Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Lesson 6: The Church at Antioch

Lesson 6: The Church at Antioch

[Note: The source for most of this material is The Spreading Flame, by F.F. Bruce.]

Let us recap. The time is about ten years after the formation of the church at Jerusalem. Paul is in his native Tarsus, living the period of his evangelical life about which we know the least. He is being prepared, it would seem, for his mission to the Gentiles.

Hellenist Jewish Christians (Nazarenes), against whom there was much discrimination, had scattered as a result of the persecution following the stoning of their leaders, Stephen.

The church in Jerusalem was still exclusively Jewish, i.e., no Gentiles. For one inclined to see God’s sovereignty at work, we have arrived here because:

The apostles, who were Hebrews, not Hellenists, stayed “Jewish”. This, along with their belief in resurrection, their pious lifestyle, and their adherence to the Sabbath and the temple appointments, gained them favor with at least some from the party of the Pharisees, including Gamaliel. This was enough of an impediment for the Sadducees; without the support of the Pharisees they didn’t have the clout to persecute the Hebrews.

However, since nobody much liked the Hellenists, there were persecuted and many fled Jerusalem and began preaching the gospel in outlying areas, including, in a twist that would have been condemned by the Jerusalem church, to Gentiles.

At about this time, Peter was in Joppa, when a vision told him to go with some men to Caesarea, where the apostle’s inhibition against witnessing to the Gentiles was breached, in the home of Cornelius the Centurion.

Upon returning to Jerusalem, Peter discovered that the church had heard about what had happened, and was not at all happy about it. But after Peter explained his vision, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, they had no further objections.

The Nazarenes were ready for the next step. It would be a dangerous one, because now the uncircumcised were welcome, and the myth that they were but an odd yet more-or-less orthodox sect of Judaism was shattered. Now they would have no friends in the Sanhedrin.

Antioch in Syria

In the north of Syria lay the city of Antioch. Founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, in was annexed into the Roman Empire in 64 B.C, declared a free city, and named the capital of the Syrian province.

When the persecuted Hellenists fled Jerusalem, many headed to the centers of Hellenistic Jewry in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. They too, at first, preached only to fellow Jews. But, away from Jerusalem, the pressure on them to be exclusively Jewish was less. At Antioch, some enterprising souls began preaching to the Greeks:
20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:20-21)

News of this proselytizing reached Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate. If Peter had not yet had his vision and encounter with the household of Cornelius, Barnabas would probably have been armed with an order to cease and desist. Instead, he went on a fact finding mission and to see if he could help.

Upon arriving, Barnabas was delighted with what he saw, and believed it was the work of Lord. He encouraged his countrymen from Cyprus and the others to continue reaching out to the Gentiles. Things had progressed so rapidly that Barnabas felt that another man of stature was needed to help him organize and to teach. He knew just the man for the job: Paul, who had been in Tarsus for some years, and who probably had some experience there witnessing to Gentiles.

Paul returned with Barnabas to Antioch and spent about a year building up the church there. It is in Syrian Antioch where others began calling the believers Christians. This never could have happened in Jerusalem, where they were the Nazarenes, for the word Christ means Messiah, and for other Jews to call the believers the “Messiah followers”, would have been unthinkable because of its tacit acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah. But to the Gentiles, Christ was a sort of name, so they had no problem with the label Christian.

About this time, a physician by the name of Luke joined the church at Antioch. He would later write a two volume history of Christianity called Luke to Theophilus, Parts I and II. At the end of the first century, the first volume became the gospel that bears his name, and the second became the book of Acts.

Another leader of the church at Antioch was Simeon called Niger (Acts 13:1), whom some believe is none other the Simon the Cyrenean who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. (Mark 15:21).

In the early days, the church had a number of prophets who spoke divine utterances. Later, this sort of activity disappeared. One such prophet in Antioch was Agabus of Jerusalem, who declared that there would be a great famine:
27During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul [Paul]. (Acts 11:27-29)

The famine did indeed occur, as Josephus tell us that in about A.D. 46 the Jewish Queen mother of the kingdom of Adiabene bought foodstuffs abroad to relieve the hunger in Palestine:
But as to Helena, the king's mother, when she saw [that her son was a happy man], and admired among all men, and even among foreigners, by the means of God's providence over him, she had a mind to go to the city of Jerusalem, in order to worship at that temple … and to offer her thank-offerings there. So she desired her son to give her leave to go thither; upon which he gave his consent … and gave her a great deal of money, and she went down to the city Jerusalem, her son conducting her on her journey a great way. Now her coming was of very great advantage to the people of Jerusalem; for whereas a famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food withal, queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn, and others of them to Cyprus, to bring a cargo of dried figs. (Josephus, Antiquities, XX 2:5)

As a result of Agabus’s prophecy, a collection was made for the Palestinian Christians, and Paul and Barnabas were sent to deliver the gift to the church in Jerusalem. In meeting with the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter, John, and James the brother of Jesus, it was agreed, and sealed by a handshake, that Barnabas and Paul had been set aside by God to witness to the Gentiles, while the primary job of the Jerusalem church was to evangelize Jews. (Paul’s account is not in the book of Acts, but in Gal. 2.)
James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (Gal 2:9-10)

There are some who believe that the Jerusalem church leader’s instruction to “remember the poor” meant that the Gentile Christians should continue to pay a tribute to the Jerusalem church, just like the temple received a tribute from Jews throughout the world. Paul, it would appear, never understood to be a tacit regulation.

At the same time, a persecution ensued against the Hebrew Christians, which scripture tells us pleased the Jews:
1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. (Acts 12:1-3)

Here is a clear sign of the cost of embracing the Gentiles: the church at Jerusalem lost its support among all Jews—now it was viewed, at least by many more than before, as an apostate abomination.

After completing their goals, delivering a gift to the Jerusalem church and having their mission to the Gentiles blessed, they returned with Barnabas’s cousin, John-Mark. In a sense Barnabas and Paul are now on standby, but they didn’t have to wait long, for one day in Antioch the Holy Spirit spoke through another prophet: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." The two men were released of their local responsibilities, so that they could carry out their global mission.

