Written by Victor Stanley Jr.
“Now I’m not calling for an applause, I’m trying to tell you a story…” ~Bernie Mac
Our history, our future, our dreams, our fears, our secrets, and our inner-thoughts always make their way into our stories. From books to poetry, plays to films our stories contain all of who we were, are, and shall become. Stories are integral to a culture and society because contained within those stories are the life of that culture or society. We know our family histories because grandparents, aunts, and uncles sat us down and told us the stories of our ancestors, of our relatives, and of themselves. We are patriotic because from childhood we have been told the story of our nation, of the explorers and pioneers, the great thinkers and orators, the heroes and villains. We read books or watch movies that invoke fear, anger, sadness, and joy because they connect in a very deep and real way with our hearts. We see ourselves in different characters, we have experienced their pains and hurts ourselves and we have shared in the same types of joys and triumphs.
These stories, while fictional, are true, they are real in that they depict circumstances and relationships that are true to life. We connect with them because they authentically capture the human experience whether it’s a Marvel hero’s struggle with the responsibility he or she bears, or an astronaut searching for humanity’s hope (Interstellar). Stories are important because they preserve our past, they inspire our future, they make men and women immortal, they allow us to face the dark and journey into the light, they teach lessons, warn us of life’s pitfalls, and offer us timeless truths. The greatest stories, the most important ones, are the stories that include us, that we become a part of as we live our lives. One such story reigns supreme over all the rest, it is the story of a people great and powerful yet humiliated and weak; a people upright and prosperous yet wicked and impoverished.
The greatest story ever told is not about a baby born in a manager in some forgettable little town in ancient Judea. Although, that particular story is part of the greatest story every told. No, the greatest story ever told is about the descendants of a sheep herder. It is the story of a strange and peculiar people, about the coming of a king, the dawn of a kingdom. It is the story of hope for the reject, dignity for the shamed, joy for those in misery; it starts in a desert and ends in a throne room. It is a story that crumbles the foundations of human wisdom and effort, brings the mighty low and lifts up the downtrodden. It is a story of men and women being brought back from the dead, of food raining down from heaven, of conquering enemies, of slavery and oppression, of captivity, of subjugation, of freedom, of transformation, of God become man, and of a people reconciled to their creator. It is like the stories of old, where the forces of darkness seem to overcome and destroy good, yet in the end the remnant of those who serve the light and are empowered by the divine conquer evil, and love, joy, and peace triumph.
Hebrews chapters 11-13 summarizes this story. Below I have given just a brief descriptor of various passages for the sake of space, but I urge you to read each passage in full, and even more, to read Hebrews 11-13 in its entirety:
Abraham and his descendants sought the land of promise, the city with foundations. (Hebrews 11:8–10)
This people they are strangers and exiles. They seek the heavenly country. (Heb. 11:13–16)
This people saw the power of God at work, they faced many obstacles, endured trials, suffered through affliction. (Heb. 11:32–38)
This people (us) have come to the heavenly Jerusalem by the blood of Jesus the Christ. (Heb. 12:22–24)
We have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken. (Heb. 12:28–29)
We continually serve and worship God as we await the city that is to come, for we have no earthly city to inhabit. (Heb. 13:13–16)
We are under the blood of the eternal covenant. (Heb. 13:20-21)
So, what is my point? That the Bible is filled with some cool stories about the Israelites and the New Testament Church? Or am I just pointing out that in the future Christians will go to Heaven? No. What I am getting at, what I want to make clear is this: We have a heritage, a legacy that we ought, or rather must, live into. This past summer we here at Hebrews4 gathered together eight writers to present the Beatitudes to you from a perspective you may have never considered. We put forth the idea that Christ was not establishing some type of Christian ethic that His followers must attain to. We argued that the Beatitudes are not necessarily desirable character traits or states of being. No, we proposed that Jesus looked out at the people on that hillside and saw the spiritually destitute, the sorrowful, the quiet and timid, the spiritually starved, the compassionate, the innocent of heart, the pacifists, and the oppressed. He saw the hated tax collector, the rejected criminal, the despised religious leader, the outcast woman, the unloved child, the depressed father, the weary mother, the hurt and the weak. He saw the empty rich person and the full poor person, the sick and the healthy. He saw those who had fallen through the cracks of the world, overlooked and forgotten, and He calls them BLESSED.
Jesus concludes His Beatitudes with this statement:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11–12)
Jesus presents us with something interesting here that gives us an understanding of His kingdom. Each of the Beatitudes has a reward of sorts attached to it: Heaven, comfort, inheritance, satisfaction, mercy, gazing upon God, and adoption. Jesus assures His disciples to whom He is speaking, and the crowd that is listening in, that the kingdom, His kingdom, has come near to them and that through Him they can enter into this kingdom. Yet here in verses 11 and 12 Jesus makes clear that entrance into this kingdom does change their estate. What they receive, what we receive, is an imperishable inheritance, an everlasting joy, and an eternal peace. They do not become rich in spirit, they do not become unaffected by sorrow, or permanently turn into bold warriors. Instead, this new citizenship they take on as members of this kingdom marks them. It causes them to be identified with one who is detested by the world, and for this they will experience great trouble and tribulation (John 16:33).
