Live Images Are Not Living Persons

Our technologies have come a long way from when John wrote, likely using a reed-pen on a papyrus sheet, “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.” (3 Jn. 1:13-14)

In the centuries since then, we developed better forms of paper, codexes, and the printing press. Still, the delay between writing a message and receiving it was still significant. The electric telegraph of 1837 produced the first nearly instantaneous communication, followed by the telephone in 1876, radio communications in 1907. By the year 2000, the Internet had brought myriads of new forms of instant communication. Increasing Internet speeds have driven the web from being mostly text to becoming the next form of television. In the last 10 years or so we finally have what we’d watched on Star Trek all those years ago: a live, full-colour image of another person we’re talking to.

Skype, Zoom, Connect, Facetime, WhatsApp and many more have added “living” colour to our communications. It has enabled cheap international conference calls, distance education, cheaper broadcasts of live events, and a host of depraved uses, too.

The Covid-19 crisis has forced most churches to use some form of these technologies in some context: whether it was actual services, or video calls with members or leadership meetings. And it has also forced us to ask, how close are these forms of communication to the “real thing”?

Of course, the vast majority of people would agree that in-person worship is superior to “virtual” forms. Even if their reasoning is inchoate, most people still sense that, given a choice, being together in person is superior to watching screens.

The real disagreement has arisen over whether instant digital communications are a substitute (even if a temporary one) for in-person worship, or whether the very nature of worship and the nature of digital communication excludes such a possibility.

In favour of the first idea are all the similarities between in-person worship and a live image. We can see and hear one another immediately, as we would in a corporate gathering. We can listen and respond to prayer, Scripture, and preaching. We can even sing to music played through the screen. Furthermore, we experience a kind of corporateness, in that we are able to see the many faces participating in that moment. In this thinking, the presence of the simultaneous communication, and the presence of visual image captures the bulk of what worship is.

In favour of the second idea are all the differences between a live image and in-person worship. The live, colour images belie the fact that they are just that: pixels digitally reconstructed and sounds. They are two-dimensional images and electromagnetic sounds that reproduce those of the actual person. In reality, we are not “with” anyone. We are alone, or with a few at home, looking at a screen. Several others, we know, are also looking at a screen, seeing images of us. It is a seemingly magical simulation of being together, but it remains a simulation. Any act of ministry that requires more than the transfer of verbal and non-verbal information cannot be done with an image of another person: greeting one another physically, showing hospitality to one another, meeting each other’s financial or physical needs, eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper together. Many of the other ‘one another’ commands such as “exhort”, “comfort”, or “admonish” seem incomplete without the many forms of non-verbal communication that take places in one another’s presence – the arm on the shoulder, the posture, even fragrances, or sounds inaudible over a computer. For a proponent of this theory, the bulk of worship is not communication, but communion: the communion of persons with God. And yes, there is an a priori here: communion of persons requires the actual presence of those persons together.

Very likely, it is our a prioris about worship that colour our view of what live digital communications are really accomplishing. Our presuppositions are often invisible to us, but they are probably what drives a lot of this debate.

In my opinion, a Christianity that is still reeling from Enlightenment rationalism and from contemporary technopoly tends to see the faith in informational terms. Christianity becomes a set of ideas to be transmitted, and if one can see and hear what is being communicated, then worship is thought to be largely occurring. Everything can be reduced to sights and sounds: audio-visual information.

A Christianity that is trying to shake off its modernistic and post-modernistic influences sees the faith in incarnational terms. Even loving God takes place when it is embodied in loving one another (1 John 4:12, 20). The truth is embodied in persons, whom we must be with and share our lives with. Worship is not what happens “up front” where the pulpit and musicians sit. If that were the case, then we could point a camera at it, and replay that image to whomever, wherever.

Instead, worship is what we do when we gather. When the believer is no longer solitary, but assembled together with other believers in the name of Jesus, there Christ is in a particular way (Matt 18:20). The context of Matthew 18 is church discipline, and Christ’s presence there speaks of His authority behind the action of discipline, but this application does not alter the overall truth: the assembled people of God can expect the working of Christ through His Spirit in ways not available to a believer on his own.

In short, the images and sounds might be “live” (i.e. their sending and receiving is roughly simultaneous). But they are not living. Humans are living, not their letters, phones, radios, or screens, nor the sounds and sights they produce. And worship is more than communication: it is the communion of living persons with one another.

Disembodied Christianity

During the week, I read one man rage at ‘conservative Christians’ for their desire to re-open churches. He then proceeded to point out that Hebrews 10:25 does not really prove that churches need to gather in physical buildings, and that all Christians who call for re-opened churches based upon Hebrews 10:25 are abusing the text.

The irony here is rich. It’s very true that were we to build the case for the church’s physical gathering merely upon a text like Hebrews 10:25 that our case would be, at best, incomplete. (And the presence or absence of church buildings is completely beside the point).  But it is bewildering to the point of being speechless to read someone lecturing others on how to use the Bible who can read the whole Bible and not come away with the utter necessity of the physical, embodied gathering of God’s people. This is missing the forest for the trees in 4HD colour.

