Epiphany – Five Reflections from a Life Time


(Mere Anglicanism Conference, Charleston SC, January 2013)

 I count it a great privilege to share these thoughts with my fellow-Anglican Christians. Like the apostle Paul I do so with ‘fear and trembling’, though for a different reason.  Paul was amongst dangerous enemies; I am amongst friends.

My fear is threefold.  First, much of what I will say is in the realm of history, and history is a turn off for many.  Secondly, I want to speak personally, and that could easily sound egocentric and self-indulgent, another turn off.  Thirdly, and most worryingly, is my Aussie accent that I know is foreign to many ears.  So, please pray for me!

I am mindful of the critical times in which we live.  Yes we have the passionate campaigns of the New Atheists outside the church, but we also have the sceptics inside the church, amongst church leaders and scholars.  It would not be unfair to use the word ‘apostasy’ of some branches of the Anglican family.  The same sadly holds true in other traditions, Presbyterian and Lutheran, for example.

But I do not intend to dwell on the negatives but the positives and to do so in terms of my personal discoveries over the 55 years of my Christian journey.  ‘Discovery’ is not the right word because it puts the emphasis on me.  ‘Epiphany’, or ‘epiphanies’ would be better because these discoveries are really ‘revelations’ from God, God-given insights.  ‘Flesh and blood’ does not discover truth about God; God must reveal it.

As it happens it is, or recently was, the season of Epiphany – if you will cut me a little slack.

Nor will I speak mainly about theological issues, but historical ones.  Theology to be true depends on what happened historically.  If the Word did not actually become flesh in Bethlehem in the latter years of Herod, then the theology stated in John 1:14 is just empty words, akin to myth.  F.F. Bruce saw no incompatibility between theology and history and observed that ‘a man cannot be a good theologian unless he is a good historian’.[1]

The first epiphany happened in a class in Ancient History 101.  I was a mature age student, 29 years old.  I had not studied classical history at school, but I was now a junior professor at a seminary and my President sent me off the University to study Classical Greek and Ancient History.  My background had been in the Building industry.

Six years earlier I had been converted out of a totally unchurched background.  It was pretty dramatic, but I was wary of emotionalism and kept asking my new church friends, ‘How do we know it’s true?’ to which they replied, ‘It just is.  Just believe it’.  But the question remained, even when I spent 4 years in seminary and did well enough to become an instructor.

The epiphany happened when I suddenly realized how good were the historical sources for Jesus and the birth of Christianity.  We had been studying Alexander the Great and the Roman Caesars.  For Tiberius, the Caesar in whose time Jesus ministered, we mainly depend on Suetonius for information.  But Suetonius wrote about eighty years after Tiberius’ death, when no one was alive who could question what had been written.  Mark wrote his Gospel only 30 or so years after Jesus, when many Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive.

My first epiphany quickly connected with things I had come to know.  I knew that the 27 books of the New Testament were written by ten mostly independent authors, and were in circulation and use by the mid-90s – less than 60 years after Jesus; most of them much closer to Jesus, especially the epistles.  As well, I knew by then that these early texts had been accurately transmitted and copied from the time they were written.  I knew there are 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament from the early centuries and 19,000 translations in Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian – more than 24, 000 in all.  Cross checking by Textual Critics means that the texts in our Bibles are 99% certain, and nothing doctrinally hangs on the 1%.

I cannot tell you how excited I was in that lecture room.  It was a ‘eureka’ moment.  The witness of the New Testament to Jesus more than holds its own relative to the documentation of the Caesars of those times, whose life stories are not in doubt.

Also connected with my first epiphany was a little book by A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors, which pointed out that Paul did not write the words we find in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.  That’s where he quotes that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised the third day, and appeared on 5 separate occasions to more than 500 people.  Paul was quoting what he had been taught at or soon after his conversion, that is, only about one or at most four years after Jesus.  In other words, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, who died for sins and who was resurrected on the third day, did not evolve decades later than Jesus but was part of Christian understanding from the beginning, in the immediate aftermath of his lifespan.  Why would the earliest Christians in Jerusalem have formulated this teaching, if it wasn’t true?

By now I was hooked on history and found myself researching a post-graduate thesis on first century Jewish history.  My topic was ‘Civil Disturbances in Judea in the First Century’.  Did you know that three civil wars broke out when Herod died in 4 BC, led by Judas in Galilee, Simon in Perea and Athronges in Judea?  Each of these claimed to be a king and it took the might of the Roman army from Syria to put down these revolts.  Then there were violent Pharisees like Saddok in AD 6, a prophet like Theudas who was killed in 46 in and patriots like Menahem who marched into Jerusalem in 66.  These were formidable figures with big followings, who spanned the era of the New Testament.

So why are these men who fill the pages of Josephus forgotten today and Jesus is a household word?  It’s because history is full of people who blaze briefly like comets and are then forgotten.  But Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man who forgave sins, who healed the sick and raised the dead, who entered Jerusalem as its Messiah-king, whose teaching on love and forgiveness was profound and unheard of, and who himself was resurrected from the dead.  Without the resurrection Jesus would have been just another mistaken prophet whose death guaranteed his relegation to obscurity, like the shadowy figure of the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the Dead Sea Sect, whose name we do not even know.

Now in my 30s, whilst pastoring a second congregation I had the opportunity to do research for a PhD.  This was not in theology but again in Jewish history in roughly the same era as the New Testament.  Following that I became head of a University College and a professor in New Testament history within an Ancient History university department.

It was then I began my visits to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece, which I still continue on an annual basis and have done for twenty-five years.  I am privileged to have visited every place mentioned in the New Testament, with one important exception – Tarsus, birthplace of Paul.  That was to have been in 2011, but for the civil war in Syria.

A second epiphany – in my forties – was based on my first visit to Israel and Jordan – and confirmed many times since.  That lake – the Sea of Tiberias – its storms, its fishing, its surrounding hills is the lake of the Gospels.  The towns of the Holy Land – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida, Gennesaret, Magdala, Sychar, Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, the borders of Tyre and Sidon, Jericho, Bethany beyond Jordan, Bethany near Jerusalem are the towns and places of the Gospels.  They have been mostly continuously settled in the years since, with place names unchanged.  The geography of Galilee and the topography and streetscape of Jerusalem cohere amazingly with the biblical text.  The entire ministry of Jesus is embedded in places we can still visit.

The context of John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry is stated by Luke (3:1-2) – the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 28 or 29) when Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas high priests – link in exactly to the complex jurisdictions of the holy land after the death of Herod and Augustus’ division of Herod’s kingdom.

In Luke-Acts there are no less than sixteen texts that connect Luke’s narrative with famous named people in world history, like Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus, to take one example.  Then there are dozens of lesser figures like the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Maritima who are no less authentic.  In other words, the geography, topography and history of the New Testament coheres with the geography and history of the era in which it is located.  This is the more impressive because such references are made in passing, matters of incidental detail, easily missed because of the weightiness of the narrative.

Luke-Acts is an amazing text covering 70 years from the birth of John the Baptist to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and represents 25% of the volume of the New Testament.  It is widely commended by great secular historians like Mommsen, Meyer and Sherwin-White, but surprisingly spurned by many specialist Christian scholars.  Crossan’s index to his Birth of Christianity, for example, does not have a single reference to the book of Acts and declared the first thirty years of Christian history to be ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  That is a convenient viewpoint if you want to write your own history of Christianity and present your own revisionist, designer theology!  Luke-Acts is critical to recovering Christian origins, the beginnings of Christianity.  Only this continuous text connects the rise of early Christianity to the impulse of Jesus, his identity, his saving death and his glorious resurrection.

As Luke tells us in his opening words, it was the original disciples of Jesus who handed over textual sources to Luke for him to write his great global history.  Who was better placed than them to do so?  The ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in Acts 21-28 tell us that Luke was with Paul for the last five years of the narrative of Luke-Acts.  Luke was Paul’s companion and therefore well placed to write about Paul.  Who else but Paul could have given Luke the material he uses about Paul, his early life, his persecutions, his conversion, and his remarkable missions in Syria-Cilicia, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia?  Luke-Acts shows us the immediate continuity between Jesus, crucified and risen, and the first three decades of Christianity.  The apostles preached Jesus as the risen Christ and Lord, because he was!

The archaeologists’ spade as well as accidental discoveries have confirmed much of the data we encounter in the biblical texts.

•A fishing boat from this period, discovered in 1985;

•an inscription bearing the name Pontius Pilate, discovered in 1961;

•a burial chest inscribed Joseph Caiaphas, discovered in 1990;

•the Pool of Siloam, identified in 2004;

•Jacob’s well near Joseph’s tomb under the shadow of Mount Gerizim;

•a Pool near the Sheep Gate, known as Bethesda;

•the tragic remains of the crucified man, Yehohanan, discovered in 1968;

•the discovery of rolling stones to seal tombs.

