Sunday, November 30, 2014

All The Saints (part 12)

Verse twenty-two poses a rhetorical question to which the Jerusalem elders have what takes the appearance of a ready-made response.  That question, following up on the not-entirely-accurate suggestion that Paul teaches “all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to their customs” (Acts 21:21b---note the use of the word “custom” rather than “law”---a subtle reminder that the then-employed covenant markers were more custom than law perhaps?), was “What they should we do?” (21:22a)  Coupled with the lack of accuracy in the statement that leads to the question, one is tempted to hear the prepared response as little more than the feigning of concern, as they say “They will no doubt hear that you have come” (21:22b). 

Now, it does exist as a possibility that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, with whom Paul is here dealing, are simply reporting what they have heard, and that they are simply relaying the general tenor of the grumblings about Paul that they hear around the Temple and in Jerusalem.  However, though again there is no desire to here dwell on it (as it is not the primary issue at hand), this exchange takes on the appearance of an honor competition for position within the church, with the Jerusalem elders seeking to shame Paul.  Knowing Paul through his letters and through Acts, and knowing his demeanor in the lead-up to his return to Jerusalem, which he expected to be fraught with troubles, this potential attempt at shaming would probably not have much of an effect on him.

So a suggestion is offered.  Paul is told that “We have four men who have taken a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved” (21:23-24a).  Is this talk of Paul needing to purify himself a subtle jab that stems from the fact that he spends the vast majority of his time with Gentiles (echoes of Galatians two ringing in one’s ears)?  The rejoinder to the suggestion, which is “Then everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law” (21:24), indicates that it is a veiled insult. 

What they have in mind when speaking about “conformity with the law” is revealed in what follows, as they make reference to an earlier event, saying “But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality” (21:25).  This serves as something of a modified version of the prevalent covenant markers, setting forth the still-underlying position that Gentiles should be required to, in some way, become Jews in order to have the privilege of participation in the blessings of Israel’s God as members of the covenant people.  Submission to the God of Israel and to the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel was simply not going to be enough. 


Paul, who, according to what can be found in the twentieth chapter and the first part of the twenty-first chapter, has an inkling as to where all this might be headed and has already embraced the possibilities, does not argue with the elders.  Because he could look upon this activity as being relatively meaningless in the great cosmic, kingdom picture with which he was concerned, and because he had no desire to create disharmony or dissent in the church, “Paul took the men the next day, and after he had purified himself along with them, he went to the Temple and gave notice of the completion of the days of purification, when the sacrifice would be offered for each of them” (21:26).

All The Saints (part 11)

Notice the focus on the matter of Gentiles and the effectiveness of the Gospel’s message.  This, of course, makes perfect sense, as Paul is primarily known as the Apostle to the Gentiles.  At the same time however, he addresses himself to Jews as well, as his congregations (household meal gatherings in honor of Jesus) are a mixed bag, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.  This is well demonstrated not only by the content of his letters, but by the fact that he spends a great deal of time addressing Jews in the synagogues in the various Gentile-dominated cities to which he travels. 

However, Luke, as the author of Acts, is free to pick and choose that upon which he focuses his attention and that which he relays to the readers/hearers of his work.  Interestingly, he consistently chooses to impart information concerning Gentiles, with this information provided its contextual setting by the Jew/Gentile issue that consumed the energy of the nascent church and so much of Paul’s attention.  This lends substantial weight to the idea that the means by which Gentiles are included in the covenant people and share in their promises (the means by which they are justified) was a (if not the) fundamental point of contention in the early church. 

Verse twenty provides the response: “When they heard this, they praised God.  Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law” (Acts 21:20).  That is, they are believers in Jesus who continue to adhere to the covenant markers of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary laws.  Going on, “They have been informed about you---that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (21:21).  This, as can be gleaned from Paul’s letters, is highly debatable, and probably something of a distortion or half-truth (at best). 

Paul’s primary concern was the covenant marker of Gentiles, that being confession of Jesus as Lord (their confession of the Gospel) that made them people of the covenant, and not the submission to the ongoing covenant markers of Israel as that which made them people of the covenant.  Paul was not concerned with whether or not the Jews continued to hold to these customs, being far more concerned with not forcing Gentiles to submit to them, as doing so would contribute, in his mind, to erecting barriers to the spread of the kingdom of the Creator God to all peoples.  Paul clearly demonstrates his belief that it would create unnecessary and probably unhelpful divisions among people, with these divisions based solely on identifying practices that had nothing to do with the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus. 

If anything, Paul’s preaching probably encouraged Judaizing Gentiles (Gentiles who had adopted the covenant markers of Israel so as to come under the auspices and provisions of the covenant, so becoming Jews) to discontinue Sabbath-keeping and adherence to dietary laws (reversing circumcision, though possible, would probably not be encouraged, especially considering that Jews were not the only people to practice circumcision---it was really the combination of covenant related activities, though these changed over the years to reach the form that they had taken by the time of Jesus and Paul, that served to set Israel apart from other peoples).  This could form the basis for the mild accusation heard in the twenty-first verse, as, in order to make a point, they would not make an effort to distinguish between a Jew of national and ethnic Israel, and someone who had become a Jew through the required processes.  Though this study will not dwell on it, this chapter and its recorded exchange provides an indication that there may have been something of a struggle for honor within the church, with what has already come and what follows serving as an attempt to shame Paul.   


Saturday, November 29, 2014

All The Saints (part 10)

In addressing this question, it is necessary to revert to the Levitical code.  In the twenty-first chapter of Leviticus, restrictions are placed upon the priesthood, who are those that could serve in the Temple.  Beginning in verse sixteen one reads: “The Lord God spoke to Moses: ‘Tell Aaron, “No man from your descendants throughout their generations who has a physical flaw is to approach to present the food of his God.”’” (Leviticus 21:16-17) 

Notice the use of “present,” which also shows up in the key verse in Colossians that could very well be alluding to the Temple.  Continuing, “Certainly no man who has a physical flaw is to approach: a blind man, or one who is lame, or one with a slit nose, or a limb too long, or a man who has had a broken leg or arm, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or one with a spot in his eye, or a festering eruption, or a feverish rash, or a crushed testicle.  No man from the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a physical flaw may step forward to present the Lord’s gifts; he has a physical flaw, so he must not step forward to present the food of his God.  He may eat both the most holy and the holy food of his God, but he must not go into the veil-canopy or step forward to the altar because he has a physical flaw.  Thus he must not profane My holy places, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (21:18-23). 

Certainly, it is with little difficulty that one can compare the language here with Paul’s insistence that Jesus has presented those that were previously looked upon as completely unworthy, as described here in the Leviticus passage, as “holy, without blemish, and blameless.”  Of course, this is also the language of animals offered in sacrifice, which can lead to an equally valid discussion of the sacrificial nature of the Christian life and of unity in purpose with the one sacrificed. 

However, as the context deals with the inclusion of people under the covenant, the application can and should be here restricted to people and their entrance upon the covenant (their justification).  Importantly, in a period of time in which Gentiles (unholy, blemished, blameless) were not allowed to enter into the Temple proper, Paul is insistent (via Ephesians), that they not only enter into the Temple, but that they are a fundamental component of the Temple of the Creator God itself.   

To effectively make the point about the way of thinking then in play about the entrance of Gentiles into the Temple in the time of Paul, one can once again venture to the book of Acts.  As stated before, though Acts would have been composed after the time of the writing of the letter to Colossians or Ephesians, as a historical work with a deep and abiding theological concern, it does provide relevant information concerning the period, especially in terms of the general attitude of Jews towards Gentiles.  This was well demonstrated by the previous look at chapters thirteen and fifteen of Acts.  For purposes of this study at this point, it is necessary turn to Acts twenty-one. 

