What is 1 Peter all about?

1 PeterIn 5:12 we read, “I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” Peter gives us a threefold purpose for writing, to: encourage Christians; testify to the grace of God; and help us stand fast or persevere. Throughout the letter, Peter does just this. So under a few – far from comprehensive – headings we are going to explore how Peter achieves his purpose: encouraging, testifying, and strengthening.

We have a living hope

In 1:3 the letter opens by praising God who in his great mercy (see 2:9-10) has given us a living hope. What God has promised us is certain and can never be taken from us (1:5). The word ‘salvation’ is often used to refer to becoming a Christian, or being born again, but notice that in 1:5-6 we rejoice in our hoped for salvation that is still to be revealed. This is what Peter comes back to in 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Christians should rejoice as we await our glorious future, despite the shifting sands and struggles of this life. We must live in light of our sure salvation that is to come. And as we persevere in this life our faith is proven genuine (1:6-7; 4:12).

That hope is found in Jesus Christ

Peter suggests this a few times in his opening: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3); “you believe in him” (1:8); and “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1:11). But 2:24 is perhaps clearest, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” Christ’s death is our hope, for on the cross he bears our sins in order for us to be forgiven. Christians throughout the ages have called this the ‘wonderful exchange’. Something Peter lays out in 1:18-19, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Therefore we must confidently trust in that costly work of Christ on our behalf, for both forgiveness and our future.

But in 2:21-25 Peter says that Christ’s suffering does not only save us and give us real hope, for he also calls it an “example” (2:21; also see 4:19), an example of how we should suffer as Christians.

Suffering as Christians

Suffering is not inconsistent with our faith but part of the Christian life, while we await our glorious salvation (5:9-10). Because 1 Peter was written to churches that were suffering the letter has much to teach us about it: God commends those who suffer for doing good (2:18-25), going as far as calling it a blessing (3:8-17), since it is blessed to do good not evil; on at least three occasions we read that suffering fits within the will of God (3:17; 4:2, 19) explaining why it might be necessary for us to suffer for a time (1:6, see ESV); and similarly to Christ, all affliction, hardship, suffering, and grief will give way to glory (4:13; 5:1, 10). One of the dangers we face as those who are not persecuted for our faith, suffer little, and enjoy many first world comforts is that we forget that glory is yet to be revealed and fall into the trap of living for this world

Though it might be part of God’s will that we suffer, and suffering certainly has a place within the economy of God to test, strengthen, and ultimately prove our faith, we know that we have a living hope and the promise of glory if we persevere. That hope is found through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ alone. But, knowing all of this, how should we live as Christians while we wait?

Holiness

Coming back to the wondrous exchange that took place as Christ died on the cross (2:24), where he sets us an example for suffering, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” God has saved us with purpose, which we will read more about below, and that purpose requires holiness, being noticeably set apart or distinct. We can no longer lived like we used to, when we were ignorant (1:13-14). We must pursue holiness (1:15-17), for we have been redeemed or bought by Christ’s precious blood (1:18-19), and should therefore “live as God’s slaves” (2:16). We are not our own; we belong to God. As Peter writes in 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Our salvation, past and present results from the work of Christ and a persevering faith. But Peter is warning us against accepting the mercies of God and not responding to them by becoming increasingly holy. Practically, this touches on all sorts of things: abstaining from passions of the flesh (2:11); obedience to God’s truth, his word (1:22-25); speech (2:1-3); serving each other as the people of God (2:4-10; 4:7-11); submission to authorities (2:13-15); and our relationships with each other (2:17; 3:1-7).

Why should we pursue holiness, purity, and transformed lives? Is it just because Christians are better people than everyone else? No, Peter gives two reasons, under the next two headings.

Purpose of holiness: witness

In 2:11-12 we are told to, “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (also see 4:4). There is an evangelistic edge to godliness. More than merely silencing the ignorant (2:15), our holiness, eager hope, and how we suffer can point others to Christ and the glory that awaits those with faith in him.

Our ultimate purpose: God’s glory

The word “glory” is frequent in 1 Peter. While we are promised to share in God’s glory, for that is an aspect of our future hope (5:1, 10), the purpose of final salvation, holiness in the present, and Christ’s work on the cross is foremost for the glory of God. On the day that he is revealed, our witness may be the cause of some glorifying God rather than being judged (2:11-12). In using whatever gifts God has given us we must readily acknowledge him so that he is glorified, not us (4:7-11). Even our suffering, so long as it is for good and involves persevering faith can be to the glory of God (1:6-7; 4:16). Christ’s death and resurrection, which we must place our faith in, meant glory for the Jesus (1:11, 21). Is this your perspective, your purpose? All that we do and don’t do can be for the glory of God.

