The Incarnate Word Divides

Doctrine and Division, II.3.1

As we have seen, the New Covenant would be “new” because it carries on God’s promise to his true bride, while those presuming upon the Old Covenant show themselves to be every bit as reprobate as the pagan. It was a “new plan” of God. It was neither a “plan B,” nor is the church a “parentheses” in redemptive history, as Dispensationalism suggests. On the other hand, the antithesis, Covenant Theology can often be articulated in such a way that the genealogical principle inherent to God’s unfolding of the singular covenant is supreme. In other words the two sides of that debate can really become a contest of which form of exegetical naturalism is more God-glorifying! But I digress.

We will examine first the Gospels, then Acts and Revelation, and finally all of the Epistles.

The Axe at the Root of Two Kingdoms in the Gospels

When Jesus came into the world the first time, He came as the Servant King in disguise. Yet He does come with his kingdom and He lands in the temporal territory of the enemy’s kingdom. Christmas itself is a dividing beachhead that begins this invisible-to-visible conquest. The Incarnation is the principle doctrine by which we see that Christianity (and all things, since Christianity is true about everything) moves from the invisible to the visible, since “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” [Jn. 1:14]. After showing the King’s royal lineage from David, Matthew tells the story of his entrance into our world. It was a supernatural act, but it was also an act of particular redemption. His name would be “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” [1:21]. His name would be salvation, and this salvation would be for his people for whom He was the Head.

When wise men from the outsiders traced these lines and came to worship the King, they were enthusiastic to tell Herod and the insiders of God’s people. But how did those in the house react? It says that “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” [2:3]. Therefore it would have to be only outsiders who would receive this favorable announcement, as Luke recounts of the angels going to the shepherds, “peace among those with whom he is pleased” [2:14]. The Hallmark cards we grew up receiving say “Peace on earth, good will to men,” but that is not what it says. By this Christmas doctrine the angels divide humanity. In the kingdom of Christ, by this doctrine and division, the outsiders are made the insiders and the insiders are made the outsiders, or, “the last will be first, and the first last” [Mat. 20:16], and “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” [Mat. 8:11-12].

Then Jesus and his messenger came of age. With John the Baptist we see the ultimate culmination of the prophets to God’s earthly city, where both the presumption of physical Israel and the miracle of spiritual Israel are set forth in one breath. To the Pharisees he says,

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire [Mat. 3:10].

In the next breath we are told that it is Word Himself who will divide the “wheat” from the “chaff” from his one, singular “threshing floor” [3:12]. Unbelieving “stones” turned into fruit bearing trees do not make other trees bear nothing, nor do they cut those trees down, nor do they clear the threshing floor. But Christ, the Word, does and He intended to tell us about it. God makes the division out in the world, and He calls His people to make the distinction in our minds.

Does Jesus have anything to say about how the distinction is made, most immediately, in this lifetime? Yes He does. We will see four main facets of the division that Christ the Word brings: first, Christ Himself is the efficient cause of the division; second, the words of Christ are the instrumental cause and their truth the formal cause; third, the end cause, at least in history, is the transfer of the kingdom which ensues; fourth, Jesus would have us look at these divisions for intensely practical reasons. So let us begin to unpack these in the Gospels:

1) Christ, the Word Himself, is the Efficient Cause of Doctrine and Division

The first fact to mention here is that the Son of God is called the “word” (logos) in John’s Gospel prologue [1:1, 14].

He is also called “a stone of stumbling…” [Is. 8:14]

Now put these together and we have the Son of God being the Word coming down to be a stumbling block to those who “see and hear.” In believing words it is like we are seeing light, which is opposed to stumbling in the dark. That is why John switches immediately from the imagery of the logos to the imagery of light [cf. 1:4-5]. So Jesus thinks of Himself, in terms of His prophetic office, in this imagery: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” [Mat. 12:46].

Now this sword and stumbling block leaves no room on the ground, so to speak, so that there is nothing but sheep and goat sticking out of either side of that blade. So He says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me” [Mat. 11:6]. The one who is awakened by what is revealed is blessed: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” [Mat. 16:17]. Now to those on the other side of that blade, Jesus directly curses. And note that He curses for this very reason, that they did not believe the truth that those on the other side of the division believed: “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” [Mat. 11:20]. We are morally blameworthy for not handling truth rightly. So He chastises the disciples for not realizing that by “leaven of the Pharisees” He meant their teaching. He replied, “Are your hearts hardened?” [Mk. 8:17]. Ignorance, when it comes to the biggest things, is most certainly not innocence. He tells the insincere sign-seekers that He will give them only one sign: the “sign of Jonah” which was essentially the resurrection. He then concludes, knowing full well that they would not believe it—“even if someone should rise from the dead” [Lk. 16:31]—that “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” [Mat. 12:41]. The principle is this: We are guilty for not loving truth enough to get to the bottom of it, especially when it comes to the biggest things. Thus Jesus divides the human race by the “sign” of Himself, in other words, by signaling, or showing, Himself.

