#100Days: light at the end of the tunnel?

This week the UK marked 100 days of lockdown. Restrictions are being eased across the country, schools are partially open, shops and cafes are beginning to unlock, and it seems like things will ease significantly from this weekend. And yet we also marked this week the news that Leicester is facing the first ‘Local Lockdown’ after a recent spike in cases. The end is most definitely not in sight for them, and other towns and cities may soon follow suit.

Lockdown has been characterised by the single question: when will it end? We’ve gone through day after day, week after week, always asking, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ We’ve ticked each day off with a ‘one day closer to freedom!’ We’ve celebrated each new easing of restrictions as another glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

But when lockdown is over, what next? For some, there’s the grief of those who won’t emerge from lockdown with them. For others, there’s the pain of continuing to battle the virus and its aftereffects. For still others, the fear of infection lingers, normality won’t be back overnight.

Whatever our situation, surely we’re relieved. Lockdown is nearly over, we’ll be back to normal soon!

Back to WorshipNormal

Our country is longing to get back to normal, and it’s a longing we all share. We want to see friends and family again. My first niece was born on the eve of lockdown, and I can’t wait to hold her again. Parents, grandparents, and wider families all over the country can’t wait to be reunited.

Businesses are eager to get going again. There’s so much to do, and with so much time and money lost companies are raring to go, desperate to keep afloat in a time when the economy is in freefall.

A lot of those I follow on twitter or online have been excited about the reopening of places of worship. Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others are hopeful of being able to gather in corporate worship again soon. I can’t wait to be back in church, although it might take a little while yet.

But Churches, mosques and synagogues aren’t the only places of worship to reopen in our country. We’re all desperate for lockdown to end because we’re all longing for normal to resume. Whatever our normal is, our hearts are set on it. We long to be with family, to get back to the day job, to take that holiday or just to hit the shops! Our hearts are set on this lockdown ending, and our normal resuming. Our hearts are set on the things we love. We’re seemingly hard-wired to long for, adore, and worship these things.

In the ancient world, the world in which Jesus Christ lived, died and rose, and the world of the first Christians who followed him, worship was hard-wired in the minds of men and women. The Roman Empire has been described as ‘a world full of gods’. There were gods of money, sex, beauty, war, peace…the list was practically endless! Worship was everywhere. Temples on every street corner, rituals in every home and at every event. Worship flourished because the ancients made gods of the things they worshipped. A goddess of beauty because man idolises the appearance, a god of wealth because such riches were a societal goal.

Our own world has such gods too. Lockdown has confronted these gods, because so often it has been harder to worship them. Financial stability has been shaken, families have been divided, retail therapy on hold. None of these are inherently bad things, but as our nation rushes to get back to normality, when our lives are lived for these things, our nation is rushing back to worship.

The New NormalWorship

A month or so into lockdown, the historian Tom Holland wrote a damning article in the Telegraph (3rd May 2020). He wasn’t criticising the government, or the NHS (though he did point out that the NHS has become a real focus of our worship in recent times). He criticised, instead, the church.

Lockdown, argued Holland, was a great opportunity for the church. But instead, too many clergy were beginning to sound “like middle-managers,” simply repeating back government advice. Holland concluded:

Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives – but it seems unlikely to win many souls. If ever there were a time for the churches to wrestle with the questions that so tormented Job [suffering, health, hope], a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it. If they are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, they need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk: the risk of seeming odd.   

Tom Holland, Telegraph, 3rd May 2020

Holland was making a helpful point. This pandemic was an opportunity for the church to sound odd, to speak an alien message, to offer something different. So many churches did answer that call. So many pastors and ministers and church members shared the Gospel and the hope that they have in bold and wonderful ways. God has used His people even in this pandemic. But as lockdown eases, and our country begins to worship out in the open again, we must meet our friends and neighbours with our odd message.

Our world worships, it always has and it always will. As lockdown eases, it’s clear to see that the objects of our worship are gaining our affection once again. Normality is coming back, and our normality is a sinful one. A life of misdirected worship, living in and for created things, not for our Creator.

But the church isn’t made up of middle managers and office lackeys. We’re made up of people with a wonderful hope, a wonderful message. So as lockdown eases, and our nation worships again, let’s offer them a new object of worship. Let’s offer them a true object of worship. Let’s hold out the word of life, and offer a message of hope that kept us through the darkness of lockdown, and will keep us through the disappointment of finding out that ‘back to normal’ isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

In the Good News of who Jesus is, Christians can offer a suffering world a true and certain light at the end of the tunnel. So as lockdown eases, be bold and take the risk of seeming odd, and share the God who is truly worth worshipping.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

My first post on Clement can be found here. My more recent post, detailing his life in a little more depth, is available here.

