The Jerusalem Council (An excerpt from “The Rome Gospel”)

Silence, brothers, silence! Maintain order or I’ll adjourn this council forthwith!”

I can barely hear Yakov’s voice over the tumult that fills the upper room of my mother’s house. The place is so crowded that I fear the floor will not hold us all up and we will go crashing into the room below. I am standing up, my back to the wall, just behind Yosef and Paul. Given their relative importance to the proceedings, they are seated on low stools. But floor space is definitely at a premium; I don’t think there have been this many people in here since that glorious day of Pentecost nearly twenty years ago now.

The hubbub begins to abate slowly. As it does I run over in my mind the events that have led to this moment…

Gentiles and the Law! That’s what this is all about. I thought we had seen the end of the matter, five years ago now, when Paul had confronted Kephas and Yosef — only to be shamed in front of everyone when no one sided with him. True, in the aftermath, only a few Gentiles had gone under the knife; but those were the ones who had then been able to participate in table fellowship with us Jews. The rest had been left out, meeting separately. But then when Paul and Yosef had returned from their missionary travels, they had shared how God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And Paul had insisted that circumcision was not required to go through that door; it was simply enough to believe the proclamation of the good news, that Jesus is the Christ. And, by way of proof, God had poured out his Spirit on them. Somehow, much to my frustration, this argument from experience was seen as sufficient to overturn the clear teachings of Scripture, and mixed table fellowship recommenced almost immediately.

But then some men from Judea came to Antioch, teaching that Gentiles need to be circumcised and take on the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. By that stage I had been only too happy to find others following my way of thinking. However, I kept a low profile in the ensuing debate. I knew that Paul was already deeply unhappy with me for my abandoning of their mission in Perga; I did not want to give him any more excuse to think even less of me than he already did. But what a debate! The men from Judea were Pharisees like Paul and they had gone at each other like wildcats in the arena. The dispute had raged for days, with both sides marshalling their supporting evidence. The Pharisaic believers had mostly appealed to Scripture; Paul and Yosef had mostly appealed to experience. But in the thick of the debate, Paul had brought up an intriguing point from the Law that had got under my skin in a way that I found extremely disconcerting. For the first time I was faced with the possibility that perhaps Paul was right, that God really was offering salvation to the Gentiles apart from the Law. That thought gave me a few sleepless nights as I wrestled with what Paul had said.

Then, when it was clear that the debate was at an impasse, it had been decided that Paul and Yosef should go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders of the church there to get the question resolved once and for all, much like Yosef had wanted that day on our mission trip to Cyprus. The Pharisaic believers had been only too happy to agree to this, figuring that of course the apostles and elders, particularly Yakov, the brother of Yeshua himself, would be on their side. But I wasn’t so sure. I remembered what Kephas had said to me about the vision he had received and his own experience preaching to that Roman centurion and his family. And by this point I had discovered, much to my shock, that I agreed with Paul, having found that argument from the Law to be utterly compelling. So I had asked to join the travelling party, ostensibly to visit my mother who was getting on in years, but mostly because I wanted to see Paul’s rhetorical skills in action such that this issue might finally be resolved.

As we travelled up to Jerusalem, passing through Phoenicia and Samaria, in every group of believers we stayed with Paul and Yosef had told everyone about their mission to the Gentiles. And everyone had been gladdened by their report. Of course, I knew that in other houses along that same route, the Pharisaic believers were putting their own spin on things, as they too made their way back to Jerusalem to put their case to the apostles and elders.

And then once we reached Jerusalem, when the apostles had welcomed us, Paul had lost no time by telling them all about it, too. Part of me felt that he was not being fair to our opponents, that he was getting in first and thereby tipping the debate in his favour. But the rest of me was pleased: perhaps in the battle to come we would need every advantage we could get! Sure enough, as soon as the Pharisaic believers had arrived, they too had made their position known: Gentiles must be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. My stomach had sunk a little when I saw how many people had been nodding their heads in agreement.

By now there is silence in the room. Yakov, frowning a little, speaks in a clear voice. (Yakov speaks in Aramaic, which is being quietly translated into Greek by someone near me, for the benefit of those who do not understand that language. The undercurrent of murmuring, it has to be said, is a little distracting.) “Brothers, we’re here to decide on an extremely important issue, no less than the necessary requirements for Gentiles to enter the Kingdom of heaven. I’m sure that you’re aware of the options set before us. On the one hand, some have said that simply believing the message concerning Yeshua is enough.”

At this a number of people begin grumbling; I see one or two men on the other side of the room from me opening their mouths to offer a rejoinder. But Yakov continues speaking more loudly, “On the other hand, based on the rites necessary for Gentile proselytes, being circumcised and taking on the Law is required. I trust and pray that as we discuss this issue today, we will all be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit.” With that, Yakov raises his eyes to the ceiling and prays, “Lord, give us wisdom this day. May you direct our deliberations so that we might come to the right decision. We are overjoyed that the Gentiles are turning to you for salvation from the immorality and idolatry that is so prevalent in this dark world. May we know what you require of them that they might attain full membership in the family of faith. Amen!”

There is an answering chorus of “Amen!”

Right then,” Yakov says. “Who will speak to this issue first?”

