Early Christianity’s Shocking Message

Opposition to early Christianity’s message had solid grounds for its anxiety.

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The apostle Paul preaching, by Raphael, 1515

I’ve been reading in the Acts of the Apostles. It brought me a few days ago to the passage on the apostle Paul’s work in the Greek city of Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-11).

His evangelistic work there follows his normal pattern. He begins in the Jewish synagogue. There for three weeks he preaches his message about Jesus. He apparently made several converts from among the Jews and the God-fearers, those Gentiles who attended the synagogue regularly but did not convert to Judaism.

However, as in other cities where he had preached, his message provoked strenuous opposition from some of the synagogue’s congregation. These opponents incited civic unrest in an effort to get the city’s officials to take action to stop this subversive preacher.

A Window for Understanding the Opposition

What I find interesting is how this account opens a window on what made the Christian message so offensive to both Jews and Gentiles.

The text says that Paul spent considerable effort in the synagogue trying to persuade his fellow Jews that the Messiah (Christos in Greek) had to suffer and rise from the dead. He argues his case by appeal to the Old Testament.

Why was this so important to Paul’s preaching? Because Paul declares that Jesus is the promised Messiah that Judaism has long awaited.

Most Jews would have been skeptical of such a message, because Jesus had died by crucifixion. That fact clearly demonstrated to them that Jesus was either a false Messiah or a failed Messiah.

We now know that in first-century Judaism there were many differing views about who the Messiah would be and what he would do. In fact, some Jews of the era believed there would be two Messiahs, one royal, the other priestly.

But all these differing views agreed that the Messiah would deliver Israel from domination from foreign imperial empires and usher in God’s kingdom and its reign of prosperity and peace. None these viewpoints envisioned this happening through a Messiah dying, and especially through death by crucifixion.

We know from what Paul writes in Galatians 3:13-14 that for some Jews crucifixion was an ignominious death. They believed that any one crucified was cursed by God. Paul was among them before his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road.

They believed this because of what was written in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

Originally this passage had a compassionate motive. It was concerned about the unnecessary exposure of the body of an executed criminal overnight. But some first-century Jews interpreted it as a divine curse on someone who was crucified. With that understanding in mind, then Jesus could not be the Messiah because his death meant he was cursed by God. And God would never curse the true Messiah.

What changed this assessment for Paul as well as for Jesus’ original disciples was Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven to reign as lord over the cosmos. Through these acts God was ratifying Jesus’ status as the true Messiah.

So it was crucial for Paul in his approach to Jews to show that the Old Testament did indeed foresee that the Messiah would work his work of deliverance through his death and resurrection.

But we also see why many Jews would see such a message about Jesus as total nonsense and as a subversive force in the world of Judaism.

Potential Subversion of the Roman Imperial Order

In Acts’ account of Paul’s work in Thessalonica, we also glimpse why many Gentiles would also find the Christian message shocking and dangerous. When the rioters bring these disturbing Christians before the city’s governing officials, they charge that these Christians are turning the world upside down.

Why? Because, they say, “they are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7).

The earliest Christian confession about Jesus was that Jesus is Lord (Kyrios in Greek). Now the title of Kyrios was one that Roman imperial propaganda claimed for the Roman emperor. He was Kyrios over the whole of the civilized world. And that fact was seen as key to the peace and prosperity that Roman rule was then bringing to the Mediterranean world (the Pax Romana).

When Christians confessed Jesus as Kyrios, they primarily had in mind Jesus’ present sovereignty in heaven and his future sovereignty on earth when the kingdom of God came in its fullness. But at its core that confession was a challenge to Roman propaganda. The rioters clearly understood the political import of the Christian message and recognized it as the subversive message it in essence was.

No wonder Gentiles who benefitted from the Pax Romana and Roman officials saw the Christian message as dangerous. It could indeed potentially turn their world upside down.

Why Governments Want to Control the Christian Religion

What we see in this Acts passage are two substantial reasons why so many Jews and Gentiles were so hostile to the message preached by early Christians. That message challenged fundamental first principles of their political, social, and religious mindsets.

This also gives us a glimpse into why secular authorities have always wanted to exercise some form of control over the expression of the Christian religion. We see example after example in Christian history, whether in the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire, the great investiture dispute between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in medieval Europe, the assertion of royal supremacy by Henry VIII over the Church of England, or efforts by the Chinese government to control Christian churches in China today.

When Christianity is true to its own founding spirit (and Spirit), it can indeed turn established mindsets and social orders upside down. And that can make a lot of people nervous.

 

Betrayed by Theological Confusion

We distort our theology by false presumptions about God.

