Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Mark: An Illustrated Commentary: Mark 16:1-8-- The Unsatisfying End

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

Mark 15:43-16:1

After the events and horror of Good Friday, Saturday brings silence. Joseph, the fearful but faithful follower of Jesus asks Pilate for his body late on Friday. Surprised to learn that He is already dead, Pilate grants this request. Joseph generously but quickly prepares the body, and seals it in the tomb.

This man who claimed to be the King of the World, the Son of God Himself, now lies, stiff and cold, in a dark rock tomb.

Mark skips straight over the Sabbath in his account of this first Easter weekend. The tomb is sealed late on Friday, and the next line takes us straight to Sunday morning. John likewise omits the Sabbath day from his record of events. Luke’s eyewitness account tells us only that “the women who had come with Jesus…went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rest on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” It is only Matthew’s Gospel which gives us a hint of the action, or lack thereof, on this Easter Sabbath day.

The Dark of the Tomb

Each one of the four Gospel accounts is at pains to tell its readers that Jesus was buried, sealed in a rock hewn tomb. Their accounts match up perfectly, and are clear in the chain of events. Jesus dies on that dark Friday afternoon. The diligence of the Roman executioners is evident across the Gospel accounts, even piercing the body with a spear when they are called to check on their work. Again, Mark stresses that Pilate sent soldiers to confirm the death before the body is released to Joseph. As mentioned yesterday, the Roman historian Tacitus likewise confirms that “Christus… was put to death by Pontius Pilate.” He is buried quickly and simply, the tomb is sealed, and the disciples scatter. The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann called the burial of Jesus “a historical account which creates no impression of being a legend.” This man died and was buried, we can be confident of that.

And so we are left with a tomb. A dead body in a cold rock tomb. As Christ’s head dropped to His chest on that cross, hope seemed lost. The Messiah was dead, defeated, gone. The darkness of Friday lingered into the Sabbath. The disciples sheltered in their dark upper room, other followers of Jesus scattered. It was over. The hints that Jesus Himself had offered: that He had to die, but that after three days He would rise, had been long forgotten. What hope did such words really hold now?

The Fear of the Pharisees

One Gospel account tells us that these words were not totally forgotten. Matthew gives us a small detail of the events of that Sabbath. As the day began, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate…

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Matthew 27:62-65

The Pharisees, the very group that had condemned Jesus to death, remembered His words. His promises had not been totally forgotten, and so, in order to counter any hoax or trick that the disciples could somehow pull off, the tomb is made even more secure. A crack team of Roman soldiers is stationed there. The greatest army in the world in the first century, and part of it guarded the tomb of this so-called Messiah. No one was getting in or out, especially a disheartened band of fishermen and tax collectors from Galilee. Matthew includes this detail for two reasons. It shows the situation for what it was. Humanly speaking, all hope was gone. The tomb was made as secure as the soldiers of the Roman Empire knew how. There was no human hope of a trick or deception here. But secondly, Matthew reminds us, the reader, of these words of Jesus. Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that He came to die, and that He would rise again.

John’s Gospel tells us some words of Jesus to one Jewish leader. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son. That whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus taught that mankind was headed for death, and we all know that to be true. But Jesus taught that mankind embrace sin – the evil that we do, that we love and enjoy – and so God’s punishment for sin was on us all: eternal separation from God and His goodness. Separation from the very God that gives goodness and life. Eternal death and punishment. But Jesus taught that He, the perfect Son of Man, would give His life as a ransom for us all. He would die, and rise, defeating death, and offering His life once and for all for ours. All you must do, is believe in this wonderful Son of God.

Jesus had taught this message for all His earthly ministry. He had repeated the claim that He would die and rise again over and over. Yet still the disciples missed the point. Only the Pharisees remembered those words, and not out of faith, but rather fear that the body would become a political tool.

But other than Matthew’s Gospel – which reminds us of these words of Jesus – Easter Saturday is quickly passed over. As seen with Mark above, the account moves from Friday to Sunday. Because this isn’t a story about Jesus being dead. This is the story about how He conquered death. How He died and rose again, taking the guilt and punishment that mankind deserve. So the Gospel accounts move quickly to the first day of the week. The dark of the tomb isn’t the end of the story.

Early in the Morning...

Because as each Gospel account tells us, the story continues on Sunday morning.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week…

Matthew 28:1

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise…

Mark 16:2

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning…

Luke 24:1

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark…

John 20:1

As that first Easter Sunday dawns, the dark of the tomb is forgotten, as something of earth-shattering proportions was about to unfold…

Because Easter Means Hope.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

John 19:16b-18.

In agony, the body hangs off the cross. Blood pours out of a series of brutally inflicted wounds. From a back that has been torn by the vicious lashes of a three lined whip, one woven through with pieces of lead or bone (designed to rip open the skin, and tear off chunks of the body). From hands and feet that have been pierced through by rough and jagged nails. From a brow crowned with thorns only a short while before, sweat mixing with blood as it pours down a face that cannot be wiped.

Breathing is quickly sharp and jagged. A body wracked with pain, agony in every breath. Hung from a wooden cross, the weight of the body pulls down on the lungs. Slowly, suffocation closes in. The heart becomes weaker as blood pours out of the wounds. Only pain remains, from a body damaged beyond belief. Humanity is stripped away as the naked body hangs, skin in tatters, life fading fast.

This was the horror of the Roman crucifixion. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, called it “the most wretched of deaths.” Cicero, the Republican orator and polymath, labelled it the “most cruel and terrible punishment.” As Christ hung upon that wooden cross, on the darkest day we know as Good Friday, He hung as a broken, humiliated criminal.

Tacitus, the Roman historian who was born just a few decades after the death of Jesus, gave a simple and methodical account of Jesus’ death.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

Lacking the details of the Gospel accounts, Tacitus nonetheless confirms the horrifying truth at the heart of the Christian faith. Their founder and Messiah had died upon a cross like a common criminal. The same fate handed out to runaway slaves was inflicted upon the one they thought would be their Saviour. The Cross was a horrifying way to die. And in the Roman world, it was a shame without equal.

The Horror of the Death

Crucifixion is a horrific form of execution, and the suffering inflicted upon the victim is immense. A reading of any one of the four Gospel accounts illustrates this quickly. We can so easily gloss over the details when we read these narratives, but it is human brutality at its worst. The body is wracked with unimaginable pain. Crucifixion was the ultimate statement of the state’s authority.

Runaway slaves were caught and hung to illustrate how their freedom was an illusion before the might of Rome. Criminals were hung to show their crimes had no impact on the power of the Empire. Jesus was hung on the cross as a political prisoner. The sign above His head declared Him to be the King of the Jews. Here, says the might of Rome, is what has become of your king. Your great king, your hope, your so-called Messiah, see how He hangs upon our cross. It was the ultimate defeat at the hands of the state, and the sign above Jesus’ head was an open ridicule of any hopes of deliverance through this now beaten Messiah.

