Saturday, May 27, 2023

Poltical and Social Change

In his latest post on Substack, Aurelien makes some interesting comments about the things necessary to bring about political and social transformation.

If we look at history, we see that bringing about fundamental, discontinuous political change requires three things. One is a group of individuals with a common (though not necessarily identical) purpose. The second is a clear vision of what is wanted, either in terms of ideology or at least of defined political objectives. And the third is the resources and organisation capable of bringing it about. Having only two of these is not enough. This may seem mundane, but then quite a lot of the nuts and bolts of history are. And it reminds us that history is not, in fact, entirely the product of blind forces, but rather of a complex interaction between individuals, groups and society.
He explains how these things are lacking in the modern world, as political parties become technocratic and difference between them have blurred. Public interest and trust in existing political systems is reducing all over the western world. This is a huge risk.

As I read the word in the quotes above, I thought about the role of the church in society. Once it would have met these requirements, but I am not sure if it is true anymore. It seems to be divided and lacking a common purpose. The church has no clear vision of what is needed. There is no evidence that it can work together to bring about change.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

One Baptism

A commenter asked if/argued that I teach two separate baptisms. I don’t.

Paul was emphatic that there is one baptism (Eph 4:5). Jesus’ baptism is the ideal. He was baptised in water and the Spirit in one event. That should be the norm for all those who trust in Jesus. Peter knew this, because when the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household, he realised that they needed to be baptised in water at the same time (Acts 10:47; 11:15-16).

Unfortunately, for various reasons, some people who are baptised in water do not receive the Holy Spirit at that time. In the case of Philip at Samaria the reason was that the believers had “only been baptised in Jesus name”. The word “only” suggests the baptism was incomplete. To remedy the situation, Peter and John came down and laid hands on the Samaritans to receive that Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). However, this was not a normative situation. It was a remedy for a situation where baptism had not been done properly in the first place.

Most of my generation received the gift of the Holy Spirit well after they were baptised in water, because we did not know about the fullness of the Spirit when we were baptised. At a later date, when we knew more about his activity, we were prayed over to receive the Spirit. However that was remedying a problem with our initiation into the faith. Praying for baptism in the Spirit separate from baptism in water from was remedying this mistake.

We must be careful not to make a remedial practice normative. Receiving the fullness of the Spirit after coming out of the water is the norm, as per Jesus example.

Moreover, receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential for every follower of Jesus. If for some reason, the Holy Spirit has not come upon the person being baptised, the situation should be remedied by laying on hands and praying for the Spirit to come upon them (as Peter and John did at Samaria).

Teaching that there are two baptisms, one in water and a subsequent one in the Holy Spirit is dangerous, because it makes a problem that needs remedial action into the norm for everyone. It is better for baptism to be done in the way it happened for Jesus. But we must also correct any problems that arise, as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Sinner's Prayer

Neither Jesus nor the apostles used anything like the sinner’s prayer.

Jesus announced that he had come from God and called people to follow him (serve and obey him), He challenged them to become his disciples (follower-learners).

Paul preached that Jesus is the Messiah/Rescuer and Lord/King (in charge of the world). He did not ask people to say a sinner’s prayer. He challenged them to give allegiance to Jesus, by being baptised and receiving the Holy Spirit.

  • Baptism is a public declaration of allegiance to Jesus.
  • Baptism is a sign to the spiritual powers of evil that you belong to Jesus and that they should stay away from the disciple.
  • Baptism is the process by which we receive the Holy Spirit, to set us on the right track.
More at Baptism.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Resurrection is Good News

Reading through early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, I havebeen struck that the apostles tended to preach the “resurrection of Jesus” rather than his crucifixion. Their good news was that Jesus had been raised.

God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Acts 2:24).
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it (Acts 2:38).
God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this (Acts 3:15).
Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead (Acts 4:10).
God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour to give... forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:35).
This emphasis is quite different from modern evangelistic preaching, which tends to focus on the cross.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this difference.

  • His resurrection confirmed that Jesus really is the Messiah/Christ. He is the only genuine deliverer.

