The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

Thinking about Faith and Politics: A Non-Partisan Reflection

IMG_4537Last week, I was asked to participate in a Faith and Politics faculty forum here at Briercrest. We had a good representation of college and seminary students attend. It was a great experience! We were asked to prepare answers to three questions. Although I didn’t end up reading these verbatim, I thought I’d share them with you.

Question #1: Should faith inform our voting? To what extent?

Yes. Fully.

Christian faith, as I understand it, is founded upon the confession of God’s divine sovereignty revealed most fully in his Son, Jesus Christ. For Christians, the fundamental and primal confession of our faith is “Jesus is Lord.” Lordship, as confessed in the first century context, was fully political in its connotations. Roman citizens of Jesus’ and Paul’s day were encouraged to declare, “Caesar is Lord” and so the confession, Jesus is Lord, was undeniably political, and indeed, confrontational to the political powers of the first century. Beyond that, it would be difficult to understand what Christ could have meant when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” if political authority was somehow not included in the “all.” Jesus is Lord means that every authority—political, ecclesiastical, familial, cultural, corporate, etc.—is ultimately answerable to Christ.

Although in some sectors of Christianity through history “faith” has been compartmentalized or isolated from public and political life, I believe such privatization of faith cannot be legitimately sustained. So, in my view, not every issue is necessarily directed by matters of Christian doctrine or by Scripture, but no issue can be viewed as being irrelevant or inconsequential to our faith–political issues no less.

When we take these two elements together—the Lordship of Christ and his all-encompassing authority received from God—it seems to me that voting, like every other aspect of our life, needs to be informed by our faith. Paul understands this when he claims that he is seeking to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. If voting is about making an intellectually, morally, and civic decision, then it is about making such a decision in obedience to Christ as part of our discipleship.

[I also made a point that the exercise of voting, of course, would have been foreign to the NT audience. Although I believe that Christians should always consider voting, I also believe that under circumstances, Christians should also be prepared purposely not to vote as a form of protest. I’ve not yet faced that scenario in my voting years, but it isn’t inconceivable that at a local level, I might be uncomfortable voting for any of the members running in my riding, and federally or provincially, I may believe no party deserves even qualified support.]

Question #2: Should a specific area of a political platform take priority in a Christian’s decision in voting? E.g. economy, military, foreign affairs. How much should an individual moral/ethical issue influence a Christian’s vote?

I’m of firm conviction that there are indeed specific areas of attention to political platforms that should have heightened priority for scrutiny in a Christian’s decision to vote. But I am the first to admit that sorting that out can be a very difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I believe that we have to do our best to sort through the political platforms and promises, and discern what a political party’s fundamental priorities are. Is it about safety and comfort—whether economically or social? Is it about wealth creation? Is it about a sense of fairness? (and don’t assume that fairness equals justice—I don’t think it does, nor do I think the Bible does). And so on.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians need to realize that our own context is constantly shifting and issues that might be the most pressing in a previous election campaign may not be the most pressing issues today, no matter what the parties themselves state. For me, especially in the current election we are about to engage in, I am more interested in what the parties are not saying rather than what they are saying. Silence is more often an indicator of what a platform is either not concerned about or what they may be wanting to avoid or hide.

Martin Luther (supposedly) said, “‘If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” That means that Christians need to discern, by the Spirit’s help, what issues may need to take priority in an election and push the representatives to speak about those issues and reveal their stances on their issues, even if the party platforms dictate that they would rather talk about other issues.

In practice, I think this means starting with a sense of realism about political parties and making sure that we clearly understand the dangers of seeing political parties as the primary instrument of bringing about Gospel justice or some form of Christian moral ideals. They are not replacement Messiahs. There are no perfect political platforms other than God’s own sovereign purposes, but I do think there are better and worse platforms. Therefore, I think we need to think in terms of a hierarchy of issues facing us and decide which issue is indeed more important—morally, theologically, even politically—than other issues, and then choose to vote for a party (or a person) who best represents that stance.

