August 17, 2018

The Heart of the Kingdom

By Chaplain Mike

“The kingdom vision of Jesus is a kingdom filled up with people who are noted by one word: love.” (One.Life, p. 48) The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.” (Gal. 5:6, MSG)

In the next chapter of Scot McKnight’s book, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, he examines Jesus’ call to a life of love.

McKnight approaches this by first examining our tendency as Christians to approach the life of faith as a matter of being “right”—having the right religious opinions and following the right religious practices. The religious authorities in Jesus’ day taught people to live “right” by obeying the scriptures. In order to help them know how to obey, the leaders clarified the commandments, adding laws designed to set forth situational applications of the “big-idea” laws God had given.

The Torah contained 613 laws. To these were added “halakot”—official religious rulings that set forth specific ways of keeping the laws. The intention may have been good. They were “applying” the Scriptures. They were being “practical”— (1) The Torah said, “Keep the Sabbath.” (2) People want to know how to do that, so (3) here’s a list of examples. But we all know how this works. It is not very long before the big idea gets forgotten while the rules remain. The life of faith thereafter becomes defined as merely keeping the rules, and the religious leaders and institutions become invested in making sure the rules get kept.

Jesus opposed this approach. Read Matthew 23 and you’ll see how adamant his opposition was. But Jesus did more than cry out against the halakot approach of the scribes and Pharisees. He replaced theirs with his own halakot. Do you want to know how to keep the 613 commands of God? Jesus ruled that they could all be fulfilled if we would focus on just one of them (in its two aspects)—Love God, and love your neighbor (Matt 22:34-40).

What Jesus said to the religulous of his day was this: You are fixated on your love of Torah and judging others by whether or not they live up to your standards and your rulings, but what you must understand, is that God gave us a Torah of love. (p. 52)

In one of the key chapters in One.Life, Scot McKnight argues that this love is at the very heart of the kingdom Jesus calls us to imagine and embrace.

Scot has written about this in detail before. His most popular book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others, is an examination of how Jesus’ halakot played out in his life and ministry and influenced every aspect of what he taught and did.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

Scot recommends that believers begin and end each day reciting “The Jesus Creed,” and that we recite it whenever it comes to mind throughout the day as a habit of recalling that Jesus’ kingdom is all about loving God and others. “The first word that should come to mind when we hear Jesus say the word “kingdom” is the word love.” (p. 53)

As nice as this sounds, we find it hard to get a handle on this. To show how our tendencies run, as I am typing these words tonight, my train of thought immediately starts heading down the track of application—Let’s see: Love God and love others. How do I do that? And I begin focusing on the ways and means of loving. I move from the “big idea” to the practical outworking. It’s so natural.

But it can become deadly. The next step is when I start making my own “rulings” about what love looks like. I start defining what it means to love God and others. I set up the game and clarify the rules. If I’m not careful, my focus will be on doing things that I have defined as love (following the “rules”) rather than responding in sensitive faith to the God who is present and active, and in appropriate acts of love to the actual persons I am dealing with in the given situation (following the Spirit). Just like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day focused more on defining who their neighbor was so that they could then love him, rather than asking, “How can I be a neighbor to everyone who comes across my path today?”

Agreeing with Jesus, and living after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostle Paul had a “law of freedom,” his own “halakot” for applying God’s command to love. When confronted with the call to love God and love others, Paul didn’t immediately try to come up with “practical applications” of the command. He didn’t make new laws to help us keep the “big idea” commandment. Instead, he said the way to go about fulfilling God’s call to love is to walk in the Spirit rather than trying to live under laws. He talks about his in Galatians 5—

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom….

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

• Galatians 5:13-18, MSG

It is by “walking in the Spirit” (as the more traditional translations have it) that we love others in the freedom of Christ. Walking in the Spirit, we will not carry out the desires of the flesh. Walking in the Spirit, we are free from a life that must be constantly defined and defended by “laws.” And the fruit of the Spirit—what the Spirit brings forth from our lives—is love (Gal 5:22).

Simchat Torah, Yales

This teaching can be frustrating for people who just want to be told what to do. We are constantly asking the “how” questions, thinking if we can just get the right, practical answers from a respected spiritual authority, then we can order our lives around their “halakot” and life will become a simple matter of “follow the yellow brick road.”

Entire churches today are trying to attract seekers with this “relevant” approach. They advertise “simple, practical” sermons, as if such messages can give people a clear template that will tidy up their lives. Some of it is just pop psychology and cultural “wisdom” dressed up in Christian terms. But much of it is “halakot”—rules for living designed to help people know “how” to keep God’s commandments; rules that turn into expectations that turn into laws that turn into prisons of moralism and legalism. It is a great problem for religion in general, and evangelicalism in particular.

