New Testament Christianity by J B Phillips







The second great quality which New Testament Christianity exhibits seems to me to be Hope. Hope runs high in the inspired pages; it is not a superior form of pious wishful thinking but hope based solidly upon the character and purpose of God Himself. But for us, during the last fifty years particularly, the quality of hope has ebbed away from our common life almost imperceptibly. I say again that we are affected far more than we know, far more than we should be, by the pre­vailing atmosphere of thought around us. Christians, at any rate as far as western Europe is concerned, do not seem to exhibit much more hope than their non‑Chris­tian contemporaries. There is an unacknowledged and unexpressed fear in the hearts of many people that some­how the world has slipped beyond the control of God. Their reason may tell them that this cannot be so, but the constant assault of world tensions and the ever­-present threat of annihilation by nuclear weapons makes people feel that the present set‑up is so radically different that the old rules no longer apply. Without realising it, many of us are beginning to consent in our inmost hearts to the conclusion that we live in a hopeless situation.


It is very interesting to look back to the bouncing opti­mism of a period only fifty or sixty years ago. I have in my possession bound volumes of two of England's most popular magazines for the years 1897 to 1903. As may be imagined, they make fascinating reading. Britain's star is in the ascendant, and she is unquestionably the richest and most powerful country in the world. Both the cost of living and the level of taxation are fantastic­ally low. Most industries appear to be booming. The genie of Science is just beginning to be put to the service of mankind, and its boundless possibilities fill the scene with hope. Already aeroplanes and airships are forecast, the radio‑telephone and even broadcasting and tele­vision are prophesied as being just around the corner. The total conquest of disease is looked forward to as something not very far ahead in man's triumphant for­ward progress. In the glossy pages of these magazines you get the general impression that the dark ages are safely behind, and that man will now stride confidently forward in the light of Science. It is not without signifi­cance that among the contributors to these magazines there frequently appears the name of that gifted scien­tific humanist, Mr. H. G. Wells.


This safe, comfortable world, with its boundless optimism, was shattered for ever by the 1914‑18 War. I do not think that ever again has that hopeful, almost bumptiously hopeful, atmosphere reappeared in this country. Quickly or slowly, people began to see that Science by itself is not enough, and that trust in human nature by itself is not enough. Mr. H. G. Wells himself died in bitter disillusionment, having just completed a book written out of his frantic disappointment called, Mind at the End of its Tether.


The Second World War put a final end to any easy hopes or shallow optimism, and except in places which are particularly fortunate, or where people do not think or read about what is happening to the world, we do not find today any trace of those shining hopes of the early 1900s. Indeed, that particular kind of hope, so well ex­pressed and illustrated in these old magazines, seems almost incredible to us today. It is not simply that we have become disillusioned about human nature through the evidence of two world wars and the contemporary evidence of atheistic Communism today, but that all of us are far more aware of the world with its tensions and problems than our cheerful forefathers ever could have been. Vastly improved methods of communication and travel have meant the end of a safe, complacent "parochial" outlook. Even if we try to detach ourselves personally from the world's burdens, we are assailed by newspapers, radio, and television, and we can scarcely help feeling something of the world's pains and prob­lems. This, I venture to think, is by no means altogether a bad thing, for it means that for the very first time in human history a great many intelligent men and women are realising how interdependent we are as human beings. Nations, even whole continents, are awakening from the sleep of centuries, and while violent national­ism flares up from time to time, there is a growing sense among responsible people of all nations that we are "all in it together". If we are to have hope amidst all the menaces and threats of today's world, it has got to be a sturdy and well‑founded hope. There can never be a re­turn to the shallow optimism of those whose outlook was both narrow and complacent.


