Another Gospel

I am continuing with some Zooms going through the various volumes of ‘Explorations in Theology’, seeking to emphasise that they are no more than that, and hope that they provoke whoever comes on the Zooms to continue in their journey and convictions. I am convinced that the key for us all is to be connected to Jesus not to a set of beliefs. As I state ‘all theology leaks… I just pretend my leaks less than all others!’ Last night I had (at least for me) a very productive Zoom on chapters 5 and 6 of ‘The Lifeline’. Below I copy Chapter 5 of that book… (All available at in hardback or eBook format).

Chapter 5

Another Gospel

Paul is considerably different to the likes of you and me! (I trust I did not hear any dissent to that statement.) The writer of so much of the biblical material that has shaped Christian faith and practice, a person who encountered the Risen Christ in a most dramatic encounter, who spent years fashioning the Gospel and its implications for his society and beyond. We gladly follow his lead. He carried an authority with regard to the Gospel and that authority meant he could describe certain proclamations as being a ‘different gospel’. We have to tread carefully when seeking to make statements of a similar nature, though it seems clear that not all ‘gospels’ can be harmonised one with another. There are different ‘gospels’ and when the differences are extreme those gospels represent different versions of God, or perhaps they even represent different gods. We are to find unity with all who are of faith, but when a person denies the Gospel by deed or presentation it becomes hard to recognise them as a family member. We should be cautious in coming to a decision, but I have to confess that increasingly with some presentations of ‘truth’ that, by design or by default, dehumanise those being addressed, I find it hard to reconcile the ‘god’ they speak of as being the God that I discern through my understanding of Jesus. If the ‘gods’ are different, are the ‘gospels’ not different? And the inevitable question pops up – are we actually brothers and sisters? Perhaps we are more like estranged family members and in that great age to come when we will see clearly we will see that we were both in part wrong, both advocating a ‘different gospel’. Conviction (my beliefs that I hold to in the light of how I read what I read) and humility (I am more self-critical than critical of others) are needed.

In 2001 I was participating in a conference in Hannover, Germany. At the end of the session in which I had shared, a number of believers from Spain came to me and through an interpreter said that in Spain there was not the history of revival such as could be claimed by the UK, and as I had spoken about the re-digging of the wells of historic revival what should they do. This was not a question I was prepared for and surprised myself when my response to them was:

In Spain you do not need a history of revival. What other nation on the face of the earth can, on the basis of biblical authority, claim to have first century unanswered apostolic prayers sown into the land. Go dig them out.

After the session I had to think about the response I had given and quickly came to understand that Paul’s desire to get to Spain was to proclaim in the Western end of the empire (the ends of the earth?) the Gospel. He was not looking for a holiday on the beach but somehow to make a proclamation in the land. Opinion is divided as to whether he made a trip to Spain. I like to think not, but irrespective, the prayers of Paul are in the land. This does not mean that his prayers are only present in Spain, nor that only in Spain can the Pauline Gospel be recovered, but that something can be done in this peninsula in order to help facilitate the recovery of that Gospel. At one level all other gospels are at best a variation of the one he proclaimed, or at worst they are indeed ‘another gospel’.

In Acts we read Scriptures concerning the early apsotolic proclamation and there are often summary statements of what they proclaimed. We read (emphases added):

Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35).

Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20).

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18).

When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:5). 

For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28).

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” (Acts 19:13).

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jewsh and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:20, 21).

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28:23).

He proclaimed the kingdom of Gods and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28: 31).

In these summary statements of the early Christian proclamation we do not find some of the big salvation words: justification, reconciliation, redemption, substitutionary atonement. What we do find is that the proclamation was about Jesus. When the content is expanded it might include the resurrection (the whole basis on which there is a new world order) or a proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah (when addressing Jews). The summaries are not the totality of what was proclaimed but are a description of what (or who) was at the core of what was being proclaimed. In the context this proclamation of Jesus is best understood as an announcement that the possibility of a different world had opened up through the vindication of Jesus by the resurrection. As outlined in previous volumes this was the true Gospel of which all others, and in particular the Caesar version, were sad parodies.

The Pauline Gospel

In later volumes I plan to look at the biblical perspective on eschatology (or maybe better put ‘my take on it’!) and I have always found it strange the theology that insists on God as creator and also as the one who will destroy it all. As creator he could of course do just that, but the Incarnation (taking on flesh) and the resurrection (of flesh), and the value God places on ‘dust of the earth’ surely indicates that there is a wonderful future for creation. Humanity’s commission for the creation and Israel’s (failed) commission for the world are the reasons for the Incarnation, an intervention in order to get everything back on track.

Everything centred in on Jesus; Paul says ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ’ (2 Cor. 2:20). Little wonder Acts presents the summary as ‘they proclaimed Jesus’. In Jesus a new world becomes possible; this new world being the current world brought to maturity, not simply through growth toward, but by a final transformation ‘at his coming’. At the resurrection of Jesus a radical ‘time-warp’ occurred. This is not a great surprise as the Jewish hope for the resurrection of the body was that it would take place at the ‘end’. Jesus was raised before the end, and so we might say, in the middle of time. Matthew’s Gospel records that the event was so eschatologically significant that other saints also obtained resurrection ahead of time.

The time-warp means that this new world, though still future, is now also present. It seems to be this that is behind Paul’s language of ‘new creation’. For those who are in Jesus, there is a change of perspective. The old has gone, the new is here. It appears that Paul is suggesting this is more than a way of thinking but that it points to a reality. Experiencing and believing that reality is to be seen in the lives of those who are in Christ and reflected in how they see others. Paul was not simply looking for decisions based on a gospel message that ended with the appeal verbalised as ‘hands up all those who want their sins forgiven and be born again’. The proclamation of Jesus carried much more weight than that, and a response meant a submission to being discipled in the values and ways of heaven. Thankfully this was more than a call to adhere to the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the ideologies of Rome, for those who committed to the Lordship of Jesus received the Spirit of God that connected them not to a set of values but to the very life-source of the universe.

In the Imperial context of the first century those early disciples were challenged ever so deeply concerning their morals and ethics, and they were often opposed and marginalised. They knew, all too well, that, although there was a ‘new creation’, the old was not simply disappearing. Knowing that the final transformation would take place when the same Jesus who ascended to heaven would descend again, they understood that their (at times) small contributions were in fact like seed in the ground that would bring that final irruption of heaven ever closer.

This expectation of this world being transformed, and the language consistently used in the New Testament within the Imperial context of Rome, inevitably meant there was a political element within the message. Not a message that called for allegiance to a party, but a message that shaped how those who believed the proclamation lived and what they wanted to work toward. If, in our setting, the proclamation of the Gospel becomes nothing but politics we can say that is not the Pauline Gospel; but when the message we adhere to speaks out against all kinds of injustices and carries the creative hope for the flourishing of all we are indeed being faithful to Paul’s Gospel.

On the road to Damascus Paul had had his encounter with the One he was previously opposed to. His previous framework of reference was totally blown away. Prior to this he could genuinely categorise himself as ‘righteous’.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Phil. 3: 4-6).

From his post-Damascus perspective he gave no value to what was previously thought as credit-worthy. For Paul, Jesus was not an add on to his previous faith, but the means by which his faith was transformed. That being his experience it is understandable why he was unwilling to shackle any Old Testament stipulation on Gentile converts. Everything was centred on Jesus, and he was the lens through which everything pre-Jesus now had to pass. Righteousness now came through being in him, not through being in ‘Israel’.

Paul, faultless according to the law, but once he was in Christ, ‘the worst of sinners’.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Tim. 1: 12-17).

Zealousness and righteousness previously were interpreted as requiring a persecuting of those (Jews) who adhered to faith in Jesus. Post-the-Damascus-encounter he no longer understood that his faith demanded he did God’s work by making sure everything was clean and therefore pleasing to God. He now understood to do so was wrong and if he was a sinner then so were his fellow Jews and, of course, the Gentiles. But as chief of sinners he knew that God could save anyone. As a sinner he was a blasphemer, one who took the name of God in vain, claiming to act for God. He now understood he was opposing God as he had misrepresented the God he believed he was serving; speaking and acting for him, he now understood, was acting on behalf of another ‘god’. The ‘conversion’ at the gates of Damascus did not bring about a minor tweak to his beliefs and practice!

He explains that he now understood that formerly he was a blasphemer because in the name of God he was a persecutor and a violent person. Previously he had no need to ask God (as Joshua did), ‘are you for us or for our enemies?’ The answer was clear! However, what wisdom and insight there is in Joshua’s question. Is God for us or for our enemy? If we align with Jesus, understanding the requirement to love our enemy and even death on their behalf will be sufficient to bring us to a place of humble silence. God is for our enemy!

