Seventh Day of Unleavened Bread: A New Testament Reflection

In a post from last year titled Seventh Day of Unleavened Bread I tried to refine a timeline about the Exodus from Egypt of Israel in which I concluded that the Red Sea crossing had taken place overnight during the third night after Passover. The sea came back together, drowning the Egyptian army at about dawn the third day, signalling freedom from Egyptian oppression for Israel (Exodus 14:27-31). I also tried to find a correspondence with the events of the Passover week of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A three-day journey (with no water in sight) from the Red Sea brought the Israelites to a place called Marah because of its bitter waters. Moses is shown a piece of wood, which he throws into the water, healing its bitterness. Because of this incident I had a general notion that the remainder of the week represented Jesus’ leadership with the help of the Holy Spirit to lead us through the tough times in the Christian life.

Upon further reflection, it seems that God had something specific in mind about that locale as a worship venue even before they left Egypt. In fact, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to let them go on a three-day journey outside of Egypt to worship him (Exodus 3:18). This order was given while Moses was still talking to God at the burning bush!

A second thing I noticed is that not only does God heal the waters – he also enters into a covenant of healing with them (Exodus 15:25-26). This includes a test, a decree and a law. I don’t think I am pushing very hard when I call it a “covenant”. Call it what you will, but there is at least a commandment involved – marching orders of a kind. “Follow me, and I will keep you in good health!”

So I scrutinized the Gospel accounts of that fateful Passover week to see if there was any mention of a journey of roughly thee days for the disciples. Nothing came into view until I read Matthew 28:1-10. An angel tells Mary and the other women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them. Apparently they did not believe the women, so Jesus himself appears to them and tells them the same thing, “Go to Galilee.”

This Christianity Today article provides useful information about how far people travelled per day. Depending on where in Galilee you go (Nazareth seems to be a logical end-point, but it could easily have been along the Sea of Galilee, where the fishermen originally worked), a distance of between 60 and 95 miles could have been involved. Matthew 28:16-20 indicates that a mountain in Galilee is where he tells gives them what has come to be called the Great Commission – to preach the gospel to the world.

Now why would Jesus tell his disciples to get out of the region immediately after his resurrection? Actually, verses 11-15 give us the answer. The authorities were already accusing the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body. It was not safe to remain in the environs of Jerusalem under the threat of arrest and probable death.

The Apostle John, in what seems to be an epilogue at the end of his Gospel, tells us the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias (as the Romans called the Sea of Galilee) in John 21. In this story he tells of the miraculous catch of fish that enables the disciples to identify him as the risen Jesus. The southern end of the Sea of Galilee is about 70 miles from Jerusalem, and may well have been within a three-day walk for experienced itinerant preachers.

He also tells of Jesus’ rehabilitation of Peter as the leading apostle. He asks Peter three times if he loves Jesus, and Peter responds in the affirmative each time. Notice that this is the same number of times that Peter had denied Jesus at his trial. The triple affirmation is intended to reverse the triple denial. Not only is there a triple affirmation, but Jesus also issues a tripled command: “Feed my sheep!”

I have already noted that Jesus seems to have issued his Great Commission while the disciples were in Galilee. So we have Jesus who tests his disciples, who heals the breach between himself and their abandonment of himself at the cross, and who gives them a command to both follow him and preach his gospel – all after a three-day journey. Whether or not these events recorded in Matthew and John took place literally on the seventh day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover,) this strikes me as a reasonable idea of what the Seventh Day of Unleavened Bread represents as fulfilled in the New Testament.

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Passover Symbolism

John Valade:

This is an excellent summary of the Old Testament and New Testament Passovers by Mervyn Steadman on his blog “Mymoss.”

Originally posted on Mymoss's Weblog:

Post # 102

Symbolism in Passover and Easter Observances

The Passover was first instituted several thousand years ago in Egypt, when God fulfilled His promise to free the descendants of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) from Egyptian captivity.

Genesis 15:12-16 says, “When the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. Now terror and great darkness fell on him. He said to Abram, ‘Know for sure that your offspring will live as foreigners in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them. They will afflict them four hundred years. I will also judge that nation, whom they will serve. Afterward they will come out with great wealth, but you will go to your fathers in peace. You will be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation they will come here again, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.’ ” (WEB)

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“The Lord Will Provide”

All of my life I have heard people of faith in difficult circumstances utter words to the effect of “the Lord will provide.” Most times the things or people that they need arrive in time to help, and usually from the most unexpected quarters.

I was surprised to discover the strange context of the first time that phrase is used in the Bible (at least that I am aware of). It is used in the context of Abraham being told to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice by the very same God who had made it possible for Abraham and his wife to conceive him long past a normal childbearing age.

The story is found in Genesis 22:1-19. God tells Abraham, “sacrifice your only son, whom you love.” on Mount Moriah. This was a three day journey from their camp. Abraham, his son and two servants depart the next morning. It must have been a long three days for Abraham.

