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At Easter I wrote about Holiness, that holiness is intimacy with God. (Here’s that post.) I described how Bernard of Clairvaux’s 14th century hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, was a personal and public pre-Reformation plea for intimate relationship with Christ.
I return to this subject because I did not adequately describe the beauty and purpose of holiness. There’s something else at work here. Holiness is also an outward response to that intimate friendship. To live in holiness, we must walk in holiness. The apostle Paul writes:
I am a prisoner because of the Lord. So I am asking you to live a life worthy of what God chose you for. - Eph. 4:1
Building on the foundation that I laid in the previous post: Holiness is more than intimacy with God. Holiness is both:
- Personal intimacy resulting from relationship in righteousness through faith and
- Public witness of ethical behavior. God’s people are called to represent God’s holiness to a hurting world.
Holiness is not merely intimacy; it is also action and ethical behavior within the community and with all people. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright‘s book, The Mission of God, expains that holiness is manifest through ethical behavior, works of righteousness. The New Testament narrows it down to loving our neighbors. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you have fulfilled all the law and the prophets. Holiness, in contemporary language, may best be summed up in social justice. Paul writes:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10
Please understand, you do not earn holiness through any actions of your own. Neither are you holy if you simply do good works of social justice. However, those who have been called to intimate friendship with God have no choice about whether or not they are to love their neighbor, through ethical behavior in and through their community and through acts of mercy and social justice among the nations.
To be sure, holiness literally means to be ‘set apart,’ to be wholly different. God is holy, completely different, other than all other gods. And God in Christ Jesus calls his people to be holy as he is holy. Israel was also called to be holy, unlike any other nation.
In his book The Mission of God, Christopher J.H. Wright outlines the nature of being “set apart”, the election of Israel. Israel’s election is:
- In the context of God’s blessing of “every nation”
- Does not imply rejection of other nations
- Not due to special features of Israel
- Founded only on God’s inexplicable love
- Instrumental, not an end in itself
- Part of the logic of God’s commitment to history
- Fundamentally missional, not just soteriological
When God accepts us and welcomes us into close fellowship with him through the blood of Christ, we are “MADE HOLY.” That holiness calls us to be wholly different:
Finally, brothers and sisters, we taught you how to live in a way that pleases God. In fact, that is how you are living. In the name of the Lord Jesus we ask and beg you to do it more and more.You know the directions we gave you. They were given by the authority of the Lord Jesus. God wants you to be made holy. – I Thes. 4:1-3
“If you work the words into your life you are like a smart carpenter who dug deep and laid a foundation of his house on bedrock. When the river burst its banks and crashed against the house, nothing could shake it; it was built to last.” (Luke 6:48 Message)
Jesus said, “These words I speak to you are not merely additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.” (Luke 6:47 Message)
Sounds pretty important to me
But what was Jesus referring to exactly? What are we building and why?
Jesus was wrapping up his Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes, the DNA of the Kingdom of God, and the Lord’s Prayer, instruction on how to appeal to God for his help in fulfilling his mission in the earth. Jesus was a carpenter by trade; he used the metaphor of building to get his point across. His sermon was kind of like a builder’s “shop-talk” for the large crowd that gathered to listen to him in Galilee.
Do you find it interesting that the crowds that gathered around Jesus were often too big for the buildings of his day? On one occasion when Jesus did gather people in a house, a few determined men who sought healing for their paralytic friend “removed some tiles” from the roof, and “let him down in the middle of everyone.” (Luke 5:18 Message) Of course, Jesus healed the man because he and his friends had great faith.
The Building Process: Internal and External
Imagine walking through the trailer on the site of a major new building project. On the wall is a chart showing all the various tasks for each of the contractors. Jesus sermon was about all the tasks and tools used to build our lives, our families, our communities, and our nations. He was speaking of how to build a community which would soon be called the “Church.”
Jesus was teaching his audience about the tools of the kingdom, how to love enemies, how to be merciful, giving, forgiving, and not-judging. He said, “Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.” (v.42) He spoke of the organic nature of the kingdom when he spoke about fruit-bearing, “your true being brims over into true words and deeds.” (v.45) It appears the “building” Jesus is referring to is NOT a place of worship; it’s a people of worship.
Who is doing the building?
Neil Cole, in his book “Organic Church” asks: “Do you trust laymen on their own?”
Look again at what Jesus said: “If you work the words into your life you are like a smart carpenter …” Sounds like Jesus intends for “you” to be the builder.
Unfortunately down through the ages spiritual authorities, whether they are Pharisees or modern ministers, have too often failed to trust God’s people to “build”.
Roland Allen‘s important book focuses on the fact that Paul’s missionary activity was church planting and that he quickly turned over leadership to the “builders.” Without exception, all the churches that Paul planted in the gentile world were left alone; and, in every case, God’s people managed to survive and express Christ and His church. Certainly, Paul’s missionary work produced what we call “New Testament churches.”
Paul’s “New Testament churches” seem to be different than ours. Our concept of New Testament Church keeps coming up with a “senior” pastor and a passive and mute laity. Paul’s method was to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” which is to proclaim Jesus is Lord in every family, every community, sphere of society and every nation.
A Changing World
Today’s world is very different than the Paul’s world, but let’s look at the similarities. The first century was dominated by a single world power, Rome. Today’s world also has a single world power. At the same time, the Roman world was culturally diverse, pluralist. And today, when you visit any major city, university, or shopping mall, you will see and hear people from many cultures. In fact, there has never been a time in history like the first century quite like there is today.
And yet, the world is vastly different from the first century and any other time in history. Within the past few years, the demographic center of the Christian world has shifted from the North and West to the South and East. The new Majority Church is in the Global South. The accessibility to information technologies is rapidly changing the world, including the Arab world and China. It appears the pressures caused by the flow of information among the people in the Arab world will effectively change Middle Eastern nations and their primary business models. OPEC will likely face pressures and break up, releasing a more market-based system. Those nations will likely shift from economies based on a single product, crude oil, to a market-based economy. That change will likely also open the way for alternative energy sources; a change that is too restrictive now due to our dependence on foreign oil.
The emerging generation has more access to information and connection with “friends” than any previous generation. Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat helped frame the significance of these changes. Friedman’s book was out before the emergence of FaceBook. If Facebook were a country, the number of people on that one social media tool would be one of the five most populated nations on earth. It is second nature for most people today to collaborate for social change. This change alone will affect every modern institution including churches. The effect of these major socio-political, economic, and demographic shifts is “like a flood.”