The Pauline Gospel opens the door to all. Without doubt the whole world is locked in the prison of sin, but God is rich in mercy. Failing to be human might bring about condemnation, but God saw Paul’s activity as due to ignorance and unbelief. Understandably Paul had a desire to proclaim Jesus and present the call to believe in him.

Belief in Jesus is not an automatic response to hearing about him. There is a huge resistance to this taking place.

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4).

Ignorance about God, for the work of the god of this age is to keep God as the ‘unknown god’, and the one who cannot be known, is something that the Gospel addresses. The God that Paul proclaimed was the God who saves sinners. No one beyond the scope of salvation (not Judas who betrayed Christ, nor Peter who denied him, nor Paul who blasphemed him). God, though not human, has a human face, for it was Jesus who met Paul and addressed him personally. God, though in heaven, comes close, so close that the Spirit enters a person. Signs, wonders, miracles all being evidence of the relative ease and frequency of heaven spilling out into this world, of the future invading the present. Exorcisms breaking bondages to the god of this age, for there is only one God present in the ‘new creation’ age.

The Gospel Paul was gripped by started with an explanation of who this God was. Not a God that could be invented, not even one who could be found through the pages of a book, but had to be ultimately discovered through an encounter with the Person who was the ‘image of God’ who truly carried glory. The response to this Gospel was one of faith. The good news had to be believed for transformation to take place.

‘Ignorance and unbelief’ was the soil from which all manner of anti-God behaviour sprang forth. True enlightened knowledge and faith became the soil that would produce fruit that resonated with heaven’s values.

The Gospel was a leveller. What Paul counted as something that he could chalk up on the credit side of his life was eventually valueless. The Gospel did not come with a respect of status and once responded to any such status did not position someone hierarchically in the community of faith, hence the total resistance to Peter, and the freedom with which Paul felt to label him a hypocrite.

The mountains were levelled, the valleys raised. All (Jew and Gentile) sinners alike; all called to repentance, to believe the Gospel that was the power of God to salvation (to the Jew first, and to the Gentile). All of humanity having failed to attain and reveal the glory of God; and all of humanity invited to come through the door to a new creation reality, and to be engaged in a co-operative work with God within the new creation developing. To reduce the Gospel to a set of laws; to fail to understand how it carried a vision for transformation through challenging the status quo; to use the Bible as a set of timeless truth texts; to fail to err on the side of including the formerly defined as ‘unclean’; to consider that we are doing God’s work for him; the list can probably go on. We might never be able to stand alongside Paul and say, ‘we too understand the Gospel as you did’, but the more we align to one or more of the above phrases the more likely it is that we have deviated from the Pauline Gospel, the more likely we have embraced ‘another gospel’, and the more open we will be to be defined (as Paul self-defined his previous righteous life) as a blasphemer.

Come back Peter, come back Paul

The conflict in Galatia

A right old conflict. For you enneagram lovers surely that Paul chap was a ‘no. 8’. He seemed to like a good old conflict, and I enjoy reading the public conflict of Galatians 2. I start with that in LifeLine. The conflict was incredibly strong… and I think remains incredibly provocative in our world – maybe even more so today.

It is easy to quickly side with Paul. He was right after all. But hang on a few minutes. Why did Peter pull back from eating with the Gentiles. Not because he jumped out of bed one day and thought ‘I know what, enough of all that Cornelius’ conversion stuff, from now on I will simply be a hypocrite.’ I don’t think so. And to make matters worse, dear Barnabas gets himself into a right old two and eight in the midst of it all, he also pulling back. Generous, ‘I only see the best, I am the original encourager’ Barnabas withdraws.

For Barnabas to draw back you have to suspect there was a convincing case going on. And I am sure there was. A good solid MISSIOLOGICAL case at that. So Peter and Paul – both acting out of missiological, ‘for the sake of the Gospel’ convictions.

That’s what makes the conflict deeply relevant today.

The outcome was that of (presumably) a relational holding together, but two separate ‘fields’ to work in, and we remain the beneficiaries of the ‘freedom’ strand.

Seems maybe we need greater diversity, apostles to the… (filling in the many blanks that are calling from our world) risking following their convictions. Result will be untidiness, otherwise known as ‘mess’ and ‘unsatisfactory’. On the positive side, diversity, multiple incarnations in all kinds of strange and shadowy places. In short the Gospel of freedom.

The Lifeline

The fourth in the most dynamic series ever written is out… (Disclaimer: by dynamic series I obviously mean written by me over the previous few months – how could I ever make a bigger claim that that?) Copies – hardback and eBook available from:

What a smart title I hear you all say with one voice. ‘Yes’ I reply cos when I was thinking about a title I thought I would do something very clever and tie the end of the book to the first volume. First volume tries to start with the real division is not about right and wrong, but regarding life and death. The tree of life… in the day you eat of the other one (the ‘infallible guide to right and wrong?’ tree) you will die… death enters into the human race… who were created to live forever (no, and not that the soul is immortal; wrong book being read to come up with that novel idea)… choose life that you may live… Israel chooses the other path… Jesus takes the consequences, tasting death for all… so that all may live… the lifeline.

In the book I try to dig in to the Pauline Gospel some, and suggest that there is a radical feminisation of creation, and the word ‘new creation’ is a much better term than that of a ‘new world order’. Last chapter, God does not require sacrifice; we are the ones who needed the death of Jesus. Root issue is the cleansing of the heart / conscience, that it is not ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’ but that verse puts in another step along the path… Blood is not necessary for forgiveness but the author does suggest it was necessary for the step that leads to forgiveness.

I was going to (maybe will) write another three volumes (eschatology – drawing on the call of Israel, hence no ‘Promised Land’ promised, past nor future; the traumas of 66-70AD, hence no expectation of antiChrist future; prophetic utterances that Scripture records as not coming to pass, hence the difference between promise and prediction, blah de blah…), but maybe I should consider that the issues that are more important are the ‘so what’ with regard to the trajectory from creation in the way distant path, of course not being a scientist I am not qualified to use the word ‘evolution’, to the close of the New Testament (pre AD70 with a one-book spill over that helps further guide us in our world). So using provocative language, our relationship to ‘mother earth’ (settle down I am simply ramping up slightly the ‘the first humanity was from the dust’ perspective, that I am pretty sure is there in the early pages, and repeated when taking a look back from the future – 1 Cor. 15); relationship to gender (drawing on the already / not yet, implications of the Ascended Christ for gender, what wisdom we might be able to hear from the market square; pre-Pauline issue of ekklesia and post-Pauline approaches; and of course our relationship to the ‘state’ and the creation of money and a redemptive economics.

If the last paragraph sounded as if I know what I am writing about… apologies. Explorations in theology can lead to explorations from theology, and also to the discovery that one of God’s many gifts to humanity is the ability to make mistakes.

The ‘arc’ of the books

I am revamping the whole section on the books so that they will actually be more streamlined and ready for a ‘course’. Bit of a laugh really. So I spent a whole day writing articles that would go with each chapter. Articles to explain what I have written. Then when the groups could meet they would discuss what I had written about what I had written – ever so creative? I showed my work proudly to Gayle… And I also heard the voice of a certain brother from Leeds: ‘too much!!!!’ So I started again. A good day’s work thought, but I have found I often need to think again.

Anyway the groups will consist of a few questions to think about, maybe a podcast or a video (neither longer than 10 minutes), with any extra articles fairly short and as optional extras. No one will need to read what I have written about what I have written!! I will leave a few articles covering material beyond the books but they will be optional.

There is one article that is somewhat longer and I am publishing it here also. It is on the trajectory of the books… and of course now you will really want to buy them? BTW: if you wish to join a zoom group I hope to run a couple on book 1 Humanising the Divine in May through June.

The ‘arc’ is important to understand to grasp my intentions. I have not written for someone who comes from a fixed evangelical position. To try and engage with such a person would probably result in that person throwing stones from their corner, and I would probably try and throw stones back. They are probably smarter than me so their stones would be bigger, their aim more accurate… but when all is done and dusted the whole exercise would be fruitless, not to mention my bruises and their win! Ouch on both counts.

My overarching arc and theirs would be so different there would be no / little point of contact. I do write from that background, but probably have moved further than I realise, for often change is gradual and can almost go unnoticed.

The first book I consider is the foundation and for that reason the Zoom groups take it chapter by chapter. The first chapter is putting humanity at the centre of the discussion, suggesting:

  • that God has a wonderful focus on humanity; the Incarnation being essential so that the ‘unknown’ God might be known as revealed in the face of Jesus.
  • That Jesus, fully God and fully human was also truly human. In being fully human there is a growing process that he experienced, a growing (and learning process) through to maturity.
  • To fall short of being truly human is at the heart of sin, the aim of the demonic being to dehumanise, thus every aspect that is valuable (and God-like) is to humanise.

