Finished

It’s Labor Day weekend here in America.

Most countries that acknowledge a Labour Day-type holiday do so on 1st May, but that was way too Communist for the United States when the holiday was established, and I have a suspicion that these days most Americans don’t even know it’s any different overseas.

A day celebrating labour – work and workers – is quite appropriate to the latent workaholism of US culture; indeed, the minor irony is that it’s celebrated with a day off.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans love the idea of hard work. “Working hard or hardly working?” my father-in-law will sometimes greet people; smugly boasting that you’re hardly working is not considered a normal reply.

In a lot of ways this is an excellent trait. The present administration notwithstanding, Americans normally excel at getting things done, and laziness is far from common due to its status as perhaps the cardinal cultural sin. It’s easy to forget in these days just how revolutionary the American Dream really was: with hard work and initiative anyone can rise to the top; you don’t need the titles, breeding or aristocratic patronage of the old autocracies of Europe. Amazing!

However, when it comes to the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and not by works, this cultural predilection can work against the understanding of the truth.

I comment almost every time my church starts a new published Bible study about the high profile always given to the matter of grace and works and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To me it seems a little odd; this is such a basic Christian doctrine that is it really necessary to rehash it every single time? We’re saved by grace, through faith. We understand. We understood last time.

It strikes me today, though, that perhaps I haven’t given the writers enough credit for knowing their audience.

My British-born cultural mindset gives far less pre-eminence to the idea of hard work. I’d never heard “Working hard or hardly working?” as a greeting or even a serious question before I came to the States, and the cultural acclaim given to entrepreneurs and businesspeople is something that just leaves me cold. Yes, yes, well done and all that. But not everyone can be an entrepreneur or be fortunate enough that their venture succeeds, so what about the rest of us?

In short, just because I don’t feel I need to rehash grace and works again doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who might. This central tenet of American culture is working directly against the notion of grace. It’s rather like my instinctive “how is that fair?” question over God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau. My own culture’s valuing of fair play and justice is baffled by the apparently arbitrary, unfair-seeming choice.

Americans value hard work, and the idea of receiving something as a gift and not being expected to work like an ox to make up the debt strikes at that. But such is the truth. It really is a free gift, not something you have to repay, not something you can repay.

I’m told that the only time the Bible ever tells us to “strive”, it’s “Strive to enter His rest”. And a lot of Americans aren’t very good at rest.

With the US’ excellence at getting things done and acclaim for those that do, however, I wonder whether you Americans might not have a greater appreciation, once you stop trying to earn it, of the effectiveness of Jesus’ finished work.

Here is a Man whose life-work really did get it done. He did the job, he put an end to the power and guilt of sin. He brought many sons to glory, as the song puts it. He destroyed the power of the devil, and snatched the keys of death and hell. He accomplished the task for which He came into the world: reconciliation between holy God and sin-stained humanity.

The work is finished. The book of Hebrews says that “having provided purification from sins He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”. Secure in the knowledge of a job well done, He kicked back and put His feet up. It’s done. He completed the work.

So let’s hear it for getting it done.

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The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.

Walls: Getting Your Head Round Nehemiah

Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.

But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.

Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.

In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?

All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.

The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.

The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.

This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.

In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.

More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.

It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.

And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.

It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.

Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.

The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.

God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.

Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?

Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.

But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.

This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.

I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.

And then those religious reforms.

This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.

What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.

And I have a problem with that.

What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.

Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?

Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.

Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.

The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.

This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.

I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?

Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.

It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.

The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.

Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.

If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.

It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.

Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.

And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”

The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.

Bloody Christmas: Holy Innocents

Part of the Christmas story we often gloss over, the story of Herod the Great’s butchery of children doesn’t sit well with our sanitised Nativities, much less our seasonal good cheer and feasting.

This is not something the kids will portray in church or school Nativity plays. It isn’t cute. It isn’t heartwarming. It isn’t even nice. It’s horrible.

With my personal focus this year on the hidden, inverse nature of the Good Story, though, it seems a timely reminder of what sometimes happens when human ideas of greatness meet God’s.

