Saturday, May 19, 2012

Jesus and his Death

I intend over the few weeks to post some studies I have written for my Church here in Hong Kong.  They are about our image of Jesus and how we can discover the Real Jesus.  They particularly focus on the significance of the crucifixion, hence the title: Jesus and his Death.

1. The Popular Jesus

Jesus as a person is quite popular in popular culture. In fact, it has become quite fashionable for someone in the public eye to say that while they have problems with the Church, they have great respect for Jesus. Further questioning, however, reveals it is a certain image of Jesus that they have respect for. This image has certain facets:

1. Inclusive: Jesus is hailed as someone who welcomed all regardless of social class and background, gender, or lifestyle.

2. Peace-loving: Jesus is seen as a prophet who taught the importance of love and peace and rejected the use of force and violence.

3. Radical: Jesus is presented as one who challenges corrupt authority and obedience to tradition.

What is dismissed either explicitly or implicitly by those holding this sort of image of Jesus is any suggestion that Jesus was anything other then human. The belief in the divinity of Jesus is seen as an invention of the Church not having any connection with the historical Jesus.

This popular image of Jesus has become so pervasive that it has also been taken up in varying degrees by people in the Church. Not all would want to go the whole way and reject Jesus' divinity altogether, but it receives considerably less emphasis than once in did. The emphasis now is on Jesus as one of us.

Jesus is thus able to take his place as one of the good guys: a candidate for a first century version of the Nobel Peace Prize or, at least, its first century equivalent. His death on the Cross is explained as that of a martyr prepared to die for what he believed to be true.

The only question is why anyone would want to kill him in the first place if this is what he was really like!

Now I can see why someone resembling this popular image might upset or irritate people. (In this form, he certainly rather irritates me if I am honest.) It might even be possible to imagine a crowd being so upset with him on occasion that it turned on him, as, indeed, happened at Nazareth, though quite why they should be quite so upset is more difficult to explain.

What, however, is impossible to explain is why, if Jesus was like the popular image of him, they should determinedly plan and plot to have him killed. And it would take some planning and plotting as the Jewish authorities did not have the power to order capital punishment, that power lay with the Roman authority, and the Romans for all their faults tended not to have people killed for preaching love and peace. They saved such punishments for those who preached hate and war: hate and war, that is, against Roman rulers and rule.

The problem with many presentations of Jesus, both inside and outside the Church, is that the death of Christ becomes a complete mystery. Unless our presentation of Jesus presents someone who otherwise good religious people would hate and explains how they could get Rome to crucify him, then the chances are that we are not presenting the Real Jesus.

It also suggests that the Jesus we are following and worshipping is not the Real Jesus either. In other words, the Jesus we follow and worship must not simply be one who was crucified, but one who was crucifiable!

Saturday, April 07, 2012


It has been a long time since I posted here.  This has been because my time has been taken up on other projects.  I thought it would be interesting, however, as part of my preparation for my sermon tomorrow, Easter Sunday, to attempt an obituary of Jesus as it would have been printed in a newspaper on the Saturday after his crucifixion.

An Obituary of Jesus of Nazareth who was Crucified Yesterday

Jesus of Nazareth, aged 33, was crucified yesterday by the Roman authorities at the request of the Chief Priests in Jerusalem.  This has brought to an end a period of about 3 years during which he has been the subject of intense speculation about his motives and intentions.  Many had come to see him as someone who would lead Israel and throw off Roman rule establishing the Kingdom of God as described in the Scriptures.  These expectations, which he did little to discourage, have now been shown to be completely false.  While many will feel he did not deserve the brutal end he came to, the reality is that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was left with little choice once the Chief Priests had made their allegations against him.

Although Jesus was commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth, he was in fact born in strange circumstances in Bethlehem.  Rumours persisted throughout his life that his mother, Mary, was not married when he was conceived.  He grew up in Nazareth following into his father, Joseph’s business as a carpenter.  His father died some years ago.