First, Scripture exalts the human body as good (1 Tim 4:4). God united Himself permanently with human nature (which includes the body), so that we can dwell in His presence forever and see His face. Jesus died not only to save your soul, but your body also. The Christian hope goes beyond the disembodied state to ultimate resurrection. A despising, or even denigrating, of physical life with all that goes with it is a Gnostic idea, not a Christian one. The body, which includes all our physical interactions, is not incidental to our spirituality.

To read the book of Hebrews as a kind of Platonic polemic against physicality is to miss the whole point of the book. Hebrews teaches not a dichotomy between “spiritual” and “physical” or between “visible” and “Invisible” but between partial and ultimate, shadow and fulfilmenttemporary and permanent. The furthest thing from a Hebrew’s mind would have been some kind of disparagement of the earthly, physical or embodied. If any people ever rejoiced in the goodness of creation, it was the Hebrews.

Second, one of the points of embodied living is to do what only embodied persons can do: meet in each other’s presence. This is so manifestly the case, that Scripture repeats it incessantly.

Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. The children of your elect sister greet you. Amen. (2 Jn. 1:12-13)

 Whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you. For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while. (Rom 15:24)

that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you. (Rom. 15:32)

 But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured more eagerly to see your face with great desire. (1Th 2:17-20)

Be diligent to come to me quickly (2Ti 4:9)

Third, many Scriptures require physical gathering. For example, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”. We don’t have to carry out the first-century cultural particulars of this command to obey it. It is easily applied in our setting as a handshake, hug, kiss or bow, depending on the culture. We can argue about exactly what this means to our culture, but it obviously means something, because all has been written for our learning. The best explanation is that we are to sincerely love one another, and greet each other affectionately when we can. This almost always requires physical presence. Many of the multiple “one another” commands are severely limited or impossible if only conducted or transmitted by some media, however live and realistic they may be. The Lord’s Supper and baptism are among the most physical and human of acts: eating, and washing (or burying). These necessitate physical gathering, and no technology could function as a permanent, or even subsidiary substitute.

What is really going in those who scorn the essential nature of physical gathering for corporate worship is likely a transhumanist revisioning of human life, combined with a longstanding mind-body dualism in evangelical circles. The secular culture is happy to abolish human nature, and Christians have for some time been unsure of whether Christianity is fully human. Yes, Christians can debate over the wisdom or propriety of churches opening and gathering sooner or later. But to debate over whether physical gathering is essential is to identify yourself as a purveyor of a different Christianity altogether.

When Christianity is reduced to mere information (which is what technology transmits) it becomes another ghostly, disembodied religion of mere abstractions. And the more Christianity becomes simply informational, the more it becomes simply unbelievable. People are not primarily converted by facts and concepts, but by truth that is taught, incarnated and embodied by example, imagination, and exposure to others and their lives.

Gladly, true Christianity is far from disembodied. The Word became flesh. We are saved not only in our souls, but in body too (1 Thes 5:23), and will one day see our Redeemer in the flesh on the earth (Job 19:25). Scripture anticipates the final and ultimate gathering with God in His presence.

The great irony then, is that those who deny the essentiality of physical gathering and accuse Christians of misreading their fundamentalist presuppositions into Hebrews 10:25 are manifestly reading their quasi-Gnostic and transhumanist views into the very same text.

No, we can’t build a case for the importance of physically gathering for corporate worship merely from Hebrews 10:25. But we don’t need to. A plain reading of all of Scripture will do.

 

Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Screens

“John, we’d love it if you and Susan would join us for a meal on Thursday evening.”

“Uh…well, Mike, thanks but…isn’t that illegal? I mean, doesn’t the lockdown prohibit that kind of social gathering?”

“Oh, no, I don’t mean that you and Susan come to our home. We’ll host you online.”

“I’m still not following. How will we have a meal online?”

“Well, we’ll prepare a meal for ourselves. You’ll prepare a meal for yourselves. We’ll then do a Zoom call and eat in front of each other!”

“We’ll…eat in front of each other…on a screen?”

“Yup. It’ll be a great time over great food!”

“Are you serious?”

***

Before the coronavirus crisis, few could have imagined this conversation. Now, a version of this dialogue is taking place, and being taken seriously by Christians. The difference is that the meal in question is the Lord’s Supper, and some believe that eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper on our own, while filming ourselves and transmitting that image to others (who are doing the same thing), constitutes a shared meal.

One of fault lines in contemporary Christianity that the coronavirus lockdown has revealed is real disagreement over what is meant by the ideas of assemble, gather, corporate worship, fellowship, and presence. Does a live, two-dimensional image of a person not function as a form of presence, assembly, or gathering?

