The below is the first in a series of articles in response to a book called ‘Holiness in the Gospels’ by Dr. Kent Brower. I had sat in classes led by Kent and I have to say that not one of them wasn’t captivating and challenging. For those of you who are negative about the church in what it was and what it has become, this book is refreshing and enables the reader to look at the world differently and to live in the world differently. This book is a gem!
I am not sure how clear or obvious it is that my tribe is the Church of the Nazarene. We are a result of a number of small holiness denominations that came together, which is something of a rarity as most new denominations are the result of a split from a bigger denomination. We are Wesleyan Holiness in theology, and historically, that has created a few problems of which we are now bearing the fruits as I see it.
One of the many Scriptures that have been pointers to how we should live as holy people is Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But this whole idea of perfection and holiness has been one that has not only been difficult to understand, but even more difficult to live by. The very idea of the word ‘perfect’ has caused many to think in terms of being flawless, and we know that it is impossible to be flawless like God. We are still called to be holy because God is holy though. How do we manage this?
If we look at Abraham in the Old Testament, we see in Genesis 17:1 that he was called by God to live according to the promise of God and to walk blamelessly before Him. Clearly this was not a flawless performance. Instead, Abraham was called to walk in obedience and faith, putting his trust in God’s call. We can understand from this that there is nothing statically flawless, but a dynamic ongoing relationship.
In the gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus being asked questions about how to be included and inherit eternal life. The same man states that he has kept all the rules and regulations, he has kept all the commandments and yet he realises he still lacks something. Jesus replies by giving him an uncomfortable answer, that he must give up all that he values such as possessions, give money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The person seeking the answer finds it difficult to follow and goes off disappointedly. You see, the demands of being a true disciple varies from person to person and differing situations, but they will never be less than a total availability to the claims of Jesus.
According to Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus is approached and asked for his interpretation, and which command in the law is the greatest. Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus considered love to be the centre of the Law, which was the whole of the Torah in its divine intention. Anything that interfered with this intention was nothing more than legalism.
It is this rejection of legalism then and still now, has been one of the prime stumbling blocks for any holiness movement – whether it be the Pharisees, the Essenes at Qumran or later attempts to restore holiness from the Reformation onwards to today. All of those mentioned (and there are more) have had a degree of separation in their approach to holiness based on the fact that God has called us to be holy and separate from the world. How can this be?
The theme of Christian Holiness has seen many approach it with a notion of holiness which is rigid and legalistic, leading to a routine and joyless life. For some the word ‘sanctification’ has become one of ‘sinless perfection.’ Thankfully, there is an increasing desire to understand holiness in a much healthier and God-intended way today. Instead of these familiar phrases and words being used in sermons causing a comfortable and familiar feeling, today, people are searching for a new vision and understanding that requires something quite radical – to live it amongst others who don’t know or understand Christianity.
Holiness is something that people almost demand a translating into the lives of others as genuine good news through engagement with the world and all it’s problems. They want to live the holy life in the 21st century, and not in a 19th century Holiness theme park where it is something short-lived and thrill based.
The emphasis upon the arrival of the Kingdom gave Jesus an edge over previous understandings. God’s good purposes were being accomplished there and then in and through His ministry, even if some of those were for the future.
There were many disagreements over key points which we can see and detect today as echoes and ripples through the centuries of a holiness agenda. Massive implications came to the surface, the most dominant being that of holiness and ritual purity. Today, we also see disagreements with most holiness movements compared to Jesus’ teaching.
One of those holiness movements gave particular attention to the table fellowship that they saw Jesus being a part of. Meals were regulated strictly, in fact during the late second Temple period, 229 of the 341 regulations pertained to table fellowship alone! Piety centred around the table and the food eaten there and with whom. These were not matters of mere etiquette, but about what the community looked like and represented. The meals belonging to the Pharisaic symbolized what was expected of the nation Israel: holiness was understood as separation…… but Jesus caused them difficulties with His inclusiveness.