James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Winds of Doctrine in the Early Church (#1 of 12)

A friend recently mentioned to me his uncertainty about the significance of “fall away from the faith” in 1 Timothy 4:1 for the Christian doctrine of salvation, particularly in light of verses such as Ephesians 2:8 – “by grace you have been saved through faith”.  Is it possible to walk away from one’s salvation?

In response to this, I decided not to jump straight in with the standard verses used to defend the sovereignty of God in salvation, but rather first to consider the meanings of ‘faith’ in 1 and 2 Timothy, and then also what the particular expression of ‘falling away’ was that is mentioned in 1 Timothy.  To do so, I began to explore the evidence for when 1 Timothy was written, what other books were written around the same time, and what ‘winds of doctrine’ were blowing across the church in that particular period.  The study has expanded beyond what I had initially expected, so I have converted it into several blog posts to help others understand what I came to see about Early Church history and theology.

The second post (the first being this introduction) is therefore an analysis of Paul’s conception of ‘faith’ in 1 and 2 Timothy, to better understand how one might be considered to have ‘fallen away’ from it.  The third post looks at the date of 1 Timothy, and gives a brief explanation of the situation in the church in Ephesus into which Paul wrote.  [It will be clear, therefore, that I am assuming Pauline authorship of all the letters attributed to him, though not necessarily of the epistle to the Hebrews.  Only if the picture drawn from such an assumption lacks cohesion or persuasiveness would we possibly be justified in doubting the explicit claims of the texts.  Even then, though, the Christian insistence on truthful communication, and the evident belief of the Early Church that pseudonymous letters were deceptive (1Thes 2:1-3), make it extremely implausible that these letters would have been accepted by the Church if it was known they had not been written by Paul.]

After this I broaden out my scope in the fourth post to consider the primary doctrinal issues in each of the first three decades of the Early Church.  This is followed by the fifth post in which I assemble the various bits of evidence about ‘winds of doctrine’ in the decade of the 60’s AD.  In the sixth post I focus in again on Paul’s opponents in 1 Timothy, in light of the common doctrinal issues witnessed by other books.  This assessment is confirmed by a brief look at the letter to Titus which was written around the same time as 1 Timothy.  The seventh post is a reconstruction of Paul’s fourth missionary journey, after being released from his first imprisonment in Rome.  The eighth post then looks at the background of 2 Timothy, which was written just after the battle against false teaching had been won in Ephesus.  In the ninth post I move on to look at the context of John’s first epistle, which I interpret as having been written to the church in Ephesus shortly after 2 Timothy.  The tenth post then focuses in on the situation in Ephesus as revealed in 1 John.  Having thus finished looking at the historical background behind the ‘falling away’ mentioned in 1 Timothy, I return in the eleventh post to the question of apostasy, focusing especially on the centrality of faith and grace to the Christian message.  Then in the final, twelfth post, I consider the question of permanent apostasy, and whether it is possible to ‘lose one’s salvation’.

I would encourage people to read all the way through the historical background posts (three through ten), because they not only explain the background of 1 Timothy, but also set in context many other books including Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, 1-3 John and Revelation.  Please feel free to make comments – my thought about Early Church history and theology is a work in progress.

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October 27, 2009

Promised Land in the New Testament – summary [I&NC #14]

One of the possible ways of reading the numerous Old Testament prophecies about a Jewish return from exile is to see it all as having happened already in the return from exile in Babylon [see  the first post in this series].  Jesus arrived over five hundred years after that return, so His teaching and the teaching of His apostles, contained in the New Testament, should reveal to us whether or not they considered those prophecies of return to have already been fulfilled.  As will be clear below, they actually not only believed the nation of Israel to be still in a condition of spiritual ‘exile’ that denied them secure and permanent dwelling in the land, but they also knew that the Jewish people would again be cast into exile.  This exile to all nations (not just Assyria, or Babylon) would be a far greater exile than the first one, but even this one would eventually be finished.  To fulfil His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God would finally bring the Jewish people back to the land of promise very shortly before the return of Jesus.

1.  The conquest of the land under Joshua was not the ultimate fulfilment of the inheritance promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Paul clearly taught that the Law of Moses had actually made the Jewish people ‘slaves’ to sin, and as slaves rather than sons they were not permitted to inherit (Rom 7:1‑25; Gal 3:23–4:7; 4:21‑31).  Hebrews taught further that if Joshua had given the Israelites ‘rest’ in their land, David would hardly have written to a later generation warning them that rebellion would disqualify them from entering God’s ‘rest’ (Heb 4:1‑11).

2.  Even in Jesus’ generation the nation was considered to be in an ongoing condition of exile.

Jesus taught His people using parables in order to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah that the nation would “keep on hearing and will not understand… keep on seeing and will not perceive” (Mat 13:13‑15; cf. 11:5).  Isaiah was told that his prophetic task was to harden the eyes, ears and hearts of the Jewish nation until the fulfilment of the curse of exile (Isa 6:9‑13; cf. 32:1‑4; 34:16–35:6).