I look at Paul. Even from behind I can tell that he is simply bursting to speak. But Yosef puts a restraining hand on Paul’s arm. Clearly he feels it better to wait; give the other side their chance to speak and then we will be in a better position to counter their arguments.

As I turn my attention to the rest of the room, I wonder who will be first to speak. On my side of the room stand many men (and a few women) who I know have been involved in mission in regions outside of Judea. On the other side of the room, however, are men who have mostly remained in Jerusalem and Judea: believers who were once Pharisees; some who were priests in the Temple. Then, in the middle of the room, a handful of the Twelve, including Kephas who is seated on a stool to the right of Yakov.

There is movement from the other side of the room. From out of the midst of the Pharisaic believers steps a very elderly man. I recognise him immediately, although I have not seen him for more than a decade. It is Nikodemus, a secret disciple of Yeshua before the crucifixion, now an elder of the Jerusalem church. He turns first to Yakov. “Esteemed brother of our Lord and Saviour.” Then he turns to the rest of us, his voice quavering with age. “Brothers, we are living in dangerous times. It is not even a year now since many of our countrymen and women were slaughtered during Passover right here in this the most holy of cities.[1] Some of you were even there when that despised heathen dared to bare his buttocks at the crowd and taunt their most excellent piety with his uncircumcised filth! The riot that erupted may have been fanned into flame by those among our people who are zealous for the Law. And such a tragedy it is that the Romans chose to side with that agent of Satan by putting the city to the sword rather than disciplining him in a manner appropriate to the impropriety of his actions. Their punishment cannot come soon enough!”

Suddenly, his voice takes on a strength that belies his age. “But I ask you, brothers, how could such a one as that be brought to salvation without his uncleanness being dealt with! The thought of that pagan’s foreskin coming within sight of the Temple of the Most Holy One fills me with a righteous abhorrence that renders me nigh unto a state of physical sickness. And yet there are those among us, yea, even in this very room, who have the gall to overturn the clear teaching of the Scriptures on this matter: ‘This is the ordinance of the Passover. No foreigner may share in eating it. But everyone’s servant who is bought for money, after you have circumcised him, may eat it. A foreigner and a hired worker must not eat it. It must be eaten in one house; you must not bring any of the meat outside the house, and you must not break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel must observe it. When a foreigner lives with you and wants to observe the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised, and then he may approach and observe it, and he will be like one who is born in the land — but no uncircumcised person may eat of it. The same law will apply to the person who is native-born and to the foreigner who lives among you.’[2] How much clearer do you need the Most Holy One to be?

And so I beseech you, brothers. Yes, the Gentiles can come to the Most Holy One, but only by the way instituted in the Law of Moses: through circumcision and obedience to the Law.”

As Nikodemus makes his unsteady way back to his seat among the Pharisaic believers there are many cries of “Amen!” from that side of the room. However, our side is much quieter. When Yakov looks in our direction, I wonder if this will be Paul’s moment. But again, Yosef restrains him.

Instead, another man comes forward. It is Nikolas, one of the Seven; originally a Gentile from Antioch, he converted to Judaism before later coming to faith in Jesus.[3] I understand that he has been living in Jerusalem these past years (apart from a period of time in Antioch, following the martyrdom of my good friend Stephen), assisting with the distribution of food to those needy believers among us. It also occurs to me that Nikolas is a good person to speak, given that he has been circumcised. He is therefore a model of the position that Nikodemus has just put forward, although not quite in the same order of events.

When silence descends again, he begins speaking in Greek. “Brothers, I feel I should respond to my honourable brother in Christ, Nikodemus. I thank you, brother, for your wisdom and your evident love of the Scriptures. And I assure you that I don’t want to argue against your understanding of the Law; I’m in no way qualified to do so. But I feel I should give my perspective to you all as a proselyte to Judaism who subsequently came to faith in Jesus.

As you all well know, I am a Gentile, born in Antioch of Greek descent. My father became a free man before I was born. He wanted me to have the advantages in life that had been impossible for him as a slave, so he provided for me to be educated in the Roman fashion. My tutors instilled in me a desire for self-mastery — the attainment of complete self-control over one’s emotions and desires — which is the ultimate goal of philosophy. But I found it difficult. I confess that my base desires proved to be unmanageable and I spent much of my youth in debauchery and immorality, to my shame and the shame of my parents.

When I reached my majority, I tried to settle down with the wife that my parents found for me. But my striving for self-control over my passions was fruitless and I ended up in the bed of prostitutes regularly. Then somehow I heard about the way of Judaism, how there were those who sought to master themselves by taking on the yoke of the Law of Moses. I began attending a synagogue and I was greatly attracted to what I saw. Jewish people were sober and controlled; they avoided certain meats that would inflame the passions; and their men were circumcised which I came to believe would do much to curtail the desires that I so struggled with.