The strangest part of God’s order to sacrifice the boy was that God had promised that this particular lad would be the one that Abraham’s descendants would be named after. He would be the one through whose lineage God promised would bring blessing to all families (or tribes or nations) of the earth. How was God going to accomplish that by killing him?

As they approach the site, Abraham tells the servants to stay back and guard the supplies while he and the boy go up the mountain to sacrifice. He tells them that the two will return when they are done. This is a very odd thing to say when Abraham knows that his son will die on the mountain. Perhaps this is the clue that inspires the writer of the book of Hebrews to say, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:17-19).

When Isaac looks around on the way up he begins to wonder where the lamb for the offering will come from, since they seem to have neglected to bring one with them. Abraham assures him that God will provide the sacrificial lamb. The reader knows, of course, that nothing good will come of this sacrifice unless something miraculous happens.

I notice that the lad’s assumption is that it will be a lamb. Was there some sort of family tradition of lamb sacrifices prior to this incident? Lamb would certainly become a very important part of a later sacrificial ritual Israel, the Passover meal and accompanying deliverance from Egypt. Jesus Christ would die centuries later as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Just as Abraham is about to bring the knife down on the boy’s neck a loud voice from heaven tells him to stop! Abraham had proven that he would obey even this most difficult test: being willing to give up his own beloved son. God provides instead a ram caught by the horns in a nearby thicket. A ram’s blood and body substitutes for his son’s blood and body.

As a result of this turnabout Abraham names the place of this sacrifice “The Lord Will Provide.” So the reputation of what eventually became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is based on Abraham’s prophetic utterance that somehow God will provide.

What God had provided was, of course, a substitute for the death of a human being. That is a very different thing from what we now expect God to provide for us from day to day (not that this is wrong).

Another thing to note is the phrasing of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac’s “only son,” “whom you love.” Isaac was actually Abraham’s second son. The previous one, Ishmael, had been born of Abraham to his wife’s handmaid because of Sarah’s infertility. They had had to banish Ishmael and his mother because of the family discord they were causing (much to Abraham’s sadness).

Isaac, however, was Sarah’s natural child by a supernatural intervention at age 90. He was the one God had promised to carry on Abraham’s legacy as father of a blessed nation as noted above. For purposes of the promise, Isaac was Abraham’s “only son” whom Abraham certainly loved.

Centuries later, as a small, insignificant remnant of Israel known as Judea was struggling under the yoke of the mighty Roman Empire, a Jewish prophet named John symbolically immerses (baptizes) a cousin named Jesus in the Jordan river. Something amazing happens, as recorded in Matthew 3:13-17.

As Jesus rises out of the water, the Spirit of God descends on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” A very similar expression from God in heaven appears later in Jesus’ ministry when he is transfigured (made glorious) in front of three of his disciples in Matt. 17:1-5

The expression echoes part of God’s description of Abraham’s son. Another part of the description of Isaac as sacrifice can be found in the famous passage of John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

A Judean reader of the books of Matthew and John would likely have been familiar with the story of Abraham and the commanded sacrifice of Isaac. Those expressions about Jesus as God’s only Son and as the Son God loves should have brought that particular story to mind, especially in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God had provided a substitute for the eternal death of all human beings.

Whereas Isaac figuratively came back from the grave, Jesus certainly literally did so. Whereas Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac resulted in blessing, Jesus’ sacrifice results in eternal life for all who are willing to believe and acknowledge Jesus’ lordship in their lives.

There is nothing new in understanding the story of Abraham and Isaac at the mountain of The Lord Will Provide as a prophetic sign and type of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.

But it doesn’t hurt to remember it again.

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Galileo’s Mistake

The title and basic ideas behind this post derive from Wade Rowland’s book Gailileo’s Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth (Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2001).

Wade Rowland makes a very persuasive case against the popular lesson drawn from the story of Galileo Galilee’s confrontation with the Roman Catholic church. The accepted version has the great astronomer trying to get a vital scientific truth past a bunch of hidebound religious fanatics who believed that the earth is the center of the universe.

The lesson impressed upon us is that science trumps religion as the ultimate source of truth.

What the legend fails to delve into is the philosophical basis of Pope Urban’s objections to Galileo’s publication of his theory of the sun-centered universe. The Pope suspected that the sun was the center of the solar system as Galileo thought, but he was not about to overturn centuries of tradition without empirical proof.

Unfortunately, such proof was not available to Galileo, who had only a theory on hand. A brief excerpt from the Catholic Answers website explains why the majority of Galileo’s fellow scientists did not believe.

