September 2000

The Jesus of History is the Christ of Faith
Romans 1:3-4

Many modern scholars drive a wedge between Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Lord whom the Church worships. Hundreds of major books about the historical Jesus have emerged in the past two decades that ‘reconstruct’ him very differently from the Creeds. Some say he was an ‘charismatic rabbi’ (e.g., Vermes) others a ‘fiery apocalyptic prophetic’ (e.g., E P Sanders) others again a Greek Cynic style teacher bent on subverting existing social structures (e.g., Crossan).

Several things are assumed in and are common to these various portrayals of the ‘historical Jesus.’

(1) he was not the Son of God as the second person of the Trinity, and
(2) he was not raised bodily from the dead.

Yet many who assert that the ‘real Jesus’ was ‘nothing but’ a rabbi, prophet or sage still affirm him in the church as ‘Lord.’ This is remarkable given the view of his ordinariness as a man whose remains are still decomposing somewhere in Palestine. How can such a man be called ‘Lord’? Only by the language of myth and metaphor that says, in effect, ‘Lord’ is only a word, with no meaning corresponding with that word. Thus when the congregation uses the word ‘Lord’ in a hymn or a priest uses ‘Lord’ in a prayer both have their metaphorical tongues firmly in cheeks.

This is not a religion with a great future. Most such adherents used to be proper Christians but have lost their way through postmodernism and neo-gnosticism and are just seeing out their days in the churches. Only habit and nostalgia keeps them coming. But such people do not win converts or new members. This kind of liberal Christianity is crumbling everywhere.

The relationship between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith fascinated the theologians of the late 1800’s including Martin Kaehler who wrote the evocatively titled, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (mercifully in English translation – Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1988). Kaehler, who was orthodox in belief and devout in piety, argued that the only Christ for our faith is the Christ mediated to us by those who originally came to have faith in him. Kaehler does not attempt to get behind the Jesus of the Gospels to the ‘real’ Jesus. The historical Jesus may be investigated and found, perhaps, but he is irrelevant to ‘faith.’

Clearly, Kaehler’s thinking leads directly to Bultmann the great German theologian who dominated the first half of the twentieth century. In contrast to Kaehler, however, Bultmann was almost totally sceptical about recovering the ‘historical Jesus.’ A thorough existentialist (rather than a pietist) Bultmann rejected altogether the notion that one could have ‘faith’ in a figure of ‘history.’ ‘Faith’ cannot connect with ‘history’ and since (as a Lutheran) one is ‘justified by “faith”’ it meant that ‘history’ was not only irrelevant to ‘faith’ (Kaehler) but worse, ‘faith’ and ‘history’ are inimical.

By contrast, N T Wright, a scholar of our times insists on the importance and possibility of the recovery of the Jesus of history for ‘faith.’ See, in particular, N T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia, Fortress: 1996). Wright presents the historical Jesus as recognisable to his contemporaries as a prophet and as the Messiah of Israel.

Surprisingly, however, Wright has little to say about Jesus’ understanding of himself as ‘the Son’ and of Yahweh as his Abba / ‘’Father.’ Yet, as we shall see in a moment, it was this unimaginable sense of Jesus’ own filial identity and sense of God’s Fatherhood, revealed chiefly in private to the Twelve, that dominated the earliest Christians’ understanding of Jesus. But this Jesus, Jesus ‘the Son’ of his Abba, revealed by his careful teaching to the Twelve in private, is no less historical than the perception of him in public as a prophet. For his part, Jesus gives little support to declarations that he was a prophet (though clearly he was a prophet). When confessed at last by the disciples to be the Coming One, the Messiah, Jesus immediately redefines that Messiah in terms of the Son of his Father, a Sufferer for others (see Mark 8:31, 38).

In the opening lines of Romans where Paul is giving an apologia for his apostolate to the Gentiles he adapts an existing credal statement about Christ. Its vocabulary betrays its un-Pauline origins, though we do not know precisely the time and place of such origins. Yet (1) the Davidic reference locates these words in Palestine, and (2) mention of the resurrection and the archaic sounding ‘Spirit of holiness’ point towards an early date, perhaps as early as the thirties.

Contained in Paul’s apologia for his apostolate, then, is this neatly symmetrical creed about the Son of God.

the Gospel of God…
concerning his Son
who came of the seed of David, according to the flesh
who was set apart as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead
Jesus Christ our Lord
Romans 1:3-4

These words are extraordinarily important at these times when ‘other Jesuses’ are being found and when the connection is being cut between Jesus of Nazareth and the risen and exalted Lord.

1. The initial ‘concerning [God’s] Son’ is a freestanding statement that points to his absolute pre-existence. This pre-existent ‘Son’ is also found in the opening words of the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Hebrews.

2. This ‘Son’ ‘came’ (tou genomenou – not ‘born’) from Davidic descent. He was a Jewish man of that ‘royal’ and ‘messianic’ line in fulfillment of the prophecies of Nathan (2 Sam 7), Isaiah (Isa 11), Jeremiah (Jer 23) and Ezekiel (Ezek 34). This Davidic Messiah is the ‘Son of God…according to the flesh,’ the ‘historical’ Jesus, the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

3. This ‘Son’ continues in ‘back-to-back’ chronological sequence, and without interruption, following his resurrection as the ‘Son of God in power.’ This is ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ whom Christians worship and proclaim, to whom they plead for his speedy return (marana tha, ‘Come back, Lord’ – 1Cor 16:22).

Thus, working from the present backwards, we assert from this passage that ‘the Son of God in power,’ Jesus Christ our risen and exalted Lord, was on earth ‘Jesus, the Messianic ‘son of David,’ who before that was eternally and absolutely ‘the Son of God.’

Where did this early creed derive its content ? There can be only one satisfying answer historically, as opposed to dogmatically, must be – from Jesus himself. Jesus knew himself to be that eternal Son of God and taught the disciples that he was, indeed, that Son. His resurrection from the dead powerfully demonstrated that he was that Son. Equally he knew himself to be the Messiah, the long-awaited son of David. His messianic miracles, matchless life and stunning teaching convinced the disciples that he was the eagerly expected Coming One. His resurrection from the dead clinched that too.

This creed, as adapted by Paul in c. 57 for his Roman readers, probably goes back to the thirties. The credo adapted for the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) was probably formulated at about the same time. In other words, we are on firm historical ground in pointing to the earliness of credal statements about Jesus which were established only a year or two after the First Easter. As A D Nock, the master historian of ancient religions pointed out long ago, we are not looking at myth that developed over decades and centuries, as in Nordic cultures. Myth and brevity are inimical. The extreme brevity factor between the historical Jesus and these very early credal forms exclude mythical reconstruction. Rather, the formulators of the ‘Son of God’ creed were so close in time historically to Jesus ‘the Son’ that we can only conclude that these beliefs were the beliefs of Jesus himself. But such beliefs would have been utterly delusional apart from his resurrection from the dead. Because he did rise from the dead, everything he said and claimed as a historical person, to be the messianic and filial Son, was now incontrovertibly true.

Paul Barnett
Bishop of North Sydney

Christians through Roman Eyes

Delivered at Macquarie University 11 April, 1992
What did the pagans think of the early Christians ?
The three Romans I have chosen through whose eyes we see Christians are two early second century Roman governors Pliny and Tacitus and the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus.  Each is thoroughly Roman in his outlook.

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus took his post as Legate of Bithynia- Pontus (south of the Black Sea) in September 111 AD.  He died at his post less than two years later.

At 50 when appointed he was a youngish governor.

The nephew and adopted son of Pliny the famous naturalist and confidant of Vespasian and Titus, the younger Pliny received the best education available for an aristocratic Roman.  He complted his studies under Quintillian the noted rhetorician.  Pliny enjoyed reading the works of others as well as writing his numerous letters.  The tenth book of letters (60 letters, including Trajan’s replies) were written to the emperor while Pliny was governor of Bithynia-Pontus.

His education completed, Pliny became an advocate in a lower court devoted to property and inheritance matters.  But to fulfil the accepted career path he did a stint in the army – in Syria – but avoided active service, gravitating to a preferred posture, auditing the accounts of an auxiliary legion.  On return to Rome – where he remained until his posting to Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny rose in prominence as public figure – quastor of Domitian, tribune of the people, consul – the most honoured office, all before he was forty.  Thereafter he acted as prefect for military finances (managing a pension fund for disabled soldiers) then prefect of the state treasury.

After the death of Domitian, Pliny returned to private legal practice, awaiting the favour of the new emperor Trajan.  More prestigious appointments came – the coveted augurate, the same priesthood enjoyed by Cicero, on whose career Pliny consciously modelled himself.  Thereafter Pliny was elected president of the curators of the Tiber, the body responsible the riverbanks and the city sewer and sanitation.  In 109 or 110 he was appointed governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus, thus reaching the pinnacle of his career.  Pliny’s expertise in administration and finance was appropriate given the numerous problems of the cities of the province to which he was sent.

A meaure of Pliny’s love of Roman values may be seen in his letter to a friend who was governor of Achaia:

never forget…how much it means to establish order in the constitution of free cities, for nothing can serve a city like ordered rule and nothing is so precious as freedom

Pliny, Epistle  8.24

On his arrival Pliny began extensive travels, especially to the coastal cities, encountering municipal fraud, maladministration and – not least – worrying evidence of private clubs and associations (hetairia).  Trajan directed that these should disband, including fire-fighting associations.  Who knows what political consequences there might be if meetings outside the official body politic were permitted.

During these travels – but to a city not identified by Pliny – the governor came across the sect of the Christians, about whom he sought the emperor’s advice.

They … repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and…made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had brought into court for this purpose along with
images of the gods) and moreover had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things … any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Pliny, Epistle 10


Tacitus (b. 56-d.117) was a friend and contemporary of Pliny, though not so well known. (Naturally, Pliny’s letters tell us more about Pliny than Tacitus’ historical works reveal about Tacitus).  Tacitus studied rhetoric and became famous as a speaker, as well as a historian, even within his lifetime.  A committed republican, he preferred the Roman republic at its worst to the Imperial system at its best.

A native of Narbonese, Gaul, Tacitus pursued a senatorial career under Vespasian. Under Domitian the tyrant Tacitus was appointed praetor 88, consul 88.  Trajan appointed him Proconsul to the very important province of Asia 112-113 – a measure of his competence ? – thus he held his appointment at the same time as his friend Pliny in Bithynia-Pontus, the adjoining province.

It is significant that these two contemporaries in adjoining provinces – where there were concentrations of Christians – should be the first Romans to refer to the new religion, and at about the same time. The Annals, written c.116, is separated from Christus and his execution by more than 80 years.  Tacitus’ sources of information about Christus are not known. Tacitus would have had access to Pilate’s official report of the crucifixion of Christ in Judaea, but such a report may not have been lodged in Rome. Possibly such a trial may not have been deemed worth the effort or it may have been one of many irregular trials which, according to Philo, occurred in Judaea under Pilate. More probably, however,  Tacitus’ information arose from unofficial sources.

Tacitus has no interest in the origins of Christianity for their own sake.  He is narrating the era of Nero and the great fire of Rome in 64.  Christians and Christus the founder are part of that story and only for that reason are they mentioned.

[The Christians'] originator Christ had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.
But in spite of this temporary set back the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea , but even in Rome…

Annals of Imperial Rome  xv.44

Critical to Tacitus’ account is the application of the word superstition (superstitio) to the Christians, which disease-like not been eradicated with the execution of Christus in Judaea but broke out afresh in Judaea from which it had spread to Rome, whither in time all such plagues eventually arrive.

Thus Tacitus speaks of Christians in same terms as Pliny, and another from that same aristocratic class, Suetonius (“a new and wicked superstitio“).  The movement of the Christians was a superstitio, which was spreading like a disease throughout the empire.  We detect a sense of fear in these writers.

So what was a superstitio ?

It will not do to simply equate superstitio with our word “superstition.”  By our definition, the Romans were quite “superstitious”; one thinks of their deference to the omens, entrails and the like, which in so accomplished and rational a people strike us as odd.

By superstitio they meant something different, namely, beliefs and practices that were strange to the Romans; cults from nations conquered by the Romans which impinged on Roman government both in the provinces and in Rome itself.

Judaism is an example.  Although for political reasons Augustus and Tiberius afforded some protection for the numerous Jews within the empire, to Tacitus they were “a people prone to superstition and the enemy of true religion” [1]. This resembles his reference in the Annals to the Christians’ “hatred of the human race.”

Roman religion was public and civic in character.  It had priests, rites and ceremonies. It had a private expression, a domestic expression as well as an expression in associations and groups. But these were always a function of a piety that was associated with the Roman state.  The Roman gods were seen as binding society together.  Cicero wrote that “disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all virtues” [2].  Piety including to the minutiae of ceremonial observation (eg the feeding of chickens in a precise way) contributed to the well-being of society, through the providentia of the gods. Piety brought providence.

The Romans distinguished religion from superstition. “Religion has always been distinguished from superstition,” wrote Cicero.  For superstition implies groundless fear of the gods” whereas religion consisted in “pious worship of the gods” [3].  Other writers (e.g., Plutarch) declared that superstition sets people off from the rest of society because it is marked by terror of the deities and also by fanaticism.  Plutarch wrote that the superstitious man “enjoys no world in common with the rest of mankind”.  To him the gods are “rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel and easily offended” [4].

This, then, would have approximated to Tacitus¹ abhorrence of Christians. He would have seen them as at odds with his view of Roman order and the relationship between religion and that order.  They were a superstitio.

And yet for Christians, as for Jews, the state occasions when the community gathered were a difficulty precisely because of their religious character.  As one contemporary said: “What is a stage show without a god, a game without a sacrifice ” [5].  Thus the Romans chided the Christians, according to the Christian Minucius Felix, [6]:

You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror  from our sacred games.

Hollywood’s portrayal of the Romans as lurid and debauched – influenced perhaps by the rhetorical excesses of Suetonius and Juvenal – is not true of the Roman writers Pliny and Tacitus.  According to their lights they were moral and upright.  Their attitudes towards Christians did not spring from profligate behaviour so much as from their concern for the order of the state and the danger to the state of non-Roman cults, which were private in nature and fanatical, in a word from the effects of superstitio, the spreading disease of Christian superstitio.

Ammianus Marcellinus

A Greek born in Antioch (330-d.395), Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a massive history – Res Gestae -covering AD 98-378 (Trajan to the battle of Adrianople) in Latin in self-conscious continuation with Tacitus (31 books – 1-13 lost; 13-31 cover 353-378 in fine detail, much on eye-witness basis).

