We in South Africa have recently been through an historic event of immense proportions. It has been one of the most unique situations in history. I am speaking, of course, of the death of our former president, Mr. Nelson Mandela.
His death has not only resulted in a massive number of searches on Google, millions of tweets and countless talking points on Facebook; it has also filled many a conversation and stirred many emotions, both positively and negatively. The subject has also, sadly, brought some disrepute to Christianity, as many unwise and uncharitable things have been said and published on social media.
Until now I have not said much about these recent events, and this has been for several reasons.
First, I simply have not had a lot of opportunity to do so. Some would have expected me to address the issue the Sunday after his death. I was convinced otherwise. Having a burden of the Word of the Lord from Hebrews 3, I was persuaded that this is what should have been delivered that morning.
Second, though I am a permanent resident of South Africa, having lived here for nearly 24 years, nevertheless I am a relative newcomer to the events that preceded Mr. Mandela’s release from prison.
Having arrived in South Africa on 5 May 1990, I have had the privilege to live through a major political shift in South Africa; yet I realise that I do not have the historical experience of living under Apartheid as is true of the majority of our church members—except, of course, those under the age of 24. I therefore want to be sensitive to what many of you for many years experienced in the years leading up to his release from prison on 11 February 1990.
In other words, to some I may still be viewed as an outsider, and so I have sought to be careful in my response. The Bible instructs prudence and I therefore have sought to be prudent. Sadly, many others have not followed a similar course of action. I have read many “Christian” opinions on the Internet by non-South Africans of just how evil a man Nelson Mandela was. For the most part, they have proven to be both misinformed and unhelpful.
Third, I have thought it prudent for the emotional and political dust to settle a bit before addressing the matter. It is hard to hear when the emotions are turbulent.
Fourth, and in summary, I have desired to show respect to the man and to his family as well as to those who are deeply troubled by his death. I wanted to be sensitive to the strong emotion around this event and have deemed it wise to maintain some appropriate silence. Again, being a white “outsider,” I have been careful about the when and what of my public response.
But having given these caveats I have now chosen to break my silence for a couple of reasons.
First, pastorally, I desire to help our church to think through some issues so that we might be biblically equipped to assess how we are to respond to the man’s life and especially to his legacy. The question of how Christians should view the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela is a very important one. And though I do not have the final answer I do want to honestly face the facts and seek to be helpful. After all, Christians do not live in an historical vacuum and so we need to face such questions as biblically as we can. Since history is, after all, His story, the Christian needs to pay attention to this important chapter.
Related to the above, I am concerned that there is a tendency for two extreme responses to the man’s life and legacy: vilification and deification. Neither is helpful and both are detrimental to our call to shed gospel light in a spiritually dark world.
Second, I have been disturbed by the unguarded comments in the media, both by secularists and by some who claim to be Christians, which have seemingly deified the man. At the same time, some Christians in the social media have disturbed me by their graceless and insensitive demonisation of the man. Neither the extreme response of deification or vilification is helpful. In fact, they are detrimental to our call to shed gospel light in a spiritually dark world. Such extreme responses are counterproductive to the proclamation of the gospel.
We need the reminder of why the Lord has sent us into the world after saving us and therefore why, by God’s providence, we live in South Africa. Specifically, we are called to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to equip us as a congregation to evangelise others in this unique time of historical opportunity.
Keeping the Main the Thing the Main Thing
We must keep before us the task of the church, which is the Great Commission. If we are not careful then we will become sidetracked and distracted from this call, and our discussions of Mr. Mandela will degenerate into either graceless speech or political propaganda. We need, therefore, to be reminded and perhaps equipped as to how we can winsomely disagree with those who either deify or vilify Mr. Mandela. As Jesus instructed us, we must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). We must, as Paul exhorts us, be winsome to win some (see Colossians 4:5-6).
Again, let me emphasise that we must wake up to our gospel opportunity in these days. History is His story and God’s story is all about the gospel. I desire for us be equipped to proclaim the gospel in these unique historical times. I therefore will take my cue from Hebrews 3—4 on the theme “Moses, Madiba and the Gospel.”
A Second Moses? A Second Jesus? Really?
I have heard and read in recent days statements such as, “Mandela was a second Moses.” Is there some truth in that? Related to this, I read a text on a news ticker the other day that said, “Mandela led us to Canaan but we have not yet entered it.” What are we to make of this? Why would this parallel be made? I believe that it is important for us to understand the paradigm that gives rise to such statements. We need to be like the men of Issachar who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
I also read a government official who claimed that Mandela was “a second Jesus.” We, of course, are offended by such a statement, but simply being angry is not going to be helpful. How can we help those who have such misguided views? How will we help those who have a veneer of Christianity without its veracity? Let’s see if we can find some answers in what is becoming a familiar text for us: Hebrews 3.
