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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Primary Doctrinal Issues of the First Three Decades (Winds of Doctrine #4)

False teachings had been making the rounds in the Christian churches in the early- to mid-60’s AD, but these were of a different sort from those in earlier decades.  When Paul wrote to the south Galatian churches (Iconium, Lystra, Derbe) around AD48, the primary heresy he had to address was the insistence of Jewish followers of Jesus that Gentiles turning to the Messiah had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law (Gal 6:12‑15).  Just weeks or months after dashing off this epistle to the Galatians, the Council of Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Gentiles did not need to become Jewish to follow the Jewish Messiah (Acts 15).  Once the Council’s official letter began to be circulated, the door was now wide open to Gentile conversion.  [See my post on Galatians and Acts for a defence of this scenario.]

Only a year later, however, in AD49, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome over disputes about the Messiah (evidently the gospel had arrived!), which eventually resulted in the next big doctrinal issue Paul had to address – the place of Israel.  Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish couple from Rome who chose to settle in Corinth, may have already been believers when they met Paul there on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-4).  When Paul left Corinth after eighteen months, around AD51, they went with him as far as Ephesus.  Although Paul continued on to Antioch, they chose to settle in the Jewish community in Ephesus, and were thus ready to teach Apollos when he arrived there soon afterwards (Acts 18:18‑28).  At the start of Paul’s third missionary journey he spent two years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19), and during this time, around AD54, he wrote to the church in Corinth, mentioning Aquila and Prisca’s house church to them (1Cor 16:19).  Resurrection was clearly a problem subject for several churches planted during the second missionary journey (e.g. Thessalonica – 1Thes 4:13–5:11; 2Thes 2:1‑15; Corinth ­– 1Cor 15), but this doesn’t seem to have been due to ‘winds of false teaching’ so much as localised misunderstandings.

Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians from Macedonia about a year after his first letter (see 1Cor 16:8‑9; 2Cor 1:8‑11, 15‑23; 2:12‑14; 7:5‑7; 8:1‑6; 9:1‑5), but by this stage Priscilla and Aquila had probably already returned to Rome from Ephesus; Jews were now being allowed back, and when Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth just a few months after writing 2 Corinthians, his friends were already leading another house church there.  Naturally, Jewish believers returning to Rome would expect to pick up where they had left off, as qualified teachers of the Jewish scriptures in the believing congregations.  However, the Gentiles were now confident in their access to grace by faith without any need for the detailed cultural regulations of the Jewish Law, and looked down on Jewish believers for their ‘weak faith’ that prevented them eating meat from the markets.  When Paul arrived in Corinth as planned around AD57 (Acts 20:2‑3), he heard news of the Jewish / Gentile divisions in Rome, perhaps in a letter from Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3‑5).  Although he had often wanted to travel to Rome, he could not travel there himself quite yet, because he had a responsibility first to deliver the financial Collection from the Gentile churches to the church in Jerusalem (Rom 15:22‑32; Acts 20:4, 16).  Instead, he decided to write an extended letter to the Roman church, setting out clearly why neither Jew nor Gentile could claim moral superiority, even though the gospel was still ‘to the Jew first’ and Israel still had a crucial place in God’s future purposes [see my two posts on Romans 1-8 and 9-11].  Because of the five years of Jewish absence, Rome had been ahead of its time in having to deal with issues raised by being a ‘Gentile majority’ church, even though it had been less than ten years since Paul had addressed the ‘Jewish majority’ issues of the Galatian churches.

The 30’s had dealt with the question of ‘Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?’, the 40’s resolved the problem of ‘Do Gentiles need to become Jewish to be saved?’, the 50’s asked the question, ‘What value is there in being Jewish at all?’, but the 60’s would return to questions of Jesus’ identity and nature.  By this stage, the Jewish churches were less in touch with those who had known Jesus personally, who by now were taking the gospel to distant corners of the world, and Christian thinkers were beginning to engage more with the Jewish apocalyptic philosophy and revolutionary ideology prominent in the final decade before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, to which we turn in the next post.

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’.