At the age of 30, he chose to associate himself with his relative John, known popularly as the Baptist.  John was himself put to death by King Herod.  It was at this time that Jesus began to preach and teach in Galilee, gathering a devoted group of followers around him.  He attracted large crowds who came not only to hear his charismatic style of teaching, but also because it was believed he was able to heal and perform miracles.

His teaching resulted in very public clashes with the Pharisees with whom he seems to have had a ‘love-hate' relationship.  On the one hand, he frequently socialized with them and, on the other, strongly criticized them.  He was most comfortable in the company of those on the edges of society, publicly associating with and befriending prostitutes, tax-collectors, and others with equally bad reputations.  He claimed that this is what God wanted him to do.

His followers clearly believed that he was the Messiah and obviously expected him to lead a rebellion against Roman rule, probably during the Passover.  His own attitude to this seems to have been ambivalent.  It is true that he discouraged people from calling him the Messiah and yet he behaved in a way which encouraged them to do just that.

The immediate events leading up to his death illustrate the problem.  At the beginning of this week, he very publicly rode into Jerusalem, accepting the crowds acclamation of him as King.  He then went to the Temple and violently attacked those trading there.  Both these actions undoubtedly lead people to think that the uprising was near and that he was preparing for it in the days leading up to the Passover.  At the crucial moment, however, he appears to have had a failure of nerve and instead submitted himself to arrest, trial, and execution without offering any resistance whatsoever.

This unwillingness to fulfil the hopes he himself had created explains why it was one of his closest followers, Judas, who betrayed him and why the rest deserted him, even refusing, when asked, to admit to being his followers in the first place.  At the end, it seems that it was only a group of women, who, somewhat scandalously, had travelled with him that stood by him.

His utter humiliation and violent death serve as an example to those tempted to think of themselves as messiahs.  It is a warning too to everyone in these difficult times not to be taken in by charismatic leaders who seem to promise much, but who, ultimately, have nothing to offer.

Jesus of Nazareth despite having no formal religious training was clearly a talented and effective teacher.  Sadly, he let his pride and ego get the better of him and delude him into thinking he was someone he wasn’t.  His death while attracting attention today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Jesus is survived by his mother, four brothers and some sisters.

Friday, December 09, 2011

I hope you are all enjoying the season of Advent and are looking forward to Christmas.

It may seem as though I have forgotten to post on Predestination, but there is an explanation!

I had wanted to read Matthew Levering's recently published book on Predestination first.  I had ordered it from Amazon, but when it arrived it was slightly damaged.  I wouldn't normally have worried as the damage was only superficial, but the book itself costs so much that I thought this time I would return it and get a perfect copy.

The replacement has just arrived an hour or so ago.  I have to confess to being a big Amazon fan.  If you are going to order online, they make it as straightforward as possible to do so.  Anyway, this is going to be my Christmas reading so Predestination is postponed until the New Year!

In the Church's Liturgical Year, we are now in Year B and we will be reading through Mark's Gospel.  Last Sunday the reading was the first eight verses.  This is the first in a series I am preparing for my Church introducing it.

St Mark's Gospel

The Gospel reading last Sunday was the beginning of Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), and I thought I might use the opportunity to introduce the Gospel that most scholars believe is the first of our New Testament Gospels to be written.

What we often forget is that while the Gospels would have been read by some, they would have been heard by most. That is, for all sorts of reasons, not least the cost of copying written texts, the Gospel would have been read out aloud in church groups, perhaps in the context of worship. In trying to understand then the message that Mark was intending to convey about our Lord, we need to ask how would it have been heard.

Sadly, our concentration is not such that we could cope with sitting and listening to Mark being read out in one sitting, although it only takes about an hour and half to do so. Some may remember how the actor Alex McCowan, in January 1978, devised and directed his own solo performance of the complete text of the Saint Mark's Gospel receiving much critical acclaim.

Today, we miss the impact that hearing the Gospel read out loud would have had on the first listeners. There are many recordings of the Bible available: if you get the chance, try listening to one. It opens up a new dimension in Biblical understanding. 

