Pear-shaped Exegesis

“The New is in the Old concealed, and in the New, the Old revealed,” claimed the fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo,[1] and he was right. Jesus Christ permeates the Old Testament from start to finish, as Jesus himself explained. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The Scriptures “bear witness about me,” (John 5:39). Time and time again the Gospel writers narrate, or Jesus states, that “the Scriptures must be fulfilled,” and “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The apostles taught people about Jesus “from the Scriptures,” (Acts 8:35; 18:28) and these “scriptures” are the (Greek) Old Testament. There was no “New Testament” at that time, for the documents which came to be acknowledged as new scriptures were still being written. The Old Testament contained the seeds of the gospel, and the apostles could explain who Jesus was, from its writings. “And Paul… reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2–3).

Jesus is the seed of the woman who would strike the serpent’s head, the ark, the Lamb which God would provide, the promised son, the Passover lamb, the whole burnt offering, the High Priest, the serpent on the pole, the leader into the promised land, the kinsman-redeemer, the true king in the line of David, the Shepherd of Israel, the suffering servant, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Judge of all the earth, the Messenger of the covenant; God’s anointed, Immanuel God with us; the Saviour, who is Christ — the LORD. Jesus, who came from above, is above all (John 3:31–32). He is the image of God, all things were created by him, through him and for him, he is before all things and in him all things hold together, in everything preeminent (Col 1:15–19). Jesus is and always has been central to everything God has done and will do with creation. The Son is the means by which God created, and the means by which God redeemed that same creation and by whom God will indwell it.

But it wasn’t until Jesus had died and risen, completing his great redeeming act and sending his Spirit to his apostles, that the whole picture came together (John 15:26; 16:12–13). As Augustine said, the gospel was “concealed” (“latent”) within the Old Testament scriptures. It was there in types and shadows, in things the prophets and even the angels did not fully understand but which have now been revealed (1 Peter 1:10–12). It was not until the coming of the Son that the cornerstone of the building, the centrepiece of the great puzzle, was put in place. The treatise to the Hebrews on the incomparable greatness of the Son, surpassing angels, Moses, the Law and every other Old Testament type, opens with a statement of the final and complete revelation of God: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1–2).

Until the advent of Jesus, the Old Testament could not be fully understood. Certainly, it told us a lot about ourselves and about God. It explains that God created us and how we fell into sin. It presents God as holy and righteous and emphasises our unworthiness to approach him. God established a covenant through his grace with a man whose descendants would become a great nation and from whom would come the Saviour. He redeemed that man’s descendants and chose them as his special people and gave them a Law by which there could be an exemplary theocracy on earth. When his people failed him, God chastised them and gave more and more clues to the final solution, a true King, prophet and priest who would bring the ultimate redemption and enable his spiritual people to be part of a world-wide and eternal kingdom. As the Old Testament saga unfolded, more and more was revealed about this great plan and the central figure, Jesus. For centuries the faithful in Israel looked for the direct intervention of God — and he finally came in the person of Jesus Christ. It was a progressive revelation. Abraham knew more about the promised son than Eve did. Moses had more detail on sacrifice and holiness than Abraham. King David understood more about his great Descendant than Abraham did. Isaiah filled out the awesome nature of the servant’s sacrifice. But until Jesus was revealed, these were just pieces of an incomplete puzzle. Only through Christ is God more fully known as Father, and as Son and as Holy Spirit. Benjamin B. Warfield expressed this in an apt metaphor:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted: the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what was in it but was only dimly or not at all perceived before… Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but is only perfected, extended and enlarged.” [2]

This picture is helpful because, on the one hand it upholds the inspired Old Testament as equally the Word of God, but at the same time puts it in perspective. We can learn a lot about God from the Old Testament, but not the whole story. The Bible uses the “fulfill” to encapsulate how the New Testament supersedes the Old, without contradicting or negating it. Consistently, the New Testament claims that Jesus and his work “fulfills” the Old Testament Scriptures. In English the word means to “fill fully,” in other words, to fill to the top, to complete what is lacking. The Hebrew words male and kalah and the Greek pleroo, teleo and their cognates mean the same; completeness and finishing. The Old Testament message is not a contradiction; it is incomplete. It becomes more complete as it journeys from Genesis to Malachi, but it remains incomplete until filled to the brim by Christ. That’s why Jesus was able to chide the disciples on the one hand for not understanding everything the Scriptures had said, but also to explain that he had come to more fully reveal the Father and fulfill (complete) all that was written. This concept also gives the lie to those who would force a dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments, between the supposedly wrathful and legalistic YHWH of Israel and the loving Father of Jesus Christ. It is only when we understand that the Old Testament is incomplete, not erroneous or contradictory in its message, that we can begin to understand its relationship to Christ and how the New Testament writers used the Scriptures.

There are two exegetical errors that can be made, and plenty of historical and contemporary examples of their making. Firstly, the Old Testament could be discounted, written off as contradictory or erroneous. The second century heretic Marcion did that; he posited that the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ was a different God from YHWH of the Old Testament and literally tore the Old Testament and every taint of “Jewishness” out of the Bible, accepting only an edited version of Luke and most of Paul’s letters. Early theologians [3]  vigorously opposed Marcion, yet they also struggled with how to reconcile apparent contradictions between, say, the massacre of the Canaanites, and the God of love and mercy. One recourse was to allegory. Origen of Alexandria was (in)famous for his allegorising passages which seemed difficult in their literal sense, such as the battles of Israel. Whatever one’s knowledge and opinion of early Christian exegetical strategies, one thing is clear; they treated the text itself as revelation, a Christ-centred unity. For them, Jesus Christ is the basis for right reading of all of Scripture.[4] If I may add an analogy of my own; Scripture is like a delicious, ripe orange. When sliced open its structure is revealed to be radial; each segment is oriented centrally, radiating outward and contained within a whole. Jesus Christ is not one slice among many, whereas portions of the Bible are. Jesus Christ is the whole, complete package, its radial arrangement. In a much misunderstood passage (Gal 3:24–25), Paul explains that the Law was a paidagogos, that leads us to Christ. The KJV unhelpfully translates this word as “schoolmaster,” implying that the Law is a teacher, and we can frame our understanding of God quite specifically through its precepts. That’s not what the word means, and it’s not what Paul is saying. The paidagogos (literally, child-leader) was a slave entrusted with the discipline of the master’s sons, ensuring that they did not play truant, but went to school and attended to their studies. It was a temporary and disciplinary role, subservient to the real Instructor, Christ.

Which brings me to the second error, as exemplified by an exegesis which takes a high view of Scripture, but a relatively low view of Jesus. This sort of exegesis is pear shaped, or bottom-heavy. Whilst not necessarily explicitly, it gives primacy to the Old Testament and forces the New Testament into alignment with the Old in a somewhat subservient manner. In its extreme, such an exegete says things like “The Trinity is not found in the Old Testament, so Jesus cannot be God.” The problem is, there’s a lot about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that isn’t explicit in the Old Testament, for reasons that have been explained above. But there is plenty of evidence of the God of the New Testament; loving Father, incarnate Son and poured-out Holy Spirit, in the Old Testament for those who have eyes to see (John 5:39-40). These are the things the New Testament clarifies and fulfills (completes). Examples include the extensive application of passages about YHWH to Jesus by New Testament writers, and application of appellations, characteristics and roles of God to the Lord Jesus. In contrast, a pear-shaped, or distorted Old Testament primacy approach models the New Testament on the Old, to make it defined by Old Testament limitations and squeezing Jesus into an inappropriate mould. It makes Jesus defined by and limited by, in a real sense, images in the Old Testament which are necessarily typological, shadowy and incomplete.

For example, sacrifice. God required sacrifice in the Old Testament. It was highly prescribed under the Law in minute detail, and laxity or abuse of the system was sacrilege. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev 17:11). The whole burnt offering, the Passover lamb, the sin offering, all typified Christ in some aspects. The blood symbolised the covenant and the covenants were sealed with blood (Heb 9:18–21). “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). Jesus took up this imagery when he spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:53–56), a saying which the disciples found difficult, doubtless because of their familiarity with sacrifices and the prohibition of eating blood. Jesus inaugurated his memorial supper with the words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). The apostles make it clear that Christ’s sacrifice, the shedding of his blood, brought salvation, drawing on the whole range of atonement metaphors; justification, redemption, reconciliation, access to God, sanctification (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12; 10:19; 13:12).

Undoubtedly, we can learn a tremendous amount about Jesus’ work on the cross from these pictures of atonement and sacrifice. But here’s the crucial thing: Jesus did not give his life because in the Old Testament God demanded blood for appeasement. God required blood sacrifice in the Old Testament to teach us that Jesus would give his life for us. Jesus did not have to die the way he did because he had to imitate the sacrifices of the Law. He died the way he did because that was God’s plan from before the world was created, and the Law (and pre-Law sacrifices such as in Gen 22) provided a framework for understanding that. Sacrifice was not unique to Israel; every ancient culture practiced it. It was part of the ancient mindset. Israel’s prescribed sacrifices were different because (a) they were made exclusively to the one God and (b) they were symbolic of something much greater and more permanent to come. Those sacrifices could never take away sin completely; they had to be offered continually, for specific sins. Only the sacrifice of Christ which actually destroyed sin itself could permanently deal with sin (Heb 9:11–15; Heb 10:4–10). In this way Christ fulfills the Law of sacrifice, not by simply being a better type of the same thing (a perfect man rather than a beast) but because this was always and only the efficacious sacrifice which would be made. Fulfilling means completing, finishing; it does not mean copying.

Why is this such a big deal? Because seeing the basis of Christ’s sacrifice as simply a better version of an ancient principle of blood atonement allows the person and work of Christ to be downplayed. “God requires blood and Jesus gave the best blood,” becomes the principle of atonement, rather than “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That is what “the life is in the blood” means.

Without that Christ-centred perspective, substitutionary atonement becomes a parody of justice. Jesus is just a man, albeit a perfect one, who is treated like a sheep or goat. How is that fair? How does that demonstrate the righteousness of God if Jesus is a mere man taking the place of mere men? Christadephians attack a straw man when they so misrepresent the atonement. Only when it is understood as God himself becoming flesh and blood for our sakes and averting his own wrath against sin by taking it upon himself in Jesus Christ, as planned from before Creation, does substitutionary atonement work. It is no mere “exemplary” death by means of which we are shamed into an “apology” [5] but a gracious act of redemption. “Sacrifice” is the type, not the principle, of atonement. But if one denies Jesus is God, then one is forced to reject substitutionary atonement. If one uses a pear-shaped exegesis of Jesus’ sacrificial work, defined by Old Testament types, this will lead to a denial of the efficacy and meaning of substitutionary atonement and the very notion of Who Jesus is.