Many people wrongly believe Galileo proved heliocentricity. He could not answer the strongest argument against it, which had been made nearly two thousand years earlier by Aristotle: If heliocentrism were true, then there would be observable parallax shifts in the stars’ positions as the earth moved in its orbit around the sun. However, given the technology of Galileo’s time, no such shifts in their positions could be observed. It would require more sensitive measuring equipment than was available in Galileo’s day to document the existence of these shifts, given the stars’ great distance. Until then, the available evidence suggested that the stars were fixed in their positions relative to the earth, and, thus, that the earth and the stars were not moving in space—only the sun, moon, and planets were. []

Aristotle was truly a genius. The irony is that it is precisely his methodology of parallax measurement from the opposite sides of earth’s orbit that eventually was used to determine the distance to the nearest stars. Of course that could only happen once the instrumentation was precise enough to do the angular measurements properly. So let’s not throw Aristotle out with the bathwater.

The legend also fails to note that the Pope actually liked the scientist and did his best to mitigate the sentence the Inquisition imposed on him. They had previously had several conversations about his observations. These included several discussions about the philosophy of knowledge and faith.

Several times the Pope urged him to stress the theoretical nature of his astronomical speculations – a plea that fell on deaf ears. Galileo was a vain and arrogant man who was out to prove himself better than all other scientists. His treatment of the work of other scientists in his later published papers – even that of some who respected him – did not endear him to the church hierarchy or its scientists. His vanity would lead to a confrontation that he could not win on theological or scientific grounds at the time. (This is not to say that the church made no mistakes on its own part with how it handled Galileo.)

The Pope and his science advisors had no objection to a theory that used a sun-centered approach as a mathematical model for convenience of calculation. In fact, Johannes Kepler had published a work 10 years prior to Galileo that did a far better job of presenting a heliocentric view, both logically and mathematically than did Galileo. Kepler was received better by the Roman Catholic Jesuits than by his own fellow Protestants.

The problem arose with Galileo’s insistence that the model is the same as the reality. In other words, that there is only one possible explanation for any physical phenomenon. The corollary to that is that when the math works, you can be confident that you have the sufficient cause.

The history of science actually demonstrates that latter point to be untrue. Being able to describe something mathematically does not mean that you now know exactly how it works.

For example, Newtonian mechanics seemed to adequately explain planetary motion until anomalies were discovered in Mercury’s orbit around the sun. The planet was observed by telescopes to “precess” at the two focal points of its orbit. It was left to Albert Einstein to postulate the curvature of space-time around large masses to account for this shift of orbit around the sun.  Newton was right about the motion of the planets – until observations that contradicted the equations were made. Einstein’s theory predicted that precession much more closely than Newton’s and therefore supplanted that theory. However, for almost all earth-bound phenomena, Newton’s equations perform quite well in predicting motion under almost all circumstances. For all of those phenomena, Newton and Einstein are equally correct.

Einstein was not always correct, either. As he was contemplating the law of gravity it occurred to him to wonder why the universe wasn’t shrinking. Astronomers of the day were convinced that the universe was static, or in a “steady state.” Starting with that assumption, he postulated an “anti-gravitational” force that worked on objects at far distances from each other and calculated a correction factor for that force that came to be dubbed the “cosmological constant.”

He was wrong. Discovery of the “red shift” in the spectrum of the farthest stars and galaxies from us by Edwin Hubble came to be seen as an indicator that those galaxies are moving away from each other with a speed that increases with distance. (Like the sound of a train as it passes you and the sound changes in pitch, so light appears to change in frequency as its source speeds away.)

This phenomenon suggested that the universe was actually expanding, necessitating a “big bang” as a possible explanation. In one version the universe started as a point of infinitely dense proto-matter that somehow “ignited” and blew up into the universe we now know. Prior to that explosion there was neither space, nor time, nor matter as we know it. We do not have the scientific or mathematical tools to study the pre-explosion universe, so we will never know how it “exploded” our present universe into being.  That is, assuming that theory is correct.

A recent discovery in astronomy indicates that the universe is expanding increasingly fast, suggesting that Einstein’s “cosmological constant” needed to be on the other side of the equation. They are blaming “dark matter” for the increasing rate of expansion of the universe, whatever that is.

Once again, theories are proposed to explain observed discrepancies in prior theories. Theories come and go as the technology for measurement improves and flaws in earlier theories become visible. That is why we cannot say definitively that science has “arrived” at a complete understanding of the universe around us. When does it end? When will there be a real scientific theory that actually explains the universe?

That, in a nutshell, is what Pope Urban VIII was trying to tell Galileo. There is no final scientific theory that can explain what only God the Creator can explain. Everything else is essentially an educated guess. We can’t see mesons, leptons, or hadrons, or even electrons for that matter. We don’t know why light sometimes acts like waves and sometimes acts like particles. We certainly don’t know how the universe came into being. Many of these things are beyond the ability of our instruments to measure. In fact, in many cases, we need a long apprenticeship to even understand how to properly use modern measurement devices, like supercollider field detectors, that require sophisticated computer programming to collate and study the results of particle collisions. We can’t actually see the collisions, so we trust our devices to store the information and analyze them according to theories about how the particles should break down.

