Category Archives: Tim Stevenson

Second Thessalonians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents 

Authorship

Second Thessalonians claims to be written by the apostle Paul, but it is sometimes grouped among the “disputed” letters; that is, its genuineness as a letter of the apostle is doubted, on the basis of internal evidence.

“External evidence” refers to the historical data, such as quotations by other early writers, ancient manuscripts, and explicit references. The odd thing about the charge of inauthenticity is that the external evidence for this letter is actually stronger than that for 1 Thessalonians, which is seldom doubted, if ever. Second Thessalonians is referred to in the very early work, the Didache, and by the writers Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr in the second century.

“Internal evidence” refers to the text of the letter itself, and considers such things as grammar, expressions, and thought patterns. Some liberal scholars have maintained that Paul’s doctrine of the end times (eschatology) is different than that found in 1 Thessalonians and his other letters.

Questioning the authenticity of biblical books for reasons like this is common among liberal scholars, but the problems with basing a case upon internal evidences are many. One is their subjective nature. In other words, these opinions are based on no more than the “gut feeling” of the scholars. Along with that, differences in grammar or expression can be accounted for by other reasons, such as the use of a different amanuensis (secretary). We should in humility also admit that there might have been circumstances that affected it of which we know nothing.

Most Bible students have found no inconsistency in the doctrine of 2 Thessalonians, and they believe that, along with the weight of historical witnesses, should carry the argument over subjective speculations.

Conservative scholars and Bible students have therefore dismissed the charges of those who rely on their “gut feeling” that the letter is not genuine. They have found that the strong historical evidences and the marks of Paul’s genuine teaching and doctrine are sufficient reasons to trust that this letter is from the apostle and the Word of God.

 

Backgroundtheossolian map

Within weeks or, at most, a few months of writing 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul wrote this second letter to that young congregation. Like the first, it was written from Corinth during Paul’s eighteen month ministry there. Since this letter followed the first so quickly, most of the Background discussion in “1 Thessalonians: the ABCs” applies here (see that webpage).

Some further information about the church had reached Paul, which stimulated him to write this letter. There seem to have been three major issues:

1.      The opposition faced by the believers in Thessalonica, which he alluded to in the first letter, had apparently become worse. Paul wanted to strengthen them to endure suffering for Christ’s sake.

2.      A counterfeit letter claiming to be from Paul, or some “prophetic” messages regarding the Lord’s Day, had unsettled them. Paul wanted to clarify his teaching and establish their expectations accurately.

3.      In light of those misunderstandings of what we commonly call the “end times,” some of the believers in Thessalonica were dropping out of normal everyday labor to “wait for the Lord.” Paul wanted to set them straight.

The estimated time of writing is the second half of A.D. 50, making it one of Paul’s earliest letters.

 

Contents

Paul’s letter deals with each of the issues mentioned in Background. They correspond with the three chapters into which the letter is divided.

  • The persecution faced by the Thessalonians and God’s promised answer.

In the first chapter, Paul acknowledges the persecution being received by the church, and commends them for their persevering faith. One reason they can take heart is the knowledge that God is observing their trials, and in his justice will one day deal with their persecutors:

 

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. (1:6-7)

 

In the meantime, Paul prays for their encouragement:

 

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. (1:11)

 

While none of us wants to experience opposition for our faith, it is always possible in this world. Paul’s perspective and prayers can guide us in how to respond when either we or other believers we know are persecuted.

 

  • Responding to confusion caused by a counterfeit message.

 

Paul begins the teaching portion of the letter by referring to a counterfeit message:

 

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. (2:1-2)

 

In the formative years of the church before the New Testament was written, the Lord sometimes delivered direct revelation through living prophets. It’s possible that a member of the church or a visitor had delivered a false prophecy that created confusion and fear among the people. It’s also possible that a counterfeit letter with Paul’s name attached had made its way there with the same kind of message.

Either the reality or the possibility of such a false letter moved Paul to add this at the end of 2 Thessalonians:

 

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. (3:17)

 

In other words, the original letter sent to Thessalonica included this sentence in Paul’s own handwriting with his autograph. It enabled them to check the authenticity of future communications.

 

  • Correcting their doctrinal understanding of end times prophecy.

 

The false message had apparently claimed that the Lord’s final wrap-up of history prior to inaugurating his kingdom had begun. Members of the church were afraid and confused, wondering if they had missed out somehow. In 2:1-11 Paul clarifies the specific order of events before “the Lord’s Day” to calm them and impart confidence.

In summary, the order of events is:

  1. The “rebellion” or “apostasy” comes first — a decisive and widespread falling away from professed “faith” which opens the way for:
  2. The appearance of “the man of lawlessness,” a world-wide leader who will arise. In other passages, he is known as “antichrist.”
  3. This “lawless one” will oppose the true God, and eventually reveal his true nature to the world by taking his place in God’s temple and demand to be honored as God. This event is predicted in the Old Testament book of Daniel, and was specifically referred to by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:15.

 

  • Encouragement for the Christians in Thessalonica.

 

The believers apparently feared that they had somehow been left for judgment, so Paul writes to reassure and encourage them. They were destined for salvation, not the wrath of God:

 

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachingswe passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2:13-15)

 

  • Clarifying priorities: Live and work faithfully and responsibly.

 

Throughout Christian history (even as this article is being written!) there have been misguided leaders who have set dates for the Lord’s return and urged believers to stop living ordinary lives, and instead to sell their possessions, wait on rooftops, etc. Paul decisively opposes such actions:

 

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teachingyou received from us. (3:6)

 

Paul points to his own example in contrast. He was not idle, but worked with his own hands in order to provide the right pattern for them to follow. In this context Paul delivers the strong message,

 

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (3:10)

 

Paul urges the church to confront this irresponsibility where it occurs. But lest overzealous believers overdo it and deal with others too harshly, Paul explains,

 

Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (3:15)

 

This is a pattern caring Christians should continue to follow today. Throughout the New Testament we are told to accept our mutual responsibility for one another. We should teach, encourage, counsel, admonish, and warn each other. But none of these things should be done in a harsh or vindictive manner. We are to speak and act in love, mercy, and grace, just as the Lord has done toward us.

  

Conclusion           

In 2 Thessalonians can be seen the close relationship between the believer’s future hope and present responsibilities. Hope in the Bible is never uncertain. It is not, as you hear in everyday speech, “I hope so” representing wishful thinking. The word “hope” in the Bible refers to our firm assurance and eager expectation of God’s sure promises.

And yet, Christians’ focus on future events surrounding the return of Christ does not produce the quality that’s been described “so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good.” It’s just the opposite. Our sure hope in Christ and in God’s coming kingdom lead us to live appropriately today. We should go about our business, working at our occupations, being good neighbors, and doing good in Jesus’ name while we wait for his return from heaven. The Scriptures give us enough understanding of future events that we can be alert and ready should we be the generation that lives to see them.

Second Thessalonians is a great help for keeping this balanced focus.

 

T.L.S.

First Thessalonians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents

  

Authorship

 

The letter begins with “Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you(1:1). Paul occasionally associates others’ names with his own in addressing his letters (2 Thessalonians, Philippians), but the true author is Paul.

 First Thessalonians has been universally accepted as Pauline from the beginning. It is cited by Ignatius between A. D. 109-114. It was included in the earliest canonical lists (lists of inspired New Testament Scriptures), and was quoted and mentioned by name by prominent 2nd and 3rd century Christian writers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Other than the radical German critics of the 19th century, its authenticity has been assumed by all.

First Thessalonians stands out also among New Testament writings in that it can be precisely dated. There are two extra-biblical historical markers that provide brackets for located it. Paul write from Corinth shortly after arriving there (see Background), giving us the first date. We are told in Acts 18:1-2:

 

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.

 

This same event was recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius in his lives of the 12 Caesars (about A.D. 121):

 

Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigations of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.

This event has been reliably dated around the year A.D. 49. Most historians accept that the comment on some agitator named “Chrestus” actually refers to Christ, which Suetonius had misunderstood. The “disturbances” were really probably disputes between Jewish Christians and non-Christian Jews in Rome about Jesus that were heated enough to draw the attention of the emperor. At any rate, that gives us A.D. 49 as the first bracket to locate the date of this letter.

The second date marker occurs also in Acts 18:

 

So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” (Acts 18:11-13)

A stone inscription found by archaeologists confirms that Gallio was appointed proconsul of Achaia in the summer of A.D. 51. That gives us the outer marker. Since Paul probably wrote 1 Thessalonians early in his ministry at Corinth, the time of writing was probably the Spring of A.D. 50, though a year plus or minus is possible.

First Thessalonians is therefore at least the second-earliest letter of Paul in the New Testament; the earliest, if Galatians is dated in the 50s as some scholars believe. This letter gives us convincing historical evidence of what Paul taught and Christians believed only two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection (usually dated either A.D. 30 or 33). Contrary to skeptical theories about “the long, gradual development of Christian beliefs,” this short letter shows the presence of every significant New Testament doctrine, demonstrating that the gospel has been preached in its fullness from the very beginning.

 

BackgroundThessalonians Art

 

There is remarkable harmony between 1 Thessalonians and the description of Paul’s ministry and movements in Acts 17-18. The founding of the church in Thessalonica is described in Acts 17:1-4:

 

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

 

Some Bible students have take the statement “on three Sabbath days” to indicate that Paul had stayed in Thessalonica only three to four weeks. This is probably a misunderstanding, however. It is more likely that he then left his attempts in the synagogue and moved out to do work significantly with the Gentiles for many more weeks. More time would probably have been needed to win “a large number of God-fearing Greeks.”

First Thessalonians contains indications that Paul did indeed stay longer than 3-4 weeks. For example, in 2:9 he speaks of his personal example, demonstrating his willingness to work for his own support rather than receiving from them — an example that would have taken longer to demonstrate. Second, in Philippians 4:15-16 Paul reminds the Philippians that they had sent financial support to help him in Thessalonica at least twice, if not more, indicating a longer stay to allow for several 100 mile journeys between the cities. Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was a relatively short, but probably a few months rather than weeks.