  • The resurrection confirmed the defeat of the spiritual powers of evil. When they organised the death of Jesus on the cross, they assumed that they had foiled God’s plans by destroying his son. The resurrection totally surprised them. When Jesus came back to life, their evil plans were defeated. Their power over humans was totally destroyed.

  • Paul explained in his letter to the Romans that Jesus,

    “raised to life for our justification/being put right” (Rom 4:25).
    The cross and the resurrection achieve our salvation and restoration. The cross alone was not sufficient.

The resurrection of Jesus was the heart of the good news for the first gospel preachers.

I wonder if there is more emphasis on the cross and less on the resurrection, because modern evangelists are less confident in the truth of the resurrection?

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Sin (4) Jesus' Message

After Jesus rose from the dead, he explained to his disciples the message that would be preached to the entire world.

Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47).
To understand this message, we need to think a bit more about the Greek words used. We have already covered “amartia”.

The Greek word usually translated as “Repent” is metanoeo”. “Turn from sin” is a distorted and very narrow translation. The literal meaning of “metanoeo” (verb) and “metanoia” (noun) is to “change your mind, think differently, reconsider”. The modern English word repent does not really do it justice. It is not grovelling in tears before God, pleading for him to accept us.

“Metanoeo” is a much broader concept. It means a complete change of thinking, including getting a better knowledge of God, changing your attitude toward him, understanding how the spiritual powers of evil have deceived and enslaved you, and understanding how Jesus has defeated them and set them free. It includes regret for mistakes made in the past, but that is only a small part of what is encompassed by “metanoeo”.

Jesus explained the gospel clearly to Paul when he called him to ministry. “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18). This is much broader than just remorse for sins. It includes an understanding that we need to be rescued from the power of the spiritual powers of evil.

The Greek word usually translated “forgiveness” in Luke 24:47 means ‘freedom, liberty, deliverance’. It can also mean forgiveness or pardon, but that is an additional metaphorical meaning imposed on the word by religious people. The core meaning of the word is freedom from bondage or imprisonment. It comes from a verb meaning “send away”.

Once we understand that the human problem is being slaves of darkness trapped by the spiritual powers of evil, it becomes clear that our greatest need is to be set free. They would like us to think our problem is that God is antagonistic to us, but that is distortion of the truth. We need to be set free from the powers of evil far more than we need to be forgiven by God. Romans 3:25 explains that God had already “passed over sins previously committed” when he sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the ransom demanded by the spiritual powers of evil.

In this context, it would make more sense to translate aphesis as freedom. We have missed the mark because we became slaves of the spiritual powers of evil. We need to be set free from their power so we can serve God in the way that he desires. “Aphesis amartia” could be translated as “forgiveness of sin”, but “freedom from missing the mark” is equally valid, but carries a very different meaning; one that makes more sense in the context of our being enslaved by the powers of evil.

A different, but valid, paraphrase of Luke 24:47 would be,

“Change your way of seeing the world to get deliverance from the consequence of missing the mark” will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47).

Hebrews 9:22 is quoted frequently in this form.

Without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.
However, it could just as easily be translated as follows.
Without shedding of blood, there is no freedom.
If the spiritual powers of evil are demanding blood as a ransom to set us free from slavery, the latter translation makes more sense. Jesus supported this meaning when he said,
The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Jesus gave his life as a ransom payment. Who was he paying? Some theologians assume that Jesus paid the ransom to God, but that does not make sense. God would not stoop to demanding ransoms, like ISIS kidnappers.

However, the spiritual powers of evil would stoop to demanding a ransom. And they have the authority to do so because humans unwittingly placed themselves under their evil power.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Sin (3) Missing the Mark

The word most commonly used for sin in the New Testament is “armartia”, which means “missing the mark”. This is not deliberate disobedience. It is not choosing to do evil on purpose. It is failure to achieve an intended goal.

When an archer misses the mark, they are not deliberately trying to miss the target. The reverse is true. They are actually trying to hit the bull’s eye, but a crosswind, damage to the arrow, or a nervous twitch when it is being released, causes the arrow to miss. The important thing is that the archer was not trying to miss the target; they were trying hard to hit it.