He says about Himself, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” [Mat. 10:34-36]. So the principle action of division in history is the coming of Christ Himself. Perhaps the most difficult passage, as even Soren Kierkegaard famously noted, in the whole Gospels is when Jesus uses the language of “hate” to describe this separation between family members on account of Christ. It can be found in Luke 14, where Jesus says,
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple [14:26].

If it is said that Christ’s most famous teaching—namely the Sermon on the Mount—does not exemplify our thesis, we reply that the critic must have read that sermon the same way that Gandhi did; for he said that even if Jesus of Nazareth were not a historical person the Sermon on the Mount would still be true for him. What he meant was that it was a masterpiece of ethics, even of brotherly love. However Gandhi missed the whole point. The point was nothing less than perfection. It was not a moral prescription that is doable, but takes the old law and drives it right to the heart. Therefore, if we understand what was so “divisive” about the holiness code in Leviticus, then we should see the same thing in this Sermon, except on fire! If anyone could obey the Sermon on the Mount perfectly then such would be a perfect man, a holy man, one who is separated from the common. Thus the summary statement, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” [5:48].

2) The Words Spoken Directly by Jesus, and the Truth of Them Summarized, Becomes the Instrumental and Formal Causes of Doctrine and Division

He says about His words, that they divide and reveal those divisions: “Because I tell you the truth you do not believe” [Jn. 8:45].

The Good Shepherd discourse in John 10 is perhaps the most striking teaching on this subject: “The sheep hear his voice…and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” [Jn. 10:3, 4]. This too was a kind of parable—a “figure of speech (v. 6)—and it is noteworthy that even though He was describing what happens when people hear Him in either one of these two ways, even in spite of this, it says, “but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (v. 6). In other words, they were living out the parable as He was saying it to them! They were living out the division as He was dividing them. So it is every time the truth is told. He goes on to say, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” [10:16]. So this covers everyone who will ever become a Christian until the end. But the important point is this: “There was again a division among the Jews because of these words” [10:19]. In one house of God—that is, Israel—there was a division because of Christ’s words. To those on the wrong side of that division He says, “you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” [10:26-28]. So these two truths—divine sovereignty in salvation and the active believing of the words of Christ—are not two realities held in tension, but two parts of the same seamless fabric.

The first way that Jesus effects division by His words is by positive invitation, so, “he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Then of the other set of brothers it says: “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” [Mat. 4:19-20, 22]. The call of Christ cuts right through economic and familial ties. This is divisive and it is good for everyone involved. The same call happens to Matthew, and with immediate effect; yet there is a subsequent division between the “righteous” and “sinners,” meaning between “Pharisees” and “tax collectors and sinners” [Mat. 9:11, 13]. He does not invite the self-proclaimed righteous in the same way that He invites the self-consciously unrighteous.

There is a deeper way that Jesus effects the ultimate division by His words, and it too is positive. It is His declaration that sins are forgiven. This is central to the proclamation of the kingdom coming because only if one’s sins are forgiven—i.e. only if the sinner-traitor has been pardoned—can that sinner have his or her citizenship change from the kingdom of the devil to the kingdom of Christ. So Jesus created quite a demonic stir among the scribes when He declared to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” [Mat. 9:2].

Jesus did not divorce the words which issue forth from Him, through humanity, even through other humans, from His own inherent authority. Let us just say that Barth would not have persuaded Jesus of his view of Scripture! Thus He strikes back at the devil three times by saying, “It is written” [Mat. 4:4, 7, 10], and thus He says, “the scriptures cannot be broken” [Jn. 10:35].

Not only did Jesus not divorce His own spoken words from the identity of His Person, as the Word, but He also would not allow anyone to discredit the substance of His words in the mouth of His servants: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” [Mat. 10:40].

In fact it seems as though Jesus expected and demanded the enterprise of theology that inevitably followed the initial, canonized teaching of the Apostles. The words of Jesus are for articulating and clarifying and defending to anyone who would need them articulated, clarified, and defended. Think for instance of scriptural translation. No one objects to that. Yet they often object to using synonyms for “Bible words” or drawing logical circles around two sets of words by Jesus, as if these critics had some alternative in mind to both things Jesus said being true in the same reality! All of this we fight today is absurd! The words of Jesus are trivialized to the degree that we do not work to make them known, understood, treasured, and applied. He commands of us: “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” [Mat. 10:27].