Acts 17:5-9 describes the events that precipitated Paul’s departure:

 

But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

 

Knowing that Roman authorities had no interest in intervening in what they saw as internal Jewish divisions (see Acts 18:12-16 for a failed attempt by Jewish leaders to do so), Paul’s opponents aimed their attack where Rome was sensitive. The basic “loyalty oath” of the Roman Empire was contained in the assertion, “Caesar is lord.” Christians were seen as insurrectionists because of their counter-assertion, “Jesus is Lord.” There was a great deal of religious tolerance in the Roman Empire, but there was absolutely no tolerance regarding who was lord. The charge that Christians were proclaiming “another king” was certain to get the authorities’ attention. In this case, they demanded a sort of “peace bond” from Jason, to be forfeited if there were more trouble. This led Paul to leave town.

The circumstances of his departure naturally caused Paul to have anxious concerns about the church he left behind. Acts says he sent Timothy back to check on the condition of the church while he continued to Athens and Corinth.

Acts 18:5 then picks up the story:

 

When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.

 

These same movements are mentioned in 1 Thes. 3:1-7

 

So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith … But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. (3:1-2, 6-7)

 

So, having heard good news about the persevering faith of the Thessalonians, Paul rejoices. But Timothy has also brought news that they need answers to questions and confusion, so Paul addresses them in this letter of encouragement.

 

Contents1-thessalonians-59_2159_1600x1200

 

Though brief, 1 Thessalonians is full of profound teaching from the apostle. As said above, every major New Testament doctrine is mentioned in this letter. Along with doctrinal teaching, there are also strong exhortations for believers to live according to God’s will.

 

Watch for some of the following themes:

 

  • The converting power of the gospel.

 

The apostle Paul was surely one of the most active preachers of all time, but he never accepted credit for the conversion of his listeners. He always preached Christ in complete dependency on the Lord, and always attributed the “success” of his preaching to the converting work of the Holy Spirit. See 1:5

 

  • A clear description of what conversion entails.

 

In the first chapter, Paul describes the publicly obvious conversion of the Thessalonians, and the description is striking:

 

… you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1:9-10)

 

Notice the elements: 1) they turned both “to God” and “from idols”; 2) that turning involved worshipping/serving “the true and living God” in contrast to their former idolatry; 3) their faith centers on God’s “Son,” who both died and rose from the dead; 4) and this same Jesus will return, an event for which they “wait”; 5) and that Christ provides salvation from the final judgment, which will be “wrath” for those who face it apart from him.

Notice how much Christian doctrine is included in this partial sentence. All this in a verse-and-a-half!

 

  • Paul’s example: Embodying as well as preaching the gospel.

 

For the apostle, the gospel was not just information to be shared; it was a life to be embodied, following Christ himself. Paul demonstrated sincere faith that seeks to please God rather than men, selfless service for others, and gentle leadership. See 2:5-12.

 

  • Exhortation to live sexually pure.

 

Sexual license was rampant in Greco-Roman society. Though there was some lip-service to “traditional family values” among conservative Romans, it was by and large just that: lip-service. Mistresses for married men and regular participation with prostitutes were basically assumed. Homosexuality was common, especially among the Greeks, and often included pederasty. Further, many of the religious cults included sexual acts as part of their “worship.” Sexual purity was an unknown concept.

In such a world, the new Christian movement was genuinely counter-cultural, truly revolutionary. The biblical values regarding sex and marriage from both the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus would have been brand new to Gentile converts. But the standards are firm, and are clearly the will of God. See 4:1-8

 

  • Eager expectation for the return of Christ.

 

One of the observations quickly made by students of 1 Thessalonians is the many references to the second coming of the Lord. Keep in mind that the chapter and verse divisions so familiar to us were not in the original text. Nevertheless, the fact that Christ’s return is mentioned in every one of the five chapters as we know them shows that this is a major theme of the letter. The return of Christ has been the fervent hope of believers from the first century to today. See 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23

 

  • What happens to believers who die.

 

Evidently, some members of the Thessalonian church had died since Paul’s departure, and they were unclear how deceased members of the church figured in the events of Christ’s return. Their questions gave Paul the opportunity to write a key passage to clarify for them, and us, what we hope to experience through rapture or resurrection. See 4:13-18

 

  • Focus on Christian community

 

Even though this gathering of believers had existed only for a matter of months, they had already become a community. Paul calls them to exercise their mutual responsibilities to care for each other, encourage one another, admonish one another, and seek for one another’s good. See 5:11-15

 

Conclusion           

For those who wonder what it would have been like to be a member of one of the earliest Christian congregations, 1 Thessalonians provides a glimpse. There was nothing more important than Jesus Christ: Who he is, what he did, and what he will do. In the meantime, as we wait for his return, what does God want from us? What will happen when he does return?

The first hearers of Paul’s letter wanted to know the same things we do today. This letter of Paul provides valuable perspectives from his early ministry.

 

T.L.S.

The Epistle to the Hebrews: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents

 The-book-of-Hebrews

 

Authorship

 

The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with a formal opening like that of a speaker who has already been introduced and therefore does not identify himself. Even after hundreds of years of scholarly inquiry, the authorship of Hebrews remains unknown.

Some have asserted Hebrews shares similarities with the thinking of the apostle Paul, but it is not his usual style or subject matter. Many have suggested that it was written by someone within Paul’s circle, and a comment near the end supports this idea:

 

I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. (13:23)

 

Tertullian, who lived around A.D. 160-220, claimed that in his time it was called “the Epistle of Barnabas to the Hebrews.” This could account for the Pauline similarities, since Barnabas and Paul worked together for several years. Also, according to Acts 4:36, Barnabas was a Levite, which could have well-prepared him to write this epistle. The Levitical system is explained in detail in the letter and compared to Christ’s surpassing fulfillment of it. But the historical case for his authorship is very flimsy.

Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 150-215) says that Paul did write the letter, and accounts for the differences in style by suggesting that he wrote it in the Hebrew language, which was then translated into Greek by Luke.

Two centuries later, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) claimed that most in his time believed that Paul wrote Hebrews, but also admitted that many denied it.

Probably the best-balanced view was offered by the ancient commentator Origen (about A.D. 185-254), who wrote that while some believed that Paul wrote it, the style of the letter did not support the idea:

The thoughts are the apostle’s, but the diction and phraseology belong to someone who has recorded what the apostle said, and as one who noted down at his leisure what his master dictated.

Origin then concludes with the comment that should guide all of us who follow:

 

But who it was that really wrote the epistle, God only knows.

However, even though we don’t know who wrote the letter, we can make an educated guess about what kind of person wrote Hebrews. Based on internal evidence, the letter was written by a Hellenistic Jew (a Jew living outside the Holy Land whose language and culture were Greek), who was highly educated and trained in the Greek rhetorical style.

While there is no evidence that Paul’s associate Apollos wrote this letter, the description of him given in probably also applies to the unknown writer of Hebrews:

 

a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. (Acts 19:24)

 

Following the “golden age” of philosophy in Athens (about 500 B.C.-300 B.C.), Alexandria in northern Egypt became the greatest intellectual center of the Mediterranean world, famous for its schools and library. For example, at the time of Cleopatra’s death (30 B.C.), it was noted that the library possessed over half a million scrolls (books). There were numerous philosophical and rhetorical schools at Alexandria, and also a very large Jewish community that had a long and strong intellectual tradition. Calling Apollos “a learned man” meant he had a formal education in rhetoric, as well as training in the Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint. The impact he made on the synagogues and churches bears this out:

 

he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 19:27-28).

 

In fact, Apollos’s eloquence was so admired that he (inadvertently) became Paul’s popular rival in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1:11-12). That Paul and Apollos had no personal rivalry is proven by Paul’s attitude toward him in 1 Cor. 16:12.

Whoever wrote this letter was a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian who had an education as high as was available in the Greco-Roman world, and a thorough education in the Old Testament and traditions.

As far as this letter’s date, it can be approximately located. Even though an “argument from silence” is normally a weak form of evidence, this is a case where it is extremely powerful because it touches on a critical fact. One of the writer’s most important assertions is that the Old Covenant had ended in Christ, and that the sacrifices commanded under the Law were therefore obsolete. The ultimate historical proof of his argument would be the destruction of the Temple, which happened in A.D. 70. That the author did not exploit the Roman destruction can be taken as strong proof that this letter was written before then. The Romans conducted a fierce persecution of Christians in Rome from A.D. 64 to the death of Nero in 68, which provides a probable window.

In the opinion of the vast majority of scholars, therefore, this letter can be dated in the A.D. 60s, certainly before A.D. 70.

 

Background

 

I.            Style: A Synagogue Sermon Put to Writing

 

Hebrews presents a polished and sophisticated example of a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian sermon. Internally, especially evident to those who can read the original Greek, the letter reads like a spoken sermon put to writing. It is full of rhetorical techniques a polished orator of the time would use, and numerous signs that the writer intended it to be publicly read and heard by listeners.

At the close of the letter, the writer refers to it as “my word of exhortation” (13:22). This same expression is used in Acts 13:15, where a local synagogue official invites Paul to speak:

 

Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.

 

The Greek phrase is virtually identical: in the Greek, “message” = “word” and “exhortation” = “encouragement.” This has led some scholars to the conclusion that “word of exhortation” or “encouragement” was a common expression for a biblical sermon in Hellenistic synagogues of the time.

Hebrews was written to some Jewish-Christian congregations outside the Holy Land. That they were Jewish congregations is easily seen by a casual reading: It is permeated by the Old Testament Scriptures, and Israel’s history and practice of the Law of Moses is referred to in every chapter. Experts in ancient Greek are unanimous in testifying that the Greek of this letter is of the highest quality and fluency. As a comparison, it shows the kind of sophisticated vocabulary and grammar that an English speaker who has received a doctorate degree at Oxford or Harvard would use.

Many students have concluded that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians in Rome. This may be indicated by the letter’s final greeting:

 

Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings. (13:24)

 

“Those from Italy” sound like people sending greetings to those back home, Jewish-Christian congregations in or near Rome. This may also be supported by the fact that the earliest known citing of Hebrews is in the letter known as 1 Clement, an epistle from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth about A.D. 95.