Like no other time in history is it necessary to build on a solid foundation in obedience to Jesus. Building the people of God to do the work of God everywhere. We must trust God’s people to be the priesthood to proclaim the good news by every means, inside the domain of church ministries and outside that domain. If we do follow Jesus’ instruction and Paul’s method, what is built will be “build to last.”
“What language should I borrow, to thank Thee dearest friend, for this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? O make me Thine forever, And should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.”
This line comes from “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” a 12th century hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a reformed Benedictine abbot in France during the time of great challenges to the Church. Islamic nations, European kings, and even as many as three simultaneous popes all vied for power in “Christendom,” where the Roman Church was preeminent in the Western culture. I cannot defend all that Bernard did during his thirty years as a minister, however I can safely say that his life’s work elevated personal faith over religious ritual. He called upon his generation to truly know Jesus.
I am moved again today by this personal and public pre-Reformation plea for intimate relationship with Christ.
Nearly every time I teach for a week in a Youth With A Mission training school, I invariably return to the primal call of this hymn to intimacy with Jesus. This call is consistent throughout the Bible and throughout history. God calls us to intimacy.
When God called him by name, Moses replied, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exo. 3:5)
How strange. What made that place holy? The Almighty not only introduced Himself to Moses, but He shared the deep things of His own heart with someone he chose to trust. The LORD said,
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians.”
What made that place holy was intimacy; God revealed his deepest hurts to Moses. It is the same when I share from my heart the things that cause me pain. These things are not for everyone to know. If I choose to trust someone and share my pain, it is a ‘set apart’ conversation, a holy moment with a trusted friend.
That place of trusting relationship is ‘set apart’ – it is a ‘holy’ place. When God chooses to open His heart to reveal His thoughts, it is a most Holy place because His character is perfect and His abilities are limitless.
God knows all things perfectly. He saw the suffering of the people of Israel in captivity that He chose to represent His name and bring forth the Messiah. They were in chains and cruelly mistreated and He heard their cries. God felt something in His heart that He shared with Moses. God invited Moses to the Holy place of intimacy where He felt that pain.
Centuries later, the apostle Paul went to Athens where he found an altar with the enscription: To the UNKNOWN GOD. This was Mars Hill, the place where people considered ultimate questions of origin, destiny, and value. Plato had taught his students, including Aristotle, to consider the uncaused cause, the wholly unchangeable and ultimate good. Perhaps Plato was a pre-Christian prophet to the Western world?
The difficulty with Plato’s line of thinking is that the ultimate good, the UNKNOWN GOD, cannot change. He cannot experience anything, including pain. This line of thinking became the frame of reference for Western theologians for most of Christian history.
However, the God who is revealed in scripture, Righteous and Holy, is also honest when He says He feels pain. Scripture says in Genesis 6:6:
“The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”
Some say these ‘human-like’ expressions of God are anthropomorphisms, that God is only using language that we can understand in our frailty and limited understanding. They say God is pretending to be like us so that we may relate to him.
If that is true, the ultimate anthropomorphism is Jesus. The ‘Word’ became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). He is Immanuel, God with us, offering intimate friendship to all who will come near.
Jesus is ‘the exact representation’ of God’s being (Heb. 1). He represented perfectly the love and justice of His Father. Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
When Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the Father wept. When Jesus felt the pain of rejection, the Father felt pain too. When Jesus made the atoning sacrifice on the cross, the Father made the sacrifice as well. God knows everything about everyone, including me. He knows every sin act that produces broken relationship and it causes Him pain.
God is all-powerful and all knowing, but He restrains His power and knowledge for the sake of relationship with us. If I had all power and all knowledge, I am sure I would determine to make use of my abilities. The results would be disastrous. However, I am not God. Inasmuch as I chose to break with my conscience and choose to selfishness, I became morally depraved. I was without hope and without God. I was in need of a Savior.
God could judge the earth and all the wickedness, but he waits patiently for you and me to return to our source of life and hope and love. God is restrained from judgment for the sake of relationship. He always chooses the highest and best for everyone.
“For this is what the high and lofty One says–he who lives for ever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isa. 57:15)
His invitation to “Take my yoke … and learn from me” is a call to intimacy with Him, “for (He is) gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29)
God is patient. He limits His judgment, not his ability or his knowledge, for the sake of relationship.
God stoops down to love you and me, free moral beings, because He is condescendingly gracious. God’s eternal nature is limitless from time eternal past to time eternal future; He is eternal in duration. The Greek notion, representing mankind’s highest thinking, says God is timeless. This sophisticated human invention gave rise to the ultimate ideal, the UNKNOWN GOD, who exercises His power and knowledge without restraint.
There is no point in confusing this issue; we either worship an ideal UNKNOWN who controls all things perfectly and is therefore responsible for all things good and bad, or we worship the God who is all powerful, yet patient, humble, and not responsible for the evil acts of humanity. We either worship a god who could not limit his power or we worship the One Moses met at the burning bush, the all-powerful “I AM” who shows restraint. We either worship a god who absolutely never changes, including no emotional responses to the acts of his human creation, or we worship the God of the Bible who responds to our prayers, is touched by the feelings of our weaknesses, and feels the pain of rejection and the joy of new life. We either worship a god who controls all things, or we worship Jesus who makes us free to choose to love him or reject him. We either worship a god who is created after our own image, or we worship the Suffering Servant of Isa. 53 who went to the cross to die for my sin.
Relationship with an UNKNOWN GOD is impossible. That is how we have true intimate relationship with a wholly blameless Eternal God. And this is why my prayers echo the words of Bernard of Clairvaux:
“Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.”
“But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor.” – Gal 2:18
This phrase penned by the Apostle Paul follows the prophetic impulse of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah:
“Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:9-11 (NIV)
For those of us with that same prophetic impulse, I hope that you will be fueled with a passion to “build” what God is wanting to build and “tear down” those systems, beliefs, and practices which God does not approve. The apostolic and the prophetic are essential to the laying of foundations of the Church (Eph. 2:20). The “builder” anointing and impulse of the apostolic and prophetic is coupled with the “destroy and overthrow” anointing. The Spirit of God resists the proud. Anything, temples, kingdoms, or belief systems which resist the gentle flow of the Holy Spirit are marked for destruction.
Isa 57:14 And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
Then, after the destruction, the anointing to build takes the lead. Those whom God has rescued, the poor and the needy, the ones who have humbly sought God for grace, then become the builders.
