Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Significance of the Incarnation

A Christmas Eve Reflection.

The Technological Drive for Perfection
Ever since I was a little boy, I have always been fascinated by the steady march forward of technology. I used to love going to the school library and picking up a copy of Popular Mechanics to see what new gadget, or computer, or AI system was being developed. I would play with electronics kits and build my own radios. Even when I was in the Army, flying drones, it was like being a kid again. I mean, not only did I get to play with robots, but they were flying robots! How cool is that?! And in my short lifetime, technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, unimaginable to previous generations.

From facial recognition technology to global climate modeling, and from GPS to automated manufacturing; machines are able to do incredibly complicated work with an efficiency and within tolerances unmatched by any human being. In fact I learned this week that our most accurate atomic clock, the strontium optical lattice clock, is so accurate that it is able to measure subtle dilations of time itself as the clock is placed closer or farther away from the mass at the center of the Earth. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, when you put your hand over your head, because it’s further away from the center of the Earth, it actually travels through time a tiny bit faster than your feet! It’s such an impossibly tiny change, that we don’t perceive it at all. But this clock does! It can literally measure how time itself stretches and crunches when acted upon by gravity.

That’s nuts, right? In another age, if I had said such things, people would assume I was crazy. Heck, you might be wondering about my sanity right now! But that’s how far science and technology have advanced. We are able to measure and create with such precision, and yet almost all scientists agree that our knowledge of the Cosmos and our ability to shape our surroundings through technology has only barely scratched the surface.

The Purpose For Which We Were Created
And yet, with all these technological marvels and scientific advancements, we are still a species consumed by war, slaves to our own appetites, ever on the brink of being destroyed by our own hatred and lust. There is a sharp contrast between the perfection humanity strives for through creativity and ingenuity, and the imperfection we see in our nature. We develop technology in the hope that it will make our lives better, yet we find that it often brings as many problems as it solves. As perfect as we seem to be able to make machines, they cannot fix what’s really broken in the world. They can’t fix us. In fact, nothing we do can. And we’ve tried just about everything. We’ve tried putting our trust in governments, in political parties, in philosophies, in technology, in relationships, in wealth, and in pleasure. And they have all failed to get to the root of the problem because the root of the problem is at the very core of our being.

When we read the opening passages in Genesis, we find that this wasn’t always so. As God said in Gen. 1:27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”1 And in v. 31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

God created us with perfection in mind, His own perfection, the perfection of the Son. This is most beautifully stated in the great statement on the Incarnation from our reading in John 1 tonight,
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, and everything that is loving in the world was created through the Son. Christ Himself is the creative Word of God, and whenever we try to recreate perfection, whether it is through art, or poetry, or music, or philosophy, or religious expression; we do it because deep in our hearts we are being called upon by the Holy Spirit to fulfill that great purpose for which we were created: which is to reflect Christ’s perfect love in our hearts and in every area of our lives.

Christ’s Anticipating and Perfecting Grace
But when sin entered the world, it corrupted us. It corrupted our bodies – bringing death into our lives; it corrupted our hearts – the deepest seat of our longing and desire; and it even corrupted our reason – our very ability to perceive the character and nature of God through His Creation. We were no longer able to perceive Him or the virtues He created for us to possess through reason alone, and every attempt on our part to grasp who He truly is, to grasp perfection itself, falls short.

This is why the Word became flesh and lived among us, so that by His illuminating light which pierces every darkness, we might see His glory, believe in Him and be filled with His grace which brings us the truth we have failed to grasp on our own. This is why the Incarnation, the moment when the Word became flesh, is so important to the Christian faith. It is through the Incarnation of Christ that our wills and our reason are restored, so that we may perceive the goodness of God, and being moved by the Holy Spirit, answer His call to repent and be saved.

As Titus 2:11-13 tells us, “11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

When we repent, receiving His grace by faith and turning away from our selfish desires and all the things which distort the Image of God in us, He begins that great work of healing us and restoring that reflection in us. He restores the ability and the call to perfectly reflect His love.

As the Apostle John later wrote in his first letter, 1 John 4:16-19, “16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

And the best, most perfect example of God’s love was most fully revealed to us over 2,000 years ago; when a virgin mother laid her infant son in a feeding trough on a cold winter’s night in a tiny village, nestled in the center of a backwater province of the Roman Empire. It’s this moment that we celebrate tonight through our songs and worship; and it is His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection to free us from sin and death that we proclaim as we partake in the Lord’s Supper together.

(1) All quoted scripture is from the NRSV, unless otherwise noted.

First Delivered on Dec. 24, 2019 - Cortez Church of the Nazarene, Cortez, CO.
#Incarnation #ChristmasEve #Grace #Love

Sunday, November 24, 2019

What Does "Morality" Even Mean?

Below is the manuscript of a sermon first delivered at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene on Nov. 24, 2019.

Text: Col. 1:9-23 (ESV):
9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
A Clash of Worldviews
In our passage this morning, Paul is speaking to the faithful in the church at the Greek colony of Colossae, now in modern day Turkey. Many of these believers came from a pagan background. They didn’t grow up with the benefit of stories about God’s providence or saving work through Israel. They weren’t raised on the Ten Commandments or the guiding words of the Prophets. Many weren’t instructed in the wisdom of the Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, and most were not taught to pray in the model of the Psalms.

Their outlook on life, what they considered important, and what was expected of them was shaped by an entirely different worldview. Though the Greeks believed in gods and goddesses, often these deities couldn’t be trusted. They rarely acted in a purely benevolent way for the good of human beings. In fact, when the gods interacted with humans, it was often the result of a spilling over of some divine family squabble. I’m sure you all have heard of some of the Greek gods and goddesses, but I doubt many here realize just how truly awful they were! For example, Zeus’ wife Hera was renowned for her profound jealousy with regards to her constantly cheating husband, the so-called “king of the gods.”

In one story, Zeus impregnates a goddess named Leto and Hera curses the land of any people who give her shelter in her wanderings as she seeks a place to give birth. In another, he rapes a nymph named Callisto and in her fury, Hera doesn’t punish or confront Zeus; instead she turns Callisto into a bear so that she is hunted and killed by the goddess Artemis.(1) There are lots of these stories and I won’t go into them all here, but the point is, these are the gods the Greeks worshiped! They made sacrifices to them and gave them offerings and praise, as if they were worthy of worship!

The truth is, these terrible gods were just reflections of the Greeks themselves. In a way, they were embodiments of self-worship and the idols the Greeks worshiped were just images created to represent and validate their own selfish desires. For the Greeks, “goodness” was whatever they wanted it to be, and they created myths and legends to give legitimacy to their own sins.

A Culture Correction
It is this twisted sense of morality and way of life which Paul is seeking to correct in his letter to the Colossians. The believers at Colossae, being new to the good news of the Gospel, had heard of Christ’s forgiveness and grace, but they were adding elements of their old pagan ideas into their new faith. They had been forgiven of their sins when they first believed, but their minds still saw the world the way their unbelieving neighbors around them did.

So, when Paul opens his letter to the Colossians, he doesn’t just open with, “You’re doing it wrong!” Even though he’d probably be justified by saying that, he knows that a confrontational tone will just shut them off to the truth he is trying to teach them. After all, if I walked up to one of you and just opened up with, “Hey, I need to tell you what an awful person you’re being...” You probably wouldn’t want to see me again, would you?

