by Doug Reed
A story is told of a conflict between two great leaders of the reformation—Martin Luther and a fellow named Ulrich Zwingli. The two had doctrinal differences which made unity among Protestants impossible. In an effort to make peace, a man named Philip of Hesse brought the two together in a conference hoping they could hammer out their differences. Luther and Zwingli were able to agree on every single point of doctrine except one. They had differing views on communion. Because of this one difference they refused to shake hands with one another after the conference was over, and all hope for a unified reformation was lost.
In our day disunity because of doctrinal differences continues. Anyone who has frequented internet forums knows how doctrine can cause hatred and downright disgraceful behavior between brothers. Something is terribly wrong when we despise others because we believe they do not know as much about God as we do. Rather than showing how much we know God, such behavior proves that we do not know God, for he who does not love does not know God. (I John 4:7-12).
The question is—can we seek purity of doctrine and still love our brother? That is, can doctrine and love coexist? Some would say no. In fact, many are saying that we are in the midst of a great paradigm change from the modern mindset to the postmodern paradigm. The modern paradigm was based upon great faith in the power of reason and humanity’s ability to find absolute truth. Postmodernism is in some respects a reaction to the failures of the modern paradigm. The postmodernist points to where belief in absolute truth has led us. And where is that? Twenty thousand denominations, that’s where.
The postmodern solution to this problem is to throw out absolutes altogether. The thought is that if we get rid of the idea that there is absolute truth, there can be peace between brothers. This way of thinking might bring a greater peace, but at what price? If we start down the path of relativism, we eventually must lose the absolutes of the Lordship of Christ and redemption itself. We cannot draw lines, because there are no lines in this paradigm. Any and all beliefs must become acceptable—even those that deny Christ. Therefore, the cost of eliminating the idea of absolute truth is not a solution to the divisions among God’s people. The cost is just too high.
On the other hand, there are those who believe unity can come through doctrine. I have heard some say that Preterism will become a unifying force for the whole church. We just need to get everyone to agree, and then we will be one. Through reason and sound arguments we will be able to get everyone to see it our way. Such thoughts might stir the soul, but history proves them unfounded. In fact, when we make doctrinal agreement the basis of our fellowship, the result is not unity but division. We have five hundred years of church history and thousands of denominations to prove this.
I agree with those who say that Christ Himself must be the source of our unity. However, many of these then try to make what they think about Christ the basis of unity, and the cycle continues. They cite belief in certain creeds or traditions to determine what is acceptable, and therefore, who is suitable for their circle of unity. Yet, as we all know, an increasing number of believers are questioning some of the creeds. What about those believers—are they no longer Christian?
If Christ Himself is our only answer to the divisions among us, we must let Him—who He is and what He has done—truly be the basis of our unity. To help us understand how this is possible, let us take a brief look at first century Palestine .
In Jesus’ day there were distinct ideas among many of the Jews about who was close to God and who was far away. One place those distinctions were clearly seen was in Herod’s temple. We have some pretty big church buildings in our day, yet none of them would have compared to Herod’s temple. Herod’s temple was so big that it took up 20% of Jerusalem . The floors were marble, the walls were beautiful white limestone, and many of its interior walls were paved in solid gold. In some of our large churches today we might have fifty or more ministers serving the people. Yet as many as 17,000 priests served at the temple in Jerusalem .
In all of its beauty, Herod’s temple revealed something about the people’s relationship with God. Moreover, it said something about the people’s relationship with each other. If I would pick one word to describe that statement, it would be “separation.” There was separation between God and man, man and man, and even woman and man.
The temple was divided into three courts. The outer court was called the court of the Gentiles. In some respects this first court was for the tourists. People would come from all over the world to see Herod’s glorious temple. In fact, it was said in that day that if you had not seen Herod’s temple, you had not yet seen a beautiful building.
A sign at the entrance to the second court of the temple warned foreigners not to enter, under the penalty of death. A person was refused access to the second court based on who they were, and what they did. Those who were not descendents of Abraham, the uncircumcised, or those who did not keep the Torah could not enter the second court. If they tried to enter, they would be stoned to death. The Romans did not allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment except for this one offence. If you violated this realm, you would be put to death by man. This second, or center, court was divided into three sub-courts. First, there was the court of women. Like the name implies, Jewish women could go here as well as men and children. Then there was the court of Israel, and only Jewish men could go in here. Finally, there was the court of the priests. You had to be a priest to enter here.
Beyond the second court was the Holiest of Holies. The Gentiles had their court. The Jews had their court. The Holiest of Holies was God’s court. Only He could dwell here. It was surrounded by a veil so thick that a team of oxen could not tear it apart. No one except the high priest could enter the Holiest of Holies, and he only once a year at the Feast of Atonement. If a Gentile went into the court of the Jews, man would kill him. If a person went into the Holiest of Holies unlawfully, God would slay him.
The temple was a picture of the relationship between God and man and also between man and man before Christ came. There was separation in every place. There was separation between God and man, Jew and Gentile, and even man and woman. Yet, Jesus, by dying and rising from the grave, tore down all of these walls of separation.