What resonates in Jesus remarks here is the encouragement He gives them. He says to “rejoice and be glad,” that they have a reward in Heaven. He then buttresses this remark by saying that the prophets suffered the same fate. See, Christ does not simply call them into a kingdom, He also connects them to a heritage and makes them part of a story. The prophets were revered, they were the holiest of the holy, they were the mouthpieces of God Himself. The prophets conquered armies, they freed people from captivity, they called down fire from Heaven, and they raised people from the dead. Thus, Jesus’ words here are radical in a way that is hard to understand because we do not have people of that sort in our modern culture. Jesus places these people next to the prophets, they are the continuation of the story and they are to walk in the legacy left to them by the people of God (Gk. λαος του Θεου), because they themselves are now part of the laos tou Theou (lao-us too they-ooh).
The question must be asked: Who are the people of God? We know that the prophets are part of this people, but who else is included? Some theological camps have adopted a belief that there are two sets of people who could be called the people of God, namely Israel—that is ethnic Israel—and the Church. This position divides God’s people into two separate groups operating under different covenants with different promises and different methods of salvation. This position, known as dispensationalism, is not the position of this writer. It is worth mentioning because it is most likely the position held by many of our readers who would identify as Evangelicals. Dispensationalists would take issue with my characterization of their position, but it is not the intent of this article to debate dispensationalism vs. covenant theology. Covenant theology believes that the Church is Israel, that all those who are in Christ are members of the household of Israel, and that that household is contained within the Church. Israel is not an ethnic group, but rather it is the spiritual communion of the saints, and the body of Christ here on earth ontologically. Thus, the people of God are all those, Jew and Gentile, who are in Christ; to be in Christ is to be a member of His body, and the Church is His body.
In light of this we must understand that we are not simply connected to the old saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 because we happen to worship the same God. No, they are our relatives, our ancestors. We must also come to realize that our Christian brothers and sisters are not our “brothers and sisters in Christ or in the Lord” versus our parent’s kids being our “biological” brothers and sisters. This sentiment misses one of the key elements of what it means to be children of God. All of those who are in Christ are brothers and sisters by blood, that is the blood of Christ. There is an ontological change that takes place when one enters into the community of faith. What I mean is that who we are, our very being, changes, and we are transformed and are being transformed into a new creation. Therefore, the saints of old, the Christians of the New Testament, the believers throughout the ages, and those Christians living on Earth right now are our true and actual relatives more than those who are biologically related to us:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt 12:46–50 ESV)
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:34-39 ESV)
Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Gal. 6:9–10 NASB)
Our true family is found first in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be adopted as sons and daughters of God the Father. We are God’s people, the same as the prophets and kings, the priests and warriors, the shepherds, the prostitutes, the criminals, the widows, the poor, the rich, the abandoned, and the lost. We are of all of those people whose stories are told throughout the Old Testament, of those people whose stories we read in the New Testament. Christ saves us into a story that continues on through us as we walk in the heritage of the saints and carry out the legacy of faith handed down to us from all those who came before us. “Blessed are you when they curse and revile you and utter all kinds of false evils about you on my account,” says Jesus, “Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, they carried out the same persecution on the prophets who came before you.”
We do not live life as individuals practicing a private faith for the spiritual benefit of ourselves. We do not do church as autonomous local gatherings carrying out our own idiosyncratic flavor of church. We are meant to be one holy and catholic church united together by the Spirit. We share in the one body of Christ Himself when we take the bread at the table, and we drink His blood when we take the wine. In this we are united by His presence that is present in each of us individually yet is manifest in all of us corporately. The Church is not spiritual and invisible, it is very much visible, living, and active. It is a story being lived out by those who take part in Christ, for to take part is to participate, and we have participation in the story of God’s people. We are a people descended from a sheep herder who came out of the land of Ur and decided to follow the God who called upon him.
We have not come to be some loose association of people that practice the same religion. We have not come to be individuals who have a faith patented to us. We are an idiomatic people, a chosen race, a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9) with a history and a future. We have not come to be citizens of the country in which we reside, members of a political party, or activists in some social cause. No, we desire a better country, a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16); We are citizens of the polis of the heavenly Jerusalem not an earthly political regime; We do not seek social justice grounded in humanistic thinking, but rather we seek the righteous justice of a just God.
We have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18–24)
Do you my dear brother or sister know your history? Do you know the story of your people? Do you live life within the communion of the saints? It is a somber story filled with danger and darkness, sorrow and pain. Yet it is a wonderful story filled with joy and triumph, salvation and life everlasting. It is like the stories of old where men and women face an impossible and overwhelming journey, where they meet defeat and dismay, but still they press on because they know that the light of divine glory will conquer evil and darkness because the true ruler, the Son of the Almighty sits upon the throne at the right hand of the Father and reigns in and through His people by the power of the Spirit forever and ever. Amen.
 What is meant here is that the Church is not merely a spiritual representation of Christ’s body, but rather to be joined to the Church is to be actually made part of Christ, to on some level be part of His being. Christ’s life is in us and we are in Him.