All these subtly but cumulatively reinforce the sense that we are in the realm of historical and geographical reality when we read the Gospels.

So far I have shared some ‘eureka’ moments, epiphanies.

•The quality, quantity of the sources for Jesus, and their closeness to him.

•The early, oral formulation of words embedded in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 about Christ’s death for sin, his burial, his resurrection on the 3rd day, and his multiple appearances.

•The linkages from Luke-Acts into world history, pointing to Luke’s integrity.

•Based on numerous visits to Israel the amazing coherence of geography, topography, and history, supported by archaeological finds and discoveries.

Each of these has confirmed my strong confidence in the integrity of the New Testament texts in their witness to Jesus, a the Son of God, who performed inexplicable miracles, who proclaimed the kingdom of God, who was the friend of sinners, who trained his disciples for world-mission, who died on the cross as our sin-bearer, and whom God raised from the dead to give us the hope that God has triumphed over evil and will triumph over evil – and who established the church.  I have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity and historicity of the New Testament.

One thing is certain.  No mere prophet or holy rabbi could have been the impetus for the amazing movement that arose in his immediate aftermath, as reflected in the New Testament in general and Luke-Acts in particular.  As I have mentioned, there were many warlords, prophets, and charismatic rabbis in Palestine in the first century, but they are lost in the dust of time.  It is only the deity of Jesus, his gracious miracles, his profound love ethic and his resurrection form the dead that explain not merely the survival of faith in him, but the immediate explosion of that faith and its rapid dissemination around the Mediterranean world.  Jesus gave hope to a hopeless world, and – thank God – he still does.

Let me share three other epiphanies.

The third was when I was lecturing at university.  I decided to make a detailed comparison of the accounts of a miracle that each of the four Gospels narrate.  I chose the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  As I spread out the four Greek texts in parallel, I was quickly reminded that Matthew and Luke make use of Mark’s account, often word for word.  Matthew and Luke are derivative texts, based mainly on Mark.  Most scholars accept that Mark’s is the earliest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke also incorporate other sources in their idiosyncratic Gospels making them both longer than Mark’s.  John, however, does not replicate any words from the other three, except for the statistics – 5000 men, five loaves, two fishes, twelve baskets, etc.

But there are other differences.  In John they are barley loaves and pickled fish that belong to the boy, details found only in John.  And his story line is a little different:  In John Jesus welcomes the crowd but in Mark he arrives after them.  Clearly Mark did not depend on John or John on Mark.  At a secular university with mostly secular students with no church background I set an essay question about this incident as in the four gospels.  The universal opinion was that Mark and John were primary, independent sources.  That means there are two independent witnesses to this miracle.

I was reminded of ‘Momigliano’s Rule’: ‘historical research is based on the distinction between original and derivative authorities’.  Professor Momigliano of Cambridge is one of the doyens of ancient history studies.

So what we have are two core texts – Mark’s and John’s – that are independent of each other.  Each is the final, written up version of a tradition – written or oral – that went back to the event, and that separately testifies to the truth of the event, the great miracle.  This criterion is called ‘Multiple Attestation’, and it is fundamental to all historical enquiry but no less to the jury process.  One witness may inspire confidence, but two or more – if credible – make for a weighty case.  But a second witness who merely repeats a primary witness is no use at all, according to Momiglinano’s wise counsel.

There are thirty-seven separate miracles of Jesus in the four Gospels. These fall into four categories – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead.  These are found in the independent Mark and John and in the three independent sources underlying Matthew and Luke, known as Q (common to Matthew and Luke), L (unique to Luke), and M (unique to Matthew).  The thing is that each of these miracle types in found in at least two independent sources, of which the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes is a case in point.  Based on the principle of Multiple Attestation a historian would rightly conclude that these four miracle types – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead – actually happened at the hands of Jesus, testifying to Jesus’ unique deity.

This is a matter of history, based on the historical method.  It is not mere unsubstantiated dogma.

My next epiphany – the fourth – occurred while I was giving a talk on a university campus about the reliability of the New Testament when a questioner asked me about the Qur’an.  I had to admit that I didn’t know enough to respond.  So I set about reading the Qur’an and thinking about the question.

Let me say, I do not doubt that Muhammad was a real person, with a huge impact, and that the Qur’an reflects the oracles he believed that God spoke to him.  But when I read the text, I was struck by an absence of linkages into world history and local geography that we find in the Gospels, Acts and Letters.  There are no people like Jairus, no places like Capernaum, no references like, ‘the next day’ that tie down the narratives about Jesus to other people, real places and actual times.  What we find in the Qu’ran is mainly ‘teaching’ that is not anchored – so far as I can see – into times, places or people within the Prophet’s life span 570-632.  The earliest extant biography of the Prophet, written by Ibn Hisham 213 years after Muhammad’s death has some of these details, but not the Holy Qur’an.  In this regard the New Testament is another world.  The letters of the New Testament – even the Revelation – are full of personal, historical and geographical information.

I discovered another fascinating difference.  To my knowledge there are no external contemporary texts that shed light on the Prophet or the early years of Islam.  Early Christianity is different.  Josephus, writing mid-90s from Rome, reports that Jesus was a ‘wise man’ whose tribe still continued sixty years later.  Tacitus writing ca. 110 observes that the ‘Christians’ took their name from Christus whom Pilate executed in Judea, but whose movement did not die with its founder but spread to Rome where it became an ‘immense multitude’, and a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the great fire in 64.

Also writing about 110 was Pliny, governor of Bithynia a Black Sea province, who said that the Christians’ practice was to meet weekly to sing hymns to Christ, ‘as to a god’.  This is a striking detail that confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met, worshipped and prayed to the exalted Jesus, ‘as to a god’, as Pliny would say.  Pliny confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met to worship Jesus as Lord.

It is striking that Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny strongly dislike Christianity and the Christians.  Tacitus and Pliny describe Christianity as a spreading disease.  Tacitus said the Christians pursued ‘vile practices’ and Pliny implies that they were fanatics.

Although these writers are opposed to the Christians their accounts of the raw facts about Christian origins and practice exactly correspond with the raw facts in the New Testament.  The interpretations of Jesus and the Christians are diametrically opposed, but the facts corroborate one another. These are unbiased, even hostile witnesses, yet they confirm the accounts written from inside the movement.  This is not merely Multiple Attestation, but Multiple Hostile Attestation that neatly dovetails with the narrative of the New Testament.

So to my final epiphany, the fifth.  It occurred in the mid-90s when I was a scholar in residence in a seminary in London preparing to give a public lecture series back in Sydney.  I stumbled across a book called The Practice of History by Geoffrey Elton, a distinguished scholar of Tudor history.  There wasn’t a thing in it directly related to the New Testament.  However, Elton made a distinction between ‘evidence…intended for publication’ and incidental information produced for ‘another purpose’.

I immediately thought the Gospels and Acts belonged to the first category of ‘evidence…intended for publication’ whereas the Letters were produced ‘for another purpose’, that is, informal even trivial documents relating to the passing, sometimes mundane needs of the recipient churches.   Elton shrewdly observed that those who wrote histories – documents intentionally written for publication – were open to suspicion regarding their motives to whitewash their subjects whereas surviving trivia like invoices and laundry lists were not, and were often full of useful information about the economy of the times, for example.

I thought to myself, ‘How important therefore are the New Testament epistles.  They have not been written as chronicles or histories to convince somebody, yet they contain lots of historical and chronological information.  This is especially true of Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans and Philippians.  At so many points these texts ‘written for another purpose’ – the often trivial problems in the churches, and not originally intended for wider publication – confirm the details in the intentionally written Gospels and Acts.  For me this was an important discovery and it became a chapter in a book, Jesus and the Logic of History published in 1997.

So these have been some ‘Eureka’ moments, some God-given ‘epiphanies’ I have received over the years along with connecting ideas.

Epiphany 1:  The historical source material for Jesus is very close to Jesus.  In the case of Galatians it is a mere 15 years after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Information about Tiberius, the Caesar under whom Jesus was executed is approaching a century after his death in AD 37.

Connected with this:

•The text of the New Testament is recoverable because of the many manuscripts from the early centuries – 5600 in Greek, 19000 in translations in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, etc.

•Paul did not originally write the little catechism in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that teaches Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the 3rd day and appeared to many hundreds, several of whom are named.  The Jerusalem Christians had devised that catechism in a narrow time corridor of less than three years after Jesus.  Why would they have devised that catechism unless Jesus had been raised from the dead?

Epiphany 2:  My many journeys to Israel have convinced me that the Gospels reflect the time, and place and people – the history, topography and geography of Galilee and Judea in the late 20s and early 30s of the first century.

Connected with this:

•The numerous artefacts – the boat, the Pilate inscription, the Caiaphas ossuary, the Pool of Siloam – all combine subtly to reinforce the integrity of the Gospels.

