The next issue of With Love to the World, which I edit, is currently being distributed. The issue covers half of the season of Pentecost, from mid-May through until mid-August. There are commentaries on biblical passages for each day (with the four “lectionary passages” included), along with a prayer, a song, a psalm, and a discussion question for each passage.
The resource is published by the Uniting Church in Australia, but is used by people of many denominations in a number of countries. As always, the resource exhibits a core commitment of the Uniting Church: to present “an informed faith”. This commitment was articulated in the Basis of Union for the UCA. Each contributor offers a reflection on the daily passage which is informed by their theological training as well as their engagement in pastoral ministry. The resource seeks to assist worshippers to come to Sunday worship with an awareness of the Bible passages they will hear read and proclaimed.
With Love to the World also seeks to be faithful to the UCA commitment to shape “a destiny together” with the First Nations Peoples of Australia. The period covered in this issue includes Reconciliation Week (in late May) and NAIDOC Week (in late June—early July), so the commentaries for those weeks are by a number of First Nations People, reflecting on the interplay between their cultural heritage and the Christian faith.
The striking cover of the issue is from a painting by one of those contributors, Kirsty Burgu, from Mowanjum in WA, who offers an interpretation of the artwork in her commentaries. There is also a powerful reflection on Mother Earth, from a First Peoples’ perspective, by Alison Overeem, from Muwinina country in Tasmania.
The other commentaries in this issue of the resource are provided largely by Australian Uniting Church people with Asian heritage, who know at first hand the complexities of living as a Christian in Australia with awareness of their own heritage. There are Korean, Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, and Malaysian Chinese voices which can be heard and considered in this issue. This reflects the commitment made by the Uniting Church in 1985, to be “a multicultural church”.
In the following issue, which will have a Creation focus, each week will begin with a psalm which brings a creation focus. The writers in this issue will largely be Australians with a Pasifika heritage, including contributors from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, and Tuvalu. As with the Asian-focussed issue, they have each been asked to invite readers into an exploration of the biblical passages from their distinctive cultural perspectives. We can expect many new insights to be offered!
Finally, the contributors to this issue—as, now, with each issue—include equal numbers of male and female writers, reflecting also the UCA ethos that the Spirit has gifted all people and that women and men equally take their place in ministry and leadership within the church.
Each year, in the Sundays which are early in the season of Easter, a similar pattern occurs in the lectionary. On the evening of Easter Sunday each year, the lectionary presents us with the well-known and much beloved Emmaus Road story (Luke 24:13–49). In this story, two followers of Jesus walk towards the village of Emmaus in conversation with a stranger, discussing the events of recent days. The identity of the stranger is revealed to them only when they share a meal at table—and immediately Jesus disappears from their midst!
For the Second Sunday in Easter each year, the lectionary offers the same scene, of the time when Jesus appears to his followers in Jerusalem, meeting behind closed doors “for fear of the Jewish authorities” (John 20:19–31). Although the narrator reports that Jesus appeared to “the disciples”, we subsequently learn that Thomas had not been present, so a second scene, a week later, is reported.
This second scene in Jerusalem is when Thomas expresses his doubt about the appearance of Jesus, and to his astonishment, Jesus appears again, to show him his wounds. Thomas then expresses his firm belief: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). The importance of this scene, as with the Emmaus Road scene, is indicated by its appearance in each of the three years of the lectionary.
On the Third Sunday in Easter, three different scenes are offered across the three year cycle of the lectionary; each scene reports on a situation when the risen Jesus appeared to his followers. The appearance to two disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24) is offered again in year A, the final Lukan scene of appearance and departure (Luke 24) in year B, and the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias, which includes the restoration of Peter (John 21), in year C. Each of these scenes extends the resurrection narrative into the life of the early church.
That brings us to the Fourth Sunday in Easter—this coming Sunday. The lectionary offers much of John 10, where Jesus speaks at length about “the good shepherd”, spread over the three years: John 10:1–10 in year A, 10:11–18 in year B, and 10:22–30 in year C. It omits those parts of this chapter where the antagonism against Jesus is explicit (10:19–21 and 10:31–39), as well as the concluding observation that “many believed in him” (10:40–42). After this Sunday, parts of the farewell discourses of Jesus reported in John 13–16 occur in following weeks over all three years.
The overall construction of the season of Easter across all three years can be seen with this overview, but the pattern is not evident in the week-by-week progression of each Easter season. Nor is it evident that the full teaching of Jesus about “the good shepherd” is offered over the three years of the cycle.
John’s Gospel is known for its series of I AM statements. In the first offering from John 10 (verses 1–10), we encounter one such claim by Jesus—but it is not quite what we expect. We expect him to say “I am the good shepherd”; and he does (but in v.11, which we will hear at this time next year!). Instead, he says, “I am the gate” (v.9)—the avenue for entry into the sheepfold, which was a place of care and protection for the sheep.
But “I am the gate” makes sense only because of what goes before it; the shepherd of the sheep is the one who knows the sheep, calls them by name, and guides them in the paths that they should follow.
In Hebrew Scripture, of course, God is identified as a shepherd; the best-known such reference is the opening phrase of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”. As he was dying, with his sons gathered around him, Jacob spoke to his son Joseph, praying, “the God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day … bless the boys [Ephraim and Manasseh]” (Gen 48:15–16), amd later indicated that Joseph’s strength came “by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, by the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you” (Gen 49:24–25).
When David was anointed as king, however, Samuel said to him “it is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel” (2 Sam 5:2; 1 Chron 11:2). Subsequent rulers in Israel were accorded this title; yet key prophets during the exile lamented that there had been “stupid shepherds” with “no understanding” (Jer 10:21; Isa 56:11) and had done evil (Jer 12:10–13; 23:1–2; 50:6–7; Ezek 34:1–10).
Second Isaiah declared that Cyrus, king of Persia, would be anointed as God’s shepherd, to carry out God’s purpose (Isa 44:28–45:1). Jeremiah looked to the time when God would restore “shepherds after my own heart” in their midst (Jer 3:15) and Ezekiel prophesied God’s intentions: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezek 34:12).
The famous statement by Jesus, “I am the good shepherd” does not appear in the section of John 10 offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (10:1–10). It occurs twice in the second section (10:11–18) at verses 11 and 14, and Jesus refers to the “one shepherd” at 10:16. He refers to “the sheep” 13 times throughout the chapter. In the first section, by contrast, we find the striking statement that Jesus is “the gate for the sheep” (10:7). Sheep, of course, was a common description of the people of Israel as a whole in a number of psalms (see Ps 44:11, 22; 74:1; 78:52; 95:7; 100:3).
