James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Background of 2 Timothy (Winds of Doctrine #8)

Filed under: Exegesis,History,Theology — alabastertheology @ 5:35 pm
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By the time of writing his second letter to Timothy, it might have appeared that Paul’s authority over the church in Ephesus had been weakened through church leaders in the province abandoning him to his fate, even if they had not also abandoned his gospel (2Tim 1:15).  Their fear of suffering was probably quite justified, as Nero had started an intense persecution against Christians in AD64 and before his own death in AD68 had executed both Peter and Paul in Rome along with many other believers.  Paul’s denunciation of the heresy of Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander had apparently added to his suffering at the hands of the authorities (2Tim 2:8‑9, 17‑18; 4:14‑15), yet he stood firm in his fearless proclamation to strengthen those whose faith had been shaken by both heresy and persecution (2Tim 2:10, 18; 4:17).  Unlike other leaders, Timothy had been unashamed to be known as Paul’s co-worker, and having survived opposition in Ephesus, Paul was now urging him to go one step further and share in his suffering by joining him in Rome (2Tim 1:8, 12, 15‑16).  Had heresy still been a threat to the church, Paul would not have risked calling for Timothy, but clearly the foundation Paul had laid in the Ephesian church had managed to weather the storm of false teaching (2Tim 2:19).  This church itself was the precious treasure Paul had entrusted to Jesus to preserve blameless until His coming (2Tim 1:12; cf. 1Thes 2:19‑20; 3:13; 1Cor 1:7‑9; Php 1:6), and also entrusted to Timothy (2Tim 1:14), and his trust had not been disappointed (2Tim 2:19).

Even so, the clean-up operation was not over.  The false teachers had been routed, but remaining disputes within the church over words and speculations had to be corrected by Timothy without resorting to the quarrelling approach of the false teachers (2Tim 2:14, 16, 23‑24).  They were still in the area (cf. 1John 2:19; 4:5-6; 2John 1:10-11), and permitting ‘worldly, empty chatter’ might encourage their teaching to spread like gangrene, requiring further amputation (2Tim 2:17).  Just as in his first letter (1Tim 5:20, 24‑25), Paul views immoral living as evidence of doctrinal error, which is why leaders with such problems had to be removed from authority.  Church members, though, who remained in the congregation despite moral failure and doctrinal issues, were instead called upon to repent and so be cleansed and restored like polluted but precious vessels (2Tim 2:19‑22), which was ultimately Paul’s intention in excommunication also (1Tim 1:20; 1Cor 5:5; 2Cor 2:5‑11).  Timothy was told that loving admonition would hopefully bring church members who still opposed him to repentance and thence to knowledge of the truth (2Tim 2:25‑26).

At this point, Paul turns from the situation addressed in 1 Timothy, which was now on the mend, and warns Timothy that this would not be the last battle he or the church would have to face.  Paul was soon to ‘depart’, having ‘fought the good fight’, but corruption and apostasy would again be seen in the Church before Jesus’ return.  No specific heresy is identified prophetically, beyond ‘evil men and imposters… deceiving and being deceived’.  Instead, Paul focuses on the moral destitution and powerlessness that would clearly reveal the unbelief and folly of those deceiving the immature with clever words and apparent learning (2Tim 3:1‑7).  This is a well-established method of uncovering heresy, going all the way back to Moses who had in this way shamed the Egyptian magicians who opposed him (2Tim 3:7‑9).  There is no point seeking out heresy, however.  Churchgoers will often turn away from sound doctrine, preferring myths and finding teachers who will ‘tickle their ears’ (2Tim 3:13; 4:3‑4).  The only thing that can adequately equip the church leader for his task is what Paul ‘solemnly charges’ Timothy to do – knowing, obeying and preaching the inspired Scripture (2Tim 3:10‑12; 3:14–4:2; cf. 1:13; 2:1‑3).

