Thursday, November 30, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (16) - The Beatitudes - 5

The final two beatitudes are very similar.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute
you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

These beatitudes are probably the clearest of all that Jesus is not setting out a list of virtues that merit God's blessings, or as ethical requirements for acceptance into the Kingdom. As D.E. Garland has pointed out, being persecuted can hardly be an entrance requirement since this is neither something that one can do on their own, nor is it a virtue in and of itself (in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Blessings and Woes).

These final beatitudes summarise and climax the others. The persecuted are blessed if they are persecuted "because of righteousness" and "because of me [Jesus]". As we've seen, the concepts of righteousness and justice for the oppressed are closely linked in the Bible, and Jesus expects His followers to be righteous and to pursue justice.

Jesus never called for His disciples to withdraw from society, or to separate themselves from the communities in which they live. To the contrary, He calls for His followers to be a positive influence on the world around them - to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world", to overcome evil by doing good, and to infect the world with a 'contagious holiness'. Too often religious groups set themselves apart from (and above) their neighbours and make distinctions based on creeds, dogmas and rituals. This is not the way of Jesus or the way of the Kingdom.

The beautitudes are the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount - Matthew's summary of Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom. It's no coincidence that the final parable in the final sermon in this Gospel is about the basis of judgment and how people have treated the hungry and thirsty, the poor and naked, and prisoners. Jesus began His ministry by announcing that God will bring deliverance to the oppressed, and He ended it by declaring that this deliverance would come in part through the outward-looking practices of His followers who are focussed on relieving suffering, promoting justice and acting righteously.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (15) - The Beatitudes - 4

Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Purity was an important issue for the religious in Jesus' day, and the Gospels record several incidents and sayings when Jesus dealt with their wrong perceptions about purity, and I've looked at some of these in earlier posts. For example, by refusing to wash His hands before a meal Jesus declared that we cannot be 'defiled' or 'contaminated' through our contact with people who do not meet our standards of purity. By allowing 'unclean' people to touch Him, and even by reaching out to them, Jesus actively demonstrated that He was welcoming into His Kingdom those who were 'impure' by the standards of others and even those who were previously 'impure' by God's standards revealed in the Torah!

Purity under the Jewish law had an outward emphasis - as a result the religious distanced themselves from others and shrank away from outside ('worldly') influences and relationships, emphasising 'separation'. However, in a saying recorded in Matthew 15:11 Jesus emphasised that defilement came from a person's heart: "What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' "

Similarly, in this beatitude, Jesus is saying that purity is not an outward thing but is 'in the heart'. Later in this sermon He was to go on to say that religious observances and practices which are designed to get the attention of others come from a wrong motive and are therefore useless. After speaking of God's deliverance of the oppressed (the poor, the hungry, those who mourn), He turns to speaks of our role in bringing deliverance ('show mercy' - or actively bring deliverance). In placing this beatitude here He is emphasising that our motive in helping the poor and oppressed must spring from 'a pure heart' and not for any hope of recognition or praise by others.

Jesus built on this in His next beatitude:
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

One of the marks of the promised Kingdom of God is peace, and the prophets repeatedly spoke of peace as a major characteristic of the Age to Come. "On earth peace to men" was announced by the angels at the birth of Jesus, and Acts describes the Gospel as "the good news of peace through Jesus Christ" (10:36). Paul said of our salvation that "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:1) and said of Jesus "he himself is our peace" and "He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near" (Eph 2:14-18). Unlike the first 4 beatitudes which announced that God is about to bring deliverance, this beatitude concludes the a group of 3 which emphasise our role in bringing deliverance as Kingdom-people.

Jesus may well have had in mind the militaristic efforts of some Jews to overthrow the Romans. It's likely that two of the twelve disciples were previously members of underground 'liberation' organisations. However, rather than getting our needs met through the destruction of our enemies, Jesus taught the opposite. Ironically, it was a Roman soldier, someone who had previously been a target of the liberationists, who declared at the crucifixion "truly this was the Son of God" (Mark 15:39). As the Prince of Peace Jesus brought together those who would once have killed each other. As the children of God, and sons of the Kingdom, we are commissioned to not only preach a message of peace but to be peacemakers.

Even in our dealers with people who have different opinions, 'heretical theologies' or 'wrong doctrine', we must remember that we are called to be peacemakers and not separatists.