Such distorted interpretations also lead to ridiculous ideas such as a need for continuing animal sacrifices in the Kingdom of God. This latter, perpetuated by a pear-shaped exegesis of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy (Ezek 40–48) forces Jesus into the rather subservient role of “prince” and the Kingdom as merely an eternal perpetuation of a superseded theocracy. The ancient kingdom of Israel was an incomplete and imperfect type of the people of God, being ruled by succession of sinful kings who at best only typified God’s eternal King. Israel was never the last word as God’s people and should not be used to limit the concept of God’s kingdom and people. The type that was the Davidic kingdom needed to be full-filled in the true reign of God, in Christ. But by viewing Old Testament Israel with its laws and constrained access to God as paradigmatic rather than symbolic, we end up with a model of the ekklesia that is also constrained by rules and legalism and by a low view of Christ. This model presumes the Kingdom (more correctly, the word basileia means “reign”) of God cannot be present in any sense now, because we don’t see a literal kingdom on earth. That has to wait, in its entirety, until Jesus returns and builds the temple of Ezekiel’s prophecy. This model makes the Old Testament’s limitations and incompleteness define how we view the New Testament, rather than allowing the New Testament to put the Old into perspective. It is forcing Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, into a mould that makes him just a better version of one of Israel’s kings. The New Testament does not deny any continuity of the old kingdom of Israel with God’ eternal kingdom, but sets it in context as a temporary model. The eternal reign, or kingdom of God has been inaugurated by the coming of the Lord Jesus, and there is now neither Jew nor Greek and people out of all nations are being drawn to him (Rom 10:12–13; 11:25–27; Gal 3:28–29; 1 Peter 2:9–10). Certainly, that reign is still to be consummated, but in that full realisation of it, there will be “no temple in that city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22).

Jesus defines the Old Testament types; they do not define or limit him. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4). Jesus revealed more about himself, the Father and the Holy Spirit than the Old Testament could, but the traces are there, for they testify to him. Jesus fulfilled — completed — the Scriptures; they did not define or complete him. Scripture did not paint him into a corner or constrain him; it was a preview for what he came to do, his eternal grand design, revealed piece by piece. God completed the work begun at creation, “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:9–11).

 

References

  1. Augustine, Questiones in Hepateuchum http:www.augustinius.it/latino/questioni_ettayeuco/index2.htm
  2. Warfield, Benjamin B. Biblical Doctrines. repub. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988, 141–142.
  3. The classic polemic, Against Marcion, was written by Tertullian c.208 AD http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0312.htm
  4. John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005. Particularly chapter 2, “Christ is the End of the Law and the Prophets,” 24-44.
  5. Which is how Robert Roberts defines the atonement in The Blood of Christ, 1895. repr. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006.

Freedom

What is freedom? For some it might mean freedom from debt or from worry. Sadly, for many people in our world it would still mean freedom from slavery, oppression, persecution, even fear of their own government. For many, particularly in the West, it might suggest freedom to do whatever we feel like, pursue whatever goals we have, and for some it might mean freedom from constraints of social imperatives and the law. The Bible says, “for freedom, Christ has set us free,” and “if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” At its heart, a major theme of Christianity from start to finish is freedom, but what does this actually mean? Some Christians seem to not be free at all, but burdened by guilt and hemmed in by restrictions and rules. Other “brands” of so-called Christianity espouse a prosperity-oriented gospel that promises a life of comfort and financial security. But neither of these demonstrate the true freedom to which Christ calls an enslaved world.

To an original reader of the scriptures in the ancient world, the obvious antithesis of “freedom” was slavery. Actual physical slavery characterised the life of many. People could be enslaved because they had been conquered, or as punishment. They could be sold, or even sell themselves, into slavery because they were poor. Although many types of ancient slavery were horribly oppressive, and masters literally had power of life and death and over the very bodies of their slaves, sometimes slavery was lifesaving. With no universal health care, social service, income protection or unemployment benefits, if a peasant farmer’s crops failed, or the breadwinner of the family died, there was little option but to work as a slave. The Law of Moses turned slavery from a harsh and evil institution to something akin to welfare provision. There were strict rules about fair and compassionate treatment of slaves and compulsory release after seven years. A period of indenture could save one’s family. In the Roman empire at the time the New Testament was written, the lot of the slave covered a spectrum from cruel and wretched toil, brutal treatment and the likelihood of crucifixion for transgression, through to being virtually a member of the household with significant responsibility for the education of the children or management of household affairs. Freedom could be purchased, and some slaves were permitted to become freedmen. One estimate puts the number of slaves in the Roman empire as high as 25% of the populace (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/ancient-rome/roman-slaves/).

It’s not surprising then, that slavery features very strongly in the Bible, not only in terms of legal prescriptions for Israel, exhortations for Christian slaves and masters but as a metaphor for redemption. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the defining point in their existence as a nation. Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as the One who brought his people out of the land of slavery, the foundation of the ten commandments (Ex 20:2). Magnificent as this redemption was in its own right, it was also a type of the greater redemption God would bring about in and through Christ. As a consequence of Christ’s atoning work, sinners of all nations have been redeemed, purchased out from slavery to sin. The Greek words “ransom” and “redeem” (lutron, lutrosis, apolutrosis) as applied to the atonement, relate unequivocally to purchase out of slavery. Christians have been purchased (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 6:20; 1 Pet 1;18–19; Rev 5:9). Jesus declared that his life was to be given as a ransom (lutron) for many (Mark 10:45). In the Graeco-Roman world, a slave could be set free by payment of a sum at the shrine of a god, effectively purchasing them for that deity, never to be enslaved again. The expression used was payment “for freedom,” and this familiar term was used by Paul to speak of the liberation achieved by Christ (Gal 5:1).

To what or whom are humans enslaved, then, which requires the costly ransom payment of the blood of Christ to redeem us from? And to what freedom has the Christian been redeemed? In John 8:32–36, Jesus was disputing with the Jewish leaders. He told them that the truth would set them free. They replied indignantly that they were Abraham’s offspring and had never been enslaved to anyone (conveniently forgetting their enslavement in Egypt!). Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Only the Son can truly set them free. Paul’s letter to Romans systematically explained that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Our archetypal parents committed the archetypal sin; they disobeyed God because they wanted to be autonomous. God had allowed them access to the tree of life, but forbidden the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The essence of the serpent’s temptation was that if they ignored God’s silly rule (implied to be a lie!) they would be like gods, knowing good and evil (Gen 2:9, 16; 3:1-7). This had great appeal, so they took it upon themselves to be masters of their own destiny, arbiters of good and evil independent of their Creator. Adam and Eve sought freedom, but it was the wrong sort; it was an illusion. They claimed the freedom to do as they pleased and it brought the freedom to sin and to die, which is no freedom at all. In fact, they shook off what they thought was a divine restriction on their freedom, only to become enslaved to sin. As Augustine put it, they were now unable not to sin. They unseated God from the throne of their hearts and put themselves in his place, but the self is a very poor master. We likewise were once enslaved (Titus 3:3).

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,” wrote Paul (Rom 1:18). Humans willingly ignored God and began serving created things rather than their Creator, and God gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts (Rom 1:21–25). The result is all the sin we see that stems from selfishness and the worship of other than God (Rom 1:2–32). Humankind thus reaps the wages of sin; death, just as God had warned. Whatever or whoever we obey enslaves us. If we obey the inclinations to sin, we are slaves of sin, which leads to death (Rom 6:16). “You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness,” Paul reminded the Romans. This might have seemed like freedom, “in regard to righteousness,” but it was in fact slavery to sin “Freedom” to do whatever we want, to follow our own sinful inclinations, appears to be true freedom but this is an illusion. It brings forth shameful fruit and no eternal gain whatsoever, only death (Rom 6:19–23).

But just as sin entered the world through Adam, and death through sin (Rom 5:12) so grace came through Jesus Christ. His death bought our redemption; “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers. not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18–19). By aligning ourselves with Christ, accepting his gracious sacrifice on our behalf, we are united with him in his death and resurrection. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom 6:6–8). Sin no longer has dominion over us, its reign is broken, we are no longer its slave (Rom 6:8–14; Heb 2:15). Yes, we still sin, but we are now motivated and empowered not to. By God’s grace and strength we can say “no” to sin, because his law is now written on our hearts. We are not motivated to sin and we present our “members” — all our faculties — to God as instruments of righteousness rather than as instruments for unrighteousness (Rom 6:12–14). Augustine again: we are now “able not to sin.” (That’s not the same as “not able to sin,” which will happen at the final consummation of our salvation). Because Christ has achieved our redemption and justification, Paul could triumphantly proclaim, “The re is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1–2). Not “will set you free eventually,” or “might set you free if you’re good enough,” but has set you free! There is NOW no condemnation! We are no longer debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh and therefore die, Paul continues. Like the man sold into slavery for indebtedness and then ransomed, we are free of that debt to our old master. The reason is, by the Spirit we have been made sons of God (Rom 8:12–16).

Reading through Romans and other New Testament writings that contrast slavery to sin with freedom in Christ, the reader is struck by the repeated contrast between slavery and sonship. Not only has Christ purchased us from slavery and freed us from its mastery, he has made us not merely slaves, but sons. In the ancient world, the contrast would have been well known. Even the most elevated, useful, trusted slave in a household was still a slave and well below the level of any of the sons, even if the slave might be their pedagogue. By contrasting the Christian’s sonship with their previous slavery the point was powerfully driven home. It is by the Spirit (not by our own strength) that we put to death the deeds of the body and are enabled to live. But even more, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:13–16). Even the non-sentient creation, which was also subjected to futility and bondage to corruption on our account, will ultimately obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, when Christ makes all things new (Rom 8:19–23). We currently have the firstfruits of the Spirit, who has been given us as a guarantee of our ultimate complete adoption and the redemption of our very bodies also. This will complete our redemption so that we shall be like Christ and finally “not able to sin.” Paul had earlier written on this theme in Galatians. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Gal 4:6–8). Adoption through the Spirit — sonship — no longer enslaved; these are inseparable concepts for Paul.