Paul’s First Missionary Journey

Paul and Barnabas were, in effect, ambassadors-at-large with portfolio. They had the blessings of both the leaders in Jerusalem and their home church at Antioch. Off they went, along with John-Mark.

Their first stop would be Cyprus, Barnabas’s home.

They had a plan. They should concentrate on cities along the great highways of the Roman Empire, for from there it could spread quickly to the surrounding areas. But where could they find the Gentiles who would listen? Here we see a stroke of genius: for although they are missionaries (and in Paul’s case an apostle) to the Gentiles, they should target synagogues. Why? Because the low hanging fruit were the “God-fearers”, (uncircumcised) semi-converts to Judaism who went to the synagogues to be taught—accepting Judaism’s monotheism but not its rites and ceremonial law. And, if along the way, Jews were also converted, then all the better. For the most part, the Jews would reject the message, while the God fearers would be receptive.

The three passed across Cyprus, east to west. On the west coast capital of Paphos, they had an amazing success with the proconsul Lucius Sergius Paullus, at the expense of his false-prophet attendant Bar-Jesus, who was blinded for his apostasy:
8But [Bar-Jesus] opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at [him] and said, 10"You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." 12Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord. (Acts 13:8-12)

From Paphos the three set sail for Perga in Asia Minor. From this point on, it is clear that Barnabas and Paul are no longer equals: Paul is in charge. John-Mark left them at this point, returning to Jerusalem. Some have speculated it may be due to a perceived slight of his older cousin. Paul was certainly disappointed with John-Mark, viewing his departure as a desertion, a view that would eventually cause a rift in his friendship with Barnabas. Ultimately, however, there was reconciliation.

Paul and Barnabas traveled to a different Antioch, Pisidian Antioch, a Roman colony on one of the great Romans roads through Asia Minor—just the kind of place they planned about. In Pisidian Antioch they, again following their plan, visited the synagogue and, after the scriptures were read, they were invited to speak. Luke records what might have been Paul’s standard stump speech.

Starting with the Exodus, Paul summarized Jewish history up through King David. Then he announced that, as God had promised, a Savior had arisen from the line of David, the Lord Jesus. His crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances confirmed Him as the one foretold, and through Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and salvation offered.

This message was eagerly received by the Gentile “God-Fearers”, who invited Paul and Barnabas to return the following Sabbath. This they did, but the numbers of Gentiles they attracted the following week got them into trouble:
42As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. (Acts 13:42-45)

Paul and Barnabas respond forcefully to the Jews, saying in effect that while in their view the gospel was first for the Jew and then for the Gentile, as soon as the Jews rejected it then they would only preach to the Gentiles (in a given region.) This amazed the Gentile God-Fearers even more: in their minds Paul and Barnabas treated them as first-class citizens:
46Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
" 'I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'"
48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. (Acts 13:46-48)

The Christians formed a church, distinct from the synagogue, and then the Jews initiated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, chasing them from the region. So we see the establishment of a pattern:
  • Visit a city on a main highway
  • Go first to the synagogue and proclaim that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies
  • Receive warm reception from the God-Fearers
  • Be rejected by the Jews
  • Form a church comprised of the God-Fearers and other converts, separate from the synagogue
  • Get chased out of town by the Jews, who were frustrated that Paul had “stolen their sheep”, the God-Fearers, men whom they hoped would sometime be circumcised and then become full-fledged Jews.

Leaving Pisidian Antioch, they went next Iconium. Same story, although there it seems that they had a little more success with the Jews. Still, it ended just as in Pisidian Antioch. From there it was to the region of Lycaonia, and the cities of Lystra and Derbe.

In Lystra, another Roman colony, we see something new: Paul healing a lame man, which made great impression on the indigenous, non-Romans, leading to one of the more bizarre experiences of their journey:
8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. (Acts 14:8-13)

Paul had caused a great revival; unfortunately it was in a false religion. In mythology, the district had once been visited by two Greek deities, Zeus and Hermes. Barnabas was identified as Zeus the king of the immortals, and Paul, since he most of the talking, as Hermes the chief herald. Amongst themselves, in their own language, they discussed all this and decided that the two must be shown great honor. (In part, no doubt, because the elderly couple who, unaware, showed hospitality to Zeus and Hermes were rewarded with great riches.)

Paul and Barnabas did not at first understand what was happening, for neither spoke the language. Perhaps they saw the joy on the faces of the people and were encouraged. But when they discovered the truth, and preparations were made for sacrifices, they were mortified:
14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15"Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." 18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. (Acts 14:14-18)

After calming the mob, just when they must have thought it was safe, things went from bad to worse. For it turned out a posse from their previous two stops was in hot pursuit:
19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. (Acts 14:19-20)

Paul went, in just a moment, from being proclaimed a deity to being nearly lynched.

The two then went to Derbe, which sat at the eastern frontier of the Roman province. There they had much better success, winning a large number of disciples.

Then they backtracked, through Lystra (which personally I would have avoided), Iconium and Antioch. Along the way they worked to strengthen the churches they had established, appointing elders and encouraging them to continue in the faith and endure the hardships. Finally, after some additional stops on the way back, they returned to Syrian Antioch, their home church, and reported on their success.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Lesson 5: The New Community

The New Community

In the early days, just following Jesus’ resurrection, the new community of His followers was viewed as a new party within Judaism. The patrty was known as the Nazarenes, which is still the ordinary name for “Christians” in Hebrew. The name “Nazarenes” is probably due to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee, but that is not completely certain. The root of the word means to observe, and some believe the early community may have been know as the “observers”.

The Nazarenes were not a mainstream party, like the Sadducees who dominated the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court), or the Pharisees, who were
also politically powerful. No, they were an outside “fringe” party. In some ways they were like the Zealots, who also sought the kingdom of God, although the means to that end were radically different: The Zealots looked for a violent overthrow of Rome, while the Nazarenes believed that the return of Christ would inaugurate the kingdom. In other ways they resembled the Essenes in that they placed great value on personal purity (the Essenes , extreme separatists, a subgroup of which is probably responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, eschewed temple sacrifice for fear of being defiled) and both practiced, in the early days, a form of communism.1

There were some path-crossings between the Nazarenes and the Zealots. One of the apostles was a Zealot. And Barabbas, whom the mob before Pilate chose for release over Jesus, was probably a Zealot, part of a failed insurrection at the time of the crucifixion.
A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. (Mark 15:7)

Although Nazarenes was the party name, the early believers called their movement “the Way”, and referred to themselves as saints, brothers, and the poor. When Paul writes:
They only asked us to remember the poor-- the very thing I also was eager to do. (Gal. 2:10)

“The poor” is (probably) referring to the entire nascent community of believers, not (literally) the financially strapped, although no doubt the early community was heavily biased toward the destitute.