As a young man Ammianus served in army under Julian the Apostate, from whom he may have heard criticisms of Christianity.  (Julian was to launch a literary attack Christian beliefs). Nonetheless, Ammianus writes without the animosity of Pliny and Tacitus, though in a somewhat deprecating tone (“synods as they call them” – suggesting Christianity was not by then well established, which it was).  His branding of laws forbidding Christian rhetoricians and grammarians as “harsh” is a direct criticism of Julian the author of those laws.  Even though he generally admires Julian he is prepared to criticise him. [7]

XXI.16 refers to Constantius II, an Arian emperor, at the height of the synodical disputes over Arianism, with many synods and much travelling by bishops at state expense.

Ammianus is not so much anti-Christian per se, as prepared to much criticisms where they were applicable. In XXI.16 it is a silly emperor and incessant seemingly pointless theological disputes which he criticizes.

In another place he notes the dissensions among Christians and their antipathy towards those with whom they differed.  Because of these dissensions Julian the Apostate had nothing to fear from the [Christian] common people, “having found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men as are most Christians to one another” [8]

Again, he criticizes the disputes between Damasus (Bishop of Rome) and his rival Ursinus which led to the slaughter of 137 in the Christian basilica of Sicinius.  He comments sardonically that he understands why there should be such disputes among Christian leaders since, he writes,

“after they have succeeded, they will be free from care for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly and feasting luxuriously so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets. And they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, behind which they hide their faults, they were to live in imitation of some of the bishops of the provinces, whom the most rigid abstinence of eating and drinking, and plainness of apparel, and eyes always cast on the ground, recommend to the everlasting deity and his pure worshippers as pure and reverent men”

Res Gestae XXVII.3.12-15

Ammianus is an unbeliever, an admirer of the Apostate Julian.  Nonetheless, he can criticize Julian for foolishness or unfairness. Equally, he can see good in Christians where they are true to their profession of faith and behaviour. But he is not slow in noticing behaviour which is at odds with Christian values. As such he knows more about Christians than Pliny and Tacitus and is more moderate in his assessments.


1. Tacitus The History 5:13

2. Cicero, Nat. D. 1.4

3. Cicero, Nat. D. 117; 2.72

4. Plutarch, On Superstition 166C, 170C

5. Pseudo-Cyprian, De spectaculis 4

6. Minucius Felix Octavius 12

7. eg when Julian made an fool of himself in Antioch – Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.14.3

8. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII 5.4

Revelation in its Roman setting

The Imperial Cult in Asia 

After the Macedonian conquest of the region in the fourth century BC western Anatolia became one of the so called “Hellenistic Kingdoms”, specifically the Kingdom of the Attalids based on the city of Pergamum.  As from129 BC, however, this kingdom was absorbed within the Roman provincial system, becoming the Roman province of Asia.  Scholars debate whether the capital was Pergamum or Ephesus.  To secure the goodwill of Rome the Greek cities of this region established temples and rituals to “the goddess Roma ”  The first such temple was erected in Smyrna in 195 BC, before the creation of the province of Asia (Tacitus, Annals, iv.56).

To celebrate Augustus’ gift of peace to the world after decades of civil war the cities of Asia decided in 9 BC to change the Macedonian calendar so that in Asia New Year’s day henceforth would be observed on 23 September, the birthday of the “saviour and god” Augustus (OGIS 458).  Myra hailed him as “the god Augustus Caesar, son of a god, ruler of land and sea, benefactor and saviour of the whole world” (IGRR,III,719).  At Halicarnassus Augustus was described in an inscription as “the benefactor of the race of men, who has not only fulfilled our greatest hopes, but has even surpassed them, for the land and sea are safe, and cities flourish in peace and concord, and in prosperity (IBM iv, I, 894).

This veneration of Rome and her emperor occurred even though no Roman emperor visited Asia Minor before the second century.  Nevertheless extensive provision had been made for his veneration  as from the time of Roman annexation of the region in the second century BC.  Rituals were performed on an institutionalized and regular basis.

It is well known that Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius and Nero strongly discouraged the cultic worship of  living emperors, including themselves. (Suetonius, Augustus, 53; Suetonius, Tiberius 26; P.Lond.; Tacitus, Annals xv.74). The peoples of the east, however, were glad to accord divine honours to the emperor.  The first temple for the deity of Augustus was erected at Pergamum in 29 BC (Tacitus, Annals, iv.37).  According to the Revelation Pergamum is “where Satan dwells” (2:13). The imperial cult spread from Pergamum throughout the province and beyond.

For this purpose temples were built, various ceremonies  - hymns, prayers, sacrifices –  were conducted, which in turn involved priests and other celebrants. There were at least eighty temples for the imperial cult in sixty cities in the region of Anatolia.  These were grand and monumental in character, on a par with and in many cases surpassing the temples for the gods.  The architecture did not allow the citizens to forget to honour the emperor.  Ephesus, for example, had four imperial temples, a shrine for Antoninus, an imperial portico and four gymnasia connected with the imperial cult.

Cultic celebrations for Rome and the emperor were held on many occasions within public life – at gladiatorial games and animal fights which had become popular through Roman influence, at athletic contests in the stadia and the gymnasia, and at the various joyous city-wide festivals for the gods .  At such celebrations in towns and villages all the citizens would enjoy a day free from work and wear garlands during the processions.  The sacrifices to the gods and to the emperor would be followed by a feast. The veneration of Rome was easily amalgamated with existing ceremonies for the local deities ( such as for both Artemis and Dionysius at Ephesus).

Moreover,  ritual for Rome and her Sebastos also occurred at gatherings of private associations, as for example at the choir of Rome and Augustus at Pergamum. This group met in a special building and sang hymns beside the altar during sacrifices of ritual cakes and incense which were offered to Augustus.  Burning lamps illuminated the statues and paintings of the emperor.

Worship of the imperial cult also commonly occurred in private homes.  One of the villas excavated at Ephesus contains the words written on the walls, “Rome, the ruler of all, your power will never die.”  Busts and images of the emperor were on sale in the shops.  There is extensive evidence that houses typically contained such focii for the worship of the emperor.  It was the practice that a householder offered sacrifice to the emperor as religious processions passed by his door.

The greatest focus of the cult, however, was the image of the emperor. These existed in portable form, as busts and paintings, and also in non-portable form as statues.  The statues of the emperors,  all romantically heroic in presentation, appear in three modes – the emperor in civilian clothes (usually the toga), in military dress and naked (see fig 2).  The latter mode was presenting the emperor as a god.( The gods were represented without clothing).  A naked statue of Hadrian in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Pergamum has inscribed on its base: “god Hadrian”.

These cult statues were of of colossal size.  Statues of Trajan and Hadrian at Pergamum would have been 5m high (judging from the size of remaining limbs) whereas Domitian at Ephesus would have been 8m high (if standing, 5m high if seated).  The great size of the statues of the emperors appears to have been intended to create an awesome impact on the populace, to have them understand the parity of the emperor with the gods.

Particular use was made of these statues of the emperors.

Sacrifice was offered in the presence of such statues. The offering of incense and wine was common. The sacrifice of a bull was appropriate on more prestigious occasions.  Coins from Pergamum and Ephesus represent the sacrifice of a bull. It is not clear whether these sacrifices were offered to the emperor or were thought to be offered by the emperor to the gods, by his statue, representatively.

Smaller images and paintings of the emperor were carried in procession by bearers known as Sebastophoroi.  One of their functions was to reveal (phainein) the god-emperor, for example by holding the bust or painting in such a way that the people would look with reverence at the imperial image.

Imperial statues also served as places of refuge or asylum. This may have carried over from the asylum afforded by the statue of Artemis in the precincts of her famous temple in Ephesus.  Slaves frequently sought refuge from cruel owners by fleeing to an imperial statue.

Not unnaturally the statue of the emperor was believed to give special power or protection to the city or town in which it was located.

Already the mere appearance of the image (eikon) of the king has  created victory and granted calm and security to the inhabitants.  (Corpus Hermeticum  xviii 16).

The Historical Context of the Revelation

As from 129 BC the imperial cult had grown dramatically within the province of Asia. Each of the seven cities/towns addressed in the Revelation was located at a site of the imperial cult .  The Christian communities in those cities/towns were troubled by syncretism and by harassment from the Jews.  But the Apocalypse, taken as a whole, especially chapters 12-21, makes it quite clear that the overwhelming problem faced by these churches was connected with the worship of the imperial image.

The writer, John, was in all probability a short term political prisoner (relegatio ad insulum ?) on the Island of Patmos.  It is clear from his great knowledge both of the  seven cities/towns  and of the circumstances of their Christian congregations that John was a formidable leader not just of one Christian community but of at least seven communities  which were spread over a considerable area within proconsular Asia. It is quite likely that he had voiced objections to the imperial cult (in the streets of Ephesus ?) and was sent to Patmos to get him out of the way.

The imperial cult, however, was no new thing.  Indeed it had been part of the scene in Roman Asia for well over a century at the time John wrote the Apocalypse. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that something had occurred in the recent past which had brought things to a head.

The commonly held belief is that the catalyst which precipitated John’s book was the policy towards his own divinity adopted by Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors.  This is well attested in the ancient sources. Dio Cassius wrote that, “Domitian even insisted on being considered a god and was exceedingly proud to be called ‘master’ and ‘god’ (dominus et deus -Roman History LXVII.v.7; cf Suetonius, Domitian,13).” The court poet, Statius, unctuously refers to his master as, ” offspring and sire of mighty deities …whose godhead I heard from afar ” (Silvae I.i.66).

Domitian is known to have persecuted Jews as well as the followers of the Stoic philosophy. He was assassinated in his bed chamber by his own household servant,  whereupon the  Roman Senate declared him to be “of damned memory”. The younger Pliny wrote of him as “a fearful monster [who] built his defences with untold terrors, where lurking in his den he licked up the blood of murdered relatives or emerged to plot the massacre and destruction of his most distinguished subjects. Menaces and horrors were the sentinels at his doors (Panegyricus 48).  Pliny’s rhetorical excesses aside, we are left with a very negative impression of Domitian.

The regime of Domitian may have particularly impacted on the people of Asia in a specific way, namely the recent building of a temple for Domitian at Ephesus. This was the first  temple in Ephesus to be dedicated to a Roman emperor.  Cities of Asia competed for the privilege of erecting a temple for the emperor. The city of Ephesus was granted this honour, and with it the much sought after title neokoros, “temple sweeper”. The temple of Domitian was erected at great expense by the Ephesians on the best and most central site in the city, opposite the state agora.  Outside the temple was a colossal statue of the emperor, 5m or 8m high depending whether Domitian was seated or standing.  The well preserved head of the emperor was placed in the museum at Selcuk [near Ephesus] in 1989.

It may well be that the creation of the temple of Domitian and the erection of his statue provoked not merely the writing of Revelation 13, but  of the whole of the Apocalypse.

There is reason to believe that, evil as Domitian was seen to be by the Christians, he was viewed as a kind of incarnation of the real monster, Nero. John refers to “seven kings” (17:10-11):

the five [who ] have fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, Nero.

the one [who] is is Vespasian [69-79]

the other [who] is not yet
come and who must remain
for a little while is Titus [79-81]

the beast who once was
and now is not is an eighth king…   Domitian [81-96]

belongs to the seven
and is going to destruction         Nero reincarnate.

Nero was the first persecutor of Christians.  It is quite probable that “Babylon the Great…drunk with the blood of the saints” (17:5-6) refers back to Nero’s pogrom against the Christians in Rome, which is so vividly described by Tacitus (Annals xv.44).  John may be here portraying Nero/Domitian as a parody of God’s true king, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (5:5). Just as Jesus was (incarnate life) and is not (ascension) but will come again (parousia) so too,  Nero once was, now is not and yet will come, but as Domitian the beast, destined not for triumph but for destruction (17:8,11).

Revelation 13  refers to “one of the heads of the beast which seemed to have a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed” (v.3). Although there was great rejoicing at the death of Nero (Suetonius, Nero, 57), it had been believed that he would  come back from the dead and ascend to a throne in the east – Jerusalem or Parthia (Suetonius, Nero, 40) and return to rule the empire.  The year after his death a pretender emerged claiming to be Nero (Tacitus, Histories, ii,8,9). Other pretenders arose in 80 and 88, keeping the hopes alive that he would somehow return.  It is likely that the “fatal wound …healed” refers to the fear that Nero would return  and that he had in fact returned in the persona of Domitian.

Thus Revelation portrays a kind of climax of evil.  It originates not with any human, but with the great red dragon who wages war successively against God, against the man child Christ  and then with Christ’s people  - first in Judaea and then in Asia.

This we take to be some elements of the setting of the Apocalypse, and in particular chapters 12-13.

Further reading:

P. Barnett,  ”Polemical Parallelism: Some Further Reflections on the Apocalypse”, JSNT 35 (1989) 111-120.

R. Bauckham, “The Worship of Jesus in Apocalyptic Christianity”, NTS 27/3 (1981) 322-341.

D. Georgi,  ”Who is the True Prophet ?” HTR 79/1-3 (1986) 100-126.

B.F.Harris,  ”Domitian, the Emperor, Cult and Revelation”, Prudentia  xi/l (1979) 15-25.

S.R.F. Price,  Rituals of Power, (Cambridge, CUP, 1984).

S.J.Scherrer,  ”Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult”, JBL 103/4 (1984) 599-610.

Other works:

D.E. Aune “The Apocalypse of John and Graeco-Roman Revelatory Magic”, NTS 33 (1987) 481-501.

E.M. Boring,”The Theology of Revelation”, Interpretation XL/3 (1986) 257-269.

A.Y. Collins, “The Political Perspective of the Revelation of John”, JBL 96/2 (1977) 241-256.  ”Vilification and Self-Definition in the Book of Revelation”,   HTR 79/1-3 (1986) 308-320

T.R.Edgar, “Babylon: Ecclesiastical, Political, or What?” Journal of the   Evangelical Theological Society 25/3 (1982) 333-341.

E.S. Fiorenza,”The Eschatology and Composition of the Apocalypse”,  CBQ  XXX/4 (1968) 537-569.

“The Quest for the Johannine School: the Apocalypse and   the Fourth Gospel”, NTS 23 (19  ) 402-427

S.J. Scherrer,  ”Signs andWonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at  a Roman Religious Institution in the Light of Rev 13:13-15″,   JBL 103/4 (1984) 599-610 .