Peter’s challenge to you

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (5:1-4).

Though this is often treated as a passage on those in leadership in the local church. It is almost an assumption in the New Testament that older or maturer Christians will be leaders in the local church. The responsibility is given to watch over and care for others in the church, like shepherds. There is no gain in this but the promise of glory for those who eagerly serve in humility and set an example of holiness for others.

If you enjoyed this overview I have written a few others like it: wisdom and works in the epistle of James; Exodus as the journey of God; and a series of posts in Galatians.

Four God Given Uses for the Bible

DevotionalI recently taught 2 Timothy 3:10-17, on two separate occasions, and found myself stirred by this familiar passage. While studying at college it was a favourite to cite among both students and lecturers concerning the doctrine of Scripture. Without going into any of that I want to unpack the four ‘uses’ of Scripture mentioned by Paul in 3:16, and how we might employ them in our own Bible reading. Paul writes “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable [or useful] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. Below I will make brief comment on each of those and then suggest how they might inform your response to God’s Word, whatever passage you are reading.

Teaching truth

Firstly, the Bible is given to teach us, to inform our thinking and positively shape our doctrine. Since Scripture is given to us by God – which is at least one of the important implications of it being breathed out by him – we should allow it to build our theology. Too often we treat our Bible reading the same way we do motivational quotes; or, worse, the sum total of our Bible reading is cherry-picked and inspiring verses suited to fridge magnets but unable to inform our beliefs. God gave us the Bible to shape our minds and reveal himself to us. So the next time you are meditating on a passage of Scripture, one of the questions to ask is this: what can I learn from God and about him, what is he teaching me?

Challenging error

Correcting errorSecondly, and with a little more difficulty, we are told that the Bible reproves. The Greek word used here, along with the next, is a hapax legomenon, which simply means this is the only place it occurs in the New Testament. After you have finished impressing your friends with your newfound linguistic jargon, note that this is significant because it makes the specific sense of the word elusive. Technical discussions aside, commentators and translators seem to agree that it carries the idea of challenging false doctrine or beliefs. This would make it the negative side of our first use. While the Bible is profitable for building up true theology it also tears down wrong beliefs. So, applying this use to our reading of Scripture, we should ask: does this portion of the Bible challenge or correct erroneous ideas I hold?

Correcting sin

Thirdly, with the discussion above in mind, this word most likely refers to behaviour, making it the negative of the fourth use (below). The Bible is given to us by God not only to shape our minds and beliefs but also how we live, speak, work, rest and treat others. This is often done through teaching us truth. But since it is included in a list where that idea is already present we can assume Paul is speaking about morality or ethics—more simply, how a Christian honours Christ in all of life. God instructs us how to behave. When we listen to God’s Word it will result in repentance, putting off what God calls sin. For example, in James 2 we read, ‘Do not be partial’ (2:1). God calls out discrimination, on whatever grounds, and exhorts Christians to repent of racism and classicism, among other things. Thus, the next time you are reading your Bible, reflect on how God is challenging your behaviour, and allow his definition of sin to shape your life.

Training in righteousness

Finally, we are told that Scripture positively shapes our behaviour, training us in righteousness, creating people that please God. If the previous point moved us to ask what we should stop, then this word makes us ask: what should I start? Where is my Christian life, obedience, and love deficient? God does not only desire that we refrain from sin, hearing and accepting his correction, but calls us to practical and positive expression of our faith. I know for myself this is often the hardest application to make, not because we struggle to understand what God demands but because we do. God calls us to express our faith through righteous action.

Four questions to ask in your Bible reading

  1. How is my theology positively informed by this truth?
  2. What errors in my theology are corrected by this passage?
  3. What sins in my life does is God challenging?
  4. How can I positively respond in obedience to God as a result of this text?

Why We Don’t Serve in the Church

Last week I wrote a post unpacking part of John Calvin’s Institutes on gifts, the local church, and self-denial. Calvin shows that God is the giver of all that we have, including our gifts. If you are wealthy that is because God has been generous. If you possess a unique skill, your Creator installed it. Whatever you have it is not yours but God’s. Because he is the one who gives us our gifts he determines their end: the good of his church and ultimately his glory. The latter of those ends is impacted by how we use our gifts, our attitude and motivation. God is not glorified when we boast in our gifts—however public or impressive the demonstration. We also fail to give him due glory when we refuse to recognise that he is behind the gifts we see applied in the local church. In short, when we realise that our gifts are from God for service of his church and act accordingly God is worshipped.

