Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter: The Experience of the Risen Lord

While scripture maybe considered the main source of our faith, we cannot disregard the value of the human experience, both individual and collective. Knowing God is (or it should be) first an experiential process, and then an intellectual activity. Experience is how people in the OT knew God in the absence of any traditions or written revelation. Examples include Abraham and Job. 



This process continued in the New Testament, as people believed in Jesus because of the miracles He performed, and ultimately because of His Resurrection from the dead. According to Luke 25:24-27 and John 20:9, the disciples did not understand scripture till they experienced the Risen Lord. This is a profound reality. 

Christianity teaches a relationship with God which is as real as any of your worldly relations. The Apostle John in his writings repeatedly emphasizes the validity of apostolic testimony (John 20:31, 21:24) as evidence of the truth of what he was preaching. 

However, in 1 John 5:6-10, he writes “We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater”. Now if we count scripture, tradition, and culture as human testimony, and Spirit as God’s testimony, then John is saying that inner testimony of the Spirit (experience) is greater than all these.

 
This is why experience is necessary for knowing God. This experience, however, should correspond with reality. And the criterion of genuine Christian experience is that it will be scriptural and reasonable. St. Thomas is usually called ‘Doubting Thomas’, but he should be called ‘Believing Thomas’ because of the confession he made. 

Thomas had the mind of a skeptic. He rejected apostolic testimony (tradition), the testimony of women (culture), and also the Messianic prophecies that talk about the resurrection of the Christ (scripture).  He said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25). 

Jesus did not rebuke Thomas for lack of faith. Instead, He welcomed His request and revealed Himself to Thomas (20:26-28). Thomas, experiencing the Risen Lord, immediately believed, and became so inspired that he traveled all the way to India to preach the Gospel.

Today, Jesus honors the request of those who want to experience him. There are many unbelievers out there who will never accept the testimony of scripture, the Church, or their own intellect. Jesus reveals Himself to them through the Holy Spirit. 

The Psalmist says “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8).

The Living God calls everyone to experience Him today. This Easter, I invite you to experience the Risen Lord!

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Field of Blood: Reconciling Matthew 27 and Acts 1

Happy Holy Week!


During Lent and the Holy Week, most Christians who attend Church and study scriptures mostly focus on the devotional part of the Passion narratives, but seldom do we focus on the critical aspects. For example, what is the authenticity of the texts, how can we reconcile conflicting accounts in the 4 Gospels etc.

I am not saying that this is necessary. The primary function of the Gospel is to inspire faith (John 20:31). However, the evangelists were careful in what they recorded (Luke 1:1-4) and thus we should also be careful reading these texts. 

A couple of weeks ago after a Bible class, a friend asked me to explain him an alleged contradiction in the New Testament. The "contradiction" was about two different accounts of Judas' death, one in Matthew 27 and the other in Acts 1. Let me copy the relevant verses, after which we will briefly analyze whether any contradiction exists or not:

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day (Matthew 27)

Compare with:

18 (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

2 questions arise:


  • How did Judas die, by hanging or falling headlong?  
  • Was it called "Field of Blood" because of the blood money or because of Judas's death?



Here are some possible answers.

Firstly, while Matthew is narrating the events of the crucifixion (and hence being meticulous), but the version in Acts is not Luke's narrative but Peter's speech. Hence, this is technically not a part of his careful investigation. This point needs further elaboration.

The themes of both chapters is different. Once again, Matthew is narrating the events of  the Passion to stress on the Messiahship of Jesus. However, the whole purpose of Peter's speech in Acts 1 to stress the evil of Judas and his unfortunate end. It is bad enough that he committed suicide by hanging himself, but the emphasis is placed on the repulsive state in which his body was ultimately found, namely with 'his intestines spilled out'.

Thirdly, and most importantly, critics of the Bible usually focus on problems that do not exist. What is meant by a "contradiction"? It simply means that A and non-A cannot be true at the same time. For example, if I say my T-Shirt is black, a contradiction will form only if I also say my T-Shirt is not black. Any other statement (e.g. my T-Shirt is white) can be explained away, for articles of clothing can have two different colors.

Coming back to the passages at hand, a contradiction will exist if Matthew says Judas died by hanging and Acts says he did not die by hanging. Likewise, a contradiction will only exist if one says that the field was named 
Akeldama because of Judas's death and the other says it was not so. 