[Related to the above, one of the panelists made reference to Winston Churchill’s famous quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”]

If I may speak a bit more personally, for example, I believe we are in a position in Canada where NO political platform of the main political parties speaks about protecting the most vulnerable lives, the unborn, as a priority. God seems especially concerned for those without a voice, and the unborn are the most voiceless of all. To me, that is simply unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Canada is one of only a few countries in the entire world—we are in same club as North Korea—where protection for the unborn is completely unlegislated. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most dangerous and unprotected places to be in Canada is in a mother’s womb. In that regard, difference of opinion on economic policy or social programs or even medical or employment issues, seem to me to pale in significance. Consequently, we may have to realize that we will need to vote for those who at least are most likely to take a stance, or have taken a stance, where such justice and protection of life itself is most likely to be advocated or protected. Personally for me, that means that I will plan to vote for an individual in my riding that I can count on to take that stance rather than voting on the basis of a political platform of a Party per se.

As for the second part of the question, I suppose I would want to reword it differently. If by “individual” we mean a matter of individual conscience on a disputable area, then I would say, we should not vote primarily on the basis of convictions on issues that Christians can genuinely disagree about, e.g, economic policy; level of  support of business or arts, etc. If by “individual”, though, we mean, an issue that is clearly spoken to by Scripture and which pertains to the sanctity of life or the freedom for worship, then, yes, we may and probably should allow that individual issue to influence our vote.

Question 3: How does our faith shape our expectations of what government should do/what a party should promise? I.e. what is the role of government from a Christian perspective?

I believe this is one of the central questions of political theology because it is asking the question of how we believe God uses the secular state in the outworking of his providential plan. Fundamentally, I think there are really only two main starting points or assumptions by which we can answer this question. Every Christian tradition would agree that the State is under God’s authority, but traditions differ on whether the State is a part of God’s good creation as originally instituted, or whether the State is instituted by God as a result of the Fall of humanity into sin. How you answer that question will answer the question of what you believe the Government should do and what we expect the Government to do, and of course, give us insight into when we think the Government is failing. In the first view, the State is a gift of God to mediate good things to humanity, even while ideally protecting humans from the evils of sin. In the second view, the State is also a gift of God, but is given primarily to protect from the evils of sin, and secondarily and incidently (and sometimes accidently) to mediate good things to humans. These two positions might seem only to be a difference in emphasis, but the end view of what Government should be expected to do has resulted in great differences. Thus, those who see Government primarily as God’s post-Fall means of restraining evil will likely have far less confidence in seeing government doing much more than punishing wrong doers and keeping people relatively safe. Those who see Government as part of God’s original creation, however, believe the Government, fallen as it is, still has responsibility to be doing what it can to bring about common good for all peoples.

I personally believe that State is part of God’s good creation (and here we distinguish between the State and particular governments) and that even mankind had not fallen into sin, there would have been need to “govern” how people lived together in harmony. Indeed, the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God present in both OT and NT scriptures, indicates that even in the eschaton, things will be “governed” and God will Reign forever. In the meantime, however, humans and Governments and States are fallen, but are nevertheless accountable to God. So it is the Church’s job to remind the State of what it is supposed to accomplish.

Interestingly, in 1 Tim 2, Paul enjoins his readers to pray for all the authorities “that we would live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” I think that encapsulates the fundamental and central reason that the State is supposed to exist: To ensure peaceable relations amongst all peoples, regardless of their faith stance, and to allow the Gospel of God’s righteousness and holiness to be proclaimed freely to everyone because, as Paul says shortly after, God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth of salvation. Thus, where the preaching and promulgation of the Gospel is hindered, the State is, by definition, not doing its job. Thus, for me, the State’s fundamental role is to ensure that all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation (or not) are free to worship (or not), to speak of their faith in freedom without fear of persecution. When the State fails to ensure these conditions are met, the Church is obligated to resist it, and when necessary, obey God rather than men. In that regard, there is going to be tremendous differences of opinion on how best to take care of social issues like health care and employment insurance, how to run the economy, whether to balance the budget or to be in deficit. But I am going to be especially attuned to the question of whether the Church is, in smaller or greater ways, being hindered legislatively to carry out the task of proclaiming and living the Gospel, including restrictions on speech and carrying out good deeds.

Seven things Christians can do during a Majority Government

This week Prime Μinister Stephen Harper steps into the 41st Parliament with a majority government of 166 seats. The NDP, of course, begins its first session as the official opposition with 103 seats elected to Parliament. This is new ground for both.

It’s been a while since Canada has had a majority government. What can we expect?

