Saturday, December 24, 2016

Why Not an Alms Race Instead?

Further to my blog yesterday, today when asked about his tweet, US President Elect Donald Trump had this response: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Glorious! Sounds like a game of Survivor: “outwit, outplay, outlast.” Have you noticed that the word Twit is found in the first of these terms? Just saying.

I won’t go over the ground I covered in my previous blog in which I suggested that while Donald is right to say that the world needs to come to its senses concerning nuclear weapons, as leader of the “free-world” and “the greatest country on earth,” and as a citizen of this world, he should lead the conversation toward global disarmament. I can hear Hillary’s words in July resounding in my head: "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” She had her flaws, but one of them wasn’t this kind of macho bravado crap.

Incidentally, Vladimir’s response is wonderfully reassuring: “Indeed, they have more missiles, more submarines and more aircraft carriers, we aren’t arguing with that, but we are simply stronger than any aggressor.”

Anyway, isn’t it great to see the leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world posturing for position? I suggest we have a celebrity boxing match and the winner takes all. Might work out a bit better than a nuclear holocaust. Would be very entertaining too.

A better suggestion is that instead of the escalation of an arms race the two great powers have an Alms race. The term “alms” is not used that much anymore. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “alms” are “(in historical contexts) money or food given to the poor.” So, instead of more arms, we need more alms. Why not an alms race to see which nation can be the most benevolent toward the suffering in the world?

According to one source, at the moment, 80% of the world lives on less than $10 per day. The poorest 40% of the world’s population account for 5% of the world’s income. The richest 20% have 75% of the world’s income. Just over a quarter of children in developing countries are underweight and malnourished. 72 million children in the developing world have no access to schools. A billion people cannot read. I could go on with endless statistics, but we get the point. At the same time, less than a percent the world spends on weapons each year would put every child into school. It costs $1.8million USD to build each nuke, perhaps that money could be put to much better use resolving the problem of poverty.

Jesus talked about the wealthy giving to the poor more than anything else. As Donald thinks the Bible is the greatest book in the world, he can check this out for himself in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6), the many parables like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), the Rich Fool (Luke 12), the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), and other examples like the Rich Ruler (Luke 18), Zacchaeus (Luke 19), and the generous widow (Luke 21). In fact, just about everything Jesus said explicitly or implicitly calls for the wealthy to give alms to those in disadvantage and need. Alongside non-violence, it is one of the central aspects of Jesus’ teaching.

On the other hand, the Don (oh that’s Bradman, whoops) will struggle in vain to find a text which endorses the building of weapons of mass destruction. Despite claiming to have the full weaponry of the Lord of Armies at his disposal (the one who nuked Sodom and Gomorrah), Jesus simply wasn’t interested in that way of being human. The world was controlled by despots at the time of Jesus, the likes of the Caesars and Herod. Jesus came to the world to turn such nonsense upside down. He showed us another way. Don and Vlad don’t seem to have worked that out yet.

So, my challenge to the VP-elect is rather than building yet more than the 7.700 nukes he has at his disposal at the touch of a button (what a comforting thought), he should seek to up the US’s game concerning alms-giving. What we need is not an arms race, but an alms race, whereby the wealthy of the world put their extensive resources to work to alleviate the suffering of the millions in poverty. He can do this personally, with his enormous personal empire. Now he has at his disposal the wealth of the richest country in the world.

As we head into Christmas, this makes sense, for Old Saint Nick is famous for this very thing. So come on Don, give up behaving like a tough guy in the playground, acting staunch, making threats, warning wannabees that you will give them a good old fashioned hiding if they threaten you. Instead, let’s see you be the most radical and generous President in world history leading your nation in upping caring for those in need. After all, this too is a part of the “great” American tradition. You could become even more famous, Saint Donald! The guy who fixed the problems of poverty and income disparity. Not the guy who led the world into another arms race, cold wars, and who knows what else … God have mercy!

Then again, if he does build up his arsenal and nuclear war breaks out, the world’s poor will be incinerated. So, I suppose there are always other ways of solving problems. I would suggest that this is not the best one, unless you don’t mind a “bit” of collateral damage.