Media ecologists have been telling us for years that media shape us not only by their content, but by their form. For decades, we’ve been consuming media on screens: laptops, cellphones, flatscreens, tablets. They have become our primary form of information, education, communication, and entertainment. Screens have colonised us. And it appears that Christianity, at least in some parts of the world, has likewise been screenified.

A knee-jerk and superficial reaction would be to say that such assertions are the age-old argument that Luddites have against technology, or fear of the new. On the contrary: our technologies are always downstream of our views of the good life. We make tools (technologies) to serve those ends we are pursuing (and often our technologies end up becoming ends in themselves). But it is our view of the good life – what we think humans are here for and what constitutes our purpose – that drives us to make technologies, and works of art, and everything else. Put simply, the debate over the use or non-use of livestreaming, Zoom, online communion, and so on, is only secondarily a discussion of technology. It is primarily a debate over what a fully human Christianity is. It is the Christian view of the body that is behind these debates: do we need to be physically present to gather, do we need to be physically present to eat together, do we need to be physically in one another’s presence to worship corporately or to be said to be assembling? And does “virtual” presence still constitute a true, human presence?

The word virtual, used to describe nearly all online interactions, illustrates the ambiguity here. On the one hand, virtual suggests something nearly approximating the real thing, or coming extremely close, as in “We’re virtually on their doorstep”, or “Scarlet is virtually the same as vermillion”. On the other hand, virtual suggests something that has not reached the end in mind, as in “You’re virtually there, but it still needs work” or “I could virtually hear them, but there was too much noise in the street.” One connotation says Almost, but not quite. Another connotation says, Already there, but imperfectly so. 

Our theology of the body shapes whether we see a word like virtual as having one connotation or the other. The same could be said for our view of words or ideas like online, digital, live, and the like. And I suggest, with fingers pointed at myself while saying it, that our use of media may well be informing our theology of the body. That is, pragmatism and praxis may be shaping our understanding more than we care to admit.

Yes, we cannot meet, but that does not alter the meaning of meet. The issue of constraint is only secondarily a concern. The primary concern is the meaning of a human meeting. A groom-to-be is under no illusions that his marriage requires his wife’s physical presence. If coronavirus has prevented the ceremony, no online exchange of vows will convince him that they have indeed become one flesh. He will be quite certain that there is no such thing as a virtual consummation of the marriage, if you will indulge the illustration. The practical constraints of the coronavirus won’t change the meaning of marriage, union or one flesh.

So, how do we proceed? While no one can read the Bible without our cultural lenses, we can read the Bible while being honest about our prejudices (our pre-judgements). This makes us more honest interpreters, and less likely to to be disingenuous about finding answers in the Bible that we were looking for all along. But the Bible is what must settle this debate.

For the present crisis, Christians need to return to a rigorously biblical anthropology (doctrine of man). That means asking and answering at least the following questions with Scriptural principles:

  • Of what importance is the body during corporate worship?
  • Does the Bible ever favour personal bodily presence over mediated communication, and why?
  • Since Scripture was written to pre-modern people, what would the biblical authors think of instant and live mediated communication? Does it fall into the category of 2 John 12 or not?
  • Does instantly mediated communication constitute what the Bible means by meet, gather, assemble, commune, fellowship? If not, why not?
  • What would be the symptoms of a disembodied Christianity?
  • What actions or technologies would contribute to a disembodied Christianity?

Answering these questions is not only helpful for the practical crisis confronting us, but for determining whether we think Christianity is fundamentally incarnational and embodied, or only accidentally so. I hope we can do so together.

 

Ten Mangled Words: Conclusion

Words are not just names. If they were, we’d have no problem swapping out one label for another. No, words are things. Yes, they are man-made things, concatenations of syllables created by human cultures, and their particular meanings have been shaped through convention and association. But they are things that have meaning in themselves, and that transmit meaning. Meaning is at the heart of worship and obedience.

When the thing in question distorts meaning, it becomes a very dangerous thing. A road-sign that points left when it should point right is a dangerous thing. A box of rat-poison labelled as jelly-beans is a dangerous thing. When words are used badly or wrongly, it is not simply a matter of some grammar that needs polishing. Mangled words are more like a loose nut in an airplane engine, like a stray flu-germ on the chef’s hands. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Words are the stock and trade of pastors. Pastors should care more than the average man about the meaning of words, both denotative and connotative. They should oppose the wrong use of words, as the apostles did when false teachers distorted the words “liberty” (2 Peter 2:19), “grace” (Jude 1:4) and “people of God” (Phil 3:1-3).

To be careless about words is to fail to see their importance. It is, in some cases, choosing nominalism over realism. Nominalism denies ultimate realities or fixed meanings, and sees names as just convenient labels we use to impose meanings. Realism believes God’s reality is in itself meaningful and that meaning is more or less discoverable. In God’s case, naming even preceded creating: God spoke, naming the creation, and it came to be. Meaning preceded matter. Meaning or naming preceded the existence of the thing; the name was not a mere interpretation or label after the fact. He then gave man the privilege of assigning further names to creation. In other words, man was a sub-creator with God. By naming, Adam shared the prerogative of perceiving a thing’s reality through words. There is a true correspondence, between naming and nature.