Given the fact that the official opposition has lost their beloved leader who brought them to this point, it will be fascinating to watch how both Government and Opposition function in coming days. Will the Government take advantage of this moment and ram through a bunch of bills that have been difficult to pass in past years? Will the Opposition come out, (registered) guns a-blazin’, with new found confidence in the force of their numbers? It’s too early to tell, but stay tuned!

But here’s another question. What should Christians be doing as this new session of Parliament begins? Is there anything we can do to become actively involved in the political process? Or is all we can do is sit back and let the cards fall as they may? I hope readers opt for the former rather than the latter. But to encourage a more active and responsible Christian involvement, no matter what one’s political stripe, here’s seven things we can do as Christian to keep from becoming politically apathetic in between now and the next federal election some four years hence…

1) Pray for our MPs.
Scripture doesn’t give us direct insight into the kind of political stances we are to take on many issues as a Christians, but it is very clear on one thing: We are to pray for those in authority over us (1 Tim 2:1-3). Indeed, Paul tells us that to do so is “good” and that praying for our leaders “pleases God our Saviour.” How much more direct political instruction do we need?! Praying for our leaders also has the added benefit of keeping the edge of cynicism out of our voices when we speak about politicians. It’s pretty hard to pray for a politician one moment and then mock her or him the next.

 2) Find out who your MP is.
I am amazed at how regularly I meet someone who doesn’t know who her or his own Member of Parliament is. Given that our MP is supposed to be our representative in Ottawa, it seems a bit odd that we wouldn’t know to whom we are supposed to turn when we want to be represented. So, if you don’t know who your MP is, and you know what your postal code is, go here to find out.  Once you’ve found out who your MP is, why not pray for her or him, too?

Oh, and if you’re interested, you can also find out where you MP sits in Parliament here. While it doesn’t tell you everything, you may be interested to know how far away from “centre” (Prime Minister or Party Leader) the Member sits. This may suggest the level of influence the Member has toward the Leader.

3) Find out what’s on the docket for the next Parliament.
While there are always matters of discussion that come up unexpectedly in Parliament, there is nevertheless a basic plan for what it going to be covered. You can find the proposed bills here. It is worth taking a few minutes scan through the titles and see what catches your eye. I did a quick scan and found Bill C-233 entitled (somewhat optimistically), “A Bill to Eliminate Poverty in Canada” (!).  While you’re in the area, you might want also to head over to the Parliament of Canada home page that gives a lot interesting information, including some great educational resources for teachers of primary and secondary students.

4) Do some research on a legislative Bill of your interest.
Whatever your bent, you are sure to find something in the parliamentary docket that piques your interest (or raises your hackles!). Do a bit of reading on the bill to see what is going to be proposed. Are you in favour of this approach or not? Outline two or three things that makes you want to support, or signal opposition to, the proposed legislation. Oh, and while you’re at it, as a Christian it would be good to find out what Scripture has to say on the issue! Scripture doesn’t, as previously mentioned, always give us direct instruction on how we should view any particular piece of legislation. But surely as Christians we would be remiss if we didn’t at least try to discern what the Bible might have to say.

5) Write a letter to your MP supporting or opposing an upcoming piece of legislation.
I think it would be disheartening to know how many people have ever contacted their MP about anything. I suspect the percentage is rather low. This despite the fact that MPs tell us regularly that they consider one letter equivalent to the opinion of several hundred constituents. Indeed, MPs are often asked what their constituents are thinking about a matter, and the communication received from their constituency is one of the main ways they gather this information and pass it on to the party leaders.

So, using the address of the MP you found above, take the time to write a brief letter expressing your opinion. Yes, you heard me correctly–write a letter, not an email.

Now for some of us, we probably haven’t written a letter in years so you might want some tips on how to do this effectively. I’d suggest a couple of sites that describe effective letters here and here.

Why not an email? It isn’t that emails aren’t appropriate, but email is a less formal medium and a letter, complete with an actual envelope and actual paper, communicates just how seriously you take an issue. Oh, and the good news about writing a letter your MP–you don’t have to put a stamp on it! Canada Post guarantees delivery of letters to Members of Parliament and Ministers without the need for postage.

No matter what, don’t be afraid to identify yourself as a Christian in your letter. You have a right to be heard not simply as a citizen in Canada, but as a Christian. Just remember, though, that what you say in the letter will also influence, rightly or wrongly,  the MP about what he or she thinks about Christians. Be honest, in other words, but remain polite and respectful.