Even scientists, however, don’t start their scientific careers with a blank slate. They grow up in families that teach them about life, like the rest of us. They go to school, like the rest of us. They choose a post-secondary education in science (ok, that’s different from the rest of us). From there, they are trained by scientists or science professors.

Not unlike a priesthood, scientists are inculcated in a set of principles and methodologies (akin to doctrines) that eventually are no longer questioned as they seek to understand the universe around them. Sometimes that leads to holding on to theories that no longer account for all of the latest discoveries. They can trace their knowledge back to elaborations on previous discoveries by ingenious individuals and teams.

Not unreasonably, they have a great deal of faith in both their methods and their conclusions.

So let’s talk about faith and methodology.

Many people have the idea that faith is something like the blind acceptance of an idea or ideal or a religion that happens in the absence of evidence or proof.

In reality, faith is, in a very real sense, the departure point for knowledge, which is what theologian Augustine of Hippo meant when he said, “Seek not to understand so they you may believe; but believe in order that you may understand” (Rowland, p. 181).

The point is this: You always have to start somewhere. There is no detached perspective from which to base all subsequent knowledge. There is always some assumption or some assumptions that you start your search for knowledge with, such as Descarte’s “I think, therefore I am.”

Even scientists start with a body of knowledge that they are taught and examined about before they can get on with their own experiments. They must first be initiated in order to be able to work within the scientific consensus. They follow the scientific method, carefully documenting their results. Others replicate their experiments or check the accuracy of what the new idea predicts with experiments of their own. Then their work must be accepted by a group of peers in order to be considered legitimate by the broader scientific community. These are sensible precautions to follow in the pursuit of knowledge, so let’s examine them in a broader context than the merely scientific.

When we get down to the basics there are three parts to knowledge: individual subjective experience (observation and experimentation), knowledge reached by consensus, and knowledge accepted from authority. Both scientific and religious knowledge are based on all three forms. Rowland describes it this way within a contrived dialogue with a character he calls Sister Celeste. She first points out,

Let us say you happen upon a person on her knees in a church. She appears to be speaking to someone, perhaps only silently. You ask her, “what are you doing?” and she says, “I am talking to God.” You ask, “But how do you know He is listening? And she replies, Because I have had experiences in the past in which my prayers have been answered in various, often surprising and unexpected ways. Moreover, the Holy Scriptures tell me He is listening, and so does the Church and all its greatest thinkers over the past two thousand years.”

Now, if you are a scientist, and if you take no time to reflect, you may say to yourself that this is no proof at all. But I think I have demonstrated that it is indeed proof of a nature very similar to, if not identical with, the proof that undergirds all science. That is to say, empirical, experiential evidence, and the accumulated wisdom of authority.

Sister Celeste also notes a philosophical flaw in the scientific method.[p.197-198] In brief, scientists work in one of two ways. Either the scientist observes something happening in nature and comes up with a theory to explain it or he has an idea first and then tests it with a experiments that can either prove or disprove it. “If the hypothesis stands up to experimental testing, it is accepted as fact. If the experiments don’t confirm it, it is either modified and tested again or discarded.”

Sister Celeste points out that modern science operates on scales so large or small that direct observation is no longer possible. We leave it to readouts on various electronic devices that must be interpreted in light of current theories. In other words, we are not directly testing reality. We are testing our theories.

How we test our theories is by comparing them to our experimental results.

We test our experimental results by comparing them to our theory.

It is what Rowland calls a “recursive loop.” There is no real separation between theory and experiment. All of this happens without direct observation of the phenomenon. It is one (or more) step(s) removed from the actual reality it is trying to understand. This separation is nowhere accounted for in scientific theory.

The problem is that there may be more than one possible explanation of the experimental result, rendering his theory just that – a theory. A theory that is useful in predicting certain events or results, but a theory nonetheless.

Not. Necessarily. A. Fact.

In fact, many useful things about the world around us can be found out in ways outside the scientific method. Rowland points out,

[Johannes] Kepler pursued his investigations of the solar system from a position that today’s science considers completely off the wall – Pythagorean mysticism, astrology, numerology, Christianity. And yet he came up with the right answers when Galileo, the father of modern science, could not…

…that’s the reason why Galileo is a hero and nobody’s ever heard of Kepler. Kepler is a scientific heretic. His views are heterodox. So he’s been suppressed, marginalized. If he were alive today he’d be drummed out of the profession, cut off from grants, denied a teaching position, out of a job…”

Yet Kepler’s careful observation led to the intuitive grasp that planetary orbits are described better by ellipses than by circles. He turned out to be closer to the truth than Galileo. Galileo fought for circular motion because circular motion seemed to him more aesthetically ideal than non-circular motion.

We now are now pretty sure, after advances in science, that Galileo was wrong about the earth being the center of the universe. What else will science be proven wrong about in the future? Probably a lot.

Current theories about the origins of life and the origins of the universe are unlikely to be proven by pure science – until science can begin to create universes (at least twice, for the sake of replication). Or until science can find a way to produce (without gaming the experiment) life by pure, random chance (again, twice).

