James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Apostasy in Light of Faith and Grace (Winds of Doctrine #11)

In the last eight posts we have seen how the Early Church that had demonstrated Jesus to be the Messiah in the 30’s AD, welcomed Gentiles in the 40’s, and reaffirmed God’s plans for the Jews in the 50’s, had to endure mighty winds of heresy and persecution in the 60’s, and then recover their ‘first love’ for each other again in the 70’s.  The 60’s had brought a widespread apostasy, or ‘falling away’, in the church, which some at the time may have interpreted as the prophesied final apostasy that would sweep through the Church before the Great Tribulation and the return of Jesus (cf. 2Thes 2:1‑12).  Clearly Paul, Peter and John all recognised that a greater one was still to come (cf. 2Tim 3:1‑9; 4:1‑4; 2Pet 3:1‑18; 1John 2:18‑19, 28; 4:1‑3), whether or not they expected the final one within decades rather than millennia.  It is vital that we consider the nature of that first great apostasy, though, that we might be prepared for the final one that will soon be upon us.

1 Timothy 4:1 makes it clear that “in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”.  Hebrews warns believers not to “fall in the wilderness” through disobedience like the generation of Moses (Heb 3:7‑17; 4:11; 6:4‑8; cf. 1Cor 10:1-12).  Whereas Paul is referring to specific fallen individuals in his congregation, whom he has ‘handed over to Satan’ for discipline, the writer to the Hebrews is offering a more general warning from Scripture, confident that his hearers will turn back from the brink and inherit the promises after all (Heb 6:9‑12; 10:23‑39; 12:12‑13).  The reality is that there are in every generation individuals who in practice ‘fall away’ from the Christian beliefs and lifestyle they once had.  Most of those who read this will know several such people, and the issue therefore becomes one in which we have intense personal interest.  Others might be genuinely afraid that they themselves might ‘fall away’ at some future point, and the doctrine of ‘perseverance of the saints’ (“Once saved, always saved”) can sometimes be applied too quickly to dismiss people’s real concerns.  Probably the single most fundamental key to this whole topic is a correct understanding of ‘faith’, a word we looked at in detail above.

Faith in God’s Grace

‘Faith’, or ‘trust’, is the only appropriate response to the ‘grace’ of God, and these two terms sum up absolutely every element of the Christian teaching.  They are the truth that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion ever taught, because they teach that as humans we have nothing to contribute to our relationship with God, and can only trust Him to bring about in our lives what is pleasing to Him.  Jesus is the fullest expression both of the grace of God towards humanity and the world, and of the faith in God which God considers to be true ‘righteousness’.  We receive ‘salvation’ and enter into God’s family when we share the ‘faith’ of God’s unique Son Jesus, and this has two elements according to Romans 10:3‑13.  The first element is the conviction that God alone can raise the dead to bodily life, which Jesus went to the cross believing, and therefore that God did indeed raise Jesus to permanent bodily life.  The second element is the willingness to surrender one’s life completely to the direction of this God like Jesus did, which Jesus describes as ‘take up your cross and follow me’.  The writer to the Hebrews says that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who comes to God must believe that He exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him’ (11:6).  There are many who have heard about Jesus, admired Him, and even dedicated their lives to imitating His good works, but none of this matters at all if they have not understood that the only way of pleasing God and receiving eternal life is to accept that Jesus has done everything required, and to put one’s life entirely in His hands.  Even this decision itself is a work of grace in the believer’s life.  As Luke points out in Acts 13:48, ‘as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed’.

If a person has truly understood that they can do nothing of any value without God’s gracious giving, they will be in the right place to receive His Holy Spirit, who gives us everything we need for life and godliness, empowering us to do what God has called us to do.  This is the beginning of a life of trust, or ‘faith’, in which time and again the believer comes back to God asking for grace to accomplish what he or she has been given to do.  If at any point we turn back to our own wisdom and strength, we have ‘turned away’ or ‘fallen away’ from faith, or from ‘the [life of] faith’.  ‘Whatever is not from faith is sin.’ (Rom 14:23)  Paul expresses exactly the same concept in Galatians 5:4, when he tells those trying to be righteous by keeping laws that they have ‘fallen from grace’.