At this point we must distinguish between what is genuine hope and what was called in the Second World War "wishful thhiking". Hope must always be based upon realities, in the end upon God, the great Reality. But wishful thinking, though it often sounds like hope, is nothing more than an expression of what we should like to happen. Of course, in our ordinary speech we all of us say such things as, "I hope so‑and‑so", when all we really mean is that we wish so‑and‑so would happen. This does not matter very much in common parlance as long as we are quite clear in our own minds that there is a definite distinction between expressing a wish and possessing a hope with real grounds for it. For example, a young man may say, "I hope I have got through this exam". If he has worked hard and done a good paper, the hope is per­fectly genuine. But if, in fact, he has done little or no work beforehand and answered the paper carelessly, it is not a genuine hope; it is merely an expression of his wishes. Now, being human, we all do this kind of thing from time to time. A man may quite naturally say, "I hope I don't die of some painful disease", or "I hope I don't live to be a burden to my relations". This is per­fectly understandable and right, but not a hope - only an expression of what he wishes may happen.


We could, then, fairly say without being at all cynical that a very great deal of what passes for hope today is either wishful expectation or the expressed reaction of a mind which is not prepared to face realities. We shall not find in the New Testament, I think, a single instance of hope used in any but its genuine sense; that is, hope rooted in the good Purpose of God. You will remember how James in his New Testament letter is particularly severe in his condemnation of the "pious hope" for other people's good which does nothing practical to implement the wish (James 2:15‑16). He says in effect that if you should see people cold or hungry or without proper clothes, and you say, "Well, God bless you ‑ I hope you will soon be all right!" what on earth is the good of that? This sort of pious hope is still with us. People will say, for example, 'I do hope they will soon find a cure for cancer", but many of them would not dream of giving a penny to any anti‑cancer research fund. Or they will say, 'I do hope something is done for all those thousands and thousands of poor refugees and homeless people over there in Europe". But not one in a hundred who expresses such a hope does anything to make it come true. We have to rid our minds of both pious hopes and wishful thinking before we get down to solid, genuine hope.


The inspired writings of the New Testament are neither optimistic nor pessimistic; they are very far from being enthusiastic outpourings of people expressing their ideals and painting rosy pictures of a dream‑world which might one day be true. Nor, on the other hand, do the writers underline the sinfulness and depravity of human nature. We are reading what was written by men at first‑hand grips with realities, and it is both astonishing and heartening to find how hopeful they are. Unless we happen to have studied ancient history, we may not have realised how remarkable are the bright hopes of the early band of Christians. The surrounding pagan world was dark; it was full of fear, cruelty, and superstition. For the most part the old religions had failed. Human life had become cheap, common morality was in many cases very lightly regarded, and belief in a world to come was almost non‑existent. The English poet Swinburne, probably feeling that Victorian piety had taken away the joy and colour from life, wrote these bitter words about Christ:


"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world

has grown grey from Thy breat.."


But if Swinburne had studied the history of the Church immediately following the death of the "pale Galilean", he would have found exactly the reverse was true. The surrounding world was indeed grey, sometimes black with corruption and all kinds of evil, but in the Young Church there was gay and indomitable hope. Nothing could quench this hope, for these men and women now knew through Christ what God was like, and they now knew for certain that death was a defeated enemy. While the pagan world had largely become sodden with self-­indulgence and ridden by the fear of death, the brave, new fellowship of believers in Christ was a light and a flame in the darkness; it was a fellowship of hope.


All hope in the New Testament, as I have said above, rests upon the Nature and Purpose of God. These men and women are hopeful because, as Jesus Christ told men, "with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27). Those who had come to believe with complete conviction that God loves the world, that He has visited it in Person and shown His power in transforming the lives of the most unlikely characters, were not readily disposed to lose hope in His ultimate Purpose. But of course that hope was not limited to the present temporary scene that we call life. The centre of gravity of their hope was in the eternal and not in the temporal world. This was the quality which both baffled and infuriated their enemies as fierce persecution began to arise. The pagan world, with its ever‑present horror of death, could scarcely believe the evidences of its senses when it found in the Christian martyrs men and women to whom death was not a disaster at all. To the pagan mind to take a man's life was to take his all, but to attack Christians by sword, torture, or the atrocities of the arena was to invite defeat. Even if you killed them, they slipped through your fingers to be with their Lord for ever!