Here one finds the story of Paul’s return journey to Jerusalem.  To adequately appreciate the service provided by this chapter to the Temple-related assertion from Colossians, it is necessary to quote it at length.  Beginning in verse seventeen Luke writes, “When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly.  The next day Paul went in with us to see James, and all the elders were there.  When Paul had greeted them, he began to explain in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (21:17-19).  

Friday, November 28, 2014

All The Saints (part 9)

One might be tempted to question the legitimacy of the assertion that there is Temple language to be found in Colossians.  Admittedly, on the surface it appears to be a bit of an unwarranted leap.  However, if one were to recognize the parallels between the second chapter of Ephesians, acknowledging it as something of an unspoken gloss on what is to be found in the first chapter of Colossians, then it is quite safe to tread this theoretical path. 

What is it in Colossians one that may put one in mind of the Temple?  Specifically, what may put a reader in mind of the Temple in conjunction with Paul’s attempts at opening wide the gates of the covenant to all peoples?  It could be suggested that a leading contender for this role would be the words that close out the twenty-second verse of the first chapter, which are “to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before Him” (Colossians 1:22b).  This study has already reviewed what precedes these words, where Paul wrote “And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now He has reconciled you by His physical body through death” (1:21-22a). 

Also, the parallel in Ephesians has already been noted, with this parallel becoming increasingly important as a means to penetrate into Paul’s thinking and the issues which he is addressing in nearly all of the churches with which he has contact.  It is worth quoting again at length: “you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For He is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility… and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed” (2:12-14,16). 

The similarities between the two citations should be quite obvious.  Given that, it is not at all unreasonable to suspect that the similitude will continue, especially as it appears to be an unbroken stream of thought that results in Paul’s talk of the church as the Temple, with Gentiles obviously included in those that compose the Temple.  The same can be said of Colossians, in that it is an unbroken stream of thought that has Paul moving from strangers, foreigners, reconciliation, and death, to a holy, blemish-less and blameless presentation before Him (Jesus presenting His new covenant people, made up of people from all nations, before Israel’s Creator God). 


Though there is no explicit mention of Temple or church, as can be seen in Ephesians, the talk of those that are holy, without blemish, and blameless in presentation that flows directly from reconciliation, and which occupies the same space reserved for Temple talk in Ephesians, serves as a functional allusion to the Temple.  How so?  More specifically, how does this function in relation to the wider concern of the first chapter, which is the strident, Gentile-inclusive “all”? 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

All The Saints (part 8)

The use of “strangers” and “enemies” seems to be directed towards Gentiles, as they were looked upon as being strangers to the covenant.  “Strangers” could easily be heard as “foreigners” or “aliens.”  Here it is quite useful to call upon the letter to the Ephesians, as it can provide a helpful expansion (not a proof-texting), verbalizing what may have been already (likely) understood by the Jesus-as-God-and-Lord-worshiping Colossian congregation that was probably composed of Jews, Judaizing Gentiles, and Gentiles. 

In the second chapter of Ephesians, following a few verses that could easily fit alongside and even substitute for the creedal expression of verses fifteen through twenty of Colossians one, Paul writes “Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh---who are called ‘uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘circumcision’ that is performed on the body by human hands---that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Colossians 2:11-12).  One would be hard-pressed to hear talk of “strangers and enemies” in Colossians in a way any different from the more explicit presentation here in the Ephesian letter.  The situation of Gentiles and their inclusion is very much at hand. 

Continuing in Ephesians then, which provides a more well-rounded understanding of the movement in Colossians (and if one considers the extreme likelihood that Ephesians was originally a circular letter, designed to be heard by a number of churches, possibly even those of Colossae, then understanding is even more greatly enhanced), Paul writes “But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13).  It is possible to transport the “far away” and “brought near” into a Colossian context, with knowledge of the Gentile association of those words, so as to increase sensitivity to the subject matter at issue. 

Employing the same type of inclusive language in Ephesians, Paul continues, writing “For He is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when He nullified in His flesh the law of commandments in decrees.  He did this to create in Himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed” (2:14-16).  Paul insists that there is no longer any division between Jew and Gentile.  They are not to be held apart.  There is to be nothing that divides them. 

More than anything, this allows for glimpsing the mindset of Paul, even if such things that are explicitly mentioned in Ephesians go unsaid to the church at Colossae.  It should be impossible to separate this type of thinking from an assessment of Colossians, as the Jew/Gentile, appropriate covenant marker conflict (the law of commandments in decrees), colors in the landscape in which the church of Christ in Colossae and the letter directed to them is set. 

Visiting again the “strangers and enemies” reference in Colossians, and understanding that it is said in Ephesians in the context of bridging the divide between Jews and Gentiles, one could easily find Paul employing words such as “And He came and preached peace to you who were far off,” Gentiles, “and peace to those who were near,” Jews, “so that through Him we both,” that being Jews and Gentiles equally, “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:17-18). 

Rounding out his words to those that were considered to be strangers and enemies in need of reconciliation and redemptive inclusion into the assembly of God’s covenant people that sprang into existence with Abraham, Paul writes “So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.  In Him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are also being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:19-22).  This fits quite nicely with the Temple language that is subtly employed in verse twenty-two of Colossians one.  


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

All The Saints (part 7)

The “all” barrage continues on into the next verse, which reads “He Himself is before all things and all things are held together in Him” (Colossians 1:17), which flows right into “He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn among the dead, so that He Himself may become first in all things” (1:18).  So here Paul writes about “all things” and “all things,” with the “all-inclusiveness” of humanity being carried in its basket of meaning and implication, moving directly into mention of the body of believers, that being the church, which is composed of all nations, apart from the covenant markers that delineated national Israel. 

This becomes inextricably linked with the assembly of Israel when “firstborn,” as part of “firstborn among the dead,” is attached to it.  This is an interesting phrase with an interesting addendum.  While “firstborn” is a position of honor, and while “the dead” can certainly be honored, talk of “the dead” in connection with Jesus generates thoughts of the cross.  If the cross is indeed brought to mind, this creates an interesting juxtaposition of honor and shame, as honor is identified with life, and shame is identified with death.  Jesus then, receives His honor at the place of shameful death as part of the cosmic reversal in which the last become first and the first become last, and in which that which is the source and place of greatest shame (the cross) is converted into the place of highest honor. 

In His willful trek to the cross, Jesus, by going to the lowest place, ascends to the highest place, becoming “first in all things.”  As “firstborn” implies the first of many, while also carrying its congregational cognitive in connection with the whole of Israel, the attachment of “among the dead” provides a double-meaning of tremendous importance to those that follow Jesus, with its demand that those who do indeed follow Him also be willing to go to the places of shame, carrying the message of the kingdom of the Creator God and being the place where heaven and earth overlap---representing and bringing that kingdom’s reign to those places where death attempts to assert its complete, total, despairing, humanity and creation defacing reign in defiance of Jesus.    

The nineteenth verse states “For God was pleased to have all fullness dwell in the Son” (1:19).  This reinforces that which has been asserted in verses fifteen and sixteen, while also continuing the heavy theme of “all” that appears to be so crucial to Colossians in particular, as well as to Paul and the church in general.  It is appended by “and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross---through Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20). 