There are then three chapters that relate together. They focus on three individuals, Judas, Peter and Cornelius. They might bring some fresh insights about the characters but the purpose of the chapters is to sit in the arc. Judas betrays Jesus, but we all have betrayed Jesus. He betrays Jesus as he seeks to direct the outcome of his mission. The ‘I know better’ is his downfall. The narrative I give is one that I consider fits both the texts we have and also the historical setting. Peter is not too dissimilar. The betrayer or the deniar, the parallels are clear. Peter is a paradigm of those that God ‘builds’ on! Flaky and weak, yet chosen. He also gives us clear insight to the personal and corporate journey – one of facing previous understandings (clarities) and discovering through the puzzles that our convictions are not always rooted in a deep knowing of God. For there to be advances there has to be a ‘conversion’ of those who already have convictions and understandings. The Cornelius passage does not answer all the questions but the confession that someone who was formerly unclean (Gentile) can no longer be called unclean, and that there was an acceptance by God for such a person before they made a response to Jesus. Those chapters seek to track with the arc of heaven’s universal mission toward growing a new society, namely ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, not separated but integrated.

The Judas chapter is about Judas being the sharp end (of betrayal), thus he respresents us all. Our vision corporate is what often betrays Jesus… The cultural barriers that were in place, and the spiritual powers that shaped the distorted views of God, were incredible, hence the money / weakness is at one level not an issue, but the false (and passionate) vision of the kingdom is what betrays Jesus. Betrayal is necessary to lead to the cross, as betrayal of the generous vision of God took place first in the garden. Betrayal in the face of life-poured-out love. Betrayal leads to death in both situations, the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane. There is a move away from Life as the shaping framework, to one where being in control with the knowledge of good and evil was the betrayal, taking control of God’s vision. (This becomes even further perverted with Babel / Babylon where it is no longer God’s vision that is perverted but a godless vision – a tower that reaches heaven… however I think the critique of all visions that take control are that they are a form of Babylon?) The consequence of taking control is death… However the path out of Eden eastward is the walk God embarked on with them… eventually leads to Incarnation where the walk with humanity is physical and deeply intimate. This journey that God embarks on was hidden from their eyes – shame does this. The married couple on the road to Emmaus (Cleopas and Mary – Adam and Eve so to speak) finally saw this. Their eyes were opened not to realise shame but glory when they saw that he was walking with them: they saw what was always true. Until that point they had thought that Jesus had betrayed the vision of God. The cross is the end to wrong visions of the kingdom… Reminiscent of the question ‘Where is God now’ that was thrown at Eli Weisel as the young boy was hanged in the concentration camp. Where is God revealed?… There he is, hanging on the tree… was Weisel’s response. On the tree – the cross. Hence take up your cross and follow me.

In the next chapter we move beyond the time of the historical life of Jesus, to the intersection with Cornelius that is also beyond Pentecost and acts as the door opener in the Spirit to Paul. (Beyond Pentecost but as a result of Pentecost.) It also is a paradigm of every move beyond boundaries, hence it sits at this point in the book. This is the Gospel touching the Gentiles (the word is ta ethne: it is the word we get ethnicity from and in mission usage is often taken to mean ethnic groups… but it is the generic term for those who are not of the covenant, i.e. non-Jews. Hence I suggest a paradigm for every boundary crossing.)

Following on from the interaction with Cornelius is the chapter on witness, that contrasts the narrow view of evangelism that can be perverted into treating people as objects to be saved, thus not being good news but aligning with the work of dehumanisation.

The next chapter is a preliminary look at the cross, seeking to make the point that the ‘when’ of the cross is important to discover ‘what’ the cross accomplished. I therefore describe the cross as a roadblock that is placed on the path of destruction that humanity has chosen; and that it is first for the Jew then for the Gentile. (The cross is looked at in more detail in the fourth book.)

The first book then ends with a joining chapter to the next books. A reminder that the tree Jesus died on was the problem tree in the garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge of good and evil; and that from his side came forth a suitable partner for the work within creation. Those chapters I consider are very foundational and open up the following books. In summary those books follow this trajectory:

Book 2 (‘Significant Other’) presents the ‘church’ as ekklesia, essentially a political term. Thus suggesting that a ‘movement’ paradigm is at the heart of the understanding of what ‘church’ was always meant to be.

The approach to Scripture (seeking to read it narratively as related to the historical context) opens up necessary possibilities to be considered. Rather than simply taking texts and approaching them as timeless truths it becomes the task of understanding them in context. Hence Jesus is addressing Jews (as is the majority of the Bible). The broad road / narrow road is related to the Roman Imperial conquest – few will find the way that is to safety / salvation, but many are and will remain on the road to destruction; I suggest his references to hell (Gehenna) by Jesus are references to AD70; ‘born again’ is addressed to a religious Jew (whose journey in the gospels is to new birth, but ever so slow!). Likewise ‘no name under heaven by which we are to be saved’ is addressed to Jews… Abraham is not the name by which they will be saved… and they have a generation in which to align with Jesus, otherwise not one stone upon another will be their experience. The historical journey is from Jew to Gentile; the theological journey likewise: first the Jew and then the Gentiles. First the Jews sinned; also the Gentiles – thus all have sinned and ‘fallen short’. Likewise salvation is historically and theologically to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles. I therefore don’t think we can simply jump from verses that we collect together and then prove our point. For even the cross of Jesus, which is totally universal in scope, is for Jews and males… They have to die – they are the ‘sharp’ end of sin. In the same way that we all betray Jesus, but Judas is the sharp end. Likewise all have sinned, but there is a ‘sharp’ end. Hence I also want in the light of new creation to purge the Bible of its patriarchy, suggesting the Bible demands we do that!

I see the whole context is from creation, creation gone wrong that needs to be fixed / healed, to the new society where there are no divides. Death is a divide, a separation; death leads to divides. Jesus death ends the divides, ends the knowledge path that religion had polished, exposing that path as empty with ‘they know not what they do’. Religion is the top layer of the knowledge of good and evil so is the first element to be touched at the cross. From there is opened up one new humanity of no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Questions of who is saved takes a back seat, not everything of the kingdom is in the church. And not all our churchiness is in the kingdom. The work of the ekklesia is in the kingdom and for the kingdom’s increase but we do not have to (and cannot) affirm that is true of what we have produced as ‘church’.

The trajectory moves us toward a greater and challenging understanding of the universal mission of God. A mission / vision for the new heaven and earth.

Church, in that sense (ekklesia), is important but not the form / shape / structure of it. And I am more than open to the strong possibility that Paul only had vision of the first step. Even the first step might be very different today, and the second, third etc. might be beyond the biblical record… not beyond the biblical story, but beyond the biblical text.

Book 3 (A Subversive Movement) seeks to explore how all of this ekklesia as movement embeds in society. It has to be subversive, from the bottom up, rather than a vision to impose values on society. Any truly apostolic vision will therefore have to have patience, transformation will not take place overnight. It also has to engage the ‘little people’ for the work of God is done through that ‘that is not’, marked by ‘not many wise, rich, powerful’ having been chosen.

The final book in the series Life Line is a push into Pauline theology, with a final re-visit to the cross where alongside the ‘road-block’ suggestion from book 1 I put at centre is the need for ‘cleansing’. I push away from any split in the Trinity (angry God, loving Son) which leaves us with a conflict within God, and a conflict between the Persons of the Godhead, even if we were to stretch it to a creative conflict, it nevertheless remains a conflict!

Being an exploration in theology there are directions that could be pursued (indeed that seems to me to be the nature of the Bible with its many wonderful internal dialogues). Issues related to sexuality and gender are certainly implied as new creation does not consist of ‘male and female’, exhibited I would suggest in the resurrection (or if not resurrection, the acension) of Jesus who rises as a human, this resurrection I would consider being neither ‘male nor female’.

The four books lay a foundation for such discussions and perhaps other volumes could have been added that address issues of eschatology, though the intention of the four volumes is to suggest a direction that would be appropriate on these subjects.

(I intend to write on eschatology but to publish them solely in eBook format.)

Why I am not a Universalist

I am writing a few articles that stand alongside the books and are at times a response to questions from a Zoom group. It is not uncommon for a version of ‘why are you not a universalist?’ to come up. Understandable as I am not an exclusivist; I do anticipate that most who claim to be ‘born again’ will partcipate in the age to come (I do not use the ‘go to heaven’ langauage as that is not found in the Bible)… I anticipate that as God is gracious – hence my faith for myself is that I will ‘be’ there as through the cross God is gracious to include me… I also expect to be surprised who also is included!