6) Write your MP a letter of encouragement.
This is a bit different than #5 above, so let me explain. A few years ago I attended a session in Ottawa to listen to several Christian MPs from various parties speaking on their perspective of the intersection of faith and politics. I’ll always remember what Bill Blaikie, a highly respected New Democrat MP who served the House of Commons for many years, said. He spoke of how rarely he had ever received letters of encouragement from constituents. That is bad enough, but worse yet was that he said that the most hurtful–indeed, hateful–letters he ever received were penned by self-professed Christians. How sad!

It is easy for us to criticize and blame at a distance, and we surely shouldn’t automatically agree with everything our MP does on our behalf. But surely as Christians we can remember that we should be the aroma of Christ (2 Cor 2:15), or to use Jesus’ metaphor, salt and light (Matt 5:13-16), toward our political leaders. Remember that once you’ve identified yourself as a Christian, you are also acting as a representative of Jesus Christ himself itself. Make sure your witness is Christ honouring and faithful to the Good News of the Gospel.

7) See #1 one above!

So there you have it. Seven things Christians can do during a majority government. But now that I think of it, these are things we can do no matter what kind of government we have! So don’t wait for the next minority!

The Politics of Idolatry

While working my way through 2 Kings recently, I came across a recurring theme, mainly, “the sins of Jeroboam.” Repeatedly throughout 1 and 2 Kings, we find out that the kings of Israel who did evil in the sight of YHWH were often lumped together with the “sins of Jeroboam.” For example, in 2 Kings 3:3, we find out that Joram, though not as evil as his father Ahab (who, we find out, was one of the worst), nevertheless, “clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.”

Or, take the case of King Jehu. Though he was obedient in killing all of Ahab’s family (2 Kings 10:17) and in destroying Baal worship in Israel (2 Kings 10:28), nevertheless “he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 10:29). (For some other places where the “sins of Jeroboam” are spoken of, see 1 Kings 16:31; 2 Kings 3:3; 10:29, 31; 13:2, 11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28; and 17:22).

So what is this all about?

First, we need to remember that Jeroboam was the first king of Israel in the divided monarchy. He was a contemporary of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, who was King of Judah. The narrator tells us that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at war continuously (1 Kings 15:6). This alone tells us that Jeroboam was, at the very least, constantly under political pressure.

Second, we need remember what the sin of Jeroboam  actually was. We find the account in 1 Kings 12:25-33 and it is remarkably simple. Jeroboam’s sin was that he set up two golden calves and he told the Israelites, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). (It is sadly ironic that the language used here is exactly the language used by the people when Aaron brought them a golden calf in Exodus 32:4b). After Jeroboam’s reforms, the people of Israel went either to Dan or Bethel to worship one of these golden calves rather than Jerusalem in Judah–where Solomon’s temple of YHWH was and where the people were supposed to worship.

In light of these things, it should be clear that the actions of Jeroboam were not simply religious but overtly political in intention. The setting up of the calves (along with other liturgical reforms such as building shrines, having an alternate festival day, and installing non-Levitical priests – 1 Kings 12:31-33) was not mere religious reform (though that it was). Rather, it was both a political reaction to the heavy-handedness of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:13-14) and a political means of rallying the people of Israel in rebellion against Judah. Indeed, Jeroboam’s reforms pale in religious significance relative to their ultimate political objective. Jeroboam may have been religiously naive, but he was no political fool! Thus, Jeroboam’s action should be characterized as nothing less than an attempt to use religion as a means to a political end.

[Here commentators are somewhat divided on the question of whether Jeroboam was being portrayed as a radical or a conservative. If he was a radical, it was because he was decentralizing worship away from Jerusalem–a kind of rebellion against the tribe of Judah. If he was a conservative, it was because he wasn’t intending for the people to worship anyone but YHWH, but was using the calves only as a pedestal or means to worshipping YHWH. But either way, the narrator of Kings consistently recounts the action as reprehensible–whether it was a politically radical or conservative move alike.]

Clearly, readers are supposed to realize that Jeroboam broke the first and second commandments–and encouraged the people of Israel to do the same. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below (Ex 20:2-4).

