Transcendent Values?

The rise in secular ethics corresponds with the decline in transcendent-based ethics.  Within the former I understand there is a growing interest in Classical Values, like the four Roman Cardinal Virtues ? ‘courage’, ‘moderation’, ‘prudence’ and ‘justice’.  These were the ideals of the upper orders, which were also self-regarding, if not self-centred.

The one voice from a lower stratum in antiquity was that of Jesus from Nazareth, an artisan and self-educated rabbi.  His rabbi’s judgements were applicable back then to all social levels from bottom to top.  Since then they have proved timelessly applicable at all times and in all cultures.

Take for example his judgement on payment of a tax now to be paid by each person direct to Caesar.  To deny the tax in line with zealot agitation would condemn him as another troublemaker and to approve the payment would unite him with the corrupt temple authorities.

His ‘render to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God’ brilliantly saved his life, but more importantly pegged the ground for relationships with Caesar and God.  Keep the two separate was his shrewd advice.  Pay the taxes to ‘the powers that be’ (to use St Paul’s words) and fulfil all duties and privileges of a citizen.  When you turn to worship, however, let it not be to ‘Tiberius Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, son of the deified Augustus (words on the denarius coin), who is a mere mortal.  Direct your worship to the Almighty.  No theocracy here nor sectarian separation, but a clear demarcation between the realms of Caesar and God.  This is a basis for liberal democracy.

Another judgement was his interchange with a religious lawyer over the question: Who is my neighbour?  The parable narrated the practical care a hated Samaritan showed to a Jew in trouble, whose two fellow Jews (each religionists) ‘passed by on the other side.  ‘Good Samaritan’ is universal language for charity for those in trouble.  The early Christians put this into effect by initiating hospitals and hostels for anyone in need, regardless of creed or nationality.  The apostate emperor Julian attempted unsuccessfully to copy the ‘Galileans’.  This was to come later in the welfare state.

The hero of the story was a not a broadminded Jew who somehow found it within himself to help a contaminated, untouchable Samaritan.  Unimaginably in those racist, tribal times, it was an ‘unclean’ man who helped a ‘clean’ man who fell among thieves.

Other examples relate to ‘family life’.  In Jewish society only men could initiate divorce, which they did by handing a wife a certificate.  In Roman society wealthy men and women initiated divorce, which they did with such frequency that it was said they did not mark the year by the elected consul but by the new spouse.  In Graeco-Roman society it was not unknown for men to marry sisters and mothers.  Their gods had shown the way.

Rabbi Jesus quoted Genesis, ‘From the beginning God…made them male and female’ who in marriage become ‘one flesh’.  He added this ideal, ‘What therefore God has joined together let not man separate’.  To his words about lifelong, faithful marriage he added that children were not to be brushed aside but deeply valued.  The bones of children have been found in Roman sewers, confirming reports of the maiming and exposure of unwanted infants.

Hard working parents dedicated to the care and education of their children help create stable societies.

The Mishnah (c. AD 200) reports numerous judgements and counter-judgements by the great Jewish teachers but it is no surprise that the words of the founder of Christianity do not appear.  Church and synagogue had separated by then.  His judgements sound deceptively mundane but their universal and timeless applicability raises the possibility of transcendent origin.

Guided Tour of Jordan and Israel 3-20 March, 2016

Tour Leaders: Bishop Paul and Mrs Anita Barnett

Jordan
Mt Nebo
Madeba
Petra
Wadi Rum
Gadara
Jerash
Machaerus
Baptismal Site
Amman

Israel
Dead Sea
Masada
Ein Gev
Qumran
Jericho
Jerusalem (7 nights)
Nablus
Sebaste
Caesarea
Mt Carmel
Haifa
Megiddo
Tiberias
Sepphoris
Nazareth
Cana
Capernaum
Tabgha
Mensa Christi
Korazim
Caesarea Philippi
Beth Shean

Straightforward Emirates flights:  Sydney-Dubai-Amman (and return)
Experienced local guides.
Excellent hotels.
Air-conditioned buses.

 

All enquiries to Olive Tree Travel
Katrina@olivetreetravel.com.au

Professor Edwin Judge: A Book Launch

Book Launch
E.A. Judge, Engaging Rome and Jerusalem,
(ed. S. Piggin; North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014).

In 1966 E.A. Judge, Reader in History at the University of Sydney had a small third year Roman History class of which I was a member, along with a younger Tom Hillard.

Tom has gone on to great things as a Roman historian and I have pursued the study of Christian origins within the canon of Jewish, Roman and early Christian texts.  Another in the class, Judith Nicholls, now a senior mature age student, is researching her PhD on Jerome.

Edwin Judge’s office is lined with the higher degree theses of his dozens of supervised students.  These volumes are silent tribute to a master teacher’s scholarship but equally to his generosity.

We students derived data from Judge, but more importantly, method, or more precisely documentary method.  Surely my guess is close to the mark in thinking the words ‘Ancient History Documentary Research Centre’ are Judge-inspired.  I am not guessing, but speak from knowledge, that ‘New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity’ is pure Judge.

Judge was always an elegant lecturer, who combined eloquence with gravitas, with a degree of tantalizing obscurity thrown in, who was always more than a pleasure to hear.  He was different from, but as good as, Cable or Mansfield, which is high praise.

But it was the method…so simple: a sheet of text from the classical era; that was all.  In the course of the well-shaped hour its Provenance would emerge, with critical comment; also its literary Context.  Then what did these words mean?  What was their significance relative to other texts?  Then on to an emerging explanation of what was going on, historically.

The cluster of ‘history’ words are noteworthy: histore? (‘to learn by inquiry’); historia (‘a learning by inquiry’); historikos (‘of’ or ‘for inquiry’); so Liddell and Scott. What I remember learning from Judge was ‘inquiry’ via exegesis of texts.

History is documents, whether carved in stone or written on paper.

As it happens, I had learned about documents beforehand from Knox and Robinson, my teachers at Moore College, who had studied Greek at the University of Sydney under, respectively, Enoch Powell and George Pelham Shipp.  My teachers schooled me in the method.  But Judge took it to a new level and mightily reinforced this text-based method as a platform to journey into exciting historical territory.

But I did learn data from Judge, one aspect of which is thankfully preserved in Stuart Piggins’ collection.  To this day I cannot bring myself to refer to the early Julio-Claudians as ‘Emperor Augustus’ or ‘Emperor Tiberius’.  It was a delight, therefore, to re-read ‘Who First Saw Augustus as an Emperor?’ which Judge had explored more fully explored in the papers in Jim Harrison’s collection, 2008.

As it happens you will search the New Testament in vain for the word, ‘emperor’.  It does not appear.  Its texts come from the later Julio-Claudian and Flavian era (circa 50-95) but you will not find ‘emperor’.  You will find ‘Caesar’ ? Caesar Augustus, Tiberius Caesar, ‘tribute to Caesar [Tiberius]’, ‘Caesar’s friend [Tiberius]’, ‘no king but Caesar [Tiberius]’, ‘the decrees of Caesar [Claudius]’, offence ‘against Caesar [Nero]’, ‘the tribunal (b?ma) of Caesar [Nero]’, ‘appeal to Caesar [Nero]’, ‘you must stand before Caesar [Nero]’, ‘the household of Caesar [Nero]’.

