October 16, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sometimes these days Christians seem a little, well, thin-skinned. Some people can all-but fly into a rage and get into a serious spiritual lather when confronted with some obvious piece of anti-religious behavior or when they hear that a character on a TV show said something religiously offensive. On Facebook you can regularly see posts that huff and puff a lot about some story in a newspaper that indicates that somewhere a new law got passed that seems to chip away a bit at some cherished piece of Christian expression – some school takes the Ten Commandments off of the wall of a classroom or another school rules to keep a science textbook that teaches the tenets of evolution. Christians feel they are being persecuted by such actions, that the Christian identity of the nation is fading away.
Jesus generally did not seem that bothered by instances of pagan practice or a thoroughly secular mindset.
After all, the Roman government in question in Matthew 22 was not some religiously neutral (much less faith-affirming) institution. Few Christians in North America can imagine serving a government that was openly idolatrous the way Rome was. Indeed, most scholars believe that the inscription on the coin to which Jesus refers in verse 20 was likely some blasphemous designation. Some scholars believe that the denarius in question likely bore the image of Tiberius with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and an image of the “high priest” Livia on the coin’s obverse.
“In God We Trust” it wasn’t. Caesar was the official Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God” of the realm.
Yet Jesus calmly deflected questions about it all even as he held the coin in his own hand. He did not fling the coin away as though it were white-hot with paganism. He did not roll his eyes at the unbelievable fact that not everyone worship the God Jesus called Father. That alone is curious and just possibly instructive.
Jesus took this opportunity to convey some pretty profound theological truths after all. Because Rome at that time was all-powerful. Pax Romana covered most of the known world and the influence and almighty power of the Empire was all-but unchallenged. Indeed, when a revolt against taxes in A.D. 70 took place, Jerusalem paid the ultimate price for daring to stand up to the Caesar.
But Jesus was able to see down to a deeper and more profound reality. When you know that the whole world belongs to God and when you know that above all the human heart is what belongs to the Creator God who fashioned us in his image, then even the big, bright, loud, and resplendent realities of this world become mere sideshows and distractions. But they do not ultimately touch God. They do not finally threaten God. Getting all excited about the powers that be and becoming hyper focused on them tempts us to downplay and underestimate the glorious sovereignty of God.
When Jesus takes the Caesar’s coin into his hand and holds it up in front of his bewildered questioners, you can almost see him shrug his shoulders, furrow his brow, and just generally convey the idea, “What are you talking about? THIS is all you have to ask me about? Who cares? This means nothing! Get a life! And remember that God is still ever and only God and that no human power can dislodge him, displace him, or challenge his claims on our hearts and on this world that belongs to him.”
As Jesus’ sermons go, this one may be brief, but it packs quite a wallop! And in a political age when so many people are so sharply divided along so many various cultural and social and economic fault lines, Jesus’ confident posture and consistent, laser-like focus on God both challenge us and call us back to our better selves.
Notice in Matthew 22:16 that the Greek text can be literally translated as “. . . for you do not look upon the face of people.” The Greek there says blepeis eis prosopon anthropon. Does the typical translation of this text (“you pay no attention to who they are”) maybe miss a pun? After all, in the very next verse Jesus calls his interlocutors “hypocrites.” As you may recall, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and in the Greek and Roman world of that time, actors wore masks to cover their faces when on stage. A hypocrite is someone who hides his true face behind a mask, a false front—a hypocrite grins at you and butters you up with unctuous words of flattery but is secretly sneering at you. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus does not look upon the “face of people,” and if by that they meant the public face people show, they were right. But Jesus does look upon the true face of people, that which we hide behind the masks we present to those around us. And that is precisely why he nails these slippery fellows who were trying to trip Jesus up!! He sees through to their true faces!
The last word in this story is “went away” (Greek: apelthen). There may be something to this little textual detail that we can play with, too. They were amazed at Jesus, which is a proper reaction. But they don’t use that amazement the right way. When we are amazed at Jesus, it should draw us to him. Yet it drove them from him. This alone may present a sad picture of how too many people react to Jesus even yet today.