As Jesus hung His head and died, the horror of His death had one final, brutal reality. As He hangs on the cross, Christ’s words are recorded in the Gospel accounts. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In His final moments, this Son of God felt His Father turn His back. Abandoned by friends, disciples and followers, now His God had turned away.

The Shame of Those Left Behind

Just a few days before, Jesus has ridden into the city on a colt, with crowds surrounding Him, cheering “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Truly, this Messiah was at His earthly peak. Adoring crowds surrounded Him, welcoming the Son of God come to save a broken humanity. The disciples marched proudly behind Him, basking in His glory. Yet by the end of the week, His battered and torn body hung limply on a cross. The disciples retreated to an upper room. Not for a supper such as the one they had shared just a few hours before, but instead, in fear and trembling, to assess their options.

Only a week earlier they seemed headed for certain success. Now, their leader hung lifeless on a wooden cross, and the faithful lieutenants hid fearfully. Victory had turned to shame. Their king hung like a criminal. Rome had won. The High Priest and the Pharisees had won. This lowly band of fishermen and tax collectors had seen their hopes crushed in the most public of ways.

The disciples offer a painful absence in the Gospel account of the death and burial of Jesus. The Gospel writers tell us that several of the women who followed Jesus stood by watching, but as Joseph comes to request and collect the body, before burying it in his family tomb, there is only silence from the disciples.

Their wonderful leader was seemingly crushed, and in their shame and sorrow, their response was hopelessness.

The Faintest Hope?

Amazingly, in the face of this most horrific of executions, there was a glimmer of hope. The disciples shivered alone in their locked upper room, because they had fled in panic as their leader was defeated. Except He wasn’t defeated. Though all seemed lost, though Rome and the Jewish leaders seemed to have crushed this Jesus Christ, the story was by no means over.

Because this death was not the end.

Jesus Himself had made that clear. He was the first man for whom death was not the end, because He had come to defeat it. He was in charge of the dark events of this first Good Friday. And He had made that clear to all those who would listen just a short while ago.

“I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

John 10:17b-18a.

Jesus knew exactly what was coming when He rode into Jerusalem in triumph. It wasn’t a triumph at a past victory, but one He was about to win. As Christ breathed His last on that humble wooden cross, the story was far from over. He had laid down His life for the very people who had surrounded Him at that triumphal entry, for the same people who had called for Him to hang upon that cross. But He had the authority to take it back up again.

Good Friday is only the start of the weekend.

Because Easter Means Hope.

Book Review: Story Bearer, by Phil Knox (IVP, 2020)

“The truth is that if you are a Christian, Jesus has changed your life. You have a story and it is meaningful, important, interesting and significant. It has the power to change somebody else’s life.” (52)

Story Bearer | Free Delivery @ Eden.co.uk

Story Bearer is a book on evangelism. It’s a little different to a lot of reads on the subject. And it’s brilliant.

Phil Knox’s book has a clear message: that everyone has a story, and when we are remade in Christ (3) “our story becomes intertwined with God’s story.” This idea of storytelling is accessible, enjoyable and universal. Everyone loves a good story, and as Christians, our very lives are part of the greatest story ever told.

This book is incredibly readable. As Phil walks through his case for each believer taking up the name of Story Bearer, he tells his own story, offers brilliant illustrations and narratives, and presents a helpful and open honesty. Story Bearer is neither difficult to read, nor is it a heavy, theological tome. The call of the book is simple: now we are part of God’s incredible story, we cannot keep that to ourselves. But Phil makes this call in a challenging and insightful way. Practical advice and exercises frame the book. From short challenges: (6) do we spend good time with non-Christian friends? To detailed frameworks: (46-47) how do I learn and tell my personal story, (106-108) how can I memorise useful verses of Scripture?

The book is simply laid out. After introducing the theme, Phil tells four stories. God’s story, your story, your friend’s story and the story of culture. ‘God’s story’ is a brilliant and instantly accessible Bible overview. His narrative of Bible history is faithful and clear, broken up by stories and illustrations that open up what can be at times a complex story. All four of Phil’s stories help us think about how we can reach our unbelieving friends and family for Christ, but the story of culture is also worth a particular mention. The vast majority of those who read this book will know their story has been shaped by the digital revolution of the last few decades. Phil walks through some key ideas around this narrative, questioning how we can weave both the individualism and relational accessibility of modern day technology and social media together. The Christian, says Phil, has a wonderful answer.

“We can celebrate and communicate the fact that, although there are 7.7 billion people on the earth today, you are unique, fearfully and wonderfully made. But we do not get to define ourselves… To a world searching for an identity, we can share the great news that you can find out who you really are and become who you were created to be by knowing the author of your story.” (100)

The story of our culture is that we can choose our own course, setting our highlights up on social media, hiding the bad times, and defining our own selves. But the wonderful story that the Christian can tell, is that we were made for so much more.

Story Bearer finishes as all four stories are pulled together. Concepts such as friendship and prayer are celebrated for their centrality to personal evangelism. Chapter 11 – dedicated to friendship – is a helpful, narrative driven guide to living the Christian life alongside believers. Phil’s section in Chapter 12 on prayer is a great reminder that in evangelism we are privileged to play a part, but we do not bring about new life ourselves. God lets us play a role, but He doesn’t need us to bring about conversion. With reference to 1 Corinthians 3:6*, Phil urges us to depend on God in our evangelism. (119) “If we think it is all about us, we will not pray in the same way for our friends.”

This book offers the reader a challenging and applicable presentation of personal evangelism. Every single person on this planet has a story. Share yours, listen to others, and point towards God’s. Whilst some might be concerned that this idea of storytelling is light on clear Gospel truth: Phil has a really helpful way of grounding his thoughts in God’s Word on every page. This book is a refreshing reminder that our faith is real and living, not merely an academic pursuit, with the fundamentals of the Gospel at the heart of every believer’s story.

To wrap things up: give this a read if you’re sold on evangelism, and the idea of stories. And give it a read if you’re sceptical about this narrative approach, because I think Story Bearer offers refreshing and direct challenge to our lives of personal evangelism. It’s a clear picture, one we can all buy into. It’s a book that cuts to what it is to be human. To be relational, communal, to be part of a bigger story.