Instead, Paul understands that it is more important to communicate compassion first. He wants the Colossians to know that he loves them and what he desires is for them is all the goodness and graciousness that God has to offer. This is why he begins in v. 9 by saying,

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”(2)

From the day Paul first heard that the believers at Colossae had come to Christ, he began praying for them, and he hasn’t stopped! Their well-being and their growth is constantly on his mind, and so he “does not cease to pray” for them. And what does he pray for? He prays that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” He qualifies this walk, what the early Christians called “the Way” as being marked by the knowledge of God, by strength, by power, by endurance, and patience, and joy, and thanksgiving and he roots these qualities in God the Father, who through the Holy Spirit, brings them out in the lives of the believers so that we may share in the inheritance promised to us through Christ as adopted sons and daughters of God.

There’s a lot to take in, in this handful of verses, but the central point is that the believers are being called to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” But who decides what that looks like? I think we can agree that most people want to live a “good” life, and we generally think of ourselves as “good people,” but who decides what “goodness” is?

Naturally, if you’re sitting in one of these pews this morning, your default answer will probably be, “God!” And you would be right, that certainly is a good Sunday School answer. It’s a safe answer. But in our culture, we have many different ideas about who God is, what He’s like, and what His idea of “goodness” really is.

Even among Christians, you’ll find a myriad of different answers. For some, smoking and drinking are fine within the freedom which Christ brings. For others, these acts are stumbling blocks which separate us from God and each other and they’ll cite 1 Cor. 8:9 in support of their position.

Or the issue might revolve around piercings and tattoos. I’ll always remember when I was in High School and I asked my pastor what he thought about pierced ears, because I was thinking of piercing mine. He was horrified and asked why I would even think of doing such a thing! For him, the idea was unfathomable. His answer was pretty harsh and being the rebellious teenager that I was, I got mine pierced anyway. They were even gauged up! Maybe if he had answered in a more compassionate way, I would have considered a different course. The holes where the piercings were have since long closed up, but I will always remember that conversation.

Some will say that consuming lustful images are no big deal, or even that they provide a healthy outlet for pent up urges, and they’ll cite Jesus’ words in Mat. 7:15 in support, saying, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” While others will quote Jesus’ words in the previous chapter, saying “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”(3)(4)

Or, some will cite Deu. 10:19, “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” as a call to open our homes and our lives to immigrants seeking a better life; while others will note the necessity of laws and governments for maintaining secure and just societies, and will cite Rom. 13:4 in support.

The Danger of Blind Spots
It isn’t my intention to weigh in on these issues, but to note that these questions about what is moral or immoral, good or bad, righteous or evil extend into every sphere of life: the personal, the familial, the social, the economic, the political, the philosophical. And there are so many answers offered up by so many different authorities, that many simply give up on the idea of objective “goodness” altogether. Many have opted to understand the world and humanity within it materialistically, as being shaped by the chance pressures of natural selection alone. I have several atheist friends who would tell me that “goodness” is just that which is advantageous to the survival to the species. We define goodness for ourselves. There is no objective morality. And what we define as “moral behavior” is simply defined by the majority of any culture in consensus.

This isn’t a new idea. In many ways, it is a call-back to the morality of the ancient Greek culture which forms the backdrop of our passage this morning. Just as the Greek gods were simply reflections of Greek culture, and the behavior of these gods was no better than the men who worshiped them; so also, if we define our own morality, what we call “good” will just be an excuse to continue to do what we are already doing. And when our own culture, our own behavior is the pinnacle of goodness, it causes us to look at our forebears as if they were savages, while we hold the “enlightened truth;” and it carries with it the unfortunate result that future ages will consider us barbarians in turn.

The problem is that each culture carries with it certain blind spots, which make it impossible to see the whole picture accurately and which make it impossible to develop a truly objective morality. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to making certain mistakes.”(5)

To understand just how easily blind spots can be missed, I want you all to try an experiment I learned in flight training. In your bulletins there is an extra sheet of scratch paper for notes. I want you to take that paper and make a + and then about 2 1/2 inches to the right of the +, make a large dot. Now, cover your left eye and look at the + with your right. Then move the paper to about 6-10 inches from your face. If you need to, move it slowly further away or closer to your eye. At some point you’ll notice the dot disappear! That represents the spot in the back of your eye where your optic nerve connects to the eyeball and creates a literal blind spot in your vision. But so that you aren’t constantly distracted by it, your brain fills in the missing information and you never notice it! Every single person born with working eyes has this blind spot, but most of you have probably never noticed it before. Some of you may have lived for decades without realizing that there is a big ole hole in your vision, because you are accustomed to seeing the world around it. This also means none of you has ever really seen the world for what it is; instead your mind has filled in your field of vision with what it thinks should be there.

Even worse, basing morality on the consensus of the masses can and has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. The most ardent followers of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin considered what they were doing to be moral, and they believed that anyone who opposed them was inherently evil and inferior. If our understanding of goodness and morality is based upon natural selection or cultural proclivities alone, then who has the authority to say they were wrong? In order for morality to actually guide us, it must call us to something higher than ourselves, to a way of life that is better than what we would normally choose. This means its source can’t come from within in us, because as Rom. 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Anchoring Our Understanding of Morality
Among those Greeks who recognized just how terrible the pagan gods were, philosophy became the answer. They may not have fully known why, but their hearts knew that they were meant for something more than to be incidental playthings of the gods. Still, because they were products of a corrupted world, they missed the mark in their attempt to find the answers in nature. They understood that true morality could not originate in the consensus of the fallible majority alone, but they failed to realize that their ability to perceive nature through reason was itself clouded by sinful desire.

Among the believers in Colossae, this meant many had begun to embrace a system of beliefs called “Gnosticism,” that held that all matter was evil and only the spirit was good. For them, the idea that Christ incarnated in the flesh meant that He either must have been less worthy of worship than the angels or that He was really a spirit which had the illusion of flesh and blood. And so it appears from Paul’s letter that some of them had begun to renounce the world, embrace austere fasting and abstinence in order to deny the body, and even worship angels!(6)

Paul warns the church about these practices in ch. 2:8-10, when he says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”

Paul understood the shortcomings of paganism, materialism, and gnosticism and he understood that our basis for understanding “goodness” for developing morality must be anchored firmly in something outside of ourselves, outside of our perception of nature, even outside of our assumptions of what is pleasing to God.

The only way we can possibly “be filled with he knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that we may lead lives worthy of the Lord,” as vv. 9-10 say, is if God revealed Himself to us directly, cutting through the cultural clutter and our clouded perceptions, by literally literally taking on flesh and walking among us.

This is what Paul means, when he says in vv. 13-20,
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Though God the Son had taken on flesh and walked among us, He was no less worthy of worship or our imitation than when the universe itself was created through Him. Paul calls Him “the firstborn of all creation,” and this could easily be misinterpreted as meaning He was created first, before the rest of creation. But John 1 and the Nicene Creed make it clear that God the Son was never created, being eternally begotten of the Father. Instead here, Paul is using the term “firstborn” to help his audience understand Christ’s status in relation to the Father. In the ancient world, the firstborn son had certain legal rights of inheritance that no one else had, and God the Son has a special claim to Creation and us by virtue of His relationship to the Father.