So I decided to become a proselyte, not because of a wish to participate in the Passover, but because I wanted to attain self-mastery. I even went so far as to be circumcised — a procedure, I might add, that I would not wish on my worst enemy. But, alas, it was to no avail. As soon as the healing was complete I was right back where I was before. The removal of my foreskin had done nothing to curb my desires. And what was worse, my new knowledge of the Law revealed to me how very wrong my actions were. I was trapped: I didn’t do what I wanted to do, but I did what I hated. I wanted to follow the Law and do good, but instead there was an evil inside of me that had the parts of my body captive to a law of sin. Oh what a wretched man was I! Could anyone rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God, someone did. As you know, I was in Jerusalem for Pentecost; I was in that crowd when Kephas spoke about Jesus; and I responded that very day and was baptised. And with the laying on of hands I, too, received the Spirit, which set me free from the law of sin and death! For with the Spirit comes self-control. What the Law had been powerless to do, the Spirit of God living in me has been able to do: give me control over my sinful desires. And all it took was faith in Jesus![4]

So, brothers, I hold that there is something entirely different at work here, something new. Circumcision and the Law was not the answer; but faith in Jesus, and the consequent gift of God’s Spirit, is the answer.”

As Nikolas makes his way back to where he had been standing, someone from the other side of the room calls out, “Does that mean you wish you’d never been circumcised?”

Nikolas stops and turns to the speaker, one of the Pharisaic believers who, I note, is not looking angry, just curious. After thinking for a few moments, Nikolas replies, “No. No, I don’t regret that decision, for the fact that I’m circumcised allows me to interact freely with you Jewish people. Those who might otherwise have had nothing to do with me will accept food, or allow me to partake in table-fellowship with them. For those reasons, I don’t begrudge having taken that particular step, painful though it was.” With that, he returns to his place.

The discussion goes back and forth for a while. To me, it does not seem as though either side of the debate has made much headway. And judging from some of Paul’s frustrated movements, I can tell he feels the same way. But Yosef remains calm.

Then, after a lull in which no one steps forward to speak, Kephas stands up. There is instant silence.

Brothers, I’ll be brief.” Interestingly, Kephas has chosen to speak in Greek. “You’ll remember that some time ago God called me to take the word to a Gentile household in Caesarea Maritima. I went willingly, having been convinced by the Lord himself that all men are clean, irrespective of their ethnicity. As I spoke to them, Cornelius and his family responded in faith. And God, who knows the deepest secrets of the human heart, poured out his Spirit on them, just as he did on us the day of Pentecost that Nikolas spoke of earlier. God made no distinction between them and us. He cleansed their hearts by faith, just as he also cleansed our hearts by the same faith.”

Kephas then turns and addresses those on the other side of the room. “So then, brothers, do you know better than God? Why are you wanting to place so heavy a yoke on the neck of the Gentile believers that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to carry? We’re not saved by the Law; no, we’re saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, the same as they are.”

Abruptly, Kephas returns to his stool. The Pharisaic believers look stunned. Then, before one of their number can respond (and yet, who would want to gainsay Kephas?) Yosef stands up and moves into the centre. Paul, I notice, is bristling with indignation; he has been impatiently biding his time at the insistence of Yosef, only to have Yosef get up first after all!

But Yosef is a good speaker. He recounts his and Paul’s experience of ministry among the Gentiles. I have heard their report before; in fact, it is still something of a sore spot for me. For after I abandoned them in Perga, God went on to do wondrous things through them, starting in Pisidian Antioch where the Gentiles responded with great faith after the Jews rejected their message. Similarly, in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. And to think that I might have been a part of that, if I had not abandoned them for theological reasons that I have since spurned!

In every case,” Yosef is saying, “the coming of the Spirit upon the new believers was the sign of their faith in Yeshua.”

As Yosef is returning to his seat at the conclusion of his speech, I can see that the Pharisaic believers are reeling at the double testimony of Kephas and Yosef. But then Paul is on his feet, quickly walking past Yosef, who has stopped in his tracks and is looking at Paul warily. I can tell that he is wondering what Paul could possibly say to add to what he has just said. But Paul looks determined, so Yosef turns with an almost imperceptible shrug and sits down on his stool.

We do not have to wait long to find out.

Brothers, we began this discussion with the Law. With all due respect to my brother Pharisee, Nikodemus, allow me to suggest that the Law actually supports the experience of our brothers Kephas and Yosef.” I realise that Paul is about to present the intriguing argument from the Law that convinced me that Gentiles need not be circumcised. “You see, this discussion has been about the respective roles of faith and circumcision. But consider our ancestor Abraham. Was he declared righteous because he was circumcised? No. For as the Law says, ‘Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ It is at this point in the account that Abraham is declared righteous, because he believed what God had said to him. Now I ask you: was he circumcised at that time? No! This was said of Abraham well before he was circumcised. Only later did he receive the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. In this way he is the father of all those who believe, including those who’ve never been circumcised, that they too can have righteousness credited to them.[5] So I put it to you, my brothers and sisters, that even the Law testifies on our behalf in this matter.”

After what must have been the shortest speech in Paul’s life, he resumes his seat next to Yosef, who reaches out and puts his hand on Paul’s shoulder. I look over to those on the other side of the room. There are a few frowns, but most have a puzzled expression on their faces. Perhaps they are thinking through Paul’s argument, looking for faults; perhaps they are trying to come up with a suitable response. But to my mind, the triple testimony of Kephas, Yosef and Paul is insurmountable.

I look over at Yakov, but his face does not betray his thoughts. Then, there is a small sensation in the room. Turning, I see that Nikodemus has stood up and is making his way forward again. When he reaches the front, he turns to face us. He is silent for a few moments, clearly gathering his thoughts.