L. Thompson, “A Sociological Analysis of Tribulation in the Apocalypse of John”, Semeia (1986)147-174.

The Resurrection of Jesus A Fact of History

Some notes on the resurrection and reference to an important new book.  

1. The Faith of the People of God

The resurrection of Jesus is central to Christianity. Without the resurrection there is no Christianity. This centrality is expressed within the great Creeds, but also in our classical and well loved hymns. For two thousand years the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has been fundamental to hope for life beyond the grave for both oneself and for our loved ones who have died as believers in Christ. Take the resurrection away and there is nothing left, neither the forgiveness of sins nor any possibility that Jesus was the Son of God .

But where does our belief in Jesus’ resurrection come from? Is it merely a nice and helpful idea but nothing more? Is it a just an intellectual projection into the air, as flimsy as a cloud, with no substance to it to support our faith and hope?

Our faith and hope in Jesus’ resurrection rests on the testimony of the New Testament. The four Gospels report that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was raised alive bodily from death. This, too, is the emphatic teaching of the Epistles, the book of Acts and the Revelation. Our faith and hope are directed to the word of God, the Gospel which springs from the Bible.

But is that Biblical testimony true ? In other words, did the resurrection of Jesus actually happen? Is the resurrection of Jesus a fact of history? Based on the available evidence can an honest and sensible person conclude that Jesus was raised alive?

So what is the evidence?

2. Historical Evidence

Five facts, at least, emerge from historical reflection.

Fact 1
After death by crucifixion in mid afternoon Friday Jesus was laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb before sundown (the beginning of the Sabbath).

a. Each of the four Gospels teach this, including Mark and John, which are written independently of each other.
b. The Joseph detail is unlikely to be false because it is so easily checked. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, of high profile.
c. Jesus’ en-tombment (in a rock tomb not a grave) is also implied in 1 Cor 15:4, an early source independent of the Gospels.

Fact 2
On the Sunday morning following the crucifixion Joseph’s tomb was empty:

a. Each of the four Gospels, including John and Mark, say this.
b. Because women’s testimony was then worthless, this is an unhelpful detail therefore not likely to have been invented.
c. The pre-Pauline ‘received’ tradition of 1 Cor 15:4 is consistent.
d. Jews’ allegation of disciples’ theft shows the body was missing and the tomb was empty. The empty tomb a secure fact of history.

Fact 3
Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was against Jewish religious culture:

a. Jews had no belief in a dying much less a resurrected Messiah.
b. As crucified Jesus was deemed ‘accursed of God’ (Deut 21:23).
c. No individual would ‘rise’ ahead of ‘the universal resurrection of the dead.’

Fact 4
References to Jesus’ resurrection rests on a twofold independent tradition:

‘First day of the week’ [early] – recorded in each of the four gospels:

Women (who witnessed the entombment Friday) now found the tomb empty.

‘Raised on the third day’ –

‘[Christ] was raised on the third day’
(as ‘handed over’ to Paul – 1 Cor 15:3)

‘God raised him on the third day’
(Peter’s witness to Cornelius – Acts 10:40).

The ‘third day’ tradition becomes part of the early church’s faith as found in church creeds in the second century then the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.

The ‘first day’ and ‘third day’ traditions, though independent, converge on the same point, that by Sunday morning the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been ‘raised’ alive.

Fact 5
The immediate rise of a discrete Christian community in Jerusalem, which along its ‘the faith,’ Saul soon tried to destroy (Gal 1:13,23) is inexplicable apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Saul’s persecution of the church in Jerusalem is historically secure.

Fact 6
The otherwise inexplicable changes in life direction of key people:

Peter ready to go back fishing in Galilee, becomes a world leader.
James previously not a follower of his brother; becomes leader in Jerusalem. Saul/Paul eminent scholar/persecutor becomes apostle of Christ

This information incidentally gleaned not intentionally / apologetically given.

Careers of each traceable next 30 or so years.

Far from ‘easy’ relationships between them (collusion unimaginable).

Each died as martyrs.

From these six facts we draw the following reasonable conclusions from the NT:

The risen Jesus appeared
within discrete period of forty days (Acts 1:3)
on at least twelve separate occasions
to between 500-600 people (1 Cor 15:6)
in Jerusalem and Galilee.

a. Paul’s ‘received’ list (1 Cor 15:5-7) has checkable names of living people (Peter, James, the twelve).
b. Gospels’ names of living people also checkable (e.g., Mary, Cleopas).
c. While Mark has no recorded appearances, they are presupposed (Mark 8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:34; 14:28; 16:7).

3. Implications: God’s act of raising Jesus vindicates Jesus’ deity claims

Jesus claimed the ‘authority’

to forgive sins (and to heal as visible evidence)
to be the judge of all in the Last Day
to be ‘Lord of the Sabbath’
to say ‘Amen, I say unto you.’
whom to ‘sell all and to follow’ as a disciple is to ‘keep’ the Law.

Jesus died at the hands of men as a blasphemer, and the accursed of God. God raised him from the dead in vindication of Jesus’ implied deity claims.

The gospel of God
hich he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
the gospel concerning his Son,
ho was descended from David
according to the flesh,
and designated the Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead.
(Rom 1:2-4)

4. Alternative explanations don’t stack up

Hoax by apostles
(But the early leaders were often at odds).

Mistaken identity (Qu’ran – the prophet would not be crucified)
(But the High Priest would not have allowed the Romans to crucify the wrong man)

‘Swoon’ theory (Venturini, Thiering, Lüdemann).
(Crucified people don’t walk anywhere again, including to Emmaus two days later!)

Stolen body (ancient Jewish)
(Variation of a hoax theory, conceived at the outset and sustained ???)

Women went to the wrong tomb (Kirsopp Lake)
(Women were nearby at entombment).

Osiris myth: Jesus in the underworld of the dead (Frazer)
(Jesus is not Lord of the dead, but of the living).

Hallucinations or visions of the disciples (Spong but not original to him)
(But this would scarcely overcome their sense of shame at the ‘accursed’ and hundreds of people don’t have the same vision).

The lack of consensus about the alternatives itself testifies to the strength of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

5. An Important New Book

An important new book has appeared recently on the resurrection. Don’t be put off by the title, which doesn’t match the contents. It is not so much about Jesus as his resurrection.

P. Copan (Ed.), Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up ? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

This book is the written up version of a debate between a noted scholar in resurrection studies (William Lane Craig) and a prominent liberal scholar (John Dominic Crossan). Crossan is supplemented by fellow liberals Robert Miller and Marcus Borg and Craig by fellow conservatives Craig Blomberg and Ben Witherington. The book that emerges is lively, relevant and up to date.

Other reading on the resurrection:

P.W. Barnett, The Truth About Jesus (Sydney: Aquila, 1994).
P.W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Leicester: IVP, 1997).
W.L. Craig, The Historical Argument for the for the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewison: Edwin Mellen, 1985).

6. The Resurrection and Preaching Today.

Ours is an age of despair and a loss of hope. This is evident from the rampant drug culture and from escalating youth suicides. The moral failure of a world leader like Clinton has brought widespread disillusionment. The previous boundless hopes in science have been replaced by postmodern doubts about human capacities to bring Utopia.

Although Christ’s death is historically and theologically inseparable from his resurrection the apostles certainly placed great emphasis on Jesus’ victory over death as the basis of personal hope and a radical new world view and as a basis from which to call people to repentance.

Contemporary Christian preaching and witness needs to recapture that emphasis, based on the sure conviction that the resurrection of the Lord really happened as a fact of history and not merely as a box to tick in a theological system. Jesus’ resurrection split history and has given to us who believe in him a true hope in the kingdom of God yet to be unveiled. Death and the Devil have not had the last word. God has had that last word, in raising his Son from the dead.

Polemic Parallelism: some further reflections on the Apocalypse

It was with characteristic insight that, in 1910, Adolph Deissmann commented:  

The cult of Christ goes forth into the world of the Mediterranean and soon displays the endeavour to reserve for Christ the  words already in use for worship in that world, words that had  just been transferred to the deified emperors or had perhaps  been invented in emperor worship. Thus there arises a  polemical parallelism between the cult of the emperor and the  cult of Christ, which makes itself felt where ancient words  derived by Christianity from the treasury of the Septuagint and  the gospels happen to coincide with solemn concepts of the  Imperial cult which sounded the same or similar. (1)

Immediately post-war E. Stauffer developed this theme of parallelism in the chapter “Domitian and John” in his semi-popular Christ and the Caesars. (2) More recently, as the Apocalypse has been subjected to  extensive scrutiny in light of its context in contemporary Graeco-Roman history, Deissmann’s descriptive phrase has become even more appealing.

1. Parallelism  in the Apocalypse

Once the idea is recognised it can be seen at many points by a straight forward reading of the text of the Apocalypse, especially in chapters 12-22.

The evil element in the parallel is probably to be identified in specific ways.  Clearly Babylon is Rome.  The “great harlot” is perhaps Messalina,  promiscuous wife of Claudius. (3) (Cf Juvenal, Satire VI,116-124; Tacitus, Annals XI,31). The beast from the sea is Caesar and the beast from the earth = the false prophet is the high priest of the Roman cult in Asia.

The parallels are as follows:

a.  The imagery of the godly woman–persecuted in chapter 12, the wife of the Lamb in chapter 21– is paralleled by the “great harlot” in chapter 17.

b.  The new Jerusalem, the holy city in chapters 21/22 corresponds with but surpasses by far Babylon the great in chapter 18.

c. “The Lamb…as though slain” (hos esphagmenon–5.6,12;13.8) is parallelled by “the [sea] beast” one of whose heads “seemed to have a mortal wound” (hos esphagmenen–13.3). The beast is taken to be the Roman Emperor, perhaps represented in the province of Asia in the persona of the Proconsul.

d. The beast has an image and those who worship him have the mark of his name on their foreheads (13.15-17;14.9,11;16.2;19.20;20.4). In parallel but by contrast the servants of the Lamb who worship him, and who refuse to worship the beast, will bear the name of the Lamb on their foreheads (22.3-4).

e.  The community of Christ, the bride of the Lamb, characterised by chastity, truthfulness and endurance(14.4-5), is paralleled by the community of the beast, the great harlot, characterised by murder, fornication, sorcery and falsehood (21.8).

2. The Message of the Apocalypse :  Worship God

The most urgent challenge by the writer  of the Apocalypse to his readers is that men worship God the creator and judge and the redeemer-Lamb, not the pseudo and pretentious counterpart, the Roman Emperor, by means of the Imperial Cult which had spread rapidly throughout the dozens of cities of Roman Asia.

It is well-known that Domitian sought to  be called “Lord and God” and that a large statue of the emperor had recently been erected in a specially constructed temple in Ephesus, the leading city in the province of Asia (Suetonius, Domitian13; Dio Cassius, Roman History LXVII.V.7.). (4)

R. Bauckham comments that ” …the conflict between God and Satan takes historical form in the conflict of human allegiances manifest in worship. The Apocalypse divides mankind into the worshippers of the dragon and the beast…and those who will worship God in the heavenly Jerusalem”. (5) The eternal gospel, as declared by the Apocalypse is: “Fear God and give him glory…worship [God]” (14.7). John says, repeatedly, Do not worship the beast (14.9,11;16.2;19.20; 20.4); worship God (15.4; 19.4,10; 22.8).

What is meant by worship?  Ritual and ceremony are clearly intended by John. The many passages in the Apocalypse where evangelic proclamation is followed by worshipful response are suggestive of congregation proclamation echoed by worshipful praise. In  governor Pliny’s account of the trial of christians in nearby Bithynia a few years later we have a description of the worship of Caesar used as a test of the beliefs of Christians:

They … repeated after me a formula of invocation to the  gods  and…made offerings of wine  and incense to your  statue  (which I had brought into court for this purpose along with  images of the gods) and moreover had reviled the name of  Christ: none of which things…any genuine christian can be  induced to do.  (Epistle 96, LCL).

The passage from Pliny’s Epistle to the Emperor shows that  ritual was used to ascertain the true  loyalties of those involved.  To affirm Caesar as god was to deny Christ  as Lord.  To affirm Christ as Lord was to deny Caesar as god. Worship, whether pagan or christian gave expression to one’s deepest convictions. The many expressions of worship in the Apocalypse affirm from the heart and with the mouth that God Almighty and the Lamb were worthy to entrust one’s  all to, but that Caesar and his image were not.  Worship is the mind’s conviction and the mouth’s confession that reality, truth and goodness are to be found in God and the Lamb and not in any other.

3. Parallelism in Roman Ritual and the Apocalypse

D.E.Aune has explored several areas in which ideas in the Apocalypse run parallel with thought and practice in the Graeco-Roman world.  In one article he argues that much of the symbolism in the Apocalypse has been influenced by the Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial. It is not, however, that the author, John, has merely copied from his political and cultural environment.  In Aune’s words:

The author of the Apocalypse was thoroughly convinced  that the claims of Caesar were antithetical to those of Christ. So convinced that he regarded any compromise  as impossible and any accomodation as blasphemy. So convinced that he produced an elaborately designed and ingeniously crafted literary work  in which he both heightened and schematised that antithesis to persuade his wavering readers that his perceptions were not only right, they coincided with the perspectives of God himself. Basic  to the structure of his thought is his perception of the dragon and the beast….as a diabolic duo who function as counterfeit counterparts to God and the Lamb. (6)

Aune is especially interested in “the heavenly ceremonial practised in throne room of God” which, he says, “bears such a striking resemblance to the ceremonial of the imperial court and cult that the latter can only be a parody of the former”. (7) He notices parallels in a number of  areas.

First, the role of God in the Apocalypse, which is passive and concerned with “dispensing justice”, corresponds with the “primary role of the Roman emperor, which from the time of Julius Caesar on, was that of rendering justice”. (8)

Second, the outer encirclement of the Enthroned One by the Twenty Four Elders, the inner encirclement by the four living creatures and the overarching vaulted rainbow (ch.4) may parallel, yet infinitely surpass, the Golden House built by Nero after the great fire AD 64. According to Suetonius

“The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens” (Nero 31.2).