So applying this to our personal lives, “missing the mark” is a failure to achieve the standard we are aspiring to achieve. We are trying to do what is right, but for some reason get it wrong. Like the archer, the reason that we miss the mark might be something beyond our control, like the sudden gust of wind that blows the arrow off target. Sometimes we fail to obey God because the spiritual powers of evil have buffeted us, and caused us to fall.

Part of Jesus' gospel was explaining to people that they were not free, but were trapped by the kingdom of darkness. In Jesus’ parable about a sower, some of the good seed is trampled on the roadside or snatched away by the birds. In the same way, humans have been trapped under the control of the spiritual powers of evil, which prevents them from following God even if they want to. Many humans miss the mark because they are attacked and controlled by spiritual evil, even if they wanted to serve God when they were young. Others reject him because they are put off by the hurts of people who claimed to be working for God.

Missing the mark is not deliberate rebellion against God. It is seeking to live in his way, but failing because the pressures were too great. It is considerably milder than extreme depravity.

Several other words used for sin in the New Testament also indicate weakness rather than deliberately choosing evil.

  • parakouo is failure to listen to God.
  • asbeno signifies weakness/feebleness.
  • agnoeo refers to sin as springing from ignorance as well as the resulting blindness to spiritual truth.
  • hettao views sin as a defeat.
A stronger word than missing the mark” is “parabaino”. It means to “go past, or “transgress”, but Jesus only used it for the Pharisees breaking the law.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sin (2) Old Testament Law

For the Jewish people that Jesus walked amongst, the word amartia was failure to comply with God’s law. That is also quite different from the way that Christians talk about sin.

The Torah (God’s law) was not a standard of holiness, which the people of God needed to comply with to be holy. The law cannot be used as a holiness code, because it does not contain a complete list of all sins. Pride, patience, kindness, and gentleness are not really mentioned in the Torah; neither is presumption or gluttony. We should not be surprised at these omissions, because this is not the purpose of the Law.

God’s full standard of righteousness was not spelt out clearly until the Fruit of the Spirit were listed in the New Testament. The fruit describe God’s standard, but it seems that God knew that it would be impossible for humans prior to the cross and fullness of the Holy Spirit, so he did not bother setting them out systematically until after the Spirit had been poured out. The fruit are the outcome of a spirit-filled life, not a standard of righteousness that we must struggle to comply with.

Moses realised that the Torah was not given to define sin, but to provide a way for people to live in peace and harmony with each other. God gave the law revealed to Moses to provide a communal program that teaches people how to live together in a tightly populated land without too much discord.

The law was given when the children of Israel were about to move into a new land. While they were slaves, their taskmasters had controlled every aspect of their lives. Once they were freed from slavery and planted in a new land, they faced the challenge of living together without falling out with each other over trivial issues. God gave them the Torah to equip them for this task.

    The Instructions for Economic Life cannot be fulfilled by an individual because they provide guidance for people to interact in various economic activities. They dealt with challenges that did not arise while they were slaves. These instructions are inter-personal, so they did not provide a standard for personal righteousness.

  • The Laws for Society (judicial laws of Moses) are instructions to the entire nation about how to deal with crime. God gave the Israelites a system of law implemented by local judges to constrain crime in their new society, so it is only tangential to personal righteousness at best.

    The laws focused on preventing adultery, theft, slander and murder. These four sins are the ones that disrupt the relationships between the people living together in a community. If I am proud and arrogant, my neighbours may not like me, but they are not harmed. If I steal from other people, those I steal from do suffer. A good society needs protection from theft.

  • The Tabernacle provided them with sacrifices to provide protection from spiritual attack by absolving people of their inevitable failure to fully obey God.

  • Sexual immorality is one of the key ways that evil spirits get transferred to another person. The laws about sexual immorality and health were to provide people with spiritual protection in a world where the spiritual powers of evil were rampant and not yet defeated by the cross.

The law also provides guidance for marriage, instructions for defence and war, guidance for caring for the poor, and many other social and economic issues, but most of these are instructions to a community of people.

So when John the Baptist was challenging the people to turn from their “amartia”, he was not talking about personal sin, but the failure of God’s people to live in God’s way in the land he had given to them. Instead, they had copied the nations.

