We asked that question and attempted a partial answer in Parts 1 and 2 of our blog series.
Whereas in Parts 1 and 2 I used a broader definition of ‘holy’ as meaning ‘different,’ ‘special,’ ‘dedicated,’ ‘moral,’ etc, I now want to use the term in a more specifically biblical sense as used in the Bible concerning God, his Son and his Church. When I think of ‘holy’ in this latter sense I am reminded of the thrice-holy God as described by the prophet Isaiah (chap. 6), and then again by the apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians where he writes of Christ as the personification of ‘the Wisdom and Power of God,’ and imparting himself as such to the Corinthian Church: “It is because of him (i.e. God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written (ex Jer. 9:24): ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor. 1:30-31). Here ‘holiness’ describes believers’ set-apartness for the Lord, their being declared ‘holy’ through faith in Christ and his death on the cross, and finally their being made ‘holy’ (i.e. Christ-like) by the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It’s significant that while Paul found much in the Corinthian Christians to criticize, he still called them ‘sanctified’ (1:2) – not because of their conduct but because of their relationship to Christ!
In Part 3 we also want to draw a clearer line between ‘religion’ as pertaining to a belief system, the practice of certain sacred rites, the pursuit of moral values and conduct etc, and on the other hand ‘relationship’ as pertaining to a gracious, intimate faith-union with (in our case) the Living God, through the full and final revelation of his Son (Heb. 1:1-2).
Now some observations and remarks in the light of my recent visit to Israel but also in the light of my pursuit of the God of Israel these past fifty years or so…
First, the Holy Land reflects layers and layers of ‘religion and religiosity,’ of which I have already written in Parts 1 and 2. One’s impression is of many different peoples, espousing Judaism (both orthodox and liberal), Druzeism, Islam, Bahaism and Christianity (of every variety: Roman, Armenian, Marionite, Greek, Syriac, Anglican, etc), pursuing greater intimacy with their particular version of God. This they do via various religious and moral pursuits, liturgies, ‘holy places,’ clergy, etc. As to the Jews, Wikipaedia indicates that some 25% see themselves as ‘non-religious traditionalists,’ between 15% and 37% profess atheism or agnosticism (‘religions’ in themselves: the story is related of an atheist overheard saying, ‘Thank God, I’m not a Christian!’). For further interesting details, visit the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, specifically ‘Israel: Religion and Society.’
Secondly, while I appreciated the obviously sincere praying and worship of Jews (of all persuasions) at the Western Wall and especially the exhuberant dancing of young Israeli soldiers as they faced the Wall, my wife and I sensed a competitiveness among the groups (distinguished by their different styles of black dress, headgear, etc), a formalism, ritualism, praying by rote, etc. My wife commented, ‘they look so religious but their eyes are dead.’ [let me be the first to confess there are many parallels, sadly, among ‘evanglical’ and even ‘charismatic’ Christians – they each have their own type of religiosity, controls, bibliolatry, rituals and liturgy from which you swerve at your peril]. By brilliant contrast we have Christ who comes not as a mere ethicist or religious genius. The great Dietrich Bonhoeffer (an avid defender of Jews, to the point of martyrdom by the Nazis), like Karl Barth (to whom religion was essentially ‘unbelief, the matter of a godless man’), believed that the essence of Christianity is not about religion at all, but about the person of Christ… ‘religion’ was a dead, man-made thing, while at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely – God himself, alive! Bonhoeffer (in 1926 already) aggressively exposed the idea of ‘religion’ and moral performance as the very enemies of Christianity and of Christ because they conveyed the false idea that somehow we can reach God through our own moral efforts, leading to hubris and pride. To quote him, ‘The Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, paradoxical as that may sound.’ In 1928, in an address to some German youth in Barcelona, he maintained that most Christians had exiled Christ from their lives: ‘Of course, we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses.’ [at this point let me heartily recommend my son’s recent blog, ‘Church or Religion? Is there a difference?’ cf his blog link: justinmulder.wordpress.com]
Thirdly, I was struck how beautiful buildings, religious and spiritual symbols, and other ‘means of grace’ have become ends in themselves. Take for example the worshipping and weeping women prostrated over the ‘tomb-site’ of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (see pic above), the veneration and kissing of icons, sculptures, paintings and relics, almost ad nauseum [of course, again, ‘evangelicals’ do the same with the pulpit (‘the sacred desk’) and the sacraments, etc – never mind the ‘worship sites’ of many megachurch celebrity pastors and prophets and apostles: witness the recent tragedy at Prophet TB Joshua’s ‘synagogue church’ where 84 South African ‘martyrs’ died when their accommodation block collapsed due to apparently bad engineering]. Now make no mistake, when we visited some of the beautiful churches in Nazareth, the Galilee, Jerusalem, etc, I found my spirit soaring: beyond the architecture, mosaics, stained windows, to my Creator God. I have always tried to leave room in my heart for that mystic element of our faith (what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum) and the ‘otherness’ of God. However, when we replace the living God with things and symbols and means, no matter how beautiful, we enter the dangerous territory of idolatry.