Doctrine & Conduct (14) - The Beatitudes - 3

The fifth beatitude (in Matthew - it's absent in Luke) is:

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

We often think of 'mercy' as forgiveness. However, when Jesus taught about forgiveness (e.g. in connection with the Lords' prayer) He used a different Greek word (aphiemi - Matt 6:12). 'Mercy' (Greek eleemon) in the Gospels can mean forgiveness, but more often it means an action of deliverance in the sense of healing or giving. For example, when a blind or crippled person cried out to Him "Lord, have mercy" they weren't asking for forgiveness - they were asking to be delivered from their affliction. So, in Matt 6:2 a related word eleemosune means giving alms to the poor.

According to Jesus, "justice, mercy and faith" were the weightier matters of the Law which were neglected by the religious leaders (Matt 23:23). On two occasions Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Matt 9:13; 12:7). In other words,

"what God demands is not so much activity directed Godward but
lovingkindness benefitting other people".*

* Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, Intervarsity Press, 2003, p. 44

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (13) - The Beatitudes - 2

The second beatitude (in Matthew's version) is:
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
In Luke's version this is the third beatitude:
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
The end of death and mourning form part of Isaiah's message of God's deliverance: "he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces" (25:8). The Revelation picks up this message as part of its climax: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (21:4).

The prophet Amos used grieving and mourning in an interesting way. He described in vivid terms the complacency of the wealthy and their neglect of the poor and oppressed. He lists the following among the sins of the powerful, influential and prosperous:
You who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground (5:7)

You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain. (5:11)

You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (5:12)
Despite their neglect of the poor, and their failure to ensure justice for the oppressed, Israel in Amos's time was very religious! This is what God said about their religion:
I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies. (5:21)
In the next chapter Amos delivers a stern rebuke for these religious hypocrites:
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion ...

You lie on beds inlaid with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
and fattened calves.

You strum away on your harps like David
and improvise on musical instruments.

You drink wine by the bowlful
and use the finest lotions,
but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.

Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
your feasting and lounging will end. (6:1-7)

The LORD has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: "I will never forget anything they have done.

Will not the land tremble for this,
and all who live in it mourn? ...

I will turn your religious feasts into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day. (8:7-10)
In the first quotation Amos was saying that those living "complacently" without any concern for the ruination of their nation ought to have been grieving for the loss of justice in their society. Because they failed to mourn this loss, God would take away their liberty and prosperity and make them experience real loss themselves. They had two options: mourn for the injustice and inequalities in society and do something about it, or come face-to-face with oppression and hardship by experiencing it themselves.

Amos called on Israel to restore justice to their courts and in society in general:
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph. (5:15)

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (5:24)
It seems that in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus had a similar concept of mourning in His mind, because this beatitude was closely followed with this one:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
What does it mean to hunger for righteousness? In the quotes from Amos above, and indeed throughout the whole of the Hebrew Bible, righteousness and justice are closely related. We tend to equate righteousness with personal piety or the virtue of an individual person. But the Hebrew word tsedaqah primarily means the kind of justice which rescues the oppressed and restores the powerless and outcasts to their rightful place in the community. In the Hebrew Bible justice is a community thing - a society is "righteous" only when everyone is treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and their needs are adequately met.

"Justice" in the Hebrew Bible and in the teachings of Jesus is such a big subject that I will have to come back to it. In the meantime, take a look at Psalm 37 and note the similarities with the Beatitudes. For example, Jesus says "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (quoting directly from Ps 37:11) but the Psalm also says "those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land" (v. 9), "those the LORD blesses will inherit the land" (v. 22), "Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever" (v. 27), "the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever" (v. 29) and "Wait for the LORD and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land" (v. 34). The whole Psalm is about the tension between good and evil people, and how God will bring deliverance from their oppression to those who yearn for righteousness and justice (the message of deliverance climaxes in the final two verses). The wicked are those who "bring down the poor and needy" (v. 14) while the righteous "give generously" and "lend freely" (v. 21, 26) . Together with Isaiah 61 this Psalm is a seedbed for the Sermon on the Mount.

It should be clear by now that the Beatitudes are introducing us to the foundation principles of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' "good news of the Kingdom". God is going to deliver the poor and the oppressed. This deliverance will be complete in the Age to Come, but right now God is calling on people to live these Kingdom-dynamics by applying Jesus' teachings of justice, fairness, inclusion and generosity in their lives.