Epiphany 3: Careful study of the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Multitude led me to conclude that there were two independent traditions to that miracle that arose in parallel because of that miracle.  The principle of Multiple Attestation -– so vital in the work of history and of jury trials – convinced me of the historicity of the thirty seven miracles classified as four types of miracles of Jesus, pointing to his unique deity.

Epiphany 4: Study of the Qur’an made me appreciate the contrasting historical and geographical character of the New Testament.

Connected with this:

•Study of the non-Christian witnesses – Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny – point to the principle of Multiple Hostile Attestation that confirms the raw facts of the New Testament about the crucifixion, the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire, and that the early Christians worshiped Jesus ‘as a god’.

Epiphany 5: The recognition that the New Testament letters are not intentionally written history but are confirmatory of intentionally written history, especially since they predate the writing of the Gospels and Acts.  The early dating of the letters of Paul indicate that the three or so decades between Jesus and the writing of Mark were alive with missionary work and the creation of Christian congregations far and wide.

There is more, but I mustn’t indulge your patience further.  History is not for everyone!  But I am encouraged in my confidence in the witness of the New Testament to Jesus, Son of God, Lord, and Saviour.  The creeds we confess in church arise out of the New Testament and the multiplicity of its sources and the integrity of its transmission undergirds its trustworthiness.

I could not reject the historical reliability of the New Testament, even if I wanted to.

Let me conclude by referring to your mission statement:


Mere Anglicanism’s vision is for a reformed, renewed orthodox Anglicanism  within North America. We recognize that to achieve a restored and faithful   Anglicanism, many battles must be fought, many lessons learned. Seminaries must be re-made with faithful, godly deans and teachers.


Today, however, there are teachers of biblical subjects in universities and seminaries who deconstruct the texts and reconstruct them in line with their own worldviews. The duly reconstructed then reconstructed Christ is a tame individual, with views similar to the collective ‘groupthink’.  This is not evidence of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age.  It promotes scepticism and doubt, including among church people.

By way of example, a recent article argued that the narrative about Paul in Acts 13-28 was imaginatively reconstructed from Paul’s letters by an unknown author in the Second Century.  Those chapters did not correspond with what actually happened in Acts 13-28, but were the novelistic creation of this unknown second century author.

According to the article this author wrote Acts 13 to identify Antioch in Pisidia as ‘little Rome’, anticipating Paul’s arrival in ‘big Rome’.  This was the point of a contrived narrative that was said to have had no basis in historical truth.

I can think of several historical reasons why this article in wrong, but let me mention two.  The first is the problem of an author fifty or more years later inventing the detail in Acts 13-28, detail that based on modern archaeology is quite credible to us.  It is far more likely that Paul himself was the source of the information that Luke used, that Luke had written up while Paul was still alive, or at least had begun to.  The subtleties of Paul’s seaboard and overland travels in Acts 13-14 are consistent with what we know of the sea lanes and road system of the region, but which may not have been imaginable to an author remote in time and place from the places and events in the narratives.

The second is that Luke in no way exploits a ‘little Rome’ / ‘big Rome’ typology because the words ‘Rome’ and ‘Roman’ do not appear in Acts 13.  It is true, as we now know, that this Antioch was a Roman colony, built on the model of Rome.  Luke may or may not have known this, but either way it is not the point he was making.  Luke’s point was that at Antioch God had ordained that the gospel the Jews were rejecting should be taken to the Gentiles.  That is the point that Luke is making, and that is the point we the readers should be understanding.

Do we understand what is going on here?  First, this scholar explicitly says that Acts 13-28 is not historically true, but is a fictitious narrative.  This robs the text of the truthfulness that Luke claimed for it in his Prologue to Luke-Acts.  Secondly, by finding a Rome-to-Rome motif would make the text of merely antiquarian interest, a talking point for the scholars’ guild.  But the text is not merely an ancient relic for scholars to discuss.  It is a canonical text of sacred scripture that has a continuing missionary mandate for us today and tomorrow and until the Day of the Lord.  That mandate if for us to spread the good news about Jesus to Gentiles everywhere, but also to God’s historic people, the Jews.

How can I say this?  We do not want our ministers in training shaped by that kind of scholarship.  The vision statement calling for ‘faithful, godly deans and teachers’ is exactly right, and the key to future revival of the faith. We want Christian scholars to apply their skills to teaching and applying the Bible, not deconstructing it.

So we need to hold the line and ‘contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints’.

Paul Barnett

Epiphany 2013.



[1]Bulletin of the Johns Rylands Library 51 (1969), 294.

Luke’s Acts as a Historical Source for Paul

The Acts of the Apostles is critical to historians for establishing (a) the connection between Jesus and earliest Christianity, and (b) a chronology of the life of Paul and its relationship with his letters.  In this brief paper we will direct our attention to (b).

During the twentieth century, however, four criticisms have been directed against the usefulness to historians of the book of Acts for providing a historical and chronological basis for the life and ministry of Paul (see R. Riesner, Paul’s Early Period Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998, 3-28).

Four Criticisms of the Acts of the Apostles

(a)            As compared to Paul’s own references the Acts is not to be regarded as a ‘primary reference’ but as a ‘secondary reference’. This view is especially connected with J. Knox but has become critical orthodoxy for many. For some authorities Acts as a ‘secondary reference’ means that it is of little or no use to the historian, whereas for others it means that it is of use where it can be shown to agree with Paul.

(b)            Closely connected is the viewpoint that discovers historical divergences in Acts as an unreliable secondary source from Paul as the reliable primary source.  These include the omission by Acts of Paul’s sojourn in Arabia (Gal. 1:17) and its conflicting accounts of Paul’s first and second return visits to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-21/Acts 9:26-27; Gal. 2:1-10/Acts 11:27-30).

(c)            Passages in the Acts of the Apostles are historically inaccurate and significantly diminish the value of its text.  A prime example is Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin where he locates the revolutionary prophet Theudas before the insurrectionist Judas, contrary to the witness of Josephus (Acts 5:33-39). Josephus states that Theudas led his insurrection in the mid-40s, thirty years after the uprising of Judas the Galilean (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii.3; xx.97-99).  It is no less serious that the Theudas incident occurred between AD 44-46 whereas Luke quotes Gamaliel speaking to the Sanhedrin about Theudas in ca. 34, about twelve years earlier.

(d)            There is such theological disparity between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters that the two authors must have been unknown to each other.  It is claimed, for example, that the two authors do not share the same attitude to the law, and therefore to the centrality of the cross of Christ and the role of faith for divine justification.

Responses to these Criticisms

It is possible to make reasonable responses to these criticisms.

(a)            Two responses may be offered to the distinction between Paul as the ‘primary source’ and Luke’s Acts as the ‘secondary source’.  By ‘secondary source’ critics of Acts do not mean that Acts is directly derived from or dependent on the Pauline literary corpus (as Luke’s Gospel was directly derived from Mark’s Gospel).  In their view, to the contrary, Luke’s Acts depends on extraneous, late and unknown sources.

This brings me response (i) to this criticism.  It is that the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages (Acts 16:10-16; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16) are most sensibly understood as indicating the author’s presence alongside or near Paul during the five years those passages narrate. Significantly, these chapters are intensely more detailed than the preceding chapters of Luke-Acts prompting J. Fitzmyer to refer to a ‘a diary-like record’:

…they [details in Acts] are drawn from a diary-like record that the author of  Acts once kept and give evidence that he was for a time a companion of Paul (J. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching  (London:Geoffrey Chapman, 1989, 22).

Understood in this way means that the ‘we’ and ‘us’ chapters should be read alongside Paul’s letters (insofar as the narratives overlap) as an equal primary source.  Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out his intention to come to Rome and his letter to the Philippians (most probably) written from Rome indicates that did in fact reach Rome.  Acts 27-28 authentically narrates why and how Paul travelled from Corinth via Judea to Rome.

Luke’s companionship with Paul AD 57-62 would have provided opportunity for the author of Acts to know about Paul’s life beforehand.  Through conversation and perhaps written memoirs Luke would come to know of Paul’s birth in Tarsus, his resettlement in Jerusalem, his conversion, his ‘unknown years’ between Damascus and Antioch, and his subsequent westward missionary journeys prior to their years of companionship.

Response (ii) is to point out that ‘primary source’ material isn’t necessarily free from bias and that ‘secondary source’ material isn’t necessarily inferior or inaccurate.  Who is to say, for example, that Paul did not underplay certain details in his memoir to the Galatians in the first two chapters of that letter?  This is not to say that he did, only that the possibility is there.  On the other hand, based on the hypothesis that Paul told Luke about his earlier life, is there any good reason to argue that he falsified the details at hand?  It is not doubted that he shaped his raw material, but that is not the same as arguing against his integrity overall or in matters of detail.