Fourthly, I noticed a strong ego-centric ‘come here,’ ‘come to us’ mentality on the part of the religions or church groups, so rampant in Christian churches particularly in the West, in stark contrast to Jesus’ desire that ‘we go to them,’ i.e. the needy, the poor and the lost. How our church buildings have in and of themselves militated against Jesus missional concern and kingdom message. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.’ Under this point, I remain totally sceptical of the ‘Christian Zionism’ of the ilk of John Hagee and other Dispensationalist ‘teachers.’ Will God’s future plan for his people include geographical Israel? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?!
Going forward, I have four firm convictions, which I believe to be Bible-based:
- Gentile believers like myself should always be infinitely grateful for God’s self-revelation through Israel! I am deeply grateful for my Hebrew roots, God’s covenant with Abraham, our spiritual forefather by faith. I deeply appreciated seeing the Holy Land for myself, and will feed off that experience for the rest of my days.
- For me, Rom. chapters 9-12 reflect my stance concerning Israel at present and in the future (I recommend you read these from the MSG in one sitting, to grasp the over-all picture). Paul sketches the Jews as a blinded people, brought about by their repeated disobedience to God and his call for them to be a light to the Gentiles. Surely at any time God can, in his sovereignty, lift that veil of darkness that has beset them. Many more may yet turn to Jesus as the Messiah (I pray this is so) and enter his kingdom through faith. At the end of the day, access to God’s eternal kingdom, for Jew and Gentile alike, comes by faith in Christ and him alone. Long ago the prophet Isaiah wrote some intriguing words about his people and ‘the servant of the LORD’: “I will lead blind Israel down a new path, guiding them along an unfamiliar way. I will make the darkness bright before them and smooth the road ahead of them. Yes, I will indeed do these things; I will not forsake them. But those who trust in idols, call them their gods – they will be turned away in shame” (Is. 42:16-17/NLT). God had strange paths then, and he has strange paths now.
- Hebrews chapter 8 particularly speaks of ‘a better covenant’ in/through Christ. Before I am accused of espousing ‘replacement theology’ and rejecting the Old Testament, let me quote the remarkable words of Heb. 8:7ff, “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said, ‘The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant (quotation from Jer. 31:31-34) with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with your forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant… I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.” [It is a pet theory of mine that many traditional Christians and churches are living by an obsolete rather than ‘new covenant’ in Christ, empowered by the life-giving Spirit] [cf a brilliantly researched article by Jon Zens: ‘This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!’ The Foundation for New Covenant Ethics and Ecclesiology]. In so many ways, Jesus is the ‘new Israel of God’ and so is his Church (cf Paul’s Galatian Letter; as also 1 Pet. 2; etc).
- We desperately need to re-discover and re-implement the biblical doctrine of ‘The Priesthood of All Believers.’ The ‘clergy-laity’ divide in traditional mainline denominations and even modern charismatic groups has paralysed the Church over centuries, and certainly in our time. I pastored Baptist churches in my country for 38 years, and can only say that ‘the priesthood of believers’ was regularly professed but never fully appreciated by our churches and pastors, including myself for that matter! [again I recommend Jon Zens’s excellent and very topical treatment, Celebrity Pastors: Getting to the Root of the Problem. cf GodsLeader.com]
So, ‘HOW HOLY IS THE HOLY LAND?’ I urge you to gather your own information and formulate your own answers to this complex question… All I know is that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive! Hallelujah!