Faith is just as necessary for one’s beliefs as it is for one’s life, because we are unable to arrive at the truth through our own wisdom or ‘rational’ thought processes.  God has deliberately planned it this way, so that those who come to Him are forced to accept what He says without the benefit of their own five senses.  If we were able to reason our way to the ‘meaning of life’, we would have no need for grace, and we could boast in our own wisdom.  As it is, God has chosen to save people through the apparent ‘foolishness’ of what is preached, the message of a crucified Saviour (1Cor 1:17–2:5).  Of course, that is not to say that God leaves us in the darkness just for the sake of it, or that He has not revealed elements of the truth about the world around us to those who do not trust Him.  Rather, God reveals more and more to those who keep coming to Him for wisdom, and He graciously enables others who do not trust Him personally to nevertheless recognise the divine order and beauty with which He created the world.

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Context of 1-3 John (Winds of Doctrine #9)

Tradition records that Paul was executed in Rome by Nero, just as he anticipated in his second letter to Timothy, and we can assume that Timothy did travel to Rome to see Paul, leaving Tychicus with Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus to teach the church.  Timothy would have raised up new elders to replace those who had left, ‘faithful men able to teach others’ (1Tim 3:1‑7; 2Tim 2:2).  A church that had been through such an upheaval, though, might be expected to be particularly alert to both false teaching and immorality, being experienced in enduring persecution and persevering with a siege-like mentality (Rev 2:1‑7).  In 1 Timothy 2:7, Paul seems to be contrasting his own true call as a herald and apostle with the ‘lying’ of others who called themselves apostles.  After his death, then, the Ephesian church would have been very wary of receiving anyone else who called himself an ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and would therefore have found it almost impossible to accept genuine apostolic oversight from anyone apart from a co-worker of Paul.  We do not know whether Tychicus stayed for long in Ephesus, or whether Timothy or Titus were able to return to support Prisca and Aquila.

It is into just this situation that the three epistles of John seem to have been written.  According to tradition, John son of Zebedee ended up in Ephesus at some point after Paul’s death and Timothy’s departure, apparently working hard to re-establish this church in their ‘first love’ that they had lost through the experience of apostasy in the mid-60’s AD (cf. Rev 2:4).  Who better than the ‘beloved disciple’ to teach this large and influential church about love and unity?  The book of Revelation begins with letters to the seven churches, which in one sense function as John’s divine ‘letter of commendation’ to the churches in Asia Minor.  The false teachers addressed in these letters are also Jewish (Rev 2:9; 3:9), known as the ‘Nicolaitans’ (Rev 2:6, 15), and the book anticipates a time of renewed persecution coming on the whole world (Rev 1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9‑11; 7:14; 12:11).  The description of the nation of Israel being taken into exile in ‘the wilderness’ (Rev 12:1‑2, 5‑6, 13‑16) probably describes the consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, although the description of the nations trampling the temple in Jerusalem for three-and-a-half years (Rev 11:2‑3, 8 ) may suggest that the book was written very shortly after that destruction.  There is still the very clear understanding that the gospel must be preached to every nation before Jesus’ return (Rev 1:7; 7:9‑10; 10:7; 14:6), but this is seen as imminent (cf. John 21:20‑23).

