The lectionary reading for this Sunday contains selections from two acrostic poems in the book of Lamentations. The first reading is Lam 1:1–6, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people”, a lament about the desecration of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian invaders. The psalm offered is Lam 3:19–26, probably because it contains a counterpoint to this lament in the famous words of hope, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23).
An acrostic poem begins each line with each letter of the alphabet, in order, line after line. It is an aide-de-memoire for recalling the lines of the poem in order. Thus, in Hebrew, which has 22 letters in its alphabet, Lam 1 has 22 verses, each new verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. There are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations; chapter 3 has 66 verses, so each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter.
There are other acrostic poems in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalms 9 and 10 together, Psalms 25, 34, 37 (2 verses per letter), 111 (two letters per verse), 112 (also two letters per verse), 119 (which has 176 verses, meaning eight lines for each of the 22 letters!), and Psalm 145. There are also acrostic poems in praise of the eset chayil: “a woman of valour, who can find? she is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10–31), and in the oracle of judgement at Nahum 1:1–9, “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies”.
In recognition of the selections from acrostic poems that are provided by this Sunday’s lectionary, I have written my own attempt at an acrostic poem, including some of the key motifs that we encountered in the recent course on The Prophets.
This week, the lectionary takes us to the second letter addressed to Timothy (2 Timothy). This letter, one of three known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles, comes closest in form to the authentic letters of Paul amongst those three letters.
2 Timothy has an opening address (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–7) and closing greetings (4:19– 21) and benediction (4:22) which follow the pattern found in the letters that are widely accepted as authentic to the historical Paul. The body of the letter (1:8–4:18) contains exhortations to Timothy to follow the example of Paul (1:8–14; 3:10–4:5) and to carry out his role as a teacher (2:1–13), and warnings regarding false teachers (2:14–3:9).
There are personal notes from Paul (1:15–18; 3:10–11; 4:9–18), including a most notable mediation on his achievements and expression of hope regarding his future beyond death (4:6–8). These sections give the letter much more of an “authentic” feel than 1 Timothy and Titus, although there is debate about their origin and purpose.
Some scholars claim they were fragments of earlier authentic letters inserted into this framework late in the first century; others assert that they prove that Paul himself wrote this letter. See
Some features give the letter the quality of a “farewell testament”, in which the life and achievements of Paul are summarised for his followers. Compared with the other two “pastoral” letters, there are no instructions regarding church order, a greater frequency of personal comments, and a more personal tone throughout the letter.
The opening section of this letter, which forms the second reading in next Sunday’s lectionary offerings (1:1–14), exhorts Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13), and “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (1:14). Sound teaching refers back to the reference in the earlier letter to Timothy, “the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:Tim 1:10–11; also 4:6), as well as to “the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” that Titus is told will ensure “sound doctrine” (Tit 1:9).
Those other two letters advocate such “sound teaching” in polemical contexts. In 1 Timothy, it is to counter the influence of “the lawless and disobedient, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane” (1 Tim 1:9); in Titus, it is to contradict “many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision” (Tit 1:9). In 2 Timothy, those being combatted by “sound teaching” are “those in Asia [who] have turned away from from me” (2 Tim 1:15), including two specifically named, Phygelus and Hermogenes; later in the letter, there is mention of “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who “oppose the truth” (3:8).
Each letter indicates that churches were involved in entrenched contested and argumentative situations; the need for “sound teaching” is clear in such situations. The articulation of formulaic statements, as well as the development of a more structured leadership, makes sense in these times.
It points to the way that the church will develop in the future, with more clearly defined leadership and authority structures, as well as clearly-articulated statements of doctrine which mark “what is right” and can then be used to exclude “those who are wrong”—what scholars have called the development of “ early Catholicism”.
So it is that the initial inclusive community ethos that Paul reflects (“all are one in Christ”) shifts to communities with increasingly demarcated boundaries. This is evidenced throughout 2 Timothy: “guard the good treasure” (1:14); “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); beware of those who “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” and thus “oppose the truth” (3:7–8); shun those with “itching ears [who] will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires” (4:3).
So knowing who is inside, and thus who is outside, becomes increasingly important—in contrast to Paul’s own encouragement to his converts to engage with outsiders at every opportunity (1 Thess 4:9–12; 1 Cor 14:20–25; Col 4:5–6).
