Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World


The Pluralistic Environments of the Old and New Testament.

During the 1950s the Student Christian Movement series Studies in Biblical Theology published texts that highlighted the pluralistic environments of the Old and New Testaments respectively, the one written by G.E. Wright, the other by F.V. Filson.  Each pointed to the distinctiveness of the faith of each testament against the religious culture to which it came.  More recently, and based on up-to-date data, a collection of essays, One God One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism (ed. B.W. Winter and A. Clarke, Cambridge: Tyndale Press, 1991), has contributed further to this subject.

Religious pluralism, which has become new to us in western culture in recent times, was not new in the broader historical background of the New Testament era.  It was, in fact and in particular, a distinguishing mark of the Graeco-Roman culture of the world in which the heralds of Jesus went forth to proclaim him as the unique Lord and Christ.

 Paul’s History: from Pharisee to Apostle

I suspect that for his first thirty or so years Paul had limited exposure to the religious pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world.  True, he spent his first years in Tarsus in Cilicia but seems to have been shielded from Hellenistic influence in a conservatively Jewish family, perhaps through home schooling by a tutor.  His practical world was probably the home and the synagogue with little exposure in Tarsian culture.  By his mid-teens Paul was living in the holy city, enrolled in the academy of Gamaliel the foremost rabbi of his generation, where he would have been immersed in the judgments of the scribes.  Jerusalem was indeed the ‘holy’ city, free from the evils of the Hellenistic world.  Paul’s letters, written considerably later, whilst displaying a preacher’s gift for a rhetorical turn of phrase, inhabit the intellectual universe of the Greek Bible.  There is no trace of the literature of the Greek classics in the letters of Paul but echoes from the Septuagint abound.

His radical redirection from attempted destroyer of the faith to its passionate preacher began to bring him into contact with Gentiles.  During his so-called ‘unknown years’, the fourteen years between the Damascus ‘call’ and the Jerusalem ‘agreement’ that he should go to the Gentiles, there is evidence of his foundation of gentile churches – in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41).  Titus, the uncircumcised ‘Greek’ who accompanied Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem, is a prominent example of a Gentile who had become a Christian during the decade or so that Paul spent in the ‘regions of Syria and of Cilicia’ where his proclamation of the faith he had formerly attempted to destroy had come repeatedly to the attention of the churches in Judea (Gal. 1:21-23).

The big question, though, is: Were Titus and the members of the Syrian and Cilician gentile churches  God-fearers or idolaters?  Francis Watson argued that Paul did not begin to evangelize outright Gentiles until the journey to Cyprus, Pisidia and Lycaonia recorded in Acts 13-14, having concentrated to that point in his ministry to Jews, a conclusion readily based on evidence from the book of Acts.  The early chapters of Galatians, however, strongly imply that throughout the ‘fourteen years’ Paul had been preaching the Son of God to the uncircumcised.  For their part, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer incline to the view that these Gentiles were synagogue-connected God-fearers.  This would help explain why Paul was repeatedly beaten in the synagogues (2 Cor. 11:24).  He asserted that the crucified Messiah, not the Law, was the true and only route to ‘life’ with God.

The evidence from Acts 15:23, 41 points conclusively to Paul’s ministry to Gentiles through his decade in Cilicia (based in Tarsus) and Syria (based in Antioch).  If Hengel and Schwemer are correct – that these Gentiles were mainly God-fearers – it would mean that the Gentiles Paul met were those who had already separated from pagan pluralism in their attendance at the synagogues, adopting instead the ways of Judaism.

In this case it would mean that Paul’s first missionary foray – which was in Cyprus and Southern Galatia – was the first occasion when Paul encountered outright pagans in any number, front on.

Paul and Idolaters

Paul’s mission letters, written during the decade of the westward missions (AD 47-57) in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia, give abundant evidence of former idolaters who were now members of his mission churches.

In Pisidia and Lycaonia (ca. 47/48)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods (theoi); but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain (Gal. 4:8-11; cf. 5:20 – ‘idolatry’/eidolatria)

In Macedonia (ca. 49)

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols (eido|la), to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come  (1 Thess. 1:8-10)

In Corinth (ca. 50-56)

Therefore, my beloved brothers, flee from the worship of idols (eidolatreia) (1 Cor. 10:14; cf. 1 Cor. 8-10 passim).  What agreement has                   the temple of God with idols (eido|la)?…Therefore. Come out from them, and be separate….(2 Cor. 6:16,17)

In short, the documents of Paul from the missionary decade (AD 47-57) reveal that he gathered into his churches significant numbers of idol-worshippers as well as those ‘God-fearers’ who had already left the temples to join the synagogues.