The implication of Jesus’s words in John 10:7 is that when Jesus refers to himself as “the gate for the sheep”, he has in mind the role of protecting the flock of sheep from those who would harm the sheep—thieves and wolves. If we interpret the sheep as being the disciples of Jesus (as in v.14), then they would have been in danger from persecuting Romans, hostile Pharisees, and bandits and robbers.
Gates were the means of protection for people within towns and cities, keeping at bay those who might attempt to attack from the outside (Deut 3:5; Ps 146:12–14); they were also the route by which faithful people could access the holy place of the Temple (Ps 24:9; 87:2; 100:4; 118:19; 122:2.
Certainly, there is a strand of antagonism coming towards Jesus (and his followers) from the Jewish authorities throughout the first half of the Gospel; in his farewell discourse, he warns his followers that “you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), and that “they will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2).
Jesus performs the function of the good shepherds that were promised; by guarding the gate, he offers security, for he saves the sheep; indeed, he offers “life in abundance” (John 10:10) to those who follow him. As we follow Jesus today, we might well reflect, what does it mean to be offered ‘life in abundance’? What does it mean to be ‘saved’ by the good shepherd?
Another excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 2:19–25). This letter as a whole envisages the community of faith in terms drawn from the household, and this particular passage sits within a section of the letter which is known as a “household table” (2:18–3:7).
Believers within the communities of faith which are addressed are said to comprise a “spiritual house” (2:5), the “household of God” (4:17), a “family of believers” (2:17) who are intimately related to their “brothers and sisters in all the world” (5:9). Hospitality is important (4:9), as was the case in all ancient societies. Both husbands and wives are “heirs of the gracious gift of life” (2:7); they are called to “inherit a blessing” (3:9) and have already been born into their inheritance (1:4).
As befits life in the patriarchal society of the day, there is also an emphasis on matters of honour and shame. Whilst honour is viewed as an eschatological goal, to be expected “when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7), it remains the benchmark for daily living, as the firm exhortations of 2:12 and 2:17, just before our chosen passage, clearly indicate. Shame is alien to the life of the believer (2:6) and even a husband must show honour to his wife (3:7)
These two features—the language of the household and the concepts of honour and shame— coalesce in the use that is made in this letter of the familiar household table, a form of ethical instruction which we have seen used in some of the debated letters of Paul. Here, the table is introduced with a programmatic statement about honour (2:12) and a series of general injunctions (2:13–17) which urge subordination to authority and the honouring of leaders.
The address then turns to slaves, but not masters (2:18–25), and then wives as well as husbands (3:1–7); however, it stops short of dealing with children and parents (which regularly figured in the typical household table form—see Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9). The stance is clear: slaves are to “accept the authority of your masters” (2:18), just as wives likewise are to “accept the authority of your husbands” (3:1). Obedience is undoubtedly a quality to be emulated, both within the community of faith (5:5) as well as within society (2:13).
The people of Israel had maintained the daily offering of a lamb without blemish for centuries; each day, a lamb in the morning, another lamb in the evening (Exod 29:38–41). It sounds to us moderns like a terrible waste of good stock; to the ancients, however, it confirmed the covenant between the nation, Israel, and their God, the Lord (Exod 39:43–46). The writer of this letter can see Jesus taking the place of that daily sacrificial lamb, quoting from a well-known song (Isa 53:9) about his sinless nature.
For more on the way that the New Testament interprets the sacrificial death of Jesus as a means of atonement with God, see
In the Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus speaks about the shepherd (John 10:1–10). In the excerpt from this letter which is offered on this coming Sunday (1 Pet 2:19–25), Jesus takes on the role of the lamb, offered up as a sacrificial victim: “he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet 2:24).
The language and concepts used here relate to ancient practices of sacrifice. They also undergird later Christian understandings of the significance of Jesus and the process of atonement that, it is believed, he effected through his death.
The humility of submission to the violence of sacrificial slaughter is central to the story of the death of Jesus. The lamb is unable to fight back. Chosen for this role, as one who was perfect, without blemish, the lamb can do no other than submit. That humble submission, evident in the lamb, is the vehicle for effecting atonement of sins and a life in righteousness, when found in Jesus—this is the understanding of the cross that has held fast through centuries of theological debate about the death of Jesus. It is an ancient custom, addressing a contemporary need, speaking to current concerns about the proliferation of violence in our world.
So slaves are offered the positive example of Jesus as the model for their submission (2:21–25), in a manner which picks up the cultural and religious Jewish practices of the day and adapts them into the developing Christian context. It demonstrates an awareness of how traditions can be adopted and adapted into new understandings.
By contrast, the instructions to wives are grounded in a reading of scripture which is thoroughly traditional and patriarchal (3:1– 6). In reality, the instructions to wives are based on the expectations of Hellenistic society: reverence, modesty, a quiet spirit, subdued external adornment. They are declared to be “the weaker sex” (3:7) and twice commanded to “accept the authority of their husbands” (3:1, 5).
In fact, the ethics of this letter frequently draw from many elements familiar to Gentiles in the Hellenistic society. Despite the rhetoric of holiness already noted, the believers are not encouraged to live a completely separate life, isolated from wider society. Continued interaction with Gentiles is envisaged at 2:12; believers are to “be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (3:15). The behaviour of believers should be honourable, and not draw shame upon them; on the contrary, appropriate behaviour will result in the aggressive non-believers being shamed (3:15–16).
In contrast to the letter of James, the brother of Jesus, the specific teachings of Jesus are rarely in view in this letter attributed to Peter, a disciple of Jesus. For James, Jesus taught the righteousness of God and the need for the followers of Jesus to live in a distinctive manner; “true religion” required them “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Rather, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect an ethos of temperate behaviour, moderated in a manner which is appropriate to the wider society: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (2:7). Although there is a polemic against the base ways of the gentiles, a number of the positive characteristics which were valued within gentile society are also praised in this letter: discipline (1:13; 4:7; 5:7), obedience (1:14, 22; 2:8, 13–14; 3:1, 6) and reverence (3:2, 16).
In short, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect a process of adaptation, in which the Gospel has been accommodated to the cultural patterns of the Hellenistic world. It offers a useful insight into this process, which occurs in all places and all times, as received traditions are incorporated into the life of believers in varied cultural contexts. It is not something to be afraid of; it is something to be acknowledged, understood, and appreciated.
Dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. Many books within the New Testament indicate that their authors are grappling with how best to express the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus enables those who follow him to enter into a renewed relationship with God. The letter for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Easter, does just this (1 Pet 1:19–25).
However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth a fully-developed, single-focussed theory of atonement. There are a range of metaphors used to describe the process, in various places, by various authors: sacrifice, atonement, ransom, expiation/propitiation, liberation/salvation, reconciliation, disarming the powers, and modelling humility, for instance.
In true systematic theology style, over the centuries, various theological writers have plucked verses from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts. That’s the first thing that I distance myself from.
Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).
This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.
This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?
One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.
Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.
In my mind, there are a number of points at which this kind of statement about the death of Jesus (often referred to as Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA), narrows the understanding of faith far too much.
For a start, it focuses intensely on a personal dimension, to the detriment of the wider relational, societal, and political dimensions. Easter faith, to me, is broader, more expansive, more encompassing, than just the focus on my personal eternal destiny. I find this communal orientation expressed very strongly in scripture, both in relation to the atonement as well as in many other broader ways. The narrow expression of atonement is based on an understanding of God who is a wrath-filled, vengeance-seeking God, seeking to impact individual lives in a highly judgemental way. I don’t find that perspective in scripture.
Then, the narrow understanding of atonement plays off the will of God over against the actions of a devil figure. This is a problematic element because it contradicts the idea of an all-loving, all-just God. Is all evil in the world to be attributed to a personified devil? What has the allegedly all-powerful and all-loving God done about this?
Such simplistic dualism is problematic, if we just leave it at this. Hebrew scripture steadfastly resists any temptation to sit in a dualistic worldview, and the New Testament continues in that vein, despite pressures from the Hellenistic worldview, as direct heir of the Platonic dualistic schema.
Appreciating the sacrificial dimension of the story of Jesus dying on the cross is important. Jesus went willingly to his death. He did, in the end, offer his life as a sacrifice. The key verse often cited for this understanding is Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many). Other verses that relate include Rom 3:25-26, Eph 5:2,1 John 2:1-2, 4:10, as well as the whole argument of Hebrews (see especially Heb 2:17, 9:23-28, 10:12, 13:12).
Understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrifice remains at the heart of our Christian faith. The option of taking up a violent path was rejected by Jesus. He did not stir up an uprising against the imperialist Roman overlords, despite opportunities to do so (on Palm Sunday, for instance). He did knowingly offer his life as a sacrifice. After an inner struggle about this matter (Mark 14:32-35 and parallels in the Synoptics), it appears that Jesus went willingly to his death (Mark 14:36, and reflected in the whole prayer that the evangelist crafts in John 17).
The preaching of Jesus in the period prior to his arrest offered a vision of a kingdom in which righteous-justice is dominant and peace is evident (Matt 6:33, 7:21, 21:43, 25:34-36; Mark 12:32-34; Luke 4:16-19, 6:20-21, 12:31-34, 18:24-25). In this preaching, he signalled his key commitments, which are instructive as we consider what he thought he was doing, when he submitted to death. We need to consider these words as we think about the significance of Jesus for our faith, and for how the sinfulness of humanity is dealt with.
The way that Jesus calls us into faithful discipleship is central to this approach. To enter the kingdom means to live in accord with the righteous-justice that Jesus advocates. The greater picture beyond the events of the cross is hugely significant. The cross, the event of the death of Jesus, points beyond to this greater vision. It is the whole life of Jesus, along with his death, which is crucial as we grapple with how Jesus transforms us from “sinful humanity” to “justified and saved” (to use the biblical terms that have become the catchcries in this debate).
His manner of death was consistent with this vision; the complete commitment of Jesus to this vision meant that his death, unjust and violent as it was, provides a glimpse into the way of faithfulness for each of us in our lives. Following the way of Jesus is treading this path of nonviolent affirmation of the greater vision.
This coming Sunday, the third Sunday in the season of Easter, the lectionary offers a series of verses from psalm 116 (1–4, 12–19). This psalm is one of six psalms, numbered from 113 to 118, which are known as Hallel psalms—from the Hebrew term hallelu-jah, meaning “praise the Lord”. That phrase starts psalm 113 and ends psalms 115, 116, and 117. These psalms were, and are, used in Jewish communities at times of festive celebration; so they are also most suitable in the current Christian season of Easter.
The opening section of this psalm celebrates a rescue from near death (v.8) and continuing in life (v.9), which is a relevant motif for the season of Easter—it evokes the story of Jesus we heard over the Easter weekend, recently. In verse 5, the psalmist identifies some central characteristics of God. That God is merciful and gracious is a recurring Israelite theme (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9).
That God is righteous is likewise declared in scripture (Deut 32:4; Ps 145:7; Job 34:17). The psalmists regularly thank God for God’s righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:17; 9:8; 33:5; 35:24, 28; 36:6; 50:6; etc) and note the importance of humans living in that way for righteousness (Ps 18:20, 24; 85:10–13; 106:3, 31; 112:1–3, 9). The book of Proverbs advises that the wisdom it offers is “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov 1:3) and the prophets consistently advocated for Israel to live in accordance with righteousness (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4).
These recurring notes of the nature of God then form the basis for a Christian understanding of Jesus, who affirms mercy (Matt 23:23), teaches righteousness (Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33), and exudes grace (John 1:14–18). This is an ancient Jewish psalm that we Christians can joyfully sing and affirm!
The second part of the psalm focusses on appropriate ways for the psalmist to respond to the experience of escaping death (see v.8). The psalmist affirms, “I will pay my vows”—not once (v.14), but twice (v.18). Other palms refer to paying vows before God (Ps 22:25; 50:14; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13; 76:11). The words of the psalmist are echoed by Eliphaz in one of his speeches to Job: “you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God; you will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows” (Job 22:26–27).
Paying a vow is a public act, most likely undertaken in the Temple precincts, as v.19 indicates. The psalmist indicates two such public actions to “pay my vows”. First, the cup of salvation is to be lifted up (v.13). Perhaps this was the drink offering that was to be presented each year at the Festival of First Fruits (Lev 23:13), an expression of deep gratitude for God’s continuing care.
Then, because of the predominance of sacrifices within Israelite religion, offering “a thanksgiving sacrifice” is also an appropriate response (v.17). The regulations for this sacrifice (found in Lev 7:11–15; see also Ps 50:14) indicate that it can be made at any time during the year, as a regular expression of that gratitude for God’s care.