The verses we have here may supplement, compliment, or overlap each other, but they don't contradict each other. They can be explained. "
According to tradition, it would seem that Judas hanged himself on the edge of a cliff, above the Valley of Hinnom. Eventually the rope snapped, was cut or untied and Judas fell upon the field below as described by Luke." (101 Cleared-up Contradictions in the Bible).

Likewise, the Field of Blood could have been so named because of both reasons, i.e. the bloody death of Judas and the purchase of the land by blood money.

The key verse is Acts 1:19 which assumes prior knowledge of the audience about the matter. Hence, Peter skipped over many details that the Gospel records because everyone knew the story. There is no contradiction, here or anywhere in the Bible.




Tuesday, 22 March 2016

1st Saying of Jesus on the Cross (Luke 23:34)

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing…
Luke provides us sayings of Jesus from the Cross that are not recorded by other evangelists. He is also not interested in teaching us (as Matthew is) how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy in His crucifixion. Nevertheless, the prophetic element cannot be separated from the Cross of Christ, even if Luke doesn’t deliberately highlight it. This is because the crucifixion of Jesus was the prophetic plan of God and was revealed in scriptures centuries before the Incarnation of our Lord. In this saying of Jesus (Luke 23:34), we find a reference to Isaiah 53:12:

…..because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus is not only the Lamb, but also the priest who intercedes for us. He is the forgiving Messiah, even in his death. Even in His death, he had the power to make people right with God. 



Another thing we should note, before we look at the meanings of these words, is that the Father vindicated Jesus at his baptism, and now Jesus prays to the Father at his death. This shows that the title “Son of God” is not only for joyous times, but also for times of trials and tribulation. But more than that, we realize that God the Father was not distant from the events of the cross, which brings us back to the prophetic plan of salvation.

Like the prophetic element, the element of love can be seen in almost all the sayings of Jesus from the Cross. Love manifests itself in relationships. But the only way in which relationships survive is that one party forgives and forgets the faults of the other. This is what the Psalmist says in Psalm 32:2:

Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them

And this is the message of the Cross, the way of salvation according to Christianity. God did not count our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19), and Christ died for us while we still sinners (Romans 5:8).

This is deliberate forgiveness, not an arbitrary pardon that kings used to give. God deliberately forgives and forgets our sins and Christ deliberately died for sinners. And this is exactly the same thing we see in the first saying of Jesus. 

Verse 34 starts with the Greek words “ho de Iēsous elegen”, which is usually translated as: “Jesus said”. But they can very well be translated as “and/but Jesus was saying”. Luke has used the word “elegen” to denote the same meaning in 3:7 and 6:20, i.e. of continuous speaking. Hence, Jesus may have not said this once, but over and over again. The more they despised Jesus, the more He forgave them (verses 34-38).

This fits in the overall theme of Luke, which is to portray Jesus as the forgiving Savior (7:40-43). Also, this fits with the context. Their torture and humiliation of Christ did not stop till Jesus died die, and his priestly care for them did not end till His very last breath.

In our Pakistani Islamic context, we often hear the teaching that it wasn’t Jesus who died on the Cross, but someone else in His place. This is the traditional understanding of the Qur’anic verses 4:157-158. However, Luke subliminally counters this notion by recording this saying of Christ. Jesus Christ preached forgiveness all His life. He taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:21-23, 38-43, 44-48) and to forgive our brothers and sisters “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Hence, it is not surprising that He practiced what he preached, and we know that it was Jesus of Nazareth Himself on the Cross, not someone else.

This sets the stage for the 6 remaining sayings. We know that it was the Savior of Mankind who was on the Cross. Luke is very clear about this. We read that while Jesus was dying a criminal’s death along with other criminals, he had committed no crime of his own (23:41, 47, 50). Michael Wilcock eloquently expresses this message:

Now if I am shown Jesus suffering the penalty of sin, and if I am assured nevertheless that in him there is no sin, and if I find him offering me salvation from sin, it takes no great effort of the intellect to grasp that what nails him to the cross is the sin from which he promises to save-my sin” (The Message of Luke, 203).

Truly this is a message of forgiveness and salvation, but only for those who accept. We read that a great crowd followed Jesus to the Cross (verse 27) for which He prayed “Father forgive them”. However, most of them persisted in their unbelief and hatred of the crucified Messiah (verse 31). 