These articles I am uploading at, but I thought I would include this one here as a post.

First I cover my back!!

I am not a Universalist (all will be ultimately ‘saved’) though I have a sneaky suspicion that God might well be. I am not only covering my back, though, as I consider that the Scriptures give us a picture of God that shows his generosity to all. Generosity is seen in the garden of Eden with the permission to ‘eat of all the trees’, or we can consider one of the reasons that Peter gives as to why Jesus has not yet appeared:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:10).

If only a few were to be saved the longer the delay would simply mean that more people were to perish. This Scripture seems to present an optimism in the delay. Likewise in 1 Timothy 2:3 we read,

who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Apart from not viewing the cross as a transactional exchange mechanism that acts as the answer to the wrath of God, these Scriptures are some of the reasons why I do not subscribe to a ‘limited atonement’ perspective (that Jesus died for the ‘elect’; those for whom he died will therefore necessarily be saved). There is a consistent ‘died for all’ that comes through in Scripture, and for anyone who approaches the Bible as a Calvinist to avoid the universalist perspective, I find it difficult that the uncomfortable (and to me unavoidable) conclusion is that God wants something (all to be saved) but chooses something very different (only an elect are saved). If Jesus died for all, and he pays the price for all, then I find a universalist position the most natural one to take, if we view the cross through the lens of penal substitution.

There are many ‘universalist’ texts, with the ‘as in Adam’ / ‘as in Jesus’ texts being core ones. Alongside those we have the ‘reconciliation of all things’.

Through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.(Col. 1:10).

to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephes. 1:10).

Another Scripture to consider is the description of Jesus as the Saviour of all, especially those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). There is a parallel verse, language-wise, in which Paul asks Timothy to ‘bring… the scrolls, especially the parchments’ (2 Tim. 4:13) indicating that he is asking Timothy bring as many as possible. He is not asking just for the scrolls (‘only the parchments’), but is asking Timothy to take as many as possible. If salvation is only by the choice of God and he can save whoever he chooses, then it would seem he does not have to make the choices that Timothy might have to make! ‘How many can you bring Timothy? If you can’t bring them all make sure that you bring the parchments.’ If you can’t bring them all. But if God can save all he does not have to make that choice. Timothy, limited by capacity and ability, but God limitless.

The texts in favour of universalism cannot be taken in isolation from other texts. God’s saving purpose has universal scope but people may refuse to enter into that purpose. In Col. 1:19-23, for example, the Colossian believers enter into the reconciliation effected by Christ ‘provided they continue in the faith’. Universal reconciliation does not, in and of itself, necessarily imply that all will voluntarily submit to Christ. All ultimately confess the Lordship of Christ, but not all might do so willingly. Although Paul says that all will acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus, including that which is is under the earth (Phil. 2:9f.), yet when he speaks of ultimate reconciliation he does not include that subterranean sphere (Eph. 1:9f.).

Ultimate reconciliation could mean that of individuals (and demons, the devil) are included, or it could indicating that all rebellion in all spheres comes to an end. If the former then Universalism is a given, if the latter ultimate final inclusion of all as participants in the age to come is not implies by the use of such terms as ‘the reconciliation of all things’.

The ‘as in Adam’ / ‘as in Christ’ Scriptures (Rom. 5: 12-21; 1 Cor. 15: 22-23) could imply a universalism. All are in Adam (by birth) and all are in Christ (by the work of the cross). Perhaps the Corinthian texts are the strongest with the repeated ‘all…all’, but the final verse in the reference above makes us ask a question as to who ‘belongs’ to Christ. The two verses with an emphasis added are,

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

Those who come with him are the ‘dead in Christ’ (1 Tim. 4:16), those who will be raised from the dead. The ‘all’ are the all who are in Christ. Not all are in Christ, we read,

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

We read if someone is in Christ. The ‘if’ suggests that this is not automatic, and in the Pauline letters participation in Christ seems to be conditional on a response to Christ. Being included in his death, we read in Romans, was conditional:

We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Rom. 6:2-4).

This ‘belonging’ to is not too dissimilar to verses in John ch. 1. Jesus came to ‘his own’ but they did not receive him. But to those who did they were born of God. Later using the same terminology in the Gospel of John we read that he sat at table with ‘his own’ (the disciples at the Last Supper). Responding to the offer of salvation seems to be the criterion that determined if those who were ‘his own’ were truly ‘his own’.

There does appear to be the belief in a final judgement,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:12).

Perhaps there is a post-death opportunity to respond to Jesus, but Scripture is not explicit about that as a future possibility, with the strong emphasis that our lives and responses pre-death determine participation in the age to come.

Finally, the warnings (particularly in Hebrews) I consider are not theoretical warnings to keep us in line but warnings of the consequences of rejecting Jesus. Those two final words (‘rejecting Jesus’) also give me an optimistic hope that many will be included in as participants when the renewal of all things take place, for I place the emphasis on the exclusion of those who (in some way actively) reject Jesus, rather than a narrow approach that insists that only those who have received Jesus (and how is that defined depends so much on one’s tradition) are included in.

Those in summary are reasons why I am not a universalist. I think I have left sufficient in the above paragraphs to show that I am not of a simple ‘all born again are in’ and ‘all not born again are out’ belief. (Of course that begs also a huge question of the use of the term ‘born again’ and to whom that applies.) I am optimistic, I believe as Clark Pinnock described it in ‘a wideness in God’s mercy’.


I consider that the strongest appeal to universal salvation would be if a penal substitutionary view of the cross is held to. If Jesus paid the penalty for all, then all are free, irrespective of their acceptance of that. Certainly for God to endlessly punish people for their sin that has been ‘paid’ for I would consider is a gross injustice. The ‘limited atonement’ perspective (Jesus only died for the elect) seems the only way to protect a penal substitutionary from becoming a substantial piece of the pro-universalist argument. Hence on the cross, I consider we have to find another way of understanding what took place there.

Gardens, couples and sight

Always a few aspects that come up in the zoom groups that provoke a little expansion. So here are two related aspects from last night’s zoom.

[BTW I add a few articles from time to time that are drawn from the books and they can be found at: For example there is one there on Jesus always sinless, but becomes mature. I will also probably expand this post into an article for those pages.]

The resurrection. A cosmic event, that changed the world. Marked by an earthquake and ‘saints’ in the grave coming out (I actually think they came out with resurrected bodies, unlike Lazarus who came back to life with the same body. If I am right then we also have a time warp aspect that took place at the resurrection of Jesus, an event destined to occur at the parousia taking place significantly ahead of time!) The resurrection, that which we bear witness to, is what opens up sight. So…

First starting at the end of the trajectory that I want to touch on. Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus. I put in the books that this was to a married couple (Cleopas and Mary). Mary the wife of Clopas (either a variation of spelling, not uncommon in the ancient world, or the influence of Hebrew / Aramaic coming through) was one of the women who remained at the cross (John 19:25)… more to come, so the two disciples seems to me to be those two, consoling each other, trudging away from the bitterness of disappointment. But before this we have the first sight of Jesus being by Mary Magdalene who identified him as ‘the Gardener’. I put a capital ‘G’ there as her identification is not corrected for I believe there is something very profound going on. Adam, the Gardener leaves the Garden with his wife, with the word ‘death’ ringing in his ears. They leave life behind. Jesus rises in a garden that is full of tombs of death, leaving death behind, so that the word ‘life’ will ring throughout the cosmos. First, visitation is to a woman… the resurrection sets some priorities!

From the woman he visits the couple. For Mary Magdalene he lifted her status (‘my Father’ = ‘your Father’ / ‘my God = your God’ – John 20:17). To them… well their eyes are opened. At evening, just as God used to visit in ‘the cool of the day’, so on the road to Emmaus they come to the close of the day. The original couple had their ‘eyes opened’, opened to see the nakedness of their state (literally and metaphorically) now this couple have their eyes opened also. No longer shame but true sight. True sight as natural sight was kept from them. Sight that dealt with corporate shame, corporate personal disappointment. Looking back on Eden there was fire preventing them returning, now there is fire in their hearts pressing them forward.

The resurrection, ‘it is already the third day’ being on the lips of Cleopas, gave sight. Sight of the future, for ‘there is new creation’; sight on who they are; and sight on who God in Jesus is, that being sight on the past. The resurrection allows sight to go all the way back to Eden. Three left Eden, just as three walked to Emmaus. When there was an exile from Eden, hidden from their sight, was a third companion; humanity never left Eden alone. God travelled with them, the sentence of ‘death’ might have rung in their ears but it was carried for them in the heart of God. Expulsion ends at the cross. The death consequence was truly fulfilled. The resurrection makes that plain.