The meanings of the words tolerance, freedom, authority, authentic, relevant, culture, equality, emotion, taste, and hate are not arbitrary and purely subjective. Nor are they unimportant. These words are currently the words at the very centre of our culture, and are at the root of disputes about worship, ministry, missions, social justice, morality, economics and Christian living. To get the wrong meaning about these words will likely be to court failure or disaster in ministry. Church leaders cannot afford to live with the mangled form of these words.

Is this being “obsessed with disputes and arguments over words” (1 Tim. 6:4)? I trust not. Clarifying the correct meaning of these words is the effort of those whose primary tool is the written and spoken word. We refuse to allow these words to fall into enemy hands. As Luther said, “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

May we earnestly contend for the true meaning of these ten words.

“Hate” – A Word Like “Atheism”

His name was Polycarp, and he was a disciple of the apostle John. He later became the pastor of the church at Smyrna. When he was very old, the vicious persecutions of Christians in Smyrna turned on him. He was arrested and told to deny Christ. He refused. He was brought into the stadium to be killed before the audience of unbelievers.

The governor looked down on him and said – “Consider your age, and be sensible. Swear and say, ‘Down with the atheists'”. Polycarp looked at the pagan audience in the stadium, and said, “Down with the atheists.” The governor said, “Swear, reproach Christ, and I will release you.” Polycarp answered, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?”

Polycarp’s dialogue with the governor requires a bit of commentary to be understood. When the governor told Polycarp to say “Down with the atheists”, he meant for Polycarp to renounce Christianity. Atheist was a pejorative term that pagans threw at Christians. To a polytheistic society awash in gods, goddesses, temples, and all their paraphernalia, Christianity seemed, at first glance, a religion of denial. They denied these gods existed, and denied the reality behind the statues and figurines. To pagans, the Christians were unbelievers, deniers of their gods. They were atheists, not in the modern sense of the term, as materialists or naturalists, but as those who refused belief in the gods.

Of course, to Christians, the real atheists were those who denied the existence of the one true and living God: the triune God of Scripture. To fail to believe in Him is to fail to believe in the only God who exists. Pagans were the true atheists. Polycarp’s response was dripping in irony. He repeated the precise words required of him, but everyone understood that he meant the opposite of what they intended him to declare. Pagans called Christians atheists. Christians denied the charge and called the pagans atheists.

Perhaps something similar is happening today with the word hate. Unbelievers are very free with the word haters. Christians, particularly those of the conservative kind, are said to be haters. Why? They do not endorse homosexual marriage. They do not recognise transgender pronouns. They do not accept Islam as a road to reconciliation with God. They hold to the Bible as God’s Word. This makes them purveyors of hate, people without tolerance, acceptance, and affirmation.

Christians would deny that charge, as we have done in this series. We would explain our understanding of love, hate, and tolerance. We would affirm that we pose no physical threat to those who differ with us, nor are we disturbers of the peace. Conversely, we might counter the slander with a question: who are the real haters? If people vandalise our businesses, make false allegations about Christians being elected into high office, pour vitriol of the most unsavoury kind upon us in print and in person, and attempt to limit the exercise of free speech among Christians, should we call these people tolerant of Christianity? Should we say they are open and affirming of our beliefs? Should we say they practice inclusivity when it comes to Christianity? No, we will say, at least among ourselves, that they appear to hate what we believe and stand for.

And there the impasse will remain. I doubt that Polycarp convinced pagans to stop calling him an atheist while they remained pagans. He understood their blinded condition and simply taught who were the true atheists and the true worshippers.

I doubt we will convince the rabid left that Christians are not haters, while they remain committed to their radical notions. Best to recognise their blinded condition, and keep teaching who truly loves, and who is practising real malice.

Perhaps one day, if you are a Christian, you will be called upon by some authority and told to say, “I renounce all bigoted, intolerant and hateful forms of speech and religion.” With Polycarp, wave your hand at the assembled unbelievers and say, “I renounce all bigoted, intolerant and hateful forms of speech and religion.”

The Crucifixion: Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday?

The exact day of the week of Christ’s death has been debated for centuries. The day, while not fundamental to the gospel, is of some import, especially in countries like South Africa which celebrate Good Friday as a public holiday. Churches hold Good Friday services (were we allowed out the house!) What support is there for each of these views?

The Wednesday View

This view is almost entirely based upon Matthew 12:40, which makes mention of three nights. This leads proponents to require 72 hours from Christ’s death to His resurrection. Jesus enters Jerusalem on the Saturday (Nisan 10), is betrayed on the Tuesday, and crucified Wednesday (Nisan 14). Consequently, Jesus must have risen before 6pm on Saturday, or else he ends rising up on the fourth day).

