Posts tagged ‘Theocracy’

Sharia Law and Biblical Grace

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  This is the apostle Paul’s sobering summary of the human condition.  And he’s right.  Not only is there is not a person alive who lives up to God’s standards of righteousness, there is also not a person alive who lives up to the standards of righteousness he sets for himself, as any person who has ever attempted – and failed at – a New Year’s resolution can tell you.  Sin is universal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, two Christians were publicly whipped, according to the dictates of Sharia law, “for playing a game at a children’s entertainment complex in a way authorities say amounted to gambling.”  Aceh’s population is 98 percent Muslim, and people can face floggings for acts including “drinking alcohol, adultery, gay sex, gambling or having romantic relationships before marriage.”  Indeed, the province’s courts are imposing hundreds of whippings a year for acts like these.  Last January, a Christian was sentenced to 36 lashes for selling alcohol.

I do not believe that drinking or selling alcohol, in and of itself, is sinful, though I do believe that drunkenness is.  Likewise, I don’t believe that a good-natured raffle for a few laughs is inherently wicked, though I am also well aware and wary of the dangerous greed that gambling can stoke and how the gambling industry, especially in the form of state lotteries, cynically preys on the economically disadvantaged.  I do believe in a traditional sexual ethic. So, I would say, as do the courts in Aceh, that any sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage strays from what is appropriate.  In short, though I would qualify certain things, I find myself in broad agreement with Aceh’s moral concerns.  But I also find myself fundamentally at odds with Aceh’s response to these concerns.

The radicalized form of Islamic law that Aceh’s theocratically-minded courts seem to be bent on propagating addresses sin through judgment.  Each sin, in these courts’ minds, deserves a flogging.  Christianity, however, addresses sin in a whole different way.  Christianity acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of human sinfulness – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – but addresses such sinfulness not with judgment, but by grace: “All are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

In John 8, Jesus is famously confronted by some religious leaders who bring to Him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery.  In a breathtaking display of theocratic virtue signaling, they crow: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do You say” (John 8:5)? In their recounting of Mosaic law, the religious leaders conveniently overlook the fact that it was both the adulteress and the adulterer who were to be punished by death, as, in this case, they bring to Jesus only the adulteress. They also needlessly restrict the method of execution to that of stoning, even though Moses makes no such specification.  Nevertheless, they are broadly correct that adultery was, according to Mosaic law, punishable by death.  Jesus, however, instead of debating the finer points of where the adulterer is and what method of execution should be used, simply responds:

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:7, 9-11)

Here, Jesus brilliantly puts His finger on the problem with responding to sin with judgment instead of with grace.  If one responds to sin with only judgment, there will finally be no one left to mete out any judgment, because no one is without sin.  Everyone will have been stoned.  Only grace can address sin in a way that leaves anyone standing.

Christianity certainly understands and accepts the role governing authorities play to discourage wickedness by means of penalties.  But Christianity also knows that people need more than a penalty in the face of sin.  They need a Savior who does not condemn them, but forgives them.  And this is what a theocracy like Aceh’s, which plays the roles of both political and religious authorities, cannot provide.

Interestingly, the Bible does accept lashings as appropriate remuneration for sin.  But the lashes do not fall on us. They fall on God’s Son:

He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

The courts of Aceh, it turns out, are lashing out far too late for it to do any good.  The lashing that was really needed already happened 2,000 years ago.

It’s time to put the whips down.

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March 5, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Pastoral Statement on Israel

On May 19, 2011, President Obama delivered a speech in which he called for Israel and Palestine to return to their 1967 borders with “mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”  The reaction to the president’s proposal was swift and fierce.  Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, declared, “The viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of Israel’s existence.”[1]

Because of the long-standing and good relationship between the United States and Israel, many are wondering, “What is our obligation to Israel?  Should we support a return to the greatly diminished Israeli borders of 1967 or should we demand the greatest amount of land possible for this democracy?  What should our position and policy be?”

People are asking these questions not only out of political concern, but out of theological concern as well.  Because God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever” (Exodus 32:13), the question naturally arises:  Does this land still belong, by divine right, to the Jews?  And if so, should we, as the United States, support Israel over the Palestinians in an effort to respect God’s promise to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Because this question is multifaceted, several things need to be addressed.  First, it is important to note that there is a difference between an “Israelite” and a “Jew.”  In Scripture, the term “Israelite” refers to an Old Testament believer who worships Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and who trusts in His promise to send a Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14, 9:6, Micah 5:2, Zechariah 11:12-13).  The term “Jew,” on the other hand, refers to a person of either a certain race or of a certain faith or both.  There are Jews who are of the Jewish race, but are secular, while there are also Jews who are not of the Jewish race, but who practice the Jewish faith.  There are even Jews who are the Jewish race and trust in Christ as their Savior!  Thus, to equate ancient Israelites who had a specific and clear faith commitment to modern-day Jews who may or may not have a particular religious commitment perhaps misses the point from a Biblical view.