One other possible connection here is what happens when Jesus looks upon the face of the one pictured on the coin: Jesus sees down to the true face of all, see what is what. That could be a word-play here as well.
Some years ago James Dobson and John Woodbridge sparred in the pages of Christianity Today over Dobson’s repeated use of warfare language to describe a Christian stance over against the larger American culture. Woodbridge believed that such language blinds believers to the places where God may be lurking while also doing violence to the gentleness, humility, and love demonstrated by Jesus and listed in the New Testament as spiritual fruits. Dobson replied that there is little if any ambiguity in the wider culture such that not to use fighting words would be the equivalent of remaining silent.
It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world wide and deep and perilous-looking. And it seems that we in the church also like to gauge other people’s piety by litmus tests to see if their attitudes toward the big bad world out there are properly hostile and negative where they need to be negative and combative. But Jesus’ words about the Roman Empire, the Caesar, and taxes give one pause on all that. Is this the only way to go vis-à-vis the wider world? Or does striking a more confident and faith-informed posture convey the very message of hope and trust and joy in the Lord that we want to convey in the first place?
Author: Doug Bratt
Have you ever been so eager for something that you’d put your life on the line for it? You may not think so. Yet Moses did. Sometimes he’s close to God, sure of God, “filled to the brim,” as Neal Plantinga writes, with God.
At other times, however, Moses feels uncertain, misled and spiritually “dried up.” He’s been to the mountaintop with God. However, Moses has also trudged with the Lord through some dark valleys.
One day, however, according to Exodus 33, Moses seems to tire of those spiritual peaks and valleys. He wants God to answer all of his questions and end all of his uncertainties.
Moses wants God to come, as it were, out of hiding. He wants the veiled God to unveil, the covered God to uncover himself. He wants the full-strength dose of God. “Now show me your glory,” he says to God in verse 18.
Once upon a time, of course, before they let sin crash God’s good creation’s party, Adam and Eve enjoyed intimate fellowship with God. We sense that they saw much of God’s glory. Our first parents, however, wanted to be even more like God than God had created them to be. So they tumbled into sin, both harming God’s good creation and alienating themselves from both God and each other. God then drove them from God’s glorious presence in the Garden.
God, however, didn’t give up. God promised to turn Abraham into a new nation through which God would bless all the nations on earth. God also graciously rescued Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt and moved them toward a Promised Land.
Along the way, God gave those migrating Israelites glimpses of God’s great glory. According to Exodus 16:10, “the glory of the Lord” appeared in the cloud with which God led Israel. Later, after that glorious cloud led Israel to the foot of Mount Sinai, Exodus 24:16 reports that “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” That glory, Exodus 24:17, “looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.”
Much, however, has happened between Israel’s last glimpsed God’s glory in the cloud and on Sinai and Exodus 33. Though she several times promised to do everything the Lord said, Israel stubbornly sinned against God. In particular, she worshipped a golden calf Joshua made from her melted golden earrings. God’s punishment, while not as severe as God had contemplated, is swift and devastating.
The beginning of Exodus 33 reports that God’s commands Israel to leave Sinai and head for the land God had promised her ancestors. In verse 2 the Lord also promises to send an angel before her to chase her enemies out of that Promised Land. However, in verse 3 God also insists God won’t accompany the Israelites because they’re so stubborn that God might have to destroy them.
Moses, however, wonders how he can lead the Israelites toward the Promised Land if God doesn’t accompany them. Must he somehow lead these bull-headed Israelites all by himself? No, God answers in verse 14, Moses won’t have to go alone. Literally God tells him “My face will go with you.”
We believe that a person’s face tells us a lot about whether he or she is “with” us in a caring way. In a similar way, having God’s face with the Israelites means that God will bless them. It also guarantees that God will accompany and provide for them on their way to the Promised Land.
