Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sunday Thoughts - The Resurrection of Jesus

Today is Easter Day, the day on which many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, we should celebrate his resurrection every day. Surprisingly, some Christians have made great mistakes concerning it. 

Paul was aware that questions had been raised in Corinth with regard to the doctrine of the resurrection. The idea of resurrection was alien to the Greek mind as can be seen from the contemptuous response of the Athenians to Paul’s message to the Areopagus. Greek philosophy regarded matter as evil and the spirit as good, therefore the thought of spirit returning to matter was abhorrent to them. Greek ‘wisdom’ had affected the Corinthian church in several ways (see 1 Corinthians 1). So the apostle describes and explains the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15.

First of all, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the resurrection of Christ is an essential aspect of the Christian gospel, and that an ongoing commitment to it as an article of faith is required in order for one to be a genuine believer: 'Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain' (vv. 1-2). In actuality, the resurrection of Christ is as necessary for salvation as is the death of Christ – they are matters of primary importance: 'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures' (vv. 3-4). How can Paul say that the resurrection of Christ is as essential as his death? He gives three arguments.

Firstly, Paul stresses that the resurrection, because it was predicted in the Old Testament, is biblical. This is Paul’s basic argument, more important than the other two he mentions (eyewitnesses and personal encounter). One reason for its priority is that the other two cannot give the meaning of the resurrection. Eyewitnesses observed but could not interpret; personal encounter is by nature subjective and open to misinterpretation. But the scriptures are the touchstone by which to understand everything, even the activities of God.

Paul’s second argument is that the resurrection of Christ is an historical fact. The risen Christ was seen by many: 'and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles' (vv. 5-7). Paul can call on many witnesses. In other words, Christ rose from the dead.

Paul’s third argument regarding the risen Christ is that he can be personally encountered, even although he is no longer on the earth. Paul himself had so met Jesus: 'and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed' (vv. 8-11). 

May we have an encounter with the risen Saviour today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Description of God's People

What does it mean to be a Christian? In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter reminds his readers that they belong to a community – a community that he describes in four ways. They are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] a people for his own possession’. Each of these descriptions says something different about God’s people, but each of them also stresses that a Christian is someone who lives in a community. This is a powerful reminder to us because we live in a society that stresses individuality.  

A second answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’, is that they belong to a community who are the fulfilment of what the Israelites were a picture or a sample. The four features that Peter mentions initially described the nation of Israel after it was rescued by God from its bondage in Egypt.  

The first feature that Peter highlights is that his readers are a chosen race. There are many races in the world, but which one of them has been especially blessed by God? In Old Testament days, the race of Israel was the chosen race. Things changed in the New Testament and the chosen race is now the church of Jesus Christ. All the members of this chosen race were once members of other races, and were so by birth. Membership of the new race depends on the choice of God. He has chosen them to live together and he is in the process of completing the members of his race so that he can bestow upon them the place in which they will dwell – the new heavens and new earth. 

Second, they are a royal priesthood. It goes without saying that we are not to read this reference through modern ideas and practices connected to priests. Instead we are to look back to what happened in Israel. The function of priests was to participate in worship and there was a general sense in which all Israelites functioned as priests whenever they worshipped God. In particular, the tribe of Levi was given the important role of priesthood and wherever they went their purpose in life was to teach about God in such a way that others would worship him. Obviously they would have connected his worship to the sacrificial system of the temple and would have explained the need of sacrifices in approaching God. In addition to teaching others, the priests also led the praise of the people. It is not difficult to see how this terminology applies to believers today. Their role is to instruct others about God in such a way that they too will worship him. 

Further, Christians are described as a royal priesthood. They are royal because they are united to the King, to Jesus who is their Elder Brother, the Heir of all things with whom they are joint-heirs. Because believers are royal priests, it means that they function with power given to them by their King. Their calling is to function as the praise leaders of the world, evangelising the nations so that others will come and join the priestly choir that celebrates the works of God. 

Third, believers are ‘a holy nation’. If chosen generation speaks of privilege and royal priesthood speaks of praise, holy nation speaks of purity. Israel was separated from the other nations of the world and this separation was not merely a division, it was also a distinction. We can imagine how one group can be separated from others and yet remain the same as they had been. All that would mark them was that they were divided. God’s intentions for Israel were far higher than that – he wanted them to be distinctive, living together in a manner that revealed a higher level of lifestyle. It is easy for us to describe the level of difference between the wealthy lifestyle of a person in the affluent West and the poor lifestyle of a person in a deprived part of the world. We can easily describe the difference because it is obvious. The lifestyle of the Christian community should be so far above the best that the rest can offer that it will be easily observed.

A nation has government, laws, benefits and defences upon which all its activities are based. The rulers govern according to regulations designed to make life for their subjects fulfilling, enjoyable and secure. Those who belong to the nation experience its resources when they live according to its rules. In a far higher sense, this is also the case in the church. Holiness is heart obedience to the laws of Christ. When they are obeyed, the lifestyle of his nation is seen to be above all other possible ways of life. The nation that belongs to Jesus is scattered throughout the countries of the world, but they are still one nation obeying his requirements. When that happens, others see a society that is superior and blessed. 