August 15, 2009

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Filed under: Exegesis,Theology — alabastertheology @ 12:04 pm
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The question of suffering is often one of the biggest problems people have with the idea of an all-powerful and all-loving God.  The testimony of Scripture is that when we look at Jesus we see the face of God.  There are few places better for revealing how Jesus regards suffering than the story of Jesus’ love for Lazarus:

An exposition of John 11:1-45

11:1-3        Lazarus was one of Jesus’ close friends – “he whom You love”.  This was not simply a ‘test case’ to make a theological point; it was a person Jesus truly loved.

11:4-6       Jesus knew beforehand what would happen – foreknowledge.
Jesus also decided not to intervene to prevent Lazarus suffering and dying, even though He loved him.  He chose instead to stay two days longer where He was – Jesus intended for Lazarus to suffer and die, even though He did not cause the suffering.  God is sovereign and completely in control, even in our suffering.

11:7-10      Jesus took a personal risk in returning to address this problem of suffering and involve Himself in the pain, but He knew that acting according to the light of God’s revelation would keep Him from stumbling.  Jesus risked everything to sort out suffering.

11:11-16     Jesus viewed death as “sleep” from which He Himself was able to “awaken” someone – a reversible reality.
Jesus chose not to be there when Lazarus died for the sake of His disciples, in order that they “may believe”.  The absence of the healing presence of Jesus in suffering and death provides an opportunity for faith, which requires the absence of sight.

11:17-20    In pain and grief, much as we appreciate the consolation of friends and colleagues, it is appropriate to go out of our way to seek Jesus.

11:21-22    Martha acknowledged that Jesus would have been able to heal her brother, but even though she did not believe he would be raised from death at that time, she was still able to testify that she knew Jesus to be no less able to heal.

11:23-27    Martha declared her belief that all believers will receive new resurrection bodies on the ‘last day’, the Day of Judgement.
Jesus then reminded her that ‘resurrection’ is not just an event, but a life-giving power that belongs uniquely to Himself – Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life, life that is accessed through trust in Him.
‘Living’ refers to eternal resurrection Life, and Jesus assured Martha that (1) death is not the end, but is followed by Life; and (2) for believers, that Life will never end again, even on the ‘last day’.  The resurrection life that Jesus offers us is both certain to follow death, and also everlasting in duration.
Jesus challenged Martha to go beyond believing in Jesus’ ability to minister God’s healing, and beyond believing that there would be a resurrection of the righteous at the end of this age, and to believe that Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life.  She responded with a statement of acknowledgement that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, and the One who has come into the world from God.  It is important to clarify that the Jesus who is resurrection and life is the same one who is the object of orthodox Christianity.

11:28-31    Jesus ministers and calls to each one who grieves.  He doesn’t leave any out.
Jesus had intended to minister to Mary without the involvement of the comforters.  It is important that the mourner has the opportunity to interact with Jesus on a personal level without the constant presence of comforters.  Even so, it is important to accompany those who are grieving, perhaps especially in situations where the reality of the loss will be more in view.

11:32-33    Jesus is deeply moved in spirit and troubled to witness our personal mourning, but also specifically the grieving of friends and acquaintances.  Jesus never treats grief as unimportant, however near or far the griever may be from the situation.

11:34-36    Jesus invites us to return to the memory of the suffering and loss we have experienced, although His question to the mourners did not require them to do any more than give an address for the cemetery.
When the mourners invited Jesus to accompany them as they confronted the reality of the loss, this response moved Jesus Himself to tears.
Jesus also personally shares our suffering and pain and grief, because He loves us.  The ultimate expression of this is when Jesus chose to enter into our pain-filled world and accompany us in our suffering, even to the point of death.  He is not distant.

11:37-38    Even if we see that Jesus truly loves us in our suffering, it does not necessarily remove our question of why it had to happen in the first place, or the doubt about Jesus’ ability to prevent death.
The issue of a loving and powerful God allowing suffering is one that is asked even by those who are not personally involved in the suffering or followers of Jesus, and Jesus makes no attempt to defend Himself in response to this questioning.  We may not get an answer, but will that stop us from inviting Jesus to come with us into the pain?

11:39-41    The only command Jesus gives to mourners is one that provides an opportunity for faith to manifest itself.  By telling them to remove the stone, Jesus was inviting them to open up their wounds again, for Him.  They had to confront the reality of Lazarus’s suffering and death, and their ongoing pain, by opening his grave to see again his body lying there and the smell made by decomposition.  When Martha protested, the reason Jesus gave was that without faith they would not see the glory of God in this situation.