Brothers,” he says eventually, with his eyes downcast, “I must acknowledge my error in this matter.”

This statement results in quite a stir. Those on our side of the room are turning to look at one another, smiling; those on the other side are still, their eyes fixed intently on the old man.

When it is sufficiently quiet, Nikodemus continues, “It is clear to me now that the Most Holy One is at work in a new way. I confess that I have been slow to see that. Then again, I have never been quick to grasp the work of the Most Holy One. When I came to Rabbi Yeshua at night, many years ago now, he told me, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.’ I did not understand him. I thought he was talking about having to be physically born a second time. But our Lord went on to explain, ‘Unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’[6] At that time I still did not understand. But after Pentecost I understood: the coming of the Spirit upon great and small alike has changed everything. So to hear that the Spirit also falls upon Gentiles is proof enough that the Most Holy One accepts them without the need for circumcision. I hereby withdraw my opposition.”

There is a loud chorus of “Amen!”, even from those on the other side of the room.

But Nikodemus has not finished. He raises his arms for quiet. “However, I do not feel it right that the entire Law is set aside. There is much in the Law that is still of great relevance to the Gentiles. For there are grievous sins that are readily accepted by Gentile society at large. I think we would do well to inform them of those things that the Most Holy One objects to, yet they accept without question.”

Do you have something specific in mind?” asks Yakov.

Nikodemus turns towards him. “Yes, I do. In the Levitical scroll there are those laws which are specifically addressed to foreigners living in the midst of our people: Firstly, ‘Any man from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who reside in their midst, who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to offer it to the Lord—that person will be cut off from his people.’ Secondly, ‘No person among you is to eat blood, and no resident foreigner who lives among you is to eat blood.’ Thirdly, ‘Any person who eats an animal that has died of natural causes or an animal torn by beasts, whether a native citizen or a foreigner, must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening; then he becomes clean. But if he does not wash his clothes and does not bathe his body, he will bear his punishment for iniquity.’ Fourthly, there’s a long list of sexual immoralities after which it says ‘You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the resident foreigner in your midst.’[7] And that’s just off the top of my head…”

Suddenly, Paul is on his feet. “But where will it stop? You’ll end up reciting the entire Law if you keep that up!”

Yakov stands up quickly and speaks loudly. “Saul, this is not your turn to speak. Be quiet!”

Paul bows his head and sits down again.

Yakov turns back to Nikodemus. “Thank you for your wise words. We will consider them.”

Realising he has been dismissed, Nikodemus slowly makes his way back to his seat in the midst of the Pharisaic believers. There is silence for a few minutes. Yakov appears to be gathering his thoughts.

Brothers, listen to me.” It is hardly necessary for Yakov to say this since everyone in the room is hanging on his every word. “Based on the testimony we have heard today, it’s clear that God is selecting from among the Gentiles a people belonging to his name. And the words of the prophets agree: as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’[8] Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to the Most Holy One. Circumcision is therefore not to be a requirement of faith.

But I agree with my brother Nikodemus. I do think it necessary to warn the Gentiles from pursuing actions that we know to be abhorrent. However…” (Here he looks quickly in Paul’s direction.) “… I too don’t want to get stuck in a long debate as to precisely what. Let me say this, though. One thing is clear: Simon’s vision showed us that the Most Holy One has made all foods clean. Indeed, this is also the clear teaching of Yeshua himself when he said, ‘Nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean, for it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body. No, what comes out of a man’s heart is what makes him unclean.’[9] Now you may not wish to eat foods forbidden by the Law, but we must not stand in the way of fellow believers who do not have such scruples.

That being said, we should all avoid those things that do make a man unclean. So the evils of idolatry and everything associated with idols must be avoided. The same for sexual immorality and for murder. These things are obvious, even, I should think, for Gentiles who are turning to the Most Holy One, and might not even need to be mentioned. For are there not synagogues in every city where the Law of Moses is read every Sabbath? But the same cannot be said for the evil practice of disposing of unwanted infants. This is done by all, it seems, from the greatest to the least, without the slightest sign of bad conscience. While they choose to distance themselves from their actions by referring to such a practice as ‘exposing’ infants, I say let us describe its true nature: they smother their own children and then leave the bodies outside to be eaten by wild dogs. Our Gentile brothers and sisters need to know that such a thing is forbidden. Therefore, I propose that we write a letter to them, and send it out in the hands of those willing to go. But let this issue of circumcision be done with, here and now.”

Anyone not already on their feet stands up and there is another loud chorus of “Amen!” The floor of my mother’s house groans ominously, but, fortunately for us all, it does not collapse. As the meeting breaks up, Yakov catches my eye and gestures for me to come over. I squeeze past Paul and walk over to where Yakov is standing, talking quietly with Kephas.

Yohanan,” he says to me, “are you willing to fulfil your duties as a scribe?”

Indeed, Rabbi, I would be honoured.”

Then fetch your things. I would that this letter be written as soon as possible.”

Bowing, I turn and push my way through the dispersing crowd and then make my way down the stairs. Below, I find my mother supervising preparations for the evening meal.