I won’t hold my breath.

The wise Christian understands that knowledge is not limited to what science can understand, with its limiting set of assumptions.

Not all knowledge is definable by mathematics or measurement of the physical realm around us.

All knowledge begins somewhere. Why not start with: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Psalm 111:10 NRSV and all following)

Or its corollary: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Proverbs 1:7)

The writer of the book of Hebrews notes that Christian faith is not based on wishful thinking, but rather on promises made by a God who has interacted with many people throughout history. This God has made promises that have proven to be trustworthy. There are other promises made by God that are the basis for a future-looking faith, such as an eternal inheritance in a world without suffering and oppression. (Heb. 11: 1-40)

God promised to send a Redeemer/Saviour descended from Abraham and David and to thereby bless all peoples. He did so by sending Jesus the Messiah (Christ) to die on our behalf and to live again as Lord and King of the earth. There were many witnesses, and documentary evidence has been handed down to us in the form that we now call the Bible.

Believing in Jesus Christ is faith that is anything but blind.

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The Gospel of Paul to the Athenians at Mars Hill

While on a journey through Greek portions of the Roman Empire the Apostle Paul was given an opportunity to present the gospel to an entirely Gentile audience. I would like to examine the context and content of his message to see if we can learn anything about how and whether to present the gospel in a “culturally relevant” way. We might also learn what to expect in terms of results from such a presentation.

The story begins with Paul forced to leave the Greek city of Berea due to persecution. He has left two disciples behind to establish the church and is in Athens, waiting for them.

Acts17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.

17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

As usual, Paul begins at the synagogue. Like any good Jew, he is distressed at the idolatry that surrounds them in Athens, the centre of Greek culture and learning. It seems odd to me that he must raise that concern in the synagogue, since Jews and their proselytes shouldn’t be involved in idolatry to begin with. He also goes out into the marketplace and reasons with anyone who will listen. Is this the prototype of what we now call street evangelism?

The statement about “advocating foreign gods” is the reason Paul is brought to the Areopagus (or Mars Hill), the place that their city council met. This council was comprised of the wisest of the wise in the Roman Empire. Besides being in charge of city affairs, they also judged the most difficult cases in the Empire. Their wisdom and fairness in judgment was known throughout Roman lands.

It was their responsibility to examine new religions and officially either recognize them or ban them from the city, depending on the degree of potential damage they could cause to citizens or to the Empire. This was not just an informal chat with the local intelligentsia. It was an official investigation by the Empire’s top court. The outcome could be devastating to Christian outreach in the Roman world.

19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) 22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Some older translations render “very religious” as “superstitious.” Given the situation, “very religious” is probably a better rendering. He is before a religious and state tribunal that could decide the fate of his entire Gentile mission, and therefore needs to be very diplomatic in his approach to their religions. This is the same council that in 339 B.C. decreed Socrates to be an atheist [“against the gods”] heretic and sentenced him to death. He must first establish that, unlike Socrates, he is not saying that there are no real gods.

Next, he must establish that this is not a “new” religion, but rather that it is an outflow of the ancient religion of Israel. He does this in two ways. First he refers to an already existing altar dedicated to “an unknown god.” This is the “hook” that gets their attention. He claims that he will explain this “unknown god” to them. He does this by referring to a single God who created everything. Educated Greeks may have eventually recognized this deity’s characteristics as essentially those of the Jewish God, especially after the next section of Paul’s address. Judaism was an accepted religion in the Roman Empire at the time, so there would have been no reason to reject this Christian brand of Jewish religion.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.

This is a strike against the idolatry of the Gentile world, introduced ironically by what was likely a pagan altar’s dedication. The description of this deity denies both pantheism (the world is God) and panentheism (God is present in the world and not separate from it) because this God existed before anything else in the world existed. Therefore the world is not God, and God stands outside all of the creation as Creator. He is therefore distinct from the created order.

Other Greek philosophers describe God either as being the plane of spiritual or spirit reality or as inhabiting that higher plane, and therefore not the creator of the physical world (which is only a shadow of the “real” or “form” or “ideal”). Their god is therefore not interested in the material world, and humans need to transcend the physical to “meet” him. Their god is a remote one who is hard to reach. Paul has something to say to them as well.

26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill.

While God stands outside the physical world as its creator, Paul does not see him as remote or uninterested. These would have revealed a very recognizable Jewish world-view to the Athenian philosophers – especially the aversion to images of God. So far he is saying nothing new to the council.

By this time Jewish and Greek philosophies had been in conversation with each other for at least 300 years, since Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire brought the two into contact. Some Jewish philosophers, such as Philo of Alexandria, had even attempted to express Jewish theology in terms of Greek philosophical concepts. [This is not as unusual as you might think. Christian theologians through the centuries, such as Origen and Thomas Aquinas, sought to do similar things with Platonic or Aristotelian thought.]

The next part is what causes the stir.

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council.

