Pentecost is one of those events in the Christian calendar that hasn’t fared so well―so many people don’t know what to do with it! We know what happened, but the problem is what it means. Like so many discussions involving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost sometimes becomes a list of things that it doesn’t mean:
Whatever else it is, it can’t be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
The gift of prophecy, the experiences of dreams and visions―it’s all good, but it has nothing to do with us, you see …
The gift of tongues can’t be real foreign languages; they have to be ecstatic, other-worldly sayings that require an interpreter
Presuppositions drive interpretation, shutting out the actual words on the page. Pentecost gets submerged under 50 feet of controversy. Like espresso diluted with sugar, it becomes so much less than it’s meant to be. Its meaning is lost in all the noise of theological disagreement.
What does Pentecost actually mean?
Peter tells us. He stands up, facing a crowd of perhaps thousands in the temple courtyard, and simply says “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). What happened that morning―the Spirit descending visibly, audibly, in deliberately dramatic fashion―was what the prophet Joel said would happen. Whatever the phenomenon of Pentecost means, Joel explains it―what does Joel say?
Peter quotes a long passage from Joel (2:28-32). It’s a mysterious passage―otherworldly. There are great promises, even fantastic ones. The run-up to Peter’s citation shows us Joel urging repentance. God wants us to return to Him. The day of the Lord is illustrated by an army of locusts that devour everything in their path. Judgment is coming. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,” (Joel 2:12).
And, once God’s people do that, He’ll make everything all right (Joel 2:18-27), and that’ll set the stage for something else. After God rescues and gathers all His people. After God makes us safe. After God destroys our enemies. After God blesses the land and gives us a booming economy. After He returns to dwell with us … then some important stuff is going to happen.
Acts 2:17: And in the last days it shall be, God declares
Peter is interpreting Joel, who said:
after we repent,
and God rescues, gathers, dwells with us,
then something special is going to happen
the Messianic age will be here, in some form,
and it’ll come with some very specific bells, whistles and divine signs
Peter, by quoting Joel as he does, says “this is it―it’s here!”
God has rescued!
God has gathered!
God has made His people safe!
The age of the King is here!
These are the divine signs Joel told us about, right here in front of us―God is striking up the band and shouting, “Here it is, guys!”
Some bible teachers don’t agree. They say “what happened at Pentecost is like what Joel said … it resembles what he said …” But, this is mistaken. Peter said, “but this is what was said by the prophet Joel …” Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s words.
How can this be what Joel said, if all the stuff Joel promised would happen beforehand haven’t fully happened, yet?
We’re not all gathered
We’re not all safe
Christ’s enemies are still around
God hasn’t given us economic peace and stability
God doesn’t physically, visibly dwell with us here
But (and this is the point) it’s started to happen. The dominoes are starting to fall. The ones at the end of the line are still standing, but not for long. Peter says, in effect, that just as the Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the first fruits of the agricultural harvest, so Pentecost morning is the first-fruits of God’s rescue harvest.
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33).
God, to Joel’s audience, says: “Return to me, because the Messianic age is coming, and it’s really gonna be something!”
Peter says to the pilgrims on Pentecost morning: “This is what Joel said would happen! This is the first fruits of the Messianic age, when Jesus is the King!”
God’s message to a modern Christian audience is: “If you’re a Christian, you’re part of this new Messianic age, and what happened at Pentecost proves it!”
What did the Spirit do at Pentecost, that inaugurated the New Covenant? What does all that theater (tongues of fire, the rushing wind) mean? Peter explains, by continuing his Joel quotation.
Acts 2:17: that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh
All means all (young, old, slave, free, high society, low society). Peter says God just poured out His Spirit on all His people. Christians often wonder what the Spirit did that was so unique. Depending on your church tradition, you may have heard the following:
It was salvation! But, surely salvation already existed. This is a mistaken view.
It was indwelling! Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit never indwelt believers before the New Covenant. This is also incorrect; how could you love God and your covenant brothers and sisters without the Spirit?
So, what did this “pouring out” of the Spirit do for them then, and what does it do for us, today? Joel tells us now.
Acts 2:17: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams;
People often want to know what “prophesy” means. It can either mean (1) inspired unveiling about future or heretofore unrecognized events, or (2) communicating God’s message for His people and the world; teaching, exhorting. In some contexts it’s a combination of both. Here, the emphasis shades over to the teaching aspect. We know this because, on Pentecost morning, the pilgrims said “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” (Acts 2:11).
The bit about visions and dreams tells us God will now communicate with His people in dramatic and very personal ways. He’ll draw us into His presence in a way so much more intimate, close and personal than when He hid Himself behind the veil in the temple.
Jesus pours out the Spirit on “sons and daughters.” Both men and women. Joel (and Peter) show us no gender hierarchy in God’s family, which is a pretty revolutionary statement in a patriarchal world.
Acts 2:18: even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
God doubles down. He won’t just pour out His Spirit on men and women, generically. But on men and women who are slaves. In Peter’s context, slavery is a class status, not the race distinction it became in America. Slaves are the lowest class in society. God’s promise to give the Spirit in equal measure to even male and female slaves is quite something. One wonders how the Pharisees would have reacted (cf. Jn 9:34).
What a revolutionary vision of men, women and class in God’s family! Each has gifts to exercise. Each has an equal and honored place in the community. No matter what label the world sticks on us about age, social class or gender, inside the family there is a collaboration, a sharing, a reciprocal exchange and harnessing of gifts. There are implications here for those who wish to pick up what God is putting down.
What does all this mean?
It means every Christian has the supernatural ability to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) other people about Jesus (sons, daughter, young, old, slave, free). To tell people about the future, about how this story ends, about how and where this merry-go-round that is the world is going to stop. To look at the scripture the same way you peek at the end of a new paperback thriller, to see the end, and tell people about it so they can be sure their end will turn out all right. To teach people about Jesus. It also means that people can know God more personally, intimately, and experientially than ever before.
Do we believe, really believe, that God’s kingdom has broken into this world? The torn veil, the resurrection, the ascension―all of it was leading to this dramatic moment when God does everything but charter a plane to write in the sky, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Violent wind, flames of fire, thousands of pilgrims gathering around, and then the realization that all believers (men, women, boys, girls, old, young) have divine empowerment to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) to people about Jesus the King.
He’s empowered you. He’s gifted you. He’s equipped you. He’s put you where you are. He’s given you the words of life to rescue captives from that future of fire, blood, smoke and doom (cf. Joel 2:30-31).
It’s not salvation. It’s not a first indwelling. It’s divine empowerment in service of the Gospel and community.
What would happen if we lived life like Pentecost had happened to us, personally? God wants you to be encouraged, inspired, energized, excited. He wants us to read about this, then go out and live like it’s real, not something in a book. To many of us (including me!) the reality of God’s empowering is atrophied, like a muscle that’s gone weak because it’s never used. The empowering has become abstract, academic, far away, maybe even almost a fable we pay lip-service to―something that’s not “real.”
It isn’t that―it is real. What Joel said is here, right now. Jesus is in heaven, granting repentance, granting forgiveness (Acts 5:31), pouring out the Spirit on His people. What would happen if Christians exercised their “faith faculty” to live like this empowerment was real, not words on a page or pixels on a screen?
I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:
Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.
Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.
I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.
In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:
I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.
Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?
I am not a fan of the the politicization of American Christianity. I view the blend of American exceptionalism with Christianity as a very toxic stew that produces nothing but drek. Many American evangelicals would bristle at that observation, but there it is. I have written briefly on this in the past (search the tags for “Christian Nationalism”). For some good context to understand my perspective on this, I’d recommend the following:
Just this past weekend, I received a fundraising letter from a creature of the Religious Right named Ralph Reed. He’s been around for a long time. He was a “whiz kid” of the Conservative movement in the early 1990s who powered the Christian Coalition to amazing success. He is now head of the “Faith & Freedom Coalition.” He personifies the false Christianity of the most fetid corners of the Religious Right’s dank basement. I speak so strongly because I believe this amalgamation of politics + alleged Christianity is nothing more than a witches brew that has sucked many into a cesspool. Just suggest you remove your American flag from the platform or dais inside your church building, and you’ll see what I mean.
Back in 1999, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a book titled Blinded by Might (linked above). Both men were “on the ground” with Jerry Falwell during the heyday of the Moral Majority, in the early 1980s. They were key lieutenants in the movement. But, they became disillusioned. They wrote this book to warn evangelicals there was no pot of gold at the end of the political rainbow. All the effort, all the money, all the striving after House seats, Senate seats, Supreme Court seats has achieved … nothing.
In that wonderful book, Cal Thomas makes this observation:
That was in 1999, reminiscing about the good ole’ days from the early 1980s. Here is what I received from Ralph Reed this past weekend:
I used this loathsome correspondence in my sermon from this past Sunday, as I preached from Zechariah 8. Here are my excerpted remarks:
The latest question I tackled during theology class with my congregation is “why did a good God allow Adam and Eve to choose sin, when He knew it would lead to so much pain?” This is really a question about the doctrine of providence. Christians have always affirmed that our first parents had a choice to make; a willing, intelligent, volitional choice. But, how does that work, then?
It works by a version of divine providence known as compatibalism or (depending on who you read) as a concursive operation by which God works through primary, secondary, and tertiary means. I wrote the following two articles on this topic a while back. They explain the approach I’ll take here:
“God and the Naughty Assyrians, 22 October 2018.
As I said, the question about Adam and Eve and sin is really a question about providence―what is “providence?” Here it is: God ordering things to turn out like He decided. Thomas Watson has written, “God is not like the artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.” Have you ever considered that, if God is not deliberately steering this world in His own way, then all prophesy is a lie?