I do not know, but would like to, if the uniform precision of the New Testament about ‘Caesar’, influenced Judge’s judgement.  After all, these New Testament texts are the earliest major sources for the ‘Caesars’ of the first century, predating by decades Tacitus and Suetonius.

There are many fine contributions about early Christianity, let me mention three:
Where is the Historical Jesus?
Jesus outside the Gospels
The Essential Jesus
The first ? ‘Where is the Historical Jesus?’ ? was published in The Australian newspaper in 1968 but a young Stuart Piggin had heard it with excitement as a lecture in 1965.

Its insights are stunning.  Classical man would not have been surprised by assertions of resurrection because people were looking for ‘monstrosities’ as ‘portentous’ because they viewed the future with anxiety.  But in the gospel the ‘resurrection’ was no mere portent but the climax to an extended historical narrative about Jesus of Nazareth (my words).

Was that narrative myth?  Christian meetings in no way resembled mystery cults but were educational (my word) in character focusing not on ‘religious atmosphere’ or ritual but on historical statements and historical documents that soon became or already had become ‘crystallised in the creeds’.   Judge’s brief analysis quietly demolished Rudolph Bultmann’s elaborate argument that the gospel was myth-based.  No one believes this today, even though Bultmann dominated New Testament thought in the first half of the twentieth century.  Judge was ahead of his times, as in so many areas.

Was the argument ‘legend’?  Judge’s keen awareness of chronology ? a most vital discipline for the historian ? unerringly ‘fixes’ the texts we call ‘canonical’ to the two generations immediately following Jesus.  These texts, which are rich in uncontrived historical detail (my words), were not sufficient for people a century later, however, who wrote new gospels romantically filling in the gaps.  But they did so with fantastic legendary elements, as in the Gospel of Peter, where the risen Jesus is a gargantuan figure who is so huge that he reaches to the heavens!

Judge comments:  ‘By contrast with the accretion of legend in later versions the historical integrity of the canonical texts stands out clearly’.

This was a prescient statement.  Many scholars today do a double shuffle.  They ridiculously push the dates of the canonical texts into the second century.  This is in spite of retrospective references to them by the church fathers in the early second century (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp).  This, too, in spite of the emerging mass of papyrus manuscripts beginning with P52 (a fragment of John from c. 125) that culminate near the end of the second century in a codex with the four Gospels and Acts (P45), Paul’s thirteen epistles and Hebrews (P46) and the Apocalypse (P47).

These codexes (or is it codices?) were each for church reading and teaching (education and edification).  But the flavour of the month now is to date that which is early late and to classify that which is late and legendary as if primary regarding the historical Jesus, about whom as a consequence we can now say nothing.

What then of Paul’s version of the gospel?  Judge points out that the young Pharisee had been brought up in the ‘hard school’ of ‘punctilious…verbal accuracy…[in] ancient Judaism’.  When the arch-enemy of the gospel became a leading advocate he scrupulously distinguished his own words from the words of the Lord.  This man of powerful education and intellect remained resolutely the ‘slave (doulos) of Jesus’.

The gospel authors wrote in the two decades after Paul’s death in 65 (Mark wrote from Rome between 65-70). Almost certainly they were aware of Paul’s writings but were not influenced by them.  They wrote down as history what they had preached, a biographically based account of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection.  They did so independently of Paul.

Jesus outside the Gospels (1985) is a masterly survey of and commentary on references to Jesus in early non-Christian sources.  Its precision and brevity invites expansion into a monograph, something for Edwin to do in his spare time!  He goes against the flow in denying that Suetonius’ Chrestus, who inspired Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome, was Christus, the founder of the Christiani.  He was merely a man named Chrestus, about whom we know nothing else.  Does Edwin Judge still believe this?

My last sample is: The Essential Jesus (2002) where Judge reviews a book that critically reviews the reductionist Jesus Seminar.  In a rare example of humour Judge comments, ‘None of the contributors is likely to be elected as a fellow of the Jesus Seminar’.  But maybe it wasn’t humour, just a laconic statement of fact.

There are also a number of pieces on education, reflecting Judge’s interest not only in university education, but education at primary and secondary levels as well,  indicating his remarkable breadth of interest.

Edwin Judge is my teacher and dear friend.  His influence on me has been wholly good, indeed inestimable, and for that I thank God most sincerely.  I am certain that I speak for many about a man we all love.

I am honoured to co-launch Stuart’s collection, which is all the more valuable because it sets in stone what Edwin Judge thought at the time he wrote, now going back many years.  It is, therefore, a modern historian’s ready made source book for the thoughts of a great historian of antiquity.

We thank Stuart for his hard work in tracking down these texts and for his very helpful introductory notes.
Paul Barnett
11th March 2015

 

Science Turns to God

Eric Metaxas’ ‘Science turns to God’ article in The Australian (29 December, 2014) provoked a spate of hostile letters and the newspaper’s editorial comment.

In brief, the article contrasted what we know today about the conditions for life on this planet with what we knew back in 1966.  In that year Time published the opinion of Carl Sagan that there were ‘two criteria for a planet to support life ? the right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star’.

Metaxas’ argument is that the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), despite high levels of funding, has not discovered any signals pointing to life elsewhere in the universe.  He claims there are octillion planets (1 + 24 zeros) in the universe, surely more than enough for their signals to be picked up by our vast telescopic networks.  But, says, the author, ‘silence of the rest of the universe has been deafening’.

The article then turns to what scientists today think are the necessary criteria for a planet to support life.  Metaxas claims that ‘there are now 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life — every single one of which must be perfectly met’.  He cites the example of a large planet like nearby Jupiter, whose gravity draws to it asteroids that would destroy Earth.

His argument is that greater faith is required to believe the universe depends on random, accidental forces that belief in an intelligent creator.

The major statistic relates to the creation of the universe itself.  If the four necessary forces — gravity, electromagnetic force, the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ nuclear forces — were determined less than a millionth of a second after the big bang, there would be no universe.

Two Criticisms:
(i)        Metaxas is not a scientist, and his style is a little over-confident.
(ii)       Letter writers to The Australian complain that his appeal to Fred Hoyle and Paul Davies were inaccurate.
(iii)      His reference to SETI seems to be an example of the ‘God of the gaps’ argument by which God’s existence is positively asserted because of what we don’t know.

Reflections of a non-scientist:
(i)        The contrast between current multiple known criteria for life on the planet             relative to the known criteria in 1966 is helpful.  But Metaxas doesn’t say who are these more modern authorities.
(ii)       The 200 criteria, if accurate, are very important.  But their importance needs to be stated cautiously and humbly, without any hint of coercion so as to drive unbelievers into a corner.
(iii)      The arguments of ‘natural theology’, which seem to be Metaxas’ approach, may arouse interest, and the beginnings of faith.  But it is the testimony of the Gospel that arouses a genuine and true faith in the God and Father of our Lord  Jesus Christ.