 

II.            Occasion: Believers Fearful and Wavering.

 

Through the writer’s counter-teaching, we can discern that these Jewish-Christian believers were facing ostracism, threats, and a possible onslaught of persecution. These fears had not yet progressed to the point of martyrdom:

 

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (12:4)

 

However, some of them had actually withdrawn from fellowship due to fear, or were considering doing so. Therefore the writer uses strong language in warning them of the seriousness of these decisions, like “falling away” (6:6), “trampling the Son of God under foot” (12:29), or “selling one’s birthright” as Esau did (12:16).

From other things the writer says, it is clear that most of these Jewish-Christians were not new believers. They had been believers for some time, and in fact had successfully dealt in the past with various sufferings for Christ’s sake. This is indicated in several passages. Two examples:

 

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (5:11-12)

 

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. (10:32-34)

 

What was happening now? If this was indeed the period A.D. 64-68, then the first official governmental persecution was either immanent or had begun under the insane Emperor Nero. The first victims of this persecution were the Gentile Christians because of an important fact: Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. As long as Christianity was seen as a subset of Judaism, believers enjoyed general tolerance from the authorities (for an example, see Acts 18:12-17). But more and more, as the church became predominantly Gentile, that interpretation became harder to maintain.

Non-Christian Jews began to complain to Roman authorities that the Christian movement was something entirely different, which in the 60s in Rome put them in real jeopardy. The temptation faced by the Jewish-Christians was that of playing down or abandoning their allegiance to Christ in order to return to the safe umbrella of officially-sanctioned Judaism.

The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to discourage such actions and to encourage them to stay true to Christ.

 

Contents

 

The goal of the writer is to encourage these Jewish Christians to remain faithful to Christ in the face of fear. He does so by demonstrating that the Old Covenant system is obsolete, and that all has been brought to completion in Christ.

 

I.            A Commentary on Psalm 110 in Light of Jesus Christ.

 

There is no Old Testament verse quoted and alluded to in the New Testament more than Psalm 110:1:

 

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

 

During the last week of Jesus’ ministry, he engaged in several disputes with the scribes and Pharisees. Psalm 110 was already recognized by Jewish scholars as a prophecy of the Messiah. The first “LORD” in the verse is the sacred name of God, Yahweh. The second “Lord” refers to God’s human representative, the Messiah. Citing this verse, Jesus confronted the Pharisees with something they apparently had missed — that the Messiah was not only a human being, but a divine being. First he asked who the Messiah is, and received the answer, “the son of David.” Jesus then asked,

 

“How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? … If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:41-45)

 

The answer is that the Messiah would be both David’s descendant according to the flesh, and his divine Lord, because the Messiah will be God incarnate.

Psalm 110:1 is a prophetic view of God giving all authority to the Messiah in view of his competed work. But what completed work? Verse 4 adds this pronouncement:

 

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

 

Here is revealed a mystery that the Old Testament never answers: How can the Messiah be from the lineage of David and also a priest? And what does the “order of Melchizedek” mean, when the only reference to that character was a brief story in Genesis 14. But David, speaking by divine inspiration, is hinting of a truth that will not be understood until the coming of Jesus. Priests under the Law of Moses had to be from the tribe of Levi, while David and the royal line were of the tribe of Judah. Therefore, Jesus could not serve as a priest under the Law. However, if his priesthood is of a different kind, he could. The writer goes on to explore every implication of this verse, including what kind of priest he will be, what kind of sacrifice he will make, and what it means that he is shown “sitting down.”

Like a great oak grows from a single small acorn, the Epistle to the Hebrews grows from these two verses, Ps. 110:1 and 4. The writer of Hebrews builds a complete argument proving the supremacy of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

 

II.            The Supremacy of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

 

The first four verses of the letter are like a formal opening of a speech, and by v. 3 the author has cited Psalm 110:1 and set the stage for his argument:

 

After he [Christ] had provided purification of sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

 

Being seated at the right hand of God proves Christ’s complete superiority. The writer goes on to assert that he is better (or superior) in every way.

 

  • He is better than the angels (chapters 1-2)
  • He is better than Moses (ch. 3)
  • He is better as high priest than Aaron (ch. 5)
  • His priesthood is better than the Levites (ch. 7)
  • His New Covenant is better than the Old (the Law of Moses) (ch. 8)
  • His sacrifice is better than anything available in the Old (chs. 9-10)

 

To crown his argument, the writer again uses the image of Psalm 110:1 to prove the complete and final accomplishment of Jesus’ death on the cross (allusions italicized):

 

And by that [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (10:10-14)

 

Since Christ has died for sins “once and for all,” he is sitting down — his work is finished! That means the Old Covenant system is obsolete:

 

And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin. (10:18)

 

This conclusion creates the foundation for all the “warning passages” in Hebrews: Since Christ’s accomplishment has made the old system obsolete, their choices are to trust in Christ or abandon all hope. There is nowhere else to go.

 

III.            Warning Passages in Hebrews.

 

The facts outlined in the last two sections provide the building blocks for the writer’s main purpose: To exhort these anxious Jewish-Christians to continue in their faith in Christ, rather than drawing back due to fear. Throughout the letter are exhortation sections where he pauses from teaching and calls for faithful action.

The most prominent warning passages are 5:11-6:8; 10:26-39; and chapters 11 through 12. These sections have often been pulled out of context, and, as a result, have frightened many sincere believers into doubting their salvation. That was hardly the writer’s intent! Also, many have used them to teach that it’s possible for a Christian to lose his salvation. That is not what they are saying.

One of the most important metaphors used by the writer can be found in 3:7-4:10. There he compares his listeners to the generation of Israelites who had been led out of Egypt by Moses. The passage refers to the story found in Numbers 13-14, where the people defiantly rejected Moses’s leadership. Refusing to go ahead to the Promised Land, they vowed to return to Egypt. God pronounced his judgment on that generation, saying they would not enter his rest (the Promised Land), but that he would bring their children in when they had all died in the desert.

An important point about that Israelite generation is that God forgave them (see Numbers 14:20). If they represented “loss of salvation,” this would not be true. However, they never saw God’s Promised Land. You could say they were forgiven, but disqualified from their inheritance.

The “Promised Land” symbolically represents “rest” in the Christian life through faith in the completed work and sufficiency of Christ:

 

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his work, just as God did from his. (4:9-10)

 

The thrust of the warning passages, therefore, is to urge believers to press on in faith, and not to lose the rewards promised to those who persevere. The Israelites of the Exodus generation could not return to Egypt even if they had wished. Their choices were only to press on to the Promised Land or die in the desert. The Jewish-Christians who were the original recipients of this letter also had only two choices: To hold true to Christ and receive all the benefits of assurance, comfort, and help he gives; or to draw back, with nowhere else to go. The old system, being obsolete, offers no third option.

 

Conclusion

 

This brief paper cannot do justice to this amazingly profound and spiritually nutritious book. Scholar E. Schuyler English has written:

 

The Epistle to the Hebrews, one of the most important books of the New Testament in that it contains some of the chief doctrines of the Christian faith, is, as well, a book of infinite logic and great beauty. To read it is to breathe the atmosphere of heaven itself. To study it is to partake of strong spiritual meat. To abide in its teachings is to be led from immaturity to maturity in the knowledge of Christian truth and of Christ Himself. It is to “go on unto perfection.”

 

Hebrews is a lifetime study, and will prove, reading after reading, to challenge, teach, and encourage.

T.L.S.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: The ABCs

be kindAuthorship, Background, and Contents of Ephesians 

  

Authorship

 

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians has long been considered the epitome of his teaching, a virtual summary of Christian doctrine. Well-loved Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee called it “the Mount Whitney of the High Sierras of all Scripture.” The epistle has nourished, taught, and encouraged believers from its original writing.

Its universal appreciation makes it even more puzzling to evangelical believers to discover that the authenticity of Ephesians has been under severe attack since the rise of liberal skepticism in the 19th century. Many liberals have called it a forgery, a summary by some other writer of the teachings of Paul.

Not only is this critical attack surprising to a modern believer, but it is launched against powerful and completely consistent historical evidence of its genuineness. As W. G. Kümmel writes, “without question, Ephesians was extraordinarily well attested in the early Church.” Ephesians is found in every early canonical list (“canonical” = divinely inspired New Testament writings). There are allusions or quotes from Ephesians in the earliest Christian writings, including the book known as 1 Clement, dated about A.D. 95. There are references in the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp in the early second century, and in many others.

 

Scholar A. Skevington Wood comments on the overwhelming evidence:

 

It is on such an impressive basis that the case for authenticity rests. When unanimous external attestation is supported by sufficiently convincing internal evidence, we are surely justified in insisting that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to repudiate the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.

 

So what are the charges that critics make? There are three main lines of attack:

  1. That Ephesians shows a different style and vocabulary than Paul’s other works.

This charge is disputed by conservative scholars. Not only is it based on “subjective gut feel,” it is simply not true. Other students find that similarities with Paul’s style are clearly present.

Along with this, writers of many persuasions have shown the flimsy nature of this kind of analysis. Since when does a writer have only one distinct style? Subject matter and context make a huge difference. The same screen writer who has created a psychological thriller could use a completely different style and vocabulary if writing a romantic comedy. Who would write a technical article in the same style as a friendly letter? Or a love letter? Surely, an intellect as great as the apostle Paul’s is capable of more than one literary style.

  1. That Ephesians appears to be dependent on other Pauline works, especially Colossians.

First of all, an author has every right to reuse some of his own material whenever he likes, especially for similar situations and times. The charge that Ephesians “has too much material in common with Paul’s other writings” is really rather strange. It seems that critics are saying, “Ephesians is to be considered non-Pauline because it sounds too much like Paul.” A normal person would be excused for thinking these critics are rather hard to please!

To the second part, yes, there are clearly parallels with Colossians (this will be discussed in Background). Scholar Curtis Vaughn points out that three-fifths of Colossians can be found in Ephesians, and says,

We can best account for the similarities of the epistles on the supposition that Ephesians is an expansion by Paul of ideas presented in compact form in Colossians.

If both letters were written at the same time to similar audiences, this is to be expected.

