Mind Your Business

Reprinted with permission from the June 2018 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine. Slightly revised edition.

36795505_10100258496833579_1001973826721939456_nI am not a fan of church politics, but I know they exist. Sometimes it reminds me of walking through the streets when I was a kid. You always had to have enough “friends” with you; you had to make sure you were stronger than the “other guy” and never get caught walking alone, especially in an alleyway. It saddens me to admit that “brotherhood alleyways” do exist. It appears in the form of the public shaming of preachers or schools; it appears in certain back channels where preachers or churches are undermined every step of the way due to a difference of opinions. In a word, brethren, we get consumed with the actions of others, and we seek to control them. We can’t seem to mind our own business and be about our Father’s business to love our community with the gospel.

It seems appropriate to begin this discussion with a brief look at the conjoined issue of ego. Jesus always found a way to check the egos of His disciples when they interfered with the priorities of the kingdom of God. Three examples from Mark 910 are helpful to point this out. In Mark 9:3337, the Lord had to refocus the whispers and debate among the Twelve regarding who was “great” in the kingdom of God. Greatness is measured by service, not by wielding power (cf. Luke 22:2428). In Mark 9:3841, Jesus corrected the disciples’ sense of managerial entitlement when they failed to stop a “nameless” disciple’s ministry. What matters is Jesus’ authority, not that of the disciples.

A little later, in Mark 10:13–16, the disciples impose their opinion on when Jesus was ready to provide ministry. Jesus undoes their harm by demonstrating that the kingdom of God is to be at the disposal of the vulnerable. I would argue that the actions of the disciples probably emerged from a good place, but these moments should remind us that personal ego often gets in our way of manifesting the kingdom of God. I truly believe the church is the place where our egos are supposed to die (Rom 6:1-10), but sadly they often resurrect.

We need to hear afresh the challenge from three letters: Jude, 1 Peter, and 3 John. At the heart of our church politics problems is that we have, at times, misapplied what it means to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), become meddlers (1 Pet 4:15), and have failed to curb our egos (3 John 9).

Contending for the Faith

Many an article, sermon, blog, and petition have been published under the premise to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). This is a very honorable goal. But at times the methods we use “to contend” lack Christian substance. The verb “to contend” (epagōnízomai) may be taken to mean, “to contend about a thing, as a combatant”[1] and give some legitimacy to a “war-time” church culture; but the metaphor should be taken in its natural direction. It may refer to “the intense effort” of an athlete to overcome the challenges of a sporting contest.[2] In this case, “to contend” is about self-discipline in the face of exertion, continuing the struggle for the sake of the faith.

Jude is the voice of reason the church needs to hear today. A careful reading of Jude does not support a “Cry ‘Havoc!,’ and let slip the [spiritual] dogs of war” agenda to demoralize and humiliate our brothers when we disagree theologically. In fact, Jesus warned that such tactics would endanger us with the fire of Gehenna (Matt 5:22). Instead, Jude writes that a proper response to the perversion of the gospel and subversion of Christ’s authority (v. 4) is to stay faithful to the content of the faith (v. 3), to trust in God’s Word, to trust the Lord will judge false teachers (vv. 59, 1416), to trust that such people will self-destruct (vv. 10–13) and to maintain a Spirit-centered culture of grace, mercy, love, and redemption within the church (vv. 17–23)all while affirming a distinction exists between the faithful and the ungodly false teachers and their corruption of the gospel itself (v. 12).

Jude does not shy away from revealing the errors of false teachers and the dangerous consequences that flow from their influence. The effort Jude speaks of is not to be spent on attacking the defectors, but instead, the exertion must be spent within our own souls, within our own congregations. We must resist the temptation to enable an ungodly inhospitable war-time church culture. With precision, Jude makes this little letter a rich description of the inhospitable environment the false teachers created in the church by their influence (vv. 12-13): they hinder love and community, they consume what others need, they withhold what is needed for life, and create a disappointing chaotic and unreliable spiritual incubator for the people of God. That is not what Jesus has called us to be.

Jude does not authorize intrusive efforts to “defend the faith.” Some among us have thought for quite some time that if they publicize an error long enough; generate enough brotherhood support; vilify the names of brethren or institutions; act like church “newscasters,” showing us the cold fronts of error among us; guide us through “connect the dots fellowship”; or act like church “J. Edgar Hoovers,” then we have contended for the faith. We have been so wrong. In truth, Jude’s brief message is bent on moving Christians to “exert effort” in embracing God’s wisdom, God’s sovereignty, and the Christian call to continue to be a fellowship of grace and mercy, love and forgiveness while affirming a distinction between ungodly false teachers and their corruption of the gospel itself (Jude 12). Those are quite different responses.

Jude concludes his letter by saying,

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (vv. 20–23).

This is the work of contending. Today, we need to learn that many times the best way to deal with false teaching is to focus on the work of our local congregation, be patient with our brethren, and be gracious to those struggling rather than entering into a shouting match, in other words, staying busy with our own work and minding our own business.

Meddlers and Bullies

Meddlers. In 1 Peter, the apostle Peter addresses a number of Christian churches undergoing a forceful front of localized persecution of “shaming” in the northern provinces of Asia Minor (1:1; 2:12; 3:13; 4:4). Peter reminds them to respond to such shame-based threats by providing a kind and respectful verbal response, explaining their hope in Jesus as Lord (3:14–15). He further exhorts them to refrain from “clashes” with the community due to punishable crimes (murder, thievery, evil-doing, meddling; 4:15). Indeed, the only clash that will glorify God is when Christians are unjustly persecution for the name of Christ (4:16).

We need to give thought to Peter’s word, “meddler” (ESV, NIV). It is listed among the four offenses Christians must avoid. English translations show the difficulty of rendering this compound word (allotri + episkopos), the New Revised Standard Version has “mischief-maker”; the New King James Version, “busy-body”; and New American Standard Bible, “troublesome-meddler.” Quite possibly, Peter coined this word because it is found nowhere in Greek literature before him. At the core, the “meddler” is someone who apparently takes or seizes control of the affairs of others. Peter condemns Christians controlling others “tactlessly and without social graces.”[3] Too many times Christians think their duty is to control the choices of our neighbors. I suspect it is because we seek the right outcome of godliness. This, however, becomes a “no win” scenario. The local church is a fertile field for this temptation. Many cultish tactics have been used in the name of “discipling” our brethren. Pulpits are used not only to “persuade men” but to “meddle” in the affairs of our members. Elders cross the line separating overseeing and control. But those with more daring egos can emerge to be “the overseer” of brotherhood affairs with ungodly force and shame to establish control. Peter reminds us to “mind our own business.”