The Magi’s well-meaning attempt to find the One whose birth the star heralded in Herod’s court was the point of contact between the visible, public realm of the rich and powerful and the hidden, silent space of that which truly matters most. When the focus of the world was on the movers and shakers of the Empire and Judea – Caesar Augustus, Governor Quirinius, Herod the Great – on palaces like the Herodion, Jesus is born to a poor family at the bottom of the social ladder, in a backwater town in a conquered province.

Even the Magi got this part wrong. They were phenomenally well-informed otherwise, especially considering that they were almost certainly pagans – the term “Magi” referred to the astrologer-priests of the dualistic Persian Zoroastrian religion. They saw the star, realised it portended a King of the Jews who was so important in the Divine order that the proper response to His appearing was to worship Him, journeyed to Judea bringing gifts of prophetic significance, and then did the logical thing of going to the place you’d expect to find a King.

Herod the Great has come down to most of us as an evil sadist with a cruel and vindictive nature, largely because of his response to the Magi and their search, and yet history bestowed “the Great” on him. In human terms, he was. A builder of fabulous monuments, it was he who squared off the Temple Mount into its present walled shape, he who built the Herodion palace in the desert and raised up the mountain on which it sits, he who fortified Masada. A king ruling over a conquered province doesn’t get called “the Great” for no reason. In terms of the rulers of the day, he wasn’t even especially cruel. Ruthless, yes, but that is common to almost everyone who has ever risen to wield power.

And yet what we remember him for is the terrible crime of butchering children in order to try and secure his own throne.

In the liturgical calendar, the 28th of December is the commemoration of this terrible event. The feast of the Holy Innocents shows what happens when might meets right; in that it foreshadows the crucifixion and echoes Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew boys.

As part of the story of what we consider the most joyous and festive time of the year, it strikes a discordant note. Attila the Hun following hard on the heels of Saint Nicholas. Gift-giving-and-massacre.

It makes a sort of sense, though, when you consider that the Christmas Story is really an invasion.

Like the D-Day paratroopers, Jesus drops into a world behind enemy lines, the embodiment of God’s rescue plan to free the world from Satanic oppression. “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”. The point of the spear. The vanguard of Heaven’s liberating invasion. And of course, the devil makes his counterattack, with all the violence, pride and ruthlessness that is in him. Human kings ruling without reference to any Divinely-imposed limitations form the phalanx of the true oppressor, the self-aggrandising Herod does what any contemporary regime would have considered the proper thing to safeguard his throne and perpetuate his regime.

“Holy” Innocents might seem to be overstating the case, however. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult to attribute any real sense of true holiness to these nameless ones who were the bloody collateral damage of Herod’s ruthless moves against a threat to his power. Innocents, yes, but holy? Maybe a stretch.

Perhaps it’s not as out-of-line as all that, though.

I mentioned earlier that this was an example of what happens when might meets right, when naked power comes up against the holiness of Christ. A foreshadowing of the crucifixion, I said; another time when the might of human empires came down hard on the representatives of righteousness.

As those who are supposed to be the representatives of righteousness today, it’s uncomfortable reading. No-one wants to get squashed underfoot or horribly killed.

But if we’re to be true representatives of Christ, we have to continue to bear witness to the truth no matter what the enemy does. Sometimes we might even get killed. They killed the One we call Lord, after all.

This is what it means to be a martyr. The word literally means “a witness”; someone whose life bears witness to truth and righteousness no matter what the humanly-powerful are doing. We don’t take up the sword of might, we cling to the right no matter what.

In a sense, then, even these poor innocents caught in the crossfire are martyrs. Witnesses of what human greatness does to Divine greatness. Witnesses of the terrible consequences of a power-craving ruler faced with God’s unspoken Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparsin scribed over their reign.

Though it’s Matthew’s Nativity account that shows this event, it’s neither his, nor Luke’s, nor even John’s account from his Gospel that makes sense of it. No, for that you have to look at the Nativity account of the book of Revelation.

