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.

Christmas – Myth or History?

Christmas – Myth or History?


You cannot but be impressed with the zeal of the modern sceptic and reciprocally unimpressed with the lethargy of the contemporary Christian.  Right on track the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend (3rd December, 2011) has a lengthy and well-researched article, Divine Intervention’ (Fenella Souter) in which she debunks the historical basis for the first Christmas.

Her two main arguments are that there are only two gospel accounts and that they are contradictory, with the addition of many fictional details.

It’s true that there are two accounts (Matthew and Luke) but it is no less true that John’s whole Gospel is focused on the Eternal and Divine Word who ‘became flesh’.  John’s description of a believer’s rebirth ‘without blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (1:13) seems to be based on the virgin conception of Christ (born ‘without blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’).  Paul likewise taught the ‘incarnation’ of the Son of God from his pre-existent deity to his human life culminating in his degradation as a crucified felon  (Phil. 2:5-8).  Paul teaches that ‘when the time had fully come’ Christ was ‘born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem…’ (Gal. 4:4-6).  So while it’s true that there are only two sustained narratives of that first Christmas the writings of John and Paul are consistent with historical narratives like Matthew and Luke.

Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, arising out of source material peculiar to them.  Matthew was a Jew writing for Jewish Christians and Luke a Gentile (God-fearer?) writing for Gentile readers.  Matthew focuses on Joseph with little mention of Mary and Luke focuses on Mary with little mention of Joseph.  Luke writes in terms of OT birth narratives; Matthew is more ‘matter of fact’.  Their respective genealogies are so different as to be irreconcilable.

By way of example, both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian reported on the ALP Conference.  The journalists brought out different things from their respective viewpoint for their varying readership.  Yet it was the same conference  –  (where) in Sydney; (when) 1st week of December, 2011.

Is it a problem that Gospel writers should put things differently?

Islam believes that the Qur’an was written as by God through a Dictaphone; there was no human involvement.  Christianity, however, holds that the books of the Bible were each written by a human person each with distinctive vocabulary, grammar, personality, etc.  Equally it believes that God inspired the writers so that what they wrote is trustworthy and authoritative, the Word of God.  So it is no problem that Matthew and Luke see things from their viewpoints for their respective readers.  If Matthew and Luke said exactly the same thing in exactly the same way it would indeed be a problem and make us suspicious.

Despite fundamental differences in style (and genealogies) there is agreement:

Matthew               Luke.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem                                    2:1                         2:2

In time of Herod (d. 4 BC)                                            2:1                         1:5

Mother: Mary                                                                    1:18                     1:26

Father: Joseph (named the child)                              1:18                      1:26

But not the biological father                                         1:16, 20, 22        1:34; 3:23

Brought up in Nazareth in Galilee                               2:22-23                 2:39

From the line of David                                                    1:1                      1:32

The biggest problem in the accounts is that Matthew already has Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem whereas Luke describes their journey there from Nazareth.  Is this insurmountable?  Perhaps Matthew did not know about the journey.  Alternatively, his preoccupation with Jesus’ descent from David may have inclined him to focus on Bethlehem, the city of David.  Either way the difference is not fatal to the integrity of the accounts.

Another issue is that the census in Luke 2:2 appears to relate to a later census in AD 6 conducted by Quirinius.  But it is possible that Luke is referring to a lesser known census that was held some years before the Quirinius census.

What about ‘post card’ items in the narratives?  ‘Magi’ were students of astrology and astronomy that arose in Mesopotamia who might have been expected to be interested in spectacular ‘signs’ in the heavens, especially when such signs were held to be portends of great events. What about the ‘star’?  There was a conjunction of planets in 6 BC and a comet in 5 BC. Time Magazine 27/12/1976 wrote: ‘There are those who dismiss the star as nothing more than a metaphor…others take the Christmas star more literally, and not without reason. Astronomical records show that there were several significant celestial events around the time of Jesus’ birth’. What about the ‘shepherds’?  Bethlehem was ‘sheep’ country; the whole middle-east is sheep country.  Sheep were also needed for sacrifice in the temple in nearby Jerusalem.  And the ‘manger’, is that feasible?  Stone food troughs are still to be seen in Israel, e.g., at Caesarea Maritima near the theatre.  It is a problem that 25th December should be the date since this is mid-winter and shepherds would not have been outside at night and the sheep secure in sheep pens.  The Gospels do not give the date of the first Christmas.

When we read Matthew 1:18-23 we learn the following:

1.            Jesus was ‘born king of the Jews’ (Matt. 2:1).   He was the long-awaited Messiah, of line of David.

2.            Joseph was ‘the husband of Mary’, not the father of Jesus (Matt. 1:16).

The child was ‘conceived…from the Holy Spirit’; he was the Son of God.

• truly human, yet uniquely the Son of God (Emmanuel) ; no mere prophet.

• uniquely able to teach us and show us the will of God.

3.            It was to fulfil ancient prophecy, God’s word of promise:   Emmanuel, God with us.

4.            David saved his people their enemies;  the Son of David saves us from our sins.

5.            We cannot separate Christmas from Good Friday.

Christmas is one huge step down, followed by other steps down into the deepest pit.

In Phil. 2:5-8 Christ, in obedience to God, did not hold on to equality with God but emptied himself to become a man, in fact a slave, who submitted to crucifixion.  The journey the Son of God took at Bethlehem he finished in Jerusalem, nailed to a cross.

All for us.

Who could invent such a story?

So don’t let the sceptics and atheists take away you hope.  The narratives of the first Christmas are grounded in historical reality and tell the story of God’s unbelievable love for lost folk, such as we all are due to our selfishness and sins.


Paul Barnett







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




















































Scandal in the Church in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

December 1999

Browsers interested in careful historical exegesis of the New Testament are referred to an important research article by Dr Jim Harrison, a local scholar. Its title is ‘Paul’s House Churches and the Cultic Associations’ and may be found in Reformed Theological Review 58 (1999), pages 31-47.

Harrison has identified five pagan religious associations in Graeco-Roman society more or less contemporary with the formation of Paul’s churches. The striking thing is that these religious groups had clear expectations as to the behaviour of their members. It is obvious that such groups were concerned to have a good reputation with the wider society so as to avoid notoriety and scandal.

When we read First Corinthians against this background we can see that many things Paul wrote were to avoid the church having a reputation for scandal in the city of Corinth.

Let me briefly mention three areas of concerns of the pagan groups, as noted by Dr Harrison. His list is more extensive.

First, these cults insisted that their members should orderly in their behaviour and show reverence during their religious services. One group demanded that their proceedings be carried out ‘reverently and in a fully lawful manner.’ Another did not tolerate disruptive behaviour or abusive and insolent language. One society ruled that, ‘No one shall deliver a speech without recognition by the priest of the vice-priest.’ It is worth quoting more fully the Guild of Zeus Most High:

‘It shall not be permissible for any one of them to[...] or make factions or leave the brotherhood of the president for another, or for men to enter into one another’s pedigrees at the banquet or to abuse one another or to chatter or indict or accuse one another…’

We note that Paul accuses the Corinthians of creating ‘schisms’ (1:10; 11:18; 12:25), chattering during meetings (14:26-40) and ‘indicting and accusing’ (6:1-8)! Clearly the Corinthians were not observing even the standards of the pagan guilds!

Second, the women members should not violate conventional cultural decorum. ‘None of the women is to wear gold or rouge or white makeup or hair bands or braided hair or shoes made of anything but felt or leather…’

Paul (1 Tim. 2) and Peter (1 Pet. 3) echo these concerns. The call for wifely submission fits in with this, too.

Third, the funds of the association were to be scrupulously supervised by men of integrity.

Paul sought to avoid disrepute regarding the manner of supervising the Collection for believers in Judaea (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:20-21).

These and the other matters identified by Dr Harrison cast light on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was new social grouping and Paul was concerned lest it provoke a bad impression in the city. There were a number of aspects of the life of the Corinthians that would have aroused negative comment locally.

1. The adultery of a man with his stepmother, a sin not found even among pagans (5:1) is one example.

2. A second is the practice of church members taking one another to the public courts. This told the wider community that these Christians are a disorderly lot (6:1-8)!

