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Soon Forgotten

Sunday, May 05, 2024

In last week’s article, we briefly looked at each of Christ’s Apostles.  The Scriptures don’t directly tell us much about most of them, so traditions arose.  Some of these are grounded in what the Bible spells out for us; most are untrustworthy, and contradicted by other reports.  Nevertheless, a quick look at some of these can be worthwhile.

John

When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

(John 21.21-22)

The speculation about what eventually happened to each Apostle began, in a sense, before Jesus had even ascended to his Father’s right hand. John, the topic of this first speculation, was probably the last living Apostle, in exile on Patmos.  Tradition says that he took up residence with the church in Ephesus for a time leading up to his exile and death around AD 100. 

Andrew

While he is barely mentioned in Acts, legends involving Andrew hold that he made his way north to the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, preaching to exceptionally barbaric Gentiles, who eventually killed him.

Philip

Philip dropped off the map in Acts.  Tradition says he ended up in the region called Phrygia, part of Paul’s early field in Asia Minor.  Philip is supposed to have been crucified there.

Bartholomew

Bartholomew is considered either to have gone with Andrew to the north, or else to have gone to India.  A legend concerning his death is that he was tied up in a large sack, and tossed into the sea to drown.

Thomas

Traditions have Thomas going to the same region as Andrew and possibly Bartholomew; or else to India.  Legends differ as to how he died, but several put his martyrdom in India.

Matthew

Matthew is tied by tradition to several regions—but this time, every point on the compass is covered!  That leaves us with no reason to assign greater probability to any one legend, but it is worth noting that he is the first to be associated with Africa.

Matthias

The report about Matthew applies equally to Matthias.  It appears that having basically the same name caused these two to be mistaken for each other, even in ancient times.

James (the son of Alphaeus)

There is a surprising lack of tradition about James’ work; but one apocryphal book from antiquity says he remained in Jerusalem until the rulers there had him stoned to death.

Thaddaeus

The surviving sources are full of nonsense and contradict each other, but the one point on which they agree is that Thaddaeus went to Syria and preached Christ until his death.

Simon

The early Christian writers don’t even agree on who exactly Simon was, let alone his field of work after Jesus’ ascension.  Eusebius suggests that he stayed in Jerusalem for life.

Peter

Peter is one of the few whose deaths are mentioned in the New Testament, but the details are obscure.  Just before the passage quoted above, Jesus had told Peter,

“when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”

(John 21.18)

Peter himself wrote, “the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me” (2Pe 1.14).  Tradition says that this took place around AD 67 at Rome, and that he was crucified upside down, because he requested that his death not be made to so closely resemble that of his Lord.

Paul

Paul, likewise, wrote, “the time of my departure has come” (2Ti 4.6).  As a Roman citizen, he would be spared crucifixion, and instead beheaded.

James (the son of Zebedee)

Since we began with the latest, let’s end with the earliest of the Apostles to die a martyr. Herod Agrippa I, not long before he himself was struck down by God, “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Ac 12.2).  He’d apparently never even left Jerusalem, but he, like the others, finished strong.

As often happens, the Bible’s silence creates a veritable Rorschach inkblot test, in which people fill in the gaps with whatever they want to see.  The point isn’t to determine whether Thomas died in Syria or India—God only knows!  The point is that these witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection did spend the rest of their lives preaching his gospel, even if their stories were not preserved.  We don’t know exactly what happened to most of them, but it doesn’t really matter.  Thinking through the list of names reminds us that behind each name stood a person who dedicated his life to serving the Lord—and that most of their work was soon forgotten by men.

Are you better than the Apostles?  Your name and your achievements will also be forgotten by men.  You just don’t matter enough to be worth remembering for the next thousand years.  When you die, your story will quickly fade from living memory.  But God does not forget!  As he watched over the Apostles, he now watches over you, and knows your story inside and out.  Will you make him proud to be your Father?

Jeremy Nettles

Ambassadors for Christ

Sunday, April 28, 2024

…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

(2 Corinthians 5.19-21)

Jesus chose Apostles to be his ambassadors, carrying on his work of spreading the gospel of redemption and salvation, after he ascended to his Father’s right hand.  They deserve respect and admiration.  God visually depicted his kingdom, surrounded by a wall, which “had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Re 21.14).  But who were they, and what did they do?

Andrew

The first named disciple (Jn 1.40), Andrew had been a follower of John the Baptist, but when John pointed out the Messiah, he immediately began to follow him, instead.  His first act as a disciple was to share the good news with his brother, Peter.  He is mentioned a few more times in the Gospels and once in Acts, remaining steadfast and outgoing, even bringing Gentiles to Jesus before the Apostles generally understood that was Jesus’ plan all along (Jn 12.20-22).