3.  Jesus decreed another greater exile on the Jewish nation, a final one that would complete God’s judgement against the sins of all previous generations of Israel.

In fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy to the Levites of his generation after the Babylonian Exile (Mal 3:1‑6), Jesus arrived four hundred years later as the appointed judge of the nation.  In response to their sin and hard-heartedness He delivered the verdict that the nation was unforgivable (Mat 12:31‑45; 23:1‑28).  To prove that they were more wicked than any previous generation, He would send them further messengers whom they would persecute, and therefore God would be justified in bringing on that generation the complete punishment for the sins of both them and all their fathers (Mat 23:29‑36; Luke 11:49‑51; cf. Isa 65:1‑7; Jer 16:10‑18; Rom 10:20-21).  When there is a complete judgement visited on the nation for all the blood of the prophets shed from the foundation of the world, there can never be another such punishment meted out again (Isa 51:17‑22).

4.  Evangelism amongst Jewish communities will not be completed until Jesus’ return.

Although seventy disciples were sent out in pairs to prepare for Jesus’ arrival in a town during His ministry (Luke 10:1‑17), Jesus also sent out the Twelve with a specific commission to the Jews (Luke 9:1‑10; Mat 10:11‑42), because they will be given authority over the twelve tribes of Israel when Jesus returns (Luke 22:28‑30).  Their commission, therefore, while similar to that of the seventy, concerned specifically Jewish communities (Mat 10:5‑6, 23), within and presumably beyond the land of Israel also.  They were told that this specific focus for preaching the Gospel would not finish “until the Son of Man comes”, a phrase Matthew linked closely to the Second Coming (24:3, 27‑44; 25:31‑46).  This was also explained as being the result of Jewish hard-heartedness and persecution in city after city of Israel, and Jesus’ intention was to clarify to His followers that the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” in exile (cf. Eze 34:11‑16) would not all be ‘found’ until the time of His own return.

5.  Gentile control over Jerusalem will come to an end when the “times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled.

Whereas Matthew recorded Jesus’ teachings about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and the Second Coming without differentiating them (Matthew 24:1–25:46; esp. 24:3), Luke recorded them separately, the Second Coming in 17:20‑37, and the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and exile in 21:5‑36.  Therefore Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity and exile of the Jewish people (Luke 21:20‑24) has already happened and evidently continued until modern times.  Despite the obvious severity of the judgement Jesus decreed, He did explicitly declare that at a certain point Gentiles would no longer ‘trample under foot’ the city of Jerusalem (21:24; cf. Isa 63:17‑19), which must indicate that Jews will eventually regain control over Jerusalem.  The “times of the Gentiles” may be a reference to that period during which Gentiles control Jerusalem, but it would be better to understand it as the times in which Gentiles are the focus of God’s commission to His Church, which is suggested by the word “fulfilled”.  In the latter case, Jesus would be teaching that Jewish repossession of Jerusalem will coincide with the culmination of mission to the Gentiles.

6.  Israel’s national repentance will be prompted specifically by the reception of the gospel by all other nations.

Jesus taught that “the end will come” at the point when His witnesses have brought “this gospel of the kingdom” throughout “the whole inhabited earth” and “to all the nations” (Mat 24:14), which could be said to be the ‘fulfilment’ of the “times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24).  He then instructed His witnesses to go from Jerusalem “even to the remotest part of the earth”, making “disciples of all the nations… even to the end of the age”, and in the context He was implying that only then would the kingdom be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6‑8; Mat 28:19‑20).  Paul explained this further, writing that Israel has been hardened temporarily “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”; then because of jealousy at the mercy shown to all nations, Israel would soften and “thus all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:11‑15, 25‑27, 30‑31).  Jesus indicated that this would be brought about particularly through the ministry of another prophet like Elijah at whose word the nation would turn back to God, ‘restoring all things’ (Mat 17:10‑11; cf. Mal 4:5‑6).  It is unlikely that this prophet is described in Revelation 11, where the two witnesses prophesy judgement against the nations, not salvation to Israel.  Although imagery is used from the ministries of Elijah and Moses, both prophets of judgement against unbelieving Gentiles and Jews, it is more likely that these two prophetic ‘olive branches’ are the Jewish and Gentile portions of the Church who are then resurrected as Jesus returns (Rev 11:4, 11‑13; cf. 13:7; Rom 11:17; Zec 3:8–4:6).