Even though they were ruled by the Romans, applying God’s laws for society and economic guidelines would have given them a peaceful and prosperous lifestyle. Their failure to implement the Torah deprived them of the economic and social blessings that God had promised to them. Instead, most people were one step away from poverty, and their lives were miserable.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Sin (1) Greek Word

The Greek word “amartia”, usually translated as “sin”, is an interesting word, because its meaning is quite different from what Christians often assume when they talk about sin.

Greek Culture
The Greek verb “amartano” that is used in the New Testament means “missing the mark”, or “to err”. It is most often associated with Greek tragedy, where the term was applied to Greek heroes. Each hero of a tragedy, who is in other respects a superior being, had an “amartia”, a tragic flaw, an inherent defect or shortcoming in their character that brought about their downfall. The hero’s suffering and its far-reaching reverberations are usually far out of proportion to his flaw.

Often the hero’s tragic deed is committed unwittingly, as when Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his own mother. If the deeds are committed knowingly, they are not usually committed by choice. Also, an apparent weakness is often only an excess of virtue, such as an extreme adherence to principle or zeal for perfection.

In Greek culture, amartia is a character flaw that causes a good person to take an action that brings them harm. It is often committed unwittingly or without free choice. Often the motivation is excessive zeal for perfection. This is not the way that Christians think about sin. I don’t know how much influence Greek culture had on Jesus and Paul, but this is the way that the Greek word amartia was used at the time when they were using the word.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Brian Zahnd - Future of the Church

Interesting comments about the future of the church by Brian Zahnd in an interview with Brad Jersak.

The church will eventually have little choice but to be counter-cultural. It will have to be. Christianity is at the heart of the culture wars going on in North America at the moment. It is not a war that the church is going to win. It is not a war that we should fight. I am not fighting for the idea of maintaining Christianity as a cultural hegemony and dominant force. I don't know how long the battle will rage, but I am pretty sure who will win, and it will be secularism.

Christianity should always look a bit odd to people who are not baptised. We make some outlandish claims. We say that the logos of God became assumed human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth through a virgin. That he was crucified and rose again on the third day. These are outlandish claims.

The church will lose the wrong-headed culture war that many are waging right now. It will not win. The ramifications will be long-lasting.

I do not think there is as much difference between Western Europe and North America as we imagine. The culture wars and the existence of civil religion make Christianity look stronger than it actually is. The political situation is such that people who have never gone to church are calling themselves evangelicals. It is a political brand/identity that is papering over the lack.

Western Europe is secular, but I see deep historic Christian roots. They might be buried or forgotten, but they are there. You don't find that in North America.

The United States is an experiment in secular governance. That is what will be remembered about the United States in 500 years' time. The French Revolution took it further, but the first real attempt at secular governance is the United States. I am not against that. Let the world do what it does, the church is something different. It does not persuade by coercion. We persuade by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and, if need be, by martyrdom; but never by force.

Secularism is a philosophy that is relatively new in the whole human journey. That is the deep roots of the United States, and that is what will win out ultimately. We will get what Thomas Jefferson and his fellow deists actually wanted, and that was a rationalistic, very materialistic philosophy, where Christianity was tolerated, but no longer really prominent. Jefferson hoped for that, and I think he is going to win, in one sense.

The church will have to be content with being underground, a counter-cultural movement that serves the gospel. We are best when we are counter-cultural, not angry. As in the first 300 years of the church, let the world do what the world does, but we are going to be something other.

Let go of the idea that it is our job to change the world. That kind of language has been ubiquitous in evangelical circles, but it is not our task to change the world. Our task is to be the world already changed by Christ. Christ is the saviour of the world. If the world is going to be saved, it has to be Jesus that does it. When we try to do it, we always reach for the ring of power, and it always corrupts us.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Reading Revelation

I read the book of Revelation, like the Old Testament, through a three-agent lens.

John does not fully reveal it, but the book of Revelation is a spiritual battle, between the Holy Spirit with his holy angels and the spiritual powers of evil. The latter are working through political empires on earth. God does not approve some of the stuff that takes place, but it happens because humans gave the spiritual powers of evil authority to work on earth, and they have to be driven out and forced to surrender to their defeat by the cross.

