Dr Andy Angel is vicar of St Andrew’s, Burgess Hill in West Sussex, and has just published an intriguing book The Jesus You Really Didn’t Know, exploring the importance of judgement and obedience in the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. I asked Andy about the book and the issues that it raises.
IP: You talk about the prominence of judgement in the teaching of Jesus as an ‘elephant in the room’. What was it that led you to notice this? How prominent do you think judgement is in the gospels?
AA: The first time it struck me was near the beginning of my ordained ministry. About fifty curates were asked during a training session how many had preached on judgment in the last three years, and only three of us put up our hands. From then on, I began to notice how readily people preach on the God’s love and how easily people gloss over his judgment—which is interesting as Jesus spoke often about the coming judgment. For example, the gospel of Matthew has Jesus talk of this judgment in 20 out of 28 chapters.
By contrast, nowhere does Matthew’s gospel specifically mention the love God shows us. In fact, neither do Mark or Luke. Only John talks specifically of the love God has for us. The basic plot of all four gospels is the call to repentance and following Jesus in the light of the coming judgment – but only John explicitly makes the love God has for us central to the plot of the gospel.
IP: Rob Bell was perhaps the most widely read proponent of the idea that Jesus mostly taught about love, not judgement. What do you think Bell gets wrong in his reading of the gospels?
AA: Lots! One example is his attempt to re-read Matt 25:46 as not being “eternal punishment” but a “period of correction” in which people could still repent after death and enter eternal life. This seems to be key to his argument that love wins over judgment in the end. He claims that “age” (Greek aiōn) refers to a “particular intensity of experience that transcends time” and that “punishment” (Greek kolasis) means “correction” as the term was originally used of pruning. So, he argues, Jesus did not speak of “eternal punishment” but of this “period of correction” after death in which people could repent.
But neither aiōn nor kolasis mean the things Bell suggests anywhere else in the Bible or the Apocrypha. The Jewish biblical tradition on which Jesus draws never used these terms in this way, so it is wholly unlikely that Jesus was talking of “an intense period of correction”. He was talking of eternal punishment. If we fear judgment, I think the question we need to ask is not “how can I try to make these texts mean something different?” but “can I trust that the God of all justice can judge the world fairly?” – and I think God can.
IP: You describe the idea that Jesus brings us God’s love and grace, but makes no demands on us, as a ‘comforting myth that simply is not true’. What is the evidence from the gospels that Jesus was actually a ‘teacher like Moses’ who didn’t just die for our sins but taught us how to live in obedience?
AA: The parable of the wise and foolish builder captures it well: “everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man … and everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man …” (Matt 7:24-6). The words Jesus refers to are his teachings – not least in the Sermon on the Mount which finishes with this parable. Jesus makes it clear that he is not so much interested in our knowing his words but in our doing his words. And he does demand everything from us:“if anyone wants to follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus asks for our all.
But Jesus does not simply tell us what to do, he personally commits to teaching us how to live. He said to his disciples and says to us all “take my yoke (which means ‘my teaching’) upon you and learn from me” (Matt 11:29). He does not heap moral burdens on us and leave us to struggle on our own. He promises to be with us throughout our lives, every day, helping us to live his way. That is one of the many reasons why prayer and Bible reading are so vital.
IP: It is often claimed that Jesus disregarded the law. Is that true?
AA: No. One of the really interesting things about this project was going through every text in Matthew where Jesus speaks of the law or is said to disregard the law. When you look into it, Jesus does not do this once. For example: Jesus did not break sabbath law. The law does not forbid healing on the sabbath. Nor does the law forbid plucking the odd ear of corn, so he did not justify his disciples breaking the sabbath law. What Jesus did do in both these instances was to suggest that there was no need to obey the traditions that the Pharisees had added to the law.
What is more, Jesus obeyed the law even in small details. For example, he wore garments with fringes as instructed in the law (Deut 22:12, mentioned in Matt 9.20, 14.36, Mark 6.56 and Luke 8.44). But this should come as no surprise, since his central teachings “love God, love your neighbour” come from the law (Matt 22:34-30; Lev 19:18; Deut 5:16-20). Even his declaring foods clean did not break kosher rules but only declared that foods eaten with unwashed hands were clean, as Matthew makes clear (Matt 15:20). If you think about it, it makes no sense at all to say that Jesus replaces the law with love (as some people do) because his teaching to love God and our neighbors as ourselves comes from the law.
IP: Is the combination of law and grace that we find in the teaching of Jesus also present in Paul?
AA: Yes, but to answer the question biblically we need to change it. The Bible does not talk of “law and grace” so much as “grace and law”. God showed grace in liberating his people from slavery in Egypt, and then he taught them to live in grace and freedom by giving them the law. God promised to show grace to his sinful people by taking them out of exile in Babylon, and then to write the law on their hearts so that they could live in freedom and justice.