Jesus was well aware that everyone who would hear each individual Christian through the ages would hear “more words”—i.e. “in the light” and “on the housetops”—from that individual than they would from Jesus directly. This was not viewed as a bad thing at all. What we have here is a battle between those who see words as just one more animalistic superstition, things in themselves, and those who see words as signals for objective realities. As we have seen Jesus sees Himself as “light” for seeing, in other words, “the Truth” [Jn. 14:6], not in some nebulous sense, but in the sense of seeing. It is a seeing of the soul, with the intellect, of who Jesus really is and therefore who God really is: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” [Jn. 14:9]. This is what Jesus’ words are for: insight. Jesus’ words are for understanding, not for setting up in a museum of our false humility, to be jealously guarded by imposters who presume to knock our “speculation” down to size. But that is our choice: shout Jesus’ whispers, connect Jesus’ sentences (plural) as truth (singular); or else, reduce Jesus’ words to curious historical ink blots—all in the name of exegetical modesty.

3) The Transfer of the Kingdom from Those Who Stumble Over the Word and Those Awakened by It is an End Cause of Doctrine and Division

Jesus preached a gospel of the kingdom of God. On that there can be no debate. Something about the coming of the kingdom was and is good news. But how so? Well it certainly cannot be the bare fact of its arrival, since, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” [Mat. 4:17]. The first fact about Jesus’ own announcement of the kingdom was that his audience was an enemy of it. They were not merely outside; they were in opposition.

It is true that Jesus “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” [Mat. 15:24], but this was as a sign and a stumbling block. Jesus was also quite intentional about reaching out to the Gentiles in such a way that it would shame those who should have welcomed Him with open arms.

To say that the outsiders saw Jesus for who He was more than the insiders would be an understatement. The Roman centurion appealed to Jesus to heal his servant, saying, “only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority” [Mat. 8:9]. The pagan understood that the forces of nature were under the authority of the words of Jesus.

Another truth we should notice about God’s role in dividing by doctrine and our responsibility in being on the right side of that division, is precisely that both of these truths are true. In other words, our responsibility in seeing and hearing and believing follows from God’s intention to speak and reveal and awaken. The Parable of the Sower is placed, in the Synoptic Gospels, alongside of the lesser parables of the word growing, and interspersed throughout are the explanations of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. So, for instance, why does Jesus speak in parables? The answer is to “give…the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” [Mat. 13:11] to the elect, but to keep those outside in darkness, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. But if we were to ask how it matters for the hearer, Jesus would point to the exact details of the parable, and note the differences of the soil. It is a life or death hearing. Consequently He follows: “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” [Lk. 8:18].

And besides all of this, anyone who does not see the divisive nature of the call of Jesus to pursue the kingdom in utter material simplicity has obviously never been married, nor had any children. Taking seriously the commands about anxiety in Matthew 6 involves a herculean pastoral effort for a husband living in the modern suburbs. These texts are fields loaded with taboo landmines where most preachers dare not tread.

At any rate, the church of the West has gotten the Gospels right at least in this respect: that Jesus Christ is God, that He is Lord, and therefore is giving to us nothing less than the universal, covenantal terms of surrender. Nothing else is worth talking about unless that principle obstacle has been surmounted, namely the enmity between God and the sinner. Today this is successfully mocked by putting it in the crass terms of modern, folk Evangelicalism’s plea to “close things with Jesus” as if He were a door to door salesman. It is an easy strawman to knock down. But notice that when they want to put something in the place of the old divine justice, aimed at the sinner, they have turned us all toward a social justice, still divine we are assured. We are now to work with God on behalf of His justice. We will have more to say about this later.

The final, biblical balance between the justice of God per se and the righteousness of God demanded of each individual sinner is this: Because justice has been served upon a perfect Substitute, therefore (and only therefore) justice may be once again celebrated by sinners. Isaiah spoke of this coming King for the downtrodden, that He would exercise both positive and punishing justice:

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked [11:4].

So the trouble with Bishop Wright and missional theology is not their insistence that Christ is bringing kingdom justice to the downtrodden. Their trouble is that they begin there, and (at best) “throw in” Christ’s substitutionary absorption of divine wrath against our sin. The “old gospel” is “included,” but the real good news is that the justice of God is making all things new through the lives of the kingdom community. Now this is completely backwards to the constant theme of Jesus in the Gospels. In the Gospels Jesus does not “take a side” down here. He makes the sides by revealing His own glory, taking the punishment for some who have trampled upon it, and spoke a different word to that people group than to the other. And in Luke, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” [18:7].

“In other words,” explains Piper, “the reign of God has broken into this world for the sake of his people; therefore repent and believe this good news.”[1] The justice that is served in history by this King is precisely for his elect that He had to save first from the same punishment for treason. That is why the call for individual traitors to repent is the most immediate implication of this message. Individual repentance is not seen as a parallel message to corporate or social repentance—the order of which does not matter—but is instead the very gateway into the kingdom. In the advance of this kingdom, the justice of retribution precedes the justice of restoration.