Bullies. In 3 John, the aged apostle John writes to Gaius an embattled faithful Christian leader, who is part of the collateral damage of a church bully named Diotrephes. The church setting was desperate, requiring his own personal touch (vv. 10, 13–14). The issue? False teaching? Nope. The tension was about control over mission work (vv. 5–8). Traveling preachers were part of early church culture. Over a period of time, John had commended several to this church for support, anticipating their needs would be supplied to reach the next leg of their journey. Instead, he found a polarizing church culture had matured, manifesting in Diotrephes and Gaius.

Maybe Diotrephes began this journey with a proper concern for church autonomy in matters of missions or with a desire to serve the church. The only motive explicitly given in this letter is that he “likes to put himself first” and his rejection of apostolic authority (3 John 9). The outcome, however, was wickedness, suppression, and subterfuge. He created an inhospitable and volatile church culture where suspicion reigns and alternative opinions are silenced and ousted (v. 10). It was all a bit like an Orwellian 1984 dystopia. Diotrephes was the “thought police.” He thrust his voice into areas beyond his authority, and in order to do so, he imposed his opinion by force and manipulation.

There is no question that ego became a problem, and behind that lay sin. Diotrephes became a mission-killing church bully because he chose self over the kingdom of God. He chose “preeminence” (KJV, ASV), “to be first” (NET), “to be in charge” (ISV), “to be number one” (Plain English NT), “to have first place” (FHV), “to be first in everything” (Phillips). Third John shows us the damage rendered by elders and preachers who dominate others like an “intolerant general” when something is not done their way. A church bully by any other name would still reek of wickedness. Brethren, we need to humble our pride and “mind our own business.”

Conclusion

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I feel like an outsider, even after being a part of the church for now over twenty years. But I have seen church bulletins as subtle tools for shaming congregational members and even preachers from outside of the congregation. I’ve known preacher friends receiving a copy of a brotherhood “journal” with a post-it note attached as a “friendly” reminder of how “misguided” they are for their views. Brotherhood magazines have been leveraged to do excessive numbers of exposés about this school or that preacher rather than teaching what the Bible says. For what purpose? To establish unity? None of this brings unity; instead, such actions seem designed to permanently polarize. Church, we can, and must, do better (John 13:35). Part of the solution is to be about our “local work” and to “mind our own business” (Romans 14:4).

Endnotes

  1. W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and Testament Words (Nashville: Nelson, 1985), 2:125.
  2. E. Stauffer, s. v. “agōn,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:134-40. [In addition: BDAG 356, “The primary semantic component in the use of this verb in Jd 3 is the effort expended by the subject in a noble cause.” It gives “expression” to the Greco-Roman “ideal of dedication.”]
  3. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 224-25.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, California.

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A Brief Look at Patronage as Background for the New Testament

college papers

The present study is an inquiry into the interconnected reciprocal nature of patronage in the Greco-Roman imperial social setting, as one background component from the New Testament world. One would be wrong to think that such a social dynamic’s presence was minimal. In actuality, patronage and its vocabulary not only appears specifically in the New Testament (Luke 22:25; Acts 10:38; Rom 16:2; Philm 17-20, Phil 4:14-20, etc), but the social reciprocal dynamics in which its value and cultural powers are also assumed (shame, honor, unity, gratitude, fellowship, etc.). The reader who knows what to look for will see it in numerous contexts shaping the life of the body.[1] Unfortunately, the many elements vital to the matrix of patronage can only be pointed to. Yet, as Bruce J. Malina observes, it was “the most significant form of social interaction in the limited-good world of the first century is an informal principle of reciprocity, a sort of implicit, non-legal contractual obligation, unenforceable by any authority apart from one’s sense of honor and shame.”[2] The challenge in this paper is to briefly and accurately describe it.

In seeking to understand the New Testament accurately, scholars propose various exegetical principles and contextualizing models to accomplish this task.[3] The process here requires an approach which appreciates the cultural background of the New Testament to contextualize its vocabulary. This, Albert A. Bell reminds, is the “crucial part of understanding any written text.”[4] Greco-Roman words have a socially conditioned context that the modern reader may not readily identify. “Without a comprehension of the sociological dynamics of that world, our understanding… is terribly superficial at best and woefully mistaken at worst.”[5] The most crucial need for the reader of the New Testament, then, is to be able to bridge the cultural and time gap between the original (native) context and the reader’s contemporary context. This linguistic and cultural divide can be managed. In advancing a cultural-anthropological reading model, Jerome H. Neyrey argues that one can avoid ethnocentric and anachronistic readings of Paul (and the New Testament) by appreciating the difference between reading him as member of the same culture (an emic reading), and by reading him informed by the analytical and descriptive works of specialists and ethnographers (an etic reading).[6] As one gets closer to this “emic reading,” the modern reader comes closer to better appreciate the symbolic universe of Paul’s and Jesus’ culture.[7] The goal here is to gain a realistic perception from “native informants” which can illustrate and contextualize patronage as a Greco-Roman phenomenon.[8]

The presentation to follow will demonstrate how significant the social form of patronage was in the daily life of the Greco-Roman world, it will outline the vocabulary of patronage in Latin and Greek primary sources, it will sharpen this outline to differentiate between political and social patronage, and then offer a realistic scenarios that can illuminate reading the New Testament in its social and cultural world.

