Doodle: Hellenism, Ethics, and Old Testament Eschatology

Max Bemis, of the band Say Anything, sings: “God and death are none of my concerns / I’m no philosopher”. And these words have often struck an uneasy chord with me, provoking much reflection. Studying philosophy at college I noticed that from the pre-Socratics through to the Hellenistic philosophers, Greek philosophy gave little thought to god, except for when a godlike being was invoked to explain their philosophy, see Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But this is not to say that the Greeks did not believe in the gods, however anthropomorphic the Olympians were. Coming back to Bemis’ words, a difficult question to get one’s mind around is the difference between religion and philosophy, or perhaps faith and reason.

Antonio Verrio - OlympusIt seems to me, that the Greeks separated philosophy from their religious beliefs, as my lecturer Nathan Lovell said, ‘They no longer wanted to attribute the workings of their world to capricious gods seemingly little more than infantile projections of men.’ Philosophy came about to explain the world around us, what it is, why it changes, and where it comes from. And this was done with little reference to the Greek gods. Philosophy could provide epistemology and ontology, though both then and today it struggled to provide complete or consistent ethics. Furthermore the question of death, which, though running the risk of reductionism, we might call eschatology, fell largely by the way side. Perhaps these then are two distinguishing features between philosophy and religion. Only, they are not distinguishing features because philosophy does not deal with them, but because it lacks the depth to do so.

Generally, in Greek thought all the deceased went to Hades, but we must not assume that this the same as Sheol of Jewish thought. Without going into major detail, it is a well attested to fact that the Jews understood death very differently to their Greek counterparts. At the transfiguration we are shown that Elijah and Moses lived with God (Mark 9); in the Old Testament some believers did not die and went to be with God (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11); this was also asssumed of believers who died (Psalm 23:6; 16:10-11; 17:15). We are not given much explanation of it but, at the raising of Lazarus, an embryionic theology of resurrection is evident amongst the first century Jews (John 11). In Hebrew thought the great hope of a future when God would be with his people is hard to get ignore (Psalm 27:4; 73:25-26). A personal God, contrast with impersonal philosophy, offers eschatology, an answer in death. Whereas philosophy battles to provide any real answers about our future.

Raphael - AthensHow philosophers got around this is seen in the Hellenistic philosophies of the Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics. If we look at the Epicureans, their solution to this problem was extravagant and unchaste hedonism. Such an approach was (and is) not only exclusive and classist, since few could afford such an extravagent lifesytle, it was ultimately nothing more than hopeless distraction. Cynicism, on the other hand, radically devalued human life, reducing us to little more than stray dogs scrounging for scraps. But it is hard to think that the avoidance and abandonment of happiness is an argument proving that it cannot be lost. Lastly, Stoicism approached life rationally, excepting all that happened in a fatalistic manner, attempting to merely make the most of what is. This philosophy, not unlike existentialism, gives a bleak coating to life and denies questions of justice, while also leaving moral decisions to the aristocracy. It is therefore no wonder that most of these philosophies, at least in terms of their operating titles, did not last. But if we look beneath surface of how people think today we will discover more Hellenistic philosophy than we think.

When Jesus bursts onto the scene we see a major contrast to Hellenism, which was the fruition and expansion of Old Testamant eschatology. He promises a resurrection to new life, guaranteed by his own. He does not offer a pipe dream salvation or distract our eyes from the horizon, but gives us his Holy Spirit in the present who is a downpayment of our future, enabling us to live in light of it. Ethics, then, make sense, for we belong to a new kingdom; and they are not merely set forth by Scripture but are also engraved on our hearts by the Spirit who enables us to live as kingdom people. Does philosophy need god to make sense? I do not think it does. But does philosophy make sense of the burning questions that surround death? I do not think it can.

Good Friday: The Cry of Dereliction

The day had turned to dark, long before the sun set, as Jesus Christ hung on the cross. His enduring faith in his Father in heaven had brought him to this end; obedience to his Father had culminated in the cross. But as he struggled to take his last few breathes, while his arms grew too tired to relieve the pressure on his chest, and the darkness enveloped and gripped him tightly he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). What are we to make of these final excruciating words? Michael Wilkins calls them “some of the most profoundly mysterious words in the entire Bible.” Derek Tidball writes that they uncover the awfulness of Calvary, which we prefer to forget. Alister McGrath goes further, arguing that Jesus’ cry shatters the moulds of our thinking and reveals the fundamental uncontrollability of God. The cross presents us with an unnerving and mysterious question: in what sense does God the Father forsake his Son at the cross?