Off the back of a few conversations about the previous post I felt the need to write a follow-up, exploring a few of the reasons people do not serve the local church with their gifts. I am sure you will be able to add your own observations to the list below, and I invite you to do so, for mine is certainly is not comprehensive.

We believe that our life is our own

The phrase ‘self-denial’ conjures up images of monastic misery and joyless perseverance. Yet for Calvin it was an unavoidable conclusion of believing the gospel, “We are not our own masters, but belong to God” (3.7.1). Citing both Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 6:19 Calvin argues that God made us his own and therefore we should pursue his glory, indeed this is why he brought us to himself and his people. This truth is the root of self-denial, for if we belong to God we can forget ourselves as we find what God made us for. “Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord” (3.7.1). Perhaps the most serious reason we are slow to serve in the local church is this, and it demands honest self-examination: I still believe that my life is my own. Once we understand that Christ has made us his own (Philippians 3:12), Calvin says seeking the Lord’s will – increasingly, though not always effortlessly – follows and we will serve others for the glory of God (3.7.2). Self-denial is not begrudgingly serving others; it is the glad service for which God made and saved us.

Our view of being gifted is shaped by the world

People are celebrated for being exceptional and we are constantly pointed to the achievements of remarkable people. This has lead to us misunderstanding the word ‘gifted’, limiting it to a small group of hallowed individuals in the local church. But that could not be further from the truth. Passages such as Ephesians 4:7-16 have long been used to perpetuate this error by creating elitism within the local church. Some look at Ephesians 4:11 and believe God is elevating the word or teaching offices above all others. However if you read the very next verse we learn why God gives gifted teachers to his churches: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12). If you spend all your time marvelling at a mouth, discussing the shape of its lips and how straight the teeth are, but never recognise that the mouth is designed for nourishing the body, you will starve. Likewise, the word ministries are not to be marvelled at but put to use, teaching the church how to use their own gifts in service of others and equipping them for ministry.

We think too narrowly about gifts

This is linked with the previous point, for it is also an aspect of churches drawn to exceptional gifts but indifferent to the more mundane expressions of love and service. This was at least part of the problem Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Without entering the debate about the continuation of gifts such as tongues and healing – you can read some exploration of prophecy here, and here – let us note something undeniable: Paul does not limit gifts to the ‘spiritual’ set. He reminds the church that the Spirit apportions many gifts to create a body where each member has a valuable role (12:11-26). There is no place for division, instead we should honour the less impressive members and gifts in Christ’s church (12:21-25). Another point often overlooked in churches that boast the more spectacular gifts and manifestations is 12:31-13:13. Though Paul does call on Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” he speaks of a “more excellent way” (12:31; also see 14:1). What is that? Love. Sacrificial service of God’s people using the gifts God gave you, regardless of being noticed for it. Unfortunately 1 Corinthians 13 has been misappropriated by so many lazy wedding preachers meaning that when we read 13:4-7 we forget that Paul is referring to relationships in the local church. Love shown practically in God’s church is a gift, one that surpasses the powerful and ostentatious ‘spiritual’ gifts.

We are not encouraged to discover our gifts

servingIn 1 Corinthians 12:11 Paul says that the Spirit has diversely apportioned gifts to everyone in the local church (also see Romans 12:6). We may not believe that, because few of us feel exceptionally gifted, like the powerful preacher in the pulpit, and we cannot speak in tongues or heal the sick. But listen to the apostle Peter, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Now while Peter’s list does include the more public gifts such as speaking the oracles of God he includes serving in the same sentence (4:11). Peter also mentions loving one another (4:8) and hospitality (4:9). I will admit that I have given too little thought to the gift lists in the New Testament, but I also wonder if most of us have failed to give enough thought to God’s varied grace so that we might serve his body. In many churches today it feels like you are either a minister of the word (in home groups, church meetings, or evangelism) or you serve tea. But surely Christ did not give the former group to equip us to serve tea (Ephesians 4:11-12). God has gifted each member of his body for purpose. Discover your gifts and use them in service of your brothers and sisters, to the glory of our heavenly Father.

The Wickedness of Word of Faith

We have written about evil, darkness, and sin at Rekindle, but last week I encountered first hand an evil that both broke my heart and enraged me. A friend in our church who is facing a far from optimistic cancer prognosis was urged to pray using Jesus’ name and his own authority as a believer (see previous post). This increasingly popular teaching says that God does not want us to ask for things according to his will, rather we must use the power of Jesus’ name to rid our lives of sickness and whatever else ails us. In other words, “You’re sick because you do not have enough faith or because you haven’t prayed using a specific formula.” Quite frankly, to say that to a Christian – with faith and the fruits that evince it – is not merely unloving; it is wicked. It is evil. In this post I will highlight a small selection of the innumerable biblical responses to this false teaching.