*”I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” 1 Cor 3:6

Continuing and Creating: Church Community in Covid-19

In the second century, the atheist writer Celsus launched a vicious attack on the fledgling Christian church.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is church.png
Cartoon credit: davewalker.com

In his work, the True Account, Celsus penned accusation after accusation against the family of God. His writings are now all but lost to us, but much of what he wrote is preserved in the response provided by the third century Christian apologist, Origen. Origen wrote his Contra Celsum in response to the accusations of Celsus, and he quotes the attacks he responds to at length. In this strange time of self-isolation and public lockdown, it is the first accusation that has stood out to me, and perhaps ought to challenge us as we consider how best we ‘do church’ in lockdown.

“The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.

Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.1.

Celsus’ Accusation

So how does Celsus open his great attack on the Christians? What is his first blow as he seeks to dismantle and discredit this new religion? He attacks their gatherings. He tackles their community. In the ancient world, community was a big deal. There were formal guilds and societies one could join: funerary societies, guilds of tradesmen and professions. Often membership of guilds or societies formed an integral part of an individual’s identity. These guilds and associations could care for you in sickness and poverty, pay for your funeral and even care for your children. Many of them had religious aspects, patron gods or goddesses and the like.

But there was one type of association at which every civilised member of Roman society turned their noses up. Secret Associations, where the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery, and membership was tightly limited to the intimately initiated, were a disgrace to civilised society. Such groups had links with the hedonistic gods and practices of the barbarians. These groups, sometimes labelled Mystery Cults, were famed to worship their divine during midnight orgies, to practise human sacrifice, or even cannibalism. Such groups at their best were smutty and secretive, at their worst were criminal and repulsive.

This is the accusation of Celsus, that the Christians willingly enter into such dark and hedonistic associations. He even goes on to label them “love-feasts”. The Christian gatherings, says Celsus, are mysterious, cultic, secret gatherings where the initiates practice ungodly and unwholesome activities.

He makes his accusation to discredit the new faith. And he does so because it is precisely that. It is new, different, and potentially dangerous to the Roman way of life. Origen rebuffs Celsus’ accusation, demonstrating what Christian communities are really like. Celsus has got this one wrong, because although Christians do create set apart communities, it is only so that they can gather to worship their God without confusion or fear of theological pollution. Origen writes (Contra Celsum 1.1) “it is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth.” The Christian, says Origen, formed associations in order to celebrate and hold out the truth, not to hide away and practise evil.

Origen is defending the gathered church. As we meet as the family of God, in the Local Church, we meet to share in His word, to celebrate the family He has made us, and to worship Him. There is nothing dark or secretive about it. The ancient world struggled to understand what Christians were doing because they were creating associations similar to ones they knew and understood, but separate in that they were set apart for the ‘new’ Christian God. The Roman world struggled with the Christian Association, because they were doing something new: worshipping the one true God, in a community that spanned class, gender and ethnicity without discrimination.

Secret Associations and ‘Covid Communities

Our modern world largely understands what a church building is. They understand it to be where Christians gather to read the bible, pray and sing. Our culture understands that our faith is part of our identity, even if they don’t realise that our position before God is fundamentally our whole identity.

But as our world faces a global health crisis, much of what our cultures understand is on pause. Much of what is normal is locked up, isolated and on hold. And that includes our church buildings and meetings. So many churches, rightly, have utilised the technology available at our fingertips, and have gone temporarily online. Church services are broadcast live on Youtube or Facebook, small groups become Skype or Zoom meetings. As churches turned on their tech last Sunday morning for the first of these such services, one well known Christian commentator labelled it one of the most bizarre Sundays in Church History. And it probably was.

As we adjust to the new – temporary – normal of church life, we are faced with a challenge. A difficult one, but also a wonderful opportunity. How do we foster, encourage and develop community within this difficult time? All whilst enabling the outsider to witness the church truly meeting together, and the Gospel really being proclaimed.

The danger of this online church existence is that we become like the Secret Associations Celsus accused the Early Church of being. We hide away from the public gaze, meeting in secret from the comfort of our own home, mysterious ‘church’ meetings held only for the ‘initiated’.

So how do we avoid the trap of a secret church? How do we avoid the pitfalls of mysterious online meetings and closed off community?

The Challenge of Community: Hope & Relationships

We must make our online church a place where any thirsty sinner can come and find true, living water.

These strange times gives us then this unique challenge: how do we do community well? It’s easy for the committed (and especially the technologically literate) members of each church to tune in to every service, log on to each small group conference call, and message on every Whatsapp group. But what of the elderly, the technologically illiterate, or fringe members of our churches? What of individuals who have recently joined our churches, who are just beginning the process of getting stuck in but don’t know many of us well yet? If we close in as a tight-knit group, we will quickly lose those individuals who don’t quite know if they belong yet, and certainly those who don’t know how to go about belonging to a church that has suddenly moved online.* It is important that we both develop and deepen relationships, encouraging one another to cling to the Lord in strange times, but also welcoming new brothers and sisters, all the while holding out the word of truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church in this time is this withdrawal from the world. Is our own church in danger of disappearing off the radars of our unbelieving friends, family and colleagues? We cannot any longer physically invite those we know to services and events, but that does not mean we ought to become the secret and mysterious ‘online church’, open only to the believer. We must be creative in inviting people to tune into our services, we ought to consider how seeker courses can be held over video conferencing platforms, and we must remember that the New Testament calls us to an every member ministry.

Our pastors and elders will be tired, busy and overstretched. On them falls the heavy burden of pastoring the church through a difficult season, all the while innovating how ‘church’ is even done. Whilst our leaders can and ought to lead and encourage evangelism, the burden to do so does not simply fall on them alone. As members and believers we must consider how we can step up and bring hope into our own relationships. The church may have gone online, but the Gospel need of the world is just as (if not more!) apparent. Only Christ can offer true hope in the midst of a crisis such as this. Only the Gospel can shine a light into the darkness of a closed off world. But we must not think that the closing of church buildings should signal the halting of our evangelism. Nor should it signal a lack of welcome to the unbeliever.

We must carefully consider if this season is transforming our church into a secret and closed off society. It is a mighty challenge in a difficult time, but we must heed the words of Scripture:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2

Christ’s great commission is not on hold because of a global pandemic. As Scripture reminds us elsewhere, nothing will hinder the Lord in building His church. So we must listen to the words of Paul to Timothy. We must challenge unbelievers with the Word. Not because of any legalistic duty, but out of love. With the world in a dark place of fear and trembling, let us be beacons of hope. Holding forth the truth of the light of the world, the hope for all nations. The truth that God so loved His world, that He sent His one and only Son to take the penalty for our sin. The truth that whosoever believes in His Son, shall not perish but have eternal life.

Origen knew that Christians gathered so often and so uniquely because this was the truth they were sharing, celebrating, and holding out. In these dark days, let us not forget that we hold out the same truth to a frightened and confused world.