The Nazarenes grew quickly, having a tremendous appeal to the common man. The Sadducees and the great priestly families were politely disliked. The Pharisees set up standards of behavior that common men could never achieve, and at least some of the Pharisaic schools equated ignorance with accursedness, sentiment that we find in John’s gospel:
No! But this mob [followers of Jesus] that knows nothing of the law--there is a curse on them. (John 7:49)

The Nazarenes, on the other hand, taught that the overarching work of their salvation was already accomplished by Jesus and His redeeming death, to be claimed by those who accept Him as the Son of God and acknowledge the resurrection. As the apostles began preaching their good news, they soon numbered more than five thousand:
But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)

The Sadducees tried, in vain, to suppress the Nazarenes.
17Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. (Acts 5:17-18)

Yet among some the Pharisees, even some in the Sanhedrin, there developed a tolerance toward the Nazarenes, and some of their number (e.g., Paul) were even destined to join the movement. After all, the Nazarenes, like the Pharisees, tried to obey the law as best they could, and like the Pharisees, but unlike the Sadducees, they believed in bodily resurrection1. True, from the point of view of the Pharisees, they were misguided in their insistence that Jesus had fulfilled the prophesies of the sages and had been himself resurrected, but the Nazarenes were mostly harmless—quite unlike the Zealots would could bring the wrath of Rome upon the entire citizenry.

In particular, one revered Pharisee, Gamaliel pushed for restraint in oppressing the Nazarenes, arguing with inescapable logic that if the movement is not of God it would die in spite of their tolerance, and if it is from God it would thrive in spite of their suppression. (see Acts 5:33-38).

Gamaliel is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (the Talmud is not scripture, but a collection of rabbinical writings) as discussing an impudent student. The student is not named, but some have speculated that the unfavorably viewed student is Saul of Tarsus. It is easy to imagine: Saul (Paul) must never have been a very rewarding student, for contrary to Gamaliel’s teaching Saul oppressed the Nazarenes far more effectively than the Sadducees, only to then, as Paul, cross over in an instant to become their greatest teacher and evangelist.

The Nazarenes met in their homes, and on those occasions they remembered the death of Jesus through a simple meal of bread and wine. Those who had been with Jesus taught the others what they had learned first-hand. New members were baptized in the name of Jesus. Considering themselves Jews, they kept the Sabbath and still kept to appointed hours of prayer at the temple. The new meal of bread and wine was partaken on the day after the Sabbath, i.e., the first day of the week, Sunday.

The importance of the Nazarenes living as good Jews cannot be overemphasized. It marked them as relatively harmless by the Pharisees, saving them from swift and sure persecution had they had no friends in the Sanhedrin. This early group of Nazarenes, in Jerusalem, is what we often call the Jerusalem church.

The Hellenists

Although there were no Gentiles at first, there was more than just Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews. In particular, there were the “Hellenists”. Hellenists were Jews whose roots were outside Palestine as a result of the diaspora (the dispersion of Jews from Palestine all over the Mediterranean region, beginning with the Babylonian captivity. So vast was this scattering that in the first century there were a dozen synagogues in Rome.). Hellenists adopted Greek language and culture, which put them at odds with the Palestinian Jews.

Often overlooked is the critical role played by the Hellenists in spreading the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem. We will see that the very one who persecutes them, and whom they then seek to kill, takes up there cause as his life’s work.

The first need for administration and the first internal problem in the Jerusalem church is traceable to the tension between “Hebrews” and Hellinists.

One early logistical problem was the distribution of food to the poor. Problems arose:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. (Acts 6:1)

The twelve apostles (the betrayer having been replaced by Matthias) appointed seven deacons to attend to these lower-level duties. Probably all were Hellenists (all had Greek names, see Acts 6:5), and at least one, Nicolas of Antioch was not even a Jew. (He was, however, a proselyte, meaning he had previously converted to Judaism, and was circumcised, and then became a Nazarene—as contrasted with the as yet nonexistent Gentile converts, who did not convert to Judaism but straight away to Christianity.) No doubt the selection of the seven was made in part to placate the Hellenists.

Two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, surpassed expectations and became great teachers. In his amazing speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), prior to being martyred, Stephen said:
47But it was Solomon who built the house for him. 48"However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. (Acts 7:47-48)

This bold (but true) swipe at the temple, which enraged the Sanhedrin, may have been difficult for any of the Hebrews to make, and leads one to believe that at least part of the accusation (Acts 6:13-14) made against Stephen, although brought by false witnesses, may have accurately reflected his teachings.

Stephen’s martyrdom hints at Jewish bigotry toward the Hellenists: the Hebrews of the council had Stephen executed, while Peter and John, native Hebrews, were treated more leniently (Acts 5:40).

Naming of the seven Hellenists to positions of authority did not result in their complete assimilation into the Jerusalem church (again, there was entrenched anti-Hellenist bigotry). When the Sanhedrin initiated the first persecution of Christians (we will now use that term, although it didn’t appear until later) breaks out, it seems to have been directed at the Hellenists:

2On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. 4Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said (Acts 8:2-6)

This does not mean that every Christian except the twelve was flushed out of Jerusalem, but that with certainty the majority of the Hellenists were forced out. Philip, for example, escaped to Samaria. So in the persecution one can perhaps glimpse the will of God: Hellenists, who would have been more familiar to the Gentiles than Hebrews, began spreading the gospel. (Later, in Acts 12, we see the persecution turn toward the Hebrew Christians. resulting in the martyrdom of James, the brother of John3. That persecution arose from King Herod Agrippa.) Further evidence regarding bigotry toward the Hellenists is that the great persecutor Saul of Tarsus left Jerusalem to go after the fleeing Hellenists, while not lifting a hand against the apostles, who remained in the city.

