E112 – December 2004
Heirs of Abraham
One of the problems we have with reading scripture is that it is often difficult to know how the author would have said what he has written – with what tone of voice he would have spoken it and where he would have put the emphasis. A different tone and a different emphasis can make a world of difference. Galatians 3:29 gives us a good example of the problem.
In Elpis Israel, p.190, John Thomas quotes this verse as follows: ‘If ye be Christ’s then are ye Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.’ Brother Thomas no doubt had his own reasons for having the verse printed in this way, putting the emphasis where he has adopted italics, and no doubt his reasons are clear in the immediate context. However, the result seems to have been that this way of reading and emphasising the verse has become ingrained in the Christadelphian psyche. For example, Robert Robert’s, on p.147 of Christendom Astray, has: ‘. . . And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ Almost every time I have heard this verse spoken, on Sundays and at Bible Classes, it has been voiced in some such way. To my mind, it is unfortunate that this habit has been adopted in our community, for it tends to put the emphasis on Abraham rather than on Christ, and I am convinced that Paul wanted to do the reverse, put the emphasis on Christ and not on Abraham. Just as exploring the contexts of John Thomas’s and Robert Roberts’s quotes of Gal 3:29 will no doubt explain why they highlighted the words they did, so also an exploration of the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is likely to show us how he might have emphasised the verse if he had spoken it.
The essential message of Galatians is generally taken to be that man can not save himself by works. The gospel is taken to involve not justification by works (in the sense of works done to earn God’s favour) but justification by grace. This tends to suggest that the issue that led to Paul writing this letter was legalism. However much truth there may be in that statement, does it really get to the heart of Paul’s concern in this epistle?
I believe that Galatians is not focusing on how an individual Jew might have thought he was put right with God but rather with how Jews as a group, as a nation, as the chosen people, saw themselves as already put right with God, justified by being within the orbit of the Law. It was not individual righteousness that was Paul’s concern but how the Jew’s saw themselves collectively as accepted by God, as opposed to the Gentiles who were not, because they were outlaws, outside of the Law. The issue was not how you might personally earn your way into God’s favour, but rather that Jews saw themselves within the Law and so already in God’s favour and thought that others, Gentiles, should get into God’s favour by coming within the embrace of the Law. Effectively they were saying that their way, the Jewish way, was the only way. They were using the Law as the criterion for membership of God’s people when Paul now clearly believed that God’s preferred criterion was none other than Christ, the true seed of Abraham.
The questions that occupied Paul and his critics were concerned not so much with how we are saved but with who exactly is saved, who is in and who is outside of God’s family, who are the true heirs of Abraham. How does God’s recent revelation in Christ relate to his former revelations to Israel? On what grounds can Gentiles participate in the people of God in the last days? These are the issues at the heart of Galatians. Paul’s view is that in the last days, now arrived, Gentiles should be included as Gentiles and have no need to become Jews by circumcision. Paul was questioning the attitude of those who maintained that you could only be a full member of God’s people if you were already a Jew or if you became one by full proselytization involving circumcision (Tom Wright suggests that this is rather like the postman who imagines that all the letters in his bag are intended for himself! He who is meant to be a messenger keeps all the messages for himself.)
However much we might believe that Paul was against legalism, he was not here leading a campaign against Jewish legalism, against the notion of meriting or gaining salvation by good works, against individual self-righteousness. What he was complaining about was the exclusivism of those (particularly Jewish Christians) who rested their confidence in Israel’s favoured-nation status maintained within the boundary of the Mosaic Law. He was attacking exclusivism not the doing of good works, attacking nationalism not activism, attacking the racial but not the ritual expression of faith. He was warning any who would succumb to the arguments of his critics that by being circumcised they would in a very real sense be cutting themselves off from Christ. By insisting on assuming complete Jewish identity they were effectively forcing Jesus back into the role of a purely Jewish Messiah, operating only within the bounds of the Law, rather than that of Last Adam and Lord of all. The essence of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all.
What led to the opening up of Judaism so that it flowered into Christianity? Was it simply a matter of the study of the scriptures? The evidence from Acts would suggest otherwise. Peter took no steps to preach to the Gentiles until his vision led him to Cornelius, and the clear evidence of God’s grace in the life of Cornelius convinced him that he could not possibly exclude him from the church on the grounds of being unclean, of being a Gentile. And so Cornelius was baptized and not circumcised. After Paul’s vision of Christ, there was such clear evidence of God’s blessing on his Gentile mission that the Apostles could not gainsay it.
In Galatians, Paul appeals to his converts to remain faithful to their experience of the grace of God in their lives and not to backtrack even when the arguments to do so were supported by scripture. (Paul’s enemies were no doubt telling his converts that in order to be true and full sons of Abraham they needed to be circumcised just like Abraham himself in Gen 17.) The reality of their experience of Christ in their lives by the Spirit should have been enough to convince them that they were already fully members of God’s people without any further action being necessary. They had already done the necessary thing in committing themselves to Christ, the Lord of both Jew and Gentile.
Paul’s enemies were adding to the gospel unnecessary burdens, trying to persuade Paul’s converts that they could only be true heirs of Abraham if they added to their commitment to Christ, commitment to Abraham and Moses by circumcision. No doubt they argued that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus for that matter, had all been circumcised and so they should be circumcised too. Paul’s enemies were trying to persuade the (Gentile) Galatian Christians that they wouldn’t receive the promises, wouldn’t be true heirs of Abraham, unless they were circumcised.
If all of this is anywhere near the truth then it is much more likely that if we had heard Paul speak Gal 3:29 he would have said something like:
If you belong to Christ
then you are (already) the descendants of Abraham
and will receive what God has promised.
(with the clear implication that therefore there was no need to take a backward step into the Law, that had been a problem for the Jews anyway, by submitting to circumcision etc.)
We generally want to put the stress on Abraham because we may wish to persuade interested friends that all the promises to Abraham have to be understood to be part of the gospel. Now is it significant that Paul does no such thing, neither here nor in any of his other writings? Nor do any of the other NT writers engage their readers in such an approach. Importantly, Paul does refer back to the OT records about Abraham but only to highlight his faith and the fact that he would have a seed who would include the Gentiles in God’s family on the basis of faith, that is faith in him (Jesus). The other details of the promises to Abraham have faded into the background, and not only here but in the rest of the NT also. In particular the land promises have gone, unless we can find an echo of them in Rom 4:13 where Abraham is said to be heir of the world, presumably along with all others who share his faith.
It would have been odd of Paul to declare in one breath that, according to his gospel, there is now neither Jew nor Greek but to have gone on to maintain that the Jews have nevertheless to remain a separate people in God’s purpose and still have, as a nation apart, to inherit the so-called Holy Land. He did not do so nor did he ever encourage his Jewish converts to view the future in that light. This would be Jewish exclusivism all over again, just what Paul was complaining about!
Some reflections by a teacher of the deaf
The title of this article comes from verse 17 of Rom 10 and you may well wonder why I have chosen to start here, for you might be thinking that this passage has nothing whatever to do with deaf people. Well, yes and no. I will explain why in due course.
First let me tell you about a young man called Jay who I met on my Stage 1 signing course some years ago. Teachers of the deaf like myself need to learn to sign and Jay taught me along with others in a group. He is profoundly deaf himself. I have never heard him speak. He taught us signing by signing to us. I noticed then his serene nature, his quiet sense of humour, his gentleness and a kind of centredness. I found out that Jay is a committed Christian. He goes to an evangelical church where he plays a central role with other deaf people who attend that church. But how did he come to have a faith in Jesus Christ without the usual means of communication being open to him?
I would like to share some thoughts about deaf people and their pathways to a faith, particularly a faith in Jesus Christ. But I would like to consider slightly broader questions than that. How do different people come to a knowledge of and a connection with our Lord? Are we all the same, or do we learn and connect more effectively in some ways than others?
I have been a teacher of the deaf for nearly 20 years. It’s a fascinating job covering many different aspects: medical, educational, technological and so on. But the aspect of the job which fascinates me most is the way that deaf children acquire speech and language. And yes, many of them do, and increasingly so, with more and more effective hearing aids and the advent of the cochlear implant, a device which some of you may have heard about. I’m fascinated by the way the development of language is bound up with learning generally. Ideas are fairly well established on this now, but of course it was not always so. I am indebted to Dr Andreas Markides (one of my tutors when I was training) who, in his book The Speech of Hearing-Impaired Children, gives an explanation of the thinking of early times and its effect on deaf people and their status in the world, especially with regards to religion.
In fact, many people of the Ancient World and into the Middle Ages believed speech to be of divine origin. In other words, the power to speak came directly from God. Plato wrote extensively on this subject. Then there was also Aristotle who said, in simple terms, that nothing can exist in the human mind that has not been received through the senses. These two ideas took root in people’s thinking right up to the Middle Ages and eventually had a profound effect upon the way that deaf people were perceived and treated by important sections of society, including the church, in a way which we will explore in a moment.
At this point I should say that we may define as deaf those people who are deaf from birth and are so deaf that they cannot access the speech of others well enough to derive meaning from it. Clearly there is a spectrum of levels of hearing and we will all fall somewhere on it. Here we are talking about what we would now call severely or profoundly deaf people, who have been so from birth.
Markides says that:
The church stuck to Plato’s theory that speech was of divine origin, and therefore that to try to teach the deaf to speak was blasphemous. Linked in with Socrates’ idea, that nothing could exist in the mind without it being as a result of information received through the senses, the church made a further and even more disastrous pronouncement as far as deaf people were concerned. Since man only acquires faith by hearing the doctrinal teaching, the Church said, and since a person who was so deaf that he could not access speech could not do this, he could not participate in religion. In other words a deaf person could not come to saving grace.
And where did the church find support for this idea? Well, I think you will have guessed that it was the verse that forms the title of this article. The AV has it: ‘So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of the God.’ This verse was quoted time and time again in support of this dogma and eventually it was taken to mean that the deaf were deprived of salvation!
Sadly this dogma had a devastating effect on people’s thinking. Unfortunately, St. Augustine also later endorsed the idea, and, because he was such an influential figure, the idea had wide credence until the sixteenth century. He also believed that deafness was a punishment meted out in response to sinfulness on the part of the parents. This seems somewhat odd when we think about Jesus’ very definite response to the question posed about the blind man in John 9: ‘Who sinned? This man or his parents?’ You will be glad to know that, eventually, this situation changed. A strong dispute between the Catholic and Protestant churches began about it.
In this dispute Luther, representing a Protestant position, took the point of view that deaf people who were not insane should not be denied religion and should even be allowed to participate in Holy Communion. Of course very few deaf people are insane. They have the same range intellectually and emotionally as the rest of the population. After all this dismal history it almost seems appropriate to have a moment’s silence to remember all those in past ages who, from no fault of their own, have been treated in this way.