*Questions that need to be tackled here include (but are not limited to), how do we love well those who have applied for but not yet joined the membership of our churches? Or how about the new face at church, who has moved far from home to settle elsewhere and is only just getting started? Most churches will have individuals that fall into one of these two groups, and perhaps others, and it’s worth taking the time to consider those to whom we need to give special thought.

Book Review: Prayer (How Praying Together Shapes the Church) by John Onwuchekwa

In the midst of strange and unsettling times, perhaps you’ve found yourself with more time to kill, and you’re taking stock of options to fill your time. As I aimlessly scrolled through Twitter yesterday afternoon, I noticed that this short book, part of the 9Marks series on building healthy churches, had now been graciously made available as a free e-book. I made my way through it, and wanted to share a few thoughts here.

Image result for Prayer, How Praying Together Shapes the Church, by John Onwuchekwa

If you’re looking for a short read on a crucial topic during these strange days, look no further than this free offering. As we worry about the fragility of the world around us, to be challenged about the reality of prayer is a wonderful joy.

John’s book isn’t an attempt to provide a definitive study on the privilege of prayer. It’s not even an attempt to define prayer for the struggling Christian. Rather, as he makes clear in his introduction (15) his “hope is that this book will be a guide and a springboard that helps you enjoy the amazing gift of prayer we have as a church.” In days when our church family may not even be physically meeting, considering the role of prayer in our church life seems a worthwhile exercise.

Because as John astutely identifies (18), in many local churches in both the US and beyond, our problem with prayer is “not a complete lack of prayer, but too little prayer.” Too many churches give only a nod to prayer in their gatherings together. We ask humbly for this or that, and the exercise of corporate prayer is over in a minute or two. See you next week.

John’s concern is that (18) “our prayers in the church too often feel like prayer before a meal: obligatory and respectable, but no one really gets much out of it.” And so in this book, just one in a brilliant series of short books seeking to explore the biblical picture of the local church, John provides an honest and raw account of prayer. This is not a book penned by a learned scholar in his ivory tower, or even by a prayer warrior down on his knees. It is an honest and simple read where John wrestles with his own sinfulness, helpfully sharing personal challenges and obstacles to his own prayer life.

The book largely divides into three parts. Having used the introduction to identify the problem of prayer in our churches (too little!), the book moves to consider briefly just what prayer is for the Christian, before moving to apply that to the life and activity of the local church.

Prayer and the Christian Experience.

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. So it follows that prayer must be a source of life for any community of Christians” (23). Prayer is essential for the Christian, and as it sustains the individual believer so it sustains the gathered church. As Christians then, we must begin to foster a culture and habit of prayer. As John explores the lack of prayer in our churches, he considers a lack of prayer in our own lives. Our problem, he writes, is that “prayerlessness is spiritual suicide. So what I’m suggesting is that we pray more” (39). But how do we pray? The reader is walked through Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, and a brilliant exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, to answer this question.

God’s word is so rich and so clear, and as the book walks line by line through the Lord’s Prayer, there are simple and clear challenges. The first half of the Lord’s Prayer is Godward looking, (49) “the world exists as a canvas for God’s glory.” I was struck by John’s simple challenge. How often am I sleepless, grieved, or distracted from other tasks, by the ways in which God’s name is disrespected? If I am honest with myself, how self-centred are my prayers?

As Jesus turns to pray the second half of his prayer, fresh challenges confront the reader. Do we get comfortable fitting our prayer lives around us? Do we really ask for our daily bread, or is it simply the ad hoc or occasional request? Do we wholly depend on God alone, or use him as a backstop in tricky times? Given the current global crisis, such questions are particularly poignant. But more than this, the Lord’s Prayer is communal in outlook. We are not asking for simply our own needs, there is a plurality to this prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” And so John cautions, (59) “even when we pray alone, we should have our neighbours in mind. We should be consumed by ways to love them.”

Prayer requires our humility, as we put others before ourselves and as we submit to God when we sin, or in the storms of life as they rage around us. John helpfully takes us to Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is emotional, the words are raw. And it provides a wonderful model of dependence upon and submission to the Father to whom he prays. (69) “Jesus had taught his disciples how to pray in times of peace. Here [in Gethsemane] he modelled prayer in the midst of suffering. What had been instructed in the classroom was now illustrated in crisis.”

Prayer is a wonderful gift for the Christian. It is the means by which we speak with our Father. Where we can be open, honest and raw. It is a means to depend on and submit to our Father. (76) “God strengthened their hands when they surrendered their hearts to do his will. They began to look like their Saviour. They finally understood that the life-changing work of the gospel isn’t strengthened in the public eye. Rather, it’s strengthened in private before the eyes of God and our family in Christ.”

Prayer and the Local Church

Chapters Six to Eight see the book apply these truths to the local church gathering together. With a mix of solid biblical truth (94-95 for example, an exploration of prayer in the Early Church of the book of Acts) and practical advice, John considers the place of prayer in the life of the local church. He unpacks the ACTS model of prayer at length (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), providing a useful model for the church to use to consider conversations around prayer. Indeed, on this model in particular, the corporate application is clear. As we pray through these four things together we are encouraged to praise God as one body, to confront sin in ourselves as we hear the confessions of others (me too!) and to better love one another as we gather.

Perhaps the most striking direct application of this section was John’s encouragement to recover the prayer meeting. It might not be innovative, but we don’t need innovation. We need intentionality. (96) “The prayer meeting isn’t a place of attraction, but a place of necessity.” We may not be attracted to a prayer meeting after a long day at work or a long weekend, but when we understand the vitality of prayer in the life of the church, our perspectives and priorities will shift. Helpfully using the example of his own church family, John challenges us to consider whether we make the right space in both our weeks and our hearts to be gathering to pray together.

As this third section of the book is wrapped up, John turns to consider the relationship between evangelism, missions and prayer. He identifies the anxiety and apathy that can so often fuel both our individual and corporate approaches to evangelism (and adds to this helpful challenges: I was struck by his comment on training. Does constant training for evangelism allow cowards like myself to simply avoid every actually going out on mission?) The remedy, he writes, is prayer. (111)  “Prayer is the link in the chain that connects God’s sovereignty to our responsibility.” Indeed, in corporate prayer for our evangelistic efforts, we give over burdens we were never meant to shoulder to the One who can carry them, (114) “anxiety is replaced with boldness. Apathy is replaced with compassion.”