Mandela and Moses
You will recall that the writer is making the point that Jesus is superior to Moses, and this will lay a foundation to prove that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant.
Moses was greatly revered by the Hebrews, and so if Jesus is greater than Moses than they should listen to Him (2:1-4).
The writer has pointed out that Moses was indeed faithful over the house of God as a servant (3:1-6). But he then highlights that those that Moses led failed to listen to Him (vv. 7-15) and therefore became the objects of God’s wrath who died in the wilderness (vv. 16-17) having never entered the Promised Land, the place of rest (vv. 18-19). In chapter 4, the writer further develops this theme and makes the typological connection between the temporal rest in Canaan and the eternal rest in Christ; rest from the burden of our sins—the rest of salvation offered in the gospel. The writer is burdened that his readers not follow the unbelieving example of the Jews under Moses but that thy rather believe—and therefore obey—the one who is greater than Moses, the Lord Jesus Christ. Moses was great, but Jesus is infinitely greater. How does Mr. Mandela match up and why do people make the comparison?
Before answering the first question let’s briefly address the second: Why do people make the comparison?
The answer is quite simple. Moses was a liberator and so was Mandela. We need to understand the paradigm under which many in our country view their oppression and Mandela as their liberator. There are a good many “Christian” leaders who have distorted the biblical gospel into liberation theology, and consequently those whom they have taught have viewed Mandela as a messiah, come to deliver them from oppression.
This “theology” is a huge morphing of the gospel. It focuses on political and economic liberation and ignores the deeper spiritual liberation that sinful man needs. But the Exodus motif has been at the foundation of civil rights movements throughout history. Of course, the problem is that this is merely cherry picking what people want from the Bible.
Someone once wrote, “The Bible has been used to oppress people throughout history.” There may be some truth to that statement. But equally so, the Bible has been perverted by unbelievers to justify and motivate movements that completely miss the point of the Bible—God’s point—which is the gospel.
Now, let’s address the first part of the question: Was Nelson Mandela a second Moses?
In one sense, I would argue that, yes, he was. Consider the following parallels. Mandela, like Moses, was a liberator who led millions into a new (political) dispensation. He was used by God to form a new nation. Like Moses, he led these millions from oppression to a future of opportunity and potential; he gave hope to millions. He opposed the false theology of the state and was deemed a threat. The National Party, the ruling Apartheid regime at the time that Mandela was sentence to prison, perverted the teaching of Scripture and misrepresented Yahweh. By doing so they misled the people in whose care God had placed them.
Mandela was furthermore a tenacious and fearless leader, who faced and defied the odds. Like Moses, he was revered by multitudes and vilified by many. He had family challenges and faced insurrection from those whom he was trying to help. He was (and still is) deified by those who do not know God. In similar fashion, the Israelites so deified Moses that, when they thought he was gone, they built another god to act as their deliverer (Exodus 32). It is no doubt significant that God buried Moses and hid his gravesite (Deuteronomy 34:5-6), lest the Israelites enshrine his tomb.
Mandela, like Moses, was characterised later in life by meekness and forgiveness. In fact, like Moses, his forgiveness was an intercession, which spared the nations from destruction.
Both men have a name that will be honoured throughout history. Both were guilty of murder in their quest to stand out as the leader of their people. Mandela initially chose the path of armed resistance, yet he would eventually undergo a radical change. Note that Hebrews 3 commends Moses generally. Beware of ignoring the change that men go through. Is it fair to judge a man by his lowest moment? Is it fair to ignore historical pressures that tempt a man?
Mandela, like Moses, ultimately failed to provide what his followers so greatly needed: true liberation; true rest (Hebrews 3:16-18). He, like Moses, was a sinner who needed a Saviour—the Saviour. I hope he realised and responded to this before he died.
We must not argue with those who will claim that he was a second Moses. In some historical and political ways this is a fair comparison. Don’t create unnecessary barriers to witnessing by arguing against this. Rather, we must admit the positive parallels while at the same time pointing out the deficiencies. We must be as wise as serpents while being harmless as doves.
In summary, it is true that in many ways, like Moses, Nelson Mandela was the best of men. Yet we must recognise that he was still only a man at best. And so, to be fair, we need to also note some ways in which Madiba was unlike Moses. This is important, not so that the man can be denigrated, but rather because we want to help people to understand that the agendas of both of these men were significantly different and that, for all that Mandela provide for people, he did not lead them to their greatest need: the gospel. In other words, he did not lead them to the true Promised Land. Sadly, it would seem that neither did he point his followers to the true promised rest, which is found in Jesus Christ alone.