The scary, symbolic account of a woman giving birth to a son who will rule the nations, while a dragon waits to devour the child as soon as he is born. Of war in heaven, of the dragon attacking the rest of the woman’s offspring: Jesus’ fellow-sons of the Father.

A Christmas story it’s almost impossible to cutesify, which you’ll never see in a Nativity play, but a Christmas story nonetheless. Might meets right, the right triumphing not by meeting force with force, but by refusing to give up the right. Continuing to love even in the face of hate. Continuing to do what’s right when it would be so much easier to take up the enemy’s weapons.

A bloody Christmas story, yes, but one worth looking at every so often. Christmas is a lot more serious than we sometimes make it.

Submit

Submission.

The word often carries echoes of totalitarian dictatorship, of subjection, of the repeated claim of the Nazi rank-and-file that they were “just following orders”. Like “obedience”, it’s not something we crave, unless we are the ones being obeyed, we are the ones being submitted to.

And not even then, if you’re a decent sort of person.

It seems like it’s only Muslims and Christians who even use the word any more, at least trying to convey anything positive. For most of us, nothing that you have to be told to “submit” to can possibly be any good. You “submit” to a humiliating nude body scan and/or pat-down search at an airport. You “submit” to a background check in which third-parties poke around in your record for evidence of trouble. You “submit” an application for a loan or for government assistance, not only suffering the embarrassment of needing it, but inviting an impersonal agency who don’t necessarily care to sit in judgment over you. A “submissive” is the term we give to a participant in a sexual relationship who gets a disturbed thrill from acting as a slave.

In general life, the connotations really aren’t good.

As Christians, we’re somewhat justifiably put off by Muslims’ focus on submission. “Islam” itself means “submission”, submission to the will of God, whether that be good, bad or indifferent to your personal life. It smacks of fatalism – you can’t fight God’s Will. If He’s determined to crush you, all you can do is shrug and accept it. This doesn’t sound so much like the God we serve.

And then we as Christians use the word “submission” in our descriptions of the Christian marriage relationship, to describe the proper attiitude of a wife to her husband.

I… have a problem with that.

Yeah, I know the word is used in the Bible. Several times, by both Paul and Peter. Peter says “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands, so that if any do not believe they may be won over…”

Paul says “Wives, submit to husbands as to the Lord…”

Apparently I have some explaining to do. If this is what the Bible says, and I believe that if I’m going to call myself Christ’s follower I have to take even the parts of the Bible that I don’t like seriously, how can I have a problem with Christians using the word “submission” about our marital relationships?

Well, first of all I have to remind all of us that our English Bible is a translation of the original. We try our best to make it as accurate as possible, but as anyone who knows more than one language will tell you, sometimes words just don’t translate well. A word that in one language is a harmless, neutral term may become a deadly insult when translated literally into another language. Compare US and British uses of the word “fag”. Or even when it means the same thing, the nuances can be wildly different. A “cafeteria” is an eating-place in both British and American versions of English, but means something subtly different: the British version is a small eating establishment where you could get a light snack or sandwich or the equivalent – a café, in fact – while the US version is what we call a “canteen”: a large institutional dining area, for example in a school.

And this is just between two different versions of the same language! The problem is multiplied when you take in a more distant (in both time and dissimilarity) language like Koine Greek.

The Koine word which we translate as “submission” is ὑποτάσσω, which does indeed mean “submission”. However, as I have said, the difficulty is not with the literal meaning but with the connotations in our cultural milieu versus those of the New Testament Greek/Aramaic period.

Which brings us to our second issue. Words change over time. Within my lifetime, “PC” has gone from having one meaning to having three, and its original meaning is now probably the least-used. “Friend” has become a verb as well as a noun, while “Like” has gone the other way, becoming a thing as well as an action. Such-and-such a post has so many likes. And don’t get me started on those hideous monster words beloved of American news media, “burglarize” (the word is “burgle”; a “burglar” is “one who burgles”) and “normalcy” (because it seems like Americans can’t cope with the stress-pattern shift of the word “normality”).