Jeremiah is usually associated with doom and gloom, as we saw in last week’s lectionary offering: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer 8:18, 22). In the reading for this week, however, offered by the lectionary (Jer 8:18–2, 9:1), Jeremiah is optimistic. Even though he is being held under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), he is planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation.
Jeremiah arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:7, 16). He is a child of Judah, and here is sending down his roots even deeper into the land that God had given his ancestors. He believes that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling Judah and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). This attitude is thoroughly grounded in trust in God.
Jeremiah “serves as an examplar for exiles by acting with obedient hopefulness in the face of invasion and captivity”. The land purchase “begins the fulfilment of the visions of 30:1–31:40.” It is located at “the nadir of Judah’s story, during the bleakness of invasion” (587 to 586 BCE by our reckoning). (Quotations from Kathleen O’Connor, Oxford Bible Commentary, 515)
On the surface, the purchase appears futile, as Jeremiah foresees the dominance of the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, their king; this dominance shall remain, it seems, for some time, “until I attend to him, as the Lord declares” (32:5). So the prophet insists that the transaction take place, as a sign of hope in the future amidst the despair and devastation of his present.
This is what scholars call a “prophetic sign-act”, one of a number that Jeremiah enacts: wearing a linen loincloth, then hiding it, recovering it, and finding it “ruined, good for nothing” (13:1–7), a sign of the punishment to come on Judah (13:8–11); living as a celibate (16:1–2) as a sign of the exile to come (16:3–9); and pointing to the work of the potter, shaping a vessel, spoiling the vessel, and remaking it (18:1–4) as a sign of the way the Lord will treat Israel (18:5–11). Indeed, the last word of Jeremiah is to have his words written on a scroll which is thrown into the Euphrates River (51:59–63), to indicate that “Babylon shall sink, to rise no more”. (51:64).
The redemption of this parcel of land is a “prophetic sign-act” offering hope. It is reminder of the commands about the land found in Leviticus 25, where the Lord is said to have declared that “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me, you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). The last concept is picked up in New Testament texts describing the people as aliens (1 Pet) and looking to the promise of a heavenly city (Heb 11).
The Levitical decree sits in the chapter concerning the Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:1–7) and the Year of Jublilee (Lev 25:8–55), a time of cancellation of debts and restitution of the land, a liberating sign of the liberating God who is to be worshipped; “the people of Israel are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 25:55). The redemption of the land by Jeremiah, acting through Baruch, signals an ongoing commitment to the covenant which the people had with the Lord God.
The purchase of land demonstrates a trust in the promise spoken in the preceding chapter. Jeremiah famously speaks about the new covenant; his words, however, are often spiritualised—the law is not written on stones, but written in the hearts of the people (Jer 31:31–33), the knowledge of God is not to be taught, but will be innate—“they shall all know me” (Jer 25:34).
By contrast to this common spiritualised interpretation, Jeremiah intends that this new covenant is to be lived in all of life; it is not simply a promise for an ethereal future, but it is to be a tangible reality in the immediacy of life in the present. So Jeremiah enfleshes the promise through the purchase of land. It is an incarnation of action some centuries before Jesus!
Interestingly, although the lectionary shifts the order of these passages, the purchase of land in Jer 32, signalling the promises made in the oracles of Jer 30–31, is placed immediately after the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to come to terms with their situation in exile: “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, take wives and have sons and daughters … multiply there [in Babylon] and do not decrease” (Jer 29:1–9). They, too, are to express their covenant faith in the realities of everyday life, even if they are in exile in a foreign land.
The details of this commercial transaction, involving money, property, and a deed of purchase (vv.9–12), are important; they indicate that how we treat our possessions, the land on which we live, the land which we own, reflects our faith. Jeremiah knows the trust of Lev 25:24; the land is of God—in this case, it has been given over to the family of Jeremiah as a trust, for them to care for. That trust is to “last for a long time” (v.14).
So the story invites us to consider how we exercise our responsibilities in property matters, how we live on the land, how we show that we believe that the land is of God. (It sits well alongside the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary, from Luke 16, which also emphasises the importance of responsible dealing with property and material things, in the life of faith.)