The Thursday View

This is similarly based on Matthew 12:40, stating that a Friday crucifixion has only two nights. Proponents suggest that Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday (Nisan 10) the Last Supper was Wednesday night, Jesus was crucified on Thursday (Nisan 14), and the next day (Friday) was a sabbath because it was the first day of Unleavened Bread. The “day of preparation” is said to be Thursday. It is claimed that people would have been resting on the Friday, and hence Thursday became the day of preparation.

The Friday View

In this view, Christ celebrated the Supper on Thursday night. This was likely the Galilean Passover, which was celebrated a day earlier. He was tried in the early hours of Friday. He entered Jerusalem on the Monday, Nisan 10 (which had begun Sunday 6pm) and was crucified on Friday (Nisan 15, by Galilean reckoning, Nisan14 by Judean reckoning), the day of preparation. He was laid in the tomb on the same day, and was in the tomb all of the Sabbath. The women who came to the Tomb came early on the first day of the week (Sunday), the same day on which He rose.

Evidence:

The Scriptures overwhelmingly speak of Jesus being raised “on the third day” ((Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4), not the fourth. Four passages (Matt. 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34) speak of Christ’s resurrection as occurring “after three days,” but this is speaking of the same time period as on “the third day” because that is the phrase uses in parallel Gospel accounts.

Several Old Testament accounts show that the Hebrews regarded a part of a day as the whole day, that is, “day and night”. For example day in Esther 4:16, Esther asks the Jews, “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day,” and then she would go in to the king, and in 5:1 Esther went in to the king on the third day. Other examples include Genesis 42:17, 1 Kings 20:29, 2 Chronicles 10:5, 1 Samuel 30:12-13). Rabbinical sources also show this. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (c A.D. 100), said “A day and night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it.” (Jerusalem Talmud: Shabbath ix. 3; also Babylonian Talmud: Pesahim 4a). If Jesus was in the tomb for part of Friday and part of Sunday, then the Jewish idiom would be that he was in the tomb for “three days and three nights”.

The Wednesday crucifixion requires that Jesus have ridden into Jerusalem on the Saturday, which would have been another Sabbath violation, as would the cutting down of palm branches. It has Christ rising on the fourth day, if the “third day” is also the first day of the week.

There is simply no evidence that Nisan 15 (the day after Passover) was a day on which no one worked. This is essentially a theory held only by those who hold to the Thursday crucifixion. There is no real case for a Passover Sabbath which occurred the day before the regular weekly Sabbath. The expression “the day of preparation” is universally used to mean Friday ((Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42). Mark makes this especially clear “Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, (Mk. 15:42).

The great consensus of interpreters and scholars is that Jesus died on Friday. Yes, to keep the strict chronology and typology of the examination of the Passover Lamb, we probably have to accept it was really Palm Monday. Perhaps the complicated harmonising of Galilean and Judean timekeeping might allow us to keep that one, since we have no Scripture telling us exactly what day of the week was the triumphal entry. But it seems the evidence does point fairly clearly to a Friday crucifixion.

 

Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah. In fact, the rabbis had known for forty years before that date that something was amiss. Yoma 39b of the Talmud records the strange occurrences from around A. D. 30 onwards:

“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.”

From the year 30 (give or take three years), the Yom Kippur lot came up in the wrong hand, the crimson cord that was tied around the scapegoat’s neck did not change colour, the Menorah would go out by itself, and the doors would open and close by themselves. Since Luke tells us that many of the thousands of priests in Jerusalem became believers (Acts 6:7), clearly many of them understood the significance of these events, and of the one recorded in Scripture, the tearing of the Temple veil.

But not everyone did. Once the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai hurried to consolidate and set up rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. Rabbinic Judaism eliminated the centrality of the Temple and the need for ritual atonement. Several texts in the Talmud defend the new bloodless and templeless religion:

Shabbat 119b states that “Rabbi Chisda said in Mar ‘Ukba’s name: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘and [heaven and earth were finished]’, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him ‘and thine iniquity is taken away and thine sin purged.”

Menachot 110a: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt-offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt-offering”.

Hundreds of years later, the Siddur (prayer book) continued the idea:
“Lord of the Universe, thou hast commanded us to offer up the perpetual sacrifice in its time and thou hast established priests and Levites in their posts and in their special status, and now the Temple has been broken up on account of our sins, the perpetual offering has been postponed and we do not have a functioning priest or a Levite in office…may Thy will, therefore, be…that the speech of our lips shall be considered an offering.”

Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalised on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the centre of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement. One can imagine the argument from expediency and pragmatism: “But we can’t perform the sacrifices! Prayer and the study of Torah must suffice now.” The larger question is ignored: “Why would God remove what He commanded to be used?” The fact that the first and second Temple were both destroyed on the 9th of Av, centuries apart, should surely have been some cause for reflecting on the meaning of this providence.