They may have been familiar with the Jewish notion of a redeeming Messiah who would gather the Jewish remnant from their dispersion throughout the world. For that Messiah to be a man who came from the dead was just a bit too much to take.

Remember that Paul is speaking to a group of judges. He is telling the most respected judges in the world that they will be judged for their idolatry by a man who is back from the dead. Not surprisingly, most of them don’t buy that story. It is such a ridiculous notion that they literally laugh him out of court. The result:

34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. 8:1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.

There is not much to show for his work in Athens. Paul never goes back to the court. Only a very few become believers, though one of them is a high-ranking judge from that council. It seems that Paul does not even wait for his disciples to join him from Berea before leaving Athens to go to Corinth. This is unusual, since it normally takes riots and plots against his life from the Jewish community to make Paul leave. The gospel generates neither popularity, polarization nor persecution in Athens. Athens just seems to be ground that is too hard for the seed of the gospel to penetrate, so Paul goes on to the next centre.

If this is indeed the first foray of the church into a “culturally relevant” gospel presentation, it does not get the kind of results you might expect. The centers of learning and philosophy will tend to reject anything outside of their experience – especially the notion of a man rising from the dead to rule and judge the world.

Paul later notes, in a letter to the church in Corinth, that the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:23) I would not be surprised if he is referring to the experience in Athens for the latter part of that statement.

Perhaps we Christians can learn a few lessons from this story. Here are some possibilities:

1)            Some cultures are harder to reach than others. Jesus did tell his disciples that some ground would be hard while other ground would be receptive in his parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20).

2)            Maybe we don’t have to try so hard to evangelize using cold-call or street-evangelism techniques.

3)            Paul had been so distressed due to the idolatry of the city that he felt the need to begin haranguing synagogue attendees and even people in the marketplace. Perhaps we need a better motivation for evangelism than being upset at particular sins.

4)            The message of the cross of Christ is counter-intuitive and even, dare we say, counter-cultural. There is no way to present the death and resurrection of a Saviour who is both man and God in a culturally relevant way without negating its power. Let’s not be surprised if we sometimes don’t get a hearing.

5)            Perhaps it is important to know when to quit. Riots and threats mean that at least someone is listening. When there is no response, move on to more fertile fields.

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The Gospel of Stephen

It seems that whenever anything becomes popular these days it doesn’t take long for imitators to show up. Sometimes it comes in the form of a tribute, like the popular Elvis Presley imitators. They even advertise themselves as “Elvis impersonators.” Our local favourite, Rory Allen, is very good at it, and fans appreciate the care he takes in his presentation. We all know he isn’t really Elvis, but it is good fun pretending for a little while.

While imitation may often be the sincerest form of flattery, it may also be used to commit fraud. There is a lot of identity theft going on in the world.  There are also many cheap knock-offs of popular brand-name products available for those who want the cachet without paying the price. Each of these is an attempt to profit from the reputation of another person or company, or even to directly steal from another person.

It turns out that Jesus has been popular enough to generate any number of imitators. Most are careful to claim not to actually be Jesus, but rather to be disciples or followers. Some have even written manuscripts that claim to be “gospels.” A popular one among modern scholars is called the Gospel of Thomas. It claims that Jesus said many things that line up with an old religion called Gnosticism. The writer is clearly attempting to apply wide the appeal of Jesus Christ to an entirely different religion to increase its popularity. Jesus becomes a purveyor of hidden wisdom about how to liberate the soul from the evil flesh we are conditioned to accept as our real life.

The gospels accepted by the Christian church as a whole, however paint an entirely different picture. Luke, the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, also wrote the book of Acts. He had been trying to put together a coherent account of the Jewish beginnings of the church as well as its initial spread into the Gentile world of the Roman Empire. In the interests of showing the continuity of the message of Jesus Christ he peppers the book with accounts of messages delivered to various people about the story of Jesus and why they tell it. I would like to turn now to one of these messages that I like to call the gospel of Stephen.

Luke first introduces Stephen as one of the seven “deacons” who help solve the problem of bias in food distribution to needy believers in earlier in Acts. 6. They are described as “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

He must explain his faith in Jesus to answer false charges of blasphemy that result in his appearance before a Jewish religious court, as described in verses 8-15 [NRSV throughout].

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

Those familiar with the story of Moses and Israel’s prophets will recognize certain features of the description of Stephen. Moses and many of the prophets had done great “signs and wonders.” The description of a “face of an angel” would have reminded them of how Moses’ face literally glowed after God had given him the tablets with the covenant that was inscribed by God (see Ex. 34:29-30). These should have been clues that something God-ordained was going on with this man. He had “prophet” written all over him.

1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. 5 And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. 6 But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 7 ‘And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’ 8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs. 9 “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. 11 Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. 16 And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. 17 “But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18 till another king arose who did not know Joseph. 19 This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. 20 At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. 21 But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. 23 Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. 25 For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ 27 But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons. 30 And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. 31 When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, 32 saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. 33 ‘Then the Lord said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.” ‘ 35 This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

Notice the terms of respect with which he begins his response. He begins with a short recap of Israel’s history, with particularly reverent emphasis on the very Moses they accuse him of denigrating.

