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The Streets of Tripoli
by Tobie van der Westhuizen
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Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. John 12:31

One of the central themes of the Bible (many say it is the central theme) is the coming of God’s kingdom. Christians oftentimes appreciate the idea but fail to identify themselves fully with it. The reason is not hard to find: In the past few centuries monarchies worldwide have been replaced by republics. Hereditary rule is a foreign concept in democracies, and so the ancient idea of serving under a king from a royal bloodline has mostly become an alien one. Hence the widely held view that the British Monarchy is outdated and should be abolished.

But this does not mean that the message of the Bible should become diluted in our understanding. It simply means that we should grasp it at the level where we currently make sense of political liberation and rule.

The footage on our television screens this past week, of the celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, provides us with just such a glimpse. It represents the effect of very good news, namely that an evil and corrupt ruler has fallen and that a legitimate government is about to be set up. And so the people are rejoicing as a result of their liberation. It is a parable of the gospel, of the coming of a kingdom, which is why the joy is so infectious.

There is a danger, however. The scenes of Tripoli are not unlike those that greeted Jesus Christ as he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. The Hebrew cry “Hosanna” is not a synonym for “Hallelujah”, as many believe, but means “please save” or “save now”, implying a fervent plea for national liberation from Roman domination. This was the expectation, and when Christ failed to provide it he was rejected as the Messiah. Within days the hosannas were replaced with another cry: “Crucify him!”

Jesus knew better. The evil dictator was not Caeser, but Satan – the “prince of this world.” And Christ’s liberation was not national, but universal.The streets of Jerusalem and Tripoli provides us with a picture, but that is all it is. A shadow, a type, signifying that which is to come.

But there’s another parable in there, one that that we dare not miss. People are celebrating victory because the evil regime is something of the past. In the words of the Bible, the house is being plundered because the strong man has been bound. We saw the plundering of Gadhafi’s mansions on CNN. The once mighty ruler has been disarmed and has now become a public spectacle, to use another line from the New Testament. Yet, in spite of all this, the shooting continues and good people are still dying.

Is there a contradiction in there? Not at all. In the words of Revelation 12, the dragon has lost the war and has been cast out of heaven, yet he has a season on the run before his final destruction. This is his last opportunity to inflict as much damage as possible.

Examples of this interim phase between victory and final redemption abound. On April 24, 1945, Soviet armies surrounded Berlin. It was the beginning of the end of World War II. In the ensuing week German resistance collapsed and on the afternoon of 30 April the desperate Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. The war in Europe, for all practical purposes, was over.

However, in early May people were still being tortured and killed in many of the concentration camps. Some camps, like Auschwitz, had been liberated. Others, like Stutthof, were not. Knowing that their time was short, frantic Nazis organised mass exterminations of prisoners before becoming prisoners themselves. The war was over, but for tens of thousands of men, women and children the maltreatment continued exactly as it did before.

The last days of the concentration camps provide Christians with a powerful metaphor for understanding their pain and suffering in this world: Victory and final redemption are oftentimes separated by a gap, with victory becoming a theoretical reality before it becomes a practical one, a belief before it becomes an experience. In the concentration camps victory was no more than a rumour, and the only benefit thereof was the light of faith and hope that was ignited by believing it.

This is the way the Bible authors spoke of salvation. They realized that Christ had conquered the enemy and that his Kingdom had come, yet they knew that the full benefits of the victory would only be experienced at his visible return.

This is the current state of Libya, and so we are reminded that it is quite possible for a kingdom to have arrived without having been set up. This is also the current state of the church. We have arrived, yet we haven’t. No contradiction there.

To misunderstand this is to expose yourself to a sniper’s bullet. The various versions of triumphalism, currently doing the rounds in many churches, do exactly that. If you believe you should be perfectly healed, holy, prosperous and so on, you make yourself extremely vulnerable to a deep disillusionment that has absolutely nothing to do with God’s inability to deliver on his promises and everything with your misunderstanding of the lesson above.

Let us learn from the streets of Tripoli.

(This is an expanded version of two columns that have previously appeared in the newspaper Bloemnews)

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