Are we there yet?: 'Exile' in the Bible

  • Lionel Windsor
  • 2 March 2017
A longer article that was first published in Vine Journal #5.

Western Christians are feeling an increased sense of hostility from those around them. Not that this is recent; in fact, the slow, steady withdrawal of Christian thinking and conscience from Western culture has been going on since the Enlightenment. Most of us have grown up and sought to minister the gospel in this cultural landscape where Christianity is pushed aside. So in one sense, none of this is sudden or new.

But more recently there has been a palpable upswing in antagonism. Even non-Christian commentators are taking note of the growing frequency of incidents in which Christian churches or ministries are not just being ignored or marginalized, but actively opposed, restricted and silenced—particularly because of our convictions on homosexuality and so-called same-sex marriage.

It seems that we’re no longer the harmless religious types who can be left to carry on their primitive traditions in private. Rather, we are a harmful influence, purveyors of hate and insult and offence, not just to be ignored or tolerated but now to be more actively opposed: restricted, silenced and persecuted.

This is not just something to tut-tut about on Facebook. This is the pressure the people in our congregations are facing daily. They may work for one of the increasingly large corporations that have official policies promoting same-sex marriage, and be anxious about whether they can maintain their position with integrity. They may be worried about raising their children in a society that seems increasingly descending into madness, or about sending them to schools where the homosexual and transgender agenda is ramping up.

As our society moves further away from attitudes based on morals originally instilled by God’s word, it is becoming clear that we are not residing in our homeland. If this is true, then where are we? Are we, like the Israelites before us, in exile? And if we are in exile, what can we expect for our witness and ministry?

As we turn to deal with the questions we have surrounding an exile, we’re going to begin where we should: with the Bible. We need to think theologically about the climate and landscape we’re living in, so that we think in God’s way about where we stand and how to react. Obviously the Bible doesn’t give us any detail about the rise and fall of Christendom. Yet exile, end-of-exile, and the related concept of living as aliens and strangers are significant themes through the biblical witness. It’s important to come to terms with these themes, to ground us in our thinking about the situation we face today.

My family has experienced what you could call an “exile” from our homeland, in a tiny way. The exile was self-imposed; with the help of generous friends we lived in the United Kingdom for three years as I studied theology. The UK is similar to Australia in many ways, but still, we often felt like foreigners in a strange and confusing land. The day after we arrived, we went out to the supermarket and bought a small television, and literally as we got home and walked in the door with our new television there was a letter waiting for us, informing us that court action had been initiated against us because we had not paid for a licence to watch it! Who needs a licence to watch television? Everyone in the UK, apparently. And the people were lovely, but we knew we were foreigners to them. You could see it as soon as they heard our Aussie accents—their deeply-ingrained assumptions came into play, involuntarily, because everything they knew about Aussies came from two places: school history and beach soap opera Home and Away. To them we belonged to the friendly yet uneducated surfing convict criminal class. It was confusing and weird.

But it was great, too. The Brits loved the flat white coffees I made for them—the drink they drink on Home and Away! And they envied us for the magical land of sunshine that was our true home. We were accepted in their conversations. We could contribute positively to their lives. It was a friendly exile that started with misunderstandings but ended with strong bonds and mutual acceptance.

When you think about ministry in exile, you could possibly think about it that way, couldn’t you? Friendly exile. Yes, people think we’re strange, but if we just act nicely, and win them over with a smile, they’ll accept us in the end and we can make a positive home among them. But that is not the picture of exile that the Bible gives us.

Israel’s exile

Israel’s exile was not friendly at all. It was awful. It was tragic.

The event(s)

Exile was the event, or really the series of events, when the Kingdom of Israel—God’s kingdom—was finished. Israel was attacked and overrun by enemies. The temple, the place God dwelled with his people, was destroyed, sacked and burned. People were killed and deported. The land of God’s promise was deserted.