Quite "coincidentally" today's episode of Songs of Praise on ABC television was particularly relevant, so I add this as a footnote which gives an example of how this is lived out in community. This episode came from Manchester a decade after the IRA bombing. It included an interview with a property developer - Caleb Storkey, a graduate who stayed in the city and at 27 is now a successful businessman. Storkey told the story of how he asked himself "if Jesus was a property developer what would His business look like?" He decided to build his business on Christian ethical principles. His property business, Freedom Properties is booming.

...he only buys in run down areas where injections of cash will make a real difference; takes on tenants other landlords won't touch - like asylum seekers and people with addiction problems - and despite his company's success, he continues to pay himself a modest salary in line with an average teacher's earnings.

His business is fired by his Christian faith and built on the principles of justice, generosity and freedom from oppression.

It's a good question: if Jesus ran a business in your industry or profession, what would it look like?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (12) - The Beatitudes - 1

Matthew and Luke have different versions of the Beatitudes, and indeed of this whole Sermon. The simple explanation is that they are recording two different yet similar versions - Matthew's being a sermon 'on the mount' and Luke's being a sermon 'on the plain' given on another occasion. Some scholars dismiss this explanation as too simplistic, yet it fits neatly with the facts. William Barclay wrote that "there are good and compelling reasons for thinking that the Sermon on the Mount is far more than one sermon, that it is, in fact, a kind of epitome of all the sermons that Jesus ever preached" (The Gospel of Matthew, The Saint Andrew Press, 1975).

Barclay explains that the words translated "and he taught them saying" are in the aorist tense and would be better translated "this is what he used to teach them". In other words, He gave this sermon, or versions of it, on several occasions and Luke's Gospel includes this same teaching but spread through the Gospel and associated with different occasions.

It's interesting, for reasons we shall soon see, to compare Matthew and Luke's beatitudes.

Matthew 5:3-12

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Luke 6:20-23

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

The first thing we might notice is that Matthew has "blessed are the poor in spirit" while Luke simply has "you who are poor now"; and Matthew has "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" while Luke has "you who hunger now". In other words, it seems that Luke was describing actual poverty and hunger, while Matthew has a kind of spiritual yearning for righteousness. Perhaps this is why Matthew's account is generally more popular - it's easier to address an abstract 'spiritual' problem than to deal with real poverty.

Jesus almost certainly spoke in Aramaic, and the Hebrew and Aramaic words for "poor" carry both meanings: actual poverty, as well as poor 'in spirit'*. We don't have to look far for the reason why. As Stassen and Gushee** put it: "In the Bible, the poor rely more on God. Just spend some time serving the poor in a homeless shelter and talk with people long enough to get to know them. The poor - as a whole - do have less pride that gets in the way and really do trust more in God. ... The poor are blessed not because their virtue is perfect, but because God especially does want to rescue the poor. God knows that people who have power often use that power to guard their own privileges and to seek more power. The poor get pushed aside and dominated."

People who are "poor in spirit" will be able to identify with the needs of those who are materially poor, and have compassion for them. Jesus announced through the Beatitudes, as He did with His quotation from Isaiah 61 in His first sermon, that God is bringing deliverance to the oppressed. That deliverance will ultimately come in the Age to Come, the consummation of the Kingdom of God, but through the grace-based deliverance at the heart of Jesus' ministry we see the inauguration of His kingdom.

As a community Jesus' followers participate in this deliverance by caring for the poor and oppressed.

* See for example Brown Driver and Briggs Lexicon which gives the following meanings of the Hebrew word: poor, oppressed by the rich and powerful, powerless, needy, humble, lowly, pious.

** Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, Intervarsity Press, 2003, p. 38

Monday, November 20, 2006

Characteristics of Christian Leaders (8)

It's nearly a year since I last wrote something under this thread, but in response to some recent events and questions from readers I'm picking up the theme again.

I am convinced that Jesus did not come to build a ‘church’ (as in an institution or organisation), as I've probably made clear in my posts under other threads - He came to establish a community He called ‘the Kingdom of God’. Institutionalised churches generally aren’t communities, and nor are rule-keeping, legalistic, dogmatic denominations (unless we use ‘community’ very loosely in its broadest sense).