Jews today do not bring specific physical sacrifices, but understand the scriptural language about sacrifice to refer to a way of living. It is said that, on one occasion, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Yehoshua were leaving Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the ruins of the destroyed Temple and despaired, “Woe to us! The place where Israel obtained atonement for sins is in ruins!” Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “My son, be not distressed. We still have an atonement equally efficacious, and that is the practice of benevolence” (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 4).
So this is how this ancient psalm functions in Judaism today: as a call to a way of life that is offered fully to God. This parallels the way that Christian writers developed a spiritualised understanding of sacrifices—both of the sacrifice of Jesus, and of the sacrifices to be offered by followers of Jesus.
The offering of his life on the cross by Jesus is understood by early Christian writers within the framework of the ancient Jewish system of sacrifices and offerings: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2); “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
In John’s Gospel, the time when Jesus dies is not the day after Passover (as in the Synoptics), but on “the Day of Preparation for the Passover” (John 19:14), as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered and prepared for the meal that evening. The symbolism is potent; Paul adopts this symbolic and spiritual understanding as he notes, “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).
Those who follow Jesus are called to live in the same sacrificial mode, offering their lives to God. Paul refers to the gifts sent by the Philippians (most likely financial support for his mission) as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).
Most famously, he appeals to the Romans “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), and reinterprets the Exodus story as spiritualised symbolism, telling the Corinthians that “all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:2–4).
Other letter-writers whose works were collected into the New Testament speak of “a spiritual circumcision … putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11) and encourage believers to “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:25).
So this psalm, and others like it, continue to hold a valued place in Christian spirituality, because of this process of reinterpretation that has taken place in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, and in the early stages of the Jesus movement. The reference to the vows to be paid and the thanksgiving sacrifice to be offered can be understood as metaphors for the way that we are to live our lives as the offering of ourselves to God in obedience and gratitude.
The psalm ends with a joyful exclamation which picks up the key theme: hallelu-jah! praise the Lord! This encapsulates the joyful appreciation for God and God’s way that encompasses all of these psalms of Hallel. It is a fitting psalm for the Easter season.
A second excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 1:17–23). We explored the letter as a whole through the first lectionary offering in this blog:
The recipients of this letter that is attributed to Peter appeared to reside in no less than five Roman provinces (1 Pet 1:1), indicating that the letter must have been composed as a general letter for a wide audience. It is not sent to a specific local community (as with Paul’s authentic letters) but is written for a generalised audience of believers (as with James, and probably also Ephesians).
The recipients are initially identified as “the exiles of the dispersion” (1:1) and later as “aliens and exiles” (2:11). “Dispersion” is a term drawn from Hebrew scripture (Ps 106:27; Isa 11:12; Jer 25:34; Ezek 12:15; 20:23; 22:15; 29:12; 30:23, 26; 36:19; Tob 4:4), as is the phrase “aliens and exiles” (Gen 23:4; each noun appears individually many times in scripture). This language has a primary reference to Jews living as non-citizens in a foreign land; there were many such individuals in many nations of the eastern Mediterranean in the first century.
Other terms used reflect the common Jewish discourse shared by author and recipients, such as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), and “living stones…a spiritual house…a holy priesthood” who offer “spiritual sacrifices” (2:5). Holiness, sacrifice, priesthood, royalty, and a spiritual house are all ideas found often in Hebrew Scripture. The description of the community of believers as “living stones” is supported by a string of scripture citations (Isa 28:16; Ps 117:22; Isa 8:14; quoted at 2:6–8), whilst the appellation of “God’s own people” is explained by a poetic allusion to the prophet Hosea (Hos 1:6, 9; 2:25; at 1 Pet 2:10).
This Jewish scriptural focus is a prominent feature of this letter, which indicates a reverence for “the living and enduring word of God” (1:23). For the nominal author, Peter (and possibly also for his colleague, Silvanus; see 5:12), this must refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. The letter includes other scripture citations and scriptural imagery. The early focus of the letter on holy living, for instance, is supported by reference to Lev 11:44–45; 19:2 (quoted at 1:16). The role of “the word of God” is indicated by Isa 40:6–8 (quoted at 1:24–25).
The sacrificial suffering of Jesus is interpreted with reference to the fourth servant hymn of Isaiah 53. The direct citation of Isa 53:9 at 1 Pet 2:22 introduces a series of intertextual connections weaving together the death of Jesus with the servant song (2:23–25 refers to Isa 53:4, 5, 6 and 12).
The contrast between good and evil is expounded at one point by a long Psalm citation (Ps 34:13–17, quoted at 3:10–12) and later by drawing on a proverb (Prov 11:31, quoted at 4:18). Likewise, a proverb contrasting the proud and the humble is quoted as a justification for the exhortation, “humble yourselves” (5:5–6, citing Prov 3:34).
Other scriptural elements include an allusion to the “day of visitation” (2:12, referring to Isa 10:3); a proverbial phrase (4:8 quotes some words from Prov 10:12); a reference to the spirit of God (4:14 alludes to Isa 11:2); and a Christologically-expanded interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood (3:18–20, in reference to Gen 7). As this letter regularly intertwines Hebrew scripture with guidance about the way of Jesus, it surely reflects a continuing Jewish presence in the Jesus movement.
However, the key words “aliens and exiles” (2:11) also carry symbolic significance. They both derive from scriptural usage in the scrolls of Hebrew Scripture, collected into the books of the Old Testament. The purpose of the letter is to reinforce the identity of the community of believers as “aliens and exiles”, an especially important process because of the pressures which are being experienced by those members from the society in which they lived.
The language which is applied to them ought not to be taken purely at the literal level, for it is often metaphorical. This is obvious with regard to references to “newborn infants” and “spiritual milk” (2:2), “living stones” and the “spiritual house” (2:5), and being “born anew” (1:23). It applies also to the references to “aliens and exiles”; we cannot assume that all believers addressed were literally living in a foreign country. Rather, the force of the image is to describe the alienation that has taken place between the wider society and the group of believers who follow the way of Jesus.
Indeed, there are various indications that the recipients of the letter had previously been Gentiles living in sinful and idolatrous ways, but now were striving to live by standards which set them apart from others, and may at times have caused them intense difficulties. The author hints that they were “going astray like sheep” (2:25) and followed “futile ways” (1:18) which were characterised by “desires that you formerly had in ignorance” (1:14). These are spelled out as “malice…guile, insincerity, envy…slander” (2:1) and “living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (4:3).