Our attitude to the land is actually a live current issue in Australia, as we mark the turning of an era (as the Queen dies, so the King reigns). Signs and symbols of British imperialism in this Great Southern Land remind us that, although the land was, and is, and will remain, central to the lives of the First Peoples of this continent, British colonisers have invaded, settled, massacred, and imposed a foreign way of life on those First Peoples. For them, being on country is being in spirit—connected with the spirit of the ancestors, living in harmony with the spirit of the creator God. There are resonances, surely, with the close connection to the land that Jeremiah here exhibits.
So in our context, the fact that Jeremiah buys the land is a challenge to our expectations that we can simply assume and take control of these lands. The fact that Jeremiah exchanges a contract for the land reinforces the importance of our dealings with real estate, property, finances, and people. His property transaction attests to the promise of the Lord to a besieged and soon-to-be exiled people, “ houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15). The sign, to us, is clear: what we do with our material, physical lives ought to reflect the spiritual hopes and commitments that we have as people of faith.
Elizabeth and I are leading a weekly study on The Prophets, because excerpts from these books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary as the Hebrew Scripture selection each week during the current church season (the long season of Pentecost). See
Our study series kicked off last week with two sessions of robust, engaged discussion (one on Thursday morning, the same session repeated on Thursday evening). I’ll be blogging material relating to this series and these readings 8n coming weeks.
The concept of a prophet was widely-known in the ancient world. Marvin Sweeney writes that “prophets were well known throughout the ancient Near Eastern world as figures who would serve as messengers or mouthpieces for the gods to communicate the divine will to their human audiences.”
He notes, in particular: “Mesopotamian baru priests who read smoke patterns from sacrificial altars, examined the livers of sacrificial animals, read the movements of heavenly bodies … ecstatic muhhu prophets from the Mesopotamian city ofMari drew blood from themselves and engaged in trance possession as part of their preparation for oracular speech … the assinu prophets of Mari were well known for emulating feminine characteristics and dress as they prepared themselves to embody the goddess Ishtar of Arbela to speak on her behalf … Egyptian lector priests (see image) engaged in analysis of the worlds of nature and human beings in preparation for the well-crafted poetic compositions that gave expression to the will of the gods”. (“The Latter Prophets and prophecy”, pp.234–235 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, ed. Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney, CUP, 2016)
The Hebrew Prophets typically claim that the word of the Lord came to me and pepper their speeches with the interjection, thus says theLord. They often report visionary experiences which provide the divine authorisation for what they speak. Some are reported as having had ecstatic experiences where they travel out-of-body and, they say, see things from God’s perspective. A number of prophets engage in symbolic activities which underline the message delivered by their words. Woe to you is a standard introductory phrase, leading to condemnations on nations or people for their sinfulness.
Adherence to the covenant of the Lord lies at the root of all that the prophets say—they recall Israel to their distinctive task of being a holy people, dedicated to the Lord. “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”, Isaiah declares (Isa 42:6); “cursed be anyone who does not heed the words of this covenant”, cries Jeremiah (Jer 11:3); “I pledged myself and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine”, Ezekiel declaims (Ezek 16:8).
Daniel prays, saying, “Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong … turning aside from your commandments and ordinances” (Dan 9:4–5). Amos announces that Israel has “rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes” (Amos 2:4); Hosea denounces the people, for “you have forgotten the law of your God” (Hos 4:6); Malachi berates the people in the name of God, for “ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them” (Mal 3:7).
Similar declarations of the sinfulness of Israel, turning away from the covenant, recur in other prophetic books (Isa 30:9–11; Jer 2:20–22; Ezek 18:21–22, 24; Hos 8:1; Mal 2:4–17). So many of the oracles of judgement pronounced by the prophets are built on the assumption that the sinful behaviours being described indicate that Israel and Judah have turned from the covenant and are ignoring the commandments that God gave.
Ezekiel also notes that God says “I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60), whilst Jeremiah says that God promises “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–33). Hosea declares that God promises, “I will make for you a covenant … I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18).