Saul of Tarsus

In the late twenties of the first century, Gamaliel the Elder, revered Pharisee, accepted a young student from Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, named Saul. He came from a distinguished Jewish family, and Saul’s father was a Roman citizen, an honor which he inherited and valued.

Interestingly, Saul’s family did not consider themselves to be Hellenists, as you might expect, Tarsus being a great Greek city at that time, but Hebrews, which is why He went by the Hebrew name Saul. Paul affirms this in his own writing, when speaking of himself he writes “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5).

He also shows great pride in his hometown, writing:
Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people." (Acts 21:39)

Saul comes into his own around A.D. 30-33, as the Nazarene movement is flourishing. In the debate over the danger of the Christians, Saul crosses party lines, agreeing with the Sadducees, rather than his Pharisaical mentor, Gamaliel. It was precisely because the Pharisees were somewhat taken by the Nazarenes that concerned Saul. Indeed, not just uneducated Galileans (the learned held little respect of the Galileans, see John 7:52) were being duped, quite a few of his own party had joined the movement. Saul did see the Nazarenes as an amusing yet harmless fringe group, but as a blasphemous cult who claimed the Messiah had died a death designated for the accursed, not the favored by God. He (correctly) worried that this movement would ultimate split Judaism, and so with passion he sought to destroy it.

This is very interesting indeed: Saul would have used because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse (Deut. 21:23) to point out the blasphemy of the Nazarenes. It wasn’t until he himself joined the movement that Paul saw the incredible redemptive significance of the passage, later using it like this:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Gal. 3:13)

Saul believed the two religions were not compatible. An opportunity to take action presented itself when he encountered a stout member of the Nazarenes who, ironically, agreed him. Not one the apostles; they surely viewed “the Way” as the next stage of Judaism, and continued with their temple worship. No, it was the Hellenist Stephen, who saw Jesus “not only” as the risen savior, but also as the terminus for the existing age. The temple and its system would be replaced—Judaism wasn’t being upgraded, it was being replaced. Stephen epitomized what concerned Saul: a radical, and, far from an uneducated Galilean bumpkin, he was an eloquent and persuasive Hellenist.
Saul presided at Stephen’s execution, showing his approval by guarding the clothes of the witnesses as they stoned the saint (Acts 7:57).

The stoning of Stephen emboldened both Saul and the Sanhedrin, who began systematic persecution, especially of the Hellenistic Christians. The Hellenists fled, and Saul, with official backing of the Sanhedrin (letters from the High Priest Caiaphas, whose authority was respected by the Roman overseers), set out for the outlying synagogues to capture the Nazarenes and return them to the Sanhedrin for trial. Note the bigotry at work here: the Hebrew Nazarenes, especially the apostles, were in Jerusalem, but Paul did not raise a hand toward them. He went after the Hellenists.

Saul left for Damascus, and as he neared the city he saw a blinding light, and the risen Lord stood before him.
4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. 6"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (Acts 9:4-6)

Paul, blinded, was assisted by his companions into Damascus. Meanwhile, instructed through visions, a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, who had been at risk from Saul’s aborted mission, served as the Lord’s messenger. On Paul’s third day in Damascus, Ananias found him, Paul’s sight was restored, and he was baptized.

Then Paul’s amazing journey began. Using his reputation and official letters of travel and access, he toured the very synagogues he had intended to purge. Those in attendance would not have heard what they expected. Instead, Paul boldly proclaimed what just a short time before he had held as dangerous blasphemy: Jesus, the very one who died on a tree, was the Messiah.

Those who had seen the resurrected Lord had been proven correct. Paul himself had seen him. He had been so very wrong about the tree. It is not clear how quickly he arrived at a true understanding, but he did: The Messiah was accursed, Deut. 21:23, was not contradicted. The radical insight was that the Messiah had to become a curse in order to redeem those who couldn’t keep the law from suffering their just curse (Gal 3:13).

Paul’s preaching of Christ in Damascus and the surrounding area eventually incurred the wrath of the local Jewish authorities, who conspired to kill him. Paul escaped by being lowered to safety in a basket, through a window in the city wall.

In the third year since he left for Damascus, Paul returned to Jerusalem, trying to contact the disciples. But they avoided him, afraid that his conversion was in reality a trick. Eventually Barnabas interceded on his behalf, testifying to the truthfulness of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord, and finally Paul came face-to-face with the apostles.

Paul’s first assignment was to visit those believers in Jerusalem whom he had most severely persecuted: the Hellenists. No doubt recalling the fate of Stephen, their reaction was perhaps predictable: they sought to kill him.

The Lord had other, bigger plans for Paul, and in a vision he told Paul to leave Jerusalem. No doubt this was in part for his safety, but in the larger scheme of God’s sovereignty we see that Paul’s real mission is about to commence. In Paul’s own words:
17"When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18and saw the Lord speaking. 'Quick!' he said to me. 'Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' 19" 'Lord,' I replied, 'these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.' 21"Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.' " (Acts 22:17-21)

Paul’s friends spirited him away, first to Caesarea and ultimately to his hometown of Tarsus. They several years he spent in Tarsus are a bit of a mystery. Some scholars believe that Paul’s statement:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8)

indicates that he was disinherited. And the timelines would suggest that some of his “forty stripes save one” lashings (see 2 Cor., 11:24) occurred at the hands of the Jews in Tarsus. Toward the end of this obscure period of his life, he has perhaps his most mysterious experience:
2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. 3And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- 4was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor. 12:2-4)

This experience left him with an undisclosed lifelong physical ailment, a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) , which was apparently for his spiritual benefit.

Whether Paul thought he was wasting in obscurity is unknown. It is clear in hindsight that the Lord was strengthening him for his life’s work. And it commenced sometime in A.D. 45, when his friend Barnabas, who had commended him to the apostles, arrived like a bolt out of the blue. It seemed that the Lord had work to be done in Antioch, and Paul was the man for the job.

1 There were, however, substantive differences. The Essenes were extremely diligent about the Sabbath and ceremonial adherence. The also rose daily to practice what appears to some to be borderline idolatrous worship of the sun, rather than the Son. They also practiced soothsaying and magic.