“All” features from first to last, is here linked to reconciliation and “peace,” is contexted by the “cross” (which ties neatly back to the “dead” of verse eighteen), and drawing conclusions from the formulaic setting forth of some of the earliest doctrines of Jesus, flows nicely into the twenty-first and twenty-second verse, where Paul insists that “you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now He has reconciled you by His physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before Him” (1:21-22). 


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All The Saints (part 6)

In verse fifteen, Paul commences with a barrage of inclusive language, as he includes in his letter what appears to be a likely “creed” or formulaic statement about Jesus that was well known in the early church.  It is not only significant that Paul uses this creed, but its placement is interesting as well.  It is with more than a passing interest that one can note it following talk of the qualification of all peoples to participate in the inheritance of Israel, and talk of the associated exodus experience language of redemption and forgiveness of sins that was crucial to Israel’s identity. 

The creed, or hymn, begins with “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).  Not only is “all” found in use here, which, as it links both “firstborn” and “creation,” causes one to consider both humanity (firstborn) and the physical creation itself.  “Firstborn,” as it is used in conjunction with the Gospel’s claim that Jesus is Lord, can most certainly imply rule, denoting that Jesus’ rule extends over all of humanity and the whole of the creation.  This is far more than a spiritual rule.  It is absolute and all-encompassing. 

Additionally, even putting aside the actual use of “creation,” one must notice the creation-oriented language.  It should be impossible to hear or read “image of the invisible God,” “firstborn,” and “creation,” without linking this to the Genesis account.  There, humanity is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26a). 

That creation in the image of God was immediately followed by “so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth” (1:26b).  The implication is clear.  Jesus is the firstborn of, and represents a new humanity.  Those that are in union with Him (believing in Him as Lord and following His kingdom model and ways), to borrow one of Paul’s terms, are to consider themselves as part of that new humanity---acting upon this realization.  At the same time, one must not overlook the fact that the title of “firstborn” is given to Israel (Exodus 4:22). 

So with this, it is appropriate to entertain thoughts of Jesus as Israel, and those identified with Him as a renewed Israel, whose new covenant marker is their confession of Jesus as Lord.  These confessors share in the responsibilities, privileges, and demands of being the covenant people of the Creator God---charged with reflecting His glory into the world and drawing all peoples to Him. 

The next step in the hymn operates according to the messianic expectation that Israel’s covenant God would robe Himself in flesh so as to accomplish His purposes.  Thus Jesus is identified as that manifestation when Paul writes “for all things in heaven and on earth were created by Him---all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers---all things were created through Him and for Him” (1:16). 

Though the “all” of this verse is clearly concerned with the creation end of the spectrum, rather than that of humanity, it is difficult to escape the fact that “all” is now replete with human sensibilities.  One also cannot help but consider the possibility that at least a portion of this language is borrowed from the Caesar cult, with a far more appropriate re-shaping, re-direction, and re-application of these words towards Jesus.  This would not be an isolated instance of such an occurrence, as the term “gospel” itself, in its most widespread and familiar usage, was linked to the Caesar.         


All The Saints (part 5)

One can feel the warmth of the bright shining light of this entrenched interest when sitting alongside the gathered Colossian congregation, joining together in their customary meal gathering in honor of their Lord as the letter from the Apostle is read aloud and hearing “We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints” (Colossians 1:3-4).  With the background provided, one should not skim quickly over this “all.”  It should be heard with all of the world-altering potential contained therein. 

After a quick bit of praise from Paul, while making mention of the Gospel that he says “has come to you” (1:6a), he adds an “all” emphasis with “Just as in the entire world this Gospel is bearing fruit and growing” (1:6b).  As with the “all” of verse four, one must not take lightly this talk of the “entire world,” given the backdrop of the exclusiveness that limited entrance upon the covenant.  Contrary to this, and contrary to his former way of life, Paul’s words, along with the sentiments expressed by Peter (as recorded in Acts), represent the realization of the flinging open of the doors of the Creator God’s covenant to all people---the entire world. 

It is in this mindset that one then goes on to hear the words of verse twelve, where Paul writes of their “giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light” (1:12).  This qualification speaks to the issue of inclusion.  Prior to Jesus, and prior to the announcement of His Gospel (acknowledging Him as Lord of all) as the means (identification) by which one enters into the covenant (is justified), it was the works of the law (the accepted covenant markers and practices that identified and separated the people of Israel from all other people) that provided qualification to be a “saint” and to share in the promised inheritance that stretched all the way back to Abraham.  To that, reinforcing the “all,” “entire world,” and “qualified” language, Paul adds “He delivered us,” a word of unity, “from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). 

“Redemption” is a loaded term with a strong history, rooted in the history of Israel and firmly connected to the exodus, which was an incredibly important component of the story by which Israel identified itself.  Redemption is, in effect, exodus.  Throughout the Scriptures, the symbol of the Creator God’s redemption of His people was their exoduses, which were many.  Exodus, be it exodus from Egypt or exodus from Babylon (or from any other oppressor, whether inside or outside of the land of promise), was crucial to the story of Israel, and was a unifying theme for a people that took an “us against the world” stance. 


Redemption, or exodus, which implied a deliverance from exile (which was the result of Israel’s “sins”), was by and large (it’s not really the case for the Egyptian exodus) the evidence that Israel had been forgiven of its sins of covenant violations.  Therefore, Paul’s use of this language, as it is encompasses both Jew and Gentile, draws the Gentiles into the story of his God’s redemptive actions on behalf of Israel and the world through Israel, providing them with an exodus of their own, thus folding them into the people of Israel’s God. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

All The Saints (part 4)

As a result of Peter’s plea, James, grasping the movement of the Creator God’s Spirit, along with a Scriptural and historical justification for that movement, says “Brothers, listen to me.  Simeon has explained how God first concerned Himself to select from among the Gentiles a people for His name.  The words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be My own, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’” (Acts 15:13b-18)  Remarkably, it is determined that the tent of David is to include the Gentiles (resonances of Isaiah 54:2---make your tent larger???), and that this has always been the plan of the covenant-making-and-keeping Creator God of Israel.   

In Acts thirteen, Paul and Barnabas are in Pisidian Antioch.  Paul speaks to “Men of Israel, and… Gentiles who fear God” (13:16b).  During the course of his speech, as he quickly recounts the story of the Creator God’s covenanting with humanity, he goes on to say “Brothers, descendants of Abraham’s family, and those Gentiles among you who fear God, the message of this salvation has been sent to us” (13:26). 

He goes on to punctuate the remainder of his message with words of family unity, speaking of “the good news about the promise to our ancestors” (13:32b), and “to us, their children” (13:33b), climaxing with “Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through this one forgiveness of sins,” which is the language of exodus experience and covenant inclusion, “is proclaimed to you, and by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you” (13:38-39).  Here, one needs to be cognizant of the possibility that “the law of Moses” stands in for “works of the law,” which were the covenant markers that were to be practiced as the identifying, justifying marks for those who were under covenant. 

Thus, through recollection of these scenes as recorded in the book of Acts (which, though the stories would have been shared, were not available in written and standardized form to the churches of the day),observers are provided with a glimpse into the struggle.  There were doubts.  There were prejudices and ancient biases.  There was a fear that the status gains of one group (Gentile Christians) were coming at the expense of another (Jewish Christians). 

In an honor and shame culture in which honor was a limited good (one only gained honor at the expense of another’s honor), this is more than understandable.  There were church-wide conflicts.  There were intra-church (as congregation) conflicts.  There was a lack of unity on a number of issues, both within bodies and across the body.  There were stances taken by one church that would not be taken by another church.  Indeed, a review of the New Testament letters demonstrates that each congregation dealt with different problems at different times and in different ways.