God’s promise in verse 14 makes it hard to understand why Moses seems to press God even further in verse 15. “If your presence does not go with us,” he pleads there, “do not send us up from here.” Some scholars suggest that God first primarily promises God’s “Presence” to Moses in verse 14. That would mean that in verse 15 Moses begs God to accompany the rest of the Israelites as well as himself. Twice, after all, Moses mentions “me and your people (italics added).”
Will God, then, accompany the Israelites in a way that makes them distinct from other people? Will the Lord’s Presence enable the other nations to clearly see that the Lord is with the Israelites? That, after all, is the heart of God’s original promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Israel’s other ancestors.
God’s answers in verse 17 that God will do graciously what Moses has requested. “I will do the very thing you have asked,” he promises there, “because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Yet Moses’ subsequent request for a glimpse of God’s glory suggests he doesn’t understand just how God’s “Presence” will go with Israel.
While Moses may at least suspect that he might fry if he were to really see God’s glory, he seems to believe that he needs more than just God’s “yes” to his prayers. Maxie Dunnam (Exodus: Word) suggests that “he needed to know more of what God was like if he was going to continue to lead a people who had ‘kept a golden calf up’ their sleeve.” So Moses essentially asks to see God as God’s really is, in all God’s holy splendor.
God, however, refuses to show Moses God’s full glory. God offers, instead, some alternatives. “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you,” the Lord promises in verse 19. That “goodness,” may be a kind of downpayment on God’s promises to Israel. It will assure Moses that God will accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land, giving them good things along the way.
God, however, in verse 19, also promises to proclaim God’s “name, the Lord” in Moses’ presence. Now that may not seem like a particularly big deal until we remember that in biblical times, a name often expressed something about a person’s character. So God’s name describes God’s character, who God will be for God’s people.
God’s Old Testament name, Yahweh, reminds us of the Hebrew verb “to be” or “to happen.” God’s name, then, sounds to the Israelites like “the One who is and will be there,” or “the One who is and will be there with you.” So when God “proclaims” God’s name in Moses’ presence, it vividly reminds Israel’s leader that God will remain with God’s people to show them God’s compassion and mercy.
In response to Moses’ request to see his glory, Yahweh first promises that he’ll see Yahweh’s goodness and then that Moses will know Yahweh’s name. However, in verse 20,
God warns Moses that even a glimpse of God face would kill him. John Goldingay (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts: Eerdmans) suggests that this means that Moses cannot see God’s face because its glory would be too intense for him to survive even just a glimpse of it. Yet God offers Moses a partial concession. Israel’s leader may, if he hides in a slit in the rock, shielded by God’s hand, see God’s back.
Exodus 33’s preachers, teachers and hearers may, as a colleague suggests, see this as an analogy of our own experiences with God. People often cannot, after all, see God’s face, God’s coming. We can, however, see God’s back, God’s going. You and I don’t yet see God face to face. But sometimes we see God’s back, as it were, disappearing around the corner and realize that God has just acted for us.
God graciously gives God’s people glimpses of God’s “back,” of what Exodus 34:6 and following call God’s compassion and grace. God repeatedly shows God’s adopted sons and daughters that God is, indeed, “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” God shows us how God does maintain love to thousands and forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet God also gives us glimpses of God’s absolute hatred of sin.
However, the NIV Study Bible suggests that in Christ, God eventually answered, “yes” to Moses’ prayer to see God’s glory. After all, at the Mount of Transfiguration, according to Luke 9, Moses catches a glimpse of that glory in Jesus Christ.
God, however, has also answered “yes” to all of God’s children’s prayers by showing us God’s glory. After all, in John 1:14 we read that we have seen God’s glory in Jesus Christ, who came from the glorious Father. In fact, Jesus prays that his glorious Father will show his disciples his glory, the glory God gave him because God has always loved him.
God wouldn’t let Moses even glimpse God’s glory because Israel’s leader could never survive such a sight. Yet God has graciously let you and me catch a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. Seeing him, we haven’t died. Instead, we’ve lived, we’ve received life, by God’s grace.