7.  Israel will be living in Judaea and Jerusalem when as a nation they welcome Jesus’ return as their Messiah.

Jesus regularly used the ‘fig tree’ as an image of the nation of Israel (represented by its leadership), to describe its fruitlessness (Luke 13:6‑9), its withering (Mark 11:12‑27), its destruction when dry (Luke 23:27‑31), and finally its softening and fresh leaves indicating His imminent return (Mat 24:32‑33).  ‘Sitting under one’s own fig tree’ was a common metaphor for being permanently at ‘rest’ in the land, particularly after exile (Mic 4:1‑4; Zec 3:8‑10; John 1:47‑51), so the images of softening and leaves coming out imply the beginnings of repentance and dwelling in the land respectively.  However Jesus also prophesied this explicitly:  In the ‘great tribulation’ immediately before His return, Jesus said that the believers living in Judaea would find travel on the Sabbath particularly difficult (Mat 24:15‑20, 29‑30).  Not only that, but He prophesied to ‘Jerusalem’ (both the city and symbol for the nation) at the very end of His public ministry that “from now on you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Mat 23:39; cf. Luke 13:33-35).  Following the exile of the Jewish nation, the ‘desolation’ of Jerusalem’s ‘house’ (Mat 23:38; cf. Lev 26:31‑35; Isa 49:14‑21; 62:4), the nation would again see Jesus when as a nation they could welcome Him as their Messiah (cf. Mat 21:9).  In fact, for the sake of these ‘elect’, He will shorten the days of their ‘great tribulation’ (Mark 13:14‑20).  Peter also taught that national repentance was a condition for Jesus’ return (Acts 3:19‑21).

8.  Nevertheless, secure and permanent inheritance of the land for Israel will not be possible until Jesus returns, initiating the resurrection and restoration of all things.

Using a parable, Jesus taught His disciples that only on His return as King would He distribute territories within His kingdom to them in reward for faithful service (Luke 19:11‑28; cf. 22:28‑30).  When asked about the timing of the kingdom being restored to Israel, He acknowledged His Father’s plan to do this, but instructed His disciples to focus first on mission to all nations (Acts 1:6‑8).  Jews in the Early Church, including Barnabas, Stephen and the writer to the Hebrews, modelled and taught that in this age they must not expect to be able to hold on to their property within the land of Israel (Acts 4:32‑37; 7:4‑6; Heb 4:1‑11; 10:34).  Rather, they were to live by faith, whether they left their land to bring the good news of salvation inheritance to other nations also, or whether they chose to remain in their ‘promised land’ but live as if they were foreigners, ‘strangers and exiles’.  Choosing to return to other countries for the sake of security was not a valid option (Heb 11:15), but rather they needed to persevere by looking forward to their ‘better, permanent possession’ in that very land, in the form of a city and country being prepared by God and soon to be delivered from heaven (Heb 11:8‑16; Rev 21:10, 24‑27).  Paul associated the fulfilment of Israel’s promised gift of land with the salvation of all nations (Rom 9:4; 11:26‑29; cf. Zec 2:6-12).  He therefore recognised that Jewish and Gentile believers, as both natural and adopted ‘sons of God’, would inherit their apportioned lands at the same time, freeing all of creation from its slavery to corruption (Gal 3:23–4:8; Rom 4:11‑17; 8:14‑22).  This inheritance by every nation of lands bestowed from heaven by God is a large-scale fulfilment of what will happen at the same time on a small scale with each of us inheriting ‘heavenly’ resurrection bodies (Acts 17:26 with Deut 32:8‑9; Rom 8:18‑25; 1 Cor 15:42‑49; 2 Cor 5:1‑5). Thus ‘all things’ will be restored (Acts 3:21; Mat 17:11).

In summary of New Testament teaching, the promise of land inheritance made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and spoken about by the prophets has not yet ever been properly fulfilled.  This was because God chose to use the Law of Moses to harden the Israelites in their sin, making them unable with uncircumcised hearts to inherit as ‘sons of Abraham’.  Moses taught that God would personally atone for Israel, and reconcile them to Himself by making them jealous of His favour on the nations.  Jesus then came as the ‘seed of Abraham’ bringing blessing: fulfilling the powerless Law by becoming a curse for Israel, and dying to atone for the sin of Jew and Gentile alike, reversing the disobedience and death of Adam.  His resurrection is both the object of faith, by which all can be declared righteous, and the content of our hope.  Jesus declared the Jewish nation of His own generation to be unforgivable, decreeing that within a generation they would enter into an exile that would complete God’s punishment for all previous rejection of His messengers.  Witness to scattered Jews must continue, but their full repentance and inheritance would not happen before every nation on earth had also received the good news of salvation (resurrection, deliverance and inheritance).  At the end of the age God will begin restoring Israel to her land and softening her heart towards Him, using a prophet like Elijah, and even more importantly the jealousy provoked by seeing all nations accept her Messiah.  In the midst of the ‘great tribulation’ that follows the fulfilment of the times of the Gentiles, Jewish believers in the land will undergo persecution, but will be delivered by their returning King whom they will welcome as a whole nation.  The faithful from previous generations will return with Jesus, met by surviving believers joining them from the earth in a visible imitation of Jesus’ own ascension, and all will receive their resurrection bodies with Jesus.  After destroying the enemies of His people, Jesus will establish His kingdom on earth from Jerusalem.  Within this worldwide kingdom, the Twelve disciples will rule over Israel in their land, and Gentile believers will rule over every nation across the earth, each in its own territory as apportioned by Jesus [the new ‘Joshua’].  In this way all creation will be released into the glorious freedom of the ‘sons of God’.

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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