“If it is possible, let his cup pass from me”

Icon Jesus prayingBefore attempting an answer, let us start with Jesus’ familiar, though often domesticated, prayer in Gethsemane; when the man of sorrows, despised and rejected, well acquianted with grief who had experienced the many hurts and hardships of human life balked at Calvary (Matthew 26:39). The prospect of the cross brought Jesus into tormented fear and dread. In his short life he had known suffering but his agonised prayer suggests a greater significance and uniqueness of what loomed ahead. Before he was stretched out on that cruel tree, Jesus could say, “I am not alone, the Father is with me” (John 16:32). And throughout his fraught life Jesus would have enjoyed assuring fellowship with the Father. But Jesus’ pleas and prayers in Gethsemane force us to ponder what Jesus was to endure. We must conclude that it was not merely physical suffering that Jesus feared, but the death that he was to die.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In addition to the above, to answer our question we must consider Jesus’ use of Psalm 22. Some have called it total despair or claimed that Jesus is utterly disorientated, even confused about why he was dying. But when we consider the content of the Psalm, we can say that the cry is not entirely desparing because the psalmist anticipated divine intervention. Furthermore, Jesus was aware that he was dying for sins. In fact, something that is often glanced over, the Psalm expresses faith in Yahweh to vindicate. Even though Jesus’ suffering threw him into the darkest of places, he trusted his Father to the bitter end. Significantly, Psalm 22 moves from lament and despair, to prayer, and climaxes in Yahweh being entroned over the nations. Jesus’ faith was unremitting as he cried out to his Father, whom he knew would establish his kingdom, even when it seemed the gates of hell were prevailing against it. Jesus knew his death would not be the end of his story. So onlookers at his crucifixion, familiar with the Psalter, would have heard an affirmation of Jesus’ faith, clinging with certain hope to the will of his Father.

Was the Son truly forsaken or the Father fully absent?

Crucifixion IconAs Jesus hung dying, being publically mocked and humiliated, it appears that God is absent from Golgotha. As Wayne Grudem comments, Jesus’ sweet fellowship with the Father, his source of unfailing strength and the element of greatest joy in a life full of sorrow, appears dashed. But as Alister McGrath writes, instead of understanding Jesus’ God-forsakeness as total privation we should see God’s presence in the most remarkably paradoxical way. Martin Luther called this the hiddeness of God at Calvary. As the sky is literally tarred, figurative darkness descends on the Son and God’s familiar protective presence and love was withdrawn from Jesus. In biblical symbolism, darkness is separation from God who is light. Jesus’ experience extends beyond deep spiritual darkness to enduring God’s wrath. Darkness is stressed by each Gospel writer, emphasising that God had not only turned away from the Son and their close communion but towards his Son in judging sin. Alone Jesus hangs, being made sin and fully identified with sinful humanity. And it this – the penalty of sin, not the Roman punishment – that weighed most heavily on the suffering servant. Calvin wrote that it was Jesus’ soul that bore the worst torment, the terror of God’s condemnation. As John Stott said, Jesus was plunged into that engulfing darkness for us; our sins blotted out the sunshine of the Father’s face.

Conclusion

When we ask in what sense the Father turned his face away from the Son on the cross we must agree with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions that the language of ‘abandonment’ or ‘forsakenness’ is a metaphorical way of referring to divine judgment. But it is not that simple, as we have seen, for the God who abandons his Son is fully present at the cross resolving the problem of sin. This great paradox prevents us from giving a glib answer to our question. Luther viewed the cross as a great mystery. Calvary should both humble and move us to adoration; while we cannot fully explain the enigma of Jesus’ cross or even grasp the anguished horror, suffering and abandonment that Jesus went through, let us not forget that he endured it on our behalf, so that we do not have to. If we understand none of the cross and Christ’s experience, praise God that it will never be ours.

Holy Week: What Lies Ahead

‘The hardest action to take is the course previously unexplored.’ That is a line from William Horwood’s Duncton Quest, an epic tale about heroic perseverance amidst tragedy and hopeless circumstances. There is much truth in Horwood’s words: the unknown is daunting. But was that the reason for the trepidation with which Jesus went about his task? Was Jesus unaware of what would be demanded of him? There is a wonderful theological word in Christology: nescience, meaning that – as a man – Jesus knew only as much as God the Father revealed to him. Should we conclude then that Jesus was in the dark regarding his messianic task? In this short post I want to explore that question, a fitting reflection for Holy Week.