Conclusion

This book was such a helpful check on my own attitude to prayer in my own church family. At a time when it is even harder to gather and pray together, where prayer meetings and the like require the added logistics of video calls and conferencing software, this book provided a great challenge to how I view prayer in my own life, and crucially, in the life of the church. John challenges us with this book: do we cheapen the place of prayer in our church family? Do we enjoy it? Do we really get it? Through considering services, sermons, prayer meetings and outreach (among other things) John shows how prayer relates to the whole life of the church. A life of prayer is an essential joy for Christian exiles in a broken world. (127) “When Christ teaches us to pray, he does so with a fractured world in mind.” In Glory, we will stand before our Father and praise Him to His face. But until that day, as we live for him in this broken and troubled world, we must lean on him, praying without ceasing. This short book is a great read for a lonely Christian in a troubled, self-isolating world. If you have a few hours this coming week, have a quick read and be humble as you think of your own contribution to the prayer life of your church.

Book Review: Evangelism as Exiles by Elliot Clark

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Recently loaned this book by a friend, I decided I would share some thought’s on Elliot Clark’s excellent short book here.

Clark offers a valuable challenge to our evangelism in this book: questioning the place of the fear of God in our evangelism, contextualising our conversations, and framing the discussion within a helpful exposition of 1 Peter. As a British reader, the US context in which Elliot wrote was at times confusing but by no means to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Premise

Clark identifies helpfully the place of Christianity in our postmodern, Western societies. Christianity is no longer the cultural norm in our communities, and so “we must learn and apply the proper dispositions of a church on mission, living as strangers in our own land” (22). We are strangers in our own towns, cities, and nations. We are on mission in our everyday. We are exiles from our true, eternal home. We are foreigners in a strange land.

But we are here for a reason. We are here holding out the words of truth, the only means of salvation. But when we recognise our position as exiles and strangers in our own lands, we must learn how to live as such. And this is the premise upon which Clark challenges his readers: we must learn how to live and love faithfully as we seek to engage in evangelism as exiles.

Challenge

Clark’s book helpfully challenges the preconceptions we have around evangelism. His book opens with the reminder that evangelism is not simply the Christian we see on the TV Channel, or onstage at the big event, but the life and activity of every believer. But as Christians, as evangelists, we operate in a strange land. We are exiles in our evangelism. This frames our efforts, our glory and hope is not in this world, but in the world to come. We see this, in 1 Peter, through the truth of the Gospel. “Peter wanted his readers to understand that God glorified his Son in order to give us, his children, hope for our own exile” (30). Such hope, says Clark, gives us joy in our suffering, a point well made with reference to his own stories on mission in the Middle East.

This challenge allows Clark to get to what, for me, was really the issue at the heart of the book. A challenge to the place of fear in our evangelism. As we live as exiles in a strange land, who do we fear as we consider reaching those we know and love, and those we don’t know, with the Good News of Jesus? “Fear is closely related to shame and it is still a real factor in our evangelism” (50). Is our fear driven by shame in our faith, or is our fear rightly directed at God? “The solution we find in 1 Peter is to fight fear with fear – to grow in our fear of God and our fear for (not of) our fellow man” (50). Clark’s point here challenged me and my all so often fearful evangelism. The challenge is not to reject fear, but to redirect fear. We know the fear of the Lord is a good and right thing. Prov 9:10: it is the beginning of wisdom. Time and again in the Psalms we see fear of God eclipsing fear of man. To fear rightly is to live with confidence. But more than this, as Clark so winsomely states: this fear must drive us to a fear for our fellow man. We must not have a fear of them, but as we rightly direct our fear towards the Lord, we must fear for their own standing before the Lord and Judge of all things.

And this is Clark’s conclusion: “this is why the Gospel must be proclaimed, because all will give an account to [the] One who is ready to judge the living and the dead ([1 Peter] 4:5-6)” (58). Our fear of God, a right fear, must stir up a fear for man. A fear that those we know and love who do not know Christ, who will have no defence on that final day. But the Gospel – the Good News – is that the Judge Himself sends His Son to provide that defence for mankind. At the Cross, guilty sinners are washed clean. We ought not to allow a fear of man to thwart our evangelism, rather, our fear for man ought to stir us towards evangelism.

There are further challenges I could pick up on, and Clark writes astutely on the roles of prayer and hospitality in our evangelism. Do we bring our efforts to God, do we commit our actions to Him? Do we open up our homes, and our lives, to those we do not know, or to those we would rather not mix with?

Empathy

Clark understands that evangelism is hard. But this shouldn’t stop us from engaging with those we meet. Indeed, Clark urges his readers to consider evangelism as so much more than the mention or namedrop of Christ or the Church. How guilty I am of that in my own evangelistic efforts! Clark confronts this attitude head on (96): “We must consider why we’re only willing to speak the gospel when we perceive openness on the part of another. We must ponder whether we even have a category for proclaiming a message that people oppose, one that’s innately offensive. Or do we tiptoe through polite spiritual conversations and timidly share our opinions, then call it evangelism?” We cannot count our evangelism as a simple mention of our faith, we must confront people with the wonderfully offensive message of the Gospel.

But Clark does not challenge us, in this or in other ways, without a gentle sense of brotherly empathy. Having experienced the mission field first hand, he knows the reality of standing out for the Gospel. “When we are visibly other… the pain of ridicule and social exclusion can be sharp” (121). To be Christian is to be other. To speak the Gospel is to reveal that otherness. And that can be so costly. All the way through Evangelism as Exiles, Clark uses stories of his own time on mission to illustrate his points, and the cost of discipleship is so clear to see in his stories of brothers and sisters living for Christ in the Middle East. We are exiles, we are other. But we must keep on in sharing the Good News that has made us strangers in this land, because we are citizens of the Next.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land

Summary

Evangelism as Exiles is a helpful read, and one that confronted laziness, shortsightedness, and sin in my own understandings of personal evangelism. Clark’s helpful exposition of 1 Peter is clear and valuable teaching, and an encouragement to see points so clearly rooted in God’s word. This book presented me with both clear challenges and encouragements. I would heartily recommend it to those asking questions around evangelism, witness, and our status in this world. As we speak the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ, we are exiles, strangers in a foreign land. This book encourages us to live out our lives, for God’s glory, as we await our true home. I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:5): “Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

We live now as exiles, but we are purposed by God, equipped by the Spirit, and guaranteed to one day come to our eternal home.

Acts 17: just another God?

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens was typical of the Roman Empire of the day. 

As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the presence and veneration of countless gods, goddesses, and mystery divinities. The ancient world was “very religious”. Just as much as our own contemporaries worship celebrities, money, fashion and sex, the ancients were worshippers. In many ways they worshiped the same gods as the world around us, they merely personified them. In Plutus they had a god of money, in Aphrodite a goddess of sex. So when Paul passed the “objects of worship” in ancient Athens, he was met not with idols of meaningless false gods, but with manifestations of the false gods the Roman world had raised up as a result of their sinful rebellion against God.