Yohanan, I hear things went well.” While I had not seen my mother in the upper room, I know from personal experience that you can hear everything quite clearly if you sit half-way up the stairs.

Yes, Mama. Now I must assist with the writing of a letter.”

Oh well, don’t let me keep you. Your writing things are over there.” With a wave of her hand, she indicates a roughly hewn wooden shelf.

It takes a few minutes to mix up some ink. Once it is ready, I collect some papyrus and a pen, and make my way back up the stairs. I find that a small group has formed around Yakov; it appears this letter will be written by committee. Sighing, I take a seat on the floor and rest the papyrus on one of the low stools.

I’m ready,” I say.

The letter takes a while to be written, the process being complicated by some people dictating in Aramaic, while I am writing in Greek. Everyone has what they think is the best way to say what is needed. But it gets written eventually. The only part that bothers me is the wording of the four requirements mentioned by Yakov. Instead of descriptive phrases, it is thought best to refer to each sin with a single Greek word, either for the sake of brevity or for literary effect. But with brevity comes the potential for ambiguity. Idolatry is summarised as “things offered to idols” which is reasonable, I guess. For murder, they choose to go with the word “blood”, and infanticide with the word “smothered things”. Only “sexual immorality” is immediately clear to me. However, since the letter is to be distributed by messenger, the bearers of the letter will be able to explain the intended meaning.

After it is done, Yakov instructs me to make a number of copies. But, he explains, there is no rush; the letters will only be sent out after we have returned to Antioch. Yakov thanks me for my services and then departs, as do the rest of the letter-writing committee.

In the end, our evening meal is a quiet affair: just my mother and those who are staying the night here, which includes myself, Yosef, and Paul. After the meal, I ask to speak with Paul in private. He agrees, but I can see that he is still unwilling to make eye contact with me. I apologise for not supporting him that day in Antioch when he confronted Kephas. Really, this is the least I can do, given that he has now been proved correct in what he had said that day. I also apologise for abandoning the mission in Perga. Paul looks somewhat mollified. But I sense there is still a wariness in him towards myself.

Turns out, my senses are well founded.


[1] This incident is reported in Josephus (War 2.224-27; Ant. 20.112) and dated to 49 AD. Thousands of Jews were killed in Jerusalem during the Passover feast after a Roman soldier overlooking the Temple exposed himself to the crowds, thereby causing a riot that was summarily quashed by the Romans. Many people died, trampled in the rush to escape the soldiers through the narrow exits of the Temple.

[2] Ex. 12:43-49.

[3] Cf. Acts 6:5.

[4] Cf. Rom. 7:13-8:4.

[5] Cf. Rom. 4:1-12.

[6] John 3:3-6.

[7] Lev. 17-18.

[8] Amos 9:11-12. However, note that James alters the text somewhat in order to make his point.

[9] Mark 7:18-20.

A seasonal excerpt from The Corinth Letters

With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be timely to present this excerpt from The Corinth Letters.  Read it to find why I find Christmas pageants so frustrating (big hint: there was no inn keeper!)