To those who realized what the event of crucifixion was all about, this general forgiveness became personal salvation. This included the repentant thief, the centurion, and Joseph of Arimathea. The message is for us today as well. Do we accept God’s forgiveness or do we persist in our unbelief? And the way we prove that we have truly been forgiven by God is that we also extend that same, deliberate forgiveness to those who wrong us. 

By doing so, we can say “….. forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” without being hypocrites.


References:


1.      Pervaiz Sultan, The Lamb of God.
2.      Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke.
3.      The Bible Knowledge Commentary.


Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Jesus the Theologian-Conclusion

This is the concluding post of the "Jesus the Theologian" Series. Hope you enjoyed reading!


Reason

Jesus was the best exponent of using reason for the formulation and defense of doctrine. He told us to love God with all our minds as well. The parallelism found in the teachings of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 7:17-20) mimics Aristotelian syllogism. There are examples that can be cited to show how Jesus used His amazing intellect to argue matters of faith. One of the best examples is His confrontation with the Jewish authorities in Matthew 21:24-28, where they asked Jesus about his authority. 

Jesus asked them a counter-question with the promise that if they answer, He will also disclose his authority.

The question pertained to John the Baptist, i.e. whether he was divinely ordained or not? If the religious leaders said  ‘yes’, Jesus would have asked them why they didn’t get baptized by John, and if they said ‘no’, the people would turn against them because they considered John to be a prophet. Jesus beat them in their own game.

A few years later, St. Paul used the same technique in Acts 23:6.


Culture

Jesus was a thorough 1st century Jew. However, he violated cultural norms on many occasions. We will look at one example that still influences the world today.

The Jews of Jesus’ time hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered ‘half-Jews’. The religio-ethnic tension between the two people can be seen in the response of the Samaritan woman to Jesus’ request for water in John 4:

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)”

This was the culture of that time.

In another passage of the New Testament, Jesus narrated the classic parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story, a Jewish man gets beaten up by robbers and is left on the roadside to die. Jewish people, including Rabbis, pass by but they don’t help him. Then came a Samaritan who not only rescued the injured man but also pays his medical expenses.

The hearers of Jesus at the time would have been scandalized, for Samaritans were generally considered inferior and impure. But Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of the story. And beyond words, and practiced racial equality in his dealing with the Samaritan woman. In fact, many think that Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan. St. Augustine says,

“Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name”[1]

Today you find ‘Good Samaritan’ laws throughout the Western world that offer legal assistance to people who help others in need. This example shows that while theology is rooted in culture, the culture often needs to be challenged in the light of the former.

Experience

Finally, we will see what Jesus had to say about experience. We have discussed extensively the centrality of experience in our theology. In the resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel, we find the story of ‘Believing Thomas’. St. Thomas is usually called ‘Doubting Thomas’, but he should be called ‘Believing Thomas’ because of the confession he made.

Thomas had the mind of a skeptic. He rejected apostolic testimony (tradition), the testimony of women (culture), and also the Messianic prophecies that talk about the resurrection of the Christ (scripture).

He said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25). 

Jesus did not rebuke Thomas for lack of faith. Instead, He welcomed His request and revealed Himself to Thomas (20:26-28). Thomas, experiencing the Risen Lord, immediately believed, and became so inspired that he traveled all the way to India to preach the Gospel.




Today, Jesus honors the request of those who want to experience him. There are many unbelievers out there who will never accept the testimony of scripture, the Church, or their own intellect. Jesus reveals Himself to them through the Holy Spirit.

Dr. William Lane Craig explains:

“…the claim that you can know God exists wholly apart from arguments simply by immediately experiencing him….. Philosophers call beliefs like this "properly basic beliefs." …they are part of the foundation of a person's system of beliefs. Other properly basic beliefs would be the belief in the reality of the past….when you think about it, none of these beliefs can be proved. How could you prove that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in appearances of age like food in our stomachs from the breakfasts we never really ate and memory traces in our brains of events we never really experienced?
Although these sorts of beliefs are basic for us, that doesn't mean that they're arbitrary. Rather they are grounded in the sense that they're formed in the context of certain experiences…..In the same way, belief in God is for those who seek Him a properly basic belief grounded in our experience of God.”[2]
The Psalmist says “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8).
The Living God calls everyone to experience Him today.




[1] C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribners, 1961), 1-2.
[2] Craig, 43-47. 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Jesus the Theologian Part 3

Jesus the Theologian: An Interesting Example


In John 5, Jesus heals a man who has been crippled for 4 decades. But instead of rejoicing in the healing, the Jewish leaders interrogate Jesus and try to look for a reason to kill him. 

