Perverting and confusing, biting and devouring, bewitched and confused (Gal 5; Pentecost 3C)

The lectionary is currently providing a short series of excerpts from one of Paul’s earliest letters—the one he wrote to the Galatians, possibly in the late 40s, more likely (in my view) by the middle of the 50s.

This letter is distinctive in a couple of ways. The audience is not a gathering of believers in one city (as in Thessalonians, or Philippi, or Corinth, or even Rome), but the various communities of believers across the whole region of Galatia, which was one of the Roman provinces in the area we today call Turkey.

A second distinctive feature is that this letter completely omits any of the “friendly overture” elements that are typically found at the start of the letters widely recognised as the authentic letters of Paul. Many of these letters, after the requisite formalities (Paul, to the believers in X, grace and peace to you), contain a prayer of thanksgiving: “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly …” (1 Thess 1:2–10); “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus …” (1 Cor 1:4–9), “when I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus …” (Phlmn 4–7); “first, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world …” (Rom 1:8-15); and in the letter known as “the friendly letter”, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Phil 1:3–11).

The second letter to the Corinthians replaces this prayer of thanksgiving with an extended blessing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction …” (2 Cor 1:3–7); that pattern is followed by the anonymous scribe who wrote decades later, modelling his circular letter on earlier Pauline examples, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …” (Eph 1:3–14), just as the unknown person who crafted a letter to Colossae likewise followed the model of the earlier prayers of thanksgiving: “in our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints …” (Col 1:3–14).

The letter to the Galatians has no indication, either of a prayer of thanksgiving, or of a blessing. Instead, this letter cuts right to the chase, in direct words which accuse and denounce: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel … there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ … if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:6–9). The letter continues swiftly, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10).

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This opening accusation is reflected in words that we find in the section offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (5:1, 13–25) when, five chapters after this direct opening, Paul rounds back on his audience, declaring that “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15).

In a striking juxtaposition, however, the letter continues on from this warning, to provide a contrast, which has become well-known, between “the desires of the flesh” (5:16–21) and “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–26).

I have no doubt that most, if not all, sermons that are preached on this lectionary offering will focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the nine qualities identified as the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23).

Swimming against the tide, I intended to reflect here, not on the fruit of the Spirit, but on those earlier words, about “biting and devouring one another”.

(I have written an earlier reflection on one of those fruits, gentleness, at https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/)

To understand the reason for Paul’s direct words, we need to understand the presumed situation in Galatia which he was addressing. We can glean a number of clues about this from references and statements in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

It is evident from Paul’s opening comments that other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. He derogatively labels them as “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7), and later as those who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1) and, by inference, those who “prevented [them] from obeying the truth” (5:7). As a result, he calls the Galatians “foolish” (3:1) and expresses a wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (5:12).

These teachers, in Paul’s opinion, proclaim “a gospel contrary to what you received” (1:9)—namely, what Paul himself had taught them, when he had earlier visited the Galatians, a time “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8). The Galatians turned from their gentile faith to adopt faith in Jesus, by which “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (4:9). It is “for freedom [that] Christ has set us free” (5:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/15/for-freedom-christ-has-set-us-free-galatians-pentecost-2c-3c-4c/

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If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we do not have specific information about the identity of the addressees of this letter or their location.

Acts indicates that Paul had preached in a number of locations in Galatia: initially with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–52), Iconium (14:1–5), Lystra (14:6–20) and Derbe (14:6, 21–23). Subsequently he revisited the area, once passing through swiftly with Timothy, saying nothing (16:6), and later going “from place to place” in the region, “strengthening the disciples” (18:23).

In the first two cities there were Jews who were opposed to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas: they persecuted them in Antioch and attempted to stone them in Iconium. However, such figures are common in Acts, for in almost every place Paul encounters such Jewish opposition. We learn no specifics of the Galatian churches from the Acts accounts.

Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/19/inclusion-welcome-unity-gal-3-pentecost-2c/

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of these teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are the ones whom Paul blames for the destructive behaviour of the believers in Galatia, as they bite and devour one another, because they have been (in Paul’s view) bewitched and confused. (So much for the wonderful days of the “golden era” of the early church … … …)

Paul has much to say about the teaching of these people, identifying circumcision as the central issue, but actually dealing with a whole set of matters regarding the place of the Jewish Torah, the law, in the communities which recognised Jesus as Messiah. Paul comes back to this is his final chapter of the letter, which is what the lectionary offers us on the Sunday after next … so more musings on that, next week.

Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. (Gal 3; Pentecost 2C)

My sermon for the 45th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia, preached at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 June 2022

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On the Sunday closest to 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. And as it happens, today the lectionary offers us a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament, which is quite relevant. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church. It taps into many of those key things that are at the heart of our DNA as the UCA. (You might have read what I wrote about this in the newsletter this week, or on our website; see https://tuc.org.au/conversations/the-dna-of-the-uca/)

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatia, a region in the area we today would call Turkey, the communities of new believers were practising Circumcision as a sign of their faith in Jesus. That was how Jewish people had long signalled their faith, by circumcising their infant males. Jesus himself was circumcised. So it made sense to the believers in Galatia to require that any males who professed faith in Jesus would be circumcised.

This practice came under criticism. In Galatia, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was written in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection on the part of Paul.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he attacks them for biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics! Nevertheless, it is part of the collection of letters that were included, long ago, in the canon of our scriptures. We are called to hear it, read it, and reflect on it.