The King James Version of the Bible was intentionally mis-translated on King James’s instructions to ensure that the ‘authority’ of the Bishops - and more importantly from his perspective, the King – was maintained. So we have ‘bishops’ and ‘deacons’ instead of ‘leaders’ and ‘servants’, and we have verses which instruct Christians to "obey them who have the rule over you". A lot of Christadelphian ‘rulers’ have latched on to King James’s self-serving distortion of the Bible to serve their own interests, and so we have the mess that we see in Christadelphia today.

Hebrews 13:17 is one of the passages often quoted to enforce submission to the decisions of Arranging (or Managing) Brethren (and sometimes even committees such as the Bible Missions!). "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you."

We should first look at verse 7 which says “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation”.

There are a couple of things we should note about verse 7:

(a) It is in the past tense but has been translated to read as though it were in the present tense.

(b) The word over (“rule over you”) in this verse has no corresponding word in the Greek and was added by the translators (humon means “of you” not “over you”).

(c) The phrase, "them which have the rule over" is a paraphrase of one Greek word - hegeomai - a verb - meaning to lead, to go before as a guide. In a Christian context hegeomai is descriptive of the act of guiding, going on ahead, leading the way as an example, not sitting as overlords.

(d) It is referring to those who have died in the faith, not to living individuals presiding over the body of Christ.

Hebrews 11-12 is filled with accounts of those who have gone before us as examples of those who have walked by faith. The reader is exhorted to remember such, to reflect on their faith, calling to memory "the end of their conversation" (or "the outcome of their way of life" NIV). These were some of the exemplary guides, the hegeomai that were to be remembered. So Heb 13:7 is saying “remember those who have gone before and follow in their footsteps”. The NIV has “remember your leaders ...” and “leaders” in this context means those who “led” the way.

The KJV translators also changed the intent of verse 17 to suit the King. The Greek word, peitho that was translated obey appears only 55 times in the New Testament. It is only translated obey seven times. The word peitho is in the passive voice and simply means be persuaded, as the following lexicons demonstrate.
"Peitho: To persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe. To make friends of, to win one's favour, gain one's good will, or to seek to win one, strive to please one. To tranquillise. To persuade unto i.e. move or induce one to persuasion to do something. Be persuaded. To be persuaded, to suffer one's self to be persuaded; to be induced to believe: to have faith: in a thing. To believe." (Thayer and Smith’s Greek Lexicon)

"peitho, to persuade, to win over, in the Passive and Middle voices, to be persuaded, to listen to.... (Acts 5:40, Passive Voice, "they agreed"); The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion." (W. E. Vine Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)

Acts18:4 is a good example of how this word is used in the NT: “And he (Paul) reasoned (dialegomai…'To think different things with one's self, mingle thought with thought. To ponder, revolve in mind. To converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss'. Thayer and Smith's Greek Lexicon) …in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded (pietho) the Jews and the Greeks." Here Paul is reasoning with Jews and Greeks in the synagogue. He did not command them to obey him. Rather, he persuaded them.

In this verse pietho means “listen to the reasoning of your leaders” or “be persuaded by your leaders”, but not “obey them”.

The Greek word that was translated submit in verse 17 is hupeiko. It occurs only here in the NT and means yield. Hupeiko in no way infers any kind of outward force being placed on the person yielding. It is a voluntary act. In the body of Christ you cannot demand that someone “submit” to your authority. If you do, it proves that you really do not have authority. He is not fit to lead who is not capable of guiding.

The Message translates this “Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel.” This conveys the sense of deferring to the wise counsel of wise leaders more accurately than the authoritarian language of the KJV.

Verse 7 is a call to remember those who led the way (e.g the faithful in ch 11), and verse 17 follows the theme with advice to follow the counsel and example of the present generation of leaders.

Authoritarian leaders cannot be trusted. It seems to me that these two things are related: a bullying, authoritarianism which attempts to control other people, and immorality. We often see these go hand in hand. Alarm bells should always ring when we see authoritarianism in the Body of Christ. Behind it there will always be abuse of some kind.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (11) - The Sermon on the Mount

I think I've made the point a couple of times now that after writing that "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom" (Matt 4:23) Matthew immediately launched into his account of the sermon on the mount (chapters 5-7). There's obviously a connection.