Jesus gives them this opportunity, by claiming to be equal with the Father (John 5:17-18).  But what He says next demonstrates his ability to use the various factors of theology (in this case, scripture, tradition, and reason) to support His ministry, and to shun his critics.

Jesus invoked the principal of the Torah that 2 witnesses can verify any claim (Deuteronomy 19:15). If He met this criterion, the Jewish leaders would have no legitimate case against His healing of the cripple.  Instead of 2, Jesus brings in 5 witnesses!

  • ·   John the Baptist (5:32-35)
  • ·   His works (5:36) 
  •     The Father (5:37)
  • ·   The Old Testament Scriptures (5:39-40)
  • ·   Moses (5:41-46).[1]



Leon Morris states, “Nowhere in the Gospels do we find our Lord making such a formal, systematic, orderly, regular statement of His own unity with the Father, His divine commission and authority, and the proofs of His Messiahship, as we find in this discourse.[2]


The Factors of Theology in the Teachings of Jesus


Scripture

Who else would stress more on the foundational importance of scripture other than the Incarnate Word of God Himself? The New Testament is replete with statements of Jesus that contain the phrase “It is Written”, most significantly in His discourses with satan (Matthew 4:1-11).

But what happens when Scripture clashes with Scripture? This is the root of schisms in the Church. Theology should never be based on selected verses of the Bible, and this is the lesson that Jesus reiterates in Mark 10. The issue is divorce. The Jewish leader interpreted the command that “to write a certificate of divorce and send her away” literally.

 “In ancient Israel, adultery was punishable by death, usually stoning……By Jesus’ time... the penalty was dropped…. but Rabbinic law compelled a husband to divorce an adulterous wife (cf. Mishnah Sotah 1.4-5; Gittin 4. 7)[3].

Jesus took them all the way back to Genesis to teach them the broader perspective of Scripture on marriage. Using two passages of Genesis (1:27, 2:24), Jesus illustrated that marriage is a covenant of fidelity, not a contract that can be broken when seems convenient. This teaching is also illustrated in other parts of scripture (e.g. Malachi 2:13-16)[4]. Hence, we learn that we should use clear verses of scripture to explain the unclear ones, and not the other way round.

The Jews were using an isolated text from the Torah to justify their adulterous intent. Jesus corrected their theology using scripture.

Tradition

Tradition is theology, but this is a two-way street. All theology can be said to have been derived from tradition, but at the same time, traditions need to be critically examined periodically in light of other factors of theology.

We will now see two examples in the life of Jesus, once where he submitted to tradition, and once when he opposed it.

The Forced Confession

We Jesus stood before the High Priest, he was adjured ‘by the living God’ to reveal His identity (Matthew 26:63). Till now, Jesus hadn’t openly declared who He was, and he also remained silent during his trial. However, at this point, he had no choice but to confess the truth:

“Christ as a pious and law-abiding Jew, had no alternative but to answer."

‘If’ (says the Mischna)’one shall say, I adjure you by the Almighty by Sabaoth, by the Gracious and Merciful, by the Long-suffering, by the Compassionate, or by any of the Divine titles, behold they are bound to answer.’”[5]

Jesus could have challenged the Mishnah if He wanted, for that was tradition and not scripture. But He adhered to it and confessed before the High Priest.

Washing of Hands Before Eating

Jesus and His disciples drew controversy over eating without washing of hands (Matthew 15:1-11). This was not Mosaic Law, but Rabbinic tradition. Jesus, elaborating on Jeremiah 17:9-10, commented that defilement and purity have to do with one’s heart, mind, and soul, not their limbs. This teaching now allows Christians to adapt their diet according to their health and culture, making Christianity a truly universal and dynamic religion.

In the final blog post, I will discuss "Reason", "Culture", and "Experience".




[1] Patrick Zukeran, “The Apologetics of Jesus: A Defense of His Deity.” Probe.org, https://www.probe.org/the-apologetics-of-jesus/ (accessed 3rd November 2015)

[2] Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1971), 311.
[3] John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (USA: SP Publications, 1983), 148-149.
[4] Ibid, 149.
[5] Frank Morrison, Who Moved the Stone? (London: Faber and Faber, 1930), 26. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

Jesus the Theologian Part 2

Some Words on Christian Experience


Today, we experience God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. This experience, in my view, is what should precede all other factors of theology.


