Early Christianity’s Shocking Message

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


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.



A Pastor’s Greatest Burden

Among the many responsibilities a pastor must juggle, which causes the most distress?

Bible text: 2 Corinthians 11:21-28

In the latter portion of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13), the apostle Paul defends his ministry against a group of traveling preachers who charge that Paul is a weak and unimpressive apostle, if not a false one. What the Corinthian church needs are bold, assertive, eloquent leaders. Paul in their eyes does not measure up. He is too meek, low-key, and self-effacing.

This debate over what kind of leadership the Corinthian church needs reminds me of much of what we read in the media and business journals about what makes for an effective CEO. Our preference, too, is for bold, assertive, and eloquent leaders, not for someone who is meek, low-key, and self-effacing.

In his response, Paul adopts the same techniques we see in good resumes. He brags about his leadership. We get a sense he is uneasy doing this. He apologizes for it. But he employs the same rhetorical cannon that his opponents do.

In particular, in chapter 11, verses 21-28, he lists all the many trials and tribulations he has endured in his ministry. It is a long list. It includes floggings, imprisonments, stonings, shipwrecks, constant dangers in his travels such as flooding rivers and bandits, hunger, and nights sleeping in the cold.

It is an impressive list. As we read on we feel a sense of crescendo as the trials and tribulations pile up. Life has been hard for Paul.

In such rhetorical flourishes, the last item in the list is usually the capstone. Its position as last makes it the most prominent item in the list. There is nothing that exceeds it in its ultimacy.

And what holds this position in this ascending list of troubles? “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (Verse 28).

What is Paul’s greatest burden among the many burdens he has endured? It is his pastoral anxiety for all the churches he has founded. He worries constantly about their welfare. And as we all know, worry can lead not only to unsettled days, but also sleepless nights.

I find what Paul says about his ministry rings true with my own experience as well as the experience of many pastors. There are many things that can make a pastor’s job difficult. There are stewardship campaigns to run. There are programs, like Sunday schools, to manage. There are buildings to keep up. There are volunteers to recruit to do the work of the church. There are ministerial meetings to attend. There is the need to work in time and space for service to the community. And then there is the constant pressure to write sermons that not only hold a congregation’s attention, but that also feed its spirit.

But I am not sure that any of them matches the burden of anxiety that a responsible pastor feels for the welfare of his or her congregation and the welfare of every individual in it.

Have I said the right thing to that parishioner in the hospital? Have I provided the right counsel to the couple who are contemplating divorce? Have I fed my congregation with the right kinds of sermons? Are my parishioners growing in faith, hope, and love? Have I provided the vision that will help my congregation sense and claim its call? How do I reconcile two feuding members of the church?

In the midst of all these anxieties about the congregation, there are also the anxieties over whether I am giving enough time and attention to my spouse and my children? How will we manage on the inadequate salary my church is paying? Am I finding time for the spiritual disciplines that will enable my spirit to grow as well as others’.

These are the kinds of anxieties that can assault a pastor’s peace of mind. And they can take a toll on the pastor’s health, emotions, relationships, and ultimately his or her commitment to the call.

When Jesus calls upon his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him, maybe that call becomes concrete for pastors in their willingness to accept this burden of pastoral anxiety. We certainly have in Paul a welcomed role model.

A special note: I want to acknowledge that this posting comes out of a conversation I recently had with a fellow pastor, the Rev. Katie McKown, pastor of Scottsville Baptist Church in Scottsville, Virginia. She is the one who called my attention to this remarkable statement by Paul. I had never seen it before.
Katie, too, writes a blog in which she reflects on the joys and challenges of serving as a pastor. She titles its Hermeneutics in High Heels. I am blown away at times by some of the touching, yet profound things she writes about. I commend it to your reading.

How Did You Receive the Spirit?

A vivid religious experience lies underneath one of Paul’s strong debate points

Scripture text: Galatians 3:1-5
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (RSV)

In his letter to the Galatian churches, we find Paul employing a number of rhetorical tools to support his argument that Gentile Christians do not need to adopt Jewish practices to establish their Christian identity. Those tools include personal invective as well as rabbinic and Hellenistic approaches to interpreting the Old Testament.

But I find the most curious argument he makes in Chapter 3, verses 1-5 (see quotation above). In this argument, he appeals to the Galatians’ religious experience. How did they receive the Holy Spirit? By practicing the Jewish law or by hearing the gospel with faith?

What is curious about this argument is his assumption that his hearers will know exactly what he is talking about. His argument would carry no water if his hearers had scratched their heads at this point and asked: What do you mean about receiving the Spirit?