In related claim which would have evoked the redemptive acts of God in the Old Testament, John was able to rejoice that “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth… who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev 1:5–6). The kingdom of priests, the holy nation, (Ex 19:5–6) God’s own people, found fulfillment beyond the national borders of Israel to embrace the children of God out of every nation. The Jews could not appreciate this, for a veil lay over their hearts, “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:15–17). The Law which God gave Israel was holy and good, but because it relied on obedience, it was of no use in restraining sin. In fact, sin became amplified by being more thoroughly defined. External imposition of rules does not change the inherently sinful heart; only death to sin and a renewed heart can do that. Paul contrasts the Galatians’ former enslavement under the Law, which could only bring condemnation by highlighting sin, with the freedom of the Christian. To illustrate this, he uses the allegory of the slave woman Hagar who represents Sinai and the Law and could only produce children of slavery, with the freewoman Sarah, who represents new Jerusalem and bore the child of promise (Gal 4:7–31). Paul’s intent is to drive home the message to the Galatians, that now being free in Christ as God’s very sons, why would they want to return to slavery? How could they possibly think that performance of “works” would make them right with God? The only way to be right with God is to become his child.

“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal 4:7–10). For Paul it is not just about the Law of Moses no longer being their master, but the whole futile attempt to be saved by human works. He writes of the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” to which they would be returning if, through being circumcised they became once again debtors to the whole law, fall away from Christ and become alienated from grace (Gal 3:10; 5:2–6). We, as Isaac typified, are born according to the Spirit, children of the free. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Gal 5:1). Being under the law means relying on the flesh and opposing the Spirit, but the flesh can only produce fruits of corruption. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law, is produced by those who walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:17–25).

Paul takes up this theme again in Ephesians. God predestined us for adoption as his sons through Christ (Eph 1:5). In him we have redemption through his blood (1:7). When we believed, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). Once we were dead in trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, carrying out the desires of the body and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy “made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2:1–7). He reiterates, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8–9).

This is why legalistic denominations which impose rules on their members and preach the necessity of works for acceptance by God are so harmful. “Touch not, taste not, handle not!” (Dress a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way, play a certain type of music, avoid activities that fit the denomination’s definition of “worldly”). Legalism destroys the gospel. It denies the sonship God has graciously granted and seeks enslavement once again. It repeats the sin of Adam and Eve, by grasping at a self-made righteousness by works, becoming indebted once again to the “whole law.” It says, “thanks but no thanks, I’ve got this,” to God’s grace. It demoralises and embitters Christians by setting standards to which they must aspire, and reach by the effort of “doing.” It denies the Spirit whom God has given us as his guarantee of our sonship, the righteousness which comes from God, the reassurance and empowerment. Legalism denies “that the Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.” (Christadelphian Statement of Faith, doctrine to be rejected #24). Sonship of God means so much more than formal titles of “brother” and “sister.” It means there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because we are no longer slaves, but sons. It means God’s Spirit indwells and testifies to that sonship and enables us to call God “Papa.” It does not mean more rules and a return to fear of not being counted “worthy.” As we contemplate the complete and finished work that Christ has done, this Easter time and beyond, let Paul and Peter have the last word, from Colossians 2: 20–23 and 1 Peter 2:16:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch,’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) —according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

Women in the First Century Church

This blog has been provided in response to some recent discussion on the role of women in the first century church in light of 1 Timothy 2:11–14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. The original essay provided a detailed exegesis of the Greek text, which I have translated for this forum. The traditional Christadelphian interpretation of these passages (and that of many mainstream churches as well) has been that God, writing through Paul, requires all women in all ages to maintain a literal silence in church meetings and to submit to all men. This precludes them from praying, reading scripture aloud, open discussion, “leadership” roles, leading Bible studies or speaking “from the platform” in any context. Recently, many members of the Christadelphian community, men as well as women, have questioned this interpretation and believe it to be detrimental to God’s design for the body of Christ and a source of disillusionment for current and potential members.

In addressing this interpretation of these two passages, I make three assumptions fundamental to good exegesis. Verses must be interpreted in context, rather than in isolation from their place within the immediate text and within the canon. Secondly, scripture should not contradict scripture; if it seems to, we must review our interpretation. Thirdly, Jesus Christ is central, and a final interpretation must be consistent with the gospel. Initially, the exegete must establish the text, that is, look for variants in the extant manuscripts. With reference to the UBS Greek NT textual apparatus, there are no variants for 1 Tim 2:11–14. The text for 1 Cor 14:34–35 is rated as “almost certain” according to the majority of significant manuscripts, with minor variants. The following is my translation, based on the discussion below.

Let a wife (gyne) learn in quitetude (hesousia), in all subjection (hypotage), for I do not permit a wife to teach nor to dominate (authentein) her husband (aner) but to be in quietude (hesousia). For Adam was formed first then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but his wife (gyne), having been wholly deceived, resulted in (became) transgression.” (1 Tim 2:11–14)

Let the wives (gyne) in the assemblies (ekklesias) be silent, for they are not permitted to speak in/for themselves, but let them be in submission (hypotasso), just as the law says. But if they are wanting to learn anything, let them ask (eperotao) their own husbands (aner) in the home, for it is shameful for a wife (gyne) to speak in assembly (ekkelsia).” (1 Cor 14:34–35)

Wives and Husbands
Are these passages speaking about men and women generally, or about husbands and their wives? Both 1 Tim 2:11–14 and 1Cor 14:34–35 use the terms gyne (woman, wife) and aner (man, husband). Whether the words are translated man/woman or wife/husband depends on the context. The more general term for “man” is anthropos, which can also mean “human being” of either/both sexes. Jesus is ho hios anthropou, the Son of Man, in that he shares our humanity. Aner and anthropos are both frequently translated “man,” but only aner is translated “husband” in the NT. Gyne can be used of any adult woman, including a wife and a virgin. From 1 Tim 2:8 through 3:12 each mention of man/husband or woman/wife is aner/gyne. The context is appropriate oversight of the ekklesia where Timothy is an elder/overseer. It seems likely that Paul is consistently discussing husbands and wives here, certainly in chapter 3 where an overseer or deacon is to be (literally) a “one-woman man.” This is the right and proper use of sexual relations, in contrast to those mentioned in 1:10.

1 Corinthians 14 is also discussing appropriate behaviour in the assembly (ekklesia). Here it is possible to be more definitive; the women/wives are to ask tous idious andras, their own men/husbands at home, which is clearly a marriage context. Elsewhere, when aner and gyne appear together, the meaning is invariably husband and wife (1 Cor 7, 1 Cor 11, Matt 1:16–19; Mark 10:12; Luke 2:36; 16:18; John 4:16–18; Acts 5:9–10; Rom 7:2–3; 2 Cor 11:3; Titus 1:6; Rev 21:2). So we’re on pretty safe ground regarding 1 Timothy 2 to be speaking of husbands and wives and it would be straining the sense to argue otherwise.

Headship and authority
This helps make sense of another controversial passage, 1 Cor 11:3–15. The word for “man” is aner throughout. The passage is speaking about husbands and wives in the assembly, not men and women generally. Christ is not only head of the ekklesia (Eph 4:15–16; Col 1:18) but is head over everything (Eph 1:10, 22; Col 2:10). The husband covering his head would be symbolically covering Christ, his head. Man and woman were both created in the image of God so it is not a superiority-inferiority issue (Gen 1:27) although only Christ fulfils this image and truly glorifies God. Conversely it is appropriate for the wife to cover her head, which represents the husband. This passage, with its reference to “authority (exousia) on her head because of the angels” is difficult to understand today, but presumably made complete sense to the first century Corinthians who were a predominantly Gentile assembly (and probably didn’t have many Nazirites who, of course, had “disgraceful” long hair). Graeco-Roman matrons wore a kalumma, a type of veil, on their head. This signified that they were not a mistress, prostitute, pagan priestess, slave or adulteress (the latter having their heads shaved). There are strong cultural elements here which obviously had a great bearing on the interactions between the sexes in this strife-ridden, schismatic congregation. This whole section from chapter 10 through 14 is a taking to task of the Corinthians for all manner of indecent and disorderly community activities, from turning the fellowship meal into a bun-fight, to undisciplined exercise of spiritual gifts, with chapter 13 a reproof against their lack of love. This lovelessness lay at the centre of their competitiveness, greed, showmanship, and partisanship. In contrast, their behaviours should have been kind, patient, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on their own way, etc.

So when in 1 Timothy 2:12 the wife is instructed not to govern or have authority over her husband, it would seem to be an appropriate reflection of decency and order in the marriage relationship as exhibited in the assembly. The word translated “govern/have authority over” is not the usual word for authority, exousia, but authentein, which is used only here in the NT and nowhere in the canonical books of the OT. It is found twice in the LXX apocrypha, in 3 Maccabees 2:29 and Wisdom 12:6. The lexicon meaning covers a semantic range of having autocratic power, or absolute authority over, to dictate to, give orders to or even (as in the apocryphal references) to have the power of life and death over someone. With no other NT usage we need to dip into its secular usage to understand it, but also appreciate that it is a hotly debated word. A good rule of thumb in such instances is to not build a major doctrinal point on a word or phrase whose meaning no one can really agree on. However, it does seem that Paul is forbidding an overbearing sort of authority of a wife over her husband, bossing him around, dictating to him, perhaps overriding and contradicting him. That is not the way a wife should treat her husband (nor, incidentally, how a husband should treat his wife if he follows Eph 5:25, 28–29). Christ is our supreme ruler, our head, and he has every right to tell us what to do, and has the power of life and death — all exousia in heaven and on earth in fact (Matt 28:18). However he doesn’t wield this as authentein type power, but “while we were still sinners, he died for us” (Rom 5:8).

This passage is surely commending a state of “decency and order” in the assembly, where no one is shouting anyone else down (in tongues or otherwise) and everyone takes turns. It certainly doesn’t preclude the wife saying anything, nor from praying or prophesying.

Quietness and subjection
So, rather than exercising independent authority, dominating her husband, the wife should be “in hesouchia and learn in all hypotage.” Hesouchia means a state of quietness without disturbance; rest, peacefulness, saying little or nothing. It may mean silence, but not necessarily. Hypotage is a state of submissiveness, subjection or subordination. Note that the passage does not specify that the woman must be in subjection to men generally, in fact it just says “in subjection.” It could mean to her husband, or to whoever is teaching at the time. In immediate context, it presumably means the husband, whom she is not to rudely contradict or dominate. (Picture the scene in Bible class; George is leading and his wife Mabel yells, “That’s not what it says, George, you idiot! Don’t listen to him, brothers and sisters, my husband has no idea! Here, let me explain the passage…” Rather, Mabel should hold her peace and query George politely at home, or find a way of exploring the meaning without putting him down or exercising a greater authority. In fact, by tactfully steering the discussion Mabel might actually save George from an embarrassing mistake!)