Consider some ways in which Madiba was unlike Moses.
His life and service to the nation was not God-centred (and neither, by the way, was the previous government’s!). He was theistic, but by all appearances he was not monotheistic. He appeared to be more “Egyptian” in that he was syncretistic. He seemed to be selectively iconoclastic. Not all golden calves were destroyed.
Clearly, the law of God was not his authority. For example, contrary to Scripture, he fought hard for abortion on demand and the recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle. He made no public testimony to a life-transforming encounter with God. In other words, though the good that he did was no doubt by the providence of God, nevertheless he seemingly did not know the gospel-transforming power of God. It is a real sadness that I never heard of Nelson Mandela testifying to the gospel. He offered political liberation but did not point to the spiritual liberation in Christ. He did not point people to one who was greater than himself (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15; John 5 and Luke 24). He failed to point people to solution to their greatest problem.
There was much in Mandela’s life that can be commended, but also much that leaves us disappointed and saddened. In many ways, this can be said of Moses as well. But it can also be said of his followers. We cannot judge Moses by his followers any more than we can judge Mandela by his followers.
There are clearly parallels between the two men but also some huge dissimilarities. We must recognise this and point it out. Moses sought to point those whom he was leading to Christ (3:5) while there is little if any indication that Nelson Mandela did the same.
A Word of Caution
We must be careful to point people to Christ while at the same time not vilifying Mandela. It is to be noted that the writer of Hebrews commended Moses as being faithful in his house while not highlighting Moses’ failures. We do not lift up Jesus by tearing down others. Jesus’ intrinsic worth is sufficient for His exaltation.
We need a good news response to both the vilification and the deification of Nelson Mandela. We must be very careful how we communicate our disapproval of his idolisation. As white South Africans, when we speak I fear that many in our country will often hear more than we are actually saying. They will hear that we support Apartheid or that we preferred the previous oppression of people of colour. They will hear a rebellious and disrespectful and even resentful spirit towards the current government. They will hear a defence of the previous status quo. We need to be wise concerning how we speak, when we speak and what we speak. And it would be good to examine our hearts as to what we really are saying. I fear that, for some, the accusation of racism sticks. Let us be careful.
Mandela and Messiah
The most troubling thing that I have heard with reference to the death of Nelson Mandela was the statement that he was “like a second Jesus.” That is blasphemous, and such a sentiment cannot be left unchallenged—for several reasons.
First, there is no comparison between any human being and the Lord Jesus (see Hebrews 2:9-18).
Second, this must not be left unchallenged, for it minimises the work that Jesus came to do; it truncates the finished work that Jesus accomplished. It deifies a man while dishonouring the God-Man.
It should be noted that, in His lifetime, Jesus had less success in securing a political liberation for His people than Moses accomplished. What then do people mean that Mandela was like a second Jesus? In what ways was this even remotely so?
Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. The politician Pilate himself confessed that Jesus was without fault. That certainly was never the case with Mr. Mandela. In fact, by his own admission he was a sinner and not a saint. People need to see this because a wrong view of his life is only going to lead to eventual and ultimate disappointment. Mandela cannot deliver on our greatest need.
Again, we must not falter on the reality that South Africans need spiritual liberation more than they need political liberation. And by the way, now that the quest for “liberation” and “fairness” is on the other foot—a very pale foot—we too need this reminder. Regardless of the political party or leader, we need Jesus above all!
Third, I would argue that there is one sense in which Mandela was like “a second Jesus”—if by “Jesus” you mean Joshua, the Hebrew equivalent of the name.
Our author makes the point that Joshua, who succeeded Moses as the leader of the Jewish nation, also failed to lead the people to rest (4:8). Though they entered the Promised Land, Psalm 95 refers to a rest that still remains, which means that Canaan was never the fulfilment of the ultimate rest. No, the rest that the original Sabbath pointed to was the spiritual rest found in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Joshua above all joshuas.
The Challenge: Speaking the Truth Lovingly
History has known many men who have given political and economic liberation to multitudes and yet who have not given people spiritual liberation. Mandela would fall into this category.
What so burdens us is that there are many who cannot see their greatest need and who therefore settle for less than what they really need. It is our responsibility to help them to see this. We must winsomely proclaim the gospel to them.