Mixed Churches

In Paul’s letters we are able to pick up references to Jews and Gentiles within the congregations of the Pauline mission.


From Galatians the many references to ‘you’ are directed to those Gentiles who have been negatively influenced by the Jewish-Christian ‘agitators’, for example, ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you’ (1:6); ‘O foolish Galatians who has bewitched you?’ (3:1);  ‘Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are no gods’ (4:8); (5:7); ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves’ (5:12).  In Galatians the ‘you’ are Gentile Galatians.

Nonetheless, buried within the text of Galatians we also find oblique references to Jews.  Paul’s review of Old Testament history and promises in chapter 3 is directed to Jewish readers, as summed up in chapter 4: ‘In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (4:3-4).  ‘We’ in Galatians are Jews like Paul and Cephas (‘we ourselves are Jews by birth and not gentile sinners’ – 2:15) but also the Galatian Christian Jews.

First and Second Corinthians

We know that the foundation members of the church in Corinth were God-fearers and Jews.  We would expect that First Corinthians would address issues that affected them, but apart from the reminder that he originally preached ‘Christ crucified’ in the synagogue – as in ‘the “Christ” [Messiah] who ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 1:23; 15:3) – it is difficult to find passages that reflect Jewish issues.  Wisdom from speech, porneia, idolatry, denial of end-time resurrection were issues for Gentiles.  It is otherwise in Second Corinthians where part of the excursus on New Covenant ministry (3:1-18) appears to be directed to Jews who were being influenced (by the ‘peddlers’) to think that the former covenant remained in place, unabrogated.  On the other hand, however, the appeal to ‘come out’ applies to those Corinthian Gentiles who continued to frequent the temples of Corinth (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).


In Romans Paul specifically addresses Gentiles (‘I am speaking to you Gentiles’ – 11:13) and they probably were amongst ‘the strong’ in 14:1-15:7.  On the other hand, he addresses those who ‘know the law’ – that is Jews (7:1) – whom also he addresses in symbolic terms as the ‘weak’ (Rom. 14:1-15:7).  The greater part of Romans is Paul’s response to criticisms that emanate from from a Jewish source or sources (e.g., 3:8; 6:1; 9:1-3).


Passages in Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans indicate the presence of Gentiles and Jews as members of the churches of the Pauline Mission.  These remind us of the pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world where Paul preached his message of Christ crucified and risen, whose members have been included within the churches (cf. Gal. 3:27-28 – ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…’).  Paul does not necessarily signal that his readers for the moment are Gentiles or Jews but they would understand who he was addressing in various parts of his letters.  Today we easily miss the nuanced references to Jews and Gentiles but the original hearers of Paul’s letters would not have been in doubt.[1]

Pluralism in Corinth

As already mentioned most references in First Corinthians relate to Gentiles.  From these we have a series of social snapshots of the kind of pluralism that marked gentile behaviour in the Achaian capital.   Chapters 1-4 focus on the wisdom that comes from rhetoric; from chapters 5-6 emerge of picture of Corinthian toleration of porneia and litigiousness; from chapters 8-10 the language of temples and sacrifices takes us into the world of Graeco-Roman temple worship; the prophesying and tongues-speaking in chapters 11-14 connect us with the oracular language of Delphi and the Pythian priestess; and the denial of resurrection in chapter 15 brings us into contact with Greek soul-based eschatology; chapters 1, 4 and 11 point to the deep social stratification between the ‘not many’ who were ‘haves’ and the great majority of poor free people and slaves who were the ‘have nots’ (with whom Paul identified himself).   First Corinthians reveals a pluralism of beliefs and attitudes amongst the Corinthian Christians, a pluralism that mirrors the pluralism of the city.

Tourists who visit the remains of classical civilizations like Corinth or Ephesus easily have the impression of ancient societies marked by order and beauty.  However, in the course of his travels in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia Paul would have addressed people who worshipped rocks, believed trees could be gods, owned sacred animals, accepted ritual castration and participated in temple prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual.[2]   Moreover, these were societies that crucified ‘difficult’ slaves, sanctioned bloody combats in the arenas, exposed their unwanted children to the elements and bought and sold men, women and children like cattle.  The world to which the apostle Paul came preaching the gospel of Christ was a pluralistic world, both in religion and ethics.  In reality it was by no means in all matters morally elevated or spiritually enlightened.