So someone such as Jay 500 years ago would not have had the opportunity to come to any knowledge of Jesus. It would have been barred to him. As an aside here, we may consider that this really is a very salutary tale. A piece of received wisdom from Greek philosophy is matched with a verse, wrenched from its figurative usage, which seems to confirm the point of view. But before we judge too harshly, there may just be parallel examples we can think of in our own day and age and in our own community. I am sure that you will be glad to know that neither in the Catholic nor Protestant churches is salvation now denied to deaf people. Quite the reverse, in fact. In our community too we have a number of profoundly deaf people.
However, having said all this, I would like to suggest that there is a very real sense in which deaf people can still be denied salvation – not because this is God’s will but because of how the gospel is presented. It is to a consideration of this that we are now going to turn.
Let’s consider again those deaf people of the Ancient world, up to the Middle Ages and beyond, up to the 20th century. Let’s remind ourselves that we are talking about people who had so little hearing that they could not hear the speech of others well enough to gain meaning from it. There were no powerful hearing aids then as there are today. How could they have been taught the gospel? Let’s look into this a bit more closely, not from the knowledge base that they had but from what we know now.
1. We now know that normally hearing babies learn to speak by hearing other people speak, mainly their parents.
2. They then match their own vocalizations to what they hear their parents say, for which they need to be able to hear themselves. If babies cannot hear, they do not develop speech and they do not understand the speech of others.
3. If they cannot hear, they cannot understand or develop a vocabulary, or grammar. This vocabulary and grammar is what we can call language.
4. If babies do not develop a language, many ideas about the world will be closed to them. It will be hard to develop certain concepts, as we use language to describe so much of what we mean.
5. Although it will be possible to learn some things through other senses, many higher order concepts will be completely closed and of these the most difficult to comprehend will be the abstract concepts, based on things we have never seen, touched, tasted or smelt. ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ And what might be the epitome of such abstract concepts? Of course, the answer has to be religion. Just think for a moment about words like atonement, salvation, redemption and the concepts behind those words. Sometimes even we, who are hearing, struggle to explain what they mean. Think how impenetrable those concepts would have been for those people with no access to oral language even if they had been allowed to participate in church life long ago.
Well, you may say, the gospel did not have to be delivered through the auditory pathway. Once the Bible was more widely available, deaf people could have read it instead. Sadly not. If you have no language, written text means nothing to you, since it is just a written code for the language which is closed to you. People would not have been able to come to a knowledge of salvation that way. Even now, with powerful hearing aids, deaf children’s literacy levels tend to be lower than others, for the reasons we have defined above. In the 1970s, it was estimated that a profoundly deaf adult would have an average reading age of a normally hearing 8 year old. What does this mean? Well, he or she would be able to read and understand the vocabulary of a tabloid newspaper. This would not be enough to access the complex language of the Bible, with its idioms and figurative speech and so on. Things have changed and this sort of figure might apply to only a few thousand people in the UK now.
The picture I have painted is a depressing one. How then, if the gospel is for everyone, if Jesus died for all, are deaf people to come to saving grace? I would like to stress that for most people with a hearing impairment it will now be possible through an auditory route, like hearing people. Hearing aids, early diagnosis and so on are giving deaf people a much better chance these days. Careful consideration will need to be given to the conditions and acoustics in churches and so on. Helpful strategies need to be devised for deaf people in church recognising for example that things may take a little longer, require more careful explanation and so on. However, there are some other people for whom this would not work. Jay would probably have been one such person.
So how can we get through to such people? We tend to present the gospel through the auditory pathway in our Sunday Schools and preaching efforts, backed up by text. We encourage each other to read the text of the Bible. These are difficult media for deaf people. But not just for deaf people. People with certain language and communication problems will find oral and text-based communication difficult. The same with people with general learning difficulties. So too with people who come to this country and have English as a foreign language. So how can we get through and teach people the gospel?
A few years ago Brother Mike Ball from Oxford led a workshop at Kenilworth in which he posed just such a scenario. What if you met someone who had English as a second language? He did not understand English to a sophisticated level and certainly couldn’t read English very well. Yet, he expressed an interest in what you believe. How could you explain what you believe? Mike divided us into 4 groups and gave each of us a topic title. I think they were something like: salvation, baptism, the kingdom and repentance. Then he gave each group a heap of various magazines, a pair of scissors, a big sheet of paper and some glue. Our task was to choose images from the magazines which represented the allotted topic, to cut them out and stick them on the paper and then be prepared to talk about how we would use those images to explain the topic. It was a very thought-provoking exercise. The most interesting part, perhaps, was the discussion between the members of a group. The topic for our group was The Kingdom. Could we come to a consensus as to images which caught the essence of the Kingdom of God on Earth for each member? Some wanted to go down a geo-political route, others opted for qualities of life in The Kingdom and so on.
What I am suggesting is that pictures may form an important way in to faith for people with language difficulties. In fact, I would broaden this. It now appears from educational research that many people are primarily visual learners. There may be many readers of this article who learn best through visual means, that is through seeing images visually. Of course visual means of getting over a story or concept have been used since the earliest days of Christianity. In fact to start it off, Jesus himself used visual mages. He created visual pictures in people’s heads by using parables. He pointed to all the things which people could see around them: the shepherd, the vine, the lily growing in the field. Later on, Christians started painting down in the catacombs of Rome. Later Western medieval wall paintings in churches had the definite function of teaching the people. If you have seen any of these you will recognise that there was a great emphasis on doom or the Last Judgment. One can also think of stained glass windows and the Bible stories depicted there.
For people who could not read the Bible (and, let’s face it, this was almost all of them since either the Bible wasn’t even written in their own language or, when it was, wasn’t available to them) these visual forms must have formed useful reminders. But I think they were more than that. Paintings and stained glass windows, if well-crafted, show us something of the beauty of God. They fill us with a sense of wonder and awe and may connect with us in a way that a thousand words may not. Perhaps you can think of examples where a picture has connected with you very effectively. I’m thinking of some Brueghel paintings which I saw on a trip to Brussels earlier in the year. The pictures were full of Christian symbolism which I found deeply moving. And do you remember when the Good News Bible came out, with those simple yet so effective cartoons? As a teenager, I remember we used to trace over them and use them in our letters to buddies we had met at camp. Somehow they connected with us.
It’s worth remembering this idea of visual learners as far as teaching in Sunday School and Youth Groups is concerned and even in illustrating talks for adults. We do not only need to use pictures just to keep people’s attention. We also need to use them because a lot of people learn more effectively through visual images. Other people learn by doing, so techniques like drama and even dancing may be important – but that’s really beyond my brief.
So, as far as deaf people are concerned, pictures are a great start. Many people who sign will be good visual learners, since Sign Language itself is a visual language. I heard a story of a young deaf man who drew pictures himself to express his understanding of Christian teaching so far. Once he drew a picture of God’s hands cupping the world. ‘This is how I see God’s love for us all’ he signed to his tutor. ‘You are on the right lines.’ she told him.
And so we come at last to Sign Language. Someone like Jay came to the gospel by being taught through Sign Language which is the language of deaf people, developed by them originally to communicate with each other. It isn’t international. Many countries have their own version. It’s a visual-spatial language, built up of a number of handshapes composed within a space to convey meaning. ‘Handshapes are accompanied by facial expressions. Many of the signs are iconic or graphic. Signs have been developed to get over complex concepts like resurrection. There is a whole vocabulary associated with religion much of which is iconic. It’s by using interpreters – you’ve probably seen them on the television – that deaf people can have access to the whole content of church services, the teaching , the hymns and the prayers.
However don’t get an oversimplified notion of the benefit of Sign Language. It is not a cure-all. At the beginning, I talked about lack of language affecting concept development. Concepts need to be built up slowly and carefully in order to establish the foundations of the Christian faith.
And what of the Bible? Well, there is a special Bible for deaf people produced by the World Bible Translation Centre. How does it differ? The language is more simple, sentences are shorter, constructions are more simple. Beside figurative language, there is an explanation in parenthesis. By tricky vocabulary there is an asterisk and an explanation given in footnotes at the bottom. Although the text is simpler, accuracy of message is not sacrificed.
What I have tried to show is that deaf people have had severe difficulties coming to a knowledge of Jesus Christ – in earlier times because it was believed that they could not come to salvation, but also because it is so difficult to convey abstract concepts without an oral language. What I have also tried to show is that there are solutions, solutions through pictures, careful explanations, good acoustics, helpful strategies and sign language. There is even a Bible available to help people read about our Lord Jesus Christ. One day a more perfect solution will be found for those who have not been able to directly hear the gospel in the Coming of our Lord when all the deaf will hear, and I will be out of a job!
In the meantime, I will leave the last word to Jay. Of his deafness and of his faith he has told others that:
‘I may be completely deaf, but I can still hear God.’
A summary of the needs of deaf people in the church
Deaf people find the use of overhead projectors helpful, especially in illustrating and giving an outline of the content of the message.
The light should be on the speaker or interpreter’s face.
Lights and windows should not be behind the speaker or interpreter as this has the effect of creating silhouettes and causes eye strain.
Ideally deaf people need to be in a position where they can easily see the speaker (and interpreter).
The background to the speaker or interpreter should be plain or dark. (Patterns and bright colours cause eye strain and fatigue.)
The installation of a loop system is particularly useful to people who are hard of hearing and using hearing aids.
Speakers should speak clearly, without obscuring their faces, at a measured pace and speak up but not shout.
I am going to be using the term ‘Christian’ many times in this article. Throughout, ‘Christian’ will mean one who is totally Bible-based, who perceives the Bible as the inspired Word of God and the guidebook for the Christian life, and who is God the Father and Christ-centred in the sense that recognises the vital importance of developing a personal relationship with God. These qualifying descriptions should not be necessary in defining a Christian, but sadly the term is used, by some, very loosely and inaccurately.
An exciting part of my Christian journey has been meeting other Christians, and sharing worship and Bible study with them. It has been exciting because for many years I was not encouraged to meet them and indeed was not sure that they existed. To find others who share our dedication to God and the Bible has been both an eye-opener and a joy, and a source of both stimulation and challenge. It has made me think a good deal about unity in Christ – since we ‘are all one in union with Christ Jesus’. What are the elements of unity and what might be the barriers to unity?
I am very exercised by the preaching of Jesus and Paul against divisions among Christians such as: ‘If a family divides itself into groups which fight each other, that family will fall apart’, and the accusatory statement in I Corinthians 1: ‘Christ has been divided into groups!’, and the bald statement, again to the Corinthians (I Cor 12), ‘there is no division in the body’ – OUCH! We are led to the almost inevitable conclusion that Christians should not be divided, or perhaps, the even more challenging conclusion, that actually Christians are not divided, and yet … some seem to perceive that they are.