All of this lays the groundwork for a look at Colossians.  In co-ordination with the title of this study, it can be said that “all” in Colossians, seems to play a strategic role.  This “all” takes on multiple forms, and when one reads the letter with the questions concerning the inclusion and acceptance of Gentiles as part of the covenant people of the Creator God, minus their adoption of the markers of that covenant, this communiquĂ© takes on an interesting character.  Paul is very much interested in the elimination of long established, perhaps cherished barriers (in some corners), in the name of the creation of a unified, new creation, kingdom people.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

All The Saints (part 3)

The fifteenth chapter of Acts, which is often headlined as “The Jerusalem Council,” is predicated on the Gentile question.  The chapter opens with “Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1)  This took place in Antioch, which was a major center of the church.  “When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement” (15:2). 

Luke goes on to report that “When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with them.  But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed,” in Jesus, and therefore were part of the church, “stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.’” (15:4-5)  Effectively, this circumcision and observance of the law of Moses, which would be an adherence to the marks of the covenant as evidence of inclusion in the people of the Creator God, would make these Gentiles into Jews. 

Peter would stand and declare that “some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the Gospel and believe” (15:7b).  It is here worth remembering that the use of “gospel” was not to be disconnected from its use by Rome and by Caesar, as announcements about Caesar (particularly in connection with his cult and his worship) were said to be “gospel.”  It was a term with which all the people of the empire would have been familiar, so the announcement of a “gospel” was not a novelty in the least.  The novelty was that it was being used in reference to Jesus and His kingdom---the new, true King of a new, true kingdom. 

With that in mind then, as it would have been in the minds of his hearers and in the minds of those that would later hear Luke’s account of the church (Acts), Peter continues, saying “God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith” (15:8).  This “faith” was the confession of Jesus’ lordship, as demonstrated by the close of his statement, which was “we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way we are” (15:11). 

This was remarkable, in that Peter, as a Jew, was devaluing the marks of the covenant, elevating faith in Jesus, which could only come about by what was considered to be the gracious act of the Creator God via His Spirit (who would believe that a man that was crucified by the Romans was the resurrected Messiah and Lord of all?), as the means by which a person, be it Jew or Gentile, enters in upon the covenant that this God first made with Abraham. 

The point being made, and it is the point upon which Paul would seize with great tenacity, was that Gentiles were to be accepted into the covenant as Gentiles, and that the covenant was being extended to Gentiles, rather than still being limited to those who were Jews by birth or who had become Jews via Judaizing (by circumcision and adoption of the covenant markers). 


Thursday, November 20, 2014

All The Saints (part 2)

So the fact that Jesus’ life was centered on the land and the holy city of the elect people of the Creator God led indirectly to the Jew and Gentile struggles of the early church.  The church, by and large, rightly saw itself as a continuation of Israel (and its mission in and for the world).  The church also knew that their commission had been to take the message of the kingdom of their God, that had been announced by Jesus, which had somehow sprung into existence at His Resurrection and which was empowered in some strange way with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, into the whole world.  Where Caesar was being proclaimed as lord and savior and son of god, the message of Jesus as the Lord and Savior and Son of God, who had conquered the means by which Caesar maintained his power (the cross), was to be announced. 

The kingdom of God was to extend well beyond the borders of Israel.  It was to be a worldwide kingdom.  The world was not to stream to Israel, to Jerusalem, and to its Temple as the locus of power and worship in this world.  Rather (and consolidating), the new Temple was to stream out into the world, as the Creator God would now take up residence among mankind in the lives of His people and through the actions His people, with the mark of this fact being their worship of Him through Jesus and their adherence to Jesus as Lord of all (which would manifest itself in their interaction with people and the whole of creation). 

This spawned issues of tremendous importance, one of which, and perhaps the most important, was how Gentiles were included in the covenant that the Creator God had made with Israel.  Did the Gentiles need to adopt the Jewish practices of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary laws (the works of the law) that served to identify a person as being a member of God’s covenant people (justified)? 

Though the inclusion of Gentiles is viewed as natural and sensible, thinking things like “well of course the message of Jesus and His Gospel was for everybody,” this was not exactly a foregone conclusion.  In fact, the free acceptance of Gentiles, along with a seamless integration of the same, as one church and one people for one kingdom was to be developed out of two classes of people that had been kept quite distinct, would require a radical revolution in worldview  In the book of Acts, which details the growth of the church in its earliest days as it moved from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, the “Gentile issue” receives a fair amount of attention.  Had it not been an issue of momentous consequence, it would not feature so prominently. 

In demonstration of the importance of that issue, in Acts’ eleventh chapter, after Peter has visited a Gentile named Cornelius, having joined him in his house and eating there, he was sternly questioned.  “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.’” (11:2-3)  As a bit of a side note, this should remind an observer of the centrality of the meal table for the earliest of Christians.  After Peter explains all that happened, “they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.’” (11:18b) 


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All The Saints (part 1)

We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints. – Colossians 1:4-5  (NET)

Are these words really read when these words are read?  Is it possible that so many have grown so accustomed to the use of “spiritual” language, that readers miss some of the more radical assertions to be found in what, at first glance (and beyond), appears to be part of a nice greeting from Paul to another body of believers?  That may indeed be the case when it comes to the Colossian letter. 

Paul’s world was not the world of a struggle to maintain a monolithic orthodoxy within the church.  It was a world in which the church was struggling to come to terms with what it meant to take shame and suffering upon itself, as those that were faithful to Jesus attempted to view the world through the lens provided by the cross and the empty tomb.  There were no Gospels to lead and to guide, providing an accepted and uniform look at the life of Jesus.  There were the stories about Jesus and there was the Gospel claim, which was that “Jesus is Lord.” 

By extension then, and this cannot be overlooked, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not.  This implied conflict cannot be diminished in the least, especially as the church began appropriating many of the things that were then being said of Caesar, and applying them to Jesus.  Most certainly, this was a source of tension for the church (people) of the Creator God.   

A significant component of this struggle was the integration of the church.  Israel was the elect people of the God that had revealed His nature and had made Himself physically manifest in His creation through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  To underscore this election, the events of that singularly important life took place in Israel, culminating in Jerusalem.  Though Christians twenty centuries removed from these events think of Israel and Jerusalem with a sense of awe and as a place of pilgrimage, with this undergirded by the fact that events in Israel are constantly in the news, this could not be said of the land and its capital in the times of Jesus and of Paul. 


Then, Israel was an insignificant province, and Jerusalem was the often troublesome capital city of an insignificant province.  In the big scheme of things, it was a place of little consequence.  When compared to the glory of Rome and the other gleaming cities of the Greco-Roman world (Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, Alexandria, etc…), Jerusalem had no place at the table.  Speaking of tables, if one was to rate the city on the scale of honor and shame, and seat the cities of the world around a proverbial meal table, Rome and others would occupy the places of honor (the protoklisian), whilst Jerusalem, as far as large cities go in terms of importance, would occupy the lowest place (the eschaton), or perhaps not be afforded a seat at all.  Of course, Jesus did say something about the last being first and the first being last, and what He had accomplished in Jerusalem certainly changed things.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 5 of 5)

Peter has no qualms about making reference to the presumed shameful cursing undergone by Jesus because of the honor that came to be bestowed upon Him, which is indicated by what comes next, which is that “God exalted Him to His right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31a).  These terms, “Leader” and “Savior,” were terms applied to Caesar, with this serving as yet another reminder that these leaders of the people that were currently addressing the disciples of the Christ had colluded with the Roman authorities, even going so far as (at least according to portions of the Jesus tradition) to have claimed that to not execute Jesus as a traitor was itself an act of treason against Caesar, while simultaneously stirring up the crowds to claim that they had no king but Caesar.  Cunningly and boldly, Peter co-opts these titles and applies them to Jesus.