English has never inflicted itself with the bureaux (which is fast degenerating into “bureaus”) of language preservation found in French and Spanish. The Academie Française is particularly known for its resistance to importing words unless they are Latin-derived, but even with their efforts, French still has “le weekend”. Languages change. If they don’t, it’s because no-one speaks them any more, like Latin or Sanskrit or Old Church Slavonic.

Along with adding new words for new things, sometimes old words add new meanings (as with “like” or “PC”) or lose old meanings (as with “intercourse”, which at one time regularly meant “conversation” and was used only secondarily to refer to the sexual act). Or meanings can change as the usage of the word alters. This is why we need new dictionaries every few year, and why the OED publishes lists of the year’s new words.

Has this happened with “submit”?

I submit that perhaps it has.

See, that’s formal usage now, which always lags behind regular conversational usage, and it’s a slightly different meaning of the word anyway. It still carries the idea of subjection, but it’s merely an “I put forth my idea and subject it to your judgment”.

Our primary cultural connotations of the word “submit” are, with the exception of Christian and Muslim usage, entirely negative. Nothing that you have to “submit” to is going to be pleasant; otherwise you wouldn’t be using that word. Submission does not really come into play if it is to something desirable or good. No-one “submits” to being bought ice-cream, or to their friend. That would be weird.

So why do we use “submission” as a description of proper Christian wifely behaviour?

Normally, the word describes a relationship of unequal partners, in which the greater partner’s desires and needs are paramount and override the desires and needs of the lesser partner. The greater partner is probably going to be hostile or unresponsive to commentary from below, and the lower partner cannot do anything to change it.

To me, none of that sounds like the sort of relationship I want anywhere near my marriage.

Marriage is a relationship of two equal partners under God. Even Paul’s statement in Ephesians is actually misquoted; verse 22 is the second half of a sentence beginning in verse 21, the whole of which reads “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to husbands as to the Lord…”

That’s right; the word “submit” isn’t actually in the original in verse 22 at all. Worse, we insert the paragraph distinctions and subtitles that weren’t in the original (in order to help ourselves find things) and we artificially separate this one sentence into two paragraphs in different sections.

It’s not the first time that Bible translators (who tend to be older men) have become out-of-step with the regular culture. And this has theological implications for our teaching on the proper relationship of Christian spouses, and power implications for men who are husbands.

Personally, I don’t want a vertical, positionally-hierarchical relationship with my wife. If I can bring up personal ancient history, I resisted the idea of my wife promising to “obey” in our wedding vows. I’ve since been content to ignore it, but it’s one of the things we might have done differently if we had it over. Rather like my own insistence on being proclaimed “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife”, which I’ve since decided just plays into the lie that my manhood comes from my relationship to a woman and that to be a real man you have to know (in the KJV sense) a woman.

As far as I’m concerned, as a married couple the minute you believe that one of you can pull rank on the other, you have already lost. The relationship goes from being a horizontal one between equals to a vertical one of commander and subordinate, ruler and subject, master and mastered.

That may have been the expectation in First-Century Greco-Roman Jewish society, but we’re beyond that now. Thanks largely to the influence of Christian teaching on the equality of all persons before God, we no longer expect to have a marriage relationship of dominance and subjection.

After long struggle, at the beginning of the last century we finally let women have a vote in how our national affairs are governed. Britain had its first female Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher; America might have its first female President before too long. Whether you like or loathe Hillary Clinton (and I’m not personally a fan), her gender isn’t an issue, except perhaps in the minds of the most reactionary misogynist neanderthals.

As men, we don’t expect to rule our wives as the little tin god of their world. Or if we do, we have serious problems whether we know it or not. Women don’t expect to be our subjects, and nor should they. There’s some give-and-take in any healthy marriage, and if it’s all one-sided, we don’t have anything like a healthy marriage.

So why do we, as Christians, insist on preserving language that frames the relationship as one of dominance?

Oh, we try to soft-pedal it in the way we interpret submission, but the word itself has become loaded with baggage it didn’t have half a generation ago.