To whom are women to be subject? Well, to the same people as men; the governing authorities (Rom 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13) to fellow-labourers in the gospel (1 Cor 16:14) the Father of spirits (Heb 12:7) to our masters, if we are house servants (1 Pet 2:18) and to our elders (1 Peter 5:5). All these use variants of hypotasso (a related word to hypotage, meaning to submit or be subordinate). Paul in Ephesians 5:21 says that wives and husbands are to submit (hypotasso) to each other and further emphasises that for the wife this is to be as to the Lord (vv22, 24). The reason being, that within the family, the husband represents Christ. 1 Peter 3:1 likewise says that wives should hypotasso their own husbands (tois idiois andrasin) — not just any man or all men, but to their own husbands. 1 Peter 3:1 is interesting in that it is discussing the specific case of a believing wife with an unbelieving husband. Doubtless she wouldn’t learn much by asking that husband at home (!) but God requires her to submit to him (unless it conflicts with God’s principles) even if he’s no better than a servant’s master or a secular authority. The object being that the unbelieving husband might be won over by the conduct of the Christian wife — surely a form of teaching?

The appeal to Creation
1 Timothy 2:13–14 gives the reason for the woman’s quiet, respectful behaviour. Adam was formed first, then Eve. This takes us back to creation, predating the Law and any particular culture or custom. This fits with the “husband as the head of the wife” principle; she was made a fitting helper for him (1 Cor 11:3; Gen 2:21–24). The man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh, submitting to each other, loving each other and modelling Christ and his ekklesia. The problem was, the woman was deceived by the serpent, and she influenced her husband and that caused “transgression.” It’s interesting that Adam always cops the blame for the first sin and the entry of sin into the world. 2 Cor 11:3 mentions Eve being deceived by the serpent’s cunning (as a warning to both men and women) but apart from that, Eve doesn’t rate a mention in the NT; the blame for the sin is laid on Adam; in Adam we die. I don’t think the Bible is saying Eve didn’t sin; she did. She disobeyed. But she was deceived. And in her state of deception she exerted inappropriate authority over Adam; she gave him the fruit, and he ate. Why? Because she — and he — wanted to be like God, making their own decisions about good and evil (Gen 3:5–6). Ultimately, sin comes down to humans trying to be God, exercising autonomy. But Adam, as her husband, should have exercised authority over her and he didn’t, he went along with the disobedience (Gen 3:17). That same sort of inversion of the husband and wife relationship can lead to the authentein, the inappropriate dominance of the wife over the husband. That is the problem, not the wife “speaking,” per se. Eve wasn’t told to be silent, after all. One consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was the corruption of their relationship. The pendulum was to swing back the other way, and husbands would thereafter tend to rule over and dominate their wives (Gen 3:16) sometimes with violence and humiliation, contra the model of Christ. This sinful behaviour is a consequence of the fall and it is not the ideal.

No talking!
So we come to 1 Corinthians 14:34. This passage doesn’t just require the wife to not dominate her husband, but not to speak at all. The immediate context is, again, wives and husbands in the assembly (ekklesia) and the wider context is everything being done decently and in order. Paul wrote these instructions specifically to the Corinthians because of their dreadful behaviour. While we have to be careful not to haphazardly or selectively relegate passages of scripture to a particular cultural context, we do need to be aware that we do not now meet and worship in the first century Corinthian ekklesia. Otherwise we would have issues with food sacrificed to idols, master-slave relationships and be prophesying and speaking in tongues. We would be recent converts from paganism and be struggling with significant class issues and behaviours that pagan society regarded as normal. Our problems today might be similar, but they aren’t identical. So, is Paul’s instruction to wives to keep silent meant to be normative in all ekklesias in all ages? That’s the $64 question. We have already discussed the issue of subjection (it’s the same word hypotasso). Note once again that the verse does not specifically state to whom the wives are to be subject, but logically it would seem to be their husbands. There is certainly no case here for them to be subject to every man. The word for “speak” is lalein, which means regular speaking and does not necessarily mean prophecy or tongues; Paul uses the specific words for those. The wives are not permitted to speak in (or of/for) themselves (dative case) which could suggest they should not speak autonomously from their husbands, that idea of independent authority again. Instead, they can ask their own husbands. In fact, the word “ask” here is quite assertive; it can mean to interrogate or demand!

What law?
Paul adds by way of explanation, “just as also the law says.” When Paul uses the unqualified term “law,” nomos, throughout his writings, he means the Law of Moses and he is absolutely adamant that the Christian is free from that (Rom 3:27–28; 6:14–15; 7:4–6; 8:2; 10:4; Gal 2:19; 3:11–12; 3:24–25; Eph 2:15). Creation principles and promises are not “law.” However, the accounts of Adam and Eve and the establishment of marriage are written in the first book of Moses, which in Jewish parlance constituted “the Law” (e.g. John 1:45). So Paul is referring to the Genesis  creation ordinance of marriage and the disruption of it due to the fall, but that is not “the law of sin and death” or any other aspect of the Mosaic commandments and ordinances. Jesus made the point that the marriage covenant predates and supersedes the Mosaic Law (Matt 19:4–8).

Is Corinth normative?
So we are left with the clear imperative for wives, in the context of this passage, in the assembly with their husbands, to keep silent. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the command transcends first century Corinth and is normative and universal, and overrides the lesser “restriction” in 1 Tim 2. This must pass the test of being consistent with the rest of scripture and here the problem lies. Even in Corinth women were permitted to pray and prophesy (provided it was orderly and with the culturally appropriate signification of their married state by the wearing of a kalumma). In Eph 5:19-21, in the very context of husbands and wives in assembly, Paul encourages them to address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is an admonition to non-silent mutual submission! Exactly the same association occurs in Colossians 3:16-19 where they are commanded to teach and admonish (exhort) one another!. So there’s at least two other ekklesias where Paul positively encouraged verbal communication between and amongst husbands and wives in the ekklesia. So no, the “complete silence” interpretation of Corinth’s special restrictions cannot be considered normative and applicable to all ekklesias in every age.

Women as servants and fellow workers
One final point; whatever one’s stance on whether women should lead the Sunday service or Bible studies, or “teach” in any situations, or have positions of “authority” in the ekklesia generally (and for the record, I think Timothy and Titus are clear that elders/overseers and “ordained” deacons should be male — and married ones at that, so they can demonstrate leadership in their households) there is certainly scope for women in the ekklesia to do a lot more than catering. The “assembly” is not necessarily restricted to one particular organisation with its constitution and arranging brethren, nor to Sunday morning memorial meetings. I said “ordained” deacons because the word diakonos simply means “servant” and Paul also used it in a more general sense for service in the ekklesia, including service by women (Rom 16:1). Although the eldership and episcopacy of the NT ekklesia were male, it seems that women played a role as hosts of house churches and their associated communities, in organisational and service roles (Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15). Women prayed and prophesied (1 Cor 11:5) and ministered (Rom 16:1, 6, 12, 13, 15; Phil 4:2–3; 2 Tim 4:21) and, at least as husband and wife teams, taught and evangelised (Acts 18:26).

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). If “prophecy” in its simplest form is speaking God’s word, then women should read the Bible in public. They aren’t reading their own words, they are reading God’s. If and when an ekklesia recognises the appropriateness of a sister giving an address or leading discussion, it behoves that sister to do so in such a way that she will not dominate, belittle or exert independent authority over her husband. She will not be quarrelsome or arrogant or present herself as superior, but “restful,” with a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4) because by God’s grace she has much to offer. A virtuous women (Prov 31) is worth more than jewels, the heart of her husband trusts in her and she does him good and not harm. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.

 

Lexicon definitions are taken from Danker, FW, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG) University of Chicago Press, 2000.

First Century Church?

What do we really know about the first century church? In some respects, quite a lot. There is good evidence that all the books and letters which would become “The New Testament,” the scriptures of the New Covenant which completed and fulfilled the Old, were written and in circulation by the end of the first century. These books and letters allow us to see into the minds of the Spirit-filled apostles who led the early church, under Christ. They provide insight into some of the early church’s practices, the problems they faced and the solutions the apostles advised. But in other respects we know very little about the practices and way of life of the early church and how it might have differed from community to community. And is it legitimate to say that those practices of which we are aware, unlike the doctrinal statements and imperatives of the scriptures, are normative for the church in all ages since? To what extent should we be aiming to imitate the first century church, if that is even possible?

The Christadelphian community purports to be “the modern revival of the apostolic faith,” the faith and practice of the first century church. According to Christadelphian tradition, the early church rapidly went astray in doctrine and practice almost as soon as the last of the apostles passed from the scene, around the end of the first century [1]. Ergo, very little of the doctrine and practice of the church from the second century onward can be relied upon as a source of Christian truth, and so the church remained apostate for some 1800 years until the apostolic faith was rediscovered and reinstituted by Dr John Thomas in the mid-nineteenth century. Although  this exclusive claim to truth has been toned down and even discarded by many Christadelphians, it nevertheless was and remains the traditional and conservative Christadelphian position. Furthermore, it is claimed, the Christadelphians’ distinctive claim to practice original Christianity is because they, uniquely, draw on the Bible alone as their source for doctrine and practice.

The Christadelphians are a small religious group of people who follow the faith and beliefs of the first century Christians as recorded in the Bible. We believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God and is our only guide.” [2]

If some of the early followers of the apostles in the first century could attend such [Christadelphian] meetings, it is believed that they would immediately recognise what was going on, for it is patterned on New Testament worship” [3]

What then, would be expect a “modern revival of the apostolic faith” to look like? What would we expect a community modelled on the first century ecclesia to look like? The apostles left both an oral/exemplary tradition and a written tradition to the church. During the apostolic and immediately post-apostolic period, the oral/exemplary tradition was understood in terms of a “Rule of Faith” which defined the essence of the Gospel and how Scripture should be interpreted. Although the New Testament documents were circulating along with the Hebrew scriptures, there was as yet no single compendium of works called “The New Testament.” If a first century believer were to define the “New Testament” they would doubtless think of the new covenant in Christ’s atoning blood (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Co3:6; Heb 9:15; 12:24; Jer 31:31–34), enshrined in the Gospel, and the apostolic Rule of Faith (Gal 1:6–12). Individual communities would have had variable access to the actual apostolic writings, but we do know that they were available in the first century (1 Tim 5:18 citing a gospel; 2 Peter 3:15–16) and in fairly extensive circulation in the second, cited extensively alongside the Hebrew scriptures by the early church fathers. It was apostolicity that eventually framed the corpus of Scripture, not the other way around. So the first century church followed the apostles’ teaching but it did not follow “the whole Bible” and nothing else. It didn’t yet have the whole Bible.