Having been reminded of their guilt, “they became furious and wanted to execute them” (5:33b), but a man named Gamaliel interjected, reminding the council of previous instances of revolutionary activities (which serves as a reminder that the Jesus movement was more than just a religious movement, and that it encompassed all of life---social, political, economic, etc…) that had sparked, flamed, and burnt out in time.  With a wider scope of vision suggested, Gamaliel insists that “in this case… stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God” (5:38-39a).  It is said that by these words, “He convinced them” (5:39b). 

The disciples, having been temporarily removed from the presence of the council during the course of deliberations, were then re-summoned.  Though the members of the council been convinced to not fight against the disciples, they were still concerned about their public honor and its associated power.  Always mindful of that, and seeking to rob the disciples of any honor that may have accrued to them, while simultaneously attempting to shame them further, they “had them beaten” (5:40b). 

Beyond that, and desirous of protecting their own public reputations, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them” (5:40c).  The disciples, who were no longer concerned with their own honor or shame, being concerned only with increasing the public honor of Jesus through embracing what was supposed to have been the source of greatest shame---His crucifixion (especially at the expense of those who had attempted to shame Him and who were still attempting to shame Him), “left the council rejoicing because,” like Jesus and His cross, “they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (5:41). 

In complete disregard of the council, attending only to gaining Jesus the honor that was due to him, and completely unconcerned with the jealousy of those that sought to preserve their own honor and power, “every day both in the Temple courts,” which had been the place of their arrest and of Jesus’ most significant public activity, “and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ” (5:42).    

Monday, November 17, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 4)

This leads into the report that “Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17).  Why were they filled with jealousy?  Was it the performance of miraculous signs and wonders?  No.  Was it the growing crowds and the people gathering from all over?  Not directly.  So what was it?  It was the “high honor” being accorded to the disciples, which was evidenced by the behavior of the people.  Public honor was a limited good.  The growth of the honor of one necessarily led to the diminishing of the honor of another.  Yes, they still had their power, but they were losing their honor.  If enough honor slipped from their hands, their power would ultimately go with it. 

Though it comes from John’s Gospel (composed after Acts), the eleventh chapter contains a story that sheds light on this way of thinking: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, ‘What are we doing?  For this man is performing many miraculous signs.  If we allow Him to go on this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.’” (John 11:47-48)  As seen in Acts, these are concerns about honor and power, and they are prefaced with mention of miraculous signs and a growing number of followers.

What was the response of the high priest and his cohorts in Acts?  “They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail” (5:18).  They attempted to shame and humiliate the apostles, doing so publicly in an attempt to diminish their public honor and increase their public shame.  Consequently, the high priest would not suffer the further loss of honor.  This backfires on the council, as the disciples are honored, with Luke indicating that the honoring is accomplished by the Creator God Himself (somewhat indirectly), as “during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the Temple courts,’” the place that symbolized the public honor of those who had jailed them, “and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.’” (5:19-20).  “This life” would have been the life of the way of the kingdom of the Creator God.  “This life” would have the been the resurrected life of Jesus.  “This life” would have been the promise of the general resurrection to come.

The response of the opposition is predictable.  The disciples, who have done precisely what the angel has instructed them to do, are re-arrested and taken before the council.  “When they had brought them, they stood them before the council, and the high priest questioned them, saying ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.  Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!’” (5:27-28)  Proclaiming Jesus would be an indirect challenge to the high priest and associates, as they, having delivered up Jesus to the provincial government, were complicit in the execution of Jesus as a state criminal.  Thus, via these continued challenges and the associated accusations that they had acted unjustly based upon the verdict of Israel’s God as indicated by the Resurrection and the reversal of that shaming, shame continues to come their way. 


In response, Peter piles on, saying “We must obey God rather than people” (5:29a).  This, in itself, is an interesting public-honor-diminishing statement, as the high priest was presumed to speak for the covenant God.  Peter makes it clear that the high priest and the council do not in fact speak for Israel’s God, with the primary evidence of that fact being the stand that they had taken against Jesus (the personal revelation of their God).  He continues: “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree” (5:30). 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 3)

With that in mind, the rehearsal of the Acts narrative to this point encounters the fifth chapter, which begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  That story (which is probably less about their lies and more about their actions that diminished the church and Jesus’ public honor, and the potential shame that could have been brought upon the community by supposed followers not living out its principles) is immediately followed by “Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles” (Acts 5:12a). 

From there, the reader goes on to hear an echo of an earlier statement, when reading “By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico” (5:12b).  That echo is from chapter two, where one would have previously found that “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the Temple courts” (2:46a).  As was seen, this was appended by “the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved” (2:47b), which is mirrored in the fifth chapter by “More and more believers in the Lord were adding to their number, crowds of both men and women” (5:14).  Quite obviously, the repetition is important, and one must be cognizant of the fact that Luke’s story consistently builds, moving the reader or hearer along with a climax in mind.

Between the reports about the miraculous signs, of meeting with common consent, and of believers being added to the ever-growing group of Christians in Jerusalem, Luke writes that “None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor” (5:13).  This, as should be well known, is more than simple respect or admiration.  Honor was a functional component of society.  Honor was important.  Honor was everything.  Luke makes the point that the disciples were being held in “high honor.”  This must not be overlooked. 

This high honor put the disciples in the position of becoming potential patrons to a sizable number of people---able to provide benefits to a large client base.  Now, bear in mind that the disciples and the church did not seek to become patrons, as this was not the motivation behind the signs and wonders.  The signs and wonders were designed to point beyond the disciples to the King and the kingdom that they dutifully proclaimed in word and deed, as they sought to raise the public honor of Jesus by touting His Resurrection in the face of His shameful crucifixion. 


One sees evidence of the movement by the people to elevate the disciples as patrons when reading “Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them” (5:15).  This is classic client behavior, as they sought to honor a patron or potential patron so as to gain benefaction.  Furthermore, “A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits.  They were all being healed” (5:16).  With this record, one sees a replay of the stories about Jesus as recorded in the Gospels---the church thus carrying on the work of its Lord.  Against all odds, public honor was coming the way of the church.    

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 2)

Returning to the second chapter, one sees that this type of activity occurred in association with the fact that “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the Temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts” (Acts 2:46).  The conclusion of this report speaks to the effects of this regular gathering, which allowed the body of Christ to learn about and meet needs as they were “praising God and having the good will of all the people” (2:47a).  This fueled the growth of the church, as “the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved” (2:47b).  Hearing these words, it would only be with some difficulty that one could separate the saving of people with the distribution that sought to meet the needs of all, without discrimination. 

Echoing the ministry of Jesus, chapter three sees the healing of a lame man at the gates of the Temple, with the accompanying “astonishment and amazement” (3:10) of those who witnessed the result of the healing.  This provides yet another opportunity for the public proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, crucified and resurrected as the harbinger of the general resurrection, the assertion that Jesus was and is the long-awaited prophet like Moses, and a reminder of the all-important Abrahamic covenant by which the people largely defined themselves, along with its fulfillment in Jesus and in the movement that bore His name. 