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The prophet Jeremiah with the ruins of Jerusalem by the French artist Horace Vermet, 1844

A sobering passage to read in the Bible is found in the prophet Jeremiah. It is known as the temple sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-8:3). It reports a message that the prophet gave in the gateway to Solomon’s glorious temple complex.

Jeremiah delivered it in a time of national crisis. Jehoiakim, king of Judah, had taken advantage of some setbacks the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had sustained. He decided to throw off vassalage to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah and besieging the city of Jerusalem.

The military situation was dire. Jehoiakim and his advisors, however, believed they would prevail. Why? Because of the promises that God had made to King David that the Davidic dynasty would reign forever (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17). Furthermore, the city possessed the temple of God. The city of Jerusalem was surely inviolate.

History seemed to confirm this confidence. During the reign of one of Jehoiakim’s predecessors, King Hezekiah, the Assyrian armies under Sennacherib had besieged the city. The wise course of action seemed to surrender the city. But the prophet Isaiah counseled Hezekiah to place his trust in God. And God had intervened miraculously. The Assyrian had had to retreat in utter defeat. (See the account in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).

The lesson seemed clear. God lives up to his promises. He had done so in the past; he would do so again. And so it seems that it became a mantra in Jerusalem circles to assert, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4). No matter how dire the circumstances, God would never allow the city to fall.

In his sermon Jeremiah calls this presumption into serious question. The royal court is deceived, he says, if they place their confidence in the belief that God will always come to their rescue, because the city possesses the temple of God.

A Theological Crisis

Why is it a false presumption? Jeremiah says that it ignores that God’s defense of the city is always contingent on Judah’s faithfulness to God’s purposes and God’s ways. And the city’s populace and its leaders have not been faithful. They have tolerated injustice. Hear the words of Jeremiah:

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:8-11)

Jeremiah also appeals to history. He reminds the people of the fate of Shiloh, the site of an earlier sanctuary dedicated to God during the time of the judges. That sanctuary was destroyed because of Israel’s unfaithfulness and sins. The Jerusalem temple is in danger of suffering the same fate, unless Judah changes its ways. The Judeans cannot count on God’s protection and blessing if they continue to live in ways contrary to God’s beneficent purposes and will.

The temple sermon is sobering reading because it reminds us to be careful in how we live out our faith in God. We can confess absolutely orthodox beliefs about God and yet turn them into theological mush by the conclusions we draw from those assertions. That is what the Judeans were doing in Jeremiah’s time. It is just as easy for us to do as well.

Does Jeremiah’s sermon mean that God ceases to love Judah because of its sins? If we read the Old Testament prophets carefully, we cannot say that. There are passionate passages in the prophets where God expresses his love for his people in spite of their sins (one of the most passionate is Hosea 11). So if we say that God loves his people always, that is true.

But we cannot draw from that true statement the false conclusion that God therefore endorses everything his people do or desire. God is not there to bless their–or ours– agenda when that agenda works against God’s good intentions for ourselves, others, and all God’s creation.

The people of Judah learned this lesson when the city of Jerusalem indeed fell to the Babylonian armies in the year 586 B.C. despite the presence of the temple of the Lord. Following the surrender, the temple of the Lord was burned and razed to the ground.

A Sermon for Today

I hear Jeremiah’s sermon speaking to me personally. A basic principle of my theology is that God is for us, always. I do not believe God hates humanity and stands ready to damn every one of us to hell unless we repent and place our faith in him.

That is not what I hear in reading the Bible. I hear that God loves the world so much that God becomes a human being and suffers with this world so that this world can be lifted to become what God has always intended it to be. God is motivated by love, not hate.

For this reason, I assert that God is for us, always. That is a fundamental dimension of my idea of divine grace.

But like all theological concepts, this idea of grace can be easily perverted in practice. We can presume that since God loves us, God will endorse whatever actions, desires, and agendas we have. We can presume that God will come to our rescue in all situations of danger. After all, isn’t that his job description?

If this is the conclusion I draw from my assertion that God is always for us, then I am guilty of fostering a false theology. The expression of God’s love for us may at times require an experience of passing through intense suffering. That suffering can act as a purgation from all that withholds us from the fullness of life and glory that God intends for each one of us as well as for all creation.

As we pass through those times of re-orientation, we can discover the truth in what the psalmist says in Psalm 66:

…we went through fire and through water;

yet you [God] have brought us out to a spacious place. (Psalm 66:12)

As we read more deeply into the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophet scholars call the second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), we find how for some of the Judean exiles the collapse of the false presumption led into a fuller and more spacious understanding of God.