Friday, July 11, 2008

Jesus and Paul

Modern critical scholarship of the Bible tends to lean heavily toward skepticism. Those who ascribe to the principles and methods of this so-called scientific approach to Scripture begin with the premise that what is written is not exactly what happened or was said. Instead, they say that the authors, writing years later, recorded what they remembered, but fallible human memory is neither perfect nor immune to ulterior motives. In this way, they conclude, the texts we read today as the Gospels and Acts are not true eyewitness accounts but individual, biased interpretations. Ultimately, they were written to advance a cause rather than give accurate accounts of the life of Christ and the early history of the Christian church.

This inherent skepticism among many modern critical scholars also extends to the epistles of the apostle Paul. Rather than being sincere letters of instruction, encouragement, and sometimes correction to real congregations experiencing the turbulence of Christian life, his epistles are considered parts of the "Pauline agenda." So Paul, rather than being what he claimed—an apostle of Jesus Christ, the Founder of the way of life that bears His name—becomes, in effect, the creator and architect of what we know as Christianity. Essentially, these scholars believe that Paul took the raw materials of the sketchy narrative of Jesus' life and His radical teaching, and through cunning rhetoric transformed a Jewish itinerant preacher of apocalypticism into the transcendent Son of God.

It is easy to see how a skeptic might conclude this. Jesus left no written record of Himself or His teaching; what has been canonized as Scripture was written a generation or two or three later, long enough that memory and the accuracy of oral transmission can be questioned. Further, to some, the early years of the Christian movement appear from the book of Acts to have been an ad hoc effort of Jesus' disciples and converts doing their level best to spread the gospel. Only when Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, is stunningly converted on the road to Damascus does the fledgling church seem to become organized and energized to compete with the established religions for the souls of the world.

Paul, along with Barnabas, arranges lengthy and arduous missionary journeys to Asia Minor and southern Europe, in which they not only preach and convert thousands, but they also establish congregations in major cities, ordain elders and evangelists, organize famine relief for Judean Christians, and challenge Jews and pagans to defend their beliefs. Paul himself, returning to Jerusalem, sways a conference of apostles and elders to his way of thinking on the subject of circumcision and keeping Jewish ritual law. In his fourteen letters, he sets out the doctrines of the church, arguing vociferously against justification through the law or any kind of work. His letters also instruct congregations in accepted practices and show individuals how to apply Christianity to their everyday lives.

To some, steeped in human nature's way of working, this sounds right. A person of Paul's intellect and abilities could, if he were of such a mind, shape and remake a new religion in his own image. A shrewd, learned huckster could speak, write, and cajole a gullible people into accepting his version over others' that were less appealing. Modern televangelists do it all the time.

But why? Why would Paul, "a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5)—an avowed enemy and persecutor of the Way (Acts 8:1; 9:1-2; 22:4; I Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13)—want to make Jesus into the Son of God? Money? Fame? Security? If that were the case, he was tragically unsuccessful, having died a martyr's death in the AD mid-60s. Any other rationale for doing so borders on at least the egotistical and even encroaches on the maniacal. There is no sound reason for Paul's ministry of glorifying Jesus as God other than sincere belief, dedication, and zeal.

Although the modern critical scholars would deny its validity, being self-justifying, Paul's own words argue against any such ulterior motive or hidden agenda. In his earliest account of his conversion, in Galatians 1:15-17, written in the early AD 50s, he writes:

But when it pleased God, . . . to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and [after three years (verse 18)] returned again to Damascus.

The apostle's own testimony is that God converted him specifically to preach to non-Jews, and He did this by revealing the true nature of Jesus Christ as God's Son to him. In addition, he traveled to Arabia, a desert place, where he received a three-year spiritual re-education. This extended instruction in discipleship is perhaps what Paul means in I Corinthians 15:8, when he writes, "Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time." The several accounts of his conversion, in Acts 9, 22, and 26, as well as various remarks in his epistles, all make the same claim that Christ Himself chose him to preach the gospel, and further, opened Paul's eyes to the truth. In simple terms, Paul was merely a tool—albeit a significant one—that the resurrected Jesus used to help build and strengthen the church (see Ephesians 2:19-22; I Corinthians 3:6-9).