In the absence of an object of True Worship, human beings then and now turn to objects of comfort and self-centred gain and worship them. The Roman merchant would pray to Neptune ahead of a sea voyage – to ensure calm sailing and safe arrival of their cargo. The Roman soldier would pray to Mars before battle, to beg for victory over inferior foe. The traveller would submit to Mercury when setting off on a journey, to ask for safe roads and swift travel. You get the picture. In the absence of a true focal point for human worship, the sinful heart erects false gods to come to. 


The Roman world was full of gods. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in small shrines in every Roman home. There was no state religion, because the state was religion. The Emperor himself encouraged worship of the imperial ancestors, and imperial cults sprung up across the empire venerating past and present Roman Emperors.

So when Paul moves to speak of this Unknown God, he makes a radical call.

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17: 29-31 (NIV).

Paul calls his Athenian audience to repent. Because his True God is not some metal or stone image carved by their sculptors. Nor is he content with ignorance and half-hearted service. Paul’s Christian God does not want you only to heed him on odd days of the week, or at times when you need a hand in a crisis. Paul’s Christian God wants repentance from ignorance, and lives given over to Him before His final judgement comes. This message itself is even more countercultural. The gods were certainly seen as powerful and mighty beings. But they were by no means sovereign. The current gods of Rome and Greece were believed to be ruling (under Jupiter, the King of the gods) merely because they overthrew a divine race of Titans and stole their power and authority. There is no sense in which their rule is eternally assured, certainly no sense in which their sovereignty is so total as to one day call the men of the world to a final judgement. Such teaching contradicts everything the ancients believed. Even their notions of judgement at death were profoundly different: with most believing that all the deceased passed on to a shadelike existence in the underworld, where a mere few enjoyed the semi-passable eternal existence of the Isles of the Blessed.

No, Paul and the faithful of the Early Church taught one God supreme in authority, sovereignty and judgement. And when Paul made known the unknown God, he was asking his pagan audience to turn from their false gods and humble themselves before the one true God. The one God who could satisfy them, the one God who could save them.

Paul was not preaching just another god to fit into their crowded marketplace. He was preaching the one true God, the one true saviour and the one true judge. 

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Martyred in 258 AD, Cyprian was a North African Bishop who chose to follow Christ ahead of the temptations and trappings of an elite upbringing.

The ruins of Roman Carthage.

Little is known of Cyprian’s early life. But by all accounts he was a wealthy member of the Roman provincial elite. Born Thascius in the early third century, as a young man he would have had an excellent and diverse education. Thascius was taught oratory, rhetoric and grammar, and would have been well versed in the poetry and prose of the ancient world. His extant works betray a well read, well taught individual, whose command of oratory in particular shines through in his writing.

With such a privileged background, Thascius would have known the luxury and trappings of upper class provincial Roman life. Rich and varied food and drink, sexualised relationships and interactions with a variety of partners, and lavish dinner parties, drinking competitions and high society soirees. To tear oneself away from a life of indulgence and privilege is always a challenge (and is part of the reason Christ Himself taught that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25.) But through the ministry of a humble Christian teacher, Cyprian’s life displays the saving power of the Gospel to do just that.

The Life of Cyprian, by Pontius the Deacon, is our most contemporaneous source on Cyprian’s life. Pontius was a Carthaginian churchman who served as a Deacon under Cyprian’s leadership. His work is short, but it crucially describes just how one particular priest, Caecilius (from whom Thascius took his new name), was used by God to dramatically transform this member of the provincial Roman elite into a humble servant of the True and Living God.

He had a close association among us with a just man, and of praiseworthy memory, by name Caecilius, and in age as well as in honour a presbyter, who had converted him from his worldly errors to the acknowledgment of the true divinity. This man he loved with entire honour and all observance, regarding him with an obedient veneration, not only as the friend and comrade of his soul, but as the parent of his new life.

Pontius the Deacon, Life of Cyprian 4.

Pontius makes clear the affection Cyprian had for Caecilius. Indeed, there are echoes of how Paul describes his relationship with Timothy. Paul describes Timothy as his son several times – “…I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord,” “Timothy, my true son in the faith…” (1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2). There is a spiritual tenderness. Paul led Timothy to faith, Caecilius did likewise for Cyprian. There is tenderness because at the heart of the New Birth of the Christian is a right orientation of love. God loves us, and yet we willingly reject Him. Instead, we project our love on created things, and not our Creator. Cyprian had lived for around 35 years before his conversion, loving the vices and pleasures of the Roman elites. Satisfying himself in the gratifications of the sinful flesh. Yet when Caecilius introduced him to the Gospel, his eyes were opened. His love was reorientated, upon the Father who adopted Him, the Son who died for him, and the Spirit that works within him. And that love overflows to his new family: the church. Caecilius is part of that, and his role in teaching Cyprian the Gospel meant that affection was clear to see. Indeed, from the time of his conversion, Cyprian’s love for the people of God becomes evident in the way he begins to live.


The Gospel transformed Cyprian.


From ambitious and successful provincial elite, Cyprian became a willing and humble servant of the Lord. He gave away his wealth, supporting the poor and needy. His considerable wealth was rapidly disseminated around the family of believers, and those struggling in the city of Carthage. Within two years of his conversion, Cyprian was ordained, and his heart for pastoral leadership is evident in his writings. His extant letters betray a pastoral heart for stumbling saints, struggling sinners, and needy believers. 

Cyprian was committed to encouraging his readers to keep on in their faith, to depend on God alone for their strength and salvation. One short quote, from a letter to Donatus, illustrates his practical, pastoral encouragement to depend on God alone.

“Be constantly committed to prayer and to reading [Scripture]. By praying, you speak to God, in reading, God speaks to you.”

Cyprian, To Donatus, 15.

Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage, the leader of the small Christian community there. Under his leadership the Carthaginian church endured two major persecutions. Both were costly to the Church, and to Cyprian, but it was the second which proved fatal for Cyprian himself.

Imprisoned under the orders of the proconsul of the region, Galerius Maximus, Cyprian was tried before the proconsul in open court. The death sentence was pronounced when Cyprian refused to recant. His faith superseded his allegiance to Rome, and he would not deny the sovereign lordship of Christ to save his own life. Execution by beheading was the judgement, and records indicate that on September 13th, 258, Cyprian was beheaded outside of the city.

Cyprian led the church in Carthage for only a decade or so, and his emphasis on pastoral leadership was clear and helpful. The transformation of the Gospel is evident in the story of Cyprian. His change from wealthy and lavish provincial elite, to servant hearted church leader is miraculous. The Gospel has the power to save sinners, and Cyprian’s story is of exactly that saving grace.