Isa 61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
The caution Paul offers in the building process is to beware of building systems that will resist the gentle flow of God’s Spirit as He seeks to rescue and restore the poor and needy.
Wikipedia strongly espouses verifiability and a neutral point of view, but critics of Wikipedia accuse it of “systemic bias and inconsistencies”. They say “favoring consensus over credentials gives undue weight to popular culture” in its editorial processes.
From a vantage point of a missionary, I see an important similarity here to the argument that laity, those lacking credentials from a church denomination or seminary, have no business leading a church plant or Missional community. The argument goes like this: “Those untrained leaders could lead their people into heresy or false doctrine.” That was a major concern of the early church.
If reliability and accuracy are really the issue, and not the status of “experts,” then it’s worth noting that “an investigation in Nature (scientific journal) found that the science articles they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”.” In this Nature article, Alex Bateman and Darren W. Logan write:
“Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a free collaborative website, written and maintained by volunteers, would dominate the global provision of knowledge.”
So then, should an “untrained” leader draw together a group of Christ’s followers and attempt to demonstrate and declare the gospel of Jesus by making disciples from within their specific people group, their neighborhood, workplace, or school? Could such a group represent an authentic church gathering?
For centuries leadership of churches has been left to “experts”, those with credentials, degrees, and funny hats. Concern for this issue was pronounced during the recent post-colonial period, after WWII, when newly independent nations opened the opportunity for multiplied thousands of new independent churches which resulted in the greatest expansion of christianity in history, especially the Global South (see Inter-Varsity article). Many attempts to train the multitudes of new church leaders in Africa and China, through programs based mostly in the West, such as TEE (Theological Education by Extension), could not keep up the pace of church growth at the end of the 20th century. At issue: what would come of these “younger” churches? Would they slip into heresy and error?
Perhaps a little humility is required as we respond to these questions. The church in the West has not been without error, despite her theological “maturity.” The early church had error, the Medieval church had error, and the Protestant church has had error. Some error is difficult to perceive from a purely Western mindset. What could be wrong with promoting individual choices for Christ, reducing the gospel message to “three steps” or “four laws”? Well, getting “saved” for heaven is not the kingdom message Jesus preached. And it’s not the gospel message Paul preached. Salvation is much more comprehensive, and not just a private decision. The West has exported this erroneous gospel message through the modern missionary enterprise for more than a century.
Examining the laundry list of error in Western theology would require several other posts, so let’s just humble ourselves long enough to accept our brothers and sisters in the now Majority church of the Global South, not as immature “younger” churches, but as full fledged churches.
Like the world of Wikipedia, we now live in a new, “flat” and globalized world (See Thomas Friedman’s popular book, ‘The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century’), where information, correction of error and validation of facts now spread instantaneously around the world. Whether we are ready or not, it is time to consider our ways, to search the Scriptures for understanding the way to reach our new world.
Jesus did not make it complicated and neither should we. It is simple to experience community with those you already have an affinity, a similar culture. People who already share interest and time together are more likely to worship together and work together on a mission of Kingdom expansion.
This is the approach to missions and church planting in India put forth in the 1930s by Donald McGavran, the late missionary statesman who coined “Homogenous Unit Principle“, groups which can be a culture or language, a tribe or caste, a clan or geographical unit. McGavran was studied church growth, proposing a church which is not sending mission so much as it is itself sent. With so many different cultures in India, McGavran saw the need to encourage many cultural expressions of church. The different people groups should not be forced into one church cultural mold, like your neighborhood mega-church. Could it be that McGavran’s approach would also now be appropriate for churches in the Western world?
Lesslie Newbigin, another great missionary statesman, spent over 30 years living as a missionary working with the Church of South India. When he returned to England, Newbigin noticed something: the Western world had become as pluralistic as India, with new “faith” in materialism. (See Newbigin’s book: The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.) The West, especially Europe with the USA not far behind, had already lost much of its “Christian” heritage. Once vital Church structures in England are now nightclubs with names like “Ministry of Sin.” Newbigin saw the need to not only continue to send missionaries around the world, but also to receive missionaries to re-evangelize the post-Christian West. He suggested the formation and structure of Western churches require a new reformation in order to reach our Western society with the gospel. He and many of the leaders in world missions today, contend that the Church in the West must again become primarily a missions station sponsoring Missional communities among the people groups in our cities. The Anglican Church is championing “Fresh Expressions” of church formation for the communities in which it has been established for many hundreds of years.
What am I proposing? Three things:
- First, I propose we learn humility, perhaps unlike or feeble attempts to humble ourselves in religious services, temporarily weeping at the altar and then returning to our comfortable lives behind our TVs, in our over-sized houses, and compressed lifestyles. We must humble ourselves, relinquishing our supposed rights to power, privilege, and too often prestige.
- Second, like Wikipedia, we should learn to trust every believer to gain access, participate, and contribute to theological conversations. We should trust those with a desire to be a witness to their community.
- Third, we should flatten our church hierarchies, eliminate the exclusivity of church “membership”, and commission believers to “go” into their world to plant simple church communities.
Imagine if Jesus could once again become the main focus of conversations and life in your neighborhood, your workplace, and on a your campus, perhaps it would also be possible for the message and works of Jesus to fill an entire city. No, I am not suggesting we merely “unite” churches (which tend to be organized in a competitive business model anyway). Unity is not something we create, it is something the apostle Paul exhorts us to “preserve”.
This vision for a new church-planting movement in our neighborhoods could only be realized if everyday believers, people like you and me, choose to go on mission in our sphere of influence, planting the church where you are through non-formal gatherings in homes, workplaces, and campus dorms. Of course, those with the status as “experts” may resist this missional movement for various reasons. But I am confident that the leaders whose hearts belong to Jesus will cheer ANY effort to reach our world with the good news.
The hard part is this: We have to renew our thinking, repent of our fixed cultural habits, and begin to walk worthy of this calling. Church is not just something you attend…it’s something you are. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within you; that’s true of every believer. The good news is within us.
We need break our individualistic mindset in order to see our world is not just one big community of individuals. It is hundreds of people groups, small communities put together to make up your city.