11:41-42    Jesus had already prayed and received the assurance from His Father that Lazarus would be raised to life.  He needed to do nothing else at that time, and His prayer in front of the tomb was just to reinforce to those watching that God was responding to the request of Jesus.  In the same way, when our pain and suffering is opened up to Jesus, there is nothing then that needs to be done except receive the life that Jesus has already been granted by His Father.  He doesn’t need to be persuaded.

11:43-45        Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of Lazarus was accomplished with just a word, and He not only restored the sisters’ joy, but received glory and faith from the crowds who witnessed it.  After this, all that remained was to free what had been tightly bound.  The suffering and death was not made to be as if it hadn’t happened and put back to the way it had been, but rather those involved were changed on the inside by the greater power of joy and life.  God’s plans were not just to deal with death, but to be glorified as our joy is made complete.  When it is, let us not hold on to the grave-cloths of pain and bitterness, but unwrap them to give glory to our Lord of Life.

April 12, 2009

Good Thursday? part 6 – Summary of the arguments

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 1:33 am
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Early celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection were held either on the fourteenth day of the lunar Jewish month of Nisan (the date Jesus died) or on an appropriately located Sunday (the day Jesus rose again).  Disputes over which to celebrate were apparently known by around 120AD, but the Council of Nicea in the fourth century insisted that all celebrate Easter Sunday rather than the 14th of Nisan, despite ancient apostolic authority for the latter in Asia Minor.

Gentile misunderstandings about the Jewish background to Jesus’ death and resurrection were already evident enough in the first century for the apostle John to include in his Gospel a number of clarifications intended to correct the ways in which many were wrongly interpreting the three earlier Gospels.  One of these clarifications was John’s observation in 13:1 and 18:28 that the meal Jesus ate with His disciples was “before the Feast of the Passover”.  Another in 19:14 and 19:31 was that the ‘Day of Preparation’ on which Jesus died was preparing not for the regular Jewish Sabbath (Friday night through Saturday), but for the Passover and the ‘special Sabbath’ that kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th of Nisan.  The 15th was observed as a Sabbath rest in much the same way as today we celebrate the 25th of December with a holiday, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls.

Nevertheless, a lack of awareness in the Gentile church about the Jewish regulations for the Passover in Exodus 12 meant that soon those who celebrated Easter Sunday simply assumed that the ‘Day of Preparation’, on which Jesus died, could only be a Friday before the normal Jewish Sabbath.  While this could be reconciled with an inclusive counting of resurrection ‘on the third day’, it seemingly ignored Jesus’ explicit prediction in Matthew 12:40 that He would be buried for “three days and three nights”, according to the ‘sign’ of Jonah the prophet.  A crucifixion on Friday and resurrection on Sunday can at most be described as three days and two nights, although if Jesus did indeed rise ‘while it was still dark’ on the Sunday (John 20:1), this could make it as little as two days and two nights.

On the other hand, if we consider the possibility of the ‘special Sabbath’ on the 15th being followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, this naturally leads us to a crucifixion on the Thursday afternoon (the first ‘day’), followed by two more ‘days’ on the Friday and Saturday, and three nights also (Thursday-Friday, Friday-Saturday and Saturday-Sunday).  Although none of the Gospels speaks of plural ‘Sabbaths’ on which the women rested, they also do not preclude this possibility with their wording.  In fact, the request of the chief priests on the day after Jesus died (Matthew 27:62-66) that the tomb be made secure “until the third day” (rather than ‘until tomorrow’) does imply two full days of inactivity before the resurrection.

An observation related to the Jewish background of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which would hold true regardless of whether one held to Good Friday or Good Thursday, is that the meal Jesus ate with His disciples cannot have been eaten on the ‘correct’ night, as we noted with John’s Gospel above.  Rather, Jesus ensured quick preparations for the meal in order to celebrate the Passover with His disciples before He died, as His comments at the start of the meal in Luke’s Gospel make clear.  The meal was a Passover meal even if its timing was wrong, much in the same way one might eat a Christmas dinner one day early.  However in the case of Jesus’ meal, since the lambs were to be sacrificed the following afternoon, they must have been eating a vegetarian meal, which focused on the unleavened bread as the representation of Christ’s body to be commemorated by His followers, rather than the lamb.