Here are the best resources for you to think through this issue (in order of priority):
Discussion from Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity.
1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 5 (esp. the scripture references which accompany the discussion).
1618 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13.
Discussion from Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
There are two basic models floating about in the Christian world:
Divine chess: God is the grandmaster chess player, reacting to our moves, and He’ll always win. He “looks down the corridors of time … seeing the future.” This is popular, but unbiblical―scripture won’t support this view in any way, shape or form. It’s a philosophical construct that often avoids the implications of scripture. God sees the future, but He doesn’t determine or govern it. Does scripture show us God as a psychic who can tell the future, or the God who upholds and controls creation itself?
God rules: He does what He wants, we do what we want, but His will is always done … somehow!
Here’s the basic case, in brief:
God rules and governs as He sees fit,
and so everything which happens is due to Him,
and His decisions are always good, holy, wise and just,
yet people make their own intelligent, willing decisions—we do what we want, when we want,
and God operates in us and through us, and in and through other people and external circumstances,
channeling our true desires (good or bad), their true desires (good or bad), and all circumstances (good or bad) for His purposes,
often without us even being aware of it.
Perhaps the clearest, most beautiful expression of providence is from the 1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13. I’ve mentioned it before. Read what it says:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will,
He is in charge, He governs, and His will shall be done.
so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment;
God doesn’t “look down the corridors of time.” He determines time itself.
nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
The Church has always believed this, and God’s character demands this interpretation. We’ll talk more about this conundrum at a later date. The mental conundrum is due to our shortcoming―our perspective is too small to “get it”
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.
God is at work, even when the devil and wicked men do what they want to do―and we don’t know how that works, except to say that it does work that way.
And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of;
The mystery card is valid, as long as it’s never played too soon. Here, it’s time to play it.
but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us,
We accept His will, even if we don’t understand it. We acknowledge we don’t understand, can’t understand, and may not ever understand.
contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
We don’t have the full story, and we accept that.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation,
All this isn’t frightening, but comforting―why?
since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father,
He watches over us, cares about us, loves us, and no matter what happens, it isn’t a situation out of His control. The alternative is chaos. Little children who see their parents terrified become terrified themselves. God is never terrified, or caught off guard by events. He controls events. He determines events.
who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust;
Will we trust, or will go beyond what He’s revealed?
being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
God commands Satan, who can only touch us if God allows it. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” (1 Cor 10:13).
Here are some (not all) controlling passages to “see” this version of providence from the scriptures. If you look them up, consider how our free decisions interplay with God’s decisions.
Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
Jeremiah 25:8-11 (cf. 25:12-14); 27:1-11.
Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; 12:13-25; 42:11 (“all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him”).
Here’s a short video of me presenting this during class:
I updated this article on 12 April 2021. This paper is not an exhaustive discussion, but rather a brief survey of the primary texts with some brief “pulling the threads together” analysis.
Periodically, throughout the years, I’ve re-visited the “when can Christians legitimately divorce” issue. First time was before seminary, when someone asked me if she had biblical grounds to leave a spouse who beat her. Second time was at seminary, where that particular sub-culture taught the “only for adultery and desertion” approach. Third, fourth and fifth times have been over the past decade-ish, since I’ve been a pastor.
Well, I come before you to declare I’ve figured everything out …
This is a hard topic. I’ve had to think through this issue again, and so I present my conclusions here to you. I may be wrong, of course. Some will undoubtedly disagree with me. This is not an exhaustive discussion, but a brief positive survey of the most primary texts. I don’t interact with opposing viewpoints; you can find whole books that will do that for you. In this post, I just provide a brief positive statement of my position. Perhaps it will change one day. You may find my complete paper here.
The bottom line
The bottom line is a Christian may divorce under the following scenarios, each of which is an egregious fracture of the marriage covenant:
Sexual betrayal: physical adultery or an egregious, repeated and seemingly (to a reasonable person) unrepentant breach of sexual allegiance more generally (Deut 24:1; Mt 5:32, 19:9)
Neglect: refusal to provide food or clothing ≈ material neglect (Ex 21:10-11; cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please wife/husband”)
Desertion: an implication from the previous, whether carried out by a believer (1 Cor 7:10-12, and principle also logically follows from Ex 21:10-11 (cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please his wife”)), or an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:15).
Physical abuse: an implication from the previous
Failure to provide marital privileges: refusal to provide “marital rights” ≈ the expected matrix of sexual relations, affection, and expressions of love (“love” is a decision, not a feeling). Analysis should be totality of circumstances, not a legalistic weighing of scales
My Interpretive Presuppositions
These are my broader interpretive presuppositions about the texts herein. They help you understand where I’m coming from, up front:
Exodus 21:10-11 provides a general principle about divorce that transcends covenants and the immediate context in Exodus 21.
Genesis 1-2 is the controlling passage for Jesus that expresses God’s idealistic heart for the covenant of marriage. It therefore must be our heart, too.
Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 are both excerpts from larger teaching that God did not see fit to provide for us. They stand alone, without context, as disparate pieces of collected teachings. Therefore, their interpretation should be controlled by the larger context of Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
Jesus’ statements in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 are explicit responses to the pro “any cause divorce” interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and we must interpret them in that light. They are not blanket statements covering all circumstances; they are simply Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ intent behind the exemption at Deuteronomy 24. “[T]he Gospels record the whole debate as if it was concerned solely with divorces in Deuteronomy 24:1.”
At 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is responding to a misguided craze for sexual asceticism, and we must interpret his comments on divorce and remarriage there with that context in mind.
Some Overarching Principles to Consider
A pastor (and a congregation) must remember these things:
You’re a Counselor, not God
The pastor’s role is to advise the Christian and guide him to make the best decision in light of the matrix of biblical truth. A pastor can only advise based on his observations and the best data he can gather. He may be wrong because the parties provided skewed data. Everybody is responsible to the Lord for their own decisions.
Sometimes You Gotta Face Reality
Sometimes there has been so much baggage, so much hurt, so much water under the bridge, that one or both parties just will not put forth the effort to repair the damage biblically. Stanley Grenz writes, “it must be admitted that divorce is at times but the formal declaration of the actual state of affairs.” He explains “… divorce is not an abrupt termination of a marriage. Rather, it is but the final statement concerning the process whereby the marital bond has been violated for some time.”
Better Peace Than Forced Misery
See Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 7:15; and the previous heading, above.
Sometimes, human failure and sin in the marriage will cause great suffering. “At this stage, the principle of God’s compassionate concern for the person’s involved, God’s intent to establish shalom or human wholeness, must take precedence over the concern to maintain the inviolability of marriage.”
This peace includes an honest assessment about whether they can continue to live together as husband and wife. “Peace by necessity includes a peaceful parting and a resolution of lingering responsibilities of their marriage, including a division of material goods and a just arrangement for providing for the children. Finally, interpersonal peace must work toward a normalization of their relationship as two separate persons, including the cessation of whatever hostilities the marriage breakup may have engendered.”
In short, when faced with hardened hearts that will not put forth the effort to fix the issues, coupled with the ongoing pain and hurt caused by the compounding baggage, it may be best to just “call it” and acknowledge the marriage has been over for quite some time―no matter that the legal veneer is still in place. Formalize what the de facto reality already is and will continue to be. This is not a “get out of jail free” card, but a call to carefully examine the realities of the situation while balancing all the biblical teaching―especially the command to “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18).
Put the Blame Where it Belongs
“A marriage is ended by the person who breaks the marriage vows, not by the wronged person who decides to end the broken contract by enacting a divorce.”
Yet, There’s Likely Plenty of Blame to go Around
“Legalistic approaches, therefore, run the danger of viewing complex marital problems too simplistically. A legalistic structure seeks to force the situation into categories of ‘guilty partner’ versus ‘innocent partner’ which simply may not fit the case at hand. The determination of ‘innocent partner’ in many cases of marital breakup is difficult, if not impossible. It may well be that both parties share in the guilt.”
Divorce is not the Unpardonable Sin
This shouldn’t have to be said, but it must be said.
Divorce is not God’s Intention for Marriage
This also shouldn’t have to be said. It isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card. Jesus’ burden was to uphold God’s intent for marriage from Genesis.
Besides the scriptures themselves, the two most helpful resources for me were:
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), and
Andrew Naselli, “What the NT Teaches about Divorce and Remarriage,” in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019), pp. 3-44.
 “There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any ancient Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God: these principles were unanimously agreed on. Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time,” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church [Downers Grove: IVP, 2003], p. 96).
 “Only the Lord really knows the heart; as Jesus said, evil comes from within and loves the dark. We cannot leave it up to a minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance, and only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision,” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce, pp. 104-105).
 Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville: WJK, 1990), pp. 133, 126.
I love the Book of Hebrews. It has the deepest Christology in the New Testament and in all of scripture. It also makes us think very deeply about the similarities and differences for the faithful believing life between the Old Covenant and the New. This very issue has come up repeatedly over the past few weeks within my own congregation, as we’ve worked our way through the heart of the “Jesus is the different, better High Priest” section which begins at Hebrews 7. Because the benefits Jesus brings to the faithful covenant member are so much better, people naturally want to know what was sodifferent about one’s relationship with the Lord before Jesus came.
So, people ask questions. They want to know about salvation. They know it wasn’t “by works,” but so often people don’t really know any more than that. They want to know about obedience—why did people obey God, back then? Fear or love? People ask about atonement—was it about getting back a salvation lost, or about maintaining a ruptured relationship that still existed? What’s “new” about this New Covenant?