Besides, the Gospels and Acts, as well as certain Old Testament Messianic prophecies, proclaim the Son's divine nature, well before Paul came on the scene. Mark, considered by most to be the earliest of the gospel accounts, reads in its first verse, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Matthew, which may have been originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic earlier than the present Greek text, also claims divinity for Jesus in its first chapter by linking Him to the "Immanuel" prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, "which is translated, ‘God with us'" (Matthew 1:22-23). Earlier, Malachi had written: "'And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,' says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 3:1). It is hard to deny that the prophet means that the God of the Old Testament would soon visit His people.

No, Paul did not "invent" Christianity or "transform" Jesus into Christ, the Son of God. God used him powerfully to write foundational texts to instruct Christians in God's way down through the centuries until Christ's return. He was, like Moses, a faithful servant in God's house, yet "this One [the Son] has been counted worthy of more glory . . ., inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house" (Hebrews 3:3-5).

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Centrality of the Resurrection

The Apostles' Creed is thought to be the earliest formal Christian statement of belief, which the later Nicene Creed (AD 381) expanded. It is unlikely that the twelve apostles actually created and circulated this creed among the churches of God, as its origins are second century, but the Apostles' Creed is an early confirmation of what a majority of professing Christians believed in the first few centuries of the church's existence.

(As an aside, a glaring detail missing from the Apostles' Creed is any claim of Trinitarianism; it reads simply, in Latin, "Credo in Spiritum Sanctum"—"I believe in the Holy Spirit." The later Nicene Creed adds Personhood and the title "the Lord, the giver of life" to the Holy Spirit, as well as equality in worship and glory with the Father and Son. This is an indication that the Trinity doctrine was formulated and accepted by the Catholic Church in the fourth century and is not original to biblical Christianity.)

By far, the bulk of the Apostles' Creed concerns Jesus Christ:

I believe in Jesus Christ, [God the Father's] only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Central to the doctrine of Christianity is the resurrection of Christ from the dead. An even earlier, biblical statement by the apostle Paul attests to this fact:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (I Corinthians 15:3-5)

Even earlier, the apostle Peter's first sermon builds to its crescendo of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and what it means:

[David], foreseeing [that his descendant, Messiah, would sit on his throne], spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption [Psalm 16:10]. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:31-33, 36)

We can go back even further, to Christ's ministry itself. Jesus gave only one sign to verify His Messiahship, and it was His resurrection from the dead. The scribes and Pharisees had demanded a sign from Him to prove His claims. He responded:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be give to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:39-40)

In harmonizing the four gospel narratives—of which about a quarter concerns His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection—it is clear that this sign was fulfilled to the very second. He rose from the dead exactly three days and three nights—seventy-two hours—from His burial "in the heart of the earth." The amazing point about this is that, being dead, He had no power to effect either His burial or His resurrection! Far from being a "mere coincidence," it is proof that God the Father, in His sovereignty, brought this sign to pass in its every detail.

Doctrinally, why is His resurrection so vital to Christian belief? Beyond the fact that it fulfilled the sign, the resurrection of Jesus Christ opened the way to eternal life and glory for those who believe. While the sinless Jesus' crucifixion and death paid for all the past sins of those who accept Christ's blood for their forgiveness, it leaves them redeemed but without a future. A dead Savior leaves salvation incomplete. As the apostle Paul explains in I Corinthians 15:14, 19: "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. . . . If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."

Yet, by raising Jesus from the dead, restoring His glorious spirit-body, and exalting Him to His right hand, the Father made possible two crucial realities:

  1. Jesus became our Mediator and High Priest before the Father, giving us the opportunity to have a relationship with Him (Hebrews 8:6; 10:12-13, 19-22). Paul tells us, "For through [Christ] we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access by one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18). As Jesus Himself says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).

  2. Jesus became "the Firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29) and "the firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). By overcoming death through the resurrection from the dead, He became the Archegos—the Forerunner, the Trailblazer—for everyone who faithfully follows Him as a disciple (Hebrews 2:10-16). Paul writes:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [died]. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. (I Corinthians 15:20-23)

In this way, the resurrection from the dead is mankind's God-given "victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" over death, the last enemy (I Corinthians 15:57, 26). It provides us great comfort to know that death is but a step in God's plan to give eternal life to us in His Kingdom (Hebrews 9:27-28). Paul's reassuring words in I Thessalonians 4:14, 17 assert the Christian hope: "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. . . . And thus we shall always be with the Lord."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Geopolitics: Scope and Limitations

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," July-August 2008

Politics among nations has been occurring since ancient times. Ever since one government needed to interact with another—whether because of a boundary dispute, rival claims to a resource, or fear of a powerful neighbor—some kind of intergovernmental relations have sought means to forge solutions for mutual benefit. These relations take various forms: exchanging diplomats, signing treaties, making alliances, voicing accusations and threats, or perhaps dispatching a hostile army or navy.