Coming to faith in Jesus was like being called out of darkness (2:9), being raised from the dead (1:21), being born anew (1:23). Such believers are to stand in a different relationship to the customs and practices in which they were raised: “now that you have purified your souls” (1:22), “do not be conformed” (1:14), “abstain from the desires of the flesh” (2:11), “live no longer by human desires” (4:2). People addressed in these terms by a Jew (such as Peter, the nominal author of the letter) could not have been Jews; they must have been Gentiles. Perhaps some of them were Godfearers, such as are identified in Acts?
At any rate, the language and ideas of Hebrew Scripture permeates this letter and undergirds its key ideas, whether the recipients were Jews, Godfearers, Gentiles, or a combination of all three. It is an enticing mixture, to be sure.
Excerpts from the letter which we know as 1 Peter are being offered in the coming Sundays throughout this season of Easter. The letter has a focus on joy in the midst of suffering, which might thus suit it well as an Easter series. For this coming Sunday, we will hear 1:3–9, an extended blessing offered to God, who “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3)—a most suitable acclamation for the Easter season!
The letter has opened (in verses omitted by the lectionary) with the standard opening address of an ancient letter form: “Peter … to the exiles of the dispersion … grace and peace” (1:1–2). Instead of a thanksgiving, which usually opened an ancient Greek letter, in this case the letter launches into this blessing (1:3–12), which was a common Jewish feature (found also in 2 Cor 1:3–7 and Eph 1:3–14).
Unfortunately, the lectionary offers only verses 3 to 9, so we are somewhat shortchanged by this truncated passage. Ending the lectionary selection with “… you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (v.9) does conclude a thought-sequence; but the next three verses (vv.10–12) expound the meaning of that salvation, as already having been revealed through the prophets. The author of this letter is thoroughly grounded in scripture; regular reference to the sacred texts of Israelite faith occur throughout this letter.
The main theme of the letter is declared after the blessing, in an initial exhortation (one of many in the letter) to “prepare your minds for action … do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance … be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1:13–15). Curiously, the lectionary also overlooks this passage; the passage offered on Sunday week (Easter 3) starts at verse 17, “if you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds …”.
Once again, in true Jewish style, this exhortation is grounded in a central scriptural text, the Levitical call to holiness (Lev 11:44; 19:2). The emphasis throughout the letter is on living faithfully as God’s chosen people. A closing comment reinforces that the purpose of the letter is “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (5:12). Then follow some closing greetings and a short benediction (5:12–14). Unusually amongst the New Testament books not by Paul which are usually identified as letters (those attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude, and the anonymous work to the Hebrews), this document is indeed a true letter.
The author is announced simply as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This would suggest a letter from a writer with close personal links with Jesus. The substance of the letter sits uneasily with this claim. The letter’s refined style of language, and especially the use of a number of classical Greek words, is rather unexpected for a Galilean fisherman.
There are a number of references to the suffering of Jesus (1:11; 2:4, 21, 24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1), but no other indication that the author knew anything of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Instead, the letter reflects the Christology of the developing movement, interpreting the death of Jesus in sacrificial terms (1:18–19; 2:24; 3:18) and attesting to him as the one who is risen (1:3; 3:21), a mediator with God (2:5), to be acknowledged as Lord (3:15), now dwelling with God in glory (3:22; 5:10), whose future return is awaited (1:7–8, 13; 4:13; 5:4).
The author claims to have been “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1)—a curious claim to be made by Peter, if the accounts of his denial and desertion of Jesus, found in the canonical gospels, are to be believed! He also describes himself as an “elder” (5:1), which we would not expect to be a term to be adopted by Peter. The word indicates the author’s leadership role within the developing community of faith.
The identification of this community as being “in Babylon” (5:13) is frequently interpreted as being code for Rome, drawing on the same tradition found in Revelation 17:1–18:24. The link with Mark (5:13) has been taken as a further indication of Roman origins, as Mark was alleged to have been in Rome with Peter. However, these connections are faint, revealing nothing of substance about the nature or purpose of the letter.
The close of the letter indicates that it has been written “through Silvanus” (5:12), leading some interpreters to suggest that Silvanus, as secretary, placed a more educated and polished mark on the letter as he transcribed the author’s thoughts. But an alternative translation of this verse is possible, by which Silvanus is designated as the one who delivers the letter, rather than being involved in its writing.
This Silvanus may well be a different person from the Silvanus who is known as a fellow-worker with Paul (2 Cor 1:19; Acts 15:40) and is called the co-author, with Paul, of both letters to Thessalonica. As he was a member of the Pauline group, we would expect more Pauline influence to be evident in 1 Peter if he was involved in its creation.
In fact, this letter shows more similarity to the “pastoral” letters attributed to Paul—which have some similarities with Paul’s thinking, but demonstrate a clear development in ideas, language, and theology, most likely reflecting a different (layer) context. Like them, it is more feasible that this letter was written after the death of the apostle, in his name, in order to encourage and guide believers in what appears to have been a time of increased suffering. Jesus is invoked as the guide and example for believers in this situation.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). So Thomas says to the other disciples, gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus had been crucified and buried. In two Gospels, we have a report of Jesus appearing to the disciples (Luke 24:36–49; John 20:19–23).
In Luke’s account, Jesus had invited the disciples to “look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). In some manuscripts, it is then reported that “when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet” (Luke 24:40). That may be the same incident that John reports, although only he notes that “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came” (John 20:24).
It is later, when the other disciples tell him of the appearance of Jesus to them, that Thomas expresses the doubt for which he is infamous. A week later, he responds to the invitation from Jesus to “put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put it in my side; do not doubt but believe”, with the words, “my Lord and my God!” (John 20:27–28). From the swirl of doubt emerges the clarity of belief.
Those hands which bore “the mark of the nails” merit some consideration. Bruised and bloodied, scarred forever by the barbarity of crucifixion—what had those hands done? Where had they touched others? How had they been instrumental in the ministry of Jesus?
The one story that specifically reports Jesus using his finger is the “floating” narrative concerning a woman caught in adultery, a group of scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus. (It is a “floating” story because it appears in some version of John’s Gospel, but not in others; and in yet more ancient manuscripts, at three different places in Luke’s Gospel.) The text reports that, when the scribes and Pharisees made their accusation against the woman, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8:6).