So I am proposing ‘simple churches’ or missional communities to be formed by two or more believers among these people groups. Missional communities are incarnational in that they arise out of and focus on the communities they desire to reach. Imagine multitudes of new small groups of believers in Chicago, LA, and New York, and in university campuses, businesses and suburbs in your area… Leaders need to find courage to once again be the church and release a new generation of churches in their most localized and organic form. This is what I propose: Form simple churches that are “Wiki-Missional.”
Our table is the center of our home. It’s the place our family comes together, the place we welcome friends, neighbors, and strangers. We invite others into the kitchen where we chop and sauté vegetables, bake bread, stir sauces, pour the fruit of the vine (juice or wine, you choose), and prepare to savor the meal. Rich conversation with others around food is how we live, how we love each other, how we teach our children, and how we learn about others and our world.
We thought everyone enjoyed meals as families. We thought everyone invited people into their homes to share their lives. Sadly, we’ve met a growing number of people who rarely if ever sit at table with their families, let alone anyone else. By sharing our table with international students, young people from various religious and non-religious backgrounds, happy homes and broken homes, we’ve learned how very desperate this generation is for authentic relationships.
But that’s not all. The simplicity of sharing meals and intimate conversation may be more than we thought.
Think about it. Table fellowship was central to early church gatherings. Long before all the complex religious practices, the beautiful sanctuaries and the hierarchy of leaders were added to the simplicity of sharing life in Christ with others, believers shared meals from house to house. Though some gatherings may have been in the synagogue or a rented hall, much of the growth of the church came about in the intimate spaces, especially table fellowship. Without the New Testament scriptures, people gathered to remember the words Jesus spoke. They experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and spoke the simple gospel message and the church rapidly grew. People opened their homes and others brought their appetites, desiring to grow in their relationship with Jesus, which caused the growth of the “spiritual house”, the new temple of worship. It appears Jesus intends, and the early apostles taught, that we should be priests offering spiritual sacrifices from the altar of table fellowship. Peter writes:
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 2:2-5
There’s more. The New Testament “priesthood” is very different from the Old Testament priesthood and their focus on Temple worship. Before Jesus went to the cross, he prophesied the total destruction of the Temple, which came about before the end of the first century, and which resulted in the end of Temple worship. Jesus instituted a new form of altar worship, table fellowship. He instructed his followers to remember his sacrifice. Paul writes to the Corinthian believers:
“the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Cor. 11:22-24
Jesus instructed us to “remember” and Peter instructed us to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God”. Priests offer intercession, prayer for the people, including all nations. The Old Testament priests were born priests; they were from the tribe of Levites. The Levites offered the blood of bulls, goats, and doves for the remission of sin. Some became corrupt, seeking and maintaining power, and failing to intercede for the nations. Of all the words Jesus spoke, he spoke most harshly to those corrupt leaders that failed to be priests and a light to the Gentiles.
The “tribe” of priests in the New Testament are also born to a priesthood; they are born of the Spirit. They are not individually priests with special callings. The priesthood is all those born of the Spirit. New Testament priests do not shed blood, as the Levites did. Instead, they recall the complete and finished work of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, our high priest:
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” – Heb. 7:23-27
So this priesthood is not for a select few in the Church, not a specialized role that must be earned and not a special class of people within the Church. This priesthood of all believers is the call to intercede, to pray and offer a different kind of “sacrifice” on a different kind of altar.
Table fellowship had become very controversial in the early church. Peter struggled with the issue and Paul confronted him about it:
“But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” – Gal. 2:11-12
Jewish believers needed to learn Christ’s mission. They needed to be free from their cultural and religious systems of power. They needed to recognize how those systems resist Holy Spirit.
Finding freedom in the Spirit will lead us to cooperate with him. He is here to make Jesus known in all the earth. The Holy Spirit is spreading the good news. Our part is to be that priesthood, inviting our neighbors to table fellowship. Preaching is important, but we must not neglect breaking bread with neighbors as part of our intercession for our neighborhood as a kingdom of priests.
The Madison Senior Pastor Survey conducted in 1996, found eighty-four percent of the congregations placed “some” or “a lot” of emphasis on meeting the needs of the poor. (1996:7) Madison area Christians may disagree, however it is obvious that their standard of living has gradually increased so much that they are blind to the influence of materialism. Living in the comforts of Madison, it is difficult to see the effects of materialism. Until we are shocked into awareness by a trip to a country, and not to the confines of a typical tourist hotel, where the annual income is less than an American child’s allowance. Those who earn more than ten thousand dollars per year share the top ten percent of the world’s wealth. (Barret 2001)
Michael Budde writes, the “Protestant ethic is dysfunctional in the consumption-driven postmodern era.” Budde adds that the apostle Paul’s admonition has been turned on its head in our materialist economy; it “dictates that if people will not eat (and drink, and buy compact discs, the latest in fashions, and home appliances) in sufficient volume, then no one will work.” If the Church in Madison does not allow herself to be shocked out of her slumber, she will fail to be effective confronting the desperate human needs of the world.
The good news is that technology has opened new vistas of communication and broken down centuries old barriers to the gospel. “The Information Age is boundary blind,” William O’Brien writes in his article “Mission in the Valley of Postmodernity” (from the book ‘In Global Good News: Mission in a New Context’). O’Brien adds, “There are no unique continental or regional areas identified exclusively as ‘mission fields’.” Easy access to people of every nation and culture is suddenly made available through the world wide web.
This access provides opportunity for the flow of up to the minute information for prayer, generous giving, and a deepened understanding of the plight of peoples around the world. However, as desperate needs cascade across our computer screens, there may not yet be sufficient spiritual equipping for the Church in Madison to respond appropriately.
The letter to the Galatians may be Paul’s most important, representing the life and death struggle for the universal Church. It may have been followed by what may be the most important event in early church history, the Council of Jerusalem.
Paul also exhibits his most combative attitude in this letter. He does not open with any sense of gratitude for the church at Galatia, as was his custom. Paul, instead, must take on those other “teachers” who are presenting a “different gospel”, which undermines Paul’s gospel of justification by grace. Those other teachers were what Paul calls the “circumcision faction” (NRSV), who were demanding Gentile believers to observe the law of Moses, to become circumcised, which is to rely on Jewish Heritage.
Paul had met with Peter, had joined him at table fellowship with Gentiles, and later rebuked him for pulling away from that fellowship when those “Judaisers” arrived. Even Barnabas pulled back and joined in this “hypocrisy.” Paul calls into question the motives of those teachers; was it to avoid persecution or to gain some advantage?