I have no idea what word we might use instead, though. We can at least stop unnaturally splitting Ephesians 5:21 from 5:22 (if submission is expected to go both ways, we eliminate a lot of the problem), but perhaps here more free translations like the NIV have the advantage over more literalistic translations like the New American Standard. There may not be one word that fits the bill.

Then, too, we might possibly recognise that, like the teaching about slaves and masters, some of this New Testament teaching concerns a social context that no longer exists in the same way.

We like to apply the teaching on slaves and masters to the employer/employee relationship, but if we’re honest we have to face the fact that the relationship is not the same as that of a master and his slave. Last time I checked, my employer still couldn’t sell me to another company, or beat me or kill me on a whim.

The situation of husbands and wives is complicated by the fact that while slavery has been largely consigned to the dustbin of history (human trafficking exists, but nowhere in the world is it a legal and above-board part of society), we still have husbands and we still have wives. And yet, how different is the relationship!

In much of First-Century society, married women were akin to property. They were bought with bride-prices or sold with dowries. Their husbands were legally responsible for their actions, as they were for those of their slaves or their children, and a man beating his wife was considered a normal and good thing rather than a dreadful criminal act. The Greeks, in particular, found the more gender-enlightened and egalitarian attitudes of, for example, the Scythians, as a perverse indication of extreme barbarism on the part of the Scythians. (And Paul states that “[in Christ] there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all”)

Nowadays, if we found a husband and wife who had a First-Century sort of relationship, we’d call the police. Or at the very least a social worker.

Society has progressed beyond those evil pagan expectations, largely building on the Christian understanding of the equality of all people before God. The point of the Scriptural teaching is not to mandate any particular kind of society as normative for Christians (else we would still keep slaves), but to teach believers how to live as believers within the sometimes fallen human structures of the day.

Marriage isn’t something that can be done away with like slavery. The beginning of Genesis ties marriage to the creation of human beings: “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. Eve is Adam’s ezer kenegdo, or “suitable helper”; the word Ezer is also used of God as our Helper, so there’s no place for seeing this as any sort of subordinate position.

Interestingly, the subjection of womankind doesn’t take place until after the Fall: “I will greatly increase your pain in childbirth… Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you“.

To me, it seems a bit backward that we would hold the results of the Fall up as an example for how redeemed new creations in Christ should live, but there you go. I know many Christians do honestly believe in an inherent primacy of the man in a marriage relationship, but I’ve looked at the Scriptures and I don’t think that’s what they are saying.

If “submission” is for you a positive or neutral term without baggage, I’m pleased for you. But the fact that we keep having to explain why submission isn’t the problem non-Christians think it is suggests that Christianese may be out of sync with real life. If you honestly want a vertical relationship in your marriage, you have my pity, and my suspicion that your spouse might not be so blithely accepting of this. We teach, and rightly so, about marriage being a partnership. We do pre-marital counselling for young couples to try and help them become aware that they aren’t going to get their own way all the time. We encourage husbands to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loves the Church. And then we use a loaded, almost universally negative term like “submit” for the wife’s side of the marriage responsibilities, a word which is intrinsically vertical in its orientation without any counterbalancing command to the husband to submit. Oh, he’s required to love as Christ loved the church, which implies service and sacrifice, but you can love a lesser. The way we’ve broken Ephesians 5:22 off from verse 21, men don’t get commanded to submit to their wives; it’s all one-way. And this is wrong, and it’s not what we mean.

Ideally, we men would all take the command to love our wives sacrificially as seriously as Jesus performing the most disgusting task of the lowest slave for his disciples. Jesus here isn’t explicitly or implicitly demanding his disciples’ submission to him; he’s submitting to them, seeing to their needs and desires first, serving them like a dog slave. There’s no place for positional authority here; the normal positions are shockingly inverted.

And this is what the Scripture says is our pattern. We don’t let the social customs around us set our agenda as Christians; we act with righteousness, according to a higher pattern of submission, not one way from women to men, but to one another, husbands as well as wives, masters as well as slaves. We make a nonsense of fallen cultural patterns by living in such a way within them that the expected fallen norms are done away with.