Corinth, like other cities in the Graeco-Roman world, was pluralist in religion, with ‘many “gods” and many “lords’” (1 Cor. 8:5).  Pausanias, the travel writer who visited Corinth some time after Paul, describes numerous temples and shrines to a bewildering array of deities in Corinth’s public square (agora) – for Artemis, Dionysius, Fortune, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Octavia the sister of Augustus.[3]

Paul adapts the Shema’

Paul’s proposition of the uniqueness of God and of Christ that he makes in 1 Cor. 8:6 is based on the great confession in the Shema’:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.

And you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and

with all your soul, and

with all your strength

(Deut. 6:4).

Yahweh had revealed himself to the people he chose in word and saving act and he was jealous for his name, forbidding the worship of other or alternative deities.

In First Corinthians Paul adapts the Shema’ to encompass Yahweh’s revelation of himself as the Father of Jesus his Son who is Lord.

there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for    whom we exist


one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6).

Paul applies his adapted Shema’ to the pluralism of Corinth.   In First Corinthians chapter 8 he reminds them of his catechesis when he established the church in Corinth.

We know that             ‘an idol has no real existence’ and

‘there is no God but one’.

Paul and the Corinthians ‘know’ that no reality exists behind man-made gods; they ‘know’ that there is ‘no God but one’.  Clearly, ‘There is no God but one’, is adapted from the Shema’, and is also found in various other statements in the New Testament, for example, ‘There is one God and Father of us all’, and ‘There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 2:5).

‘There is no God but one’ also echoes Yahweh’s own self-revelation of his uniqueness in, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’ (Isa. 45:5).  There it is affirmation clinched by denial, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’.  In the Pauline catechesis it is reversed, ‘there is no God but one’.  In pluralist Corinth, with ‘gods many and lords many’, Paul’s denial of the gods and his affirmation ‘there is no God but one’ ruled out the worship of any other deity.

That these gods are said to be ‘in heaven and on earth’ identifies them as current objects of worship.  Later he will say, ‘Flee from the worship of idols (pheugete apo te|s eido|lolatrias) and ‘what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons’ (1 Cor. 10:14,19). In the face of their stubborn continuing involvement in their temples (by some Corinthians) Paul urges in the Second Letter, ‘Come out from them and be separate from them…and touch nothing unclean’ (2 Cor. 6:17).  Paul regarded the worship of idols as defiling

The temple worship in question frequently involved the sacrifice of animals, which occurred on altars outside the cultic shrine.  Large drains carried away the blood from these sacrifices.  Moreover, cultic prostitution often occurred within the precincts of the temple.  Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘flee’ from the twin and connected evils of eido|lolatria and porneia (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14).

The gods do not exist despite the Corinthians belief that they do.  They are ‘so-called gods’ or ‘said-to-be gods’.  Yet though the gods do not exist the Corinthians who worship them are connected with evil spiritual forces as they pray to the effigies of Zeus, Artemis and Poseidon.  They are offering sacrifices to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).

The assertion ‘there is one God, the Father…and one Lord, Jesus Christ’ declares that only the Father and the one Lord, who is his Son, are the ways men and women are to think of God, to serve God and to worship God.  As Paul commented to the Thessalonians, ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1:9-10)

Against the plethora of deities in Corinth and elsewhere Paul is insisting that ‘all things’, that is, in creation and redemption, are ‘from’ the one God, the Father, but that they are ‘through’ the one Lord, Jesus the Christ.  The creation is an entity because its Creator, God is a unity.

By contrast the plurality of ‘gods many, lords many’ implied not the unity of the creation, but its fundamental dissonance, its fragmented-ness.

But according to the gospel everything is ‘from’ the Father and ‘through’ the Lord.  They, who together are ‘one’, are the source and means of the unity of the creation.  They, who together are ‘one’, are also the source of the objectivity, the other-ness of the Creation.  ‘Gods many, lords many’ was implicitly pantheistic and implied that ‘things’ were gods, to be worshipped.  Polytheism and pantheism go together.  But Christian monotheism de-deified the ‘things’ and put the creation at ‘arms length’ to humankind, objectifying it, making it subject to man’s enquiry, but not his worship.  Here the seeds of modern science were sown in the apostolic preaching, which would begin to bear fruit in late antiquity. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

The Unity of the God and the ethical life

First Thessalonians: Sexuality

Two passages should be connected.


you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

            and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who            

              delivers us from the wrath to come (1:9-10).


Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you  received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave  you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification:  that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour (4:1-4).