So what is Christian unity? The wonderful prayer of Jesus in John 17 seems to have the answer. In this prayer, Jesus pleads for unity so that we can show God to others: e.g. v.21: ‘I pray that they may all be one…. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me’, and v.23: ‘I in them and you in me, so that they may be completely one, in order that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them as you love me.’ It is rather a sobering thought that divisions among Christians get in the way of effective preaching, and that unity among Christians would provide a far better basis for evangelism. This same prayer gives us many pointers about the basis of unity in Christ: for example, knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ (v.3), obedience to God’s Word (v.6), knowing God is the source of all things (v.7), receiving God’s message (v.8), joy in our hearts (v.13), dedication to God (v.19) and knowing that God the Father sent Jesus (v.25). We might perhaps summarise these elements as belief, faith, dedication and a relationship with God and Jesus.
The quotes from John 17 are supplemented by another set of elements of Christian unity – necessary personal qualities: ‘You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity. The peace that Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together in the one body’ (Col 3:12-15).
Together, we have here the elements of unity in Christ, the basics about God and Jesus, and the tolerance and humility to understand and forgive each other – doctrine and practice expressed in very simple terms.
But what are the barriers to achieving and recognising Christian unity? Perhaps the greatest divisive factor is being certain that we are right – or worse that we are the only ones who are right. It is worrying that more than one sect believes this. The Roman Catholics believe that they are the one true church. On holiday recently in Greece, I read a booklet (in English!) by the Greek Orthodox Church, which claimed that they alone had the truth. The sects that state the most overtly that they have the truth make interesting ‘bed-fellows’! It is even more challenging that Christians (readers will remember the way in which I am using this term in this article) have slightly different interpretations of the Bible which they revere. So, to quote Pilate, though in a different context ‘What is truth?’. Jesus did not answer Pilate directly, but he did say, very tellingly ‘Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.’ All Christians, as defined above, listen to Jesus, and thus all of them belong to the truth – according to Jesus!
Since our understanding, and use, of the term ‘truth’ is at the root of divisions between Christians, I want to look at two aspects of ‘the truth’. The first is about a journey (a Christian journey) towards the truth. We read in Proverbs 4:18: ‘the road the righteous travel is like the sunrise, getting brighter and brighter until daylight has come.’ Paul tells the Corinthians in I Cor 13:12,13: ‘What we now see is like a dim image in a mirror… . What I now know is only partial, then it will be complete – as complete as God’s knowledge of me’; that is, we will not be fully in the truth until God’s kingdom of glory is fully established. We are told in John’s gospel: ‘when…the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all truth’ (16:13), so we need the Spirit on our Christian journey towards the truth, and are of course promised that wonderful gift to guide us. Also in John 8:31,32, ‘If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (N.B. ‘will’!). Our journey towards the truth is characterised by ‘growing in our knowledge of God’ (II Peter 3:18) and on it we ‘add goodness to faith, and knowledge to goodness’ (Colossians 1:9,10) – another progression – and we note that knowledge is not the first element of this progression. So, we are on a journey towards the truth, to a closer and closer relationship with God the Father and Jesus. Can we or should we therefore state that we are ‘in the truth’?
This idea of being ‘in the truth’ is the second use of ‘truth’ to which I want to refer. Certainly this phrase is Biblically-based. We read in I John 3:19: ‘we belong to the truth’ and in II John 2,4: ‘the truth remains in us’ and ‘your children live in the truth’. Again, John (in III John 1), in the AV, addressed Gaius as ‘whom I love in the truth’ although the GNB version has a different slant ‘whom I truly love’, and in vv. 3,4 John describes his Christian brothers as ‘faithful to the truth’ and says how happy he is to hear that ‘my children live in the truth’. But is the ‘truth’ to which John refers sectarian truth or basic Biblical truth? We have already looked at Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and seen the elements underpinning Christian unity. Surely the same elements define the truth as it is in Jesus. Biblical truth was defined long before creeds and statements of faith were devised by human minds, before human beings tried to decide what was essential to salvation and what might not be – although it is a sad fact that factions and sects were not long in being formed after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. It is also a sad fact, and an unnecessary barrier to unity, that describing membership of a particular sect as being ‘in the truth’, or those leaving a sect as ‘leaving the truth’, is both divisive and seen by some as inappropriate, inaccurate and even arrogant.
The gospel message (the ‘truth of the gospel’ as Paul describes it) is simple – is it not salvation by God’s grace, through Christ? The longer is the list of what any one sect, or sub-sect, sees as essential doctrines, the less likely it is that unity between Christians, which the Bible commends and commands, will be achieved.
Of course there are essential elements of our belief, and perhaps we should try harder to define them. Such an attempt is seriously hampered by what I might call ‘doctrinal labels’, such as the ‘Trinity’. It is really sad when one Christian, or Christian sect, claims to believe in the Trinity, and another is horrified at the thought, and both shun each other, when in fact both may well believe in precisely the same essentials about God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It is equally sad if one sect prefers not to use terms in common with another sect – such as the word ‘church’ for example – or engage in any common activities, just because ‘others do it’! There are, I believe, lessons to learn here. I have come to rejoice in finding common ground with other Christians and to find it profitable to discuss the peripheral differences, in other words to rejoice in what I believe, and not in what I and others do not believe. I am rather taken by the very simple mission statement ‘To know Christ and to make him known’ and by the following very simple statements:
– We believe in God as our Creator and Father, Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord and centre of our lives, and the Holy Spirit as our Encourager and Guide.
– We value regular study of the Scriptures and obedience to what they say, regular prayer as a way of drawing closer to God, and regular Christian fellowship which is loving, caring and friendly.
Such statements are simple, Biblically sound and surely acceptable to all Christians, thus promoting the unity which is commanded of us.
I know many of us value Barclay’s writings. Two quotes from his books follow:
What was the unity for which Jesus prayed? It was not a unity of administration or organization; it was not in any sense an ecclesiastical unity. It was a unity of personal relationship. We have already seen that the union between Jesus and God was one of love and obedience. It was a unity of love for which Jesus prayed, a unity in which men loved each other because they loved him, a unity based entirely on the relationship between heart and heart. Christians will never organize their churches all in the same way. They will never worship God all in the same way. They will never even all believe precisely the same things. But Christian unity transcends all these differences and joins men together in love. The cause of Christian unity at the present time, and indeed all through history, has been injured and hindered, because men loved their own ecclesiastical organizations, their own creeds, their own ritual, more than they loved each other. If we really loved each other, and really loved Christ, no church would exclude any man who was Christ’s disciple. Only love implanted in men’s hearts by God can tear down the barriers which they have erected between each other and between their churches. (From the Gospel of John – Vol 2, p 218)
That (ie feeling shut out and lonely) is what cannot happen in the family of God. And that is what should never happen in a church. Through Jesus there is a place for all men in the family of God. Men may put up their barriers; churches may keep their communion tables for their own members. God never does; it is the tragedy of the church that it is so often more exclusive than God. Paul thinks of every church as the part of a great building and of every Christian as a stone built into the church…. This is what the church should be like. Its unity comes not from organization, or ritual, or liturgy; it comes from Christ. Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia – where Christ is, there is the church. The church will realize her unity only when she realizes that she does not exist to propagate the point of view of any body of men, but to provide a home where the Spirit of Christ can dwell and where all men who love Christ can meet in that Spirit. (From Galatians and Ephesians – pp 118,119):
I feel that, if we really believed the definition of fellowship in I John 1: ‘so that you will join with us in the fellowship that we have with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’, unity between Christians would be much more likely to be achieved.
I suppose I felt moved to write this article because I would love my excitement in widening my contacts with other Christians to be shared with others who are journeying towards God’s truth, and who are trying to develop a closer relationship with God the Father and Jesus.
I’d rather see a sermon
than hear one any day.
I’d rather one would walk with me
than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil
and more willing than the ear;
Fine counsel is confusing
but example always clear.
And the best of all the preachers
are the men who live their creeds,
for to see good put in action
is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it,
if you’ll let me see it done.
I can watch your hands in action
but your tongue too fast may run.
And the sermon you deliver,
may be very wise and true
but I’d rather get my lesson
by observing what you do.
I may misunderstand you,
and the high advice you give,
but there’s no misunderstanding
how you act, and how you live.
When I see a deed of kindness
I am eager to be kind.
When a brother stumbles
and a strong man stands behind
just to see if he can help,
then the wish grows strong in me
to be as big and thoughtful
as I know a friend can be.
And all travellers can witness
that the best of guides today
is not the one who tells them
but the one who shows the way.
A review of some scripture passages.
A) What Jesus had to say
Matt.18:10 – I tell you that … angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.
Luke 20:36 – in the resurrection from the dead (men and women) do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as angers
Luke 15:10 – in the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.
Luke 12:9 – ‘But anyone who disowns me in the presence of human beings WIll be disowned in the presence of God’s angels.’
Matt.26:53 – ‘Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to my defence?’ Jesus also quotes Psalm 91:11 – that God commands his angels to protect us when in need.
Luke 16:22 – In Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, angels carry the dead Lazarus ‘to his fathers’.
Matt.25:31 – ‘when the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels’
Matt.13:39,49 – ‘ … at the end of time the Son of man will send his angels and they will gather out of his Kingdom all causes of falling and all who do evil
Matt.24:36 – ‘But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son’
B) What angels say about themselves
Luke 1:13 – Gabriel called himself by name, meaning ‘man of God’ or ‘God has shown himself strong’. Another angel referred to by name in Scripture is Michael ‘who is like God’, but it is significant that angels normally refused to reveal any personal identity.
Revelation 22:9 – John’s heavenly messenger declared himself a fellow-servant and forbade John to worship him. (See also Colossians 2:18.)
C) Eye-witness accounts
Judges 13:3 — Manoah’s wife saw a ‘man of God’ so majestic that he looked like an angel of God. But Manoah beheld only a man, until the angel, having refused any food, disappeared in the flame of Manoah’s offering!
Genesis 19:1 – The angels visiting Lot also appeared as men, and they accepted an invitation to supper. They did, however, display supernatural powers when this became necessary. In Genesis 18, these same angels, together with one other, appeared to Abraham but were referred to simply as ‘Yahweh’.
2 Sam.24:16 – an angel was responsible for the plague visited by God upon Israel when David was king. He is described in 1 Chron. 21 as having towering stature and holding a drawn sword. He gives orders in God’s name and terrifies David.
Daniel 3:28 – the angel in the fiery furnace is described by Nebuchadnezzar as a ‘child of the gods’.