Jesus ChristIf you have not formally studied theology then are forgiven for being unfamiliar with Albert Schweitzer’s contributions, especially in the search for the historic Jesus. To my shame I have not read Schweitzer and must resign myself to the perils of drawing on secondary sources to represent him, though the point I will be touching on is widely reproduced. One such place is in the writing of N. T. Wright, who borrows Schweitzer’s analogy in Simply Jesus (p183): Jesus is said to desperately throw himself onto the wheel of history after his actions had failed to bring about the kingdom of God. According to Schweitzer, Jesus expected the kingdom to arrive in the immediate future during his itinerant ministry but he was painfully mistaken. David Seccombe summarises Schweitzer’s position like this: after nothing monumental had taken place during his ministry, Jesus was forced to rethink his position and die in order to bring about the denouement. Seccombe continues, “For two years Jesus he had believed that God would intervene to reveal him as the glorious Son of Man and establish his kingdom. Now he realizes…God does not break into human history” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p558). Jesus, previously left in the lurch, at the last, recklessly abandons his life in vain hope; and the cry of dereliction, that tortured utterance of despair, is Jesus’ moment of inglorious truth.

Most of you would read this post will disagree with Schweitzer on a few points, the most glaring being that Jesus was in fact God breaking into human history, as the Son of God incarnate. Other points of departure might be over the timing of God’s kingdom, which in Jesus’ parables is both inaugurated and incremental; the remarkable signs Jesus performed in his ministry indicative of restoration and redemption; and whether the cry of dereliction reveals Jesus’ abandoning his mission or fulfilling it. But I want to challenge Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ knowledge, which is where we started.

Holy WeekSchweitzer would have us believe that Jesus was largely unaware of God’s purposes, seen in him having unfulfilled expectations during his ministry and most clearly demonstrated in the cross being no more than a last throw of the dice. This ‘recalculation theory’, as it has been called, does not square with what we read in the wider Gospel accounts. For starters, if my post on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4 is right, which I think it is, Jesus was tempted from the outset of his ministry to avoid the messianic rejection, suffering and death. But if that sounds too assumptive, C. H. Dodd (in The Founder of Christianity, p62-64) highlights Jesus’ uniquely personal and intimate relationship with the Father and how that energised him for what in glimpses appears as an unbearable mission; “Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden…It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable”. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), early on in his ministry we are told that he set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:53), and at his baptism he fails to renounce John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus knew full well what his task entailed; indeed it is his self-sacrifice that gives fullest meaning and significance to the incarnation. We do not follow a man who did what he thought best, acting boldly despite inadequate information. We worship the Son who did his Father’s will even though the knowledge terrified him.

Jesus’ course was, returning to Horwood’s phrase, previously unexplored and incredibly hard. But we must retain that this was only because Jesus had never known anything other than happy and unbroken fellowship with his Father. The depth of Jesus’ work is not seen in Schweitzer’s vision of a desperate Jesus throwing all caution to the wind, unsure whether it would bring about any real change; it is seen in the deliberate Jesus, sure that that through his death the world would be forever changed.

Rejoice in Adoption

When I was a child I remember feeling a sense of scandal when I found out that someone I knew was adopted. Perhaps the emotion was evoked because, more often than not, it was a fact kept secret; it was never public knowledge, it was never spoken about and many times the reality was even hidden from the children themselves. adoptionOver recent years however, I have come to meet and get to know many who have either adopted or been adopted and, my perception has changed drastically to an overwhelmingly positive one. Not only have I found adoption to be more celebrated in particular circles but I have come to understand that adoption in and of itself is one of the most beautiful expressions of love that we are able to witness or, for some of us, have the privilege to be a part of.

‘Adoption’ is a word we seldom come across in the Scriptures but the reality of it is taught and alluded to often. Our identity as children of God is one we regularly turn to and rejoice in but the doctrine itself is one that has been desperately ignored. As the arrogant and often disillusioned people we are, we are very quick to claim our right as sons and daughters of God but seldom consider how we are so. We are so by adoption. Not by any birth right that we could claim what is genealogically ours.

In the ancient Roman world adoption was a failsafe method of ensuring an heir where there was none and, when it was practiced it was only a privilege extended to those who had proven worthy of the family name. Adoption was earned, and only because a father had no alternative. If you were adopted, you were Plan B, and loved for your achievements or potential. This was most likely the context in places like Rome, Ephesus and Galatia that Paul addresses in his writings.