2 This does not mean that the Sadducees did not believe is an after-life, but rather they did not anticipate bodily resurrection, arguing that the first mention of it comes in the book of Daniel which, not having been penned by Moses, was non-authoritative. Paul later uses the stark differences in their views to save himself in a touchy situation when on trial in the Sanhedrin: 6Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." 7When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (Acts 23:6-7)

3 Not to be confused with James, the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the apostles, and was not a follower of his brother while Jesus lived (John 7:5). But James did have a Damascus road experience himself, for Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:7 that the risen Christ appeared to his brother James. James then rose to lead the Jerusalem church and was martyred later, in A.D. 62.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Lesson 4: The Life of Jesus

[Note: The source for most of this material is The Spreading Flame, by F.F. Bruce.]

How much do we know about the life of Jesus? In terms of biographical data, we know almost nothing. Apart from birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and a description, in Luke, of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at age twelve, we know nothing of His first thirty-odd years. It is only that last two to three years that we have a substantive picture, and even then the sum total of the written accounts covers no more than forty days, and only the last week receives intense coverage.

Some information can be reasonably inferred from scripture. He had four brothers and some sisters. He probably was the breadwinner of the family after the death of Joseph (Mark 6.3). And he lived as a pious Jew (Luke 4:16).
"Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3)

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. (Luke 4:16)

The Hometown

Jesus grew up in Nazareth. It was not idyllic as it is often portrayed. It lay on the main highway connecting Egypt and Syria, a road often used by the armies of Rome.

The Romans appointed Herod "The Great" King of Judea in 40 B.C. Herod attempted to Hellenize Judea, building temples to Roma and Augustus in Caesarea and Samaria. Ultimately he went to far when he placed a Roman eagle at the entrance to the temple. A rebellion ensued, and it was crushed by Rome.

Herod died in 4 BC, and the political turmoil continued. That year, the governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, put down a revolt in Judea by crucifying two thousand men, as described by Josephus:
Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. After which he disbanded his army, which he found no way useful to him in the affairs he came about; for they behaved themselves very disorderly, and disobeyed his orders, and what Varus desired them to do, and this out of regard to that gain which they made by the mischief they did. (Josephus, Antiquities, XVII, 10.10).
In particular nine years later, when Jesus was about twelve years old, there was a major insurrection lead by one Judas of Galilee. This too is described by Josephus
… Judea was reduced into a province, and Coponius, one of the equestrian order among the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of death put into his hands by Caesar. Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would after God submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders. (Josephus, War of the Jews, II 8.1)
It is also described in the book of Acts
33When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 7:33-37)
The Sanhedrin was the Jewish Supreme court. The men being discussed were the apostles, in particular Peter and John. And the Pharisee preaching restraint, Gamaliel, has a very famous (and less tolerant) student, Saul of Tarsus, but more of him anon.

The No-Tax Party

It is significant that the rebellion of Judas of Galilee was about refusal to pay a tribute to Caesar. For one thing, the party founded by Judas of Galilee and his followers was called the Zealots, known for their passion in opposing Roman rule. Understanding that the Galilean’s rebellion was still on the minds of the people, and that the Zealots were still spreading insurrection, and that one of Jesus' apostles was a Zealot1, gives you a better appreciation of Jesus' exchange on this same matter:
15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" 18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" 21"Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matt. 22:15-21)

All these rebellions were leading inevitably to the Jewish War of AD 66-70, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the razing of the temple, and death of over a million Jews.

Jesus the Rabbi

In opposition to the Zealots were the chief priests who sought to maintain a semblance of order through cooperation with the Romans. One of the most successful chief priests was Caiaphas, who was chief priest for eighteen years, during the last ten of which Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea.

The Sanhedrin, or the Supreme Court, was dominated by one party: the Sadducees. However, another important party were the Pharisees, which included a group called the "scribes", who were the master apologists of the divine law.

The Pharisees were of two major schools, the Shammai and the Hillel. The Shammai were more conservative and legalistic, while the house of Hillel were liberal. To which school did the teaching of Jesus the rabbi fall? Neither.

There is an anecdote from that period which goes like this. A would-be proselyte went to a Pharisee of each school, and requested that the entire law be summarized while he stood on one leg. The Shammai scolded him severely and sent him away, while the Hillel said: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.

Sounds like the Golden rule as taught by Jesus (Matt 7:12). Perhaps Jesus was of the house of Hillel. But no, consider divorce. Hillel made divorce easy. Shammai made it difficult. Jesus made it nearly impossible.

So Jesus' teachings did not fit neatly into either school, But what was worse (from their perspective) is that Jesus, implicitly and explicitly, taught that he was the Messiah.

Did Jesus, from a child, know that he was the Messiah? We can only speculate, but the answer would seem to be yes. Our only account of his youth comes from Luke. During Jesus' Passover trip to Jerusalem at age twelve, he became separated from his parents. After a frantic search, they find him in the temple courts. Jesus says to them:
49Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" 50But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)
His public life began with Baptism, and when He came up out of the water, the voice of God announced: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Matt. 1:11). After baptism, he was tempted by Satan, who repeatedly challenges his Messiahship by prefacing his temptations with "If you are the Son of God".

The next few months were spent in southern Palestine, in contact with John the Baptist (c.f. John 3:22 ff). After John was imprisoned in the fall of A.D. 28, Jesus went north to Galilee and commenced his public ministry. He recruited some young Galileans2 whom he met as disciples of John on the shores of the Jordan. Among his twelve closest followers were, as already mentioned, a member of the party of the Zealots and also a tax collector. The inclusion of these two also distinguishes Jesus from the Pharisees, be they Shammai or Hillel, as would his subsequent association with other sinners.

In the early days of his ministry, Jesus went about the countryside preaching and performing miracles. The miracles (in the canonical gospels) were never miracles for their own sake, but served as points of departure for his teaching., and provided mounting evidence that He was the Messiah. Today, many liberal Christians want to strip Jesus of his supernatural deeds and preserve only His ethical teachings. (In response, some have quipped, “who would even bother to crucify the Jesus of liberal Christianity.) It is interesting to note, however, that in the earliest days even the enemies of Christ did not deny his miracles, they attributed them to evil:
But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons." (Matt. 12:24)
As late as A.D. 133, the Christian theologian Quandratus, in arguing with the Emperor Hadrian, could point to the miracles without having to defend them per se, for their validity was accepted by his opponents.