Exodus 14:19 – the angel appears only as a pillar of fire or cloud, and is said in Exodus 13:21 to be God himself.
Numbers 22:32 – Balaam sees an angel with a drawn sword.
Judges 6:11 – Gideon’s angel, like Manoah’s, remains unrecognised until he, too, disappears in flames.
Matt.28:5 – the angel at Jesus tomb had a face like lightning and a snow-white robe. He is seated on the stone.
Luke 2:10 – an angel appears to the shepherds in glorious light (always guaranteed, initially, to instil fear!)
Acts 7:35 – Luke refers to the angel in the burning bush (Ex.3) who appeared as flaming fire but spoke as if God himself. In Acts 7:38, it is asserted again that it was God’s angel, rather than God himself, who appeared in fire on Mount Sinai. Moses reminds his people of this with regard to the prohibition of images made in God’s ‘likeness’ (Deut.4:15). See also Acts 7:53 (the Law was given through angels).
Acts 12:7 – an angel fills Peter’s prison cell with light.
Hosea 12:4 – the prophet refers to Jacob wrestling with an angel (Gen.32:23) but Jacob sees only a man at first.
Acts 10:3 – Cornelius “had a vision in which he distinctly saw the angel of God..” and was terrified.
D) Voices and Visions
Genesis 22:11 – Abraham hears a voice from heaven, and the speaker is referred to as the angel of God. Abraham believes in angelic guidance (Gen.24:7,40)
Gen.48:16 – Jacob (Israel) has faith in angelic protection which God, through an angel, later promises to Moses (Ex.23:20) with the stern warning that the angel must be obeyed, as he bears God’s name. See also Ex.32:34, 33:2 and Num.20:16
1 Kings 19:5 – an angel awakes Elijah and tells him to eat the food which has miraculously appeared.
Daniel 6:2 Daniel does not describe the angel who protected him from lions, but his actions were convincing enough.
Zechariah 1:9 – he has a vision or dream of angelic visitation. God himself is said to speak, but it seems fair to assume that the sight of an angel would make the voice authentic.
Genesis 16:7 – the text suggests Hagar’s angel must have been visible.
2 Kings 1:3 – presumably the angel of God both appeared and spoke to Elijah.
Judges 2:1 – the angel must have been visible, as he addressed the Israelites.
Matt.1:20 and 2:13,19 – an angel speaks to Joseph in dreams.
Acts 8:26 – an angel speaks to Philip, but the following text substitutes ‘spirit’ for angel. We have to assume he was visible.
Daniel and Revelation seem to be a combination of vision and visitation, reminiscent of Scrooge’s experiences in A Christmas Carol.
E) Angelic interaction with people
Acts 12:8 – when the angel sets Peter free, he loosens his chains and actually leads the way out, past the guards and through the prison gates, which open ‘by themselves’! There is a similar episode in Acts 5:19.
Genesis 18:1 – the three ‘men’ visiting Abraham eat the meal he gets Sarah to prepare. One of them remains long enough for Abraham to ‘bargain’ with him, recognising him as an angel of God. The other two angels shared a meal with Lot, and made very unusual physical contact, dragging Lot indoors away from the unsavoury mob and then, next morning, leading him and his family by hand out of the city.
F) Miscellaneous accounts
Psalm 8:5, Hebrews 2 – man has been made a little lower than the angels (presumably regarding mortality and weakness).
Hebrews 1:4, Psalm 104:4 – Jesus is far above the angels. who are as winds and flames of fire, subtle and changeable. They are subject to Jesus Christ.
Romans 8:38 – angels cannot separate us from God’s love
Hebrews 13:2 – we might entertain angels unawares
Psalm 103:20 – angels are mighty warriors, attentive to God’s commands. See also 2 Chron.32:21, Psalm 78:49 (destroying angels).
2 Peter 2:11 – angels, despite their greater power and strength, do not make it their business to accuse men and women before God. That is the work of the devil (Satan).
Acts 23:8 – the Sadducees did not believe in angels.
Psalm 34:7 – the angel of God encamps around those who fear him. Angels comfort the needy (Matt.4:11, Luke 22:43)
G) When is an angel not an Angel?
Eccles.5:5 – the word ‘angel’ is here translated messenger and could, in fact, refer to a priest.
John 5:4 – a disputed text. Popular belief attributed disturbance of the Bethesda pool to an angel, hut angels were messengers from God, not the meddlesome gods of mythology.
Acts 12:15 – guardian angels who were look-alikes of their charges were also popularly believed, but have no scriptural foundation.
Gal. 1:8 – the idea that an angel from heaven could preach a false gospel is preposterous, and is suggestive of the warning Paul gives in 2 Cor.11:14 to recognise the devil when you see him! The appropriation of the name Lucifer ‘bearer of light’) to the prince of darkness is grossly mischievous. Isaiah calls the king of Babylon Lucifer because he set himself up as a god, but it was also another name for the planet Venus, ‘the bright and morning star’, and was rightfully used in Revelation to describe the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 2:4 – all the evidence points to angels of God being immortal spirits who worship God continually and are servants at his bidding. They are sexless and they must be pure in order to have immortality, which is derived from God. Peter is referring either to the false prophets already mentioned in context (which makes a lot of sense) or to pseudepigraphic material.
Jude, writing in a very similar vein (vv.5-7). could easily be referring to Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16) as the ‘angels’ who left their appointed sphere, especially as he then goes on to mention Korah’s rebellion (v.11). Expositors assume Jude compares Sodomites to those immoral ‘angels’ (v.7) and therefore equates them with the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6. It is not clear from the text whether Jude is, in fact, comparing Sodom with its neighbouring towns, but either way there is nothing to suggest that any of these angels were other than human beings.
Jude’s subsequent quotations from the pseudepigrapha only serve to emphasise the point that ‘fallen angels’, like Greek gods and goddesses, belong to the realms of fancy. The writer to the Hebrews makes it plain that heavenly angels could never have been called God’s sons; those characters in Genesis 6 who were blatantly practising polygamy might well, in their insolence, have taken the title to themselves, as countless leaders of men have done throughout the world.
1 Cor.6:3 – we are to be judged by Christ – it is not our place to judge anyone else, let alone God’s angels. Logically Paul means ‘judge’ in the O.T. sense of govern’ (see Matt.19:28)
Job 4:18 -~ in this drama of timeless universal significance, Eliphaz speaks in ignorance of the true nature of God and his angels.
Revelation 2 – the angels of the seven churches have to be human, or writing to them makes no sense.
Luke 10:18 – Jesus likened Satan’s fall to lightning from heaven, his power eclipsed by the power of the holy spirit to heal the sick. No indication here that the devil was ever an angel in God’s presence.
Revelation 9:1-11 – the angel of the abyss, Abaddon (Apollyon) is simply a personification of destruction. His army of invading locusts is reminiscent of the prophecy recorded in Joel 1 and 2, and his ‘fallen star’ comparable to the falling stars and vanishing skies of Isaiah 34:2-5 and Revelation 6:12-17
The ‘fallen’ are those who have succumbed to the temptation to gratify human desire and turn against God. God cannot be tempted to sin against himself, and neither can his angels who dwell in the light of his purity and are ministering spirits, not fresh and blood. Jesus. born in the nature of man, could he tempted, and was tempted, but he resisted to the end and was raised above the angels precisely because of his victory.
Genesis 3.4 – great winged creatures and a fiery flashing sword. The word ‘karibu’ is Babylonian, applied to half human, half animal spirits – guardians.
Exodus 25:18 – golden models of cherubim placed on the mercy-sea,. facing each other, with wings spread upwards protecting the mercy-seat upon the ark. Their likeness was to be embroidered on the purple and crimson hangings of the tabernacle (Ex.26:1)
2 Sam.22:1 1 – in David’s song to Yahweh he envisages God riding ‘winged creatures’ or ‘soaring on the wings of the wind’, and it is God who breathes devouring fire, causing the earth to shudder at his anger. This parallels Isaiah’s vision of seraphim. See also Psalm 18:10
1 Kings 6:23 – Solomon’s temple has olivewood cherubim, overlaid with gold, placed wing to wing and wall to wall in the sanctuary – a canopy over the ark.
Isaiah 6:2 – (Hebrew root ‘sarap’ means to consume with fire). Seraphim were 6-winged creatures, with faces hidden, standing above God’s throne and praising him so loudly that the doorposts of the sanctuary shook. One of them flies to Isaiah and touches his mouth with a burning coal taken from the altar; thus he is cleansed by fire (equated to forgiveness) to proclaim the pure word of God
Ezekiel 28:14 – the king of Tyre is destroyed for abusing his ‘cherub’ role.
Cherubim/Seraphim appear to be manifestations of the nature of God. In both Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 this is evident in the symbols used, e.g. ‘many eyes for God’s omniscience, and the creatures (lion, bull, man and eagle) for God’s nobility, strength, wisdom and speed.
Can we see Angels now?
In her thought-provoking book Angels (Macmillan 1993) Hope Price concludes with these words:
It is not right to place too much emphasis on angels. Perhaps if we could keep angels in the right perspective, neither over-emphasising them nor refusing to recognise their validity, we would be allowed to see them more often no matter how thrilling the impact of an angelic visit may be, we must keep our eyes on God’s son, Jesus; millions of angels put together have far less power and authority than the Lord Jesus.
In compiling her many first-hand reports of angelic visitations, Hope Price has selected only those she considers to be sincere, wide-awake observations, most of which have notably been once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They generally fall into two distinct categories: cherub-like appearances, bringing a feeling of great comfort and peace in difficult times, or – during a crisis – direct, personal intervention by ‘men’ who subsequently disappear without trace and can only have been angels in disguise.
At the start of her book, Hope blames Renaissance artists for the traditional, unrealistic images of angels, who have feathered wings as large as an eagle’s, dazzling golden haloes, harps, swords and flowing white robes. Nevertheless, many testimonies to the sighting of angels do largely conform to the biblical descriptions of cherubim, and emit varying degrees of brilliant light, whether from golden hair or faces or raiment.
An 8-foot tall angel – with beautiful ash blond hair – held a huge sword. His wings were beautiful, like the softest down, cream coloured, edged with apricot. He opened his wings slightly and closed them around me, sheltering me and I knew then I was safe.
[Psalm 91:4 – ‘He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge]
The stark prohibition of angel-worship suffices to explain the paucity of angelic appearances. There seems to be within all men and women a proclivity for idol or hero worship – an unhealthy attraction to an obviously beautiful or famous person, especially one who possesses great strength and nobility. The ‘majesty’ and purity of an angel of God would act on us like a lamp to a moth, and while over-exposure could be fatal, there is also the possibility that we should be overcome by those very weaknesses that have rendered us mortal in the first place.