The sermon on the mount encapsulates much of the ethical teaching of Jesus. Here, and in many of the parables, stories and sayings, Jesus teaches about living in relationship with others, friend and foe. But His message was not just about getting on with people: His primary concern was about building a community of people whose relationships with each other are modeled on and flow from the example of God Himself in His dealings with His people. In preaching about the Kingdom Jesus taught about forgiveness, reconciliation with others, friendship and living in community. The Kingdom of God consists of people who are living these Kingdom-dynamics.

I plan to make the next few posts about Jesus' doctrine of the Kingdom (remembering that "doctrine" simply means "teaching") and how He spelled it out in His sermon on the mount in terms of conduct, or the virtues of Kingdom-people.

The sermon begins with the beatitudes - 9 statements begining with the words "blessed are ...". The beatitudes are often understood as idealistic sayings encapsulating the high ideals that Jesus is urging us to live up to if only we could. In fact, we tend to put a lot of Jesus' sayings into this "high ideal" category and treat them as unrealistic. "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" appears to be an unattainable expectation so we easily dismiss it and replace it with something more pragmatic, more realistic, more achievable. Using that text as the rule of interpretation we are then free to spiritualise any saying that we find too difficult or too inconvenient.

However, that would be an awkward way to begin a sermon - with a list of unattainable goals that would leave us feeling defeated before we even started. If we look at the text of the first sermon recorded by Luke (4:18-19) we see that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was taken by Jesus as His 'mission statement' and by comparing it with the beatitudes we can note several similarities.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
He has sent me to
preach good news to the poor.
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

The beatitudes echo the message of deliverance anticipated by Isaiah and now delivered by Jesus. They are not high ideals, or human efforts to develop these virtues, but are rather statements about God's gracious deliverance. Luke emphasises the point that Jesus' mission was to declare God's grace: "they were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth" (v. 22).

As He begins the sermon on the mount Jesus is saying that we are blessed because we are experiencing God's deliverance (or about to), in the coming of His kingdom. Each beatitude begins a message of joy. The Amplified Bible captures some of the shades of meaning in the word "blessed": happy, blithesome, joyous, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous - with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions with a happiness produced by the experience of God's favor and especially conditioned by the revelation of His matchless grace.

Over the next few posts I'll look at the beatitudes one by one.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (10) - "Faith" in the rest of the NT

I concluded the previous post with an assertion that Jesus never referred to "the faith" as a set of doctrinal statements, or a system of belief or theology, or fundamentals/foundations/first principles of things which must be believed in order to belong to the people of God. To Him "faith" meant a practical trust in the power of God to provide and to meet physical needs.

But what about the early Christians, specifically Paul and the other writers of the New Testament? Before looking at any of the other NT references to "faith" I just want to make the general comment that I feel that commentators
often interpret the Gospels in the light of Paul and the other apostles, rather than interpreting Paul in the light of the Gospels. For example, it's common to define "Christianity", or "the Gospel", or to determine the fundamentals or first principles from the writings of Paul rather than the teachings of Jesus. This is such a common practice that Paul, rather than Jesus, has at times been described as the founder of Christianity (for example, in Gerd Ludemann's book Paul: the Founder of Christianity). By starting from a position that Paul's letters were written before the Gospels, C.S. Lewis concluded that the Gospel is not in the Gospels! Based on the claim that Paul's message was primarily about the cross Billy Graham wrote that "Jesus came to do three days work. Jesus came not primarily to preach the Gospel ... But He came rather that there might be a Gospel to preach." (For references see this article by Anthony Buzzard).