Jesus' message began to make His claim as Messiah more explicit. In Mark, we read:
They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22).
What was meant by this is that Jesus felt free to teach new meaning to old words, beginning many teachings with "You have heard that it was said…, but I say to you…". Jesus tossed out the accumulated teachings of centuries, in no place more apparent than in his teachings on the Sabbath.

He healed on the Sabbath. His disciples picked grain on the Sabbath. He argued with the Pharisees about the significance of the Sabbath, that the Sabbath was made for man and not vice versa, and making one of his most explicit claims of divinity, that "The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath." (Matt. 12:8)

Jesus tossed out huge portions of the ceremonial law, causing the rift between his teachings and those of the Pharisees (of both main houses) to widen further:
For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") (Mark 7:19)
If Jesus' radical teaching on the Sabbath and his reinterpreting of the old texts weren’t bad enough, then there is more. He began to go beyond radical. He began to assert for Himself the power to forgive sins:

Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." (Matt. 9:2)

The rift between Jesus and the scribes was complete. So much so that Jesus no longer had access to the synagogue, and retreated to the countryside and the shore to teach to the crowds. At this time he sends His apostles throughout the country, two by two, to spread the gospel. When they returned, Jesus led them to a remote spot on the shore of Lake Galilee, but still the masses converged upon Him.

At this time His teaching changed somewhat, to the so-called "hard" teachings. So hard, in fact, that John tells us that many of his disciples abandoned Him:
60On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"

66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:60, 66)
It is now about April of A.D. 29, and about six months of His Galilean ministry has passed. A period of more intense, more private instruction for his disciples followed. They left Palestine and headed north to Phoenicia, returning via Caesarea Philippi. It was in Caesarea Philippi that Peter affirmed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, bringing great joy to Jesus, in what may have been a personal zenith of His ministry (see Matt. 6:13-19).

The End is Near

Early in A.D. 30, Jesus raised His friend Lazarus (of Bethany) from the dead. The commotion caused by this miracle spread throughout Judea. The Sanhedrin decided that it was finally time to act, fearing that Jesus’ followers would ultimately attempt a rebellion that would bring severe Roman retribution upon the land.

About a week before Passover, Jesus and His disciples, who had been resting, headed to Jerusalem. Near Jericho they merged with a large group of pilgrims also heading to Jerusalem, and the crowed hailed Jesus as they neared and entered the city.

Two or three days before Passover, Jesus was attended by Mary the sister of Lazarus. Mary broke an expensive ointment and poured it over his head. Judas was particularly incensed by the extravagance. In fact there were many views of this act: some saw it as the anointing of a king. Judas, as we mentioned, saw it as a waste. Mary may have been simply displaying love and gratitude for the miracle of her brother’s life. But Jesus, alone, saw it as a burial anointment.

On Thursday evening, Jesus celebrated the Passover feast at the house of a friend in Jerusalem. Later, they left the house in the cool of the night to the Garden of Gethsemane. After prayer, the police, led to the spot by Judas, arrested Him. After an ineffectual resistance, his disciples fled, and Jesus was taken to the high priest’s palace. There He was tried by the Sanhedrin, which was called into emergency session. Some argue that the court was illegal, but it is likely that it was perfectly legal for the court to be summoned to an emergency session. (Although the fact that the trial had a predetermined outcome was certainly illegal.)

The trial, from the Sanhedrin's perspective, did not go well. The witnesses, who testified to Jesus' "terroristic" threat about the destruction of the temple, were so awful that their testimony had to be tossed out. With no credible eyewitnesses to a crime, only one thing could save the day for the Sanhedrin: a confession to blasphemy. Jesus obliged. Caiaphas asked of Him, "Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.", to which Jesus replied "Yes, it is as you say"(Matt. 26:57-65). Nothing more was needed. Jesus was taken to Pilate, who, after a certain amount of resistance, acceded to the will of the Sanhedrin and the mob and ordered that Jesus be crucified. (Note: it is often taught that the same people who hailed Jesus as He entered Jerusalem screamed for His death less than a week later. It is probably not the case. The former were pilgrims who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem, the latter were local Jews, a city)

The Resurrection

In the Passover season of A.D. 30, Jesus was crucified. Not of his followers shared his death, for they all fled at the time of His arrest. His closest disciple, the one most demonstrative in his promise of steadfastness, joined the crowed temple courtyard, only to deny Jesus when he was identified as a follower by his appearance and his Galilean accent.

At first appearances, if Christianity depended on Jesus' apostles, the Christianity would be expected to have withered and died with the arrest of Jesus.

A scant seven weeks later, at Pentecost, there was, as always, a great Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In what can be calculated as Sunday, May 28, A.D. 30, a group of native and foreigners gathered around a group of intense, confident preachers. Miraculously, The preaching of these men was heard by the foreigners in their own native languages (Acts 2.4). One of those speaking explained that they spoke in tongues not through drunkenness but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Some believed, some didn’t, but nobody disputed the passion of the speaker, the same Peter who had denied Christ at His arrest.

A group of men who abandoned their leader at the first sign of trouble, a leader who died in humiliation displaying no power to save himself, should have scattered with the four winds, back to Galilee and hoping to forget their foolishness in following such an impotent master.

Instead, they were boldly preaching in His name.

What happened? What snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? To the crowd, Peter explains the amazing event that restored their faith and their nerve:
23This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:23-24).
Without the resurrection, and without multiple eyewitness accounts of the risen Jesus, Christianity would have died. The most compelling evidence for the truth of the resurrection is that the apostles, in the midst of total defeat, began to proclaim boldly that Jesus was the Son of God, and that His death accomplished salvation for believers. If his body lay rotting in a tomb, it would have been unthinkable for Peter to proclaim a putrefying Lord and savior.

The earliest teaching of the church centered on the fact that Christ was bodily raised from the dead, and that many, including his closest friends, had seen him. More than 500 saw him.

There have been many attempted explanations, but the one that is dismissed by any thoughtful critic of Christianity is deception, for our common human nature screams to us that, no matter what, the behavior of the apostles demonstrates that they believed Christ had been resurrected. It might be argued that the belief is erroneous, but its sincerity is not questioned.