Daily Significance of Patronage

In modern analogy, patronage was like an ancient informal “welfare system.” Social services, like the modern model of the United States, would have been quite foreign. Instead, patronage was a cultural phenomenon in which there was a reciprocal relationship between the upper class and the lower class. It benefited lower classes with protection and patronage by means of reasonable support (legal, financial, medical, marital, etc.) for public support, the running of errands, odd jobs, escorting through streets, and providing social honor in exchange (a return). In exchange for the daily allowance (sportula), the client was at the patron’s call. Thus, it was a form of social investment between patron-client; interestingly, even slaves of wealthy households were known to have clients who hoped the slave could use their influence upon their master.[9] Greco-Roman and Christian scholarship is unequivocal about the daily and social significance of the patron-client network of relationships.[10]

Martial, in his colorful Epigrams, clocks what city life was like in the urbs (4.8.1-4): “The first and second hours wear out clients greeting their patrons.” The imagery evokes the crushing nature of the daily dependence of clients upon their patronus. A step further, Juvenal shows how important this allowance of money was for the everyday professional and collegia with his sarcastic words in the Satires (1.95-126):

For no deity is held in such reverence amongst us as Wealth; though as yet, O baneful money, thou hast no temple of thine own; not yet have we reared altars to Money in like manner as we worship Peace and Honour, Victory and Virtue, or that Concord that clatters when we salute her nest.[11]

This fits the common view that the patron-client phenomena were important to the daily life of every social stratum of the Greco-Roman world. To this point, Jérôme Carcopinodescribes that whether employed or unemployed, freedman or the parasite do-nothing, aristocrats or lower plebeians, clients “were no sooner out of bed than they were in the grip of the duties inseparable from being a ‘client.’ […] there was no man in Rome who did not feel himself bound to someone more powerful above him by the same obligations of respect, or, to use the technical term, the same obsequium.”[12] This honor-bound relationship allowed those in various professions and collegia to survive by means of this small daily “dole as their main source of revenue.”

Patronage in Latin and Greek Sources

Extant Greek and Latin sources (literary and epigraphic) speak of patronage, benefaction, and euergetism (good-doing) from political and social perspectives. Ideas such protection, assistance, help, advocacy, and philanthropy appear. Consider the following samples. It seems that patronage was initially borne out of political power and civic duty, but that distinction apparently broke down over time into a social network between the upper and lower classes in the Greco-Roman world among the rich, the poor, the freedman and freedwoman.[13]

The Roman historian Livy stretches back about four centuries to the early Roman Republic and recounts the story of Cincinnatus, the famed aristocratic plebeian consul, turn poor plebeian farmer, turn dictator, turn savior of Roman (History of Rome 3.26-29). According to Livy, his actions as dictator were reciprocated with honor and status. Livy frames (stylizes?) the response of the army as recognizing “the benefit [beneficii] they had received at his hands,” honored him with a golden crown, and “saluted him as their protector [patronum salutaverit]” (History of Rome 3.29.3). They had become his “clients,” and Cincinnatus would use this social bond to his advantage to “clear” the charges against his son Caeso who was on the run for charges of murder. The protector of Rome, then, returned his powers of dictator and returned to the rustic farm life. Later, when Augustus consolidates his power, Tacitus recounts his use of “gratuities” (donis) among the military and the poor (Annals 1.2). Michael Grant[14] interprets this as Augustus letting “it be understood that the old institution of patrons and clients had been recast, so that henceforward all the people were his own, personal clients, including the poorest citizens.” Thus, as principis Augustus and the emperors after him would portray (politically?) to the citizens of Rome and its subjects a bond of reciprocal loyalty.

Greek sources also illuminate various aspects of patronage. In the fifth century BCE, Sophocles frames the tragic Oedipus as gratefully exchanging protection from Thebes and “help [prostátisi] of the dread goddesses” who reigns in their districts, with obtaining “a great savior [sōtēr’] for this city, and troubles for my enemies” in him (Oedipus at Colunus 455-460). The Apocrypha[15] likewise points to the political upheavals in the Maccabean storyline connected to concepts of patronage. In 2 Maccabees, Simon slanders Onias, who is designated “a plotter against the government the man who was the benefactor [tòn euergétēn] of the city, the protector [tòn kēdemóna] of his compatriots, and a zealot for the laws” (4:2).[16]

In 3 Maccabees 3:13-29, “King Ptolemy Philopater” declares to his “generals and soldiers” that despite his goodwill (philanthrōpía), a desire to do good (eū poiēsaí), and to honor (timēsai) in the Jewish temple (3:15-17), the Jews “manifest ill-will toward us” and are “the only people among all nations who hold their heads high in defiance of kings and their own benefactors [euergétais], and are unwilling to regard any action as sincere” (3:19). The accommodative and benevolent king (philanthrópōs 3:20) declares that such rebellious Jews should be arrested, bound, and deported and that any who harbor them should be severely punished (3:25-29). Eventually, Philopator descends upon the Jews but is subdued by two angels. The king breaks down to pity and tears, and blames and threatens his “friends” (toís phílois):  “You are committing treason and surpassing tyrants in cruelty; and even me, your benefactor [euergétēn]” (6:24).

Political and Social Patronage in Rome

In the Greco-Roman world of the first century CE, there appears to be evidence distinguishing between political and social patronage. This can be confusing since sources often use terms like benefactor, euergetes, and patron in the process of discussion. The masculine form of the Greek prostát– (see verbal use above for “help”) is somewhat problematic. It is often considered synonymous with the Latin patronus. Interestingly, the New Testament the feminine form προστάτις is used in Romans 16:2 and translated as patron and benefactor (ESV; NIV, NRSV, HCSB). Erlend D. MacGillivray[17] takes exception to the view that these two forms are completely synonymous. The masculine appears in both Attic Greek and in the Roman Empire and carries both legal and a variety of leadership benefaction roles, but not the feminine form. MacGillivray argues that applying the masculine meaning upon prostátis is exegetically problematic for this reason. Benefaction is in view, but one must distinguish between political patronage from some interpersonal social networking.