Jesus’ faith

Jesus at Mount of OlivesI touched on this in my previous post. But it is too important to skip over. When you state, “Don’t pray: your will be done,” because it is too submissive and weak, remember that that is exactly how Jesus prayed (Matthew 26:39). So you must either rebuke the Son of God or desist from your folly. When Peter calls on Christians to follow Christ’s example in his first epistle we should note that he remembers Jesus’ suffering, death, and that he trusted the Father without wavering (1 Peter 2:13-25). Jesus’ faith is not shown in him demanding a better reality from his Father but in submitting to the Father despite unanswered prayers.

Jesus’ teaching

Following on from the previous point, we turn to the manner in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Correct: the very phrase scorned by those in the word of faith movement is one Jesus encouraged his disciples to use. I am astounded that Jesus got it so wrong. I guess if he had taught his disciples to pray properly they might have avoided persecution and martyrdom. Silly Jesus. If only the apostle John had access to the teaching of Andrew Wommack or Benny Hinn he could have avoided being exiled to Patmos (Revelation 1:9). Choose today whom you will follow.

Paul’s suffering

Since we are on the topic of Jesus’ apostles, I shudder to think about how paltry Paul’s prayer life must have been: imprisoned (Ephesians 3:1); abandoned by his friends, left alone and cold (2 Timothy 4:9-18); shipwrecked (Acts 27:39-44); and unable to pray away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In fact, just read 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. For in the first century the Lord certainly chose weak vessels, akin to jars of clay, which showed the power of the gospel and gave all glory to God. Luckily for us today we have super-apostles who boast much greater ministries than the embarrassment that was Paul’s. If only a copy of Joel Osteen’s I Declare was mixed in with the parchments he requested from Troas.

Prayer is made into a mantra

CandlesReturning to the my introduction, telling someone that God has not answered their prayer because they failed to append “I claim this in the name of Jesus,” is highly problematic. Firstly, notwithstanding what I have written above, it reduces God to a parent withholding something from their child because they have not said the magic word. Imagine God saying to his child, “I would have healed your cancer, if only you had asked me properly.” Secondly, it also reduces God to a vending machine: put in the right amount and click the right buttons and you will be blessed. The power of prayer is reduced to how we ask and not who we are asking: our heavenly Father. I do believe that God invites us to boldly approach him in prayer, but to claim that our wording or specific invocations will force God’s hand is witchcraft, blasphemous, and self-deifying. God hates these things.

The inevitability of death

Lastly, though much more could and must be said against this alarmingly popular heresy, we turn to the matter of death. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief opens with, “You are going to die,” and he is right. For we read of only a few names in the Bible who did not, and they are marked exceptions. Two years ago Jan Crouch, the co-founder of TBN, died during TBN’s healing month. To add satire to irony, The Babylon Bee wrote, “Baffled prosperity gospel preachers have begun offering theories Tuesday on how Crouch could possibly have passed away, given her overabundance of faith, her supernatural ability to name and claim health and wealth at will, and her decades of collecting donations while promising that God’s will is for everybody to be wealthy and healthy.” Why, if we have inherited all of this power, and need only claim wellness or chide sickness, do we succumb to it in death? Because the word of faith movement is a lie; an evil lie that robs people of faith.

Admittedly I wrote this post while emotional and incensed, though I do not think the heat is without light. The word of faith movement is wicked not because it promises things that God does not. It is wicked because when the things it promises do not materialise faith itself is brought into question. Telling someone that God wants them well when they are dying could be the difference between them persevering in the faith and falling away because their mantras have failed them. So I want to address any readers who have said the sorts of things critiqued in this post. If you speak these wicked words you need to repent. You need to humble yourself before the God of mercies and turn from this evil. And you need to pray for those people you have deceived.

Unconvincing Arguments for Why Married Couples Must Have Children

Last year I wrote a response to Tim Challies, and what I thought were some weak arguments showing why married couples should not deliberately remain childless. Before we got married, my wife and I agreed that we were not persuaded biblically that couples must procreate in order to be obedient to God. The result of that position has been numerous conversations in the past few years. Therefore the arguments listed below are predominantly points that we have heard or discussed. Unfortunately I do not remember all of the respective sources. But they are certainly commonplace in the debate about deliberate childlessness. Let me say that I do not claim to comprehensively refute these positions. Rather my purpose in writing this post is to encourage conversation.