It’s unclear exactly who those other teachers are that are putting Gentile believers under a “yoke of slavery,” but his words for them are as biting as ever. He claims they will “pay the penalty,” that they are “accursed,” and he wishes that they would “castrate themselves.”
Paul declares that the believers who have come under that “yoke” are “stupid” and “foolish.” They are by their actions denying the sufficiency of Christ, the gospel of Grace Paul preached to them. They are willing to “add” something, as if something more were necessary, to their simple trust in God.
Paul’s argument is that everyone, even Jews who do ‘works of the law’ in accordance to their heritage, must abandon their hope for a right relationship with God through trust in any other means, including Jewish Heritage. We must all find our hope and place our trust in Christ alone. Paul argues that Jewish heritage is more than adherence to Mosaic Law. Their father is Abraham, whose faith in God and not his adherence to any law. Therefore, Paul argues that reliance on law is finished for all Christians. The law does not and cannot foster the kind of faith and trust that leads to life. The Law was an imperfect agency, added as a kind of tutor, which identifies sin.
Followers of Christ are to emulate the trust of Abraham. The controversy called for the Council of Jerusalem. The consequences of this letter and this issue had divided churches, and if it had not been resolved, may never have allowed for Gentile believers without conversion to Judaism. The consequences would have dramatically hindered missionary efforts. The core of this issue may be the strong tendency of many Jews to place their trust in their ethnic and religious identity.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to eliminate all barriers to full religious participation based on race, sex, social status, etc. This is the challenge, I believe, for any cross-cultural transmission of the gospel. For that reason, if this controversy had not been sufficiently quelled, it would have done irreparable violence to the gospel of grace.
I was asked “Why do you think Paul did not write the Letter to the Ephesians?” Well, there are a series of questions that lead to that one. First, who was the audience? Was it the Church at Ephesus? Possibly not. Why? Because the text “in ephesus” was not in the earliest writings of this letter. This is an important question, because the answer definitely reveals something of the author. The author apparently has no first hand knowledge of Ephesus. (1:15, 3:2, 4:21) There is no reference to Paul’s earlier visit.
Then who was the letter originally addressed to? Was it the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16)? Possibly, but there was no manuscript found with the text “in Laodicea.” Was it a general letter to all the churches? This is very possible. “In Ephesus” could have been added later since it was the third largest city in the Roman empire and letters were often circulated in this way. (Eph. 6:21 & 2 Tim. 4:12) Note that all the “churches” in the book of Revelation were centered around this major city of Ephesus.
So back to our question: Did Paul write the Letter to the Ephesians? If it was addressed to Ephesus, then NO, it was not Paul because it reveals that the author does not know Ephesus.
I’m not a Greek scholar, but I’ve read that the style of Greek is different. Many words and phrases are different from those of Paul. The letter is similar to Colossians though. In fact, the author seems to use Colossians as a reference.
So then, why was Paul’s name on the letter? Apparently custom demanded giving reference to the person whose ideas are being used. Writing in Paul’s name would have been a form of citation of reference common in that period.
If not Paul, then who did write Ephesians? It was likely a follower of Paul. Whether we agree on authorship or not, we can agree that the letter is very useful to learn of Paul’s theology. The author is clearly dedicated to Paul’s message. It was someone who obviously knew Paul’s gospel of grace.
By the time the Letter to the Ephesians is written, the church has emerged as a social and political force. The author, likely not Paul, has identified problems of the universal significance of God’s act in Christ. This letter shares the theme of Romans (Jew & Gentile conflict), but that conflict is apparently fading. There’s little reference to that conflict in Ephesians. However, a wider conflict in the Greco-Roman world has emerged: The challenge of the pagan worldview of pantheism. In this letter, the author argues that Christ is supreme.
This author is not likely to be Paul. Though clearly dedicated to Paul’s message, the author brilliantly outlines Paul’s gospel of grace. The message is Christ and his supremacy. In this letter we find a “representational Cristology”, which is the revelation that we can determine our future based on Christ’s life and resurrection.
The flow of the the argument is in two parts. First, the “Universal Significance of Christ” (1:3 – 3:21), which includes meditations on the meaning of Christ and the revelation of God’s eternal plan, with the presence of Holy Spirit as guarantee until inheritance. Christ is described as “head” of creation and of the church, but Christians sit with him in heavenly places. Therefore, Christians are free from the prince of the power of the air. God’s mysterious and eternal plan has always been Christ’s death & resurrection.
The purpose of the Church, then, is to make the mystery known, to declare the outcome of Christ’s finished work. That is, the church is to declare the unity of humanity in Christ, that there is no longer any “wall” or distinction between Jew or Gentile. Through the cross, Christ has reconciled all to God. (4:1-6:20)
The author then directs the reader’s attention to behavior, how we should then live, in light of these realities. Believers need to understand how to relate to non-believers and how to make their stand against forces of darkness. We are called to “live worthy”, functioning as members of a family, with good order, and self-sacrificial love.
Paul’s letter to the Romans may possibly his last letter. To ascertain the historical background, we must understand the purpose of the letter, the audience, and the apparent historical placement or time the letter was written.
Paul’s apparent purpose for writing the letter was to promote unity between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. In the letter, we read that Paul is praying and asking for prayer that Christians in Jerusalem would “accept” the collection, the gift from the churches in Asia. Those churches included, though not exclusively, Gentile Christians. Why was this collection so important? Perhaps in Paul’s mind it would legitimate his “mission” to the Gentiles? Perhaps he believed it would unite the church, if only the church in Jerusalem would acknowledge the Gentile church? Certainly this was part of Paul’s eschatological vision, the role of the Jews in history, fulfilling Israel’s destiny to be a “light to the nations” and be a “blessing” to every nation and people.
In addition, Paul’s purpose was to introduce himself, in anticipation of his pending visit. He also hopes they will support him on his journey to Spain. Mostly, however, he desires to bring reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul is not necessarily addressing Jews. His audience is primarily the Gentile Christians who had become leaders in the Roman church. He writes them in order to share his apologia on behalf of the Jews.
The Letter is written after Claudius, the Roman emperor, had expelled Jews from Rome. (Acts 18:2) Jews then returned to Rome after Claudius died in 54AD. During that time Gentiles became the leaders of the Church. Some acted superior. This raised questions in the minds of Jewish Christians of the legitimacy of the Gentile church.