So seriously Don, Vlad, and anyone else who cares to have ears to hear, this Christmas let’s launch an alms race. I dare you, Don, I dare you.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Why Trump is Right; This Christmas the World Does Need to Come to Its Senses Regarding Nukes (sort of)

So today, December 23, 2016, Donald J. Trump, US president elect, tweeted this: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

President Elect Trump is of course absolutely right in the final part of the Tweet—the world must come to its senses regarding nukes. Nukes are an abomination. This has been seen by the action of his beloved U.S.A., when they nuked Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Aug 6 and 9, 1945. In those bombings, supposedly justified to end WWII—the jury is out on that one—between 150,000 and 226,000 people were killed. It is sobering to thing that today’s nukes are around 3,000 times more powerful than WWII bombs.

According to one news report, if the Russians let off one of their ten nukes aimed at New York there would be no survivors within seven to ten km of its epicentre, not to mention the radioactive fallout. If they launched all ten, New York and its people would basically cease to exist. So, Trump is right. The world needs to come to its senses.

Yet, it is Trumps beloved U.S.A. (God bless America) which remains the only country to have let off nukes in active conflict. So, who is it that needs to come to their senses? The USA of course. And Russia. And the other nuclear-armed countries—Israel, France, China, UK, Pakistan, India, and North Korea.

Further, Donald speaks of the world coming to its senses. The world is this planet. Although there is mounting evidence which may indicate he is an alien, Donald is actually a person of the world that needs to come to its sense. He is a son of Adam, a human being, born on planet earth, a member of the human race. His sexual desires demonstrate this. As a member of the world, perhaps where sense concerning nukes is concerned, he could start the ball rolling, not by building more nukes, but dismantling them. He could follow Obama’s lead and try to de-escalate nuclear tension.

Not to mention that he is about to take leadership of, as he and many Americans would put it, “the greatest country in the world,” (snigger—kind of depends on your definition of greatness—Jesus sais humility was the path to greatness, so you can make up your own mind on this one). So, perhaps he, the leader of the greatest country in the world, might lead with some “sense.” He might pause and consider that rather than load up with yet more nuclear weapons. After all, the USA has 7,700 nuclear warheads. Isn’t more just greedy? Why more? Isn’t that enough. We have none in NZ, and we are doing ok. But we suck as a country in comparison to the greatest. Perhaps Bill English should arm us, or if not, at least get his brother Johnny English into our security networks.

Trump also claims to be a Christian. His favourite book is the Bible—check out the video that plays on the right side of this: As he is in love with the Bible even more than himself (tsk tsk), perhaps he might take some time to read a Gospel, say the Gospels of Matthew or Luke. He could note Jesus’ attitude to violence.

He might pause in Luke 2:14, “and on earth, peace!”—not the Augustus peace at the end of a sword (or nuke) peace, but deep Shalom where “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2:4).

He might stop and reflect on Matthew 5:38-44 where Jesus turns upside down “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (add a nuke for a nuke), suggesting “do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also … love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Nothing explicit about nukes here, but perhaps he has a hermeneutic[1] that works them in.

He may then read Matthew 26:52-53 where Peter slices the ear off an opponent when Jesus is arrested only for Jesus to say to him, “Put your sword (read nuke here Don) back into its place. For all who take the sword (nuke) will perish by the sword (nuke). Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” In other words, who needs nukes when you have God? Put your nuke away Donald! I just had a rude thought, but won’t add that in.

Finally, the President Elect of the free (hehehe) world may ponder Jesus’ total refusal to use violent force even though everyone expected and wanted him too. This is seen on the cross where Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

As we come into Christmas in an unstable year, one good thing from this deplorable example of complete ignorance and stupidity, is we see again the marked contrast between the type of King Jesus is when compared with despots and megalomaniacs like Trump (he has excellent potential here as this tweet demonstrates). Jesus emerged into a world where Trumps ran the whole place. They were called Caesars and before them the likes of Alexanders and Pharaohs. We are being reminded of what Jesus came to save us from.

In light of this stark contrast, I say we again place our trust in Jesus. We heed his call to take up our crosses and follow him, renouncing the ways of nukes and other examples of human hubris. We admire him. Further, we worship and adore him. We look to the baby in a manger, who died on a cross committed to non-violence, for our hope.