The ‘turning’ to God from the ‘many gods’ demands at the same time a radical moral ‘turning’.  In the culture of ‘many gods’ there was the acceptance of many sexual partners.  The temples of the many gods were the temples of multiple sexual encounters.  But the ‘turning’ to the God who is one required the commitment to one heterosexual spouse and to the care of the children of that union.  Closely connected to this new commitment was the ‘work ethic’ by which parents took responsibility to provide for their families.

Marital fidelity for the whole of life as an ethical response to the unity of God in creation and redemption occurs repeatedly in the Pauline corpus, no doubt reflecting Paul’s preaching and catechesis.  This in turn arose from the teaching of the Messiah, Jesus.

First Corinthians: others-centred living (agape)

All behaviour now is to be others-centred, inspired by love, for the good of others and for their moral and spiritual ‘up-building’.  But this is not merely to live virtuously, as a matter of cold duty.  All behaviour, whether truth telling, marital fidelity, purity of speech, sobriety, respect for the powers that be, working to support one’s family, contentment (the rejection of the idolatry of covetousness), gentleness and forgiveness all flow from the new relationship with the one, true and living God as revealed in the life, ethical teaching, death and resurrection of the Son of God.

The plurality of ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ allowed a plurality in behaviour, a lack of consistency, except that all behaviour was self-centred, not others-centred.  In Corinth each one said, ‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas’ (1 Cor. 1:12) and ‘All things are lawful to me…” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The word agape| was then of uncertain meaning and rare use and its practice was foreign to the pluralistic world.  But in the world that was the kingdom of God this new word agape reigned supreme, based on the revelation of the One God and the One Lord.  This is the antithesis of the ‘I’/‘me’ individualism in pluralistic Corinth.

The word agape and its related words fill many pages in a concordance of the Greek New Testament.  Just as advent of the computer has generated new language and acronyms, so the incarnation of Christ has generated a new agape|-based language.  ‘God so loved the world…’; ‘a new commandment…love one another, as I have loved you’.

It is striking that the passage where Paul affirms that there is ‘one’ Father, ‘one’ Lord in rejection of the ‘gods many, lords many’ is a passage where he affirms the indispensability of love (agape|) for the other person (1 Cor. 8:1-13).

            Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.  This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If                        anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if  anyone loves God, he is known by God (1                Cor. 8:1-3). 

‘Knowledge puffs up but love builds up’, that is, ‘builds up’ the other.  The man of ‘knowledge’ in Corinth who ‘knows’ that ‘there is no God but one’ and that there are ‘no gods’ and ‘no lords’, but yet who eats food in an idol’s temple is outwardly still an idolater, still in effect an idolater, despite his theoretically true but privatively held ‘knowledge’ about God and ‘no gods’.

‘Puffed up’ by his ‘knowledge’, true as it is, it nonetheless means that he does not ‘know as he ought to know’.  For to truly to ‘know’ the One God is to express that knowledge in truly loving the other person.  A self-centred knowing of God – even if the knowledge is accurate – that does not love the neighbour is not ‘a knowing’ of God at all, despite the truth and accuracy of that theoretical knowledge.  These are scary words for theologians and their students.  The overwhelming number of German pastors contemporary with Bonhoeffer were rock solid about justification by faith but went along with the Nazis in their hatred of the Jews, in acquiescing in the ‘final solution’.

When we read First Corinthians we find there is a single Corinthian ethic underlying the many issues Paul deals with.  Underlying factionalism, fornication, litigiousness, temple attendance, the eucharistic meal, tongues-speaking and resurrection denial, there is one Corinthian foible.  ‘Each one of you says, I’; ‘all things are lawful for me’.  Life in pluralistic Corinth was all about ‘I…me’.

The theological worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-centredness’ went together. Societies that have a worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-first’ are societies with limited future, despite their wealth and technological achievement.  Dissonant plurality in theology is inevitably expressed in the dissonant ethic of selfishness and points to inevitable social fragmentation.

It is for this reason that Paul repeatedly calls his congregations to exercise ‘truth-in-love’.  The Graeco-Roman context was one of endless squabbles and discord, a dissonance that was all too easy to express in the social life of the churches of Paul’s mission, but also today.  Not only is this discord debilitating for a congregation’s mission to bring Christ to the world, equally it gives expression to the ego-centred ethic that is the accompaniment of the pluralistic worldview.  The body of people who together confess the great catholic creeds must also be a people united in others-centred love.  Not to do so is to deny the ultimate truth of those creeds.