Paul states his thesis in ch. 1:2-4, which is his theme throughout his ministry. Paul defends the universality of the gospel’s significance. He later restates this theme in ch. 11:32: “God has enclosed all people in disobedience, in order to have mercy on all.” The primary purpose and message of Romans is to state that the gospel of mercy is available to Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul apparently never visited that Roman church.
Hebrews is an “elegantly polished” text, which is “removed from the world of the Modern reader.” This book serves as a pastoral letter, which exhorts Christian believers, a “pilgrim people,” to “persevere” and to continue to grow. Though the letter is Pauline in content, he is not the author. Instead, the author is likely to have been associated with Paul. This author is an educated Jewish person trained in Greek philosophy and exegesis. This person is clearly an authority in the church with an important word for an increasingly diverse, though clearly the author’s contemporary Jewish audience, probably in Rome. This letter refers to the “tabernacle” more than the “temple”, with references to the “wilderness” through which the “pilgrim” community is venturing and can reach their destination “today.” This treatise, which describes the Hebrew Scriptures as “alive and active”, is clearly describing the realities and promises fulfilled through the finished work of God in Christ. The author outlines three key Christological arguments; Jesus is “superior.” Jesus is superior as the Son, the Pioneer of our Faith, and the High Priest. God has spoken in the past through angels, but now he speaks to us through his Son, the agent of God’s creation and revelation, in these “last days.” He shares our humanity, yet he is the heir of all things, who receives the promise on behalf of all human beings. As a superior pioneer, he has gone ahead of us, blazing a trail for us to follow, doing what we could not do. After the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek, he is a “perfect” high priest, who was made perfect through suffering, and can make our consciences perfect through his perfect offering made once for all.
Understanding González’ paradigms of culture helps us understand Paul, who reconciled his identity as a Mestizos. González’ paradigms help us understand why Paul stood so strongly against those who preached a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6 NIV) which throughout history has fragmented, marginalized, exiled, and made aliens. These paradigms help us interpret how God is at work among people in the margins or between cultures. The paradigm of solidarity helps us see in the Scriptures and throughout history the need for give-and-take dialog between cultures and the need for proper engagement within culture. As González relates, “The most exciting things have happened, not at the traditional centers of the life of the church, but at the edges.” The disarming of principalities and powers occurs as we participate with God in the example of Pentecost through which God’s Spirit inaugurates the character of openness to outsiders. Interpretation of the New Testament, without attention to the influences of culture, may lead to alienation and distort the message, however the Bible will always affirm the purpose of God, directing the readers’ understanding to the call of the new community of Jesus’ followers to open their hearts to every culture to become One New Humanity.
Paul’s greatest contribution is his defense of the gospel for the Gentiles, most notably leading up to the Council of Jerusalem. Paul’s ethnic and educational background, his nationality, and his religious identity was useful, however he knew they also obstructed his vision and witness of Jesus. (Phil. 3:8) Paul found the center of Judaism in Jesus, who helped him interpret the Scriptures and discern points of dissent with his own and with every other culture. From his Mestizos vantage point he also understood the powerful forces at work dividing cultures and people. He was forthright at pointing out idol worship among the nations, which had also found its way into Judaism. (Acts 17:23, Rom. 1:25, Gal. 3:25) Rather than serve God’s purpose to unite all humanity (Gal. 3:26-28), humankind had erected dividing walls through the influence of invisible forces. Paul’s missionary task and the task he calls the church to undertake is to unmask the principalities and powers, exposing the cultural idols, false teachers, and elementary principles to proclaim in their place the gospel for every people. (Gal. 4:8-9) The Church is challenged to deal with these powerful forces holding people and cultures captive, blinded from seeing the gospel. (Eph. 3:10)
The notion of the “Cosmic Race,” popularized among Latinos by Mexican author Jose Vasconcelos, is a philosophical basis for pride in the mixture of races. González writes, there is “no single perspective or a single clue to ‘reading with Hispanic eyes.’” Therefore a people of varied backgrounds sharing a single identity is dubious. However, this is Paul’s vision and the message he preaches to the Gentiles. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul (or one of his disciples) writes that Jesus’ “purpose was to create in himself one new person.” He (or she) continues with the message of solidarity, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Eph. 2:15, 19 NIV) This “unity in the faith,” misunderstood by Paul’s contemporaries, has also been misinterpreted in every generation since.
Before meeting Jesus, Saul/Paul’s aim was to eliminate the threat that the new sect of Jesus followers represented to Judaism. Ethnic and religious purity, which was tied to the ultimate conquest of Israel’s Messiah over all nations, defined his worldview. Sadly Spanish missionary endeavors in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries interpreted the Scriptures envisioning a kind of religious purity through coerced conversion in Latin America, which appears to be an amalgamation of the purity ethic of Second Temple Judaism and the conquest ethic of the Roman Empire. Modern Protestant missionary endeavors continued a triumphalist interpretation, albeit separated from military coercion, by expanding into the “frontiers,” which implies redrawing the “borders” of Western civilization. Western individualism, informed by the Protestant Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith, which possesses an important “supporting role” in Paul’s gospel, became the central understanding the expanding Protestant missionary enterprise. Today, when Westerners read the stories of Moses at the burning bush (Exo. 3:1-10) and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-35), they read how the individual finds God, rather than a calling, “to go back to their people to do the work of God with and among them.” Westerners interpret the purpose of the Church (and of the Bible) to be a functionary agent to meet individual needs, rather than an expression of the gospel itself and a “foretaste of the kingdom.” This misinterpretation of the gospel message has resulted in a new form of “exile,” “a dislocation from the center,” as people are either left out, pushed out, or choose to remain outside the center.
“Mestizos,” a pejorative term used by the powerful and “pure” Spaniard conquerors, was used to convince the “mixed-breeds” that they were inferior. One of Paul’s Hellenist Jewish parents made him a kind of mixed-breed who likely experienced a severe oppression and “double alienation,” which undermined the “barriers of separation that consolidate self-identity and security.” Saul, “also known as Paul,” was a Roman citizen misfit among the Hellenist Jews in Tarsus. It appears he had to overcompensate to assure his fellow Jews that he was a true believer, which produced the “persecutor” of the Jewish Christians with his consent to the death of Stephen. After his conversion, Saul continued to experience this challenge to his identity. Not only did he have to overcome his past as a persecutor of the Church, his Mestizos identity contributed to his need to continually defend his calling as an apostle.