MacGillivray argues that understanding prostátis depends, then, upon understanding the fluid nature of ancient Mediterranean reciprocal dynamics, recognizing the patron-client model is far too limiting and misleading. There is a difference between the narrow and nuanced meaning of classical patronage and the broad euergetistic/altruistic benefaction. While epigraphical gratitude evidence shows that prostátis and prostátes imply civic prestige, the nature of the evidence is, however, often weak to force synonymity. Part of the problem stems from the near normative templates in honorary Greco-Roman epigraphs that do not always neatly distinguish between the various kinds of patronage. Thus, the presence of these terms do not prove exclusively a classical patronage/patronus; consequently, MacGillivray’s work argues that prostátis and prostátes are not demonstrably synonymous.

R. A. Kearsley[18] extends this trajectory and explores several first century CE gratitude (honorarium) inscriptions shedding light on the first-century distinction between political and social patronage. These aristocratic women are named, Iunia Theodora and Claudia Metrodora, and are celebrated as female benefactors/patrons who operated in mid-first century CE Asia Minor. The cities of Lycia (Myra, Patara, Tel-messos) recount the influence of Theodora. Theodora apparently had multiple-citizenships, she freely shared her wealth, applied influenced for political and commercial purposes, and is described consistently in benefactor terms (sōphronōs, philolúkios) in Lycia. Such amounts to Theodora functioning as a social benefactor. On the other hand, Metrodora of Chiot Island likewise held multiple-citizenships, did hold political office as magistrate (stephanephoros), which required benefaction toward the people although she surpassed such requirements. She functioned in banquets, directed imperial games, gymnasiarch, public bathhouse donation, basileia in Ionia, and was praised for her public virtue. She was a benefactor as part of holding office.

Realistic Patronage Scenarios for Reading the New Testament

The above illustrations provide insight into the deep and ancient tradition of patronage and how such played out in various settings. There are two passages where patronage vocabulary is explicitly found in the New Testament.

First, in Luke, the political aspect of patronage is evident in Jesus’ counter-intuitive teaching on greatness. Jesus corrects the “greatness debate” among the disciples by saying, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors [euergétai]. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (22:25-26). Frederick W. Danker observes, euergétai “served as a title for rulers in Syria and Egypt… In many cases the title would conceal tyranny under extravagant expenditure” (cf. Greek Esther 16:2-3, 13-14).[19] One might argue that Jesus is taking for granted a political euergétai known to abuse such roles, and parts from the fundamental principle of the patron-client relationship: “a service performed or a favor done shall not be transformed into status and honor.”[20] Jesus’ leadership principle, then, is that one serves detached from the demands of reciprocity and the honor and status it brings (cf. Acts 10:38).[21]

Second, in Romans 16:1-2 patronage appears to have a social component. Paul commends Phoebe to the church as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae” and as one who should be helped —reciprocally— “for she has been a patron [prostátis] of many and of myself as well.” Caroline F. Whelan[22] relates this passage to the context of Roman reciprocal social conventions within associations (collegia). Whelan maintains that women not only had the Roman legal standing to operate their wealth independently of guardians, they also functioned as civic patrons for collegia. Secondly, comparable “recommendation” letters reveal two types of reciprocal relationships. There is the superior-inferior recommendation rhetoric, and two, the social-equals recommendation rhetoric; each reflecting in some sense the inherent nature of reciprocity in Rome’s social structure, the matrix of which fuses together the economic and social. Romans 16:1-2, then, points to one of these realistic scenarios. Whelan argues that the patronage between social equals (amica, friends) is probably in view. Phoebe needs Paul’s influence among those addressed in Romans 16 (thus the recommendation), but as “equals” such rhetoric is not for his own social benefit. Instead, it is a gesture of gratitude for her own social activity as a social patron (euergetistic) to the collegia of the church in Cenchrea.

Conclusion

Robert Wilken asserts: “We have a distorted view of the history of early Christianity… The historian of Christianity has given the impression that the rest of the canvas is simply background for the closeup —relegating the general history of the times to an introductory chapter of vague generalities.”[23] Hopefully, this paper provides a closer, native (emic) reading. The smaller the cultural and linguistic gap is, the more accurate the reading. May this paper accomplish its task, to gain realistic perceptions from primary sources which can illustrate and contextualize patronage as an important Greco-Roman imperial phenomenon.

Endnotes

  1. David A. deSilva, “Honor and Shame,” “Patronage,” DNTB 518-22, 766-71; Donald Walker, “Benefactor,” DNTB 157-59; Halvor Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts, ed. J. H. Neyrey (1991; repr., Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 241-68; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 66-69.

  2. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World (Louisville: John Knox, 1981), 80.

  3. Ralph P. Martin, “Approaches to New Testament Exegesis,” in New Testament Interpretation, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 220-51.

  4. Albert A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the New Testament World (Nashville: Nelson, 1998), 2.

  5. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., “Sociological Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament, eds. David A. Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville: B&H, 2001), 171.

  6. Jerome H. Neyrey, Paul, In Other Words (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 13.

  7. Neyrey, Paul, 14-17. Neyrey’s distinctions and concerns have value, but he makes a hardline dichotomy between Paul as one who receives supra-cultural insight (i.e., from God) and Paul as a fully incarnated product of his times (18). This distinction ignores Paul’s stated role from God. This is one of Mulholland’s four critiques of this model, it tends to be human-centered, often grounded in dynamic models foreign to the Roman world, imposes the model on the evidence, and lends itself to sociological reductionism (“Sociological Criticism,” 178-80).

  8. David A. deSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999). The “native informants” are “our best instructors” (xi).

  9. Bell, Exploring the New Testament World, 191-92.

  10. Ferguson, Backgrounds, 67; Florence DuPont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, trans. C. Woodall (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); Micahel Grant, A Social History of Greece and Rome (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1992).

  11. Juvenal, Satire 1.95-126, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/juv-sat1eng.asp.

  12. Jérôme Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, ed. Henry T. Rowell, trans. E. O. Lorimer (1940; repr., New Haven: Yale University, 1968), 171.

  13. Grant, Social History of Greece and Rome, 30, 54, 70-76, 114-119.

  14. Grant, Social History of Greece and Rome, 75-76.

  15. See also the verbal, and substantival, usages in Wisdom 3:5, 11:5, 13, 16:2, 19:13-14; 2 Macc 8:6; 4 Macc 8:6; Greek Esther 16:2-3 = 8:12c (tōn euergetoúntōn), 13 = 8:12n (euergétēn). Of these sources, Mordecai is framed as sōtēra and euergétēn (cf. God in LXX Psa 12:6, 56:3, 114:7).