I finished the last post by mentioning Clement’s surviving trilogy. Three works that point the reader towards the intellectual, or perhaps more aptly, intentional, Christian life. I do not believe Clement advocates for an academic or intellectual elitism. Rather, through the Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromateis, Clement urges his readers to work through, grapple with, and understand their faith. It is not a call to a faith of the academy, but a deeper and richer faith in Christ.

As Clement writes in the opening chapter of the Paedagogus:

“The Instructor being practical, not theoretical, His aim is thus to improve the soul, not to teach, and to train it up to a virtuous, not to an intellectual life. “

Paedagogus, 1.1.

Understanding leads to wisdom, which leads to virtue. This is Clement’s view, and informs the structure and urging of his teaching.

Clement is therefore at times quite critical of those who treat their faith too simply, as through this trilogy he argues for an informed and considered faith. If the believer was not engaged on a deeper level with working through their salvation, to Clement they were cheapening their faith. Thus he presents his trilogy. His Exhortation to faith (the Protrepticus), his Instructor (Paedagogus) and his Miscellanies (Stromateis – literally a ‘patchwork’ of wisdom teaching).

The Structure of the Trilogy

I will focus more on the protreptic text of Clement’s Exhortation in the next post, a document that urges a pagan readership to reject their false religion in favour of the Divine Word, Jesus Christ. Only Christ can save, only He is the true divine. He is the basis for real, living faith. And it is a belief in Him that Clement urges for anyone who shall be saved.

The Paedagogus and Stromateis follow this exhortatory work. These two texts charge the Christian reader with the behaviour and thinking of the Christian life. They are didactic texts. They construct a theoretical framework around which Christians are to structure their life, to further their understanding of Christ and their relationship with him.

In his Stromateis (1.1.11), Clement labels the truth of the Christian life “a deathless element of knowledge.” This is what his writings urge his readers to embrace. A knowledge of the truth that leads to a deathless existence: that leads to eternal life.

The structure of the trilogy is therefore simple. The Protrepticus urges true faith, the Paedagogus contemplates the enactment of a considered and maturing faith, before the Stromateis develops this intellectually informed belief.

The Reason for the Trilogy

Clement is consistent in his message: we must seek to grow as Christians. He urges a living and active faith, seeking to know and love Jesus more. A short passage from the Stromateis gives a good indication of what Clement is seeking to achieve.

“Now the Lord is figuratively described as the vine, from which, with pains and the art of husbandry, according to the word, the fruit is to be gathered. We must lop, dig, bind, and perform the other operations. The pruning-knife, I should think, and the pick-axe, and the other agricultural implements, are necessary for the culture of the vine, so that it may produce eatable fruit.

So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.”

Stromateis, 1.9.

Referencing the language of Jesus in John 15, Clement likens his argument to Christ’s. As we live out our lives as branches of the True Vine, God prunes and works on us, helping us grow into those who bear fruit. Clement is adamant that God uses our learning, our interests and expertise, to show us more of Himself. Clement believes that as we invest in our faith, by engaging with Scripture, by meditating on God’s word and speaking with Him in prayer, we grow. The Christian life is not inactive, it is a life of growth, and Clement urges the believer not to stagnate. Grow, says Clement, not so that you may know more, but that you may know God more.

This is Clement’s heart. That the believer may not cheapen his faith. That by growing in Christ he would embrace ever closer his Saviour. Clement isn’t teaching a faith that is earned through works and intellect, but one that is strengthened as we surrender more to Christ and His ways. Rejoicing in and relying upon His word, and delighting in following and serving Him.

In light of this blog post, I’d thoroughly recommend David Mathias’ book: Habits of Grace. I’m currently reading it, and it’s a helpful book for thinking through disciplines of the Christian life that can encourage us to rejoice all the more in our Saviour, and get to know Him better!

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.

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.

The Power of Storytelling

People love stories. We always have, we always will.

Here’s some famous first lines, the starts of stories that have captivated generations over the last hundred years or so… (Titles below!)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”*

Know it? What about:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.”**

Or finally, a bit trickier…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”***

Stories transport us to another world. Childlike escapism is the wonder of the play, the book, the film or the TV series. Through the ‘Once upon a time’s of a good story, we live the lives of others, we experience their highs or lows, we love their loves and hate their hates.

Stories are amazing ways to captivate an audience, to engage a crowd, to tell someone something exciting, important, incredible.


The Early Church knew their world loved stories. Whether it was the epic poems of gods and heroes that had survived for millenia, or the comic dramas of men like Plautus, slapstick comedies that had whole theatres full of Roman men and women in stitches. So the Early Church used storytelling to tell the Gospel.

Clement of Alexandria wrote a document called the Exhortation to the Greeks. It’s essentially a twelve book letter to the pagans of Roman Greece, in which he describes their gods, and the lies that they are, before encouraging them to come to Jesus. About poetry (meaning for Clement: drama and epic poetry – the stories of Greece!):

Let poetry also approach – poetry, which is occupied entirely with what is false – to bear witness now at last to truth, or rather to confess before God its deviation into legend

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation, 7.

