“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’” (Matthew 25:10-12)
“Judgment in our time may well be the despised doctrine,” writes Klyne Snodgrass, professor of New Testament at North Park Seminary in Chicago and author of a recent magnum opus on interpreting the parables, entitled Stories with Intent (p. 491). All you have to do is read recent non-evangelical feminist and liberationist parable exposition to find examples. Vicky Balabanski, in an essay entitled, “Opening the Closed Door: A Feminist Rereading of the ‘Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (Mt. 25.1-13),” in The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom, edited by Mary Ann Beavis, objects to the ending of the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Imagine, half of these naïve young women excluded from the wedding reception for something as innocent as not accurately estimating the amount of oil they needed to have for their lamps for the evening. Exactly what one would expect from the heavy-handed patriarchal God of Jews and Christians. Balabanski insists that we shout back that we do not know such a God. For the Bible to be truly liberating, especially for women, the story must be rewritten so that the foolish bridesmaids are forgiven and welcomed in to the party!
You can imagine what critics from this perspective do to other parables that actually have harsher metaphors for final judgment than just a shut door, such as weeping and gnashing of teeth. Snodgrass is right. In an age of demanding one’s rights, of entitlement, of self-actualization, and even at times of religion that calls itself Christian but centers on me-first rather than others-first attitudes, the idea that God would ever finally exclude someone from his blessings is anathema. Hyper-Reformed formulations and/or misunderstandings of the biblical doctrine of predestination can exacerbate the situation more.
But here is a telling quotation from Ulrich Luz, liberal German commentator on Matthew, leader of many interfaith ventures and hardly a spokesman for soteriological restrictivism. After acknowledging that he longs for God’s love to have the final word in this parable (as we all should if we have tender hearts), he adds, “However, there is also the question whether a story of God’s pure love [such as the ending Balabanski demands] would not cause people to depend on the love in their own calculations and thus not take the holy God seriously. That is indeed what the foolish women have done.” To go a step further, if no beliefs or behaviors can ever damn a person, then there really is no finally compelling reason to pay any attention to God at all.
The wording Jesus has the bridegroom use in this story is telling. He insists he does not know the late-arriving bridesmaids. At the level of a wedding party, this makes no sense. The young couple deliberately chooses attendants who are close family members or friends. At the spiritual level, however, the reply makes perfect sense. These are not naïve young women innocently making a miscalculation; they are those who have claimed to be God’s people without really knowing God. One is reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to those who masqueraded as his followers, even as church leaders: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
It may not be biblical to say, “God helps those who help themselves,” but it does seem to be fair to Scripture to say, “God excludes those who exclude themselves.” Anyone who shouts in God’s face that they will not know him unless he abandons all forms of final judgment should be recoiling in terror of what they are creating for themselves on Judgment Day. Conversely, with Daniel Castelo in the Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (2008: 160), “Fearing God is the only viable theological modus operandi, the only adequate ‘foundation’ that suggests conditionedness, tentativeness, and a terrorizing yet joyful disposition to refuse ‘control’. In this respect, theologians would be wise to follow the example of the two Marys, who unlike the guards, were able to leave the tomb with “fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8), and in doing so, they came face to face with Jesus himself along the way.”
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25; TNIV)
In our consumer culture, I shouldn’t be surprised that people treat church like a product. But I confess I continue to be surprised how long time, faithful churchgoers can suddenly “kick the habit” with seemingly little regret! Whether it’s a recent, young Denver Seminary graduate who was training to be a church leader or a middle-aged individual who just got tired of putting up with someone or something undesirable in their local congregation, people are abandoning regular church attendance in record numbers.
Hebrews 10, however, takes such a departure very seriously indeed. In the context of growing persecution of Christians in Rome in the early-to-mid-60s, one could almost understand why Jewish believers might want to play down their distinctives as followers of Yeshua and retreat to a form of worship indistinguishable from orthodox Judaism. They would thus retain their unique privilege as a religio licita, and not be forced to offer a pinch of incense in honor of Caesar as “Lord and God” as everyone else had to do. Once Nero unleashed his official, state-sponsored persecution against Christians in 64, they would be immune from imprisonment and martyrdom. Today, one can empathize with believers from North Korea and China to Iran and Afghanistan to Morocco and the Maldives, who might similarly hide their Christian identities and not gather regularly for worship and instruction with other believers, lest they be arrested and/or killed.