That the face of the one like a son of man “shone like the sun shining in full strength” (1.16) may suggest a parodying of Nero, who depicted himself as Apollo Helios. (cf. Suetonius, Nero 25). (9)

Third, the fifteen or so hymn-like passages in the Apocalypse, which are usually in a two-beat format (evangelic declaration and worshipful response) are now not thought to have been adapted from church liturgies, but to have been John’s own composition.  Aune points out that hymns and acclamations, often antiphonal or responsive in form, were frequently directed to Hellenistic rulers and that the practice had become common in the west by New Testament times. Tacitus reports that Nero was accompanied everywhere by five thousand equestrians called Augustiani who continually acclaimed the emperor:

Then it was that Roman knights were enrolled under the title of Augustiani, men in their prime and  remarkable for their strength… Day and night they kept up a thunder of applause, and applied to  the emperor’s person the voice and epithet of  deities (Annals 14.15)

Fourth, it is noted that a further characteristic of the Apocalypse is the praise of the Lord God Almighy and of the Lamb was sung by vast throngs of the redeemed and of angels (5.13; 7.9-12;19.6-8).  Aune links this with the ancient argumentum e consensu omnium, that is, the very serious place given to the governed in the making of emperors and the legitimating of their taking power.  Aune refers to a formulaic phrase  in the  Res Gestae  34 : “per consenum universorum potitus rerum omnium” : “by universal consent taking control of all things”, a concept that would be repeated many times during the principate of Augustus and his successors.

According to Aune (10) the consensus omnium became very important in the period after Nero and not only to legitimate a Princeps’ imperial accession but also at the time of his adventus, that is,  his arrival at a place with all due pomp and pagaentry.  The same applied to the arrival of a provincial governor or visiting dignitary, though with lesser ceremony. The third century rhetorician Menander stated, in an imperial panegyric:

[You say] … “We have all gone out to meet you for
your welcome, with our whole families, children,
old men and men in their prime, the priestly
families, the city council and people at large. We
were all glad in our hearts (and expressed) it
with acclamations calling you our saviour and
wall, a most radiant star, and children called you
their nourisher and saviour of their parents
(quoted Aune).

Aune  shows that the argumentum e consensu omnium had become very important by the end of the first century in imperial propaganda. This may explain the pointedness of the universal, cosmic and eternal acclamation of the Lord God and of the Lamb.

Fifth, Aune and many others, including Deissmann, notes the critical parallel between the honorific titles of Christ and Caesar.  Terms used of both include “son of god”, “god”,”lord”,  ”saviour”.

Aune concludes that:    For the most part the individual constituents of [Roman  Imperial] ceremonial used by John in his depiction of the  heavenly ceremonial have been heightened, expanded and give  even greater cosmic significance.  The result is that the  sovereignty of God and of the Lamb have been elevated so far  above the pretentions and claims of earthly rulers that the  latter, upon comparison, become only pale, even diabolical  imitations of the transcendent majesty of the King of kings and  Lord of lords. (12)

4. Who is the True Prophet?

A further example of parallelism between the Apocalypse and Roman society has been raised by D. Georgi’s question, which is the title of his important article: “Who is the true prophet ?” (13) The precise answer is that John is the true prophet and that what he has written is true prophecy. John refers repearedly to “the book of this prophecy” ( 1.1-4; 22.6-9). If John is the true prophet who then is the false prophet  about whom we read in the Apocalypse ?

Against the opinion of Georgi, which we will outline below, it must be said that strict historical exegesis requiresthat we identify the “false prophet” with “the beast … out of the earth” (19.20; 13.11-18). Recent study in the Imperial Cult in Asia make it clear that  John means his readers to think of the false prophet as the High Priest (archiereus) of the Province. (14) The archiereus officiated at  the numerous and diverse cultic activities and also presided at the Provincial Assembly of Asia (Koinon Asias –). (15) It was the archiereus of Asia, a local dignitary, who according to John,

“exercises all the authority of the first beast…
and makes all the inhabitants worship the first beast …
works signs…causes all…to be marked…so that no one can buy or sell
unless he has the mark…” (13.12-17).

Georgi, however, may be correct in identifying the false prophet more broadly.  Georgi  expresses surprise that New Testament students , in their preoccupation with eschatology, have neglected an obvious field of  enquiry, one that is contemporary with the New Testament, namely Roman texts. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue is well known to christians as expressing a striking parallel to the gospel of Christ:

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden age arise….
Apollo reigns.  And in thy consulate
Tis glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,
And the months enter on their mighty march.

According to Virgil, with the birth of Augustus, a new breed come down from heaven, a new, golden age began in which the god Apollo now reigns.

Georgi points out that Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue is by no means alone as a text of the Augustan age which promises that the new age has now come. (16) He refers in particular to Horace’s Carmen saeculare, commissioned for the celebration of the Secular Games, the official jubilee for the foundation of the Republic.  The Secular Games were an instrument for dividing the epochs. (Stauffer, however, had anticipated this line of thought, though uncritically and without references). (17)

Horace wrote:

Already the Parthian fears the hosts mighty on land and sea and
fears the Alban axes.
Already the Indians and Scythians, but recently disdainful,
are asking for our answer.

Already Faith and Peace and Honour and ancient Modesty
and neglected Virtue have courage and have come back,
and blessed Plenty with her horn is seen….
May Phoebus, the prophet … prolong the Roman power
and Latium’s prosperity to cycles ever new
and ages ever better !
(Carmen Saeculare, 37-52 LCL)

Georgi  argues that the word vates used by both Virgil and Horace means much more than “poet”; as used by these authors it means “inspired singers of ancient times”. (18) Horace portrays Aeneas, the hero of ancient Troy, as a contemporary saviour who brings world peace.  Clearly Augustus is in mind; the heroic past is now incarnate in the person of the Princeps. (19)

According to Georgi the prophet John, who is the true prophet,

sees in the gigantic machinery of the Imperium Romanum the demonstration of a prophetic religion fascinating the world. Revelation 13,17, and 18 testify to the correctness  of the analysis of Horace given above, namely, that the political ideology of the principate possessed religious integrity,  relevance and attraction. John is aware of the eschatological  dimension of the intentions and actions of the principate  although he protests them. For him the Caesar religion is cult  and theology of the devil which apes the authentic  eschatological conviction, that which is caused by Jesus…[John]  feels himself in dramatic competition with the prophet(s) of the  Caesar religion, people like Horace and Virgil and lesser ones. The religion they represent and propagate is a world religion,  the religion of a world empire. Therefore the battle with them  has to be seen in cosmic proportions. (20)

Whether or not John was aware of the eschatological poems of Virgil and Horace is open to question.  Direct evidence is lacking. As a person living in Proconsular Asia, however, John would almost certainly have known of the decree issued in 9 BC by the Koinon Asias changing the local calendar so that  Augustus’ birthday (23 September) became New Year’s Day . The decree, which was inscribed in temples of Caesar in Asia, speaks about Augustus in ways that resemble the references of the poets Virgil and Horace:

whereas the providence which divinely ordered our lives created with zeal and munificence the most perfect good for our lives by producing Augustus and filling him with virtue for the benefaction of mankind, blessing us and those after us with a saviour who put an end to war and established peace….and whereas the birthday of the god  marked for the world the beginning of good  tidings through his coming…Paullus Fabius Maximus, proconsul of the province….suggested for the honour of Augustus a thing hitherto unknown by  the Greeks, namely, beginning their calendar with the god’s nativity. (21)

Scholars have long puzzled over John’s reference to the child in Revelation 12. It is here suggested that the “…male child…who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron…[who] was caught up to God and to his throne” (12.5) is John’s deliberately made declaration about the nativity of true saviour and God, Jesus the Messiah, in comparison with whom Augustus, as described by Virgil, is a false and pretentious ruler.

John the servant of God and witness to Jesus is the true prophet.  He who testifies to and promotes the cult of Caesar is a false prophet, to be overthrown along with the beast whom he serves and the dragon who makes war against God, his Christ and his people.  This evil trinity is paralleled by the Lord God Almighty, the Lamb and ……?

Who is the third person in God’s trinity in the Apocalypse?

It is well-known that the Spirit does not figure significantly in this book.  The prophet John, the true prophet in parallel with the false prophet, however, is very important (1.3;19.10;22.6,7,9,10,18; cf16.3;19.20;20.10). But John does not operate in his own right but only “in the Spirit”, en pneumati (1.10; 4.2; 17.3; 21.10).  The true trinity, then, is completed after all by the Spirit. But in John’s presentation the role of the  Spirit is to inspire the true prophet John to prophesy. In particular, the message of this Spirit-inspired prophet is: do not worship the beast or its image; worship God, follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

As a such a prophet, this John is a polemicist, one whose assault on the enemies of God in the world of his time resembles the prophets of the Old Testament in their assault on the world of their times. The more we know of John’s Graeco-Roman context, which is now seen to correspond polemically with the  Apocalypse, the higher our estimate of John’s audacity becomes. John the prophet of Patmos became for the Christians of Asia what the classic prophets of Israel had been centuries before in their denunciations of the  nations surrounding Israel.

The Quest for the Historical Pontius Pilate

For an otherwise obscure governor of a minor province with a small military command Pontius Pilate is remarkably well attested in the ancient sources. In addition to the inscription bearing his name and title as “Prefect of Judaea” discovered at Caesarea Maritima in 1961, he is referred to in the written sources by Tacitus, Philo, Josephus, the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  

Pilate’s involvement with Jesus was limited to a few hours direct contact, and a few hours beyond that of indirect contact when Jesus was taken for execution. Yet for two thousand years, Sunday by Sunday, Christians have affirmed that Jesus Christ, ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’.

1. The Quest for the Historical Pilate

Pontius Pilate poses a major problem for the historian. The three main sources present him rather differently. Philo’s comments about Pilate are extremely hostile [1]. Josephus is not so obviously biased as Philo. Nonetheless, his descriptions of the governor are quite negative. How, then are we able to reconcile the ruthless figure of Philo (who is negatively described by Josephus) with the governor of the gospels who is unable to discharge a prisoner whom he wishes to set free ?

2. Pontius Pilate in the Gospels.

My working assumptions are that Matthew and Luke used Mark, but that John was written independently of the texts of Matthew, Mark or Luke.

2.1 Mark.

Mark portrays Pilate’s direct involvement with Jesus in two connected scenes.

In the first, the chief priests, elders, teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin handed Jesus over to Pilate accusing him, we infer, as ‘king of the Jews’. Pilate interrogates him along that line. Jesus’s answer, “You say so” is probably an acknowledgement of the charge and nothing more. The accusers make other charges and Pilate is astonished that Jesus makes no reply.

In the second scene it is to be implied that Pilate does not find the charges proven and offers to release the ‘king of the Jews’ based on the ‘Passover Custom’ for the release of a prisoner. ‘Deciding’ but not necessarily ‘wanting’ (so NIV – boulomai can mean either) to satisfy the crowd, Pilate is impelled to release Barabbas and hand Jesus over for execution.

2.2 Matthew.

Matthew follows the same two-scene format with two additions.

One is the dream of the Prefect’s wife, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man”. The other is Pilate’s washing of the blood of Jesus from his hands whereupon the people declare that Jesus’s blood will be on them.

2.3 Luke.

Luke follows the same two-scene format, with an elaboration in the first of treasonable allegations against this ‘king’.

Luke separates the two scenes with Herod Antipas’s interrogation of Jesus whom he exonerates of the charges of treasonable behaviour in Galilee.

In the second scene Pilate confirms the Tetrarch’s exoneration of the earlier explicitly made accusations. However, Pilate’s desire (qevlw) to release Jesus is met with the demand of chief priests and people to crucify Jesus. So Pilate ‘gave sentence’ (RSV) to their demands. He released Barabbas and surrendered Jesus to their will.

2.4 Unanswered Questions in the Synoptics.

2.4.1. If a Roman governor has reached a verdict why was he not able to implement his decision ? Why was Pilate not able to release Jesus finding the charges not proven ?

2.4.2. If for some reason Pilate felt impelled to execute Jesus, why did he feel he must release someone else ? Did the ‘Paschal Privilege’ require the release of a prisoner ? How historically authentic is this ‘Passover Custom’ ? See commentary on Mark by W. Lane for extensive discussion of the ‘Paschal Privilege’.

2.5 John.

John¹s account is the longest. With strong historical probability John keeps the accusers outside the Prefect’s praetorium to avoid ceremonial uncleanness. He calls them ‘the Jews’ but it is obvious that he has the temple hierarchy in mind. ‘The Jews’ never enter the praetorium. There are two main scenes.

In the first Pilate came outside to them asking what is the charge. Inside he asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”. Jesus admits he is a king, but with a non-political kingdom. Pilate comes out and announces he finds no basis for the accusation. Pilate seeks to release Jesus according to the ‘Passover Custom’. ‘The Jews’ seek the release of Barabbas a lestes/’bandit’.

There is an interlude betwee the two scenes. This is when Jesus is handed over by Pilate to the soldiers who flog and parody the ‘king of the Jews’.

The second scene is outside the praetorium. Pilate brings out the mocked ‘king of the Jews’ with the verdict that the charge against the accused is without basis. When Pilate proposed to set Jesus free, ‘the Jews’ declare,

“If you let this man free you are not a friend of Caesar. Any one who claims to be a king, opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” ‘the Jews’ reply, “We have no king but Caesar.”

John’s account yields an apparent answer to one of the questions posed in the synoptics, that is, why did Pilate not simply release a prisoner whom he had found not guilty of the charges against him. Pilate, a ‘friend’ or client of Tiberius, owes his appointment to him. The prefect must not set free any man who claims to be ‘king of the Jews’ for Tiberius is that ‘king’.

But this does not take us very far. Tiberius would not expect his prefect to execute a person charged with treason if the prefect determined that the charges were not substantiated. The Romans did not crucify benign rabbis or prophets on merely religious offences.

In effect, John’s account, while hinting that the Temple hierarchy had some leverage with Pilate, does not explain further what that leverage might be.

3. Theories About Pontius Pilate

Naturally the divergences between Philo/Josephus and the Gospels have attracted the attention of scholars and several theories have been proposed to account for them. Two such views will be reviewed and a third proposed as the most likely approximation of the governor, under whom Jesus “suffered.”

There is, first, the view that the tough governor as portrayed by Philo and Josephus is more or less correct but the accommodating Pilate of the gospels is a falsification. According to this reconstruction, which is chiefly associated with S.G.F. Brandon [2]. Jesus was in fact an anti-Roman insurrectionist (or an advocate of insurrection). Since the early church needed the good will of the Roman authorities, its founder’s true sympathies must be masked. Hence the gospels present Jesus as innocent, a victim of Jewish machinations, with an indecisive governor portrayed as coerced to execute Jesus against his better moral judgment.