 

 

Debt Slavery and Redemption

A fine article by Haznain Kazim in the Australian Financial Review (‘A Tale of Deliverance’, 9 January 2015) states that 35.8 million worldwide live under debt slavery.

It gives an example about how it happens.  A penniless family borrows a small sum (by our standards), in this case to build a modest dwelling.  They repay the debt by all the family working in the lender’s brick-making factory, except that the interest rates are so high that the amount owed does not diminished but grows.  The whole family is now trapped in debt slavery in perpetuity, with almost no freedom and crippling working conditions.

The owner, a prominent politician in Pakistan, hypocritically says, ‘Our employees have a good life with us’, he says, ‘They aren’t lacking anything’.

The article claims that many debt slaves are physically abused, including sexually, and that there are examples of people missing without trace, incinerated in the fiery hot brick kilns.

Perhaps the ‘slaves’ might simply run away and find freedom?  They are effectively prevented by a cultural sense of shame in reneging on their promises.

The article speaks warmly of a small Christian aid organization, Vast Vision that raises funds to buy the freedom of debt slaves.  It tells of a man, a debt slave for many years, being set free by the founder of Vast Vision physically handing over a wad of cash to the ‘owner’.  With tears in his eyes the free man collects his wife and two small children and they walk away to a new life.

Of course, debt slavery is illegal in Pakistan, but the authorities do little to stop it.  Powerful and wealthy slave owners see that the law is not enforced.

Vast Vision has one condition in liberating adult debt slaves.  Their children must go to school so that they will not be drawn back into this servitude.

‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’. The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’.
The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

Non-specialist readers, as well as academics, are baffled by Luke’s final glimpse of his hero, Paul, in Rome.  We know from Paul’s Pastoral Letters that both Paul, and his companion Luke were alive and active for some time after those those ‘two whole years’.  The key question is: why doesn’t Luke tell us about those extra years, but just leaves Paul in prison?

Indeed, as I will propose, Paul’s three last letters explain Luke’s ‘mysterious ending’ of his epic two-volume narrative.

Luke’s reference to Paul’s two year ‘house arrest’ in Rome awaiting Caesar’s trial implies at least two things.  The first is that Luke was close at hand for him to know of the timespan of this imprisonment, and the second is that Paul was then released.  Had Paul been executed at the end of those ‘two whole years’ Luke would surely have told us. In any case, since the Roman authorities in Judea did not find against him it is likely that Nero Caesar would not have found against him.  Which law of Rome had he broken?  Clearly Luke intends us to know about Paul’s circumstances, namely that he had been released.

This is also confirmed in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, written from the Praetorian Barracks in Rome.  Paul wrote to the Philippians during the ‘two whole years’ and he clearly expected to be released and to come to them in Macedonia (Phil. 1:25-26).  Thus evidence from Luke and Paul independently confirms that Paul was released after the initial two year imprisonment in Rome.

For his part during those two years Luke would have been actively gathering texts and researching for his planned, major two-volume ‘orderly account’, as he had most likely been doing in Palestine during the previous three years, when Paul had been in prison in Caesarea.  Those five years in total would have provided Luke with opportunity to speak to key people in Palestine and Italy, as well as to collect texts he would employ in a chronicle that would span the seventy years between the birth of John the Baptist and the ‘two whole years’ of Paul’s incarceration in Rome.

If, as I believe, Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome shortly after the martyrdom of Peter in 64, it would at last provide Luke with a precious, Peter-authorised account of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to the resurrection.  This would provide the narrative ‘spine’ for the first ‘book’ of ‘the works and words’ of the historical Jesus.

This would connect well with Paul’s comment to Timothy: ‘Luke alone is with me’ and his pointed instruction, ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry…..When you come, bring…the books (biblia, ‘written scrolls’) and above all the parchments (membranas, ‘blank sheets )’. Paul knew his own end was near, so that Mark’s ‘usefulness’ to him would not be for some kind of ongoing ministry partnership.  More probably it somehow related to Mark’s relationship to the ‘books and the parchments’ that Luke would use in writing Luke-Acts (see Luke 1:1-3).

To return to our mystery, we ask again: Why didn’t Luke tell us about what happened to Paul after those ‘two whole years’?  I think the answer is staring us in the face.  It is that Luke doesn’t need to tell us.  The information has always been there for us to discover.  Where might that be?  It is there in Paul’s three Pastoral Letters, especially the third and final letter, Second Timothy.  From those letters we can piece together Paul’s movements between his release (in c. 62) and his death (in c. 64).

Luke was aware of the contents of that third Letter, as noted above, and indeed may have contributed in some way to its contents, as C.F.D. Moule suggested many years ago (The Birth of the New Testament; London, A & C Black, 1973, pages 220-221 )

In any case, Luke had his own reasons to end his epic in the way he did.  During those ‘two whole years’ Luke shows us Paul ‘proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus’.  Clearly that is the vision Luke is leaving with his readers, to pick up the gospel baton from Paul and to run with it into the next generation.  For Luke to merely have narrated Paul’s brief spell of freedom back in the east and ended with his execution might have seemed to him something of an anticlimax.  In any case, for those interested to know about Paul after the ‘two whole years’ it is all there in those three letters, in particular the third.

Paul Barnett?9 January, 2015

A Reformation Tour

A Reformation Tour, September 2014

Some friends asked me to lead a tour to sites of the Reformation.  I agreed but with misgivings.  It was years since I had studied the Reformation and many of the places were new to me.

Our group began in Berlin and moved west to the Luther sites, Leipzig (also famous for Bach), Wittenberg, Eisleben, Eisenach (including Wartburg Castle), Erfurt and Worms.  In other words, we visited to the most significant places of Luther’s life, education, work, trial and death.

A man of humble background Luther emerges as highly intelligent, but also deeply determined.  After being condemned as an outlaw at the Diet of Worms he was hidden in Wartburg Castle where he translated the Greek New Testament into colloquial German.  Luther saw out his days at Wittenberg as an academic, but was greatly helped by various colleagues including Philip Melanchthon.  It is evident that as a devout Catholic he did not set out to divide the church.

Luther great insight was that in his death, our Lord embraced and dealt with human wretchedness.  Luther knew this at first hand, and it was his study of Psalm 22 that showed him that the Christ who had been ‘forsaken’ had been forsaken for him.

We left Germany and visited sites associated with the French lawyer and classicist John Calvin, Strasbourg, Basel, Zurich and Geneva.  Very different in temperament from Luther, the Frenchman emerges as similarly highly intelligent and industrious.  Calvin’s roots were more socially prominent than Luther’s and the circumstances of his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism are unclear.