Further arguments supporting a Good Thursday understanding can be found in the preceding week, as described in the four Gospels.  Immediately preceding this week, John deliberately tells the story of Lazarus’ resurrection as a foreshadowing of Jesus’, although it is the contrasts that are in focus: in the story of Jesus women found the stone already rolled away, graveclothes already unwrapped, and no decay because the dead man had risen just before the start of the fourth day.

John also notes that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover (12:1).  If one starts with Good Friday, Jesus must have arrived in Bethany the previous Saturday, but travelling on a Sabbath was forbidden beyond a very limited distance (Acts 1:12).  If one works with Jewish days consisting of an evening and a morning, Jesus could have arrived on the Friday instead (taking the ‘Passover’ as the Thursday night – Friday), but this would have meant riding a donkey into Jerusalem on the Sabbath, an equally prohibited activity.

On the other hand, starting with Good Thursday as the 14th of Nisan, Jesus would have arrived in Bethany the previous Thursday night, and entered Jerusalem on the Friday rather than the Sunday – both activities entirely lawful.  Not only that, but this explains Mark’s little noticed observations that (1) Jesus looked around the temple that afternoon but then returned to Bethany, and cleansed the temple on the following day; (2) Jesus would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple courts; and (3) Jesus quoted Isaiah 56, saying “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”.

If the cleansing of the temple was on a Monday, none of this makes sense.  However, if Jesus returned to Bethany on the Friday night, to be with Lazarus for the Sabbath meal, it was the lack of change in the temple courts on the next day, the Sabbath, that so infuriated Him.  He refused to allow people to carry merchandise, as the law stated, and also taught from Isaiah 56, a passage that requires of foreigners only that they observe the Sabbath in order to be welcomed within the courts of the temple.

The next day, after another night spent in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters, Jesus was confronted in the temple courts by every recognised religious ‘household’ in Israel, who tested Him to find fault with Him.  Passover regulations in Exodus 12 require that on the 10th of Nisan every household in Israel choose a lamb without blemish, and look after it until the 14th when it is slain.  On a Good Friday reckoning, the 10th of Nisan would be the day on which Jesus cleansed the temple, which shows no clear fulfilment.  On the other hand, with Good Thursday being the 14th, the 10th would be the Sunday on which Jesus was found by every ‘household’ in Israel to be a Lamb without fault.

Luke’s Gospel clearly records that following this ‘choice’ of Him by every religious household in Israel, Jesus no longer allowed Himself to be accommodated by His friends (although He did have a meal with Simon the leper on the Monday evening).  Rather, He spent every night from then on in the olive groves of Gethsemane, returning to the temple early in the morning to teach.  Since the households that had chosen Him failed to look after Him, He slept outside, as close to the temple as possible.  Having been there for the previous three nights, Judas knew exactly where to lead the chief priests’ officers on the Wednesday night (14th of Nisan), even though he had left the meal early (John 18:2).  At long last, the religious households were taking responsibility for their chosen Lamb.

Finally, we turn to consider the significance of the resurrection in light of Jewish regulations.  Leviticus 23 explains that the grain may be harvested immediately following the ‘sabbath’ which begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the harvest continues for seven weeks until the celebration for it on the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost.  Yet before any of this harvested grain may be eaten, the first sheaf must be presented in the temple as the ‘firstfruits’, hence the name of the Feast of Firstfruits.  Although on most years this feast would be celebrated on the 16th of Nisan, the day after the special Sabbath, on certain years when a normal Sabbath followed the special one the harvest could not be started until the 17th, the day after the Sabbath, pushing the feast a day later.

Therefore Jesus must have been aware that in order to completely fulfil the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, and the ‘sign of Jonah’, rising on the ‘third day’ (using an exclusive counting) according to Hosea 6, there was only a certain year when the special Sabbath of the 15th of Nisan would be followed by an additional normal Sabbath.  Jesus knew He had to die on that year and so He ‘set His face toward Jerusalem’, becoming the perfect sacrifice chosen by the Jewish people, unleavened by sin, slain at the same time as the Passover lambs, His blood staining the wooden upright and crosspiece so that the wrath of God would pass over His people, buried in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights like Jonah as a sign of coming judgement on the unrighteous, and raised for our healing and life as the ‘firstfruits’ of the resurrection in which we will all share at His return.

