Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
1 Kings 8:22-66 – In the presence of all the people, Solomon stands before the altar and prays. He raises his arms to God and asks that God will keep the covenant He has made. He says this: “But can you, O God, really live on earth? Not even all of heaven is large enough to hold you, so how can this Temple that I have built be large enough?” (8:27-30).
There is in this passage much of the same tension that must have come upon the Jewish followers of Christ when they considered the possibility that God had actually entered into human form. The early and fundamental understanding that the God we worship is completely above the created world, that “He” is spirit and uncontainable in anything human hands can make—this is challenged by the desire David has to build a house for him, a location for him to dwell in on earth. It is likewise challenged by the incarnation—but God knows our weakness as human beings; he is not slave to any idea we form of him, no matter how exalted that idea is; he comes to us and is present to us as we require.
Solomon asks God to judge “your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding them according the their righteousness” (8:32). When your people are defeated by enemies and “turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house, then hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your people Israel, and bring them again to the land that you gave to their ancestors” (8:34). When there is drought, and they turn to you, hear them and forgive, “teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land. . .” (8:36). If there is famine, “whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands toward this house; then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know—acceding to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart—so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors” (8:38-40). And when a foreigner comes and prays toward the house, then hear them too “so that all the people of the earth may know your name and hear you. . .” (8:43).
“Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant, and to the plea of your people Israel, listening to them whenever they call to you. For you have separated them from among all the people of the earth, to be your heritage. . .” (8:52-53).
Solomon finishes and turns to bless his people. He says also, “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel according to all that he promised; not one word has failed of all his good promises, which he spoke through his servant Moses” (8:56). Therefore, “devote yourselves completely to the Lord our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments, . . .” (8:61). It says 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were offered as sacrifices that day, to dedicate the Temple—they even used an altar in the middle of the court since the bronze altar was too small. For seven days they hold a celebration.
Ephesians 6 - Paul continues with words of advice to govern the interrelationships of people in families and extended households. The tacit approval of slavery here has certainly caused at least as much discomfort among modern Christians as the passages about husbands and wives. But with slavery everywhere illegal and in total disrepute, we can relegate the issue as Paul’s handling of a situation we no longer have to worry about. But men and women are still marrying, still wrangling over issues of authority and dignity, so Paul’s words here persist in presenting difficulties. Some who would like to see the words of Paul on wifely submission rejected as of the same cultural and historical vintage as those on slavery. But I am not so sure.
I think the question of God’s handling of the slavery question continues to be very interesting and challenging. In this chapter Paul urges slaves to be obedient to their masters and serve them in all sincerity. He also urges the masters to stop bullying and acting as if they were masters because the underlying reality for masters and slaves as for husbands and wives is that when we are speaking about our behavior as Christians, questions of our worldly status should become irrelevant. The fact is, Paul had to find some way to blend the social realities of his day—the existence of slavery and male dominance in family relations—with the spiritual truths he was trying to make available to people. How was one to be a Christian and a wife or husband or slave? The solution Paul found was to urge that every social relationship be seen in the light of the new reality of being part of the body of Christ. How would Christ be a wife? How would Christ be a husband? How would Christ be a child or a slave? He would be these things in precisely the same way that he would be God or Messiah or King—by submitting, by serving, by loving unto death. The main reality is the fact that Christ has poured himself out for all of us, male and female, slave and free. Whatever kind of society or culture we have, God does not disdain to bring us his salvation. Throughout scripture, God makes it known that not all social contrivances are good. He warns the Israelites against adoption of a monarchical form of government, yet he grants it when it is desired. There are indications in both old and new testaments that God was sensitive to the justice issues involved with cruelty in slavery, yet He nowhere makes culture a matter of relevance to the issue of salvation. One can be redeemed and be a slave. One can be redeemed and be a slave-holder. One can be patriarchal or not be. These are not salvation issues. This is not to say that they are matters of no importance to God, but God it would seem allows a great latitude in the social structures we set up for ourselves. What is important is how love can be made to prevail in any given outward situation. This is not to say that God is completely indifferent. I think there are structures which are not “in his will” and these structures are inherently destructive, degenerative of moral development or simply not God’s intention for us, but these things play out in history over the long haul. The major struggle, as Paul says, is not with human powers, not “with flesh and blood” but “with the principalities, with the powers.” Directing our attention to the real issues will help us loosen our willful hold on the false enemies and allow God to establish his peace in our lives.