It is literally by Christ’s grace alone that the fundamental forces which hold the universe together are even able to exist. Grace is the glue which binds everything together. Even more importantly, grace illuminates the Cosmos with meaning. And just as Christ is the source of the Cosmos itself, He is also the source of the new beginning, the new creation. Just as He is the firstborn of Creation, He is the firstborn from the dead because He was the first to rise glorified from the dead. And because He rose, we have the assurance that we will rise too. As the firstborn from the dead, the firstborn of the New Creation itself, He is the head of the family of God, the body of Christ, the Church and there is no other authority in heaven or on earth which can compete with Him. We have no other source for understanding that elusive term, “goodness.” Christ’s example as communicated faithfully in the gospels is the only objective good, the only means by which any action or system of thought may be judged moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or bad.

The Fullness of the Good News
That’s certainly great news! But it’s in the next verses that the fullness of the Gospel is explained to the new believers at Colossae as Paul says in vv. 21-23,
“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Christ didn’t just die on a cross to “cover our sins,” as some might claim. He didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf so that we can continue to wallow in our moral failures. He died so that we might be transformed, made “holy and blameless and above reproach” according to the only morality that matters – His own example. This transformation isn’t accomplished by our own efforts, but by His grace alone. As Paul says elsewhere in 1 Thess. 5:23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

But this is only if we “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that [we] have heard.” He doesn’t force us, and contrary to what some may teach, we can indeed walk away from the free gift of salvation and sanctification if we so choose. But the good news is that Christ is faithful, His example is sure, and in a world of constantly spinning moral compasses, His goodness will never, ever change.

(1) Cartwright, Mark. “Hera” in Ancient History Encyclopedia. Web. Published Sep. 10, 2012.
(2) If not otherwise noted, all passages are ESV.
(3) Mat. 6:22-24.
(4) I take the latter position that they are indeed harmful, but that is a sermon for another time.
(5) Lewis, C.S. “Introduction” in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 4.
(6) “Annotations,” in The Wesley Study Bible. Ed. by Joel B. Green. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1447.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Resiliency Rooted in Hope

Below is the manuscript of a sermon first delivered at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene on Jun. 16, 2019

Text: Rom. 5:1-5 (ESV):

5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
A Ride Through the Mountains
This weekend, as my family and I headed back through the mountains from District Assembly in Denver, we happened to pass a bike race with athletes peddling through the steep twists and turns leading to Wolf Creek Pass and I couldn’t help but marvel at the determination and fortitude which these bikers possessed. As they pushed up the grueling, miles-long climb to over 10,000 ft. we would watch as they slowly shoved one pedal down, and then the other. They weren’t looking around at the cars as they passed, or even at the beautiful scenery which greeted them with every turn. Their eyes were forward, their shoulders down, and they just pushed on.

This reminded me of a time when I was a little boy, probably no more than Samson’s age, out on a ride with my Grandpa. My Grandpa was an athlete all his life, and competed in 100 mile bike rides up to the year he died at the age of 76, even completing the grueling 400+ mile RAGBRAI race across Iowa. Bicycling was a lifelong passion for him, and I asked him one time how he could compete over such amazing distances. I mean, the task of traveling hundreds of miles on your own power is mind-boggling! Surely you have to plan out your rest stops, your calorie-intake, make sure you have enough water and emergency supplies, while also communicating with your support driver so that you have the help that you need, if you need it. The logistics, planning, training, and expense required made me wonder how anyone could commit to such a daunting task.

But as I asked the question, I remember clearly him stopping and as I pulled up level with him on my own bike, he looked at me and said with a smile, “It’s simple really, you just get on your bike and start peddling.”

Live Isn't Always a Bike Ride
That’s an encouraging story, isn’t it? Sometimes we are tempted to look at life like a bike race or a footrace and assume it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Paul himself repeatedly uses athletic metaphors and imagery, suggesting life is a race that is worth it if we just don’t quit.(1) And while that is certainly true, what do we do when we do feel like quitting? When we feel like the tasks that are in front of us are insurmountable. What do we do when life seems less like a nice, bicycle race through the mountains, with a concrete goal in mind; and instead seems more like a juggling-contest, where more and more balls are piled onto our arms to try and juggle at once, with no clear-cut end game or goal?

That’s a reality I know many of us face today. Our schedules get busier and busier and our lives get lonelier and lonelier. For the first time in our history, more people live in cities than in the country,(2) yet more and more people also live alone than ever before.(3) Economic pressures and the desire for opportunity cause many to uproot from the places where their extended families live, and they often find themselves paradoxically isolated in a crowd of other lonely individuals. And for many, the idea that they must meet all the expectations thrown at them and face the pressure to succeed without any help from others becomes too much for them to bear.

The most recent statistics tell us that depression is the leading health crisis of our time with over 17 million US adults reporting at least one major depressive episode a year.(4) Depression increases the risks of a host of other health problems, and for some, it leads to the ultimate despair: suicide. Suicide isn’t a topic we like to think of often, and the extent of the current suicide epidemic is rarely reported in the media. In the most recent statistics from 2017, over 47,000 men, women, and children lost their lives to suicide; and that’s the highest rate in well over 30 years!(5) I want you to think about that for a second. That’s a medium-sized city lost to suicide every year. That’s 129 people per day. And of those, 22 per day are veterans. Veterans make up just under 8% of the population, but over 17% of suicides.(6)

If a foreign power wiped out a city on U.S. soil, you can bet we’d certainly hear about it in the news! If a terrorist attack wiped out tens of thousands of people, we would remember it for generations! But that is exactly what is happening. An enemy has infiltrated our cities, our communities, even our families; and yet most of us continue with our lives completely unaware of the extent of the problem. This is because the enemy is inside of us. So many of us become our own worst enemies, because we hold on to the unrealistic expectations and hopes which the world feeds us.

The Hope Expressed in Romans
The world expects us to be materially successful, independent, happy consumers with all the best status symbols money can buy. But thankfully, that isn’t what God expects of us, because God knows a much more lasting and meaningful hope can be ours, if we are just willing to accept it. That is the point from which our passage launches this morning. In the previous chapters, Paul laid out the groundwork for justification by grace through faith in the new covenant in Christ, and not through works of the law of the old covenant of Moses. In these chapters he gives the “how” and the “why” of salvation, with David and Abraham being examples of those who lived by faith before. But he doesn’t stop with the theoretical.

He now moves into the concrete to describe exactly what salvation looks like in the life of the believer. He begins with the assumption that his readers have already been justified in Christ. They have understood why they needed to be saved, and accepted the free gift of salvation. But like so many of us, they were probably wondering, “OK, what now?” After all, all of life isn’t just making that initial confession of faith, though we as Evangelicals sometimes seem to stop right there. I don’t want you to misunderstand me. It is absolutely essential that you receive Jesus if you haven’t already done so. He is our only hope for forgiveness of the sins which we have all committed, so that we can be redeemed and restored, and spend an eternity with Him.

But life is more than just the beginning and the end. It is more than just initial justification and the hope of heaven. There is a long space in between, and for most of us, that long space is going to include decades of struggle. For some, that struggle is going to include going through a divorce while trying to raise kids, or it’s going to include coping with a loved one’s drug addiction, or a friend’s suicide, or the loss of a job, or mounting medical bills, and housing and transportation costs. For many, that struggle might seem like you’re stuck in the mud, going no where, or that you’re sliding down the impossibly high hill you’re trying to climb.