Whilst “the dust of the ground” was the source for God’s creation of humanity (Gen 2:7), the ground on which Jesus, the woman, and those bringing her to be stoned would have been a dusty, dirty ground. That ground had endured the tramping of feet, in sandals, or unshod, and the tramping of animals. That ground would have been the receptacle for excreta from those animals, and perhaps also from humans. It would not necessarily be a clean, swept, healthy environment like we might imagine. And yet, Jesus places his finger in that ground, and writes, amidst the detritus of the earth. A small parable of incarnation?
Not only the fingers of Jesus, but also the hands of Jesus would also come into contact with a number of individuals deemed unclean, or at least regarded as “on the edge” within the Jewish purity system that held sway in his culture. When Jesus encountered a leper in Galilee, he “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41; Matt 8:3; Luke 5:13). According to Lev 13:45–46, the leper should have remained outside the town, at a distance from, and not in contact with, the general population.
When Jesus approaches Jericho, in Luke’s narrative, he is asked by a blind man to heal him (Luke 18:38–39). Jesus does so, although there is no mention of direct physical contact in this account. In Matthew’s reworking of this story, it is two blind men outside Jericho who beg Jesus, “Lord, let our eyes be opened”, and we are told that “moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes” and they were healed (Matt 20:33–33). Likewise, in Luke’s distinctive journey narrative (Luke 9–19), Jesus encounters a bent-over woman in a synagogue; “when he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (Luke 13:13).
In the Decapolis, the disciples of Jesus brought to him “a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32). Mark reports that Jesus “took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘be opened’” (Mark 7:33–34). This was the typical way of operating for healers in the ancient world; Mark reports that Jesus followed this pattern, and “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:35). Matthew and Luke have no reference to this incident; the thought of Jesus operating like a commonplace healer was not amenable to them (you might say, they couldn’t handle that).
In an incident told only in Mark’s Gospel, a similar way of operating is in evidence. At Bethsaida, “some people brought a blind man to [Jesus] and begged him to touch him” (Mark 8:22). In this encounter, we are told that Jesus “took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village … put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him” (Mark 8:23). Jesus does not shy away from touching the man, and even from placing his saliva on his hand to rub onto the blind man’s eyes, as was the custom of healers. Touch was important.
The same action occurs in a story told only in John’s Gospel, set in Jerusalem; a blind man is healed by Jesus as he “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes” (John 9:6). Jesus was not afraid to breach the boundaries that had been set in place to distinguish clean from unclean. (Saliva, as a bodily discharge, would render a person unclean, according to Lev 22:4–6, 22; and by analogy with the far more detailed prescriptions in Lev 15.) Following the pattern of the healers of the day meant also that the perception of what is clean and what is unclean that Jesus held presented a challenge to these clear boundaries.
The fingers, and hands, of Jesus move across those boundaries, to connect, reassure, and heal. The Lukan Jesus regards his work as being of God; “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). The finger of God was the means by which the plague of gnats took place in Egypt (Exod 8:19), and also the means by which the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, given to Moses on Mount Sinai, had been written (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10). Jesus claims divine power through the finger of God, as he works to bring in the kingdom of God.
The use of the image of “the finger of God” in the saying of Jesus brings to mind the role that the finger of the priest played in the rituals that took place in the Temple. The priest was to “take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times towards the front of the tent of meeting” (Num 19:4; the same instruction is given at Exod 29:12; Lev 4:30, 34; 8:15; 9:9; 14:16, 27; 16:14, 19). The finger of the priest was used to ensure the offering of blood, conveyed directly through touch, that would secure the forgiveness being sought from God.
Whilst Jesus was in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, Mark reports that many listening to him were exclaiming, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” (Mark 6:2). Just as the hands of the priest mediated forgiveness, so the hands of Jesus were instrumental in his healing ministry.
A pattern of regular and direct physical contact with those who were ill was evident: “wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mark 6:56). Matthew changes this observation, noting that “they brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Matt 14:35–36). The initiative in reaching out to touch is reversed in this narrative; Matthew generally preserves a more orthodox Jesus, adhering more carefully to Torah, avoiding direct touch where he can.
Not so for Luke. Early on in his narrative, Luke reports that whilst in Capernaum, as the sun was setting, “all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to [Jesus]; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them” (Luke 4:40); and then, a little later, in Galilee, he notes that “a great multitude of people … had come to hear [Jesus] and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured; and all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them” (Luke 6:18–19).
In one incident, Luke claims that “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal” (Luke 5:17). That explains the transactional significance of direct touch in stories about Jesus as healer; this was the means by which healing power was transmitted between people. Even in Nazareth, where the crowd noted “deeds of power are being done by his hands” (Mark 6:2), and despite their unbelief and offence, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (Mark 6:5).
The hands which Thomas later saw—battered and bruised, bloodied by nails being driven through them—were the very hands which mediated the power of God through healings. They were also the hands that were laid on children, as they were brought to Jesus and he blessed them (Mark 10:16, Matt 19:13; Luke 18:15). They were the hands that blessed the disciples, gathered at Bethany after the risen Jesus had been seen, just before “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50–51). And these same hands were the hands that were grabbed and bound at his arrest and, later, savagely nailed in preparation for his crucifixion.
There are other hands in the Gospel narratives: the hands of those who attempt to seize Jesus (Luke 20:19; John 7:30, 44; 10:39); the hands of the betrayer and then those who arrest Jesus (Mark 14:41, 46; Matt 26:45, 50; Luke 22:53); the hands of the council members who struck Jesus (Mark 14:65; Matt 26:67; 27:31); the hands of the soldiers who whipped and scourged Jesus (Mark 15:15; Matt 27:26; Luke 22:63; 23:16, 22; John 19:1); the hands of the soldiers who stripped Jesus of his cloak (Mark 15:20; Matt 27:31) and divided his garments, rolling the dice to decide who took which piece (Mark 15:24; Matt 27:35). And the hands of Pilate, blood-soaked, but washed to declare his innocence of that blood (Matt 27:24).
But the focus is on the hands of Jesus in the stories told in the Gospels. The author of the fourth Gospel attests that “the Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands” (John 3:35). Later in this Gospel, Jesus says that “the sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me; I give them eternal life, and they will never perish—no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). The climax to the story in this Gospel is foreshadowed when Jesus, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3), gathers his disciples for their last meal together.
The author of Luke’s Gospel ends his account of Jesus dying on the cross with Jesus crying out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, quoting from Psalm 31. Those hands are the ones that the psalmist praises, “long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (Ps 102:25, quoted at Heb 1:10; see also Ps 95:4–5); they are the same hands that the psalmist also notes “have made and fashioned me” (Ps 119:73).
