A Spiritual Culture?
Christians face an added complexity in considering culture and paradigms. This complexity is summed up nicely in the well known axiom “In the world but not of the world.” What does that mean exactly? This question is what will concern us from here on and we begin with the idea that Christians are called out from the world, called out of their cultures and paradigms. They are to live according to a spiritual culture based on and in God who calls them out of the world and into his kingdom.
The kingdom of heaven is a realm with a distinctive culture and paradigm. In the previous chapter we saw how world cultures and paradigms have real power to influence and determine how we live and understand reality. The culture of the kingdom has a very different foundation , for it is rooted in choice and submission, no coercion and determinism. God offers his culture and paradigm freely to those who will choose and accept it. It is offered as the Way, Truth, and Life. He invites us to that culture and paradigm and promises it is the right one to choose.
At the core of kingdom culture there is an overarching value: Love. It is the love of God that forms the primary value of kingdom culture. All that he is, all that he does, is rooted in his love. The paradigm of God, so to speak, sees everything through the lens of love. Out of that love he has sought to reveal to humanity his culture and paradigm. We trace that revelation in the biblical narrative beginning in Eden and culminating with the ministry and life of Jesus. We will not tell the whole story here, but we will look at a few important touch points to give us a picture and understanding of the idea that the kingdom of heaven has a spiritual culture.
The Ten Commandments
The story of the Ten Commandments is well known. Israel has been brought out of slavery in Egypt by the divine action of God who has promised them a new home in a land he will lead them to. Israel is called out of all the nations to be God’s own nation, his people living under his rule. While other nations live under human kings, Israel’s king is none other than God himself.
At Mount Sinai God reveals to Israel what he, their king, wants the nation to look like as a society. The Ten Commandments reveal not only a law to govern their society, but also a spiritual culture based on the paradigm of God. The firs four commands deal directly with how Israel is to relate to God. In a sense these commands form the heart of Israel’s spirituality. They are not to worship any other gods acknowledging that God alone is God. They are to worship him and not idols. They are to hold his name as holy and not use it inappropriately. It is clear that God is their sovereign, the king of the nation. The spirituality of Israel is markedly different from the nations around her where pantheons of divine beings were worshiped and kings were given divine status. This spirituality had significant cultural implications. Israel’s culture was now something that rejected the world views of the cultures around them. Their world view was distinct. God was the only God and no other power was truly divine. This monotheism is expanded on throughout the Old Testament. In Isaiah 42, for example, God, speaking through the prophet, mocks the idols of other nations pointing out that they are nothing more than wood and stone. The absurdity of worshiping man made objects as real powers is clearly stated. Imagine how strange it would have been for the surrounding cultures to encounter Israel’s culture. The idea that there was only one God would have seemed outlandish. What is more, the idea of a loving God committed to blessing his people would have seemed utterly strange. The consistent character of God, unchanging in every way would have been totally foreign. What kind of God is ‘slow to anger?’ they would have asked. ‘Compassionate, rich in love, forgiving? These are not the attributes of gods!’ they would have claimed. The first four commands separated Israel from all other cultures of the ancient world and gave them a unique spiritual culture.
The remaining six commands revealed to Israel how their spiritual culture was to govern their social an communal life. They were to relate to one another in the ways that God desired. All of the commands are based on the core value of God’s paradigm of love. God envisions the nation in terms of true community and it is this concept that separates Israel once more from the cultures surrounding them. To understand this we need to briefly look at the word ‘shalom’.
Shalom is a Hebrew word commonly thought to mean ‘peace’. Yet its meaning is more profound than this. Shalom describes a peace between humanity and god, a peace between people, and even a peace between humanity and creation. This peace is to be understood as unbroken and whole relationships marked by the deepest love. The most striking example of this is seen in Eden before the Fall where Adam and Eve lived in the fullness of shalom. After the Fall shalom was broken on all levels. Yet in Genesis 12 God makes a covenant with Abraham, which at its core was a promise to restore shalom.