But the nature of professional religionists is to keep the show going. Treat the elephant in the room as a natural feature. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Last week, I posted on why we [my local church] chose not to livestream. (Note, not “Why You Should Not Livestream” or “Why Only the Ungodly Livestream”. )

In that post, I explained – carefully, I thought – that there are great uses for livestreaming in the church, but the one thing we should not do is to smooth this event over. As a pastor, I understand why pastors want to be shock-absorbers, and reduce the level of panic and fear. But comfort should never become half-truths. We should not tell our people that we are really still gathering, only through a screen. We might be communicating, and enjoying the connection that digital media afford. But we aren’t gathering. And I don’t think I’m splitting hairs in insisting that we reserve the term gathering for an actual gathering. The assembly must assemble. My argument was simply: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.

To make that attempt would be the rabbinic response. Instead of asking, “Why has God removed our opportunity for corporate worship?”, the rabbinic response says, “Well, God hasn’t totally removed corporate worship, since we still have the Internet! ” Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.

Yes, there’s no question that the parallels between the destruction of the Temple and our current crisis are not without many differences. We have not lost our atonement, nor have we rejected Christ. But there are certainly some similarities: Israel could no longer corporately gather three times a year, and we cannot gather for the time being.

As we look upon the rabbis of the first century and marvel at their hardness of heart, is it too much to ask for modern evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to ponder the meaning of the moment and soul-search?

Could it be that we, and our people, have treated corporate worship casually and flippantly? Do we  attend sporadically, dress as casually as is socially acceptable, arrive late, check our phones during sermons, sleep, walk out when we need a break, and slurp on our coffee during worship? Do we sing trite songs because they are catchy or create the mood we like? Do we pray hurriedly and chattily to the Most High? Do we pay lip service to expository preaching while smuggling in our pet topics or favourite hobby-horses? Do we worship some other things, besides God: relevance, popularity, authenticity, sincerity, niceness? Do we fail to cultivate the fear of the Lord, because the fear of the Lord is alien to our culture?

Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted? Could He be showing us what it is that we have been treating so casually? Might it be that some of our worship has actually become superficial and artificial enough to be a spectacle: something that can be entirely communicated through a screen?

Might it be that God is giving us that thing which people craved for, till it comes out of their nostrils (Num. 11:20) ? Some have craved internet church, home church, online sermons, convenience and comfort, and have despised gathering, prayer meetings, membership, covenanting, and ministering to one another. Now they have enough home and internet church to make themselves sick, and none of those things they treated lightly.

Could this be a moment for pastors and leaders to consider the meaning of church, the meaning of worship, the meaning of the Body (and the human body) and renew their commitment to worship instead of entertainment, to body life and not vicarious involvement, to membership instead of illusory community?

Perhaps.

Or we could assure our people that this is a technical difficulty, and that regular programming will resume shortly. Our technicians are working on it.

Why We Won’t Livestream During Lockdown (Though We Could)

Left-click the bread icon to consume the bread.  >Click<

>>>  Thank you. You have eaten the bread.

Left-click the cup icon to consume the cup.  > Click<

>>> Thank you. You have drunk the cup.

Sound preposterous? Why shouldn’t we do virtual Lord’s Supper? Our technology has made this scenario possible. But is it desirable? Probably most would say no. In fact, probably most who advocate for livestreaming their services would object. The question is why they would object to virtual Lord’s Supper, but not to virtual everything else.

The Lord’s Supper is that act of worship which everyone seems to understand requires physical elements, the physical presence of God’s people, and their physical eating and drinking. If we were to simulate this with graphics, icons, or little avatars, probably most would use the words artificial, inferioror fake. Perhaps some churches would make sure every believer has his own personal Lord’s Supper kit, and at the appropriate livestream moment, everyone would consume. While this would be better than pretending to eat, it still wouldn’t be much better. The Lord’s Table is a table. People gather around a table. They eat, drink, and fellowship.

When a pandemic prevents us from gathering, the appropriate response is to grieve that we cannot gather, and then do what is the closest thing to corporate worship while praying for the restoration of normal life. Creating a simulation of gathered worship, however “live” or “real-time” is just that: a simulation.

Video conferencing technology is great for many things: business meetings, certain kinds of teaching, adding an image to a phone call. In a lockdown, it’s also good for making sure every member of the flock is loved and cared for. On the other hand, video conferencing is not good for a wedding, for a feast, for a funeral, for a family reunion. Which is corporate worship more like: a lecture, or a ceremony? A business meeting, or a family gathering? A performance, or a renewal of vows?

The event of corporate worship is a very physical moment, meant for embodied beings. We are to gather. The early church would greet with a holy kiss. They would pray and sing not just to God, but “to one another” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). They would baptise, and renew their vows to God and one another in each other’s presence. They would read the Word and hear it preached and make commitments. They would then share a meal.