This leads to the record of the opening of chapter four, by which Luke informs the reader that “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the Temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, angry because they were teaching the people and announcing in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.  So they seized them and put them in jail until the next day” (4:1-3).  This leads into the first examination of the disciples before the leaders of the people, and the order to discontinue their revolutionary proclamation of Jesus as Lord and His kingdom as present.  Clearly, the issue at hand was power, and those in power were threatened by the upstart from Galilee, though He had been crucified at their instigation, viewed as being accursed because He had been hung on a tree, and had been subject to the scorning and the horror of the greatest shame. 

Lest one believe that power was not the issue, the disciples, via the author providing a sober reminder by relaying the response of the disciples and their understanding of the threat that their growing movement had become, say “Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things?  The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against His Christ” (4:25b-26).


With considerations of power come considerations of the all-important issue of honor in the ancient world---a world in which one’s status was delineated by conceptions of honor and shame.  Though honor would not necessarily have power as a compatriot (as the honorable would not necessarily be the powerful), power practically demanded honor.  Power, be it religious or political (remembering that the world of the disciples’ era did not neatly divide into the religious and the political, but operated in a holistic fashion in which all areas of life overlapped and intertwined), was nothing without honor.  Power was not power without honor.  Without public honor to accompany it, power would be empty and pointless. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 1)

Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. – Acts 5:17  (NET)

The Book of Acts tells a wonderful story.  The opening chapters, especially, are fast-paced and action-packed, detailing the movement of the Spirit of the Creator God and the way in which the kingdom of that God (as revealed in Jesus) came to be manifested on earth and began to spread, bringing new and renewed creation in its inspirational wake.  In chapter one, the disciples are given a promise by Jesus, they watch Him ascend, they return to Jerusalem, and appoint another man to take the place of Judas. 

Chapter two begins in the same breath, as Pentecost brings with it the reversal of the language confusion of the tower of Babel, with people from many nations able to exclaim “we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” (Acts 2:11b)  With an ironic nod to the story of the ill-fated tower and the astonishment and confusion that no doubt took place when the languages were confounded, Luke writes “All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (2:12)  It is upon this occasion that Peter delivers what is looked to as the first “sermon” of the church (post earthly life of Jesus), explaining the coming of the Spirit and the kingdom, saying “let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (2:36). 

What was an immediate effect of the announcement of the advent of the kingdom of the Creator God, as it was ensconced within the proclamation of Jesus’ Resurrection?  The author writes: “Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles.  All who believed were together and held everything in common, and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need” (2:43-45).  This was a significant mark of the worshipers of Jesus, and this significances leads to a repetition in the fourth chapter, where one can read “The group of those who believed were one of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common.  With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all” (4:32-33). 


What was the testimony to the Resurrection and the kingdom it portended?  What was the evidence of the great grace?  The next verse provides the answer: “For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales and placing them at the apostles’ feet” (4:34-35a).  What was the purpose and result of this testifying, grace-evidencing and manifesting activity?  “The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need” (4:35).  The apostles didn’t simply sit on the proceeds or allow the proceeds to pile up, going un-used.  They were distributed to each, as anyone had need.  It is key to note that the sharing of goods led to needs of the people being met---the needs of the people being met.    

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 32 of 32)

The cultural engagement part of the universal penetration of the kingdom of the Creator God (as the realm of this God’s existence overlaps with the realm of human existence whenever Jesus is proclaimed as Lord in both word, and equally importantly in deed), and as was seen earlier in this study, must be considered as a counter-imperialism.  To this end, the apostle could he heard taking up the language reserved for and applied to the Caesar, and appropriating it to the true Emperor of the eternal empire of the Creator God. 

That said, and as one nears the end of the letter, there is a necessary circling back to this counter-imperialism which is foundational to a counter-cultural movement, as governments, through their deity-aspirant brokers of power almost invariably attempt to shape the culture around themselves, desiring to orient the lives of their citizens towards the needs of the state (creating a patron/client system in which the government, or a single entity, becomes all in all as the locus of power). 

In the first chapter, Paul refers to Christ Jesus as the one who strengthens and saves, while exulting in Him as “the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God,” who was deserving of honor and glory forever.  This was how the worshipers of Caesar (and of Rome) then spoke of the one that say they saw as the savior of the world.  Paul does not let Timothy forget that the first and foremost claim of the church is the universal Lordship of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah, whose sovereign rule encompasses all kings and all kingdoms; and that this rule is demonstrated by the compassionate, kingdom of the covenant God affirming activities of those that acknowledge themselves to be the body of the Christ (His hands and feet). 

To accomplish this reminder, Paul builds on his directive of keeping away, pursuing, competing, and confessing, inching towards the close of his letter (though the instructions concerning the rich will intervene between these words and the final close) in much the same way that he basically began, with a Caesar parodying doxology. 

He writes, and the words echo in solemn contemplation of the believer’s charge to be counter-cultural change agents: “I charge you before God who gives life to all things and Christ Jesus who made his good confession before Pontius Pilate, to obey this command without fault or failure until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ---whose appearing the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at the right time” (6:13-14).  Paul makes it clear just who it is that truly rules the world, contrary to the claim of the stewards of Rome’s far-flung but ultimately miniscule empire, adding “He alone possesses immortality and lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see.  To Him be honor and eternal power!  Amen” (6:16).        


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 31)

As one continues to consider the talk of riches and the desire to obtain them, substituting the love of money for the love of neighbor, Paul can be heard to go on to say that if you must engage in competition, “Compete well for the faith and lay hold of that eternal life you were called for and made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).  It is when these words are heard as part of a call to be a counter-cultural witness, that surely they are better understood. 

Paul takes no issue with those that possess wealth, nor does he desire Timothy or other believers to look down upon them as part of the cosmic role reversal that takes place as the church rightly images out the tenets of its Lord.  Rather, as should be expected from Paul, he desires that encouragement and edification be the order of the day, with self-sacrifice and preferential treatment coming to the fore as the practice of love. 

That expectant tone can be heard when traveling a few lines further in the text and hearing “Command those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, which are uncertain” (6:17a).  Why?  “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out either.”  Rather, they are to set their hope “on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment” (6:17b). 

Yes, it is the Creator God that should be looked upon as the ultimate patron, provide all things (not Caesar).  For this reason, and to their own benefit, “Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds” which are works of public benefaction, “to be generous givers, sharing with others.  In this way they will save up a treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the future and so lay hold of what is truly life” (6:18-19).  They will lay hold of what is truly life, rather than the fleeting and fickle notion of public honor which is normally the measure of a man, as he goes about providing a firm foundation for himself and his family, that his honor may go on and on.  This pales in comparison to that which honors Jesus.


In beginning to round out this study, having explored the counter cultural elements in Paul’s letter to Timothy, and having heard Paul instruct Timothy (and by extension the household congregations in which Timothy has a hand) in an engagement that stands against the prevailing culture, and doing so for the purpose of transformation spurred by the witness of service and sacrifice, it is right to marvel at the subtle genius of the cosmos encompassing, restorative, and often paradoxical plans of the God of creation.  One is reminded that while yes there is a commandment to come out and be separate, that separation is only a portion of the preparation for a full engagement with this creation that groans for the revelation of the sons of the covenant God and the ultimate re-creation that is heralded by that revelation. 

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 30)

Paul’s conclusion in regards to contentment and that which is truly valuable is “But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that” (1 Timothy 6:8).  This is quite the contrast from the general attitude as reflected by the acquisitive human appetite.  It takes a genuine work of the Spirit of the Creator God to create such contentment.  This is true for all time, and stands in special and stringent opposition to Paul’s world, as it was largely defined by constructs of honor and shame. 