It is likely that the Romans were indeed aware of and concerned about the new messianic sect from Judaea. Though written half a century after the events Tacitus is describing the apprehension evident in his account of the spread of this “superstition” to Rome and of its strength there would surely also have been felt in the sixties [3]. The gospel writers’ sensitivity to this opinion may be reflected at a number of points. In his account of the Feeding of the 5000 Mark significantly omits the assertion found in John that the Galilean crowd attempted to make Jesus “king,” even though Mark’s account demands some detail of this kind to make sense of the flow of the narrative [4]. Luke’s version of Jesus’ trial by Pilate and his interrogation by Herod the tetrarch is intentionally careful to establish that Jesus did not engage in any treasonable kingship activities, whether in Galilee or Judaea [5].

Sensitivity to damaging opinion does not, of course, make that opinion true. The accusation of high treason to Pilate by the temple hierarchy, that “he opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ a king” [6] resonates remarkably with the crimes of a notorious Galilean who had in the not too distant past risen up against Roman rule in Judaea. The uprising of Judas the Galilean at the time Judaea was annexed as a Roman province, when direct personal tax to Roman was first levied, was doubtless well-remembered by Roman officials in Rome. Judas was a rabbi, a Galilean and a populist [7], a convenient and damaging stereotype to apply to Jesus, who was also a Galilean and a rabbi and a populist.

The Roman military governors took seriously charges of this kind. One of their major responsibilties was to maintain peace and order within the provinces. The Roman military administration was quite severe not only in regard to leaders of movements, but also to associates and followers of those leaders who rose up against them. It must be assumed that Pilate would have investigated carefully these charges against Jesus and not only executed him for treason, as indeed he did, but that he would also have acted severely against his followers. Had Jesus been the insurrectionist of Brandon’s reconstruction the Romans would have stamped out the Jesus movement then and there, as they had in the case of Judas’ following [8].

In short, the possible presence of some apologetic elements in the gospels portraying Jesus as a non-revolutionary, does not prove that he was a revolutionary, nor does it invalidate the essential integrity of the gospels in their presentation of Pilate as a rather accomodating figure at that time.

A second, advanced by McGing in 1991, proposes that the major sources are in fact in fundamental agreement, despite apparent divergences [9]. According to this line of argument Pilate was a governor loyal to his emperor Tiberius and that his actions towards Jews and Samaritans, when compared to other governors, were relatively unremarkable. In fact his ten year incumbency was one of relative calm. His behaviour towards Jesus can be adequately accounted for by his ignorance of Jewish culture and politics along with a certain personal indecisiveness. There may have been just enough smoke, as it were, in the case of Jesus to justify extinguishing the fire. In any case what importance, more or less, attached to one Jew? And did not the accused’s stubborn silence in the face of interrogation amount to contempt of court (contumacia), something abhorrent to Romans?

While this reconstruction upholds the broad historicity of the gospels in the face of the Brandon alternative, it scarcely does justice to Philo’s and Josephus’ accounts of Pontius Pilate. Indeed, so far as we know, it was the provocative actions of Pilate after his arrival in Judaea in A.D. 26 which broke the calm which had prevailed since Judas’ rebellion twenty years earlier. In his brief chronological survey of Jewish history from the arrival of Pompey in 63 B.C. to the outbreak of the war with Rome in A.D. 66 Tacitus was to comment, sub Tiberio ques, “under Tiberius all was quiet” [10]. This was to change during the next five years while the Praetorian Prefect L. Aelius Sejanus was, de facto, ruler in Rome.

Pilate’s introduction to Jerusalem of military standards bearing idolatrous icons was without precedent; previous governors had used unornamented standards. Similarly unprecedented, apparently, was the issuing of coins bearing the offensive lituus and simpulum as used in Roman cultic practice. These actions cannot be explained away on the grounds of cultural innocence. They were calculated and deliberate. Indeed, in relationship with the iconic standards in Jerusalem, Josephus comments “Pilate…decided to overturn the laws of the Jews.” Actions such as the seizure of money from the sacred treasury for the construction of an aqueduct in Jerusalem [11]. and the slaughter of the Galileans in the act of sacrificing the passover lambs [12] are quite consistent with the provocatively introduced iconic standards and coins noted above.

The two insurrectionists crucified with Jesus, along with Barrabbas, had participated in an otherwise unknown uprising against Roman rule [13]. Perhaps this disturbance was also provoked by Pilate’s actions. The furore some time later over the gilded shields brought to Jerusalem, despite the absence of iconography, reflects the deep and justifiable suspicion of the people towards Pilate [14]. Aniconic these shields may have been, but the inscriptions dedicated to Tiberius were almost certainly offensive [15]. Pilate’s appointment in Judaea effectively ended when he was dispatched to Rome to account for the slaughter of a number of Samaritans on Mt Gerizim [16].

Josephus does nothing to qualify or downplay his report that the Samaritans complained that their people had gathered at Mt Gerizim, “not as rebels against the Romans,” but as “refugees from the persecution of Pilate” [17]. Josephus’ is but a milder and briefer version of Philo’s portrayal of Pilate as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness” who, according to Philo “feared exposure for his conduct as governor…the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries; executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty…his vindictiveness and furious temper” [18]. Even allowing for some rhetorical excess by Philo the violence of the episodes recorded by Josephus and Luke’s brief but chilling reference to the slaughter of the Galileans may well justify Philo’s verdict on Pontius Pilate.

But how can this Pilate be reconciled with the governor who comes before us in the gospels ?

A third reconstruction, which is associated with E.M Smallwood and P.L. Maier, would indicate that both Philo and Josephus have portrayed Pilate correctly, but that at the trial of Jesus, due to changed political circumstances in Rome, Pilate had been forced to act out of character [19]. Thus each of the major sources are able to be viewed as historically consistent.

According to this line of thought it is noted that Pilate’s appointment to Judaea more or less coincided with the beginning of Sejanus’ appointment as Praetorian Prefect. It will be remembered that Tiberius continued to remain on the island of Capri during those years, leaving Sejanus as de facto ruler in Rome.

Philo the Jew of Alexandria states that Sejanus “wished to make away with (our) nation” knowing that the Jewish people were loyal to Tiberius [20]. There is evidence that Sejanus, ambitious to grasp imperial power in Rome, harboured the desire for a ruler cult in honour of his deity [21]. This, too, would have contributed to an enmity against the Jews and their monotheistic beliefs. It appears to be no coincidence that Pilate “decided to overturn the laws of the Jews” at a the very time the anti-Semite Sejanus was at the height of his powers in Rome.

After the fall of Sejanus in October A.D. 31, however, Tiberius wrote to his provincial governors demanding that they “speak comfortably to the members of our nation in the different cities…to disturb none of our established customs but even to regard them as a trust committed to their care…” [22]. To no provincial governor would these words have been more appropriate than to the Prefect of Judaea, home of the Jewish people, even if we had no information about his actions. But we do. Josephus’ descriptions of Pilate’s behaviour and Philo’s verdict on Pilate, noted above, indicate the singular appropriateness of Tiberius’ letter to his Prefect in Judaea, Pontius Pilate.

The incident of the gilded shields occurred in the post-Sejanus situation [23]. Pilate is now accountable to a new master, Tiberius, who, aware of the political realities involving the Jews forbade further harassment of them. This will explain Pilate’s speedy removal of the shields, upon the petition of the Herodian princes (including the tetrarch of Galilee-Peraea, Herod Antipas). This he would not have done during Sejanus’ incumbency. In the new situation when Tiberius was again undisputed ruler, the Jewish temple hierarchy had the upper hand in regard to Pilate, especially in the light of his past behaviour towards the Jewish people. It is this ‘new’ situation that explains the ‘new’ Pilate as we encounter him in the gospels in his relationship to the Jewish leadership.

Under interrogation by the chief priests Jesus did not deny that he was the Messiah. This provoked the charge of blasphemy against Jesus. But when they brought him to Pilate they converted the religious charge of blasphemy to one more recognisable and culpable for the Roman mind, the political charge of treason. Thus in each of the four gospels Pilate asks the political question of the accused, “Are you the king of the Jews ?” [24]. Jesus’s agreement with this charge would have been, in effect, a denial of Tiberius’s kingship in Judaea. Upon inquiry, however, Pilate decided that he must release Jesus. The charge of treason was not substantiated. But in the ‘new’ situation after the fall of Sejanus, the chief priests are able to intimidate the governor:

If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.

adding, ominously,

We have no king but Caesar [25].

The man who had ridden roughshod over the Jewish people was now at the mercy of their leaders. And he knew it. One false move and his appointment would be cancelled and his career finished. And so Pilate acquiesced, handing Jesus over to the execution squad for crucifixion, on the charge of treason, that he was “the king of the Jews.”


1. Whereas B. McGing, “Pontius Pilate and the Sources,” CBQ 53/3 (1991), 416-438, holds a low view of Philo as a historical source E.M. Smallwood, “Philo and Josephus as Historians of the Same Event,” Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, ed. L.H. Feldman and G. Hata (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 114-129, rates him higher than Josephus as to hard facts.

2. Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967)

3. See Tacitus, Annals xv.44.

4. Cf. John 6:15 with Mark 6:45-46.

5. Luke 23:1-16.

6. Luke 23:2

7. See Josephus BJ ii.118,433; vii.253.

8. Acts 5:37

9. See McGing, “Pontius Pilate,” 416-438

10. Tacitus, Histories v.9. See further P.W. Barnett, “Under Tiberius All was Quiet,” New Testament Studies 21 (1975),564-571

11. Josephus, AJ xviii. 60-62

12. Luke 13:1-2.

13. Mark 15:7.

14. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 299-305

15. See further P.S. Davies, “The Meaning of Philo’s Text about the Gilded Shields,” JTS 37 (1986), 109-114.

16. Josephus, AJ xviii.85-89

17. Josephus, AJ xviii.88.

18. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 301,302

19. The leading advocate of this reconstruction is P.L. Maier, “Sejanus, Pilate and the date of the Crucifixion,” Church History xxxvii (1968), 3-13; “The Episode of the Golden Roman Shields in Jerusalem,” HTR lxii (1969), 109-121

20. In Flaccum 1:1; Legatio ad Gaium 160. See E.M. Smallwood, “Some notes on the Jews under Tiberius,” Latomus xv (1956), 325

21. Tacitus Annals iii. 72; iv. 2,72; Suetonius, Tiberius 48,65; Dio Cassius lviii.2,4,5,7

22. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 160-161

23. See further E.M. Smallwood, “Philo and Josephus as Historians of the Same Events,” Josephus, Judaism and Christianity ed. L.H. Feldman and G. Hata (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 126-128.

24. Mark 15:2; cf, 14:61. See John 18:33

25. Mark 15:2; cf, 14:61. See John 18:33

Orthodoxy in Liberality

Although the Bible is God’s gift to the church it is a substantial and complex collection of writings. Throughout the years of Christian history the task of establishing right belief for the people of God has proved difficult.  Great high points of theological controversy have provided opportunity for important statements of orthodoxy (literally ‘straight thought’).  The debates of the fourth century about Christ and the controversies of the sixteenth century issued, respectively, in the Nicene Creed and the Thirty Nine Articles.  These and other definitions have been repeatedly examined and affirmed in the light of the authoritative teachings of the Bible.

That definitions like these are able to be arrived at is implied by such statements as ‘I have kept the faith’ and ‘contend for the faith’ (2 Timothy 4:7; Jude 3).  The contexts of such texts suggest core teachings related to God, Christ and salvation and of appropriate patterns of Christian behaviour.  Here a distinction should be made between matters of ‘faith’ and ‘order.’  ’Order’ is temporal and is about to how church life is organized.  ’Order’ is important, but it is for the here and now.  We won’t wear the tag ‘Anglican’ in the kingdom of God. But ‘faith,’ like ‘love’ and ‘hope,’ is eternal.  ’Faith’ is directed to God through his Son in the power of the Spirit.  ’The faith’ is what the church believes and confesses for salvation.

Orthodoxy for an Anglican is based on the Creeds and the Thirty Nine Articles, both of which rest on the authority of the Bible.  It affirms the reality of heaven and hell, the trinity of God and the deity and humanity of Christ.  It insists that there is but one way to salvation which not through our good works but by grace through personal trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who bore the penalty for our sins in his death, who was raised bodily on the third day and who will return at the end of the age.  These confessions, based on the Bible and arrived at in times of great theological debate, mark a circle within which the orthodox Christian stands.

At this time Christians are engaged in a debate comparable with those mentioned above.  It is the debate about human sexuality, in particular the question of same sex relationships for both men and women.  To my knowledge this question has never been raised with such urgency as at the present time.  The teaching of scripture is unambiguous.  Sexual relationships are to be heterosexual and they are to be strictly confined to marriage.  Though a matter of orthopraxy (‘right behaviour’) rather than orthodoxy (‘right belief’) heterosexuality lies at the heart of human personhood in the purposes of God our Creator and Sustainer.  It is, in essence, a matter of ‘the faith’ not merely of behaviour.

It is fundamental for Christians to be orthodox, to ‘keep’ and ‘contend for the faith.’ But not every topic of discussion and difference among Christians relates to this orthodoxy, ‘the faith.’  There are other matters which are touched on or inferred in the Bible, which if raised to the status of ‘the faith,’ might divide Christians in their fellowship from one another.

Here liberality is important.  Please note that I do not say ‘liberalism.’  To the contrary, liberalism is the denial of orthodoxy, in part or whole.  In matters of the faith we must have unity.  But in other teachings from the Bible which are open to differing interpretation, we need liberality.  In such matters we need to be able to agree to differ in a genuine ethos of liberality.  Otherwise we will always keep running against issues which will split and divide us.

At the present time such an issue relates to the ministry of women in mixed gender groups, whether ordained or unordained.  As a matter of order I do not think the ordination of a woman as a teaching presbyer is sanctioned by the Scriptures.  But based on the phenomenon of women prophesying, I believe women should be given the freedom to speak in church on the same occasional basis as men, who happen not to be ordained.  I may be wrong on both counts; the texts do have some measure of uncertainty.  But will I be unchurched by some for either or both of these views ?