The fact that God so frequently manifests Himself in flames of fire must serve to remind us that man cannot see God and live until he has been purified, like gold, and can withstand the fire. In the meantime, we are put firmly in our place; it is to Jesus that we look, for although we cannot see him, it is in his life and light that we shall be purified.
Earth was waiting, spent and restless.
The Jewish world, well prepared by priests and prophets, was awaiting the coming of Messiah, as forecast to Zacharias, that his son John would prepare the people for the Lord. Simeon foresaw in the birth of Jesus the coming of the one who would bring light and life. In the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus proclaimed his mission to the poor, the outcast, the blind and the bruised and endorsed this by showing the extension of God’s mercy to Gentiles. The apostles followed their Master’s lead into the wider world of Greeks and Romans. There they met a response and acceptance, as Paul declared ‘the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles and they will hear it.’
If we look at the monuments of Greece, for all their beauty and magnificence, we see that they were built for the worship of gods of wood and stone, impassive idols, incapable of response or receipt. The hollow eyes and gloomy farewells portrayed on the gravestones of the ordinary Greek people in the years before Jesus reveal a total lack of faith, hope or joy. Their gods had failed them. Their religious festivals were merely celebrations, sometimes seasonal, riotous and often sexual. Some sought deeper satisfaction in philosophy or mystery religions which offered a promise of conversion and new vision but had nothing more to give than myths and legends. It was a world in waiting for a message of life and hope. And to this the apostles responded with the living message of resurrection, of a Lord who had been raised from the dead and was now alive and able to respond to their prayers, their needs and their hopes. No wonder they came, they listened and they followed!
Eventually, through the unerring guidance of God, Paul reached Rome, the heart of the great empire, where there was already a Christian community and an acceptant people. The Roman Empire had been torn apart by civil war for 100 years until Augustus was established as Emperor in 27 BC and held sway for 40 years until 14 AD during which time Jesus was born as Luke attests.
The effect of the Civil Wars was, as always, total demoralisation, breakdown of morals, religion and family life. Augustus, in recognising this, attempted through propaganda by poets to inaugurate a new age, to celebrate a return to old values, moral stability and family life. He built 300 temples to restore some semblance of religion and revived some traditional forms of worship and religious observance as well as feasts and celebrations. But he had only the old gods to resort to whose lives and behaviour certainly set no standards of respectability to copy. So the worship was purely ceremonial and external and many thinking people turned to philosophy, especially Stoicism to answer their personal needs.
This whole situation provided an amazingly fertile soil for the Gospel to flourish. And we have the most astounding evidence for this in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus who wrote his histories about 100 AD. He relates how in 64 AD during the principate of Nero, a great fire spread through Rome, destroying a large part of the city. Nero acquired the land laid waste by the fire and built upon it his famous Golden House. Already unpopular, on account of his irresponsible behaviour and severe taxation, he was blamed for causing the fire. To divert the blame from himself he found, as Tacitus states, a suitable scapegoat in the Christian community, who were alleged to be unpopular because of their ‘hatred of humanity’ – no doubt a misconception of some of their beliefs. The very fact of this attribution of blame proves them to have been a significant minority. But Tacitus states that there was ‘a huge multitude’ of them in Rome in 64 AD – only 30 years after the crucifixion! Those who confessed to being Christian were impaled in the Emperor’s garden, their bodies dipped in phosphorus to provide light for the revelry of his court! which even led people to pity them.
A huge crowd in Rome after only 30 years! What brought people to the Gospel to be prepared to die for it? Surely it was the message of a living God and a risen Saviour – alive and present with them. The resurrection of Jesus gave hope, life, comfort and assurance to his people. They portrayed him as the Shepherd, tending his flock, leading, guiding and providing – the living Saviour who had died but is still present, caring, loving and protecting – both then and now.
Time is a very long line,
hung with happenings to convince us of its passing.
Time is a very long line,
of which we can now see but a very small fragment.
Time is a very long line,
but our God is outside the bounds of its limitation,
and by His overflowing grace we shall witness its dissolving into eternity.
A brief enquiry into another of the (infinite?) variety of pearls of wisdom contained in the Word of Truth.
4: The ‘swing’ in our election
As I was writing this, the campaigning, the voting, the counting and controversy which comprised the British Local, the European Parliament and the London Mayoral elections were in full swing, and I was reminded of the importance, in UK General elections anyway, of the percentage ‘swing’ between socialist and conservative (Labour and Tory; Left and Right) politics which could and often did have a marked effect on which party got in and which was kicked out. The U.K. television centre even had a giant ‘Swingometer’ which was used, time after time, to illustrate how many seats gained or lost in the House of Commons each 1% ‘swing’ in the voters’ preference would bring about. This is possible with the ‘total votes per candidate’ voting method; proportional representation would not be predicted nor depicted so accurately.
It seemed to me that in the change, described almost as dramatically in scripture, between the natures – the politics if you like – of the Mosaic and Christian covenants, we are confronted by language so plain and so graphic that the term ‘swing’ applies most appropriately. This is therefore less of a startling discovery; more of a realisation of just how vast is the ‘swing angle’. It is, I suggest, just as much a ‘pearl’ as anything else in the Word of Life.
I begin, predictably, in Hebrews, specifically in Heb 10:1&2, to highlight two key points from the writer’s (I still think it’s Paul!) case: ‘never’ and ‘year by year continually.’ Here are two opposite extremes, and if AD 70’s collapse of the Jewish kingdom had never happened those annual sacrifices might still be going on, all to no avail whatsoever! That’s a massive tonnage of burnt lamb, beef and poultry gone to waste, for Heb 9:22 confirms that, although without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin, the converse does not apply – there is still no remission, no matter how many gallons of blood spatter the temple floor.
In fact, the position of Jewry at the start of the ‘swing’ was infinitely worse. Look at Heb 10:3; the terms used are stark indeed. Instead of even one sin of the year being wiped out, they were all dragged back into the individual consciousness every twelve months. The very sacrifice one hoped was atoning for one’s sins was actually a means of perpetually thrusting them back in one’s face.
Nor was that all. Heb 10:11 piles on the agony – 365 times more – for every priest (not just one) stood every day, offering what you and I used to sing about (remember ‘smoking sweets and bleeding lambs’?) ad infinitum, and not one of all those took away a single sin. What a terrible, soul-destroying consequence!
Consider those words – ‘never take away sins’. There’s an instant picture in my mind of two goats, one to be killed and the other to be taken by an athletic young man into the wilderness with the offerer’s sins symbolically laid upon it, to be released there. Now of one thing we can be sure; the whole idea in God’s mind of the release of the scapegoat to fend for itself was that it should (E)SCAPE. The steps taken by generations of rabbis to ensure that the poor creature was driven over a high precipice to a potentially agonising death was not only stupidity personified; it was the kind of attempted frustration of the Divine will which pointed – like our ‘swingometer’ needle – forward to Annas and Caiaphas and the kind of criminality that said ‘This is the heir! Let us kill him, and the vineyard will be ours!’
Having been thus projected into the era of the second covenant, it is time to compare the two to see what the percentage ‘swing’ may be. We do not have to move our gaze very far – in fact we stay in Heb 10, moving only to v. 16. Here is a quotation (it appears in Heb 8 as well) from Jeremiah 31:31-34:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of .Judah, not according to the covenant I made with their fathers (the Mosaic one, under which there would never be any remission – ever). . . I will put my law in their inward parts and write it in their hearts. . . for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin NO MORE”.
This is much more than a ‘swing’, isn’t it? It’s from infinitely hopeless to infinitely assured. You can’t measure that with any swingometer – the needle is still spinning now! No wonder the logical desired response of every one of us is – would you believe? – another swing! Instead of doing what Heb 10:39 calls ‘drawing back to perdition’, we are encouraged in vv 19-23:
Having therefore, brethren (that includes sisters) boldness – literally ‘authority’ – to enter into the Holiest . . . let us draw near with a true heart (because God has written His law there!) in full assurance of faith.., for he is faithful that promised…
Now just how sure is that ‘full assurance’? We already know the answer: the joyous news is staring at us two paragraphs away! When God forgives, He forgets. Permanently. When He says ‘no more’, He means it. Those sins we prayed about have gone for ever; it’s as though we’d never committed them. No wonder Jesus told his disciples (that’s US!) ‘Peace I leave with you; MY peace I give to you, not as the world gives!’ The world thinks it can forgive without forgetting; God knows otherwise.
The gospel is really and truly ‘news that good’. After asking God to forgive the sins we hate and wish with all our hearts we’d never done, this is precisely what He will do. CORRECTION – what He has done, for ‘it shall come to pass that, before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.’ (Isa 65:24) Now THERE’S a swing for you!
Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ has broken box-office records, and has taken the religious community around the world by storm – even prompting a headline in The Daily Telegraph ‘Could cinema be the saviour of Christianity?’ It has, however, been criticized as being ‘too violent’ and ‘too liberal in its adaptation of the biblical text.’ Mel Gibson is a staunch Roman Catholic, and the film carries that bias. In RC churches we find depicted on the walls, the fourteen ‘Stations of the Cross’, each Station corresponding to a particular incident which Christ underwent on his way to his death on the Cross. The movie includes Station No. 6, that of St. Veronica wiping Christ’s face with a cloth – a piece of fiction.
The film opens dramatically with a full moon, ominous clouds and mist drifting over the garden of Gethsemane. A handsome Christ is shown, in mental agony, as he prays in Aramaic. Everyone in the film speaks in Aramaic (the Jews) or Latin (the Romans) with English subtitles. In the background is the baleful figure of Satan who appears from time to time in the picture as a pale moon-faced character. When Christ is betrayed by a skulking Judas Iscariot, the Temple guards who arrest him, beat him, chain him up, and drag him along to the Judgement Hall. They fling him over a wall and the chains cruelly break his fall. He finds himself face to face with a cowering Judas – all very dramatic. The moment Judas collects his 30 pieces of silver, demonized children are seen baiting him and hounding him to a speedy suicide – again, rather fanciful.
When we get our first glimpse of Caiaphas the High Priest, he is pictured in splendid black and silver vestments, ruthlessly cross-questioning and condemning Jesus. Gibson does show some of the members of the Sanhedrin dissenting from what they see to be an illegal trial. Pontius Pilate is depicted as a reasonable man struggling with his conscience. His wife, Claudia, asks him not to harm ‘this man’. When the Jewish Council arrive they demand that the Roman Procurator puts Christ to death for sedition. Pilate finds no fault in him and commands they take him to Herod. When the odious King sends Jesus back guiltless, the Procurator offers to scourge him and then release him. But the mob insists on crucifixion and so Pilate relents. Christ tells him, ‘The greater sin is on those who brought me to you.’ We see the murderer Barabbas smirking as he is released, and Pilate washing his hands to absolve himself from responsibility in Jesus’ death.