It is a sign of the pervasive mind-body dualism in modern Christianity that we think of Christian worship as primarily the communication of ideas. We think of only the ideas contained in the songs, the ideas preached and prayed, the ideas read and understood. And if that’s all worship is, then all we need is mechanisms to transfer the information. In that case, an Internet connection and a screen is all we need. The only extraneous digit in this scheme of information transfer is that pesky Lord’s Supper, which doesn’t seem to be convertible to pure information. If more churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper more frequently, we might be less willing to brush it aside as “the one thing we can’t do online”, and take the physicality of all worship more seriously.

Worship is not a transfer of information; it is a training of imagination. The way we image reality is primarily shaped through our embodied practices, which requires our physical gathering. Again, is corporate worship more like a lecture, or more like a ceremony?

Just a few months ago, pastors were laughing at this satire. Now they’re insisting that their virtual church is a great form of community during the lockdowns. But of course, if worship is information transfer, why stick with your bland, vanilla pastor this Sunday? Livestream the best preachers in the world, or download the best sermons ever preached.

Beyond all this, there is a hint of partiality creeping in when everyone advocates for internet church. Can everyone in every congregation have the same access to a livestream that they had to get to a church building? Is it possible that livestreaming favours a certain group in the church, and that churches shrug their shoulders about those who cannot use it?

What then? Am I advocating defeatism? No, but a nice does of realism would be good. When we are housebound, corporate worship cannot, and does not, happen. The sooner we realise that, the less we promote the make-believe that corporate worship is going on through our screens on Sunday.

Even though corporate worship cannot happen, we can promote and encourage the next best thing. We can provide our households with a similar order of service, so that the church, though dispersed, is still doing its best to gain likemindedness on the Lord’s Day. Families can worship together. Singles can worship privately using the same service. We can use technology to share the music or hymns we would be singing. A pastor could use technology to send a sermon transcript, or a pre-recorded sermon to all. And yes, he could also preach live to those who could access that, as long as we communicate that this moment is not an “online gathering”. Instead, it’s a painful moment of separation, where we cannot break bread together, and await our reunion. At best, it’s private worship, or family worship, aided by technology to be loosely in contact with the rest of the church.

The Complexity of Hating What God Hates

No one should love what God hates. No one should hate what God loves. But, as we have seen, God has the ability to love and hate at the same time. It is this conscious simultaneity that we lack, and which adds such difficulty to our understanding of hate.

We have seen the kind of hate which is forbidden: irrational, baseless hate, personal animosity or malice, and hatred of something precious to God. We have seen some of the hates commanded by God: hating evil, hating God-hatred, hating false doctrine. Our difficulty is how to prevent holy hatred from becoming evil hatred; how to maintain a hatred for what God hates, while still loving what God loves.

We can picture the problem in thinking how to view a particularly heinous human being. If we imagine say, an unrepentant child abuser, we should feel revulsion towards his acts. We should desire that his cruelty and selfish exploitation of the ignorance of little ones be stopped, and stopped permanently. We should desire a retribution commensurate with his crime.

But all this is true, because, unexpectedly, we still love him. We love the image of God in humans, and for that very reason, we demand that the man live up to that. We are angry exactly because he is not an irrational animal, and we expected him to behave humanely to other humans. Our demand for justice would be meaningless were he incapable of responsible choice, but is fitting precisely because we still think of him as human. Our love for him as a neighbour demands we do anything but dismiss him. We may punish him, incarcerate him, or execute him, but in each of these acts, we treat him according to his rank: an image-bearer.

Here is where we can see the great lovelessness of much liberalism. In attributing moral evil to psychological derangement, by explaining sin as a necessary result of environmental factors, by calling evil a ‘sickness’ or ‘disease’, they do not love our neighbour more, but less. For to the degree that we remove moral culpability from an adult, is the degree to which we remove humanness from him. The less responsible a man is, the more he moves towards the beasts and away from the angels. By excusing his sin with his genes and his biology, we have not liberated him, we have made him a slave of physical forces. By calling for rehabilitation, we are not offering a cure, but a life-sentence with the same sin. By insisting that society “tolerate” his sin, and referring to those who don’t as “haters”, we handcuff the man to his evil with the golden chains of society’s approval.

Christian love is real love precisely because it accords rank and dignity to humans and makes consequent demands upon them. The applications for Christians are obvious. We may feel revulsion, anger, distaste, and feel indignation towards moral sin and evil in the world. We are supposed to hate those things, and feel indignation that an image-bearer of God is deepening his union with rebellion against God. We can only do that, though, because we retain love for our neighbour. We believe “he is as we are”, and believe that he may, by the saving grace of God, leave corruption and embrace life.

Because we are also progressively being changed into Christ’s image, we should be aware of how imperfectly we perform this love and hate. Our moral outrage is quickly mixed with personal annoyance, pride, jealousy, revenge, malice, and haughtiness. This does not mean we should abandon the enterprise of loving what God loves and hating what God hates because we are likely to introduce sin. It means we attempt to be angry without sinning, without letting the sun go down upon our wrath (Eph 4:26). It means we consciously think of ways to display love to our enemy, to overcome what would become fleshly malice, if left to itself (Rom 12:19-21).