As every astute interpreter knows, these are weighty questions. Hard questions. If you’re a dispensationalist of any flavor, I submit they’re even harder. More specifically, the more you fancy discontinuity in your system, the harder these questions will be to explain without lots of charts. This short article outlines how I answered some of these questions just this morning.
First, I will lay my cards on the table to either save some readers heartburn, or to provide fair warning so you can reach for the antacid tablets in advance:
I believe the Church has a direct relationship to the New Covenant right now. Israel will be brought into the covenant later, as promised. In short, Rodney Decker’s exegesis of Hebrews 7-10 cannot be gainsaid.
I see more continuity than discontinuity. Classical dispensationalists may wish to take the antacid tablets at this time.
I believe Old Covenant saints were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. I follow Rolland McCune on this.
When you compare a faithful believer’s relationship with God in the Old Covenant v. the New Covenant, there are at least four broad categories to consider:
My remarks here are not exhaustive and are little more than brief notes to orient the reader. My points are proven, I believe, by the “controlling passages” I identify. In fact, during class this morning the category which prompted the most discussion and puzzled looks was “why obey?” I suspected this would be the case. Next week, we will walk through my “controlling passages” on this and have a fun discussion. For this article, however, it will suffice to simply state a positive case and beat a hasty retreat!
These “controlling passages” I identify below are not the only place where these truths can be found; they’re just excellent representative passages.
Becoming a believer?
This has always been the same—allegiance to God because you trust His promise of the Messiah to come. What one knows and understands about this promise changes throughout time, as God provides more revelation. Abraham knew more than Noah. Moses knew more than Abraham. David knew more than Moses. Like a pixelated video that sharpens as bandwidth increases, clarity about the Messiah and His mission increases throughout the biblical story.
To be sure, some people (like Abraham) knew more than one might guess (Heb 11:8-16). But, the basic point stands.
The controlling verse is Genesis 15:6, and its greater context. The controlling passage is Romans 4 (esp. Rom 4:9, 22). Galatians 3:1-9 is an outstanding supporting, controlling passage.
Jesus didn’t preach a new message, but announced He was the fulfillment of the same old message (Lk 24:25-27, 44-53; Acts 1:1-11). This is why the Church’s earliest evangelism (Acts 2, 3, 13) and martyrdoms (Acts 7) emphasized the necessary continuity to the Tanakh. Salvation has always been by grace, through faith—and this “faith” has never been intellectual or emotional assent to facts, but a pledge of allegiance to God and all that entails.
This, too, has always been the same—honest love for God. No matter if you’re Noah after the flood, or Tyler in 2021, you do what God says because you love Him. Period.
The controlling passages are Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Mark 12:28-34, and Hosea 5:15, 6:4-6. One could also supplement this list with any other passage from the minor prophets that condemns externalism. Hosea and Amos are both fertile ground for these denouncements. A subordinate controlling passage about the necessity of fruit for true obedience (because it flows from the heart) is James 2:14-26.
Sin after salvation?
The essence of this ritual has always been the same—honest repentance and a plea to God for forgiveness. Repentance means to confess and pledge to forsake sin (Prov 28:13). However, the Old Covenant also required an atoning sacrifice as the fruit of honest repentance in order to atone for the sin. Of course, this last step is not necessary in the New Covenant.
The sacrifice was never the essence of the matter. The point has always been about repentance from the heart accompanied by plea for mercy. The atoning sacrifice must flow from true repentance.
The controlling passage is 1 Kings 8:22-53. Pay particular attention to Solomon’s prescient scenarios of disobedience (“for there is no one who does not sin,” 1 Kgs 8:46), and the formula he presupposes must happen in each instance to obtain God’s mercy. Sacrifices are never mentioned. Honest repentance is. Of course, the sacrifices are necessary. But, at root, it has never really been about the sacrifices (Hosea 6:4-6; cf. Mt 9:13).
Shape of the relationship?
Here we come to the major differences. The shape and structure of one’s relationship to God is very different between the covenants. Here are three key differences:
God was the head of His people’s government on earth. Now, men and women are the heads of secular governments on earth.
One had to regularly undergo ceremonial cleansing for normal “life happenings,” back then. This had nothing to do with deliberate sin. It simply meant that, as a by-product of being a sinful human being, you would regularly be ceremonially “dirty” or “unclean” and unable to draw near to God. But, in the New Covenant, Jesus has perfectly cleansed all His people. This is why believers can now “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16).
One had to regularly undergo moral cleansing by way of atoning sacrifices. This is what people typically think of when they consider Christ’s perfect, once for all sacrifice which rendered that system obsolete.
Newness of the new covenant
I propose there are three ways in which the new covenant is “new.” It isn’t that salvation itself is new or different. The “newness” and “betterness” that Jesus has wrought (cf. Heb 8:6) is a closeness of relationship. In short, the New Covenant is “new” and “better” because it provides perfect peace, in these ways:
A new kind of relationship (Heb 8:10). Instead of God’s law as an external standard which one will always fail to meet (no matter how gracious a band-aid He provided in the meantime), now it’s a “finished” thing because of Jesus’ active and passive obedience. In the Old Covenant, you’re in a family where you’re regularly confronted, by way of the sacrifices for your sins, with your failure and unfittedness to be adopted. However, in the New Covenant you’re assured Jesus has paid for your past, present and future sins in toto. Just as a finished Polaroid is clearer than one yet developing, the believer’s relationship with God is now so much closer.
Perfect forgiveness (Heb 8:12). God will no longer “remember” our sins in the sense that He doesn’t hold them against us—because Jesus has now paid for them. In that since, it’s akin to a mortgage. You live in the house and call it your own, but it really belongs to the bank. When you pay the mortgage off, nothing outward has changed. You still live there. It’s still “yours.” But now, you have a new peace and freedom. The debt is paid. The bank has no claim on you. Or, you can consider a similar analogy with a maxed-out credit card vs. one that has been paid off and cancelled. It’s the peace that’s the point. No matter how benevolent your creditor is, it’s blissful to be released from the debt.
Pure membership (Heb 8:10-11). Unlike the Old Covenant, the New has a pure membership of believers.
Food for thought
Hopefully this brief sketch helps clarify some of the questions about a believer’s relationship to God in the Old and New Covenants. It’s a difficult subject, with innumerable rabbit-trails. I could say so much more. But … I’m not going to! If you wish to see me explain these concepts you can watch the teaching session from my congregation yesterday, below. Be aware we aren’t in our usual location, so the sound isn’t quite as sharp, but it’s perfectly watchable:
 Rodney Decker, “The Church Has a Direct Relationship to the New Covenant,” in Dispensational Understanding of the New Covenant: Three Views, ed. Mike Stallard(Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), pp. 195-222.
 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 2:272-280.
 See Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
 Here I’m particularly indebted to comments on the new covenant by Philip Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 94. “The difference between the old and new covenants is that under the former that law is written on tablets of stone, confronting man as an external ordinance and condemning him because of his failure through sin to obey its commandments, whereas under the latter the law is written internally within the redeemed heart by the dynamic regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, so that through faith in Christ, the only law-keeper, and inward experience of His power man no longer hates but loves God’s law and is enabled to fulfill its precepts.”
William Lane echoes Hughes and remarks, “The quality of newness intrinsic to the new covenant consists in the new manner of presenting God’s law and not in newness of content. The people of God will be inwardly established in the law and knowledge of the Lord,” (Hebrews 1–8, vol. 47A, in WBC [Dallas: Word,1991], 209).
In a somewhat similar vein, Homer Kent explains, “[i]t is not implied that no one under the Mosaic covenant had the proper sort of heart, any more than one would say that no Israelite knew the experience of having Jehovah as his God. The point is that the covenant itself did not provide this experience, and many lived under its provisions and yet died in unbelief. The new covenant, however, guarantees regeneration to its participants,” (Epistle to the Hebrews [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972; reprint, Winona Lake: BMG, 2010], 153. Kent’s explanation shades over to emphasizing the pure membership of the new covenant, rather than explaining just how this “new heart” arrangement was different in the new covenant vice the old.
F.F. Bruce explains about the “newness” of having the law internalized: “It was not new in regard to its own substance … But while the ‘formula’ of the covenant remains the same from age to age, it is capable of being filled with fresh meaning to a point where it can be described as a new covenant. ‘I will be your God’ acquires fuller meaning with every further revelation of the character of God; ‘you shall be my people’ acquires deeper significance as the will of God for his people is more completely known,” (Hebrews, KL 2183, 2188-2190).
Cut-away drawings are interesting, because they show you what’s “underneath” the exterior. Here’s one of the Millennium Falcon, the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs:
This just isn’t the Millenium Falcon. The exterior is peeled away to reveal what lies beneath. You can even see Han Solo at the helm, ready to pilot the ship through an asteroid field to escape Imperial star destroyers:
In our passage, Zechariah 1:7-21, God is doing the same thing. He’s pulling back the “divine curtain.” He does this when He wants to comfort us, to give us perspective, to give us hope, to give us a glimpse of what’s going on beyond what we can see. And, when God does this, it’s always through extraordinary, mysterious and otherworldly visions.
In the vision from our passage, we encounter a mysterious Man With No Name, on a red horse. If we let Him, God will take us a few steps “behind the divine curtain” to see what message He has for us.
On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying,
This is three months after Zechariah’s first message. When God speaks, He has a reason—what’s His reason? Something’s happening among God’s people to make this message necessary—what is it? That rebuke from Haggai 1:4 is a symptom, not the disease itself—what’s the disease?
We’ll only figure this out by reading what God has to say.
I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.
I once read a Lee Child novel in which a minor character, a pastor, explained to Jack Reacher that the Book of Revelation read like an acid trip. Even if Christians wouldn’t put it quite so crudely, some would share the same sentiments. Why? Because of genre confusion!
