Posts tagged ‘Judaism’

God and Country in Order

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In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado writes about why the Christian claim that there is only one God was especially offensive to those in the ancient Roman world.  His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities… 

The early Christian circles such as those addressed by Paul…could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.  For, prior to their Christian conversion, these individuals, no doubt, had taken part in the worship of the traditional gods, likely as readily as other pagans of the time among their families, friends, and wider circles of their acquaintances…

Of course, a pagan might choose to convert fully to Judaism as a proselyte, which meant becoming a Jew and ceasing to be a member of his or her own ancestral people.  By such a drastic act, proselytes effectively changed their ethnic status and so could thereafter try to justify a refusal to participate in worshipping the pagan gods as expressive of their new ethnic membership and religious identity.  But this was not the move that Paul’s pagan converts made… 

Indeed, Paul was at pains to emphasize that his pagan converts must not become Jewish proselytes.  For Paul saw his mission to “Gentiles” as bringing to fulfillment biblical prophecies that the nations of the world would forsake idols and, as Gentiles, would renounce their idolatry and embrace the one true God.  That is, unlike Jewish proselytes, Paul’s pagan converts did not change their ethnic identity.[1]

Categories of ethnicity and faith were not clearly delineated in the ancient world.  Instead, they were broadly interchangeable.  To be a part of the Jewish nation was to adhere to the Jewish faith.  To be a Roman Gentile was to be a worshiper of the Roman gods.  There was no concept of religious freedom like we know it today – where a person can worship and live out their convictions freely quite apart from their nationality.  Thus, part of what made Christianity so offensive to the ancient pagans was that it began to decouple a presumed synonymy between ethnicity and faith.  A person’s ethnicity, in the Christian conception, no longer informed ipso facto a person’s faith.  A person could be a Roman Gentile and a Christian monotheist.

Not only did Christianity decouple ethnicity from faith, it actually claimed that a person’s ethnicity was subservient to faith!  Again, to quote Hurtado:

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)…Whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, this was now to be secondary to your status “in Christ”…Irrespective of their particular ethnic, social, or biological categories, therefore, all believers were now to take on a new and supervening identity in Christ.[2]

According to Paul, Christ comes before clan.

Like the ancient Romans, we too have a tendency to couple our ethnicity with our faith, or, to put it in another, more recognizable, way, to couple our country with our God.  When this happens, however, it is almost always our God who winds up serving our country.  When it appears particularly expedient or reassuring in the midst of a dangerous and changing world, we can be all too willing to sacrifice fidelity to our faith for the prosperity of our nation.  Hurtado offers us an important reminder:  though we may retain our ethnicities and citizenships and still be Christians, ethnicities and citizenships are subservient to faith.  Faith cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the State.  Furthermore, as we are learning our increasingly secularized society, faith is often at odds with the goals of the State.  Everything from the legal enshrinement of the sexual revolution to the often raucous and raunchy rhetoric of our most recent presidential campaign demonstrates this.  So let’s makes sure we keep the State and our faith straight.  Faith comes first.  After all, the God of our faith will continue to stand, long after the State has fallen.

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[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 53, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55-56.

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

Sharing the Gospel…Even When It’s Hard

ShareTheGospelHow far would you go to share the gospel?  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 constitute a rallying cry to “pull out all the stops,” as it were, to get the gospel to those who need to hear it:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Paul’s call to “become all things to all men…for the sake of the gospel” has been a topic of many a conversation about what is involved in showing and sharing God’s love to a world that is hostile to the exclusive claims of Christ.  Though many things could be said about proclaiming the gospel in a world like this, there is one thing in particular that I would focus on in this post:  Proclaiming the gospel to a world adverse to its message often involves pain.

Proclaiming the gospel involves much more than just being familiar enough with the culture around you to speak the gospel in a way that is intelligible to that culture, it involves enduring persecution from that culture when it takes umbrage with the gospel’s message.  This was certainly the case with Paul.  Paul writes, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews” (verse 20).  To become like a Jew was no easy task for Paul, especially since his Jewish comrades considered his message of a crucified Messiah blasphemous.  And the punishment for speaking blasphemy was nothing less than a beating.  This is why Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:24:  “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.”  Interestingly, a compendium of Jewish rabbinical teaching called the Mishnah considers lashes to be only a secondary punishment for blasphemy.  The primary punishment was that of being cut off from the Jewish people.  The rabbis wrote, “All those who are liable to extirpation who have been flogged are exempt form their liability to extirpation” (Mishnah Makkot 3:15).  The primary punishment for blasphemy, then, was that of being excommunicated from the Jewish community, but if a person could not stand the thought of excommunication, he could instead choose to be lashed.  Paul chose the lashes over the shunning.  But why?  It certainly wasn’t because he took any particular pride in being a Jew by birth.  Paul says of his Jewish pedigree:  “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 1:8).  Paul chose the lashes because he could not stand the thought of being excommunicated by his Jewish comrades.  After all, such excommunication would spell the end of his efforts “to win the Jews” (verse 20). Paul was so desperate to share the gospel with his Jewish community, he was willing to be beaten within inches of his death to do so.

The apostle Peter writes, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).  Sometimes, becoming “all things to all men…for the sake of the gospel” means suffering for the sake of the gospel.   By the Spirit’s enabling, may we be prepared to face adversity and pain to share and spread God’s message and power of salvation!

February 25, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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