John Calvin methodically wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible.  It’s true to say that Calvin in the ‘father’ of commentators.  His treatment of the texts is disciplined and careful, and mercifully to the point.  He established a seminary in Geneva in which he was the Old Testament Professor.  Equally, Calvin wrote the Institutes, a compendium of Christian belief only six years after his conversion, which he continued to revise and expand throughout his life.

Apart from being a model commentator Calvin is noteworthy for his insistence of the majesty and glory of Almighty God in the Institutes.

We moved across the channel to Oxford and Cambridge where we traced the ‘masters’ of the English Reformation, as Marcus Loane called them, Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer.  These men had been greatly influenced by Erasmus, Luther and to a lesser extent, Calvin.  Unlike Luther and Calvin who died in their beds, the English leaders died violently, burnt alive or strangled.

Cranmer takes rightful place alongside Luther and Calvin.  His great legacy is the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of religion and the Ordinal.  Cranmer’s genius was to endorse as much of the past that was consistent with the Bible (liturgies, creeds and church government) whilst embodying the insights of the great continental reformers.  His Articles of Region are expressed briefly yet profoundly.

I asked the British tour company for local guides who were at least sympathetic with the Reformation and was very agreeably impressed with their enthusiasm and knowledge.

It was for our group a truly educational, but also spiritually uplifting experience.

I offer the following reflections about my recent revisiting of the three Reformers, Luther, Calvin and Cranmer.

First, each was a man of great intellect and piety.  As men born in the fifteen century, when scholarship was in its infancy, their achievements were remarkable.  The Bible was not available in their respective languages and there were few great scholarly shoulders to stand on.

Secondly, each of them was supported by networks of friends and supporters.  They did not work in isolation.

Thirdly, each of then benefitted by political protection: Luther by the Elector of Saxony, Calvin by the Geneva Civic Council and Cranmer by Henry VIII and Edward VI.  In those violent times it’s fair to say that without such protection their achievements would not have been possible.

Fourthly, the invention of the printing press made possible the rapid dissemination of Tyndale’s translations and the writings of Luther and Calvin.  It is difficult to imagine the speed and effectiveness of the spread of reformation thought without this revolutionary new medium.

Finally, it is true to say that each man had his faults.  Luther’s views on the Jews near the end of his life are a problem.  Calvin’s vision of a whole secular community complying with church disciple was impractical.  Cranmer wavered under pressure. (Who can blame him?)

In other words, these men were not perfect or without their blind spots.  Yet we are beneficiaries of their courage and faithfulness to God.  May we be as faithful to Christ and his Gospel in our times as these men were in theirs.

Anglicans do well to thank God for each man, but not forgetting Thomas Cranmer for his gift to us of the rich and edifying deposit in the Prayer Book, Articles and Ordinal.

 

 

Wise Judgements

Wise Judgements
Paul Barnett

For many years biblical scholars have baulked at the idea that Jesus was a transcendent figure and have busied themselves redefining him in humanistic terms.
Is this due to the ‘secular’ spirit of the age that airbrushes the Almighty from the public square?

For a period in early the twentieth century some thought there was little we could know about Jesus, for example, in 1934 Rudolph Bultmann declared, ‘We can now know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus’.  The pendulum has swung back so that in 1985 Ed. Sanders could say, ‘We can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish…we can know a lot about what he said…’.

Despite Sanders’s confidence there is no agreement about how to think about Jesus.
The great philosopher, musician and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was a confused apocalyptic prophet.  Robert Eisler and Samuel Brandon thought he was a warrior-zealot ready to inspire a revolt against Rome.  According to Geza Vermes Jesus was a devout, charismatic rabbi who healed.  For Ed. Sanders, Jesus was yet another species of prophet.  Others, like Burton Mack, reacting against a Jewish Jesus found it more plausible to locate him as a social reformer in the Greek cynic tradition.  The list is long and seemingly unending.

There are, of course, some elements of the above to be found in Jesus.  He was called a rabbi, many thought of him as a prophet, and he did forcibly eject the traders from the temple.  The problem is that these are secondary activities that some have over-inflated and made definitive.  Those who redefine Jesus along these lines tend not to address all the evidence, in particular the witness of the apostles in the New Testament.

Jesus’ miracles, if accepted, would clinch the issue and identify Jesus as singular and otherworldly.  That is a subject for another day. What then about his judgements, which form a significant part of the Synoptic Tradition?

Judgements
Jesus’ judgements were part of the Jewish synagogue culture of the Second Temple period.  The synagogues had become the spiritual and social centres of the towns and villages of Israel, led by their teachers, the rabbis.  The rabbis combined several activities in their vocation.  They explained the Scriptures in the synagogues and they gave legal judgements appropriate to a whole range of pastoral situations.

The Gospels make many references to Jesus as a ‘rabbi’ or ‘teacher’.  He travelled to the synagogues teaching the Scriptures, as well as in the open.  Mainstream, recognised rabbis had one or two disciples; Jesus had twelve.  Typically a disciple took the initiative in approaching a rabbi; Jesus called those who followed him.  So Jesus was a rabbi, but an unorthodox, unrecognised one.

Like other rabbis Jesus made legal judgements on real life, day-to-day issues.  Often these arose from his provocative teaching about the kingdom of God and its application to the law.  The oral tradition about Jesus reported in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters is biographical, with no record of his legal judgements.  When Mark committed Peter’s oral gospel to writing he included many of the judgements of Rabbi Jesus.

The Mishnah
The Mishnah (c. 200) is a collection of the legal judgements of rabbis from two centuries before the time of Jesus and extending over the next century or more.  Its editor, according to tradition was Rabbi Judah the Patriarch.  The Mishnah is a bridge between the Tanakh (the Old Testament) and Rabbinic Judaism.

There are six main divisions in the Mishnah: (i) laws dealing with agricultural produce and portions due to priests, Levites and the poor; (ii) the set feasts; (iii) laws affecting women; (iv) property rights; (v) the holy things of the temple; (vi) the laws of uncleanness.  Each division has the judgements and counter judgements of the various rabbis.

Overwhelmingly the judgments of the rabbis relate to interpretations of the written law, but equally to the generation-by-generation tradition of oral law.  These judgements were not codified, but are analogous to secular Common Law judgements that form the precedents for ongoing legal decisions in the courts.  Like modern lawyers the rabbis appealed to judgements of earlier rabbis.

Neither Jesus nor Paul, both rabbis according the Christians texts, is mentioned in the Mishnah.  This comes as no surprise given that the Synagogue and the Church had dramatically separated by the nineties.  Had that separation not occurred it is more than likely that both men and their judgements would have been documented in the Mishnah.  According to the eminent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, ‘No rabbi was so important to rabbinic Judaism as Jesus was to Christianity.  None prophesied as an independent authority’.

The Judgements of Jesus
Let me reflect on six judgements of Jesus.  The question is: do Jesus’ judgements mark him as a rabbi who was a transcendental figure, or not?  So far as his followers were concerned it did not matter whether Jesus was explaining the Bible, or giving a legal judgement, he spoke with ‘authority’, that is with the authority of God, not like the scribes.           