Now, here is where things get difficult. There are many who claim that Mr. Mandela was a Christian. I hope that he died a born again follower of Christ. Sadly, however, there is no public testimony to this prior to his death. God knows, and that is sufficient. But it is troubling that many want to make a Christian out of a man that was not publicly doing so himself. One article even claimed that Nelson Mandela was a “closet Christian” who thought it inappropriate to profess his faith publicly because of his office.
We must respond to such claims honestly and lovingly. We must speak the truth in love. We must acknowledge that there is no such biblical category as a “closet Christian.”
Jesus made it clear (in Matthew 10, for instance) that if we are ashamed to confess Him as Lord before men then He will be ashamed of us before the Father on Judgement Day. We must not try and skate around this reality. We are not doing anyone any favours by avoiding this truth. False security is usually a far greater problem than no security.
At the same time, we also must take care not to make the final judgement on the eternal state of Nelson Mandela’s soul. We do not know what may or may not have happened between him and God in the final months, days or hours of his life.
I hope indeed that he was reconciled to God, for as a fellow elder in our church recently said, we can hardly speak of “a life well lived” if the deceased has not been reconciled to God. To so live and die is to miss the whole purpose for being on earth.
But, if in the final hours of Mr Mandela’s life he did come to faith in Christ, then what a shame that the world was robbed of such an open confession of saving faith!
No, Nelson Mandela was not a “second Jesus.” It is true that history will record that he was used mightily to foster a large measure of reconciliation in our country, but it will record nothing of his reconciling man to God. Only Messiah would, could and did such a monumental and miraculous work.
Mandela and the Gospel
As we press forward, and soon draw this study to a close, we need to consider some very practical points arising from the matter of Mandela and the gospel. Let me briefly touch on them.
First, and fundamentally, we must beware of playing fast and loose with Scripture. Liberation theology is an impossible interpretation and application of Scripture; that is, if we take Scripture seriously. The biblical revelation of the authority of Scripture is at the root of how we should view the life and death and legacy of Mr. Mandela. And the same applies to our life and death and legacy. We must take Scripture seriously, which means we must take the gospel seriously. Ignorance of the gospel is destructive and damning to any group of people. Let us know the gospel and not be ashamed of it.
Second, we need to lovingly help our neighbours to see that a political exodus is nothing compared to the spiritual exodus they so desperately and eternally require.
Hebrews 3:16-18 are some of the most tragic verses in all of Scripture. In spite of a leader who was wonderfully commended by God, the people whom he led all died in the wilderness well short of the promised rest. As Phillips says, “This is the time in the wilderness, the time of difficulty and often of sorrow and pain. We are not now living in the Promised Land but in the wilderness, and the sooner we realize this, the better.”
Now, I am not sure that these verses necessarily reveal the eternal condition of those who died short of entering Canaan. It is quite possible that many of them repented of their sin of unbelief as they wandered in the wilderness and that they therefore died as children of God. But even so, the burden of the writer is to point to the very real peril of those to whom he was addressing about their losing out eternally on the rest offered in Christ Jesus the Lord.
Even though his readers had professed that they had experienced an exodus in Christ, if they did not persevere then they would prove they were still in their sins. This was the point of this warning. And it is the point that needs to be emphasised today.
There are multitudes who have experienced a form of liberation under Mandela who are yet in their sins. And unless they repent they too will die outside of the true promised land of rest in Christ. This is where Mr. Mandela failed as a leader. He did not point the nation to the true liberation to be found in Christ. And by the way, his failure was accompanied by the same failure of leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Alan Boesak and Beyers Naude, to name but a few.
These men, who professed to be ministers of the gospel, had all too often proclaimed a liberation theology rather than the gospel of God, which is the good news that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will be reconciled to God. Sadly, the result has been a political exodus apart from a spiritual one.
We need to be concerned that people experience both. But while not minimising the horrors of political and racial oppression, spiritual liberation is far more important. It is eternally necessary. We need to work and pray and communicate the truth that though many in South Africa have experienced something great under the leadership of Madiba, yet only under Christ will they experience that which is best.
Unbelief is a horrible sin with damning consequences. We need to be committed to helping our neighbours to realise this. Reconciliation with God is the key to reconciliation with man.
There is a reason that the commandment to love God with all of our being precedes the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. After all, self-love, which is not tempered by love for God, will produce oppression.
So what is the solution to this? The Great Commission. We must be committed to making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ with a view to the planting of local churches. When a gospel-informed community is planted in a society then light and salt are disseminated. And with this comes the very real potential for transformation.