The first century church began as a new branch of Judaism, recognising in Christ the fulfilment of God’s plan for Israel and the nations, as prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures. The church was the new “Israel of God” (Gal 6:15–16). Initial preaching began among Jews and spread to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles (Acts 8:25; 11:19–21; 13:46; Rom 9:24). Many early Gentile converts were already “God fearers,” attracted to Judaism and frequenting the synagogues (Acts 8:27ff), but soon Christianity spread through the pagan community (1 Cor 6:9–11; 12:3–11). Although not without some conflict, it became a welcoming, diverse but inclusive community (Gal 3:28) and eventually Jewish Christians were in the minority. Moving into the second century the Jews denied that the Christians were part of their community and “religio licita.” The Romans recognised this too, not granting this new upstart breakaway group the tolerance accorded to the ancient tradition of Judaism. Nor did the Christians see themselves as mere extensions of Israel. Israel was not the church and the church was not Israel. If Jews were to be saved they must join Christ’s body (Acts 4:11-12).

The Christian message was Christocentric, built on the foundation of the apostle and prophets fulfilled in Jesus. First century Christians were not a political body and initially had few members with worldly influence (1 Cor 1:26). They did not seek to found a Christian state, but simply to be allowed to worship God and spread the Gospel to all without distinction. They honoured the emperor but did not worship him (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17). They would by no means worship other gods, which were regarded as demons, nor pay homage to the emperor as a deity. They did not participate in Roman social, political, sporting, community and religious events, which were associated with paganism (1 Cor 10:19–21). This meant they came to be viewed as atheists, antisocial, obstinate and “haters of mankind.” They looked to the future consummation of the kingdom, which they believed was imminent. They shared everything and had structured systems for the care of the poor and destitute among them (Acts 4:34–37; 6:1–6; 1 Cor 5:1–16). To this end they gave generously of their means for the welfare of “the least of these.” They met in private homes; it was only in the late second to third centuries that dedicated church buildings were used. Although there might be hundreds of Christians in a church community, they met as small house churches (Acts 12:12; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 1:1–2) .

Doctrinally, it is anachronistic to say that the first century Christians based their beliefs solely on the Old and New Testament scriptures, because they didn’t yet exist as a complete package. They based their doctrines on the apostles’ teaching as circulated orally and (eventually) in writing. They also had direct instruction and influence from the Holy Spirit, including gifts of “prophecy” and “discerning of spirits” (whatever those actually meant) (1 Cor 12:3–11). Converts were baptised on profession of faith in Jesus’s lordship with apparently no extended period of instruction or catechumenate in this period (Acts 16:13–15; 18:8; 19:4–5; Rom 10:9–13). That there was some instruction necessary where converts were not already familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and their application to Christ was evident, but this could evidently be accomplished quickly (Acts 16: 30–33). This may largely be due to the relatively scant influences of what would become the major heresies of the second to fourth centuries. Later, when most converts were drawn from pagan society, a formal catechumenate was established prior to baptism, the emphasis apparently not being on doctrinal instruction but on lifestyle reform.

The earliest extant confessions of the Rule of Faith outside the New Testament come from later periods, but preserved within the text of the New Testament itself are a number of early Christian hymns and doxologies based on confessions of belief. The early Christians sang “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in their worship (Eph 5:8-20) and this practice is attested in very early second century writings. [4] The New Testament era Christians clearly worshipped Christ, his worthiness of worship a prerogative clearly reserved for God alone. For example, Hebrews 13:20–21 is a doxology that both praises God and ascribes glory to Christ. Christ is glorified alongside God in such doxologies as 2 Peter 3:18 and Rev 5:12–13. Philippians 2:6–11 is widely regarded as a fragment of a hymn to Christ, written or at least cited by Paul, which describes Christ as having the form of God but taking on the form of a servant and after his exaltation receiving the descriptor of God from Isaiah 45:23–24. An early expression of a rule of faith is 1 Timothy 3:16; “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He [God] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

Early pagan testimonies described the Christianoi as superstitious worshipers of a crucified Jew. Christians as a group were allegedly singled out by Nero in 64 AD as scapegoats after the fire of Rome.[5] We know that the early Christians met in closed meetings to worship and to break bread. We don’t know how often they did it, but it seems to have been associated with a larger community meal. In the second century we have descriptions in the Didache (an early church manual) and the writings of Justin Martyr which tell us about these agape or “love feasts,” which were misconstrued by outsiders as incestuous and cannibalistic rites. They practised baptism for initiation. There is no direct statement in the scriptures regarding the mode of baptism. The Greek words derive from root meanings of plunging, washing, change and renewal and the method most congruent with this would be immersion, however there is some evidence that pouring (effusion) was also used quite early on. There are no New Testament references to queries or disputes about the mode of baptism so it is impossible to say if there may have been variants. The Didache commends baptism in running water, although pouring is permitted. [6]

Individual church communities were led by elders (presbuteroi), appointed by the laying on of hands (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 4:13–14; Titus 1:5–6). There were also diakonoi, or servants (Rom 16:1; Phil 1:1; Col 4:7; 1 Tim 3:8–13). The elders were also referred to as overseers (episcopoi or “bishops”). From the late first century one elder seems to have been singled out for a leadership role as overseer of a local community. This bishop’s primary duty was to keep the church united according to the apostolic deposit or rule of faith. [7] Although the eldership and episcopacy were male, it seems that women played a role as hosts of house churches and their associated communities, in organisational and service roles (Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15). Women prayed and prophesied (1 Cor 11:5) and ministered (Rom 16:1, 6, 12, 13, 15; Phil 4:2–3; 2 Tim 4:21) and, at least as husband and wife teams, taught and evangelised (Acts 18:26). Were ministers paid? It seems that full time ministers were supported by the church, at least for necessities, although Paul voluntarily declined this support (1 Cor 9:1–17).

We also know about some of the disputes and problems within the first century church, because Paul’s letters were written to address them. These issues included Judaizing tendencies (Galatia) schisms and slander, immorality, idolatrous associations, lawsuits between believers, impropriety in worship, discrimination, class distinction and greed, misuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection (Corinth) misinformation (Thessalonica) threat of false teachers (Timothy, Titus, John’s epistles) slavery (Philemon) and persecution (1 Peter). How widespread were these problems and issues? Judaizing ceased to be a problem after a few decades, but problems due to transition from pagan society continued. Persecution stepped up, but was not continuous and was mainly local and “non official” until the mid third century. Did all churches fight about who had the best spiritual gifts and which apostle they would follow, or just Corinth? Were the Thessalonians the only ones confused about the second coming? What other problems were there for which we don’t have inspired written solutions? Perhaps there were many local variants of “the” church.

These questions and a socio-cultural comparison beg an important overriding question. Without disputing the inspiration of Scripture, the authority of the apostles and their actual teachings, to what extent was the first century church normative for all Christians, in every age? In other words, must we imitate the first century church (warts and all) in detail? In other words, a first century church transplanted to today would consist primarily of the lower classes, would have few possessions and meet only in homes, would share its resources to the point where luxury was eschewed and priority given to support of the poor, would meet in the early mornings before work, support its full time ministers, allow women to pray and prophesy in church, allow time in the service for orderly speaking in tongues and prophecy, not dress up for church, include the Lord’s supper in a communal meal, encourage grandparents and other elders and widows to live with their wider families and be supported by them, sell land and goods to give to the poor, not participate in secular social gatherings, sporting and entertainment events and baptise on the simple confession of faith in Jesus as Lord.

This is problematic on several levels. House churches in places like China probably fit this pattern very nicely and doubtless a transplanted first century Christian would feel very much at home in one. But what about the ecclesia of John Thomas’ or Robert Roberts’ day, fighting its battles on complex doctrinal points and encouraging an intellectual apprehension of the Gospel that denied any relevance to spiritual gifts or apostolic tradition? Whose gatherings were formal, proper and Victorian in style and whose members espoused imperial and enlightenment world views? Or a modern Christadelphian meeting in Australia, the UK or the USA? Would they encounter a largely prosperous middle class congregation, dressed in suits and ties or nice dresses with fashionable hats? Would they find a Spirit-filled congregation heartily worshiping and ascribing glory to Christ, or one espousing a legalistic doctrinal stance that relies on works, not grace, for salvation? Would our first century Christian “pass” a typical baptismal interview? Would they see a blessed congregation of the poor who did not acquire for themselves the trappings of prosperous western society, but sold and shared as much as they could manage in order to feed and clothe the poor and welcome the stranger? A community known not just for its anti-social moral stance but for its good works to all?

Before the reader puts forward a number of objections to this comparison, we need to decide what aspects of the Bible are permitted to be relativised. Maybe circumcision isn’t an attraction today, but does the ecclesia desire its converts to conform to some other type of social norm or set of rules? If women are to cover their heads, are they permitted to pray and prophesy whilst doing so? Does an unwritten expectation of an appropriate “standard” of dress on a Sunday deter an unkempt person who shows up out of curiosity, seeking love and hope? Many of these criticisms apply to mainstream churches too, and they certainly do not apply to every Christadelphian ecclesia. But most other churches do not make the exclusive claims to truth and first century practice that Christadelphians traditionally have.

If it is legitimate for a denomination to insist that it alone interprets the Scriptures the way the first century Christians did, we would expect to see a Christ-worshiping, community meeting in homes and led by the Holy Spirit’s direct workings and apostolic tradition. It would be evangelical, unworldly, not enamoured with money and possessions and comfort, seeking only to save the lost and help the poor. Women would play an active role in ministry, and it wouldn’t be limited to catering and playing (selected) musical instruments. Conversion would focus on the work of Christ, not the works of men, and would be based on simple confession of faith. It may not be possible to fully transplant a first century Graeco-Roman lifestyle into the twenty-first century, so some aspects would have to be relativised. But what things? Bible-believing Christians have wrestled with such issues for centuries and may or may not have got it right, but it seems illegitimate to dismiss 1800 years of history and theology and mount an exclusive claim to live the first century apostolic faith in contrast to broader Christianity.

 

1. Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray from the Bible (Repr. West Beach SA: Logos, 1984) 21–23

2. Australian Christadelphians http://christadelphian.org.au/

3. Fred Pearce, Who are the Christadelphians? Introducing a Bible-based Community (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, n.d.) 2

4. such as Pliny AD 111–115 “[Christians] declared that… they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by an oath…” (Epistle 96).

5. Tacitus, Annales 15; Seutonius Lives of the Caesars, Nero 16.

6. Didache 7 c. early 2nd century. We do not know how widely the manual was followed or how representative of practice it is.

7. Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, 42–44, 59; c.95–97 AD, Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians, Magnesians and Smyrneans in particular.