The writer of Hebrews tells “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” (Heb 1:1). The Old Covenant shows us poetry, proverbs, narrative, prophecy … and a genre called “apocalyptic.”
When you find strange and otherworldly prophetic visions in scripture, then you’re probably looking at apocalyptic literature. This is a sub-genre of prophecy, and God uses it when He wants to peel back the divine curtain and show us something.
What’s this genre look like? You usually have an angelic guide. Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and John each have one. They need these guides because the visions are, well … confusing! You find “graphic visions filled with unexpected and often mysterious scenes of heaven and the future.” So, for example, you see John introduce a pregnant woman; “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” (Rev 12:1). At the beginning of Ezekiel’s book, you see strange creatures, chariots, a vision of one like the Son of Man, jewels, fire … lots of odd things.
What’s it’s message? It’s often about “distant judgment and restoration: The final solution for the problems of this age is in the age to come, when God will reign and be recognized as the LORD of all.” So, Daniel’s four beasts are slain by a stone that represents God’s kingdom (Dan 2). The Son of Man is crowned as King of the world, and His kingdom will never end. These are visions of a better future.
Why does God use it? When people feel hopeless and they need an awesome “window” into the future as a vehicle for hope—it’s an encouragement to persevere!. So, God shows His people a vision of a newer, better, massive temple (Ezek 40-48). And, of course, you have visions all over Zechariah. A surveyor takes measurements for a future Jerusalem (Zech 2). One day, the high priest and a king will be united in one person (Zech 4). Sin, personified by a woman (cf. Rev 17-18), is sealed into a container and cast into darkness (Zech 5). One day, a King will come to bring a new and better covenant (Zech 9).
It’s not that Zechariah, Ezekiel, John (etc.) are trying to describe strange things within the limitations of their language and experience. It’s that God communicates hope by way of fantastic images and visions of an eternal future. And apocalyptic is the genre for it, just as poetry/song is the genre for love.
After all, you don’t write essays to the one you love. You write songs, you write poetry, you write verse. Can you imagine writing a five-paragraph essay, complete with a thesis statement, and presenting it to your fiance? Of course not! You write poems. You sing songs.
For hope to persevere through crisis … God uses apocalyptic. It makes truth come alive. It makes you experience the events. It uses dramatic images, not data. God wants the powerful, otherworldly imagery to move you to action and shape your values.
It’s about hope for the future—not chronological info about the future.
It uses lots of non-literal, symbolic language to paint pictures.
So, because the “big picture” is the point, not the details, you should be very humble when proposing interpretations!
Don’t try to identify every single detail; focus on the bigger picture—akin to impressionist art Take a look at this impressionist painting by Claude Monet:
In this picture, the details aren’t the point. It’s not about the ships, the sun, or what might be the city lost in the haze. It’s about the general impression. This is just a picture of a guy rowing his boat at sunset. It’d be a mistake to ask questions about the time of day, or about the names of the sailing ships in the harbor. It’s the same with apocalyptic literature.
What does all this have to do with the guy on the red horse? Well, you can tell it’s going to be “weird.” I’m showing you how to interpret the “weirdness!”
There’s a crisis. God wants to encourage us. Zechariah’s visions do that, in striking and mysterious ways.
So, what does Zechariah show us, here? He shows us the Man With No Name on a red horse. Behind him are three other horses.
Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’
Good question! It’s our question, too! Zechariah asks his guide. Remember I told you the prophets usually have one, in this type of literature? Zechariah needs a guide because he’s consistently just as clueless as we are (and so is Daniel, and Ezekiel, and John). So, if you’re confused about this, you’re in good company!
The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’
It’s good to have a guide!
So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered,
The Man With No Name hears Zechariah’s question and answers, and you can picture the guide gesturing to him to get Zechariah’s attention. But, Zechariah wasn’t talking to him—so why does the guy on the horse answer?
Because this isn’t like A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge can only see, but not interact with the vision. Zechariah can see, and can interact.
These are they whom the LORD has sent to patrol the earth.
“These” are the three horsemen. The Man With No Name says, “Yahweh sent these guys out to patrol the whole earth!”
Who is this Man With No Name? Zechariah doesn’t know His name. The guy never tells us his name. But, he does differentiate Himself from Yahweh. We’ll have to wait to find out more.
Back to the three horsemen—why would they go out to patrol the earth? Patrol for what? It’s a reconnaissance—like imperial probe droids. These scouts have returned, and Zechariah parachutes in right when they’re about to make their report—what do they say?
And they answered the angel of the LORD who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’
What kind of report is this? Good or bad? Well, because this is an apocalyptic genre, we can assume there is some kind of crisis going on, so the report likely isn’t positive at all—at least for Israel. But, the only way to find out is to see what the Man With No Name does with their report.
Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’
Before we answer the question we raised, we’re confronted with something else. Here is the first clue to the Man’s identity—He’s “the angel of the Lord.” Who is this angel of the Lord (LXX: ὁ ἄγγελος Κυρίου)? The bible tells us this particular angel:
led the people from Egypt by fire and cloud (Ex 14:19),
comforted Hagar in the wilderness (Gen 16:17),
confronted Balaam and told him to prophesy to the Moabites (Num 21:22, 31f),
promised Samson’s parents they’d have a son who’d rescue them from the Philistines (Judges 13),
and was probably the commander of the Lord’s armies who meets Joshua outside Jericho (Josh 5:13-15)
As we look at one of these examples, we see the bible tells us He’s the angel who comforted Hagar (Gen 16:7), he refers to God in the third-person (Gen 16:11) but speaks as if He is God (Gen 16:10) and, after speaking to Him, Hagar thinks she’s seen God Himself (Gen 16:13). The Angel of the Lord, the Man With No Name, is Jesus.
Was the scout’s report good or bad? It was bad—He prays for His people immediately after hearing the report.
What’s so bad about the report? You can tell by what He prays. How long will you not have mercy? How long will you be so angry at your people? Why are our enemies happy and “at peace”?
The Man With No Name’s prayer tells us what the “crisis” is: “God doesn’t care!”
Why do the Persians prosper?
I thought God promised to curse His people’s enemies?
Can we even trust God?
Does He keep His word?
Will He be angry forever?
Does He have no mercy?
Haggai 1:4 (“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”) is the symptom, not the problem. People are asking themselves, “why should I go on, when God seems to have checked out?” It’s a fair question. They’ve endured sustained 16 years of local opposition. It’s easy and cheap to dismiss this as mere “disobedience.” 16 years ago it was 2005. That’s a long time to wait. It’s natural to suspect God has “checked out;” to suspect it implicitly even if you wouldn’t dare say so explicitly.
Have you ever felt the same way, as you survey your life? Do you feel the same way, right now? Is your life a mess? Is a crisis sapping your faith in God’s goodness? Are you wondering what God’s doing? Do you wonder if He cares? Wondering if He notices? Wondering if you should stay the course if God doesn’t care? Are you here physically, but “checked out” mentally and emotionally? Are you weary with unspoken frustrations about God’s goodness?
That’s the crisis that’s prompting God to peel the divine curtain back for Zechariah—so he can tell us what he sees! God is peeling that curtain back for us, too. For me, for you, for all of us. Because we need to be comforted, as well.
What does Zechariah see? What should we see? What’s behind the curtain? The vision isn’t finished yet, but we can already see this much:
God hasn’t checked out—He’s arranged a reconnaissance patrol.
God knows—He’s received a report from the scouts.
Jesus prays for His people … and God hears Him!
What is God’s message through this vision?
And the LORD answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.
What does God say in His response? He speaks comforting words; God does care about our fears, hopes, dreams, terrors. He speaks gracious words; God does have mercy.
He wants us to know that He remembers, that He cares, that His Son prays for us, that He hasn’t abandoned us, and that He’ll fix this.
God wants us to know we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One (1 Jn 2:1).
He wants you to know it, too.
So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.
God wants Zechariah to “cry out,” as if to say “this is what I want you to tell everybody!” God wants Zechariah to say this loudly.
they’re upset—tell them this!
they’re angry—tell them this!
they think I’ve forgotten about them—tell them this!
they think I deleted them like a bad smartphone app—tell them this!
they feel worn down by unspoken weariness about my goodness—tell them this!
He wants Zechariah to tell the people that He’s “exceedingly jealous.” He does care. He promises He cares. He remembers His promises. No matter what it looks like—he cares about His people. If you’re one of His people, He cares about you.
And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster.
He’s angry at the “nations at ease;” those nations at peace from the scout’s report (Zech 1:11). Why is God angry? Because of His promise from Genesis 12 to curse His people’s enemies (Gen 12:3).
Therefore, thus says the LORD, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the LORD of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.
From the beginning, God’s desire has been to dwell among His people. It was that way in the beginning, for a short time. The tabernacle and then the temple were object lessons to show us, in part, He has a plan to fix that one day. Through those structures, as living parables, God shows Himself living with His people, among them. But, God left His people a long time ago (Ezek 8-10). He’s never physically returned. Jesus certainly went to the temple (Mal 3:1), but was rejected.
Even now, God hasn’t “returned” to Jerusalem and built a place to be physically with His people. His promise to Zechariah looks forward to eternity. The imagery of the measuring line brings to mind surveyors and grand re-building plans.
Cry out again, Thus says the LORD of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’ ”
Again, God tells Zechariah to “cry out.” To tell the people about the hope for something better than the mess that is “now.”
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns!
These horns are symbols of power—what do they mean?
And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these?” And he said to me, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.”
The horns are enemies in general, whoever they are, whenever they are. Four nations have not scattered Israel. These are not literal kingdoms.
Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. And I said, “What are these coming to do?” He said, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.”
These craftsmen are like a divine demolition crew. They’ve come to blast enemies off the face of the earth; to take the buildings down and leave nothing but rubble behind. Whoever His people’s enemies are, they’ll all be gone!
There are ups and downs in the Christian life. Zechariah is dealing with people whose lives are down. They’ve implicitly (but, perhaps not explicitly) “checked out.” Are you in the same place this morning?
This passage is about the angelic guide peeling back the divine curtain to show Zechariah that God does remember, and does have mercy, because Jesus is our advocate.
What is God doing, here? His aim is to assure His people to not be bitter with God or think He’s forgotten about His people—He hasn’t. So, when you feel bitter or angry with God at injustice in your life, know that Jesus prays for you.
How do we specifically apply this truth to become more like Christ? This is what I suggest. Whenever you doubt God, peel back that same divine curtain in your mind and repeat to yourself, “I can go on, because Jesus prays for me!”
You may be asking yourself, just like Zechariah’s folks did:
does God care about my heartache?
does God remember me?
does God notice my struggles?
does God keep His promises?
Well, when God peels back that curtain for Zechariah, he shows us Jesus translating those thoughts from your heart and mind and asking them for you—”O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy?” (Zech 1:12).
God responds and says to Zechariah: “Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion,” (Zech 1:14). He’s telling Zechariah (and us, too) “shout it on the rooftops, put it in CAPS, bold, underline, buy television airtime, launch social media campaigns—do whatever you gotta do to tell them, “I know, I care, and I’ll fix it!”
So, again, whenever you doubt God, I suggest you peel back that divine curtain in your mind, and repeat to yourself, “I can go on, because Jesus prays for me!”
 Lee Child, Nothing to Lose (New York: Dell, 2009), 435.
 D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Geise (Nashville: B&H, 1995), 185.
 Ronald Giese, “Literary Forms of the Old Testament,” in Ibid, p. 22.
 “… in apocalyptic the coming judgment is written to encourage the saints who are caught up in the crises of living in an evil world; they are encouraged to persevere and not give up hope, for God is truly in control and will “soon” intervene into world events in the person of the Son of Man,” (Ibid).
“When faced with severe adversity such as the Jews experienced at the hands of the Assyrians or Babylonians or Syrians (or the Nazis), the response of many was to call on God for salvation. When relief failed to come, patience became thin and doubts about God’s control and mercy arose. People understandably lost sight of the bigger picture of how God might be at work in the affairs of this world and became preoccupied with the immediacy of their own misfortunes.
Largely in response to this kind of crisis, apocalyptic literature gives its readers a roller-coaster ride through the heavens and into the future. There are thrills as those faced with crisis get a glimpse beyond the problems of the present. The heavenly journeys and descriptions of activities and creatures in the domain of heaven—all so unlike anything known on this earth—help the persecuted put their own misfortunes in perspective,” (D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Ibid., p. 186).
 D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Ibid., p. 177.
 The genre is “a literary shock treatment of bold and graphic images to take our attention away from the problems we currently face and give us hope,” (Ibid, p. 188).
 “Apocalyptic tends to be impressionistic, more like an abstract painting which communicates an overall impression. If you stand too close to the painting trying to examine the detail of the artist’s work, you fail to grasp what the picture is intended to present,” (Ibid, p. 189).
 See a good overview of this issue in (1) “Angel of the Lord,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 90, and (2) Elke B. Speliopoulos and Douglas Mangum, “Angel of Yahweh,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016).
Millard Erickson sums it up nicely when he writes, “There are three major interpretations of ‘the angel of the Lord:’ (1) he is merely an angel with a special commission; (2) he is God himself temporarily visible in a humanlike form; (3) he is the Logos, a temporary preincarnate visit by the Second Person of the Trinity. While none of these interpretations is fully satisfactory, in light of the clear statements of identity, either the second or the third seems more adequate than the first,” (Christian Theology, 3rd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.], p. 413; KL 9090).
The Bible tells us that, even though Abel is dead, his faith still speaks to us. Well, Zechariah is dead too, but God still speaks to us through his words.
God’s message for us, through Zechariah, is “return to me, and I’ll return to you!” (Zech 1:3). That’s the message of his entire book. It’s a message for covenant people to be more faithful to Him.
We might object, “But I haven’t left God!” That’s what Zechariah’s audience thought, too.
We might think, “This is for other people! It’s not for me!” Well, that’s what they thought, too.
It’s what we always think—and we’re always wrong.
Zechariah begins his book with an introduction:
In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying,
In order to express what’s happening in Zechariah’s day, I’ll ask and answer a few questions.
When is Zechariah preaching? Well, it’s about 519-520 B.C.
Where does Zechariah fit into the big picture of Israel’s history? For all practical purposes, the Babylonians conquered Judah in the last decade of the 7th century B.C. Jerusalem went through a brief period of passive resistance, but eventually rebelled and the Babylonians arrived in force to take the city. Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. The Babylonians carted prisoners off into exile throughout this entire period. There they stayed for a long time.
About 18 years before Zechariah’s ministry, in 538 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus let a large delegation return to Jerusalem to re-build the temple (Ezra 1).
17 years before, in about 537 B.C., Daniel died in exile in Babylon. I’m certain he would have wished to return, but he couldn’t.
Zechariah begins preaching in about 520-519 B.C., along with Haggai.
Three or four years later, in 516 B.C., the returned exiles finally completed the temple.
50 years after Zechariah’s ministry began, in the 470s, the events in Esther take place.
70 years on, sometime in the mid 440s B.C., Nehemiah arrives from Persia and sets himself the task of re-building the walls of Jerusalem.
90 years later, in the early 430s B.C., Malachi’s preaching ministry begins.
What’s going on in Israel right now? Well, you have desolation, destruction, and ruin. The city has lain vacant lo these 90 years or so. What do you think will happen to a city left empty for that long? It’s why I chose this picture to express something of the mess the exiles inherited when they arrived:
Foreigners occupy the land and the Israelites have no autonomy at all. Stale dates on paper make us forget that 90 years means a lot of water under the bridge. Think on it. Transport yourself to 1930 …
Mickey Mouse cartoons first appear in newspapers.
Herbert Hoover is President
Al Capone is active in Chicago
It’s illegal to produce, import, transport or sell alcohol!
How about a real example; one closer to home? Consider the 1930 census data for a residence near my church, in Olympia, WA. Specifically, 118 Cushing St. Here’s the actual page from the 1930 census to which I’ll be referring:
At that address in 1930, there lived Andrew and Ido Lillis. They were both immigrants from Finland, and their native language was Swedish. Ido was a homemaker, and Andrew was a laborer at the “Verneer Plant.” They had two children. The son, Lawrence (age 22), worked with his father as a fellow laborer at the “Verneer Plant.” The daughter, Edith (age 17), stayed home with her mother.
The burning question on the 1930 census was “do you have a radio set?” I must report the Lillis family did not own such a device!
Here is that very same address, today:
But, the catch is that structure from the picture was built in 1937. The home that census worker visited in 1930 is gone! I say all that to say this—90 years is a lot of water under the bridge. Things change. Entire generations live and die. Many people in Jerusalem don’t know, care or remember what used to be.
What’s Israel’s job? It’s pretty simple; (1) build a temple for God to be with them, and (2) start over by following the law because they love Him—don’t make the mistakes their fathers did! Well, what were their mistakes? We ought to know that, so we can avoid repeating them. Zechariah tell us:
The LORD was very angry with your fathers …”
This doesn’t sound good—nobody wants the Lord to be angry with them. What did their fathers do? Why did they go into exile in the first place? Isaiah has some hints for us. I’m reaching for Isaiah here because Zechariah alludes to him two years later in his ministry (Zech 7:7).
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
God doesn’t want Isaiah to hold back. He obviously has a serious problem with his people. He explains:
Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.
The problems seem to be externalism and fakery. God now mocks what the people ask him:
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
They want to know why God is “ignoring” them when they pray, when they fast, when they bring sacrifices. So, God tells them why:
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.
There’s no brotherly love. No real covenant community.
Fasting like yours this day, will not make your voice to be heard on high.
When there’s no obedience, God ignores us.
Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Of course not! God sees through externalism. If we really love God, we want to do what He says. Isaiah tells them to start showing love to their brothers and sisters; to show brotherly love to one another in the community (a la John the Baptist). God explains what will happen if they obey:
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
None of this is news to many Christians. But let me ask you this—will God one day say speak to our grandchildren and say, “I was very angry with your fathers?”
We want to instinctively respond, “No, because we’re not like them!”
is that really true?
do you think Isaiah’s audience were a bunch of people who self-consciously hated God and wanted to be free from Him?
did they think God was angry with them?
or, did they think God was just fine with them?
did they deceive themselves?
Is the Lord angry with us? We want to reply, “I’m not like them, even if other Christians are!” But, God is dealing with groups, here. The churches in Revelation weren’t all full of “bad” people, you know. Sometimes the righteous suffer because of the sins of the larger group. Our individualism won’t save us.
So, I ask again—is the Lord angry with us? Let’s see what Zechariah has to say:
Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
God says they’ve left Him behind, and they don’t even know it! How have they done that? It’s an important question, because right now (today!) we’re doing variations on the same thing. How have the folks in Zechariah’s day “left” God? Ezra and Haggai tell us how.
Ezra tells us they didn’t listen to God, and then rationalized their sins away. The first wave of exiles returned and built a makeshift altar to worship God “for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands,” (Ezra 3:3). They re-instituted proper worship and laid a new temple foundation (Ezra 3:8-13). They rejected help from the syncretistic locals (Ezra 4:3), who then discouraged them, made them afraid, and bribed officials to hinder their work (Ezra 4:4-5). So, they stop working on the temple.