  16. Quotations for the Old Testament Apocrypha are taken from New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (Nashville: Nelson, 1989). The Greek text is from Septuaginta (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1996).

  17. Erlend D. MacGillivray, “Romans 16:2, prostátis/prostátes, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New Testament Texts,” NovT 53 (2011): 183-99.

  18. R. A. Kearsley, “Women in Public Life in the Roman East: Iunia Theodora, Claudia Metrodora and Phoebe, Benefactress of Paul,” TynB 50.2 (1999): 189-211.

  19. Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age According to St. Luke (St. Louis: Clayton Publishing, 1979), 222.

  20. Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations,” 261.

  21. Halvor Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom (1988; repr., Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 158.

  22. Caroline F. Whelan, “Amica Pauli: The Role of Phoebe in the Early Church,” JSNT 49 (1993): 67-85.

  23. Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University, 1984), xiv.

Bibliography

Bell, Albert A., Jr. Exploring the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Jesus and the First Christians. Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1998.

Carcopino, Jérôme. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Edited by Henry T. Rowell. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. 1940. Repr., New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1968.

Danker, Frederick W. Jesus and the New Age According to St. Luke: A Commentary on the Third Gospel. 1972. Repr., St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing, 1979.

deSilva, David A. “Honor and Shame.” DNTB. 518-22.

deSilva, David A. The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.

deSilva, David A. “Patronage” DNTB. 766-71.

DuPont, Florence. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Translated by Christopher Woodall. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

Grant, Michael. A Social History of Greece and Rome. New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

Kearsley, R. A. “Women in Public Life in the Roman East: Iunia Theodora, Claudia Metrodora and Phoebe, Benefactress of Paul.” TynB 50.2 (1999): 189-211.

MacGillivray, Erlend D. “Romans 16:2, prostátis/prostátes, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New Testament Texts.” NovT 53 (2011): 183-99.

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insight from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta, GA: Knox, 1981.

Moxnes, Halvor. The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke’s Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1988. Repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

——-. “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts.” Pages 241-68 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey. 1991. Repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993.

Mulholland, M. Robert, Jr. “Sociological Criticism.” Pages 170-86 in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues. Edited by David Alan Black and David S. Dockery. Nashville, TN: B&H, 2001.

Neyrey, Jerome H. Paul, In Other Words: A Cultural Reading of His Letters. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1990.

Walker, Donald D. “Benefactor.” DNTB. 157-59.

Whelan, Caroline F. “Amica Pauli: The Role of Phoebe in the Early Church.” JSNT 49 (1993): 67-85.

Wilken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1984.

The Gospel of Luke

Reprinted with permission from the July 2017 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine.

20170626_144252.jpgThe Gospel of Luke, like Matthew, Mark, and John, provides a narrative of Jesus that dramatically emphasizes the story and significance of His life and ministry, His rejection and crucifixion, and His resurrection and exaltation. Yet, despite bearing strong similarities with the other inspired accounts, Luke’s approach expands our understanding of Jesus and the working out of God’s plan to bring salvation into the Jewish and Gentile world.

In fact, Luke is the first book of a two-volume set. Luke and Acts are joined at the proverbial hip by their prologues styled in the manner of ancient historical accounts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3). If one is to truly appreciate Luke, one must understand that the ministry of Jesus is but a beginning —a prelude— to the establishment and expansion of the church. Luke is the only Gospel Account that has a sequel (i.e., Acts). Said another way, in relation to Acts, Luke is a prequel. From this broad perspective, then, we can see that Luke purposefully expanded the stories of Jesus’ ministry to include more genuine details, to provide unique emphases, and to show that the ascension was not the end of the redemption story but that it was to be continued by the church.

The Prologue and Purpose

When one pauses to appreciate how each gospel accounts begins, Luke’s prologue to “book one” is set with a series of unique features. In Luke 1:1-4, the inspired text reads in such a way that the reader should see early on that this account is framed along different lines than previous accounts:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (ESV)

This one sentence in the Greek outlines very clearly the overarching concern of Luke’s gospel account, and it does so in a formal way consistent with ancient Greek historians and medical writers according to Graham N. Stanton in his classic work, The Gospels and Jesus.[1]

Here, Luke acknowledged the presence of other narratives preexisting his own account (Gk. diégesin). Despite their existence, it appeared to be the right time to provide his own inspired account. Luke told us explicitly that his gospel is in keeping with three aspects of early Christian testimony: (1) these preexisting accounts, (2) earliest eyewitness testimony, and (3) those who served to deliver the Word to the world. To be clear, Matthew, Mark, and John demonstrate to have the same concerns, but regarding emphasis, Luke’s account is the clearest. And this feature is most likely due to the sort of audience he seeks to reach that is, people like Theophilus who are interested in the certainty of the events of Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, and the progress of those who followed Him afterward.

Luke’s Author and Audience

Two more unique feature of Luke is seen in both its author and its recipient, and this speaks to Luke’s heavy emphasis on providing a closely followed and orderly account. Luke, a physician by profession (Col 4:14), is the only known gentile author in Scripture period. That alone is a spectacular fulfillment of the end goal of the gospel to reach the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles (Rom 1:16; Acts 1:8, 13:46-48). Accordingly, Luke became a participant in the work of the Apostle Paul at some point before entering the province of Macedonia (Acts 16:10). Luke includes himself in many of the journeys of Paul, marking them with the terms “we” and “our” or “us” (Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15, 21:1-18, 27:1-37, 28:1-16).

These “we” sections tell us something very rich about Luke. He is not just an author. Luke was a collaborator and eyewitness of the continuing story of the redemption in the church, who then investigated the origins and narratives regarding Jesus by interacting with eyewitnesses and early teaching of the Word. Luke was a Gentile convert who joined Paul’s missionary fellow workers, and now offered an inspired history of the full gospel story. For this reason, Luke bears many similarities with Matthew and Mark, gospel accounts based upon eyewitness testimony. And, the book of Luke shows that his missionary itinerary screeches to a halt in Jerusalem when Paul is arrested in the Temple and after meeting with James the brother of Jesus (Acts 21:17). It is within reason to point out that Luke had over two years in the Judean region to collect eyewitness accounts while Paul is detained in Caesarea, Philippi, until Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 21:1-26:32). 