The scattering of the northern kingdom by the Assyrian Empire happened first, in 722 BC. The conquest of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom by Babylon took place over the span of ten years, 597-587 BC. 2 Kings 25 describes what happened:

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. (2 Kings 25:8-11)

It was a bitter and catastrophic time. It was the time that gave rise to Psalm 137, a song of the exiles by the rivers of Babylon, who were mocked and taunted to the point of bitter despair, wishing for someone to avenge them and pay back what had been done to them. The agony—the dashing of little ones against the rock.

That’s exile.

The reasons(s)

Why did it happen? We can offer historical reasons and discern political motives. We can describe empires and peoples and movements. We can use the tools of psychology and sociology. But the Old Testament prophets insisted that Israel cannot just speak and think and feel in human ways like these. To truly grasp the exile, the prophets said we must speak and think and feel theologically. The exile was God’s judgement against Israel’s sin.

Here is the prophetic voice of Moses in Deuteronomy, speaking about the reason for exile:

Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’ (Deut 29:25-28)

Here is the wailing of Lamentations, written in the aftermath:

The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate; her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.
Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe. (Lam 1:4-5)

This is Israel’s exile.

The response(s)

So how was Israel to respond to her exile? What did God want from them in exile?

Firstly there is the obvious and right response of mourning and grief at what was lost, as we just saw in Lamentations. But other responses were called for, too.

God called his people to faith. To trust him in the midst of exile, to wait for him to act in the future.

Habakkuk says:

For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (Hab 2:3-4)

In exile, the righteous one is the one who waits and by faith looks forward. Despite the fact that there are enemies—unrighteous and arrogant people whom right now God is using to execute his purposes—the righteous should stand firm, and will live by faith.

As the end of their term approaches, the exiles are urged by Isaiah to look to the future in faith, not fear:
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth… (Is 43:5-6)

The prophet Daniel also realizes the need for confession and repentance. As the end of exile is in view, he begs God for mercy:

To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you… Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. (Dan 9:7, 17-18)

Daniel sees that the end of exile is coming, so he resists the temptation to be at home in Babylon—to capitulate, assimilate, and enjoy the good name and friendship of the king. He resists the temptation to avoid the lions. Instead Daniel prays for mercy and forgiveness and restoration.

What does exile mean?

So these were the facts of Israel’s exile. And these were the reasons: Israel’s sin and God’s judgement. And this was the response called for: faith and repentance.

But Israel’s exile was not just an isolated individual event in their history. Actually, there’s a wider context to the exile that we need to see that helps us to understand how exile fits theologically, and what it all means.

The clash of kingdoms

The exile of Israel is all about the clash of kingdoms. It’s about the clash of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. This is the burden of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions—visions which raise us above the politics of the exile and its aftermath to see the world God’s way. In Daniel, we see dreams and visions of kingdoms coming and going; visions of statues and trees and beasts, Babylon, Persia, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. The point Daniel drives home is that God is king and sovereign. He creates. He rules.

And yet there are other beastly kingdoms who rule this world, and these kingdoms also rule God’s people. These kingdoms come and go and fight with each other, but they are still fierce and scary, and they are all opposed to the kingdom of God.

The exile is a deep crisis in God’s kingdom. Exile points out that God’s kingdom is in chaos.

You know the classic expression of biblical theology: God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule. Exile, for the prophets, for Daniel, means God’s people, not in God’s place, not under God’s immediate rule. And that is scary and awful.

The key questions

So exile raises questions for God’s people. Not just theoretical questions, but deeply existential questions.

The first question is this: Where are we? This is the question of place, of dislocation. In exile, God’s people are not where they should be. They are not at home, not in the place God had given them. That’s the first question.

But the second question raised by the exile is even more significant: Who is in charge? The kingdom of God, or the kingdoms of the world? This is an even deeper question, because for God’s people, ‘home’ isn’t just a plot of land. It’s the place where God is, where he lives with them in his temple, with his presence. And with the exile, the temple had gone.

God had left the building. And the fierce enemies of God were in charge!

The broader focus of exile: Creation, fall and new creation

But let’s go onwards and upwards. In all this there is an even broader focus. Israel’s exile points to something beyond Israel, you see. The exile is a microcosm of the things that underlie the existence of all people at all times: sin, corruption, death, judgement.