But Jesus and Paul and the other Biblical writers won’t stand for it. The word from heaven is “Love God. Love your neighbor. Do it by walking in the Spirit.” Period. This is the heartbeat of life in the Kingdom of heaven. This is God’s dream that we are called to embrace. This is the world we are to imagine. This is his gift to us, through the love he demonstrated in the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Messiah Jesus. This is the “newness of life” (Rom 6:4) that we have been raised to walk in, in union with Christ, through our baptism. This is the life of possibility and beauty he poured out upon his people through the Holy Spirit. This is the new creation that is coming.

I, for one, refuse to add to that.



  1. Mike – do you and/or Scot believe that the Jesus Creed of Matt 22:34-40 is halakot, (a commentary in addition to) The Torah? Or is it a fulfillment of the Torah.
    Are we still under law (Torah) or under grace?
    I had a pastor who told me he believed the “not under law” in Galations meant “not under halkot”. He believed that Paul’s use of the term “not under Law” did NOT intend to reference the Ten Commandments – – in other words, he believed that Christians ARE still under the Ten Commandments, but just not under the cultural and dietary laws and not under the rabbinical commentary, the Talmud and Mishnah.

    • Steve,

      In Galations 3:23 it says: Until faith in Christ was shown to us as the way of becoming right with God, we were guarded by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until we could put our faith in the coming Savior.

      As well I believe it says somewhere that if you are going to try and be right with God by obeying the law, you have to obey all of it. And that comes with a curse. Scripture?

      Furthermore I would ask who obeys the Ten Commandments, as Jesus portrayed them in Matthew 5? No one. Only Jesus. So, there we go…….Galations 5:1 states that Christ really has set us free!

      That my brother Steve is my 2 cents.

    • Good question, Steve. I don’t have time to answer at the moment but will be back in a couple of hours for more discussion.

    • Steve, I would not put it quite the way that pastor did. The Christian’s relationship to “the Law” is an extremely complex subject, made even more complicated by the ambiguity at times as to what “the Law” means in any given context.

      The most basic idea behind us not being “under the Law” is found in Galatians 3-4. There Paul approaches the subject not as a “personal salvation” argument, but a historical or eschatological one. He sets forth three great eras of history—(1) Abraham, (2) The Law, (3) Christ.

      (1) The era under Abraham was an era of faith. Abraham did not have the Law, and yet he believed God and was counted righteous, and he received the promise of Christ.

      (2) Under Moses, God imposed the Law, and Paul argues it was for a specific purpose: to serve as Israel’s guardian until the Christ came and to serve as a revelation to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike, that we are all under sin.

      (3) Now that Christ has come, the purpose for the Law has ended. God’s promise has been fulfilled and we are now in the era of receiving the inheritance promised to Abraham. As in his era, this is an era of faith, but it goes beyond what he experienced because we are receiving everything he was looking forward to: full “sonship” in Christ (adult status), which includes the gift of the Spirit.

      So, in Paul’s view, we are no longer “under the Law” in this sense. It has served its historical purpose. What is written in the Scriptures describing the Law still reveals the character of God and his moral and relational standards for human beings, so in that sense, we are always responsible to live according to those standards. The Ten Commandments serve as a good example and summary of those standards and so I would urge, as Luther and other always have, to study them as God’s Word to us that reveal his divine expectations for behavior. But we are not “under the Law” in the sense that we have to enter the covenant that God made at Mt. Sinai with Moses and the Jews and live according to all those rules as part of the Jewish covenant community.

      I hope that helps.

  2. I read Galations chapter 5 this morning. And then I wrote about it on my blog. And then I read it again here.

    Hmmmmm…… Someone trying to tell me something?

    I should say so.

    Thanks CM!

  3. For any action, there is instruction. It is only logical to assume then, that when we are told to *do* something we don’t know how to do, we ask, “How?”

    Whether it’s how to love our neighbor or how to walk in the Spirit, I don’t see the “how” going away just because you changed the action.

    Unless you have a Spirit I can literally walk in, I’m going to ask, “How?” And your answer will determine what I *do.*

    • “…and the man wishing to justify himself asked ‘ Who is my neighbor?’ “

      • Christiane says:

        So many still circumscribe who their ‘neighbor’ is, as was recently highlighted when a Christian Church offered shelter to a group of Islamic people who were building a center in their neighborhood, until that center could be completed.

        The ‘firestorm’ that erupted included the notoriously shallow remark by Huckabee: ‘I don’t know what they could have been thinking.’