            1.         The Heart not the Hands
In the era of Jesus it was believed that ‘sinners’ and Gentiles transmitted their impurity to the ‘righteous’ by physical contact.  By analogy, it was like people with influenza passing on their sickness by touching or sneezing.  To protect themselves from defilement the people washed their hands before eating.  It was not a matter of hygiene but of religion.

Mark described current practices: ‘[they] do not eat unless they wash their hands…When they come from the market place they do not eat unless they wash’.  They also washed ‘cups, pots, copper vessels and dining couches’ (Mark 7:3).  The preservation of purity from any physical contact with ‘sinners’ or Gentiles, whether direct or indirect, was critically important.

Stone water jars were placed near the house entrance for this washing, which was not for a hygienic but a ritual purpose. Perhaps due to shortage of water in Israel the hands were not immersed, but a small quantity was poured on to cupped hands with fingers extended.

In the eyes of his critics Jesus would have rendered himself ‘unclean’ by eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, and by his contact with the leper and the woman with the ‘issue of blood’.  A major dispute arose when the scribes from Jerusalem observed that some of Jesus’ disciples ‘ate with hands that were defiled, that is unwashed’ (Mark 7:2).  They challenged him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’  The washing of hands prior to eating had become a matter of ‘religious correctness’, which his disciples purposely disregarded.

Jesus made a twofold response.

First, the food that is eaten does not defile because it simply passes through the body as waste into the ground.  By this judgement Jesus pronounced ‘all foods clean’ (Mark 7:19).  In one stroke Jesus abolished the classification of food as ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ which in turn removed the distinction between ‘clean’ people (with whom one could eat) and unclean people (with whom one could not eat).  This meant that Peter, a Jew could sit at table with the Gentile, Cornelius.  Peter said, ‘God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean’ (Acts 10:28). The Gentile is not unclean because the food he eats is not unclean.

Secondly, Jesus’ action provided him with the opportunity to give his judgement about the true source of impurity.  Food that is eaten, with or without washing beforehand, simply passes through the body so that he said, ‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him’.

Jesus then makes this piercing judgement.

What comes out of a person is what defiles him.
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual             immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit,
sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:15).

Because food that comes into a person and goes out again cannot spiritually defile it means that ritual washing of hands beforehand is irrelevant.  Rather, it is the evil that proceeds from the heart that defiles.  Jesus lists thirteen items that directly or indirectly break the Ten Commandments that Lord God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai.  Ironically, Jesus directed these words to those who sought to defend the law by building a ‘hedge’ around it.

By these pointed words Jesus abolished the superficialities of ritual and reached into the human heart.  As he said on another occasion, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’. But this was only to say what the Psalmist had said years earlier.

Jesus’ judgements were radical but liberating.  Preoccupation with purity by ritual washings obscured the reality that evil does not flow out of what is eaten, but from the heart.  Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath or washings, but by his actions gave penetrating and liberating insight to a deeper morality.

2.         Marriage
John the Baptist was killed because he condemned the marriage of Herod the tetrarch to the wife of a living brother.  This was adultery.  Pharisees posed a question that was intended to trap Jesus in an answer that would also endanger him: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’

Typical of debates between rabbis, Jesus responded to a question with a question: ‘What did Moses command you?’  They answered, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away’.

The Scripture in question was Deuteronomy 24:1, which declared the basis for a husband’s divorce of a wife.  It was ‘because he has found some indecency in her’.   The rabbis were divided over their interpretation of ‘indecency’.  The School of Shammai said, negatively, ‘a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her’ (i.e., adultery).  With greater laxity, the School of Hillel said, ‘He may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him’ (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).

Jesus said Moses’ words were given because of ‘hardness of heart’, that is, to give the woman at least formal recognition that she was legally divorced.  Jesus then stepped back over Moses to God’s creation narrative in Genesis 1-2.  God ‘made them male and female’ who leave father and mother and ‘become one flesh’.  To those words, Jesus added his own, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Mark 10:1-10).

In the present context Jesus fearlessly stated his judgement in absolute terms, adopting the same stance as John the Baptist towards the marriage of Herod the tetrarch to Herodias.  Marriage is between a male and female, and it is to be a lifelong union.  There are other passages where Jesus allows the possibility of divorce on the grounds of adultery. But Jesus’ ‘in principle’ judgement to the Pharisees who sought to ‘test’ him was that God joins a man and a woman together in marriage until ‘death do them part’.

Christianity was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Roman views on marriage and divorce differed sharply from Jesus.  Men or women could initiate divorce, and they did so frequently.  Seneca wryly observed that most women did not reckon a year’s date by the name of the ruling consul but by the husband of that year.  ‘They divorce in order to re-marry.  They marry in order to divorce’ (Seneca, De Beneficiis iii.16.2). Those views began to change when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity.

Minucius Felix, a Roman Christian of the second century, made this comment about contemporary attitudes toward marriage.

In Persia, a man is allowed to marry his mother, in Egypt and Athens his sister.     Your histories and tragedies, which you eagerly read and listen to, treat incest      as something to be proud of; hence it is that you worship incestuous gods,             united to mother, daughter, and sister.  Not without reason, then, is incest often detected amongst you, but always permitted.

We, on the other hand, show our modesty not only outwardly but inwardly;

we willingly cleave to one marriage-tie ; in the desire to have children, we    have only one wife or else none (Minucius Felix, Octavius 87).
Through Jesus’ ideal of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union has been the norm in Christian-based societies, that is, until recent decades.

There can be little doubt that the judgement of Jesus on marriage, which his followers have generally implemented, has been a great stabilizing influence within wider society.  Men and women who are committed to each other and to their children work to provide for them and create the moral and economic backbone of society.

3.         Children
Almost certainly Mark has deliberately located this passage about children immediately following Jesus’ judgement about marriage.  Children were not regarded as ‘unclean’, like ‘sinners’, Samaritans or Gentiles but along with women, as inferior.  Women and children played no active part in a male dominated, patriarchal society.

This explains why the disciples rebuked those who brought their children for Jesus to bless, especially if young girls were among them.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the    disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to             them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs             the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the       kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’. And she took them in his arms         and blessed them, laying his hands on them (Mark 10:13-16).

Jesus memorably said that child-like trust of small children towards their parents was the necessary attitude to God of those who would enter his kingdom.  Jesus ‘took them in his arms (they were small children) and blessed them, laying his hands on them’.

Jesus saw in a child’s simple trust an attitude to God for adults to emulate.  Jesus applauded the trust of these little ones that adults need to have if they are to engage with God in his fatherly majesty.

We are the heirs of Roman civilization, its laws, principles of administrative governance, its excellence in engineering and architecture and its military discipline.  But the Romans allowed the exposure to the elements and wild animals of unwanted children.  Child killing was accepted in Roman culture.  Excavations of Roman sewers have found the bones of hundreds of children.

Minucius Felix also made this telling comment about contemporary attitudes toward children.