The resurrection opens eyes to see where God has been all this time. Not locked up in a Temple, nor a ‘holy’ land, but trudging in the dust with the rest of us, even drawing boundaries for the people so that they might find him (!) and not be hidden from them (many implications in that!). The revelation of God is not found in a holy place, nor a holy land – Acts 7 and Stephen’s speech makes that point in a very profound way by selecting the revelations of God that took place outside the land of Israel… oops he should have re-written that speech cos that provokes certain people to pick up stones. (Oh and maybe we should add that the Pauline Gospel is birthed at the gates of Damascus and then nurtured in the desert.)

The resurrection opens sight on all of creation, and all of those who inhabit creation, including the plant life, the animals (even the wild animals, the promise of Old Testament restoration, wonderfully fulfilled in Mark’s account of the temptations of Jesus).

Tonight I am on ‘Witness’ chapter in book 1. Witnesses of the resurrection. If we have seen the resurrection we will see where God has trudged; we will see ‘new creation’ and we will see all others differently. Not according to the flesh, just as the two on the road did not see / recognise Jesus among them, so until we see differently we will not see Jesus among us.

A Subversive Movement

The third volume is out in the series Explorations in Theology. A Subversive Movement tries (wish I could put ‘succesfully’ at that point of the sentence) to take the theme of Volume 2 – ekklesia, the Signficant Other to Jesus to carry on the mission of Jesus, now beyond the Jewish world to the transformation of the Imperial one-world government of Rome – and to apply it practically.

I push away from ‘Seven Mountains’ and from ‘Kings and Priests’, and any concept of a Christian nation… but want to see how we can be present within all aspects of society, but carrying a different Spirit, and also learn how to live with compromise.

Chapter 4

The Message

Today we have the book we call the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments. There are genuine questions concerning the make up of the books, why some are included and other writings were not. Huge discourses have been written concerning that. And such discussions are far beyond the scope of this book, not to mention beyond the intellectual prowess of the current author! The above difficult question we simply dodge, and get right into a quick guide as to how we read what has been (more or less) accepted that has meant to guide the Christian faith.

The Bible assumes the existence of God. There are no great discussions but right at the outset it simply says that ‘God spoke’. S/he speaks therefore s/he is! Presented as a generous being who shares with humanity, giving choice and autonomy, and inviting humanity into partnership for the future well-being and enjoyment of creation. In story-form (and I probably should have bitten the bullet and just used the word ‘myth’) there were two main trees in the garden of Eden. One was the ‘tree of life’ indicating that humanity was made for eternity (not indicating that humanity is immortal, that being a later Greek, Platonic concept), and one that if eaten would result in ‘death’. This word ‘death’ is much more than a reference to something physical but something deeply personal and emotional, something corporate-wide, and something even cosmic-wise.

Two deeply contrasting words, but words we can relate to. We have all said something along the lines of, ‘I really came alive when…’ And the ‘when’ becomes, in some measure, ‘I was doing what I was born to do’, or as the Spanish graphically describe it, ‘when I was in my salsa’ (sauce). Death is just the opposite, and we have probably all had experiences when something inside of us has ‘died’.

Digging a little deeper into the forbidden tree, and remembering that the encouragement was to eat of all the trees, just avoid the fruit from this one tree. Humanity is instructed to avoid this one tree for the consequences of eating from it will be the release of a flow of death to one and all. That tree was named as the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, and the temptation was to eat of it as it was thought that it would give us the ability to draw the lines, deciding what is right and what is wrong. Rights and wrongs! There are some pretty much accepted rights and wrongs, and that is both helpful and understandable. But when we move beyond those basic agreements so much of the ‘right and wrong’ paradigm results in divides, and for sure the world of religion has perfected the use of that paradigm.

It seems to us that the original paradigm was not to decide what was right and wrong but to search out the path that brings life, life not simply defined as being in one’s salsa (important as that is) but how to respond so that we enable those we come into contact with to come increasingly into their salsa.

Although as we read further in the Bible we encounter Israel and how they received the law we should not think that this was as simple as a list of ‘rights and wrongs’. There is a key instruction that came through the person attributed in bringing them the ‘law’ that says,

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live (Deuteronomy 30: 19).

Life and death were two possibilities, with the encouragement to choose the path of life. The law simply was an (inadequate) guide to what that path might look like. A helpful path as it instructed how to live well within society, how to respond to one’s neighbours. Yet not a perfect guide. We see this with the instructions about the death penalty, where it worked on the basis of ‘an eye for an eye’. That remains an ongoing principle where the punishment is to fit the crime, but not go beyond it. However, we also read that God responded directly to the first murderer (Cain who murdered his brother Abel) by protecting him so that others would not take vengeance against him. God did not comply with his own law, or better put, the law (God gave) did not comply with God. There is no need, when we read the laws in the Old Testament, to simply take them as we read them, but again to see them as signposts pointing in a direction, that direction being the path of life.

Over many centuries it would seem the Jews lost sight of the ‘life and death’ paradigm and elevated the ‘right and wrong ‘ paradigm, with many discussions on how the law should be applied (such as how far one can walk on the Sabbath day). They moved away from seeing the law as being a servant to help us discover the path of life. If the above comment seems a little hard on ‘the Jews’, it is only because their response simply helps us see what is a universal tendency; we lose sight of the ‘life and death’ paradigm.

Let’s jump ahead to consider Jesus and in particular his death. We have already said that his death on a cross satisfied the Jews, as it indicated a just punishment for a blasphemer, and it satisfied the Romans, sending out a clear signal that all were to comply with their customs and laws. But it runs deeper than simply an act at a specific time in history. It occurred at a precise time known, by the biblical writer Paul, as ‘the fullness of times’.

Backtracking… Abraham and the nation of Israel were chosen to enable the other nations to be the best they could be, but they became self-obsessed, simply wanting to be as one of the other nations. The choice of a king (Saul being the first, with the next two, David and Solomon, perhaps being the best-known ones) was very critical in the history of the nation of Israel. The result was a hierarchy with the major flow of resources being to the centre and to the ‘top’, rather than a distribution of wealth and authority throughout the land. By the time of Jesus the religious leaders claimed they had ‘no king other than Caesar’. If the nation that was meant to be different, so that others could see, learn and imitate, was just the same as all the others, all possibility of Israel being an agent for change had gone. This seems to be what the term ‘fullness of times’ means. The time when there was no hope for the future.

Jesus’ birth was announced as good news for the world:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (Luke 2: 14).

Peace to the world. Not the Pax Romana where there was a wealthy centre and a powerful elite, who promised benefits… benefits if one complied! Peace on earth, or in the Hebrew language, shalom, something very positive, much more than the absence of war, and much more than peace imposed through military means.

We consider the best way to describe the death of Jesus is that it was in some strange way a roadblock to the path that we were all on, that dead-end street. Somehow God was in Jesus saying enough is enough. It is almost as if the tree (the cross) that Jesus died on was that very tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’. He said enough to the divides, the lines that push people away; the cross (or maybe the resurrection of Jesus) was the announcement of a new time, a new humanity, a new trajectory, a new guiding system. Or maybe an old guiding system brought back into view – the ‘life and death’ paradigm.

Of course all the above takes a measure of faith to accept, and I am simply presenting my faith concerning the death of Jesus, accepting that if it be true that the above will not totally explain what took place at the cross. We do however reject any idea (such as was common in many religions) that God had to be placated, had to be satisfied in order to forgive us of our many sins!

The announcement at the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus right through to the resurrection (and beyond), was to bring hope to the world. In the last chapter we looked a little at Paul and how the message gained traction in the Roman Imperial world, and it had to be that it was essentially a message of hope. It might have been dismissed as wishful thinking, or an impossible dream, but it certainly could never be reduced to mean ‘private faith expressed in religious activity’.

Beyond Jesus we have the initialisation of the ekklesia (translated as ‘church’, but the problem is we know what church is and therefore project back into the Bible that what we know must be what was being encouraged to grow throughout the then known world). This ekklesia consisting of people who willingly lined up under the person of Jesus to live for the prosperity and well-being of all others, so that the world might be as good as it could be, and where all could benefit from the belief that God is generous beyond belief, that each human being carries some reflection of God (‘image’).