A landmark study by E. Randolph Richards called Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (InterVarsity Press, 2004) makes important scholarly advances in our knowledge of how letters were composed in the New Testament era. Richards demonstrates how writers of the time used secretaries, kept notebooks of material to be used in multiple letters, and made drafts before final copies of important letters were dispatched. If Paul reused material from Colossians in Ephesians, or vice versa, he would have simply been doing what many other literary figures of his time did. It is the exact opposite of proving inauthenticity.

If the charges of skeptics are explored, another inconsistent and puzzling pattern emerges. One critic says that Ephesians is not genuine because it depends on Colossians. Another skeptic says that Colossians is not genuine because it depends on Ephesians. Once again, the accusations of critics seem to wander in a self-contradictory circle. It’s easiest to explain the similarities by common authorship. Paul wrote them both.

  1. That Ephesians shows an “ecclesiastical development” too advanced for the traditional time of writing (“ecclesiastical” = relating to church structure and organization).

This opinion is based on “evolutionary theories” of how early Christianity developed, which are speculative, unproveable, and highly debatable. To assume that the first century church grew in such-and-such a manner (which cannot be observed or examined, and for which there is no historical evidence), and then to say “Ephesians is not genuine” based on those theories turns a “historian” into a writer of fiction. Faithful Christians need not grant the time of day to those who “just know” that their opinions are true in the face of all actual evidence.

 

In conclusion, A. Skeffington Wood describes the case for the Paul’s authorship of Ephesians:

 

Its strength lies in the incontestability of the external attestation corroborated by impressive internal testimony. Only an overwhelming conclusive counterargument could disturb the traditional interpretation. Those who reject Pauline authorship appeal to internal data. Even if objections of this kind were to be sustained, the consistent historical authentication of Ephesians would remain as an insurmountable barrier.

 

Most of the controversy about Ephesians deals with its authorship, which we will now take for granted as being Paul. It is classed with the “prison epistles” (Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) because of Paul’s comment in 6:20. The date of the letter is likely A.D. 62 from Rome (see “Colossians: the ABCs” for more discussion of Paul’s circumstances, and other suggestions of the place and date of writing).

 

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues to serve as an excellent concise summary of his teaching on Christ, the believer, and the Christian life. Anyone who digests this teaching will find his heart nourished, his mind illumined, and his life enriched.

 

Background

 

There is a genuine mystery about Ephesians, but it is not about who wrote it. Paul did. The actual mystery is about to whom he was writing.

To a new student this sounds strange. After all, it’s entitled “to the Ephesians,” isn’t it? The answer is: No one knows for sure.

In the earliest and highest quality ancient Greek manuscripts, the words “to the Ephesians” are missing. There is actually a blank space. This is not only evidenced by those manuscripts. Early Christian writers commented on it as well. Yes, as time went on, all later copies included the address, but this seems to be a matter of growing convention rather than accuracy.

Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which comprised approximately the western fourth of modern Turkey. It was a large and important city on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Historians now know that there were over 230 independent communities in this province. Paul had an extensive ministry there around the years A.D. 54-57, and the church dramatically grew both in Ephesus and throughout Asia, as Paul’s disciples went forth and evangelized. For example, we know of one individual by name, Epaphras, who founded the church in Colossae (see Colossians 1:7), in the Lycus River valley about 100 miles east of the capital.

It is easy to imagine this scenario being duplicated in dozens, if not hundreds, of other communities in this province: Small churches springing up as faithful believers shared the good news. The apostle would have been thrilled with the news, but it also created a problem for him: With all his traveling, and now being imprisoned, how could Paul personally provide these multiplying churches with a sound doctrinal foundation? Ephesians was likely the result.

The most likely reason for the blank space in the earliest manuscripts is that Ephesians was actually a circular letter, or an “encyclical,” meaning a letter written to be circulated throughout a whole region, in this case to all the churches in the province of Asia. Ephesus being the capital city, is easy to imagine how the “to the Ephesians” became attached. If Paul were to write a letter to all the churches in north Texas, it would be natural for it to become known as “Paul’s letter to the Dallasites.” It’s likely it would take on this name, in spite of the fact that it was also sent to congregations in Grapevine, Lewisville, Denton, Coppell, and Plano.

In Colossians, Paul tells them,

 

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Col. 4:16)

 

If you have never heard of “Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans,” it is for good reason. There is no letter known today by that name. Though this cannot be decisively proven, it seems likely that Paul is referring to the circular letter we know as Ephesians (interestingly, one second century list does name a letter “to the Laodiceans” while appearing actually to refer to Ephesians).

 

Quoting from “Colossians: the ABCs”:

 

While Colossians is specific, argumentative and full of warnings, Ephesians seems general and uncontroversial. While they cover many of the same truths, Ephesians seems to be generally teaching a survey of Christian beliefs, while Colossians discusses many of the same truths as if they were under attack, which they were. If Ephesians is a lamp to illumine a room, Colossians is a laser beam to eradicate a cancer.

 

This is why Paul wrote two letters at the same time. Colossians was created to address a church’s specific problems. Ephesians was composed to teach many churches general truths every believer needs to know. That explains why Ephesians shows a lack of specific circumstances or problems addressed, and why it seems in a way “impersonal.” It’s certainly not impersonal in the sense that Paul is sharing from his heart about the riches that Christ has accomplished for every saint, and about the kind of living by which believers can glorify him.

 

Contents

 

Though only six chapters in length, Ephesians is jam-packed with theological meat and practical instruction. It does not take very long to read it through, but the ideas are profound enough to occupy one for a lifetime.

The letter is perfectly balanced. The first three chapters are doctrinal teaching on what it means to be a Christian. The last three chapters discuss what it means to live as a Christian. Ephesians can actually be outlined and grasped in just two key verses. First:

 

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (1:3)

 

Chapters 1 — 3 can be understood as a commentary on this one verse: What it means that God has given us “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Second:

 

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (4:1)

 

Chapters 4 — 6 go on to explain what it means to live in such a way that Jesus Christ is glorified.

Here are some of the main themes explored in the letter:

  • What it means to be “in Christ” — The phrase “in Christ” and its equivalents (e.g., “in him,” “in whom”) are found in Ephesians about 30 times. To be “in Christ” means the result of our total identification with him in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Because we believers are “in Christ,” we have “every spiritual blessing”: adoption as sons (1:5); redemption and forgiveness (1:7); the sealing of the Holy Spirit (1:13-14); new spiritual life (2:4-5); we are seated with him in the heavenlies (2:6); salvation (2:8-9); and much more.
  • God’s new temple, the church, consisting of Jew and Gentile — In an extended discussion from 2:11-3:13, Paul expounds on the “mystery” which God now announced through the apostles, which is the church. No longer will people find their identities in ethnic or religious backgrounds, because all believers are one in Christ. The Lord has broken down the wall of separation, the Law of Moses, which kept Jews and Gentiles apart. All are now equal brothers and sisters in a completely new entity, the body of Christ, which is God’s new dwelling place.
  • Prayers for understanding — Twice in the first three chapters, Paul pauses his teaching to pray for his hearers (1:15-19 and 3:14-21). He appears to sense that the profound spiritual truths he’s relating cannot be understood by human intellect alone — that we need the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to receive them in a genuinely life-transforming way. Pray these prayers for yourself. Ask God to open your mind and heart to receive and understand how great is the love he has given you in Christ.
  • How the church is meant to function — In 4:11-16, Paul builds on the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, and shows how it is meant to function on earth. The purpose of gifted leaders, he says, is not to do all the work of ministry, but to equip God’s people to serve. As our human bodies need many different parts to fulfill different functions, so the body of Christ needs all believers to contribute their unique gifts for the good of all and for the effectiveness of the whole church.
  • Practical teaching on right and wrong behavior — In 4:25-32 we are given several quick exhortations on right and wrong behavior. Paul’s practicality as a teacher is shown in how he approaches it. For example, it’s not enough just to “stop stealing,” Paul says. Such a person “must work, doing something with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (4:28). Notice that Paul says in effect, “Don’t do this,” but doesn’t stop there. He adds, “Do this,” then “Here’s why.” That’s how someone learns how to stop a bad habit, but just as importantly, build a new one based on a new framework of motivation. Each exhortation in the section follows this pattern.
  • Focus on the heart of Christian living, walking by the Spirit — The heart of the matter is the heart. Paul is never satisfied with outward conformity, and he calls believers to live by Christ’s resources, beginning with the decision to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). The verb tense implies a continuous dependence, by which a believer yields to Christ’s lordship and to the Holy Spirit as one’s power for living. The result then flows into all the spheres of life.
  • Instruction for various relationships on earth — Regardless of how “spiritual” one is, there are common realities of structures and relationships in which we work out our union with Christ: marriage (5:22-33 is surely the most famous passage on marriage in the Bible), parent-child, and work (for most people then, slaves and masters; today, applying to employees-employers). Those in the “head” position are called to serve lovingly, wisely, and justly; those in the “subordinate” role are called to respect their authority and serve as if they are serving Christ himself.
  • Encouragement for spiritual warfare — In a well-known passage (6:10-20), Paul encourages believers to be prepared for spiritual conflict and to take hold of all the resources Christ gives, illustrated by the armor of a Roman soldier. Besides the defensive armor of helmet and breastplate, the believer has the offensive weapon of the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). But don’t stop there. There is the “artillery” of spiritual warfare, which is prayer. Therefore Paul says, “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (6:18), as well as for himself.

 

Conclusion

 

F. W. Faber once wrote,

 

Deep theology is the best fuel of devotion; it readily catches fire, and once kindled it burns long.

 

While there are many places in the Word of God to find “deep theology,” Ephesians may be the most concise and concentrated collection of spiritual truth about Christ in the Bible. Not only will the reader learn a tremendous amount in a short investment of time, he or she will find a bold and life-changing presentation of how great is God’s love for us in Christ.

Oswald Chambers said,

Take an absolute plunge into the love of God, and when you are there you will be amazed at your foolishness for not getting there before.

 

There are few places in the Bible where you can take a plunge into the love of God more refreshing than Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.

T.L.S.

What Was the Colossian Heresy?