        All I can say, is ‘thank God’ that these Christian people helped their new neighbors, in the Name of Our Lord.
        The bonds of friendship and community were established between that Church and their new Islamic neighbors, to the glory of God’s unconditional love.

      • I can’t tell: are you accusing me of trying to justify myself? All I’m doing is admitting I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.

        • No accusation but a quote following the two greatest commandments. It’s a question of how and asking for clarification or a halakot. I found this scripture quote to perfectly illustrate the struggle between your point and the point of the article. If told to love our neighbor, we will ask how. If told to walk in the spirit, we will ask how. And yet the how should never eclipse the direct command… which is the point of the article.

          • And my point, which I’ve been coming to in a few of the IM articles, is that the “how” is inevitable, and it *will* eventually eclipse the command. This is what happens after all commands that are not straightforward and understandable from the beginning.

            For instance, I’m not going to ask how to pour milk more than once. But I can ask how to walk in the Spirit and get thousand of answers, so my “how” will lead to more and more questions that will eventually lead to a form of legalism.

            Legalism begins with good intentions, and I don’t see what IM is trying to teach us as leading away from legalism, just a new kind.

    • Amanda, if Paul tells us “Walk in the Spirit,” then he is telling us that the Spirit himself will lead us to know “how” in any given situation.

      Of course, this does not deny the need for spiritual formation through Bible reading, prayer, contemplation, worship, and so on. Indeed, it reinforces it. The point of these practices is not to learn “how” to obey God, but to increase our capacity to listen to the Spirit in the moment and follow his leading from the heart.

      The vast majority of the commands and exhortations in the Bible are “big idea” commands—love one another, be angry and sin not, be kind and forbearing, avoid immorality, etc. None of these commands tell me the specifics of “how” to love the people in my life, etc. Knowing how to do that only comes from within me, from a heart filled with the Spirit that is becoming mature in character and practiced in wisdom.

      It’s like the difference between children and adults. We must give children specific directions—do this, don’t do that. They are not mature enough to be able to think through situations and make informed choices. We shouldn’t expect to have to do that for adults. If we do, we consider them immature.

      This is Paul’s argument in Galatians 3-4. Israel, like children, needed the law to set specific boundaries and give them specific “how to’s” that they had to follow. But now that Christ has come, we are no longer children, because God has sent the Spirit into our hearts, and we no longer need the laws to be our guardian. Faith in Christ moves us into “adult” status, where we make decisions about how to love God and love others in any situation from within, not because we have been given specific rules to follow.

      • Internet Monk Reader says:

        Very wise response there CM!

        You’re right about the ‘big idea’ commands. Once the big ideas turn into prescriptive instructions, then we’ve gone beyond what the Bible has intended and we’ve entered into legalism.

      • that is a great overview of galatians 3 and 4. it adds to what has been on my mind lately. thanx

      • How does the spirit “lead” us to know what to do? You need to explain that. A Lutheran would say you look for the spirit only where e is promised to be, in word and sacrament. Walking in the spirit means being receivers of Gods grace shown through Christ on the cross. And we receive grace by hearing the gospel and receiving his sacrament. We are only receivers of grace, never earners. Trust in that grace is simply faith, a gift of God we also receive when we receive grace. Faith isn’t earned either. Walking in the spirit means being perfectly passive in relation to God.

        • Boaz, I think Lutheranism is weak at this very point. The promise of the New Covenant is this: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”

          This is not about earning anything, but it is about the new obedience of Christians (those who have the Spirit). The Spirit has been given that we might walk in God’s ways. You might also look at Rom 8, where being “led by the Spirit” is identified with not living according to the flesh and putting to death the (sinful) deeds done in the body. Similarly, in Gal 6, “walking in the Spirit” is linked with producing the fruit of love and not participating in the works of the flesh. So, I would say your statement, “Walking in the spirit means being receivers of Gods grace shown through Christ on the cross” is inadequate.

          I affirm that the Spirit comes to us in Word and Sacrament, but I also believe he comes not only to give forgiveness but also to form us spiritually. While I think most evangelicals go overboard in talking about “transformation” (see several earlier iMonk posts), I also would maintain that many Lutherans do not go far enough. Part of the “newness” that came with the new covenant is “newness of life” (Rom 6:4), or as the Augsburg Confession terms it, “new obedience.”

      • Let’s face it, CM, I may be an adult age-wise, but I am still a child.

        Instructions, please.