 

Rule of Faith

What safeguards were in place to ensure that the truth of the Christian faith was preserved and passed on to subsequent generations, when the last of Christ’s apostles passed from the scene at the close of the first century? Was the apostolic deposit sufficient to ensure that the early church continued to be the church of Christ? Post-Enlightenment denominations such as the Christadelphians, which claim to be “the modern revival of the apostolic faith,” assert that the church apostasized widely from the beginning of the post-apostolic era. Often, diverse doctrines with which Christadelphians disagree are lumped together and stamped with the defamatory label of “the Roman apostasy.” Even in those very early days, it is claimed, the bishops usurped an authority and infallibility in matters of doctrine and the church councils and hierarchy suppressed any dissent in matters such as the Trinity and the immortality of the soul. Christadelphians claim that they have shaken off the influences of “Christendom” and returned afresh to the Bible. They alone, free of 1800 years of erroneous baggage, have identified the long neglected truths of Scripture. They alone represent the revival of the first century Christian faith.

There are several problems with this position, fundamentally that it denies Christ promised to be with his church to the end of the age (Matt 28:19–20; John 14:26; 16:7–13). Certainly, false teachers and apostasies were predicted and there are clear hints of the nature of these even in the later New Testament writings (Acts 20:29–30; 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 4:3–4; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 2:22; 4:1–3; 2 John :7). But Christ taught that his kingdom (reign) would experience steady growth and development, not come to a complete halt for nearly two millennia before being reinvented (Matt 13:24–33). The tares would grow along with the wheat until the harvest time. Furthermore, the apostles’ influence cannot be considered to have ceased when they died, and foundational doctrinal concepts concerning the nature of the Godhead and of Jesus Christ, in continuity with New Testament teaching, can be demonstrated in the earliest extant writings of the church. These doctrines were believed, unpacked, discussed, explained and finally expressed in creeds well before the Roman medieval church usurped doctrinal “authority.”

The apostolic influence continued beyond the first century and was absolutely central to the orthodox churches’ beliefs and practice. It took the form of an acknowledged “rule of faith,” and was the major criterion influencing the final recognition of the scriptural canon. There is strong evidence the components of what became the New Testament were completed and in circulation by about the end of the first century, individually and in small collections. The period of oral transmission of the Gospel tradition was quite short and occurred within the lifetime of the apostles. We can have confidence that what the apostles committed to writing in the first century was an accurate reflection of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as their own ongoing tutelage under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Citations and allusions appear throughout early Christian writings of different genres and diverse locations. They were revered as Scripture; they were the apostolic deposit.

In the Apostle Paul’s last days, when the number of apostles was dwindling, he wrote to Titus and to Timothy as the next generation of church leaders. Titus was to appoint elders, who would “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 1:5, 9; 2:1, 15). Titus had “all authority” in teaching the sound doctrine and way of life he had learned from Paul. Likewise, Timothy was to oppose heresy and know what constituted right doctrine and behaviour (1 Tim 1:3–4; 4:6). Paul gave him a summary of the gospel which is, essentially, an early statement of the rule of faith (1 Tim 3:15–16). He was to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers”(1 Tim 4: 16). In Paul’s final letter before he was martyred, he exhorted Timothy to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1–2). “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (1 Tim 2:15). False teachers would come, bringing false doctrine and associated unwholesome practices; Timothy must not give way to them, but “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,” adhering to the truth of inspired Scripture (2 Tim 3:14–16) which included Paul’s own writings. These “pastoral epistles” are essentially exhortations, with specific examples, to carry on teaching and living by the apostolic rule of faith. Both Timothy and Titus provide examples of a biblical apostolic succession.

This apostolic charge to the second and later generations of Christian leaders, known as “overseers” (episkopoi or bishops) was taken very seriously. It is unthinkable that a major diversion from apostolic teaching was on the agenda of the church in this period, nor that it would be permitted either deliberately or inadvertently. In the early days, the overseer or bishop carried the huge responsibility of maintaining conformity with the rule of faith. Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom, was worried about the rising influences of heresy, and concerned with the unity of the church against it. He wrote at least seven letters in which he encouraged the Christian communities to “be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever you do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love, in the Son and in the Father and in the Spirit…Be subject to the bishop (episkopos) and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ…” (Magnesians 8) Ignatius believed that the bishops should be respected as representing Christ and the presbyters (elders) as apostles. In the New Testament there is no functional difference between a bishop and an elder, but as the faith spread, and whilst most churches were house churches, with multiple churches in a regional “church,” a single overseer from amongst the presbyteroi gained responsibility overall. There were no more living apostles, but the bishop ultimately had the responsibility of preserving and teaching the apostolic rule of faith in his community, as had Timothy and Titus before him. It was the content of the bishop’s teaching and example, continuing that of the apostles, rather than any personal connection to them, that was most important. With this authority came great responsibility, but conversely, the bishop who fulfilled this responsibility was regarded as possessing authority, so long as his life and doctrine were in keeping with the rule.

The Greek word kanon meant a measure or rule by which truth could be judged. Initially this was applied not specifically to a body of literature, but to the known and accepted body of apostolic doctrine. This doctrine was enshrined and detailed in the circulating Scriptures and was fully congruent with the accepted corpus of Old Testament Scripture. The apostolic writings were “Scripture” because they were apostolic and conformed to this canon or measurement of truth. Such was the authority of the apostles that, when they died, their verbal and written teachings continued to be the canon or rule of faith, the apostolic deposit. Other writings, even though they might be edifying and truthful, did not carry the same authority.

When the church was challenged by apostasies from the second century onward, it was to the rule of faith that it turned. When Marcion produced his highly redacted set of “scriptures” consisting only of selected Pauline letters and a “mutilated” version of Luke’s Gospel, the church had to defend a larger “canon.” When the Montanists claimed to have additional revelations from the Spirit, the church had to defend a closed and complete “canon.” Thus it became necessary to agree on the books and letters which would be accepted as authoritative. The definitive writings had been circulating since apostolic times, clearly conformed to the rule of faith and were already accepted as Scripture. Even though the New Testament as we know it had not been precisely defined in the second and third centuries, an argument cannot be made for an abandonment of the apostolic writings nor any marked deviation from them.

Even before the New Testament was formally defined, apostolicity, or conformity to the rule of faith was essential for the church. Individual churches were “Christian” if they subscribed to the rule, if they could demonstrate continuity with the apostolic traditions. Some churches could claim to have been founded by the original apostles or their immediate disciples. Irenaeus in the late 2nd century recalled his mentoring by by Polycarp of Smyrna who had been a direct disciple of John. Although beset by heresies such as Gnosticism, Docetism, Marcionism, Ebionism, Modalism and Arianism, the church as a whole did not depart from its rule of faith. It was the measure against which such apostasies and heresies were compared and found wanting. In times of persecution, Christians were willing to die for the faith it encapsulated, and to be killed rather than surrender the Scriptures for destruction. The church was fanatical about maintaining apostolic doctrine and practice.

After the formal agreement on and definition of the “canon” of Scripture, ecumenical creeds became the dominant summary of the “faith once delivered to the saints.” The rule was nevertheless distinct from early creeds, which were its expression within a particular context, typically to refute certain contemporary heresies. Then, as now, it was not enough to claim to be “Christian;” one had to demonstrate concordance with the rule of faith in doctrine and manner of life. The early Christian communities were widespread and culturally diverse and this provided common ground. The actual term used for the rule varied, but it can be shown that “the faith,” “rule of faith, “canon of truth,” “the truth” and similar expressions all referred to summaries of the apostolic faith preached and taught by the churches.

There are many references to such a rule or canon from the earliest church writings. Clement of Rome (late first or very early second century) refers to “the well-esteemed and noble rule (kanon) of our tradition” (1 Clem 7.2). Justin Martyr c165 AD answered the question, “What is your dogma?” with a brief statement about the one God as the Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Child of God, proclaimed by the prophets as the herald of salvation (Acts of Justin 2). In the late second century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote his massive anti-Gnostic treatise Against Heresies, and a guide for catechumens titled Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. His favourite descriptor was “the canon of truth” by which he meant the truth itself as the rule or measure, rather than a standard for determining “truth.” He asserted the inspiration and canonicity of the four Gospels and gave summaries of Christian faith in his various works, such as

Believing in one God, Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them, through Christ Jesus the Son of God. He because of his preeminent love for his creation submitted to birth from a virgin, uniting through himself man to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and being received in splendour, coming again in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved and Judge of those who are judged, sending into eternal fire those who change the truth” (Against Heresies 3.4.2).

Terullian of Carthage, writing in Latin around the turn of the 2nd to 3rd centuries, also repeatedly mentions the rule of faith.

The rule of faith is entirely one, alone immoveable and unchangeable. The rule is that of believing in the one almighty God, the Founder of the universe, and in his Son Jesus Christ, born from the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised from the dead on the third day, received into the heavens, sitting now at the right hand of the Father, going to come to judge the living and the dead through the resurrection of the flesh… This law of faith is constant” (Veiling of Virgins 1.3–4).

Numerous other examples from ante-Nicene Greek and Latin writers are extant, all very similar. They are used in the context of distinguishing true faith from heresies and expounding the true and normative (exemplary) Christian way of life and typically follow a pattern similar to that of the Apostles’ Creed; God the Creator, the Son and his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit, the church and believers. These recurring topics reflect the essentials of the faith in the second and third centuries and the same framework extends to later creeds. Adaptations and extensions of this basic doctrinal summary represent different contexts. In Acts 2 and 4, the Apostles Peter and John presented a statement of faith that primarily focused on the identity of Jesus in the context of fulfilled prophecy and salvation through resurrection. They did not need to emphasise the oneness of God the Creator because their audience was Jewish. The Holy Spirit’s activity was related to the prophecy of Joel. The second century confessions, expressions of the rule and the Apostles’ Creed necessarily emphasised the things which pagans and dualistic heretics disputed; God as Creator, the incarnation and true humanity of Jesus and the resurrection of the flesh.

Baptismal confessions likewise were in conformity with the rule of faith but were not themselves the “rule.” The rule represented the churches’ understanding of apostolic and scriptural truth; the confession was the individual’s personal commitment to that rule. By the third century, a three year period of instruction (catechesis) and spiritual mentoring was the prelude to baptism and full membership of the body of Christ. Interestingly, the majority of this time was spent in reforming the catechumen’s way of life from idolatry and demonstrating their growth in holiness. Only once their manner of life was deemed consistent with the rule did they receive formal doctrinal instruction in preparation for baptism. With the threat of persecution and the radical change of life required to live as Christ in pagan society, conversion in the early church was no mere assent to head knowledge.