As for Trump, God help the world in 2017. After all, he is one of many across the world, rising up, seeking to claim the world. Satan is giggling at the thought. Trumps’ Tweet shows we need Jesus more than ever. So, this might be a good thing. It might get us on our knees again. After all, what else have we got? Have a great Christmas.  

[1] A method of interpretation.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Seriously Bishop Brian, Part 2

Having written my previous blog on the idea that natural events are caused by personal sin, I had another string of thoughts that I must put out there.

Bishop Brian claims it is murder (e.g. Cain and Abel), homosexuality, and other such sins that directly caused the event. Often abortion is also singled out in such ‘prophetic oracles.’ Let’s just assume for a moment that the honorable bishop is correct, and God is smiting New Zealand for these sins.

The first question that comes to mind is why this place of all places? According to GeoNet the quake hit fifteen km north-east of Culverden. I suppose on the rationale of the bishop we are to suppose that the people of Waiau and Culverden are really bad sinners. As God supposedly chose this place, they must be guilty of more of this than other New Zealanders? Their sins have purportedly made the earth there heavy, and it is spewing up.

Now, in 2013 Culverden was a country town of 428. North-east is Waiau, very close to the epicentre, which had 261 people in the 2013 census. If God is upset with our sins, why here? Are the folk of Waiau or Culverden worse sinners than others in NZ? Taking Jesus’ question in Luke 13:2-5 see previous blog), are these 700 or so people worse sinners than say, people from Albany, Auckland (where I live)?  I would have thought a good volcanic eruption in Auckland might be closer to the money (if his assumption is true).

I see in Culverden there are other retailers, a Four Square Shop, Farmlands, a motel, PGG Wrightson. There are also the Culverden Tearooms (a scene of carnal pleasure?), a Challenge Petrol Shop, a domain, a silversmith, and a school. There is a pub. Aha, is this the scene of the debauchery that led to the earthquake? Or is it the Culverden Indoor Bowling Club where it is all going on? I see there is a police station in Culverden, perhaps a harbinger of the rampant crime pervading the town. I looked around the Canterbury police statistics, but didn't earth up much on Culverden. Ah, but then there is also a Catholic Church there and the Amaru Cooperating Church, which is listed in the Presbyterian Church’s of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Of course, these are traditional churches—can they be taken seriously? 

Getting real; two churches, one pub, mmmm, worse sinners? Absolutely not. I can hear Jesus’ answer to his own rhetorical question in Luke 13—no, they are not worse sinners. Rather, he said watch yourself, me and Bishop Brian included.

What about Waiau? Here there is even less going on. There is a motor camp, a school, a foodmarket, a café, a lodge, a hall and library, a few other spots, and houses. As the epicenter of the earthquake, one wonders what the heck may have been going on in these places? Are the folk of these small South Island Towns living horrendous lives of sin under those roofs? Somehow, I think not any more than those in the areas Destiny Churches are found are doing so.

Then there is the second question of what sins Brian highlights. He and others who espouse such a theology and interpretation of the world seem focused on sexual sins (especially homosexuality) and abortion. Now, I am pro-life and find abortion deeply grieving. I also have a pretty conventional Christian view of sexuality. However, for the life of me, I can’t understand why these particular sins are singled out above others.

Where sex is concerned, what about the enormous range of other sexual sins that are going on around the place? I myself lived in a de facto relationship in my early 20s before becoming a Christian. We lived in Pakuranga-Howick, Auckland, why were we not smote? I sure deserved it with this line of thinking.

While Jesus did speak on sexual immorality, he spoke more about sins concerning money and greed than anything else? Way more! Luke’s Gospel is almost a manifesto against greed! So, what about the sins of rampant materialism, consumption, greed, and the acquisition of enormous wealth at the expense of others? This could include those who preach a false prosperity gospel that God makes us wealthy if we are generous and obedient, especially with tithes and offerings. It could include those who have become rich through their ministries? Paul warns Timothy of such people in 1 Tim 6 where he states that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil! Is the real problem materialism? The problem with this is that would mean the good folk of Waiau and Culverden are hoarding their wealth at the expense of others to a degree greater than the rest of the nation. Mmmmm. Hardly likely.