Practical questions are provoked by the Person of Jesus, and the message of the Gospel. How we answer those might differ among those who claim to align to Jesus and take the Bible as a written source of authority. On some issues I am far from clear, but I think it is time to draw the ‘theoretical underpinnings’ to a close. To summarise what I have proposed that should inform anyone trying to articulate some answers to the practical questions, I suggest the following:

  • There has always been a generosity in God, a pouring out of life for others. There has never been any act, and with that I am particularly thinking of any sacrificial act, that has brought God round to loving us. Love is the nature of the God described in the Bible.
  • Jesus ‘emptied himself’, poured out his life and in doing that showed us the nature of God. He was fully human and yet also fully God. The third aspect I wrote about (‘truly’ human) we do not share with him. In that he shows us what we are to be. At no point did Jesus sin, but he developed and grew to maturity, pushing through every cultural barrier.
  • Those who align with Jesus are to reflect that generosity; growth toward true humanity is to act in a way that humanises all others.
  • We cannot and should not quickly wade in with proclamations of what is right and wrong but have to use the measurement of what brings life and what brings death.
  • We should not simply look to the Bible as a text book but as a story, that outlines a journey past, and points to a journey beyond its pages. We have to seek to follow the trajectory even if it seems to conflict with certain texts. Compliance to the story takes precedence over a blind obedience to the text.
  • We have to think of a whole new way of society relating together as being descriptive of the outworking of the good news coming into our world as a result of the birth of Jesus, understanding the Gospel as containing much more content than aspects of personal devotion and private faith.
  • We might not get it all right; and I suggest that perhaps it is not so important that we get it right. We are all involved in a journey; ‘life’ not ‘right’ has to guide; ‘love’ not ‘vested interest’.

Religion in all its forms might have some helpful input to the journey, but religion, regardless of how it is defined, will fall short of (of course my perspective) what we can see was initiated when Jesus was born. A baby entered the world. And God entered the world at a whole new level to journey with imperfect people. People who don’t know all the answers but can seek to humbly make a few suggestions and contributions.

Chapter 3

All roads lead to Rome

In the first chapter we tried to give some insight to the person of Jesus as a true radical who was the great learner and moved beyond his cultural norms and also beyond a wooden interpretation of his holy scrolls. This approach hopefully portrayed how remarkable he was. Almost equally remarkable is the traction that the message concerning Jesus gained during the decades that followed the death of Jesus, particularly when we consider the message itself and the historical context.

Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, did not comply with expectations and was too far out of the box to be accommodated. He probably avoided being in the capital (Jerusalem) too often as he knew that would simply mean trouble for him. But in his final year, at the Jewish festival known as Passover, he took a deliberate journey to Jerusalem. Through a member of his inner core (Judas Iscariot) he was betrayed so that the Jewish religious authorities could put him on trial, and subsequently hand him over to the Romans. Finally it suited them (Israel and Rome) to have him crucified. Suited the Jews for they were brought up to believe that anyone hanging on a tree was cursed by God, and their trial had basically sentenced him as a blasphemer, who had brought the name of their God into disrepute. Likewise it was convenient for the Romans to have him crucified. Jesus’ popularity meant that it could overspill into an open rebellion against them, and as crucifixion was reserved for a certain class of person, including insurgenists it sent out a clear message to all. Step out of line and this could be your fate.

The message that Christians (Jews who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah) had some serious obstacles to overcome if it was going to be received. The obstacle within the Jewish context was understood to be a ‘scandal’ by early communicators. If Jesus was crucified, not only did he not drive the Romans out but they had silenced him, so his claim to be Messiah seemed to fall at the first hurdle. He could not even be seen as some kind of martyr as that could not be accredited to a blasphemer.

The Roman context was equally hard. The message, if we were to summarise it, was that a certain Jewish person had been crucified in an obscure eastern province of the Empire and as a result it was now clear that the Emperor of Rome was an illegitimate ruler, that a whole new era had begun and that salvation was no longer offered by the Emperor but could only be found in Jesus. (We will expand this summary later, but the above suffices to show that Paul considered that the message was ‘foolishness’ in the mind of the Romans.)

When we put the message (I will often refer to it as ‘the Gospel’ from now on) in the two contexts we have briefly outlined above it is remarkable that it made any inroads at all!

To illustrate the Jewish context we can look at the life of one who was to become the most influential writer and thinker in the era following that Passover time when Jesus went to Jerusalem. He was trained, and excelled in his training as a ‘Pharisee’. The Pharisees were very studious concerning the laws that God had given to Israel. They knew that if Israel was disobedient they would suffer consequences, and they happily used the term ‘the wrath of God’ to describe what would happen. The era in which Paul lived was already acutely difficult. Israel was not a free nation, they did not possess as much territory as they believed God had promised them, and there was the ever present presence of the Roman occupying forces reminding them that they were anything but free. It seemed to these Pharisees that the nation was already receiving the wrath of God. And now! Now there were Jews who were aligning themselves to a blasphemer, claiming that he (Jesus) was the promised Messiah. If God was angry before, the result of this ‘sin’ could only multiply the wrath of God.

Paul took on himself a task that meant he would do the right thing (in his language, the language of religion, he would be righteous). He would make all these renegade Jews who were making these claims about Jesus come back into line. So in the capital he went from house to house to track down who they were. He subsequently got permission from the religious hierarchy to travel north to the city of Damascus to continue his work of cleaning up the mess that this upstart religion (or maybe we would be better to describe it as a sect) had made.

Paul was no push over. Something remarkable happened to him en route to Damascus. If it was not a genuine encounter with heavenly realities it must have been something very strong that someone placed in his drink! Although, of course the second option is given jokingly, it is hard to come up with an alternative other than Paul himself believed ever so strongly that he had been short circuited in his (righteous) pursuit by Jesus himself. That certainly is the version he stood by and spoke of it in numerous religious and political settings, risking his own life in the process. The shift is so enormous that he was blind for three days when he finally arrived in Damascus. Surely there is a parallel there with the three days that the Bible says Jesus was in the grave. He lost physical sight, but I think he also lost total sight of what was going on and over the three days had to come to terms with what had taken place. If Jesus had been raised from the dead (after all no one ever produced a corpse and there were hundreds who testified that they had physically seen him) then something momentous had happened. As a good Pharisee he believed that all faithful Jews would be raised from the dead at the ‘end’, the time when God finally established true order and restored Israel to their rightful place. The shock was so great that he no longer considered his zeal for God was a sign of righteousness but a sign that he was the blasphemer! There are two letters to a person called Timothy that either Paul wrote, or someone close to him wrote. In the first letter we read:

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man (1 Timothy 1: 13).

The irony cannot be missed. He previously saw himself as righteous and zealous, acting on behalf of God. After his Damascus road experience he understood that he had been so presumptuous in seeking to represent God that he had totally misrepresented him. There is a debate whether we can call Paul’s experience a conversion, as in a conversion from one religion to another, or a redefinition of what he perceived was his call. What does seem certain is that his former religious framework was turned totally upside down, and he had to redefine everything in the light of what he had experienced.

In the next chapter we will look a little more at the Gospel message, but the last few paragraphs should illustrate why it was considered to be a ‘stumbling block’, an ‘offence’ to the Jewish audience. Now what about the Roman world?

Like many people I was taught some Roman Empire history at school, and coming from the UK, the only association made with the word ‘Caesar’ was that of Julius Caesar and his conquests. Among Christians there are concerns that perhaps the Bible predicts that there will be a ‘one-world government’ ruled over by an ‘antiChrist’. Whether the Bible predicts that or not can be debated, but the reality is that the only time a great majority of the world was ruled over by someone who received the accolades of ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’ was during the era of the Roman Empire. This Empire was the setting where the philosopher, teacher, evangelist (and political visionary) that we encounter in the New Testament, Paul, took to bring his message.

For a moment step back with me to consider how challenging that was. Somewhere toward the core of that message was this. A Jew, named Jesus, was sent by God, was recently crucified in Rome but God has raised him from the dead, Caesar is not the Saviour and Lord but this person, Jesus, is. As a result everyone needs a change of mind-set, believe the story being recounted and therefore live by a different set of values, indeed in grasping the message understanding that there is already a new creation present.

A message that begged a response of, ‘You’re kidding me surely!’ A message spoken into a totalitarian context, and a message that claimed that, although literally thousands of Jews had been and would be crucified by the Romans, the death of this Jesus of Nazareth was totally different.

If we have grown up with the Bible we probably think of the contents as outlining a way of living, maybe summed up as ‘do unto others as you would wish them do to you’, or if our background is more aligned to the ‘born again’ variety of Chrstianity then maybe we have assumed it is a message about how sinful people are and how they need to repent and be forgiven. However, it would have been very interesting to know how someone like Paul was understood when he came to major civilisation centres throughout the Empire.

We get some insight of how the people of Thessalonica heard the proclamation from what is recorded in Acts 17. They somehow knew that these people (referring to Paul and his partner Silas) had been travelling throughout the Empire (the writer uses the Greek word oikoumene, which was a common term for the inhabited world of the Roman Empire) and in so doing they were causing trouble for,

They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus (Acts 17: 7).