John

In the Gospel that bears his name, it’s a reasonable assumption that Andrew’s unnamed fellow disciple of John the Baptist (Jn 1.35, 40) was John the Apostle.  Paul described him as a “pillar” in the early church at Jerusalem (Ga 2.9), and he later was exiled to the island of Patmos for his preaching (Re 1.9).  He wrote the aforementioned Gospel, as well as three Epistles and Revelation.

Peter

Peter was the most brash and outspoken of the twelve.  Always willing to speak up—sometimes without thinking (Mk 9.6)—Peter naturally became a spokesman for the Apostles in the early church, and frequently got into trouble with the authorities.  He left Jerusalem for Rome (symbolically called “Babylon” in 1Pe 5.13), where he was likely Mark’s main source in writing his Gospel account.  He wrote two Epistles of his own, before being killed as a martyr, in accordance with Jesus’ prediction (Jn 21.18-19).

Philip

Another of Jesus’ earliest followers, Philip gets very little attention.  Only in John’s Gospel do we see his contributions to the story, and he drops off the radar in Acts, where another Philip, “Philip the Evangelist” (Ac 21.8) is featured in three episodes.

Bartholomew

Little is known about Bartholomew.  He was apparently also called Nathanael (Jn 1.45), and was brought to Jesus by Philip.

James

The brother of John, James was regularly included in Jesus’ inner circle in the Gospels (e.g. Mk 5.37, 9.2, 13.3, 14.33).  He was the first Apostle to die as a martyr (Ac 12.2).

Thomas

Thomas features most prominently in an episode in which he refused to believe the report that Jesus had risen, until he saw it for himself.  Of course, the rest of the Apostles had already seen the resurrected Christ, so the “doubting Thomas” trope is rather unfair.

Matthew

Also called Levi (Mk 2.14, Lk 5.29), he was a well-to-do tax collector, and a meticulous writer.  He is responsible for the Gospel that bears his name, which is one of the greatest gifts the world has ever received.

James (the son of Alphaeus)

James was one of several extremely popular names in 1st-century Jewish society, and arguments continue to this day over identifying details of this James.  All we know for sure is that he was one of the Apostles. 

Thaddaeus

Also called “Judas the son of James” (Lk 6.16, Ac 1.13), he is only mentioned in lists of the Apostles, and at the Last Supper, at which he was the last of three to ask Jesus a clarifying question (Jn 14.22).

Simon

Almost nothing is known of Simon, except that he “was called the Zealot” (Lk 6.15).  Since the Zealots were the sort of people we today would call terrorists, this label gives a striking sense of how broad a net Jesus casts!

Judas

Judas was the treasurer, and regularly used the trust placed in him to steal for his own personal gain (Jn 12.6).  He also betrayed Jesus to murderers for money, and then killed himself rather than face his guilt.

Matthias

Matthias followed Jesus throughout his ministry, but did not bear mentioning, until a replacement was needed.  Since he’d seen the risen Lord and the lot fell to him, he took Judas’ recently vacated “office” (Ac 1.20).

Paul

Finally, Paul began as a persecutor of the church, believing Jesus to be a false prophet, justly killed.  When Jesus confronted him on one of his missions to purge Israel of this new heresy, he reexamined his conclusions in the light of this resurrection, and turned around completely.  Thus began three decades of the most impressive and important work ever accomplished by mortal man, in service of the same Jesus whom he’d formerly persecuted.

These were only men, and yet—with the exception of Judas—they achieved amazing things by the power of God.  Honor and appreciate them.  Trust their teachings.  Imitate their selfless service.

Jeremy Nettles

Is the Water Magic?

Sunday, April 21, 2024

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

(1 Corinthians 1.21-25)

Even among those willing to believe in the “foolishness” of salvation through a crucified Christ, there is a feeling that the command to “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Ac 2.38) is just too silly to accept.  After all,

by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

(Ephesians 2.8-9)

The argument is that baptism must not be necessary, because to say otherwise is to say that one can earn salvation through the act of baptism.  Alarmingly, this conclusion would require us to ignore many other things God said, including through Paul himself, and including in the same letter!  Describing how Christ cleanses his Bride, Paul wrote,

...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

(Ephesians 5.25-28)

Lest we misunderstand his meaning there, the same letter also prominently features baptism alongside other pillars of the faith.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

(Ephesians 4.4-6)

And yet…well, it does seem awfully silly, doesn’t it?  If all that is required in order to be freed from sin is to take a bath, shouldn’t that problem pretty much take care of itself, for most people?  We’re dealing with deep, metaphysical catastrophes here, and the answer is supposed to be found in the most abundant physical substance on the face of the earth?  Is the water magic, or something?

