Wednesday 26 October 2011

Every tribe

The sole basis of evangelism and the world-wide mission of the church rests on the bloody sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross two-thousand years ago. We saw this in Sunday’s passage from Revelation 5 as the four living creatures and twenty-four elders worshipped before the throne of God in heaven, singing these words of praise to the Lord Jesus Christ:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Revelation 5:9

1. Because you were slain
The future salvation of the people of God is made certain by an event in past history, namely, the cross of Jesus Christ. “You were slain”; “you purchased for God”; and a few verses earlier, the elder tells John that the Lion of Judah “has triumphed”. As John is given a glimpse into a heavenly reality far into the future, what he encounters instead is all of heaven looking back to the past event of the cross to find there the certainty of salvation, the fulfilment of God’s purposes and the worthiness of Jesus as the lamb who was slain.

2. With your blood you purchased
Here, Jesus’ blood is pictured as currency. The Greek word, “egorasas” is used in commerce and business transactions; meaning: This was a high price to pay. Nothing less than the death and condemnation of Jesus could secure the forgiveness of men and women for God.

With regard to evangelism, these words of praise spoken by angels remind us of the worthiness of Jesus; not simply the urgency of missions. In the face of vast numbers of unreached people groups, increased hostility towards missionaries, persecution of believers who speak out for the gospel - the bible sets before us not a to-do list of problems to be overcome but Jesus who deserves to be praised. He is worthy to be worshipped. His blood secures salvation. His sacrifice makes mission possible. John Piper writes in his book “Let the nations be glad”:

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

3. From every tribe
The word “tribe” is often used in the bible to refer to the descendants of twelve sons of Jacob - the Twelve tribes of Israel (eg. Matthew 19:28). Yet here, it most likely has a generic meaning, as in, “communities”; in the same way that “ethnous”/“nations” often meant non-Israelite (hence, you sometimes find it rendered, “Gentiles”), but in the New Testament takes on the wider meaning of the multiplicity of various people groups around the world.

The blood of Jesus purchases men and women from every tribe, every language, every people and every nation. It is not simply saying that a whole lot of people are going to be saved. (It is not even saying that every single individual will be saved - hence the word “from”.) What it is saying is that new redeemed community of God will come from every conceivable background and culture and heritage and history and colour and race. It will not be homogeneous. God’s community will a mixed bunch of individuals and communities vastly different from one another.

I think we need to be aware of that, not just in the context of overseas missions, but even more so within the local church. We naturally want to stay within our own culture and tribe, and a lot of that is simply a reflection of the unique identity God has given us - he made us human, but he also gave us gender, colour, language and community. All of this comes from God. All of this is part of his creation.

So I think it is wonderful that we can have a Chinese Church right here, smack in the middle of an English city like Cambridge. We can continue being Chinese - worshipping Jesus in Mandarin, Cantonese, and yes even English; we can have Chinese food at our gatherings, we can retain our culture, heritage and values - such as respect for our elders - which are good and godly. But at the same time, we ought not to let our Chinese-ness become a hindrance for the gospel. Because it can. And unless we are careful; and unless we constantly bring our focus back to Jesus and the cross, it certainly will.

Yet, in the same way that we Chinese have a unique identity and culture, so too, I would argue, do the academic community in Cambridge. The students are, if you like, a tribe. In terms of age (18-22), language (well-spoken and confident in English) and social interaction (living in colleges, eating in the same halls, even going to the same churches together), the undergraduates at Cambridge have a unique identity of their own. I was not very surprised last year, when some students implied that there shouldn’t be cultural groupings within Christians, such as the Chinese Christian Fellowship, in favour of one large gathering of students all from different backgrounds and all focussed on the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet these students may not have realised that they were simply abandoning one social tribe for another - the tribe of the Cambridge undergraduate!

4. They reign on the earth

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.
Revelation 5:10

Most bibles translate the closing words of the song in the future tense. “They will reign on the earth”. But it could easily be rendered in the present infinitive, that is, “They reign” or “They are reigning”. I think the present continuous tense is more faithful to the text. And I think it is talking about the authority that lies behind missions and evangelism.

After his death, and upon his resurrection, Jesus met his disciples and said to them:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Matthew 28:18-20

This is authority from heaven over all the nations. Jesus invests in us as Christians his authority to establish his kingdom here on earth. Not by conquest. Not by building a Christian nation. Not by coercion or force. But by announcing the message of the cross and pointing back to his one sacrifice for our sins, teaching the obedience that comes from trusting in Jesus Christ alone as our God and our Saviour.

Thank you for the cross Lord
Thank you for the price You paid
Bearing all my sin and shame
In love You came
And gave amazing grace

Worthy is the Lamb
Seated on the throne
Crown You now with many crown
You reign victorious
High and lifted up
Jesus Son of God
The Darling of Heaven crucified
Worthy is the Lamb
(Darlene Zschech, “Worthy is the Lamb”)

No comments: