Debt Slavery and Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Barnett?9 January, 2015

A Reformation Tour

A Reformation Tour, September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wise Judgements

Wise Judgements
Paul Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus made a twofold response.

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

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

Jesus then makes this piercing judgement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Then Jesus gave his judgement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Follow Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jesus’ Improbable Plan

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

Consider how improbable such a vision must have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two critical conclusions we draw from these observations.

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

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

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

John and Paul give us some strong clues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Barnett
Christmas 2013.




The Cross-Shaped Bronze Serpent at Mount Nebo, Jordan

To stand at Mt Nebo looking across the Jordan Valley to Jericho is a great experience.

There across the river is the Promised Land that typologically symbolizes the Kingdom of God, the hope of the Christian.

There’s no evidence that Jesus ever stood there, although the site of his baptism is not that far away, so it’s possible.

The bronze serpent sculpture is a recent creation, but an inspired one.  It combines the serpent (as from Numbers 21) with the cross.  The sculptor has cleverly portrayed in bronze the words of Jesus to Nicodemus.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3.14-15)

Nicodemus was religious (a Pharisee), clever (the teacher of Israel), and eminent (a member of the Jerusalem Ruling Council).  What is more, he believed that Jesus was a teacher come from God on account of the miracles.  He believed about Jesus.

But none of these things gave him eternal life, but only believing in the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, as the Lamb of God who bore the sin of the world.

Under the leadership of Joshua the whole nation entered the Land.  It was their national possession, provided they carefully observed all they had been taught by their great prophet Moses.

But Jesus told Nicodemus that under God’s new arrangement each person individually had to be ‘born again’ in order to ‘enter the kingdom of God’.  God makes individuals his children, but their children must each be ‘born again’ to belong to God’s family, members of his kingdom.  It has been said that God has children, but not grandchildren.

The local Christians (the Franciscans) at Mt Nebo have done a great thing in creating the cross-shaped bronze serpent.  It is such a powerful symbol as it stands at the place where the Promised Land lies before you.

They have also installed a plaque with John’s words:

The Law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Jesus, the One ‘lifted up’, was and is the ever-renewing source of ‘grace’ (= mercy) and ‘truth’ (faithfulness) to those who commit to him.  The message is clear even to a good, religious and clever man like Nicodemus: look to Jesus and be saved.

Constantine R. Campbell Paul and Union with Christ. An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) 478 Pages

This is probably the most important biblical thematic study by an Australian since Leon Morris’s Apostolic Preaching of the Cross published in 1955.  Dr Campbell has already established an international reputation for his work on the Greek of the New Testament.  To this distinction he has now added the major thematic and theological work, Paul and Union with Christ that promises to be the benchmark on this key subject for years to come.

Paul and Union with Christ falls into three main parts.  In the first, Campbell surveys major contributors from Deissmann (1892) to Gorman (2009).  Although the analyses are necessarily brief they represent a massive achievement and in themselves make the book worth owning.

He proceeds, second, to the major core of the monograph, a two hundred page exegetically detailed study of every Pauline union-with-Christ text, related to the key prepositions en, eis, syn, and dia.  Campbell examines each text in turn providing his own translation of the Greek, all with attractive simplicity.  This section will prove to be invaluable for those who teach from or write on these critical Pauline texts.  The author concludes this part with a discussion on Pauline metaphors like ‘body’, ‘temple’ and ‘marriage’ that elucidate the union-with-Christ texts.

The final ‘theological’ section, occupying the latter 40 percent of the book, rests squarely on the foundational exegesis of Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in the second part.  Here he discusses the work of Christ, the Trinity, Christian living, and justification.

Dr Campbell is acutely aware of past as well as present attempts to understand Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in relationship with the apostle’s overall theology. The ‘occasional’ character of his epistles makes the task quite complicated, if not impossible.  Paul’s focus and emphasis from letter to letter depends on the issues he is addressing.  Romans is the closest to a systematic statement of his beliefs, yet even here Paul is addressing a series of specific pastoral issues amongst those in his mission in that city.

So do the ‘union’ texts represent the ‘centre’ of Paul’s thought, or perhaps their ‘key’?

Campbell is fully aware of these issues and that many (most?) of the union texts have layered and interconnected meanings and without a single, dominant, controlling idea.  So he settles on the notion of ‘webbing’: ‘…union with Christ is the “webbing” that holds it all [Paul’s thought] together…Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond – union with Christ’ (p. 441).

Inevitably such a massive work prompts some questions.  One is that he notes the fact but not the content of Dr John Lee’s trenchant criticism of the BDAG Greek lexicon (p. 27 n. 8).  Lee, an Australian, is an international expert on lexicons so it would have been helpful to know his concerns, especially since Campbell follows the structures BDAG to the degree he does (though not uncritically).  Another, is the question how historically Paul became ‘a man in Christ’ (2 Cor. 12:2) and how historically his addressees became ‘those who belong to Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:23)?  What was the role of Paul’s Damascus conversion for him and the role of his gospel preaching for those who became his churches?  Connected, third, is how important to Paul was his failed attempt to relate to God through law in contrast to his life-changing epiphany as from Damascus that he now knew his ‘Abba’, Father in the Crucified One, in the power of the Christ who loved him in him (Gal. 2:19-21).

Dr Campbell has put us deeply in his debt by his dedicated labours in producing this epochal book.  Despite its immense erudition and imposing research it is written humbly and simply and with due respect to those with whom he differs.

Paul Barnett

(A review published in Southern Cross, Sydney, April 2014)


Why I am Still A Christian

Why I am still a Christian

It was a long time ago.  I had become dissatisfied with my life’s direction and that of the friends in my social circle.  In my early twenties I began to attend a church and thankfully found the minister’s message and the congregation’s welcome deeply encouraging.  I began for the first time to read the Bible.  One day I attended a lunch hour service in St Andrew’s Cathedral where the speaker, Dr Howard Guinness spoke on John 6.37.  That’s where Jesus said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will in no wise cast out’.  I prayed a prayer in which I told Jesus I was ‘coming’ to him.  That was in 1957.

I could now go on and say that life had been easy ever since, one green light after another.  I have indeed been blessed with a wonderful marriage, a loving family and a satisfying life’s work, but there have been challenges to my life as a Christian.  Let me mention four.

One was doubt.  Yes, doubt.  While my ‘conversion’ was real and deeply helpful I had questions about the truth basis of Christianity.  My new friends assured me it was true, but they didn’t really know why it was.  Even four years in a good seminary (Moore College) didn’t really address that question.  It was only when I began Ancient History studies that I understood how numerous and early were the sources for Jesus and the spread of earliest Christianity.  I have sometimes often wondered about God’s providential dealings with people, but thankfully I have no doubts about the truth basis of our faith.

Another challenge was the difficulty of my wife Anita’s prolonged back pain.  She had been a nurse and this had left the unwelcome legacy of extreme back pain that lasted for many years.  Two operations failed but thankfully a third was successful, but that was after a decade of suffering.  Not that she complained or stopped her partnership with me in our work for the Lord.  She soldiered on bravely.  I am aware that many people don’t find the relief that she found, so we count ourselves much blessed by the way things have turned out.  But when things were bad we found it all very hard.

A third challenge has been discouragement.  I am thinking of my own luke-warmness as a Christian.  Truly I am a Laodician, neither hot nor cold!  My prayer life and Bible reading are pretty average and my ministry to people often falls short.  Along with that I have to say I have been discouraged by some of my fellow Christians, including fellow ministers, whose ethics are sometimes lower than the ethics of the non-Christian company I worked for.  I am thinking of people who have been a bit too keen on advancing their own interests rather than serving the Lord.  I sometimes think that behaviour in church circles are not unlike the attitudes of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin that condemned that innocent man who is our Lord.   But I pass this judgement as one who has not lived up to his own ideals, fully aware that it is precarious to judge the behaviour of others.

A fourth challenge has been what I am calling decadence.  I am thinking of the decline in the social fabric of society.  ‘Where is God’, I ask, ‘allowing this to happen?  Why have you allowed things to deteriorate so much?’  I am thinking of the media’s exaltation of celebrities regardless of their values or lifestyle, of the collapse into binge drinking and substance abuse by so many, and of the decline in civil discourse in public life, to mention just a few examples.

In a way there’s nothing new here.  The ‘good old days’ were not always that good.  The difference is that when bad things happened back then it was against the values of the times, values that were significantly Christian.  When many bad things happen today they are just accepted.

I realize that compared with the headwinds many have struggled against that mine seem relatively minor.  Yet for me they did and to a degree still do represent challenges to my faith and reasons not to continue as a Christian.

Jesus knew well that continuing to follow him would be fraught.  ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he said, referring to the pain of rejection for those who identify with him.  When the crowd of 5000 whom he had fed drifted away due to his challenging words he asked the twelve who remained, ‘Will you also go away?’  In fact, they all did fall away when at last he came to Jerusalem.  One was a betrayer (for money), another a denier (for approval) and ten who were cowards (because of fear).  Their sins live on in us so that we fail him repeatedly.

It was because Jesus knew how morally feeble we are that he commanded his followers, ‘Abide in me’, words which simply mean, ‘Continue with me’, ‘remain with me, ‘don’t give up’.  St Paul said, ‘We don’t give up’, implying the struggle he had had to do just that.

So the following of Jesus was never going to be easy.  The exodus pilgrims’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan anticipates the pilgrimage of the disciple of Jesus, the spiritual journey from conversion/baptism to the promised kingdom.  Soon after the Lord brought them out of Egypt they worshipped a golden calf, a pagan fertility symbol, in spite of their agreement to his covenant to refuse to make for themselves an idol or image that they will worship.  They grumbled and they sinned so that in the end only a minority actually arrived in the Promised Land.

So we must not underestimate the challenges of continuing and moving forward as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the end, however, we depend on him to strengthen us to continue.  At the beginning he said, ‘Come to me.  I will welcome you and not cast you out’.  But he also said, ‘My sheep hear my voice and they follow me and no one will snatch them from my hand’.  Here the Lord makes two promises.  He welcomes us and he holds us.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to continue.  ‘Make your calling and election sure’, said Peter.  That means I need to confirm and reconfirm my commitment to Jesus.  Bible reading, prayer and gathering with other Christians is basic to my continuance as a Christian.  I need to support and love of other members of the Christian family and they need mine.  We help one another along the way, not least in times of distress and heartache.

Why am I still a Christian?  Ultimately it is the Lord’s doing.  He made the invitation, ‘Whoever comes…’ and he gives the assurance, ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand’.

(A talk given in Brisbane in March 2013 under auspices of Matthew Hale public Library)

A New New Testament (March 2013)

A New New Testament (2013)

Hal Taussig and a team of eighteen scholars and religious leaders have chosen ten texts (out of sixty seven surveyed) to be published alongside the twenty-seven that comprise the New Testament and called it A New New Testament.  The ‘new’ texts are from the post-New Testament eras and are mostly ‘gnostic’ in character (an exception is the Acts of Paul and Thecla). (

 In fact, these texts are not ‘new’ but go back almost to the era of the apostle and for the most part have been known for many years by historians.

 The stated aim of the group is to bring these texts to the general public.

Publicity for the book asks, ‘…don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?’  In fact, however, the New Testament and the extra texts did not form a ‘chorus’ of united voices.  The mainstream Christian leaders called the teaching in these texts ‘heresy’.  An intellectual and spiritual chasm separated these opposing religious viewpoints.

Hal Taussig and his colleagues say that the ‘canon’ of the New Testament was not really ‘closed’ until relatively modern times and that it is therefore valid to publish other texts with the twenty-seven of the biblical canon within the one book.  This asserts that the canon is, in effect, elastic.  It is an elastic canon, capable of the addition of new texts.

That was not the view, however, of church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  By ‘church leaders’ I am thinking of people like Irenaeus who was a pupil of Polycarp, who was a pupil of John, who was a disciple of Jesus.  Irenaeus, through the chain of orthodox teachers going back to Jesus, was articulating the views of those teachers, back to Jesus himself.

In the 2nd century these leaders were confronted with strongly differing, in fact, antithetical views.  Marcion rejected the Creator God of the Old Testament and reduced his canon mainly to an expurgated version of Luke and some of the letters of Paul.  The Gnostics from Egypt created extra gospels (mainly gnosticized adaptations of Jesus’ teachings with little narrative), for example the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas.  Scholars are broadly agreed that these are derived from the canonical gospels.

So the big issue for the true followers of Jesus in the century after the apostles was to establish which gospels were genuine and which were not.  A succession of 2nd century leaders asserted the fourfold gospel.  Irenaeus insisted that the gospel was ‘quadriform’, not less that four and not more than four.  Likewise the Muratorian Canon and Tatian’s Diatessaron (= ‘one through four’) each insisted that there were four gospels.  The codex P46 dated to the end of the 2nd century has in it the four Gospels plus the book of Acts.  The four superscriptions that date from the early second century – ‘according to Matthew’, ‘according to Mark’, ‘according to Luke’, ‘according to John’ – assert there is ‘one gospel’, but each ‘according to’ the four named gospel-writers.

Accordingly, it is clear that those who were disciples of the disciples of Jesus in response to Marcion, on the one hand, and to Valentinus, on the other, insisted on a closed canon of four gospels.

Following the first Easter the original followers of Jesus formulated creeds and confessions, for example, as quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that affirms the death for sins, the burial, the resurrection and the numerous sightings of the risen Christ.  This and other creed-like statements eventually became expanded as baptismal creeds in the second century (e.g., by Ignatius), which then became the great creeds of Christendom to expose heresies like Gnosticism (the Apostles Creed) and Arianism (the Nicene Creed).

These creed-like statements within the New Testament insisted on the facts of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and permeate the literature of the New Testament.

The Gnostics altered the sayings of Jesus in the genuine Gospels as vehicles for their alternative doctrines.  Those doctrines reacted against the historical and geographical facts about Jesus and formulated a religion that was essentially non-historical, mystical and meditative.  They reacted strongly against the Old Testament.  It was all about being absorbed upwards out of this material world into the pure world of deity.  It skilfully used New Testament terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘salvation’ which it employed in diametrically opposite ways to the New Testament.

Should these texts be published?  Definitely.  It would be helpful to have these texts and others like them available in good translations, with critical manuscript apparatus and scholarly commentary, but not published in the same book as the twenty-seven genuine texts.  Otherwise it would imply that the canon is indeed open-ended and that the genuine and that the non-genuine are reducible to the same level.

John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar, was part of the panel of nineteen.  This sends a pretty clear message that the publishing group is somehow connected with the Jesus Seminar, a body of scholars dedicated to questioning the integrity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.  Marcus Borg, another member of the Jesus Seminar, has written a glowing review the book as part of its advertising campaign.  In other words, this panel is not a broad-based body of scholars (for example, the Society of Biblical Literature) but an association committed to questioning the integrity of historic Christianity and promoting instead its own alternative version of Christianity.