Apparently these Galatian Christians had had some powerful religious experience that they knew without question was an experience of the Holy Spirit. What we modern readers would like to know is just exactly how had they experienced the Spirit.

Did they experience the Spirit in the kind of emotional phenomena that today we associate with the Pentecostal tradition? Did they experience the Spirit in terms of dramatically changed lives, maybe in terms of dramatically changed consciousness or dramatically changed behavior?

Or did they experience the Spirit in terms of witnessing miracles in their midst, possibly dramatic healings? In verse five, Paul makes a reference to miracles. Is that how they had experienced the Spirit?

I don’t think the text makes at all clear just how the Galatians had experienced the Spirit. But that they had had some kind of vivid experience of the Spirit is certain. Otherwise Paul could never have used this argument in his debate with them.

I’m fascinated by Paul’s rhetorical turn in these verses because I question that this kind of argument would work with most Christians in churches today. I suspect that most Christians today (unless they came out of a Pentecostal environment) would have no idea what Paul was talking about. The Holy Spirit is simply not a vivid experience for many believers today.

Is that because our churches have done a very effective job at quenching the Holy Spirit? Or is it that we have so identified the Spirit’s presence with highly emotional phenomena like speaking in tongues that we completely miss the Spirit’s presence in other ways? Or is it that we have done such a poor job of teaching about the Spirit that we cannot recognize the Spirit’s presence in our midst?

I ask these questions during this week that follows Pentecost Sunday. I ask them because I wonder what it would be like in our churches if we had such a vivid experience of the Spirit in our individual lives and in our congregational life that we could respond with clarity, conviction, and enthusiasm if Paul stood in our midst and asked: How did you receive the Spirit?

Apostle of Mutual Reciprocity

Bible text: Ephesians 5:21-6:9

When I read a Bible passage, I make it a rule to pay close attention to its context. That context governs how I read the passage as a whole.

Let me offer Ephesians 5:22-6:9 as an example. Here the apostle Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians) lays out the kind of behavior that Christian households should practice within themselves.

Scholars call them household codes. They seek to regulate behavior between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. They presuppose the institution of the household in Greco-Roman societies, an institution that was much broader than the nuclear family of modern America. The household might include extended family members, the family’s slaves, and sometimes other hangers-on.

Within Greco-Roman households (as was also true of Jewish households at the time), hierarchical patriarchy was the unquestioned given. The husband/father/master headed the household, and his authority was paramount.

What Paul says in this passage seems to conform to this particular ordering of society. Wives, he advocates, should be subject to their husbands, for the husband is the head of his wife. Children are to obey their parents. Likewise slaves are to obey their masters. The order of family life is subservience to the father figure.

Some Christians appeal to this passage as divine authority for a continuing patriarchal ordering of Christian families. This is God’s word, they say, not just for first-century Greece, but for the modern world as well.

For other Christians, these codes have become an embarrassment. In the churches where I work, you will seldom hear any appeal anymore to Paul’s analogy that the relationship of the husband to his wife is comparable to Christ’s relationship to his church.

Both sides, whether conservative or liberal, read the passage as an apostolic endorsement of hierarchical patriarchy. The two parties just differ as to whether that family order is a good thing or a bad thing.

But I think this is to read this portion of Ephesians out of context. It ignores how Paul leads into this discussion of household codes. The lead-in sentence comes in verse 21: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

That sounds a lot to me as if Paul is advocating relationships of reciprocity, not hierarchy. Here is a vision of relationships in which power considerations recede away to be replaced by mutuality.

Now one can ask: What gives here? In what he says in the following verses about household life does Paul immediately contradict himself, caving into the established culture of Greco-Roman civilization? One could argue that. But I would like to offer an alternative reading.

In his heart of hearts, I think the apostle stands for human relationships that are characterized by mutual reciprocity, not hierarchy. That is ultimately the trajectory of the gospel, for Paul as well as for Jesus.

Remember what Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. This was the great surprise that the Holy Spirit sprang on the infant church when the Spirit led for the inclusion of Gentiles as equal members with Jews in the people of God.

Paul, however, is also a realist, knowing that Christians cannot implement such a revolutionary style of human relationships overnight in a culture as steeped in patriarchal hierarchy as first-century Greco-Roman culture or Jewish culture. Such a revolution would be seen as a mortal threat to the established way of life.

Furthermore, such a revolution would not endure unless there was also a radical change in the human heart. No outward change in society can endure unless it is accompanied for an ever-deepening shift in mindsets, attitudes, and habitual customs. Such a change in spirit seldom comes quickly.

So in a sense Paul does accommodate to Greco-Roman culture, but with some significant shifts in his advice. Paul counsels wives to be subject to their husbands, but does not dwell on that. In English translations, he spends only three verses on this theme.