So it is wonderful to find, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, that we come across comments that do provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

In today’s passage, we find these two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

It is a vision that should resonate with us here at Tuggeranong. In this congregation, we work to ensure that people are welcomed and included. The door is open to all who want to walk through it and gather with us. And such people do walk through the door: people of Anglo heritage, of Islander heritage, of Indian and Asian heritage; people of mature age, those “in their prime” (yes, that’s most of us!), those who participate regularly in Girls’ Brigade, and those in the very early years of their lives.

In the fellowship of this congregation, we have people who identify as heterosexual and those who identify as homosexual; those who have transitioned genders, those who are intersex, those who prefer the pronoun “they” to “he” or “she”. Rainbow Christian Alliance offers a safe place for such folks, as well as this morning worship gathering. We have in our midst people for whom life has been a struggle, and those who have been blessed with good health and happy relationships throughout.

People from this Tuggeranong congregation offer ministry to those at Karralika who are grappling with issues in their life, to those who are finding it hard to make ends meet and value the opportunities to shop at Red Dove, or to collect food parcels, and to those who simply want a weekly time of friendly companionship over a meal. All of these activities, and more, indicate that we are open, welcoming, inclusive. This resonates with the vision of the church that Paul long ago articulated.

And it indicates that we are, as we have prayed earlier, heading towards being a church that “dreams ambitiously, loves with purpose, and dances with danger … that lives the politics of the kingdom and discovers the beauty of humanity, that loves to bless the stranger … and has courage to step out in faith … as God’s companions on this way”. [Prayer by Rocky Hamilton, abbotsford.org.uk]

Paul’s vision of the church is one of harmony, inclusion, unity. Yet some were clinging to the old practices, of circumcision, while others were seeking to move on, through practising baptism. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the people in Galatia had failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person—male or female—would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to take place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century onwards has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. Today in our society, we are pursuing this vision particularly in relation to gender and sexual identity, a conversation which has been to the fore in society in recent years, a conversation in which the Uniting Church has played a key role as a faith organisation.

Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. One in Christ Jesus. May this be a reality for us, in this community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

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See also

For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians, Pentecost 2C, 3C, 4C)

As the epistle is the lectionary for this Sunday and the following two Sundays comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, here is an Introduction to Galatians.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes.

Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians (1:6–9). In quick succession, he criticizes their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads. What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Graeco-Roman society—which would have included Paul.  

So Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught the Christians there things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings that apparently had been so effective amongst them.

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatians 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas: he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. (There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter: “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited.)

The key themes of this letter relate to the Law, freedom, and unity.

The gospel that Paul proclaims makes believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions: as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28).

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that these other teachers want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes, they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13).

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Philippans 3:5 (a fact that he omits when he rehearses his past at Galatians 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts.

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage that lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law.

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, that secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law.

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2) and to “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel, which brings liberation in community (3:28), will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom that it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6 and 7:17, quoting Psalm 110:4). This is a distinctive teaching, found only here in the New Testament. What are we to make of it? Who is Melchizedek? How is he relevant to Jesus? Why is this relevant for us today?

The book we know as “the letter to the Hebrews” is a most distinctive work. It is regularly described as a letter, but it doesn’t follow many of the conventions of a Hellenistic letter. It claims to be a word of exhortation, but many long sections in the work are in fact didactic expositions, not pastoral encouragements.

Alone amongst the twenty one letters in the New Testament, this book makes no claim as to its author. It sits oddly amongst the thirteen letters of Paul, the three letters of John, the two letters of Peter, and the single letters of James and Jude. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

Whilst Paul describes Jesus as a sacrifice, whose death offers us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, only Hebrews portrays Jesus as the priest who makes the sacrifice, slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously as the victim, lying on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). And only Hebrews makes the declaration noted above, that the nature of the priesthood of Jesus is that he is priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”.

Melchizedek is a Semitic name which is comprised of two separate words: melek, meaning king, and zedek, from tsedeqa, the Hebrew word for righteousness. These terms bring together two key aspects of life and faith for the ancient Israelites. The king was the ruler and leader, through whom the people were in covenant with God (2 Sam 7). Righteousness was the central characteristic of God, which was to be the central commitment of the people of Israel (Gen 18:19). So the king was to rule by righteousness (Psalm 72:1-4).

We meet Melchizedek, the king of righteousness, early in Genesis, when Abram is making his way from Egypt, where he went during the famine (Gen 12:10), through the Negev (Gen 13:1). Abram meets Melchizedek in a place named as The King’s Valley (Gen 14:17). It occurs after God had called Abram and Sarai from their life in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31) and before God makes a covenant with Abram (Gen 15), which Abram (at the ripe old age of 99 years) seals through the rite of circumcision (Gen 17).

The encounter with Melchizedek is a short interlude in the saga, immediately after Abram has recused his son Lot from a coalition of kings in the Mesopotamian region (Gen 14). Salem, of which he is said to be king (Gen 13:18), is very probably Jerusalem—Psalm 76:2 places Salem in parallel with Zion, pointing to this identification. And Jerusalem was the seat for King David and his descendants, so it makes sense that The King’s Valley would be in this area.

Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, and prays over him, conferring a blessing on him (Gen 14:19–20). It is the blessing of “El ʿElyon,” which is a name of Canaanite origin, probably designating the high god of their pantheon. Abram responds by offering Melchizedek a tithe (Gen 14:21), and is insistent that Melchizedek accept all that is offered.