Some people might criticise these comments while themselves interpreting many of Jesus' sayings against a background of Paul's writings, rather than interpreting Paul as a follower of Jesus. So it appears that we sometimes have Paul in conflict with Jesus because we have approached his letters from the wrong end. I don't want to go off on a tangent (although I might write a digression about this later), but I'll just give one example of how this works in practice. The idea that women must be silent in church and have no leadership role is based solely on the writings of Paul while it seems that Jesus acted
radically against custom and convention. Furthermore, it appears that Jesus, by example, taught the opposite of Paul: Jesus spoke with women in public (it was forbidden for rabbis to speak to a woman in public in case it appeared that he was teaching her!); a group of women followed Him, supported Him from their livelihood, and were part of His inner circle; and on one occasion Jesus said it was better for a woman to sit at His feet and learn from Him than to attend to domestic chores. Jesus raised the social status of women. From a casual reading of Paul's letters it appears that he contradicted himself: on one occasion he said there was no difference between men and women in Christ, while on another he said women should be silent in church. However, the apparent contradictions soon disappear when we interpret Paul in the light of Jesus' radical transformation of the place of women. While Jewish society and the religious leadership taught that women should not be educated in Torah, Paul, acting on Jesus' example, said "a woman should learn" (1 Tim 2:11) and should not exercise leadership until she has first had an education in spiritual matters. The idea that women should be in submission to men isn't in Paul's writings at all - these ideas came later from the likes of Tertullian and Augustine and Paul has been misquoted in order to defend them. Take the "church fathers" out of the picture and read Paul as a disciple of Jesus and we find him teaching something quite different. (My apology for going off on a tangent).

Coming back to faith we see that Paul built on the teachings on Jesus that
"faith" means a practical trust in the power of God to provide, to meet physical needs and to save. Paul used the noun pistis 142 times, compared to 101 times in the rest of the NT. He used the verb pisteuo 54 times and the adjective pistos 33 times. Thanks to Paul's considerable teaching on the subject faith became established as of central importance in Christianity.

Tied in to his teaching about faith, Paul also emphasised that salvation is a gift of grace and cannot be earned. We cannot merit salvation - we can only trust in God to provide. When he writes that we are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" and refers to Christ as "a sacrifice of atonement" he immediately adds that this is effected "through faith in his blood" (Rom 3:24-25). In other words, God has done everything necessary for our salvation - it is "freely by his grace" - there is nothing we can do to merit it. Our role is to trust (pistis) Him to save. The link between grace and faith is also made elsewhere (e.g. Eph 2:8 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God"). As Leon Morris has written: "Grace is important in understanding faith, for it emphasises that salvation is a free gift, not a reward for human achievement of any sort, even as a reward for outstanding faith" (my emphasis - "Faith" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters).
Here is where some people make a mistake. They rightly insist that salvation is not earned by good works, but they then insist with equal force that it is dependant on good doctrine!
The main thrust of Paul's argument in Roman and Galatians is that both Jews and Gentiles are saved on the same basis - faith. He relies heavily on the example of Abraham and says that Abraham was accepted by God simply because he trusted God to perform what He had promised. Paul argued that Gentiles are accepted on the same basis: those who are "of faith" are the "sons of Abraham" and are "are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith" (Gal 3:7-9).

Nowhere does Paul write of faith as something that can be acquired through learning. He describes it as a gift from God (1 Cor 12:9, Rom 12:3), as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), and links it to the indwelling of Christ in the believer (Gal 2:20).

The expression "the faith" is often used by believers as way of referring to correct doctrine - the one, true, apostolic faith. It has become another way of speaking of a system of theology, or as a set of distinctive doctrines which separate one denomination from others. So the theological position of a church or denomination is often summarised as their defining "Statement of Faith". It has sometimes been claimed that conflicts, divisions, debates and arguments in defence of a doctrinal or theological position are actually a defence of "the faith" and are required by Jude 3 - "contend for the faith". Ironically, I have actually seen some ungodly behaviour defended on the basis that it was justified because it was in defence of "the faith".

However, Paul distinguished faith from knowledge (Eph 4:13) and emphasised that "
my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power" (1 Cor 2:4-5). Nothing could be clearer: "faith" is not defended by persuasive arguments but through the demonstration of the power of God in our lives.

What did Paul mean then by "the faith" (with the definite article)? Leon Morris answers this well:
"So fundamental is faith that the term may be used to categorise the whole Christian way, and the expression 'the faith' comes into being, not simply as a way of referring to the trust in Christ that is so basic, but as a means of drawing attention to the whole body of teaching and practice that characterises the Christian group ... the whole Christian system of truth that so strongly emphasised the importance of faith ... the Christian way of belief that results from that trust" (ibid).
Paul has the whole faith-based Christian life in mind when he writes "examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith" (2 Cor 13:5), or "stand firm in the faith" (1 Cor 16:13). His emphasis was on the practical outworking of faith in Christian lives. So he wrote in Phil 1:27 "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then ... I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel".
Paul was not appealing for doctrinal uniformity, but for steadfast and consistent Christian living.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (9) - "The Faith"

In earlier posts I've shown that the primary use of the noun pistis/"faith" and the corresponding verb pisteou/"believe" in the Gospels is in reference to a person's trust in God or Christ to provide, heal or save.