What an awesome plan of salvation!  What a glorious Saviour!  Christ is risen – He is risen indeed!

April 9, 2009

Good Thursday? part 5 – Choosing the Lamb, and the Feast of Firstfruits

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:13 pm
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In Part 4, we found that starting with Good Thursday (celebrated this very day), we can make sense of Jesus’ arrival in Bethany and triumphal entry into Jerusalem six days earlier on Palm Friday.  Not only that, but Mark’s observation that Jesus cleansed the temple a day later fits perfectly with the next day being a Sabbath.  This brings us to the remaining days of the passion week of Jesus.

So what about the 10th of Nisan?
To make sense of the argument that follows, we must familiarise ourselves with some of the other regulations surrounding the Feast of Passover in Exodus 12:3-6.

On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household.  Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbour nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb.  Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.

If we start with Good Friday, and accept Palm Sunday according to tradition, this means that the cleansing of the temple took place on the Monday, which would be the 10th of Nisan if the 14th was Friday.  In this case, there would be no apparent connection between the regulations for the 10th of Nisan in Exodus and the events of the 10th of Nisan during Jesus’ passion week.  However, if we start with Good Thursday and Palm Friday before that, the cleansing of the temple took place on the Saturday, the Sabbath, and the 10th of Nisan wasn’t until the Sunday of that week.  This unlocks the meaning of the Gospel accounts.

Confrontations with ‘every household’
Matthew’s Gospel clearly states that after cleansing the temple, Jesus “left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”  He returned to Jerusalem the following day past the withered fig tree, and in the temple was challenged by the chief priests and elders of the people, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the lawyers.  Mark’s Gospel similarly records after the cleansing of the temple that “When evening came, they would go out of the city.”  The next morning they passed the withered fig tree on their return to Jerusalem, after which Jesus was challenged by the chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes again.  Luke also clearly separates Jesus’ cleansing of the temple from the confrontations between Him and the chief priests, scribes, elders and others “on one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple”.  The evidence seems to suggest quite directly that Jesus’ confrontations with the various groups happened particularly on the Sunday, which would be the 10th of Nisan.

Although the Gospel writers themselves do not emphasise this point, when we compare the regulations concerning the choice of the Passover lamb in Exodus with the details of Jesus’ passion week, as revealed through an understanding of Good Thursday, we discover just how perfectly Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures.  On the very day that lambs were being selected by every household in Jerusalem, Jesus was in the same temple courts being selected by every religious ‘household’ of the Jewish nation.  Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians (too small a ‘household’ to select the Lamb on their own), chief priests and elders of the people – each in turn came to Jesus with their hardest questions, and to each group Jesus demonstrated Himself ‘without blemish’, a perfect sacrificial lamb.

Chosen, but no place to stay
One further observation that confirms this understanding can be recognised when we consider Jesus’ accommodation arrangement during that final week.  Matthew and Mark both record a meal Jesus had at the house of Simon the leper, after which the Passover would be coming two days later.  This implies that this meal happened on the Monday evening, the start of the 12th of Nisan, four days after the meal at Lazarus’ house where Jesus was similarly anointed with costly perfume according to John.  Simon the leper lived in Bethany like Lazarus and his sisters, but we don’t have evidence that at this point Jesus was actually staying with Simon.

On the contrary, Luke very specifically records at the end of the ‘Olivet Discourse’, which concluded the dialogues on the 10th of Nisan, the following (21:37-38):  “Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet.  And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him.”  Prior to the 10th of Nisan, Jesus had been staying in Bethany, passing the fig tree on two different mornings on His way into Jerusalem.  However after being ‘chosen’ by ‘every household’ of the nation, He was to be looked after by those who had chosen Him.  He could no longer be looked after by friends, but when none of those religious ‘households’ offered Him accommodation, He simply spent the night in the olive groves nearest the temple.  This is precisely the reason why Judas knew where to find Him on the 14th, even though Judas had left the others before the meal had ended (John 13:27-30) – Jesus had been sleeping there for the previous three nights (Luke 22:39; John 18:2).