Jewish writers have vehemently objected to the film claiming it to be anti-Semitic. In the ‘crucify him’ scene is the inclusion of the words from Matthew’s Gospel where the mob cry out, ‘His blood be upon us and on our children.’ The story circulating Jewry is that this line has been cut, but that is untrue. It remains there spoken in Aramaic but not subtitled. But the taint of anti-Semitism still sticks, not least because some who read the screenplay said it over-emphasised the bloodlust of the Jewish crowd.
The scourging of Jesus is a gruelling spectacle, lasting about 20 minutes in the film. Jesus is flogged and ends up a pathetic bloodied figure with one eye beaten shut. In the cinema some in the audience covered or averted their eyes, and others silently wept at the horrendous scenario. Simon of Cyrene is shown as the reluctant cross-bearer, Jesus and he dragging an impossibly huge Cross uphill under a rain of blows from the mocking Roman soldiers. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is there and has the serene look of the traditional Madonna (as typified in Italian art), and her constant companion is Mary Magdalene portrayed as a beautiful woman. Mother Mary ‘knows’ when her son has been taken prisoner, can sense him being chained up beneath the floor of the Judgement Hall, and mops up the blood after the dreadful scourging. This latter notion comes from the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century mystic who supposedly brooded so long on The Passion of Christ that she was said to have received the stigmata.
At Golgotha, Jesus is nailed through his hands to the cross-beam (although it is more likely to have been his wrists), and we are given a flashback to the Upper Room where he takes the bread into his hands and blesses it, and institutes the Breaking of Bread Memorial Service. Mary Magdalene prostrates herself before the crucified Christ; and his suffering mother Mary is there with him right up to the end, and helps to take his body down from the Cross – although in John’s Gospel (19:27) the apostle appears to convey her from the harrowing spectacle before Jesus finally expired. The film ends with an earthquake ripping open the Temple, and a shot of the tomb, with Christ a shadowy figure, rising from the dead.
On leaving the cinema one person exclaimed, ‘If Jesus was prepared to die like that for me I have to believe in him.’ The film is exhilarating, exhausting and emotional, as we learn just what a Roman scourging and crucifixion were really like, and how much suffering the Saviour of the world endured for us. The film is worth going to see, so that we can make up our own mind about it. More importantly, it gives us the opportunity to declare our personal faith in Jesus to our contemporaries who have seen the film, but who do not believe in him.
Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law. For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’ and any other commandment there may be, are ALL summed up in the one rule, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour therefore the whole law is summed up in love.’ (Romans 13:8-10)
As Paul tells us, and Jesus demonstrated, the greatest gift is love and to give life to, or to improve the life of, our neighbour by donating those ‘parts’ they need for their life after our death, is to me, when it happens, the most moving occurrence and gift imaginable following a death.
The suitable candidates for Organ Donation are very, very few compared with the annual death rate (about 2,400 in every 500,000 deaths are appropriate). This is mainly because in Organ Donation, where we are talking about lungs, heart, pancreas, kidneys, liver or bowel, the donor has to be on a breathing machine in an Intensive Care Unit and has to be proven to he Brain Stem Dead, but still on a ventilator so that the organs remain oxygenated by the machine until the very point of removal in theatre whilst the donor remains legally dead. These patients are in the main those who have suffered severe brain haemorrhages or brain trauma.
However, the area which is little publicized is that of Tissue Donation where the bone, skin, heart valves and corneas can he removed up to 36 hours following a straight forward death and used to help patients with cancers, burns, valvular heart disease and corneal ulcers etc. Recently the corneas of a lady of 103 were used to give a young person sight! The upper age limit for skin and bone is about 75 years and for heart valves 60 years. Tissue is not taken from people with hepatitis, HIV, CJD and one or two other conditions, nor from drug addicts.
It is very important indeed for families to say how they feel about organ/tissue donation to each other so that when a death occurs they know what their family member wanted. The next of kin have the last word and can refuse consent even if the donor is carrying a donor card.
It can sound a bit gruesome, the idea of removing tissue, but in fact it is not at all. If bone is to be removed, it is only the femur (the thigh bone) that is used and a prosthesis is put in its place to make the body look unchanged (the suture line will be down the side). With the skin it is only a very fine layer of skin from the back of the patient that is used. Viewed afterwards, it only looks as though the patient has been sunbathing and has got a little pink! Obviously if the heart valves are taken, the (dead) patient will have a cut & stitches identical to a patient who has had open-heart surgery in life.
If you find yourself in a situation where a family member has died, and they have voiced an interest in giving tissues, it could well be that the hospital ward or GP are unfamiliar with tissue donation and are not sure who to contact. There is a number you can ring which is 07693-086823 and you leave your name and number and they will get back to you within 15-20 minutes. This is the national tissue transplant coordinator. Alternatively most Intensive Care Units will be able to advise you.
The Bed of Life
The day will come, when my body will lie upon a white sheet, neatly tucked under four corners of a mattress, maybe located in a hospital busily occupied, with the living and the dying.
At a certain moment a Doctor will determine that my brain has ceased to function and that for all intents and purposes my life has stopped. When this happens do not call this my deathbed.
Let it be called the ‘Bed of Life’, and let only my body be taken from it to help others lead a fuller life.
Give my sight to the man who has never seen the sun rise, a baby’s face, or the love in the eyes of a woman.
Give my heart to a person whose heart has caused nothing but endless pain.
Give my blood to the teenager who was pulled from the wreckage of a car, so that he may see his grandchildren play.
Give my kidneys to one who depends on machines to exist from week to week. Take my bones, every muscle, every fibre, every nerve in my body and find a way to make a crippled child walk.
Explore every corner of my brain. Take my cells if necessary and let them grow, so that some day a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat, and a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her window.
Burn what is left of me, and scatter the ashes to the winds to help the flowers grow. If you must bury something let it be my faults of which there were many, my weaknesses and all prejudice against my fellow man.
Give my sins to the devil.
Give my soul to God.
If by chance you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed, or word to someone who needs you.
If you do all I ask, I will live forever.
(From the British Organ Donor Society)
At a recent discussion on war, the question was posed: ‘How else could Hitler have been stopped?’ This was countered with another question: ‘If, long before the war, the church had been faithful in speaking out against injustice and oppression, and had used legal, peaceful methods of protest, would Hitler have ever got to power?’ This set me thinking about the charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). CSW is a human rights charity working on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs. It also promotes religious liberty for all.
It operates primarily in three ways:
1. through prayer, either by individuals or in prayer groups;
2. by advocacy and practical support for prisoners and their families;
3. by sending letters to MPs, foreign governments, embassies, etc, and letters of support to those who are suffering for their faith.
CSW produces a monthly magazine called Response: A Voice for the Voiceless. In this, it highlights various countries where people suffer for their faith. It finishes each story with Points: to praise God for, to pray for and on whom to protest to (with sample letters).
Nigel and I are members of a prayer group for the persecuted church which meets monthly. We have found these sessions to be most moving, if sometimes harrowing. The faith and endurance of so many of those who suffer so appallingly is truly amazing and very, very humbling. They ask us to pray not that their suffering be removed, but that they are given the strength to endure! What an example of faith and courage – it certainly puts us to shame.
It is not all doom and gloom by any means. There are amazing answers to prayers. Unjust laws are suddenly repealed against all the odds, and the gospel is taken to dark prisons where it would not normally reach. The examples of those who only have to deny Christ to be set free, but refuse and suffer horribly – even being killed – causes others to ask ‘What do these people have that is so wonderful, that is even worth being killed for?’ and perhaps to become believers themselves.
The main purposes of our prayer groups are to support the persecuted through letters, protests, cards, finance and of course through prayer. Although members of the prayer groups believe that it is praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters that really matters, we find that we all gain spiritually ourselves. The example of these people is truly inspiring. One example springs to mind. A Chinese Christian was tortured by having his arms tied behind him and fixed to sliding doors which were then opened, and he was left hanging. This was, of course, excruciatingly painful. When he was asked what his feelings were, he said that he was overwhelmed with joy because he began to realise how much Jesus loved him, because he had been prepared to suffer like this, and so much more, even to death for him, a sinner. He also felt sorrow for his tormentors and apologised to them for not giving them the information they required regarding other Christians. I find this example (and there are many more like it) very challenging and I hope that it helps me to get a better perspective in my life. I am reminded of Paul’s words in II Corinthians 4:7-18, where he talks about the extraordinary spiritual enlightenment that can come through suffering: Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us. We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. At all times we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life also may be seen in our bodies. Throughout our lives we are always in danger of death for Jesus’ sake, in order that his life may be seen in this mortal body of ours. This means that death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
The scripture says, ‘I spoke because I believed’. In the same spirit of faith, we also speak because we believe. We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus to life, will also raise us up with Jesus and take us, together with you, into his presence. All this is for your sake; and as God’s grace reaches more and more people, they will offer to the glory of God more prayers of thanksgiving.
I think it is a huge privilege to be able to support these people, our brothers and sisters, in any way we can. If you would like to receive Response, or start a prayer group, please contact:
CSW, PO Box 99 New Malden, Surrey KT3 3YF.
Tel: 0208 942 8810
Who knows, we may just be helping to keep the next ‘Hitler’ out of power.
I leave you with a final quote, from Margaret Mead, a social anthropologist:
‘Never doubt that
a small group of committed citizens
can change the world.
Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’
Part 20 Conclusion: Chapter 11:7-12:8
This section is a kind of summation of the writer’s message, but it is not the final piece in the book. An Epilogue follows, which is left for next time.
As we have repeatedly seen, Qoheleth is not the most systematic of writers. He often juxtaposes seemingly unrelated thoughts, but a message comes through them in the end. Right at the beginning the author stresses the Hebrew hebel, usually rendered ‘vanity’ or ‘futility,’ but the present writer prefers ‘frustration’ as giving what Qoheleth intended, see Part 3 (E95 24-25). He has an unshakable faith in God, but despite his best efforts he fails to find answers to problems he observed in the world he knew. He was hankering for what came with the first-century Gospel, but lacked the revelation that came with Jesus. He was dissatisfied with the Old Covenant, but lived too early to have experience of the New.