Now, although New Testament Christians doubtless prayed, as we do, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven", and although they therefore doubtless worked and prayed for the improve­ment of the world in which they lived, their hope rested upon God, not merely upon what He could do in this world, but upon His high mysterious Purpose. Of comparatively recent years the centre of our faith has be­come, at any rate in some quarters, more and more earthbound. We are concerned with the Christian atti­tude to housing, to social problems, to juvenile delin­quency, to international relationships, and indeed to every department of human life. This is fine so far as it goes, but sometimes one gets the impression that Chris­tians are "falling over backwards" to disavow their other‑worldliness. Yet to have the soul firmly anchored in Heaven rather than grounded in this little sphere is far more like New Testament Christianity.


In the here‑and‑now there are many flagrant injus­tices which remain unjudged, many problems which re­main unsolved, and many loose ends which are never tied up. There are also, in the transitory life of this planet, serious limitations which God has imposed upon His own working through the risky gift of what we call "free‑will". Such factors as sheer ignorance, lack of faith, disobedience, or downright refusal to obey the truth quite plainly inhibit the operation of the Spirit of God. We can read how such things inhibited the power of Jesus Christ Himself and similarly limited the power of the vigorous Young Church. If Christian hope were a kind of optimistic humanism restricted merely to what happens in this passing world, it would be a poor look­out indeed. As Paul rightly remarked, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Corinthians 15:19).


Yet, as we look at today's Christians, is it not true that many of them are earthbound? They have been affected far more than they know by the Communist gibe about "pie in the sky" and similar thrusts suggesting that Christianity deals with the shadowy "spiritual" values, and refers all insoluble "real" difficulties to an imagin­ary heaven. The suggestion is that the politician, the psychiatrist, the social worker, the doctor, the nurse, and a host of others are left to cope with the tensions and muddles of the here‑and‑now. Christians have sometimes allowed themselves to be swayed more than they should be by jeers at their "spiritual" and "other‑worldly" point of view. In defence they make a determined effort to prove that the Christian Faith is extremely relevant in every department of human existence. Consequently, it is not uncommon, at any rate in this country, to have a positive riot of advertising the Faith under such titles as "Christianity and the Home", "Christianity and the Family", Christianity and World Peace", "Christianity and Daily Work", "Christianity and Local Govern­ment", "Christianity and Education", "Christianity and Sex" etc. Now, all this is fine so far as it goes, for it is undeniably true that when people owe a heart‑loyalty to Jesus Christ it will affect the way they behave in all their human relationships. But Christianity is not a kind of salve which can be applied to a given human situa­tion. It is and has always been a matter of winning in­dividuals to give their heart‑loyalty to Christ and to the fellowship of Christians. From such a fellowship Chris­tians can indeed permeate the society in which they live and work. But to say, for example, "if only all school­teachers were practising Christians how wonderful the world would be" is a waste of time. You cannot apply Christianity "in the mass" like that. Even in the most vigorous and flourishing days of the Young Church the followers of the Way were a tiny minority. It can do no harm to point out from time to time how revolutionised our various institutions would be if their members were all practising Christians. But if this is the limit of our hope, we are laying up for ourselves bitter disappoint­ment.