(b)            That Luke’s details vary from Paul’s at some points does not necessarily indicate that the author of Acts was ignorant of Paul’s missionary movements.  Such a hypothesis would suggest that Luke’s source for chapters 13-20 (as well as details of Paul’s life to that point) was remote from Paul, not dependent on him.

In fact, both the Acts (explicitly) and the Pauline corpus (implicitly) refer to the same theological-geographical ‘narrative’ for Paul.  Both writers interpret the promises of the Old Testament as confirmed in Christ and envisage the gospel message proceeding from Jerusalem to the gentile world.  More specifically, both Paul and Luke trace the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem in a westerly, Rome-ward direction.  That sense of direction emerges clearly from Paul’s Romans (chapters 15-16) and from the entire narrative of the book of Acts.

Luke was constrained by the capacity of his scroll and was forced to abbreviate and omit detail to fulfill his Jerusalem to Rome narrative.  This might explain why, for example, he passes over Paul’s story from Damascus to Antioch, a period of about fifteen years, in a few sentences and omits Paul’s journey to Arabia altogether.

The major problem identified by scholars is the disparity between Paul’s second return visit to Jerusalem narrated on the one hand by Paul (Gal. 2:1-10), and on the other by Luke (Acts 11:27-30).  According to Paul the purpose of the visit was to secure the pillar-apostles’ recognition of Paul’s proposed circumcision-free mission to the Gentiles, whereas Luke states that it was to deliver famine relief from Antioch.

It is right to ask, however, why should Luke’s account be treated as incorrect?  It is quite possible that Paul focused on the divisive issue of circumcision while passing over the delivery of famine relief (an in Luke’s narrative).  It is well known that Luke generally tends to play down divisions within the apostolic community whereas Paul was prepared to highlight them, which he does implicitly in Jerusalem and explicitly in the ‘Incident in Antioch’ (Gal. 2:1-10; 11-14) – especially when defending his doctrines to the Galatians, as he does throughout this letter.

Furthermore, Luke’s account of the beginnings of the westward missions from Antioch occurred immediately after Paul’s return from Jerusalem (Acts 13:1-3).  This is entirely consistent with Paul’s note that the Jerusalem ‘pillars’ agreed that Paul and Barnabas should ‘go’ to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9).  Their condition was that Barnabas and Paul were to ‘remember the poor’, which, Paul adds, was the ‘very thing I have taken pains also to do’ (Gal. 2:10 – As translated by E. de Witt Burton, Galatians ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1980, 99.).  Paul’s retrospective defensive remark confirming Luke’s account of the journey from Antioch to Jerusalem to bring famine relief (Acts 11:27-30).

Many scholars, however, seek to eliminate Acts 11:27-30 as a genuine visit to Jerusalem and prefer to equate Gal. 2:1-10 with Acts 15:4-29 (otherwise known as the Jerusalem Council) as Visit 2.

There are substantial problems with this reconstruction.  One is that Visit 2 according to Galatians was specifically held ‘privately’ between Barnabas and Paul and James, Cephas and John (Gal. 2:2) whereas the Acts 15 meeting involved ‘the apostles and elders with the whole church’ (Acts 15:6, 22, 23).  Furthermore, the private meeting in Jerusalem (Visit 2) preceded the missions to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9) and the plenary meeting in Jerusalem (Visit 3) succeeded the mission to the Gentiles, and was held to address the issues raised by the missions of Barnabas and Paul ‘among the Gentiles’ (Acts 15:12).

Galatians does not mention a Visit 3 to Jerusalem for the simple reason that it had not yet happened when Paul wrote the letter.  Paul wrote to the Galatians following the Incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14), which occurred after his return to the Syrian capital after his missions in Galatia.  It was only then that Barnabas and Paul travelled to Jerusalem for Visit 3, the Jerusalem Council.

(c)            What, then, can be said regarding passages in Acts that are regarded as historically inaccurate, in particular Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin where he locates the revolutionary prophet Theudas before the insurrectionist Judas?

It is possible that Gamaliel is referring to an otherwise unknown Theudas who preceded Judas.  Theudas is an abbreviation of Theodotus (‘gift of God’) that in turn is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, ‘Jonathon’.  Was Gamaliel referring to an insurrectionist named Theudas who arose during the time of Archelaus (3 BC-AD 6) or, before him, in the time of Herod (40-4 BC)?  Whilst this is theoretically possible it is unlikely because Gamaliel’s quoted words about Theudas and Judas closely match Josephus’ references to men of that name.

It appears, then, that Luke has reversed the true sequence of Judas and Theudas and placed words anachronistically in the mouth of Gamaliel.

In defence of Luke it is possible that the fault lay with the source or sources that Luke used.  My thesis is that Paul was a good source for Luke, based on their extensive companionship.  But for other events like the Gamaliel incident Luke depended on hearsay or written fragmentary chronicles.  It is not reasonable to fault Luke for matters about which he would have been dependent on hearsay or upon an earlier written account of that incident.

In any case, the reference to Gamaliel is but one problematic reference amongst many references to people cross-referenced in world history that are regarded as historically reliable.   These include the named members of the Annas dynasty (4:6), the famine that occurred in the days of Claudius (11:28), Herod the king (12:1), Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus (13:7), the ‘Politarchs’ of Thessalonica (17:8), the exile of Jews from Italy (18:2), Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, and the ‘Asiarchs’ of Ephesus (19:31).

Thus whilst candour requires acknowledgment of problems in the Gamaliel incident, this needs to be recognized in the broader context of many other unproblematic references.

(d)            It not come as a surprise that there is theological disparity between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters.  Luke was probably a Gentile and a God-fearer whereas Paul was a Jew, in fact a strict and educated Pharisee.

The pre-Christian Paul may have outwardly seemed ‘under law blameless’ (Phil. 3:6), but within his conscience he was aware – however dimly – that he was ‘a captive under law, a prisoner’ (Gal. 3:23-25), a Jew like other Jews ‘under a curse’ as a law-breaker (Gal. 3:10), in desperate need of divine redemption (Gal. 3:13; 4:4).  Given this circumstance it is understandable that Paul should write so passionately about the cross of Christ as God’s instrument of freedom, and of the role of faith not ‘works of the law’ (Gal. 2:21; 5:11; 6:14-15).

Nonetheless, there are echoes of Paul’s ‘righteousness’ language in Luke-Acts (Luke 18:9, 14; Acts 13:38-39).

Luke was already a disciple (from Antioch?) by ca. 50 when he joined Paul in Troas and travelled to Philippi where he remained for the next seven years (Acts 16:10; 20:6).  By the time he re-joined Paul in AD 57 he had doubtless formed his own theological views so that there is no reason to expect these to have been identical with Paul’s very distinctive theology.

Thus it is quite unreasonable to demand similarity of viewpoints between Paul and Luke and to argue that Luke could not have known Paul because these were not identical.


Our argument has been that the case against the historical value of Acts based on historical and theological divergences from Paul are significant but not ultimately sustainable.  The ‘primary’ versus ‘secondary’ viewpoint fails because a ‘primary’ source may be tendentious or forgetful and a ‘secondary’ source may be based accurately on the witness of the ‘primary source’.

Moreover, it is fallacious to require a ‘secondary’ source slavishly to follow the narrative of the ‘primary source’.  Both Paul and Luke follow a Jerusalem-to-Rome missionary thrust, but for his part Luke omits and compresses his narrative according to his overall literary-theological design.  Whilst the Gamaliel incident raises significant questions for Luke’s accuracy this issue must be seen within the broader context where his historical competence is demonstrable, especially in the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages.

Furthermore, the demand that Luke’s theology must cohere tightly with Paul’s is unreasonable.  Paul was an intensely religious Jew and Luke was apparently a Gentile so that to expect an identical theological framework is unfair to both men.

Unimaginable Details in Acts 13-20

The data about Paul in the book of Acts is extensive, especially for the span of years between his persecutions and his final journey to Jerusalem, where the principal ‘we’ and ‘us’ passage begins.  Within that quarter of a century Luke narrates Paul’s movements and mission in considerable detail, especially the westward mission decade AD 47-57.

That extensive detail includes the names of people and places and the passage of time and these are too numerous to repeat.  Did Luke invent these details, as some suggest, so that these narratives should be regarded as fictional?  One has only to compare the Acts accounts with various later apocryphal works to see how unlikely this suggestion is.

For the moment let us consider a few unimaginable details, but details that have been confirmed through modern study.  One such example is the travel information related to the journey of Paul and Barnabas through Pamphylia, Pisidia and Lycaonia, the so-called ‘first missionary journey’ (Acts 13-14).  Paul and Barnabas passed through Perga and travelled directly to Antioch in Pisidia and from there to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, whereupon the missionaries retraced their steps to Perga but departed for Antioch from Attalia.