The consequence of Jeroboam’s action is that he not only makes a significant religious blunder and misleads the people into explicit idolatry against God’s own command, but in so doing, he leads the people toward forming a new (misguided) political identity. Remember: The people of Israel were constituted, under YHWH, as an elect nation called and led by YHWH. But Jeroboam, in one fell swoop, divides the nation and demotes YHWH into yet but another pair of localized tribal deities in Dan and Bethel, rather than the one LORD God of Israel. YHWH, creator of heaven and earth and deliverer of Israel, now, under Jeroboam’s “religious reforms,” takes a mere place alongside the other Canaanite deities. All in the service of political expediency!

I’m reminded here of the temptations we are constantly faced with in the Canadian political scene. There are at least three (though there are surely many more):

1) We are constantly tempted to isolate religion in such a way that God is worshiped as  a “tribal deity.” These days we don’t call it that, but instead, constantly are told that “religion should be a private affair only.” It may not have been Jeroboam’s intention to privatize Israel’s deity, but the practicality of his decentralization of worship was indeed the “privatization” (as we would call it), or at the very least, “tribalization” of Israel’s religion.

2) We are tempted to use religion as a means of achieving a political end. It is terribly unfortunate when Christian Churches or Christian organizations succumb to the temptation to alter their practices or even their theological convictions in light of political pressures or in the service of an ultimate political end. In this regard, it is not that the Church should have no interest in politics (for religion and politics, though not the same, cannot be extricated), but rather to be constantly aware of how subtly political power or political goals can alter the substance of our theological convictions or even the missional goals of our organizations.

3) We are tempted to blend the religious and the political in a kind of theopolitical amalgam. We need to look no further than the situation the church faced in Nazi Germany when, in an attempt to maintain its status in the society, the church capitulated and created a strange syncretist version of Christianity and National German Socialism. Perhaps in Canada we may even allow secular versions of “tolerance” or “justice” to slowly and imperceptibly mold our theological convictions into an image of the State. In such cases, the work of the Church and the work of secular organizations can eventually look no different from one another. We need prophetic insight and discernment here to be sure.

Whatever Jeroboam’s intention was, and however innocent or radical he may have been, the Kings narrative gives us at least one important lesson. The repeated reminder to Israel of the sin of Jeroboam in the Kings account seems to indicate that a political end is never sufficient reason for religious reform. In other words, beware of making religious and theological compromises simply to accomplish a political objective. For in doing so, we can be sure that we have fallen into a form of political idolatry in which the political goal has taken its place alongside, or over, the true worship of God. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “I am the LORD [YHWH]; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isa 42:8)

How do (Canadian) evangelicals vote?

A new article from the online journal Church and Faith Trends examines Canadian evangelical voting “intentions” from 1996-2008. (The author notes that the data being used is taken from pre-election polls that indicate “voter intention” rather than actual “voting practice.”  i.e., We do not have access to data of for which parties evangelical voters actually end up voting, but pre-election polls about what a voter intends to vote surely tells us something important, even if some people change their mind in the voting booth!)

Among various observations, at least three in the study are worth noting:

  1. Canadian evangelicals vote very much in accord with the larger regional trends, with only slight preferences given toward “right of centre” parties. The article breaks down voting preferences from four national regions (Western, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic) and shows that by and large, the evangelical vote is proportionally distributed amongst the major political parties relative to larger voting preferences.
  2. The Liberal Party of Canada has seen a significant drop in evangelical support in the last four years, but not necessarily for reasons one might expect. That is, the author of the article argues that loss of evangelical support for the Liberal Party probably has more to do with ways in which the Liberals have alienated evangelicals than what right of centre parties (such as the Conservatives) are doing to gain evangelicals’ confidence.
  3. Evangelicals who have left their support for the Liberal Party behind do not automatically go the Conservative Party, despite the fact that much of the mainstream media would like us to believe this. In fact, many evangelicals have thrown their support behind the NDP, Green Party, and in Quebec, the Bloc.
  4. As one might expect, evangelicals do place “moral issues” (like abortion and same-sex marriage) high on their list of priorities as an election approaches. However, it is also true that, for example, in 2008 50% of evangelicals polled cited the “economy” as being one of the most important electoral issues.

So what do we make of all this?

On the one hand, this study clearly demonstrates that generalizations about Canadian evangelical voters at large are difficult to make. As the author notes, “Canadian Evangelical Christians do not vote as a bloc.”