Some have argued for hallucinations as an explanation. But if those who claim to have seen him were hallucinating, you would expect that they would see Him where He wasn't. Instead, they didn’t see him where He was, for example with those disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 22:13ff).

The period of forty days between His resurrection and Ascension is sometimes fraught with confusion. During those forty days, Christ makes various appearances, but after the Ascension He is not seen again (except by Paul.) This leads many to believe that He was resurrected and lived on earth for forty days, and then went to heaven. This is not the case. He was not popping in now and then, and the rest of the time holed in a motel. He was already exalted and was visiting at times during those forty days, and the Ascension marks the terminus of those visits.
1 Simon the Zealot. was believed to have preached the Gospel throughout North Africa, from Egypt to Mauritania, and even into Britain. There is a church tradition which says that he was crucified by the Romans in Caistor, Lincolnshire, Britain and subsequently buried there on May 10, circa 61 A.D. This cannot be confirmed, however, as there is also a strong tradition which says, that having left Britain, Simon, at some point , went to Persia and was martyred there by being sawn into two.
2Of the twelve, it appears that only one, Judas Iscariot, was a southerner, or a Judean.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Lesson 3: The Time Is Ripe (cont)

When did church history begin?

Was it with John the Baptist? Christ's earthly ministry? The Crucifixion? Pentecost?

Well, if the answer was any of the above options, we would probably conclude that it doesn’t matter, that it is rather arbitrary. But none of these is the correct answer, so that makes the question more interesting.

I agree with many who say that church history begins long before any of the options I provided. It starts with Abraham, for is to him that the gospel was first preached:
The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." (Gal 3:8)

The church is not "the New Testament Israel." Israel is the Old Testament church. And so we must begin with Abraham.


Abram (born ~2000 B.C.) was a native of Ur, located in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). His father Terah moved the family from Ur to Haran, which would today be on the Syrian border with Turkey. This is described in Genesis:

Terah took his son Abram [Abraham], his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Gen 11:31)

There are several interesting things to note.
  1. I am sure you all know that eventually God changed the patriarch’s name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many) (Gen 17:5).

  2. You might be tempted to conclude that they named their new city Haran after Abraham’s dead brother (and Lot’s father), who died before the move, but they didn’t. It’s a different word.

  3. At first this initial migration, from Ur to Haran, appears to be “routine” in some sense. If this were all that scripture had to say about the more from Ur to Haran, you might conclude it was at the impetus of Terah, Abraham’s father. But nearly two thousand years later Stephen, when speaking to the Sanhedrin, tells them:
    2To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 3'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.'
    4"So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. (Acts 7:2-4)

    So even this first leg of the journey, from Ur (in Mesopotamia, the land of the Chaldeans) was at God's direct instruction to Abraham.

Abraham's father Terah died in Haran. You know what happens next:
1 The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.
2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
4 So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.
5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. (Gen 12:1-5)

Abraham and his immediate descendants lived in the Promised Land, but they did so as aliens. Before his descendents could conquer and claim the land that God had set aside for them, they had to grow in number, witness God’s grace for His special people, and harden themselves for battle .

The third generation of Abraham’s descendents, in a time of famine, traveled to Egypt, around 1750 B.C. There they thrived, living a pastoral life in the vicinity of where the Suez Canal would be built.

During a frenzy of building under Rameses II, the Jews, the descendents of Abraham, now large in number, were enslaved. After a few decades they were freed under miraculous circumstances and led out of Egypt by Moses. It was time to conquer and occupy Palestine.

The conquest was not an easy one, with many setbacks due to their lack of faith in God and their disobedience.

Finally, around 1000 B.C., King David was able to win an Empire for Israel.

This time of victory was short-lived. David's empire didn’t even last through the reign of his son, Solomon. It divided into two small kingdoms, each nominally worshipping the God of their fathers. Israel was the kingdom in the north and Judah, which included Jerusalem, in the south. These two kingdoms had ignominious fates: the north was conquered (and utterly annihilated) by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and the south by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. (and were carried off into captivity).

There are some interesting facts about the kings of the northern and southern kingdoms. While the southern kingdom lasted about 136 years longer, they both had the same number of kings (20). However, in the north there were nine dynasties, meaning nine different families ruled, even some foreigners. In the southern kingdom their was only one dynasty: the house of David.

In the time of the two kingdoms, a series of prophets arose. These prophets assured that some of the Jews remembered the covenant that God had made with their race. The whole earth was to be blessed through the descendants of Abraham. But the Jews had been disobedient servants, so the task of bringing the message to the world is entrusted to another servant. Isaiah the prophet wrote, around 740 B.C.:
He says, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isa. 49:6)

In this coming servant is the hope of promise of the covenant. He will be despised and murdered, but the result if his coming will be liberation for many.

Thus at this point in church history, we have one national hope: A servant of Yahweh will raise up the tribes and restore Israel, making her a light to all nations. It is easy to see how this would be thought of politically, as some grander version of David's empire.

During the captivity in Babylon, the hope of the nation is kept alive in visions of the prophet Daniel, who tells the people that the pagan rulers are empowered by God and they reign will not last forever:
"In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. (Dan. 2:44)

"This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers
And the decision is a command of the holy ones,
In order that the living may know
That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind,
And bestows it on whom He wishes
And sets over it the lowliest of men." (Dan. 4:17)

The idea of this coming servant of Yahweh and his kingdom drew during the closing centuries B.C., strengthened by the nation suffering the rule of a sequence of empires. After domination by the Babylonians came Persian domination, and then Greco-Macedonian. One mad Macedonian king, Antiochus IV, attempted, about 175 B.C., to abolish the Jewish religion, replacing temple worship with worship of Zeus. We can read about this in the non-canonical (but useful) 1 Maccabees:

43 And king Antiochus wrote to all his kingdom, that all the people should be one: and every one should leave his own law.
44 And all nations consented, according to the word of king Antiochus.
45 And many of Israel consented to his service, and they sacrificed to idols, and profaned the sabbath.
46 And the king sent letters by the hands of messengers to Jerusalem, and to all the cities of Juda; that they should follow the law of the nations of the earth.
47 And should forbid holocausts and sacrifices, and atonements to be made in the temple of God.
48 And should prohibit the sabbath, and the festival days to be celebrated.
49 And he commanded the holy places to be profaned, and the holy people of Israel.
50 And he commanded altars to be built, and temples, and idols, and swine's flesh to be immolated, and unclean beasts,
51 And that they should leave their children uncircumcised, and let their souls be defiled with all uncleannesses, and abominations, to the end that they should forget the law, and should change all the justifications of God.
52 And that whosoever would not do according to the word of king Antiochus, should be put to death. (1 Macabees 43:54)

Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century A.D., writes about this terrible time:
And when the king had built an idol altar upon God's altar, he [Antiochus] slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day. He [Antiochus] also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII.5.4)

The Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, members of the priestly Hasmonean family, led the nation against Antiochus. For eighty years the Jews maintained their national independence. Many Jews mistook this brief respite as the dawn of a long-awaited golden age.