I think it’s time we did away with this one-way notion of submission as a solely wifely requirement. At best, it conveys to non-Christians a horrible picture of what Christian marriage is supposed to be like, and at worst it reinforces our own tendencies toward letting our marriages degenerate into entirely the wrong kinds of relationship.

As far as I’m concerned, as soon as the word “submit” comes into play, we’re dealing with a vertical relationship that ought to have no part of a healthy marriage.

Maybe we ought to say “put your husbands first” rather than “submit to them”. That’s more like what we actually mean, and far more communicative.

“Put one another first out of reverence for Christ. Wives, put your husbands first as you do the Lord…”

It isn’t perfect, but it seems more in tune with what we really mean than “submit”. Maybe. At any rate, it doesn’t have quite the same amount of baggage.

Peter’s Pentecost Sermon

This Pentecost I thought I’d take a look at Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon.

Acts Chapter 2 is quite a long chapter, and Peter’s sermon takes up a considerable portion of the number of verses. Indeed, while the actual coming of the Holy Spirit takes place in only four verses, Peter’s speech takes up well over half of the chapter.

Luke obviously thought it was important, though sometimes we’re more apt to focus on the action, the event of the Spirit’s Coming.

Certainly the event itself is vital. It’s been described, with justification, as the birth of the Church, and without it, there probably wouldn’t be a Church as we know it. And yet, over half of the crucial chapter is Peter making a speech.

In some ways I almost wonder why it’s in there. What’s so important about this speech that it’s recorded in at least gist form for posterity?

It’s not like it’s a major section of moral instruction like the Sermon on the Mount, or a major Christological teaching like Colossians 1. Why did Luke consider it so important to record, and why did God consider it so important to preserve?

It’s one of several major speeches or sermons in the Book of Acts: there’s this one, there’s Stephen’s defence speech to the Sanhedrin, there’s Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, and there are several of Paul’s defence speeches before Roman magistrates. And in a sense, my question is the same for all of them: why is this here?

Peter’s “sermon” here is the first time there’s ever been an evangelistic talk given by someone who’s only human. In that sense it has the same overall purpose as Paul’s speech to the Areopagus: evangelism. Perhaps Luke intends these as “sample evangelistic messages” for us to draw on, emulate and learn from.

As such, the two speeches couldn’t be more different. Peter’s speech starts from a remarkable miraculous sign, takes in Biblical testimony, the life of King David, and several prophetic Scriptural statements and comes to Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah from the perspective of the fulfillment of Scripture. Paul’s speech starts from the city of Athens’ rampant idolatry and the altar “to the unknown god”, takes in logic, pagan Greek poetry originally written about Zeus, and cutting-edge contemporary thought about the nature of reality and comes to Jesus’ identity as the Creator’s representative on Earth from the perspective of someone to whom Jewish Scripture was an unknown source.

The two speeches reflect their different audiences’ needs, and illustrate the dichotomy Paul mentions in I Corinthians 1: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom”.

If I’m right in my hypothesis that Luke (and the Holy Spirit) intend these sermons as illustrative messages for “how to do evangelism”, then Peter’s speech should be seen as “how to do evangelism with Jews” – people having the Scriptures and recognising their authority, who know that there is one God and know much of what He is like from His Scriptures. Paul’s speech, conversely, is “how to do evangelism with Greeks” – pagans, people not knowing the Scriptures or recognising their authority. It’s an important difference, and one we should bear in mind, because it’s no good quoting Scripture to back up a point if your audience doesn’t recognise Scriptural authority.

Nevertheless, Peter’s sermon is for Jews. Jews from all over the world, but Jews. Many of whom would have been in Jerusalem for Passover and seen the events of Holy Week, heard the reports of the resurrection, even, and not known what to make of it all.

Peter’s speech is occasional, made in response to the crowd’s desire for an explanation of the fact that 120 Galilean hicks were loudly declaring the praises of God in languages from all over the known world.