Haggai then weighs in. He and Zechariah practically began their preaching ministries together. What does God think about their failure and their rationalizations? By the time Zechariah and Haggai roll up on the scene, it’s been 16 years—what does God think about this?
Well … God isn’t happy. Even worse, God doesn’t care about their reasons.
Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
What can they say to this? Not much. They had good reasons for being afraid. For being worried. For being scared. But, God doesn’t care. The time is never “right” to do what God wants. He told them:
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD
No matter what we think, we only honor and glorify God when we do things His way. And, in Zechariah and Haggai’s day, His way is to have a temple in which to dwell among His people. So, we do things His way or He takes no pleasure in us. We do things His way or we don’t honor Him.
God doesn’t care about our excuses. They might be real excuses, but He still doesn’t care. He wants us to get moving because He promises to help us along the way. The rest of Zechariah is full of encouragement to do just that. God has power over their circumstances.
He has power over ours, too.
But, now another question crops up in our minds as we mull this over. When you think about the real pressures Zechariah’s folks are facing, and the real obstacles in their way, and the fact that they’re probably not cartoon characters who self-consciously hate God … how did they “leave” Him in the first place?
Looking at what Ezra and Haggai said, it seems to go something like this:
Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the LORD.
This sounds so simple, so easy. Well, when Jeremiah tried to preach truth to Israelites, a mob of priests and angry folks seized him and declared he must die (Jer 26:7-11)! We read this and think, “what idiots!”
We forget that we’re very good at seeing ourselves in the best possible light— sometimes a very false light. The Pharisees didn’t think they were hypocrites—why not? How does this rationalization work? How do we deceive ourselves?
You stop looking to Him to figure out His standards. You make your own standards—even with good intentions.
Then, you begin to drift away, all while thinking God’s happy with you. With no guardrails, you begin to edge off the road and into the ditch.
Eventually, God’s word sounds strange and offensive to you. But, you’ve been without it for so long that you can’t see that.
So, when you do hear the real truth again, or a call to repentance, or a call to faithfulness … you get angry!
So, you see, the messenger is always the bigot, the hater, the fundamentalist, the intolerant one, the legalist—we’re the “righteous” ones!
So, when we read Zechariah’s words, what do we think about them? He told his people their fathers “did not hear or pay attention to me,” (Zech 1:4). Will we hear or pay attention to God?
If we skip the introspection and immediately scoff and say, “Whaddya mean!? We’re all fine here!” then we’re making their same mistake. Can any of us bring our lives before the Word of God and say with a straight face that there are no problems? Can any of us really hear God say, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,” then look inside our hearts and minds, and say, “I’m good! Nothing to see, here!”?
Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?
Well, of course not! So, who should you listen to? Whose example is the best?
But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?
They certainly did. Their fathers refused to listen, for whatever reason, because of whatever rationalization, because of whatever excuse. So, God did just what He said He would—He brought discipline!
God isn’t speaking to unbelievers, but to believers—to covenant people. If you’re a Christian, then you’re a covenant member and God is speaking to you just as surely as He spoke to Zechariah’s audience.
Picture that ruined building again:
As Zechariah’s audience surveyed a landscape that looked quite a bit like this, then thought about their duty to build a newer, cruder temple, they might have thought, “God isn’t here! Not in all this mess!” But, He is there … and He’d like to be there more often.
So, too, we Christians might look at our lives, which may look a bit like that picture. Ruined. Scarred. Messy. In need of some extensive renovation. Disobedient. We might mutter to ourselves, “God isn’t here! Not in the mess that’s my life!” But, He is there … and He’d like to be there more often!
So they repented and said, ‘As the LORD of hosts purposed to deal with us for pour ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.’”
Eventually, some of their fathers repented, in the end—will we?
Zechariah’s message is deceptively simple. It’s a warning against externalism. So, return to God, and He’ll return to you. God says, in effect:
If you love me, then act like it—because I love you! Prepare your hearts to meet me, because first I’m gonna build my house, and then I’m gonna go to my house, and I want my people to serve me with right and loving hearts!
If you’ve a covenant member, a Christian, then your job is to consider how you’ve left God, and then return to Him—He’s full of mercy! But, how do you do that, exactly?
You do it by asking yourself two questions:
What is one way in which I’ve left God?
How will I return to Him today?
Zechariah spoke in general terms in this message. He meant for his people to raise their eyebrows, and consider their own lives. Whoever you are, there is at least one way in which you’re not being faithful to God. What is it? How will you return to Him?
Remember, we do things His way or He takes no pleasure in us. We do things His way, or we don’t honor Him. Remember the steps-towards self-delusion that Ezra and Haggai taught us:
we choose to disobey (Hag 1:2-4)
then, we rationalize our choices (Ezra 3, 4)
and God doesn’t accept this—He sends His word to us to rip our pious cloaks away (Hag 1:4)
so, He takes no pleasure in us (Hag 1:8),
because we dishonor Him (Hag 1:8),
so we must return to Him
So, I ask again:
What is one way in which you’ve left God?
How will you return to Him today?
Remember, it’s always the deceptively “simple things” that God cares about. Two years later, Zechariah will go on to chastise the people for their lack of brotherly love (Zech 7:8-10). These might seem like “little things,” but they’re actually the most important things.
What is “the thing” in your life? Zechariah says, “you guys don’t have to respond like our fathers did!” And neither do we. He told his people, “you guys don’t have to be self-deceived like they were!” And neither do we.
I say it again—God is speaking into our hearts and souls just as surely as He spoke to those folks in Jerusalem in 519 B.C. Zechariah says, “If you won’t hear God, then He won’t hear you!” And it’s the same for us.
So, again, I offer this challenge from this passage:
What is one way in which you’ve left God?
How will you return to Him today?
But, it’s harder than that. Answer the “how” question to the fourth level. Answer it four times in order to get a “real” answer.
Let’s say I decide I’ve “left” God because I don’t show the right kind of love to my wife that scripture commands. I want to fix that. So, here goes:
Level one. “I’ll show better love to my wife.” This is cute, but worthless. There’s nothing specific here. It’s a well-meaning bit of nothingness, like a bite of cotton candy. That’s not good enough. I have to ask myself “yeah, and how will I do that?”
Level two. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by listening to her more.” That’s also cute. It’s only a bit less worthless than the first attempt. But, at least I’ve now identified a target. I can show better love by listening more. Great. So, what does that mean, exactly?
Level three. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by making dedicated time to talk with her more.” Getting better, but there’s still way too much wiggle room. What does that mean?
Level four. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by scheduling a 30-minute walk with her 2x per week and never breaking it.” Now we’re talking. Something specific, measurable, realistic … and real.
We each need to “return to God” in some way. What’s your way? How will you do it? Be specific! Answer the question four times in order to get a real answer that’ll actually mean something.
If we return to Him, then He’ll return to us.
 The exiles found themselves in a much-reduced geo-political situation. Even perhaps 130 years later under Nehemiah’s governorship, “Judah comprised an area covering roughly nine hundred square miles,” (Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998], 171).
Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Cuomo had imposed to combat COVID-19. The vote was 5-4. If the late Justice Ginsburg were on the bench instead of Amy Barrett, it would have gone the other way.
This is not a permanent decision. Justice Kavanaugh explains:
Importantly, the Court’s orders today are not final decisions on the merits. Instead, the Court simply grants temporary injunctive relief until the Court of Appeals in December, and then this Court as appropriate, can more fully consider the merits.
Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 1.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, along with some Orthodox Jewish synagogues, asked for injunctive relief from Gov. Cuomo’s order that “imposes severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as ‘red’ or ‘orange; zones. In red zones, no more than 10 persons may attend each religious service, and in orange zones, attendance is capped at 25,” (Decision, p. 1).
It has always been tricky to weigh religious freedom and the State’s legitimate authority to protect public health. In a recent article, I explained my own thoughts on this matter (for now, anyway) in my own context in WA State. This SCOTUS decision is very helpful because it crystallizes much of what I’ve been thinking for some time.
Strict neutrality. If you don’t treat religious institutions with strict neutrality, then a State will likely have a problem. You can’t single churches out for harsher treatment than other organizations:
In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as “essential” may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of “essential” businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities
Decision, p. 3.
What is the rhyme and reason for these determinations of “essential” vs. “non-essential?” I’m sure there is an alleged reason, and I’m also certain a binder exists even now in the State’s emergency management office that explains everything. I also know Gov. Cuomo made a moral distinction, a value judgement, when he drew those lines. A garage is more important to society than a church. This is not neutrality.
Irreparable harm. The decision notes:
There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. ‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’ Elrod v. Burns, 427 U. S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion).
Decision, p. 5.
This is a point many Governors don’t understand and many Americans don’t understand. Religion is quaint, cute, mysterious and ultimately annoying to so many people today. They don’t understand it, so they don’t value it, and thus marijuana dispensaries are “essential” and houses of worship are not.
Public interest. Here, we have an especially compelling point.
But even in a pandemic,the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.
Decision, pp. 5-6
Justice Gorsuch issued a concurring opinion in which his tone was sharp and he appeared more than a bit … miffed. He proclaims:
At the same time, the Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pickup another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?
Gorsuch concurring opinion, p. 2.
A liquor store and a wine shop are not analogous to a worship service, but I take his point. It’s a shame Gorsuch wasn’t similarly outraged in Bostock v. Clayton County. He continues:
The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.
Ibid. Emphasis added.