In the end, this contentment with food and shelter leads to the removal of oneself from the always ongoing competition to increase one’s public honor and avoid shame.  For the citizen of the kingdom of the Christ, it should be the case that a concern with that kingdom’s priorities, as an animation of the Spirit of the Creator God, would rush in to fill the void of this ardent opposition to the ways of the world.  This contentment, realized against the backdrop in which contentment is never an option, but may simply be viewed as an accommodation and acquiescence to a perpetual and unalterable position of shame in the eyes of the culture, operates in a stark contrast with the alternative. 

Along these lines, Paul writes “Those who long to be rich,” which can also be heard as those that pursue honor (and if they do, they do so according to the rules and regulations of the world’s patron, that being Caesar, thereby serving to ultimately enhance his public honor rather than that of the world’s true patron and Lord), “however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge into ruin and destruction” (6:9). 

This is not a blanket condemnation of wealth, as wealthy can certainly be used rightly and to the ongoing extension of the kingdom of the covenant God as a manifestation of the mysterious work of His Spirit, but of misplaced desire, especially on the part of denizens of the kingdom of that God.  Understanding that, it is said that “the love of money is the root of all evils.  Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains” (6:10). 


The associated warning is “But you, as a person dedicated to God,” as a member of His kingdom community, with a higher and more honorable calling than can possibly be imagined (serving the poor, the blind, the lame, the maimed, orphans, widows, etc…), “keep away from all that.  Instead pursue righteousness, godliness, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness” (6:11).  Righteousness is to be understood as a place among the Creator God’s covenant people.  Godliness can be heard as an imitation of the Christ, looking to His faithfulness in the midst of overwhelming shame.  Love, endurance, and gentleness were to be the hallmarks of the church.    

Monday, November 10, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 29)

A natural objection would be raised by those who were slaves (who may very well have had slaves of their own, which should probably be taken into consideration when hearing what comes next from Paul), which could be “What if our master is a believer?  Should he not be forced to free us?”  It may be the case that the church met in the very household of a believer who was also a slaveholder.  Undoubtedly, Paul would let the Spirit have its work (one could hear Paul’s words to Philemon about avoiding compulsion), with this heard in his response to the theoretical objections: “But those who have believing masters must not show them less respect because they are brothers.  Instead they are to serve all the more, because those who benefit from their service are believers and dearly loved” (1 Timothy 6:2). 

With these words there is a reminder that Paul, in general, is far more concerned with that which benefits the body as a whole, rather than that which benefits individual believers, which this being quite easy to discern from his letters to the Corinthians and the Romans (not as a source of proof texts, but as communications that reveal the heart of the Apostle).  Again, this will require love, self-sacrifice, and preferential treatment on behalf of the slave. 

This is quite the role-reversal in that day, for it would usually be the master, in the position of patron and benefactor to those that are his slaves, that were looked to as those with the opportunity to be generous and magnanimous.  Here, Paul has effectively reversed those roles, and it is now the slave that is in said position and is therefore in a position to accrue honor.  One should not look to this culturally reversing element as a justification for the extension of slavery, but as an element of the last becoming first and the first becoming last, and as something of an in-breaking of the power of the kingdom of the Creator God.    

Beginning with the sixth verse of the sixth chapter, Paul writes “Now godliness combined with contentment brings great profit.  For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out either” (6:6-7).  Had this study not already revealed that Paul has dismissed Stoicism, effectively countering its philosophical stance with the hope of the Resurrection (as embodied in Jesus), one may be tempted to hear a resonance of Stoic thought in these words from the Apostle. 

One is better served, however, to hear Paul from within the honor and shame competition of the culture.  Though, as has been said before, it would not necessarily be the case that honor was equated with wealth, this would largely hold true.  So here one finds a way of thinking that militates against the valuation of honor, and the goods that become associated with an every-increasing cache of public honor, with a reminder of that which is truly valuable.  In the end, that would be working to increase the public honor of the one that was made to be Lord and Christ. 


Contentment, as opposed to Stoic apathy, runs contrary to the ceaseless competition for public honor; and as should be well known, godliness, in imitation of the Lord, not only causes one to become unconcerned with public honor, it also causes Jesus’ followers to seek out the places and people and situations and activities that will redound to the accrual of shame.  With shame being the equivalent of death, and generally to be avoided at all costs (as was the going concern of the culture), the believers’ going “down” into shame (though paradoxically it is an elevation in the eyes of the covenant God) can be looked upon as the equivalent of going down into death---going to the cross with Jesus and being crucified with Him.

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 28)

Verse one of chapter six also introduces yet another counter-cultural element.  As one is careful to understand that the slavery mentioned herein is not the race-based slavery with which most in the western world are familiar, but more likely the debt-based (or subjugation-based) slavery that was prevalent in the world of Paul, one reads “Those who are under the yoke as slaves must regard their own masters as deserving of full respect” (1 Timothy 6:1a).  Though some take Paul to task here for not simply condemning slavery, which would have been the ultimate counter-cultural move (and ultimately counter-productive at that point), or for not ordering Christian masters to release their slaves, this is really not the issue at hand.  At the same time, this was probably not a sensibility possessed by the tiny church at this point. 

Slavery was a social institution that provided stability, while also providing life’s basic necessities for the one forced into slavery, along with a mechanism for the erasure of debts and the achievement of a state of freedom.  It was not necessarily a permanent situation, and it was not necessarily a state that was indiscriminately inflicted upon a class of people.  Slaves could and did become free men.  Some slaves would hold slaves of their own, who had become indebted to them.  Slavery, in some cases, was preferable to freedom, especially if freedom meant going without food, clothing, and shelter.  If one wants to see Paul’s treatment of the issue of slavery, an observer would need to look to his letter to Philemon (in which Paul sends a believing, runaway slave back to his believing master, who were both going to be a part of the same body of people that worshiped Jesus as Lord). 

In the case of Timothy, and with his words, Paul is being quite counter-cultural.  Inside the church, it was well understood that there were no class-distinctions, and that all were equal.  Outside the church, however, was a different story.  Clearly, with the words of the first verse, Paul is addressing an issue with Timothy involving slaves that were part of the church body, whose masters were not a part of the church body. 

This is quite a bit different than the picture painted by the letter to Philemon, or for that matter, that of the circular letter that has come to be called Ephesians, or the letter to the Colossians.  Both of these letters, along with the letter to Philemon, offer instructions to both slaves and masters, though the “instructions” in Philemon (Paul presents them as requests, as the letter is quite rhetorical in nature) are primarily directed to the recipient.  Such is absent from this letter to Timothy.  Paul deals only with the response of slaves to their masters. 

The encouragement to “regard their own masters as deserving of full respect” would represent quite the change of pace in that day, as most slaves, as can be imagined, probably treated their masters with a grudging respect.  Naturally, it is not difficult to surmise that this would have been quite the counter-cultural witness, which provokes Paul’s additional statement that “This will prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited” (6:1b).  The Christians had enough issues with being called atheists, while also being viewed as seditious and disruptive of social order and harmony, so the last thing that was needed was to sow seeds of disruption and potential recalcitrance in this area as well. 


