Barrabas, Nationalism, and the Woman Caught in Adultery

If you believe you’re superior to someone else, can you truly love them? The goal of today’s article is to establish the idea that nationalism is poisonous to the Gospel witness.

Before I get started, here is my clarifying statement: “Nationalism is different from patriotism.”

Nationalism believes that one’s own country, nation, and/or culture is superior to another. A nationalistic statement is, “My country is the greatest.”

Patriotism believes that one’s own country possesses admirable and valuable characteristics worthy to be established, nurtured, and protected. A patriotic statement is, “I love my country’s values enough that I will lay down my life to protect it.”

Today’s article is not about patriotism, which in many contexts is good and beautiful.

Today’s article is about nationalism and how it is poisonous to the Gospel witness.

Enough with the intro! Onward! Let’s begin with a little reading from Matthew 24.

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”

And Jesus answered and said to them: Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all[a] these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences,[b] and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.  –Matthew 24:3-14 (NKJV)

Anyone who has heard a message on evangelism, the Great Commission, Jesus’ return, or the end-times in general has heard this passage quoted. The context is fairly simple. The disciples want to know what the signs are of the end of the age. Jesus gives them a loaded answer that the disciples were probably not expecting.

Jesus begins with, “Take heed that no one deceives you.”

The first cause of deception comes from those claiming to be the Christ, who in fact are not. Because of this we will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Don’t be troubled. These things will come to pass but it isn’t the end yet.

The next cause of deception comes from nation rising up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. When nations and kingdoms rise up against one another, it challenges our allegiances. I know I’m making a leap here that I’ll probably have to explain in a follow-up article, but this is where nationalism at a micro level (nation), and a macro level (kingdom) becomes a detractor from the gospel message.

An important distinction here are the meanings of nation and kingdom in context to this passage. Nation refers to the “ethnos”, or people groups united by a common lineage, culture, and often language. A kingdom refers to a country that is united by a civil government.

National (Cultural/Ethnic) identities are a good thing. They give us a cultural family and social identity. The multitude of cultures across the globe, and the people who belong to them are beautiful. Countries, in the sense of law and civil government and identity is also good. When done right they provide safety and opportunity. The Bible makes it clear that law and civil governance is God’s idea, even if man mucks it up and oppresses people. At the end of this passage, Jesus even says that this Gospel of the Kingdom (Jesus’ civil governance over the nations) will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations (ethnos) before His return.

In other words, Jesus offers His kingdom in fullness to every and all “ethnos”. Even better, He will be faithful to deliver them from every oppressive kingdom by establishing His own civil (and spiritual) institutions.

In light of this, essential to the basic Christian life is the calling to be an extension of this proclamation. We are the bearers of this Gospel as the Holy Spirit anoints us with the same anointing as Jesus to preach the Gospel to the poor, and meanwhile to bring physical, emotional, and societal healing wherever we are able.

Nationalism is an often under the radar deception that gets in the way of all of this.

On the “ethnos” level, nationalism creeps in by way of fear, racism, and ethnic elitism. The fruit produced by this is offense, betrayal, hate, and lawlessness. In result, Jesus says the love of many will grow cold.

On the “kingdom” level, nationalism rears its ugly head when “ethnos” nationalism begins to dominate the larger civil authority. The obvious worst case scenario that we see from history is Nazi Germany, but this happens every day among my own countrymen in many smaller ways.

Throughout our history, ethnic tensions have escalated into protests, riots, and even war. It is easy to relegate history as “just history” without learning the lessons it is designed to teach us. The racial/ethnic tensions that divide us socially and politically are robbing the Church of its witness. Not only that, but these tensions exist within the Church itself, not just without. Until we find way to overcome these tensions we are willfully robbing ourselves of the commanded blessings of Christ that He would otherwise give to us without measure.

On a larger scale, the “kingdom” nationalism that espouses America to be the greatest nation on earth is the exact breed of nationalism the Church should be a witness against. To say that a country built upon the blood and shoulders of natives and slaves is greater than any other country is an insult to humanity. In America, we’re not the only ones standing guilty, but as an American this is my context and experience.

We can however oppose the pride of nationalism through the humility of repentance for our sins and the sins of our fathers.

The Holy Spirit’s objective is to join the many ethnos together under one head, Jesus Christ. This vision is paramount to the Gospel witness as well as our commission to usher in the day of the Lord. The mystery of Christ is that we are all co-heirs in the promise of Christ. Nationalism produces cold, loveless hearts. It is a societal form of a mass orphaned spirit.  The joining of many ethnos under Christ has a counter-effect, producing sonship and the bond of peace.

My suggestion is to simply cross over the lines. We all know in our communities what these tensions are. Anyone who feels oppressed has a story to tell and a burden to bear. Your opinion on whether they are right or wrong is not important. Jesus didn’t let the Pharisees throw rocks at the woman caught in adultery. The only thing we know about her story is that Jesus defended her.

You may not think that the scenario I just mentioned has anything to do with nationalism, but read John 7 & 8 together. There was a division among the people over the identity of Jesus, and the mob conclusion was that no “man from Galilee could be the Christ.” The next morning, Pharisees came with the woman caught in adultery to test Jesus and bring a charge against Him.

Nationalism motivated the Jews to render Jesus more worthy of crucifixion than Barrabas, a Jewish nationalist guilty of murder.

The Gospel is powerful enough to tear down the high position of nationalism and establish in its place a better hope. It is our job to face the tensions that a heightened sense of nationalism has produced in our culture. Lets come down from our high opinions and listen. There is only one message and opinion that should permeate the Church.

Let’s change the conversation.

-J.S. Marek

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