When Moses just glimpsed God’s glory on Sinai, the Israelites were afraid of him because it had set his face aglow. Yet in giving God’s adopted sons and daughters a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus Christ, God has made our faces “radiant” as well. After all, that’s precisely what Paul suggests in II Corinthians 3:18: “We, who with unveiled faces, reflect the Lord’s glory.”
So Exodus 33’s preachers and teachers might ask both their hearers and themselves whether people see that we’ve glimpsed a bit of God’s glory. Do our own faces radiate something of God’s glory after we’ve met God in corporate or individual worship?
Of course, it’s far more biblical to ask whether people see something of God’s glory in the way we behave, think and talk. God, after all, gives us glimpses of God’s glory so that people may see what we do and give their own glory to God.
When I was in tenth grade, our high school’s boys’ basketball team advanced to the quarterfinals of the state high school tournament. While our team lost, many of us though we ought to celebrate what we called a “glory day” by skipping school the next day in honor of the team’s amazing tournament run.
While I’m not sure students celebrate such “glory days” any more, my memories got me to thinking about the concept of “glory days.” While I attended a Christian high school, I don’t think anyone thought of our glory day as giving glory to God.
Mostly, I think, we thought of it as an excuse to skip school. If any glory was to be had, it was that of the members of our team. Perhaps there was also an element of our “glorying in,” that is, celebrating the Eagles’ accomplishment.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 99 is the last of the Enthronement Psalms that proclaim that Yahweh reigns not only over little Israel, but also over the entire world. It is a particularly exquisite declaration of Yahweh’s reign because of its symbolic use of numbers, notably the numbers seven and three. The former is the number of perfection throughout the Scripture and the latter the number of divinity. Yahweh is mentioned seven times and the Psalmist uses seven independent pronouns in referring to Yahweh. And the Psalm has three sections highlighting some feature of Yahweh’s kingship, each of which is concluded by the word “holy.” (This three-fold holiness will remind readers of the vision of Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where angelic beings called seraphs cried out, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”) Psalm 99 is a perfect Psalm for a perfect King.
Further, it is a perfect Psalm for this imperfect time in history, a time of national and international turmoil. In a world filled with human claimants to the throne, we need to hear that there is only One who is worthy and able to sit on the throne of the world. All day every day we are bombarded with the words and deeds of imperfect “Kings,” from America’s mercurial Trump to North Korea’s monstrous Kim, from Syria’s cruel Assad to the Philippines’ punitive Duterte. African dictators, Afghan warlords, Latin American tyrants, Middle Eastern terrorists—the list of those who would rule the world goes on and on. Everyone one of them is a pretender to the throne of the world, because none of them is “holy.”
That is the central claim of Psalm 99. Yahweh the King is holy, holy, holy (verses 3, 5, 9). As all readers of this article well know, the main idea of holiness in the Bible is separateness, otherness, difference. The Lord God is, in Karl Barth’s famous phrase, the “wholly other.” He is unlike all the human contenders for the throne and, although Psalm 99 doesn’t mention this, also unlike the supposed divine contenders. While we naturally tend to think of that otherness in terms of sinlessness, that is not the focus here in Psalm 99 (though Yahweh is, of course, without sin, unlike each of the humans who would be king). Psalm 99 is much more specific about the ways in which Yahweh is other than those human and divine pretenders.
First, Yahweh is King over all the earth, so “let the nations tremble, let the earth shake… he is exalted over all the nations.” While some human kings may have immense kingdoms and even greater ambitions, the fact is that each is very much restricted in his/her reach and reign. Psalm 99 makes the audacious claim that the God of Israel, that a little pipsqueak nation huddled in a corner of the big wide world, is in fact the ruler of all nations. His throne is in Israel; “he sits enthroned between the cherubim (the angelic creatures that decorated the Ark of the Covenant)… in Zion (the city of Jerusalem)….” But he is not, like other ancient Near Eastern divinities, limited to certain geographical locations. He is not a tin pot tribal deity, merely the god of a specific nation. He is exalted over all the nations.