For centuries Bible students have tried to identify the particular form of false teaching opposed by Paul in Colossians. In reality, no one knows. The apostle does not name names or explain particulars, since they would have been well-known to the original recipients of the letter, and his greater concern was teaching the correcting truth.colossians1_18

We can, however, piece together the general shape of the heresy by observing Paul’s counterarguments. Growth in historical studies has also provided more understanding of the cultural and religious background of the first few centuries A.D., and this has helped us make sense of the problem in Colossae.

 

What is a “heresy”?

 

First, a note on the word “heresy.” Heresy has become a loaded and emotional term in our culture. It often conjures up pictures of medieval torture chambers or people burning at the stake. In discussions of the Bible or theological usage it means no such thing. Heresy simply defined means “teaching, doctrine, or practice that is a departure from revealed truth.” Heresies are errors that arise from within, or infiltrate from without, professing Christian ranks.

 

Keep in mind that every disagreement among Christians does not constitute a heresy. The term refers to departures from the truth in regard to the most important foundational truths of the Bible. Some examples would include the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the fact and meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Bible as the Word of God, and how salvation is received (by faith alone in Christ). Every cult is labeled as such because it denies most or all the biblical teaching on these major issues. On the other hand, denominations are Christian groups that disagree over relatively minor and debatable issues, while they agree on the fundamentals.

 

Therefore, “the Colossian heresy” refers to the particular brand of serious false teaching that was disturbing the believers in that assembly.

 

I.         Characteristics of the Colossian Heresy

 

False Teaching Regarding Jesus Christ

 

As explained in the introductory article, “Colossians: the ABCs,” a leading characteristic of the false teaching in Colossae is the devaluation of Jesus Christ. This can be seen in the letter in two ways:

 

1.     Paul’s counterarguments about the supremacy of Christ. There is nothing taught in Colossians that can’t be found in Paul’s other letters, but in no other passage is there such a forceful and concentrated emphasis on the deity and supremacy of Christ as in Col. 1:15-22. Then in Col. 2:9 Paul asserts the deity of Christ in unmistakable language:

 

For in Christ all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form.

 

Who is Jesus Christ? God, says Paul. And not just “partly” God or a “semi-God.” All that is God can be found now and forever incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ. Paul is clearly trying to make it impossible to misunderstand that Jesus Christ is God and that He is supreme over all things.

 

2.     Clear warnings against deception and encouragements to stay firmly grounded in Christ. Paul expresses his concern that, while the Colossians have begun well in Christ, some of them may have moved away. In explaining the redeeming work of Christ, Paul says the result is that believers can stand “holy in His sight, without blemish, and free from accusation” (1:22), but then adds a disclaimer:

 

If you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (1:23)

 

In other words, Paul can confidently state how they stand in the Lord’s eyes providing they haven’t moved on to some other “gospel” than the one Paul teaches.

 

Positively, Paul expresses his hope and prayer that the Colossians

 

may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (2:2-3)

 

As stated in the introductory article, the central warning of the letter is 2:8:

 

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ.

 

Whatever the false teachers were saying, they were clearly devaluing the person and role of Jesus Christ in their doctrines. Paul will not have it, and this letter is a straightforward defense of the position the Lord should have in believers’ minds and hearts.

 

False Teaching about Religious Practices

 

Besides the false teachers’ errors about Christ Himself, they also were apparently promoting a definition of spiritual living that was leading people astray. Paul therefore issues direct warnings against being deceived in three categories, which can help us understand what the heresy was about.

 

1.         Warnings against legalism.

 

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. (2:16)

 

The essence of legalism is the notion that God’s acceptance is earned and maintained through our behavior; that God’s acceptance is conditional, rather than offered freely through faith in Jesus Christ. The false teachers apparently were telling the Colossians that faith in Christ is not enough, that they must observe the regulations of the Law of Moses. This is an indicator that at least part of the heresy involved Jewish law-keeping. Any form of “Christ-plus” is to be rejected. It doesn’t matter if it’s “Christ plus good works,” or “Christ plus church activities,” or “Christ plus sacraments.” Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

 

2.        Warnings against mysticism.

 

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. (2:18)

 

The false teachers may have claimed to have had “divine visions” as the basis of their authority. Mysticism has been a part of almost all of the world religions, and is basically the attempt to bypass objective truth to gain direct experience of “spiritual reality.” Even in our day many people are impressed by others’ claims of mystical experiences or “inside knowledge.” Don’t be impressed or deceived, Paul says. The truth of God and Jesus Christ have been clearly and publicly proclaimed, and there are no “secret truths” available to some elite group. Such claims only mark the person as arrogant and puffed up with spiritual pride. If you have Christ you have everything you need.

 

3.         Warnings against asceticism.

 

Since you have died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? (2:20-21)

 

Asceticism has also been practiced in almost all world religions. It is severe self-discipline in external matters in the effort to become “spiritual.” Typical practices include extreme fasting and celibacy. When you consider that most of us wrestle to some degree with self-control, it is not surprising that we are often impressed by the rigorous self-denial of people who do these things. But Paul punctures the illusion:

 

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (2:23)

 

Paul exposes these practices for what they are — the attempt to attain spirituality from the outside-in. Outside-in spirituality, however, is a sham. It doesn’t work, because it cannot change the heart. Only through the inside-out work of the Holy Spirit (Christ in us) does real spiritual growth and transformation take place. So don’t be deceived by these practitioners. Paul then goes on in Chapter 3 to explain how we actually live out the work of Christ in our lives. It is through knowing who we are in Christ, and choosing to present our minds and bodies to him for his use.

 

 

II.                  Insights from Historical Studies.

 

As has been explained, no one knows for sure who the false teachers were, or what particular heresy was troubling the believers in Colossae. We can, however, approach a general description of it.

 

Religions of all kinds could be found in the Roman Empire of the first century. According to Clinton E. Arnold,

The Christians at Colossae lived in an environment of religious pluralism. They coexisted with people who worshipped Anatolian, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities and with Jews who were devoted to the worship of one god and the observance of Torah. The manner of devotion and religious expression was quite varied among the different groups.

 

Just as in our time, the dominant religious attitude was Syncretism, the selecting and blending of religious ideas into new forms according to one’s wishes. Someone has called these “designer religions.” The Colossian error seems to have mixed Christian, Jewish, Greek, pagan, and mystical elements into its scheme.

 

1.            Comparisons to Gnosticism

 

For a long time, scholars assumed that the Colossian error was some form of Gnosticism. Today, that idea has been discounted, because it has become clear that fully developed Gnosticism did not come into being until the 2nd and 3rd centuries. But even so, the tendencies that later became Gnosticism were there long before, so it remains a helpful comparison.

The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” A Gnostic, therefore, means “one who knows,” or “someone in-the-know.” The essence of Gnosticism was the pursuit of secret knowledge that could only be revealed to the elite. Typically, this “knowledge” involved the view that only “spirit” is pure good, and that the natural world — creation itself, and especially the human body — is a corruption, an illusion, or positively evil. The Gnostic hoped to escape the prison of the body through his “knowledge” and by mystically climbing the ladder of heavenly realms. Fully developed Gnosticism, like the error in Colossae, combined ideas from Greek philosophy, Eastern religions, Judaism, and Christianity.

These groups often claimed Jesus as the true Teacher of Gnosticism. They distinguished between his public teaching followed by ordinary Christians, and the deeper “secret teaching” revealed only to his disciples, now passed down to the Gnostics. Some Gnostic writings containing these “secret teachings” still exist (the so-called “Gospel of Thomas” is an example). Occasionally these writings make a splash in the media, being presented as “new discoveries about the origins of Christianity.” The media like to play up the sensational aspect of these “discoveries,” but scholars know they are no such thing. They are corruptions of genuine Christianity that arose 100-200 years after Christ.

Like the later Christians felt when confronted by Gnostics, the believers in Colossae likely were intimidated and confused by the heresy they encountered. There is a seductive quality about those who claim “higher knowledge,” especially when it’s backed up by impressive-looking self-discipline. Eugene Peterson writes,

The gnostic line is quite convincing when we first come across it. There is an ascetical earnestness and mystical intensity that catches our attention. Because these people seem to be so deeply concerned about the inner life and to know so much more than anyone else about the graduate levels of spirituality, we are attracted and want to know more.

 

But Paul exposes this illusion, pointing out that while they have “an appearance of wisdom,” these are of “no value” because they are detached from Christ (2:23).

Like the Gnostics, the heretical teachers in Colossae said that the Christian teaching about Christ was false; that there is “secret wisdom and knowledge” you must receive to obtain the “fullness” of spiritual experience. Like a master debater, Paul takes their favorite terms and uses them to assert the truth of his gospel. Notice how he uses those favorite terms of the false system:

 

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of WISDOM and KNOWLEDGE. (2:3)

 

For God was pleased for all his FULLNESS to dwell in him [Christ]. (1:19)

 

For in Christ all the FULLNESS of the deity dwells in bodily form. (2:9)

 

And you have been given FULLNESS in Christ. (2:10)

 

If you have Christ, you have God’s all; fullness, wisdom, and knowledge are all found in him.

 

2.            A more recent suggestion: Merkabah Mysticism

 

In recent decades, many scholars have investigated an ancient movement called merkabah mysticism, and noticed its similarities to the Colossian heresy. While again we must point out that no one knows for sure, this ancient religious pursuit might be close to what Paul was combating.

“Merkabah” is the Hebrew word for God’s throne. Merkabah mysticism was a movement where people tried to attain the kind of spiritual vision of God on his throne that was seen by the prophets Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:1-8) and Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 1). They blended those visions from the Hebrew Scriptures and added Gnostic-like concepts of heavenly spheres, each guarded by an angel.

The merkabah mystic believed one had to prepare oneself for this ascent by rigorous fasting and other ascetic practices for many days (some said as many as forty days). Then he had to rise through a hazardous spiritual journey, where he could only gain passage by giving the angels the appropriate passwords (the content of the “knowledge”). Eventually he hoped make his way to the highest sphere and see God on his throne. The typical term these mystics used for the total system of heavenly spheres was pleroma, the Greek word translated “fullness.”