Ironically, it is precisely in such contexts where we also hear stories of great faith, great perseverance, and great sacrifice for the sake of Christ and fellow Christians, including for gathering together with them. It’s here in the U.S., in the Western world more generally, where so much less is at stake that we offer up such pathetic reasons (at least I suspect God considers them pathetic) for not joining together with fellow believers on a regular, weekly basis. And almost all of the excuses are anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. That’s a fancy way of saying we’ve in essence reworded the well-known praise song to make it say, “It’s all about me, Lord,” rather than “It’s all about you, Jesus!”
We all know the excuses. We don’t like the style of worship or music. We don’t like the preaching. We don’t like the new time for Sunday School. We don’t like the way the church spends our money. More seriously, we don’t like certain people we have to see when we go. The list seems almost endless. Yet the other irony is that we in the West, especially in the United States, have far more choices of churches than anybody has ever had anywhere else in the history of the world! Before the advent of modern transportation, the two major criteria for why a given person belonged to church x (rather than church y) was because it was (a) the closest church to where they lived (b) in their denomination. Before the Protestant Reformation, only (a) applied, except in those comparatively few places where both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy existed side-by-side. One generally learned to work things out with the same group of people over a long period of time.
Today we are victims of our plethora of choices. Now hear me well. I’m grateful for those choices. There do come times when churches have substantially changed their beliefs or practices that for a person to be faithful to their own basic convictions they must move to a different congregation. If that happens, then move! But don’t just stop going anywhere.
Hear me, too, please, when I say that “church” as the New Testament defines it can be a house-church, it can be independent of all denominational affiliation, and it can take many creative forms and gather at many different times. I’m not saying all believers have to gather on Sunday morning, in a distinctive church building, with one prescribed liturgy or order of service. Not by a long shot. But consider the implied hubris (a fancy Greek word for “arrogance”) implied by the person who claims to be a Christian, claims to be in submission in Scripture, and yet also claims that no existing expressions of Christianity anywhere close to them are sufficiently God-pleasing for them to favor those gatherings with their presence!
Hebrews supplies the key to how to change one’s attitude in such situations. One goes to church not for what one can get but what one can give. Spur one another on toward love and good works and encourage one another. One of the occupational hazards of having studied the Scriptures to the extent that I have, and having visited as many diverse expressions of God’s family of faith worldwide as I have, is that it’s hard for any given worship service to affect me emotionally at the very core of my being with something that fairly jumps out at me and says, “Yes, that’s exactly how we should be doing things.” I occasionally experience a little something along those lines, but I stress the words “a little.”
But it doesn’t take much at all to get me pumped with the idea of going to see friends and acquaintances, and to meet new people, whom I can encourage and love and teach. If I keep track of how much attention, gratitude and concern I am showed in return, I usually go away depressed (except when I’m a guest speaker somewhere, because at least some people have been trained to do such things). But if I remind myself that I shouldn’t be trying to keep track of such things, then I usually feel fulfilled. But even that is an anthropocentric criterion. I need to keep reminding myself that I go and do what I do simply because that’s what God wants and it’s what he has made me for.
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
I had read the verse countless times. Probably due to messages I had heard, my attention was always drawn to the first half. Timothy was comparatively young and inexperienced in ministry, but that was no reason for others not to respect him or for him to be afraid even when others didn’t. But I hadn’t reflected on the second half of the verse nearly as much—not nearly enough.
How do Christian leaders follow God’s leading and call in difficult situations where fundamental biblical principles are being violated by others, whether doctrinal or ethical? How do they stand the best chance of succeeding when others are self-centered, demanding their own way, cantankerous, divisive, misled, jealous or troublemaking? Paul gathers together three key terms here that most people don’t naturally think of as belonging with each other. Any one of them by itself is usually not enough. Two of them together are much better. But all three are necessary for a full-orbed personality of godly leadership.
My father was the best teacher I ever had of any subject at any level of my schooling. He was a lifelong Spanish teacher, with most of his career spent in the public high school in Rock Island, Illinois. I had him for third- and fourth-year Spanish in the early seventies. He modeled all three of these character traits, most of the time, in a very excellent blend. The same was true of him as a parent. It took an awful lot to get him mad, either in the classroom or at home, but no one ever doubted that he was in charge or that he cared deeply about his children and his students. His power was balanced by love and normally kept in check by self-control.
But every once in a great while he would “blow.” You didn’t want to be around when he got angry. Yet his positions were almost always justified. When he unleashed his invective at someone else, he would often explain to me afterwards, “Sometimes you just have to turn up the volume!” What he meant was that sometimes people needed to see how upset they had made you; it wasn’t good enough just to keep your emotions under wraps. Somehow, carefully choosing his times to “explode,” my father would almost always get what he wanted.