It’s to Christians in the midst of that struggle that Paul is now speaking. He begins in v. 1 by speaking of the “peace of God,” which newly justified believers are party to. Though we were once enemies of God, by receiving His free gift of grace, we are enemies no longer. This free gift is accessed through Jesus Christ alone. The Greek word Paul uses for “accessed” begins to paint a picture for us, of  a royal court where no one can see the king except through invitation and by exceptional merit.(7) Except that we don’t possess that merit ourselves, as outlaws and enemies of the realm, there is no way we would have been granted audience with the king. But Christ has vouched for us by his own merit and brokered a peace treaty. Now we stand firmly before the king, in the confidence that comes with a warm invitation, as ambassadors to a once hostile, but now friendly, power.(8)

But “peace” in scripture means more than just the end of hostilities. It is rooted in the Hebrew concept of “shalom,” or “wholeness, well-being, and abundant life.”(9) It is what Christ means when he says in Jn. 10:10b, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly.” In Jewish and Christian gatherings today, it is still used as a greeting. How many of you grew up in a more traditional church, where you “passed the peace?” or where in the liturgy, the pastor said, “Peace be with you,” and everyone responded, “And also with you?” This greeting is an implied prayer. It is saying to our neighbor, our brother or sister who may be struggling, “I’m praying the best for you. I’m praying that you find healing, and wholeness, and well-being in the grace of Our Lord.” Believe it or not, and this sort of floored me when I found out, it’s even the root of the greeting in English, “Hello,” which comes from the Old Saxon word, “Haelen” meaning “wholeness be yours” or “healing go with you.”(10)

Rejoicing In Our Suffering
By proclaiming and trusting the peace with God which we have in faith, we are expressing the prayer and the hope that wholeness will be ours, and having this hope, we are able to rejoice; even in the midst of our suffering. Now that’s a hard concept to swallow, isn’t it? We have all experienced times where we don’t feel like rejoicing at all. And I don’t think Paul is saying God intends for us to fake it here. If you are mourning, mourn! If you are angry, tell God that you’re angry! There’s no point in hiding it, and if we try, it just eats us up inside.

But that isn’t the end of the story. We aren’t expected to just vent our frustrations and struggles to God and move on like nothing happened. Instead, God gives us the tools to meet our frustrations head on, openly and honestly, in the hope that by doing so we will be changed and better able to weather future storms in the process. This is what Paul means in vv. 3-4, when he says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”(11) I do not believe God causes our suffering, but He does give us the tools to find purpose in suffering.

This purpose is rooted in peace and propelled by hope. When we suffer, instead of freaking out or shutting down or fleeing, God is calling us to meet our challenges head on, and doing that requires a plan and frank honesty with ourselves.  There is no shame in this honesty, because as Paul says in v. 5, that honesty and openness to admitting that we are struggling opens us to hoping in a bright future with Him.

A Plan For Building Resiliency
When I was an NCO in the Army, and I would conduct resiliency training for my Soldiers, I broke it down for them in three steps:

When struggling with a series of seemingly insurmountable task, first order your priorities and goals. For people with a strictly materialistic mindset, this probably revolves around professional success, financial security, and physical health. But for disciples of Jesus, our goals need to reflect the things which Jesus cared about. This means that, first and foremost, they must be rooted in love. In Mat. 22:36-40, Jesus tells us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with everything we are and to love each other as much as we love ourselves. And v. 5 of our passage this morning makes it clear that we have any hope at all because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts, for us to experience ourselves and pour out into the lives of others. This means that, when we sit down and map out our personal goals, they should be specifically crafted as means for more fully loving God and each other.

The second step is to triage your struggles. When we are depressed, or anxious, or simply overwhelmed with everything we are trying to juggle; it can all seem like one, big impossibly-high mountain that we have to climb. But it might be helpful to break down your tasks into more easily manageable chunks, and treat the ones which are either most urgent or will have the biggest impact. This is what triage means.

In the early years of battlefield medicine, medics struggled to treat the wounds of all the soldiers lying on the battlefield. Many who could have made a full recovery instead bled out before help arrived. And care was often priorities for officers or nobles, while the common man suffered needlessly. But as casualties mounted with technological advances, and field hospitals were flooded with hundreds of thousands of wounded Soldiers, a systematic way of treating them needed to be developed. This was realized by Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, a French field surgeon, during the Napoleanic Wars, who began to treat Soldiers by the seriousness of their wounds and their treatability; irrespective of rank, social status, or nationality.(12)

And this is what we need to do with the challenges which if left unaddressed can wound us so deeply. We break them into smaller chunks, and tackle the ones which are either the most essential to our well-being and mission, or are in the deepest trouble first. This means we may not achieve a solution to every problem right when we would want to, but at least we are making real progress which hopefully relieves some of the stress and brings a measure of confidence to our lives.

The third step in this resilience-building process is observing the cycles which contribute to our struggles. This is especially difficult in Western cultures where we tend to think in linear terms. History builds on itself, and a big part of our theology is the belief that it is all moving toward an eventual goal: the settling of all debts and the restoration of all creation to God. This is certainly true of our salvation history, but equally true is that within lives, families, and generations we often experience cycles where past decisions and actions lead to consequences which make those same decisions and actions more likely in the future.

This cyclical view of time is much more common in the East, but it is reflected in scripture too. Ecc. 3:1-8 tells us,
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”

And Deu. 5:9 says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Now, I do not believe this refers to God passing judgment on children for the sins of their fathers. After all, God also says in Exo. 34:6-7, that He extends his steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who remain loyal to Him. Instead, I believe it refers to the natural consequence of sin. Sin, by its selfish, short-sighted nature, naturally breaks relationships and wounds individuals. And these wounds are often carried on to the people around us. In fact, recent studies have demonstrated that violence in communities manifests in clusters, just like the outbreak of physical disease.(13) Violence leads to violence, sin leads to sin, wounds lead to wounds. And these are often carried out into whole family and social systems and across generations. When we realize this, we can begin to discern the causes of the problem cycles in our lives, and directly address (or “triage”) those causes instead of just always trying to treat the symptoms.

The third and final step requires us to take an honest look at how we contribute to the problems and struggles we are facing. It’s natural to look for the causes of our hurts in others. But real transformation has to happen inside of us before it can be seen in our circumstances. The biggest obstacle to this is often our own sense of shame. Especially if our struggle is one which is cyclical, and which we have struggled with for years, it can sometimes lead us to fear that we are failures, that we can never find victory, and so we ignore our own place in the center of the struggle while despair mounts under the surface.

It’s to that fear that Paul speaks in our passage this morning, when he says in v. 5, “Hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” We have no shame before God, because He has already forgiven us of our failures and coming to terms with them is the necessary first step toward receiving His grace in the first place. God loves us so much that He is happy to meet us and welcome us to Him just as we are, even with our sins, faults, and shortcomings. But He also loves so much that He doesn’t leave us the way He found us.(14)

And it is in that hope, that He will change us and transform us, bring us wholeness and restoration, that we are able to find freedom from fear and shame. This hope isn’t simply wishful thinking. It is rooted in the fact that the God who has promised it is a God who keeps His promises. We know this, because He has done so in the past. His care for His people throughout the Old Testament is testimony to this fact, and as Paul says here, the love which He has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit is testimony to it as well.