This claim, of course, is utter nonsense to the nations of the world, beginning with the Pharaoh who sneered to Moses, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Psalm 99 says that the nations tremble with fear before the King of all the earth. However, as Romans 3:18 says, the depth of human depravity is that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” but Psalm 99 is confident that one day all the nations and their would-be Kings will “praise [his] great and awesome name.”
Indeed, even now Yahweh is using these human rulers to accomplish his royal will, even those who do not know him. Remember Yahweh’s words to Cyrus of Persia? “This is what Yahweh says to his anointed, to Cyrus whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him…. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:1, 4, 5). That is the first way in which Yahweh is holy; unlike the self-proclaimed rulers of the world and the non-existent gods they embrace, Yahweh really does exist and truly does rule all the world. “The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble.”
Second, Yahweh is wholly other in that “he loves justice” (verse 4). Unlike the kings of this world, who so often use their might to promote themselves and their powerful cronies while they persecute the weak and helpless on the margins, Yahweh uses his might to do justice. The kings of the ancient Near East were supposed to do justice; indeed, their frequent claim was that they were the defenders of the poor. But seldom was that the case, unless they were pressured by the populace. Yahweh, on the contrary, loves to do justice.
What I’ve just said raises the key question, what does it mean to do justice? Is the Psalmist talking about salvific justice or punitive justice, saving sinners or punishing the wicked? Or is he referring to what we call social justice, assuring that the needs of all members of society are safeguarded, with oppression and abuse of power eliminated? (Davidson) From the wording of verse 4 it seems that the latter is in view here. The equity that Yahweh has established is focused “in Jacob [where] you have done what is right and just.” Of course, that justice also includes deliverance from the oppression of hostile nations, but the main idea here seems to be that Yahweh does what human rulers so often don’t do, namely, take care of the needs of all their citizens.
And, as the prophets so often pointed out, Yahweh calls the powerful to account for their abuse of power. When we see how the “kings” of our day treat their subjects, especially the poor and powerless, we often say, “Is there no justice? Where is God in all this?” Psalm 99 assures us that Yahweh loves justice; therefore, we can be sure that he will judge with equity and do the right thing. Our response to injustice should finally be to “exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his footstool (verse 5),” because his holiness guarantees that justice will be done. Indeed, only Yahweh can do it.
Third, Yahweh’s holiness is demonstrated in his mercy. God’s mercy is not merely an idea or an attribute; it is an action, identifiable historical actions on behalf of his people. Psalm 99 focuses on three great leaders of Israel, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel who had called on Yahweh in time of need. In his holy mercy, God answered them. The need they all presented to the Holy One was forgiveness. Though verse 7 says that “they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them,” that wasn’t always true, even of those three great leaders, and certainly not of Israel as a whole. God’s people routinely disobeyed, and as I noted in recent articles on both Psalm 78 and 106, God became very angry about that disobedience. Speaking to Moses, Yahweh even threatened to destroy all Israel and start his redemptive project all over again with Moses.
But Moses and his fellow intercessors called out to Yahweh, and in his mercy he answered: “you were to Israel a forgiving God….” Forgiveness is the greatest need of the human race, but it is something human leaders cannot and do not offer very often. Oh yes, a magnanimous President might pardon a lawbreaking sheriff whose crimes resonated with the political agenda of that President. But what political leader would forgive a sin committed directly against himself? While most wouldn’t go so far as to execute such offenders, as North Korea’s Kim and Syria’s Assad have done, most human leaders would struggle to show mercy to someone who defied their orders or threatened their person. The King of all the earth is different, wholly other, because he forgives those who have rebelled repeatedly and sinned dreadfully. “Exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his holy mountain, for Yahweh our God is holy.”