If Revelation was written in the early 70’s AD, shortly after John was released from imprisonment on Patmos (Rev 1:9), this would explain why the letters to the seven Asian churches do not give the impression that John was very familiar to them.  2 John, which is put after 1 John presumably because of its brevity, makes most sense if it was actually the first letter he sent to the church in Ephesus after writing Revelation.  He writes as ‘the elder’, which makes sense in light of the Ephesians’ wariness of the title ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and is writing from another congregation known to those in Ephesus (2John 1:1, 13), though he doesn’t appear to have a personal connection with his recipients.  He has evidently heard of the faithfulness of some in the congregation who have resisted false teaching (1:4), and he mentions the love that both he and all the churches have for them (1:1), and urges them to remain on their guard against false teachers (1:7‑11).  However, his main reason for writing is to urge them to love each other (1:5‑6), which was the primary accusation against them in Revelation 2:4‑5, and is the only specific detail that John seems to know about the Ephesians apart from their survival through heresy (1:4; cf. Rev 2:2-3, 6).  It is understandable why John would feel it important to try to establish a personal connection with this bruised church after Jesus’ stern warning to them, and so rather than writing a long letter, he tells the church that he has many things to write to them but he would rather come soon and speak with them face to face (2John 1:12).  Unlike the book of Revelation, which he wrote out himself and which therefore is fairly poor Hebraic Greek, he would have used the help of an amanuensis, or professional scribe, to help him craft a letter in good (but simple) Greek for the educated church of Ephesus.

John’s brief introduction letter to the Ephesian church would have been delivered by one of his co-workers to Ephesus, but on his co-worker’s return he would have been made aware of the many problems in the church in much more detail.  It seems that some in Ephesus who had heard John’s brief letter were questioning what right John had to be writing to them, not even knowing them.  As a result, he composed a much more thorough elaboration of his original message to them (e.g. 1John 2:7‑8), which was also a defence of his own authority to give them instruction (1John 1:1‑4), and an explanation of why he was writing to them (1John 2:12‑14, 21, 26‑27; 5:13).  By the time he wrote his third letter perhaps a couple of years later, this time to the elder Gaius (presumably one of the elders of the Ephesian church), he was personally known to many in the church (3John 1:15), and could refer to them as ‘my children’ (3John 1:4).  Presumably he had therefore managed to travel to Ephesus himself in order to meet the church and reinforce the message of love he was writing about (2John 1:12), before returning to his ‘home’ congregation.  Unlike earlier letters, however, 3 John was not written to the whole church of Ephesus but rather to one of its elders, Gaius.  The reason for this is apparently that when John had written another letter to the church (one that has not been preserved), those who returned from delivering it reported to him that although Gaius had received them warmly, the lead elder of Ephesus, Diotrephes, had refused to allow John’s letter to be read out to the gathered church.  As a result, John sent a short letter to Gaius, delivered by Demetrius, in which he is basically warning Diotrephes that he will be returning shortly and will sort him out.  Apparently this did indeed happen, because tradition records that John ended up moving to Ephesus permanently, and lived there to the end of his life around the turn of the second century.

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).

Reconstruction of Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey (Winds of Doctrine #7)

Filed under: Exegesis,History — alabastertheology @ 5:27 pm
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After perhaps having visiting Spain (mentioned above), Paul travelled to Crete and planted churches in many of its cities.  He then left Titus behind to appoint elders in the churches (Tit 1:5), and headed north.  It was probably as Paul travelled through Greece that his co-worker Erastus chose to remain in his home town of Corinth (2Tim 4:20), and it may have been from here also that Paul had sent Timothy to Ephesus (1Tim 1:3).  It appears that Paul’s letter to Titus was written from somewhere in Greece, on the way northward towards Nicopolis (Tit 3:12) which was about three hundred kilometres north-west of Athens.  Paul wrote to Titus of his plan to send his faithful messenger co-worker Tychicus (cf. Acts 20:4; Eph 6:21‑22; Col 4:7‑8; 2Tim 4:12) to Titus in Crete, at which point Titus was to leave Crete and travel north to spend the winter with Paul in Nicopolis (Tit 3:12).  The first letter to Timothy was quite possibly written soon after the letter to Titus, and delivered to Timothy in Ephesus by the hand of Tychicus who was on his way to Crete to pick up Titus.  Titus evidently did as Paul had requested, and then after the winter travelled from Nicopolis even further up the west coast of Greece to Dalmatia, or modern-day Croatia (2Tim 4:10; cf. ‘Illyricum’ of Rom 15:19).  Paul may well have got to Macedonia after the winter as he had planned (1Tim 1:3), but he probably did not make it south as far as Ephesus while still a free man.