In Roman Catholic tradition, the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek is regarded as a “pre-presentation of the Mass”—a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus celebrated in their liturgy. He is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, and is remembered as a martyr each year on 26 August. However, the offering of a meal to troops returning from battle was simply a common practice at the time; see, for instance, the lavish meal provided for the returning troops of David at 2 Sam 17:27–29.

The portrayal of Abram as the leader of an army (Gen 14:13–16) which was able to defeat the forces of a coalition of many kings (Gen 14:8–9) is recognised as an anomaly; elsewhere in the section of Genesis recounting the saga of Abraham (Gen 12–25), there is no indication at all that Abram had any any warmongering tendency or any capacity to fight battles.

Because of this, Old Testament scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp has suggested that the story of Melchizedek was inserted into the narrative about Abram to give validity to the priesthood and tithes connected with the Second Temple, after the Exile (which was the period when the book of Genesis was compiled). The links are made in that the King of Salem blesses and breaks bread with the ancestor of David, king in Jerusalem, and confers a priestly blessing from one of the gods of the land on the ancestor, Abram, from whom the Levites descended and amongst whom the sacrificial system and tithing requirements evolved.

The story has a clear validating purpose for the patterns that are being (re)established amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It explains why David set up his headquarters in Jerusalem, and established a priesthood there which would receive offerings from all the people under his control. That validated the claims of the priests as the administered and oversaw the sacrificial system of the Temple cult, for they were seen to be adhering to the pattern established long ago under David—and, indeed, demonstrated long before that, by Abram.

There is nothing else known about Melchizedek, either in the Hebrew Bible, or in other ancient texts. We have no genealogy of Melchizedek; he simply appears, blesses Abram, and disappears from the story. He serves his single purpose, and then is heard of no more.

Certainly, the unique role and distinctive character of Melchizedek—and perhaps his mysterious origins—have made him a character of fascination. And that has been intensified within Christianity, because of the way that the book of Hebrews equates Jesus with Melchizedek and puts them into parallel with each other.

The word of exhortation encourages those who received this “letter” to “hold fast to [their] confession” that they have “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/)

Thus, Jesus is decreed to be son of God (Psalm 2:7, cited at Heb 5:5) and then “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4, cited at Heb 5:6). Both psalms which are cited are royal psalms, considered to provide messianic indicators, and thus are picked up within New Testament writings to claim the significance of Jesus, son of God, priest of the new covenant.

These psalms feed into the line of interpretation which sees Jesus in exalted terms—in this book, at least—as the great high priest, the superior high priest, the perfect high priest, the one who is pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And that line runs on beyond the New Testament, into other sects and cults that accord prominence to Melchizedek.

Viewed in this light, some interpreters press the point, making the analogy claim that, “just as Abraham, the ancestor of the Levites, paid a tithe to Melchizedek and was therefore his inferior, so the Melchizedek-like priesthood of Christ is superior to that of the Levites. Furthermore, just as the Old Testament assigns no birth or death date to Melchizedek, so is the priesthood of Christ eternal.” See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek

But for myself, that is pressing the point too far, and wringing every tiny drop of significance out of something that I see more as an exotic reference to an ancient tale—a story that is not historical, but was crafted for its own apologetic purposes amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It’s a little bit of New Testament exotica. Thanks, Hebrews!!

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See also ten facts about Melchizedek:

1. Only three books of the Bible mention Melchizedek

2. The New Testament says more about Melchizedek than the Old Testament

3. Melchizedek is a contemporary of Abraham’s

4. Melchizedek has no recorded family

5. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High

6. Melchizedek gives blessings (or at least one)

7. Melchizedek is the king of Salem

8. Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness”

9. The order of Melchizedek is royal and everlasting

10. Melchizedek was greater than Abraham and Aaron

https://overviewbible.com/melchizedek-facts/

See

As an example, take the prophets (James 5; Pentecost 18B)

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” So we read in this week’s selection from the treatise of James which is offered by the lectionary (James 5:13–20). As a further encouragement, a few verses earlier, we are enjoined, “as an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10).

In this rhetorical question and proverbial statement, we find that the author of this treatise does something that we have seen to be quite familiar from other sections of the book; he makes reference to Hebrew scripture. In doing this, James, the author, was doing what his more famous brother—Jesus—so regularly did. Referencing scriptural traditions was a family trait; indeed, it was what any faithful Jewish man would do, and provide scriptural resonances in what he was saying.

A number of statements in the treatise of James resonate with the teachings of Jesus that we know so well in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10). Most strikingly, the final beatitude spoken by Jesus, in which he exhorts joy in the face of persecution, in the manner of “the prophets who were before you”, is reflected in the opening exhortation of James, “whenever you face trials…consider it nothing but joy” (1:2), as well as the later reminder of James, “as an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets” (5:10). The two brothers are simply providing variations on a theme.

Other teachings in the book of James provide similarities to the teachings of Jesus spoken in the beatitudes, in the form found in Matt 5:3–12. The question posed by James, “has not God chosen the poor in the world…to be heirs of the kingdom?” (2:5) is similar to the first beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3).

The promise that James envisages, of “a harvest of righteousness…for those who sow peace” (3:18), is reminiscent of another beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The instruction to “purify your hearts” (4:8) echoes “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8).