In addition, this conferring of respect, in light of the knowledge of the humanity that the Creator God truly expected, in which situations of master and slave did not exist, would certainly be an act of love, self-sacrifice, and preferential treatment that could only be explained by the activity of the Spirit of that God through believers.  Again, this is not to sanction the social arrangements, but rather, to “prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited.” 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 27)

Bringing honor back into focus, and remembering that the activity of the church is designed to ultimately increase Jesus’ honor in the court of public opinion (honoring the man that suffered what was then known as the greatest shame, which is a truly radical notion), Paul can now be heard to say “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching.  For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his pay.’” (1 Timothy 5:17-18) 

It does not seem unreasonable to propose that Paul has himself in view here in this section of the letter.  One could surmise that Paul is answering accusations that have been leveled against him, as self-defense is a semi-regular feature of the Pauline library.  Most assuredly, the quotation from the twenty-fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, in regards to the ox, is not Paul finding a proof-text in regards to being paid for his teaching, with pay becoming equivalent to “double honor,” nor should it be construed as such.  Rather, the entire section from Deuteronomy must be considered, and the context on offer is that of adjudication. 

There one reads “If controversy arises between people, they should go to court for judgment.  When the judges hear the case, they shall exonerate the innocent but condemn the guilty.  Then, if the guilty person is sentenced to be a beating, the judge shall force him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of blows his wicked behavior deserves.  The judge may sentence him to forty blows, but no more.  If he is struck with more than these, you might view your fellow Israelite with contempt.  You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain” (Deuteronomy 25:1-4).  So the statement about the ox is connected to controversy, judgment, exoneration, sentencing, and the carrying out of a sentence.  If Paul is indeed referencing himself as the elder who provides effective leadership, then he is also demanding the double honor of just treatment.  Why should he receive anything less?  Though he is willing to suffer for his children, he will not be subject to unfounded accusations. 

At the same time, it should be well understood that Paul does not demand honor for himself, especially considering the fact that he writes things like “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man” (1:13a), while also referring to himself as the worst of sinners (1:15,16).  He is happy to shame himself, with this self-shaming serving as a functional groundwork for what is to come, but he is not about to put up with slander and attacks, which, if Paul is to be viewed as the elder, seems to be implied. 


Perfectly in line with the Deuteronomy reference, and in another Deuteronomy quotation, Paul goes on to write “Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it can be confirmed by two or three witnesses” (5:19).   Of course, the possibility continues to exist that the elder is not, in fact, Paul referring to himself in the abstract, and that there is another problem in the church, which also runs back to the idea that this is not to be viewed firstly as words that establish church doctrine, but as words to be understood inside a historical and cultural situation that can, after appropriate processing, be applied as an operative principle for the church at large.    

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 26)

Taken together then, not only do the words sound very similar to that which is spoken of widows (“for some have already wandered away to follow Satan”), but combined with the need to be well thought of by those outside the faith, one can here sense a prohibition against being a gossip or a busybody, about being lazy, and about going from house to house talking about things they should not.  There’s no reason to believe that this is somehow the exclusive domain of women. 

If this is what will give the adversary the opportunity to vilify the church when such activities are undertaken by the widows (those normally dismissed by the wider culture), how much more than when the overseers of the meal table---the ones who would naturally be looked upon with as leaders of the assembly by the surrounding world (though they do not hold a formal position)---engage in the same.  Concurrently, one can notice that the same words are not applied to deacons. 

This is understandable, because as table servants they would not be accorded the same type of respect by those outside the church as would the meal overseer, though those who serve are accorded the highest honor within the church.  Such is the nature of Paul’s witness to the church, as he always has his eye on the church’s interaction with the culture and its need to be a counter-balance to the stifling of true humanity that takes place in the cultures that do not bow the knee to the Lordship of Jesus.

Finally, rounding out his words for Timothy and the church in regards to widows, having given this group a seemingly inordinate amount of attention, Paul writes “If a believing woman has widows in her family, let her help them.  The church should not be burdened, so that it may help the widows who are truly in need” (1 Timothy 5:16).  While Paul’s words clearly operate at a level that allows the church for all time to ascertain direction and ideals, one can’t help but believe that Paul has some specific people in mind here as he writes. 

There is little reason to think otherwise, and there is even less reason---considering the fact that Paul is dealing with specific situations that have arisen in the church letters---to imagine that Paul is suggesting guidelines to be applied to the church universally and for all time.  What should get a reader’s attention, when considering how to apply these words of Paul, are the counter-cultural elements and the implications for service within the church and the church’s interaction with the world. 

One stumbles dangerously into anachronisms when losing sight of the fact that Paul writes to real people, in real churches, at a definite time in history, dealing with real and pressing situations as the church sought to find its way in representing the kingdom of the Creator God while standing against the forces, though defeated by the cross and by the Resurrection, that sought to infiltrate and destroy the people of that God---attempting to destroy the church’s ability to stand as witness to its sovereign Lord. 


When taking the honor and shame competition of the day into consideration, while also considering the possibility that in all of this talk (concerning overseers, deacons, and widows), Paul has certain problematic individuals in view, one can move helpfully away from reading this letter solely as some tractate concerning church discipline, and instead read it as a clarion call to a church, through the apostle’s emissary, to continue to align itself with kingdom ideals, seeking the way of the cross and of shame, as all honor continues to accrue to Jesus. 

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 25)

Continuing what has turned out to be a rather lengthy dissertation on widows (a normally dismissed and marginalized segment of the populace---Paul’s extensive treatment of widows should tell us quite a bit about the way the church should operate), Paul goes on to write “So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (1 Timothy 5:14). From whence might this vilification arise?  It could arise from younger widows “going around from house to house,” learning to be lazy, while also being “gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not.”  Again, the directive to marry, raise children, and manage a household fits well with that which has been said about overseers and deacons.  The overseer “must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity” (3:4).  Likewise, “Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households” (3:12).

To the avoidance of vilification, Paul adds “For some have already wandered away to follow Satan” (5:15).  Here, he still writes about widows.  Lest one think that Paul is specifically singling out widows or that he is calling out women in general for being gossips and busybodies, it can be seen, once again, that the same type of language has already been on offer in his talk of overseers.  One must not allow the thinking that Paul is being overly harsh with the women of the body of Christ.  Rather, he must be heard within the context of his efforts at leveling out the church, realizing that Paul believes that all classes of people are to be treated equally. 

Whenever an initial reading of a passage leads one to believe that Paul is placing general restrictions on a class of people in such a way that could lead to the structuring of spiritual hierarchies, to the demeaning or restricting of a group based on ethnicity (Jew/Gentile), gender (male/female---especially the passages about women being silent in the church), or social status (slave/free/widow/children), or the erection of a spiritual authoritarianism inside the church, it serves the reader well to re-read and re-think the text until the conclusion concerning the text accords with the egalitarian nature of the church as it was envisioned by Paul (as he attempted to live out and encourage what he understood to be the mission and vision of the church as enacted by Jesus and informed by the prophets). 

Paul demands to be heard in his historical and cultural context, as the church found itself attempting to countermand, through the manifestation of the Spirit of the Creator God, the spirit of death that animated the world into which the church had been placed and out of which it had been called, that it may serve that world well (a bit of the paradoxical mystery of the faith---called out to be separate so that it may serve and transform, functioning as the kingdom of the covenant God and being the point of overlap between heaven and earth---the Temple---as an ongoing foretaste of the new creation and restoration of the earth).    


So as one considers whether Paul is being heavy-handed with groups of women, upon returning again to the third chapter, one reads “He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact.  And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:6-7).  This has followed from “But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?” (3:5), which has followed the fourth verse and talk of managing a household, controlling children, and maintaining dignity.  Remember, an observer needs to encounter the text on the lookout for Paul’s efforts at leveling out the body, in contrast to the culture, rather than setting up hierarchies.