Seemingly on a roll, Gorsuch now scales the heights of righteous indignation and observes:
In recent months, certain other Governors have issued similar edicts. At the flick of a pen, they have asserted the right to privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, and casinos over churches, mosques, and temples. In far too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears.
Ibid, pp. 2-3.
We cannot defer to Governor’s executive orders indefinitely, Gorsuch argues.
Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical
Ibid, p. 3.
Justice Kavanaugh echoes his colleague:
In red and orange zones, houses of worship must adhere to numerical caps of 10 and 25 people, respectively, but those caps do not apply to some secular buildings in the same neighborhoods.In a red zone, for example, a church or synagogue must ad-here to a 10-person attendance cap, while a grocery store, pet store, or big-box store down the street does not face the same restriction. In an orange zone, the discrimination against religion is even starker: Essential businesses and many non-essential businesses are subject to no attendance caps at all.
Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 2.
However, Kavanaugh goes further and insists States must explain why houses of worship are “excluded from that favored class” of businesses which can operate with fewer restrictions:
The State argues that it has not impermissibly discriminated against religion because some secular businesses such as movie theaters must remain closed and are thus treated less favorably than houses of worship. But under this Court’s precedents, it does not suffice for a State to point out that, as compared to houses of worship, some secular businesses are subject to similarly severe or even more severe restrictions.
To my knowledge, this point has not yet come up in a meaningful way in a COVID-19 context. This flips the entire script from “may I please stay open?” to “prove to me why I can’t stay open!” as follows:
Wrong: You can’t just say, “gyms are closed completely, while churches can stay open subject to restrictions, so there is no discrimination.” This isn’t good enough.
Right: Instead, you must say, “I know Walmart is open and the parking lot is always packed to the gills, but churches can’t do that because … (insert reasoning here).”
Thus, Kavanaugh tightens the screws:
Rather, once a State creates a favored class of businesses, as New York has done in this case, the State must justify why houses of worship are excluded from that favored class. Here, therefore, the State must justify imposing a 10-person or 25-person limit on houses of worship but not on favored secular businesses
Ibid, p. 3.
COVID is certainly dangerous, Kavanaugh admits. But the great danger, he warns, is if the judiciary continues to defer to the State. This cannot be:
But judicial deference in an emergency or a crisis does not mean wholesale judicial abdication, especially when important questions of religious discrimination, racial discrimination, free speech, or the like are raised. In light of the devastating pandemic, I do not doubt the State’s authority to impose tailored restrictions—even very strict restrictions—on attendance at religious services and secular gatherings alike. But the New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the circumstances given the First Amendment interests at stake.
Ibid, p. 3.
However, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan disagree. They wish to continue to defer.
Thus, according to experts, the risk of transmission is higher when people are in close contact with one another for prolonged periods of time, particularly indoors or in other enclosed spaces. The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the State has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges.
Breyer dissent, p. 4.
I suspect (but, of course, cannot prove) these Justices simply do not appreciate the importance of religious worship and are therefore incapable of adequately protecting it. I’m unmoved by stories about how Joe Biden (et al) have “deep Christian faith.” The Christian faith isn’t play-dough to be molded and appropriated by the owner. It’s objective. It has content. It has meaning. The ideologies of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (and, for that matter, President Trump) largely do not comport with the Christian faith and message.
The dissenting justices continue:
We have previously recognized that courts must grant elected officials “broad” discretion when they “undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties.” That is because the “Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States.”
Breyer dissent, p. 5.
Sotomayor, in her own dissent, writes:
I see no justification for the Court’s change of heart, and I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn (Diocese) will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering
Sotomayor dissent, p. 1.
To her, the nature of religious activities make it more dangerous.
But JUSTICE GORSUCH does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID–19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time
Ibid, p. 2.
Sotomayor epitomizes this deference to public health authorities. No sane person would deny these individuals have expertise. The dispute is over whether public health concerns can trump religious freedom, and if so for how long. Can, as Gorsuch quipped, the Constitution actually take a sabbatical? Sotomayor apparently believes it can:
Unlike religious services, which “have every one of th[ose] risk factors,” bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time. Id., at 7 (“Epidemiologists and physicians generally agree that religious services are among the riskiest activities”). Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.
Sotomayor dissent, p. 3.
I wonder, then, why States do not issue edicts forbidding potlucks at Baptist churches because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 655,381 Americans died from heart disease in 2018. One could marshal precisely the same public interest arguments for abolishing potlucks and communal meals at all houses of worship. Of course, that’s absurd. Why is COVID different, given the COVID death rate in 2020 (262,158) is only approximately 40% that of heart disease?
I can only see this continued judicial deference to the State as a sophisticated extension of the “stay safe at all costs” mindset that is so common, today. Sotomayor concludes thus:
Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights. States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today. The Constitution does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives
Sotomayor dissent, p. 5.
Predictably, Gov. Cuomo dismissed this injunction as a partisan political move by SCOTUS. However, the decision signals how the Court will likely rule on similar cases that come its way, and lower courts may well use these same arguments to rule in favor of houses of worship.
Legal experts said that despite the governor’s assertion that the decision was limited to parishes and other houses of worship in Brooklyn, the court’s ruling could be used to challenge and overturn other restrictions elsewhere. “The decision is applicable to people in similar situations,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s applicable to any synagogue, any church, to any mosque, to any religious setting.”
Jesse McKinley and Liam Stack, “Cuomo Attacks Supreme Court’s Emboldened Majority Over Virus Ruling,” in New York Times (26 November 2020). Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/378Wmwp.
In its amicus brief to SCOTUS, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission asked for clear guidance on how lower courts should weigh public interest and the free exercise of religion:
This Court’s guidance is needed, and, in its absence, the lower courts are left grasping for whatever they can find. Indeed, a search of Westlaw reveals that the concurring opinion in South Bay (declining to grant the requested injunction) has been cited 118 times in the past five-and-a-half months, leading to a hodge-podge of results across the United States and uncertainty as to what standard the lower courts should apply … It is time for the Court to weigh in and provide clear rules for lower courts struggling to resolve these questions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Well, SCOTUS did just that. Whatever else they may feel about his fitness for office, all people of faith owe President Trump a debt of gratitude for appointing Justice Barrett, a convictional and faithful Roman Catholic, to the Court. This decision is a wonderful victory for religious liberty, and I suspect 2021 will see many of these executive orders struck down State by State.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on …
What to think about government public health edicts and the Church regarding COVID-19? In an outburst of representative frustration, a Southern Baptist theologian recently posted the following on Twitter in response to his Governor’s new lockdown restrictions which, among other things, forbade dancing:
As the American philosopher Yosemite Sam has often remarked, “them’s fightin’ words!”
We begin with some principles to help us consider how to react to the latest public health directive from Governor Inslee.
The Bible tells us we need community and relationship to be truly human, and the Church is God’s community.
God saves His people to join them to the brotherhood of faith so we can be in relationship with Him and with our new brothers and sisters in the faith. This is why God gave us pictures of the Church as God’s bride (Hos 1-3; Ezek 16; Eph 5), His body (1 Cor 12), and His spiritual house (1 Pet 2). It means we are only complete in community and fellowship with each other. This cannot be done solely by Zoom or YouTube. Therefore, just as a marriage does not exist unless there is a spatial closeness and relationship, so the Church cannot long exist if it does not meet for corporate worship. There are reasons why long-term, long distance marriages often die!
For God’s people to not meet in community is to deliberately hinder the image of God that Father, Son and Spirit are refurbishing in our individual and corporate lives (2 Cor 3:18; cp. 1 Cor 15:49).
Therefore, the Church should close its doors only as a matter of extreme necessity, as a last resort.
The Bible says God puts the government official in place.
We cannot forget this, no matter who is in office:
Daniel 2:21: “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.”
John 19:11: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
The Bible says we must obey the secular authorities.
This also cannot be wished away.
We do it because we would be disobeying God if we disobeyed the authorities. “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid, God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience,” (Rom 13:5).
Paul told Titus to “remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities,” (Titus 3:1).
We do it for the sake of evangelism. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” (1 Pet 2:13-14).
The Bible tells us we can disobey the authorities in certain circumstances.
The penultimate examples are Acts 4:1-22 and Acts 5:27-33. But, before we use these as the escape pod for which we have been searching, we must note three things:
The authorities singled the Christians out for discriminatory treatment. They treated the Church differently than other groups.
The State ordered the Church to not preach the Gospel. The State wanted to stop evangelism, not corporate worship.
The State did this maliciously and on purpose because it hated the Gospel.
We also think of Daniel and his friends who refused to compromise the way they practiced their faith—even after the State commanded them to do so (Dan 1:8). Would they have done so if there were a legitimate public health reason? Perhaps a famine, a crop failure, or something similar? We do not know. We do know the king’s order did not supersede God’s command, and Nebuchadnezzar provided no compelling reason for them to think it did. God blessed Daniel and his friends for their allegiance (Dan 1:17-21).
In non-canonical but very helpful Jewish literature from the period between Malachi and Matthew, the theme of staying loyal to God in foreign lands was also a tough issue. The Book of Tobit is set during the Assyrian exile, and it is about a man named … (you guessed it) … Tobit, who struggled to be a faithful Israelite in a strange land. He explained:
Now when I was carried away captive to Nineveh, all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles; but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart (Tobit 1:10-12).
Like Daniel, Tobit loved God and so tried very, very hard to observe the dietary laws even in hard circumstances. As with Daniel, it was not about the dietary laws per se; it was about an honest desire to do what God ordered.
What “certain circumstances,” then, allow us to disobey the State? Based on our survey, there are three triggers:
Considering COVID in Thurston County
This brings us to COVID, and Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 of 15 November 2020. These are his new directives for congregations:
Governor Inslee explained during a press conference:
This spike puts us in a more dangerous a position as we were in March … And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being, and to save lives. These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.