  • The Pharisees read the Old Testament (scripture), but they rejected Christ. 

  •  There would have been no Reformation (and no end to the Dark Ages) had not a few men like Martin Luther challenged the long-standing beliefs of the church (tradition). 

  • Anywhere from 60% to 93% scientists in the USA are atheists or agnostics[1], i.e. they either withhold their belief in God, or reject Him altogether (reason). 

  •   Today, majority of the Christians live in the Third World, in countries with no visible Christian culture (assuming that there is something known as a Christian culture to begin with). If theology depended on culture, majority of the Christians would have assimilated into Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or animism. 




Without the experience of the Holy Spirit, the other 4 factors of theology cannot help you reach a true understanding of God, and hence, you cannot have a living relationship with him. Christianity teaches a relationship with God which is as real as any of your worldly relations. And in this should be the supreme task of theology, in my humble opinion.


Theology will always be an investigation into the truths of God, but the fruits of all these efforts should be to lead people to the true knowledge of God, and ultimately, to the salvation that He offers. Dr. William Craig writes:
“.. fundamentally, the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.[2] 
Of course, let us not deny that each factor of theology has its limitations. This also includes experience, no matter how powerful or ecstatic it may be. Every discipline has its boundaries.

 Don Cupitt makes an interesting comment in this regard:
"Modern knowledge is vast, but it in principle uncertain. This is true both of science and history. As you approach the frontiers, in any subject, you enter a battlefield. Theology is no exception. Nothing is certain: there are no expert-oracles"[3]
While the Christian experience is a valid (if not the most valid) way of knowing God, it is, for a lack of a better term, a subjective factor. Anyone can claim a religious experience, but that doesn’t make their theology true. However, just because many people claim to have a religious experience doesn’t negate the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.

Experience, in the language of logic, can be called necessary but not sufficient. Since this is a theological discourse, some scriptural references may help establish the primary importance of the Christian experience, both individual and collective.

The Apostle John in his writings repeatedly emphasizes the validity of apostolic testimony (John 20:31, 21:24) as evidence of the truth of what he was preaching. However, in 1 John 5:6-10, he writes “We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater”. Now if we count scripture, tradition, and culture as human testimony, and Spirit as God’s testimony, then John is saying that inner testimony of the Spirit (experience) is greater than all these[4]

This is why experience is necessary for knowing God. This experience, however, should correspond with reality. And the criterion of genuine Christian experience is that it will be scriptural and reasonable.

In summation, while some factors of theology may take precedence over others, all of them are intricately linked together. Even when we are distinguishing one from the other, we use elements from all factors of theology in explaining them, as you might have noticed in the preceding sections.

Jesus: Author and Perfecter of Christian Theology

The word ‘theology’ comes from 2 Greek words  Θεος ‘theos’ and λόγος ‘logos’. Both words have been used for Jesus in the New Testament (John 1:1, 18 etc.). The Bible calls Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, and thus, by extension, he is also the author and perfecter of our theology.

He Himself is the exegesis of God “ἐξηγήσατο” (exēgēsato) (John 1:18). Jesus Himself studied theology. He was catechized at age 12, finding favor with the elders of the community. Later on, He became a ‘Rabbi’, a teacher of Torah.

Jesus said that the highest pursuit of life is to know God (John 17:3). Likewise, when He commissioned his disciples to evangelize the Good News to the ends of the earth, he told them to make not converts, but disciples. These disciples were then to be taught ‘everything that Jesus had commanded the apostles’. (Matthew 28:20), which “in a broad sense, the task of teaching what the whole Bible says to us today’[5], i.e. systematic theology.  

The Apostles of Christ exemplified this commitment to theology.
Faced with practical problems in the churches, they always sought first to clarify the theological issues underlying the problem, then to apply the practical remedy.”[6]

In the next post, we will look at the 5 factors of theology in action.




[1] Eugenie C Scott, “Do Scientists Really Reject God?” National Center for Science Education, http://ncse.com/rncse/18/2/do-scientists-really-reject-god (accessed 3rd December 2015)

[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Illinois, Crossway, 2008), 43.  
[3] Don Cupitt, The Debate About Christ (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1979), 46.
[4] Craig, 46.
[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Jointly published by IVP and Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 27.
[6] Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Nottingham: England, Inter-varsity Press, 1982), 18.
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