Well, it is silly and contrived.  In fact, that’s part of the point.  When the Israelites were freed from their Egyptian enslavers and guided by God into the wilderness, he led them in one direction, then directed Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp” by the Red Sea (Ex 14.2).  He did this because the Egyptians were chasing them down, to bring them back under the yoke of slavery.  By all earthly logic, it would have made more sense to lead Israel by the straightest possible path, with an escape route available.  Yet this is not what God did.  He deliberately positioned them between the hammer of Pharaoh’s army and the anvil of the Red Sea, with nowhere to flee.  When the frightened Israelites cried out in despair, God answered, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward” (14.15).

Forward?  There was nowhere to go, unless he meant for the Israelites to walk directly into the sea!  As it turns out, that’s exactly what God meant.

…the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

(Exodus 14.21-22)

It’s no accident that God rescued Israel by sending them through the sea, and using it to destroy the enslaving enemy, who followed them into the waters and “went down into the depths like a stone” (15.5).  This was just as silly and contrived as his commandment to be baptized in the name of his Son.  Yet, did the Israelites claim to have earned their freedom?  Were they so arrogant as to say they were saved by their works, in walking along the path God provided them?  Even more ridiculous, would it be reasonable for them to conclude that the waters of the Red Sea possessed some magical power to rescue Israelites but destroy Egyptians?

The Israelites did not earn this salvation by their righteousness or labor.  Nor were they saved by the skillful application of water’s inherent properties.  They were saved “according to [God’s] own mercy” (Ti 3.5), when they walked by faith down the path he provided them against all human expectation or reason—by grace, through faith.

This is more than a curious coincidence.  Paul writes that the Israelites “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1Co 10.1-2).  It’s just one of many instances of foreshadowing in the story of ancient Israel.  “Now these things took place as examples for us” (v6), so that we could learn from their mistakes and triumphs, as well as from God’s character and methods.  “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Co 2.17).  It’s not about your righteousness, or your works, or the water.  It’s about “the obedience of faith” (Ro 1.5).

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

(Romans 16.25-27)

Jeremy Nettles

Who Wrote Hebrews?

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The authorship of Hebrews has been debated almost since it was written.  Among the 27 books of the New Testament it is the lone work that fails to name its author internally, or to have been overwhelmingly attributed to a particular author within a generation or two of the Apostles.  It is appropriate to ask who wrote this book because, while “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Ti 3.16), God has not given us stone tablets with a definitive and explicit list of the works that qualify as Scripture.  We trust those written by Apostles and their close associates; but who is behind Hebrews?  Is the author trustworthy?

Paul

This is the most common answer, since Paul wrote thirteen other New Testament letters.  In fact, the 1611 first edition of the King James Bible gave this letter the title, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrewes.  However, whereas the first word of each of Paul’s letters is “Paul,” in Hebrews his name is never mentioned!  It is organized nothing like Paul’s letters, and finer points of the style also cast doubt on Pauline authorship.  Worst of all, the author writes that the gospel

was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders…

(Hebrews 2.3)

But Paul told the Galatians,

I did not receive [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

(Galatians 1.12) 

Reconciling these statements is a tough job.

Timothy

The same first edition KJV included a contradictory note following the text of Hebrews: “Written to the Hebrewes, from Italy, by Timothie.”  Presumably, this theory grew from mentions of Timothy and Italy in the final sentences of the book; but those hardly describe Timothy as the the author! 

You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon.

(Hebrews 13.23)

This clearly distinguishes Timothy from the author—of this portion, at least.  Perhaps this was seen as an add-on to the main body of Timothy’s letter, by Paul or someone else; but this is just one of many scenarios we could concoct to explain the facts, and nothing recommends it above other theories.

Apollos

We know very little of Apollos, except that he was “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” (Ac 18.24).  While the author of Hebrews is both eloquent and Scripturally competent, these characteristics are hardly unique.  Nothing points clearly to Apollos.

Luke

The Greek of Luke’s Gospel and Acts is the most refined of all the New Testament books—with the exception of Hebrews.  Hebrews displays excellent articulation, and so Luke’s name has been thrown into the ring.  Again, nothing in the letter specifically points to Luke.  He hardly had a monopoly on diction.

Clement of Rome

Clement was a leader in the church at the end of the first century.  Paul mentions him in Philippians 4.3, but the Bible says nothing else of him.  Later sources relate traditions about his life and work, and a letter he sent has survived, called 1 Clement.  This letter contains several passages that bear a striking resemblance to passages in Hebrews, and this is taken by some as evidence that the author of the former must be the author of the latter.  But a more plausible explanation is that Clement was deliberately referring to Hebrews, because he considered it more authoritative than his own words.