What about hypocrisy? Jesus spoke on that a lot, heaps in fact. When talking on hypocrisy it was almost always the religious leaders in his sights. Could it be the hypocrisy of religious leaders that caused the terrible events in Canterbury? Then again, with no church buildings in Waiau (I may be wrong on this but couldn't see one on google earth), that is hardly likely either. Or are the clergy of Culverden to blame? Like, like most small towns, the believers can’t afford clergy, so that idea can be put to bed. What about other sins of arrogance and pride? What about social injustices like racism, sexism, and mistreating others because they are different? Like homosexuals for example. You don’t find Jesus targeting them at all! When he targeted people it was always religious leaders for their hypocrisy and legalistic self-righteousness! Religious leaders be warned!

The truth is that the whole assumption that these earthquakes is due to the sins of these poor folk is utterly repulsive and unfair. It is to be repudiated as repugnant. Is it acceptable for supposed theologically astute church leader to make such claims? It is theologically wrong and it is downright mean. Even if God does smite people in this way, the claims just don’t add up. Why the heck these little towns? Why the heck these particular sins? 

I prefer Jesus’ approach—we are all sinners and we all need God’s mercy and salvation. When he came, he didn’t come to smite us but to befriend us and welcome us into a different world. Where there was suffering, he didn't preach wrath, he reached out in love. He fed them. He healed them. He welcomed them. He didn't accumulate wealth, he divested it. He foresaw a world that does no condemn but invites people into relationship with a God who identifies with people in their suffering. So, seriously? Come on!

Seriously Bishop Brian!

Oh Brian, seriously! Brian Tamaki’s latest sermon statements concerning the earthquakes besetting NZ reveals the deep theological illiteracy of many NZ Christians. The idea he is espousing is an old one, going back to the earliest days of human religious understanding. It works like this—natural events need explaining. The answer, someone of us did something wrong to displease the deity(s). So, when an earthquake hit in ancient Greece, the gods were displeased. If an earthquake hit Israel, Yahweh was displeased. In response, the deity(s) caused the horrendous event as a warning and punishment. We find this all over the OT—sin leads to God’s specific judgment. They then jump to the particular sin and sinners that caused the event. They then blame them. In the ancient world, whole groups were shut out of cities for such things.

Now as we come to the NT, we find that Jesus utterly severs this link. Here are three examples. 

In Mark 2:1–11 there is a blessed suffering severely disabled man who is brought for healing. As one would expect from Jewish religious leaders, they interpret his disability as a judgment of God on his sin (or that of his parents). When he arrives, before all, Jesus declares his sins forgiven. This infuriates the Jewish leadership for two reasons. First, Jesus is a mere man and has no authority to forgive sins. For them, this is blasphemy. They are riled. Second, if the man is supposedly forgiven by Jesus, why is he still disabled? He can’t be forgiven if he is sick (because the two are intertwined). Jesus perceives their anger and thinking and asks whether it is easier to forgive the man’s sins or heal him. This is a trick question, as the Jewish leaders would see them as equally difficult because one presupposes the other. That is, if he is forgiven, he will be healed. If he is healed, he is forgiven. So, Jesus heals the man. This proves (to the Jewish way of thinking) that he is forgiven. The Jewish leaders do not perceive that God is among them but want to kill him. They cling to their false worldview despite their thinking being demolished before their eyes with a seemingly impossible event—the healing and forgiveness of such a man. This shows that, as John says of Jesus that Jesus did not come to bring judgment but to save (John 3:17). Jesus here puts a wrecking ball through the axiom that bad things happen because God is punishing us.