What is not clear from these references is the nature of the cities and network of roads between them.  From modern scholarship including archaeology we have information about these cities and roads that most likely would not have been available to a writer who was inventing this narrative.  How could a fictional writer located elsewhere know that the relatives of Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus were significant in Pisidia, as demonstrated by the discovery of the Paulli inscription in Antioch?  This would explain why Paul was so keen to travel directly from Cyprus to Antioch, without preaching in the major city of Perga.  Could someone who invented these narratives know that Antioch, Iconium and Lystra were Roman colonies and thus relatively safe for Paul the Roman citizen to visit, and explain by he bypassed other major cities in that region?  Would a novelistic writer know that Antioch, Iconium and Lystra were connected by a network of well-made Roman roads, including the Via Sebaste, providing further reason why the missionaries preached in those cities?  Could pure invention explain why they travelled on a non-Roman road to obscure Derbe, except to escape the immediate danger from Lystra and Iconium?

Similar questions could be posed about Paul’s numerous other travel details, which modern scholars understand through easy access to research information but which would not have been apparent to an anonymous chronicler in antiquity who would have lacked access to maps and encyclopaedias to inject verisimilitude into contrived narratives.

It is more realistic in every way to attribute the travel and other information in Acts 13-20 to Paul himself who, in turn passed it on to Luke, whether orally or by writing or both.

But this brings us again to the significance of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Plausibility of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ Hypothesis

Our argument is that the unimaginable and otherwise inexplicable details in Acts 13-20 are best understood as originating directly from Paul to Luke, who then wove them into his global narrative in Luke-Acts.

The significance of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ narratives, especially in Acts 21-28, is that they directly connect Luke as Paul’s companion and for no less than five years.  The overwhelming probability is that Luke became acquainted with Paul’s earlier life, including his missionary travels, through those years of companionship.  Although many scholars dispute the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages as pointing to this, Martin Hengel is clear on this point.

…the remarks in the first person plural refer to the author himself.  They do not go back to an earlier independent source, nor are they merely a literary convention, giving the impression that the author was an eyewitness… ‘We’ therefore appears in the travel narratives because Luke simply wanted to  indicate that he was there (Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, London: SCM, 1979 ET, 66).

Such a conclusion is straightforward and sensible.  If indeed true it undergirds the historical integrity of the greater part of the book of Acts.  Without that integrity, as indicated earlier, it would not be possible to identify the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and earliest Christianity, or to provide any kind of framework for the missionary career of Paul and the dispatch of his letters to the churches of his mission.

Although written many years ago, the verdict of Alfred Plummer continues to be applicable.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that nothing in biblical criticism is more             important than this statement’ – ‘The Author of Acts was a companion of S. Paul’ (Alfred Plummer, St Luke ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1901, xii.)


Although the various criticisms of Acts appear to damage the credibility of that text for commentary on Paul, those criticisms diminish when carefully evaluated.  The ’we’ and ‘us passages in Acts 27-28 are most cogently understood as the work of a companion of Paul throughout the five years, AD 57-62.  Such a companionship would equip one who was to write about Paul’s earlier years, especially the decade of westward mission, AD 47-57.  The alternative is that such narratives were essentially invented and therefore novelistic.  However, the numerous details of Paul’s journeys narrated in Acts, which are corroborated through modern research, would have been unimaginable to the writer of a contrived chronicle.




Twice in the Bible we read of God ‘dwelling with us’.

The first looks back in time when ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) and the second looks ahead when ‘God will dwell with us’ (Revelation 1:3).  We live in between the two, looking back to the first and forward to the second.

Modernity is an enticing idea.  It suggests that all our hopes are located in the time that is ‘now’.  But when you think about it modernity is whenever you live.  When the wheel was invented it was modern times, or the dishwasher, or the iPad.

Modernity is always moving – on and on, faster and faster.  Go to any electronics outlet and the products are different from just a few months back.  Cameras do different things, likewise TVs, and computers.  I have the sense of being left further and further behind, helpless to catch up.  The machines seem to be getting more complicated.  By the time I reach step 4, I have forgotten step 2.  Anita loves gadgets and can’t wait to open them.  Mine stay in the packet, sometimes for months.

Don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t want to live at any other time or place.  We live in a functioning democracy at a time of great medical advance and ease of travel.  When I was a boy, like most people we didn’t have the telephone.  You had to find a phone box.  I wouldn’t want to go back to that.

Modernity looks exciting.  It makes church look ‘old’.  The world is ‘new’ (modern) but the church is ‘old’.  The reality is opposite.  Church buildings may be old, but the people inside are ‘new’ – ‘new creations’, people ‘born anew into the kingdom of God’, God’s ultimate and good future.  True modernity.

It is the world that is ‘old’.  This is because human nature doesn’t change, despite technological progress.

Progress and regress are in lockstep.  Man is in the image of God (capable of nobility), but is also ‘fallen’ (capable of depravity).

This means that even good things can be – and are – put to bad use.  Dynamite is great for building dams, but also for making bombs.  Aeroplanes take you to beautiful places, but they also drop bombs.  Photography is great for prompting the memory, but is used in the production of pornography.  Social media is great for keeping in touch, but insidious for cyber bullying.

There is a sense that although modernity is exciting it is also boring.  Any student of history will tell you that people have always found ways to exploite and be cruel, and that history is the chronicle of the struggle between good and evil.  Good has not always prevailed.

It’s not ‘New world, old church’ but ‘new church, old world’.  The world is ‘old’, even when modern and apparently so new.  But the people of the church – the true believers – are the new people, the people of the kingdom, the people of God’s ultimate and good future.


Modernity without morality is ugly.  We ask, who was the modern man in the past century?  We might say Einstein, or Marconi.  A.N. Wilson said it was Hitler.  Who advanced poverty stricken Germany to prosperity?  Who provided Volkswagens for all the people?  Who built the Autobahns?  Who made the trains run on time?  Who put on great open-air pageants?  Who devised the torch relays we still use at the Olympics?

The same Hitler suppressed all dissent, killed disabled children, attempted the total genocide of the Jewish race, sparked the first global war – that killed over 60 million people.  Ironically some members of the moral rearmament movement supported Hitler.  Modernity without morality is an unspeakable evil.

Let me return to our two texts.

The first, John 1:14, tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Son of God walked among us, and men and women beheld his glory. An old, rarely used word (pronounced agapay, ‘love’) was infused with new radical meaning because of his others-centred life and sacrificial death.  He healed the diseased and disabled.  He taught us how to live, loving one another and forgiving our enemies.  By his death he reconciled people lost from God to God, and the estranged to one another.  Truly Jesus was the Prince of Peace.

The second, Revelation 21:3, tells us what our hope is – ultimate modernity:

The New Jerusalem

The New Heaven and Earth

No more death, crying, pain or injustice

The dwelling of God is with man.He will dwell with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said,‘I am making everything new!

 The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. It does not evolve up from us.  It cannot, because of human corruption.  It is God’s gift.  It is top down not bottom up.

here are dangers in man-made, state-sponsored, state-imposed Utopias.  Social engineering usually means oppression, loss of freedom.  Communism is a failed political experiment.  Pol Pot made Cambodia hell on earth.  Utopia comes from two Greek words and means ‘no place’.  There is no Utopia.

Let me suggest three responses to modernity.

First, be thankful for the good in modernity: medical technology, ease of travel to beautiful places; speed of communication between people.

We give thanks for modernity but are not seduced by it.

Technology changes but people haven’t. We humans are the same mix of nobility and depravity.  Good still struggles to survive against evil. We need a police force to protect us, but also agencies to monitor the police. We need ICAC to restrain corruption.  We live in fear of Identity Theft.  We have more and more laws to protect us.

But I for one am thankful for modernity, living at this stage in history in this place.  I wouldn’t want to live at any other time or place, except Palestine in the time of Jesus.  O, to have been there.

Second, we look forward in hope to the New Jerusalem.

No more death, crying, pain, injustice.  No more death. As Paul said, Christ will abolish the last enemy – death. Our hope is not about relating to God just in this life.  Of all people we would be most to be pitied if that is all there is, said Paul.  Our hope is over the horizon, not just within this life.  God is coming down here to dwell with us. God will make his home here with us, and wipe away every tear.

But is it just a dream, a mirage?  Jesus rose alive from the dead.  A fact of history.  That is the pledge of what God will do.  God raised Jesus from the dead and he will come back to us.  The resurrection was God’s triumph of good over evil.

Third, We look back to Jesus to guide us in the meantime.  He pointed to the Kingdom of God and said, ‘Come to me’.  We point to the Kingdom of God and say, ‘Go to him’.

He taught the truth to people and we teach the truth to people:

•the truth of the gospel

•but also all truth; it is God’s world.  All truth is God’s truth.