I see your newly born sons exposed by you to wild beasts and birds of prey, or   cruelly strangled to death.  There are also women among you who, by taking         certain drugs, destroy the beginning of the future human being while it is still          in the womb and are guilty of infanticide before they are mothers.  These          practices have certainly come down to you from the gods (Minucius Felix,             Octavius 83).

But societies that have evolved from Roman society developed laws to protect children, reversing Roman practices.  How did that come about?  It was the influence of Jesus’ powerful judgement about children that contributed to the changing attitudes towards them.  

            4.         Women’s education
Martha was preparing food for Jesus and the disciples while her sister Mary was seated ‘at the feet on Jesus’ listening to his teaching, that is, in the posture of a disciple being instructed.  Martha was upset because her sister had left her with all the work and she complained to Jesus, ‘Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me’.

But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled           about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good          portion, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:41).

Mary has made the right choice in listening to Jesus.  For Jesus to recognise and affirm Mary as a disciple, someone keen to learn, represented a social revolution in that conservative and patriarchal society.  Boys of five learned to read at the synagogue school, to enable them to study the Torah.  But girls remained illiterate, confined to childbearing and to domestic duties.  Sadly this remains the norm in some cultures today.

Jesus’ encouragement of Mary as a learner was a significant social advance, the endorsement of the education of women.

           

            5.         Taxes and Caesar
The Pharisees and Herodians (partisans of Herod the tetrarch) faced Jesus with another question to trap him: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ (Mark 12:14).

The background to this was the Roman annexation of Judea as a Roman province in AD 6.  The Romans conducted a census as a basis for levying of personal tax to be paid directly to Caesar.  In AD 6-7 Judas the Galilean led an uprising on theological grounds insisting that only the Lord could ‘number’ his people, and that the Lord and not Caesar was their ‘master’.  The Romans killed Judas.  The people of Judea grudgingly paid the tax to the emperor.

If Jesus replied, ‘Yes’ it would align him with the gentile Romans.  If Jesus replied, ‘No’ he would thereby endorse the rebel Judas and automatically secure punishment as an insurgent.  Jesus did not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but called for someone to present a denarius, a Roman coin, asking whose likeness and inscription it bore.  They replied, ‘Caesar’s’.

Then Jesus gave his judgement:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s
.

The ‘likeness’ (image) on the coin was that of Tiberius Caesar, but the inscription described him as ‘chief priest, son of the deified Augustus’.  In other words, the coin implied that people were to worship the Roman Caesar as a god.

Jesus, however, separated paying taxes from worshipping the emperor.  By answering, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’, he was saying, ‘pay the tax’.  But the words, ‘Render to God the things that are God’s’ was to deny worship to Caesar.

By this judgement Jesus separated Caesar from God, but giving each his appropriate due.  In brief, Jesus was saying, ‘Worship God’ and ‘be an active and positive part of society’.

Judas the Galilean was really seeking a theocracy, whereby the covenant people were to be ruled directly by God through his law.  Throughout history there have been Christian theocracies, for example, the Byzantine Empire.  The ideal for Islam is for a theocratic state based on Sharia Law.

Jesus words, however, imply the acceptability of living under Caesar’s ‘secular’ rule.

Jesus’ wise judgement warns against enthroning Caesar as powerful in every sphere, whilst enjoining Christians not to worship any one but the Lord.  Traces of Jesus’ teaching are to be found in the letters of Paul and Peter.  Christians were not to pray to Caesar, but they are to pray for him and pay taxes for the needs of society.  Peter’s words to persecuted Christians in Northern Anatolia were inspired by the judgement of Jesus.

Honour everyone.
Love the brotherhood.
Fear God.
Honour the emperor
(1 Peter 2:17).

The followers of Jesus are not to regard themselves as a sect on the fringes of society, but as active and involved members.  They are to ‘honour’ fellow citizens and the emperor but they are to ‘fear’ God and love his people, ‘the brotherhood’.

Jesus’ words, as adapted by the apostles, imply the viability of the separation of church and state.  That viability is threatened, however, when the state assumes a ‘messianic’ status, as in Germany under Hitler.

            6.         Redefining the neighbour
A religious lawyer sought an argument with Jesus.  To his initial question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘Love…God, and your neighbour as yourself’.  He added, ‘Do this and you shall live’, that is, ‘inherit eternal life’.  The lawyer asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

The lawyer knew that a neighbour was a fellow covenant brother and doubtless expected Jesus to reply likewise.  Instead, Jesus tells an astonishing parable about a man (we assume a Jew) who was in great need but whom his fellows did nothing to help.  Worse, the priest and the Levite, who were ‘official’ religionists ‘passed by on the other side’.  These high profile ‘neighbours’ did nothing to save their desperately needy fellow-neighbour.

Scandalously, it was not a fellow-neighbour but an unclean, contaminated, hated Samaritan who went to great lengths to rescue the man who ‘fell among thieves’ on the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem.

Jesus’ shocking parable was not about a broadminded Jew who patronisingly helped a Samaritan, but a Samaritan who instantly and without thought to his own safety saved a man whose tribe despised him.

Jesus ends a conversation that the lawyer may have wished he had never started.

‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who         fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy’. And     Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise’ (Luke 10:36-37).

Strictly speaking Jesus did not directly answer the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but by his famous parable he did.  The Samaritan who ‘proved to be a neighbour’ radically redefined the question.  Any fellow human who is in trouble and whom I can help is my neighbour.

This profound parable has all the marks of transcendence.  It is so unexpected and yet so obviously ‘true’ that we readily accept its profound insight.  Jesus’ great parable has inspired emergency services around the world and the ‘Good Samaritan’ is now part of international speech.

From early times Jesus has been regarded not only as the teller of the Parable of the Good Samaritan but has been seen as the ‘good’ Samaritan who acted with compassion towards those in need.

 

The Judgements of Jesus
My argument is that the wisdom of Jesus’ judgements marks him as more than an insightful rabbi or prophet, but as a transcendental figure.  His judgements in real life situations have had profound effects for good throughout history.  Because societies are non-transcendental, whose members are prone to self-interest, Jesus’ words could never bring perfection.  But the values arising from his judgements have made a difference for good where they have been heeded.

Jesus’ practical involvement with social outcasts speaks eloquently against any version of a caste system, where some are inexorably and without exception stamped as inferior and forever doomed to remain so.  Similarly, Jesus’ description of himself as a ‘physician for the sick’ is a message that the socially marginalized are important and to be helped.  Enlightened communities attempt to be inclusive and give serious opportunity to everybody, without fear or favour.

Jesus’ profound Parable of the Good Samaritan, if followed, spells the end of tribalism and racism.  The priest and the Levite ignored the plight of their ‘neighbour’, but a despised, ‘unclean’ Samaritan saved him.

By deliberately eating without ritual washing Jesus swept away the false belief that ‘unclean’ food contaminates the person.  The food we eat passes through the body and leaves the body as human waste.  It is the heart, and the evils that proceed from the heart, that defile us.  Humanity is not controlled by a multiplication of rules and regulations, for that exposes us to hypocrisy.  Rather, Jesus pointed to the blessedness of a pure heart.