Psalm 99 does seem to qualify this forgiveness with a troublesome phrase in verse 8: “you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.” The Hebrew of last phrase has led to many different translations: “you corrected all their misdeeds; you called them to account for their misdeeds; you were an avenger of the wrongs done to them; you exempted them from punishment.” All of those are possible because all of them are true of what God does with our sins.
But perhaps the translation in the NIV helps us understand God better than the others. While God completely forgives the sins of those who cry out for mercy as Moses, Aaron and Samuel did, he often allows the consequences of those sins to rebound into the lives of the forgiven. Think of Israel’s rebellion upon hearing the negative report of the 10 spies. God gets angry, Moses intercedes, God forgives, but then God says that none of the rebels will see the Promised Land. “I have forgiven them as you asked. Nevertheless… not one of them will ever see the land…” (Numbers 14:20-23). Moses experienced that “nevertheless” in his own life. His sin of striking the rock instead of speaking to it was forgiven, but he wasn’t allowed to enter the Land either.
Call it the principle of consequences. Sin can be forgiven, and God can cancel the consequences. But sometimes God uses the consequences of that sin to teach us not to sin. Mercy doesn’t always cancel the consequences; what we sow we often reap. Is this what God meant in those mysterious words to Moses in Exodus 34:6, 7?
James Luther Mays puts it very well. “Forgiveness does not imply turning the clock back as if nothing had happened. In human terms, forgiveness does not mean that you do not have to face the consequences of the wrong you have done. It means that even in the midst of the such consequences, you can be sustained by a relationship which nothing you have done can ever break or change.”
God’s holiness sets him apart from human kings, who won’t forgive or who impose unreasonable punishment or who merely seek vengeance. Yahweh hears the cries of sinners, answers in mercy, and keeps on loving even when they reap what they sow. Not even the consequences of our sin can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God’s holiness is complex and mysterious. We cannot expect to fully understand it, because God is, by nature, other, separate, different. But what we cannot comprehend, we can embrace because the Holy One “became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:21). In Jesus Christ we see the Holy One who said to Moses, “No one can see me and live.” In Christ, we see holiness incarnate. The Wholly Other is with us. Mercy and justice meet on the cross. Forgiveness is coupled with the demand to obey “everything I have commanded you.”
All this talk of Yahweh’s holiness should move us to do exactly what Psalm 99 commands three times. “Exalt Yahweh our God.” In a world that lifts up one ruler after another, each successive King the solution to the sins of the former one, and each one inevitably failing, let us lift up the One who is different. You can talk about your Trump, your Kim, your Putin, and whatever other name dominates the headlines today or tomorrow. As for me and my house, we say, “Hallowed be thy name.” Join the Psalmist, and find peace and joy in a world that has so little of either.
During the recent total eclipse of the sun, people were advised to wear special glasses that would enable them to watch that eclipse without damaging their eyes. When Isaiah was given a glimpse of the three-fold holiness of God in Isaiah 6, he was afraid not just of losing his sight, but of losing his whole being. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh the Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). We are not able to gaze on the holiness of Yahweh without special lens, the lens of God in the flesh. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (or the only Begotten Son), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18).
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Author: Scott Hoezee
These words are very old. Ancient. Scholars differ on most everything, of course, but it is possible that 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s epistles. And since we are quite certain that the writing of the epistles pre-dates the writing down of the Gospels by a good bit of time, it is fully possible that 1 Thessalonians constitutes the earliest document ever written in this world following the ministry of Jesus Christ. In other words, this may be the first bit of Christian writing and theological reflection ever. If so, then these words in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians are not only very old but very, very remarkable.
Critics of Christianity have often alleged that the theology of the church in the subsequent decades and centuries after the life of Jesus moved ever farther away from the Jesus of history. Theology got Hellenized, infected with Greek concepts and philosophy. The simple carpenter from Nazareth got blown way out of proportion to the point that writers to this day like to contrast the Jesus of history with the Christ of theology. Current writers like Bart Ehrman pen books with provocative titles like Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. The claims are that scribes much later in church history so altered the real Jesus that the Jesus of history may no longer even be accessible to us. For sure, Ehrman and others claim, the Christ of faith who gets preached about, sung to, prayed to, and confessed in the creeds is a fiction.