When he moves to the responsibilities of husbands, however, he goes on at length, some eight verses. Husbands are to model themselves on Christ. Can one think of Jesus playing the hierarchal card in his relationship to his disciples? One needs only to remember the example Jesus set at the Last Supper when he washed his disciples’ feet.

In his counsel to fathers, Paul urges fathers not to provoke their children to anger. He asks slaves to serve their masters as if they are Christ. But then he tells masters to do the same with their slaves (verse 6:9). This suggests they as masters are to treat their slaves as if their slaves are Christ. Both slaves and masters ultimately have the same master, Christ. And Paul goes on to say, “there is no partiality with him [meaning Christ].”

In all this advice Paul is trying, it seems to me, to broaden the minds of his listeners to begin to understand what it means to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. As they begin to live out this calling, a revolution will begin to take root in their own households.

That lead-in sentence, verse 21, makes all the difference in the world to me in how I read the 20 verses that follow. It undermines any appeal to these household codes as authority for any eternal hierarchal and patriarchal ordering of human relationships.

One can read verses 5:22-6:9 in isolation. If one does, they can be read as Biblical sanction for oppression. But why should they overwhelm verse 21? If verse 21– Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ—is read as the overarching principle, then what follows strikes me in a very different spirit. It becomes a conditional ethic, not an unconditional one.  

That interim ethic belongs to this world, but remember, for Paul, this world is passing away. And so will that hierarchal way of ordering human relationships when the Kingdom of God comes, as it begins to do as the Spirit changes our hearts.

Christianity as a Paradoxical Faith

Scripture text: Philippians 2:12-13

In the history of Christian theology, one of the most heated debates has concerned our salvation. Is it achieved by God’s initiative alone (grace) or do human beings have a contribution to make (good works)? The Protestant Reformation (of which I am an heir) took its stand on the position that we are saved by God’s grace alone, which we appropriate by our trust in God’s love for us.

But I have always felt Philippians 2:12-13 stands to challenge this assertion. Here is what the apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Revised Standard Version)

The apostle counsels his friends in Philippi to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It would seem that Paul does not believe that salvation by God’s grace means a free ride for believers. They have a role to play in their salvation. They must exert themselves through their spiritual disciplines and moral endeavor. And they must do so with utmost seriousness. This is the rationale for all the behavioral admonitions we find in his letters.

Yet Paul goes on to say that it is God who is at work in them, both to desire God’s good will and to perform it. The motivation and the power for living a holy life come entirely from God. This is the rationale for the periodic doxologies we find in his letters, like the ones that end chapter 8 in Romans and chapter 11 in that same letter.

When I read Philippians 2:12-13, I feel as if I am reading a logically contradictory statement. If we are to work with fear and trembling, are we not denying that God is the one at work in us? And if we assert that God gives us the desire and the power to do God’s will, are we not denying that we have a role in our salvation?

I want to say: Which is it? It can’t logically be both. Yet Paul assets both as true. And so we are left with a paradox.

In a paradox, we set two statements side by side. The two statements seem to contradict each other, yet we assert both are equally true. We damn logic in service to the truth. For we recognize a truth that does not fit within the constraints of logic.

If one wants a simpler way to summarize Paul’s teaching in these verses, I would do it this way: In your Christian life, work as if everything depends upon you, and pray as if everything depends upon God.

Many of the fundamental convictions of orthodox Christianity prove to be paradoxical. For example, we affirm our belief that God is one and that God is three. The two beliefs seem to cancel each other out. Yet in our doctrine of the Trinity, we assert both are true.

In our Christology, we assert that Jesus Christ is fully divine and yet also fully human. Another paradoxical statement of what we believe the truth is. And in our views on the Bible, we affirm that the Bible is fully the work of human authors and editors, and yet it is inspired by God’s Spirit so we can regard it as God’s written word. And in the Eucharist, when we consume the bread, we are eating bread made from grains of wheat, yet we also believe we are partaking of the body of Christ.

This is what makes Christianity at times such an exasperating faith. Christians seem to delight in paradoxes. In response, many believers and non-believers alike cry: Keep it simple, stupid.

Many times heresies deliver on that demand. They take paradoxical truths and try to reduce them to simplicity by affirming one side of the paradox and denying the other. But in orthodox Christianity, the gospel does not deliver on that demand, for we believe that the truth is much more dense, meaty, and substantial than we would like it to be.

I am not saying we should go around glorying in the fact that our Christian faith affirms what the rest of the world considers irrationality. Instead our attitude should be one of epistemological humility. In affirming our paradoxes, we accept that the full truth cannot be grasped by logic and reason alone. We stand in the presence of mysteries that will not become clear and transparent to us until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.