He healed the diseased and the disabled and we are committed to all kinds of healing. He reconciled people to God and to one another.  We reconcile people to God and to one another. He is our Saviour, teacher, our guide, our moral and spiritual compass.  He was the Prince of Peace, the peacemaker. We are missionaries of peace: peace with God, through Christ’s death; peace with one another

So we are not dazzled by modernity. We are thankful for the good in it. But we never forget that it’s not ‘Old church new world’. It’s ‘New church old world’.

The time is coming when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

That is ultimate modernity.




















































































































350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

In 1660 the monarchy was restored in England, ending the decade or so rule under Cromwell’s ‘commonwealth’.  That decade witnessed the rise of Puritan and Presbyterian influence.   But in 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed and accompanied by the Book of Common Prayer in that year.

This meant a reintroduction of the uniform use in churches of services that originated with Archbishop Cranmer’s 1552 services.  The 1662 services made only slight changes to the century old 1552 Prayer Book.

However, many ‘non-conforming’ clergy were not conscientiously able to fall in with the Book of Common Prayer and about a thousand were forced out of the Church of England.

Thus 1662 was a momentous year in Christian England.  It represented the beginning of the subsequent division between the Church of England and other churches.

The three-legged Stool

1662 gave us a three-legged stool – the BCP, the Ordinal and the 39 articles of Religion.

The BCP was the public face of Christianity with liturgies for Sunday and liturgies for the ‘occasions’ of life – birth, marriage, death.

The Ordinal set out the beliefs and practices to be followed by Bishops, priests and Deacons.

The 39 Articles of Religion specified the doctrines of the church.

Three Realities

First:            The BCP expresses a faith that is ‘catholic’.

This word means ‘whole’ or ‘complete’.  A complete account of Christian truth, based on the canonical scriptures.

In the early centuries ‘catholic’ defined those committed to the great creeds: - belief about the incarnation of the Son of God, his bodily resurrection and his revelation of the divine trinity.

In contrast to the ‘catholic’ were those who were deemed ‘heretic’ or schismatic’.

The BCP expresses ‘catholic’ Christianity as defined in the early centuries.

Second: The BCP expresses a faith that is ‘reformed’.

The medieval church had become corrupt in theology and practice.

Jesus commanded 2 sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – the Roman church introduced 5 others.

The gospel teaches that sinners are saved by grace; the medieval church taught that sinners were saved by works.

Jesus taught that divine authority is found in the Bible; the medieval church taught that authority was located in the Pope.

Cranmer provided for extensive church reading of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Psalms.

Reading of the Bible is the central part of the services of the BCP.

Following the reading of the Bible comes the creed.

We the people make our response to the Bible by saying, ‘I believe…’ That’s what credo means, ‘I believe’.

Cranmer made the Bible central in BCP services.

Following the reading of the Bible comes the creed. We the people make our response to the Bible by saying, ‘I (or we) believe…’

That’s what credo means, ‘I believe’. We believe based on what the Bible teaches.

Cranmer was influenced by the teaching of the Apostle Paul in chapter 14 of First Corinthians.

The written word is authoritative over what others speak (v.37).

Church services must be intelligible to the mind.

Church services need to be orderly for the sake of edification.

Third:            The BCP expresses a faith that is defended liturgically

Liturgy is not for aesthetics but employed to defend truth.

•By regular confession of sins expressing the need for forgiveness.

•By sustained reading of the Bible followed by the Creeds.

•By a church calendar for the great festivals and their doctrines:

-Incarnation at Christmas and the atonement and hope at Easter.

-The call to repentance in Lent.

-The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

-The Ascension of the Lord on ascension day

-The Second Coming at Advent.

Each needs to be emphasized throughout the year. But the Calendar gives opportunity to highlight these.

The calendar provides ministers opportunity to preach doctrinally.

The ‘collects’ are prayers that ‘collect’ doctrines.

The Future of the BCP?

 The BCP has survived non-conformist splits.

The BCP has nurtured leaders like C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, John Stott.

The BCP has struggled in the past century or so.

The Oxford Movement of the 1800s moved Church of England in a Roman Catholic direction.  It was Catholicism minus the Pope.

The first Anglo-Catholics were theologically conservative and creedal. Today  many Anglo-Catholics are theologically liberal. For them church is about aesthetics, a mystical experience. The items in the creeds are metaphors.


Another more recent struggle is: evangelical individualism. Post-modernism puts emphasis on the individual and evangelicals tend to be robust individuals. Many depart from the principle of commonality and uniformity and design their own services away from BCP.  There is one Bible reading (or even none); there is no creed (or just occasionally); there is no calendar and no collects.

For them preaching the preacher is the all-important thing.  The loss of liturgy means that the voice of the congregation is substantially silenced. Leaving only a single voice of the leader or preacher.

The preacher has replaced the liturgy as the defender of true doctrine.


Personal Opinion

I am committed to the centrality of teaching the Word of God.  This is the God-ordained way for us to come faith and grow. But the BCP – in modern language – is a great context to do that.

The preaching occurs in a great context of


-hearing God’s word

-saying, ‘I believe…’

-being focused on specific doctrines in the calendar and collects

-sharing in prayer for external – and not merely parochial – matters

Liturgy is also very efficient.

In my experience in other churches there is much trivia and no Bible reading and no Creed and somehow it all takes a long time.  I have often not been able to mount the pulpit under an hour of lightweight stuff.

In a well run BCP service we can confess or sins and be absolved, have two Bible readings and a Psalm, the Creed, expansive prayers, four hymns, a twenty minute sermon and be finished in an hour.

J.I. Packer said this: ‘Anglicanism embodies the richest, truest, wisest heritage in Christendom’.  Of course, Packer is not saying it is the only basis for church life, as vibrant non-anglican biblical based churches testify.

In 2000 years this is the best that Christians have come up with.  We anglicans would be wise to stick with it.

Even the best liturgy, however, is not infallible.  It is only useful to churches when it conforms to the authority of the Bible.   That, indeed, is the true anglican position as stated in article 6 of the 39 articles.  Unbiblical liturgy is clearly dangerous.


Luke 2:2 and the ‘first enrolment’

There is a well known problem in Luke 2:2, usually translated as, ‘This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.

The problem is that Luke locates the birth of Jesus ‘in the days of Herod’ who died in 4 BC (Luke 2:5, 26) whereas Josephus plainly tells us that the census occurred under Quirinius.  That census was conducted in AD 6-7 when the Romans annexed Judea as a province and which provoked the uprising led by Judas the Galilean.  Quirinius was a famous Roman general who does not appear to have been the governor of Syria before AD 6[1].  It seems Luke has made a significant error by locating Jesus birth about ten years too late!

There are four possible explanations.

The first is that Luke has innocently replicated an error in the written or oral information that he received.  Against this, however, is Luke’s clear understanding that Herod’s realm had been divided after his death (Luke 3:1-2) and that Joseph from Galilee would have paid his taxes in Galilee to the incumbent tetrarch so there would have been no need for him to travel to Bethlehem in Judea to be registered for paying taxes in that jurisdiction.

The second is that Luke deliberately introduced the error to make the theological point that he favoured the uprising led by Judas.  This is unsustainable since the only point Luke makes is to contrast the humble godliness of little, defenceless people like Joseph, Mary and the shepherds with the distant, uncaring figure of Caesar Augustus whose decree brought such suffering.

A third explanation is that the error lies with Josephus.  Whilst there are some discrepancies between Josephus’ Jewish War and his Jewish Antiquities any theory of error in this matter is unlikely.  Quirinius’ census was a momentous event marking the transition from Judea as a Jewish ethnarchy under Archelaus to a Roman province under its first prefect, Coponius.  The imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea meant the imposition of tax that was now payable directly to Caesar, symbolising that he, not God was the ‘master’ of the people.  It was this ‘numbering’ of the people that drove Judas to lead his rebellion (Acts 5:37; cf. Num. 1:2).  Twenty seven years later this was still a burning issue, inspiring the loaded question to Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ (Mark 12:14).

The fourth is that there was an earlier census but that Luke’s very brief sentence (9 words) is open to several interpretations.  The critical word is ‘first’ (pro|tos).  Grammar experts argue that ‘first’ in Luke 2:2 is an adjective meaning ‘first’ in a superlative sense (first of at least three)[2].

There are unsurmountable historical problems insisting that ‘first’ must be understood as a superlative sense.  It implies that there were at least two other censuses in Judea after Quirinius’ famous census in AD 6.  Quirinius’ census was a momentous event which provoked a rebellion, which Luke rightly called the census (Acts 5:37).  Had there been other subsequent censuses in Palestine after Quirinius we would know about them from Josephus, so controversial were they.