Moreover, unlike Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke names the immediate recipient of his two-volume work, Theophilus (Acts 1:1; Luke 1:1). Many theories and speculations abound regarding the nature of the relationship Theophilus had with Christianity in general and Luke in particular. While his name means “lover of God” or “friend of God,” this was not uncommon in the ancient world, nor in the New Testament (cf. Diotrephes, “nourished by Zeus,” 3 John 9). So, it is not as reasonable as one might think to suggest it is a “code name” for a believer.

What helps our understanding of Theophilus’s connection to Luke is the way he was honored with the term “most excellent” (Gk. kratiste). The word is used four times in the New Testament and all by Luke (Luke 1:3; Acts 23:26, 24:2, 26:25). In Acts, it used when addressing the governors Felix and Festus respectively. In Luke 1:3, there is not enough evidence to suggest such a political status, but it points to, at minimum, the upper-class status of Theophilus and his social circle. This would not be the first time Christianity intersected this social sphere (Romans 16:1-2; Acts 13:1; Philippians 4:22). Thus, Luke’s audience is probably of the intellectual kind, and this fits with his stated purpose and the “better” Greek he used.

It is not surprising then, given Luke’s research and experience, his relationship to Theophilus, and his social circles, that Luke would “write an orderly account for you… that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). Luke promises that he is framing his account with an attention to detail —that is, with a strong historical emphasis.

Luke’s Unique Framework

Not a lot of disagreement exists concerning the general outline of Luke. The narrative is relatively straightforward. The following outline of Luke not only provides a survey of the book, but also points out the unique features of this gospel. The Gospel of Luke cannot be understood a part from an emphasis upon the intertwining of history and faith.

Book One: Prologue (1:1-4). As emphasized thus far, Luke begins with a prologue all its own. Like John 20:31, Luke 1:1-4 states the purpose of his Gospel. This is reinforced by Acts 1:1-3, which summarizes that Luke is but the beginning story of “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” There is more to the story of Jesus, and Luke provides a detailed account of it.

Birth Narratives of John and Jesus (1:5-2:52). It is not without significance that Luke provides interwoven birth and youth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew recounts elements of the nativity story during the period of Herod the Great as does Luke. Luke intertwines divine events surrounding John and his family, and Jesus and Mary, anchoring them to real life with the historical lead in “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5) and “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (2:1). Such passages like Mary’s magnificat (1:46-55) and the two stories of Jesus in the temple (2:22-52) are recorded only here.

Anticipating the Ministry of Jesus (3:1-4:13). Among the “time stamps” Luke employs, 3:1-2 is layered with seven political figures that suggest a window from 27 to 29 for the beginning of the ministries of John the Baptist and the Lord. The intertwining of their stories continue, as John is set up as the voice to anticipate the coming of the “salvation of God” —Jesus (v. 6). Jesus is again anchored to not just history but biblical history and creation itself, as His genealogy begins with his adoptive father’s lineage down to Adam, “the son of God” (3:38), the phrase Jesus would identify with (1:35, 4:3, 9, 41, 20:36, 22:70; Acts 9:20). These are significant unique elements of Luke.

Jesus Ministers in Galilee (4:14-9:50). If one were to read Mark, this section would have many similar events recorded, but Luke expands on them or gives them a fresh twist. One event that is of particular importance for its uniqueness is Jesus reading the Isaiah scroll (Luke 4:17-21; Isaiah 61) in the synagogue, during which He not only declared its fulfillment in Himself, but also revealed what His ministry would look like. It will be a series of reversals (blind see, captives free, etc.). Jesus’ concern for the disenfranchised is witnessed in all the Gospel Accounts, but Luke strongly emphasizes it.

Jesus Travels to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44). This section is often called the “central section” of Luke as it roughly covers ten of its twenty-four chapters. Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” in anticipation of being “taken up” (9:51). It is unique in that Luke is the only gospel account to record Jesus’ travel route on the eastern side of the Jordan River. It contains some of the most memorable events (rejection in Samaria, the seventy-two sent), parables (Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, Prodigal Son, Rich Man and Lazarus), encounters (Mary and Martha), and sayings of our Lord (return of the unclean spirit, sign of Jonah). This section is bursting with teaching and events unique among the gospel accounts.

The Passion Week in Jerusalem (19:45-21:38). Here, Luke recounts a series of controversial events leading up to his betrayal and rejection. One immediately sees the unity between the way Matthew, Mark, and Luke chronicle the “passion week.” This includes the challenge of Jesus’ authority, paying taxes to Caesar, the resurrection, the question regarding the lordship of Christ, and the prediction of the destruction of the temple in AD 70. The section concludes with a summary statement.

From Shame to Exaltation (22:1-24:53). One of the unique elements in this section is the portrayal of the institution of the Lord’s Supper and the cup-bread-cup scenario. It is not that Luke makes a mistake here, but that it perhaps reflects the practice of having four cups employed during the Passover. Another unique feature of this section is in the resurrection appearances —in particular, on the road to Emmaus where two disciples find a Jesus “in hiding.” They recount this event along with their sense of a loss of hope until they connect the dots that this was Jesus. These are the details that provide a sense of uniqueness of Luke’s gospel.

Conclusion

Luke, along with Acts, were probably published and sent to Theophilus around AD 70. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest for two years in Rome, awaiting his case to be heard by Caesar (Acts 28:30-31). This is a few years before his death, which is traditionally dated to the time of Nero (AD 54-68; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5). At the time of publication, we should picture Luke as a veteran evangelist, an experienced missionary who has researched the ancient origins of the faith. He was addressing those engaged by the story of Jesus who wish more details and certainty. His inspired record, then, is offered as a powerful demonstration of the historical basis of the claims of Christianity.

Endnotes

  1. Graham N. Stanton, The Gospel and Jesus, eds. Peter R. Ackroyd and Graham N. Stanton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 83.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, California.