Three feasts in three (or four?) days
The final aspect of our discussion of the Jewish background to Jesus’ death and resurrection involves that very resurrection on the first day of the week.  Regulations about the Passover are spoken of in Exodus 12, Leviticus 23, Numbers 28 and Deuteronomy 16, but only the Leviticus passage specifically mentions one further feast held at that time in addition to Passover and Unleavened Bread.  This is the Feast of Firstfruits.  Exodus mentions nothing of this feast, Numbers speaks of “the day of the firstfruits” in connection with the Feast of Weeks, Deuteronomy clarifies that the Feast of Weeks is calculated as exactly seven weeks “from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain” (16:9), but Leviticus explains further.

When the grain first begins to be harvested, no bread nor fresh or roasted grain is to be eaten from it until a sheaf of the ‘firstfruits’ is brought to the priest who will wave it before the LORD.  Clearly the harvest must have been started for the first sheaf to be able to be offered, and being work this must take place on “the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11, 15).  In Jewish tradition the ‘Omer’ is therefore counted from the special Sabbath that begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the 15th of Nisan.  Seven complete sabbaths are counted, or fifty days, until the Feast of Weeks is celebrated, also known as Pentecost.

We might then say that the Feast of Firstfruits must always be celebrated on the 16th of Nisan, the day after the special Sabbath starting the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th, which itself is the day after the Day of Preparation, or the Feast of Passover, on the 14th.  However this is not quite correct.  As the Feast of Firstfruits must signify the start of the grain harvest, it cannot be held on a Sabbath, so on those very rare years when a normal Sabbath follows the special Sabbath of the 15th, the Feast must be delayed an extra day to the 17th.  This must be what happened on the year that Jesus died.

Christ our firstfruits
Although the Gospel writers do not emphasise the fulfilment of the Feast of Firstfruits, it was a widely known concept in the Early Church.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions not only the Passover and Unleavened Bread in 5:6-8, but also the Feast of Firstfruits in 15:20-23.  Here Paul says, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who are asleep”, and again, “Christ the firstfruits”.  Paul recognised that in Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’ promise that we too will receive resurrection bodies just like His.  Equally, the grain that features in the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, is first prefigured in the Feast of Firstfruits, much as the Holy Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost the year Jesus rose again, was first prefigured on the Feast of Firstfruits, the first day of the week when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on His disciples (John 20:19-22).

However only on particular years would Jesus be able to die as a Passover lamb, unleavened with sin, and rise again after ‘three days and three nights’ like Jonah, as the Firstfruits of the resurrection from the dead.  Only on a year when a special and normal Sabbath were consecutive could Jesus spend the required length of time in the grave, delaying the Feast of Firstfruits for one extra day.  Jesus would have been able to calculate exactly which year He needed to die, quite a time beforehand.  No wonder that year He “set His face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), knowing that this was the year He was to die.

Women waiting through a double Sabbath
Thus the women were made to wait a whole two Sabbaths “according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56) before going out to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  None of the Gospel writers say “the Sabbaths” plural: John avoids mentioning the Sabbath in connection with Jesus’ resurrection, Luke says that “on the Sabbath [the women] rested”, Mark says that “When the Sabbath was over [the women] brought spices”, and Matthew says that “after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first of the week…”.  None of these are evidence against a double Sabbath that year, but at best they are simply silent about this fact.

However, in Matthew’s Gospel we do find some evidence toward a longer period than one day separating the day of Jesus’ death from that of His resurrection.  Matthew 27:62-66 records a fascinating scene in which the chief priests and Pharisees approached Pilate on the 15th of Nisan, the day after Jesus’ death, and recalled Jesus’ promise to rise again “after three days”.  They therefore requested that the grave be made secure “until the third day”.  If it had been the following day they had been assuming, they should rather have said, “until tomorrow”, but as it is, it appears they were speaking of a day two days hence, and must therefore have been talking to Pilate on the Friday rather than the Saturday.

In the concluding post we will summarise the various arguments and also suggest a resolution to the ancient Easter controversy.

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