We note, therefore, that the word ‘first’ can also mean ‘foremost’, ‘most prominent’[3], that is, in an absolute sense, for example in the Prodigal father’s command, ‘bring…the best robe’ (Luke 15:22) or the question, ‘which commandment is the greatest of all?’ (Mark 12:28).  This use of ‘first’ meaning ‘foremost’ in an absolute sense is a genuine alternative to understanding ‘first’ in a superlativesense (first of at least three).  Understood in this way, Luke 2:2 would read as:  ‘This enrolment became most prominent when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.  (See Stephen Carlson, Luke 2:2 and the Census - http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2004/12/luke-22-and-the-census.html)

Luke’s words, then, are distinguishing the enrolment during Herod’s reign involving Joseph and Mary from the ‘most prominent’ enrolment under Quirinius in AD 6.  Thus it is possible that Luke 2:2 is alluding to some otherwise unknown enrolment during Herod’s time, when his kingdom was undivided and when Joseph of the line of David, was required to enrol in Bethlehem, his ancestral city.

Some argue against the historical possibility of a census earlier than Quirinius’ census.  We know that Augustus conducted an imperial census beginning in 18 BC (Res Gestae 8) and that such a census could have occurred within the domain of a client king like Herod (Tacitus, Annals vi.41)[4].  Furthermore, there is evidence of a Roman registration in Egypt in 104 BC requiring registrants to return to their ancestral homes[5].  We also know that Augustus Caesar required the ‘whole Jewish people’ in Israel to make an oath of allegiance to him in about 7 BC (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities xvii.42) though there is no information about a necessity for Jews to return to their ancestral cities[6].

Luke 2:2 has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly books and articles but the problems remain unsolved.  It seems Luke has either replicated an error from the sources available to him, or – more probably – has expressed himself  too briefly.  There is a strong possibility of an enrolment during Herod’s years that could have affected Joseph and Mary.  Either way it would be unreasonable to accuse Luke of wilful error, for what would have been his reason for doing so?  I do not think the problems in Luke 2:2 are a basis for the wholesale rejection of this author, his integrity or competence.

[1]The governors of Syria during this period were M. Titius (10 BC); C. Sentius Saturninus (9 – 6 BC); Quinctilius Varus (6 – 4 BC); Calpurnius Piso (4 – 1 BC); C. Iulius Caesar (1 BC – AD 4);  L. Volusius Saturninus (AD 4 – 5); P. Sulpicius Quirinius (AD 6).  See further E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish people in the Age of Jesus Christ  I (rev. and ed. By G. Vermes and F. Millar; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973), 257-259.

[2]Yet Luke uses the same Greek adjective in Acts 1:1 in a comparative (non-superlative) sense where the ‘first book’ clearly means the first of two books, that is, ‘the former book’ (= Luke’s Gospel).

[3]As in Luke 15:22 (‘the best robe’) and Eph. 6:2.

[4]For examples of censuses being conducted in ‘vassal kingdoms’ (e.g., Apamea, Cappadocia, Petra and Samaria) see (H. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 16.

[5]Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 15.

[6]P.W. Barnett, ‘Enrolment in Luke 2:1-5’, ExpT lxxxv.12 (1974), 374-380.

Six Keys to Unlock Revelation

Six Keys to Unlock Revelation

Struggle for acceptance

From early times Revelation has been accepted as written by John the apostles and as part of the canon of the Bible. But it has struggled for practical acceptance in mainstream churches because

(a)  its unusual symbolism and sometimes extreme language; and

(b) has been the focus of marginal sects and source of weird interpretations.

In the Reformation period it was barely tolerated:

•Luther regarded as ‘dumb prophecy’ and did not regard it as inspired.

•Calvin, though prolific commentator, wrote no commentary on Revelation.

 Neglect in mainstream churches:

•Many in mainstream churches wary of the book; a reaction against extreme views that often surface in times of catastrophe.

•Does not feature in church lectionaries.

•Is often not taught in mainstream seminaries.

Yet Revelation is ‘trinitarian’ in theology and ‘catholic’ in application

Grace and peace to you

from him who is, and who was, and who is to come,             God

and from the seven spirits before his throne,                             the Spirit

and from Jesus Christ,                                                                        Christ

who is the faithful witness (martyr),                                                •his death

the firstborn from the dead,                                                                •his resurrection

and the ruler of the kings of the earth.                                            •his kingship

To him who loves us

and has freed us from our sins by his blood                                    •his atonement

(Rev. 1:4-5)


Write…send to the seven churches                                                = ‘all’ churches

(Rev. 1:11)                                                            (‘catholic’ = whole christendom)

Six Keys to Unlock its Message

1.            Discern its setting historically

John, its author, was a prisoner on Patmos who wrote to the seven churches of Roman Asia in the expectation of the outbreak of persecution.  John writes deeply concerned for the destructive pressure of Christians in these churches from

•state sponsored emperor worship (in the era of Domitian)

•seductive power of local temple worship

•false teaching within the churches

Revelation is primarily pastoral in intention, to encourage Christians to persevere.           

 2.            Classify it Correctly

Revelation is two things:

(a)            It is prophecy written in a book (1:3; 22:18, 19).

(b)            It is a letter written as an encyclical to 7 churches in (Roman) Asia.

Hence: a letter-book written in prophetic mode to a network of struggling churches.

In style Revelation is quasi-apocalyptic (cf. 2 Baruch, Enoch, 2 Ezra)

(a)            It is apocalyptic in its use of symbolism (numbers, colours, animals);

(b)            It is non-apocalyptic   •the author (John) identifies himself directly

•its ‘secret’ is not hidden but revealed

•it has a direct pastoral message for now

 •it invites the saints’ participation in prayer

It is obvious that Revelation is prophetic, future oriented and deeply symbolic.

But the critical thing to remember is that it is a pastoral letter

•Written by a leader named John, a prophet in prison

•Addressed to real people in 7 widely scattered congregations.

Question:             What is its classification?

Answer:            A Pastoral Letter, written in prophetic, partially apocalyptic style.

Purpose:            To encourage perseverance and faithfulness in ‘following the Lamb’.

Important:            Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic language.

Do not interpret literalistically.

3.            Learn the Layout

Revelation is really two visions:

Vision 1 in 1:9-20 – Christ’s direction to John to write to the 7 churches      (chs 2-3).

Vision 2 in 4:1 – Christ about to show John what must take place after this (chs 4-22).

Vision 2 is complex

4            Heaven opened, vista of worship of the Enthroned One

5            The slain Lamb alone worthy to open the scroll

6-7            Sequence of 7 seals                     conquest

8-11            Sequence of 7 trumpets            assault on creation

12-14            Sequence of 7 signs                war on God and the saints

15-16            Sequence of 7 bowls                destruction

17-20            Destruction of Harlot, Babylon, Dragon, Beast and False-Prophet

21-22            The New Jerusalem

In the first 3 sequences after the 6th element there is an INTERLUDE, each pastoral in intent – 7:1-17 (hope); 10:1-11 (the call to prophesy); 14:6-13 (the eternal gospel).

In the first two sequences the 7th element is really a ‘bridge’ to the next sequence.  Hence the critical thing is that the sequences are CONCURRENT not consecutive.  Sequences are ‘overlaid’ (concurrent), not ‘back to back’ (consecutive), each focusing on one source of suffering.  The sequences in Revelation are not literal historical dispensations

|…………………………………1000 years (symbolic)……………………..|

C                                                                                                                               E

H            6-7            conquest and accompanying misery of war

R                                                                                                                                 N

I            8-11            degradation of universe and accompanying suffering

S                                                                                                                                  D

T            12-14            persecution of the saints and their afflictions

The followers of the lamb who was slain pass through these ordeals on their way to the Celestial City.  These ordeals are not encountered everywhere at the same time.  Their inspiration is the courage of the lamb who was slain, whom they ‘follow’.

 4.            Crack the Code

• Colour                                    (white = victory in varying contexts)

• eye                                          (insight)

• creatures – e.g., eagle (perspective)

•Numbers      4                        universal (4 corners of the earth)

7                                                   heaven/God

3.5 years/42 months/1260 days            half of 7 = long, but limited

6                                                   pretentious, evil (6 trying to be 7)

10/1000                                      very long (NB 1000 years)

5                                                      half of 10 [?]

12/144,000                                 redemption (12 tribes, 12 apostles)  (NB 144,000)

5.            Perceive the parallelism

The parallels are as follows, especially chapters 12-22:

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

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

c.            ‘The Lamb…as though slain’ (5:6,12; 13:8) is paralleled by ‘the [sea] beast’ one of whose heads ‘seemed to have a mortal wound’ (13.3). The beast is taken to be the Roman Emperor, perhaps represented in the province of Asia in the persona of the Proconsul.

d.            The beast has an image and those who worship him have the mark of his name on their foreheads (13:15-17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).  In parallel but by contrast the servants of the Lamb who worship him, and who refuse to worship the beast, will bear the name of the Lamb on their foreheads (22:3-4).

e.             The community of Christ, the bride of the Lamb, characterized by chastity, truthfulness and endurance (14:4-5), is paralleled by the community of the beast, the great harlot, characterized by murder, fornication, sorcery and falsehood (21:8).           