The fourth feature that marks believers is that they belong to God, they are his special treasure. There is a sense in which God values every person that he has created because each has been made in his image. Nevertheless he does not give to each person special expressions of his love. But he does provide such benefits to those he regards as his in a special manner – for example, he forgives them when they do wrong and he restores them when they confess their faults to him. He is determined to do them good. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Sunday Thoughts – The permanence of God’s Word

In 1 Peter 1:24 and 25, Peter contrasts the important messages of humans with the message of the Word of God. Peter lived in a time when many ideas were circulating about life, and the vast majority of people would have been very surprised at his assessment of such ideas. The apostle did not expect them to last long – in fact, these messages would have the same influence as temporary flowers and grass. In contrast, the message that was preached to them, which was based on the Scriptures and is included in the Scriptures, would last forever. 

No matter how surprised Peter’s contemporaries would have been at his assessment, the verdict of history is on his side. How many people today know anything of what the famous thinkers and orators of Peter’s day thought and said? Tourists visit the places where such lived and taught, and have little idea of the influence they once held. Yet the message preached by Peter and others is adhered to strenuously and lovingly by millions of people all over the world today. 

Since Peter’s time, many other notions have been suggested for improving the state of humanity, and they too have disappeared despite once having great influence. Yet the Word of God remains and has greater impact today than it ever did as can be seen in the large number of people who live their lives by it. All this means is that we should have the same confidence that Peter had in God’s Word and we should have the same assessment as he had of other ideas that are advocated in our contemporary world.  

Of course, the primary reason why God’s Word is permanent is because he has made it so. This is the obvious difference between other messages and God’s Word – the other messages were the compositions of weak, limited humans whereas God’s Word is the product of the wise and almighty God. Because he is full of all wisdom, the Lord knew what to put in his Word, and because he is almighty he always has the power to ensure its effects are fulfilled. 

Peter reminds his listeners that they had experienced the effects of this word when it was preached to them. The content of the preaching is described as good news, which raises the question, ‘What were the various features of the message that allow it to be called good news?’ Obviously, he is referring to the gospel about Jesus, in which his person and work are explained. We are familiar with the gospel, but we should remember that it as a gospel that came to us (and them) through the Word of God. As we here the gospel today, let us be thankful for the permanence of God’s Word.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sunday Thoughts - What is the Old Testament About?

Distortions of the message of the Old Testament
I suppose if we were to take a sample poll and ask the question, ‘What is the Old Testament about?’, several answers could be given. For example, some might say that the Old Testament describes the past and future of the Israelites, and that answer would be a common view today. What would the apostles have made of that answer? Of course, they would have accepted that the Old Testament mentions important historical details of Israel’s past, but I suspect they would have disagreed that the Old Testament, in its prophetic passages, is mainly concerned with the future of the Israelites. We can read what Peter thought about this in 1 Peter 1:10-12 – he makes it very clear that the prophecies of the Old Testament are concerned with Peter’s readers. Imagine how his readers would have responded when they heard his words. I think they would have searched the Old Testament with great desire.

Another answer that is sometimes given with regard to the Old Testament is that it is about law whereas the New Testament is about grace. Would Peter have accepted such a distinction? He would have accepted that some parts of the Old Testament were concerned with legal matters, such as various details of the Mosaic ceremonial and civil laws. But he would not have accepted that the Old Testament had a legalistic message, and he states very clearly in verse 10 that its message was concerned with the grace that was going to come to his readers.

What is grace? It is God’s merciful attitude to the undeserving. Peter’s readers would have agreed that they were unworthy of the salvation they had received. They knew that only a few years prior to Peter sending them his letter they were living in pagan darkness, worshipping the non-existent deities in the temples connected to their names. They would indeed confess, ‘We are so unworthy. We know that we had not heard the gospel. Still we could look up to the heavens and recognise the handiwork of a great Creator. But instead of worshipping him as the Creator we chose to give the credit to an image that we created. In doing so, we demeaned in our estimation the greatness of God and revealed that we were so unworthy of his blessings. Nevertheless, the great Creator sent the gospel to us. That is real grace.’

A third answer as to what is the message of the Old Testament is that it is about a God of judgement as against the claim that the New Testament is about the God of love. Often those who argue this suggestion depict the prophets as fierce ranters who delighted in describing a God determined to punish. Of course, such a summary is a gross distortion. We only have to read some of the plaintive words spoken by God through these prophets to realise that their message was marked by compassion.

Peter would have also said that the message of the Old Testament is not only about judgement. He would have admitted that divine judgement was part of its message, but he would have also pointed out that there was much more, and he summarises that much more in verse 11 when he says that the message was about ‘the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories’. We can easily see from that phrase  that there is more to the Old Testament than judgement.