On the other hand, the study also indicates that evangelicals vote pretty much like the rest of the populace, with only a small measure of them voting with greater preference for the right of centre parties. I don’t know whether that says something about the heterogeneity of evangelical political perspectives, or whether that says something about the homogeneity of the political platforms of the major Canadian political parties, all of which are, at the end of the day, clustered pretty much at the centre of the political spectrum. Evangelicals, in other words, vote across the whole spectrum of political parties because they are, after all, so much alike.

Of course, there are alternative parties for evangelicals to vote for. The Christian Heritage Party (CHP), for example, claims to be “Canada’s only pro-Life, pro-family federal political party.” Yet that does not seem to be enough to persuade evangelicals to vote enmasse for them. Why? It’s hard to say for sure, but I suspect that it is at least because most evangelicals would view it as nigh unto impossible ever to see a government formed under such a platform as the CHP. Or it might simply be that evangelicals, by and large, as interested as they might be in the so-called “moral issues” are also interested in the broader economic, international, health, and environmental issues. True, a party like CHP does in fact have a platform on some of these issues, but again, I suspect most evangelicals are wary of voting for these candidate because they are unconvinced that their vote would actually result in elected MPs, let alone a government.

The greater point, I think, is that evangelicals vote much like the general populace because we all have, to one extent or another, been duped into thinking that the best way to enact political change is accomplished through the exercise of political power. It seems to me that “getting elected” is the number one priority of every major political party these days. Their platforms are designed, in other words, first to get elected, and only secondarily to accomplish political ends. In this sense, we have actually moved backward in our political understanding toward a more hierarchical monarchist view of government. That is, the monarch traditionally “ruled” and had a council of advisers who were an extension of the accomplishment of his or her political political agenda. Similarly, it seems that much political maneouvering in Canada (and I suspect in an even greater way for our neighbors to the south) is about forming a government that can be a political extension of the party, rather than viewing parliament as a government and opposition which is meant to be a forum of what Oliver O’Donovan calls “public deliberation.”

All this is to say that perhaps we (evangelicals and Canadians at large) have to be re-taught about why it is that we elect a government, and politicians need to be recalled to be reminded that their role is not ultimately to gain power, but together as government and opposition to deliberate political proposals in light of fundamental questions about the public’s common good. As long as politicians and political parties have as their main goal the attainment of political power, evangelicals (and all Canadians) will continue to vote on their perceptions of which party will serve me as an individual best, rather than on the basis of which political party and candidates are most likely to do a good job of critically assessing and judging political options in order to enact those measure which are truly best for the country’s citizens.

A Prayer for Harper and Obama

God our Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,

We come to you by your Holy Spirit and we thank you and acknowledge today that all authorities, kings, and powers are established by your hand. We thank you also that we live in lands where we are given opportunity to vote in freedom and without fear of reprisal or persecution. In these recent days in which both Canada and the United States have cast election ballots, we pray that these leaders of your choosing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and President Barack Obama, will acknowledge in every aspect of their political capacity their status as men under your authority. We pray that they would daily acknowledge their dependence upon you, that they are men and not gods, and that these things would be in the forefront of their mind as they govern. We ask this so that the nations and people over which they have been given responsibility would also be reminded to remember you and to give you glory due to you as our Creator God.

We pray that you would give these men wisdom and discernment and that they would establish solid relationships with godly advisors–men and women who would think about your Name and your glory. We pray that their policy decisions would be ones that truly would further justice and mercy, not national glory or economic gain.

We also pray that your Holy Spirit, who convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement, would sharpen these men’s consciences sharply and deeply so that they will be able to govern with wisdom, righteousness, and justice, and not merely for public acclaim or personal gain. As both of them stand at the cusp of a sustained period of time where there will likely be no forthright challenge to their leadership, we pray that you will protect them both from the political sins of pride, arrogance, hubris, and entitlement which so many who wield political power fall into. Instead, we pray, that your Spirit would infuse them with humility, grace, mercy, and sacrifice of such a degree that even they will know that these do not arise not from their own heart, but as gifts from your providential hand.

We pray above all these things that Prime Minister Harper and President Obama would have their hearts and their minds pricked and prodded by our Lord Jesus Christ to defend the cause of the most vulnerable of all in our societies: those who are poor, who are destitute, who lack justice, who are without home or hope, and especially, O Christ our Creator,  those little ones who in their mother’s womb cannot speak for themselves and who are created in your image. We acknowledge that you, the everlasting Judge, will hold these men and us accountable on that great day of judgement for the millions of lives lost in order to retain our own comfort and convenience. Be merciful to us and by your hand, turn the tide toward life and peace, we pray, and away from the culture of death that continues to encroach and darken our lands and the lands abroad where we continue to wage war.