I believe in the creation of the universe by God who is Almighty.  But because I regard Genesis 1 as couched in terms of theological poetry I do not think I am meant to believe that God created the world in six days, literally speaking.  Again I may be right or I may be wrong.  Will creationists say I am not a fellow believer? Will I ‘unchurch’ them for what they hold true ?

I believe that God takes the initiative in turning sinners to himself through the word of God, based on divine election.  Will the free-willer disenfranchise me for this?  Or will the five-point Calvinist ‘unfellowship’ me because I haven’t gone far enough?

There are other potential points of uncertainty.  Is Sunday the Christians’ Sabbath, literally replacing Saturday?  The diocesan doctrine commission, composed of good theological minds, could find no consensus after two years of discussion!  Should Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper daily, weekly, or only occasionally?  Different answers could be found from various parts of scripture on this question, as reflected, for example, in the widely differing practices of Presbyterians and Brethren.

The point is this.  Today womens’ ministry is the presenting issue.  Sooner or later we will move on to something else. Tomorrow it may be creationism and next it may be election, or the Sabbath, or the frequency of the Holy Communion, or whatever.  It will always be something! On that we can be quite certain.  Unless we have a commitment to gospel issues which are unambiguously gospel issues and a spirit of liberality in other matters about which there is genuine uncertainty we will divide and divide and divide again.  To say the obvious: if everything is a gospel issue nothing is a gospel issue.

I plead that we stop calling things ‘gospel issues’ unless they clearly are.

Great differences separated Jewish believers and Gentile believers in apostolic times. Yet Paul mounted an elaborate collection to help bridge that gap, not widen it (2 Cor 8-9).  He advised the mixed Jew-Gentile community in Rome to ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom 14:19).  Paul was a uniter not a divider.  He allowed for differences to continue in Rome and he gives this advice near the end of his magnum opus on orthodoxy!  Since differences are and will remain a fact of life we do well to listen to the great apostle.

As Sydney Anglicans we find our true unity in ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’ which we articulate in the order of our denomination.  Let us be united, rock solid in that faith, in orthodoxy and let us live happily within our order.  On matters which are open to genuinely different interpretation, though we may have strong feelings, let us hold our views in a spirit of liberality.  The alternative is serial division.

Our Faith

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney

2001 — A Faith Odyssey

Lecture by Dr Paul Barnett, Bishop of North Sydney

Our Faith


It was at Avoca Beach. I had just bought a new surf ski which I was keen to try out. The problem was the seas were huge following a south easterly gale. So I waited — impatiently. At last after a few days I talked myself into thinking it was safe. Out I paddled through the outward current known as the ‘escalator’, one of the fiercest rips in NSW. This effectively flattened the incoming surf in a narrow band to give a way ‘out the back’. I noticed that not another soul was ‘out the back’. I made it out and then the big sets came through and I caught wave after wave. The new ski was great.

After about an hour, I thought ‘I will get one more then call it a day.’ During that hour the tide had come down and waves had begun to break in the escalator. So I am paddling out for that last wave when I saw it — the biggest wave I had ever seen in forty years surfing. It reared up like a mountain and broke on me in fullest force. I went to the bottom. When I struggled to the surface the ski was gone and I was alone and the escalator was taking me to Auckland.

I was tired from the wave catching and quite out of swimming fitness. I began to take water and to realise that this was the end of Paul Barnett.

Then he appeared — the guy in the faded grey-green wetsuit. ‘This is not the place for you, old timer. You’re in strife.’ ‘ Can’t make it back,’ I croaked. ‘Grab my hand,’ he said, ‘and I will get you in.’ Would I do it? I had been a surfer for years and a fair swimmer. I reached up and he hoisted me on the back of his ski. He was powerfully built and skilful. A huge wave reared up and he paddled effortlesly on to it. For a few seconds we were buried in the white water then we skuddled down the face and into the shore.

Fifty metres from the shore he turned his head and said, ‘Take more care, old timer, I mightn’t be around next time.’

I never saw him again.

Faith was taking the hand he offered me.

Our Faith

The term ‘our faith’ appears in the First Letter of John (5:4).

Emil Brunner wrote a little book called, Our Faith.

But I want to think with you about ‘our faith’ in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

This is the second of two talks on Romans.

‘Faith’ ‘believing’ appear about 70 times in Romans. The words were important.

But I will come back to this.

1. The Nature of Faith

‘Believing’ is a common experience. I believed my alarm clock when it told me it was time to greet the new day. I believed that my shaving gel was not harmful and that my breakfast cereal was not poisoned. I believed the water from the tap is safe to drink. So I used my gel and ate my muesli and drank my water. I believe my money is safe in the bank and that the letter I post will reach its destination. I believed that the green traffic lights made it safe to drive on through. I believed people would be here tonight otherwise I would not have come. I believed the seat I sat on was safe and so sat on it. I believe dozens of times in a day. Without ‘believing’ in things and people that are reliable life would be impossible to imagine. ‘Believing’ is special but so common we take it for granted.

Those examples tell us some things about ‘believing.’ On one hand, it is reasonable to act on my alarm clock’s ringing. It is a good alarm clock and gets things right except when I set it wrongly to go off in the PM rather than the AM. No cloud of doubt hangs over my shaving gel or the muesli or the water from the tap.

So acting in faith is reasonable. But there must always be some uncertainty. The muesli could have been tampered with in Coles. There could be crypto spiridium in the Sydney watersupply.

But I can’t go through life like that. So I eat the muesli, drive through the green light, turn up here, sit on the seat.

Because ‘believing’ is reasonable it is practical.

Christian belief is like that. Reasonable and practical. The promises of God invite me to believe God who makes the promises. Yet God is not visible, any more than the maker of my muesli was visible to me. I believe in God for the same basic reasons. It is reasonable and practical to do so. The evidence is there in the world around me and in the miracle of the workings my own body. I cannot bring myself to believe that all that is and all that I am and you happened by chance.

Specific and focused Christian belief is entirely reasonable. The historical evidence in for Christ, his death and his resurrection are compelling. Stating our belief in the Apostles Creed is not irrational or silly. Very intelligent people have confessed this faith for nearly 2000 years. Philosophers, theologians, scientists, historians, lawyers, teachers have declared this to be their faith and they continue to do so.

The intellect is not the barrier to belief. Pride is. Deep hurt is.

2. Faith and the faith

But sometimes the Bible speaks about the faith, the belief. Jude’s letter says, ‘Contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.’ The faith. This is ‘what is to be believed,’ a ‘statement of faith.’ The Apostles Creed is an example of ‘the faith.’ We believe the belief; we believe the belief; we hold the faith.

We don’t believe just any old thing. The dart thrower directs his dart at the circles on the dart board. He doesn’t pitch his dart just anywhere. The Christian directs his or her personal faith in God and Christ as set out in the faith. Ours is a defined faith to which we direct our personal faith.

Some say that for them Christianity is an inner experience, vague, misty and undefined. A religious feeling of serenity. God might be there or he might not. He might be holy and righteous. Or he might not. It doesn’t matter. It’s better we don’t know. Christ was a good man. He might have been the Son of God or he might not. It’s better that we can’t be sure. That could make us intolerant. The important thing is that I meditate and feel at peace and live and let live.

If that is you then you are into spirituality not Christianity.

On the other hand, it is no use having the faith that is right doctrinally if that’s all there is. What is the use of merely doctrinal correctness, a clinical head knowledge that isn’t translated into warm-hearted personal faith in Christ, obedience to God and love of neighbour. That kind of merely ideological faith is what James complains about in his second chapter. The devil can say the Apostles’ Creed because he knows it’s true. But he has no personal faith in the God who is defined by the creed or in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord who is defined in the creed. Faith must be defined by the truth of scripture. But it must be personal, self-yielding and expressed in loving behaviour.

3. ‘Belief’ and ‘believing’ in Romans

But why is ‘believing’ and ‘belief’ so important in Paul’s letters, Romans in particular ?

Historically it was because of what we might call, the ‘Jewish’ problem. The Jewish problem was that most Jews at that time had hardened themselves against the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. They rejected Jesus and his message. They continued to reject the message about Jesus Peter, John and Paul preached. Paul himself had been a Jew, who rejected Christ. But now he is grief stricken that his fellow-Israelites refuse to recognise Jesus as the Christ (see Romans 9:30-21; 11:7-10).

Israel’s problem was that her people preferred the ‘works of the Law’, her religion, to embracing Jesus the Christ. When confronted with Christ the people turned away and took refuge in ‘works of the Law’, in moral and religious practices.

Late in Chapter 9 Paul says that God had placed his ‘Stone’, his Messiah, in Zion (in fulfilment of Isaiah 28). Jewish people do one of two things with this ‘Stone.’ Either they ‘come’ to that ‘Stone,’ or they ‘stumble’ over the Stone.’ Where they ‘come’ and ‘believe’ in Jesus they will not be ‘put to shame’ (10:11). They will be ‘saved’ or declared ‘righteous’ by God on the Last Day. Alternatively, they can reject the ‘Stone,’ in which case they will ‘stumble over’ the ‘Stone’ and are destroyed as they fall.

So why do they reject Christ? It was their religion, what Paul calls, ‘the works of the Law’, or simply ‘the Law.

The temple services
The strict dietary rules
The unbending observance of the religious calendar
Male circumcision
The multiplicity of rules, eg: about the Sabbath

The modern visitor to Israel sees vestiges of these rules. On the Sabbath lifts are set up to stop at every floor so nobody has to press a button. During Passover no bread can be bought in the shops.

Racial and religious pride was at the heart of the Jewish problem. Yes, they were God’s chosen people. From them the Messiah, who was God blessed forever, had come (9:1-5). But they did not recognise their sin before their God and their need of his forgiveness.

4. Jewish sins

This is why Paul devotes as much space as he does in the Letter to demonstrating their need before God. Yes, first he points out the failure of the Gentiles to honour their Creator and to give him thanks. They have twisted away from the One true and living God to worship man-made images and to engage in debased sexual practices (chapter 1:18-32).

Paul’s Jewish readers would have said their ‘amens’ to that. But then, to what must have been their surprise and horror, he confronts the Jews with the sins of the Jews (chapters 2 and 3). ‘You have the Law, but you don’t keep the Law. You think you are a moral and spiritual guide to godless Gentiles. But those same Gentiles look at your glaring moral blind spots and the curse the name of God because of you.’ Having the commandments does not mean keeping the commandments. The reality is that Jews as much as Gentiles are (literally) ‘under sin,’ that is, ‘under the thumb of sin’ or ‘under the heel of sin’ (3:9).

The fact is, ‘all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory’ – Gentiles and Jews (3:23). ‘Sin entered the whole human race with Adam, and death came as sin’s companion to all people of every race. ‘You are as sinful before God as the Gentiles you condemn,’ says Paul. ‘You take pride in the Law that God through Moses gave to the people. But the Law in which you take pride did not take away sin. The Law serves only to show up your sin in all its ugliness. Because of the tenacious presence of sin in your flesh, the Law actually stirs you up to more sin.’

Paul speaks of himself as ‘wretched’ because he is trapped in sinful behaviour. This is his own ‘wretched’ experience of moral failure despite his best efforts and intentions.

But the ‘wretched man’ passage in Romans 7 is also Israel’s own story that Paul tells as his own. The ‘wretched’ man’s wretchedness is Paul’s but it also sums up the moral disgrace that is the story of the people of the Old Testament. Israel is the ‘wretched man’ and Israelites are ‘wretched’ men and women. God chose them in Abraham and rescued them under Moses and gave them the Law. But from day one they broke the Law, making an bull idol from molten gold and fornicating as they ‘worshipped’ this abomination. Their subsequent history was all of a piece as prophet after prophet brought the word of God to a disobedient people. As Jeremiah puts it from God’s side, ‘My covenant which they broke’ (Jer 31:31f).

That disobedience did not cease with the end of the prophets but was still in evidence in the days of John the Baptist, Jesus the Messiah and his apostles. That disobedience to God was expressed in the rejection of Jesus, the rejection of Stephen and the rejection of the preaching by Peter, John, James and of Paul himself.

Let me hasten to head off a possible misunderstanding. I am not saying that Paul is saying that the Jews were more sinful than the Gentiles. Christian anti-semitism was to believe this in the middle ages leading up to the holocaust. It was customary to blame the Jews as a race for killing the Messiah, as a justification for racial hatred. That is a dreadful doctrine and one which Christians must acknowledge with shame as a wickedness perpetrated against Jewish people within societies that were broadly Christian.

Nothing could have been further from Paul’s mind than to say that Jews were more wicked than others. Paul’s point is the very opposite. It was to say that ‘You Jews are just as sinful as Gentiles. You think you are less sinful, in fact, supremely superior to the Gentiles, whom you condemn. But your sins place you equally in God’s debt.’ Jews and Gentiles equally sin and fall short of the glory of God.

Romans was addressed equally to Jews and Gentiles. Both were sinners; both needed the redemption that is only possible in Christ crucified. Both needed the moral and spiritual transformation that is only possible through the work of the Spirit of God. That is its abiding message.

5. Justification by faith alone

At the time of the Reformation Luther challenged the Roman Church’s teaching that a man or woman is ‘justified’ by his ‘faith’ in Christ along with his ‘works’ – by his good deeds and by doing his religious duties. Luther, however, insisted that men and women are justified by ‘faith’ alone, independently of ‘works.’ Luther the monk had been a tortured soul endlessly seeking assurance that he had enough ‘good works’ on the credit side of his ledger. It came as a profound relief to read in Paul’s letters that he was ‘justified by faith’ apart from the ‘works of the Law.

Luther, of course, was entirely correct.

To this day one of the great dividing issues between Reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics is their respective answers to the question: on what basis are people reckoned as ‘righteous’ by God ? Protestants say, ‘faith alone’ and Roman Catholics says, ‘faith and works.’

I agree with the answer, ‘by faith alone.’ Of course. But there a more nuanced answer. The better answer is, ‘We are justified by Christ alone.’ Let me explain.

We need to understand something about this verb, ‘justified’ and its noun, ‘justification.’ In Greek ‘justification’ is equally translated as ‘righteousness.’ The Greek is dikaiosune a word used in law courts for a righteous verdict of ‘acquittal.’ The word ‘righteousness’ was applied to the Day of Judgement when some would be judged ‘righteous’ by God and set at his right hand others ‘unrighteous’ and subject to his ‘wrath’ (as in Matthew 25:31-46).

In Paul’s day, people naturally thought that everybody had to wait for Judgement Day to find out whom God would acquit, that is, judge to be ‘righteous’ in his sight and whom he would condemn, that is, judge to be ‘unrighteous.’