Having presumably passed through Macedonia and past the Hellespont, Paul journeyed down the coast of Asia Minor as far as Troas (cf. Acts 16:8‑12), where he stayed with someone called Carpus (2Tim 4:13).  The only other city of Asia Minor that we know Paul visited was Miletus (2Tim 4:20), but as this is south of Ephesus, and ‘Alexander’ is mentioned apparently in the context of Paul’s first appearance in court (2Tim 4:14‑16), Paul is likely to have been brought first as a prisoner to court in Ephesus, the provincial capitol.  If ‘Alexander the coppersmith’ is the same as the spokesman put forward by the Jewish community in the Ephesian metalworkers riot (Acts 19:33‑34) and who later became a member and (false) teacher of the Ephesian church (1Tim 1:20), his excommunication by Paul (1Tim 1:20; cf. 2Tim 2:17) may have led him to volunteer as an eloquent witness for the prosecution against Paul at court.  Assuming that Paul did appear in court in Ephesus, therefore, he was probably arrested either on arrival in Ephesus, or even earlier on his way down the coast.  In Ephesus he may well have been denied visitors in prison apart from the co-workers who were with him at his arrest, and would therefore have been unable to meet with the elders of the church there (cf. Acts 20:25, 38).  Paul did not need to explain to Timothy in his second letter how his arrest and subsequent transport to Rome had happened, perhaps because Timothy had actually managed to see him before his departure from Ephesus, though not able to be at the trial (2Tim 1:4, 18; 4:16).  Paul did feel the need to warn Timothy about what Alexander had said during the trial, though, so that he would be on his guard against him (2Tim 4:15).  It appears that as a consequence of this second arrest of Paul, most of the church leaders in the province of Asia turned away from Paul (2Tim 1:15; 4:16‑17), as did even some of his co-workers it seems (2Tim 4:10), probably to avoid being arrested themselves (2Tim 1:8, 12, 16; 2:3, 9‑13; 3:12; 4:10).

Paul was ‘rescued’ from ‘evil deeds’ at the time of his first defence (4:17‑18), quite possibly in a similar way to his rescue in Jerusalem (Acts 23:12‑35), and perhaps through the services of Onesiphorus, whose wealth and therefore influence may be being indicated by his ability to travel widely (1Tim 1:16‑18).  He was apparently accompanied by his co-worker Trophimus on his transport as a prisoner by ship from Ephesus down the coast on the way back to Rome, but sadly he had to leave Trophimus in Miletus because of illness (2Tim 4:20).  He probably met Prisca and Aquila in Rome on his arrival there (cf. Rom 16:3‑5), although if he did, he may have soon requested that they return to Ephesus with Onesiphorus in order to strengthen the severely weakened church there (2Tim 1:16‑17; 4:19).  Some time after this visit of Onesiphorus, Paul (again) sent Tychicus to Ephesus with the second letter to Timothy, apparently simply to ask Timothy to travel as soon as possible to Rome in order to see Paul before his imminent execution (2Tim 1:4, 8; 4:6‑9, 21).  Tychicus would stay in Ephesus to take Timothy’s place (2Tim 4:12), and Timothy was asked to travel via Troas to pick up some personal items, as well as picking up Mark from somewhere en route (2Tim 4:11, 13).

September 12, 2009

Promised Land in the Gospels, part one [I&NC #6]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 8:07 pm
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Contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament frequently assumes that the land covenant is still in effect.  Here we start with the Gospels (in 3 posts), moving on after that to Acts (2 posts) and the epistles (3 posts).

To begin with, we would expect that a divine promise of territory given to the ethnic descendants of Israel be spoken of most often in passages addressed to the Jewish people.  The letters of Paul to the Gentile churches are therefore the least likely place to find mention of this land covenant, as are the writings of John who was based in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey.  Peter’s first letter was written to believers living in the northern parts of Turkey, though his second letter to unspecified recipients does refer to the “holy mountain” where Jesus was transfigured.