This is as remarkable as a busload of East Texan rednecks suddenly speaking fluent Khalkh Mongolian, Dari, Quechua and Swahili. For all that America is a “melting-pot” of diverse nations and cultures, Americans are even worse than the English when it comes to learning foreign languages, and Galileans were just as uncosmopolitan. Something, evidently, was going on, and whatever it was was very remarkable.

Into this knowledge vacuum Peter steps, with an explanation of what is going on that ties together the present events, Scriptural prophecy, the Messianic expectations of that Scriptural prophecy and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s very clever, actually.

Peter’s first order of business is to counter the mockery of those who blamed all the noise and commotion on the disciples’ drunkenness. No, it cannot be; it’s too early in the morning for those who start drinking at dawn to be fully gone, and too late for the all-night carousers. No, he explains, this is a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words, about the coming of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.

This is fairly straightforward, but to our Western, non-Jewish ears, the next part looks like a non-sequitur. “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God…”

What we’re missing is the fact that the implications of Joel’s prophecy were that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign of the age of the Messiah’s Kingdom. The natural question for a Jewish person in that day and age would probably have been “well if this is that, where’s the Kingdom of Messiah?”

It’s in answer to that unspoken question that Peter brings in the life and witness of Jesus. He has Messiah’s imprint in terms of being accredited by God in deeds of power and holiness. Though betrayed and handed over to death by fallen, sin-stained human beings, he bears Messiah’s imprint in that God raised Him from the dead – and we’re not making this up; we’re eyewitnesses. We saw it.

I can almost hear the baffled crowd now. “But even if He were raised from the dead, how can He truly be Messiah if He died? He’s the Son of David who will reign on his throne, not die on a cross!”

And so Peter turns once again to Scripture. Beginning at that Messianic title, “Son of David”, he takes David’s own prophetic psalms and brings out of them the full depth of their meaning: that though David died and was buried, he was looking forward when he wrote that to One who would not be abandoned in the grave. This is Jesus, he finishes. You crucified Him – and he makes no bones about laying the blame at the crowd’s feet – but God has made Him both “Lord”, as David said, and Christ, David’s Son and the heir of the Kingdom.

Perhaps one of the important things for us today, especially those of us who are Gentiles, is to recognise that the huge numbers of people added to the Church after this sermon were not added purely by the magical-seeming means of the Holy Spirit overruling their minds by a touch on their hearts. It matters what we say when we speak about who Jesus is. There’s an appeal not just to the emotions but also to reason. Starting from what his Jewish audience already knew about God and Messiah from the Scriptures, Peter reasons with the crowd that Jesus is, in fact, the One that was promised.

Interestingly enough for our own evangelistic efforts, there’s absolutely no appeal here to Jesus meeting felt needs. Peter’s message is uncompromising; it’s “Jesus is the promised Messiah and you crucified Him”. There’s no evidence here of the Jesus who can help us deal with our anger issues or set us free from our poor self-image. He can, but that’s not where Peter focuses his message. This crowd know what Messiah’s supposed to be: He’s the One who will establish God’s Kingdom on earth and really make us into a holy nation and a people of God’s own possession. Peter’s insistence that “you crucified him” isn’t very PC. It’s not even tactful. But it comes to the heart of the issue.

The Jewish nation of the time thought they were pretty special. They had the patriarchs, the Law, the Commandments, the Scriptures. They were God’s own people, whom He loved more than anyone else on the face of the earth.

The fact that God’s own people could so devastatingly miss it as to crucify His Own Son wasn’t in their thinking.

No wonder, when it registered, that they were “cut to the heart”. God must be so angry with us! We’re no better – and quite a bit worse, because we had no excuse – than pagans! What can we possibly do to make it right?

So at the end, it comes down to the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of the sins of a crowd that counted themselves “righteous” and “Godly”, and didn’t even know that they had them.

“Repent (turn around, change your mind and your ways) and be baptised (just like a pagan who wanted to join themselves to the Jewish nation and become a worshipper of the true God) for the forgiveness of sins…”