***

During breaks, Emily, Mariam and Matt would sit on their camp stools drinking tea or coffee and chat. It was during one of these chats that the topic of Christmas came up again.
“What’s an Australian Christmas like, Matt?” asked Mariam.
“Ah, well, quite a bit different to what you’ve experienced, I’m sure,” replied Matt. “Firstly, since we’re in the southern hemisphere, Christmas occurs in the middle of summer. And it can get really hot! I’ve had Christmases where it’s been 40 degrees in the shade – that’s more than a 100 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way. What is completely bizarre, though, is that we still hold to lots of the northern hemisphere traditions. So Christmas dinner will consist of roast meat, often turkey, and sliced ham off the bone, with plum pudding and custard for dessert. And we sing carols about dashing through the snow while sweat pours off us in great swathes!”
Emily and Mariam chuckled at the incongruousness of it all.
“And do you have Christmas pageants?” asked Emily.
“Yes. Most churches do some sort of re-enactment of the Christmas story, usually with children playing all the parts. My family would usually go to church for that, the one day of the year that we would all go to church. We would open our presents early in the morning – as early as we could, usually. Then Mum would make us get dressed in our best clothes, which would usually be totally unsuitable to the hot weather, and we’d go to church. Then, afterwards we would head to whichever relative’s house had been selected for the family lunch. There would be bon bons… er, Christmas crackers, you call them,” added Matt when Emily had looked puzzled. “We’d tell each other the terrible jokes, moan about the poor-quality plastic toys and put the coloured paper hats on.”
“So did your Christmas pageant include the innkeeper?”
innkeeper
Matt stopped to remember the last one that he had attended. It had been quite a few years ago. “Yes, I’m pretty sure. It always seemed a bit weird to me, to be honest. Why on earth would the innkeeper send away a woman who is in the process of giving birth? Seemed pretty heartless to me.”
Emily’s eyes gleamed. “That’s because it’s completely wrong!”
Now it was Matt’s turn to look puzzled. Mariam, too, had turned to look at Emily questioningly.
“Let me explain,” Emily said, getting out her phone. She spent a couple of minutes looking up a couple of passages in her Bible app. “OK, here’s what it says in the old version of the NIV: ‘So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’[1]
“Now there are two problems with the usual church presentation of this story. The first thing is that they usually portray Mary’s labour pains starting just as they are arriving in Bethlehem. But the text clearly states ‘while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born’. So Joseph is not the idiot he is made out to be, travelling with a nine-month pregnant woman. No, he planned ahead. They travelled to Bethlehem some time before the baby was due and so were very definitely settled somewhere when the birth occurred.
“But the second problem is that somewhere. Where did the birth take place? And where was there no room? Well, the word that is translated here as ‘inn’ is the Greek word kataluma. But elsewhere in the gospel of Luke, that same word is translated ‘upper room’. For example, when Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover, they do so in a kataluma.[2] This word really means ‘guest room’ which in the houses of that time was often located in an upper part of the house. Now apparently there are some Greek texts where the word kataluma is used to refer to an inn, but these are rare. And there is a far more common word for ‘inn’. Which is why Luke uses a different word in the parable of the Good Samaritan: in that story, when the Samaritan takes the man who had been beaten up to an inn[3], the word used there is pandocheion, which really does mean ‘inn’ with an innkeeper and rooms that can be let for a price.
“So there was no inn in the Christmas story. Instead, Mary and Joseph were staying in a regular house, which makes complete sense when you consider that Joseph had returned to the place of his birth: he was returning to family. And in that culture, hospitality is central. There is no way that Joseph’s family would not make room for them. The problem is, though, that Joseph’s entire extended family had returned to Bethlehem for the census. So the house is packed! The kataluma, the guest room, is chock-full of guests, which means there was no room for Mary to give birth there. Instead, she had to use the lower room of the house at the bottom of which was a sunken area where the family’s animals would be stored at night. And this is where the manger comes into it: there would have been a receptacle for animal feed, and it was into this that Jesus was placed. And apparently this was unusual enough for the angels to use it as a sign for the shepherds that they might know they had found the right place.[4]
“Finally, this helps to explain why in the gospel of Matthew, when the magi arrive on the scene, the text says they entered the house over which the star came to rest.[5]
When Emily paused for breath, Matt spoke. “Well, that makes a lot more sense.”
“Ooh, there’s more!” said Emily excitedly. “If you look at the latest version of the NIV, they have changed the text slightly: Mary ‘wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.’ Just goes to show that some of these deeply-held traditions take simply ages to be rooted out, but it can happen.”
Soon after, they went back to work. But Matt was left with a strong sense of his ignorance when it came to the Bible. Sunday school classes were only a distant memory – and if Emily was to be believed, quite often wrong in what they had taught, or at the very least misleading. His recent readings in the New Testament had left him with far more questions than answers. Surely there was something he could do to remedy that?

_____________
[1] Luke 2:4-7.
[2] Luke 22:11.
[3] Luke 10:34.
[4] Luke 2:12.
[5] Matt. 2:11.

MST Press Reprints!

Here’s some exciting news for you: MST Press has agreed to reprint the first novel in the Exegetical Histories series, The Ephesus Scroll, and my play, Saul, First King of Israel.  Since this meant preparing new print files, I thought it was worth while doing a complete redesign of Saul (the previous cover was definitely looking its age!) and adding an endorsement to Ephesus to bring it in line with The Corinth Letters.

I’m particularly excited about the new-look Saul.  The Rembrandt painting on the front is exquisite and the off-centre title is rather striking.  The description on the back is also new and, I think, helps to draw the reader in.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Ephesus Scroll front cover

Ephesus Scroll back cover

Saul Front Cover

Saul Back Cover

The Corinth Letters is here!

And it comes recommended by Dr. Colin Kruse, respected Pauline scholar and author of a number of New Testament commentaries: “creatively conceived… illuminating and engaging… hard to put down”.

Here’s how to get a copy…

If you want to purchase the paperback there are two options:

  1. You can order one from Koorong (A$21.99).
  2. Those of you outside of Australia can get one from CreateSpace (US$14.99).

If you want to purchase the e-book (only US$4.99) there are lots of options:

  1. I highly recommend SmashWords.  You can get every possible format from them, including PDF, EPUB and MOBI (which is the file-type that works on Kindles).
  2. It is also on Amazon.
  3. And Kobo.
  4. And iTunes.

Don’t forget to post a review when you’ve finished reading it!  And post your review on Amazon, Smashwords and Goodreads if you can.  The more reviews (especially positive ones!) the better…

Koorong Ad

The Corinth Letters is coming!

And it comes recommended by Dr. Colin Kruse, respected Pauline scholar and author of a number of New Testament commentaries: “creatively conceived… illuminating and engaging… hard to put down”.

Here’s how to get a copy…

If you want to purchase the paperback there are two options:

  1. You can order one from Koorong (A$23.99).
  2. Those of you outside of Australia can get one from CreateSpace (US$14.99).

If you want to purchase the e-book (only US$4.99) there are lots of options:

  1. I highly recommend SmashWords.  You can get every possible format from them, including PDF, EPUB and MOBI (which is the file-type that works on Kindles).
  2. It is also on Amazon.
  3. And Kobo.
  4. And iTunes.

Don’t forget you can also pre-order a copy.  That way, you can be reading your copy on the 1st of December!