Priscilla

The theory that Priscilla wrote Hebrews rests on the fact that she was a woman.  This may sound glib, but it’s a fair assessment of the theory.  As with most of the others, there is no actual evidence to tie Priscilla to this book; but it gets worse.  When the author says, “time would fail me to tell of Gideon” and so forth (11.32), the genderless pronoun me (με) is linked to a participle telling (διηγούμενον), which is masculine, making it clear that the speaker is male.  Yet this hypothesis persists, even among ostensibly well educated theologians and ministry professionals, based on an animating ideology foreign to Christ.

We Don’t Know

This is an unsatisfying answer.  Even by the second century AD Christian authors were fumbling with this question, unable to reach a consensus.  Does it really matter?  As noted above, from the beginning the author’s goal is to reinforce what “was declared at first by the Lord, and…attested to us by those who heard” (He 2.3).  His purpose was not to reveal new things, but to rely on what the Spirit of God had already revealed.  In this pursuit, he spent more time directly quoting the Old Testament than we see in any other New Testament book.  Therefore, although we don’t know the name of the man who wrote Hebrews, a more important answer is obvious.  The author of Hebrews is God.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

(Hebrews 12.25-29)

Jeremy Nettles

Meek, or Weak?

Sunday, April 07, 2024

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

(Matthew 5.5)

Jesus said this, and so it’s clearly worth remembering and applying.  But what does it mean?  Meek is not a word that gets much use today.  But the Greek word behind it, πραύς-praus, refers to a realistic opinion of oneself.  Synonyms include lowly and humble.  Inasmuch as it pertains to a lack of arrogance or self-importance, it’s easy to understand, and clearly a good quality!  Paul sums up the attitude, as well as the resultant behavior, although without using the word itself:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

(Philippians 2.3-4)

However, Jesus did not speak his blessing into a void.  He was talking to an audience of Jews, God’s chosen people whose culture strongly encouraged devotion to God and the study of his word.  Of all the beatitudes, this one most clearly refers to a passage in previously revealed Scripture: “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (Ps 37.11).  It’s fine to notice that Jesus is quoting Scripture, but it would be a mistake not to tug that thread any further.  As the incarnate Word, he has a unique relationship with the written word of God, and he has always taken that very seriously.  So, what was the point of this verse in the Old Testament?  Was it merely a warning against self-importance?  Well, what does the context say?

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;

        fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,

        over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!

        Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For the evildoers shall be cut off,

        but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;

        though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

But the meek shall inherit the land

        and delight themselves in abundant peace.

The wicked plots against the righteous

        and gnashes his teeth at him,

but the Lord laughs at the wicked,

        for he sees that his day is coming.

(Psalm 37.7-13)

This Psalm addresses people in difficult circumstances, suffering harm at the hands of the wicked, and tempted to give in to anger and commit evil themselves, in retribution.  Rather than encouraging them to lash out, it reminds them that God sees, and knows, and will see to it that everyone gets what he deserves; so wait for him.

To the victims of evildoers, the temptation is strong, and this sort of assurance may seem like a hollow coping mechanism.  The meekness we’re considering is seen as weakness, and scorned.  To be clear, being too weak to act in your own interests is not virtue.  But possessing both power and the discipline to use it properly does not diminish a person’s claim on meekness.

Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.

(Numbers 12.3)

Moses’ meekness was mistaken for pride covering up weakness, when Korah, Dathan, Abiram led a rebellion.  They asked Moses and Aaron, “Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Nu 16.3).  But they had it backward!  Moses exercised authority, because God had given it to him!  He was far from arrogant, as he demonstrated then and there, falling on his face before his challengers in a submissive posture (v4).  He left the judgment in God’s hands, and was quickly vindicated when the earth opened and swallow the rebels whole.

Take note, also, of the author of the Psalm we’ve considered—David.  Not only did he have extensive experience in victimhood, but he also kept his temper under a tight rein, to the extent that his closest friends couldn’t understand why he didn’t lash out, as they would have done.

So David and Abishai went to the army by night. And there lay Saul sleeping within the encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the army lay around him. Then Abishai said to David, “God has given your enemy into your hand this day. Now please let me pin him to the earth with one stroke of the spear, and I will not strike him twice.” But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?”

(1 Samuel 26.7-9)

We’ve seen that strength can be combined with self-control, constituting a virtue called meekness.  Our impulse to retaliate against those who harm us, while natural, does not lead to God’s justice.  There are times when violence is not only acceptable, but good— rescuing an innocent person being subjected to great harm, for example.  But most of the time, the right choice is to wait for the Lord, who provides the clearest example of power kept under righteous control.

Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

(Matthew 26.50-54)

The meekest of all shall, indeed, inherit the earth.

Jeremy Nettles

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