The distinction between Israelites and Jews becomes all the more important when one realizes that God makes His promise to Abraham and his descendants in light of Abraham’s faith and not of his race (cf. Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3).  Faith, not race, appropriates the promises of God to the people of God.  Consider the following verses:

  • Abraham…is the father of all who believe. (Romans 4:11)
  • Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)
  • You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

Again and again, the apostle Paul makes the same point:  It is by faith in Christ that one becomes a child of Abraham.  Just because one is a genetic descendant of Abraham does not mean he is an heir to God’s promises.  Indeed, when Abraham’s descendants prove faithless in the Old Testament, they are exiled from the land of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 3:6-10, 2 Kings 17:3-23, 25:8-21).   In the New Testament too, faithlessness is judged harshly.  Consider these verses:

  • John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:7-8)
  • Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)

Abraham’s true children are those who trust in God’s promise of a Messiah, fulfilled in Christ.  Thus, modern day biological Jews, if they do not trust in Christ, cannot be said to be heirs to God’s promises.

But what about the land which God promised to Abraham and his descendants?  Is this the property of today’s Jewish people?  It is important to keep two things in mind as we seek to answer this question.  First, Israel, the modern-day democracy, is not the same as Israel, the ancient theocracy.  Israel, the ancient theocracy, is portrayed by the Biblical authors as ruled by God Himself.  This is why, for instance, King David is anointed by the prophet Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 16:1-13) rather than elected by Israel’s general population.  Conversely, in Israel, the modern-day democracy, officials are elected by the people and not anointed by the prophets or trumpeted as divinely appointed leaders.  Thus, ancient Israel and modern-day Israel are not the same.

Second, it has already been noted that, apart from faith in Christ, the promises of God cannot be appropriated to human beings.  Thus, for those who do not trust in Christ, the promises of God – including the land of Israel – are not theirs.  But what about those Jews who do believe in Christ?  Does this land of Israel still belong to them by divine right?

Ultimately, all land belongs not to people or to a people group, but to God:  “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).  God, in turn, entrusts His world to His people to steward faithfully.  Indeed, this theological truth is stated explicitly in the commission God gives to the Old Testament Israelites:  “When the LORD your God brings you into the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).  From the outset, God warns His people not to forget that it is He who entrusts the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  God expects His people to steward this land well and according to His commands.  If the Israelites do not, God warns, “I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 8:19-20).  Notice that if the Israelites fail to follow God, He will destroy them “like the nations the LORD destroyed before.”  What sets Israel apart is its faith, not its land.  Without faith, Israel is just like all other faithless nations.

Finally, we must remember that the land God promised to Abraham was only a foreshadowing of an even greater land to come.  The preacher of Hebrews explains:  “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10).  Indeed, all of God’s Old Testament faithful “were longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).  Earthly Israel was only a shadow of a greater heavenly Israel.  Thus, in the New Testament, Jesus does not make promises concerning the land of Israel.  Instead, He makes promises of a heavenly Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5:3, 10, 6:33, Luke 22:29).  This is why, in Revelation, John sees “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).  The earthly land of Israel, then, cannot be said to belong, by divine right, to biological Jews, or even to those Jews who trust in Christ.  For Christ did not come to bestow an earthly kingdom.  Indeed, Christ never drove out the Romans from Israel, contrary to first century expectations (cf. John 18:36), and, when a Samaritan woman asks Jesus where people are to worship, whether that be on Mount Gerizim according to Samaritan expectations or on Mount Zion according to Jewish expectations, Jesus responds, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:21, 23).  The earthly land of Israel was only a foreshadowing of a much greater heavenly inheritance, which is ours through faith in Christ.

So what does all this mean for the United States’ position on the nation of Israel?  Theologically, we are under no specific divine mandate to support any particular borders for the nation of Israel.  Politically, there may indeed be good reasons to support expanded borders for Israel such as the fact that this nation is one of our close allies and is a thriving, lively democracy in a part of the world which is largely devoid of such governments.  The democratic freedom Israel enjoys and promotes is a foundational value of our American union.  And as such, our citizens generally desire to see the cause of freedom spread far and wide.  For these reasons, many Christians and Americans can and do support Israel.


[1] Matt Spetalnick, “Obama and Netanyahu face tense meeting on Mideast,” Yahoo! News (May 20, 2011).

June 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm 1 comment


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