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Lessons from a “Sinful” Woman

washing-jesus-feet

On one occasion in the ministry of our Lord, Jesus accepted a dinner invitation from a Pharisee named Simon (Luke 7:40); interestingly, a woman with a reputation for being a “sinner” had heard of Jesus’ arrival and interrupts the dinner by cleaning his feet with her tears and hair, and anointing them with oil (Luke 7:36-38).

Simon recoils at the woman’s act, and has an internal monologue which essentially questions the validity of the Lord’s ministry: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39 ESV).

As in other occasions, Jesus answers this unspoken criticism (Luke 7:40; cf. Matt 9:4, Mark 2:8). The Lord responds with a “parable of two debtors” (Luke 7:41-43), which has as its main thrust the point that “our sense of forgiveness will evidence itself in love and service.”[1]

There are points in the narrative which suggest that the woman and the Lord had known each other previously. The woman’s act of service and love (Luke 7:44-46) is a demonstration of her gratitude. This gratitude is based upon the fact that her sins “are forgiven” (Luke 7:47-48).

In the first instance, Jesus speaking to Simon the Pharisee states that this woman’s sins “stand forgiven” (v. 47). The phrase is one word in the original and is in the perfect passive indicative form. The verb reflects that her sins were forgiven at some point previous to their encounter at Simon’s house, and remain to be so. This would explain her great demonstration, of which Simon was critical.

In the second instance, Jesus turns to the woman and speaks the exact same phrase (v. 48). This time, the Lord encourages her – your sins remain to be forgiven. The woman “stands saved” (Grk. sesoken) because of her faith in the Lord; consequently, the Savior could send her into a life of “peace” (v. 50). The Lord emphasizes the abiding results of her forgiveness received prior to this dinner.

Moreover, Jesus concedes the point that the woman’s life had been ravaged by sin: “her sins, which are many” (v. 47). This strikes at one of Simon’s criticisms raised by the woman’s action, and Jesus demonstrates his full knowledge of the situation. He knew “what sort of woman” she was. Now, she is different; now, she is saved and forgiven, commissioned to live a new life embraced by the peace of God (Rom 5:1).

If Service is the Symptom… Stay Sick

It ought to go without saying that this encounter with our Lord is one that should pull at our heart, for we share, as Christians, the same plight as this woman. Knowing the debt of forgiveness we owe to our God, knowing that the Lord went behind enemy lines to rescue us from a calamity worse than death, we too should be of similar passions to show our love through service.

The idea of service is not an abstract notion that we subscribe to, service is an expression of love. It is a symptom of our love for God. Consequently, if service is a “symptom,” then love and gratitude generated by salvation is the “infection.” And in this analogy, we would rather be sick than cured.

The Christian, therefore, should never be complacent in their service to God. Packed pews look nice, but if that is all we offer to God, we have failed. Service, as demonstrated by this woman, sacrifices time, resources, energy, and offers it to her Lord. Can we do any less?

When there are cards to mail, people to visit, broken hearts to help mend, and souls to invite to our Father’s promises in the Gospel, it should be done by our hands – not by the hands of another. The most natural explanation for this behavior is our gratitude and love for our Lord.

Lessons to be Learned

Besides the principle emphasis from this passage that forgiveness leads to a sense of gratitude which showcases itself in acts of love and service, there are a few other lessons which may be observed.

(1) This passage highlights the divinity of Jesus, bearing witness that He has the right to forgive sin.

Jesus’ claims to divine authority are well documented in the New Testament, and even was a basis for the plots against his life (John 5:17-18; 7:1).

In Luke, Jesus declared that the woman’s sins stand forgiven (7:47-48), and this offended the group of Pharisees among the dinner party. They reasoned, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” (v. 49). They understood Jesus’ claims were not idealistic (mere wishful thinking), but were literal claims to divine authority (cf. Luke 5:17-26).

(2) A person’s new life may be overshadowed, for a time, by their past moral failures.

We know virtually nothing about this woman only that she is labeled as “a woman of the city” (v. 37) and “a sinner” (vv. 37, 39). This is not just a note from Luke, the narrator, but this was the Simon’s understanding of who this mysterious woman was.

Nevertheless, critics will come and go, but the peace of God lasts forever (v. 50). The unrelenting critics who so often affirm, “you’ll do it again”, will be silenced and shamed by service to God (1 Pet 3:13-17; 2:11-12).  We do not serve to prove others wrong, we serve to love God. The motivation behind our service must be fueled by our gratitude; as it is written:

Now which of them will love him more? Simon [the Pharisee] answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” (Luke 7:42b-43)

 (3) A life troubled by the ravages of a sinful life can become a life of peace devoted to godly service to God.

The change of life brought about by a new way of thinking in light of God’s forgiveness has the overwhelming power to transform a person (Acts 2:38; Rom 12:1-2). Experiencing the grace of God, understanding that we who were once dead are now made alive in Christ brings tremendous peace, for our Lord never leaves us (Heb 13:5-6; 1 John 1:7).

Indeed, Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). This new birth (John 3:4-5) brings with it the  “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” (Phil 4:7); moreover, this peace guards our hearts and minds. In this new life, in true appreciation of the grace of God we are qualified not only to experience a heavenly reward (Col 1:12) but are also sanctified for service (Eph 2:10; 1 Cor 6:19-20).

There is no person that God cannot use in holy service, especially his children whom he has “delivered… from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son” (Col 1:13).

Concluding Thoughts

I remember seeing an article entitled, “Sluggish Slumbering Saints”, and the essence of the piece was to wake up Christians and call them to their responsibilities as servants of God to serve their Lord (Rom 6:16-18). Indeed, perhaps one of the more critical questions we must ask is this: if the lack of service is the symptom, then what is the infection? The sad answer is: lack of love and ingratitude for all of God’s demonstrations of love.

This spiritual malignancy will only go into remission once we see afresh the great debt we owe our Lord. Should it be that a renewal of this kind is needed in the Christian’s life, then we are to seek Him in repentance and faith knowing that He will receive us and reward us (Heb 11:6; Acts 8:22).

