Sunday, December 09, 2018

Does God Judge Nations?

A question from a list of what Andy Stanley refers to as “old covenant leftovers”, various ways he believes the modern church mixes what he calls “obsolete” theology with the New Testament teaching of Christ and his apostles:
  • “Why would a Christian believe God judges nations at all?”
Stanley intends this as a zinger, but I’m not at all sure it zings. It may be a bullet point in a bulleted list, but it has the pinpoint accuracy of a wet snowball lobbed by a lethargic six-year-old in a too-tight snowsuit.

Obsolete! Obsolete!

I mean, I get that the new covenant makes the old covenant obsolete. That’s not in question. Hebrews says as much:
“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
So the new covenant that resulted from the death and resurrection of Christ renders obsolete the old covenant made with God’s earthly people Israel. Fair enough. But that does not render the entire Old Testament obsolete. Equating the two is incredibly sloppy theology.

The Source of the Confusion

Stanley makes much of saying that the words “testament” and “covenant” are equivalent, and in a sense that is correct:
Testament means covenant.

The common language outside of Palestine in Jesus’ day was Greek. This explains why the documents that make up our New Testament were originally written in Greek. With the passing of time, Latin replaced Greek as the primary language of Western culture. The Latin phrase for new covenant is novum testamentum. Novum is Latin for new and testamentum is Latin for covenant. When the Bible was translated into English, editors chose to stick with the familiar Latin term testament rather than use the English term covenant. If they had stuck with a straight-up Greek-to-English translation, we would use the terms old covenant and new covenant rather than Old Testament and New Testament.

Bottom line: ‘covenant’ and ‘testament’ are interchangeable.”
Okay, that requires some explanation.

Scope and Timing

It is correct to say, as Stanley says, that “testament” originally meant “covenant”. But the words “old covenant” in Hebrews do not refer to every covenant made in the Old Testament, but rather to a specific agreement made through Moses between God and the children of Israel. It is this covenant that the work of Christ has rendered “obsolete”, in the words of Hebrews. God’s covenant with Abraham, on the other hand, was unilateral. It is not rendered obsolete by the death and resurrection of Christ, and neither are God’s covenants with David or Noah. (We know the latter is still in force because you are reading this instead of frantically treading water.)

Thus it is not at all accurate to conclude that everything in the first 39 books of the Bible has to do with the old covenant just because English-speaking Christians label it with the words “Old Testament”, or to make the unwarranted assumption that, for example, the books of Job, Genesis or the early chapters of Exodus fall under the auspices of the old covenant at all. Significant sections of the Old Testament are entirely unrelated to the old covenant. They are not “obsolete” at all.

So Stanley is wrong about the old covenant’s timing. But he is also wrong about its scope. The old covenant had nothing to do with anyone other than the children of Abraham, the nation of Israel, who signed off on and confirmed the old covenant at Sinai.

Assyria was not bound by the old covenant, nor was Babylon, or Medo-Persia, or Greece, or any of the other nations, nation-states and empires we find referred to either directly or indirectly in the first 39 books of the Bible. The nations were never in any danger of being cursed by the old covenant, nor were they placed under any obligation because of it, nor were they even aware of it, for the most part.

Without the Law

All this is spelled out by Paul in Romans, when he speaks about the Law of Moses and the Gentile relationship to it:
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.”
It would be difficult to make this any clearer or more explicit than the apostle makes it: Gentile nations were outside the law, which is to say they were not parties to the old covenant or included in it. Not even a little bit. While the domains of law and conscience may overlap, the Gentile’s responsibility was and remains to his own conscience, not to the rules that governed Israel.

Judging the Nations

And yet God has always judged nations. This is not something odd that a Christian might believe, inexplicably muddling two great covenants of scripture. It has nothing to do with covenants at all. We might call God’s judgment of the nations extra-covenantal.

God judged Egypt and Sodom and Edom and Moab and Ammon and the Canaanites and the Philistines and Babylon and Assyria and Tyre and so many other nations, cities and states that I can’t begin to list them all. He did it by fire, and by the sword, and through intra-national strife, and by withholding rain, by wild beasts, by plagues and in all manner of other ways. Not one of these listed judgments was personal, and not one of them had anything to do with the old covenant.

Sure, God judged Israel under the old covenant. Israel. That’s it, that’s all.

Given that God began judging nations before the old covenant existed, and continued to judge nations unrelated to the old covenant while it was in progress, and promises to judge nations in the future for issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with the old covenant, is it really so crazy to imagine that God might still be judging nations today?

I think it’s almost a certainty. It’s definitely not a nutty notion.

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