The prophetic call for repentance is heard often (Isa 1:27; 45:22; 59:20; Jer 15:19; 18:11; 22:1–5; 35:15; 36:5–7; 44:4-5; Ezek 3:19; 14:6–8; 18:21–32; 33:8–9; Mal 4:4–6). This call is based on the premise that God will relent, and redeem those who turn from sinful practices. Sadly, Jeremiah notes that “the Lord persistently sent you all his servants the prophets”, but “you did not listen to me, says the Lord” (Jer 25:4-7). The work of a prophet is often thankless.
In the course, we are exploring each of the named prophets in our Bibles: the four Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea—Joel—Amos—Obadiah—Jonah—Micah—Nahum—Habakkuk—Zephaniah—Haggai—Zechariah—Malachi); the latter ones are collected together in one scroll by Jews, who call this The Book of The Twelve. Some merit more detailed attention than others (because their works are longer), but all of them share a common concern to “set right” the people of Israel and Judah.
We have noted that there are others in scripture who are declared to be prophets, but who do not have a book dedicated to them. We’ll be paying some of them some attention as we work through the books. The first prophet mentioned in scripture is Miriam, the sister of Moses, who led the women of Israel in song, to celebrate victory over the Egyptians; the short Song of Miriam (Exod 15:20–21) was then attributed also to Moses, and placed at the head of a much longer song in his name (Exod 15:1–18).
Such musical leadership is recognised as an act of prophecy in the story of Saul: “you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy” (1 Sam 10:5). Both males and females were able to serve as musicians who prophesied (1 Sam 18:6; 1 Chron 25:1–8).
Miriam is described as a prophet at Exodus 15:20 and again at Micah 6:4. She shares this designation with Deborah, who is introduced as a prophet “who was judging Israel” (Judg 4:4);. Deborah sits under a palm tree, the place for exercising judgement (Judg 4:5). However, the function of a “judge” was more akin to that of a military leader—a tribal elder who led military activities to protect their tribe from enemies and to establish justice within their group.
Deborah exercises such military leadership against Sisera, who led the army of King Jabin of Canaan. She recruits Barak to lead the fight (Judg 4:6–7); persuaded by her oracle, Barak insists that he will not fight unless Deborah goes out with him (Judg 4:8). When the Israelites gain victory over the Canaanite general (Judg 4:23–24), Deborah sings a song to celebrate her victory (Judg 5:1–31), maintaining the musical connection already noted in Miriam.
After the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan, Samuel and Nathan figure significantly in the historical narratives about Israel. Samuel anoints Saul as the first king (and one interesting story about Saul ends with the question, is Saul also among the prophets? (1 Sam 19:18–24). Nathan, of course, is the prophet who promises David that “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:14). This is the oracle that assures the Davidic dynasty in Israel.
Nathan also is the one who confronts David about his adultery with Bathsheba, ending his famous parable of “the poor man [who] had nothing but one little ewe lamb” with the scathing denunciation: “you are the man” (2 Sam 12:1–7). Still later, Nathan tells the dying David of the plot by Adonijah to become king (1 Ki 1:11–14), leading to David’s final machinations which saw Solomon appointed as king (1 Ki 1:15–53) and the death of Adonijah (1 Ki 2:13–25).
Later in the time of the divided kingdoms, Elijah and Elisha serve as prophets to call the king to account for the sinfulness of the court, and of all the people. Elijah spectacularly defended Yahweh against the might of the prophets of Baal, who were being worshipped in Israel, even by King Ahab. The prophets of Baal were unable to call down fire for the sacrifice (1 Ki 18:26–29), but Elijah, building an altar and drenching it with water, was able to call down “the fire of the Lord [which] fell and consumed the burnt offering” (1 Ki 18:30–40).
Elisha raised the son of a Shunnamite woman (2 Ki 4:8–37), turned a poisoned pot of stew into an edible meal (2 Ki 4:38–41), and fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley (2 Kings 4:42–44); these stories evoke Jesus.
Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Ki 2), passing his mantle to Elisha. The last words of the prophet Malachi indicate that Elijah would return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5–6); this prophecy plays an important role in New Testament texts. Just as it is not said that Enoch dies, but “walked with God, because God took him” (Gen 5:21–24), so this ascension of Elijah is believed to indicate that he did not die.
The final words uttered over Elisha were the same as those uttered over Elijah: “my father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Ki 13:14; cf. 2 Ki 2:12). His miraculous power lived on after his death; it is said that the body of a Moabite soldier killed in battle was thrown into his grave, and immediately “he came to life and stood on his feet” (2 Ki 13:20–21).