The Ten Commandments were one step towards that restoration. What was lost in Eden is now revealed to Israel. The final six commands are about how they can live in shalom with one another. Looking at the command it appears fairly simple; do not steal from each other, do not murder others, do not envy and covet what another has, do not lie to and deceive each other, honour your parents, do not commit adultery…When you break these commands you break shalom with one another. Israel’s culture is one that loves and values those around them. They are called to be a true community marked by love, justice, righteousness, and peace.
Much more could be said about the Ten Commandments, but what is important for our purpose is to see that they are more than just a law set out for Israel. They define the parameters of Israel’s social and spiritual culture, a culture based in revelation from God and based on his paradigm of love.
Isaiah 58 True Religion and False Religion
Israel’s history after the revelation at Mount Sinai is largely about their struggle to keep the Law as a nation and community. They found themselves surrounded by and immersed in the cultures of other nations. A spiritual battle dominates the community’s history between their revealed culture and the influence and power of the cultures they encountered. This culture war and Israel’s failure to remain true to the culture given to them by God is one of the major themes spoken about by the Old Testament prophets. All the prophets in the Old Testament have as a theme the task and message of calling Israel back to their true culture. They deliver the message, “Come out from under the cultures of other nations and return to your true culture with God as your king, your savior, and your only God. Return to the culture of shalom.”
While this may appear to be a simplistic overview of the prophets, it holds true. Flip open your bible and pick a passage at random and you will almost certainly find a prophecy either pointing out the problems of the cultures of other nations or reminding Israel of their true culture accompanied by an invitation to return to the Lord. It is worth pointing out too that the prophets are filled with the promise that God will have for himself a people who will remain true to him and the culture he revealed. The prophets describe that culture many times to remind Israel of who they are called to be and what the community is to value and look like.
As an example let us look at Isaiah 58. This prophetic message addresses the issue of false fasting verses true fasting and within the description of what the true fast is we can see examples of what the spiritual culture of Israel is to look like. In the fist part of the message God addresses the problematic elements of fasting done according to a culture that is not rooted in the spiritual culture of Israel.
In the opening verse God declares that what follows deals with nothing less than rebellion and sin. In verse two we are given a picture of Israel’s supposed motives for fasting. Outwardly the reasons given appear to be the right ones, yet there is a rebellious and sinful spirit behind their fasting. The complaint in verse three against God for not answering their fast is answered by God with the description of the false fast. The people do whatever they want during their fast, they exploit their workers ( a violation of shalom), their fast leads to quarreling, strife, and violence…all elements of non-shalom culture. This, God says, is why they are not heard. In verse five the description continues: the fast is a token fast falling short of what God expects and the outward signs they use to show they are fasting are nothing more than that, for they are not signs of a truly internal and spiritual fast. Verse five ends with God saying, “Really? You think this kind of fasting is valid?”
The second part of the message is a picture of what true fasting looks like and in it we can see the cultural values of God’s kingdom. Having explained what the false fast is and why it is ineffective, God now reveals what the true fast is. It is interesting to note that the true fast is revealed through actions. These actions result from a spirituality that is rooted in the spiritual culture of God. The true fast results in loosing the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free and breaking the yoke ( a symbol for oppression and slavery). The true fast calls the people to feed the hungry, provide the homeless with shelter, to clothe the naked, and not to turn one’s back on their own family in need. In verse 13, God addresses the Sabbath directly as an element of the true fast, calling the people to keep the Sabbath, to delight in it and honor it.
There are significant promises made which result from following the true fast. The results are that healing will come quickly to the people who become righteous by following the true fast. God himself will watch over and guard them. When they call on him, he will answer. The Lord will guide them and provide for their needs even in a sun scorched land, he will strengthen them and they will prosper. They will, as a result, return to their homeland and rebuild what has been destroyed. Incredible promises linked to the proper observance of the true fast and a spirituality true to the revealed culture of God.
Within this prophecy we can see something of God’s values and elements of the spiritual culture of Israel. God values justice, he values freedom from oppression and slavery, he values the poor and those in need. The cultural expression of these values would be that his people treat one another justly, that they care for the poor and provide for their immediate needs (food, shelter, clothing), that the people do not oppress or exploit one another, and that they care for their families. These cultural values are practical in nature, they are actions to be carried out which reveal God’s heart, his character, and the spiritual culture he calls Israel to live by. The true fast of Isaiah 58 is a spirituality that leads to these cultural expressions and behind them all we find the root of shalom, love, and community.
The Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5...Looking for a spiritual culture
Looking to the New Testament we must tackle the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5-7 Jesus brings the culture of the kingdom of heaven into full view. At the opening of the Sermon on the Mount we read that Jesus goes up on a mountainside to teach the people that have gathered. There is a striking parallel here between Moses at Mount Sinai revealing the Law to Israel and now Jesus about to reveal the culture of the kingdom to the crowds that have followed him to the mountainside. Within these teachings we find a clear picture of the spiritual culture of the kingdom beginning in the beatitudes. In his book The Beatitudes When Mountain Meets Valley (2005), author and professor Ron Dart has translated the Greek word “Makarios”, which is the word normally translated as ‘blessed are’, as ‘the divine life is for…’. I am going to borrow his translation, for I think it more accurately expresses the meaning of the beatitudes and helps to reveal something of the spiritual culture of the kingdom contained in them.
The divine life is for those who die to the demands of the ego. Such people will inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 5:3
In this first statement we see that the kingdom of heaven and the life of God belongs to those who are broken and humble. In the culture of the kingdom humility is a cultural value. Within the community of Christ the people are expected to be those who are humble in character, submitting their ego to Jesus.
The divine life is for those who have lived through tragedy and suffering. Such people will be comforted at a deep level. Matthew 5:4
Comfort is a cultural value of the kingdom. Those who are in mourning, those who are grieving and in pain, are to be cared for. In the community of Christ comforting others is a cultural characteristic.
The divine life is for those who bring their passions under control for goodness. It is such people that will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5
Those who are self-controlled and are not ruled by their passions are promised an inheritance. In the culture of the kingdom to have such self control is a cultural characteristic. One is reminded too of the covenant promise to bring Israel into the promised land. The echo of the spiritual culture of Israel in the Old Testament seems to be present. To live according to the spiritual culture of the kingdom will result in blessing.
The divine life is for those who hunger and thirst for justice. Such people will be fed to the full. Matthew 5:6
In the culture of the kingdom righteousness and justice are cultural values. The community of Christ should be hungering and thirsting for these values to be fulfilled and are promised that they will be.
The divine life is offered to those who are gracious and merciful. Such people will be treated in a merciful and gracious manner. Matthew 5:7
The culture of the kingdom places immense value on mercy and the community is expected to have a culture of being merciful to one another.
The divine life is offered to those whose home is clean on the inside. Such people will know the very presence of God and see his face. Matthew 5:8
The heart, the inner home of the spirit, is to be pure. The community of Christ is expected to have pure hearts and are promised that as result of such purity they will see God. Spiritual cleanliness is a cultural characteristic of the kingdom.
The divine life is offered to those who are makers and creators of peace. Such people will be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9
The culture of the kingdom holds peace and reconciliation as cultural values. The community of Christ is to contain a culture the expresses these values. In character they are to be those who are peace makers working towards forgiveness in all situations. This action will identify them to others as being the people of God.
The divine life is known by those who are persecuted for seeking justice. Such people will know what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:10
When the community of Christ holds to the spiritual culture of the kingdom, which makes them distinct, they will be persecuted in one form or another, particularly when the speak out against oppression and injustice. The promise that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them is a covenant promise that to live according to the spiritual culture of God leads to the kingdom itself. Later in verse 12 Jesus underscores this point when he tells his hearers that their reward will be great in heaven. Already he is pointing to the kingdom as the realm in which the community is to live. To look for rewards in the realm of this world is a mistake when what matters is in the kingdom of heaven.
There is another cultural value being expressed in each of the beatitudes that we should take note of, that of provision. Using Ron Dart’s translation of ‘makarios’ we see that the divine life is given as a provision in each beatitude. The life of God is promised and we know that Jesus himself is that Life. Jesus offers us his very presence in fulfilling each beatitude, a provision that makes each a reality we can experience. In the culture of the kingdom the spiritual provision of Christ’s presence is promised to those who live according to that culture.