You can be a servant like this wonderful woman, who despite her sin-filled past has been immortalized in the pages of God’s book for posterity so that all may see their own story of salvation and love, and be moved to faithfully serve Him from whom all blessings flow.

Sources

  1. Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile: Exegetical Outlines of the Parables of Christ, rev. ed. (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 1998), 70.

So Close: Jesus, the Pharisees, and His Divinity (Luke 5)

By the language of the text, it appears to have been an average day during the Lord’s ministry in Galilee. The multitudes had flocked to the Good Master wishing to hear him speak and to request of him to heal their infirmities. In this particular case, the Lord was teaching in a house and a paralyzed man was dropped down through the roof by his inventive and determined friends.

They trusted that Jesus could heal him, but it seems safe to ponder that they did not expect the Lord’s gracious response. Luke chronicles the narrative in the following manner:

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:18-20 ESV)

The Lord’s first response was to give the paralyzed man pardon. The Jesus cancelled the man’s transgressions. He overrode the situation and removed the burden of the man’s sins. What a profound event!

Many today wonder why the Lord forgave the man of his spiritual infirmities first, instead of meeting the principal need for which the man was brought – physical restoration. It could be the case that He had already intended to substantiate his Divine claims to forgive sins by means of a miracle, but we simply do not know why with any degree of absolute certainty.

In some sense, the question is irrelevant because the Lord’s activities are interrupted by the scribes and Pharisees. This gives rise to a unique situation where the Lord boldly argues for and asserts His Divine prerogative to forgive sins.

We continue Luke’s narrative:

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (Luke 5:21-24)

The miracle was immediate, the crowd was amazed, and the scribes and the Pharisees received an answer they would never forget – Jesus of Nazareth possess the ability and right to forgive sins!

On the Divinity of Christ

Tremendous amounts of energy and ink has been spent discussing the Divinity of Christ. The canonical documents are quite clear as to the Lord’s divinity. John 1:1-3 describes the existence of the Word, who was the agent to create the universe at the beginning (Gen 1:1; cf. 1 John 1.1). In conjunction with these thoughts are the words of John 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (cf. Phil 2:5-10). The divine Word has made a human and his habitation was among mankind: he was a living and breathing human (in form and substance) capable of dying.

Paul speaks of the supremacy of Christ by saying that in Jesus the universe stands in “perfect equilibrium,” for in him it is “held together” (Col 1:17; Grk. sunistemi). If Jesus pre-existed in eternity, and then became human, and lived a human life in preparation for his divine ministry, it is not surprising, therefore, that Jesus incorporates the miraculous in His ministry. And though we cannot precisely and neatly slice Jesus’s into his divine and human sides, this is the great mystery of God in the flesh (1 Tim 3.16).

Yet for some who initially beheld his ministry, this was difficult to absorb. The scribes and the Pharisees, the noted Jewish leaders of the day, heard the words of Jesus, “your sins are forgiven you,” and immediately catalogued His action as blasphemous. How did they come to this conclusion? They properly reasoned “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” If Jesus is the son of Joseph and Mary, then it is logical to assume that Jesus is only human.

They were so close! The presupposition of the scribes and Pharisees is correct. Their working knowledge of biblical data and their perception of the situation is, upon face value, true. This act of Jesus of Nazareth was therefore viewed as an arrogant hostile takeover of the prerogative of God (Exod 10:17, 32:31-33; Jer 31:34 etc.).[1]

Had Jesus simply been a mere mortal, they would be completely correct; however, they were dealing with a unique situation – Jesus is no mere mortal. He is the “Everlasting Father” (Isa 9:6), a Hebrew idiom meaning that he has an eternal existence (Micah 5:2; John 1:1).[2] Jesus is Immanuel, which means God among us (Matt 1:21-23). The Lord forgave the paralyzed man of his sins because He had the authority to do so. His authority derived from His Divinity.

Was Jesus a Moralist?

Many have stumbled and erred regarding the nature of Jesus. To some, he is a great teacher, one that should stand at the top of the world’s “Top 10” of most influential religious leaders of human existence. They over emphasize his humanity and praise his ethical and moral teachings (e.g. the golden rule). However, they cannot view him as a wonderful teacher of ethics and morals and at the same time deny his claims to divinity.

He was not a mere moralist who “inherited” and “perfected” a preexisting moral tradition from the Jews! And those who are so persuaded to think of Jesus in this light, C. S. Lewis stressed the inconsistency of this view:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said [in his teaching and about himself] would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising [sic] nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that [option] open to us. He did not intend to.[3]

We believe that the Pharisees and Scribes held a similar view that many hold  – that Jesus was a just great teacher. They were so close, but still so tragically far away from the real nature of God-Man Jesus.

Are You Close, or Yet so Far?

What will you do with Jesus? How will you view his teaching? His claims to Divinity? His claim to be your Redeemer? You will make a decision either way – actively or inactively – and that decision will ripple its effects in the deepest crevices of your life. Again, we ponder over this decision with the words of Mr. Lewis:

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.[4]

The is a passage in the Gospel accounts that is often nicknamed “the Great Invitation.” It is in Matthew 11.28-30. In it, Jesus invites all who believe in him and his teaching.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

He promises that the life that he promises stems from his gentle and lowly heart, and promises rest for your soul. Someone has wonderfully said, that in verse 30 the pressure to successfully live out the teaching of Jesus “fits just right” according to each person’s burdens. We finally ask you: will you come so close to the truth of Jesus and his claims to divinity, or will come so close but yet stand so far off from the good life he promises. The answer is left into your hands. God bless you to do the right thing.

Endnotes

  1. Note: Special thanks to Dr. Earl D. Edwards, Head of the Freed-Hardeman University Graduate School of Bible, for introducing me to this observation in a Bible class. It is not enough to simply observe that the Pharisees and scribes were wrongly charging the Lord with blasphemy, but we must also appreciate that they had correctly reasoned that a human did not have this right or power – this was the sole possession of God.
  2. Wayne Jackson, Isaiah: God’s Prophet of Doom and Deliverance (Abilene, TX: Quality Publications, 1991), 25.
  3. Clive S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 52 (emphasis added).
  4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 53 (emphasis added).