Saul comes to terms with his Mestizaje, allowing himself to be known as Paul, when he turns in anger to defend a Roman official’s faith in Jesus against the lies of Elymas, a Jewish sorcerer. “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!” Paul rebuked, “You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:6-10) Paul’s use of his Hellenist name at this juncture, setting aside pride in his Benjamite heritage, represented his commitment to stand against forces restricting the pronouncement of the gospel for every culture. Certainly, this event was as significant as his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul understood the gospel message and set out to implement the purpose of God for all humanity which had been completed through Israel’s Messiah.
Two forlorn Jewish disciples met a stranger as they were leaving Jerusalem, the center of their world. After hearing them explain that their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, had been crucified, the “uninformed” stranger responded, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26 NIV) The resurrected Jesus explained what was plainly written in the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke’s gospel concludes with Jesus’ statement that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47 NIV)
How can this message of Jesus be pronounced “to all nations” if the Jewish people, centered within the context of a national expectation of the coming Messiah, failed to recognize him? If his disciples who walked with him and heard his teaching had failed to understand, what were the implications for the apostles who began to preach the gospel to different cultures? How do different contexts, and different centers of cultural understanding, effect the interpretation of the message? What must we therefore understand about the role of culture in the understanding of the New Testament? After feigning a continued journey, Jesus sat to break bread with his fellow travelers. In an instant his identity was revealed and he left those two disciples with hearts ablaze and compelled to go tell somebody.
In his book, Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes, Justo González offers helpful insights for Biblical interpretation through cultural paradigms of marginality, poverty, mestizaje and mulatez, exile and aliens, and solidarity. Making use of these paradigms, I will argue that the reinterpretation of the apostle Paul’s identity, the misinterpretation of the gospel message across cultures over the centuries, and the challenge Paul presents to the Church to disarm principalities and powers over cultures are all necessary to overcome the temptation to confuse the message of the gospel. Understanding the role of culture is essential to understanding the New Testament and therefore the mission of the Church.
(This is the first of five posts on this topic. Look for the next in a few days.)
Something about that encounter on the Road to Damascus was so “utterly trustworthy” that Paul was convinced that the God of his fathers had appeared to him in the person of Jesus. God had called Israel to fulfill a purpose, which is the future for all people. This has always been the purpose of Israel’s election. Jesus is the ultimate exodus for Israel and the whole world. Israel’s destiny is summed up in the Messiah. Paul is not teaching Christian dualism and he is not launching a new movement. He is not forming a separate people. However, he is preaching a new message, one of the fulfillment of Israel’s promises, one new humanity.
Throughout his life, Paul was committed to Jewish monotheism. What changed was the depth of his understanding of that “fighting doctrine,” which declares “blasphemous” all other gods, all other philosophies, and all other political loyalties. The contrasting changes and consistencies in Paul’s identity within his faith community, his understanding of the Law, and his eschatological vision were clearly the result of his personal encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Paul realized a vital relationship with the One “true content” of Jewish monotheism, Jesus Christ. Paul became “known” by the God of Israel. (Gal. 4:8-11)
According to the Hebrew scriptures, the Messiah’s coming and Israel’s redemption would result in an in-gathering of all nations. (Isa. 2:3, Mic 4:2) Jewish expectation was that the purposes of God would eventually include the whole world. Paul now understands that Jesus took up Israel’s identity. The good news is that Israel’s representative has succeeded and their true fulfillment is “in Christ.” The embodiment of self-giving love, the self-designated “Son of Man,” gave Saul the task to announce God’s message of reconciliation with sinful humanity. Saul comes to be known as Paul after being sent out with Barnabas on their first missionary journey. As an apostle of Christ Jesus and faithful monotheistic Jew, Paul is chosen as an instrument to fulfill Israel’s mission to all humanity.
Paul met the One who became a human being and a servant, the One who was willing to die for sinners like a criminal and rise as the “firstborn from the dead.” Paul gave up his violent zeal because Jesus made “peace through the blood of his cross.” Paul saw the apocalyptic significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s theology had not changed, however he now understood that the Law, due to human weakness, could not free humankind from the consequences of sin.
Next post: Concluding thoughts on Paul and Judaism
Saul’s self-identity as a member of the “strictest sect” of the Jewish religion has often led to a misinterpretation of Paul, the apostle of Christ Jesus. (Acts 26:5) The Pharisees were a significant social movement of nearly six thousand people at the end of the reign of Herod the Great. These ‘Separate Ones’ proselytized their fellow Jews to the end that a new community of devout followers of God, a sort of priesthood of all Jewish believers, would emerge. Consistent with the messages of John the Baptist and Jesus, many Pharisees sought to reform God’s people.
The Pharisees were not unified in their political and social aspirations, however. While the Pharisees may have all expected an apocalyptic future judgment on all of Israel’s enemies, they were divided, liberal and conservative, with different political and religious emphases. Under the tutorage of Gameliel, Saul originally identified with Hillelites, the liberal Hellenistic Pharisees. Saul evidently had a significant conversion within Pharisaic Judaism, through which he began to identify with Shamaites, the revolutionary Pharisees. This conversion had therefore narrowed Saul’s community of faith to a smaller group of “daggermen.” He was willing to use violence on anyone, even liberal Jewish “traitors”, who would not support the Shamaite’s tri-part myopic agenda for Israel, her people, her land, and her temple. This begins to explain why Saul gave approval of those who killed Stephen. (Acts 8:1, 3)
After six hundred years of captivity, the prophetic promise for Israel’s deliverance was deeply embedded in Saul’s worldview. (Isa. 46:12-13) Contrary to popular opinion, Saul’s identity in Jewish community was not defined by legalism. Instead, it was the belief that Israel was God’s people and that God had a special covenant of grace with them. Saul heard a new spin on the story of Israel’s Messiah when Stephen expounded the Hebrew Scriptures. Stephen’s rendition claimed Israel’s Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth. Then Saul witnessed Stephen looking up saying, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” As he was stoned to death, Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:56, 60)
Probably enraged by Stephen’s claim that he saw the “Son of Man,” the name reserved for Israel, Saul expanded his persecution seeking permission from the high priest to arrest followers of the “Way” in Damascus. (Acts 9:1-2) Though he was devout in his understanding of the grandeur of Jewish monotheism, Israel’s election, and apocalyptic eschatology, Saul’s radical devotion to Torah had diminished his Judaism to a sect with little evidence of grace. He must have been conflicted knowing that Israel was a covenant people who “responded to God’s gracious initiative in terms set forth in the Torah.” Clearly, Saul witnessed the grace of the Spirit of Israel’s Messiah through the testimony and martyrdom of Stephen. Saul’s longing for the abundant grace of God for the community of Israel was not evident in his life, however this early encounter of grace exhibited in Stephen’s final words had implanted a seed of apocalyptic revelation.