The story has traced the full circle, from the hands of God which created all creatures, sent his son into the world, and placed all things into his hands; to the dying son, with hands arms spread wide and his bloodied hands extended, handing back his spirit to God. As Graham Kendrick writes in The Servant King, “hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered”.
These hands: reaching out and blessing, touching and healing, wounded and bloodied, scarred, yet offering love; these hands are what Thomas sees.
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday provides the name by which this Sunday is often known in church tradition: it is Thomas Sunday. (The reading is John 20:19-31.)
We all know about Thomas: he had to have proof … had to see with his own eyes … had to touch to know it was real … did not have faith without tangible proof. Thomas often gets a bad rap: oh he of little faith! … why did he not believe straight away, like the others who followed Jesus? … why was he in the thrall of doubt at precisely the time that faith was called for?
Thomas wants to pin the matter down, to have the evidence produced, to know without question what has taken place. We remember him from this story, as the doubting sceptic.
Let us reflect a little on this: Thomas was not alone. All the other early witnesses, followers, and writers, in the movement of people clustered around Jesus, had the same need to pin the matter down. There were many sceptics in this movement. They needed some form of proof. They looked for evidence. They sought signs that would validate the new way that Jesus was in their midst.
Subsequent compilers of the narrative about Jesus could not live with the uncertainty of an open-ended story, with an absent Jesus who would appear only in a distant, remote, unimportant location (Galilee). No; they had to have him come to the women, the travellers, even the inner core of disciples, in or near to Jerusalem. Indeed, Luke explicitly reports that the risen Jesus provided them with “many convincing proofs” after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).
Thomas, of course, is the disciple whom we most closely associate with doubt, not with faith, derived from this very report of his encounter with the risen Jesus. “Unless I see, I will not believe”, the sceptic Thomas says, in John 20. “Unless I can put my finger in the mark in the side of my master, I will not believe that he has risen”, declares Thomas.
And in the modern scientific era, where we operate by testing, questioning, doubting, and seeking to prove hypotheses, this kind of approach has a certain attractiveness. For some Christians in the present time, in the period of probing scientific hypotheses and seeking historical certainties, Thomas has become a kind of patron saint—a saint of doubting, questioning, and proving. “Unless I see, I will not believe” is the mantra of such a saint.
But Thomas appears in two other places in John’s Gospel. One is at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers, when Thomas asks Jesus a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This question provokes one of the most well-known sayings of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7). It is thanks to Thomas that we have this saying of Jesus!
The other time that Thomas is mentioned in this Gospel provides us with another insight into the character of Thomas. He appears early on, in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, as told in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. In that story, we encounter a rather different Thomas. In that incident, Thomas was a man on a mission who was filled with faith. He spoke with Jesus with the intensity of a fervent believer. He declared that he was prepared to follow Jesus, whatever it cost him.
Faced with a request to travel to Bethany, near Jerusalem, because of the death of Lazarus, Jesus and his followers discuss whether they should make this trip. John’s Gospel tells us that the message of Jesus was so provocative to the southerners in Judea, that they had already mounted a number of attempts to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31).
So the disciples were convinced that if Jesus travelled close to Jerusalem, he would be walking to his death. What to do, they wonder, when this urgent message comes from friends in Bethany: “Lazarus is dead; please come; we need you here!” (John 11:1-8).
At that moment, Thomas springs into action. There is no doubt about it, he declares: Jesus needs to go there; and the disciples need to go with him. “We need to get moving! Come on, why are we waiting?” And from the mouth of Thomas come these incredible words: “We should go too, and die with him” (John 11:16).
Thomas utters the excitable words of a zealous follower of Jesus; he gives a fervent declaration of commitment and trust in the one who had been his guide for many months now. Thomas was not paralysed by fear, not distressed by doubt; here, Thomas was fired up by faith, and committed to a journey that could well lead to death. If Jesus, our master, is going to die—then we, too, should be prepared to die with him! (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/)
This portrayal of Thomas as a committed follower, as a passionate firebrand, is not how we normally remember him, because the story from chapter 20 of the Gospel holds sway. Yet in this earlier story in chapter 11 of the Gospel, it is clear that Thomas has faith, even if it is somewhat unusual, and it is abundantly clear that he is prepared to put his life on the line for what he believes.
So, perhaps we should place this Thomas, the passionate firebrand of John 11, alongside the hesitating, doubting figure that we imagine him to be like, courtesy of John 20. Where are the signs of this passionate, committed, fervent, zealous man of faith, in this encounter? Where was the fiery partisan Thomas living out his faith in the risen Jesus?
I like to imagine (and it is only an imagination … a speculation … as the biblical txt is silent on this point) … I like to imagine that, as the disciples gather behind locked doors, paralysed by their fear, Thomas was not to be found in their midst, because he was back into his regular life, living out his faith in the public arena.
Even after Jesus had been raised from the dead, the transformation of Easter, as we know it, had not really kicked in for the disciples. They were locked into their fear. Where were the disciples living out their faith? It seems they took the line of least resistance, and shared their faith only in the safety of their own group, hidden away, safe in the seclusion of a private home.
And where was Thomas? He was not there. He was out beyond the locked doors, out in the community, in the full gaze of the antagonistic authorities. What was he doing? We are not told; we have to imagine.
Is it feasible to imagine that Thomas was back into his regular routine, going about his business, attending to his daily tasks? That he was seeking to live out his faith, not cowed by the threat of persecution, but firmly holding fast to his belief in Jesus in public? That he was continuing to live as that fiery, fanatical believer who was still willing to put his faith on the line? It is a tempting, enticing way to imagine him.
If Thomas was really the passionately committed believer whom we met in the Lazarus story, then it is quite plausible that this is why he was not with the other disciples, behind locked doors, hiding out of fear.
Perhaps Thomas was wanting to demonstrate his faith to those who did not yet believe. Something had happened to Jesus—the tomb was empty, believers were testifying that he was risen—so he was wanting to show others that his faith had not been shattered.
Where was Thomas living out his faith? In his everyday life, amidst acquaintances and friends—and even enemies. Now that is a model that we would do well to ponder, and imitate, in our lives!
(The image is of Saint Thomas, by Georges de La Tour, a French painter of the 17th century.)
On Easter Sunday, all attention is rightly on Jesus, risen from the dead. “Christ is risen”, we greet each other, with the expected reply, “he is risen indeed”. Risen, to new life; risen, as a sign of the future life we are promised; risen, soon to ascend, to be “seated at the right hand of the Father” in heaven. Alleluias are rightly sung on this Easter day, and in this Easter season!