The second example is John 9:1–3. Jesus and his team of followers are walking around in Jerusalem. They come across a blind beggar, the worst of situations in the ancient world where there is no social welfare system like ours today. Demonstrating the standard thinking of their age, the disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is. The man is blind because of his or his parents’ sins. God is punishing him(them) then. Jesus’ answer directly exposes that this is false—“it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In one statement, Jesus clearly explodes the mythical direct link between suffering and judgment. The poor beggar is blind not because of sin, but so that God can display his glory in him. Jesus then heals him. The message here is that when we meet a person in such a situation, our call is not to judge them, but to help them with God’s mercy and compassion. It tells us through the direct words of Jesus that disability is not directly caused by God because of the sin of a person or their family, but so that God can glorify himself through him. Those of us who know those wonderful disabled people who refuse to let their disability hold them down can understand this. We see God in them and shining through them. Further, God’s glory is seen when humans respond to suffering not with judgement, but with merciful compassion. This is what we are called to do in an earthquake of when we bump into someone in need in any situation. We help them. Thankfully, this is the usual kiwi way. May it ever be.

The third example is Luke 13:1–5. At this time, some rebellious Galileans were killed by the Romans and the Roman Prefect Pilate mixed their blood with the sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus took this as an opportunity to again rupture the so-called link between personal sin and judgment. He asks those present, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” In other words, did they suffer from the Romans due to their excessive sin? Surely, they were bad sinners that is why the bad stuff happened. Jesus answers, “no, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So, they suffered this way, not because of their sin. He uses it as a warning to all people to turn from sins and live well to receive eternal life. He asks again, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” This sounds like an earthquake situation, whereby a building falls on people—something we know only too well in our recent history (may God have mercy). Jesus answer, is again crystal clear, “no, I tell you.” Again, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to tell all listening that all need to repent, turn to God, and live well, to receive eternal life. 

In other words, yes, all people are sinners. We Christians are no different to anyone else in this regard. Such events come and go, hurting the righteous and unrighteous alike. Yet, they do not say anything particular about the sin(s) of the people in mind. To use the modern vernacular, “shit happens.” Jesus wasn’t the first to challenge this axiomatic link between bad events and God’s judgement. It is challenged in the OT wisdom literature. This is especially seen in Job, where Job’s friends are like Bishop Brian telling Job that it is his sin that caused his horrific experiences. Job stands his ground refusing to yield to their accusations. He is right. Bad stuff happened because bad stuff happens. Yet, in the end, he humbles himself before God.

What Brian and others show is their lack of theological understanding, which is tragic from any church leader. They have not learned the basic interpretative principles of reading Scripture. We begin theological exploration not with the Old Testament but with Jesus. What did he say and teach? What did those with him pass on from him? We then read the OT back through the lens of Jesus, and as we do, we see that Jesus came to clarify God and what he is really like. The ideas in the OT are clarified. One of the things that we find is that the axiomatic link between personal sin and horrific events is shattered. That is good news because when horrible things happen, we don’t need to go hunting around to find scapegoats for the bad events, people we can expose and ridicule. Crap happens. It is a busted world. We are mortal and vulnerable. Good people die young. Bad people prosper. Horrid things happen. We are all flawed. We all need mercy. We all need help. Jesus came to show us what that looks like.

And where is God in such situations? Is he is heaven throwing the thunderbolts with violent rage? Not in the book I read. No. God showed us what he is like and his attitude by coming among us as God’s Son made flesh—a person, like us. In fact, that is the story of Christmas which we will soon celebrate. He didn’t come on a chariot to destroy. He came as a baby in a manger, vulnerable. He didn’t grow up and start demolishing humanity for its sin. Aside from throwing a bit of furniture around because of the corruption in the Temple, he showed that God is love. When around the sinners of the world he did not harangue them for their depravity. No, he ate with them—the ultimate expression of concord in the ancient world. He was their friend, and they were his friends. The only people he clashed with were those who refused to hear his message and perceive what God was doing in him—the sort of people who assumed bad stuff happens because we sinned. No, Jesus went into the dark places to help, feed, and heal. He touched the untouchables. He refused to stoop so low as to hit people when they were down with messages of God’s wrath due to their so-called sins. He healed them with a touch. Then, he did the unthinkable. When he was arrested and unjustly tried and brutally crucified, he only showed compassion and love—even to those who engineered his death with their repulsive duplicity. He refused to unleash the wrath of God even when they killed the King of Glory. He did it to show us how far we are to go in love and compassion, not judgment and wrath—the point of sacrificial death.