It is striking that in Paul’s list of 15 ‘works of the flesh’ in Galatians 5:19-21, which he says are ‘evident’, no less than 8 are social sins – enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy.  (Philo’s vice list has 141 items!)  Paul warns the Galatians against ‘biting and devouring one another’ and he pleads with them not to become ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’.  Whether Paul is addressing a congregation in Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Philippi or Rome, again and again the message is the same, his plea for unity based on love and humility.  It is not just because of a shared sinful nature that he must make these pleas.  It is because a pluralistic worldview implies a me-first ethical pluralism, a worldview that they claim to have abandoned.

The apostolic message directed the hearers to the One God (unity) in place of many gods (plurality); and to a single ethic, the ethic of love (agape), a way of living that is others-centred (a source of unity) in place of me-centredness (plurality, an inevitable source of division).  The agape ethic is a corollary of the of the Christo-centric theology.

Agape underlies every ethical challenge Paul makes throughout First Corinthians.  But it is an agape that is informed by the ultimate expression of others-centredness, the others-centredness of the Lord who was crucified for others.  Agape is no mere virtue, amongst other virtues, as proposed by the ethicists of Paul’s day.  This agape| was incarnated in the crucified man, the Kyrios.

The apostolic standard agape was and is a hard standard to attain and it is never fulfilled completely.  Yet our best efforts, as strengthened by the Spirit of God, make a radical difference to the way Christians live against the backdrop of the way societies are.  That is the power of apostolic teaching and the power of the Spirit of God.

Paul Barnett


[1]For example, 2 Cor. 3, which teaches the ‘end’ of the Old Covenant, was surely directed to Jewish Christians.  The Old Covenant was a covenant with ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31); it was not a covenant with Gentiles/the nations.  The ‘new perspectives’ on Judaism and Paul imply that the covenant with Israel still stands, despite Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 3.  But the covenant with Israel/Judah ‘ended’ in Christ and the coming of the Spirit.  Christian Jews in Corinth should understand that culturally they may remain Jews, but theologically they may not.  A true Jew is no longer identified by a circumcised foreskin but by ‘circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [= law]’ (Rom 2:28).

[2]D.W.J. Gill, “Behind the Classical Facade: Local Religions of the Roman Empire,” in One God One Lord, pp. 72-87.

[3]Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.6-7.

Make Disciples

Make Disciples

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee,

to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.

 And Jesus came and said to them,

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

 Go therefore

and make disciples of all nations,

baptizing them            

            in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

              teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you;

 and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’


There is a simple structure in this passage at the end of Matthew.

•The setting (vv16-17)

But the eleven go to Galilee, worship him there

(but ‘some doubted’ or ‘they hesitated’ ? – very ‘human’)


•Jesus’ self-revelation: (v18)

All authority has been given me

Contrast with

born in a stable

his life of poverty

arrested, tried, crucified

But now resurrected:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth given to me’.

I am the Son of Man,

about to ascend to the Ancient of Days (Dan 7.13-14).

Be given a kingdom.

To rule over all tribes, tongues and nations.


•Jesus’ command: (vv19-20a)

Therefore (because all authority is given to him)

Go               to          the nations of the world

Make disciples  from the nations of the world

Baptize              them in the triune name

Teach      them to observe all I have commanded you

•Jesus’ reassurance: (v20b)

I will be with you always, to the end of the age…’


We note the universals:

•‘All authority has been given to me’

•‘Make disciples from the nations’

•‘Baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

•‘Observe all I have commanded you’

•‘I will be with you always…to the end

The universals are potent.  This is the will of Almighty God, spoken through his Son to the church.


Let me offer four observations about disciple making.

1.            Disciple making was Jesus’ central activity

Matthew’s Gospel reveals Jesus as the Christ (= the Messiah).  Christ is a title and only later did it morph into a surname.  Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus manifested his Messiahship first in Galilee of the Gentiles.  ‘The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a great light has dawned’ (Matt. 4:16).  This he did by ‘going throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing every disease and every affliction among the people’ (Matt. 4:23).

Note those two main activities, teaching and healing.  Matthew structures chapters 5-9 to draw attention to these two activities that revealed his identity.  In chapters 5-7 we have his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and in chapters 8-9 we have eight passages about his healing.

The disciples heard his teaching and witnessed his healings.  In many ways the climax of this Gospel is the disciple Peter’s confession to Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Matt, 16:16).  This is the ‘rock’ on which Christ will build his church.