And remember: What is true of St Mark's Gospel is true also of the rest of the New Testament.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I have just looked at my diary for the next few days and have realised that there is not going to be the time to work on the series of posts I had planned on predestination.  However, in my last post I referred to my friend Ben Witherington's blog and his discussion there of free-will. I tried to give a reponse to it both here and in the Comments section.  In the Comments section of Ben's blog, there has been further discussion between Ben.  I would like to take the discussion further here.

This is the link to the post:

Bible and Culture

This is what I wrote as a comment on Ben's post:

Hi Ben,

But even on your view of pre-venient grace, it still means that God chooses some and not others: those to whom He extends pre-venient grace to make it possible for them to make a choice. And once you allow God the right to decide who gets to make a choice, then you are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms that you make against those of us who believe in predestination!

Thank you for your blog. It is always interesting and stimulating!

Ross

This is Ben's reply:

Hi Ross.

Wrong. God extends prevenient grace to everyone.

(Ben)

I did follow up with another comment, but that has not appeared in the Comments!

I was, I must confess, much surprised by Ben's response, not so much because he said I was wrong.  Being wrong, after all, is always a possibility in this life!  But rather by his assertion that God extends prevenient grace to everyone.  This means, on Ben's view, that everyone is being offered the grace they need to enable them to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.  As Ben points out in his post, without it no-one can respond.

Thanks to God's generous pre-venient grace, then, every Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or whoever they may be, is being offered the chance to respond to the good news.  However, because in many cases no-one is telling them what the good news is, although they are now able to respond, there is nothing for them to respond to.  It also means that the grace of God has been offered them in vain, and it hardly seems to be their fault that it is!

This illustrates, I think, the problem faced by those who want to hold to free-will and a Biblical understanding of the human condition.  They need God to enable the will to be free to respond, but they cannot limit those whom God enables in this way for you then end up with a form of predestination because God is choosing whom to enable.  The problem occurs because it means that God is enabling people without also telling them what it is he is enabling them to do, which seems more than a trifle bizarre.  

The only way round this that I can see for those wanting to hold this position is to argue that God extends pre-venient grace when the Gospel is preached to all those hearing it preached. This inevitably means that God does not extend his pre-venient grace to all.  It also raises the question of who decides who gets to hear?  If it is us who decides, then that makes it all a bit of a lottery when it comes to salvation and gives us the power to decide not only who gets to hear, but also who gets to receive pre-venient grace.

Alternatively, you have to say God chooses whom we are sent to preach the good news to, which means, however generously, that God is still choosing some and not others, which brings us back to where we started.

What I am arguing is that you have the following choices: 

1.  that the grace of God is offered to all to enable the to respond, even though all will never get chance to respond simply because all will never get to hear, and so God's grace is, in the majority of cases, in vain

2.  that who receives the grace of God is made into a lottery dependent on whom we decide to offer it to

3.  you have a form of predestination in which God chooses, in some way, those who get to respond to his grace

For those taking the Bible seriously, I see no alternative to 3. Surely, it is only because we are so against the idea of God choosing some and not others and so addicted to the idea of human freedom that we resist it!  

In the series I have planned, I want to think about what such a belief in predestination should look like.  I hope to start after the weekend!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I am a bit worried at the moment as the weather is not looking good for our parish lunch tomorrow.  Normally, we set up the tables and chairs this afternoon, they are all here, but we can't set them up because it looks very much like it is about to rain.  We have a Plan B, but it is very much a Plan B.