As he lived this way, he showed us what God is like. God is not some Zeus-like figure, full of anger, smiting the bad guys! We don’t need to find the bad guys and vilify them. We don’t have to try and figure out which of their sins caused the problem. This is nonsense. What we should constantly be doing is looking in the mirror and assessing ourselves and seeking to be better people. Where we find suffering like our poor friends in the north-east of the South Island, we should be among them helping them, caring for them. If we can’t, we can send aid and messages of love and support. Actually, we see this from the good folk of the region including many churches who are horrified at this accusation made by the so-called Bishop. We see it from the religious and non-religious alike, and that is glorious. Rather than these accusatory sermons, why not a sermon calling forth the people of the church to give lavishly to aid efforts? Perhaps such churches can partner with other churches and aid groups down there on the ground who are actually helping those in pain and torment. Now that’s a message people might warm to. Jesus would be there among them, comforting, encouraging, and loving. He is not up in the hills moving the tectonic plates to destroy those heathen sinners!

All Christians need to think seriously about how to understand God. All revelation of God (the gods), including the Old Testament, are partial when put alongside the coming of God the Son. He defines who God is. And he does not look like the wrathful god who is proclaimed by many Christians. They simply have not grasped the essence of Christianity—JESUS! He is not like this. He calls us not to be like this. If we choose to believe in him, he empowers us not to be like this. He spurs us all on to be people of love, compassion, and mercy, being prepared to go the extra mile for all others who suffer burdens. This is Christianity in action.

As a passionate Christian, it hurts me to hear another one naming the same God speak so ignorantly. I apologise on behalf of the church to all who are personally hurt by such false ideas. Our God is not this wrathful cosmic beast smiting humankind for their sin. Rather, he is reaching out to us in love, justice, mercy, and compassion to show us the way of love. Let’s keep doing this. To the people of the South Island, may the Lord bless you and keep you. Kia Kaha. Our prayers and thoughts are with you.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Reflections on Galatians 2: Recipients, Setting and Date

An important point of discussion concerning Galatians is the old debate concerning the setting and date of the letter. One set of scholars holds that Galatians was written around the time of Romans and the Corinthian letters, so the mid to late 50s. Others consider it was written around 47–48. Scholars dispute to whom Paul wrote. Those who prefer a later date argue Paul wrote the letter to churches in North Galatia planted on his second Antiochian mission journey (Acts 16:6) or even on his third (Acts 18:23). Such a setting pushes the date to the mid or late 50s. Others who hold an earlier date argue that he wrote it sometime between his first Antiochian mission (Acts 13 – 14) and his second. Another critical factor is whether the visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2 matches the visits to Jerusalem in Acts 11 (the famine visit) or Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council discussion on Gentile Christians the Law).

It seems to me that the arguments for an earlier date are much stronger than those for the later date. First, the only real evidence of evangelization in the Galatian region is Acts 13 – 14. Acts 16 and 18 suggests Paul passed through visiting churches rather than full on evangelization. Certainly, Luke gives no indication of his evangelization of the northern area. Rather, it seems Paul left it to the Galatians to complete the task. Conversely, Acts 13 – 14 clearly has Paul in Galatia and planting churches. One weakness of this view is that Paul preached the gospel to them first due to illness (Gal 4). Luke says nothing about this, so one can surmise this happened on Paul’s second or third journeys. However, this is not a strong argument because the details of Paul’s evangelization are scant even where Luke does mention it. So, he may have been ill on his first journey at some point, and it is to this Paul is referring.

Second, if Gal 2 is the Jerusalem Council visit of Acts 15, Galatians seems redundant. Acts 15 refers to a letter written to the Gentile churches telling them that they did not need to be circumcised and come under the Law. Silas took this to Antioch. Paul and Silas then traveled from Antioch to the Galatian churches. No doubt they carried the letter. Galatians then would be needless. Rather, the letter from the Jerusalem Church and his presence with them would do the trick. So, it fits better to see Gal 2 as Acts 11 and Galatians preceding the Jerusalem Council.