Jesus called people to repentance, to turn away from their sins, and then to live as he taught them. Paul wrote of Christ dying for our sin and our dying to our sin so we should put away our former sinful ways and live God’s way. Grace always comes first. God frees us from slavery, injustice and the power of sin. But grace does not stop at liberation or forgiveness. Grace continues in our learning to live in grace, love, justice and holiness. That is the work of the Spirit in us.
IP: You note ‘five words that every Christian should learn’. What do you think are the lessons here for the teaching ministry of the Church, and the discipleship of Christians?
AA: I think we need to get real. The five words are taken from the great commission (Matt 20:18-20)—authority, teach, obey, command and judgment (“end of the ages” is when Jesus comes again to judge). Jesus instructs his disciples to teach the nations to obey everything he has commanded. This may not have the “feel” many people in contemporary churches prefer as we like to make our own lifestyle choices. But Jesus’ teaching does not really leave us that option in areas of life about which he teaches. He assumes he has authority and if we are going to call ourselves his disciples, we need to acknowledge his authority and live accordingly.
We also need to get real with each other. Jesus has an amazing vision of a church where people acknowledge their faults in humility, and in grace help each other to grow. Sadly, I have come across too many churches where we do not open up to each other, acknowledge our frailty and sin, and accept help from each other in our weakness and vulnerability so that we can all grow in holiness and love. I long to see churches grow as communities where broken people feel safe to share vulnerability and find themselves growing in love and character as Jesus teaches us all how to live.
IP: How does Jesus’ call to obedience affect us pastorally? You share at the beginning some painful episodes in your own story; surely those who have been hurt need to know the compassion of Jesus, rather than his demands?
AA: Yes, and not quite. You allude to my sharing in the book that I was sexually abused as a cathedral chorister. Certainly this was painful, and for many years I avoided even thinking about it. But that experience formed in me wrong ways of thinking about myself and wrong expectations, none of which were life-giving. They needed changing if I was to learn to live a more fulfilling life – to live anything like the life God created me to live. They were never going to change without being challenged. My own experience in prayer and reflecting on Scripture over a number of years was that Jesus showed me his love by putting his finger on what needed changing and giving me the strength to step into new ways of living by the power of his Spirit.
The initial step came during prayer in Bolivia (while my nana was praying for me in Cardiff and had a vision of me stepping out of a cage). Other steps came through facing up to Scriptures, through prophecy and in prayer. But every step of the way – sometimes in tears – I knew that Jesus was surrounding me with his love, even when taking those steps unnerved me. I have learned that Jesus’ demands come from his compassion, that his service is perfect freedom. But this we can only learn from experience, from letting Jesus teach each one of us the joy of obedience.
IP: It has often been observed that the church needs to offer good news, rather than tell people how sinful they are. How do your findings here affect the way we communicate the person of Jesus to those outside?
Outside? Who said anything about teaching people outside the church? Like I said earlier, grace comes first. When we know the love of Jesus in his dying for us, and when we have given our lives wholeheartedly to him – then we begin to learn how to live his way. How can we learn from the loving Lord Jesus who longs to re-order our lives in grace if we do not know that Jesus? And we cannot know Jesus apart from accepting his forgiveness of our sins and giving our lives wholly over to him. When we do, he changes us. As we worship, share fellowship, read his Word and pray together, Jesus makes his presence as our teacher felt among us by changing and growing us in love and holiness. When that happens, it does make an impression on people because they see the difference. Now that difference, when and where it happens, really does communicate the person of Jesus to those outside the church as they see that something is happening (even if they try to explain it differently: “but surely you’re just really nice people” rather than “your Jesus really is amazing”).
Sadly, too many of us are settling for cheap grace – the attempt to possess forgiveness without being open to Jesus changing our lives and characters. Worse still, we pursue “worshiptainment” – finding the most professionally produced worship services in the hope that their amazing performances will quench our spiritual thirst. We confuse spirituality with aesthetics. Too often this just creates an addiction to aesthetic experience which does not find fulfilment because we have turned our focus away from Jesus by making an idol of “worship”. I think we have a lot of hard work ahead of us as contemporary western churches to get back on track. But none of this fazes Jesus who waits patiently and invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves and learn from him – and it is there we find rest for our souls.
IP: Thanks very much for your time Andy!
Andy Angel is vicar of St Andrew’s, Burgess Hill. He trained for Christian ministry after teaching in secondary schools for ten years. He spent four years in parish ministry in Dartford before training others for Christian ministry in the South East (at SEITE) and more recently at St John’s college, Nottingham where he was the Vice Principal and taught New Testament. He has written books on angels, praying through times of suffering and the second coming.
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