In Genesis 3, God’s judgement on Adam for his sin is actually described in exile-like terms—exile from God’s presence.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:22-24)

For Adam, sin leads to ejection from God’s place. God’s judgement involves removing his blessing and life, a removal which leads to death. In that sense, all of us are away from God’s place and not under God’s immediate rule. That is why we mourn and weep: because we are in the flesh, we are separated from God’s life. Abraham grasped this truth. Exile points to sin, death and judgement.

That’s why the prophets have such massive expectations for the end of Israel’s exile. For the prophets, the end of exile isn’t just a political restoration but a huge deal for all humanity. When the prophets speak of the end of exile, they speak of three things. Firstly, the return of the people to the land. Where are we? We’re coming home! Secondly, the return of the temple and God’s presence. Who is in charge? God’s in charge, in the temple! But thirdly, they speak of the end of death itself: a new creation flowing from Jerusalem.

So Isaiah’s visions about end of exile (e.g. 27:12-13) include these even grander visions about the end of death:

And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken…
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isa 25:7-8, 26:19)

Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones is about the end of exile. But it’s also about something beyond the end of exile. It’s about resurrection.

And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. (Ezek 37:13-14a)

Daniel speaks of the coming of the Son of Man to receive the kingdom of God over all the other kingdoms:

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14)

But this leads, in the end, to resurrection:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12:2)

That is why there was such profound disappointment when the exiled came back home. The prophets like Haggai and Malachi—we call them ‘post-exilic’, but they’re full of disappointment, aren’t they?

The book of Nehemiah, the book of restoration and building, ends in frustration and disappointment and Nehemiah pulling out people’s hair because they’re unholy. It’s not what they expected for an end of exile.

Yes, the people have returned home. But who’s in charge? God? Well, other kingdoms are in charge. Persia. Then the Greeks. Then the Romans. God’s temple is a bit of a joke. The people are not holy, let alone those promises of the end of death and new creation and resurrection.

Jesus and the end of exile—for one man

When Jesus comes on to the scene, the exile is still casting a long shadow over Israel. For the godly and pious there is still weeping, mourning, and fasting.

The Gospels set up expectations for us of greater things, connected to the end of exile. Matthew opens by measuring Jesus’ genealogy according to the exile and the end of exile (1:17).

Mark relates Jesus proclaiming the gospel that the kingdom of God is near:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)

Luke shows Jesus to be the consolation of Israel (2:25), the one who delivers Israel from her enemies (1:71), the bringer of salvation to Israel through the forgiveness of their sins (1:77). The kingdom of God, the end of exile, is in view. But as the Gospels go on, we see something more than the end of exile.

Jesus reveals that the way to the kingdom is strange. It is hidden in riddles (Mark 4). It doesn’t come through a political king who defeats the kingdoms of the world and restores the land. It comes through judgement. It comes through death. The judgement and death of one man: the Son of Man.

And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” (Luke 18:31-33)

The kingdom arrives through the Son of Man coming under the harsh treatment of the nations—which is, of course, a reminder of the judgement of God meted out on Israel in the exile. Then he is vindicated on the third day.

This is how the kingdom of God comes: through a judgement, a death, and a vindication. But one man, Jesus, comes under the judgement of God. He, like Israel, is handed over to the nations. As the suffering servant, he himself suffers for the sins of the people. He takes the curse.

But as he predicted, he is also raised. Actually raised. Resurrection, the end of death, new creation. And so the Gospels proclaim that the kingdom of God has come in a concrete, tangible, real way.

Having suffered death and God’s judgement, Jesus rises. He has the kingdom of God, with all authority in heaven and earth, with death defeated.

Yet the great and strange surprise of the Gospels is this: death and judgement is over, but for just one man. New creation has come, but just for the Son of Man. The Son of God.

But he is not here. He is risen.

Believers in ‘exile’?

So what about us? What about those who follow this man? The church, believers?

A dual reality in Christ

The New Testament describes believers in two ways that seem contradictory at first; there’s a dual reality. Firstly, the New Testament proclaims that the new creation has come. God rules, and we are in his presence. But secondly, we are still living in bodies and a world subject to death and under God’s judgement.