Third, if the letter comes after the second Antiochian mission journey and before the third, then Paul would surely mention the Jerusalem Collection. In 1 Cor 16, there is a reference to Paul gathering money from the Galatian churches. Yet, Galatians is silent on collecting money. All that is mentioned is Gal 2:10 where the Jerusalem leaders urge Paul to continue to remember the poor, something he is eager to do. While this reference can fit a date after Paul’s second Antiochian journey, it fits nicely with Acts 11 being the Gal 2 journey to Jerusalem. Barnabas is also mentioned, perhaps indicating this is before their split which happened before the second mission trip.

Fourth, some argue that chronology fits a later date. So, it is claimed Jesus died in 33, and Paul’s conversion was in 34/35. He spent three years in Arabia. He then visited Jerusalem 37/38. There is then a fourteen-year span until his second journey to Jerusalem in 51/52, which is the Jerusalem Council visit (Acts 15; Gal 2:1–10). He then travels on his third journey and spends time in Ephesus. He may have written Galatians from there in the mid-50s. However, there are two ways through this. One is to take the fourteen years as inclusive of the three years, the fourteen years being from his conversion. Such an interpretation takes the date to AD 48. An alternative is that Jesus died in 30 and Paul was converted in 32/33, which also takes the date to 48. Hence, the chronology question remains unclear leaving both possibilities open.

All in all, I think the case for South Galatia and a date around 48 a year before the Jerusalem Council makes better sense of the data. It is not a watertight case as the chronology question, the possibility that Gal 2 matches Acts 15, the presence of Titus, the references to later visits to Galatia, and the closeness of themes and style to Romans and the Corinthian correspondence, gives a reasonable case for North Galatia. Thankfully, such a decision is not critical as it does little to change the meaning of the letter.

So, I surmise that the situation was thus: Paul has evangelized the churches of South Galatia (Acts 13 – 14). He has returned to Antioch. Judaizers have entered his churches seeking to convince Gentile converts to Judaize. Paul has heard of this and wrote Galatians to deal with it. Some of these same characters come to Antioch and do the same. Their presence catalyzed Paul’s visit to Jerusalem with Barnabas where the church resolved the issue (Acts 15). After this, Silas and Judas delivered the letter to Antioch. Subsequently, after the split with Barnabas and Mark, Paul took Silas and the letter west to follow up on his Galatians letter. The Judaizers remained an issue after this, but the ‘orthodox’ position of the church is that a new Gentile believer did not require to adhere to Jewish boundary markers to be saved and included in God’s people. 

Reflections on Galatians 1: The Authorship of Galatians

It is not debated whether Paul wrote Galatians. It is one of the seven undisputed letters alongside Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Its acceptance is due to its similarity to these other letters in style, theology, and vocabulary and the details concerning Paul’s life (esp. Gal 1:10 – 2:14; 4:8–19; 6:14–16). However, there are two things worth noting concerning the production of the letter. First, it is the only Pauline letter where ‘all the brothers who are with me’ is mentioned in the prescript. ‘Brothers’ here can mean his co-workers (e.g. Ellis), but most likely means all the Christian brothers and sisters at Paul’s point of writing. The letter is likely written from Syrian Antioch if I am right about the date. Otherwise, this would include the Christians in Corinth or Ephesus, if the letter is later.

The brothers and sisters are likely mentioned not because they are co-authors or even co-senders, but they endorse the material in the letter. Thus, all those Christians with Paul at his point of writing agree with his appeal and repudiation of the Judaizers. They stand with Paul in advocating that the only real gospel is a gospel of grace and faith. New Gentile believers are not required to yield to the Judaizers’ demands that the male converts are circumcised and that all new believers live by the expectations of aspects of Jewish law that mark them distinct from the world. When combined with Paul’s testimony that the Jerusalem Church endorse his apostleship and gospel (1:17–19; 2:1–10), the whole church stands behind Paul—Jerusalem and Antioch. As such, this pulls the carpet out from under the feet of the Judaizers who are claiming Jerusalem’s endorsement in their repudiation of Paul and his supposedly deficient gospel. The mention of the brothers likely means that they have heard the letter, and may even have contributed to its production.