So as you go out to meet whatever challenges and struggles you may face this week, in that in-between-space after salvation, but before the final realization of our hope;(15) remember that God has promised you the tools and the resources to meet them. The ability to meet our challenges, to endure and even rejoice in the midst of suffering is rooted in the peace, the shalom, which only He can provide and which we are promised at the moment of justification; is honed and refined through the building of our character as we grow in sanctification; and is driven by the hope and promise of our glorification in Christ.

I hope the above steps help you in a real, practical way through the midst of that process. But I also want to encourage you to do one more thing. I considered listing it as a separate step, but it is essential through all of them: Pray. Pray continuously. Carve out time to pray in the morning and before you go to bed. Pray in the car. Pray with friends. Pray at church, and at home, and at work. Seriously, set a daily alarm on your phone if you have to. If we do not pray, if we do not keep that essential line of communication open with God, we will not find the discipline to follow these steps through in obedience. It’s true that God’s grace alone is the source of our sanctification, but it does not exempt us from obedience to His commands. And essential to this obedience is our prayer life.

So with that, I pray that the fullness of God’s peace goes with you all, and I pray that He gives you the strength and the tools you need to meet your struggles and grow in the process. Thank you.

(1) 1 Cor. 9:24-27.
(2) Ritchie, Hanna & Max Roser. “Urbanization." Our World in Data. Web. Retrieved Jun. 15, 2019.
(3) Fry, Richard. “The Share of Americans Living Without A Partner Has Increased, Especially Among Young Adults." Pew Research Center. Web. Written Oct. 11, 2017.
(4) National Institute of Mental Health. “Major Depression.” Web. Retrieved Jun. 15, 2019.
(5) American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide Statistics.” Web. Retrieved Jun. 15, 2019.
(6) U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. “Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans, 2001-2014.” Office of Suicide Prevention. Written Aug. 03, 2016.
(7) Cragg, Gerald R. “Romans” in the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, 452. Ed. by George . Buttrick, et al. Nashville, TN: Addington-Cokesbury Press, 1952.
(8) Greathouse, William M. and George Lyons. “Romans 1-8” in New Beacon Bible Commentary, 153. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) All scripture quotes are from the ESV.
(12) P.N. Skandalakis, P. Lainas, J.E. Skandalakis, P. Mirilas, "'To Afford the Wounded Speedy Assistance': Dominique Jean Larrey and Napoleon", World Journal of Surgery 30:8:1392-9. Aug. 2006.
(13) National Public Radio. “Researchers Begin to Look at Gun Violence as Public Health Issue,” on All Things Considered. Broadcast Jan. 07, 2017.
(14) Greathouse, “Romans 1-8,” 154.
(15) cf. Greathouse, “Romans 1-8,” 151.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Problem of Citing Bodily Autonomy in Defense of Legalized Abortion

Author’s Note: Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue for many, and must be approached with sensitivity and compassion, especially for the women and families who have been so deeply impacted by the agonizing decision over whether or not to terminate a fetus, and for those who have been wounded by the often uncaring and hurtful words of people on both sides of the debate. The intention of this piece isn’t to provide a “gotcha” argument for either side, but rather to help all those involved in forming public opinion and policy to reasonably think through the unquestioned assumptions we often hold regarding when individual lives (and their associated rights) do or don’t begin.

Many pro-choice advocates appeal to the individual woman's right to bodily autonomy as justification for free access to abortion. Though attempting to build a strong philosophical foundation for any political belief is important, I do not think the concept of “bodily autonomy,” or the right for a person to make all choices regarding the health and care of their bodies, is as sound as it may at first seem.

We as a society seem to have already agreed there are certain times when bodily autonomy can and indeed should be violated. For instance, most tend to agree that people should be vaccinated, even if the personal views of individuals run counter to the practice. This violation of bodily autonomy is generally justified by the risk non-vaccinated people pose to the rest of the population. When it comes to gun control, many societies have agreed that the right to bodily self defense must be weighed against the concerns of a safer society and the realities of mass shootings, suicides, and domestic abuse. And almost every nation on the planet is willing to compromise the bodily autonomy of certain classes of people (soldiers, prisoners, etc.) in order to maintain a stable society. Finally, we're also coming to the realization that the fight against climate change will likely require global action which restricts the choices of many individuals with respect to their own bodies (everything from freedom of transportation to the types of food we eat will be impacted)(1).

All of these pressing concerns demonstrate the reality that a perceived right to bodily autonomy isn't as inviolable as we may initially think. This is especially true when we consider that no man or woman is an island, and each decision we make impacts the lives of many others. This also means that when we decide to end the life of an unborn child (or, at the least, the potential life of a fetus); the decision almost always has further reaching impacts than in the life of the mother alone. The truth is, no body is really autonomous.

If we say a fetus is less of a person simply because it is wholly reliant on the mother for life, then we may as well argue that no one has rights; because literally every human being on the planet is part of an interconnected, complex system and each requires the others to survive. The species could not survive if each human being were truly divorced from the support she or he receives from others.

Because of this, and because I do think a fetus is a life with certain inalienable rights, I cannot support legalized abortion (except in the case of medical emergencies). I must admit that as a person of faith, I believe there is a sacredness to life... to all life, but especially to human life. And when we remove our sense of life's fundamental value, then all individual rights are at risk of dissolving before the ever-increasing needs of "the greater good." The irony is that when we begin to see unborn children as expendable tissue, it isn't that far of a cognitive leap to seeing born children as expendable as well.

But I also recognize that not everyone in this country holds to my particular religious beliefs. Since our country is based upon the principles of free expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of belief; any relevant policy decisions must be based not on the tenets of a particular religion, but through the development of coherent political philosophies arrived at through the application of reason.

Though I have many religious reasons for opposing abortion (the sacredness of life, the creation of humanity in God’s image, and God’s care for the voiceless and defenseless); I do not believe that faith and reason must necessarily conflict. And in this case, I believe that they do not. I simply think there is a stronger philosophical foundation for contending that fetuses have certain rights which must be considered equal to any other right (including the rights of born men and women); than the contention that abortion is justified by the right to bodily autonomy alone, especially since no bodies are truly autonomous.

This is because the same reasons for asserting the rights of those who have already been born apply equally to the unborn. These reasons are both biological and philosophical. Both groups exhibit biological individuality (both born and unborn have their own, unique DNA). And both groups exhibit the potentiality for agency (agency being defined as the capacity for intentional action).

If we judge the value of human life on individual agency alone (as many pro-choice advocates seem to affirm), then we suddenly run the risk of arguing that the elderly, the infirm, or the handicapped are somehow less human. This is why "potentiality for agency" is a better basis for asserting individual rights than simply "agency" or even viability alone.

But when we destroy a life, for any other reason than to save another life (and even then it's an ethical gray area that must be approached with compassion and sensitivity), we necessarily violate the intrinsic value of that life (whether born or unborn).

I don't want to restrict anyone's rights more than necessary. And I certainly don't want women to be oppressed, or left out in the cold to take care of vulnerable lives alone. We must have strong social webs of support for women in need. But I just can't see the justification for supporting legalized abortion in light of all this.