Perhaps we should not be surprised about these resonances between the teachings of Jesus and the treatise of James; if this work was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), would we not expect him to know what Jesus was teaching? The two brothers are singing from the same songsheet.

These similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James are significant. The fact that they are preserved in different documents, shaped and then preserved by the followers of Jesus, is suggestive of an awareness of a common tradition of these ethical guidelines amongst Jewish members of the growing messianic movement.

James quotes Hebrew Scripture directly in verse 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). This is the basis for his instruction, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

The same scripture undergirds the words of Jesus which declare the same thing: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11, 18:14). It is also informs the prophetic words sung by his mother before his birth, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). The two sons of Mary (Jesus and James) are singing from the same songsheet as their mother!

When James writes a warning about laying up treasure (5:3), we are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the same topic. (Luke 12:13-21). In these words, both Jesus and James are drawing from Hebrew scriptures. Speaking against the oppressive actions of the rich sounds very much like a number of oracles thundered by the ancient prophets (Amos 2, 4, Micah 6, Hosea 12, Ezekiel 7).

The details use snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations. “The last days” evoke “the Day of the Lord” (Isa 34:7-8, Jer 25:33-34, Ezek 7:1-4, Joel 2:1-3, Amos 5:18-20). The withholding of the wages of the labourers (5:4) contradicts the Law (Lev 19:13, Deut 24:14-15) and echoes denunciations spoken by prophets (Jer 22:13, Mal 3:5).

The condemnation of “fattened hearts” (5:5) evokes Jer 5:27-28, Ezek 34:2-4. And murdering the righteous person reminds us, not only of the wrongheaded approach of wicked people (Wisdom 2:10-20) and the fate of the righteous servant (Isa 53:3-5, 7-9), but especially of the fate of Jesus, the Righteous One (John 15:20; Acts 3:14).

Then, the command of James, “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7), sounds a note that we hear in the final teachings which Jesus gives to his disciples, not long before his arrest. The earlier version of these teachings infers that patience will be required as “the beginnings of the birth pains” are seen (Mark 13:5–8), before Jesus exhorts his disciples: “the one who endured to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

Interestingly, “be patient” in the midst of these tumultuous happenings is a refrain found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul advises, “let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6); John encourages, “little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28); and Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7).

It was a widespread belief amongst the followers of Jesus in the first century, that Jesus would soon return, and that God would establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (That is the final, climactic vision, offered in Revelation 21:1-22:6). “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is a recurring New Testament motif (Rom 13:12; Phil 4:5; 1 Pet 4:7).

Over twenty centuries later, we know that this did not eventuate in the timeframe that was imagined, and hoped for, in the first century. Does that invalidate all that those earliest believers thought, wrote, and prayed for? Or is there another way that we are to take their words for our times?

Certainly, the direct ethical instructions found in this passage of the treatise of James sound like they are timeless: cultivate patience (5:7-8), avoid complaining (5:9), remain steadfast (5:11), be as good as your word in all you do (5:12), prayer and sing praise (5:13), seek healing and forgiveness (5:14–15) after confessing your sins (5:16). This is what we are called to do as we await the coming of God.

The wisdom from above (James 3; Pentecost 17B)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”. So we read at the start of the treatise of James (1:5). There is a strong wisdom flavour to this treatise. The word appears in just four verses (1:5; 3:13, 15, 17), but the nature of the book is quite akin to the most famous work of wisdom in scripture: the book of Proverbs.

The “letter” of James is, in reality, a moral treatise (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/) Sometimes called “the Proverbs of the New Testament,” the book of James provides practical guidance on how to live. It canvasses matters such as perseverance, controlling one’s tongue when speaking, submitting to God’s will, responsibilities towards the poor, dealing with anger, and fostering patience.

In terms of its style, James reflects the wisdom tradition that is so evident in Hebrew Scripture and in continuing Jewish traditions. An important place was ascribed to Wisdom amongst Jews of the Dispersion; Wisdom became a key figure for such Jews, as is reflected in a number of writings.

Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world. Wisdom plays a key role in the book of Sirach, where she gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest (Sir 6:24–28; 51:23–26). Furthermore, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history (Sir 24:1–8).

Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom, is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. But the description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as “a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the Almighty” (Wis Sol 7:25) and reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes (Wis Sol 7:22–24).

A comparison with Proverbs and Sirach can be drawn with Matthew, where it is said that Wisdom is at work in Jesus; when the Son of Man eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus declares that “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt 11:19b). Soon after those words, the Matthean Jesus explicitly adopts the language of Wisdom in a well-known set of words. Like Wisdom, he is a teacher (Matt 11:27). Like Wisdom, he invites his followers to take on the yoke of learning, and through this, find true rest (Matt 11:28–30).

Jesus teaches extensively in the style of the wise teacher, employing strings of short, pithy epithets and succinct maxims (see, for example, the collation of such sayings at Matt 6:19–34; 7:1–27; 9:10–17; 10:24–42; 18:1–14).

*****

The divine gift of wisdom occupies a central position in the treatise of James (1:5–8); this “wisdom from above” is to be contrasted with wisdom which is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:13–18).

Numerous epithets typical of the wisdom style are included in the treatise; there are succinct sayings which provide a definitive conclusion to discussion of a topic; for example, “mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13; compare Matt 9:13) or “who are you to judge your neighbour?” (4:12; compare Matt 7:1).