So when the letters to the churches describe the consequences, they are explaining what the spiritual powers of evil will do if they are given an opportunity. The latter will take every opportunity to do harm to followers of Jesus who go the wrong way.

Likewise toward the end of Revelation, John is describing the final defeat of the spiritual powers of evil. They are nasty and vengeful, so they will turn against the political and economic entities they have used to do their dirty work on earth when they have no further use for them. They will delight in wrecking them, even though they brought them to power, and used them to accomplish their own purposes. It will be rather ugly, but their true character will be revealed. In contrast, the rider on the white horse has only one weapon, the word of God. He does not use a political sword to accomplish his purposes.

For the holy angels, the final battle is a tough one. If will feel to them at times like it is touch and go, although God knows he will be victorious, so they will rejoice greatly when the enemies of God are finally defeated. I think we can give them that privilege, because their celebration will focus on the greatness of Jesus.

More in Times and Seasons.

Friday, May 05, 2023

Political Power

Christians often argue about what is the best political system, but this is the wrong question. Political power is always the problem, even though it takes a while to emerge.

The question we should be asking is, “Why despite their total defeat by Jesus on the cross are the spiritual powers of evil still so powerful on earth?”

The answer is that they have been able to carve out a place of authority on earth by aligning with and controlling human political powers on earth. That is why Paul said our struggle is with principalities and powers. It is a key aspect of what John was explaining in the books of Revelation. It is why Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world.

So when Christians put their trust in human political power, they are actually empowering the spiritual powers of evil that control political power. I reject all forms of participation in political power, because I am unwilling to do anything that would perpetuate the spiritual powers of evil. My full hope is in the kingdom/government of God.

I have just posted an article explaining the problems with Civil Government on Substack.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Verbal Attacks

We have all been the victims of verbal attacks by people we encounter. Unfortunately, many Christians have been taught that they should not respond to verbal attacks. Instead, when this occurs; they assume that they should turn the other cheek and let the other person have another go. Christians often believe that they should not speak up for themselves, but this is not right. There is a time to remain silent and leave our vindication to God, but there are also times when we should speak up.

When Pontius Pilate accused him, Jesus remained silent, but that was not a normal situation. When people confronted him throughout his ministry, he would respond directly to them. When the Pharisees and priests challenged him, he always responded. He seemed to believe that responding was important because the gospels include numerous responses to the Pharisees and Sadducees. In fact, the account of his reactions to them probably takes up as much room in Matthew’s gospel as his parables. That is a lot of responses.

When the Pharisees asked him where he got his authority from, Jesus challenged the source of their authority. In Matthew 23, he gives a severe critique of their beliefs and practices. They are wrong about many things and want to need to change their way of thinking.

Jesus knew that speaking back to people who verbally attacked him was sometimes appropriate. The big issue is not whether to speak, but how to speak. He always spoke with grace, even if the challenges were nasty. He always spoke the truth. We will not always have his wisdom to speak with insight, but we do not have to remain silent. We are entitled to protect ourselves, and Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach us how to defend ourselves (Luke 12:12). If we are going to do this when we are under pressure, we will need to learn how to do it in everyday life.

In many situations, when someone is verbally attacking us, the best response will be to remain silent. Withdrawing from the dispute might be a sensible protective response, but sometime we will need to speak up. We might need to say, “Those comments really hurt me”. There will be times to remain silent and take what is being dished out, but there will also be times to speak up. We should seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to discern the difference. If we do decide to speak back, we should ask the Holy Spirit to help us speak with grace and truth, as Jesus did.

Monday, May 01, 2023

Economic Shocks

Economists talk frequently about economic shocks, but their thinking is a bit confused.

In econometrics—the application of rigorous statistical methods to economic data, the properties of error terms—the difference between the out-turn and the forecast were critical. In macroeconomics, the error terms were rebranded as “shocks”. But if the “shock” is simply the deviation between the prediction of the model and the reality of the world, we learn nothing by attaching the label "shock” to these error terms. To go further we have to be able to gain insight into the origins of the shocks (John Kay and Mervyn King – Radical Uncertainty p.346).