Within that story he also weaves a subplot that will turn the tables on his inquisitors. He reminds them that Joseph, the one who saved his father and brothers from starvation, was the one rejected and sold into slavery by those same brothers. He also reminds them that Moses was rejected by the very people God sent him to save – and not just once! This theme continues throughout the rest of the address. God sends prophets, and the people of Israel reject them and reject God’s instruction through them.

37 “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.'”

The last four words are not so much a prophecy as a command. “Listen to him!” Stephen is setting them up for the identity of this “prophet like Moses.”

38 This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, 39 whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, And the star of your god Remphan, Images which you made to worship; And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’

Stephen is reminding them that even the religious establishment God himself provided, the Aaronic priesthood, fell away from following Moses within days of the establishment of the covenant. This leads hearer to the rhetorical question of why it should be surprising if later Israelite religious leaders strayed from following Moses’ instructions.

44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, 45 which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, 46 who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built Him a house.

Now he begins to answer the charge of speaking against God’s Temple. Yes, David wanted to build a house for God, but God had David’s son Solomon actually build it. Strangely enough, building the Temple did not prevent Solomon from leaving God to worship idols. Nor did having a Temple prevent the majority of Israel’s kings from worshipping other gods.

In fact, practically before the embers of the inauguration sacrifices of Solomon’s Temple died out, God was warning Solomon in a vision that even a holy place dedicated to him was no guarantee that Israel would not be driven out of the land if they continually disobeyed the covenant conditions (1 Kings 9:6-9). Unlike Stephen’s accusers, the prophet Isaiah was aware of the words God spoke to Solomon. Stephen notes this with a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2.

48 However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: 49 ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, Or what is the place of My rest? 50 Has My hand not made all these things?’

Since the entire passage was regularly read in the synagogue, they would have been familiar with the next several verses, which talk about how hypocritical the nation has always been in its worship. They go through the motions of animal sacrifices and miss the point of worship: faithful obedience in humility and repentance (2-3). The following verses discuss how God will deal with the unfaithfulness of his people in a calamitous judgment that destroys the city and the temple (v. 4-6). Without knowing the context of this quote from Isaiah, we miss the impact his next statement would have on his audience.

51 “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”

He accuses Israel as a whole of constantly rejecting God’s divine guidance through His prophets, to the point of killing those prophets to shut them up. This is a pattern that they are continuing by killing the “prophet like Moses” that Moses and all the prophets had told them to follow and obey. This really upsets them, but they are not quite ready to act against him yet.

Notice that he has said nothing disrespectful about Moses or the Law. Rather he has accused them of heaping contempt on both Moses and the Law by killing Jesus.

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

It is when Stephen declares that Jesus is not only alive – resurrected – but “standing at the right hand of God” that they have finally had enough. The man they had rejected and killed is now in charge of the entire world! That pushed them over the edge. The same mentality that killed the prophets was still at work in Stephen’s generation.

To recap, Stephen tells his audience that Jesus is the long-expected “prophet like Moses” who came to deliver Israel from slavery to foreign powers, sin and death. He was rejected, just like Moses. He died before entering the “promised land,” just like Moses.

Unlike Moses, he came back to life. He has entered the very plane of God’s existence, “at the right hand of God.” Because of this he is Lord.

Since sin is what leads to slavery to foreign powers and death it seems logical that sin must be dealt with first, in order to create the conditions for freedom and life to persist. His life as God-in-the-flesh, his ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension have completely dealt with the penalty of sin – for those who accept Jesus as Lord.

It isn’t that Jesus is only Lord of those who accept Him. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

It is forgiveness of sin that comes with repentance and acceptance of His Lordship. Without that forgiveness there is no eternal life nor eternal inheritance in peace and safety. There is only exile and death.

Jesus is Lord!

It’s not just a slogan. It is a reality.

Whenever that reality is taken seriously by the powerful of this world there is a predictable reaction. Attempt to silence the messengers, whether by ridicule, by threat or by force.

As we look around us, we see an increase in all three types of reaction against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could it be that the powerful are taking the gospel more seriously than we might think?

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Back to Basics

In several recent posts I have already tried my hand at expressing my unease with certain tendencies I have seen recently in my seminary and Bible college education. The papers I posted on this blog from my History of Modern Evangelicalism and Theology of Christian Worship classes at the time were reactions against some of what had been taught.

Other voices with much more experience and wisdom have been analyzing Evangelical Christianity’s current state with much greater perceptiveness and persuasiveness than I have.

Roger Oakland’s Faith Undone: The emerging church.. a new reformation or an end-time deception attempts to follow the rise and teaching of several influential leaders of what is being called the “Emerging Church” or the “Emergent Church.” He documents the beginnings of the movement through the Leadership Network established by Bob Buford, a successful businessman who worked with Peter Drucker, an even more successful business leader and mentor with very definite mystical leanings.