But something is different about our adoption into God’s family. When we are saved it is not simply a single solution but rather a beautiful spectrum of salvation. God calls us, he justifies us, he regenerates us and he adopts us. While we may experience many of these simultaneously, it is constructive to view each one in turn. R. A. Petersen helpfully points out how each gift of grace answers a different and specific need. He explains how justification, for instance, is a response to our condemnation, while sanctification is needed because of our contaminated nature. Regeneration is the gift of spiritual life to people who were spiritually dead and it is adoption that rescues us from our state of slavery (Adopted by God: from wayward sinners to cherished children). However, I would add that not only were we slaves and orphans but we belonged to the family of the devil and were by nature children of wrath. When God saves us he does not reboot or press rewind so we can start again and live better lives, but he addresses our every area of need and transforms us.

fistpumpIf we are astounded by our redemption and justification – Christ taking the place and payment of an undeserving and unlovable people – then consider one step further. Not only did God love his enemies and give his only Son to death, but he gave those rebellious and undeserving people His name and made us his sons and daughters. He adopts the slaves he sets free. It is not as if God has no heir to inherit the kingdom – Christ is the perfect son who was perfectly obedient to the Father. In fact it is not as if our eternal God would ever need an heir. And even if he did we would never qualify as candidates for divine adoption given our wretched states. We have never and could never live up to God’s standard to be honorable heirs of heaven.

How deep, how unfathomable and how great is the love of God that we should be called his children (1 John 3:1). Our adoption into the family of God is such an excellent display of the purest and richest love we could ever know.

I find it remarkable that we get to see glimpses of grace in the ordinary patterns we witness every day. As God’s people and as redeemed image-bearers of the Divine, we have the privilege of displaying it to those around us in our relationships: our marriages, our churches, our roles and responsibilities, our giftedness and in every relationship we engage in – and if you have adopted or been adopted, then delight in that picture of grace as well. I don’t pretend that all families have practiced adoption well, but in redeemed God honoring families, I’d invite you to look in and notice a divine parallel. Often people minimize the relationship to a sympathetic gesture or simply a solution to infertility, and often openly question their legitimacy as family members (shame on you). Would we say the same about our adopted status in the family of God? Adoption holds the potential of being a beautiful picture of the love God has for us. Our adoption into God’s family was a love choice, not some desperate desire for legacy. Children of God, rejoice in adoption!

Can Satan Grow the Church?

If Facebook has taught us anything it is that sensational titles are of paramount importance to being successful online. And I guess if this post were a video the title would run something like this: The Church Grew More Rapidly Than Ever Before, But You Will Not Believe How! “Can Satan grow the church?” The answer is a chilling, “Yes.”

Matthew 13In Matthew 13 we encounter a collection of what have been called Jesus’ ‘kingdom parables’, where our Lord warns his hearers that Satan would actively strive against the church. But notice one of the ways Jesus said he would do this, in the “parable of the weeds of the field” (13:36); Satan’s opposition is not ostentatious but insidious. In the parable, the enemy does not destroy the fields but sows weeds amongst the wheat (13:25). And these grow so closely intertwined with the wheat that the field owner tells his servants they cannot be separated, until harvest time. This parable can be understood to teach us a few things: the church visible is not the church invisible; on judgment day Jesus will vindicate his people whilst judging mere pew-warmers; and God is not deceived by Satan but fully aware of his designs. However, the point I hope to tease out in this short post, one which I do not think is regularly taught, is that Satan grows local churches. One of the ways that Satan deceives us is by growing the local church.

What got me thinking along this line was our recent series of posts on Jesus’ temptation, in Matthew 4. Reflecting on the temptations I had to conclude that they were not simply mock or pretend temptations. What we see in the verbal wrestling in the wilderness is Satan genuinely tempting Jesus with the spectacular rather than sacrificial service. While the episode legitimises Jesus’ steadfast obedience to his Father and self-giving love for those he came to rescue, it also presents us with a peculiar puzzle: how could worshiping being he created truly tempt Jesus? David Seccombe argues that Satan’s offer of dominion – through means other than the cross, resurrection, and ascension – was real, “[Jesus] saw just how easy it would be to win the kingdoms if he were to employ the armoury of evil tactics which have been used from time immemorial to achieve political power” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p132). Satan could give the Son what was deservedly his: all glory and honour and power. But due to the deceptive nature of that fallen creature, Jesus saw the relative hollowness of the offer in comparison to what the Father promised.