Practical guidance, which also features in wisdom literature, runs through the treatise of James: “do not be deceived” (1:16), “care for orphans and widows” (1:27), do not favour the rich over the poor (2:1–7), curb your tongues, like putting a bridle in a horse’s mouth (3:3), “do not be boastful” (3:14), “humble yourselves before the Lord” (4:10), “do not grumble against one another” (5:9), “do not swear…by any oath” (5:12), “pray for one another” (5:16).

The treatise of James includes a biting tirade against the oppressive actions of the rich (5:1–6). James quotes snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations of the rich (Isa 5:9; Jer 12:3), yet the same perspective is evident in Wisdom Literature. We see this, for example, in: “riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4); “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold” (Prov 22:1); “whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Prov 22:16).

In an extended diatribe against wealth and honour (Eccles 5:8–6:12), The Teacher notes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” (Eccles 5:10). In Job, Zophar the Naamathite speaks of the wicked: “He swallows down riches and vomits them up again; God casts them out of his belly” (Job 20:15). Antagonism to the rich accumulating more and more wealth is found in various Wisdom works.

A diatribe against engaging in various prohibited actions (arguing, coveting, murder, adultery and impurity, 4:1–10) includes the statement, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), which is perhaps citing Prov 3:34, “toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favour”.

The treatise as a whole ends with another saying which includes words from Proverbs: “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20), citing the later part of Prov 10:12, “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses”.

The numerous scriptural allusions peppered through the moral exhortations of each chapter certainly demonstrate that the influence of Hebrew scripture on this book, and particularly of the Wisdom literature, cannot be underplayed.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/08/wisdom-cries-in-the-streets-proverbs-1-pentecost-16b/

and there’s a fine sermon on this passage by Avril Hannah-Jones at https://revdocgeek.com/2021/09/18/sermon-avril-preaches-to-herself/

Wisdom from ages past for the present times (Leviticus, Jesus, James, and Paul) (Pentecost 15B, 23B)

There’s a book in the Bible that gets really bad press. It is is cited as being irrelevant to modern life, because it talks about “in the camp” and “outside the camp”. It seems to contain pages and pages of laws about sacrifices and offerings and festivals and the Temple, none of which seem relevant to Christian faith. It has chapters devoted to what you can eat, and what you can’t eat. It talks about how to deal with skin diseases and sexual misbehaviour.

And we know that a couple of verses in this book have, most unhelpfully, been quite abused by some people in some churches, being misused to berate, judge, and condemn some people in society—in ways that are quite out of keeping with the original intentions and application of these verses.

Have you guessed which book? If you thought, “ Leviticus”, you are right.

Leviticus—the book of the Levites, the group within ancient Israel that were responsible for all that took place in the Temple—contains all of these things. And those passages that gave directions about worship, sacrifices, offerings, ordination, priestly activity, dietary matters, relationships, illnesses, and more, were important for the people of Israel in centuries past.

But in the present—how relevant are these things? That’s a fair question (but it requires an explanation much longer than can be given in this short article).

There is one thing in Leviticus, however, that is important. Very important. So important that it has been quoted at many times in subsequent generations. So important that it shapes faith and discipleship for us even today. So important that is provides the guiding principle for life in a global pandemic.

There is a story when Jesus engages in conversation with a teacher of the Torah (the law), recounted in Mark 12:28–34 and parallel passages. To the question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus responds by citing two commandments, each drawn from Hebrew Scripture.

The first commandment, “love God”, comes from Deuteronomy (Deut 6:5; 10:12). Deuteronomy literally means “second law”; it is believed to be the book discovered in the Temple under King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8–11; 2 Chron 34:14–16) which was the catalyst and guide for the widespread reforms that Josiah undertook. Deuteronomy contains the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:1–21), as well as the Shema, which became the daily prayer of the Jews (Deut 6:4–9), and a series of blessings (28:1–6) and curses (28:15–19) which formed the basis for the beatitudes spoken by Jesus on the mountain (Matt 5:3–12) and the parallel set of blessings and woes on the plain (Luke 6:20–26).

The second commandment, “love your neighbour”, actually comes from Leviticus (19:18), a book which, as we have noted, contains a comprehensive set of laws which cover a wide range of issues and situations.

The command to “love your neighbour” culminates a series of instructions regarding the way a person is to relate to their neighbours: “you shall not defraud your neighbour .. with justice you shall judge your neighbour … you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour … you shall not reprove your neighbour” (19:13–18). It sits within the section of the book which is often called The Holiness Code (Lev 17–26), a section which emphasises the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7, 26). Being holy means treating others with respect.

It is not only Jesus who quotes these words from Leviticus. In the treatise of James, the brother of Jesus, the command to love your neighbour (Lev 19:18) is quoted. It leads into a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law as a whole (2:8). James makes reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11), before drawing a succinct moral conclusion: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.

The command to love your neighbour is also quoted by Paul, not once, but twice. The first time is in Rom 13:8–10, in a section of that letter where Paul claims that “love is the fulfilment of the law”. The second is in Galatians, where Paul reminds his audience of a key theme of that letter, that “you were called to freedom”, before asserting that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:13–14).

It is worth noting that both James and Paul link this central command to the issue of liberty—James 2:12, Gal 5:13–14. Keeping the law is not a matter of bondage and oppressive restrictions; rather, loving your neighbour is an expression of freedom, for as we orient ourself to the other person, we release our own person from what might hold and constrain us.