The next post will be about Paul’s changing relationship with the Torah and the Law of the Spirit Life.
Saul of Tarsus’ dramatic meeting with the risen Lord Jesus radically completed his appreciation for Jewish monotheism. The change of his name to Paul and the dramatic changes in his ministry orientation have sometimes been interpreted as an abandonment of his zeal for the faith of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However Paul’s scathing criticism of the first century practices of Judaism and his message of inclusion to pagan Greeks and Romans into communities of faith alongside Jews is not his final verdict on Judaism, it is rather his interpretation of the sequel to Israel’s story. After more than a century of Biblical scholarship, which has both “used and abused” Paul, some have begun to reevaluate Paul’s relationship to Judaism. With these new studies, we can now better compare and contrast changes in Paul’s story, his identity before and after his encounter with Jesus. In the next several posts, I will look at the changes and consistencies in Paul’s identity within his faith community, his understanding of the Law, and his eschatological vision, which I believe are all best understood through the singular lens of his personal encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus.
Based on his missionary journeys in the Book of Acts, it’s very likely that among Paul’s letters in our Bibles, his letters to the Thessalonians were probably the first. Paul’s main concern for the Thessalonian believers relates to Christ’s second coming. Nothing has changed. For as long as I can remember, Christians have had similar questions about Christ’s second coming. What can we learn from Paul’s letters regarding the second coming? More than I can relate in this short post.
Because Paul’s first letter shows a curiosity among early Christians about Jesus’ return, we should not be surprised when today’s Christians are also curious.
The Thessalonians were despairing over the long delay of Christ’s return. The fame of their church had spread beyond Macedonia, even though there was apparently little formal church organization. It was truly an organic movement of believers radically committed, no matter what the risk, to a new king, Jesus.
Paul writes to assuage the early Christians’ worries about Christ’s delayed return, especially their questions about those who have already died. This is when the letter gets interesting.
Paul writes about what Christian tradition has called the “rapture.”
Paul writes with pastoral compassion. He is particularly intimate in his first letter, as he not only teaches and corrects, he also admonishes with advice regarding behavior. This is not a private letter. He admonishes the one who receives it to read it aloud for the whole community.
In his second letter, Paul addresses the Thessalonians’ anxiety that Christ may have already returned. They thought they had missed it. This was a festering eschatological confusion, which continues today. In this second letter, Paul is comforting those suffering under persecution and uncharacteristically speaks of the coming wrath and judgment.
Again Paul is primarily addressing apocalyptic issues, which are consistent with his background in apocalyptic Judaism. So what does he say about the rapture?
The return of the Messiah will be sudden and the events preceding his coming will be observable. It will be sudden, like a thief, but it will not be a secret. No, you won’t wake up from your nap on a plane and find your neighbor’s underwear “left behind.”
This notion of being “left behind” is the popular view, but it does not stand up to an honest and thorough study of the scriptures. Jesus is coming. But everyone will know when it happens.
More on this in a later post.
I was fascinated when I recently read how Christian persecution began locally as early believers refused to participate in pagan rituals. Freedom to worship was supposedly protected by Rome. It was a time of relative peace, depending on who you were. Special protections were available to Roman citizens and wealthy landowners in occupied territories. Most everyone but Caesar was taxed, however, even the emperor had to pay tribute to the gods. So why did persecution of the early Christian Church become Roman policy?
The early church practices were very different from local religions in the Roman Empire. The early Christian believers were not isolated ethnic groups worshiping their pagan gods or ancestors. They appeared very different to Roman observers. Their multi-ethnic character and their rapidly spreading distribution made them look like one of two things; they were either a merchant class marketing something throughout the Roman empire, or their were fomenting political revolution. As evidence emerged that these people were declaring a new ruler, Jesus of Nazareth, a peasant Jew who was publicly executed and rose from the dead, the Romans became alarmed. Their political and economic system relied on the ultimate worship of only one god-man, Caesar. This growing movement was worshiping Jesus as Lord!
Most of us know Christians were persecuted in Rome. However too few appreciate how fierce that persecution became and how much it occurs today.
Do Christians experiencing persecution today? Many Western Christians do not experience persecution or martyrdom to the extent that they did in the time of Paul. On the other hand, believers around the world may be experiencing more persecution and martyrdom than any previous period in history. I can’t be sure, however. I’m not sure how well documented are the persecutions in the 7th and 8th centuries, particularly toward the Church of the East.
Consider one of the more recent persecutions of Christians in Orissa, India. This is a briefing from Wikipedia on the total damage:
“According to All India Christian Council, the 2008 violence affected in 14 districts out of 30 and 300 Villages, 4,400 Houses burnt, 50,000 Homeless, 59 People killed including at least 2 pastors, 10 Priests/Pastors/Nuns injured, 18,000 Men, women, children injured, 2 women gang-raped including a nun, 151 Churches destroyed and 13 Schools and colleges damaged. The violence targeted Christians in 310 villages, with 4,104 homes torched. More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced and homes continued to burn in many villages.  Another report said that around 11,000 people are still living in relief camps.  Some of the tribals even fled away to border districts in neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh and took shelter in churches of those districts.”
Dear friends in India are helping hundreds of Orissa refugees right now. You too can help by sponsoring an Orissa Christian for discipleship training.
I want to mention how stories of persecution are close to home for me. First, I must help end the rumor that Youth With A Mission was attacked in Orissa. See this official message for further clarification.
As a YWAMer, I learn of persecutions against our missionary community and fellow Christians around the world. Persecution and martyrdom, such as occurred in Orissa, has not occurred in the West in recent years. But there is persecution. It’s just not reported as such. To find out about it, we may need to read reports from other than secular sources.
In Dec. 2007, two of our Youth With A Mission staff and three others at New Life Church were gunned down in Colorado. The murders were committed by a young man with mental disorder, according to the reports. The response, on the part of the YWAM community, was to forgive and pray for the gunman’s family.
Today, I believe we need to prepare to respond to persecution. The more we are given to Christ’s mission, the more we will experience and taste persecution. Paul’s example in his letter to the church in Philippi, is useful for us:
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”