(1) I briefly considered including seat belt laws in the list of ways we as a society have decided public health concerns trump bodily autonomy, but I felt that would unnecessarily bog down the article. Suffice it to say there are many laws on the books which restrict the rights of individuals to make decisions regarding their own bodily health.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A Fig Tree With No Figs

Below is the manuscript of a sermon first delivered at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene on Mar. 24, 2019.

Text: Luke 13:1-9 (ESV):
13 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Making Sense of a Crazy World
Human beings like the world to make sense. Things happen for a reason, and sometimes that reason is that we need things to happen for a reason! We want good things to happen to good people, and bad things to happen to bad people. And we want to know that when things upset our routine, or the expected order of things, that there is some reason behind it. There’s a very good reason for this. We were created to perceive patterns in the world, to discover the order behind it, and to relish the beauty found in it. This is so that we can perceive and know God’s love and care for His Creation by studying the works of His hands. After all, when you want to know the mind of an Artist, you study His Art.

As Paul says in Rom. 1:20 says, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”(1)

But sometimes our ability to perceive order and patterns in the world and the events which take place backfires. The same sense that helps us see beauty in the Cosmos is also responsible for people seeing the Virgin Mary in their toast, or faces in clouds, or sometimes even Divine punishment and blessing in the tragedies and triumphs which we experience. We want the world to make sense. And so, in our effort to find meaning, we impose sense on senseless happenings and then get mad at God when the World doesn’t look like we believe it should be.

The Arrival of Bad News
This is what happens in Luke 13. Over the past several weeks, we have been walking with Jesus and his disciples as they head to Jerusalem so that He can fulfill His mission and triumph over sin and death on the cross. But along the way, he has continued to heal, cast out demons, and teach the crowds. As he gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, we notice a subtle shift in his teaching in chs. 12 and 13 as he emphasizes more and more the need for repentance in the face of coming Judgment. This Judgment would arrive very soon for Israel, as the Temple was about to be destroyed and the city of Jerusalem abandoned in a few short decades. But, as Jesus is about to make clear, the Judgment facing Israel is one from which no man or woman is immune.

And so, when we find Jesus in Luke 13:1-9, he is in the middle of delivering a large block of teaching to the crowds, when a group of people rush in with bad news. The emphasis in v. 1 on “that very time,” lends a sense of urgency to their news. Something terrible has happened! A group of Galileans who were bringing their sacrifices to the Temple have been slaughtered by Pilate’s ruthless command, and their blood has been mingled with their sacrifices. For an observant Jew, no greater sacrilege could have taken place. Roman occupation was bad enough. And murder was certainly worse. But the time to bring sacrifices was supposed to be one of peace. It was supposed to be off-limits. And the idea that holy sacrifices offered to God would be polluted by human blood was unthinkable to them.

Now such an episode might be shocking to some of us. When most of us think of Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, we think of him as a passive and almost unwilling participant in Jesus’ crucifixion who washes his hands of the whole affair and hands Jesus over to the blood-thirsty crowds. I’ve even heard sympathy expressed for Pilate, as if he were forced into a position which he otherwise would have avoided. The fact is, Pilate was known throughout the ancient world for his brutality and iron hand in dealing with the occupied territories.

The Romans crucified thousands, and as far as Pilate was concerned, there was always enough wood available for more crosses. Though we don’t find this episode of the slaughtered Galileans outside the New Testament, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us of two other instances of Pilate’s brutality. In one (and this may very well be the news Jesus was receiving), a group of Galileans were protesting Pilate’s raid on the Temple treasury to build a new aqueduct for Jerusalem, so he sent soldiers dressed in plain-clothes to infiltrate the crowds, and they beat the protesters so severely in the streets that many of them died.(2) The Galileans of the time were noted for agitating against the Roman occupation, and so had gained a reputation as insurrectionists, which may have prompted Pilate’s especially brutal treatment of them.(3)

In another instance of unrestrained violence, he put to the sword a large group of Samaritans who had gathered on their holy mountain Gerizim, where they still offer sacrifices today, and it was this episode which when reported to Caesar in Rome, caused Pilate to be recalled in disgrace in 36 AD.(4) Whatever the event is which the people report to Jesus here, it was certainly well within Pilate’s brutal character to kill a bunch of Galileans in the midst of their offering sacrifices to God.

The Crowds Want an Explanation
Naturally reeling from this horrifying news, the crowds want an explanation. Things happen for a reason. Surely these men who were so brutally murdered with their sacrifices so outrageously polluted must have done something to deserve this sudden, unexpected death. Just like when Jesus’ disciples ask him about why a certain man was born blind and they assume the only two possibilities are that either he or his parents must have sinned in some way for him to wind up in such a state.(5)

But Jesus makes it clear that that isn’t really how the world works. Sometimes people suffer. Sometimes there is no good reason for suffering! That’s an answer we don’t like to hear. The world has to make sense. Things happen for a reason. Or at least that is what we would like to believe. And that is what the Jews of Jesus’ time had been raised to believe. They were no strangers to experiences of tragedy and Judgment. When the people grumbled and disobeyed in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt, they were struck down with snake bites and plague until they repented. When they wandered from God during the period of the Judges, they were repeatedly put under the control of foreign powers until they cried out to God for help and God delivered them. When Israel neglected the poor and needy, when they abandoned justice in favor of the rich, and when they oppressed the orphan and the widow during the time of the prophets, they were once again handed over to foreign powers, this time to the Assyrians and Babylonians who sent them into exile.

They knew God to be a just God, and they knew that when the people abandon God’s precepts bad things happen. But that isn’t the whole story. Just as integral to their experience is the story of Job, where a righteous man suffered for no discernible reason or fault of his own or the observations of the writer of Ecclesiastes, who saw evil men prosper and good men go to the grave early.

But it’s easy to forget those stories, because a world that makes sense, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, is safe. If we just do what is good, we won’t suffer. When taken to its extreme, this view almost makes God a big bully whose attention we don’t want to attract. But as Jesus is about to make clear, that is not what God is like, and that’s not why we suffer.

In vv. 2-5, Jesus replies to the crowds, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you: but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Sometimes bad things happen to good people (or at least, they are good by our standards). This is because we live in a fallen and broken world, and we were broken with it. The very sense which allows us to search for and perceive order in the world was corrupted when we first sinned. Continuing Paul’s thought from Romans 1 that I cited earlier, v. 21 says,
“For although [we] knew God, [we] did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but [we] became futile in [our] thinking, and [our] foolish hearts were darkened.”

I mentioned last week that in Hebrew thought, the heart was not just the seat of emotion as we think of it, but also the seat of the senses and of reason. So, when we perceive suffering in the world, or experience it ourselves, our ability to perceive the causes behind it is clouded by the debilitating effects of a fallen world. Sometimes people just hurt one another because they are selfish, or because they don’t realize all the consequences, or sometimes bad things just happen for no reason because of the broken nature of reality.