Paul’s Opponents in 1 Timothy and Titus (Winds of Doctrine #6)

In light of this wider context of ‘winds of doctrine’ in the 60’s AD, we can turn to 1 Timothy and consider the particular problems that were facing the church in Ephesus, just three or four years after Paul had written the letter of Ephesians to them.  As mentioned above, the church had problems with disrespect of authority (1Tim 1:9; 2:1‑15; 4:12; 6:1‑2; cf. 2Pet 2:10‑11; Jude 1:8‑10), perhaps particularly against the emperor (1:17; 2:2; 4:10; 6:13‑16), and also with having too many widows to support (5:3‑16).  However, their primary problem was that some of their elders and teachers had to be removed from office for false teaching and ungodly living, explaining why Timothy had to appoint new elders and deacons in Paul’s absence (3:1‑15; 5:17‑22).  Paul actually says a lot about the particular problems with these leaders:

To start with, it appears that they were Jewish (cf. ‘Alexander’ in 1:20 with Acts 19:33‑34) – they were particularly interested in ‘myths and endless genealogies’ and ‘worldly fables’, wanting to be teachers of the Mosaic Law, forbidding marriage (probably between Jews and non-Jews) and abstaining from certain foods (1:3‑7; 4:3, 7).  Their way of establishing doctrine was through ‘speculation’, ‘fruitless discussion’, ‘worldly empty chatter’, ‘the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”’, ‘controversial questions and disputes about words’ (1:4, 6; 6:4, 20), all of which were characteristic of Jewish religious education.  Evidently they based their teaching on the Law, but in a way Paul described as ‘unlawful’ (1:7‑10), that is, failing to recognise its primary purpose to convict Israel of sin.  Judaism of the first century AD had a wide variety of popular religious writings, generally referred to as ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘pseudepigrapha’, for which ‘myths’, ‘fables’, ‘speculation’ and ‘endless genealogies’ would all be appropriate designations.  One of the most popular was the book of 1 Enoch, which Jude quotes in 1:14‑15 to convict his opponents who valued it, much as Paul quoted the Stoic poet Aratus and the Cretan poet Epimenides to the Athenians (Acts 17:28; also Tit 1:12).

The false teachers in Ephesus are also accused of maintaining their controversy-based teaching methods out of conceit (at being teachers?), and treating religion, or godliness, as a way of making money (1Tim 6:3‑5; cf. 1Pet 5:2).  This may connect with the greed of those condemned by Peter and Jude as ‘rushing headlong into the error of Balaam’ (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11), apparently referring to those who like Balaam were prepared to speculate and teach on any popular subject of the day in order to accumulate wealth.  This was perhaps the first century equivalent of the ‘prosperity gospel’ in our day.  The letter of James to the Jewish believers throughout the Roman empire has a similar message about greed.  He calls on believers to endure the present persecution (Jas 1:2‑4, 12‑13; 5:7‑11), picked up and expanded upon in Peter’s first epistle (cf. 1Pet 1:6‑8; 4:2, 7‑8; 5:8‑9), but has to rebuke his hearers for worldly wisdom (Jas 1:19‑26; 3:1–4:1) which is evidently associated with riches and bringing disunity into the church (1:9‑11; 1:27–2:17; 4:1–5:6).  Some of the false teachers Paul attacks in Ephesus had also already fallen into the immorality of lifestyle condemned by Peter and Jude (1Tim 1:9‑10, 19; 4:2; 5:19‑20), although Paul reminded Timothy that the false doctrine of others would sooner or later manifest itself in sinful deeds (5:24‑25).

However, the primary problem, for which Hymenaeus and Alexander had been excluded from fellowship, was deliberate ‘blasphemy’ (1:20).  Blasphemy is slander or disrespectful speech about God, and in this case it is most likely that this refers to their teachings about Jesus, because Paul himself admits he too was formerly a blasphemer (1:13).  It is worth considering what Paul says about Jesus, therefore, to see whether we can discern behind his statements what the false teachers were saying.  In 2:5, Paul clearly states the central doctrine of Judaism – “there is one God” (cf. Deut 6:4; John 10:30‑33) – but then with the same breath states the equivalent about Jesus – “one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.  Judaism of the first century AD gave a prominent mediatory role to angels (cf. Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:1‑4), but in this verse Paul not only reaffirms Jesus’ full humanity, but his exaltation comparable to God Himself, such that denial of Jesus’ unique status as mediator is equally blasphemy.  Paul later quotes a well-known early Christian creed about both the humanity and the exaltation of Jesus (3:16), just as he had done in the letter to the Philippians a few years earlier (Php 2:6‑11).  The false doctrine being taught was contrary to the sound words about [or ‘of’] the Lord Jesus Christ, and it would also lead its hearers away from godliness (6:3).  We will find below that John’s first epistle to the Ephesians, probably just a few years after Paul was arrested and taken back to Rome, would have to deal with the consequences of both the doctrinal and moral failure of false teachers on those who remained in the church after their departure.