The Christian who is spiritually linked to the timeless life of God, and is, not by courtesy title but in reality, a son of God, cannot escape a certain painful tension throughout his earthly life. He is only a temporary resi­dent here; his home, his treasure, the final fulfilment of his hope, does not lie in this transitory rife at all. He must resist the temptation to withdraw from this benighted, sin‑infected world, and spend all his spare time in pietis­tic reflection of the world to which he is bound. He must hold fast to the belief that God is active and contem­porary, working wherever He is given opportunity, in the present passing scene. "My Father is busy up to this very moment," said Christ, "and so am I" (John 5:17). The servant is in the same position as his Master. He, too, must be busy as his Father is busy. His love and concern must be to some degree a reflection of the God Who "so loved the world" that He would go to any length to rescue and redeem it. But if the world rejects the truth, if the world wilfully refuses to follow the revealed pattern of living, the Christian need not for one moment think that the Faith to which he is committed has failed, even if to the very end of what we call time upon this planet those who own allegiance to the Unseen King remain a small minority. This does not disprove the truth and validity of the Christian Faith. Seen, so to speak, from the angels' point of view, it is simply the tragedy of one little planet refusing to see and recognise the Light. After what we call death, the Christian will be able to see the signifi­cance of the next stage. It would indeed be difficult to find any evidence in the New Testament that the end of this earthly experiment that we call life is the world­wide acceptance of Christ and the universal establish­ment of His Kingdom. Many excellent Christians seem to regard this as the ultimate goal of Christian teaching, preaching, worshipping, and witnessing. Yet so far as I can discover, apart from cheery hymns usually sung in optimistic periods between world wars, this rosy view be­longs entirely to isolated texts of Scripture. One is, "For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). I for one am rather doubtful whether that is meant to be a prophecy of the universal acceptance of Christ. Another comes from that strange book in which John is told in one of his visions that, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 11:15). But this prophecy if studied in its context is a prophecy not of universal acceptance but of universal judgment. Truth has finally judged error, and that this is no popular event is shown in verse 18 when we read that "the nations were angry".


It is impossible without being dishonest to dismiss the question of New Testament hope without mention­ing the Second Coming of Christ. We may freely admit that the early Christians were wrong in thinking that Christ would return in power within their lifetime. It is possible to detect in the writings of Paul, for example, a change of atmosphere in his letters to the Thessalonians (which were probably his earliest), and what is probably his last letter, the letter to Titus. But even in the latter Paul refers to the "looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). The hope may have become deferred in its fulfilment, but it is still a very real hope. New Testa­ment Christians may well have modified their early views as to the immediacy of Christ's return, yet the fact of His coming again in judgment of the world is always implicit in their thinking and hoping. We need to re­member that among the early Christians were quite a number who were actually present when the Son of God ascended back to Heaven ‑ a symbolic action, of course, but historically true. Such men would not readily forget the words of the heavenly messenger who told them quite plainly that "this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).


Now, unhappily for us, the whole subject of the Second Coming of Christ has been for many years the play­ground of cranks and fanatics. This has made us not only shy of dealing with the question ourselves but reluc­tant to believe in "the blessed hope" as a fact at all. Various people, especially within the last sixty years or so, have manipulated texts of Holy Scripture with little regard to context to prove that Christ would return on this or that day. For example, in my own experience I remember a man in 1934 hiring the Queen's Hall in London solemnly to warn the British Empire that Jesus Christ would return in Person on, I think, the 24th June of that year. So convinced was he of his calculations that he stated at the time that if he were wrong he would "sink into well‑merited obscurity". He left himself no loophole for later revision of the time‑table as others have done, and I presume he still lives in his obscurity. This example is only one of hundreds of misguided people who have thought they could calculate what, on Jesus' own admission, was known only to the Father (Mark 13:32). But I really don't see why because this important New Testa­ment hope has been the stamping‑ground of the fanatical we should be cheated altogether of what was essentially a part of early Christian teaching. Perhaps, as in other aspects of Christian truth, we need to look at the matter with fresh eyes.