So the big three of first century Christianity—Jesus, his brother James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul—each refer to this one commandment from Leviticus, and give it prominence amongst all the other commandments. It is one of the two “greatest commandments” (Mark 12:31), it is “the royal law” (James 2:8), it is the one word that sums up all the other commandments (Rom 13:9) and fulfils the whole law (Gal 5:14).

And for us, today, in the world of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Delta strain, these ancient words of wisdom hold good as the guiding principle for all that we do. We love our neighbour by taking all the precautions necessary: careful hand washing and sanitising, wearing a mask when in public, getting vaccinated, social distancing when we are permitted to interact in person, staying at home when we are required. As we reduce the risk of transmitting infections by these means, we show that we truly love our neighbours.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/30/fulfilling-the-law-james-2-pentecost-15b/

Fulfilling the Law (James 2; Pentecost 15B)

I have already given some consideration to the strongly Jewish ethos of the book we know as the letter of James—which, as I have argued, is better portrayed as a moral treatise. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/

The passage in view in the lectionary epistle reading for this coming Sunday (James 2:1-17) places this characteristic right to the fore, when it declares that “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8).

The recipients of the treatise of James are identified in the opening verse as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is a generic description giving no specific clues as to their identity. This does, however, provide a testimony to the continuing presence of Jewish believers within the Jesus movement.

The readers of this work would well have recognised the reference to Leviticus 19:18, which clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. They would also have known very easily that the laws cited in James 2:11 are drawn directly from The Ten Words which God gave to Moses to give to Israel (Exodus 20).

This Jewish element can be seen in much of the treatise, particularly in the way that God is portrayed. God is the Father (1:17, 27; 3:9), the One God (2:19), both “lawgiver and judge” (4:12), who is acknowledged as being “compassionate and merciful” (5:11). God has created the world (1:17) and made humans in image of God (3:9). God acts as the champion of the poor (1:27), and requires human beings to act with justice for the poor (5:1–6). All of these claims about God can be seen to have been drawn from the testimony of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The treatise of James thus draws on the prophetic tradition of Israel for its view of God. It shares this viewpoint with Matthew’s Gospel, where God is acknowledged as Creator, judge, lawgiver, showing mercy yet demanding righteousness. These two books of the New Testament testify to the ongoing vitality of “Jewish Christianity” in the middle and latter decades of the first century.

Also similar to Matthew’s Gospel is the way that this treatise includes numerous explicit references to Hebrew scripture. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus quoted often from his scripture and drew on biblical imagery as the basis for his teachings. This characteristic is heightened both by the Matthean narrative’s emphasis on fulfilment of scripture (Matt 1–4; 8:17; 12:17–21; 21:4–5; 27:9–10) and the words attributed to Jesus concerning the fulfilment of the law (5:17–20) and of the prophets (13:14–15, 35; 26:52–56).

In the treatise of James, there are two significant passages which contain direct citations of the Law. First, the Levitical command to love the neighbour (Lev 19:18) introduces a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law (2:8). There is reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11) before a succinct moral conclusion is drawn: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.

Second, in his consideration of faith and works (2:18–26), the author engages in a midrash on the Genesis account of Abraham being reckoned as righteousness (Gen 15:6); once again, a concise conclusion is drawn, that “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Ever since Martin Luther dismissed James as a “right strawy epistle”, interpreters have tended to assume that James 2 stands in direct contrast to Paul’s argument in Gal 3:6–18; more recent interpretation has questioned this assumption. James here defines “faith” as mere verbal assent, with no practical outworking (2:18–19)—a sense which it does not have for Paul, who links faith and love by referring to “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

In fact, it is claimed, both authors regard authentic faith as inextricably linked with “works”. But the sense remains that this treatise reflects a strand of the Jesus movement which differed from Paul’s views—and was perhaps more in tune with the opponents with whom Paul often argued. The polemic against a Pauline understanding certainly underlies the argument of James 2:14–26; the twice-stated conclusion (2:17, 26) is pointed in rebutting the Pauline criticism of relying on “the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 10–12). It’s a matter of priority: faith comes first, the “works of the Law” come as a consequence of that first priority. Trusting first in works has the order the wrong way around.

But simply relying on faith with no regard for the Law is not good enough for James. In affirming that “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26), the treatise of James affirms the ongoing validity and central importance of “the royal law”, continuing the ancient Israelite commitment to living a life consistent with the intentions of God that they be a holy people.

The ethic imbued by keeping the Law is fundamental to the life of faith. In this way, for followers of Jesus, the model of Abraham continues to inform their discipleship; “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22).

In this regard, viewing Abraham as a model of faith, this letter is consistent with what Paul writes, in Romans: Abraham “did not weaken in faith … no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:18-21).

And Paul, like James, also affirms the ongoing validity of the ethic that is taught in the Law, asserting that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12) and “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19).

Indeed, Paul affirms that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, citing some of the Ten Commandments in support (Rom 13:8-10). So whilst there are some points of disagreement between James and Paul, as to how the Law is used in specific ways, there is a fundamental commitment to keeping the ethic, the way of life, that is taught by the Law. James can’t simply dismissed as being as unsubstantial as straw–sorry, Luther!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/01/wisdom-from-ages-past-for-the-present-times-leviticus-jesus-james-and-paul-pentecost-15b-23b/

Declare boldly the gospel of peace, put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6; Pentecost 13B)

This morning, as the Canberra Region Presbytery gathered online to meet in council, the theme for consideration was Advocacy. At the start of the meeting, the Rev. Andrew Smith led the gathering in a time of reflection and preparation. Andrew read from the closing section of Ephesians 6 (the epistle that is offered in the revised common lectionary for the Sunday after the meeting).