We pray, O God our Father and Creator, that you would bring about a spiritual and moral redemption in these men’s hearts and the hearts of the people of our nations–a godly reformation of the heart and the spirit that will turn our nations back to you in unheard of ways in this generation. We pray that the church who confesses the name of your Son Jesus Christ will stand in the unity of love of the Holy Spirit and that we will be faithful witnesses to these men and their representatives even while we confess our sins and our failures both to you and to one another. May we become known as salt and light to our leaders, not as acid and darkness. In this, we renounce the works of Satan, the ruler of darkness who opposes your way. In the name of Jesus Christ, we rebuke the Satanic powers that seek to deceive and destroy them and us by every means possible. Cover both Prime Minister Harper and President Obama with your blood so they may be protected from such spiritual deception and destruction. Protect us also from despair, but give us true hope–a hope that can only be found in you. 

God our Saviour, in this time of political and economic upheaval, may we not become so distracted in the Church that we forget to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is for all people of every race, tongue, nation, and tribe. Give your church the courage to proclaim it boldly. And may these our political leaders be ready to defend the freedom of the Church to proclaim this Gospel, even as they defend the freedom of those who do not yet believe it, and even those who oppose it as men and women loved and created by you.

Heavenly Father, we your Church pray that as citizens of these nations of the world, of Canada and the United States of America, we would not forget that we are also citizens of your kingdom. May we never forget that this world and its care is passing away as we await the blessed hope of the return of Jesus Christ to establish his eternal kingdom where justice and righteousness will be perfectly upheld. In the meantime, as we await your future appearing, we ask for strength to be obedient to your expectations to uphold Mr Harper and Mr Obama in prayer and to give them the honour due them as your servants. We acknowledge that to damn these men is to blaspheme you in your sovereignty and so we ask that you would protect us from such blaspemy. And so we bless them, O Lord, and we do not condemn them, even when they do things contrary to your will, but we ask that you will strengthen, judge, and chastise them as necessary so that your name would be known and the glory of your kingdom extended. We confess our failure to uphold our political leaders in prayer, and we pray for strength to be faithful in this regard, knowing that it is even as we pray for our leaders to you the Heavenly King,  we do so as witnesses to them and to the world that they, even in their high position, are under your authority and will someday, along with us, pass away even as the grass of the field.

Finally, we ask for the humility to encourage these leaders when they do right, to courageously speak the truth in love to them when they stray from your way, and to honour them and give them the due that is theirs as your appointed servants.  And we pray that in all things, whether in word or deed, that we would do so in your name and for the sake of your kingdom. We pray that your will will be done in Canada and the United States today just as your will is already done in heaven. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

In the Name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.


Robert George on “Obama’s Abortion Extremism”…etc.

I couldn’t possibly say anything more illuminating or informed than what Professor Robert George has to say about Obama’s stance on abortion. Dr. George is Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence.  Warning: Reading this article very much troubled my soul–I have no doubt that those of you who are worried about the ramped up “culture of death” will also have similar feelings. May God help us.’s%20Abortion%20Extremism_.xml

This also leads me to wonder just how things are going to change here in Canada. We have NO legislation currently regulating abortion in Canada, and none of the major political parties seem to want to get involved in producing any, including the Conservatives. Prime Minister Harper was quoted in the Globe and Mail in September 2008, saying, 

We have a lot of challenges in front of the country. . . We have a difficult world economy, as we all know. That has to be the focus of the government and I simply have no intention of ever making the abortion question a focus of my political career. [Emphasis mine]

I like many things about Prime Minister Harper, and I know that he has some kind of Christian faith stance. But I wonder how long he can expect to avoid dealing with the abortion issue until the moral imperative regarding the abortion laws (or more accurately, lack thereof) pushes itself involuntarily upon he and his cabinet. Given a minority government–again–I’m not hopeful that the pressure will ever be sufficient. 