Sometimes the dual reality is given to us with an emphasis on one or the other. In Ephesians 1 the emphasis is on new creation in Christ. In Christ we have every spiritual blessing now (Eph 1:1-10). Life and victory now. Forgiveness, redemption. But we don’t have it all. We are still away from Christ and waiting for our inheritance in the future (Eph 1:13-14), and we are still fighting with the spiritual powers of the world (e.g. Eph 6:10-20).

1 Peter, on the other hand, has more of an emphasis on being sojourners and exiles in this world (2:11). The dual reality is there. There is new creation, new birth, life, through Jesus’ resurrection:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… (1 Pet 1:3)

But Peter stresses that it is a ‘living hope’—an inheritance kept for the future, something we wait for:

 an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet 1:4-5)

1 Peter talks to aliens living under kingdoms that do not acknowledge and serve God or his Son. Sound familiar? We Christians live with a dual reality going on. In Christ we are victorious, we are above the powers of this world. In Christ we are God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule. But in ourselves and our concrete situation, we are aliens. We live under the shadow of death, of God’s judgement for our sin. And there are other kingdoms that do not acknowledge God and do not love us. We are not in God’s place. We are not under God’s immediate rule.

So the question is, how do we make sense of this dual reality?

“Now and not yet”: But how?

Now, at this point you could say it’s all solved by that phrase “now and not yet”. But we need to be precise here. It’s possible, isn’t it, for “now and not yet” to become a Jedi mind trick for ministers? Someone asks us a difficult theological question, and we answer “Now and not yet”, waving our hand as if to say, “This is not the theological question you are looking for.” But the problem is that different people use “now and not yet” to mean different things.

Sometimes, perhaps quite commonly now, the phrase “now and not yet” is used to mean something like “a bit now in God’s people, becoming much more later”. So, for example, God’s new creation is “now and not yet”. Some will say that means God brings about a little bit of creation renewal now through his people, and that gets bigger and eventually becomes a whole lot of creation renewal (e.g. NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress, Minneapolis, 2013, pp. 538-569).

But this is not the way the New Testament proclaims the now-and-not-yet, because it can’t be understood just in reference to us, to his people, the church, to believers. It has to be understood firstly in reference to Christ. And we have to remember that Christ is not the same as his people. He is not here. He is risen.

For Christ, the judgement of God is now concretely, actually, physically over. He is seated at God’s right hand. But for his people, for us, the judgement is not yet physically over. We are not risen. We live in bodies of sickness, sin and death, and we do not rule. We live in a world of other rulers, opposed to God, and so we are often opposed and hated. Except (and this except really matters!) in Christ we are risen, and seated with him. In Christ, we are a new creation. Now. But only in Christ.

The Spirit and the word: Where God’s kingdom breaks in

How can anyone be in Christ? The New Testament is clear. We are in Christ through believing God’s word and receiving God’s Spirit. The risen Christ sends his Spirit to make his gospel word known and create that living faith in him.

What does the risen Christ say to his disciples? How does he express his authority over the nations?

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

As Jesus’ word is taught, people come and are baptized into the name of the triune God. We are in relationship with the living risen Christ by word and Spirit.

How does Paul describe the Ephesians coming in to this new creation?

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:13-14)

So we are to believe the word and receive the Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance that will come when Jesus returns.

What does Peter say has brought his hearers in to this living hope? Peter mentions those prophets who preached the end of Israel’s exile. But he says:

It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet 1:12)

The gospel preached through the Holy Spirit is what brings us living hope. Therefore, Spirit and word is how new creation breaks in, and is the way we expect it to happen.

This is how the kingdom of God is made real in us: through the risen Christ, through his word and Spirit, when the gospel “Jesus is Lord” is brought to the hearts and minds of us who hear and believe and turn and live for him.

And that word through the Spirit creates a response in us. It is the same response that the prophets urged on Israel’s exiles: faith and repentance.