On the other hand, Jesus was teaching Jews within the land of Israel, much of Acts takes place in that land, and Hebrews is also written to Jewish believers there. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of passages referring to the land covenant are found in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and Hebrews.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is highly unusual in that although it is written to Gentiles, Paul sees it necessary in his extended discussion of the gospel message to specifically address the problem of the unbelieving Jewish nation in Romans 9–11.  We therefore find clear references to the promised land in Romans also.

Even so, we would not expect to have many references to the promise of land for the Jewish nation in the New Testament, for the simple reason that Jesus had unmistakeably prophesied destruction and exile for the nation within a single generation [see below].  Even though most of the Old Testament prophets do mention future restoration in passing within long oracles of judgement, warnings of imminent destruction in Jesus’ day would be even less likely to convince a rebellious generation if they were qualified by frequent reaffirmation of the promise of eternal security in the land.

With that in mind, let us turn to the passages about the land covenant in the New Testament:

(A)  Promised Land in the Gospels

In the Gospels Jesus never explicitly reissues the covenant promise of land; He would not do so to His own rebellious generation, nor could He grant the land to His followers before the age of restoration of all things.  Yet He often assumes a Jewish presence in the land of Israel at the end of the present age just before His return, and then a secure Jewish authority over that land following His return.  Here we deal with the first two of six representative passages taken from the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 10:5-6, 23 – Jesus explicitly instructed His twelve disciples to identify themselves with His own mission to the Jewish nation specifically, which was in line with their calling to rule over their own nation in the age to come [see third Gospel post below on Mat 19].  Evidently they understood this mission to be a permanent one even after Jesus ascended, as implied by both Galatians 2:7‑9 and the role of both Peter and Paul in the establishment of church communities in Corinth and in Rome (1 Cor 1:12; Rom 15:20-22; 1 Pet 5:13).  The disciples were told, “Truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”.  When seen in the context of 10:17-22 this prophecy cannot be understood to refer merely to making preparations in advance for Jesus’ earthly ministry in those cities, as was the task of the seventy sent out in Luke 10:1 (cf. Luke 9:1-6).  For Matthew, the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ was an unmistakeable reference to the second coming (cf. Mat 24:3, 23–25:46).

This indicates, therefore, that Jesus recognised the ongoing need for mission to Jewish cities and communities from the time of His own ministry right up until His final return, and one might even argue that the ‘cities of Israel’ refers to Jewish communities within the territorial land of Israel throughout that time (cf. Mat 10:5-6).  The case could be made that this passage influenced Paul’s own practice in his missionary journeys through Gentile lands of ‘going [first] to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, ‘shaking off the dust’, and ‘fleeing to the next city’ (cf. Acts 13:42-51).  Even so, ‘cities of Israel’ when compared with ‘city of the Samaritans’ in 10:5 would suggest towns under Jewish authority, or at least Jewish-majority towns, and the prohibition against travelling into Gentile areas in 10:5 may indicate that the territory of Israel as defined in the first century is in view in 10:23.

Thus we have in Matthew 10 evidence of, at very least, an ongoing mission to the unbelieving nation of Israel that will not be concluded before Jesus Himself returns to the land.  It is possible that the ‘cities of Israel’ in which mission must be undertaken actually refers to Jewish communities remaining within the traditional territory of Israel throughout the time between Jesus’ ascension and His return, providing possible evidence of an unbroken land covenant underlying this preservation.