Is the ‘rock’ the acknowledgement that Jesus is the Christ?  Or is it the recognition that Peter would be the first preacher of the Christ in Jerusalem and Judea?  Or is it the prediction of the successors to Peter in Rome as the true ‘rock’ of Christianity?  Scholars debate and dispute this but the answer almost certainly is a combination of the first two options.  The ‘rock’ on which Christ will build his church is the confession that Jesus is the Christ of God, of which Peter was the first confessor, initially at Caesarea Philippi and then later in Jerusalem and then throughout the Land of Israel.  The challenge for us remains: Is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God?

How did Jesus ‘build’ the earliest church, the community of his disciples?  He did so by making disciples.  Let us learn from what he did.

Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that people should therefore repent.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of   heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17).

Great crowds gathered because of his teaching and miracles.  He taught them from a mountain what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  By that time only four fishermen had become his disciples.  This famous sermon is the Messiah’s disciple making sermon, directed to the crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judea and beyond the Jordan.

The ten ‘blessed are’ are not promises of rewards to the morally virtuous.

They are the prerequisites and accompaniments of the repentance that Jesus was teaching about.Without these ‘blessed’ attitudes repentance (metanoia), which means ‘do a mental U-turn’, is just a word.   Repentance needs to be expressed by being ‘poor in spirit’, mourning over one’s moral failures, having an attitude of meekness, having a hunger and thirst for righteousness, showing mercy, being pure in heart, being a peacemaker, being prepared to be persecuted.

Repentance means not just an end to murder, but also to anger; not just an end to adultery, but also to lust; and an end to vengeance and its replacement by love.  Jesus deepened and made positive the commandments the Lord gave to the people at Mt Sinai.  These fill out and give meaning to the word, ‘repent’.

Repentance means the end of play-acting, as of the Pharisees who paraded their righteousness to win the applause of the crowds.  Repentance means genuine prayer, genuine fasting, genuine almsgiving.  All done in secret in the sight of God, not man.

Repentance means trusting the loving hand of the Father and freedom from anxiety about material possessions.  ‘Look at the birds.  Look at the lilies, O ye of little faith’.

A disciple is a penitent and Jesus filled out what it means to be a penitent in this great disciple-making sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.

2.            Disciple making is Jesus’ great and final command to us

Jesus’ last words to his disciples, was ‘go, make disciples’.  The ‘go’ was literal to them.  They were to ‘go’ to the nations of the world, and they did – to Greece, Italy, Mesopotamia, North Africa.  Over the next two centuries, through their labours, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion.

But for us today the word ‘go’ may not be the focus.  The focus is ‘make disciples’ wherever you are.  ‘Go, make disciples’ or ‘stay, make disciples’.  ‘Make disciples’ is the thing Jesus commands, whether our calling is to ‘go’ or to ‘stay’.

Congregations are to be made up of disciple-making members.  A congregation is not a music club, or a social club, but a fishing club.  ‘I will make you fishers of men’, said Jesus to those original fishermen.  I enjoy fishing but I don’t belong to a club.  If I did I imagine I would meet with the other fishers and we would discuss our successes and failures and share ideas about bait and tackle.  When Christians meet they should be thinking and praying about fishing for people for the kingdom of God.  Sadly, that is the last thing we do when we meet.

How do you make disciples?  As opportunity arises, based on prayer, it is by sharing what we know about Jesus.

•A workmate shares with a workmate.

•A neighbour with a neighbour.

•A grandparent with a grandchild.

•A brother with brother and sister; a wife with husband.

One of the perils of having clergy is that we think they are to do all the jobs, including disciple making.  Closely connected is what is called the 80/20 syndrome, that 20% only of the members do all the work while the 80% do nothing.  I think those numbers are too generous.  One minister said to me it’s more like 99/1.  He said, ‘I do 99% of the work whilst the rest do nothing!’  Christ was a disciple maker.  His disciples were disciple makers.  You and I are to be disciple makers.  This is not just for clergy, it’s for all of us.

Fishing takes patience.  You have to be there with your line in the water, patient but ready.  Hours pass and nothing happens.  You pack up and go home.  And you do it again, and again.  Nothing.  Then, somehow, the tide is right and the fish are biting and you catch some.  Why do you keep coming back? But when the fish are ready you have to be ready.  It’s the joy and excitement of catching a fish.  How much more the joy of catching a sinner for Jesus.

Disciple making is an infection that is caught as much as it is taught. It challenges our Christian faith to be real, joyous and others centred.

The key to disciple making is to be others-centred, love motivated.

Listen to Jesus:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another;  even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

The church congregation is the nursery where we practice loving one another, as Christ has loved us.