Faith is looking to Christ. It is trusting his promises that will be fulfilled in the future. It is longing for eternal life when we come home and live in God’s place. This is the consistent message of 1 Peter, isn’t it? Entrust yourself to God’s goodness even when it’s hard and when the powers-that-be accuse, the strong oppress, the culture shakes its fist at God, as it always does.

Repentance is realizing that God’s judgement is over in Christ and so turning to Christ in order to mourn and grieve and weep and wail at our own sin and the death that holds us captive. Turning to Christ means turning away from the kingdoms of the world, rejecting the powers that rival Christ and the strength that lures us and the culture that seduces us.

Isaiah urged the exiles as the time approached: “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea!” That call to the exiles is picked up by Paul as he urges the Corinthians to flee (2 Cor 6:17), and John in Revelation, “Come out of her, my people!” (Rev 18:4).

Ministry in Christ, ministry in ‘exile’

So our own ministry happens in the midst of this dual reality. Our ministry is always a ministry in Christ, and our ministry is always a ministry away from Christ’s direct rule. It is a ministry by and among those who are aliens and strangers in this world. In that sense, it could be called a ministry in ‘exile’.

2 Corinthians 5-6

The Apostle Paul picks up this dual reality of ministry in 2 Corinthians 5-6. At this point the Corinthian church was falling out of love with Paul and his ministry. Yes, they’d heard the gospel from him. They’d come to know and love Jesus Christ through him. But frankly, they were a bit over Paul.

They were unimpressed by his weakness. They were starting to suspect he lacked actual ministry qualifications. They were taking offence at his actions and plans. They were being seduced by false apostles who were strong, winsome, impressive, and had proper qualifications.

Part of Paul’s response is to describe his ministry in terms of that dual reality: ministry away from Christ, and ministry in Christ.

At the start of chapter 5, Paul talks about being away from home:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling… (2 Cor 5:1-2)

Paul affirms that his real home is not in this earthly tent, but a heavenly body and new creation. That means that he is in a situation like the exiles. He lives by faith, as the exiles did, longing for home:

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:6-8)

This, you see, is the context of Paul’s ministry. Our ministry, too, is a ministry away from the Lord: a ministry not in God’s place, a ministry not obviously under God’s rule. This is why weakness in the eyes of the world and opposition from it is just par for the course. Ministry is a ministry of weakness and suffering because we are away from home, away from the Lord. And that’s why we can’t guarantee that we will receive any endorsement from the world. It’s why we can’t even ensure a fair hearing. The Corinthians should have known better than to trust in strength and human qualifications.

But then, once Paul has established this first truth, the other side of the dual reality shines through. Paul moves on to speak about how his ministry actually brings new creation:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:16-17)

In Christ, we have new creation now. But notice that new creation has to be seen in the risen Christ, not in the world or the flesh, and not in the strength of this world. Paul’s ministry is a ministry of bringing new creation. It’s not a ministry of power or might (or of gardening or painting or building bridges, for that matter). It’s a ministry of preaching the message of reconciliation and forgiveness of sin:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18-19)

And so Paul is confident that his ministry away from the Lord is bringing about new creation. It’s doing it through a message. Not through reforming the structures of the world, not through gaining the favour of the powers that be, but by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Christ and appealing for people to be reconciled to him.

In chapter 6 Paul quotes Isaiah, twice. Isaiah was talking about the end of the exile and the new creation. The first quotation comes from Isaiah 49:

For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” [Isa 49:8]
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor 6:2)

Just as Isaiah proclaimed, the end of exile is at hand. So Paul proclaims the greater truth Isaiah also saw: new creation, salvation is here! And yet Paul continues by describing his ministry of new creation and reconciliation as the ministry of an alien rejected, beaten, despised. Just as Israel in exile were to conduct themselves, so Paul conducts his own ministry:

… as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honour and dishonour, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10)

Here is ministry in Christ; a ministry which brings life and joy to the world, making many rich, but which is also ministry of alienation from the world. Beaten, shamed, slandered, seen as imposters. Not famous: punished.