Two paths in the New Testament: singleness and marriage

Most likely an erroneous extension of Paul’s quite bemusing argument in 1 Corinthians 7, this idea says that Christians can choose either to remain celibate or get married, with the latter necessarily entailing children. This is a reductionistic and narrow point. If the second path involves marriage and children, can we not then conclude that adoption is excluded from the path of singleness? Or that couples that are unable to have children are required to adopt? While those are undeniably the two paths before Christians concerning marriage, it remains an unproven assumption that the path of marriage requires children.

The creation mandate of Genesis means we must have children

This is a statement that warrants a much more detailed and lengthy post, so I will be brief here. The command given to Adam and Eve in Eden must first be considered in its Old Testament context. It was tied to the human commission to fill the earth, specifically given to Israel under the old covenant. As George Athas commented on a previous post on Malachi 2:15, “These words were written within and to people in the old national covenant, for whom having offspring was a national duty. In the new covenant, this is simply not the case, because the new people of God are not a country with citizens inheriting holy land from the previous generation. Those national elements are no longer part of the framework for how we operate as God’s people. As such, if someone posits that everyone needs to try to have children, they would need to do so on other grounds.”

Having children will sanctify you

“…in a way that nothing else will,” is often appended to the above statement. By this people generally mean having children will especially sanctify you. Apart from the fact that this idea is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, it implies some plainly wrong conclusions. If a type of sanctification is on offer in raising children that is not repeatable anywhere else in human experience, we can expect parents to be the most mature and godly Christians. If this were the case, then certainly Paul would not have desired celibacy for anyone (1 Corinthians 7:8). In fact, for marrieds to tell childless couples – and similarly for marrieds to tell singles – that their own path breeds greater godliness is just insulting.

Furthermore, on this point, if you will allow me to be a little silly, becoming a missionary in North Korea or planning a church plant in Eritrea will also sanctify you, tremendously. Though we do not hear missionary organizations appealing for missionaries on the basis of how God will use it to make you more holy. Many decisions will sanctify us, but this does not amount to biblical imperatives to make those decisions.

When married couples choose childlessness it is always selfish

This point has some connections with the previous one, but I will address it separately. There is no denying that there is some truth in this position: for children prove a remarkable imposition and threat to idols of leisure, autonomy, and freedom. Therefore there may be selfish reasons for choosing childlessness, as there may be selfish motivations for remaining single. There is, I think, a double warning that knocks this position back: firstly, we should be very slow to pronounce on motives, since we do not know each other’s hearts. Secondly, we are must be very careful not to make our preferences into virtues, and others’ into vices. Calvin (2.3.2) wrote of the hydra of wickedness that lurks in each of our breasts. Selfishness can certainly be behind the decision to have children, only I am yet to hear someone who has chosen a childless marriage accuse those with children of sinful motivation. Without knowing my neighbour’s heart I should be slower to reach conclusions about her decisions. And when those decisions differ from mine I certainly should not demonize them. 

Birth control means seizing control from God

One of the most staggering things I have encountered is that people using this argument have taken contraceptive measures. Calling on other Christians to fully trust God in the area of reproduction eliminates the decision to reach your desired number of children before intervening. Perhaps I am being unfair, or exaggerating the ad infinitum conclusion of this statement, but I feel that it requires those using it to surrender all of their procreative outcomes to the Lord. No contraceptives. Either, birth control, planning the size of one’s family, is prohibited because any such action removes God from the picture; or Christian freedom means we make decisions – that are neither right nor wrong – trusting our God who is sovereign in them. People in glass houses should not throw stones.

Children help marriage fulfill its New Testament role

What is that role? It is clearly laid out that in Ephesians 5, to make the gospel plain. The self-sacrificial love a husband is to show his wife is designed to illustrate Christ’s love for his people, the church. But I honestly cannot fathom how having children illuminates the relationship between Christ and his church, especially since nowhere in the New Testament is the link explicitly made between marriage and children. I am not denying that the New Testament assumes marriages will produce children, but pointing out that nowhere do we see an imperative to do so. Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace, points out that regarding marriage the New Testament is noticeably nonbiological in its emphasis. He also quotes John Boswell, who observed that the Old Testament idealises marriage in terms of sexual attraction, not procreation. Finally, he comments that both Jesus and Paul discuss marriage without using procreation as a rationale or functional justification. Children do not help marriage fulfill its New Testament role. I would venture further, though more reading is required, in suggesting that while procreation was a function of marriage in the Old Testament that was not God’s purpose in creating the institution.

I hope you will do some of your own thinking, perhaps even respond to some of the points above, or add a more convincing position that I have overlooked.

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’