That is one of the ugly tragedies of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. True reformation leads to an appreciation of racial equality. That is, that we are all equally sinful, equally deserving of the wrath of God and equally unable to save ourselves. We are all equally in need of the grace of God. Such a worldview is the great equaliser. Those who are truly reformed should be the last people on earth to be tribal or ethnocentric, or to use the more popular (though erroneous) word, racist.
Like Moses (and Joshua) Mandela was unable to accomplish what only Messiah could and did. This must be our emphasis. We can do so without dishonouring Mr. Mandela, but emphasise it we must. We must help our neighbours to see that the best of men are in the end only men at best. We need to help them to seek the greatest Liberator and the greatest kingdom.
Third, we who are Christians must be on guard against the same idolatry that we are witnessing of Mr. Mandela. Yes, even within the church we have our mandelas. We have John Piper, Mark Dever, R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur, and many more who lived in the bygone eras. We need to apply the same rules to them as we do to Mr. Mandela. They are men at best. We thank God for them and honour them, but we dare not put our ultimate trust in them. Beware of inflated and unrealistic expectations. There is only one Messiah.
Fourth, we must beware of the curse of Christendom. Such a historico-cultural phenomena has complicated our task of the Great Commission. And this has been very apparent in the days leading up to, and then following, Nelson Mandela’s death.
When I speak of “Christendom” I refer to the consequences of Christianity, which have remained in a culture long after the departure of the core content of Christianity. That is, Christendom (as I use the term) refers to what is in fact a Christless Christianity; the moral and institutional capital of Christianity minus the gospel of Christianity.
For instance, the Christian jargon, legal principles, human rights positions as well as how Sunday has traditionally been viewed, along with recognised holidays as Easter and Christmas. Some of these consequences are often referred to as the “moral capital” of Christianity. And oftentimes this gets in the way of the proclamation and the understanding of the Christian gospel. We end up with a cultural Christianity, which is actually no Christianity at all.
The writer of this epistle was not battling Christendom, but he was battling Judaism, which had assumed a life of its own. Judaism became a way of life while missing out on the Way, the Truth and the Life. Everything in biblical Judaism pointed to Jesus, but over the centuries Judaism became a culture divorced from the living God. The average Jew had Judaistic jargon and religious rituals, but had lost the core. Therefore, many who had confessed Christ were in danger of missing Christ as they clung to cultural Judaism. They may have had the right vocabulary but they lacked the right definitions. So it is in South Africa.
Consider, for example, much of the language that has been used to describe Mr. Mandela’s death. People have spoken of him having “fought the good fight.” He has been said to be “resting” now. Others have said that “he brought us to Canaan.” Some have claimed that he is in heaven now, where he has found a branch of the ANC. Many references were made in memorial services and the funeral service to God, Jesus and the gospel. One memorial alluded to Elijah and Elisha, had clergy addressing the crown, and concluded with a benediction.
My point is simply that such talk confuses people and tends to breed a false security. We need to beware. We need to help people with the correct definitions for the vocabulary they are using. We need to be wise.
Religious talk is rarely helpful, particularly when it is empty of biblical content. Christendom is the result in many ways of nominalism. Someone has said that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. We need to bear this in mind as we seek to speak to others about Christ. We need to be careful and deliberate and precise in our evangelism. Words have meanings to those with whom we speak and we need to know what they mean by the words they use.
This leads to a fifth observation: We must seek to understand the paradigm of formerly oppressed South Africans if we will effectively reach them. We need to learn from them. We need to learn from those within our church who have such insight. This is why we are foolish to go on the offensive towards such esteemed leaders as Nelson Mandela. Again, we must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
Finally, when all is said and done, we must pray that the Lord will open the eyes of our fellow South Africans. We must pray that they will come to see the spiritual liberty offered in Christ as they feel the burden of their sins. We must pray that they will not be blinded to the glory of Messiah by the fading glory of great men. We must pray for gospel faithfulness in the churches amongst the various people groups in our land. Ancestor worship must be exposed for the folly that it is and those who are truly Christians must come clean in this regard.
Racial harmony is a wonderful experience, and nowhere is it more dynamic than in the church community. Of course, this is the precise place in which we should expect to see it. Let us live out the implications and consequences of the life-giving gospel and may God be pleased to use us in a great spiritual awakening in our land; an awakening which will result in world-impacting outreach to the glory of God.
Yes, Moses was a great man, and in many ways I believe Nelson Mandela was a great man. We should thank God for them. Nevertheless, they were sinners; sinners like you and me.
But thank God for Jesus, God’s Messiah, who was sinless and is therefore our Saviour. Yes, thank God for the gospel.