Faith, or faithfulness (which may be a better representation of pistis) is a distinctive characteristic of the people of God. Some of the elements of this faithfulness are loyalty, risk-taking, sometimes radical disobedience to authorities , persistance and cross-carrying; and it is deeply rooted in the principles of justice, equity and fairness. I said earlier:

Faith is a lifestyle - not a dogma. It's not about what people think, but about what they do.

In modern usage the word "faith" is oftened preceeded by the definite article "the" to refer to doctrinal orthodoxy - "the Faith" - and is often used as a kind of shorthand to refer to the one, true, apostolic faith. To have fellowship with the people of God, one must understand and give assent to the faith, usually defined in a Statement of Faith, or a Declaration of the Faith, or similar.

The translators of the New International Version, for example, have gone for this usage in translating Matthew 24:10, where they have "many will turn away from the faith" even though the Greek does not contain the word pistis at all. In fact, the KJV and most other translations render it more literally as "many will be offended" or "many will stumble". The Greek word is skandalizo and means to be trapped, ensnared, tripped up, to stumble, or be enticed [to sin]. It does not refer to "the faith" at all. The NIV translators got this one wrong.

There is only one place in the Gospels where the word pistis may have the possible meaning of "the faith" as kind of creedal faith, or as "religion" rather than "trust". In Luke 18:8 Jesus asks the rhetorical question: "when the Son of Man comes, will he find [the] faith on the earth?" The NIV translators at least got it right here and avoided the definite article - "will he find faith on the earth?" The context is about faithfulness and God bringing about "justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night". However, some Christadelphians prefer to read this as "the faith" to support a remnant theology that says that only a relative handful of people will believe "the Truth" in the last days prior to the Lord's return. I touched on this in an earlier post: there is absolutely no Biblical evidence, in my opinion, for a remnant theology which says "the Truth" or "the Faith" will progressively be perverted and apostasised so that hardly any at all will accept it at the end (if you want me to deal with this in more detail please email me). In this verse Jesus is simply asking a rhetorical question: when the Son of Man comes will He find the kind of persevering faith or faithfulness He just talked about. There is no hint of a suggestion here that the "one true apostolic Faith" will have disappeared, or almost disappeared, by the time of the Second Coming.

Having examined every reference to pistis/pisteuo in the Gospels I can confidently assert that Jesus never referred to "the faith" as a set of doctrinal statements, or a system of belief or theology, or fundamentals/foundations/first principles of things which must be believed in order to belong to the people of God. To Him "faith" meant a practical trust in the power of God to provide and to meet physical needs.

In my next post I would like to address what the other writers of the New Testament wrote about faith.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (8) - "Faith" in the Gospels - continued

Matthew records two incidents with some striking similarities: both involve Gentiles; both include miraculous healings of a third party; and in both cases the Gentile is commended for their remarkable faith. In recording these two incidents Matthew gives us an important insight into our Lord's view of faith as a basis for inclusion in the people of God.

Matthew 8:5-13 - a Roman Centurion's servant is healed by Jesus from a distance, and the Centurion is commended: "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel".

Matthew 15:21-28 - a Canaanite woman's daughter was healed, also from a distance, and the woman is commended: "Great is your faith".

An interesting similarity between the two stories is that they both include a statement that the servant/daughter was healed "from that very hour", an expression not found elsewhere in the Gospels. Perhaps Matthew intended that we should see similarities between the two incidents and learn from them.

The second incident includes some puzzling remarks by Jesus and deserves some exploration. First, it seems that Jesus acts rudely by ignoring the woman when she pleads with him to heal her daughter - "he said not a word". Then, when the disciples appeal to Jesus to send her away because she is becoming a nuisance, He answers "I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel". Finally, in what to our western minds would appear to be an insult of the most discriminatory kind, Jesus says it is not fitting to give the children's food to dogs - obviously referring to Canaanites in particular or Gentiles in general as "dogs".