Andrew invited members of the presbytery to listen, reflect, and then write in the chat what stands out for them, as we consider advocacy and hear these words about “the cosmic powers … the armour of God … the gospel of peace … the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:10—20).

Those present noted motifs such as “speaking boldly” … “boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” … “declare it boldly” … “speak directly and bluntly to power”. One person noted that perseverance is required, and there is no indication of victory only resources for the fray. One participant observed, “I saw a shimmering chainmail ‘armour’, more the quality of water that is soft, resists and extinguishes flaming arrows, and wears down hard places over time” and, a little later, “I also wondered about cloaks of feathers as ‘armour’ insisting on identity, diversity, justice for all – those cloaks we have seen in parliaments in recent times”.

Some people noted the imperative present in this passage: “I MUST speak” … “ the imperative is incontestable; we have the armour to take whatever gets thrown at us” … “we have no other option but to speak up for justice” … “we MUST stand strong against evil and pray continually,  we have the armour of God to give us strength and protection”. Another person observed the need for “thorough preparation and then to stand”. One noted, “I was struck by the phrase “fighting against the spiritual forces of evil”.  It brings out the spiritual nature of injustice and the need for faith and commitment to address this.”

Some participants related the biblical text to current circumstances: “In the electronic world in which we live, the actions of the principalities and powers for good and evil are more clearly revealed, so our enemies and allies are more clearly seen.”

One commented at length: “An Ambassador in chains to me shows three ideas. Firstly the idea of servant leadership the need to take actions in the service of others. Secondly, the idea that an advocate has no choice but to be a prisoner to their passion to help others an idea of a destiny to do good. Thirdly, the need to be empathetic with the suffering of others not from a vantage point outside their hardship but from a feeling of a common struggle and hardship.”

Another highlighted that “faith in Christ is the basis to understand and do good”; another said, “first we must read the Bible and understand God’s will, then proclaim it in the need for justice for others”. Others commented, “pray constantly, be bold, be well prepared, promote peace” … “every footfall can bring peace to our context” … “’Be Strong in God’ – struggle against evil, with Prayer, Preparation, God’s Protection, and then Action”. One noted “the promise of being able to ‘stand firm’”, another highlighted “feeling that you are armed with God’s love to speak up with no fear”, yet another, “constant prayer in the Spirit”.

One observed that the passage speaks of “the whole armour, not just feet, we have been given the armour to use”; another that “the whole armour of God evokes a gathering of so many things- love, peace and truth. These are in uneasy relationship. Here faith comes in that there is a way through.” That led another person to note “the irony of dressing like a Roman soldier”, and yet another to observe “the internal contradictions between putting on the armour and proclamation of peace”.

A good question posed was, “Where is the distinction between God’s justice and human justice? or are they the same?” That’s a question worth pondering beyond this particular reading, in each of our actions, day by day, week after week.

Collated from the chat at the August 2021 Presbytery meeting by John Squires

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

To the saints [not just in Ephesus] who are faithful (Ephesians 1; Pentecost 7B)

This Sunday, we start a series of readings from the letter to the Ephesians. Your Bible may state that it is “Paul’s letter to the Ephesians”. Indeed, when you read the opening words of the letter, the first thing you note is that the letter says that Paul wrote it (Eph 1:1a). Then it goes on to say that the letter was written to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1b).

What do we know about the situation in Ephesians, to which this letter is addressed? This letter is not like many of the letters of Paul, where we can glean much information from those letters about the faith community in the city to which it is addressed (Corinth, in Achaea; Thessaloniki and Philippi, in Macedonia; the region of Galatia; and Rome, in Italia). We know little, if anything, about the situation in Ephesus from this letter.

The letter does not begin with a thanksgiving. In most letters by Paul, the thanksgiving identifies the key characteristics of the community to which the letter is sent, as well as the issues which will be canvassed later in the letter. Instead, here there is a lengthy blessing in which a grand theological statement is developed (1:3–14), before a brief thanksgiving is offered for the faith and love of the recipients (1:15–16).

This opening blessing (1:3–14) is the reading set for this Sunday. In the CEV, there are no less than 12 sentences in these 12 verses; in the GNB, there are 10 sentences. In the NIV, there are 8 sentences in this passage, whilst the NRSV offers it all in 6 sentences. (Decades earlier, the RSV had also used 6 sentences for the whole.) In the KJV, there are just 3 sentences, although a punctuating colon (:) appears on six occasions, with a further three semicolons (;).

Fred Sanders’ translation (in 4 sentences) of Eph 1:3–14.
For a poetic paraphrase of this section of Ephesians by Sanders,
see https://scriptoriumdaily.com/ephesians-and-the-god-sized-gospel/

But in the original Greek, this whole passage is just one long sentence — a main clause (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, 1:3), followed by a long series subordinate clauses, setting out what this God has done: “who has blessed us in Christ … who predestined us in love for adoption … in him we have redemption … according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us … making known to us the mystery of his will … according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ … in him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”.