Clement thinks he should use the stories of ancient Greece to tell them about their gods, and to describe to these pagan readers his true God. Clement describes Zeus “exposed and put to shame,” or the “raving Dionysus.” Clement uses storytelling to tell his audience that they are living out fantasies in a made up world. These gods are no good, says Clement, but there is One who is.

At one point Clement accuses the Greeks of “turning Heaven into a stage!” They have made the gods a subject for drama, comedy, poetry and mockery. But he says he has a story to share with them that is written into the very pages of history. After six whole books on these false gods, Clement turns to the Old Testament, and begins to spell out the wonderful, true story of Jesus Christ.

Because Clement, and the Early Church, had a better story to tell in a world full of stories. Clement uses the second half of his work to tell this story, the story of the Divine Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-4, 14.

The story Clement had to tell was the story of a Creator God come down to Earth. Not a fake Greek deity, but the real, living God. And it was the story of this God living among us, loving us, and ultimately, dying for us. And as John 1:14 shows us, people saw this story unfold. It was a true story.

The Early Church loved to use storytelling to reach the world around them. Today the idea of storytelling is so often used in evangelism because everyone has a story, everyone has something that makes them who they were and are. But in the person of Jesus the church has a story for the ages, a true story of love, rescue, drama and victory. The Early Church loved this story, and they told it.

The greatest story ever told. Told for nearly 2000 years. Still just as true, still just as powerful to change lives all over the world.

If it’s the right story, then storytelling can be a powerful thing to do.

*Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s stone for our American friends!)

** Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

*** Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Taking the First Steps

The remains of ancient Philippi

Huge amounts of writing survives from the Early Church. A lot of it is unhelpful, some of it downright false. But some of it displays a Gospel-centered church keeping on at the mission of the New Testament: to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in God’s name and teaching them in the truths of the Gospel.

But how was the church to do this as it took its first steps without the Apostles at the helm? By the end of the first century the disciples of Jesus were dead or dying and the church faced the question: how do we keep on, how do we take our first steps by ourselves?

Well the wonderful truth is that they weren’t by themselves. And the historical record shows that their faithful God kept them faithful to the Gospel.

Not Alone

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

John 14:15-17

Thought the first generation of human leadership had passed away, the Early Church could take confidence in knowing they were not alone. Unlike any other religion, cult or sect in the Roman world, the church had something so much more. In the verses from John’s Gospel above, Jesus promises that those who trust in him will receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will live inside the believer, transforming them from the inside, helping and equipping them to live for Christ in a hostile world.

Their human leadership was dead, but their God was far from it. Their God was as with them as he had ever been. The Spirit is promised to every believer, then and now, and not only is he with us, but as Jesus reminds us above, he advocates for us.

The Spirit advocates for the believer, he fights the case of the believer, he intercedes for us. When we pray, it is through the Spirit, our advocate, that we can be confident that God hears and receives our prayers.

The Early Church knew this. So they were not alone. As they took their first steps in the hostile and powerful pagan world, their God was with them and their God was for them.

Faithful Steps

So what happened? The great disappointment in studying the first few centuries of the church is that so much of it is lost. We know so little about so many faithful brothers and sisters who held out the word of life in a hostile Roman world. But the wonderful encouragement of studying Early Church history, is that from what survives to us, we can see the Gospel going out and going on.

As the church continued and as history moved further away from the ministry of Jesus and the lives of the Apostles, the church continued in the Gospel.

The quote below is from the first letter by a man named Clement of Rome, to the church in Corinth. Written around 96 AD and imaginatively known as  ‘1 Clement’ today, this letter is one of the first examples of post-canonical Christian writing. And in it? The Gospel is spoken.

“And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.”

Clement of Rome, First Clement, 32:4.

The great rediscovery of the sixteenth century reformation was that we are justified by faith alone. Works cannot help us. Religious devotion and holy deeds have no saving power. But here is that truth, clear as day, in the writings of this Early Church leader.

Or how about this, an extract from the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesian church, written in the first decades of the second century.

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5.

Here is Ignatius, reminding his readers that the Gospel they believe in is one of grace. Glorious grace. They have no merit before God themselves, it is only through the saving work of Christ on the cross that the Christian can have the hope of Heaven. And this is something that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and famous for his well-recorded martyrdom, writes in a letter to the church at Philippi.

…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ”

Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 1:3 (c.140 AD)

This is the church taking its first steps. With the end of the Apostolic Era comes the need to move forward after the deaths of this first generation of Christian leaders. And how is it the church does this? By looking back. By looking to the cross. By clinging to the truth of the Gospel, in the knowledge that God is with them, and in the Spirit he works for them. The Early Church were God’s representatives here on earth, and their first steps were taken by clinging on to, and teaching, the Gospel they were saved by.