William BlakeTying the above together I want to address pastors, from all traditions, denominations and walks. Our adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And one of the ways that he can do this is through giving pastors what they rightfully desire: vibrant, impressive churches. If Satan can grow the local church then we should be wary of loading our confidence into the size of our congregations. Sam Storms, in To the One Who Conquers, warns against pointing to sizeable offerings and overflowing crowds as an indicative of divine approval, for the field may simply be full of weeds. Writing on Jesus’ letter to the Philadelphians (Revelation 3:9), Storms adds: “The greatness of a church is not measured by its membership roll or budgetary prowess, but by the size of its Savior, whom it faithfully honors and passionately praises and confidently trusts.” It sounds trite, but it is true. Satan is the surreptitious prince of this world, sowing weeds and causing us to look in awe at the size of churches. But we must remember, from Jesus’ encounter, that he can give what we know to be good and desirable, only through devious means or by deception. Pastors need to be aware of the temptation to adopt alternate means, as Jesus was, in achieving growth in the local church. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3, our work will one day be measured, only that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will last.

Let me conclude. From Matthew 13 we see that Satan can grow the church; indeed, it is one of the ways that he deceives believers. Therefore we must be cautious about seeing the size of our congregation as an undeniable mark of God’s blessing or presence. I know of very large churches where Satan’s promises, not God’s as he has revealed them in Scripture, are preached; I have also visited many seemingly insignificant but faithful local churches that I am sure God is pleased with. In Matthew 4 Satan tempted Jesus with a right and desirous end, but the means were idolatrous. For us today, especially those in ministry, the difficult line to walk is between desiring growth in the local church while keeping that desire from becoming an idol. Our enemy revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.

The Qualities that make a Gospel Worker

Many readers will likely know that if I can get the funds I need I will be doing a MA Theology (technically in Biblical Studies) in the States. One of my scholarship applications (which was rejected, read into that what you will) posed the question, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel and why?” I really enjoyed thinking through the answer to this question. Here is something of what I wrote – what would you say?

Love

LoveWhen asked, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel?” I immediately think the answer must be whatever characterised Jesus. Jesus not only ministered the gospel, he is the gospel. Love is probably the simplest answer at which to arrive but is undoubtedly undermined by the flippancy with which we say it. For Jesus, it meant self-giving sacrifice in the extreme, I think of 1 John 4 and Romans 5. I don’t think we can begin to fathom the depths of what love means.

The answer seems associated with the greatest commandments, to love God and our neighbours. Certainly a good minister of the gospel must love God above everything he could ever dream of. It’s difficult to measure someone’s love for God though, but it can often be seen in his/her love for others. It does seem like a bit of a cheat to say “love” though, it’s too general, too abstract. What does love look like?

Love seen in Humility.

Philippians 2 was the first passage that occurred to me and humility the first attribute. I suspect that’s because whenever I believe I have humility, I find it is like quicksilver in my hands. Even so, pride and arrogance in the ministry never turn the focus to God but to the minister and that is always worthless. Jesus exemplified humility and “[our] attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”.

Love seen in Service.

Closely related to humility is service. I pick service because it is something identifiable in a person. Again, Philippians 2 characterises Jesus as a servant and it is in service that we see Jesus’ self-sacrificial love at work. If we love people as ministers of the gospel, it will be a delight to serve them even when serving them is unpleasant because ultimately we are serving Christ.

Holiness

HolinessPerhaps holiness should precede love. In any case, it is loving holiness and holy love that characterised Jesus and that should characterise a minister of the gospel. Of course the gospel is for the sick but it’s not the gospel if it never heals them. An indication that the gospel is at work in anyone’s life is a growth in holiness. Holiness, therefore, must be present in the life of a gospel minister. This is what Paul means when he looks for a man “blameless” or “above reproach” in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.

Prayer

Prayer Prayer doesn’t really fall under holiness or love and yet it is tied to both because it is a matter of relationship just as holiness and love are. I could be wrong, but the only thing I recall the disciples asking Jesus to teach them is how to pray (Luke 11). Apparently disciples recognise the need to pray. It is also instructive to read Paul’s epistles and note how his prayers pervade his discourse. Prayer strikes me as a hallmark of a relationship with God.

Of course, Paul enumerates a number of other qualities. What qualities would you say make a someone a good minister of the gospel? What are the qualities you would look for?