Over the years of my adult life, I have occasionally tried to imitate Dad. For whatever reason, the process has seldom worked as well for me. Maybe it’s because he taught in a secular context and I teach in a Christian context, where people are far less used to seeing leaders get visibly upset. Maybe it’s because we don’t think long and hard about what occasions triggered Jesus’ and the apostles’ anger. (Answer: when legalistic insiders to the faith made a sham of their religion and deserved rebuke; the evangelical world, in contrast, tends to kowtow to such people and reserves its rage for non-Christians when they discover them acting like non-Christians!)
Maybe there’s a third reason as well. I have known leaders, with whom I’ve worked closely over a prolonged period of time, who just never get visibly mad. There is no question they are in a position of authority and know how to exercise it, but their self-discipline is so honed that even when they have to mete out unpleasant consequences to persistently intransigent people defying the policies of the institution, they do so calmly, exercising self-restraint. And meting out such consequences is always a very last resort; meanwhile, they consistently look for “win-win” situations when people under them are ensnared in division or simply can’t agree with their own views. I can’t confirm that these people have never gotten visibly angry in their entire Christian lives; if that were true they’d have done better than both Paul and Jesus! It’s just that it’s so rare that I’ve never seen or heard about it.
The older I get, the more I aspire to that model. I still blow it, more often than I care to admit, but not as often as I used to, so I think I’ve made some progress—power balanced by love and both held in check, with proper boundaries, by self-control. Why hadn’t I noticed that earlier in 2 Timothy 1:7?
“I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:4-9)
It was the summer of 1992. Denver Seminary was on the verge of completing its five-year participation in a program known as the globalization of theological education. We had two weeks of specially called summertime faculty meetings to work through all the implications of this for our mission, vision, values, and curriculum. One morning, a local pastor, who was also an adjunct professor at the seminary and a longtime friend of the school, addressed the faculty with about an hour-long presentation on everything seminaries were doing wrong, or at least inadequately, around the country.
It was a thoroughly depressing experience for all of us. Fortunately, the pastor had a second, later session in which he sketched his vision for how to rectify a good chunk of these matters—a mentoring program in which students wrote individualized learning contracts in the areas of ministry skills and spiritual formation. Two years later, we actually piloted a program that incorporated many of his dreams, known as CASE—Church Assisted Seminary Education. Two years after that, the seminary began the planning process that led to something not unlike our mentoring program today. But it took about seven years from beginning to end to create something that was always plagued with a certain amount of inertia that could be traced to that first gathering in which we felt we had all been whipped.
After all, we wouldn’t have been having the special meetings in the first place if we didn’t know we needed to make some changes. We also knew we were doing a lot of good things right. Many problems that characterized other seminaries weren’t our problems, though no doubt we had a few distinctive ones of our own. How much easier and shorter the whole transition would have been had we begun with a session that complimented us and encouraged us with the many good things we were doing well and with good faith efforts even in areas that were not going so well, before our speaker moved into the barrage of everything that convinced him of a need for a seminary overhaul.
Paul models precisely this approach to Corinth. By the end of 1 Corinthians, it is clear that this church holds the record for the number of problems among those who received apostolic letters, at least that we know of. Many of those problems surrounded their combative and divisive use of spiritual gifts, especially those of knowledge (wisdom) and speech—prophecy and tongues and their interpretation (chs. 12-14). Yet, in this opening prayer, which he allows the Corinthians to overhear, he thanks God for the very giftings that have caused so many of the problems. Obviously, he would much prefer to work with a group of people who are trying hard to serve Christ even if not always in the right ways, than those who are totally lifeless. And it is clear that it is God’s power and faithfulness that he trusts to bring the Corinthians around that allows him to be so upbeat before he begins to address the specific issues that need correcting.
How often have Christian employers, managers, pastors, supervisors, and leaders of many other kinds not followed Paul’s model? Just jump in with a group of people you don’t know very well, begin by sketching how dire the situation is, make those who have worked so hard to keep the organization afloat feel like their efforts are largely misguided, tell everybody they are going to have to change significantly the way they are doing things, or worse—that you’re about to clean house and start all over with a new team. The business world does that often enough that the church and parachurch organizations seem to feel they must imitate it. But, especially in Christian circles, I have yet to see it work in building morale or even in turning things around quickly. I seriously doubt it’s what God ever intends. The old “praise sandwich” (praise sandwiched around any criticism necessary) still works best. Paul knew. People matter more than programs or performance.
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College. Before joining the faculty of Denver Seminary, he taught at Palm Beach Atlantic College and was a research fellow in Cambridge, England with Tyndale House.
In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians and James, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions; Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions; Preaching the Parables; Contagious Holines: Jesus' Meals with Sinners; and Handbook of New Testament Exegesis.
For more, visit Denver Seminary.