Jesus gives this unsatisfying answer to the crowds around him. Maybe they wanted him to make a political statement in the wake of the Galileans’ reputation for resisting Rome. Maybe they wanted him to denounce the Galilean movement.(6) There are certainly many preachers today who wouldn’t hesitate to do just that. I remember when 9/11 happened, and later when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; there were prominent televangelists who claimed God had visited these calamities on the nation or on the city because of its sins. When tragedy struck, instead of pulling the people together to care for those whose lives were devastated by these tragedies, they sought to divide them further by fueling their need for somebody to blame.

Now, I’m not denying the reality of Judgment here. God’s wrath is a necessary result of His justice, and His justice is a necessary component of His love.(7) But the irony is that it can be incredibly self-serving to find fault in others to explain calamity. We think: if they sinned, they deserved it. And if they deserved it, we can avoid deserving it (and so avoid suffering) if we just do what is good and right. But Jesus makes it clear that this isn’t the case. Our future with Him, though it ends in glorious triumph, includes suffering and a cross. Anyone who wants to follow Him has to come to terms with that.

Instead, what Jesus tells them is that all Galileans are just as deserving of judgment as those who were brutally killed in Pilate’s crackdown. And by bringing up the fall of the Tower of Siloam, a tower near the SE corner of Jerusalem(8), Jesus is making it clear that the Jews who live in Jerusalem are no more righteous than the Galileans, who had a reputation for being less-than-observant when it came to keeping all the minute kosher laws emphasized by the Pharisees.(9) Jesus is taking these tragic events and making them metaphors for the final Judgment to which we are all liable if we remain unrepentant.(10)

A Fig Tree with No Figs
To bring this point home, Jesus then tells the crowds a story. In vv. 6-9 he says, “And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

For ancient people, figs were symbols of prosperity and God’s blessing, but they were notoriously difficult to grow and their trees required constant care.(11) Here, Jesus is recalling the prophet Micah’s words when he says in Micah 7:1-4,
“Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. The godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net. Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand.”
He’s saying the people are like a fig tree that has been given plenty of chances, plenty of seasons to grow and bear fruit, but again and again they have proven barren. Despite God’s many chances, despite his repeated calls to the people to return to Him, they remain bare branches and they stubbornly refuse to repent. All people, not just a subset of Galileans or even just the Jews living in Jesus’ day, but the entire human race is being called back to through Jesus.

Like John the Baptist earlier in the gospel, Jesus is telling the people to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” or else they will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” like every other tree that doesn’t bear good fruit.(12)

The Good News
Still, the news isn’t all doom and gloom. God doesn’t relish in punishment and He doesn’t delight in destroying the creatures He made to pour His love into. As He says in Eze. 33:11,
“‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’”
It is for that reason that Jesus, the gardener, pleads with the Father represented by the owner of the vineyard, on our behalf. Though we deserved judgment the very moment we sinned, Christ has pleaded on our behalf from the beginning. Just one more season. Let them have just one more season to repent. And so he digs at our roots, aerating the soil around us, he clears the brush that inhibits our growth. He fertilizes our soil with the means of grace: the sacraments, studying scripture, prayer, acts of service, and evangelism. Because without His mediation, without His intervention, we would be utterly barren and lost. But He gives us everything we could ever need to flourish. He nurtures our fruitfulness so that we may repent of our sins, turning away from them and toward him, and so bear the fruit of love which He planted us to grow in the first place.

But it’s still up to us to respond. He has enabled us to have the choice, but it is still our choice whether we will repent or not. Whether we will bear fruits of love or not. Notice in the parable, Jesus doesn’t tell us what happens to the tree. He leaves its fate open-ended and up to us to decide. But whatever choice we choose, we need to be aware that the Judgment which Jesus promises is very real and very near. It isn’t a myth, it isn’t hyperbole. God’s justice won’t wait forever, and it is only because His justice is itself part of His love that he waits for us to respond. Please don’t delay! If you search your heart, and find you need His grace and forgiveness, don’t wait! Call out to Him this morning. He is quick to forgive and it is desire that you be saved. It’s his desire that we all be saved.

(1) All scripture references are from the ESV.
(2) Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews”, 18:3, 2. From The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian. Transl. by Willian Whiston, 1737. Retrieved from the University of Chicago Website.
(3) Ibid., see footnote to the text.
(4) Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews”, 18:4, 1-2.
(5) cf. Jn. 9:1-3.
(6) Neale, David. A. “Luke 9-24.” in New Beacon Bible Commentary(Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2013), 110.
(7) I had many conversations about this topic with my Pastor, Rev. H. Gordon Smith III, while I served as his Associate Pastor in La Junta, CO.
(8) Liefeld, Water L. and David W. Pao. “Luke,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Ed. Vol. 10. Ed. by Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 232.
(9) Ibid., 59, 232.
(10) Neale, “Luke 9-24,” 110-111.
(11) Ibid., 112.
(12) Luk. 3:8-9.
#Jesus #parables #figs #Josephus #suffering #love #justice #wrath #repentance

Monday, March 18, 2019

10 Early Non-Christian References to Jesus

Popular Doubts About Jesus’ Historicity
In recent years, I have encountered an increasingly popular idea among atheists and anti-theists of my generation, often called the “Christ myth theory.” Variations of this theory usually posit that there was no historical person known as Jesus, whose life was anything like that narrated in the New Testament. When the New Testament itself is brought up as evidence to the contrary, they argue that these sources are biased and so cannot be trusted. There’s a certain irony there, as naturally anyone who believes that accounts of a man rising from the dead are genuine, will necessarily believe some supernatural force is behind it and so will be more predisposed to believe the claims of that man’s followers.

Many followers of the “Christ myth theory” argue instead that the New Testament claims are an amalgam of different religious ideas from all over the Ancient Near East. They often claim that he is simply Osiris, Serapis, Mithras, or Sol Invictus rehashed, and for evidence they will sometimes make completely unsourced claims as to their similarities (which usually evaporate on closer academic inspection).

There are so many competing, contradictory claims associated with this “theory” that they cannot all be addressed here. But one claim can, and it is one often repeated in rapidly shared social media memes: that no contemporary (or near-contemporary) Non-Christian historians or writers refer to an historical Jesus. In reality, there are an abundance of references to Jesus and early Christians by non-followers of Jesus writing within about 80 years (i.e. two generations) of his death.

Just like today, these writers display varying attitudes regarding the beliefs and practices of Christians, with some praising the wise philosophy of their founder and others denigrating their gullibility. Whatever the attitudes expressed, they each demonstrate the very early belief that Jesus was a real historical person and none suggest that he is simply an amalgam or copy of older mythical characters. Even among those who save their most biting ridicule for Jesus and his followers, none ever doubt that he existed.

These writers include both Jewish and Roman historians (Josephus, Tacitus, and Seutonius), a Roman Governor (Pliny the Younger), and a Syrian Stoic philosopher (Mara bar Serapion). These form the earliest Non-Christian references. I’ve also included later quotes from Jewish rabbis (the Babylonian Talmud) and a Roman Satirist (Lucian) as these have their roots in events and oral traditions of the 1st century.

So, to put to bed once and for all the claim that no early secular historian mentions Jesus, I’ve included relevant quotations by each of these authors below, along with information on where each of these quotes can be found in their writings, and source citations in footnotes along the way. Questions of authenticity or relevance are also addressed in the footnotes. Whatever one’s belief regarding the claims by Jesus or his followers, the claim that he didn’t exist or that he was a new face on old mythical characters just doesn’t hold water when faced with the evidence available.