This list of people who formed the nucleus of this network reads like a who’s who of the Emergent Church: Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren (who would become its team leader), Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, and Andrew Jones (p. 23).

From the mystical experience and teaching of Buford and Drucker comes the New Evangelicals’ (another term for leaders of the Emergent Church) desire to bring “mystery” and “immanence” into the worship of the church. Although they do it in different ways, most try to incorporate imagery and sensory experience to increase the perceived “authenticity” of worship.

Oakland goes on from there to describe how this emphasis on “feeling” God’s “presence” over thinking and doctrine seems to be part of a greater ecumenical movement to bring churches together through a common mystical bond instead of a common doctrine or mode of worship. Going further, he notes (as I did in my “Evangelical Mysticism” post) that the mystical experience is one that is also common in non-Christian mysticism, such as Hindu and Buddhist religious experience.

For this reason, the “New Reformation” that the Emergent Church wishes to spearhead will not be a reformation at all, but rather a paganization of the church. This will leave the few remaining biblical literalist “apocalyptic millennialists” will be considered a danger to society for spreading their unaccommodating beliefs and will need to be converted or eliminated.

He is suggesting, of course, that this is one way that certain biblical prophecies about what many call “antichrist” or “the beast” may actually come to pass. The scenario as he presents it is certainly plausible. For example, it did not seem to take much to turn both Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany into tools of the Nazi regime. In any time in history only a few have ever been able to stand against the might of the state and its religions without capitulating.

Whether or not Roger Oakland’s ecumenical scenario comes to pass, he has certainly done me a great favor. He has explained how the teachings of the “Christian” mystics have come to feature so prominently in my college and seminary classes about spirituality and worship. He even names one of my own seminary professors as a prominent proponent of this new brand of Evangelicalism – and he certainly was.

As a non-denominational fellowship we do not follow any rules for worship that are imposed from outside. We do, however, have a tradition we inherited from the denomination that we came from. I also have my entire Bachelor’s and Master’s degree training at two distinct evangelical institutions to reflect on for theology and practice. We may wish to be somewhat different from other Christian groups, but we don’t want to become de-Christianized in the process. That is why I wrote my paper about restoring worship on biblical festival dates as a reminder that Jesus was both Jewish and the God who gave them the “Old Covenant” through Moses. Teaching the full force of the entire Bible strikes me as the best way to avoid de-Christianizing the church.

A book that offers a wider scope concerning problems within the evangelical Christian community is Michael Horton’s “Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. The overall tenor of the book is that the church in North America (and particularly the U.S.A.) has adopted what Horton calls a “moralistic, therapeutic deism” as its basic gospel.

To varying degrees, the American evangelical church presents God as an empowerer rather than a deliverer. He is the God who helps us overcome us rather than the God who frees our minds and hearts so that we may live in grateful devotion.

We are offered spiritual techniques for overcoming fear or guilt or selfishness, and then we are called upon by our pastors to ever-greater effort to make gains for Jesus’ kingdom. When we inevitably burn out, we are told we need to go back to those techniques to rebuild our faith so that we can get back to work building the kingdom.

Or we are told that we can only be “free” from evil spiritual influences if we purify our minds and our homes with these “steps to…” It turns out that Satan and his minions are out to get you from behind every corner, so you constantly have to be on guard.

Or we are told that God wants us to be health and wealthy, so all we have to do is follow the simple laws of success that “our ministry has found in the Bible.” Yet some people religiously follow them and the health or material success does not… materialize. The response: they must not have enough faith. (This is one that I have personally both seen and lived.)

And so people leave the church, dispirited and exhausted.

Michael Horton seems to have hit the nail on the head. I have seen it and experienced much of it firsthand at churches across Canada. It is not that they have become heretical and deny that Jesus is God (as some few New Evangelicals have done according to Oakland). It is just that sound doctrine becomes less and less important in terms of teaching time and effort in the interest of providing “life application” in a sermon. Thus we have come very close to a type of works-righteousness that would have Martin Luther spinning in his grave.

There is much more to Horton’s book than I can summarize in a post. It is definitely worth reading.

The two writers above come to conclusions about causes that are different, yet not incompatible. For me, Horton’s history of evangelicalism shows how the stage has been set for the narrower Emergent phenomenon that is the tip of the iceberg of the difficulties in North American evangelical Christianity, while also getting to part of the cause of the current ineffectiveness of much of North America’s evangelical church. (Not all are ineffective, by any means.)

Interestingly enough, both Oakland and Horton conclude that the way back from the brink (whether from the “new evangelicalism” or the “moralistic, therapeutic deism”) is to recover the basic biblical doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

In other words, the church needs to get back to the basics of what it means to be the church. Jesus’ last words to his disciples express the mission of the church: preach the gospel and make disciples for Jesus.

That makes perfect sense to me.

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