We might also include the woman of Endor as a prophet; despite the condemnation of divination (Deut 8:10–11), this woman provides Saul with guidance at the point where traditional means have failed. She consults with the ghosts; she sees “an old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe” (1 Sam 28:14), and Saul recognises this as the ghost of Samuel. The deceased prophet thus directs the terrified king (1 Sam 28:15–19).
Later, we meet Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikva, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34). Both narratives tell of the reforms that took place under King Josiah, when a “Book of the Law” was discovered, and the king ordered that its prescriptions be followed. It is striking that Huldah, a female prophet, was consulted in relation to this book (not a male prophet). In a detailed oracle (2 Ki 22:16–20; 2 Chron 34:23–28), she speaks the word of the Lord to the king. Huldah validates the book that has been discovered.
Another female prophet is the wife of Isaiah, noted (without name) at Isa 8:3, who become the mother of one of Isaiah’s children; all of these children are given to be “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (Isa 8:18).
There were many more prophets active alongside Elijah and Elisha. Throughout the historical narratives, there are regular refences to “the prophets” (1 Sam 10:11–12; 1 Ki 18:4, 13, 20; 20:41; 22:6, 13; 2 Ki 23:2), “my servants the prophets” (2 Ki 9:7; 17:13, 23; 21:10; 24:2), a “band of prophets” (1 Sam 10:5, 10), a “company of prophets” (1 Sam 19:20; 1 Ki 20:35; 2 Ki 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1), 2 Chron 18:5, 12), and “all the prophets” (1 Ki 19:1; 22:10–12; 2 Chron 18:9–11).
Indeed, later Jewish tradition refers to the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people.The relevant section of the Talmud reads: “In fact, there were more prophets, as it is taught in a baraita*: Many prophets arose for the Jewish people, numbering double the number of Israelites who left Egypt. However, only a portion of the prophecies were recorded, because only prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down in the Bible for posterity, but that which was not needed, as it was not pertinent to later generations, was not written. Therefore, the fifty-five prophets recorded in the Bible, although not the only prophets of the Jewish people, were the only ones recorded, due to their eternal messages.” (Talmud, Megillah 14a) [* A Baraita is an ancient teaching that was not recorded in the Mishnah]
That would make the sum total of prophets a whopping 1,200,000 prophets! (This assumes the number of 600,000 “men on foot” as given at Exod 12:37—a gross exaggeration, by any account—-and also overlooks the complicating comment, “besides children”, and the complete omission of any reference to women!) We can at least say that there were more people undertaking prophetic activity than are named or designated in the scrolls of Hebrew scriptures. Whether each of them would meet the criteria that is set out for a true prophet (Deut 18:15-22), we will never know!
In the New Testament, the words of Joel that Peter cites on the Day of Pentecost indicate that the gifting of prophecy continues in this new era: “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).
So we find Anna described as a prophet (Luke 2:38), as is Zechariah (Luke 1:67) and his son, John the Baptist (Mark 6:15; Matt 11:9; 21:26; Luke 1:76; 7:26; 20:6), while Jesus himself is recognised as a prophet (Matt 14:5; 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 6:14: 7:40–42; 9:17).
There were prophets active at the time of Jesus, as we see in his saying about welcoming a prophet (Matt 10:41). The movement that continued after the time of Jesus had prophets active such as the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) and Agabus (Acts 21:10), as well as those gifted by the Spirit with the gift of prophecy (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28–29; 13:2; 14:1–5, 22–25, 29, 37; Eph 2:20; 4:11; 1 Tim 4:14), although the activity here described as prophecy may well differ in significant ways from what is found throughout Hebrew Scripture.
This coming Sunday, we turn from a letter written in the name of Paul, which few interpreters doubt is an authentic letter of Paul, to a slightly shorter letter which also claims to be written by Paul—but about which there is quite some debate as to whether Paul did write it. We will hear the opening section of the letter this Sunday (Col 1:1–14).
The letter begins with a clear claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2). Despite this claim, there are signs that Paul may not be the author.