At the centre was a counter-Caesar (Caesar being the title for the Emperor) message. This shows that the message was understood to be political in nature, or at the very least opponents did not dismiss it as simply an obscure religious message. I think that when we read the reaction it seems clear that there was a very strong anti-establishment political element and a strong spiritual element to the Gospel being proclaimed.

None of this should surprise us as the language used was, either deliberately or by default, the language that was common within the Empire. We have already mentioned ‘saviour’. Caesar was proclaimed as that for he had saved many people and cities from certain destruction. He was a deliverer and as such was declared to be ‘lord’ and ‘king of kings’. From our school days we probably recall the Latin phrase, the ‘Pax Romana’, with the great claim that Rome had brought peace. Even the term ‘son of god’ was a designated term given to each new emperor who came to the throne for they were the son of the previous emperor who had achieved divine status. Paul seemed committed to starting churches throughout the places where he visited, but the very word for church, ekklesia, was the name that was already in use to describe what we might term the governmental city council.

All of the above titles that were ascribed to Caesar were ones given to Jesus! The clash was inevitable, the debate raged as to which news was real and which was fake!

The differences also were enormous. Rome had brought peace, but the temple of peace in Rome said it all. It was built on Mars hill – the hill named after the god of war! Paul claimed that Jesus had brought peace, but through his own death not through taking the lives of others. Even some of what Paul wrote was very tongue-in-cheek. Nero, who was a very oppressive ruler, made the claim that he was so benevolent and had brought about such a harmonious society that he did not even need to use any force to keep things ticking along. Paul (cheekily) said to the followers of Jesus in Rome at the time when Nero was the emperor that they had better toe the line because rulers bring out the sword to insist on it. To imagine that Paul was endorsing Caesar’s rule through what he said is ludicrous, rather he is calling out the hypocrisy of Nero’s claim. A few years after writing that it is highly likely that it was under Nero’s reign that Paul himself was killed. A political clash indeed.

Without doubt the Gospel (and the Empire used that term (euangelion) to declare the ascension of a new emperor, yet another clash!) caused all kinds of problems for the status quo, and it was no surprise that Paul’s message was not too popular with many people, especially those whose position was tied up with the success of the Empire. But there was a crazy scenario that gives us another window of sight into some of the wider dynamics. A major city in the Mediterranean world was the city of Ephesus. It was a major centre for trade and religion and also became a centre for Paul to disseminate his understanding, so much so that it spread throughout a whole Roman province (the province of Asia). He rented a hall and gave lectures there over a two year period. If we already have a Christian background we probably now have to think outside the box. He did not rent it to encourage the singing of a few hymns and listen to a sermon being preached, but almost certainly there was a communication of his vision for the future of the world that he knew.

We read about a riot that ensued directly as a result of Paul’s message (Acts 19:23-41). The objections to what he had caused in the city were tied to religion, with the accusation that Paul was discrediting one of their main goddesses; likewise the challenge to the economics of the city were such that one of the main tradespeople in the city (the jewelry trade) were very vocal among the rioters, fearing that their trade would take a downturn. (A little sidenote: there is often a corrupt connection between money and religion, and sometimes money becomes the religion; whenever there is an uproar about such issues it seems to be an indication that cultural shifts are on their way.)

Paul is blamed for the problems in the city; another indication that his message was a whole lot more than about private faith and ethics! He, being something of a super-hero, suggested that he simply went into the arena, explained everything and sorted it out. We read that those who were with him, those who were aligned to his message and had made a commitment to Jesus, resisted him and ‘would not let him’ appear before the crowd (Acts 19:29). Although they probably had to fight to resist him their resistance is not a surprise, as they did not want him to lose his life. They valued him, for after all he had introduced them to faith and was, in their eyes, an indispensable mentor and teacher.

Let us now quote what is recorded, for when we push back behind the reference there is quite a backstory that pops out.

Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater (Acts 19:30, 31).

That four letter word ‘even’ tells a story! First, it indicates that they are almost certainly not ‘disciples’, they were not (in our language) ‘Christians’. Second, they are ‘officials of the province’, or what were known as ‘Asiarchs’. The Asiarchs were the Roman representatives who governed the province; they were part of the elite who prospered both economically and position-wise through the system, and were there to maintain the status quo. They are the last people in the region that one would have expected to have had any sympathies with Paul and his message, and if they had had sympathies with him the most likely response would have been that of silence. It was clearly perceived that Paul was more than rocking the boat, he was totally disrupting the social structures, and the big losers, if his message did gain a level of popularity, would have been the very ones we read of here who were ‘friends’. Perhaps a current example would be of a neo-liberal entrepreneur who was part of the proverbial ‘1%’ being friends with a ‘tax the wealthy’ socialist economist. Not likely bed-fellows!

In this wealthy and powerful city something must have taken place behind the scenes to get the attention of the elite. This also suggests that the daily discussions in the ‘hall of Tyrannus’ must have covered much more ground than simply topics concerning spiritual matters. The Gospel was an announcement of ‘good news’ for the world and had a whole vision for the transformation of society. That vision must have been so profound that the elite saw something in Paul’s ‘eyes’ and heart that indicated that the world would be so much poorer off if he was to die. The above window begs a huge question concerning the Christian community as we know it today. That question being how faithful to this ‘good news’ has it been?

Chapter 2

The Bible

In the last chapter I suggested that Jesus was so far ahead of his culture and setting, and that his holy book (set of scrolls) both helped to shape his life and thoughts and at the same time restricted his progress. And of course this is something we have to consider also when anyone who is a Christians reads their holy book, the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments. It is a more-than-amazing guide but can also restrict our progress if we mis-read it or mis-judge what it is and its purpose.

If we simply took everything we read within the Bible and tried to make it all make sense we would certainly end up with a headache! There are also some serious problematic areas that we encounter when we read the text. What are we to make of situations where God wiped people from the face of the earth, such as with the flood? Or texts that report that God commanded all men, women and children be killed? Those are certainly difficult texts to read (an understatement!).

I have always found that trying to understand how Christians have wrestled with how the Bible seems to endorse slavery as being very informative. (And the slavery the Bible reflects is perhaps more similar to that of what might be termed historic slavery. Modern slavery continues at many levels, from human trafficking to so much of modern economic practices and trade, for example, the clothing industry.) In the pages of the Bible we find that slavery is all-but encouraged! It suggests that God ‘blessed’ people by increasing the number of slaves they owned; we do not read of Jesus at any stage challenging the institution of slavery; and a follower of Jesus such as Paul, who wrote so much of what we term the New Testament, commanded slaves to be obedient! Most Christians today read those verses and sub-consciously dismiss them as irrelevant for us, and also accept that slavery is an abuse and should be opposed at all levels.

We all-but delete the verses. Delete verses from our holy book! The verses are not an issue to us as they do not apply to our everyday life. But if we go back a century or more they were an issue and Christian slave owners were very confident that they were right as they had the Bible on their side! Those who were Christains and believed in abolition did not have the Bible as a book on their side, but they believed they had the Bible as a story on their side. What do we mean by this?

They knew the Bible was written into a culture and was a historic book, but within it there was a trajectory, a direction, a movement toward something, and sometimes the goal of the trajectory was beyond the pages that are read. I think this concept of a trajectory is ever so important.

Taking the example of slavery we mentioned, the abolitionists understood they could make a strong defence of their position by appealing to the creation stories where people were made in the image of God; that any subjection of a person to another person came after things went off-track; that Jesus called us to love our neighbour as ourselves; that Paul encouraged a slave who could obtain freedom to do just that; that he returned a slave to his owner (we read of this in the book of Philemon in the New Testament) saying he was returning the slave as a family member. And finally those who believed in abolition appealed to the direction that they understood was set in motion by the Scriptures. The good news (technically called ‘the Gospel’) that results from the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant that there was no longer ‘slave nor free’ (a direct quote from Galatians 3: 28) and as far as possible that reality should be reflected in the life of Christians and also society. Their appeal then was to the trajectory that Scripture seemed to indicate. They did not read the Bible as simply a set of verses that could be glued together, and were willing to go beyond what they read in the actual pages.

Let’s try to suggest a way of looking at the overall story, that will help us see that there is a movement forward, and ultimately when there is a conflict within the pages of the Bible themselves between a restrictive path or a freedom path, with the latter will have to be the direction we lean toward. That always seems to be the direction Jesus moved in, and at one level he contradicted his holy book at times, for he could say ‘You have heard it said’, and then quote from a holy scroll, but then he would go on to say ‘But I say to you’. We can suggest he contradicted the text, but we can also say he followed the trajectory.