3. A third example is the women prophets who are casting off their ‘sign’ of their submission in marriage (11:13-14). Likewise those women who created disorder in the gathering by calling out questions to their husbands (14:33b-35). Both are examples of women kicking off the submission expected of them at that time.

4. A fourth was the factions apparent at the Lord’s supper (11:17-22), especially at a time of food shortage due to protracted famine in the eastern Mediterranean. The rich flaunting their prosperity before the poor may have been a matter of notoriety The factionalism in Corinth associated with leaders (‘Each one of you says I belong to x, y. z’ – 1:12)would not have been appreciated in the city.

5. A fifth was the chaos in the meetings with the babble of tongues-speakers, of prophets talking over the top of one another and of wives calling out questions across the meeting (14:26-40).

Such behaviour would have attracted serious criticism in a city like Corinth, where good order in household cult groups was important. Surviving rules governing mystery cults noted above reveal that disorder was unacceptable.

Paul was sensitive to a church developing a bad reputation. Many of Paul’s concerns found in First Corinthians arise from his awareness that the behaviour of the Corinthians may have fallen below the standards that applied for other groups at that time.

This is relevant. Modern societies are now deeply conscious of ethical issues. Professional associations adopt strong moral codes and discipline their members where necessary. It is a scandal where standards of behaviour in the church fall below those of the community. Believers must not allow their standards to fall below the expectations of various groups within the community.

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

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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Holding the Faith in a Postmodern World

The word ‘faith’ appears many times the New Testament either in the sense of ‘trust’ or in the sense of ‘trustworthiness’ or ‘fidelity.’

There are, however, a number of important references to ‘the faith’ meaning ‘what is believed,’ ‘the basics of the Christian faith.’

In the early days of the Jerusalem Church ‘a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith’ (Acts 7:7).

The priests’ obedience to the faith is matched by the Thessalonians obedience to the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8). The faith is the Gospel message.

Soon after Paul’s great turnaround it was reported that, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’ (Galatians 1:23). Most likely Paul received the faith at his baptism in Damascus from Ananias. This ‘faith’ in turn he ‘delivered’ to the various churches he established. The faith was about Christ – his death for sins, his bodily resurrection, his return.

Writing to the Colossian Paul notes that they have been ‘established in (or ‘based in’) the faith’ (Colossians 2:7).

For those who follow it and preach it the faith is a source of spiritual nourishment (1 Timothy 4:6).

The New Testament writers, however, are concerned that believers do not turn aside from the faith (1 Timothy 6:10). This was happening otherwise they would not have been so concerned.

Accordingly there are a number of strong encouragements to hold to the faith.

Hear Paul encourage the Corinthians:

‘Stand firm in the faith’ 1 Corinthians 16:13
‘Examine yourselves that you are in the faith’ 2 Corinthians 13:5

Hear Peter exhort his far flung readers in the provinces of Anatolia:

‘Resist [the devil], firm in the faith’ 1 Peter 5:9

Hear Jude challenge his people:

‘Struggle for the faith once delivered to the saints’ Jude 3

Hear John plead with his readers in Roman Asia:

‘Here is a call for the endurance of the saints,
those who keep…the faith of Jesus’ Revelation 14:12

Clearly there was great pressure to abandon the faith, as there is today. The cultures of the western and the developing world are opposed to the faith.

To the post-modern mind there is no such thing as ‘the faith.’ Prince Charles would prefer to be a defender of faith and not to be defender of the faith.

Paul’s words about self examination are right. Do I actually hold the faith of the Gospel of Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen and returning ?

I and we need to ‘keep’ the faith, to ‘stand firm’ in the faith but also to ‘struggle’ for the faith.

‘The faith’ precedes the exercise of that faith or trust that joins us to Christ and makes us one with him. Faith or trust must be directed rightly, that is to the Lord whose identity and achievement is defined by the faith. Of course there must be true and personal faith or trust in Christ accompanied by good works and love. But that love and those good works flow out of faith directed to the Christ of the faith once delivered to the saints.

Paul Barnett