Anyway one of my favourite blogs is that of Ben Witherington's.  Interestingly, in his latest post, he writes on the subject I have been posting on lately.  I his post takes a very different line on predestination and free-will to my own.  Read it here: Bible and Culture

Ben totally disagrees with the idea that God chooses some and not others.  He accepts that the Bible teaches that as sinners we are unable to make a free choice to accept the Gospel, but argues that God's grace enables us to make a free choice, while preserving our right to right to say no and to refuse God's offer of salvation.  This is a quote from Ben's post:

'Back to pre-venient grace. This theology grows out of texts such as we have mentioned and the way it envisions the salvation process is exactly as it is described in the NT. Yes indeed God’s grace, administered by the Spirit must work in a person leading them to respond to the Gospel. No responsible Wesleyan theologian would suggest that its a matter of ‘us all having free will’. No indeed. Without grace no one responds to God for we are all in the thrall of sin and darkness.'

Readers of this blog will know that I have many problems with this.  On thing I keep coming back to is the fact that even on Ben's understanding, God still chooses some and not others: those to whom He extends pre-venient grace to make it possible for them to make a choice.  And once you allow God the right to decide who gets to make a choice then you are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms that you make against those of us who believe in predestination!

Meanwhile to return from the sublime heights of theology, I now need to worry about the ridiculous question of the weather!

Thursday, November 17, 2011


6.  Whose Choice?

I have been posting some thoughts on predestination.  These have intentionally been limited to a few questions that I think arise when the subject is mentioned, and have not been an attempt to explain or even defend the idea.

Firstly, I have tried to make the point that there are huge problems with the concept of free-will that some think of as an alternative approach.  I have suggested that, in the first place, we human beings simply do not have free-will in the way that many of its proponents seem to think.  At best, we only have a limited ability in limited circumstances to make some choices and even then our choice is still largely the product of many forces over which we have no control.  As Paul puts it: 'the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.' (Romans 7:19)  This is why Paul uses the language of enslavement to sin to describe the human predicament.  If I am not free to do good, it's hard to see how I am free to accept God.

I have also pointed out that even if we did have the absolutely free-will that some think, it would sill leave God open to the accusation of unfairness as this would make the offer of salvation a very arbitrary thing, if for no other reason, than the simple fact that some get the chance to hear and respond and some don't.  Salvation really does become a lottery if God is not involved in some way in helping us to make a choice.

Secondly, however, other alternatives to the idea of predestination that try to combine human choice and God's involvement in it run, I have suggested, into exactly the same objections that are made against predestination, specifically its perceived unfairness.  I have not been arguing that these alternatives are necessarily wrong just that they don't overcome the main objection to predestination.

Why, then, are we so resistant to the idea of predestination?

Firstly, it is not I would venture to suggest because we have objectively come to the conclusion that it is wrong, but because we simply do not like the idea that something is being decided for us over which we have no control, even though that's true of most of the important issues our lives.  We don't get to choose our physical parents, why are so we so sure we get to choose our spiritual one?

Secondly, we do also recoil from the idea that God chooses some and not others.  Unless, however, you believe that God will eventually save all regardless - and what becomes of free-will then? - by definition some will be saved and some will not.  The Free-willers want it to be left to us to choose.  However, isn't there at least a case for handing the decision over to God!?

In future posts, I will attempt to show on a more positive note why I think predestination should, at least, be given a hearing.

Postscript

As we are now getting ready for the Feast of Christ the King my Church's birthday celebration, I probably won't have the time to start until next week.  Mind you, celebrating Christ as King reigning over all in heaven and earth is perhaps a good time to be thinking about how much freedom we have to rebel against him or to accept his rule!  Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Help!

I would be really grateful if any readers of this blog could visit my Church's new facebook page and if you are so moved to 'Like' it.  I need another 11 likes to move on to the next stage in its creation!

This is the link:

Christ Church Kowloon Tong on Facebook

Thank you in advance!
6.  Whose Choice?

I have been posting some thoughts on predestination.  These have intentionally been limited to a few questions that I think arise when the subject is mentioned, and have not been an attempt to explain or even defend the idea.