The Situation in Crete (Titus)

The letter Paul wrote to Titus also appears to have been written around the same time as his first letter to Timothy, because here also he has not yet been arrested for the second time.  The ‘wind of doctrine’ Titus has to address in his teaching is almost exactly the same as Timothy is encountering in Ephesus.  Here it is explicit that the false teachers are mostly Jewish (1:10), characteristically rebellious (1:10; 2:5, 9, 15; 3:1‑3) and greedy for money (1:11), particularly interested in Jewish myths and commandments of the Law (1:14), and advocating doctrine that defiles the mind and leads to a defiled moral conscience as well (1:15‑16; 2:12‑14; 3:3, 8).  Their methods of education involve ‘empty talk’, ‘foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law’, and controversy-based teaching methods (1:10; 3:9, 10‑11).  The ‘testimony’ of God that was manifested ‘at the proper times’ in both Jesus’ first coming and His sure return in glory (1Tim 2:6; 6:14‑15; cf. 1:1), is once again central to Paul’s letter to Titus (1:2‑3; 2:11‑13; 3:4‑7), probably consciously in opposition to the ‘mocking’ teaching of those times that Peter and Jude speak against (2Pet 3:1‑13; Jude 1:14‑18, 21).

April 13, 2009

Good Thursday? part 7 – Thoughts on the ‘Easter controversy’

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 11:52 pm
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If we are suggesting a change to a tradition as entrenched as ‘Good Friday’, perhaps it would be helpful to consider the reasons lying behind the ‘Easter controversy’ in the first four centuries of the Early Church.  These might point towards an appropriate solution for how best to apply our discoveries concerning ‘Good Thursday’.

14th of Nisan and Sunday don’t match!
As noted in the first post on the subject of Good Thursday, the alternatives in the second century were either to celebrate Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan (the preference of the churches in Asia Minor, following John the apostle), or to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday (the preference of the other churches led by the church in Rome).  It is little surprise that we are not told in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History how the church in Rome celebrated the days preceding the day of the resurrection.  At some point they must have started celebrating Good Friday as the day of Jesus’ death, hence our modern tradition, but regardless, it was the day of resurrection that provided the climax to their celebrations.

On the other hand, it is a surprise that the controversy focused on the 14th of Nisan, the day of Jesus’ death, rather than the day of His resurrection.  The natural alternative to a celebration on Easter Sunday would be a celebration on the 16th of Nisan, which would be the date of the resurrection and the Feast of Firstfruits if the Early Church had been unanimous that Jesus had died on the sixth day of the week (Friday).  In that case, the special Sabbath on the 15th would have coincided with the normal Sabbath, and the resurrection could be assigned a date in the Jewish calendar also.  The debate would then centre on whether to celebrate the resurrection on a particular date (the Jewish preference) or on a particular day of the week (the Gentile preference).  Yet there is no question that the debate instead focused on the 14th of Nisan, hence the name of the adherents to this tradition as ‘Quartodecimans’.

Most would argue that it was precisely the trend in the church away from its Jewish roots that led to the Easter controversy.  Yet if this were the only issue, the ‘Jewish’ side would have been arguing for the 16th of Nisan as an alternative to the Gentiles’ Easter ‘Sunday’, not the 14th.  One might then perhaps argue instead that the debate was a theological one as well as a cultural one; focused on whether to celebrate the death of Jesus or the resurrection of Jesus: the ‘Jewish’ side preferred to emphasise Jesus’ death, and the ‘Gentile’ side insisted on the resurrection.  It is hard, though, to imagine that either side would try to downplay the significance of the alternative event, and surely all believers must have commemorated both events each year from the beginning.  We cannot get away from the problem of the lack of correspondence between the 14th of Nisan and the Sunday.

Good Thursday explains the two alternatives
I would propose that the solution that makes best sense of the controversy is that initially both ‘sides’ were aware of Jesus having died not on Good Friday but on Good Thursday, and having risen not on the 16th of Nisan but on the 17th.  The key to understanding the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament feasts and prophecies is the fact that on this particular year the special Sabbath on the 15th was followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, so that after Jesus died on the Feast of Passover, he was in the grave for ‘three days and three nights’ and yet still rose on the Feast of Firstfruits, the ‘day after the Sabbath’.  The key to understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection was precisely the way in which the dates of the Jewish calendar and the days of the week happened to intersect that particular year.