A Communion Reflection

I wonder what the disciples thought of that last supper they had with Jesus.  Particularly in Mark’s gospel, there’s a real sense of danger and intrigue.  Jesus tells two of his disciples to go into the city where a man with a water jar will meet them.  (Remember that in this culture men simply did not carry water jars; that was women’s work.)  So the two disciples are to follow this man to a house.  Then they are to ask the owner of the house to show them the guest room.  And then they are to prepare the Passover meal there.

Why all this cloak and dagger stuff?  Well, the simple answer is that Jesus is probably trying to prevent Judas Iscariot from knowing his future whereabouts.  He couldn’t exactly say, “Go to Mary, the mother of John Mark’s house and prepare the Passover in their upper room”.  Then Judas could simply go to the chief priests, tell them where Jesus would be, and that would be that.  No, Jesus wanted to have that last Passover meal with his disciples.  And only then would he allow himself to be arrested.

So why was it so important to Jesus that he celebrate that Passover meal?  As good Jewish people, Jesus and his disciples would have celebrated Passover every year of their lives.  But this one was to be different.  For Jesus reinterpreted two parts of the meal: the bread and a cup of wine.  He took some bread and he broke it.  Now this was a normal part of the Passover meal.  But as he broke the bread he added some new words: “This is my body.”  And then he took a cup of wine and passed it around.  Again, this was a normal part of the Passover meal.  But again he added some new words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

I can picture those disciples looking at one another.  What’s he saying?  Jesus had already told them he was going to die at the hands of the chief priests, but that on the third day he would rise again.  But they’d never really understood.  Now, with a piece of broken bread in their hands, and a mouthful of wine in their mouths, Jesus’ imminent death became real.

I am pretty sure that at the time they did not really understand the significance of what Jesus was saying.  But afterwards they did.  After Jesus had died and had been resurrected, they began to understand what his death meant.  They realised that his broken body was necessary so that our sins could be forgiven.  They realised that his blood had inaugurated a new covenant, a new agreement, between God and humanity.
And they remembered this every time they broke bread and drank wine.  Certainly once a year at Passover.  But possibly even more regularly than that.  Why?  Because Jesus asked them to.  Mark doesn’t record it, but Paul does, in 1 Corinthians 11.  Twice Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”.

So each time we gather like this and take a piece of bread and drink a small cup of juice we remember what Jesus did nearly 2000 years ago.  And each time we too have a tangible reminder of Jesus’ death.  We know that our sins are forgiven through what he did on the cross.  And we know that we are sons and daughters of God as a result of that new covenant.  So when you take a piece of bread and eat it and take a mouthful of wine do not be sorrowful as you remember Jesus’ death.  This is a moment of joy!  Forgiveness of sins is ours through Jesus!  Our relationship with God is restored!  Let us remember what Jesus did and be glad.

Now on CreateSpace!

The Ephesus Scroll is now available as a print-on-demand paperback on CreateSpace: click here to check it out.

To mark this milestone, the front cover of the book has been slightly changed:

CreateSpace Cover

(By removing the scroll fragment from behind the book’s title, it just gives a better contrast, allowing the title to be more clearly seen.)

In addition, my two other books are also now available. Firstly, Meeting Of Minds (my first novel which is a sci-fi / virtual reality / humour mash-up involving hackers, aliens, and galactic exploration) is available here:

CreateSpace MOM CoverSecondly, Saul, First King of Israel (a play based on the Biblical book of 1 Samuel) is available here.  The text looks great, and would be eminently suitable for study at high school level.  I am also very much hoping that now that it is available in print form, it is now one step closer to being performed!  Please get in contact with me if you are interested…

CreateSpace Saul Cover

Why I Want To Be ‘Left Behind’

There’s a new Nicholas Cage movie coming your way and it’s called Left Behind. If you don’t know about it yet, I think you soon will. Even the normally cool Relevant magazine is getting excited about it. The movie is based on the first book of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind multi-volume series. Strictly speaking it’s a reboot since there have already been a few movies made of this series. But this one has a much bigger budget and, well, Nicholas Cage:

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 10.47.59 AM

With trepidation I followed the link to watch the trailer on You Tube. Not having read the books I cannot comment on how faithful the new movie will be compared with the series. But one line in the trailer really struck me: a young woman says, “The God my father talked about would never do something like this!” I am guessing that she is referring to the disappearance of all Christians in a secret rapture.

I would like to take this opportunity to publicly agree: I do not believe there will be a secret rapture.

Jigsaw Hermeneutics

The doctrine of a secret rapture is by no means new: there have been other books (Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth to name one among many), movies (A Thief In The Night) and even songs (Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready…”) that describe such a thing. But the effect of this teaching is often one of engendering fear, and not even a fear of going to hell so much as a fear of having to live through something called ‘the Great Tribulation’.

It should be noted at the outset that the rapture – secret or otherwise – is not in the Creeds or the 39 Articles. Instead, the Creeds simply state the fact of Jesus’ return in an event that will involve both the resurrection of those who have already died followed by a great judgment. So basically this is not a doctrine of first importance. It is a ‘non-essential’, as in the phrase usually attributed to Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

So where does the concept come from? The doctrine of a secret rapture of Christians comes from bringing together a few different passages of the Bible and arguing that these different passages are actually all speaking about the same thing. I call this jigsaw hermeneutics: different bits of Scripture are treated like jigsaw pieces and are fitted together (actually, forced would be a better way of describing it) into a big picture that owes more to the interpreter’s presuppositions than it does to the individual pieces themselves.