Philosophers have been studying such relations for many centuries. For instance, Plato's Republic is his vision of the perfect society and in part deals with how rulers should conduct the affairs of state. Scholars of every major empire and nation have weighed in on the subject, from Sun Tzu's Art of War to Machiavelli's The Prince and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Today, a steady stream of books and papers on foreign policy flows from the minds of pundits, politicians, and academics the world over.

While there are many theories of international relations, perhaps the most pragmatic and even scientific is what is known as geopolitics. The central idea of geopolitics is that geography—along with demography and economics—is the determining factor of any nation's relations. In other words, where a nation is, along with the composition of its population and its natural resources, will indicate how it will act and react on the world stage. In some cases, a nation will have no choice but to behave in a certain way simply because of its location on the globe.

Japan is a prime example of geopolitical reality. It is a mountainous island nation with a relatively large, well-educated population and a high standard of living. However, it is resource-poor, especially in mineral resources that form the basis of its high-tech industries. To feed and supply its people, then, it must rely on other nations to provide a great deal of food and resources.

Japan thus has two alternatives: It must either use force to take what it needs or trade peacefully with its neighbors. Imperial Japan tried the former method early in the twentieth century and ultimately failed, seeing two of its large cities evaporated by atomic weapons. Democratic Japan since World War II has been far more successful in employing peaceful trade. While the pendulum could swing back to militarism, it is far more likely that Japan's foreign policy decisions will continue to favor peaceful trade as long as it remains a viable means of prosperity. This is especially true due to its security guarantees with the United States and its formidable navy.

Biblically, the land of Israel is another example of practical geopolitics. In essence, it stands at the center of the world. The great Western civilizations of the past—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome—ranged about it, and in order to expand their territories, these empires had to cross the narrow land-bridge of the land of Canaan. There, they would encounter the descendants of Israel.

Israel's history is in many ways a record of the rise and fall of these empires and their impact on God's people. When the dominant empire of the time was weak, Israel could strengthen itself and expand, but when the empire was strong, Israel usually suffered humiliating defeat and subjugation. In their carnality, many Israelite kings were trapped by geopolitics to reveal their real loyalties. God used this ebb and flow of international power to great effect in leaving good and bad examples of faithfulness for us.

Geopolitics even constrains a global superpower like the current United States. Despite having an overwhelmingly powerful military by several orders of magnitude, it can only project its power along the lines of its geopolitical advantages. As alluded to earlier, the United States is primarily a sea power—even its vaunted air power is dependent on the reach of its naval strength. This means that long-term military actions far from American shores pose a significant problem for shapers of U.S. foreign policy.

The geopolitical limitations of this became apparent in the Iraq War in 2003. American firepower made quick work of the Iraqi army and air force, but the subsequent Iraqi insurgency revealed the Achilles' heel of U.S. power. It was terribly effective at invasion but embarrassingly unprepared as an occupying force. Ultimately, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lost his job due to miscalculating the geopolitics of invading a turbulent Middle Eastern nation like Iraq from 6,200 miles away.

Such geopolitical constraints help to predict the foreign policies of different administrations. In effect, policy differences will be minor from one President to another because the nation's geography, demography, and economy are either fixed or vary only marginally. In reality, basic American foreign policy has changed little since the Truman administration, no matter which political party happened to control the Oval Office.

Every Chief Executive is forced by geopolitical reality and entrenched State Department policies to protect and expand American power throughout the world against the same rogues' gallery of nations. Hence, only so much leeway to act exists, and it is usually revealed, not in policy, but in a President's resolve, as can be seen in the stark disparity between Jimmy Carter's pacifism and Ronald Reagan's intransigence. As this example indicates, a President's personality can make a huge difference.

Geopolitics, then, gives us a starting template to view the world and to attempt to predict the actions of nations. It is not perfect, and exceptional personalities can arise to shake the assumptions of even the most experienced observers. True Christians await the rise of just such a dominating and paradigm-shifting individual in the Beast (Revelation 13:1-10; 17:9-17). We can be certain that he will turn today's geopolitics on its head.