But a radical thing happens with Christ. Because he is the Messiah and the Son of God, because he has paid the price for human wickedness in his death and because God has raised him from the dead and exalted him at his right hand God tells us the final verdict now. It is like being given your exam results before you do the exam.

That is because the First Easter is the most important time in history. That was when the Great Examination, the Day of Judgement, really occurred. On Good Friday the innocent and sinless Christ was condemned in the place of the sinful and wicked descendants of Adam to make possible the verdict, ‘acquitted’ upon sinners, Gentiles but also Jews.

So in a sense ‘righteousness’ is not made possible by ‘faith’ as against ‘works.’ In that case, ‘faith’ itself is easily though of as another ‘work.’ We do not direct our faith to faith. We do not direct our faith to a doctrine not even ‘justification by faith.’ Rather, as Paul says in Rom 5:9 we a re ‘justified by his blood,’ that is, by Christ’s death. God’s verdict of ‘righteousness’ is made possible because of who Christ is and what he did for us when he died and was raised. And God’s verdict, ‘acquitted,’ ‘righteous’ is given to those who ‘belong Christ,’ that is, are ‘in Christ.’ He died for sins and was raised again to life so that those who are ‘in him’ have ‘died’ to God’s otherwise just condemnation and been raised up from the dead ‘righteous’ in his sight.

So justification by faith is really a statement about Christ and belonging to Christ. So how do we ‘belong to Christ’ and attract God’s favourable verdict now ? There is only one way, that is, by personal faith in Christ (outwardly signified by baptism in his name).

The problem for the majority of Jews in Paul’s days was that they wanted to cling on to their religious ‘works’ as their way to acceptance with God. Religious and racial pride was deep rooted in their psyche.

In principle, that was exactly what happened in the late Middle Ages against which Luther reacted. In Paul’s time it was Jewish ‘works’ and in Luther’s it was Christian ‘works.’ Either way, it was not Christ who was the instrument of salvation, but man and his ‘works.’

6. Christ

In Romans there are many statements about Christ. As we saw last week Christ is a towering Mt Everest gathering up in himself all the promises and hopes of the OT for salvation.

We think of Christ as who he wa and what he did. We do not separate the two. For example, Paul preached ‘Christ crucified’ and he preached ‘Christ’ (1 Cor 1:22; 3:10). Two sides of the one coin.

Who was Christ? He is:

God’s own Son,
of the seed of David, therefore the Messiah,
the Son of God who came
God over all, blessed forever,
without sin,
the risen and ascended Lord and Spirit giver,
the returning ‘deliverer’ from Zion.

What did he do when he died and was raised?

He ‘satisfied’ the wrath of God towards our sins.
He redeemed us from the grip of sin and its penalty.
He made possible God’s merciful acquittal.

When we ‘believe in Christ’ we believe both in the person and the work, the Son of God who is Saviour, the Messiah who is our redeemer.

7. Where does ‘faith’ come from?

Listen to Paul in Romans:

10:17 Faith comes from what is heard,
And what is heard comes by the word of Christ.

A few verses earlier (10:8) Paul spoke of ‘the word of faith.’ The ‘word of faith’ and the ‘word of Christ’ are one and the same.

The ‘word of Christ’ tells us who Christ is and what Christ has done for us.

The ‘word of faith’ says ‘believe’ in this Christ. God himself calls us by the ‘word of Christ’ to ‘call on the name of the Lord’ and be ‘saved’ at that moment, to be ‘justified’ or ‘acquitted’ at that moment. So God is saying, ‘Listen to me now and be saved now.’

This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation.

That is why peaching is so important.

In 2 Corinthians 5-6 he writes

We are ambassadors representing Christ
God making his appeal through us,
We beseech you in Christ’s place,
‘Be reconciled to God.’ …
Working together then with [God]
we entreat you not to receive the grace of God in vain…
Behold, now is the acceptable time;
behold now is the day of salvation.

  • The preacher represents Christ, speaks in his place.
  • The preacher speaks a word from God, as God’s co-worker.
  • The preacher urged the hearers, ‘be reconciled to God.’
  • The preacher says ‘now’ is the very ‘day of salvation.’
  • The preacher preaching and the listener listening so as to believe is itself, the grace of God. Do not receive that ‘grace’ in vain, Paul cautions.

As I said earlier, ‘faith’ or ‘believing’ is everyday, mundane, practical, ordinary.

Saving faith is ordinary faith in an extraordinary Christ.

It is a magnet that draws iron filings to itself.
It is Christ who draws us to himself.
No magnet, no movement.
No preaching of Christ, no faith in him.
No faith in him, no ‘righteous’ verdict from God.

Joyfully the preacher is able to say in God’s name, ‘I acquit you’, ‘you are righteous in my eyes.’

8. So where to from here?

Let me make three practical encouragements.

8.1 Put your faith in Christ not in your works.

To speak about Christ and faith in him and to leave it at that would be unthinkable. I must ask us all to deliberately and intentionally direct our trust to Christ and to do so now if I have not done so before. God loves each of us, sinners though we be. Christ died for us, because we are just that, those who have crossed the boundaries that God says we must live within. We have lied, stolen, acted with malice, lusted. Yet God loves us nonetheless and Christ died for us exactly because we have broken the laws of God.

God commends his own love to us
while we were still sinners
Christ died for us.

This is the mighty creator of the Universe loving us and sending his righteous Son to die d for us. So I must ask, ‘Do you know that you are loved by God ?’ Do you understand that you have been died for by Christ ? You were in his mind as he hung there bearing your sins.

If tonight as you sat there you said your ‘yes’ to Christ you need to burn your boat behind you. There can be no going back to that other place of unbelief. You need to tell someone you have become a believer. Tell me if you like.

8.2 Share the good news with others

John Woodhouse reminded us that God is blessing the nations through the gospel telling them of the king who has come, Jesus Christ. The men and women and boys and girls of the nations are blessed as they come to hear about Christ and believe in him. He painted God’s ‘big picture’ and asked where do I fit in. I fit in by advancing and pushing forward God’s great plan for the saving of the nations under the saviourhood and Lordship of Christ. So we preach, we share, we pray, we help, we work. All pushing forward this great plan for the nations.

So I ask you tonight to make God’s priority your priority. Let it be the first call on your time, your money, your energies, your imagination, your dreams and your hopes.

8.3 Out of thankfulness, present your bodies to God

In the old theological battles over ‘faith’ and ‘works’ the ‘works’ people complained that the ‘faith’ people would live any way they liked since they thought they were ‘justified’ any way.

That kind of thinking (called ‘antinomianism’) is entirely foreign to Paul. Paul has laid out God’s grand plan for salvation, referring to God’s work in Christ in the past (Romans 3-5) and for the future – his ingathering of Gentiles and his eventual salvation of Israel. On the basis of God’s mercy and sovereignty in the world he calls on believers to respond by living obediently to God.

Romans is peppered with words of encouragement and admonition. These make it clear that the Christian life is very exacting.

• Regarding God and the future:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … And let us rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (5:1-2).

• Regarding sins:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (6:1-4)

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness (6:12-14).

• Regarding the Spirit:

Therefore … we have an obligation – but not to the flesh, to live according to it … but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the flesh, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God … When we cry ‘Abba, Father’ it is the Spirit of God bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (8:12-16)

• Regarding the values of the world:

Therefore, I urge you … in view of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God … do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind… (12:1)

• Regarding the church:

We are one body in Christ…. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it …. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully (12:5-8).

Love must be sincere … be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality… Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited (12:9-13, 15-16).

• Regarding those outside the church:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:14, 17-21)

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities … Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities … this is also why you pay taxes … give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour (13:1, 6-7).

• Regarding love:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law …Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (13:8-10).

• Regarding the old life:

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (13:11-14).

• Regarding relations with believers:

Each of us should please his neighbour. for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself… May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, then, just as Christ welcomed you, in order to bring praise to God. (15:2-7)

In summary, those who ‘belong to Christ’ and are ‘in Christ’ are called to a life of peace with God, hope for the future, practical holiness, obedience to God’s will, spiritual fervour, responsible citizenship, love of believer and persecutor alike and service to God.

We are not justified by works, but we are justified for a life of good works.

Luther was sensitive to the claims that ‘justification by faith alone’ would issue in lawless behaviour. Let me conclude with some of his words:

When a husband and wife really love each other, and thoroughly believe in their love, who teaches them how they are to behave one to another, say or not say, what they are to think ? Confidence alone teaches them all this, and even more than is necessary. For such a man there is no distinction in works. He does the great and important as gladly as the small and unimportant, and vice versa. Moreover he does them in a glad peaceful and confident heart and is an absolute willing companion to the woman.

But where there is any doubt he searches within himself for the best thing to do; then a distinction of works arises by which he imagines he may win favour. And yet he does so with a heavy heart and great disinclination. He is like a prisoner, more than half in despair and often makes a fool of himself. Thus a Christian man who lives in this confidence towards God knows all things, can do all things, ventures everything that needs to be done, and does everything willingly and gladly, not that he may gain merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure from him to please God in doing these things. He simply serves God with no thought of reward, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or is in a state of doubt, worries and starts looking for ways and means to do enough and to influence God with his many and good works (Treatise on Good Works – Luther’s Works, trans W. Lambert and J. Atkinson, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1966, pages 26-27).

Paul Barnett
28 February 2001

Jesus in Romans

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney

2001 — A Faith Odyssey

Lecture by Dr Paul Barnett, Bishop of North Sydney

Who, then, was Jesus?


I will base both of my talks – ‘Who, then, was Jesus ?’ and ‘Our faith’ – on Paul’s great letter to the Romans.

1. The Impact of Romans

Before I launch into my first it is worth being reminded of the great influence Romans has had, not just on ordinary people like me doing a counsellor training course, but on some of the giants within Christian history.

You will have heard of the conversion of Augustine from North Africa in the fourth century. Prayed for over many years by his mother Monica this young scholar leading a debauched life read in Romans 13:

…not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

The Spirit of God used these words of God to open Augustine’s mind and heart to the saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.

A millennium later a young monk named Martin Luther was restlessly searching for the peace of God that he could not find through religious duties and good works. Then he came across these words from Romans 1:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed,
a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written,
‘the righteous will live by faith.’

Luther wrote that, ‘When …the concept of justification by faith alone burst into my mind, suddenly it was like the doors of paradise swung open and I walked through.’

Later still John Wesley a young but probably unconverted minister in the Church of England heard preaching on Romans in Aldersgate London. Wesley reports that, ‘Suddenly my heart was strangely moved…’

Early in the last century the Swiss theologian Karl Barth changed his theologically ‘liberal’ mind through reading Romans. In 1918 his own commentary on Romans fell like a bomb into the world of liberalism that was then dominating European Protestantism.

From this great letter I will attempt to answer my question, ‘Who then was Jesus ?’

2. Why seek Jesus in Romans ?

But now you have a niggling question. ‘If Paul Barnett is going to talk about Jesus why is he looking at a Letter ?’ Why isn’t he finding his answers from the Gospels ?

Let me respond.

First, I accept that a Gospel is the logical place to find the answer. The Gospels were written as biographies of Jesus, though biographies with a difference. These biographies were written not only to inform but also to encourage a response of faith and repentance.

But the sceptical of our world have bombarded the Gospels and left many doubts in people’s minds. I am thinking of the Jesus Seminar and folk like that who keep appearing on Television and in the newspapers. Now not for one moment do I agree with their attacks on the Gospels. But it seldom occurs to them to attack Jesus in the Letters of the NT. So I am going to begin with a Letter, that is, Romans.

Second, a good reason to begin with a letter of Paul’s is the known earliness of authorship. The Gospels dates are not known for certain and are a matter of controversy. But the evidence is not conclusive.

On the other hand we can be sure that Paul’s letters to the Galatians, the Thessalonians, the Corinthians and the Romans were written in a ten year span between the late forties and 56 or 57. Romans was written 56 or 57 from Corinth in the house of Gaius and brought to Rome by Phoebe deaconess of the church of Cenchreae (near Corinth).

This means that Romans is only about 25 years later than Jesus.

This is 2001. Twenty five years or so ago, Governor General Sir John Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam (1975) and in 1976 Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon for the first time.

In the same year Jimmy Carter was elected president of the USA and Sylvester Stallone appeared in the movie Rocky.

These things seemed like yesterday to us who were around. So, too, Paul would of thought of Jesus as ‘just yesterday.’

So let us find out what Paul says about Jesus in Romans. If a Gospel’s presentation of Jesus corresponds to Paul’s presentation we would have good grounds for high confidence in the Gospel account.

Remember too that we can trace Paul’s Jesus back through his earlier letters going to Galatians written circa 48. But Galatians only embodied in written form what was being said at the time about Jesus orally. Galatians is a mere decade and a half later than Jesus himself. Paul’s Jesus, as we find him in the letters then, is a kind of template against whom we can measure off the Gospels’ Jesus.

But to remind us how close to Jesus Paul was when he wrote Galatians in circa 48 let us be reminded of some events fifteen years earlier. In 1986 Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison in Darwin, Paul Keating called Australia a ‘banana republic,’ another Paul – Paul Hogan – starred in Crocodile Dundee and Mike Tyson won the world heavyweight title. For Paul, then, Jesus was indeed, ‘just yesterday.’

3. Jesus Christ in Romans

I have selected some passages from Romans to look at very briefly.

FIRST 1:2-4 Jesus, son of David, Son of God, Lord

the gospel…God promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
regarding his Son,
who has come from the seed of David according to the flesh
and who was set apart as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead:
Jesus Christ our Lord.

This elegantly shaped passage has all the marks of an early creed or confession that would have pre-dated Romans. Four things stand out:

1. God’s word the gospel is focused in Christ who is the Son of God.

2. The gospel fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament.

3. The word ‘come’ in the phrase ‘his Son who has come…’implies the absolute and eternal existence of the Son of God.(He did not ever ‘become’ God’s Son but always was the Son of God).

4. Jesus was the Son of God in successive modes:

  • on earth, as the descendant of David
  • in heaven, as the powerful Son of God
    • through resurrection
    • as demonstrated by the outpoured Spirit

How does it compare with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels ?