  4. I am in complete agreement with Chaplain Mike’s post, my only question being: who and what IS this “Spirit” within whom we are to walk in order to fulfill that which Christ would ask of us? The Third Person of the Trinity, through the years, has become, not an identity, but a “feeling” to some, an “emotional experience” to others, and, to others, nothing more than an excuse to proclaim their own authority in acquiring health, wealth, and prosperity. Will the “real” Holy Ghost please stand up!……

  5. Randy Thompson says:

    It seems to me that the “real” Holy Spirit is the One who produces in us what the (10) Commandments require, as taught by Jesus. (See Matthew 5.) In other words, the Holy Spirit “looks like” Matthew 5 as well as Galatians 5 (the fruit of the Spirit).

    Did Paul ever make a distinction within the Law between what’s permanent and what’s halkot? I don’t think he did (although I’m willing to be corrected on that point). He uses one of the 10 Commandments in Romans 7, the one on coveting, to illustrate the inadequacy of the commandments. That’s decidedly not “halkot”!

    The only place where OT “Law” seems to be imposed on the church is at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which apparently reflects a Jewish tradition as to the minimal requirements for Gentiles to enter the world to come (cf. “The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament:). Arguably, the concern here is peace between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and boundaries between pagans and Greek Christians.

    Finally, wasn’t the Law the requirements of the Covenant God made with His OT people? Since a New Covenant is now in effect in and through Christ, the “Holy” Spirit in us now works in us the good God defined at Sinai.

    • Randy, I think I would agree. In the context of my discussion with that pastor (described above), he said that Christians who believe they are not “under” the Ten Commandments are antinomian (against the Law). He made no distinction between placing yourself under the law and obeying it (OT style), vs. fulfilling it anyway via the power of the Holy Spirit, walking in freedom and love as per the Jesus Creed of Matt. 23.

      I asked him how it was in Hebrews that Jesus is our High Priest *and* King, something that could not occur if Jesus was considered complying with OT law, and from the tribe of Judah. He somehow felt that was a cultural law, not part of the Ten Commandments. I’m not sure how the Ten Commandments get to rank higher in his mind than the rest of the commandments in Leviticus.

    • Finally, wasn’t the Law the requirements of the Covenant God made with His OT people? Since a New Covenant is now in effect in and through Christ, the “Holy” Spirit in us now works in us the good God defined at Sinai.

      This is correct. The OT Law was, as I like to say, the ‘Document’ that regulated the Covenant between God and Israel. Gentiles were never a party to that Covenant (nor are we as Christians), thus not under the Law, which is why the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) quickly dispensed with that question and moved on to address what was required to maintain fellowship between Jews and Gentiles in the church. It is also interesting, if one follows Paul’s argument in Rom 1-3, that when summarizing his argument in 3:19-20, he notes that the Law ‘speaks’ to those under the Law – the Jew – placing him in the same sinking boat as the pagans he condemns (whom Paul has already addressed in 1:18-32). Thus, the way to righteousness under the New Covenant is faith in Jesus, regardless of ethnicity, ‘special status’ under the Old Covenant, or works.

      As Christians, we are under a New Covenant with a new ‘law’ – the Law of Christ, which is the Law of Love/Spirit. Jesus (as well as the Apostles) teach us what that ‘looks like’ (so in a sense that might be halakah). The good news – we can eat pork chops. The bad news – the standard under the New Covenant is higher than the OT Law (e.g. Matt 5).

      It is also noteworthy that both Matt 5 and Gal 5 largely deal with ‘relationship’ issues. The Pharisees were quite satisfied with personal piety, but as Jesus said, they neglected the ‘weightier’ matters of the Law – mercy, justice, and faithfulness (which are largely relational). The irony is that modern Evangelicals are much more concerned about personal piety than issues of mercy, justice, and faithfulness. Where does that put ‘us’ vis-a-vis the Pharisees?

  6. Walking in the Spirit, without someone telling us how, is a life’s work. As CM noted earlier, it is a maturation process. I started it in 1976 or should I say it started in me and I feel many times like I am just beginning. Discernment (keen hearing) is what it takes and that takes trial and plenty of error. If humility and an earnest desire for the Word are cornerstones, we eventually hear and see as adults. We enter into our godhood. Haltingly, clumsily, yes but His work starts taking a fuller form inside and outside of us.
    No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

  7. I have exhausted my capacity for more knowledge on the “how tos”. 1 Cor. 13 tells me where all my knowledge gets me without love – even the subject of my knowledge is love for God and others. St. Augustine says “it is love that knows him”. Love knows the beloved and love in action teaches us to know rightly, however, knowlege is love’s servant in the order of things, not the other way around. We can be in love with knowledge of God but not God and we can be in love with the idea of loving others without ever truly loving them. Kingdom love is not a sentimental feeling toward another but the Person who is love, loving in me.