In fact, here the dual reality becomes a series of paradoxes: Paul is away from Christ, yet in Christ; dying, yet living; sorrowful, yet rejoicing; destitute, yet dispensing great riches; rejected by the world, rejected by the Corinthians (who reject Paul because the Corinthians are too at home in the world), but bringing life and new creation. How? By bringing Christ by word and spirit. Calling people to be reconciled to God. Calling people home.

Spirit and Word

This is the theological understanding we need to minister in this world, isn’t it? Theologically, we do not expect just to move in and out of ‘exile’ at different times and seasons. No, until Jesus returns or we go to be with him, we are always away from the Lord; we are never at home. We are always new creation in Christ and bringing new creation in Christ by word and Spirit.

The kingdom of God is not an earthly entity. The kingdom of God is in Christ, and Christ is raised. Bringing in the kingdom is about the word and Spirit, by proclaiming Christ. That is the only way to bring the kingdom.

So then, how are we supposed to think about the powers-that-be? Our nation, our cities and towns and suburbs and farms? How do we think about our families, the workplace? Our church structures? The media, the laws of the land?

Well, these things are significant, of course. They are significant in two ways: they are the context of our ministry, and they will be impacted by our ministry.

Firstly, the context of ministry. We don’t proclaim the Word in a vacuum. We speak to real people in real situations with real families and jobs, who hear and read real things from the media. And we want to work as hard as we can to make that context a place where the gospel can be heard and believed, don’t we? Yes, as much as it’s in our power to do so.

Secondly, we can expect these things to be impacted by our ministry, often in a massive way, because as the Spirit and Word bring new creation they must change lives, mustn’t they? They must break through into our flesh, and transform our lives. And as they transform lives they heal relationships, and that will involve families and societies and the world. We must praise God for the deep impact of the gospel in our various cultures throughout history. The gospel in the West has made lives better in countless ways through truth and love flourishing.

But still, we must remember that these things will come and go. Until the Lord returns, we are always away from the Lord. We still minister through word and Spirit and call people to another home in Christ. The kingdoms of the world are still not the kingdom of God, and are threatened by the kingdom of God. They will still shoot the messenger at times, despite our best efforts to be nice and friendly and gracious and point out how terribly unreasonable they’re being.

And that may mean there will be certain times when our alien status is more obvious. When the dishonour, slander, treatment as imposters, infamy, death, punishment, sorrow, poverty and destitution that Paul talks about in his own ministry is just a bit more obvious and painful for us than at other times. And maybe this season in our history is the time for more pain for us.

But we are still known by God; we can rejoice, we still make many rich.

Gospel-driven ministry

In all of this, what do we need? We need to be driven more and more by the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. We need gospel-driven ministry.

I’ve chosen that phrase deliberately to reflect a danger we face, especially when the world clearly opposes us. The danger is that we can have a ministry that seems gospel-centred, but is actually driven by something else.

We can think, “Yes I’m gospel-centred. I love the gospel of Jesus Christ. I teach the gospel. I would never deny the gospel.” But are you driven by the gospel? Is the proclamation to the world of Jesus Christ as Lord and forgiveness and reconciliation in him, your driving force? Does the gospel drive your decision-making?

Does the gospel drive what you decide not to do? It’s easy to decide to do things in ministry, isn’t it? Real leadership comes into play when you decide not to do things. That’s hard. Does the gospel drive those decisions?

Is the gospel the driving force when you assess your own ministry and give feedback to others? Does the gospel give you hills to die on? Is the gospel your reason to suffer? Will the gospel give you a reason to be treated as an imposter, to be poor, to be slandered in your ministry in exile?

Because other things can so easily become the driving forces of our ministry, can’t they? Affirmation from unbelievers. Affirmation from fellow-believers. Affirmation from colleagues. The need for status and position. A desire to feel you’re making a difference in the world. The fear of conflict.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot have anything other than the gospel driving us, or we will not survive.

But if we have the gospel driving us, we can echo Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:8b-10)

Let’s end with Isaiah’s words to the soon-to-be-restored exiles ringing in our ears:

A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa 40:6-8)

This article is adapted from a talk delivered at Nexus 2016.