  • Paul’s gospel was focused on Christ as the Son of God.
    So too do each of the four Gospels.
  • Paul’s gospel claims that Christ is the fulfilment of the OT.
    So too do each of the four Gospels.
  • Paul’s gospel says that Christ did not begin his existence when he came.
    So too do the four Gospels, explicitly in the opening lines of John.
  • Paul’s gospel claims that Christ was raised from the dead to be the Lord who poured out the Holy Spirit.
    So too do the four Gospels, explicitly in the Gospel of John.

So the Gospels measure up precisely next to this early creed or confession in Romans.

SECOND 8:3 Jesus, God’s own Son, sin-bearer

For God has done what the Law,
weakened by the flesh could not do:
having sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh
on account of sin condemned sin in the flesh

This is a shorter passage, but packed full of important truths about Jesus. Paul has been reminding Jews (in particular) of their sorry history. God gave them his Law (at Mt Sinai), but human sinfulness defeated its good purpose. Paul calls this deep rooted sinfulness within us, ‘the flesh.’ So God has now done what the Law failed to do.

1. God sent his own Son.
Jesus is not a son of God, one among many. He is uniquely God’s Son.

2. God sent him in the likeness of sinful flesh.
That is, he was truly human, but unlike others, without sin.

3. God condemned our sin in Christ’s own body or flesh.
This he did on the first Good Friday.

Once again we ask, do what the Gospels say square up with Paul’s words ?

Again we ask how does this shape up next to the Gospels ?

  • Paul teaches that Jesus is uniquely God’s Son.
    So too do each of the Gospels.
    Remember the words from heaven to Jesus in Jordan, ‘you are my beloved Son.’
  • Paul teaches that Christ was truly human, but without sin.
    So too do the Gospels.
    He hungered, thirsted and grew tired. He was tempted and tested, but he did not sin.
  • Paul teaches that God condemned human sin in Christ’s body.
    So too do the Gospels, for example,
    ‘The Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world.’

THIRD 9:3-5 Jesus, God over all

For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.
Theirs is the adoption as sons;
theirs the divine glory,
the covenants,
the receiving of the law,
the temple worship
and the promises.
Theirs are the patriarchs,
and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Christ,
who is God over all,
forever praised! Amen.

This is heart-wrenching. Paul and others have preached to his fellow-Jews but to little response. But they are God’s historic people. God adopted them, showed them his glory in the exodus and the mountain, made covenant with them, gave them his Law and temple, made promises through the prophets going back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From their race has come the Christ (the Messiah), who is God over all, forever praised.

Well, there it is. Paul has said it in simple but unmistakable words. Jesus the Christ is ‘God over all.’ Have we heard what Paul has said ? Jesus Christ is God. And he has said it in an early letter which is rock solid in its dating and place of origin. Corinth in AD 56/57.

Is this different from the Gospels ? Again. No. Paul makes a direct theological statement, the Gospels tell a ‘story,’ a story pointed like a gun at the readers. Yet on page after page of the Gospels it is clear that Jesus is God with us, Emmanuel. He forgives sins, though not personally sinned against. Something only God can do. He stills storms and walks on the waves. The creator and the sustainer of the universe was ‘with us.’ He calls himself by God’s name, ‘I am.’ A man kneels before him and cries out, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Paul calls him God and so do the Gospels.

FOURTH 9:31ff God’s ‘Stone’ in Zion

Israel who pursued the righteousness that is based on Law
did not succeed in fulfilling that Law.
Why ? Because they did not pursue it through faith,
but as it were based on works.
They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, Isaiah 28:16
‘Behold I am laying in Zion a stone
that will make men stumble,
a rock that will make them fall;
and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.’

Paul is telling his Jewish readers that Jesus was the Messiah, the ‘Stone’ prophesied by Isaiah. Because they have not believed in him they have ‘stumbled’ over that ‘Stone.’

Is this different from Jesus’ words in the Gospels ? Not at all. Jesus invited the people to ‘come to’ him and to ‘believe on’ him. As he approached Jerusalem he wept at the prospect of Israel’s terrible future, because they ‘stumbled’ over him.

FIFTH 10:5-9 Jesus, who was brought ‘down’ and was ‘raised up’

But the righteousness that is by faith says:
“Do not say in your heart, `Who will ascend into heaven?’ ”
(that is, to bring Christ down) “

or `Who will descend into the deep?’ ”
(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

But what does it say?
“The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”
that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming:

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,”
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.

Paul is comparing the giving of the Law to Israel with the coming of Christ into the world. The people were given the Law, but they rebelled and broke God’s commands.

Remember the bull calf they made out of melted down gold that they bowed down before in a sexual orgy. The Law was intended to be ‘close’ to them, in their mouths and hearts. But it wasn’t. They broke it immediately and repeatedly.

But now God has sent his own Son to deal with sin. Not by giving laws people without the Spirit cannot and will not keep. Rather, God sent his own Son to die for sinful people, for their forgiveness and also to give them the strength of God’s own presence to overcome evil within. As Charles Wesley wrote, ‘He breaks the power of cancelled sin. He sets the prisoner free.’

The Law was meant to be close to them, in mouth and heart, but isn’t.

The Christ is meant to be close to us, in mouth and heart, and is.

We confess him with our mouths as Lord and they believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead and so we are saved.

Christ is on my lips and is in my heart by the truth that I believe about him. He could not be closer. That is because he did not stay in heaven, but came down to us here. That is because he did not remain in Joseph’s tomb, but was raised from the dead, alive forever.

So what is Paul saying about Christ ? And how does it match up with the Gospels ?

  • Paul says that Christ came ‘down’ to us.
    But so too do the Gospels.
    Jesus told Nicodemus, ‘No one has ascended to heaven, except the Son of Man who has descended from heaven’ (John 3:13).
  • Paul says that Christ was ‘raised from the dead.’
    So too do the Gospels.
    By Sunday morning the tomb was empty. For forty days he appeared to them alive, eating, drinking and speaking.

SIXTH 11:25-27 The Deliverer will come

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers,
so that you may not be conceited:
Israel has experienced a hardening in part
until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’

As Paul looked into the future he saw a number of things happening. At the time the greater part of Israel was hardened towards the gospel. This in turn opened the way to Gentiles to respond. When their full number is brought in Paul forsees the salvation of ‘all Israel.’ This probably means those Israelites chosen by God down the ages. God will not abandon his historic people or his promises to them. Then will come the ‘deliverer from Zion,’ that is, from heaven.

Paul speaks many times of the return of the Lord including in this passage in Romans.

How do the Gospel measure up ? In exactly the same way. Jesus speaks many times of the coming of the Son of Man.

SEVENTH 15:1-3 Jesus, who did not please himself

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak
and not to please ourselves.

Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up.

For even Christ did not please himself but,
as it is written:
“The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

Paul is seeking to bring together Jewish Christians with Gentile Christians in one fellowship praising God with ‘one voice.’

Gentile Christians are more robust than their brittle Jewish brothers and sisters. The ‘strong’ need to make some concessions to the weak and to accommodate to their needs in food and drink matters. This means the ‘strong’ must be unselfish, not ‘pleasing themselves.’

The great model and example of ‘not pleasing’ oneself is Jesus. Here Paul is appealing to everyone’s understanding about the kind of person he was. He did not please himself but, like David in Psalm 69, ‘bore the insults’ of those who were angry with God. This is referring to Christ’s whole life, but in particular his crucifixion where he bore the scorn of men.

Is this different from the Gospels ?
Not at all.

Paul said, ‘Even Christ did not please himself…’
Jesus said, ‘Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.’

If even Christ did not please himself, neither should we.
If even the Son of Man came to serve, so should we.

Paul and Jesus are using different words but saying the same thing.

EIGHTH 15:8ff Jesus, servant of the Jews and ruler of the Gentiles

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews
on behalf of God’s truth,
to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs
so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy…

Isaiah says,
‘The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
the Gentiles will hope in him.

Paul is reminding the Romans of what has happened in recent times. Christ came to the Jews in fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But he knew that his salvation was to extend beyond the Jews to the Gentile nations of the world. Paul was to play a special role in this.

Paul mentions four OT texts that prophesied this. The fourth is from Isaiah 11. A man from the line of Jesse, the father of David, would ‘spring up.’ This ‘son of David’ would rule over the nations and become the hope of the Gentiles.

This is exactly what has happened. Little by little the name of Christ has been borne to the nations of the world by missionaries. He is the world’s king, the hope of many.

Is this different from Jesus’ teaching ? Again, it is precisely Jesus’ teaching, though in different words. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Go, therefore and make disciples of the nations.’

4. Conclusion

Our brief survey is finished. We have looked at eight passages in Romans where Paul makes extended reference to Jesus. Paul’s writings are very significant.

1. Paul’s writings are securely datable and they are early. Therefore they are close in time to Jesus.
They reflect what people close to Jesus thought of him. Most likely they learned these things from Jesus himself.

2. Paul’s writings are not intentionally written history. Therefore what they disclose historically is of special importance, especially in these times when the Gospels are under assault. On page after page of Paul’s letters we see the silhouette of the historical Jesus, of Jesus as he was.

By any canons of historical method, therefore, Paul’s writings including Romans are of immense importance.

What happened when we put the today much maligned Gospels alongside Romans ? Do we find another Jesus, a different Jesus ? Not at all.

In both we find the same Jesus.

  • Jesus who fulfils the Law and the Prophets.
  • Jesus who descends from the royal line of David, as the expected Messiah.
  • Jesus who is God’s very own Son, who had always been God’s Son.
  • Jesus who is truly a man, yet without sin.
  • Jesus who selflessly ‘did not please himself’ in serving God and man.
  • Jesus who invited the people to ‘come to’ him and to ‘believe in’ him.
  • Jesus who sustained God’s condemnation of our sins in his own person
  • Jesus who was raised from the dead.
  • Jesus who poured out the Spirit of God as Lord and Son of God in power.
  • Jesus who will return.

We find within the pages of the New Testament a united witness to Christ in whom we believe. But it is not a leap in the dark, a leap that is irrational or silly.

What Paul writes about Jesus Christ is historical, the more so since he does not set out to write history as such. The historical detail emerges innocently from what is in fact a series of sermons to Christians in Rome in the middle fifties, a mere 25 years on from Jesus.

How many names do you have ? I have a surname and two given names. If you took the trouble to count the names and titles of Jesus in the NT how many would you find ? In his book The Names of Jesus Vincent Taylor found no less than forty two.

For Peter the preacher in Acts he is Christ, Lord, Prophet, Servant, Holy One, Pioneer, Saviour, Rock.

For Paul he is Image of God, Firstborn, Wisdom, Saviour, Mediator, our Peace, Last Adam, Man of Heaven.

To the Writer of Hebrews he is Son of God, Great High Priest, Pioneer of Faith, Great Shepherd.

For John in the Gospel he is King of Israel, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, Way, Truth and Life. For John in Revelation he is Lion of Judah, Bright and Morning Star, Alpha and Omega.

These are but some examples of the incredible and early and numerous names his contemporaries gave to him. In later hymns the names and titles are often mawkish. But not from the NT. These names are robust and stirring. As befitting Jesus. So do we love him ? Yes. Do we trust him with our souls ? Yes. Do we believe in him ? Yes.

We need to direct our faith towards this Jesus, but it is an informed faith, a reasonable faith, a faith that we can hold in integrity and with good conscience. This I encourage us each and all to do.

But that is the subject for next time.

Paul Barnett
21 February 2001

New Demons and the Gadarene Precipice

The demons from the world are coming into the church and like the Gadarene Swine, many are galloping down the precipice into the sea to destruction.  Or they will unless they recognise the demons in our midst.

What are those demons ? They are two, in particular.

One is Neo-Gnosticism.  This is the revival of the old Gnosticism or theosophy that swept across early Christianity from the latter part of the era of the New Testament into the first centuries of the history of the church.  Gnosticism – ancient and modern – is a ‘spiritual’ disposition that inclines to the mystical at a personal level and to ritual at a corporate level.

Neo-Gnosticism is uncomfortable with God coming among us physically, in the flesh, as a body.  It squirms at the bodily incarnation of the Son of God, his atonement as a sin-bearer that was achieved in his body and a resurrection in which his body was literally raised alive so that he ate food and was touched by his friends.  Neo-Gnostics want a religion of pure spirit and light.  Like early Gnosticism its modern expression expresses itself religiously  and devoutly.  It uses the language of the Bible but with a kind of ‘double think’ not literally believing the words, for example, about the bodily resurrection.  It is in fundamental denial of the unique, once-for-all, ‘God with us’ insistence of the Apostolic Gospel.  By a slippery use of words it can even pass itself off as orthodox, while being heterodox.  It pillories those who accept  the ‘body’ emphases of the New Testament as ‘literalist’ and ‘fundamentalist.’  It has the modern media on its side.

The Apostles’ Creed, with its emphasis on the historicity  of Christ’s conception (through a virgin), his sufferings, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension and return, was devised precisely to lock out Gnosticism.  It expresses well Christ’s words to God in Hebrews 10:5, ‘a body hast thou [God] prepared for me.’  This, truly, is the ‘catholic’ faith to be upheld and defended at this time.

The other  demon  is Postmodernism, a temperament  that encourages anyone to read the Biblical text any way the reader pleases.  Discerning the intention of the original author  (‘authorial intent’) is outmoded, ‘yesterday’s thinking.’   This is ‘today,’ the new age of creative listening.  According to postmodernism what you feel is true, because it is true for you.  Incredibly, this wild subjectivity has been justified by Jesus’ words, ‘Let him who has ears to hear, hear.’  Of course, Jesus meant  no such thing.  His point was to challenge his hearers  to listen to what he was saying and to identify themselves as to what kind of ‘soil’ or hearer they were.

These are powerful demons.  One rejects the objective content of the Gospel and the Bible that is outside us, over us and even against us.  The other relegates God’s involvement with the world to the non-tangible , the mystical and the ritualistic, rather than as it truly was, by way of flesh (the Word became flesh - 1 John 1:14).

Christ has not released these demons into the church.  They have come into our midst from our contemporary culture that is’feelings’ dominated rather than truth dominated. Ultimately, however,  this is the spirit of antichrist seeping into the churches from the evil one himself.  I can say this because the outcome of Neo-Gnosticism and Postmodernism is the denial that that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, suffered in the flesh, been raised alive in the flesh and will return in the flesh (cf. 1 John 4:1-5).

Meanwhile many in our churches are following them, galloping down the slope to their spiritual demise like the Gadarene swine, to be drowned in the waters of the sea.

We need to recognise these demons and resist them.

Paul Barnett
May 2000

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