Matthew 24:32-35 – Luke 21:29-32 seems to be a generalisation of Matthew’s version of this teaching, by drawing the parable from all trees and not just the ‘fig tree’.  However I would argue Luke himself was aware that Jesus had not just chosen the fig tree at random for this illustration, because other sayings preserved only by Luke reinforce the significance of the fig tree.  In the Old Testament, the fig tree was used to represent the nation of Israel (Hos 9:10, 13, 16–10:2; Hab 3:16-18).  More importantly, though, the shelter it provided was a metaphor for the permanent and secure dwelling of the nation within its land, ultimately connected with return from exile (1 Kgs 4:25; Jer 8:8-15; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:8-10; cf. Song of Songs 2:10-13; John 1:47-51 with Gen 28:12-15).  Jesus made ample use of this metaphor in his teaching, for example in Luke 13:6-9, where He warned the nation that He had been looking for fruit on the ‘fig tree’ for three years, and it would be given only one more year before being ‘cut down’ (cf. Luke 3:7‑9).

In Mark 11:12-14, 20-23, Mark clarifies and adds detail to the conflated story in Matthew 21:18-22 where Jesus curses a fig tree overlooking Jerusalem for having no fruit on it.  The fact that it was not the season for figs made no difference to Jesus’ acted parable, and when the disciples commented on the immediate withering of the fig tree, Jesus turned the application over to His disciples – forty years later they would similarly command ‘this mountain’ (i.e. the Temple Mount they were walking towards) to be taken up and cast into the ‘sea’ (i.e. the nations – cf. Mat 13:47; Rev 17:15).  The withering of the fig tree symbolised the hardening and coming exile of the nation.  This makes best sense also of Jesus’ prophecy to the women weeping over Him as He approached Calvary (Luke 23:27-31), that presently the nation was still ‘green’ with leaves, but within a generation it would be ‘dry’ and experience judgement.

In the light of Jesus’ metaphor of Israel as a fruitless fig tree, withered at Jesus’ command, the ‘parable of the fig tree’ in Matthew 24:32-35 takes on a much greater significance.  When the dry fig tree becomes tender again and begins to put forth its leaves, that is, when the nation of Israel softens towards God and begins once more to show signs of secure dwelling within the land, believers will know that Jesus’ return is imminent.

[Matthew’s addition of Jesus’ saying about “this generation” that will not pass away before these things take place (24:34-35) appears to apply to the parable of the fig tree, but in fact Jesus spoke the saying to conclude his discourse to the four disciples specifically about the AD70 destruction of the Temple; the parable and the saying were juxtaposed because Matthew did not differentiate between prophecies about the two judgements.  Luke understood the saying (see next post), and because he also recognised that Matthew’s attached fig tree parable must point to the ‘end of the age’, he had to deliberately generalise the parable (“and all the trees”; “the kingdom of God is near”) in order to include the whole saying properly within that specific discourse about the sooner judgement (21:29-33) .  Similar adjustments are introduced by Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27 to clarify a potentially confusing juxtaposition of sayings in Matthew 16:27‑28.]

Jesus therefore used the ‘fig tree’ as one of his favourite images 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.

Although some may argue that the parable of the fig tree is open to any interpretation simply because it is a parable, this interpretation corresponds precisely to the entirely literal prophecies Jesus gave about the Jewish nation at the end of this age [see next two posts].  Thus we may treat the parable of the fig tree as evidence of a promised reversal of the judgement of exile spoken by Jesus over the Jewish nation in His own generation; the only reasonable explanation for such a return from exile to the land of Israel is the fulfilment of God’s land covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

August 11, 2009

Synopsis of Galatians 1–2 and Acts 9–15

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:12 pm
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Both Galatians and Acts give biographical information about the first twenty years or so of Paul’s life after conversion, the first being autobiographical, and the second record traditionally attributed to Luke.  Not only have people often had difficulty matching up the two accounts, but whatever synopsis one chooses to accept for these will affect how one dates the letter to the Galatians, with knock-on effects for the development of his theology and the history of the Early Church.  What follows is my own attempt to correlate the two accounts:

Gal 1:15-16 – God “was pleased to reveal His Son in me…”

Acts 9:1-19 – Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, blinding, prayer by Ananias, healing, receiving Holy Spirit, water baptism

Gal 1:16 – “… I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood…”

Acts 9:19-22 – Saul was with believers in Damascus for several days, but “immediately” began to preach in the synagogues about Jesus, confounding the Jews there.