With all the advancement of human knowledge in a score of different realms, we still have no clue at all as to the "why" of our existence on this planet. We may believe that the planet itself cooled down from a mass of gaseous vapour thrown off by the sun, and in several million years, in an ascending scale of living creatures, a self‑conscious animal whom we call homo sapiens finally appeared. Alternatively, we may believe that creation took place in a series of "leaps", and that the last leap forward corresponds to the time when primitive man emerged from the animal creation. Whichever view we hold, we are not given in the Bible, nor have we dis­covered elsewhere, very much in the way of explanation of the huge eon‑long experiment that is being conducted on the surface of this planet. Christians believe, as has already been said, that this observable, detectable life is only the physical outcrop of a spiritual drama; that, although much of the life that we see around us in nature, in animals, and in men is physical or at least detectable by physical means, yet ultimately the sig­nificance of the whole affair is spiritual. The world is a temporary stage for man's actions, his body the tem­porary clothes for his life here only; the real meaning of things does not lie in their appearance but in what they signify. That, in passing, may explain why Christians are so disturbed with what they call the materialism of the present age. They are disturbed because the materialist cannot see beyond the material world. He thinks, in his blindness, that those things we at best use and enjoy in passing are somehow realities and to be pursued and enjoyed for their own sake. But the Christian accepts life as a preparation or training for something infinitely fuller and more satisfying that lies beyond the present physical limitations of existence. The Christian knows that this assumption is more than an assumption, for the moment he is aligned with the purpose and life of God through Christ he feels in his bones, if that is not too crude and earthly an expression, that he is now one with the timeless life of the universe. He refuses to give his heart to, or be taken in by, the values and pleasures of this passing world. He does not hesitate to use all that is good and beautiful and true, partly because he knows that his God gives him "richly all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17), and partly because he knows that in all life's impermanent beauties and pleasures, there is the promise of the real and permanent which he is thoroughly convinced will exceed his wildest expectations. But even the Christian, for all this satisfying and hopeful conviction, does not know the meaning of the mystery of life, and if he is wise he does not pretend to. He has enough light to light him on his way, but there are a great many gaps in his knowledge. When he says, "one day we shall under­stand", he is by no means always uttering a pious plati­tude. Quite frequently he is voicing a solid conviction, a genuine facet of hope. At present his vision is severely limited, and that is probably just as well if his sanity is to be preserved. But when he is free from the limitations of temporal life, he has every hope of being able to know as surely as he is at present known (see I Corinthians 13:12).


Now, to the Christian by far the most significant fact of history is the Personal Visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ. He may well stand amazed at the manner of this quiet slipping into the stream of history. That humble birth in an obscure country is probably very far from the manner most of us would have chosen for the personal entry of the Son of God. The Christian simply does not know why empires rose and fell, why millions of ordinary people lived and loved and died in dozens of different nations before ever God decided the right moment had come for His Personal Visit to this planet. There must be a higher wisdom at work than mere human planning. Strip all the decoration away from the Christmas story, and we can see the almost in­credible humility of that great act of God. Now, if the claims of Christ were true and we accept them, we do not argue about God's wisdom in choosing a particular family in a particular country at a particular time for the birth of Jesus because we know so little of the total issues involved; we simply accept an action of wisdom far higher than our own. Yet to the neat and tidy mind of the human planner few things could be more untidy historically than the entry of God into the world nearly two thousand years ago. The might of Babylon, the wis­dom of Egypt, and the glory of Greece had disappeared. The vast Roman Empire was already beginning to show signs of decay. Even the small nation of the Jews, among whom God chose to be born, had travelled a long way from its spiritual hey‑day. Some centuries had elapsed since there had been a genuine prophetic voice speaking the Word of the Lord, and the Holy Land was no more than an occupied territory of little importance. The situation and conditions generally would hardly have seemed to any human planner opportune for so unique an occasion as the entry of God Himself into the world. Speaking reverently, if the planning had been in our hands we should probably have chosen that the Son of God should be born into one of the best families. We should like to have been sure that, from the point of view of education, culture, social contacts, and all those other things which we think are so important for our chil­dren, everything was ideally arranged for the most im­portant Baby the world had ever seen. But how different is what God actually did from what we might have expected Him to do! The Divine Planning obviously springs from a knowledge and wisdom both higher and deeper than our own.