Then the Romans took control of Palestine in 63 B.C.

In a way it was a relief, because the ruling Hasmoneans turned out to be just about as bad as the pagan rulers before them.

The time is very ripe. The arrival of the servant of Yahweh is at hand.
Virtually everyone agrees that the Roman Empire was a logistical necessity:
This great empire prepared the physical scene for the spread of the gospel. It gave peace in place of constant tribal warfare; it built a great network of roads and bridges that made travel possible all over the then known world; it cleared the sea of pirates so that trade by sea and travel by ship became common practice; it protected its citizens from robbers and rioting. All of these conditions favored the easy movement of the messengers of Christ so that along the many roads which Rome had set up for her military purposes, the gospel of peace went out to the world. (B. K. Kuniper, The Church in History, p. 4.)

Rome could even demand a census, when that was necessary for prophesy to be fulfilled (c.f. Luke 2).

Although Rome dominated politically, Greece dominated culturally, and her language and culture were adopted by the admiring Roman conquerors.
The Greek language had become the world language, one that would enable Paul to communicate with all his hearers in the part of the Roman Empire where he did most of his work. When Paul quoted the Old Testament to the Jews whom he met on his journeys, his quotations were from the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament made as early as two hundred years before Christ. (B. K. Kuniper, The Church in History, p. 5.)

However, there is more that was ripe, something beyond the infrastructure provided by Rome and the culture and language provide by Greece.

The constant subjugation of the Jews for over five centuries, and especially under the domination maniacal Antiochus, had led the pious minority of Jews to attach more importance to the concept of resurrection. After all, obedience to God’s word no longer (it seemed) led a lengthening of one's days. Quite the contrary, it often meant a short life terminating in a painful death.

The idea of resurrection was not unknown before the last century B.C, it just wasn't emphasized. Jesus pointed out where it was there for the Jews all along, plain as day in the Old Testament. Addressing the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, He said
26Now about the dead rising--have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? 27He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:26-27)

Once again we can look at the inter-testament literature to find a clue. In the book of second Macabees, we read about the martyrdom of a piuous family, seven brothers and their mother. As one brother is about to die, he says to the king:
And when he was at the last gasp, he said thus: Thou indeed, O most wicked man, destroyest us out of this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life. (2 Macabees 7:9)

The writer of Hebrews refers to the martyrdom of the period of the Maccabean revolt, also associating the idea of resurrection:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. (Heb 11:35)

In addition to the idea of resurrection, the notion of coming Messiah king was still strong among Jews during the last century before Christ, though it begins to change somewhat in the details of the expectation. For example, in the curious Book of Enoch (the grandfather of Noah), written about 100 B.C. and quoted in several places in the New Testament (e.g., Jude 14-15, James 5:1) we read:
4 And this Son of Man whom thou hast seen
Shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats,
[And the strong from their thrones]
And shall loosen the reins of the strong,
And break the teeth of the sinners.
5 [And he shall put down the kings from their thrones and kingdoms]
Because they do not extol and praise Him,
Nor humbly acknowledge whence the kingdom was bestowed upon them.
6 And he shall put down the countenance of the strong,
And shall fill them with shame. (Book of Enoch 46:4-6)

And this amazing text:

3 Yea, before the sun and the signs were created,
Before the stars of the heaven were made,
His name was named before the Lord of Spirits.
4 He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall,
And he shall be the light of the Gentiles,
And the hope of those who are troubled of heart. (Book of Enoch, 48:3-4)

As last century B.C. closed, many complex and odd ideas were percolating among the Jews. For example, some believed that if all Israel kept the law perfectly for one entire day, the Messiah would come (imaging the frustration). Others essentially started the monastic lifestyle, including the sectaries of the Qumran, whose caves held the Dead Sea scrolls. Others formed fellowship communities where the members encouraged one another, much like modern churches.

Yes the time was ripe. The infrastructure was in place. The language and culture were in place. The Jewish mindset was anticipatory; it expected the onset of the kingdom of God like never before.

But there was just one more thing, one final preparation.

John the Baptist

About A.D. 28, in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley.

The prophets had been silent for four hundred years; finally a new prophet had arisen. But this prophet had a message like no other. His message was not of hope of things to come at some unspecified future date; his message had unprecedented urgency. He preach a message of repentance, but no so to quicken the arrival of the kingdom of God, too late for that, for John the Baptist spoke of the kingdom as being at hand (Matt 3:1).

There was no ambiguity in John’s words. He spoke with conviction—absolute certainty that the Messiah was already among them. He told them to prepare through an initiation rite, a baptism by water that he performed in the Jordan river. This itself was a fulfillment of prophecy:

"On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zech 13:1)

This was not only a completely new message, it was an unthinkable requirement. Gentiles had to be baptized if they wanted to convert to the Jewish faith, but for Jews to be baptized was, to many Jews, scandalous. John explains by being the first to point out that the seed of Abraham is no longer a genetic but a spiritual lineage.
And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Matt. 3:9)

John's ministry was powerful, vital, but short lived. He made an enemy of king Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) who feared John because of his following, yet dared not move against him lest his martyrdom spark a rebellion. Eventually he imprisoned and killed John after John criticized his marriage to his own sister-in-law, Herodias.

A few years later Antipas was defeated in battle by his father-in-law. They both agreed that this was a divine judgment for the execution of John. We know this in part from the writings of Josephus:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him. (Josephus, Antiquities, XVII.5.2)

Here we pause, for indeed the stage is set.