Strategically, I realize that a minority government of any political stripe these days is unlikely to make many changes on the abortion laws in Canada. In fact, I wonder how long it will be until we get another majority government, given the way the vote is being split up these days. Perhaps Harper is simply a realist who realizes that change in this realm is next to impossible and he doesn’t even want to be hassled with what he knows what would certainly fail. And if Obama gets in (which it looks like he will) and some of his hoped-for changes to the laws come into effect in the United States, no one can predict what kind of influence that will have on us in Canada.

Let me be clear on something here. I don’t expect any government to be able to enact sweeping changes in the abortion laws overnight, let alone within a term of office. I think it is a huge mistake for some Christians to have taken an “all or nothing” approach to the abortion issue. Small changes–even infinitesimal changes–are at least a first step. (In this regard, it is very sad that the Unborn Victims of Crime Act died when the election was called. Even though having nothing to do with abortion, it could have been a starting point). 

But surely there has to be some kind of starting point, even if just in a small incremental way? It is here that I do not envy the extremely difficult challenges that our pro-life MPs have, whatever party they serve. It is all so terribly hopeless that it must be despairing at times. Let’s not fail to pray for these folks, maybe even write your pro-life MP a letter of encouragement. (I was once at a gathering where Bill Blaikie, now a retired long time serving Christian MP, was speaking. He said Christian MPs almost NEVER get letters of encouragement from Christians, but get some of the worst hate mail from those claiming to be Christians. What a shame that is!  I know, just because they are Christian doesn’t necessarily make them a good politician, but surely as a brother or sister in Christ we at least owe them some word of encouragement for their public service…Again, all I can say is, “God help us.”)

It is here that I go back to my previous ponderings on “public reading of Scripture,” particularly my proposal that perhaps it is high time for the church to rediscover the genre of the theological confession. Until the Church in Canada can begin to muster the courage (hopefully a courage led and infused by the Holy Spirit) to not only confess Christ in a unified way again, but also have the courage to reject that which we find to be against Christ–until then, at least a major part of the pro-life voice will continue to be silenced.

Again, may God help us.


Troubling Election Stats…

Warning: These are far from completed thoughts, but here are some dashed off comments (before I get to work) on what I see as some troubling stats from the election. 

Stat #1: Popular vote

I realize that various groups have been saying this for years, but isn’t there a problem with our electoral system when one party (the Bloc) gets 10% of the popular vote and gains some 48 seats, while another party (Green) gets 7% of the vote and gets zero seats? 

Stat #2: Voter turnout

Apparently, it may be the lowest turnout for a Canadian federal election ever (something like 59% of the eligible voters showed up).

 Stat #3: Media coverage

Ok, it’s not an official stat, but as I watched the CTV election coverage, I couldn’t help but get a sense of why Westerners and Atlanticers do feel somewhat alienated at election time. 80-90% of the air-time was about Ontario and Quebec. I realize that’s where the population is, but still…

So what does the Theommentator have to say about all these “stats”?

1) Popular vote – Frankly, I’m stuck on this. I can’t think of much of theological significance to say  about this. Maybe its a stretch (I’m sure it is), but maybe this election shows that popularity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…That’s awful, I know…Anyone else have an insight?

2) Voter turn-out – I thank God that I live in a country where political freedom is real– –where I can cast a vote and not have to risk my life to do it. Amazingly, in Afganistan voters took real risks to vote in their first democratic election, yet there was an 85% turn-out rate. Perhaps our national apathy and cyncism to elections is due to nothing more than–ingratitude. Ingratitude to God for the real peace, prosperity and freedom that we enjoy each and every day. Most of us can’t imagine what it would be like not to live in a democratic country. Not that I think that democracy is God’s chosen politic, but frankly, it’s better than lots of other systems…

3) Media coverage – Interestingly, I’ve watched 2 of the last 3 elections while here in Montreal. (I was in Montreal for the 2004 election). My hosts are very gracious Christians, but their political preferences were clearly different than mine. We joked a bit about the differences between West and East, but I didn’t say anything about how even the media coverage seems to exacerbate the feelings of Western alienation from the “real” political centres in Canada. And that is all said even when the Prime Minister is from Western Canada!

It’s a sad thing to report that I personal felt tinges of alienation while sitting in the home of my Christian brother and sister. It demonstrates to me, at least, that even things like “media coverage” are not theologically neutral, but may be perhaps an example of the “powers and principalities” (cf. Eph 6:12; Col 1:16) at work even against the most important spiritual bonds that we have with our fellow Christians.