The point of this thesis is simply that the particularistic word that Jesus speaks to those to whom the Father gave Him creates a people group—one dead sinner to life at a time—such that the kingdom is always on the move in history. It moves in the New Covenant age the very same way that it moved in the Old Covenant age. This electing word upset the natural genealogical principle at every turn. This is why God is always setting up, temporally speaking, a kind of “spiritual epicenter” in one place (or several) on the globe and not another, and then when their natural descendants get proud, the truth is that the Holy Spirit has already been on the move. But what does the moving, in the breath of the Spirit, is the Word. So Jesus warns every generation that has Bibles collecting dust on its shelves the same thing He warned old visible Jerusalem:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them [Mat. 21:43-45].

4) Jesus Would Have Us Look at The Lines of These Divisions for Intensely Practical Purposes

We all know that one of the favorite passages in the Bible by unbelievers is Matthew 7:1. It is always recited in the King James so as to add to its authenticity, the one verse in the Scriptures that such people take as God’s word! “Judge not, that you be not judged,” Jesus says. And yet, in that same chapter, Jesus gives us principles for judging people:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits [7:15-20].

Now perhaps it will be objected, “Just a minute—Jesus never uses the word “judge” over here as He does in verse 1!” That is correct. However, Jesus is clearly telling us to mark certain people that are in the church. Notice that these are 1) wolves in sheep’s clothing—i.e. the “clothing” of a professing believer in the visible body—2) teachers and not merely members of the visible body, and 3) to be discerned for what they are “inwardly” and not for what they are outwardly. My only point to using the word “judge” of this action is that this is all we mean by doctrine and division, and yet many in our day have only the category of “judgment” for this type of responsibility. I would be the first to rejoice at saying that this is not a judgment, but unfortunately we cannot play that game in our day. If we must call this “judgmental” then it would be better to say that what Jesus commands of us here (vv. 10-15) is a practical judgment, while what Jesus forbids of us (v. 1) is a judicial judgment. The one is a horizontal, temporary, measure of discernment, making decisions in this life on our best information. The other is a vertical, final, assessment about the ultimate worth or final destination of someone else’s soul. Obviously, then, it is that vertical, or judicial, judgment that is a manifestation of pride and which is forbidden. The kind of “fruit inspection,” to use Jesus’ imagery, demanded in verses 15 through 20, takes no such self-righteousness. No parent who inspects the resume of a prospective baby-sitter would be considered self-righteous or judgmental to the degree that they pour over the details. This situation is identical, and those who cannot see that lack the very maturity that Jesus is calling for here. Jesus is saying, in effect, “Do not presume to chop down the trees! That is my job on Judgment Day! But do inspect their fruit! There’s poison in some!”

Jesus uses a great deal of imagery to teach of us what we might call “moral laws.” To say that the Bible is not a manual for ethics is true in one sense—in the gospel sense—but it becomes entirely misleading if what we mean is to begin relativizing its moral truths. It is a mistake to conclude that when Jesus gives us a causal principle that He is speaking only and entirely of a man’s soul in relation to the future state. That may be the ultimate meaning, say, the eschatological meaning. But there are many examples where one cannot exclude the meaning from present morality.

One rather unique piece of imagery for Jesus’ desire that His disciples see these divisions is the saying about fasting at a wedding, and the new and the old in garments and wineskins. The Synoptics place these together because they have everything to do with each other. The point is this: the visible manifestations of God’s own religion are signposts along the way to Christ, the Substance. To the degree that we confuse the sign for the thing signified, we embrace a naturalistic, atheistic, legalism. It is not the same thing. And here is the kicker: the two systems of religion will simply tear away from each other, or the one will burst the other. Nature tells even the simple that you don’t mourn at weddings and you don’t tie down or bottle up new things with the old things. That is the very opposition to life and therefore lies about the God of life! Jesus wants us to see this, to draw a dividing line between the two things so that we do not make the mistake of trying to stuff explosive grace into the little box of old nature.

Now if we remember how the equality of sins in those Old Testament cases seemed at first to contradict of our thesis—Moses vs. Nadab and Abihu, Samuel vs. Eli, David vs. Saul, Judah vs. Israel—then we will be prepared to see it again in the case of Peter vs. Judas. Did they not both fall away? They did. Yet Jesus designed to restrain Peter and restore him. Shall we then conclude that denying Jesus is inconsequential? Of course not! But this is exactly the conclusion we are driven to when we pit God’s sovereign choice over against the consequences of human actions. And one of those very consequential human actions is the handling of doctrine and division.

[1] Piper, God is the Gospel, pg. 27

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