I have all kinds of reasons to believe that all is just wrong but one thing that for sure ought to give one pause is 1 Thessalonians 1. Contained in these ten verses is a breathtaking look at what Christians professed, believed, and proclaimed already in the earliest years after the ministry of Jesus. Let’s just make a list of what is overtly or tacitly asserted or claimed in these verses:
— The Trinity: There are clear references here to God the Father, Jesus Christ the Lord, and the Holy Spirit.
— The idea that the gathering of God’s people form the church and that this church is founded upon the Good News that just is the Gospel.
— A theology of the Holy Spirit who is the active agent in the era of the church, the one who inspires faith through the preaching of the Word and who then promotes joy in the hearts of believers.
— Some notion of divine election, of God’s choosing those who will be the ones most receptive to receiving the Word of God.
— The doctrine of the resurrection and how it was the power of God the Father that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
— Thoughts on the parousia, the second coming of Christ (which will figure prominently later in this epistle as well). Jesus is coming again in power, and Paul assures the Thessalonians of this.
If this is one of the—if not THEE—most ancient of first century Christian writings, then how remarkable to see how much had developed theologically already in those early days. True, critics might claim I am teasing more out of these verses than is warranted (even as they may dispute Pauline authorship of Thessalonians, the date claimed for its writing, etc.). But when you read these verses today, it is not hard to see how they square very well with the church’s creedal tradition and most all that has gone on to become hallmarks of orthodox Christian belief. This is what people in the very earliest days of the church believed. It was so dear to them, in fact, that they suffered for it, were persecuted for it, died for it.
And people don’t put up with all that for nothing!
You don’t stake your life to a passel of vague claims about ultimate matters of life, death, salvation, the future. What the Thessalonians endured was remarkable. It became famous even back then throughout the known world. That is quite amazing when you consider how little they had to go on compared to the resources the church has available to it today.
In the end it was all so simple: someone like Paul came to a city for the first time. He met people. He spoke words of hope anchored in someone named Jesus. Paul claimed this Jesus is the Messiah, the true Lord of the world, the one who died to set us free from sin, who rose again to show us that life and not death will have the last word, and who will come again one day to make all things new. That’s all Paul had: words. The Word. But if there really is such a being as the Holy Spirit, then those words were not just noises vibrating in the air. They had power. They had oomph. By the Spirit, those words changed lives. Hearts melted, people fell in love with this Jesus who was no concept, no shadowy figure from recent history. He was personally present to the Thessalonians in a way that was so undeniable, they staked their lives on his truth.
It was all so simple really. And it is a reminder to us all these centuries and millennia later that it need be no more complicated than this even now. The church is involved in so many things now. Scan the weekly church bulletin of any congregation and you will see a bevy of clubs, meetings, youth groups, mission efforts, charitable events, soup suppers, and more. The global church is huge. The Roman Catholic Church alone is mammoth with a giant bureaucracy that is mirrored on smaller scales in most every major denomination there is.
Yet when it comes right down to it, what we need to know to live joyful, hope-filled lives even in the face of tough times and suffering is what the Thessalonians knew almost two centuries ago before there were printed Bibles, hymnals, catechisms, or formal Sunday School curricula: that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ raised him from the dead to deliver us from sin and evil and by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, we patiently await Christ’s return and we do so with joy.
That is the Gospel. Then. And now.
Some years ago a major denomination in Canada was faced with some devastating, potentially bankrupting lawsuits that tied in with some things the church had done in years past. It looked like the church was going to lose everything: its buildings, cathedrals, property, retirement accounts, investments. In the face of all this a reporter asked one of the church’s highest officials what it would do if the worst happened. He replied, “In the end all we need is the Word of God, a little water, a little bread, a little wine and we will be fine to continue our work.”