What stands out in all these early expressions of the rule, the beliefs most central to the Christian faith, is how Christ-centred they were, both doctrinally (confession of Christ as Lord) and ethically (living in Christ). This is much more in keeping with Scriptural descriptions of the heart of gospel preaching (Acts 8:35; 10:36–43; 13:32–38; Rom 1:1–6, 16; 1 Cor 15:3–4; 2 Cor 4:4–5; 2 Tim 1:8–10; Heb 6:1–2) than intellectual acknowledgement of a didactic list of “things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ”(Acts 8:12; see Dianoigo articles below). Early Christians knew they already lived under the reign (kingdom) of Christ and that their citizenship was heavenly, not worldly (Matt 12:28; Luke 17:21; John 6:47; 15:19; Eph 1:3; 2:5–7; Phil 3:20; Heb 12:23; 13:14; 1 John 5:13). Christ is Lord, Caesar was not and death in this life was merely a gateway to the resurrection life. For this unshakable belief they were prepared to die.

The rule was upheld even as baptismal confessions and creeds developed in parallel with the mature preaching of the church. Each of these served a different purpose but conformed in content with the rule and with Scripture, developed to serve different contexts. The rule was the basis of preaching, teaching and refutation of heresy, distinct in function from scripture but never set over against it as a separate authority. The rule allowed for some exegetical freedom and variation in details of practice within appropriate, simple and clearly defined boundaries that had their basis in Scripture. Difficult passages were to be interpreted in the light of simpler ones, and the overall testimony of Scripture as outlined in the rule of faith. An interpretation that pushed Christ away from his central position in salvation, or that attributed Creation to another god, for example, would fail to measure up to the rule and therefore be rejected.

So where did things go wrong? In time, several large church communities, each with a historical apostolic connection, rose to prominence; Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Ephesus and of course Rome. They became centres of scholarship and influence. By the mid to late third century Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, taught that a bishop derived his authority from Christ’s commission to Peter (Matt 16:18–19), but in a general sense that did not imply primacy of the Roman bishop. The bishop, said Cyprian, was the focus of unity for the church and had discretion in a number of matters, provided he maintained the unity of the apostolic faith. Bishops were ideally autonomous within their jurisdictions, but major issues should be handled by councils of bishops.

The major turning point came with the reign of Constantine, when the church became a legal entity with imperial support. Suddenly, bishops became powerful; secular authority and ecclesiastical authority were combined and confused. By the mid 5th century, Rome had fallen and the imperial capital was thoroughly established at Constantinople. In the east, emperors exerted great influence on bishops. In the west, the bishop of Rome gained ascendancy in secular matters with the disappearance of effective imperial power. The Roman bishops claimed authority over the church as a whole, along with the old imperial title Pontifex Maximus. Membership of the Roman version of the catholic (universal) church came to mean communion with the bishop of Rome who claimed direct succession and authority from Peter and thus from Christ. Ultimately, the church came to view itself as the master of Scripture, rather than its humble disciple. Oral traditions and established practices of the church, as well as subsequent “infallible” revelations were of equal or perhaps even greater authority than the written Scriptures, which were held to contain only part of the church’s deposit of doctrine.

This was a far cry from the embedding of the original rule of faith in apostolic doctrine. What is important to understand is that the great orthodox doctrines of the church which had their roots firmly in the apostolic rule of faith and the New Testament, were established before the papacy gained sway over medieval theology and church practice. The doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, in particular, had been part of that rule since the early second century, in continuity with the apostolic and immediately post-apostolic age. Certainly those doctrines were explored, discussed, argued over, elaborated and refined in their expression, as the church encountered heretical teachings, but this did not represent a deviation from the rule of faith. The sacramentalism and distinctively Roman Catholic doctrines were a later development, as the church left its humble, unworldly roots and embraced a secular power the apostles could not have envisioned.

 

For further reading on this topic see
Gerald Bray, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).
Everett Ferguson, The Rule of Faith: A Guide (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2015).
Donald K McKim, Theological Turning Points: Major issues in Christian Thought (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1988) Chapter 6 “Authority Controversy.”
Paul D Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Raids: Baker Academic, 1999) Chapter 9 “Canonization of the New Testament.”
Thomas Farrar, Dianoigo http://blog.dianoigo.com/2016/06/defining-gospel-acts-812-vs-1-cor-153-4.html and http://blog.dianoigo.com/2016/06/the-things-concerning-acts-812-in.html

My God and Your God

If Jesus is God, how is it that he refers to the Father as “my God?” How is it that Jesus affirms that the Lord God is the only one worthy of worship? These questions are important for understanding the relationship of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to his Father, and the nature of Jesus’ own divinity. There are several New Testament passages in which God the Father is referred to as the God of Jesus, either by Jesus himself, “my God” (Matt 27:46; John 20:17) or by the Apostle Paul, “the God (and Father) of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3, 17). Before we examine these passages in their individual contexts (which is essential for any correct understanding of a passage) we need to remember the broader context of Jesus’ relationship to God and his claims about himself. Any interpretation of individual passages must not be at odds with the overall teaching of Scripture.

In summary, the New Testament testifies that Jesus shares the glory and honours due to God alone, the God who will not share his glory with another (John 5:23; 8:54; 17:5; 2 Pet 3:18; Rev 5:12–13). Jesus is worthy of worship, which is appropriate to God alone (Matt 4:10; 14:24–33; 28:17; Heb 1:6; Rev 5:12–14). Jesus is a worthy object of faith, appropriate to God (John 11:26; 14:1; 17:20–21; Acts 16:31; Rom 3:22; 1 John 3:23) and is to be obeyed (John 14:15; 15:10). In him is the fullness of God, bodily (Col 1:19; 2:9). He was with the Father from the beginning and created all things (John 1:1–3; 17:5; Col 1:15–17; Heb 1:3, 8, 10). He bears the names and titles of God (Isa 40:3/ Matt 3:3; Matt 1:23; Luke 2:11; John 8:58; 20:28; Phil 2:9–10; Titus 2:13; Heb 1:8–9; 2 Pet 1:1; Rev 19:16; 21:6; 22:13). He has power over death (John 5:24; 8:51) over nature (Luke 8:25; Col 1:16–17) his teaching has divine authority (Matt 5:18; John 6:44–46). He has authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:3–12) and to judge (John 5:22, 27; Rom 14:10–12/ 2 Cor 5:10). He does everything the Father does (John 5:17–30) and reigns from the throne in heaven at the Father’s right hand (Matt 22:41–45; Rom 8:34; Rev 22:1–3).

The Bible never equates the Son with the Father as if they were the same person, and neither do believers in the Trinity. An early heresy, Modalism, confused the persons in this way. When the New Testament speaks of “God,” it most often refers to the Father (John 8:54; Eph 4:6), but can also be referring to the Son (John 20:28; or the Spirit (Acts 5:3–4), or sometimes does not appear to make a distinction. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are often grouped into triadic formulae and have a common name (Matt 28:19). There is only one Divine Being/entity/essence who alone is God, having all these attributes and who is worthy of worship (Deut 6:4; 32:39; Isa 43:11-13; 44:6). In the Old Testament there are only hints of a plurality within this unity (Psa 110:1), but Jesus Christ came to fully reveal God and from his advent we see that the Godhead, although a unity, is also manifest as Father, Son and Spirit, each of whom shares glory and worship (1 Cor 3:16; 8:6; John 12:41; 17:5; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 21:5–6; 22:3, 6, 12–13). Nevertheless, the Son is not the Father, the Spirit is not the Father, the Spirit is not the Son; we see their differences in their working within the dispensation or “economy” of creation and redemption. Most obviously, this difference in roles is seen in the sending of the Son by the Father, and the subsequent sending of the Spirit as “another Comforter.”

Someone new came into being at the conception of Jesus Christ, when by the power of the Holy Spirit the eternal Word became flesh. Jesus Christ is not God in isolation, nor is he merely human. He perfectly combines the attributes of divinity and humanity, God with us and fully human. The Bible describes this as “becoming flesh” or incarnation (Luke 1:35; John 1:1–3; 14; Gal 4:4). The Bible does not describe this as the “creation” of a Son but as the sending of the Son, who had been with the Father (John 5:37–38; 7:28–29; 8:42; 10:36; Rom 8:3) In fact, when creation is spoken of in connection with the Son, he is seen to be no less than the Creator himself. In order for the Son, Jesus Christ, to achieve the redemption for which he was sent (John 3:16–17) he had to be made fully human, taking on genuine humanity and dwelling among us. He was made like us in order to be a merciful High Priest and to die for us, defeating sin in the flesh in which it normally reigned (Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4; Heb 2:17–18; 4:15; 5:7–81 John 4;10, 14). In this incarnation the Son underwent a humbling and learnt to trust and obey the Father, empowered by the Spirit, as a man. He laid aside the honours due to him as God and became a servant (John 17:5; 2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:5–8; Heb 5:7–8). He was truly born, truly suffered, truly died and rose again and returned to the Father to take his place on the throne of the universe. In all this, the Son did not cease to be in unity with his Father. He continued to share the divine honours and attributes, even while he was completely submissive to his Father. This submission was essential to his atoning work and also serves as a model for us. Paul points this out in Philippians 2:5 when he exhorts the Philippians to have the “same mind” as Christ. We are to share in his ultimate humbling (Luke 9:23–24; Rom 8:17; Heb 13:12–14). Jesus’ task was to do the will of his Father, despite the inclinations of his flesh (Luke 2:49; Matt 26:39; John 5:30; 14:31; Rom 15:3; Heb 10:9). Jesus was not another God, separate from the Father. He did not come in his own name (John 5:43; 7:16–18; 10:25; 14:10) and he did not speak with an authority separate from his Father; how could he? He was eternally one with the Father (John 5:23; 8:29; 10:30; 14:10; 17:21–22).

Jesus worshiped God, prayed to God and submitted to God whilst on earth, for that was his mission and the means by which he would accomplish the salvation of humankind. It could not be otherwise. This dependence, this relationship, came to its climax when Jesus offered the ultimate act of obedience in his death on the cross (Phil 2:6–8). He did this to bear the very sins of the world (Isa 53:4–6; 1 Pet 2:24; John 10:17-18; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 9:28; Acts 20:28). In doing so, he bore the wrath of God against sin (Rom 1:18; 3:25; 5:7; Eph 2:3–6) Heb 2;17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). This is the context of Jesus’ agonised cry upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 26:47) in fulfilment of Psalm 22’s description of the cost of our redemption.

This humbling followed by exaltation, and the profound unity of the relationship between Father and Son is the context for understanding passages wherein the Father is referred to as the God of Jesus Christ. In John 8, the Pharisees challenged Jesus about the validity of his testimony and the origin of his authority, even implying he was illegitimate.