As of 15 November 2020, the Thurston County Health Department reports the following statistics:
This data shows a 98.4% survival rate and indicates 6.4% of those infected have required hospitalization. The Thurston County Public Health Officer recently wrote the community (p. 1, §7) that her recommendation to abandon in-person school instruction was “made based on our local patterns of transmission, rising transmission rates, hospital capacity, public health capacity, and our likely trajectory of disease going into winter.” It is reasonable to assume Governor Inslee’s proclamation is predicated on similar concerns.
As of 15 November 2020, the cumulative data for the State of Washington is as follows:
This data shows a 98.1% survival rate and demonstrates 7.3% of those infected have required hospitalization. For comparison, here are the State of WA and Thurston County datasets side by side:
COVID and basic principles
We now turn to the triggers we previously discussed which allow the Church to disobey the government. We can eliminate one of these and further explore two others, as follows:
The State has not engaged in intentional discrimination. Has it engaged in defacto discrimination? In this context, to discriminate means to “make an unjust or prejudicial distinction” regarding the Church. To be unjust is to not behave “according to what is morally right or fair.” Something is prejudicial if it is “harmful to someone or something; detrimental.” Therefore, we can summarize and say Governor Inslee’s proclamation is defacto discriminatory against the Church if it draws morally wrong or unfair distinctions between it and other organizations in society, and these distinctions cause harm.
In his proclamation 20-25.8, Governor Inslee states (p. 3, §3):
These below modifications do not apply to education (including but not limited to K-12, higher education, trade and vocational schools), childcare, health care, and courts and judicial branch-related proceedings, all of which are exempt from the modifications and shall continue to follow current guidance.
Is this distinction morally wrong? Is it unfair to allocate the Church less societal value than a daycare? Is it morally wrong to say the Church is less valuable than an undergraduate institution which runs a course about the sociology of gender, in which students read texts that advocate transgender ideology?
In this context every policy decision has, at its root, a moral calculus that weighs the organization’s value to society. Governor Inslee has decided public schools, universities, trade schools, childcare, health care, the courts and their associated activities are more valuable than religious community. He has conducted a moral reckoning, and he sincerely believes his conclusions are correct.
But, the fact remains he has made a distinction. Is it an immoral or unfair distinction? According to Governor Inslee, both the organizations above are more precious than the Christian church. Thus, they may operate under current guidelines and are not subject to this new proclamation. According to the scriptures, gathering in community is not optional, it harms God’s people to prohibit it, and transgender ideology is a false construct of self-identity and humanity.
Therefore, we could say Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 is defacto discriminatory against the Church. However, he has not prohibited churches from meeting. He has set limits on the manner of worship, and he has set similar (financially) harmful limits on how other organizations conduct their operations. The State economy has been crippled and is only now beginning to recover. It is safe to say this latest proclamation will rip the new scab off this wound for all manner of organizations, across all sectors. If Governor Inslee is explicitly or implicitly injuring the Church, even his foes must admit he is making a very clumsy job of it.
Evidence suggests the allegation of defacto discrimination against the Church is ambiguous and unclear.
We turn to the next issue.
Adequate cause to change the manner of worship?
The question is about predication. In SKRBCs context, the weightiest issue from WA’s new restrictions is whether Governor Inslee has adequate cause to prohibit congregational singing in a worship service. Does he? In his press conference, Governor Inslee declared:
We have a pandemic raging across the state. It is a potentially fatal disease. Left unchecked, it will assuredly result in grossly overburdened hospitals. It will keep people from receiving routine but necessary medical treatment because of the stresses our hospitals will be under.
Left unchecked, the economic devastation, long term, will be continually prolonged. And, most importantly, left unchecked, we will see continued untold numbers of death.
We will not allow these things to happen.
This brings us back to the datasets about COVID:
Just from this admittedly simple review, COVID-19 does not seem to be a serious disease. The number of WA dead (2,519) seems only to be so high because so many have been infected (130,419). And yet, this data masks the true horror of the virus. Even this seemingly modest amount of hospitalizations may overwhelm the public health sector:
… in the hardest-hit areas, there are simply not enough doctors, nurses, and other specialists to staff those beds. Some health-care workers told me that COVID-19 patients are the sickest people they’ve ever cared for: They require twice as much attention as a typical intensive-care-unit patient, for three times the normal length of stay.
The entire state of Iowa is now out of staffed beds, Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Iowa, told me. Worse is coming. Iowa is accumulating more than 3,600 confirmed cases every day; relative to its population, that’s more than twice the rate Arizona experienced during its summer peak, “when their system was near collapse,” Perencevich said. With only lax policies in place, those cases will continue to rise. Hospitalizations lag behind cases by about two weeks; by Thanksgiving, today’s soaring cases will be overwhelming hospitals that already cannot cope. “The wave hasn’t even crashed down on us yet,” Perencevich said. “It keeps rising and rising, and we’re all running on fear. The health-care system in Iowa is going to collapse, no question.”
In the imminent future, patients will start to die because there simply aren’t enough people to care for them. Doctors and nurses will burn out. The most precious resource the U.S. health-care system has in the struggle against COVID-19 isn’t some miracle drug. It’s the expertise of its health-care workers—and they are exhausted.
Just how difficult is it to care for a single COVID-19 patient?
A typical patient with a severe case of COVID-19 will have a tube connecting their airways to a ventilator, which must be monitored by a respiratory therapist. If their kidneys shut down, they might be on 24-hour dialysis. Every day, they’ll need to be flipped onto their stomach, and then onto their back again—a process that requires six or seven people. They’ll have several tubes going into their heart and blood vessels, administering eight to 12 drugs—sedatives, pain medications, blood thinners, antibiotics, and more.
All of these must be carefully adjusted, sometimes minute to minute, by an ICU nurse. None of these drugs is for treating COVID-19 itself. “That’s just to keep them alive,” Neville, the Iowa nurse, said. An ICU nurse can typically care for two people at a time, but a single COVID-19 patient can consume their full attention. Those patients remain in the ICU for three times the length of the usual stay.
Are some Christians so insulated in their echo-chamber of favored news commentators that they do not realize how awful COVID is? One public health worker recently lamented:
Health-care workers and public-health officials have received threats and abusive messages accusing them of fearmongering … They’ve pleaded with family members to wear masks and physically distance, lest they end up competing for ICU beds that no longer exist. “Nurses have been the most trusted profession for 18 years in a row, which is now bull**** because no one is listening to us,” Neville said.
Add to it that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now concludes COVID-19 spreads through droplets in the air:
Some infections can be spread by exposure to virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.
This kind of spread is referred to as airborne transmission and is an important way that infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox are spread.
There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.
In light of this, does the Church have cause to question the State’s motives in a public health emergency? Can it responsibly ignore the recommendations of public health experts? It seems the following guidelines should apply when considering public health emergency orders:
In the State of Washington’s context, the answers to these questions are, in order, No, Yes and Yes.
Does Governor Inslee therefore lack adequate cause to restrict congregational singing? Only if the Church believes the proclamation (and others like it from other Governors) is part of a conspiracy against Christ and His Church. Such theories abound on the internet, that warm incubator for so much cold darkness.
Of course, these questions do not consider that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14) and rarely works in an overt way. He seeks to destroy the Church (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 12:17). “For we are not ignorant of his designs,” (2 Cor 2:11). We also must consider whether the Church is the proverbial frog in the pan that slowly boils to death … and never notices. Is the burner dial turning to “MED-HIGH” even now?
We must remember we live in two worlds: the City of God and the City of Man. This world does not like the Church, does not respect it, does not value it, and never will. We must only go along with public health decrees that re-shape our community and our worship as long as we are reasonably certain there is no explicit or implicit evil motivating them.
Is there, in this case? With Satan, we can never be sure. But the evidence suggests no.
A more excellent way?
We make a mistake when we consider COVID and the State from the perspective of Satan as the moving force in the universe. Yet, that is what we have done. It is what we have all done. We forget the most biblical way to think of COVID is as God’s judgment on the world. Examples from scripture are too numerous to list, but here is one (Jeremiah 14:11-12):
The LORD said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, sand though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”
God brings curses on a world that rejects Him. True, the world is not Israel. But the point remains—God brings judgment so people might repent. We do not know what His specific message is, but we can be certain it has to do with repentance and allegiance to His name.
While it is necessary to focus on the Church’s obligations to the State regarding public health orders, it is perhaps best for the Church to re-double its efforts to fulfill its mission. That mission is to preach the Gospel. To build bridges to the community in service of that Good News. To be innovative, creative, and winsomely aggressive in this outreach.
 See also 1 Maccabees 1:58-64 for a similar theme.
 The case of defacto discrimination is well illustrated by Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan querying how he ought to handle Christians. This came about after Pliny issued a general edict outlawing political associations. Christians were then caught up in this administrative dragnet. This was not an explicit, but a defacto discrimination.
 “A man who acts, makes decisions, ranks things above or below, sets a high or low value on things, is acting according to definite principles—even though theoretically he may deny these principles—and he is acting with the consciousness—although in theory he would certainly deny it—that it is right to act in such a way,” (Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, trans. Olive Wyon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947], 18).
 These theories usually include varying amalgamations of George Soros, the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, microchips, a belief COVID-19 is not real or is being exploited for nefarious purposes, and conviction that there exists a coordinated, multi-national cabal of political and civil service conspirators ready to execute sinister orders from on high across the globe. I believe the latest colloquial term for this conspiracy at the moment is “the Great Reset.” You can read a short, breezy article skeptical of this theory here.