The rabbis were divided about admissible grounds for divorce, but men were able to send their wives away by merely giving them a certificate.  Romans divorced repeatedly.  Some cultures endorsed male marriage to mothers, daughters and sisters.

Jesus’s judgement about children has elevated their importance and made their trust a paradigm for an adult’s relationship with God.

Jesus’ judgements about the sanctity and permanence of marriage and the importance of their children have made his ideals about the family very important.  Where  parents are committed to each other and to their children they form a hard working team for the education and nurture of their children.

Finally, Jesus’ word, ‘Render to Caesar’ and ‘render to God’, where heeded, have been the origin of true democracies that separate church from state and where freedom of worship has been a human right.

No society can be perfect, and no society has been perfect.  But some societies have been democratically governed, freer of corruption, more prosperous across the population, generous to poorer nations, better educated, with more schools, universities, and hospitals, scientifically innovative, expressive in the arts, and with widespread engagement in sport and exercise.

It would not be hard to demonstrate that countries historically influenced by Jesus’ wise judgements have been blessed in many if not all of these ways.

Reflection
Jesus’ judgements as a rabbi are deceptively disarming.  They appear to be mundane and not extraordinary but when carefully compared with the values of the cultures of his day, and their successors, they identify him as uniquely wise.

Furthermore, his judgements effortlessly translate into any culture, timelessly.  They are as applicable in modern western society as they were in first century Jewish and Graeco-Roman society and in every culture since.

 

Why Follow Jesus?

                                            
At the end of the rather amazing narrative in John 6 Jesus asks the twelve remaining disciples, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’

Context
The context was that 5000 were following him at the beginning of the day but now the last of them has drifted off and only the original twelve remained.

Peter replies for the twelve, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’ And his reason was, ‘You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the holy one of God’.

The day started spectacularly.  Jesus had travelled from the west side of the lake to the east side  the Golan Heights side of Lake Galilee.  It’s about 8 kilometers wide.  A large crowd followed him because of his miracles of healing the sick.  They become hungry so Jesus provides bread in abundance miraculously, a great ‘sign’ from God pointing to his ‘oneness’ with the Creator, who is the ultimate giver of bread.

This food reminded them of the time when, as they wrongly thought, Moses gave them ‘bread from heaven’.  It also reminded them of God’s promise, recorded in Deuteronomy 18, that God would send them a prophet like Moses.  The crowd thought, ‘Well this is it.  This is the prophet’.

Those were bad times.  The very corrupt local ruler, Herod the younger, was based just across the water in Tiberias.  It was an oppressive regime, propped up by the even more corrupt Roman Empire.  So the people who had been fed, who had found the God-sent prophet, attempted to force him to become their king.

Jesus forthwith withdrew privately to pray and packed the disciples into a boat back to the other side.

Back on the Western Side
John resumes this exciting narrative on the western side of the lake, at Capernaum.
‘You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  They had not looked beyond the bread to the bread-giver.

He cautions them, ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…’  Bread goes mouldy after a few days and is inedible.  But not the bread the Son of Man will give.

Do we see what is going on here?  Is Jesus’ message transcendental or temporal?
There was a big debate about that recently in the Australian newspaper.

It’s not an either/or question is it?  Jesus speaks the words of eternal life.  That’s transcendental.  But he had healed the sick and fed the hungry.  That’s temporal.  So with Jesus it’s not either/or but both/and.  But there is a priority: the transcendental.  That’s really the message of John 6.

We easily think that the world back then was like ours now. We have pensions, they had pensions.  We have schools and hospitals, they had schools and hospitals.
Wrong.  They didn’t.  For the poor, the widows and the orphans there was nothing.

The first Christians went to their world with Jesus’ words of eternal life and they also cared for the sick, and widows and orphans.  Carthage mid 200s was overtaken by a severe plague.  People fled, leaving their sick behind.  The Christians stayed and cared for their own sick, but also other sick people.  Good Samaritans.  These temporal acts were a factor in Constantine adopting Christianity as the religion of the empire.

The emperor Julian, Constantine’s nephew, gave up the faith and attempted to de-convert the world back into the old religions.  He was angry with the ‘Galileans’, as he called them because they cared for people outside the churches as well as their own ? schools for children, hospices for the dying, hostels for the poor.

That’s a snapshot of history.  Christians have pioneered many things that the welfare state now does ? provides schools, hospitals, universities.

But with Christians, as with Jesus, the temporal flows out of the transcendental.  First the transcendental, then the temporal.

The Bread of God
So Jesus said, ‘the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’.

Then, ‘I am the bread of lifeWhoever comes to me will never go hungry…’.  Jesus identified himself by the name the Lord revealed to Moses.  The Lord was, is, and will be; always.  So, too, Jesus was, is, will be, always…bread for hungry hearts to sustain eternal life.

Throughout the remainder of John 6 Jesus becomes more specific and pointed and the crowd becomes correspondingly more restless.  ‘How can he be bread come down from heaven when we know his mother and father.  He’s a local boy’.

Even more specifically Jesus said, ‘   I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’.

The people began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’

He tightens the screw even more.  ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’.

No wonder they were perplexed.  What does he mean?  The words are a metaphor for violent death.  Blood separated from flesh is a figurative way of referring to a violent death.  Jesus meant crucifixion.

Jesus is the bread from heaven not just as the Son of God, but as the crucified Son of God.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’  From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

The king they wanted was a military figure like Moses, a Messiah who would drive out the Herods and the Romans.  But Jesus is speaking of himself crucified, as a defeated figure.  A loser, not a winner.

Their reaction corresponds with Paul’s comment in First Corinthians, ‘We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews’.

Fitting in with Jesus
So from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

The crowd of 5000 who had been filled with the bread and who hailed him as a king, now melt away.  A crucified king was a contradiction in terms.

They were probably angry.  We all want a god to fit in with us and our ideas.  A tame god, our designer god.

He says, ‘You must fit in with my definition of who I am’.  Part of discipleship is to follow Jesus as he reveals himself.

Jesus asked the remaining twelve, ‘Do you want to leave, too?’  The Greek of that question expects the answer, ‘no’.  Jesus expects them to stay with him, because he has chosen them.  All that the Father gives to him will come to him.  Jesus even knows that one of the twelve will betray him.

Eternal Words
Peter replies for the twelve, ‘To whom else could we go?  You have the words of eternal life’.

Many people have words, lots of them.  Politicians, philosophers, experts, commentators, all these bombard us with their words and seek to win our admiration and agreement.  But none of these have ‘the words of eternal life’ that Jesus has spoken during this chapter.

When I think about life in a macro sense whose words do I want to hear?  When I am at my deathbed whose words do I want to hear?  Jesus was qualified to speak ‘eternal words’ because he was the Son of God, something historically confirmed by his miracles and his resurrection from the dead.  So when he says, ‘Come to me, I am the bread from heaven’ I say to him, ‘I come, I believe’.