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation . . . . Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God . . . . (Eph 2:11-14, 19 NKJV)
What middle wall do you think Paul is talking about here? He was talking about the wall between the court of the Gentiles and the court of the Jews. When the New Covenant came, there was no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile. God had made them into one new people. You may have noticed in verse 19 Paul told the Gentiles that they were no longer foreigners. Paul’s wording here is not by accident. As you recall there was a great sign at the entrance to the court of the Jews that said foreigners were not allowed. Now there were no longer any foreigners with God. Moreover, it was God’s desire that the Jews no longer count the Gentiles as foreigners or strangers but as equals before the Lord. It was time to take down that sign.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28 NKJV)
What about the distinctions in the middle court? Paul shows us that the distinctions of this court also had been lost. There is no longer any distinction between male and female. That does not mean there is no more gender. It just means that one gender can no longer consider itself closer to God or more important than the other. In Jesus’ day men were considered more righteous than women simply by virtue of their gender. Jewish men were called the “Sons of Abraham” and Jewish women, the “Daughters of Eve.” Men did not talk to women in public—it was considered beneath them. Furthermore, education in theological matters was for men only and never for women.
In our day we don’t realize how radical Jesus was in these matters. He was the first to call women the “Daughters of Abraham.” He not only talked with women in public, but he allowed them to be His disciples. Jesus truly tore down the wall between the court of women and court of Israel in His ministry, removing this distinction in all finality at the cross.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light . . . . (I Peter 2:9 NKJV)
The wall between the court of the priesthood and the other courts is also removed in Christ. Under the Old Covenant only those of the tribe of Levi were to serve as priests. They would go to God on behalf of everyone else. Those not of this lineage could not approach the Lord themselves; they had to go through the temple priesthood. Now, under the New Covenant, we see a holy nation where all are priests unto God. All may approach the throne of grace.
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 NKJV)
This passage also contains a little temple talk. The throne of grace was the mercy seat in the Holiest of Holies. Because our High Priest, the Lord Jesus, has come, we can now come into the presence of God without fear. The veil between God and man has been removed. Under the Old Covenant no one came into God’s presence boldly. In fact, you could die if you went into God’s presence in the Holiest of Holies unlawfully. Near to God was a fearful place. Now, under the New Covenant, God’s presence is a place we come boldly. There we will not find judgment but help and mercy in the time of need.
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (II Cor 5:21 NKJV)
God removed all the walls. He removed the separation between God and man and also man and man. This verse tells us how.
The various courts and sub-courts of the temple showed levels of righteousness. The righteousness of a Gentile—in other words, not much—was required to enter the first court! The righteousness of a Jew was needed to enter the second court. If you were a descendant of Abraham and you kept the Law, you could go in there. If you had the righteousness of Jewish woman you could enter the court of the women. If you had the righteousness of a Jewish man, you could enter the court of Israel. An even greater righteousness was required to enter the court of the priests. You had to be of an even more exacting lineage, the tribe of Levi, and you had to keep more exacting laws and rituals. Do you know why no one could enter the Holiest of Holies? Because no one had a righteousness as great as God’s. All were stained by sin.
God, in Christ Jesus, removed all the distinctions of the temple by becoming sin for all and giving His own righteousness to all. While on the cross, Jesus became sin. He became everybody’s having “fallen short.” He became the sin of both Jew and Gentile. As He became sin, God rejected His own Son. He put Him outside the house of God. We know this by Jesus’ own words while on the cross: “Father, Father why have you forsaken Me?” His rejection ended our rejection, both Jew and Gentile.
Then God gave us the most glorious gift. He gave us His righteousness. When this great gift was given, the veil between us and God fell. We would no longer be separated from, but could now come boldly into, His presence.
We must realize that when God gave His righteousness to all, the wall between God and man fell. Yet, the walls between man and man fell also. If both Jew and Gentile have the righteousness of God, can there be any distinction between the two? If a man and a woman have the righteousness of Christ, can there be any distinction between the two? If both the priesthood and the laity have the righteousness of Christ, can there be any distinction between the two? No; all those walls had to fall.
The entire world as it was represented in the temple changed when Jesus died and rose from the grave. They could never look at their relationship with God in the same way. They could never look at their relationship with their neighbor in the same way. Reconciliation between God and man had come; reconciliation between man and man had also come.
“What does this have to do with us today?” we might ask. We no longer fight over things like bloodline and gender. We have “advanced” beyond these things. We have created our own levels of righteousness today. We continue to put up walls between who we see as “in” and who we see as “out.” One way we do this is our understanding of the scriptures. Doctrine, in many ways, has become the self-righteousness of our day.
Self-righteousness is when we look at who we are, what we do, or even the doctrine we hold, as the reason we have closeness and favor with God. We might be tempted to think doctrine can never be self-righteousness. However, we only have to remember the story of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli to see that it can. Doctrine kept these men from seeing that they were brothers. It kept them from seeing that what made them acceptable was not that they got it right, but the fact that Jesus got it right through His finished works.
When I see that who Jesus is and what He has done makes me acceptable to God, I must accept my brother even if he disagrees with me. Believe it or not, a futurist and a preterist are close to God because of Christ, not because of eschatological beliefs. The futurist and preterist are brothers because of Jesus, not doctrine. The fact that the veil remains torn gives testimony to the fact that we are one with the Lord and with one another.
Isn’t this how God relates to us all? He regularly meets with Christians of all traditions. He does not seem to care who has the right doctrine about how we dress, the day of the week we meet, or even who has the right eschatology. He does not look to see who has it right; He looks instead at His Son. God has no other measure. This is what matters most to Him. This is what should matter most to us, too.
Should we then cease all debate over theological matters? No! These things are important, so have at it. Debate and reason with your brother all you want. However, realize that your doctrinal superiority does not make you closer to God than your brother. There are no doctrinal courts in God’s house. Because of Christ you can disagree with your brother and still love him as much as the one with whom you agree. Yes, who Jesus is and what He has done is that big. And because He is that big, both doctrine and love can live together.