Consistency and sincerity are important.  Kerry O’Keefe the ABC cricket commentator and former test bowler writes about Brian Booth, whom he played alongside at the St George’s Cricket Club.

Batting at number three was Brian Booth, a wiry test batsman who could whip the ball through mid-wicket with the dexterity of a VVS Laxman.  He was a committed Baptist and his genuineness and sense of fair play were a shining example of how one should live one’s life.  His grace in both victory and defeat should have been more obvious to a somewhat headstrong young leg spinner…He never preached; his example was enough.

Brian Booth went on to captain Australia and was an Olympic representative in hockey.

But disciple making also requires a certain confidence about what we believe.  We need to equip ourselves so that we know more about our Christian faith.  Moore College has developed external courses that are touching the lives of thousands of people in Asia, Africa, Latin America as well as Australia.  I know of eminent medical doctors who have become bishops, based mainly on what they had learned from these external courses.  You don’t need to go to classes.  It’s all done at home and it’s very good.  I have some brochures.  See me afterwards.

3.            Disciple making involves baptizing and teaching

The New Testament connects baptism with careful instruction.  In Romans 6 Paul connects the ‘pattern of teaching’ to which the new Christian is committed at the time of baptism, marking the transition from the old life to the new life.  Paul assumes the Roman Christians will have been instructed in the ‘pattern of teaching’.

Jesus was accompanied by followers.  They called him ‘teacher’ and he called them ‘disciples’, which means ‘learners’.  The Gospels are the record of Jesus the teacher instructing the learners, his apprentices.  What is an apprentice but someone who is going to become a master at his or her trade?  In this case, their trade, like his, was to teach others.

The original disciples became teachers of the word and their congregations were learners who in turn were to become teachers.  The apostles appointed catechists, ‘instructors in the word’.

In the early centuries baptisms occurred at Easter, preceded by 12 months instruction in the Apostles Creed, which is really instruction in the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  Throughout the centuries there have been catechisms to instruct believers in the faith.

The thing about our era is the lack of manuals of instruction, including as preparation for confirmation.  It is possible that our generation is one of the least well instructed – ever.  One of the problems is the lack of resource material available.  Dr J.I. Packer with Mrs Bronwyn Short in Canada are currently preparing a comprehensive Anglican catechism, which I hope will be available soon.

But it is not necessary to wait.  Ministers can devise teaching manuals on the Creeds and the Anglican Articles, that teach the centrality of the Bible as understood in the classical ‘Catholic’ and ‘Reformed’ sense.   They can set about teaching those to be confirmed but also existing members of congregations.

There is a luke warmness, a half heartedness about much of church life today.  May God revive his church to face the great moral and spiritual challenges of today’s world.  Jesus commanded, ‘teach them to observe all I have taught’.

Congregations should free up their ministers’ time so they can do the research so as to properly teach and instruct their congregations.  That is their main job.  A minister is not a chaplain whose primary work is do services and visit people in hospital.  The minister’s primary job is to teach the whole counsels of God in the Bible, which is done in those services and pastoral visits.  This requires careful preparation.  I recommend that ministers invest at least eight hours for every sermon, spread over say four days.  It is the central part of an Anglican Priest’s work, as the Bishop’s Charge in the Ordinal makes clear.  If there is one thing that explains the poor state of Christianity today it is the poor state of the preaching.  ‘Sermon-ettes make Christian-ettes’.

Christians face enormous challenges today:

•The constant attacks of the new atheists.

•The ridicule by popular media figures.

•The entrenched affluence and pleasure-seeking of our society.

•The growth of other religions – Islam and Buddhism.

Their gain is at our loss.

Meanwhile our congregations are ageing and generally passive.

What is to be the future of the faith in this country?

Will there be a Christianity for our children and grandchildren?

We need to hear once more the Great Command of Jesus:

‘All authority is heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you’.

It’s time for our local leaders and bishops got back to the basics.  Not least, they need to set the example by their commitment to the Word of God.  Otherwise our church buildings will become museums, restaurants and concert halls.  And Christ and Christianity will become a footnote in history.

It’s really over to us.

But not entirely.

4.            Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

Jesus promises to be with us but he makes that promise insofar as we ‘go, therefore, and make disciples, baptising and teaching them’.

An old Chinese preacher used to say, ‘No go, no lo’.  If church people don’t ‘go’ Jesus makes no promise ‘lo, I am with you’.  But of course it is not the ‘go’ that is important, but the ‘make disciples, teaching them’.  That is the thing, whether we ‘go’ or ‘stay’.  ‘No go means no “lo”’.