 
 

Jesus’ Improbable Plan

Jesus and the apostles expected the nations of the world to be won for him.  This is a historical statement that is historically true that will stand in the face of even the most stringent, critical analysis.

Consider how improbable such a vision must have been.

‘Make disciples of all nations’ he said but those to whom he said it were but eleven in number, simple uneducated men, without friends in high places.  Their own track record had not been good; one was a betrayer, another a denier and all were deserters.
He, their leader, had been handed over by the temple hierarchs and crucified by the Romans.

Yet he expected world conquest, but not achieved by naked power but by mere words backed up by an ethical life.

His apostle Paul looked for the full ingathering of the Nations and the salvation of all Israel.  But the members of the church in the city of Corinth were at odds with one another and with him.  And they were a mere handful of people, perhaps 150 in a city of 250,000.  Yet these issues did not seem to faze him.

The Christians in Rome were probably not more than few hundred and they were divided into separate groups that could not yet find a way to meet together as a single ‘church’.

Another apostle, John, wrote that the whole creation would worship God and the Lamb.  How improbable those words must have seemed to the tiny membership in the seven churches in Roman Asia, that were probably less than 1000 altogether.  These churches were fractured doctrinally, their members compromised by association with pagan cults and under extreme pressure to abandon worship of the crucified Lamb for the worship of the seemingly all-powerful Caesar.

If we exercise a little historical imagination we reach the staggering conclusion that these visions of a world won for Christ would have seemed absolutely implausible at the time.

And yet, within a few years there were signs of remarkable growth in early Christianity.  Two hundred years after Paul wrote the church in Rome had ‘an immense and countless laity’ who supported ‘no less than 1500 widows and persons in distress’ who were served by forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons and fifty two exorcists (Eusebius, History of the Church VI. 43.11-12).  This is a spectacular reversal of the broken and scattered communities Paul wrote to in his Letter to the Romans.

Historians debate the genuineness of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ early in the fourth century.  What cannot be disputed, however, is that the new ‘Roman Empire’ based on Constantinople (‘the city of Constantine’) was founded on Christianity.  That Christian empire stretched from the Balkans, through Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt to North Africa and it lasted from the mid-300s until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the siege of the Muslim Ottomans.

A Nestorian version of Christianity captured Mesopotamia, the Caspian region of Central Asia and extended eastward through India into China and southward into Africa.  Christianity in that massive geographical expanse continued until the twelfth until it was eventually extinguished by Islam.  See Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

Meanwhile Christianity spread north into Russia and northwest into Europe, Ireland and Britain.

Jenkins points out that for centuries there were three great geographical expression of Christianity ? Byzantine Christianity that ringed the eastern Mediterranean Christianity, European Christianity that extended from Russia to Britain and Nestorian Christianity that extended east Mesopotamia and Central Asia to China and southwards into Africa.  Jenkins’ argument is that we know about the Byzantine and European versions of the faith, but have forgotten the very extensive church of the Middle East and Central Asia and its expression in Africa.

In the Colonial Era Christianity spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia and New Zealand.

Thus the expansion of Christianity from its tiny beginnings is as amazing and improbable as the initial vision of Jesus was as re-stated by his apostles.  That expansion has occurred in the face of great opposition ? from Jews and pagans in the early centuries, from Jihardist Islam from the eighth century, from secular humanism from the era of the Enlightenment.  That opposition has often brought with it considerable suffering, even death.  The symbol of Christianity was and remains an instrument for killing people in Roman times, a cross.

As a consequence of that opposition Christianity has but disappeared from the the Middle East, Asia Minor and Central Asia and it is significantly diminished in secular Western Europe.   Nevertheless, it has survived the repression of atheistic communism in China, Russia and Eastern bloc countries.  Christianity has grown dramatically in Korea, China and Africa.

Thus despite all the issues, many of them created by Christians themselves, there is a remarkable statistic to note.  It is that 31% of the people in the world still identify themselves as ‘Christian’.  While there may be debate about the level of understanding and commitment in that statistic, it is nevertheless amazing in light of the impossible circumstances of Jesus and the apostle two thousand years ago.

There are two critical conclusions we draw from these observations.

One is that Jesus’ vision has been fulfilled by God and not man.  Men and women could not have brought made such an an unlikely dream the reality it still is.  Despite claims to the contrary God is emphatically not dead.  We think that God will continue to expand his kingdom in human hearts throughout the world.

The second conclusion is that we ordinary mortals are offered a partnership in this great project.  Ultimately God doesn’t need us.  He will do it regardless.

But should we choose to join hand with God what would be involved?

John and Paul give us some strong clues.

John, in writing to his seven churches, encouraged their hope that God would bring them out of ‘Babylon’ to ‘the New Jerusalem’, the City of God.  Their’s was to be a life and death commitment to the Lamb, who had been slain for them, and a disengagement from the worship of the Caesar and the pagan religions around them.

Paul encouraged the Romans each to present their whole selves to God in loving service of one another in the wholehearted exercise of their gifts.  In Romans 16 Paul calls on the readers to ‘greet’ twenty-six named members on account of their ‘work’.

‘Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you’; ‘Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord’; ‘Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’.  Their ‘work’ is not specified, except in some cases ? Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…greet the church in their house’.  Prisca and Aquila were church planters, who were also tent makers.  Note that word ‘also’.  It’s not in the text, but sits there between the lines.  Not one of the twenty-six is identified as a ‘presbyter’ or ‘bishop’, or any other church official.  Women were as prominent as men.

From Romans it is absolutely clear that they did not ‘work for’ their salvation since that was God’s gift in the crucified and resurrected Lord.  But the apostle certainly expected them to ‘work out’ that salvation in the hard work of ministry to others, both within and outside the community of faith.

Today we need to support our church institutions, but only if they are worthy of our support.  At the same time individual Christians and local churches should not depend on the central institution.  Like the laymen Shaftsbury and Wilberforce who took initiatives independently of ‘organised religion’ Christians in all ages need to be opportunists for the kingdom, entrepreneurs for Jesus.

Above all Christians need to get the idea ‘also’ right.  I must not think of myself a husband who is ‘also’ a Christian, a Christian who is ‘also’ a father, ‘also’ a neighbour, ‘also’ a friend.  I will seek to express my Christianity ethically and spiritually as a husband, father, neighbour and friend.  My engagement with the idea ‘also’ tells me about my ‘heart’ and my ‘heart’ regarding Jesus reveals everything.

Recently I visited the home of a woman I know well to be a great wife, mother and friend.  On her dining room table were dozens of gingerbread figures (dare I call them gingerbread ‘men’?).  They were all neatly wrapped in cellophane and there was a message inside.

She replied to my question that they were gifts for the other children in her boys’ school classes.  ‘What’s the message inside’, I asked.  Her answer: ‘Today to you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.

It took her initiative, her hard work, her love and it set a great example to her two young boys.  It is an example of godly opportunism, doing a simple thing that draws people to Jesus.

Paul Barnett
Christmas 2013.