So our attention is, in effect, directed away from here, on earth, towards the heavenly realm. Indeed, the Gospel for Easter Sunday this year appears to point us in that direction, as Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”(John 20:17).
The same orientation is found in the story of the walk to Emmaus, where Jesus says to those walking on the road with him, “was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). “Going to glory”, of course, is a popular euphemism for dying—going to heaven; even in biblical usage, entering into glory is to be in the direct presence of God (Exod 40:35; 2 Chron 7:2; Isa 2:10, 19–21; 1 Cor 15:42–43; 2 Cor 3:7–18). And that is where Jesus goes.
A popular (mis)understanding of Christianity is that it is about using this life as preparation for the life to come in the future. Faith, in this view, is about repentance now and obedience in all we do on this earth, so that when we die, our souls will rise to heaven, we will be commended as a “good and faithful servant”, and invited to “enter the kingdom of God”—or, in the common popular perception, step through the pearly gates into a heaven filled with angels, playing their harps and singing their songs of eternal praise and adoration.
That’s the popular view; and some small part of this rests on some verses found in scripture. But most of it is romanticised populist thinking, far away from Christian doctrine. Sure, there are the apocalyptic sections in the Bible that look to the coming of a new creation—but if you understand them in the way that I believe they were intended, they are actually providing encouragement to believers about the present, rather than predicting what the future will be. And they are not about the new heavens and new earth of the future, up in the sky somewhere, but rather about “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”, onto earth (see Rev 21:2).
See my discussion of the function of biblical apocalyptic passages at
So the question stands, during this Easter moment—and throughout the Easter season that stretches ahead of us: where do we focus our attention? Three Gospels provide a very clear answer as they recount the appearances of the risen Jesus. In Luke’s story about the appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem, he says to them, “look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself; touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). The physicality of Jesus is to the fore.
In John’s account of that scene, there is also a physicality in the encounter—with an emphasis on the fact that Jesus shows them “the mark of the nails in his hands and … the mark of the nails … in his side” (John 20:25). Not only the physicality, but the carrying of the wounds of the cross into the next phase of life, is to the fore for John.
And then, when Matthew recounts the first appearance of Jesus, to the women fleeing the tomb in the early morning (and this encounter is told only in Matthew’s Gospel), he makes a point of noting that the (presumably prostrate) women “took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (Matt 28:9). All three Gospels focus on the material present rather than an imagined heavenly future.
Not only that, but each of the three Gospels that narrate appearances of the risen Jesus orient the stories to the future in the known realm of the earth, rather than the future in some heavenly realm. In John’s Gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples, gathered in the room behind locked doors, for the task of bearing witness to him: “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:2). This is language that is used often in this Gospel for the mission that Jesus is undertaking: he is sent by the Father, God is “the one who sent me” (4:34; 5:24, 30, 37; 6:38–39, 44; 7:33; 8:16–18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:44–45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5); and so he now sends his followers in similar fashion. This is language that is very focussed on this earth, this life.
That task of witnessing is also articulated in the clear declaration placed on the lips of the risen Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). This turns into a fully-fledged evangelistic manifesto when the scene is recounted again in Acts: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Both Luke and John connect this charge to the disciples with the giving of the Spirit: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8); “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). There is no mention of Spirit in the final scene reported in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 28:16–20); however, there is a clear commission in this narrative—the famous “Great Commission”. The emphasis here, as in the other two Gospels, is on the work to be done by the followers of Jesus in the period after he has left them. It is a this-worldly emphasis in these narratives.
The words used in the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel (28:19–20) need to be read carefully. There are four key verbs (doing words) in these two verses: go, teach, baptise, teach. In strict syntactical analysis, the main verb is the one in the imperative (expressing a command): “make disciples”. Subsidiary to that are the other three verbs, each of which is in a participial form (indicating an action that is related to, or consequent from, that main verb). So making disciples is the key factor in this commission.
The act of making disciples is directed towards “the nations”—that is, to anyone with whom the followers of Jesus come into contact. It is to be expressed through two activities: baptising, and teaching. The act of making disciples is also to take place “as you are going”, that is, as followers of Jesus are making their way through the world in the days ahead.
Teaching orients the focus of the disciples back to the time that they spent with Jesus; they are to teach the people of the nations “to obey everything that I have commanded you”. As Matthew has taken great care to compile and collate the teachings of Jesus into five clear sections of his Gospel (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25), the guidelines provided by Jesus are evident. What he has taught in his time with the disciples is to be passed on (in good rabbinic style) to those whom they then instruct. Teaching is an activity for life in this world, very clearly.
Baptising orients the focus of the disciples to the life of the church in the future. Belonging to Jesus involves submitting to the ritual of immersion into water, signalling the new life that is taken on through faith. The formula used in Matt 28:19 is, in fact, something that emerges only later in the life of the church (probably not until the time of Constantine, as far as we can tell from other Christian literature). Once again, life in community on this earth is the focus. There is no sense of being baptised (“christened” in the old language) in order to “get into heaven”.
So the accounts of Jesus departing from his disciples offer no sense of, “I am going away, you will join me soon, we shall see each other in heaven”. Rather, the focus is on what the disciples need to do in the earthly life that stretches ahead of them: bear witness, make disciples, teach and baptise, continue out amongst “the nations” the mission that Jesus has been undertaking amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.
(The resurrection appearances at the end of Mark’s Gospel are in endings that were added centuries after the original was written, to bring it into consistency with the others, so they don’t figure in my discussion at this point.)
Two other factors point in the same direction, oriented to life on this earth, and not to a heavenly realm beyond. First, the Revised Common Lectionary (admittedly a creation from many centuries after Jesus!) offers stories from the life of those early followers—the church in Jerusalem and beyond—in passages from Acts during the season of Easter. That is to say, the structure of the lectionary reminds us that, after the resurrection of Jesus, the life of faithful followers is lived and worked out in amongst the other people of this earth. It is a grounded discipleship that is to the fore.
Finally, going right back to the lips of Jesus himself in the first century, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Matt 6:10). That final phrase is central to all that Jesus proclaimed in his teachings and parables: what God is willing “in heaven” is to be made manifest here in our midst, “on earth”.
That is the immanent, present, realised, immediate vision that Jesus has for his followers; and that is what the resurrection narratives point us to, time and again. The resurrection calls us to pay attention to this life.