There have been several attempts to explain these comments. Most explanations I’ve come across are based on the assumption that when Jesus initially ignored the Canaanite woman it was because His mission was to Israel and not to Gentiles, and He was serious in His statement that “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. Well, I can almost hear people saying already “of course He was serious! Jesus should always be taken seriously!” Was Jesus serious when He said “If your eye offends you pluck it out”? I don’t see many Christians with one eye, so I guess we don’t take that seriously; or, at least we don’t it literally. Was Jesus serious when He referred to planks in the eye, camels going through the eye of a needle, or swallowing camels? If we don’t interpret His views literally there, then we should be open to the possibility that His words which were addressed to the Canaanite should not be taken literally either.

We are faced with another problem if we take this statement literally. Jesus had already healed the servant of the Centurion. Why didn’t he say to the Roman Centurion that “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”? Why didn’t he ignore him, or call him a dog? In fact, Jesus commended this Gentile for his faith, so why treat the Canaanite woman differently?

So what did Jesus mean?

In actual fact, I don’t think Jesus treated the Canaanite woman differently, or with contempt, and I don’t believe He insulted her. It seems to me that most of what Jesus said here was actually intended for the benefit of His disciples. Look carefully at the sequence of events: (a) the woman cried out to Jesus (presumably from some distance), but He did not answer her, then (b) the disciples become agitated and ask Jesus to send her away because she was crying out (literally “shrieking/screaming”). The disciples’ request implies that they thought disparagingly of her. Did they object when Jews cried out for help? Would they have asked Jesus to send away a woman in Israel who was in need? This suggests to me that Jesus’ initial silence may have been deliberately to see how the disciples would react to this situation, and this would be consistent with His practice on other occasions*.

Notice the next words in the sequence: “Then He answered, ‘I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’.” Answered whom? These words were probably addressed to the disciples, although within the woman’s hearing. Jesus was reflecting what the disciples were thinking, and articulating their unspoken belief that He shouldn’t be ministering to non-Jews. The woman was not put off, and she came and fell at His feet and asked directly for His help.

Again, Jesus articulates the beliefs of the disciples by saying “It is not fitting to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs”. No doubt the disciples would have approved of this response! Perhaps this was the kind of thing they’d heard (or even said) before in the race-related insults which were hurled freely between the various ethnic groups living in this part of the world (and remember, Jesus is here in non-Jewish country, outside Israel proper – He’s in her territory!)

Her response was amazing: “even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table”. Like the Centurion who acknowledged Jesus’ authority over disease, this woman also acknowledged that Jesus was her “Master”. A Canaanite woman accepting that this Jew was her Master was indeed remarkable, and her trusting submission to that authority was rewarded immediately and her faith commended.

Was Jesus sent “only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”? In fact, these words were spoken outside Israel, in Gentile territory. In the next few verses we read of Jesus feeding four thousand Gentiles (in a similar manner to the feeding of 5,000 Jews), and he heals the sick amongst a Gentile multitude so that they “glorified the God of Israel” (there would have been no need for Matthew to say this if it had been anything other than a Gentile crowd). Later, Jesus chased the money-changers out of the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple, saying His Father’s House should be a House of Prayer for “all nations” (literally, all goyim, all Gentiles). Jesus did in fact heal Gentiles and had a concern for them. After His resurrection He gave the Twelve a specific commission to take His teachings to the Gentiles, and later called Paul to be an apostle with this specific task. It’s simply not true that He was sent only to Israel.

The main purpose of this language was to first articulate what the disciples were thinking, so that they then would be shamed by seeing “great faith” being demonstrated by this Gentile “dog”. It was another lesson in inclusiveness. In various dramatic ways throughout His ministry Jesus demonstrated that those who had been rejected by the religious leaders as “unclean” or “defiled” were regarded by Him as “clean” and acceptable. He touched those who were condemned by the Law of Moses as unclean and allowed them to touch Him. He welcomed those who had been excluded and condemned: the dirty, the poor, the diseased, the disabled, the mad, sinners and now Gentiles. The basis for inclusion in the Kingdom of God was faith – not race, religious observance, ceremonial correctness, or doctrinal purity, but a devoted trust in the One who could provide.

* For example, on one occasion the disciples said to Jesus “send the crowd away so they can buy something to eat (Matt 14:15), and Jesus challenged them by responding “you give them something to eat” – His response was to designed to provoke a reaction from them.