Verses 7-8 use light and sunlight as a figure for happiness and contentment, and darkness for misery. We should (it is implied) enjoy the light, but even if we do so for a long time we should be prepared to endure ‘days of darkness’ in due course ‘for they shall be many’ (AV). Other versions agree with this rendering, for example the NIV and REB, but it is hardly correct. Qoheleth is always frustrated by not knowing what the future holds, but this rendering makes a plain and emphatic statement about the future. It can be saved if, instead of taking light and darkness here for happiness end grief, we take ‘light’ for ‘life’ and ‘darkness’ for ‘death.’ However, Qoheleth’s view of death is not of endless misery, but of inactivity and unconsciousness, see ch. 9:5-6 and. 10. The Hebrew language often does not distinguish between ‘shall be’ and ‘may be,’ and here ‘the days of darkness … may be many’ is certainly correct because it fits Qoheleth’s message: we do not know what the future holds for us so we should live life before God to the full and be prepared for whatever may come upon us.
The following verse, 9, repeats this message in its own words, addressing young men, which can mean up to middle-age in our thought world, that is until the first signs of decline. The related caution is that God will judge people for their actions, how and when is not stated, but the principle is part of Qoheleth’s faith. Verse 10 encourages a positive attitude to life, but then declares that youth and vigour are ‘frustrations’ in that where they lead is unknown.
Ch. 12:1-2 repeats the substance and implications of what has gone before, using the same figures of light and darkness for the joy of vigorous youth and the gloom of declining powers, but again stressing the point that enjoyment of life must be tempered by remembering God. There is a verbal difficulty in 12:2: ‘the clouds return after the rain’ (AV). Clouds accompany rain and do not follow it. The problem rests with the preposition ‘after.’ The REB renders ‘with the rain,’ apparently reasoning that ‘after’ can mean ‘behind,’ and when one person walks behind another that person in effect walks with the other. Ruth 1:15 can be quoted in support of this idea: ‘after thy sister-in-law’ means ‘with thy sister-in-law,’ but this is not compelling. The REB. ‘with the rain’ is apparently based on this argument. However, the Hebrew ‘after’ can certainly mean ‘behind’ in the strict sense, and it is a fact that as we look up at rain from the surface of the earth the clouds are to us behind the rain, so ‘behind the rain’ is clearly correct.
Ch. 12:3-5 are a long series of figures of speech for declining. human powers that lead to death in the ‘everlasting home’ (REB). It is indeed the longest sustained argument in the whole of the book and impressive for its variety. Verse 3 is given over half to men, half to women. The latter did the grinding of cereals and were accustomed to ‘look out of the windows’ (‘peep through the curtains’ in our age) when unknown visitors knocked. Verse 4 alludes to shops being permanently closed, and industrial facilities (the mills) gradually ceasing to function, then to song-birds falling silent. The second half of verse 4 is very difficult in the first phrase, but the second phrase is sure, as in the REB: ‘the song birds fall silent.’ The Hebrew has literally ‘daughters of song,’ parallel with ‘sparrow’ (probably a generic term for all small birds) in the first portion. The AV is unnecessarily free with its ‘daughters of musick,’ wanting to find human musicians. The best that can be done with the first portion is: ‘the noise of the sparrow rises,’ but ‘rises’ is very inappropriate for the context. A solution is still awaited.
Verse 5 is extraordinarily difficult and the AV is most unhelpful. How does a flourishing almond tree illustrate human decline and demise? The first two phrases can refer to the problems of old people walking in the streets: afraid of heights and for their personal safety. But it could refer to birds looking down on a frightening environment. Neither is fully convincing. In the following words the almond (tree or nut), the locust or grasshopper are sure, but the third of the trilogy is a word found only here in the Hebrew Bible. In later Hebrew it is well known for the caper fruit, which is rightly accepted in the REB, while the AV and NIV choose the very inappropriate ‘desire.’ So this half-verse alludes to the failing of three things in nature. Since the almond and caper are from the plant kingdom, it is tempting to take ‘locust’ also as a plant. The food of John the Baptist has often been taken as the carob bean, not real locusts, though they were eaten in the ancient Near East. The verbs going with these three items are all subject of much debate, but they can be interpreted as speaking of the failure of these plants or insects, see the REB. With this array of parallels Qoheleth again refers to human mortality.
Vv. 6-7 are a parallel to vv. 1-5, but they begin abruptly, though in fact beginning in Hebrew exactly as v. 2 does. The NIV prefixes ‘Remember him’ and. the REB ‘Remember your creator,’ from v. 1, but that is not in the Hebrew, though it eases the problem. The parallel consists of a list of broken items essential in human society to remind the reader of his fragile nature: the silver ‘cords’ are the branches and the golden bowl, the oil container of an elaborate lamp-stand. The clay vessel smashed was the means of carrying water from the well, and the broken wheel was used to pull up the bucket of water from the well. Like these failing things man eventually turns to dust and God takes back the breath he originally put in him: Genesis 2:7. Frustration indeed.
The two volumes of Timewatching – And Israel represent a lifetime of Ruth’s dedication to her Saviour as well as to others. They are not at all ‘boring’ as she feared that they might be, and they have stimulated this reader to join in the debate and to write this review. No one has asked me to write – so don’t blame your editor! Also, no one should feel that, because I have written, the ‘slot’ as it were has now been filled. What I have to say, cannot possibly cover all that Ruth has set out, and in any case, my review is more of ‘an initial appreciation’
The message….for me:
For me, the message running throughout the two volumes, is that we should look upon these things and wonder – wonder what is (should be) ‘the hope of our calling’? and what are (should be) ‘our expectations in Christ Jesus’? The follies of the past, in both the way we have expressed our beliefs and our prophetic expectations, as well as in the intransigent and unloving way that some of these things have sometimes been adhered to, should be just that, ‘the follies of the past’, not to be repeated in the present or future.
As someone who was baptised in the swinging sixties and who knew little or nothing of the historical background of ‘The Christadelphians’, I found these two volumes very informative and I am indebted to Ruth for her scholarly effort and her skill in cataloguing the ups and downs and the changing views that have characterised not only this movement but apparently all those who have been engaged in the art of timewatching and prophetic interpretation.
As always no reviewer could agree with everything written by an author. However, apart from providing authoritative historical background and carefully thought out healthy criticism, Ruth also suggests where ‘alternative thought’ might lead us. She has provided a wide range of biblical fare, interspersed with delicious humour and godly insight, to stimulate our appetites.
As I perceive it, the essential insight that Ruth would have us consider is that, we should all try to give to our beliefs the emphasis and the understanding that our real ‘founding fathers’ had, namely that, in so far as we can determine it, we should build our faith on the foundations of Jesus and the apostles and not on our own speculations or even necessarily on the views of our sectarian pioneers – even though they and we might consider ourselves to be lights in the darkness of this world. Even the apostle Paul, who perhaps had some difficult things to say, and who received a special revelation, wrote in a way that expressed his insight so that others might ‘perceive it’:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles – assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph 3:1-6).
The Content… In Tone And Style:
In these two volumes, Ruth has expressed her insights and her beliefs and has provided us with a very good example of how to express such things. Throughout these pages I have hesitated to assert that my interpretations are based on ‘clear’ Bible texts, for so often that claim has been made by writers, when in reality their explanations of the texts have been ‘clear’ only to themselves and their supporters. (page 164 of Volume II)
In Volume I, (on the page following the table of contents) there is the following introduction:
The faithful followers of Christ, however simple and uneducated, are given a positive message in the Bible. Although over the centuries earnest seekers have endeavoured to dissect and interpret the apocalyptic passages of Scripture and have repeatedly been disappointed, yet for believers with the will to see, they are lights shining in darkness. Whatever calamity has befallen God’s people they are assured that in the end good will triumph. Because of our humanity none of us is able to perceive the full wonder of the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ to which the writer to the Hebrews told the new Israel they had come. Even after the apostle Paul had been ‘caught up to the third heaven’ and ‘into paradise’, he maintained that he saw ‘through a glass, darkly’ and knew ‘in part’. We should expect to see no further but trusting in our Father, we can be assured that at last all will be manifested openly.
This introductory statement I have also taken to be a conclusion and it is one that we all should be able to concur with. It clearly does not suggest that, because of previous disappointments, we should study prophecy no more, but once again it sets out a better way of expressing our opinions and our expectations as well as encouraging us to provide a positive light to shine in the darkness.
The raison d’être of Ruth’s writing was stated in the pre-publication material and is stated on page v of the preface in each volume. It is:
because I am concerned that a church which has so much potential to show to the world the joy of the gospel is hindered from doing so because, in my opinion, it has failed to comprehend the full meaning of Jesus giving a new commandment, and the full meaning of our Lord’s words to the Jews that ‘The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof’ (Mat 21:43).
For me, these two statements, both the ‘introductory-conclusion’ and the ‘raison d’être’, provide a consistency of tone throughout the two volumes. However there is also a detectable division into two distinct styles of expression. The one style expresses both sorrow and frustration with some forthright language and humour; the other expresses an earnest desire to move on, enticingly, to ‘better things’. This has a more measured language, even a hesitancy sometimes, which draws the reader into the discussion. Two examples will suffice to indicate what I mean.
Firstly, in volume I, Chapter VI is entitled John Thomas and his Message, and on page 48 there is Ruth’s forthright concluding comment under the heading ‘Denigrating John Thomas?’:
Inevitably readers, who, in common with Robert Roberts, ‘adore’ John Thomas, will feel that much of the information given above [in chapter VI] is an attempt to deprecate our pioneer and detract from his work. They are likely to ask whether there is any value in raising criticisms relating to times long past, and isn’t it pathetic to do so? But although I have deep admiration for many in our community, yet referring to the body as a whole, it would be difficult to find any who are more harshly critical of others trying to walk the Christian path. And perhaps if we are aware, as it seems many are not, that we have motes in our own eyes, skeletons in our own cupboards, then we shall be more guarded in our criticisms and more inclined to offer our message in a spirit of humility. As the saying goes,
‘Those living in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones’!
Secondly, in part (b) of volume II, (Chapter VII p164), Ruth, in her more measured style, makes a hesitant, yet firm, statement under the heading ‘The New Covenant And The Better Promises’ that again draws the reader in:
…it seems difficult to avoid the view that the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 8:6-12 was making it abundantly clear that the day had already arrived which had been forecast by God through Jeremiah (ch.31) whose words he quoted – and to which he added ‘In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away’. There is no suggestion that the ‘new’ would be implemented there and then for the Jews and Gentiles who accepted Christ following his First Advent, and then some two thousand years later for the Jews as a nation, when it is supposed by our community they will be ‘forced’ to recognise Christ.
Here Ruth seems to be pointing up a ‘replacement/transfer’ viewpoint of the two covenants and I guess she would now say, ‘So what do you think?’ I, for one, will have to think again about that.