Gal 1:17 – “… nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus.”

Acts 9:23-25 – Saul’s disciples lowered him in a large basket from the wall of Damascus to escape his enemies.

[gap in record of Saul’s movements in Arabia]

Gal 1:18-19 – “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”

Acts 9:26-29 – [8:1 describes the significant dispersion that had happened from Jerusalem.]
“When [Saul] came to Jerusalem he was trying to associate with the disciples”, was introduced to “the apostles” by Barnabas, and then moved freely in the city speaking boldly about Jesus under threat of death.

Gal 1:21-22 – “Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.  I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ.”

Acts 9:30 – “But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus [in Cilicia].”

Gal 2:1-2 – “Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also.  According to revelation I went up…”

Acts 11:22-30 – Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch [in Syria] where he taught new believers, leaving to look for Saul in Tarsus.  They returned and spent “an entire year” teaching together, after which Agabus and other prophets came from Jerusalem, prophesying a great famine.  Barnabas and Saul were sent with ‘aid’ to the Jerusalem elders (cf. 12:25).

Gal 2:2-10 – “… and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but in private to those who were of reputation… Recognising the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John …gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship… only asking us to remember the poor – the very thing I was eager to do.”

Acts 12:[1-]25 – John’s brother James was executed by Herod; Peter was imprisoned and then freed by an angel.  When Peter came to the house of Mary mother of John Mark, he urged them to tell “James and the brethren”, and “Then he left and went to another place”.  “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.”

[Thus John, Peter and James are all mentioned in the context of Jerusalem while Barnabas and Saul were visiting in response to a revelation, serving the poor in Judea.  John is not an actor as such in 12:2, but as ‘James’ was a common name, identifying him as the ‘brother of John’  rather than the ‘son of Zebedee’ implies that John was also well-known to the Jerusalem church.]

Gal 2:11-14 – “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing those from the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not walking straightly about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘…’

[It follows from the culmination in Antioch that Paul is writing to the Galatian churches from Antioch, shortly after visiting them (cf. 1:6 – “so quickly”). He doesn’t mention any conclusion to his dispute with Cephas, nor a letter from the Jerusalem apostles and elders to support his case, suggesting he hadn’t yet left Antioch for Jerusalem when he hurriedly wrote to the Galatian churches.]

Acts 13:1–15:2 – Saul [Paul] and Barnabas were set apart by fellow teachers and prophets for the first Galatian mission [Cyprus, Perga, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and back again]. “When they arrived [back in Antioch] and gathered the church together, they began to report …how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they spent not a little time with the disciples. Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.”

[Peter had apparently come to Antioch before the arrival of the teachers from Judea, during that “not a little time” mentioned above.]

[In the following two declarations by Paul and by Peter on Jewish / Gentile believers, notice the following points of contact:
(1)  no distinction between salvation of Jews and of Gentiles

(2)  justified / hearts cleansed by faith not law
(3)  Christ lives in us by the Holy Spirit
(4)  we Jews have been found sinners under law
(5)  it amounts to rebuilding and compelling obedience to the law’s yoke which was destroyed through Christ’s crucifixion
(6)  Christ died, expressing the grace of God ]

Paul’s Declaration in Antioch

Gal 2:14-21 – “I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; since by the works of the law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and that which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died needlessly.’”

Peter’s Declaration in Jerusalem

Acts 15:7-11 – “Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that from days of old God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.’”

[It appears that Peter had been convinced by Paul’s arguments, and put them into his own words for the council in Jerusalem.]

This synopsis serves to confirm the early dating for Galatians to the late 40’s AD, written to the south Galatian churches Paul had just established on his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14).  That would make it the earliest of Paul’s letters we have (before 1 Thessalonians), written less than twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection, and evidence of Paul’s thought on the question of Gentile salvation prior to the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15.

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