If we were to suggest that the overall story could be compared to a play set in a series of acts, with some of the individual stories and verses then relating to a specific act we could do it like this:

Act 1. The stories of creation, where the key characters are presented. There is no need to take these stories as literal in the sense of this is what really took place. It is not something that the writers seem to suggest, for they were surely well aware that they wrote of specific days passing before there was a sun and a moon! They also join together two stories that don’t harmonise at every point. We should give the writers (editors?) respect by acknowledging they were well aware of this and deliberately gave us two versions of the beginning of things, of this ‘creation project’; one version for one profound story was not sufficient to give us the insights that would be helpful to us.

What do we learn from these stories? We read of the God who ‘created’, and can understand certain aspects of what makes that God ‘tick’. High on that list has to be the generosity of God. God gives a wonderful setting to humanity and encourages them to eat of ‘all the trees of the garden’. We are not presented with a list of restrictive prohibitions, solely of one restriction. The emphasis is on generosity, but within it the story contains one element where  a choice has to be made. Although not quite accurate the choice exposes what ‘sin’ is. We read that the woman described the forbidden fruit as appealing to something inside her, and that she ‘saw’, ‘desired’, ‘took’ and ‘ate’. Words that sum up consumerism, not just in terms of how today’s culture defines it, but when applied beyond material things, a consuming culture that will even take life from someone else and consume it though treating others as objects existing for our benefit, rather than see ourselves as being present for others. It is not surprising that this is the heart of ‘sin’, it is to live in a way different to the generosity of God. Many other ancient creation stories have humanity obliged to produce food for the ‘gods’; the Genesis stories have God providing food for humanity. If humanity is made in the image of God, to sin is to fail to image God. We should not think of ‘sin’ as a list of ‘do nots’, but as a way of life that is less than being in the image of God. In the words of Paul in Romans,

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

To sin (a universal experience) is to ‘fall short of the glory of God’. In John’s Gospel we read that when the life and person of Jesus was examined that his glory was visible.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1: 14).

Jesus was fully and truly human, he reflected God and he showed us what constitutes true human life. He did not ‘fall short of the glory of God’, but showed God to us, and that glory was full of grace and truth. There was truth that showed through in his life, sometimes it came forth and his words made people (and continue to make us) uncomfortable, but it is almost as if the truth that came was inside the container of grace (love, favour expressed that is not deserved).

Act 2 consists of the next chapters of Genesis through to chapter 11. Classically this is called ‘the fall’ but given that there are many aspects outlined that go wrong we might be better to call it a series of falls. Again there is no need to accept this as an historical account, for what is more important is to grasp what is being put across. It’s really a kind of analysis of what needs to be fixed. We read a summary list of what is out of sync. Right up front we are presented with a God / human problem. The problem is primarily one of perception, how God is viewed. God is viewed as restrictive and self-protective, hence it is deemed better to create one’s own path. The result of that is guilt, but a primary manifestation is that of shame. A low (and wrong) self-image.

Then the list just piles up. Damage to and tension within interpersonal relationships follow, with distortions to male / female relationships with a society where patriarchy will tend to dominate. The tensions continue: within the family (Cain murders Abel) or among the nations, and there is even a strange story that indicates a lack of harmony between the spiritual world and the material world.

So in these two acts we have a great start to what might be termed God’s ‘creation project’ but an acknowledgement that it is not moving in a right direction, this not being due to the nature of God but to the choices of humanity. We see something more about the character of God as we move into Act 3 in as much as God does not give up but works toward a solution to our problem.

Act 3 takes up a lot of the Bible and we can give it a one word heading ‘Israel’. It really fills the rest of the Old Testament and also occupies some of the early stories of the New Testament; Israel also remains as part of the historical background to the New Testament era, and is a significant part of the theological background.

This act begins with Abraham being ‘called’ while he is at the centre of the civilised world of his day, ‘Ur of the Chaldees’. From there he embarks on a journey as a nomad and travels the (literal) opposite direction to the people movements of his day. He is ‘chosen’ not to damn all others but so that all families of the earth might be blessed. A later text says of Israel that they were chosen as a unique people and designated as ‘a holy priesthood’ (Exodus 19: 5,6). Most theologians understand that the Adam and Eve story presents them as priests, to represent God to creation and to represent creation to God, to live as intermediaries; this then is the calling of Israel – to represent God to the other nations and to represent the nations to God. Maybe we could put it like this; they were to see their task as helping the world be the best it possibly could be.

If we put it in this context we can understand that being chosen is not to do with defining the classic lines of who is in and who is out; who is saved and who are damned. Rather the question that is put to us is ‘chosen to do what’, and as the calling of Abraham and his descendents (Israel as a faith nation) comes immediately after the list of ‘the mess that needs to be cleaned up’ it is natural to read the choice of Abraham as being God’s response to the mess. It is, in simple terms, ‘Abraham, come help me clear up the mess’.

The stories that unfold make a fascinating read, with more turns and twists than the average soap opera! Some key points do unfold. One of the most significant turning points is when Israel asks that they too could have a king, so that they might be just like one of the nations. Given they were always meant to be different, to be living for the other nations, this call for a king has tragic consequences. In big theological terms it means that the ‘redeeming’ nation will eventually also need to be ‘redeemed’; the doctor chosen to administer the cure ends up incapacitated through catching the disease they were seeking to cure.

The stories relating to John the Baptist strongly have Israel as the backdrop. He baptises at the river Jordan, the same place where Israel had entered the ‘promised’ land. He is calling for a restoration of Israel, and is very dismissive toward some of the religious leaders of his day. When they came out to see what he was up to, he was certainly not flowing in the ‘how to make friends and influence them’ stream. He was less than polite:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham (Matthew 3: 7-9).

The ‘coming wrath’ is typical of the language of the prophets of the Old Testament. They had a world view that when the special nation (Israel) was no longer living up to her true identity that a foreign nation would come and punish them. They called this the ‘wrath of God’. He also very typically rebukes them for thinking that they were safe because of who their ‘father’ was. For those prophets ethnicity counted for little, what counted was being faithful to God.

John the Baptist appears at a watershed moment, as a door opener to a greater era. That greater era (often called the kingdom of God) in relation to John was summed up by Jesus:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11).

John then starts to close the door on a former era and open the door to a new era. That new era we describe as the next act.

Act 4 is concerning the life of Jesus. He comes as the promised Messiah. Although there seems to be a few different expectations among Jews as to what kind of Messiah will come, there certainly was a strong view for many that he would come to restore the good old days, hence he is described as the ‘son of king David’. When David (and in the subsequent reign of his son, Solomon) was king Israel was one of the most dominant of the nations in the ancient world. Strong in battle, expanding her territory, prosperity was in abundance. The good old days! (However, internally there were seeds of division, a wealthy class and a poor class began to develop… and more importantly, Israel found an identity in herself as an important nation, losing sight of the gift she was to be to the other nations.)

The expectation was that the Messiah would deal with the major presenting problem. He would come to rid the land of the oppressive Roman regime and restore Israel as a sovereign nation. Salvation was not primarily thought of as a ‘spiritual’ or personal experience but would be experienced politically and corporately. This is why we should not spiritualise some of what read in the Gospels. A verse that has been taken to mean ‘Jesus saves my soul’ such as in Matthew 1: 21 applies not in that way but to the historic people of Israel in their historic setting. We read,

[Jesus] will save his people from their sins.

The Old Testament was very clear. Follow God and you will be blessed as a nation; go your own way (‘sin’, fail to live up to being Israel) and you will be punished, your relationship with the land will be broken. That was the situation that John (and Jesus also) addressed. We need to read a good proportion of the texts in the context they were written to, and the promise is that Jesus will ‘save’ (politically) his people (Israel) from the situation that has resulted from their sins.

So much more could be said but let’s move on to Act 5. This is an interesting one as it takes up the story after the resurrection of Jesus with the early part of ‘the act’ applying the ‘Jesus event’ to the immediate Jewish situation; the latter part indicating that there were implications into the dominating and oppressive world of the Roman Empire. And it clearly leaves this act as unfinished, leaving us with an invitation. The invitation being, ‘come on board and join this movement to see the world transformed’, or if not transformed, in a better state once you depart this life to how you found it when you were born. Quite an invite!

Narrative, story. The nature of story means we cannot simply quote a set of texts, as some of what we read might not be relevant for us. (What we read might educate us, but some texts cannot be used to forcibly apply us directly.) Given that the story is unfinished we also have to try and work out where the trajectory is headed. Challenging, but also liberating! It also means that someone might think the trajectory moves toward a different point than I do. (Later I will look at what I consider is a guiding principle as to what the direction of the trajectory is.)

A long chapter… If you have managed to stick with it I hope you have picked up how the Bible both guides and instructs us, but if we read it a certain way it can actually imprison us.