A fourth answer that is sometimes given is that there was little of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Now it is true that a great change occurred in the church’s experience when the Day of Pentecost occurred. The Spirit came in a manner that was unknown previously. But his coming in that way should not make us conclude that he was not present with the messengers of the Old Testament. Peter reminds us that the Spirit was in the Old Testament prophets and that he spoke through them about Jesus.

What effect did the presence of the Spirit have on these Old Testament prophets? It had the same effect as it had on the New Testament apostles, which was that they wanted to know more about Jesus. Look at how Peter describes the response of these prophets: they ‘searched and inquired carefully’ about the promised Saviour. I suppose the searching refers to how they used the Old Testament portions they had, and inquiring refers to the way they prayed for understanding. True, they did not discover as much as can be known through the apostles, but the inability was not in their messages. The messages of the Old Testament prophets were full of Christ.

So the Old Testament is far from being unsuitable for us. Peter makes it obvious that the Old Testament is actually God’s provision for his people, prepared for them long before they were born. How thankful they should be to God for thinking so kindly about them when their forefathers were living in spiritual darkness. Peter tells his readers that Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles join hands in providing God’s people with the gospel.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Michael J. Kruger - The Question of Canon

Review in the Record of the Free Church of Scotland (April 2014)

This volume by the Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, is sub-titled ‘Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate’. The status quo roughly is that the canon of the New Testament was a creation of the church in the fourth century, or a short time before then, and that certain writings from the first century or thereabouts were selected for inclusion while other valid writings were omitted.

The author discusses some evidences that show the first-century church could have known about the canon as we have it. This involves (1) a consideration of the possible expectations of Second Temple Judaism for further divine revelation, (2) of indications in the Old Testament that additional divine words would be given, (3) the new covenant relationship with God included specific written texts from him, and (4) the role of Christ’s chosen apostles in providing or endorsing written scripture.  

The question of a canon of written scripture has also to face the claim that the main means of communication in the early church was oral, which has led some scholars to assume that it would have opposed written texts, especially since some of them have decided that the canon is composed of inferior writings in contrast to the classic works of the period. Moreover, most early Christians, it is said, were unlettered, preferred the direct encounter with a spoken word, and expected Jesus to return imminently, so why would they have wanted a canon?

Kruger points out that the barrier between unlettered Christians and a written text is drawn from modern situations in which educated people find it hard to imagine that a merely oral society could appreciate written texts. This was not the case in the first century in which it was common for many illiterate persons to become familiar with written texts that they heard read in public gatherings – these texts could be government decrees, philosophical opinions, as well as other forms. And the New Testament itself contains several references to the public reading of scripture. Indeed it can be argued that they were written in order that they could be read orally to Christian gatherings. And to this can be added that the early church insisted on retaining the Old Testament scriptures, which would be a strange thing to do if they were averse to writings.

Did the early church expect Jesus to return within its lifetime, and did that expectation affect their ideas about written scripture? If it did, then since he did not come, surely it would assume that he was not telling the truth about his return. Yet there is no evidence that such a possibility caused a crisis of faith, which indicates that the apostolic church did not believe that he must return during that period, merely that he could. The fact is that New Testament books were written during the first century, and were accepted as truthful by subsequent generations of believers even although Jesus did not return in the first century, which indicates that neither the first century church nor subsequent generations believed that he taught he would definitely return at such an early date.

Another issue dealt with by the author is whether or not the New Testament authors were aware that they were writing scripture. He shows that they were conscious that they were writing with divine authority and that they regarded their writings as divine provisions for those to whom they wrote, which is the same as saying they were on the level of scripture. So while they would not have known how many books would be in the New Testament they did know that their writings were authoritative in the church.

Kruger gives a chapter to discussing whether or not the canon was only closed by the end of the second century. He looks at the writings of Irenaeus who around that time refers to most New Testament books as recognised scripture. Of course, if he recognised them, the assumption is that others before him also recognised them because he does not indicate that he was the first to do so. Kruger then notices the way that Theophilus of Antioch argues in a work dated around the year 177 that the Gospels were as inspired as the Old Testament. Kruger also works back through the writings of Justin Martyr, Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement and others to show that they were aware to a degree of some of the books that make up the New Testament canon. More importantly, the New Testament itself refers to Paul’s writings as scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). This survey, according to Kruger, points to the real possibility that the church by the end of the first century already recognised which books were scripture and which were not.

Of course, many Christians accept the New Testament as Holy Scripture intuitively, an evidence of the divine illumination given to them by the Holy Spirit. Such may not want to read a scholarly book like this, although I do not see why not.  In some places I felt I was in the company of a master detective as he analysed and dismissed the alleged evidence against the existence of an early canon. While this book did not add to my already-existing recognition of and delight in the New Testament canon it did strengthen my conviction that God not only inspired its production but supervised its acceptance throughout the early church. I would recommend it to any who have been troubled by the claim that the canon is merely a creation of the church a long time after the apostles left this world.