These parallel charts (left in English, right in Greek)
show the syntactical structure and the relationship
of each subsidiary clause
in the long single sentence in Eph 1:3–14
(accessed at http://www.teleiosministries.com/ephesians.html)

Incidentally, the ASV grasps the mantle, rendering all 12 verses in one long, complex sentence (with numerous colons and semicolons interspersed). It reads very heavily in English. At the other extreme, The Message (more of a paraphrase than a translation, in my mind) takes no less than 16 sentences to translate it (in expanded, colloquial form). And the NCB takes a poetic approach,,putting the whole section into unrhymed verse, using 6 sentences for the whole poem.

(You can check out these, and more, translations, at https://www.biblegateway.com)

*****

So this blessing sets out a number of wonderful claims about Jesus—as God works through him, we have redemption, the forgiveness of trespasses; we are adopted as his children, grace is lavished upon us, revealing the mystery of his purpose; and he offers the promise of an inheritance. The blessing ends with a final exultation, “to the praise of his glory” (1:14b).

There is nothing in these opening verses—this one, long sentence—to give any indication of the specifics of the particular situation in Ephesus. And, it must be said, the existence in this letter of this mammoth long sentence—along with other complex multi-clause sentences in later section (1-9, 11-15, 19-22; 3:1-13, 14-21; 4:1-6, 7-16) is a very strong suggestion that the document was not actually written by the apostle Paul.

Like this general opening blessing, the elements which follow also have broad, generic qualities, as the general prayer which is offered (1:15–16) veers off almost immediately into further theological exposition (1:17–23).

The end of the letter also offers no clues as to what is happening in Ephesus. The final section actually replicates, almost completely word-for-word, some of the greetings at the end of Colossians, in an abbreviated form, suggesting a later writer imitating the style of an earlier letter—but in a rather clumsy way, simply copying word-for-word.

Colossians concludes, “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” (Col 4:7–9).

Compare this with the final greetings in Ephesians: “Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.” (Eph 6:21–22). It is so similar, with the same structure, and many phrases in common. (If I were looking for plagiarism—which I once did as part of a job that I had—I would rate this as a direct copy.)

Did the author of this sermon-letter actually know Tychicus? Or did he simply copy something that was at hand, to lend an air of “authenticity” to the document?

In the body of the letter, we find indications a few sparse details. We learn that Paul is a prisoner (3:1; 4:1) and that the recipients are Gentiles (2:11; 3:2). But that’s it. Not much at all to go on. After that, the final prayer and grace (6:23–24) is likewise entirely generic. These are very slim clues to work from, if we want to reconstruct a picture of the community to which the letter was sent.

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Another clue emerges from the first verse of the letter, for it contains a striking textual variant. Although we commonly read the letter as sent “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1), a number of early manuscripts of this letter omit “in Ephesus”. This is a most important phrase, as it identifies the people purportedly addressed in the letter.

Whilst we traditionally read the letter as being addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus”, it is far more likely that the original document was addressed to “the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus”—a generic, all-encompassing orientation, rather than a letter to specific group of people in a particular place.

from Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the NT
at https://rdrdbiblestudy.com/bible-versions-102-textual-criticism/

Indeed, one early Christian writer knew this document as a letter “to the the Laodiceans”—not to the Ephesians!

An important fact that sits alongside this claim, and validates the idea that this was not a context-specific letter, but a widely-offered sermon, is the observation that the letter contains no other indications that it is specifically related to the city of Ephesus and the community of faith established there.

We can find references to people being “blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (3:14) and to those who “deceive you with empty words” (5:6), but these are no more than generalised description of opponents.

The main content of the letter reflects the general situation developing in the early churches, as Gentiles have found their place alongside Jews within the communities. It gives no clues of a specific context which is grounded in a particular community of faith.

The body of the letter reads more like a sermon, offering general theological teaching and ethical instruction. It’s highly likely the letter wasn’t sent by Paul to believers in Ephesus, but originated later in the first century, after the lifetime of Paul, as a sermon setting out the fundamentals of the teaching that began with Paul, and was handed on by those who followed him in proclaiming the good news to gatherings of believers.

The theological teaching in the letter—sermon provides doctrinal instruction about the divine plan, beginning in the opening blessing and prayer (1:3–23), followed by sections explaining the role of Jesus Christ (2:1–10); the inclusive nature of the church, in which Jews and Gentiles are brought into one body (2:11–3:6); an excursus on Paul’s role (3:7–21); and further reflections on the church (4:1–16).

Paul is presented as the one who reveals God’s plan, which had been hidden until his ministry (3:1–12). Key concepts in this plan include wisdom (1:8, 17; 2:10; 5:15), mystery (1:9; 3:3–5, 9; 5:32; 6:19), God’s will (1:1, 5, 9, 11; 5:17; 6:6), revelation (1:7; 3:3, 5) and fullness (1:10, 23; 3:19). These elements underline the assessment that this letter—sermon showed significant developments and elaborations of ideas, when compared with the authentic letters of Paul.

Like Colossians and the three Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians testifies to a more enculturated church, from a period later than the time in which Paul was active—a time and place in which the way of Jesus has begun to merge with the dominant ethos of the society. The sharp edges of The Way have been softened; the clear focus of the teachings of Paul, the energetic preacher of good news, has become blurred and fuzzy under the weight of pressures from the dominant Greco-Roman culture.

Although the rhetoric of this letter purports to present a distinctive Christian ethic, in fact it is becoming much more strongly influenced by hellenistic ethics. It demonstrates the way that the radical movement initiated by Jesus gradually becomes domesticated, institutionalised, and less distinguishable from the dominant culture.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

This blog draws on material in PAUL: an exploration of the writings of the apostle, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)