Cultural Signs Matthew 5:13-16
In Matthew 5:13-16 Jesus teaches us about what kind of cultural signs the community are to be. He uses two symbols to tell us what the community is like; salt and light.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. Matthew 5:13
The symbol of being the salt in the earth is a reference to Lev. 2:13 where salt is a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel. The community of Christ is called to be a sign in the earth of the new covenant being made between humanity and God through Jesus. The community is then the salt in the earth pointing to, and being, the presence of the kingdom of heaven to the world. The community of Christ is to be culturally distinct as Israel was to be in the Old Testament world. This distinction is our ‘saltiness’, what causes those outside the kingdom to take notice that there is something different about us for we have a different flavor. We also see that Jesus warns us that if we do not have the distinct flavor of the kingdom we are in danger of not being good for anything, our usefulness for revealing the kingdom is gone. Being the salt of the earth means that the community points to and reveals the kingdom and gospel of Christ, this is part of the community’s cultural identity.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. Matthew 5:14-15
The community of Christ is identified by Jesus as being the light of the world. They are to be a sign pointing to the Light, Jesus himself. Light is symbol of revelation and the power opposing darkness. The world is caught in the very real spiritual darkness of destruction and death. This culture of darkness can only lead to death because it suffers under the consequences of sin. When Jesus calls the community of Christ the light of the world he is making them a sign that points to the revelation of the gospel. The good news is that a light shines amidst the darkened cultures of the world, a spiritual culture centered in the Light of the very nature and being of Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The light opposes the darkness that has caught the world in the grip of destruction, sin, and death. The light opposes the power of those spiritual forces driving the darkness on. Jesus answers the darkness with himself and through his community. Together they point to the kingdom of heaven as the realm and culture where light, redemption, love, truth, hope, and life can be found. These are cultural characteristics of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus urges the community to be one that values revealing and sharing the light. It is an open culture displaying the truth of Christ by actively being light in the darkness of the cultures surrounding it.
In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus speaks of the Law. He warns his hearers against believing that he is overturning the Law which God gave to Israel. Rather, he tells the, that he has come to fulfill the Law. In our discussion of the Ten Commandments I proposed that the Law was a revelation of the culture of God and here in the Sermon on the Mount we find that Jesus values that culture. The Law still stands, Jesus says, expressing his own belief in the spiritual culture of the kingdom of God. In verse 19 Jesus directly links the Commandments to the kingdom of heaven and tells the community that by keeping them they live according to the culture of God and his kingdom.
Verse 20 presents a daunting picture at first, for Jesus tells his hearers that unless they are more righteous than those who are most visibly religious they will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. We must ask, as Jesus hearers must have, what is it about these religious people that falls short? Throughout his ministry Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his time, challenging them on their spirituality and belief system. He challenged their spiritual culture as being one focused on outward appearance and following rules instead of God. Recall our discussion of Isaiah 58. Jesus has come to live out the true fast and warns the religious leaders that they are practicing the false fast. The clash between Jesus and the religious establishment of his day was in one way a clash of cultures. Jesus came to proclaim the true spiritual culture of god and oppose the religious culture of the Pharisees and Sadducees that had become a system that no longer adhered to the culture of God. Jesus thus calls his hearers back to the spiritual culture of the kingdom of God revealed in the Law. This challenge to the religious system in many ways culminates in Matthew 22:34-40 when Jesus is directly asked by an expert in the law what the greatest of the commandments is. His response forms the very core of the spiritual culture of the kingdom when he replies,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
This statement is the cultural benchmark of the kingdom. It calls the community of Christ to the greatest cultural value of the kingdom and God: Love. Everything else in the kingdom of heaven flows from this center and it forms the foundation upon which true Christian faith, spirituality, and culture rests. This love is to be understood as the fullest and deepest expression of the love of God. Jesus is peaking of the love of shalom, to have whole relationships with God and with one another. Much more could be discussed here, but what we want to see clearly is that the culture of the kingdom of heaven is rooted in the culture of God, and it is this culture which Jesus c alls his community into. It is only by living in the culture of the kingdom that we can hope to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Love your Enemy Matthew 5:43-48
In this passage Jesus pushes the understanding of who our ‘neighbor’ is to the limit. The love that calls us to in Matthew 22:38&39 is here seen to extend to not only those who return our love, but even to those who are our enemies and may never respond to us out of love. They are our neighbors and to love them is a testimony of the culture of the kingdom. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us he is laying down a clear cultural value. The community of Christ being the people of God are a people with a distinct culture that distinguishes them from others, and loving our enemies, the very people who persecute, abuse, and do violence to it, is one of the most potent markers of that distinction. In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus tells us not to be those who take revenge on others, but to return their evil with good. We see that the culture of love that flows through kingdom culture provides the community’s response to those who are our enemies and those who would harm or take advantage of us.