The Content…. Overview:
From a reader’s point of view, facing two volumes of about 400 A5 pages in total is rather daunting. But don’t let that put you off, for the total menu on offer is not only a good read but is also challenging. Much of the content can be read easily and at pace and perhaps mulled over later. The two volumes, with their notes and bibliographies, are organised to facilitate further study by those who, after reading them, might wish to refer back to the argument and to the historical content.
Volume I : Expectations:
The varied content is seen in the many chapter headings – twenty three in all! These chapters begin with historical detail such as the ‘The Early Years [of Christianity] and Changing Thought’ (pp. 1-8); ‘The Jews And Their Varied Fortunes’ (pp. 9-12) and the two chapters dealing with Millennialism (pp. 13-26). They go on to examine our stance toward ourselves and others in regard to our and their interpretations…e.g. ‘O Wad Some Power The Giftie Gie us’ (pp 156 -164) and ‘Not As “Justified” Nor As “Wise” As We Thought We Were?’ (pp. 160-164). There are also appendices on ‘Biblical Mathematics’; ‘John Thomas’ Expectations’ and ‘The hope of Israel and Eternal Life’
I particularly found informative chapters XVII to XXII, beginning with ‘Matching World Events To Revelation’ (pp. 130-141) and ending with Ruth’s ‘Summarising’ (pp. 165-173). Anyone who has not kept track over the years with the history and the changing beliefs of Christianity and that of prophetic interpreters will find a reading of volume I to be a good way of catching up with both the history behind the beliefs (why we thought what we did, when we did) and the history of the beliefs themselves (the changing stances as world events overtook prophetic interpretation).
Volume II :
Part (a) A National Home and
Part (b) The Promises & The Programme:
In Part (a) there is a mix of history and belief intertwined in an effort to shed light on the events leading up to the establishment and the subsequent progress of the current Israeli nation, sometimes referred to by others as ‘the Zionist entity’. The challenge is: ‘Who are these people?’ Whilst the alternative thought is, ‘maybe not who we expected them to be’ (!), with the rider questions of, ‘Are they the people of God?’ and ‘Should we support them?’
The content of Part (b) will stimulate all appetites and it is well thought out, both in its sequential structure as well as in the real ‘meat’ on offer. Bible students be ready to think again! Just about everything I thought we knew is treated to ‘alternative thought’. So in the words of the old song there is a tendency to become ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ about it all! Here, Ruth offers her reasoning from the Bible, to stimulate ‘unprejudiced minds’, in a re-examination of the Israel of God, His promises and His programme. We are challenged to understand such issues as ‘conditional promises’ and the notion of ‘time’ in God’s purposes (the ‘if’ factor and hyperbole). We are also asked to consider the ‘better promises’ (The New Covenant and Replacement/Transfer) and in ‘And Finally’, the last chapter, we are asked to look at …Ourselves! How should we therefore proceed?. The alternative thoughts include the need for us to ‘think again’ about such issues as ‘does God change His mind?; ‘is a day equal to a thousand years and vice versa?’; ‘who or what is a Jew or an Arab?’ and ‘what do we make of the signs and events that have been said will happen as we enter the New Age of God’s Heavenly Kingdom?’
Although there is the overall division into ‘chapter headings’, which are helpful to the reader in categorising the contents for easy reference, the two volumes also contain at least two interwoven themes. One of these themes is that of ‘failure’ – not just having motes in our own eyes and skeletons in our cupboard, but the past and the present failure of everyone, Jews, Christians at large, prophetic interpreters and of course ‘Christadelphians’. Another theme is the need for ‘a better progress’. Both themes come together in the last four chapters of Volume II, part (b), pp170-185; from ‘Nothing Impossible…’ to…. ‘And Finally…’.
Time and time again, Ruth points out that our understanding requires what I would call ‘clarity of thought’ as well as ‘alternative thought’. Both of these should come from ‘a continuously seeking approach’ to bring us to a better appreciation of what is written in the Bible and in particular what ‘the new covenant’ and ‘the new commandment’ mean for us. In following such a ‘seeking’ approach Ruth also suggests that we should apply a different weight of trust to those who proceed by an ‘open and loving debate’, compared to the weight we might give to those experts and personalities, past, present or future, who proceed, by ‘hanging on to unfounded beliefs’ or by ‘suppressing debate’ or by ‘believing’ that they have now (at last!) ‘got it right’ whilst all others are in error (the gladiatorial debaters!).
In one respect there is nothing contentious in what Ruth says. It is after all ‘just history’ and it is also comforting to know that all have failed, so that we needn’t feel alone as being the responsible ones! In another respect there is a challenge in what Ruth says, because hiding our failure as if we were somehow different in all this, would just be silly wouldn’t it? All ‘that’ should now be ‘a taught lesson’. What is now required is not only a setting out of where our confusion lies but also the consideration of some alternative thought with a bit of clarity of thinking. I don’t suppose that such things would be too much to ask from our ‘tired brains’, so let us -as Ruth would say – go on to ‘better things’ and ‘a bit more fruit’ for us to be known by!.
Mulling it over:
There is definitely a lot to mull over. If we are in any way to remember and honour Ruth’s work, perhaps the best we can do is to rise to the challenge she puts to us all in her last chapter ‘And Finally’. On p183 she says:
Our community is supposedly based on a return to Bible teaching – ‘Back to the Bible’, as the campaign slogan used to proclaim. Isn’t there a need therefore for a careful reassessment of our attitude towards Israel? We need a thoughtful, biblical discussion, in a spirit of humility, as to whether we are trying to fit political developments into a theory based on British politics from the early 19th century rather than on a valid assessment of the message of the prophets and the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament. It would be helpful if all the Christadelphian magazines were to encourage discussion on this issue fairly and openly.
To my mind, picking up on what Ruth has written concerning the failures of God’s people in the past and present, the position of the Jews and the covenants of God, and the issue of replacement theology, we need to ask questions that relate to our present beliefs regarding the apparent return of the Jews, their salvation and our own position concerning the return of our Lord and the new Jerusalem.
Equally, picking up on the prophetic aspects that Ruth exposes to our vision, we need to explore again God’s plan and what’s next, our hope of glory. What is it that we should be looking for in terms of God’s purposes and His appreciation of time? What alternatives are there in viewing the progression of God’s purposes, including from OT to NT, and what do we make of what some are currently saying regarding the so-called end-time prophecies and the book of The Revelation of Jesus Christ.?
I am sure that nothing would have pleased Ruth more than to know that the kind of open and fair discussion that she commends to us in her books was taking place. What do other readers think? I for one would be interested to know.
O U P 1993 NZ $75.00 inc postage
We should all know the story of the encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch who was found reading (aloud) the prophet Isaiah. When Philip asked ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ the Ethiopian replied ‘How can I unless some one guides me’ (RSV Acts 8:26-40). That the reading was from a Greek translation is implied by the quotation from the LXX (v. 32) which differs considerably from the Hebrew.
More than 1900 years later, a similar situation arose when we hosted for a year, two High School students (from Japan and Germany) who had come to New Zealand in order to improve their English language skills. In our home, the Bible usually used is the RSV (which many years ago was my English textbook along with the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament). Our students needed to read from a Bible which spoke to them in modern English. However, it would appear that the Bible most used by Christadelphians is still the King James Version. In many ecclesias this is the translation used for public reading and for study, although a personal survey shows that increasingly our younger people are reading more modern versions.
As we did the daily readings with our homestay students, we were not only helping them improve their oral and written English skills, we were (like Philip) engaging in Biblical exegesis – expounding the Scriptures, or in more technical terms, obtaining and giving an informed understanding of the text. How, then, does one review a version of the Bible? Certainly not by its content, but by how well its message is conveyed, and only if one is familiar with the original languages, by its faithfulness to the text.
Now, I have four different translations set out in one book: the New RSV, the Revised English Bible, the New American Bible, and the New Jerusalem Bible. While each version commences with a preface to the reader, perhaps the comments of Bruce Metzger, as he introduces the NRSV, best sum up what a translation should do. ‘That message must not be disguised in phrases that are no longer clear, or hidden under words that have changed or lost their meaning; it must be presented in language that is direct and plain and meaningful to people today.’ This is a necessary prerequisite when we ask the question ‘What does this mean?’ as we read the Bible.
If a translation is to be faithful to the original language, it has to convey the same meaning as it originally held. True communication of the message from its source to its recipient has not taken place until the recipient recognises in the message the same data, concepts, and feelings that the Source had intended. How more difficult is it for us to understand the Old Testament and the New Testament than the original recipients, for not only do we face a language barrier, but also geographical, historical, and cultural barriers.
‘A good translation must have two outstanding qualities. The ideas of the original text must be correctly diagnosed, and they must be faithfully reproduced in the other language, if possible with literary skill. There is far more in translation than a mere literal change of language. True translation will enable a reader to sense the most minute changes of emphasis, and also to think the same thoughts as the original would induce in its readers’ (Eric Bramhill in The Testimony vol 10, p 92).
At the same time, we should bear in mind a warning by Arthur Gibson, when also discussing how translations should be judged. ‘People should try to get out of the habit of judging that such and such a translation is a better translation because they better understand what it states. Bad translation is often easier to understand than good translation because it tends to be less exact and so makes fewer demands on a reader’s attention’ (Christadelphian vol 113, pp 404-408).
When we compare scripture with scripture, reading the same passage in different translations, we often encounter different renditions of the same passage. There are many reasons for this, the primary one being that we do not possess the original autographs. There are variations of manuscripts, not only in the original languages, but also in early translations. Modern translations, usually by means of footnotes, give reasons for these variations.
Individual words act as carriers of meaning when they are arranged in phrases and sentences. Thus, the best guide to understanding a text is to consider the context, for words in ancient languages, as in English, may possess a variety of meanings. The idea that a single basic meaning for a word is to be found throughout our Bible (the ‘root fallacy’) is unfortunately characteristic of some Christadelphian writings. Grammatical and syntactical considerations often also lead to different translations, and consequently, to different expositions of a text. For example, see Creation by Wilfred Lambert pp 3-4.
Christadelphians are increasingly using computers in their Bible study. For those who do not use Biblical software (and I am one of them), a parallel Bible is a very useful tool to have in one’s library. The Bible to which I draw readers’ attention is only twice the thickness of my standard Bible. Across any two page spread, the translations are set out in four columns enabling comparisons to be easily made. As the introduction states, ‘the arrangement therefore allows each translation to run consecutively, with realignments taking place at each chapter start.’ The order follows the NRSV. Another useful feature is the addition of the Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament.
To summarise, again from the introduction, there are four main uses to be found in a parallel Bible; possible ranges of meaning can be suggested, time can be saved when researching passages for personal study or for preaching, valuable clues for analysis can be discovered, and passages which have become overly familiar by using one translation can bring one to fresh insights.