Catalogue of References Included(1)
    • 73-99 AD, Mara bar Serapion, A Letter.
    • 93-94 AD, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, 3:3)
    • 93-94 AD, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, 5:2)
    • 93-94 AD, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, 9:1)
    • 112 AD, Pliny the Younger, Letters (10, 96-97)
    • 116 AD, Tacitus, Annals (Book 15, 44)
    • 121 AD, Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Claudius, 25)
    • 121 AD, Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Nero, 16)
    • ca. 170 AD, Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus (11, 13)
    • 175-475 AD, Various Rabbis, The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin, 43a)

Quotations by the Earliest Non-Christian Writers
    • 73-99 AD(2), Syrian Stoic Philosopher Mara bar Serapion (A Letter):
“What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence, without the opportunity of making a defence?  They are not wholly to be pitied.  For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence?  Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the whole of their country was covered with sand?  Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?  For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them.  For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land.  Nay, Socrates did ‘not’ die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the Wise King, because of the new laws which he enacted.”(3)
    • 93-94 AD(4), Jewish Historian Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, 3:3)(5):
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”(6)
    • 93-94 AD, Jewish Historian Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, 5:2):(7)
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.”(8)
    • 93-94 AD, Jewish Historian Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, 9:1):
“And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]... so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done...”(9)
    • 112 AD(10), Roman Governor Pliny the Younger, Letters (10, 96-97):

Governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
“It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.”
Emperor Trajan to Governor Pliny
“You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”(11)
    • 116 AD(12), Roman Historian Tacitus, Annals (Book 15, 44):
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration(13) was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."(14)
    • 121 AD, Roman Historian Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Claudius, 25):
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”(15)
    • 121 AD(16), Roman Historian Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Nero, 16):
“During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.”(17)
    • ca. 170 AD(18), Roman Satirist Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus (11, 13):
“It was then that [Peregrinus](19) learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine... and they revered him...  next after that other [Jesus](20), to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world...
The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.”(21)
    • 175-475 AD(22), Various Jewish Rabbis, The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a)(23):
“[But](24) it was taught: On the even of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'He is going forth to be stoned because has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the even of the Passover! — 'Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made? Was he not a Meshith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him.'
With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential].
Our Rabbis taught: Yeshu had five disciples, Matthai, Nakai, Netzer, Buni and Todah.”(25)
Relevant Christian Witnesses
Though the primary purpose of this piece is to collate a selection of the earliest Non-Christian references to Jesus and his followers, the antiquity of Christian witnesses to Jesus’ life must be acknowledged to gain a complete picture of just how prolific early references to Jesus as an historical figure really were. These Christian witnesses include at least ten different writers of the New Testament who were either eye witnesses themselves, or who relied on oral traditions and even interviews of eye witnesses themselves.(26)

    • Probably the most significant New Testament quote to refer to eye witnesses comes from Paul the Apostle, writing only 20 years after Jesus’ death.(27)(28) He says in 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”(29)
Then there is also the often overlooked collection of writings termed the Apostolic Fathers, written by men who personally knew and followed the Apostles themselves. These include Clement (a follower of the Apostle Peter), and Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias (all followers of the Apostle John), as well as the writers of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache.(30)

    • Within this collection is a short quotation of Quadratus of Athens referring to eye witnesses alive in his own lifetime, written in 124-125 AD(31), and preserved by the Church historian Eusebius:(32)
“But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were genuine:— those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Saviour was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day.”
Given all this evidence: Multiple near-contemporary Non-Christian writers, multiple contemporary Christian writers, and the testimony of hundreds of eye witnesses all make the idea that Jesus didn’t really exist an extreme improbability, if not an impossibility to any truly reasoning mind.

(1) The dates provided refer only to scholarly consensus regarding the quotations themselves. In the case of the Babylonian Talmud, material was added over centuries, but the specific quotes cited carry with them the associated dates.

(2) Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. (Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 53-56.

(3) Mara bar Serapion, A Letter. Transl. By Benjamin Plummer Pratten.

(4) Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday, 1997).

(5) This is probably the most contested quote in this collection. Scholars debate whether a later Christian scribe modified this section to reflect Christian attitudes, and most believe this to be the case. Even so, the consensus is that the original passage written by Josephus included a reference to Jesus and to his execution by Pilate, and so it still provides an important witness to the events described.

(6) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. Transl. By William Whiston.

(7) Though this passage doesn’t mention Jesus or Christians, its description of the ministry of John the Baptist is so striking, that its inclusion is appropriate to demonstrate the multiple points at which the Gospel accounts agree with outside sources.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Carrington, Philip. The Early Christian Church, Vol. 1. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1957), 429.

(11) Pliny the Younger, Letters. Transl. By Unknown. Retrieved from Georgetown University Website on Mar. 18, 2019.

(12) The Cambridge History of Latin Literature. Ed. By P.E. Easterling & E.J. Kenney. (Cambridge University Press, 1982), 892.

(13) The fire that ravaged Rome during Emperor Nero’s reign.

(14) Tacitus, Annals. Transl. By Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876).

(15) Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars. Transl. By Catharine Edwards, (2001), 184, 203.

(16) “Seutonius,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. Retrieved Mar. 18, 2019.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Estimation by me, based on Peregrinus’ self-immolation at the Olympic Games of 165 AD.

(19) Clarification mine.

(20) Clarification mine.

(21) Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus. Transl. By A.M. Harmon.

(22) The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon. Ed. By Nosson Dovid Rabinowich. (Jerusalem, 1988), 79, 116.

(23) There are numerous passages in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds which may refer to Jesus or his followers. Some are passing references to followers healing in his name (cf. Tosefta Hullin 2:22f), while others consist of polemical word plays possibly intended to ridicule the Virgin Birth (cf. Sanhedrin 67a; Shabbat 104b and Celsus’ On the True Doctrine, written in 175-177 AD and preserved in Origen’s Contra Celsum) or as allegorical stories designed to illustrate Mishnaic points unrelated to Jesus’ historical life or ministry (cf. Sanhedrin 107b and Gittin 57a). The confusion is compounded as many of these references mention characters who lived either during the Hasmonean dynasty 80 or so years before Jesus’ birth or during the Bar Kokhba Revolt 100 years after his death. The passage I’ve included here is, in my estimation, the only one which most directly relates to Jesus’ actual life and death. Even so, there’s much debate over whether this really refers to the Jesus of the New Testament or not.

(24) Clarification added by me.

(25) The Soncino Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. Transl. By Jacob Shachter. Ed. By Rabbi Dr. I Epstein (1935).

(26) cf. Luke 1:1-4.

(27) 53-54 AD.

(28) Robert Wall, New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 10 (Abingdon Press, 2002), 373.

(29) ESV.

(30) The last work listed was probably the first of these written in the 1st century, as a Manual for Church discipline and practice, and possibly by the Apostles themselves.

(31) “Quadratus.” Ed. By Charles Herbermann. Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1913).

(32) Eusebius, Church History (Book 4, 3:2). Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Ed. by Philip Schaff & Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.) Ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

#Jesus #HistoricalJesus #ChristMyth #NewAtheism #Atheism #Christianity #Josephus #Seutonius #Tacitus #Pliny #Lucian #Talmud #History #Osiris #Serapis #Mithras #SolInvictus