Scholar F. F. Bruce comments on this cult:

 

It cannot be proved that the Colossian heresy involved an early form of merkabah mysticism, but the heavenly ascent implied in Col. 2:18 appears to have been of the same character as the experience which the merkabah mystics sought. The Colossian heresy evidently encouraged the claim that the fullness of God could be appreciated only by mystical experiences for which ascetic preparation was necessary.

 

As Bruce indicates there are remarkable parallels between this ancient cult and the errors attacked by the apostle Paul in Colossians.

 

Conclusion

 

While it can’t be proven that the Colossian error was this particular brand of religious practice, it is still instructive for illustrating the kind of world the Colossian believers lived in. While the names and language are different, it is also remarkably like our own.

We too live in a world of religious syncretism. Every day on television, radio, and movies we can hear people who are certainly religious, but their religion is a do-it-yourself blend of selections from several religions and practices. National bestseller lists regularly include someone’s latest “discoveries” about spiritual truth. Those celebrities and authors sound so sincere and convincing, but rarely are their ideas solidly biblical. Like the false teachers in Colossae, they have “an appearance of wisdom” (2:23).

Paul’s Letter to the Colossians is as relevant to us as it was to his first listeners. The answer is still the same: Christ is God incarnate, supreme Lord over all, and an all-sufficient Savior to anyone who puts their faith in Him. We need go nowhere else.

 

T.L.S.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents of Galatians

  

Authorship

 

Paul’s authorship of Galatians has never seriously been questioned. It is quoted or alluded to in 1 Peter. References occur in many of the earliest Christian texts, including the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement, and the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians; also in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, along with the earliest lists of New Testament books. The evidence of authenticity is overwhelming.

 

The Impact of Galatians

 

According to any standard, Paul’s letter to the Galatians has changed world history. It powerfully shaped the Christian faith from the beginning, as Paul combatted opponents who would have defined the church as a mere subset of Judaism. It has been a fortress of the faith against those who wished Christianity to meld into the rest of the world’s religions.

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Galatians again was a sharp sword in the hands of the Reformers. Martin Luther wrote two commentaries on the letter, which influenced people from his day till ours. He was so wedded in heart to the power of the letter that he jokingly named it after his wife, calling it “my Katy von Bora.”

During the revival of evangelical faith in the 19th and 20th centuries, once again it was Galatians that was heavily relied upon to fight against liberalism and legalism in the church, and it will continue to be so until the Lord returns. No wonder Galatians has often been called “the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty.”

 

Recipients and Date

 

One of the strangest things about Galatians is that no one knows for sure who Paul was writing to. How can that be, in light of the fact that it opens with “Paul … to the churches of Galatia”?

The problem is created because “Galatia” has two possible meanings. Three centuries before Paul, Celts (also called Gauls) from the west had migrated to what is now north-central Turkey. The area became known as Galatia after the ethnic Gauls who settled there. But later, the Roman government created a province called Galatia, which included ethnic Galatia in the north, but also an area in the south. The question is whether Paul is using the ethnic or provincial meaning of the word.

On Paul’s first missionary journey (the account begins in Acts 13), he passed through southern Galatia, and founded churches in the cities of Pysidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. He revisited these churches on his second missionary journey as well. Paul did not pass through the northern Galatian region until his third missionary journey, and few details are shared about it.

Therefore the controversy among scholars is whether Paul is writing to churches in southern or northern Galatia, and the date of the writing would be determined thereby. In brief, if Paul is writing to southern Galatia, it would have been written in the A.D. 40s, making it his earliest letter. If he is writing to ethnic Galatia in the north, then it was written in the mid-50s.

Scholars are divided over the issue, but students need worry little about it. It is relevant for identifying some historical questions, such as which visits to Jerusalem Paul refers to in Galatians 1-2, but it does not affect any of the doctrinal teaching of the letter. The powerful message of Galatians continues to do its work, even though we are uncertain of the historical details.

 

Background

 

Something clearly is very wrong in Galatia. Unlike most of his letters, Paul does not begin with offering praise and thanks for his recipients’ faith. In this case he comes straight out the chute battling:

 

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. (1:6)

 

There could hardly be a more serious charge than desertion of God and of Christian faith, but that is what Paul implies. He doesn’t stop there. Paul pronounces a curse on whoever is influencing them away from the gospel:

 

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned. (1:8)

 

Paul doesn’t exhaust his vehemence in the opening. He continues to speak as strongly against his opponents until the end of the letter. Right away, we can see not only that the apostle is very upset, but what the core issue is: It’s no less than the content of the gospel itself.

Sometime after Paul founded these churches, other teachers had visited and contradicted his teachings. From Paul’s comments and counterarguments, we can learn some of their position. They taught that Gentiles could not simply trust in Christ for salvation. They must accept the yoke of the Law, including circumcision, dietary regulations, and calendar observances. In essence, they must become Jews in order to become Christians. These teachers therefore have been traditionally labeled “Judaizers.” The truth of the gospel was at stake.

There is a common tactic in debate that the Judaizers also employed, called an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem means “to the man.” In practice it refers to undermining an opponent’s argument through attacking the credibility of the person. Along with the gospel message itself being attacked in Galatians, these teachers also attacked Paul’s credentials as a genuine apostle.

In Galatians, therefore, Paul is forced to argue on two fronts: He must defend his credentials as an apostle, and defend the true gospel that gives eternal life and liberty.

 

Contents

 

Paul spends the first two chapters answering accusations about himself, then turns to the gospel message, which he emphasizes in chapters 3-6.

 

Paul’s Defense of His Apostleship

 

In their attack on Paul himself, the Judaizers had apparently made three charges, each one of which Paul addresses:

 

  • That Paul was not a genuine apostle. Paul’s apostleship was questioned because he had not been an original follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry. The Judaizers probably claimed that Paul only knew what he had been taught by others, and then misunderstood or twisted the message. In answer, he shares some of his conversion testimony, along with this bold assertion:

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (1:11)

 

  • That Paul shaped his message simply to more easily win followers. To any of us today who know Paul’s letters and history, the charge that he was a “people-pleaser” seems comically off base. But that’s what these false teachers were saying. After pronouncing God’s curse on those opposing him, Paul answers:

 

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (1:10)

 

  • That Paul was estranged from the other apostles. The Judaizers claimed that Paul’s message was not only different from the apostles in Jerusalem, but also probably shared some gossip that Paul and Peter had had a falling-out. To answer the first claim, Paul tells about his original reception from the lead apostles:

 

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem … and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. . . . This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. (2:1-5)

 

At this meeting there was total unity among the apostles:

 

On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews … James, Peter, and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. (2:7-9)

 

Thus Paul clarifies that while there was an agreed-upon division of labor (Paul primarily to the Gentiles, Peter primarily to the Jews), there was no division of message. All the apostles taught the same gospel.

As to the other charge (the “rumor”), Paul tells the true account of what happened in Antioch in 2:11-21. Paul had indeed publically rebuked Peter, but it was because Peter had been wrong in a very critical matter: Whether or not the Gentiles were fully acceptable as fellow members of the church. Peter had been (temporarily) wrong; Paul had been right. The same issue was now being reproduced in the churches of Galatia, and Paul once again confronts this matter of critical importance.

 

Paul’s Defense of the Gospel

 

The message Paul taught was the main issue. He argues for the truth of his gospel from a number of angles:

 

  • Paul reminds the Galatians of their own experience — particularly, their reception of the Holy Spirit. In 3:1-4 Paul calls the Galatians “foolish” because they had forgotten their own experience. They had already received the Spirit of God when they believed the gospel. How could they now revert to attempting to earn God’s acceptance through human effort?

 

  • Paul argues from God’s historical plan. Through the remainder of chapter 3 and first part of chapter 4, the apostle reviews the big picture of God’s salvation plan, beginning with Abraham. First, in 3:6-8 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 as proving that only by faith is one made right with God:

 

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.

 

It is not by Law that anyone, in the Old or New Testament periods, is justified. Only by faith in any age has anyone been accepted by God. Therefore the argument of the Judaizers is flawed from the start.

Second, God intended all along to provide salvation for the whole world, and it was announced at Abraham’s call. Then why was the Law of Moses given to Israel, if salvation by faith was the plan from the start? Paul answers that it was a temporary educational and disciplinary vehicle for Israel until the Messiah would come and accomplish redemption from sin. Now that he has done so, the Law’s purpose is over. In 4:1-7, Paul compares the Law to a guardian over a small child that imposes discipline until he matures. But when the boy becomes a man, the guardian’s role is over. Therefore, for Israel or the Gentiles to return to living by Law would be a like a grown man returning and submitting to the management of a nanny.

 

  • Paul argues by allegory. In 4:21-31 Paul uses the historical Old Testament record as an allegory of spiritual truth. He reminds the Galatians that Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, born of the slave woman Hagar through natural generation; and Isaac, the son born of miraculous generation by Sarah. Paul compares the child of Hagar to those who try to attain salvation through human effort, an exercise in futility that can only lead to slavery; while the son of Sarah represents those who are born of the Spirit of God, a new birth that comes as a result of believing the gospel and leads to freedom.

 

On the basis of these arguments, Paul vigorously exhorts the Galatians to stand firm in their liberty in Christ, a freedom that can only be based on grace.

 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (5:1)

 

To return to Law is to fall from the freedom of grace to slavery through trying to live by Law — the meaning of the warning against “falling from grace” in 5:4.

 

The Holy Spirit: Why Legalism Is Unnecessary

One of the most important lines of argument presented by legalists through history is the charge of antinomianism (literally, “against law”) — the charge that if the Law is not imposed on Christians, they will live lawless, godless lives.

Paul’s response is to assert that this is a complete misunderstanding. In removing the Law as his people’s taskmaster, God has not left us without guidance. In fact, God has given us far more than anything law could give: He has given us his very own Spirit, the Spirit of God indwelling us. In saving us, the Lord did not leave us as we were. He has called us to entirely new plane of living:

 

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (2:19-20)

 

The usual order that “religion” or legalism teaches can be summarized, “Clean up your flesh and you will be spiritual.” According to Paul, the truth is the other way around:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature [or “flesh”]. (5:16)

 

Those who walk according to the Spirit will be directed and empowered to concentrate on the spirit of what the Law was always aiming at, which is love. Therefore, Christians are urged to not only defend their liberty in Christ, but to use it properly according to the power of the Holy Spirit:

 

You, my brothers were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14)

 

Conclusion

 

The study of Galatians is one of the must liberating, empowering, enlightening, and nutritious pursuits a believer can choose. There is a reason this book, again and again, has been at the forefront of revivals and reformations through Christian history.