The other interesting reference in 6:11 where Paul exclaims, ‘see with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.’ These words almost certainly indicate that Paul wrote this verse and/or some portions around it. As such, we can surmise that another Christian acted as his amanuensis (secretary), he dictating the letter to him—someone like Tertius in Rom 16:17. If Paul writes from Antioch around 47, this may be John Mark, who is at this stage an essential member of the Pauline team. Alternatively, Barnabas or Titus may have acted on his behalf (Titus mentioned in 2:3). If he is writing later from Corinth or Ephesus, then Tertius may be involved, or Timothy, Gaius, or any of the other brothers or sisters in those cities. 

The writing of letters like those of Paul was probably not quick. Each sentence was likely carefully crafted and the labour of writing it down slow and laborious. One can imagine Paul with a crowd of key Antiochian Christians including Barnabas, Titus, and perhaps John Mark, sitting around hearing him dictate. They may have made suggestions as he wrote.

The upshot is that when the letter reached Galatia, delivered by one of Paul’s Antiochian emissaries, it was a letter which the whole Antiochian Christian community vouched for. The reference to the brothers would have added to the authority of the letter. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Let Us Be Confident in the Gospel

Note: A piece prepared for a newsletter.

If Paul was writing a letter to the New Zealand churches today, he might write something like this: ἀλλὰ πείθεσθῶσαν ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ (alla peithesthōsan en tō euangeliō), which can be translated: ‘but, let us be confident in the gospel.’ This lack of confidence is because many Christians in NZ have lost their confidence in the gospel and have adopted a quietist approach to sharing Christ. They live out the supposed mantra of Francis of Assisi (which he never actually said): ‘preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.’ There may be good reasons for our reticence, with many New Zealanders very resistant to the gospel. One could imagine Paul becoming very testy if he was to observe our unpreparedness to open our mouths and share Christ. For what counts for Paul is that in every way, Christ is proclaimed (Phil 1:18).

Christ himself demonstrated the importance of sharing the message of God, even when the gospel was repudiated. He died because he refused to be silenced. After his resurrection, much of his teaching was to urge his followers that their primary task was to proclaim the gospel to all nations. Then the end would come (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-48; John 20:21; Acts 1:8, also Mark 13:10; Matt). One of the primary functions of the Spirit in us is that God may speak through us with Spirit-inspired words (Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12).  In this way, the lost are found. The early Christians were fearless and determined to share Christ refusing to relent even if they were commanded to be silent, flogged, imprisoned, and killed (esp. Acts 4:19-21; 5:29-32; 6:8-8:4).

This is because they had complete confidence in the word of God. When a Christian opens his or her mouth and shares the gospel or some part of it, God speaks through us, working in and through these words prompting response from the hearer. Aside from much prayer, seeking to be as clear as possible with our words to ensure the gospel is plainly heard (Col 4:2–4), and sharing with the right attitude of agapē love and grace (2 Cor 5:14; Phil 1:16; Col 4:5-6), we carry no responsibility for the effect of the message. God does his work. Some will hear it and not comprehend it, even repudiating it with stubborn hearts and antagonism (Acts 28:26-27). Others will hear it, appear to receive it with faith, but it come to nought (e.g. Mark 4:1-20; Acts 17:32). Yet others will hear the word and believe, faith born in their hearts (Rom 10:17). Their hearts will be opened (Acts 16:14), faith will flower, the Spirit will enter their lives (Gal 3:2), and they will be born anew from above (John 3:5). We do not control this process. This is between God and the hearer. Our responsibility is to preach the word in season and out of season, and let the word of God do its work (2 Tim 4:2).

It is critical we find our voice as New Zealand Christians. We find as we do that although there remains much resistance, the fields of NZ are white for the harvest (John 4:35). What is needed is people who are deeply prayerful at all times, immersed in the word who know the gospel, motivated by the Spirit with holy passion, full of agapē love, who will find their voice and let God speak through them to the lost. The time is urgent. Will we take up the challenge? My prayer to the God of nations is the same one prayed by the Jerusalem Christians after being told to cease sharing the message of Jesus: ‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness. while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus’ (Acts 4:29-30). May it be that after we pray, that we are filled with the Spirit and this nation is shaken to its core, not with an earthquake, but the power of God.