It is through this lens, this paradigm, of love that we can understand why Jesus teaches against murder in the way that he does as well when he makes spiritual anger towards another as severe as murder (Matt. 5:21-22) To live in that broken relational state is to part from shalom love. Adultery in the same way is spiritually manifest in lust, for it is to inwardly harm shalom within ourselves and against another. This spiritual reality, Jesus tells us, is just as concrete as the very act itself (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus’ teaching on divorce centers on true shalom love as well. The love in a marriage is meant to be of the deepest caliber, and to treat divorce lightly is a rejection of shalom and ultimately a mockery of what a healthy marriage is to be.
In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus teaches his hearers that truth is an important cultural value of the kingdom when he tells them not to make oaths. Swearing by God, heaven, or Jerusalem in order to assure another of one’s truthfulness is not necessary in the culture of the kingdom. To be truthful with others is expected of the community of Christ. Jesus even goes so far as to say that taking oaths is from the evil one. To swear by God’s name is to use God’s name in vain. Let your yes be your yes and your no be your no is the basic guideline for being a people fro whom culturally it is the norm to be truthful with others.
We have seen just in looking at the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is revealing the spiritual culture of the kingdom, something deeper than simple ethics. This revelation continues through chapters 6 and 7, but by now if you read on you will, hopefully, become aware of the cultural values being expressed within Jesus’ teachings. In his admonition not to worry we see the cultural value of trusting God to provide for and take care of the community’s needs. In his warning not to judge others we find the cultural values of love and mercy. The community of Christ is not bound by a culture that seeks after worldly wealth, but serve God instead. Kingdom culture understands that where our hearts are set is where our true treasure is. It is a culture that does not bow before material wealth, but bows before God instead. It is a culture of seeking after God and his kingdom first. It is a culture of relating to others in the way that we would have them relate to us, understanding that love is the way we approach and relate to them.
Before we leave the Sermon on the Mount let us focus on one more important aspect of kingdom culture. In Matthew 7:15-23 Jesus warns against false prophets and teaches that the fruit of their spirituality will reveal their falsehood. Simply put, a bad tree bears bad fruit and a good tree bears good fruit he says. He goes on to place an amazing value on relationship with God over and against a religious culture of works.
Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers! Matthew 7:22-23
Jesus’ response to these people is alarming in some ways, for he sends them away as evildoers whom he never knew. Their actions sound impressive, but mean nothing because they did not know God when they made their accomplishments. To know God, to love him with heart, soul, and mind precedes great acts. As Paul tells us in 1Corinthians 13, to be a spiritual powerhouse without love is meaningless. The importance of being a culture that values love and relationship with God and others cannot be ignored. Jesus does not allow for an escape clause. When the community fails to live according to these cultural values of the kingdom they risk being sent away as evildoers. Why? What is evil about ministering in powerful ways outside of relationship? The answer is that to exercise real spiritual power in the lives of others outside of that relationship with Jesus is to exercise power without love. This kind of power yields the bad fruit of domination and manipulation. People are simply a means by which power is used and such power is distinctly non Christ like and thus not truly Christian. Love precedes power and must be at the core of all spiritual ministry.
By the end of the Sermon on the Mount we should have in view the realm of the kingdom. The community of Christ, the Church, are the people of God. They are called to live according to the spiritual culture of the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom, this realm, is their true country in which they are citizens with a distinct culture.