One of the great teachers of a century ago was C. I. Scofield. In a series of lectures on Galatians at a Bible conference in 1903, he said:

 

The course of this demonstration is like the resistless march of an armed host. Nothing can stand before it. The flimsy quibblings of ancient and modern legalists are scattered like the chaff of the summer threshing floor. But this march is, like that of a well-ordered army, by definite stages. It is an invasion in which every vantage point is fortified and made a solid base for the next advance.

 

While the experiences that stimulated this letter were no doubt painful and stressful for Paul, we can give thanks forever that they resulted in Galatians. Study it for yourself and discover what so many believers have found before — Liberty in Christ.

 

T.L.S.

The Gospel of John: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents of Johns Gospel

 

Authorship

 

Though the names traditionally assigned to the four gospels go back to earliest Christian times — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — it is true that none of the four actually names its author. We have accepted the identities of the authors on other grounds, chiefly consistent early tradition along with internal evidence. Probably the last gospel written, the authorship of John can be established with confidence.

In one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the decisive clue leading the detective to the solution of the mystery is “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” When a puzzled character says, “But the dog did nothing in the nighttime,” Holmes replies, “That is the curious incident.” The dog did not bark because he knew the person who came to the stable, guiding Holmes to the culprit. The mystery hinges on what did not happen.

Similarly, the Fourth Gospel is striking because of the central character who is never named — the apostle John. This John was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, nicknamed with his brother “the Sons of Thunder.” These brothers along with Peter figure prominently in the other three gospels as Jesus’ inner circle. In this gospel Peter appears often, as do many lesser-known disciples, such as Nathaniel, Philip, and Thomas. It is therefore surprising that John, who is mentioned so often in all of the other gospels, is never named in this one.

There is a person referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and this person is identified as the author in 21:20-24. James was martyred too early to have written this gospel (about A.D. 44), so that leaves John. Many scholars have pointed out that the author of this gospel was a Jew who lived in Palestine before the destruction of Jerusalem. He is accurate on many details that someone would not know otherwise, such as geography, culture, religious practices, and architecture — much of which did not exist after A.D. 70. Some of the architectural features he mentions were not verified until they were discovered by archaeologists in the 20th century. John’s descriptions are true.

All early Christian writers identify John as the author. Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180 wrote that:

 

John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, had himself published a gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia.

 

Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John himself in his youth, giving a strong link back to the first generation of Christians. Irenaeus writes:

 

I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which have happened recently … I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed … how he reported his converse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, including his miracles and his teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures.

 

The early Christian historian Eusebius, writing about A.D. 325, says that the first three gospels having already been written (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, known as the “Synoptic” gospels), they were presented to John for his comments:

 

He admitted them, giving his testimony to their truth; but that there was only wanting in the narrative the account of the things done by Christ among the first of his deeds, and at the commencement of the gospel.…For these reasons the apostle John, it is said, being entreated to undertake it, wrote the account of the time not recorded by the former evangelists.

 

John reflects this, seeming deliberately to avoid retelling many of the teachings and events already presented in the Synoptics, and filling in many of the blanks they do not cover (see Contents).

 

Despite the unanimous early testimony of believers and the absence of contrary evidence, radical scholars have attacked the authenticity of John for 150 years. The main reasons given are 1) the supposed 2nd century philosophy represented in it, especially John’s use of Logos, “the Word,” for Christ; and 2) the supposed “advanced Christology.” However, recent scholarship has skewered the first view, finding that the concept of logos was already known and used in the first century. The second charge of “advanced Christology” is based on the faulty assumption that the first followers of Christ considered him only a man (though highly revered) and subsequent decades showed a gradual growth into belief in his deity. A study of the New Testament epistles shows the foolishness of this view — John says nothing about Christ that was not taught about him from the beginning. Particularly Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrews, written in the 50s and 60s, prove that Christians believed all along that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and Creator of all things who has now become man to redeem us and reconcile all things to himself.

Two important archaeological discoveries also have confirmed the traditional date of John. One of these, the John Rylands papyrus, is the oldest extent portion of New Testament Scripture: a fragment of the Gospel of John dated about A.D. 130. This proves that, allowing time for copying and transmission, this gospel could have been written no later than the time always assigned to it — sometime between A.D. 70-90.

There have always been, and always will be, committed skeptics. However, believers today can be confident that this gospel was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the faithful disciple John.

 

Background

 

As seen in the Irenaeus quote above, John appears to consciously supplement the three gospels that had already been written. Early traditions are consistent in placing John in and around Ephesus during the last decades of his life.

The first three gospels in the New Testament are known as the “Synoptic” gospels, meaning “seen together” or giving a “common view.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a common outline, probably because Matthew and Luke used Mark as the structure upon which they built additional records about Jesus’ life and teachings. John stands apart as a strikingly different viewpoint of Christ, emphasizing different teachings and events than the others.

In the first decades after Christ’s resurrection, the Church was primarily Jewish. Jewish Christians coexisted within the community of the Jews, and there was alternately uneasy tolerance and rejection (the Epistle of James was probably written during this period). But after the destruction of Jerusalem, relations between Christians and non-Christian Jews widened, and there was much animosity. The Jewish Christians among them would have been special targets of scorn. John’s writings — the Gospel, his three letters, and especially the Revelation — reflect that hostility, and give encouragement to keep believing.

We can know, however, that his listeners were primarily Gentiles. As such, they would have had a weaker foundation of Old Testament understanding. They would have been quite familiar with the religious currents of the day, and more susceptible to the errors of the cultures from which they came. The religious atmosphere of the time was a swirling mix of pagan mythologies, philosophical speculations, and mystery cults. Believers needed clear truth to keep their focus on Christ and the gospel.

Many early traditions say that John contended with a false teacher named Cerinthus, who taught an early version of Gnosticism. In brief, Gnosticism was a religious and philosophical movement based on the understanding that the material universe is an illusion and evil. Only “spirit” is good. Therefore, pure “spirit” could not be united with matter. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis, knowledge. “Salvation” for a Gnostic meant coming to this “spiritual knowledge” and escaping the illusion of this world.

Cerinthus taught that Jesus, being pure Spirit, could not have joined himself to matter. He only seemed to have a human body. From this view, the error of Cerinthus has been called “Docetism” — from the Greek word dokeo, “to seem.” The First Letter of John directly attacks this false teaching.

Whether or not this controversy had arisen by the time this gospel was written, John could hardly have chosen language better designed to attack Docetism than these words:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh.

John 1:1,14

Jesus was not partly God. He was not God pretending to be a man. He was not God who only seemed to be a man. Jesus Christ was truly God-become-Man.

The profound claims of Christ and the profound teaching of the apostle John have given us incredibly strong assurance of who Jesus was and is.

 

Contents

A major contribution of John is his narrative of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a period passed over by the other gospel writers. For example, Mark summarizes in a single chapter the inaugural preaching of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, and the temptations. Then he goes straight to this comment:

 

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. (Mark 1:14)

 

Matthew and Luke follow this pattern, giving the impression that Jesus’ move to Galilee was immediate. It is John who explains more fully, telling us that Jesus spent several months working in Judea under the umbrella of the Baptist’s ministry. The first four chapters of John describe Jesus’ activities during this period. From the viewpoint of the public at the time, John the Baptist was seen as the leader of the movement, with Jesus subordinate. But Jesus quickly took over the dominant role. That’s why we have this exchange:

 

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ . . . He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:26-30)

 

During this period the disciple John became acquainted with Jesus and began to follow him. John also tells of how Peter met Jesus in 1:40-42. Thus we know that when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew to full-time discipleship in Matthew 4:18-20 (“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”) it is not the first time they had ever met him. Peter and Andrew had known Jesus for several months, as John makes clear. The same was true for John and his brother James.

 

I.            The Theme of John: Eternal life comes through faith in Jesus Christ

 

According to Stephen S. Kim, “The literary structure of the Fourth Gospel makes it one of the most carefully crafted pieces of literature in the Bible.” But what was it crafted to accomplish? Merrill C. Tenney has written, “One of the peculiarities of the Fourth Gospel is the fact that its author chose to hang its key by the back door.”

He is speaking of John 20:30-31, where the apostle reveals his purpose:

 

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

 

Just as in his letters, John wanted believers to have a clear understanding of who Christ is and what He has accomplished, and thus have assurance of salvation through faith in Him. John identified his aim in his first letter, which could also serve as the purpose statement of his gospel:

 

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

 

Scholar N. T. Wright points out that the Greek “verb ‘believe’ (pisteuein) occurs more in this gospel than in Matthew, Mark and Luke put together; and, perhaps even more surprising, more than in all of Paul’s letters put together.” It is used 99 times in John’s gospel.

 

II.            Knowing Whom to Believe: Emphasizing the claims of Christ.

 

Biblical faith requires content; that is, it is not a feeling, nor is it “putting your brain on the shelf.” Exercising faith according to the Scriptures means you know the person who is the object of your faith.

John establishes the identity of Jesus immediately:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

 

In this profound opening, John refers to Christ as “the Word” — Greek, Logos. Logos means not only “word” but “communication,” “speech,” “reason,” and “logic.” Thinking of the Word as Creator, it is striking to recall the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, where God creates all things merely by speaking.

Notice that not only was the Word “with God” in the beginning, but also that “the Word was God.” How can a Person both be “with” God and “be” God at the same time? It boggles the imagination, but from passages like this we see a glimpse of the eternal three-fold nature of God, who is a Trinity: three Persons in one Divine Nature. Then in verse 2 it is made clear that the Word is not some impersonal quality of God, but a Person: “He was with God in the beginning.”

