The 500 Year Test

2009 was the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest leaders of the Reformation – John Calvin. Over the year various conferences and publications reminded us of the event and it was a good time to take stock of the Church’s history since the Reformation; a 500-year test, if you will. Remembering the five centuries since the birth of Calvin and the emergence of the Church from the spiritual darkness that had engulfed Europe for almost a thousand years makes me think of another period of 500 years, which also followed a time of spiritual apostasy: the period between Israel's return from Babylon and the coming of the Messiah. The parallel has been noted before, not least by Luther, when he called the period prior to the Reformation “the Babylonish captivity of the Church”.

But why bother making a comparison between Israel’s 500 year history prior to the coming of the Messiah and the half millennium since the birth of the Genevan Reformer? Because such a comparison helps Christians to be humble vis-à-vis the Jews. All too often I have heard Christians and preachers summarise the 500 year period from Israel's return from Babylon to the coming of Israel's Messiah as a time of failure, Jewish unbelief, rejection of Messiah and banishment. Far less often have I heard words of gratitude to God for those Jews who copied and preserved the Scriptures, who kept the faith and later took the Gospel to the nations – often at the cost of their lives. But have we Protestants done so much better in the past 500 years than ancient Israel, especially bearing in mind the spiritual advantages we possess?

Keeping the Faith

In that intertestamental period faithful Jews, enduring hardship and serious opposition, returned to their land, rebuilt the altar and the temple, the city and their society. The story is told in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Undoubtedly there was among the Jewish people nominalism and unbelief, but the core was sound, so much so that for half a millennium Israel kept idolatry at bay to such an extent that religious Jews today view stained-glass images in church windows as a reprehensible lapse into idolatry. Israel preserved and copied the Scriptures, maintained the God-ordained forms of worship in the temple, sought to understand what the prophets had revealed about the coming Messiah and waited...

The end result? We read it in the Gospels and Acts which, although part of the New Testament, tell a story which was initially enacted in an Old Testament milieu; one in which Messiah Jesus pointed to the coming of a new day. 

In that story, we read of some of the parties which had developed since the return from exile: the formalists (Pharisees), the scholastics (Scribes), the liberals (Sadducees) and the men of violence (Zealots). From external sources such as the works of Josephus we also know about monastics (Essenes) and, from the Book of Enoch, false prophets. The silent majority in Israel were the ordinary people doing their best to keep the rules whilst under the heel of an oppressive foreign power. We read of the faithful who loved God's law, worshipped at the temple, looked for the coming Saviour and hoped for the salvation of the nations – people like Joseph and Mary, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, Nathaniel and Simon Peter. We read of revival when thousands listened to God's anointed preachers (the Lord Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, John, Stephen). Many believed and, as always happens in such times, many turned away or became hostile.

History repeating itself

The last 500 years of Protestant history have been remarkably similar. After an energetic and powerful start, the churches that originated with the Reformation now have their own liberals and formalists, their monastics and scholastics, their false prophets and even violent right-wing extremists. Within the Protestant church are those who have departed from the Faith and exhibit hostility to the Gospel to the point that some churches now ordain practising homosexuals. Thankfully there is a core remnant of true believers who have kept the faith, there are those who have known times of revival and are taking the truth to the ends of the earth. Those of us who see ourselves as part of that core remnant tend to dismiss the liberals and formalists as untrue to Protestantism, and we are surely right to do so. But those who look in from the outside see us as an obscure minority swimming against the tide of modernity, vainly holding onto the past.

Are we not tempted, as outsiders, to share a similar perspective with regard to Israel in the intertestamental and New Testament periods? We can fall into the trap of focusing on those Jews who were unspiritual and who opposed Jesus and the apostles, while undervaluing the significance of Israel's faithful remnant who kept the faith, believed in the Messiah and began taking the Gospel to the nations. We frequently refer to the Pharisees and Sadducees as “the Jews”, forgetting that the faithful core were also Jewish.

Why do we do that? Paul put his finger on it when he warned the non-Jewish Christians in Rome who were tempted to look down on Jews who had not believed, "Do not boast against the branches" (Romans 11:18). Why should we want to boast against the branches? There is a childish taunt that expresses it well: "I'm the king of the castle; you're the dirty rascal!"

The law of sin within us disposes us to want to be above those who pretentiously affect a superior attitude to us; we like to see them fall. Sadly, many Jews have been vainglorious about their national privileges and considerable achievements, and have regarded themselves as superior to others. The lure of wanting to bring them down to size or to boast over them is always appealing. May God help us not to succumb to the temptation for as the apostle Paul and the Reformers were always eager to remind us, we stand by faith alone.

Autumn Herald 2010

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