Planners as we are, if we envisage the Second Coming of Christ at all, we see Him returning in triumph upon a scene already largely perfected. We think it would be a fine thing if the world were neat and tidy, all problems were solved, all tensions were relaxed, understanding and friendship were world‑wide, health and wealth were at their highest peak, when Christ returned, not this time as a helpless babe, but as a King in power and glory. Of one thing we can be quite certain ‑ that this high, un­fathomable wisdom of God works on quite a different plane from any human planning. The time of the irrup­tion of eternity into time, the moment for God to call the end to the long experiment that we call life, will not be made in consultation with human planners! Judging from His previous action in human history, God is perfectly capable of choosing an unusual and unlikely moment, as it will appear to human beings. Indeed, if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, His return to the world or the winding‑up of the time and space set‑up, whichever way we look at it, is to be in the middle of strife, tension, and fear. In the letters of the New Testa­ment it is the same: the coming of Christ is a blessed hope of intervention, not a personal appearance at a Utopian celebration.


Now, if our hopes, whatever we protest, really lie in this world instead of in the eternal order, we shall find it difficult to accept the New Testament teaching of the Second Coming. In our eyes the job is not yet done, and such an action would be, though we would not put it so, an interference. But suppose our hope rests in the purpose of God, then we safely leave the timing of the earthly experiment to Him. Meanwhile we do what we were told to do ‑ to be alert and to work and to pray for the spread of His Kingdom.


In the meantime it is essential that we recapture and hold fast the New Testament idea that God is the "God of hope" (Romans 15:13). In the New Testament writings there is a continual sense not only of the immediacy but of the con­temporaneousness of God. They can write realistically of the God of hope because they are very close in point of time to God's act of intervention in what nowadays we call the Incarnation, and because the power of the Young Church is very plainly and demonstrably the power of the living Spirit. Many modem Christians are inclined to put God back into the past. How many times in visiting various churches does one hear of what used to happen in the old days? And, since Christians derive a great deal of their inspiration from reading the Bible, they can all too easily envisage God as thoroughly at home in the sacred pages but somehow no part of the modern picture at all. In a former book ("Your God is too small") I recalled how I tested a group of young people by asking them to give a quick answer to the question, "Do you think God under­stands radar?" And how the answer was "No", to be followed, of course, by laughter as the absurdity became apparent. But I am still convinced that the unpremedi­tated answer was highly significant and revealing. With­out admitting it in so many words, many Christians to­day cannot readily conceive of God operating in a world of television, washing‑machines, atomic fission, automa­tion, psychiatry, electronic brains, glossy magazines, modem music, and jet propulsion. The complication and speed of present‑day living makes it extremely difficult for the mind to imagine the Biblical God interpenetrat­ing such a system and operating within its pressures. The very word "God" seems out of key and even bizarre m the modern context.


Two things are necessary if we are to rediscover the buoyant hope of the New Testament. The first obvious step is to make certain that our hope is really hope and not either wishful thinking or merely pious hope. It must be closely allied to our faith, and must ultimately be rooted in what we know for certain of the Nature and Purpose of God Himself. We might do well to study afresh the kind of hopes which sustained and inspired the Young Church and compare them with our own. This will naturally bring us to our next step, which is to re­discover the contemporaneousness of God. This may need a drastic revolution in our thinking, for we may dis­cover that we have been thinking of God as Someone we can escape to, rather than Someone Who is actually not only in ourselves but in the noisy hurly‑burly of everyday life. This does not mean to deny that modem life is dis­tracting, complex, and difficult, but it does mean realis­ing afresh that God is not in the slightest degree baffled or bewildered by what baffles and bewilders us. It is no good longing for the monastic quiet of a past age or for the simplicity of life of a pastoral generation. Our urgent need is to discover God, the God of hope, in the present strain, in the complex problem, actually at work in the given situation. For He is either a present help or He is not much help at all.


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