Regarding a secret rapture, there are two main passages: 1 Thess. 4:15-17 and Matt. 24:30-31, 36-41. Then there are quite a few secondary verses used to support the basic teaching: for example, John 14:2-3, Ezek 20:34 and 2 Thess. 2:7, among others. However, a discussion of the rapture is rarely separated from a discussion of the Great Tribulation, so all of Matt 24 – 25 (as well as the parallel passages Mark 13 and Luke 21) come into play, as do many other passages, not least the entire book of Revelation!

The end result is this doctrine of a secret rapture of Christians, secret in that those not involved (non-Christians) only become aware of it after the fact, rather than during the event itself. This is further complicated by the discussion as to when this rapture will occur with respect to the Great Tribulation, resulting in pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, and mid-tribulation raptures.

An Important Principle of Biblical Interpretation

I would like to argue, however, that such a doctrine must be treated with great caution. For one thing, a derived doctrine should not contradict a direct doctrine, that is, one that is explicitly taught in Scripture. Consequently, doctrines that are based on harmonisations need to be examined in the light of an extremely important principle of Biblical interpretation. Put simply, each passage should be interpreted within the literary and historical context in which it is found. What this usually means in practice is that passages must primarily be dealt with within the book in which they are found.

As a good example, how many people know that the Antichrist does not appear anywhere in the book of Revelation? Instead, the references to “antichrist” in 1 John 2:18 – and neglecting the reference to many “antichrists” in 2 John – are harmonised with the beast from the land in Rev. 13:11-18 who is also referred to as the false prophet (Rev. 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Paul’s references to “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3-12) are usually also thrown in for good measure! The end result of this conglomeration is to blur what the separate passages are actually teaching or describing in favour of constructing some sort of hybrid ‘bigger picture’ of the End Times. Against this particular harmonisation, in 1 and 2 John the author is talking about false teachers within the church, not some End Times satanic ruler. And for anyone wanting to explore the book of Revelation in its first century context, I would recommend reading my novel, The Ephesus Scroll.

Similarly, if we allow the passages that are used to support a secret rapture of Christians to be interpreted within their contexts, we are actually being faithful to the Bible, albeit at the expense of losing sight of this bigger picture of the rapture. However, I would contend that this is actually no loss since this secret rapture of Christians is actually unbiblical in that it is explicitly contradicted by the very passages used to support it.

1 Thess. 4:15-17

There is no denying that 1 Thess. 4:15-17 is dealing with what has since become known as the rapture. Paul here does explicitly state that when Jesus returns Christians will join with Him in the clouds and be with Him forever from that time on. However, this is not the main point of the passage. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them about the ultimate fate of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters who had already died. They had somehow reached the conclusion that those who had died would miss out on being with Jesus forever. Paul then teaches them about the resurrection of the dead that is to immediately precede the rapture.

Now, if this was all that people taught about the rapture then I would be happy to be included and there would be no need for a blog post such as this. However, Paul says nothing in this passage about this event being secret, an event that would only become apparent to non-Christians by them finding clothes, glasses, and false teeth on empty seats previously occupied by Christians!

In addition to this, Paul uses a word that was used to describe a delegation of people who would go out from a city to welcome a visiting dignitary.  But then they would accompany the dignitary back into the city.  So by analogy, even when Christians join Jesus in the clouds – Acts 1:11 tells us that he will return the same way he departed – they will then return to earth and be with Jesus forever here.

Matt. 24:30-41

This brings us to the passage that is most often used to support the element of secrecy. Actually, you would think that such a thing would be impossible given the way this passage starts:

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (v30-31)

This is explicitly said to be a world-wide public event. Then, only a few verses later, Jesus says, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (As an aside, if only Christians had taken that verse seriously, there would have been a lot less End Times speculation – and shame on those who say that this verse doesn’t rule out knowing the year or even the month!) Jesus then provides some illustrative material to support his statement, illustrations that all have something in common: suddenness and unexpectedness.

It is here that we find the classic “Left Behind” verses:

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (v40-41)

Now those pushing for a rapture harmonisation argue that those being taken here are the same as those being gathered in verse 31. But this is not necessarily so. After all, the verses immediately preceding are concerned with the time of Noah and the Flood:

For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (v38-39)

This is what is being discussed: judgment upon those not ready. When Jesus goes on to describe two men working in the field and one is taken, he means one was not prepared for the return of Jesus and is thereby taken in judgment. Similarly, with the two women grinding away at their hand-mills: one is prepared for Jesus’ return, the other is taken in judgment. This is why Jesus concludes this passage with the following words:

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (v42-44)

Conclusion

So, if this is what it means to be “Left Behind” then leave me behind! I don’t want to be taken in judgment. Rather, I want to be prepared for Jesus’ return, a return that will not happen in secret but will be witnessed by the whole world. I want to join with Him and all Christians – both those who are alive at the time and those who will be resurrected – in that great ingathering that will then occur. So, really, if anything should be left behind please let it be this unbiblical notion of a secret rapture of Christians.