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God…
‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge… Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.
The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?’
Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, “He is our God.” But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’
So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’” (John 8:42–58)

Jesus makes a number of astounding claims in this passage, including the claim that the God of Israel, the one true God, is his Father and that is the origin of his authority. He came from God the Father, was specifically sent by him. He is sinless. He tells the truth for he is “of God,” in contrast to the Pharisees, who are “of the devil,” their “father.” He honours his Father, and his Father (their God) glorifies him. He knows God and keeps his word. Jesus’ relationship with God results from his eternal oneness with the Father, the eternal beingness (“I am-ness”) of God which predates Abraham. The man Jesus Christ, who is also one with the Father, can truly and comfortably refer to God the Father as his father and as God; his own God in fact.

Thus Paul can exhort the Romans, “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom15:6). The way to do that, Jesus has explained, is to glorify himself, for God is glorified through Jesus (John 13:31–32; 14:13; 17:1–5; Phil 2:10–11; 1 Pet 4:11; Jude 25). Likewise, Paul proclaims, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). Grace, mercy and peace come from God the Father through Christ and the Father and Son sent the Comforter to be with his people (2 Thess 3:2; 2 John 1:3; John 14:16–18, 23–26). Likewise, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places… that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph 1:3, 17). All these blessings originate with God, and there is no other God than the God who was manifested in Jesus Christ (John 1:14; 14:7–10; 17:6; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 John 4:9). Jesus is the conduit for all God’s blessings because he who is one with the Father, came from the Father to share them with us. He has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever,” (Rev 1:6) These blessings came to us as a result of the work of the one sent by the Father, his incarnate word, God with us, the man Jesus Christ. This work was completed with the ascension of Jesus to rejoin his Father at his right hand. Jesus explained that would be the case (John 14:12; 16:7) which is why it was wrong for his followers to cling to him as if to keep him with them on earth. “Do not cling to me,” he gently admonished Mary, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,’” (John 20:17). This was, of course, the place from which he had been sent (John 3:13; 6:62).

Of course God the Father is Jesus’ God! This is an expression of the unity of the Godhead, not a division within it. Each of these passages exalts the Lord Jesus and reinforces his glory, majesty and unity with the Father. For only the divine Son could possibly ascend to resume his place upon the very throne of God. Only the divine Son can be the bridge between God and men, the mediator of the new covenant, the conduit of every blessing from God. To take any of these passages referring to God as the God of Jesus as somehow separating Jesus from God, downgrading him to less than God, is distortion. It is to completely decontextualise them, both from the passages in which they sit and testify to the relationship of Father and Son and unity of the Godhead, and to the New Testament’s wider testimony of who Jesus is. To assert that “because Jesus calls the Father ‘my God’ he cannot be God” is to force an illegitimate dichotomy. It is a forced interpretation on a verse from a preconceived theological standpoint that already insists that “Jesus is not God,” against scriptural evidence. Such decontextualised verse-by-verse scriptural ping-pong is not good theology, and it downgrades the one we should be exalting. Rather, let us exalt the Lord Jesus, praise him and glorify him as Lord and God, in the certainty that whoever honours him, honours the Father who sent him.

The Unveiling of Jesus

The risen, exalted Lord Jesus Christ delivered what was to become the final words of the New Testament, to his servant John on the island Patmos, toward the end of the first century. This message is multidimensional; a vision, a series of letters, it is prophecy and it is apocalyptic. “Revelation” is a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis; unveiling. It is The Revelation of/from Jesus Christ; the Greek implies either. Not only did this revelation originate from Jesus, “to show his servants the things that must soon take place,” but Jesus himself takes the central role. In this book, Jesus Christ is revealed in all his divine splendor. As Paul elsewhere proclaims of Jesus,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:15–18).

The Revelation brings everything in created history to its telos, its completion and fullness. Creation is restored as it should be; sin and death are destroyed, God dwells with his people in the temple-garden. In all this the unveiled Christ is central.

The list of Jesus’ titles and attributes in Revelation is magnificent: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, ruler of kings on earth, the first and the last, the living one, holder of keys of death and hades, of the seven stars which are the angels of the churches, Son of God, searcher of minds and hearts, the holy one, the true one, he who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens; the Amen, the ruler (arche) of God’s creation, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb, the shepherd, the Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Faithful and True, the Word of God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. This is truly and appropriately an impressive list. Some of these titles are unique to the Son (firstborn of the dead, Son of God, Lion of Judah and Root of David, the Lamb, the Word) because they affirm his humanity and his redeeming work, although John 1:1 is clear that the Word is to be equated with “God.” Other titles are clearly descriptors of God. The LORD, YHWH, rules over the kings and nations (Psa 2; 47:7; 76:12; 102:15; Jer 10:10; Dan 5:21; Zech 14:19; Rev 15:3), is the Living One (Deut 5:26; Psa 42:2; Jer 10:10; Acts 14:15; 2 Cor 3;3; Heb 10:31; Rev 7:10). God is the one who searches minds and hearts (1 Chron 28:9; Jer 17:10) he shuts and opens (Job 12:14) is the Shepherd of Israel (Ezek 34:15) the Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end (Rev 1:8; Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12). These ascriptions, proper to God alone (Rev 19:10; 22:9), belong to Jesus Christ.

Jesus is “the one like the Son of Man,” from Daniel 7:13–14, who comes with the clouds of heaven and is presented to the Ancient of Days, given power, dominion and an everlasting kingdom and is worshipped in the very presence of God. This prophecy is reiterated in Revelation. Jesus is worthy of worship, in the same way that God alone is worthy of worship.

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’” (Rev 4:9–11) “…And when (the Lamb) had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints…. saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Rev 8:8, 12–14).

Jesus is also described with divine imagery, as he walks among the lampstands and as he shares the throne of God. He is “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev 1:13–16). The fire and gleaming metal, the precious stones, the brightness, the awesome figure on the rainbowed throne (Rev 4:2-8), the living creatures, the voice like rushing waters or wind, the flaming eyes, the cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” call to mind the awesome theophanies of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, the former of which is explicitly applied to the glory of the Lord Jesus in John 12:14 and by extension to the indwelling or Shekinah glory of Ezekiel, now manifest in the eternal dwelling of “God with us” (Matt 1:23; John 1:14; Rev 21:3, 22–23). He is the Word of God, who was with God and was God, in the beginning with God, and from whose mouth goes the sharp sword (Rev 1:16;

Jesus is the one who died and lives for evermore (Rev 1:18). He walks among his churches, holds them in his hand and knows their works (Rev 1:16, 20; 2:19, 23; 3:1, 8) and has the right to remove a lampstand from its place (Rev 2:5). He has authority to grant to eat of the tree of life, giving entrance to the paradise of God, until this point guarded by cherubim (Rev 2:7; 22:14; Gen 3:24; Luke 23:43). He grants the crown of life (Rev 2:10) and authority over the nations (Rev 2:26). His is the very book of life (Rev 3:5; 20:15; 21:27 cf Ex 32:33) and he is the very resurrection and the life (John 11:25). To him, as God, belongs salvation (Rev 7:10; Psa 3:8; 37:39; 68:28; Isa 43:11).

This authority of Jesus is not autonomous; he is not a separate God. He is one with the Father and does everything his Father shows him, everything his Father does (John 5:17–19). The man Jesus Christ, as the infleshing of the Word of God, God become flesh and dwelling among us, was sent from the Father (John 8:42; 10:36). His teaching, his authority, his power, everything came from God (John 8:29; 14:10; Rev 2:27). As a man he did not grasp onto equality with God, but humbled himself and took the form of a servant (Phil 2:6–11). He was slain, and by his blood he ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9) and in conquering, sat down with his Father on his throne (Rev 3:21).

There are many references in the New Testament to Jesus sitting at the right hand of his Father, upon his throne (Acts 2:34, 5:31; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; Heb 8:1, 10:12, 1 Pet 3:22). This is the most exalted place, the position of absolute power. It is not a secondary position, as if there were one large throne for the Father and a separate, smaller throne off to the (right) side for the Son. There is but one throne in heaven. The divine throne in the highest heaven is a word-picture of the sovereignty of God over all things. The imagery of height (highest heaven, on high, Most High God, mountain of the Lord, etc.) reinforces this absolute sovereignty, as does the fact that in heaven God is the only one who sits. Hebrews 1 applies Psalm 45:6 “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of righteousness . . .” specifically to the Son (v8)and goes on to address him with “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (v10) and finishes with another strong allusion to the throne of God/the Lord with a citation of Psalm 110:1 in reference to sitting at the right hand of God (v13).

In Revelation 3:21 (as in Hebrews 12:2), Jesus speaks of sitting down with his Father on his throne — en throno autou — literally in his throne, denoting extreme closeness. It is a shared throne. In Revelation 7:15–17, those who have come out of the great tribulation serve God before his throne and he who sits on the throne spreads his tent over them, with the conclusion, “For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd.” In Revelation 20 through 22 the throne imagery recurs, placing God and Jesus there as one. The one on the great white throne is the judge (20: 12–15), which we know is the Son, to whom judgment has been committed (20:11; 21:27). A loud voice announces from the throne that the dwelling of God is with men (21:3). He who is seated on the throne says, “I am making all things new.” (21.5) This same Person says, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega . . .” and invites all who thirst to come to him. (21:6; 22:13 specifies that the Alpha and Omega is the one coming soon — Jesus). This same Person promises to be the God of any who overcome (21:7) The function of the temple, as God’s dwelling amongst his people, has been taken up by “its temple (singular) is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.” (21:22) It is the throne (singular) of God and of the Lamb (22:1, 3). Their roles and being are merged; Jesus occupies the same position of absolute sovereignty as God.

The vision of the Lord which Isaiah saw (Isa 6), was of the Lord Jesus (John 12:13). Jesus, seated on the throne, is the King, the Lord Almighty, attended by seraphs, his glory filling the earth. In Revelation 4:11 the throne in heaven is surrounded by living creatures, which proclaim day and night, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come . . . Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” The theme repeats again in 5:12 where thousands of angels encircle the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing . . . To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” This is the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, at the right hand of the Father, upon his throne, the Lord God Almighty, reigning forever (Rev 19:4–6).

Revelation concludes with the awesome declaration from the throne itself, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev 21:6) Both God and the Lamb are Alpha and Omega. Both God and the Lamb are temple, and light (Rev 21:22–23; 22:5) just as Jesus had proclaimed about himself (John 2:19; 8:12). Like John, we should bow in awe before the majesty of the Lamb of God, humbled in gratitude for all he has done, worship him and “crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.” Those who acknowledge Jesus is Lord, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, God with us, Alpha and Omega the beginning and end of God’s eternal plan, will be privileged beyond comprehension on that day when they see his face and his name will be on their foreheads.
Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!