Hence the two sides of the ‘Easter Controversy’ reflect these two important lines of evidence – dates and days of the week.  The two types of Sabbath, calendrical and weekly, have been recognised as an important matter for study and observation ever since the institution of the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 23:2-4; Numbers 28-29).  It is plausible that in seeking to commemorate an unusual sequence in the calendar on the year Jesus died, disputes would arise over whether to give priority to the dates or to the days of the week.  Neither side would be able to claim to adequately represent the events of that particular year.

Reconstruction of the opposing positions
On the one hand, the churches of Asia Minor insisted that the 14th of Nisan was to be observed as the date of Jesus’ death, because the date of Passover was precisely how the crucifixion gained its significance.  Their problem was that people in their congregations could easily become confused by the Feast of Firstfruits being on the 17th, because Jews almost always observed this feast on the 16th, the day after the special Sabbath.

Their opponents may have also noted that it was the sign of ‘three days and three nights’, following Jonah, that Jesus intended to be understood by the Jewish people as a sign of judgement on them, with merely one generation of forty years as an opportunity for repentance (like Jonah’s forty days).  If believing Jews were being tempted to neglect the three days and three nights in order to celebrate the resurrection on the Feast of Firstfruits, this was ignoring the sign that Jesus intended the Jews in particular to recognise.  The resurrection must be celebrated on the 17th, even though this date was hardly ever actually the Feast of Firstfruits.

On the other hand, the churches led by Rome were convinced that the way to ensure the sequence of days was properly commemorated was to celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday, the ‘first day of the week’, since the fact that the resurrection was on the ‘day after the Sabbath’ was precisely the reason Jesus could fulfil the ‘three days and three nights’ and rise ‘on the third day‘ after His death.  They could then work backwards from this day to celebrate the day Jesus died on the Thursday.  The significance of each day could be taught to believers even if the Jewish dates were not being followed, dates that were impractical for the majority of the Roman empire anyway.

An advantage of this approach was that the first day of the week, ‘the Lord’s Day’, was also the day on which believers met together, and even ‘broke bread’ together in commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice (Acts 20:7).  Their opponents, however, may well have observed that by failing to celebrate Jewish festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits at the same time as the Jewish people, the Church stood to lose far more of the significance of these feasts and of Jesus’ fulfilment of them.  As it turned out, history has demonstrated the truth of these concerns, and the majority of the Church is now unaware of the many remarkable ways in which Jesus’ last week fulfilled Scripture.

So we find that a celebration of Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan emphasised the importance of the dates of the Jewish calendar, focusing on Jesus’ fulfilment of the three feasts.  On the other hand, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday emphasised the importance of the days of the week in that particular year, focusing on Jesus’ fulfilment of the ‘three days and three nights’, and the ‘third day’ that the prophets foretold.  Both are important aspects of our commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but both have drawbacks to them that must not be brushed aside.

Where do we go from here?
I propose that the best solution to the ‘Easter controversy’ is precisely the one demonstrated in the dispute of Polycarp and Anicetus around 150AD and appealed to by Irenaeus against Victor at the end of that century.  The significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection hangs on the way the calendar and the days of the week happened to coincide on the year Jesus died, and there will only be the occasional year on which it is possible to celebrate the Feast of Firstfruits on the 17th of Nisan.  Some will choose to celebrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the Jewish festivals by commemorating His death on the Passover each year, while others will choose to celebrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the words of the prophets by commemorating His death on a Sunday each year.  As long as each are holding on to the truth of the Gospel accounts and teaching both aspects of Jesus’ fulfilment of Scripture, I see no problem in allowing each stream of churches to celebrate in their own way and on days that are appropriate to them.

I would only urge churches that observe the Jewish feasts to be careful to recognise that it was Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week that particular year that ensured He fulfilled the sign of Jonah as well as the Feast of Firstfruits.  Likewise, I would urge churches that celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday to be careful to recognise that it was Jesus’ death on a Thursday that particular year that enabled Him to fulfil the Jewish feasts as well as the words of the prophets.  This may mean that churches have to go against their own traditions to be true to Scripture, but the benefits of understanding Jesus’ fulfilment of the Old Testament far outweigh the inconvenience.

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