Firstly, I have tried to make the point that there are huge problems with the concept of free-will that some think of as an alternative approach.  I have suggested that, in the first place, we human beings simply do not have free-will in the way that many of its proponents seem to think.  At best, we only have a limited ability in limited circumstances to make some choices and even then our choice is still largely the product of many forces over which we have no control.  As Paul puts it: 'the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.' (Romans 7:19)  This is why Paul uses the language of enslavement to sin to describe the human predicament.  If I am not free to do good, it's hard to see how I am free to accept God.

I have also pointed out that even if we did have the absolutely free-will that some think, it would sill leave God open to the accusation of unfairness as this would make the offer of salvation a very arbitrary thing, if for no other reason, than the simple fact that some get the chance to hear and respond and some don't.  Salvation really does become a lottery if God is not involved in some way in helping us to make a choice.

Secondly, however, other alternatives to the idea of predestination that try to combine human choice and God's involvement in it run, I have suggested, into exactly the same objections that are made against predestination, specifically its perceived unfairness.  I have not been arguing that these alternatives are necessarily wrong just that they don't overcome the main objection to predestination.

Why, then, are we so resistant to the idea of predestination?

Firstly, it is not I would venture to suggest because we have objectively come to the conclusion that it is wrong, but because we simply do not like the idea that something is being decided for us over which we have no control, even though that's true of most of the important issues our lives.  We don't get to choose our physical parents, why are so we so sure we get to choose our spiritual one?

Secondly, we do also recoil from the idea that God chooses some and not others.  Unless, however, you believe that God will eventually save all regardless - and what becomes of free-will then? - by definition some will be saved and some will not.  The Free-willers want it to be left to us to choose.  However, isn't there at least a case for handing the decision over to God!?

In future posts, I will attempt to show on a more positive note why I think predestination should, at least, be given a hearing.

Postscript

As we are now getting ready for the Feast of Christ the King my Church's birthday celebration, I probably won't have the time to start until next week.  Mind you, celebrating Christ as King reigning over all in heaven and earth is perhaps a good time to be thinking about how much freedom we have to rebel against him or to accept his rule!  Thank you for reading.

5.  Whose Choice?

The Bible makes it very plain that God entrusts to the Church the work of preaching the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What happens next?  We have broadly speaking the following four positions:

1.  God does not direct and guide us to those who are to hear the good news and make the choice of whether or not to accept it, that is left to chance, circumstance, and the commitment of the Church in telling people the good news.

2.  God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and make the choice of whether or not to accept it.

3.  God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and also helps them to make the choice to accept it.

4.  God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and also enables them to make the choice, which he has already decided they should make, to accept it.

I am sure that many in the Church, especially I suspect in the Anglican Church, would go with a version of 1.  Of course, we will still pray about it and ask for God's strength and help, but the business of going and choosing is the responsibility of us human beings.  If you believe this, then 'good luck', and I use those words advisedly, and I wish you every success, but it is not a position that I personally can share. Whatever he may do with the universe, I can't believe God plays dice with people's salvation.

For others in the Church, and especially those trying to be faithful to the Bible's teaching, 2 and 3 seem to allow us to keep a commitment to allowing humans freedom of choice, while also involving God in the process - which is nice.  They also sound reasonable and spiritual: God and us working together for the salvation of humankind.

There are, however, questions that those holding either of these two positions have to answer.  With respect to 2, why does God direct and guide us to these particular people?  I suppose the best answer would have to be something like these are the spiritual equivalent of a football manager's choice of a squad for a game.  They are the ones most likely to play.

With respect to 3, however, why is God not only offering the Gospel to some and not others, but actually helping some and not others?

I am not, for the moment, saying that either 2 or 3 are wrong, simply that they don't escape the accusation of, at best, bias or, at worst, unfairness on the part of God.

That leaves 4.  Oh dear, we don't like this one at all do we?  But the reason we don't like it can't simply be because it makes God unfair.  On any view, but 1, he is still that.  And even then he can be accused of unfairness in leaving whether or not people hear the good news to chance.

So what's the real reason we don't like to think that 'God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and also enables them to make the choice, which he has already decided they should make, to accept it.'?