But Cyprian was not a perfect saint. His life was marred by the reactions and interactions to those who fell away during the intense periods of persecution. Labelled the lapsi – the fallen, these Christians faced ostracism from the community of believers. Genuine repentance was often rejected, and the affair became a dirty period in the history of the Carthaginian church. Cyprian found himself caught between groups that accepted these lapsed back into the fold, and those who could never accept them. He took a firm moderate position, at times helping the situation, at times inflaming it. Eventually, some fifty years after Cyprian’s death, this crisis escalated to a full blown eccesliastical schism. Those who could not accept the lapsed, then known as traditores (lit. those who handed over) for their handing over of the sacred texts and communion vessels of the church during the persecutions, broke away to form their own church. The two Christian groups periodically clashed, often violently, and even the then Emperor Constantine had to repeatedly step in to the conflict.

Cyprian was not the perfect church leader. By no means was he a complete role model, or morally virtuous exemplar. But he is a wonderful example of a redeemed sinner. A man whose life was so utterly transformed by the Gospel that he went from the hedonistic pleasures of Roman upper class youth, to the pastorally hearted and humble martyr for Christ. Through the gentle ministry of Caecilius, Cyprian was transformed by the powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers (13:8)  that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Cyprian’s life is testament that 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that was most certainly true. Today, some 2000 years later, Christian men and women across the globe are testament to the enduring truth of this message.

James and the ‘Crown of Life’: the crown in the Ancient World.

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James wrote his New Testament epistle to scattered and persecuted Christians struggling to stand firm in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage and challenge them, offering practical wisdom on the outworking of their faith in their lives, the need to endure, and the reality that God changes the believer.

His short letter opens with a section dedicated to facing trials and temptations in God’s strength. He exhorts his readers to cling to spiritual provision (vs16-18) during times of great spiritual challenge and danger (vs13-15). In verse 12, James encourages his readers by looking forward together.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 (NIV)

Blessed are those, writes James, who stand firm under pressure, who keep on in the trials and temptations of life, because at the end of all that is the crown of life. The prize, the goal, the crown of life. James’ words echo Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, where the Apostle speaks of what lies in store for him, and those who are faithful to Christ.

there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing

2 Timothy 4:8

Both writers use the same Greek word to describe this crown – στέφανος – meaning crown, or wreath. And it was a word with majestic implications. Not as the crown of a king or queen as we might imagine today, but far more accessible, though just as noble.

The στέφανος in the Ancient World

The use of στέφανος in the ancient world is widespread, and by the time the New Testament was written, in the first century AD, the word had been used in the context of this crown/wreath for nearly a millennium. Homer (Il. 18.597) spoke of the crowns worn by girls in group dances and in the sixth century BC the Athenian playwright Euripides spoke of men garlanding their heads with wreaths of roses (Hipp. 73f). In the more immediate Roman context, Pliny (Hist. Nat. 18.2.6) records how certain priests, known as the Arvals, wear crowns at festivals, a tradition he suggests was instituted by Romulus himself.

The word then was well established. Indeed, it had far reaching popular connotations. I’ve long been taught that New Testament uses of this word were connected to the crowns given to victors in ancient sporting contests. Such an idea is often suggested alongside citation of 2 Cor 9:25 or 2 Tim 2:5. There is certainly truth in this, and this was a common use of the στέφανος, but the connotations of this word reach far further than just that. James uses the word because it is one with real weight and meaning behind it.

As suggested by some of the citations above, the ancient world attributed such crowns to religious settings. Wreaths or crowns often played roles in cultic celebrations, they were holy dress, worn by priests and linked in many cases directly to the gods.* Crowns extended beyond the priesthood in many cults of the ancient world through processions and feast celebrations. Again the ancient record is littered with references to specific people wearing wreaths and crowns on certain feast days or at certain festivals, in recognition of the god or goddess they worshipped. Such crowns seemed to carry connotations of salvation and protection in the ancient world as well. the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, in one comedy, describes a slave saved from a beating because he was wearing a crown (Pl. 21f), whilst the emperor Tiberius was known to wear laurel wreaths during thunderstorms because of their association with averting lightning (Plin., Hist. Nat. 15.134f).

Wreaths and crowns then, appeared in a myriad of contexts in the ancient world. But of course we must note their link to sporting contests. Victors were crowned with wreaths of olive, at the Olympic Games in Greece, such wreaths were cut from sacred olive trees with a golden sickle. The victor was crowned, and Xenophon (Mem. III.7.1) tells how after the Delphic Games, the victor was lauded in a procession which ended at his house, which was then also crowned in a wreath as an extra show of honour and victory! These crowns were immense honours, a sign of supreme earthly fortune, and often accompanied by rich prizes of gold or olive oil to represent that. To win such a crown was the greatest prize, a sign of quasi-immortality before all mankind.

There is more we could say on the στέφανος. These crowns played roles in the marriage ceremonies of the ancient Roman world, in the honouring of the dead, and in the oracles and Mystic Cults that abounded. But what is clear to see in all of these settings, the στέφανος was a very special prize. It was reserved for special individuals, on certain days or occasions, and carried with it connotations of salvation, glory, victory and completion.

The Στέφανος for James’ Audience

So what then, would this word have meant to the original readers of this letter? What would James’ readers, scattered former Jewish Christians facing intense persecution for their new faith, have made of this particular sentence?

James was telling battered and bruised believers, that no matter what they faced now, when they crossed that finish line, when they ran or stumbled or crawled over the line into the arms of their Saviour, that this crown awaited them.

The στέφανος was holy. It was set apart for specific people and specific contexts. And it was glorious. It embodied hope, victory, status, salvation. James didn’t use the word lightly when describing the prize his readers had in store for them. He knew their earthly experience was tough. Like the athlete sweating it out in the ancient games, or the worker toiling in the sun, longing for the day of rest that came with the next festival. Their στέφανος was a wonderful prize, one that signalled an end to their present suffering, and the awarding of all the good gifts that come with such a prize. But whilst an earthly crown of laurel or olive may fade away, James spoke of the στέφανος of life. Here was a crown that would never perish, spoil or fade. Here was a victory, a celebration, a religious moment that would never end. Here was the ultimate prize. James meant it when he said the one who carries on to that prize is truly blessed!

To a readership struggling under widespread persecution, social ostracism and the everyday sufferings of the ancient world, this crown of life must have leapt off of the page. An unimaginable prize described in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly exhilarating way.

What about Us?

James wrote to encourage suffering believers to keep on, to lean on their Father, to live out their faith practically and well in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage them to press on in the trials of life towards a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade. He wrote to encourage them towards their reward: the crown of life. His message rings true for us today. In a world where life can bear down on us, sufferings closing in from all around, and persecution for our faith can take many forms, James holds out the crown of life.