In fact, the most difficult love command is the command to love our enemies, for here love and hate meet in the same person. The Lord Jesus’ only explanation for how and why to love our enemies is simple: God also loves them, and meets their needs, ungrateful as they are. “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45). We are to love people who hate us or hate what we love, even while we hate their hate, and possibly, hate what they love. And we should expect that it will take growth and struggle to achieve this.

We are naive if we imagine that the world will understand this love and its concomitant hate. Theirs is a binary formula: niceness to all, and fury upon all who do not show niceness to all. Self-contradictory as it is, it is not open to reason. It may, however, be persuaded by beauty: “having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good [beautiful] works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:12). They will likely slander all acts of judgement, discernment, and thoughtful discrimination as malicious hate, and they will likely not honour acts of love for what they are. Since that is the case, Christians should get on with loving what God loves, hating what God hates, and proving to the world that Christian love alone brings peace on earth, and goodwill to all.

God Loves (and Hates) You

Does God hate the sin and love the sinner? We have seen it is more biblical to say that God both loves and hates the sinner. Several theologians have suggested just that.

Augustus Strong wrote, “These passages show that God loves the same persons whom he hates. It is not true that he hates the sin, but loves the sinner; he both hates and loves the sinner himself, hates him as he is a living and wilful antagonist of truth and holiness, loves him as he is a creature capable of good and ruined by his transgression.”

D. A. Carson put it thus: “Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at once. God in His perfections must be wrathful against His rebel image-bearers, for they have offended Him; God in His perfections must be loving toward His rebel image-bearers, for He is that kind of God.”

Even John Calvin saw that both were possible. “All of us therefore, have that within which deserves the hatred of God. Hence, in respect, first, of our corrupt nature; and, secondly, of the depraved conduct following upon it, we are all offensive to God, guilty in his sight, and by nature the children of hell. But as the Lord wills not to destroy in us that which is his own, he still finds something in us which in kindness he can love.”

The best harmony of the biblical evidence is the notion that God is able to love and hate a sinner at the same time.

Of course, this solution raises its own questions. If God is infinite in His essence and immutable as to His nature, then each of His attributes, including love or hate, must be infinite and without growth or diminution. How then could God love sinners infinitely and hate them infinitely at the same time? To love and hate a person infinitely would seem to cancel each other out. Further, are we to assume that God has the same infinite love and hatred for a believer that He has for an unbeliever, or for Satan himself? How was Daniel “greatly loved” (Dn 9:23) more than anyone else? To summarise the questions, if an infinite God loves and hates at the same time, how can there be any degree to His love and hatred of individuals, as various Scriptures seem to suggest is the case?

The best answer is that a person can be more or less identified with his sin. This is probably the idea behind John’s statement that “he who is born of God does not sin” (1 Jn 5:18). One born of God is not thoroughly identified with sin as a practice, even though he still sins (1 Jn 1:8-10). Once justified, the believer is more identified with Christ than he can ever be with the old detestable nature. Justification locates a sinner in the centre-sphere of God’s pleasure: His Son. God may be angry with a justified sinner for his sin, but Christ’s intercessory work means that the child of God is ever accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6). Indeed, progressive sanctification apparently moves one in the direction of ever-opening vistas of knowing the love of God, precisely because one is becoming more identified with what God loves (Eph 3:16-19).

On the other hand, an unregenerate person may be on a trajectory that drives him ever deeper into union with his sinful nature, making his sin and his person increasingly indistinguishable. He does not simply commit sin, he delights in it (Rom 1:32). There comes a point when people are guilty of such “extended, hardened, high-handed lovelessness” of God, that they come under a curse. When one thinks of extreme examples of human evil like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, one does not find it hard to consider their very persons as hateful, because they had become so identified with their evil deeds. To take it one step further, very few people shrink at the idea that God hates Satan. This is probably because Satan is so closely associated with his evil, that to hate the sin and the sinful being are almost the same thing, in his case.

God’s infinite love for His own image within human beings and His infinite hatred of sin in them means He cannot grow in love or hatred towards humans. Thus is not to suggest that God’s love does not truly respond to human behaviour. Instead, the trajectory of sinners towards sin or away from it drives them to be more or less identified with God’s wrath. God’s infinite love or hatred does not change, but as sinners move in respect to His holy nature, they are more or less identified with His hatred.

Finally, as Stephen Charnock put it, “punishment is not the primary intention of God.” God’s hatred only functions to preserve what He loves. Though God’s love is infinite, He values some things more than others. Uppermost in His affections is His own glory. Therefore, if sinners become so identified with their sin that they stand fundamentally in opposition to God’s glory, God’s love for His own glory will manifest itself in punitive hatred for those sinners’ rebellion, more so than in His love for His remaining and marred image in those sinners. Indeed, a marred mirror of God is all at once a cause for love and anger in God.