 6            Centre on Christ

Contrary to many futurist interpretations the present and future victory of God is controlled by the historic, past victory of Christ:

• He who conquers, I will grant to him to sit with me on my throne as I   myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne (3:21).

•…the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered .  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals (5:5).

•The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he will reign forever and ever….

• You have taken your great power and begun to reign (11:15, 17)

• Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ (12:10).

In other words, although the Revelation gives the appearance of being strongly about the future, the reality is that its future is controlled by what happened in the past, at the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ.

That great past event controls the future.

Like the rest of the New Testament the eschatology Revelation is Realized Eschatology, controlled by the tension between the ALREADY but the NOT YET.  Christ’s victory at crucifixion and resurrection is the ALREADY but the struggles of the saints as they follow the Lamb through the pain of wars, destruction and persecution are the NOT YET.  Hence we have the great tension between the ALREADY and the NOT YET.  To repeat, this is the tension of the rest of the New Testament.

The whole book is pastoral in intent, encouraging the saints to keep moving toward their promised destination despite sufferings on the way.

Perhaps no one will no one will ever understand everything in Revelation.But these six keys will help us make great progress:

•Discern its setting historically

•Classify the book correctly

•Learn the layout – especially that sequences are concurrent not consecutive

•Crack the codes

•Perceive the parallelisms

•Centre on Christ as the great ALREADY as the basis for persevering in the             NOT YET

Remember that Revelation is trinitarian in theology and universal in application.

Value of Revelation

1.            Pastoral

The pastoral intent of revelation can be seen at many points

•Exhortations to church members                         to conquer

•Encouragement throughout                                     to endurance and faith (13:10; 14:12-13)

•References to Christ who ‘shepherds’            2:27; 7:17; 12:5; 19:15

•The powerful interlude in 7:9-17 anticipating 14:1-5 and chapters 21-22.

•Great visions of Christ in

1:9-20                         (one like a Son of Man)

5:6-14                         (Lion/Messiah = slaughtered Lamb)

19:11-17             (King of kings and Lord of lords)

2.            Prophecy

Chapters 10-11 is powerful call to prophesy again (sweet-bitter) with great pain associated with prophetic witness.  Evident that the catastrophes (as in chapter 8-9) do not of themselves bring repentance (9:20-21).  Prophecy is needed; but it is painful.  The book of Revelation itself is an example of ‘prophecy’.

3.            Missional

Revelation is primarily a book for reading in church and therefore primarily pastoral. Yet there is an implicitly evangelistic element.  The book of Revelation implies that evangelism of the ‘rest of mankind’ is happening:   References to judgments on one quarter and one third within history point to    absolute and universal judgment at the end of history.

9:20-21 expects ‘the rest of mankind to repent’, even though they haven’t.

10:11 implies that the prophet must again prophesy about peoples, nations, etc

14:14-20 speaks of             (a) harvest by son of man (positive),

(b) harvest by an angel (negative)

4.            Worshipful

The Romans used ‘worship’ – ritual practices, hymns, oaths, etc.

To affirm the emperor and Rome

To disaffirm any alternative (e.g., Christ, as by Pliny)

John urges the worship of God and the Lamb:

Positive affirmations about Christ

Negative disaffirmations about the Beast

Worship is a recognition:

positively of God and

negatively of pretentious alternatives.

Accordingly, worship responds to prophecy.

Worship is not shallow but profound, from the heart and mind.

Worship confirms the convictions of the individual and encourages others.

Worship in Revelation is centred in God/the Lamb who are worshipped and  not centred in the worshipper.

5.            Comprehension of the world

•Stylistically Revelation is very visual, corresponding the TV ‘news’ footage.

•The sequences of seals, trumpets, signs and bowls

remind us that history is not evolving towards Utopia on earth;

help us understand why the world is the way it is – wars, calamities.

Should encourage us to get on with evangelism and prophecy.

Practice makes Perfect

The six keys will assist our understanding of most of the Revelation (but not all!).  I encourage us to take Bible Studies and on this book.  The more we work on it the more we are able to unlock its message of hope and its encouragement to ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes’.

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




















































His Story is History and History is His Story

History is His Story

 Tacitus the great historian of First Century Rome leaves us in no doubt about the main historical outlines of the New Testament.  Tacitus, a leading politician and a provincial governor, reports that the ‘Christians’ took their name from a person called ‘Christ’ who was executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea in the era of Tiberius Caesar.

Tacitus expected the movement to die with its founder but instead it spread to Rome where, by the time of the great fire in AD 64, it had become ‘immense’. Tacitus’s history tell us (a) Jesus was known as ‘Christ’, (b) that he was therefore a genuine figure of history, (c) when and where he was executed, and (d) that in spite of his death as a disgraced felon within thirty years his movement spread from Palestine on the edge of the empire to its heart, Rome.

Tacitus’s confirmation of the ‘raw’ facts about earliest Christianity is impressive.  Not only was he a careful historian he was also bitterly critical of this new movement, which he calls a ‘superstition’ whose members were guilty of evil ‘vices’ and who, he said, ‘hated the human race’.  Tacitus, a proud Roman, despised these Christians who loved their Christ more than the empire.  Tacitus’s comments about Christian origins are all the more important since he is an independent witness, in fact, a hostile witness.

The word ‘Christian’ (Christianos) literally means ‘a follower of Christ’ and it was a word coined by outsiders, most likely public officials in Antioch in Syria.  Only later did the Christians use the word for themselves.  Also significant is the fact that the word ‘Christ’ originated as a title, ‘the Christ’ which is Greek for ‘the Messiah’ or ‘Anointed King’.  So the Christians were seen to be followers of the Christ.  And it was this that brought them into headlong conflict with the Roman authorities.  The Romans crucified Jesus as ‘king of the Jews’ and they persecuted his followers for saying there was ‘another king’, that Jesus, not the Roman Caesar, was the true king over the world.

Historical analysis demands that Jesus knew he was the Christ, the long awaited One anointed by God, the ‘son of David’ prophesied centuries before.  Even during his three year ministry his disciples had become convinced that Jesus was ‘the Christ’.  The writers of the New Testament are certain that Jesus was the Christ.  Where did that conviction come from except by the impact of Jesus upon them, as dramatically confirmed by his resurrection for the dead?

At the head of his letter to Christians in Rome Paul sets out this summary of God’s gospel as:


concerning his Son,

who descended from David according to the flesh

who was designated 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 RSV).


From this pre-formed summary statement were learn three things.

First, the words ‘his Son’ points to an intimate relationship between God and his own Son.  This is consistent with Jesus’ prayer to God as Abba, Father and to Jesus’ reference to himself as ‘the Son’ and to God as ‘the Father’.

Secondly, he was truly human having descended from the line of David.  The RSV translation ‘descended’ does not bring out that Jesus ‘has come’ – comma – ‘out of the seed of David’.  This implies that Jesus ‘came’ from somewhere else, that is, from his eternal pre-existence in the presence of God and – historically speaking – came through the ‘seed of David’.

Without mentioning it this is in line with the virginal conception of Jesus which Matthew and Luke independently attest in their genealogies, and which Paul confirms in his letter to the Galatians where he writes that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ (i.e., independently of a man).

Thirdly, the historical person of Jesus was ‘designated’ as Son of God in power (that is, as ‘Lord’) by his resurrection from the dead and by his outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit at and subsequent to Pentecost.

Paul’s brief statement is as historical as Tacitus’s.  Tacitus wrote historically about Christ from the viewpoint of an uninformed and hostile outsider.  The ‘external’ facts that he gives agree exactly with those of Luke-Acts.  But as an outsider he does not know the ‘inside’ story that Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans.  Jesus ‘came’ from a pre-existent eternity; as a historical figure he was a descendant of the messianic line of David; God raised him from the dead as his ‘powerful Son’ (i.e., as ‘Lord of all’); whereupon he poured out ‘the Spirit of Holiness’, which he continues to do.

Paul’s summary statement, though accurate, is incomplete.  Paul will expand upon it later in the letter to teach that God ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8:32).  In other words, the Christ who existed before the creation of the universe, who came into our world in fulfilment of prophecy, who died on the Roman cross for our forgiveness, who was raised alive from the dead, who pours out his Spirit to those who commit to him in the One who rules history until his historic return.  This Christ, whom Christians follow is the Lord of history.

By a happy quirk of language his ‘story’ is the true and eternal ‘history’.  Modern day enemies of Christ like Richard Dawkins attack this history, but it will still be true when his days are passed.  Christians must continue to struggle for the BC and AD division of history since it represents His Story.