This στέφανος was a picture of the ultimate prize. A picture of rest from toil and struggle. A picture of a great and glorious reward after a bitter and long contest. A picture of victory. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that that same crown is held out to us today. The Gospel promises eternal life, eternal rest, eternal victory. Christ makes us heirs and coheirs of eternity. In Him, the Christian who endures is given a great and glorious rest, with Him for all eternity. And wonderfully, the Gospel promises (Romans 8:39) that God will keep his saints keeping on. The ultimate prize is there for the believer who perseveres. So lean on your Father, hide yourself in Him, and keep on until we claim the prize: an eternity with the God we love.

*Take for example Dionysus. Ivy was a sign of this god, and Euripides describes how the followers of Dionysus wear crowns of woven ivy in worship of him, signifying a fellowship of life and death (Bacc. 177)

Book review. Dirk Jongkind: An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale ...

Alongside the release last year of their Greek New Testament, Tyndale House also produced an introduction to their edition, written by one of the editors of this critical approach to constructing a New Testament as close to the Greek original as humanly possible, given the available evidence. Dirk Jongkind and Peter Williams have produced an authentic and complete New Testament edition, which engages with a wide variety of source manuscripts and asks questions of popular understandings of key words, phrases and verses.

It was to Dirk Jongkind that the task of penning the introduction to this edition fell, and his Introduction is a gentle and clear editorial defence of their work.

Jongkind’s Introduction is an engaging read, illustrating the enormity of the task that the editors faced, accepting the challenges with which they engaged, and explaining their methodology and process through simple, short sections and worked examples. Throughout the short book, Jongkind’s scholarly background is of course evident, but this is wonderfully paired with a pastoral sensitivity towards the subject matter.

The Introduction to the THGNT acts as a helpful introduction to the discipline of textual criticism, as well as the challenge of textual transmission through the long manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament. Any translation of an ancient work is in impressive undertaking, but as this Introduction shows, the problems facing the translators of ancient works are multiplied when dealing with Scripture.

This reviewer found several key themes recurring throughout Jongkind’s book, and I’d like to briefly dwell on them now.

Methodological Introduction

As mentioned above, Jongkind’s work engages with scholarly practice in an accessible way. As he explores the manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament, the author illustrates the challenges facing the editors of this new edition. His ready engagement with the key concepts of textual theory and translation rarely strays into an over-complication, and his use of examples allows challenging issues to be understood in just a few lines. Issues such as copying errors, manuscript traditions and the impact of a decentralising Early Church are addressed, and Jongkind presents a considered approach to dealing with them.

Through his sixth chapter ‘How Decisions Were Made’, Jongkind walks the reader through an overview of the editorial approach in this project. From scribal activity, to manuscript groupings and ecclesiastical influences, Jongkind explains the rationale behind decisions made. Again, often complex ideas are simply presented. Considering (67) a “much quoted text-critical rule…[that] ‘the more difficult reading is to be preferred to the easy reading’ (lectio difficilior potior, literally ‘the more difficult reading is the stronger one’),” Jongkind brings up questions behind the phrase, distilling them into one: what is the most difficult reading? This simplification allows Jongkind to explain the role such a rule can play in textual criticism. (68) “Still, the rule points toward the need to weigh possibilities.” This is but one example in how Jongkind navigates the presentation of complex methodology in a helpful, simple and informative way.

Jongkind also addresses the reasons why the THGNT differs from traditionally favoured Greek texts: the so called Textus Receptus and the Byzantine Text. Devoting a short chapter to each, Jongkind asks questions around the rigidity to which they are clung to, suggesting that the editorial decisions made for this project provide some answers. Again, there is a sensitivity in his approach to these texts, probing questions are definitely asked, but in a helpful manner.

Practical Implications

As the editors approached this work, it was clear that they sought to move away from allowing modern preconceptions to impact their thinking. This is demonstrated in decisions regarding practicalities in presentation and textual selection. The order in which books appear in the THGNT is one such example. Jongkind explains that the order of books conforms with other Greek New Testaments, putting the Catholic Epistles before the Pauline corpus (35). His reasoning for this change is well supported by manuscript evidence. That said, in a somewhat lighthearted manner, Jongkind explains that they made no other such changes, as, for a readership brought up on the order of English Bibles (36), “the repositioning of the Catholic Epistles was already sufficiently disturbing.”

One other such practicality Jongkind addresses is paragraphing. Again a return to the original manuscripts is seen here. The prologue with which John opens his Gospel, traditionally seen as 1:1-18, is not so strictly bound in earlier manuscripts. Indeed (37), “there are virtually no manuscripts that exhibit the modern conclusion that the prologue ends at 1:18.” The ancient paragraphing does not indicate the separation suggested by our modern translations, and asks interesting questions of how we can read the opening of this Gospel account.

Jongkind preempts many of the queries and responses one might have to the THGNT, as well as elaborating on things such as paragraphing, that might pass us by without this helpful guide.

Textual Applications

This Introduction raised two key areas of application for me, and Jongkind was at pains to stress both throughout his book.

The first is perhaps most encouraging to the ears of the believer. We can have supreme confidence in the New Testament texts we possess. (103) “The meaning of each book and chapter of the New Testament is not in doubt or uncertain – and when it is, it is not because of textual variants.” We can have confidence in Scripture. God’s word, revealed to mankind through Scripture, is still God’s word. This project, if anything, affirms that. And Jongkind makes that clear in his closing chapter. (109) “The important thing to take away from this little book is that you have every reason to read the Greek New Testament with confidence and pleasure.” We can read the Greek New Testament, and of them, good translations, with both confidence and pleasure. Enjoy God’s word, knowing that it is His word, and that it has much to teach us.

Secondly, I enjoyed the repeated emphasis on the need for a close reading of Scripture. The editors poured over each one of the 135 000 words to be found in the Greek New Testament. Many of the examples of problems, revisions or variations, that Jongkind provides come from just a word or two. The scrutiny with which the editors approached this text is apparent, but it provides a lesson. The closeness with which we read God’s word can impact what we learn from it. Close, careful study, in the original language or of a good translation, will ultimately be for our edification, and for God’s Glory.

I enjoyed this Introduction immensely. The production of the THGNT is approached with respectful diligence, and clarity is offered around at times controversial decisions. Jongkind has the humility to recognise valid concerns with their editorial decisions (97), and offers helpful responses to such questions. The book acts as a helpful springboard with which to approach this new text of the Greek New Testament, but I found it a joy to read as a personal reflection upon the place of textual transmission, language and revision in the Bibles we use today. God’s word is eternal and unchanging. It was encouraging to find that scholars such as this so clearly demonstrate that to be the case.