But when we are committed to ‘making disciples, teaching them’ we have the anointing of Jesus.  He will inspire us, encourage us, strengthen us, lead us, help us, comfort us.

The ‘presence’ of the Lord with his people was vital to Moses.  We recall the Lord’s conversation with Moses at Mt Sinai (Exodus 33).  He was fearful of all the perils that lay ahead before they came into the Promised Land.

And the Lord said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’. And Moses said to him, ‘If thy presence will not go with me, do not carry us up from here’.

When Paul was in Corinth and cast out from the synagogue he was fearful of continuing to preach in the city.   He reminded the Corinthians, ‘I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling’ (1 Cor. 2:3).  But the Lord Jesus spoke to him, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man shall attack you to harm you; for I have many people in this city’ (Acts 18:9-10).  ‘I am with you’, said Jesus, ‘do not be afraid’.

Paul had reason to be afraid.  The Jews hated his message of the crucified Messiah and flogged him repeatedly for saying that Christ crucified, not law, was the means to ‘life’ with God.  He was stoned once and thrice beaten with rods by the Romans for his message that the risen and ascended Christ, not the Roman Caesar, was the true king.  For that teaching they eventually beheaded him.  But Jesus was with him to the end, as his later epistles bear witness.

Let the command of Jesus ring out afresh. Go.  Make disciples.  Teach them.  I am with you always, even to the very end.

Paul Barnett PhD




















































The Triumph of the Light A Bible Study based on 2 Corinthians 4

‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overwhelmed it’
(John 1:5).

The darkness is deep, cosmic and evil due to the ‘prince of this world’ blinding people. But it did not obliterate the light of Christ and it will not obliterate the light of the gospel.

1. The Gift of the Light

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’
made his light shine in our hearts
pros / that [we might] give out the light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ
(vs. 6)

In the Creation God’s word brought light.
In the New Creation God’s gospel word brings light into our inner darkness.

Paul’s use of pros shows that God shines in our hearts for a purpose,that we might give that light to others who are in the darkness, blinded by the ‘god of this world.’

We cannot give out the light unless we have received the light.

2. The Challenge of the Light

God’s light is moral.

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways;
we do not use deception,
nor do we distort the word of God.
On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly
we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God
(vs 2).

Once and for all we have renounced evil ways.
Now, as a way of life, we reject
‘deception’ (guile),
adding to the gospel message or superimposing our ideas.

Rather, we ‘make visible’ the truth of the gospel in our own lives as a challenge to the consciences of others before God.

Preaching Christ not ourselves (cf. 11:19)

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord,
and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake
(vs 5).

Since people are blinded to God
only the preaching of Christ will bring light.
We minister as ‘slaves’ not as ‘lords.’

We can fail to give the light where we fail morally (vs 2)
and or where we fail to preach Christ (vs 5).

3. The Triumph of the Light and the Life

The perseverance and hope of the minister

Twice in 2 Cor 4 Paul says he ‘does not lose heart.’ Both times are preceded by ‘Therefore…’

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart (vs 1).

…we know that…[God] will also raise us….Therefore we do not lose heart (vs. 14,16)

God’s merciful salvation and his gift of ministry and resurrection hope are the basis (‘therefore’) for perseverance in the work.


The triumph of the Light (cf. John 1:5)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay
to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not in despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed
(vs 7-9).

Paul does not play down the personal cost of bearing the light of the gospel. We are cheap clay lamps who carry the light of the gospel. Frail and vulnerable. The fourfold ‘but not’ is God’s surpassing power in us overcoming the pressures and the pain.

The triumph of Resurrection Life

Now there is a change of imagery.

We preach Christ crucified and risen
and we experience Christ crucified and risen.
Our gospel sufferings replicate Christ crucified;
but God’s deliverances from those sufferings replicate Christ’s resurrection in us.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,
so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.
So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you
(vs 10-12).

Vs 10-11 speaks of our experience. Note the change in vs 12.

Death works in us but life works in you who have the gospel from us.
Our sacrifices – like Christ’s – is the means of life for others.
No death no life.

The world is in darkness.
The darkness is cosmic and profound and aggressive.
The darkness attempted to blanket Christ and extinguish his light. But it failed. The darkness in every generation attempts to extinguish the gospel light.
Two things prevent this: our perseverance and God’s power.

God’s light will triumph. It will not fail.

This Bible Study was presented at a conference for missionaries and ministers at the Nowra Missionary Convention May 15, 1999.

July 1999