This same Word “became flesh” (v. 14) — a real human being in whom we see the glory of the invisible God. Therefore, as Jesus says later,

 

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

 

Jesus’ direct claims to deity can be seen throughout this gospel. Some examples:

 

  • Jesus’ claim of the Divine Name. In the midst of a hot controversy with his opponents (chapter 8), Jesus did not shy away from the confrontation. On the contrary, he inflamed it. He tells them that because of their unbelief, “You will die in your sins” (v. 23); “You belong to your father, the devil” (v. 44); and “You do not belong to God” (v. 47). Finally he pushes them over the edge by claiming, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad”

(v. 56). They protest that it’s impossible; Abraham lived 2000 years before!

 

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I AM!” (v. 58)

 

At this point they picked up stones to stone Jesus. Why? Because they heard loud and clear that Jesus was claiming to be God. “I AM” is the name by which God introduced himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3), and is the inner meaning of God’s personal name in Hebrew, Yahweh, which means “I AM THAT I AM” or “He Who Is.” In English Bibles, Yahweh is usually rendered “the LORD” in all caps. By this statement, Jesus was straightforwardly claiming to be the Creator God revealed in the Old Testament.

 

  • Jesus’ claim to be One with the Father. In the midst of another controversy Jesus made a claim no one could miss. We are told that his opponents demanded answers: The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24). Jesus goes on to say,

 

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (10:27-30)

 

At this statement, they again picked up stones. When Jesus asks them why, they reply that it is not for any good work, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

 

  • The “Seven Great ‘I am’s’.” In the progress of his ministry, the Lord made seven striking claims, all beginning with “I am.” Despite the common view in our culture that Jesus was an ordinary man, imagine “an ordinary man” saying things like these:

 

I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:35)

 

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (8:12)

 

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. (10:9)

 

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (10:11)

 

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (11:25-26)

 

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (14:6)

 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (15:5)

Put these claims together, and you’ll see that Jesus is claiming to be the answer to every one of the deepest needs of the human heart. No mere man could fulfill them.

 

Conclusion

 

In this introduction we can only briefly mention a few of the other important themes in John. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is spelled out in great detail by the Lord in chapters 14-16. The narratives of Jesus’ encounters with individuals, such as the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, are profound and fascinating. You’ll also find strong emphasis on the humanity of Christ, where he declares his dependency upon the Father for all he said and did:

 

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. . . . By myself I can do nothing. (5:19, 30)

 

Finally, the Lord calls his people to live in the same way he did:

 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (15:5)

 

Just as Jesus in his humanity could “do nothing” apart from the Father, he tells us that apart from him we can do nothing. Only through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Christ himself in us) are we able to live the genuine Christian life. Our manner of living is the same as his: Total dependency upon the Lord who supplies the ability to do his will. He produces the fruit; we bear fruit through relying on him.

 

The Gospel of John is a lifetime study, and at the end of it you’ll feel your studies are only beginning!

 

T.L.S.

Paul’s Letter To The Colossians: The ABC’s Authorship, Background, & Contents

Authorship Colossians-Web-Header-2

The letter opens with Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:1-2). In the early Christian centuries, there were no controversies over the authorship or authenticity of this letter. Questions about Paul’s authorship only arose for the first time in the radically skeptical decades of the 19th century, mainly on charges of non-Pauline language. These have been almost entirely put to rest by further scholarship and discoveries. Today there is widespread acceptance of the letter as coming from Paul.

            A unique feature of Colossians is that it has a companion letter, Paul’s Letter to Philemon, written to a man in Colossae who was a convert and friend of Paul. The two letters were carried and delivered at the same time. One of the bearers of the letters was a runaway slave of Philemon named Onesimus. From Philemon we can see what happened. Onesimus had run away from his master, and possibly stolen money or goods in the process. He had somehow encountered Paul, through whom he heard the gospel and believed. Paul now was sending him back home to confront his master, and wrote to appeal for forgiveness for the runaway. Along with these, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is a sister letter, being written about the same time with many parallels to Colossians.

The town of Colossae was located at the eastern edge of the Roman province of Asia (roughly the western fourth of modern Turkey), in the Lycus River valley about 100 miles from the capital city of Ephesus. There were two other nearby towns, Laodicea (ten miles away) and Hierapolis (thirteen miles away). There were Christian communities in these cities as well, and both are named in Colossians.

The date of the letter depends on its place of origin, and that is somewhat uncertain. Paul makes it plain in both Philemon and Ephesians that he is imprisoned at the time of writing, but no date markers are given. Throughout the Christian centuries it has been largely assumed that these three letters (plus Philippians) were written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, which is described in the last chapter of the book of Acts. That would place the time of writing between the years A.D. 60-62. In recent decades some scholars have proposed that Paul wrote these letters from Ephesus, which would place them sometime in the years A.D. 53-55. The main reason for this suggestion is that travel between Ephesus and the Lycus Valley would be much easier than travel to and from Rome. This proposal has generated little traction, however. Travel in the Roman Empire was then easier than at any time in history until the invention of modern mechanized transportation. Also, there is no record of Paul being imprisoned in Ephesus, so it is based on sheer speculation. The most likely time and place of writing remains the traditional answer of about A.D. 62 from Rome.

 

Background 

Evidence within Colossians makes it quite clear why Paul is writing. A characteristic this letter shares only with Romans is that Colossians is written to a church Paul did not found and had never visited.            Paul tells us that the Colossians learned about the gospel from his coworker Epaphras:

All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf. (1:6-7)

Paul also says he is personally unacquainted with them as a group:

I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. (2:1)

We can imagine, though not prove, how this happened. Paul may have met and won Epaphras to the Lord during his ministry in Ephesus during A.D. 53-55. Epaphras, like many of Paul’s converts, traveled from there preaching the gospel to others. It would be natural for these disciples to return and report to Paul about the fruit being born by the gospel in other places. This news brought great joy to the apostle.

In this case, however, Epaphras also brought back some disturbing information. After receiving the message with joy and giving evidence of spiritual life and growth, some members of this Christian community were being disturbed by false teaching. Epaphras was deeply concerned, and he sought Paul’s help in combating the problem. This letter is the result.

Nothing was more important to the apostle Paul than Jesus Christ: Who He is, what He did, who we are as a result. All these things were being challenged in Colossae, and Paul arose to defend the gospel and the Lord’s people from a dangerous counterfeit.

 

Contents

The relationship between Colossians and Ephesians has already been mentioned. According to Edgar J. Goodspeed, “three-fifths of Colossians is reflected in Ephesians.” Though they discuss many of the same truths, the two letters present them in different ways. Curtis Vaughn writes, “We can best account for the similarities of the epistles on the supposition that Ephesians is an expansion by Paul of ideas presented in compact form in Colossians.”

While Colossians is specific, argumentative and full of warnings, Ephesians seems general and uncontroversial. While they cover many of the same truths, Ephesians seems to be generally teaching a survey of Christian beliefs, while Colossians discusses many of the same truths as if they were under attack, which they were. If Ephesians is a lamp to illumine a room, Colossians is a laser beam to eradicate a cancer.

A challenge for us is that we have only Paul’s side of the discussion. What the other side was teaching we can only piece together through Paul’s counterarguments.

Much ink has been spilled trying to identify “the Colossian Heresy.” In truth, no one knows for sure (for more information, see the page entitled, “What Was the Colossian Heresy?”). Even so, always remember that it’s far more important to understand the truth than to be able to describe every error!

While we can’t answer every question, we can get the general drift of what the false teachers were saying. First and foremost, the opponents were attacking the supremacy of Christ. H. C. G. Moule writes,

One thing is certain as to the “Colossian Heresy.” It was a doctrine of God and of salvation that cast a cloud over the glory of Jesus Christ.

The spotlight is firmly fixed on Jesus Christ throughout the letter. In 1:15-22, the Son of God is identified as the Creator of all things, supreme over all things, the purpose and goal of all creation, the Redeemer of mankind, the Reconciler of the universe, the firstborn from the dead (first man to be resurrected and glorified), the Provider of eternal salvation, and more. In 2:9 Paul leaves no doubt as to Christ’s identity:

 

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.

He is saying, in other words, that everything that can be included in the name “God” can be found in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. There can be no person or authority higher than He.

Paul then describes in verse 10 the completeness of Christ’s work on our behalf:

and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

If Christ is “the fullness of the Deity in bodily form,” then no one can be greater, and there is no need to go to anyone else. If in Christ you have been made complete (“been given fullness”), you need nothing else for salvation or life. You have everything you need for life and godliness. This is the heart of the gospel.

But from unnamed sources, some contrary ideas had arisen. Curtis Vaughn writes,

… there was a “Christian” element in the Colossian error. While at its heart it was a combination of Judaism and paganism, it wore the mask of Christianity. It did not deny Christ, but it did dethrone him. It gave Christ a place, but not the supreme place. This Christian facade made the Colossian error all the more dangerous.

The false teachers in Colossae were asserting that, based on their “superior knowledge” and perhaps their mystical visions, the average Christians were somehow missing the real thing. They needed to apply rigorous self-denial in pursuit of visions for themselves. They needed (said the false teachers) to keep stringent rules and regulations. Even more, they said, Christ was not enough. Other spiritual beings, such as angels, could be of greater help in their “spiritual journey.” Whatever the false religious system was, it included elements of Greek philosophy and mythology, and Jewish law-keeping — all while claiming to give Christ a place of (lesser) honor.

Thus Paul writes the central warning of the letter in 2:8:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

Christians in our time need this warning just as much as the original recipients of this letter. The agenda of our Adversary, the devil, remains the same. He still desires to pull Christ down from His exalted, supreme position in our minds and hearts. He still desires to prevent believers from discovering and living in their complete acceptance through the work of Christ. He cannot change these facts, but he hopes to prevent us from enjoying them and living in light of them.

When you read Colossians, keep your eye open for these major themes:

  • The supremacy of the Person of Jesus Christ.
  • The total sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s finished work on the cross.
  • Our completeness in Christ and our new identity in Him.
  • Warnings against anyone who suggests that Christ and His work are not enough.
  • Encouragement to live a life worthy of the gospel, based on these truths.

Though this letter is short, only four chapters, it is packed with spiritual power and nutrition. In the words of A. T. Robertson, Colossians is Paul’s “full-length portrait of Christ.” You’ll find life-transforming power in its pages.

 

T.L.S.