow Christ? Answer: we were sacralists – we were platonists – we were conformers to the collective will of the herd. In modern terms, we were subscribers to political correctness. We dared not be individuals because, we would be excluded from the herd. All those who have chosen to follow Jesus, and have left the ‘world’ behind, have experienced the loss of friends and the disapproval of family. This is why Jesus said, “count the cost” (Lu. 14:28). The herd (sacralists) do not approve, of people who insist on acting individually. But when we choose to be followers of Christ, we automatically become individuals. Bonhoeffer goes on to explain how the process works:
Willy-nilly, they (people) are compelled to decide, and that decision can only be made by themselves. It is no choice of their own that makes them individuals: it is Christ who makes them individuals by calling them…Every man is called separately, and must answer alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and their material environment.
What this all means is, that the arrival of Christianity with its ‘new wine’ revolutionised the world. Sacral societies would never be the same again. Speaking about Christianity’s impact on sacral societies Leonard Verduin writes:
It must not escape the reader that this was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, chapter 1, paragraph 9.
Leonard Verduin is commenting, on the fact that Christianity was a radical insertion into the ancient world. It was so different, that it was revolutionary. By its very nature it could not co-exist in peace within the sacral societies that it invaded. It was considered alien, disruptive and irreverent wherever it was preached. The battle for religious and political liberty had begun and the world would never be the same.
Except for anomalies such as ancient Athens, the whole world was sacral. Therefore, when God took the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, they also were sacral. But God’s intention was to begin with a typical sacral society and make a new society based on Heaven’s principles. God created the world and He placed human beings, bearing His image, in His creation. However, because of sin and because of time, the image of God had been virtually eliminated and replaced with a fallen nature. The purpose of God with Israel, was to restore the image that was lost. The Israelites never achieved what God purposed for them. The Book of Revelation is about God finally succeeding. The history of this world is about, God providing us with religious and political freedom so that, His goals will be achieved, for the sake of His universe, for His own character, and for the sake of His people.