A more complex grammatical structure at some points, and some unusual vocabulary when compared with the vocabulary of the authentic letters of Paul, suggest a different hand in the creation of this letter. Some theological motifs are developed further than is found in the authentic letters of Paul, while the situation addressed appears to be different from—and probably later than—any situation envisaged in the lifetime of Paul.
It is typical of Paul’s letters that the opening “prayer of thanksgiving” sets out some of the key contenders which will be addressed in the body of the letter. (This is the case in many other letters from the time that survive to today; whether Christian, or Jewish, or pagan, letters invariably flag key issues in the opening sentences.) Here, the key concerns seem to be about “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” which will enable the readers and hearers of this letter to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “be prepared to endure everything with patience”.
The letter refers to Onesimus (Col 4:9), the slave about whom Paul wrote to Philemon (Phlm 10), as well as one of the addressees of that letter, Archippus (Col 4:17; Phlm 1). The greetings at the end of the letter contain a number of names also found in the greetings of Philemon 23–24: Epaphras (Col 4:12), Mark and Aristarchus (Col 4:10), and Demas and Luke (Col 4:14).
This suggests that the two letters might have originated at the same time in the ministry of Paul—when he was in prison (Col 4:3, 8; Phlm 10, 13), perhaps in Rome towards the end of his life. However, there is little else to connect Colossians with Philemon. The content of each letter is quite different.
Alternatively, the Colossian references to Paul’s imprisonment might link the letter with Philippians, written similarly during an imprisonment (Phil 1:7, 12– 14, 17). This would be so if Epaphroditus in Philippians (2:25; 4:18) was the same person as Paul’s associate, Epaphras, noted in Colossians (1:7–8; 4:12– 13). That possibility suggests a common origin; but no further links between these letters are evident.
A more fruitful connection is found between Colossians and Ephesians, where there are a number of similarities in theological development as well as a significant overlap of text. Eph 6:21b–22 replicates almost exactly the underlined phrases in Col 4:7–9. The most persuasive theory is that Ephesians, written well after the death of Paul by a follower of Paul’s teachings, drew on that section of Colossians, believing it to be the words of Paul.
Returning to Colossians itself, we note that it follows the traditional form of a letter, with opening greetings (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–8) leading into a further prayer for the Colossians (1:9–14) before the body of the letter (1:15–2:23) and a series of exhortations (3:1–4:6). The closing greetings (4:7–17) and grace (4:18) bring the letter to a close in conventional fashion.
There are a number of indications of the distinctive situation to which the letter is addressed, although these insights are mediated through the perspective of the writer of the letter. The Colossians, although believers in Christ, continue to recognise the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8, 20). They are “deceived with plausible arguments” (2:4) and thus are captive to a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) which is contradictory to Christian belief. They take part in “festivals … new moons … sabbaths” (2:16), engage in “self-abasement and worship of angels” (2:18) and adhere to strict regulations (2:20–22).
These terms seem to be describing people who are Gentiles (elemental spirits) who have adopted some Jewish practices (new moons, sabbaths, worship of angels) yet have an ascetic flavour (self-a basement) with rhetorical interests (plausible arguments) mediated through their philosophical interests. That’s quite a thick description of the presumed recipients, and not like others who received authentic letters from Paul.
Along with clear evidence for syncretism amongst the Colossians, there is a thought that the believers in Colossae were proto-Gnostics—that is, precursors of the kind of Christianity that emerged fully in the second century onwards, and which we know about most directly through the documents collected in the Nag Hammadi library (discovered in Egypt in 1945). See http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html
Over against this cluster of beliefs, the letter-writer advocates the gospel, which is described as “the word of truth” (1:5) and “the faith” (1:23; 2:7), and exhorts the readers to be “mature in Christ” (1:28; 4:12). The opening thanksgiving (1:9–10) contains key terms which express the writer’s hopes for the readers: understanding (2:2) and growth (2:19), and especially wisdom (1:28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5) and knowledge (2:2, 3; 3:10). These last terms, particularly, point in the direction of the developing Gnostic movement which held sway in some parts of the developing Jesus movement.
Some of these terms do appear in Paul’s authentic letters; some others appear less frequently, if at all. They do appear, however, in the Pastoral Epistles (written “in the name of Paul” some decades after his death) and then in various documents, not part of the New Testament, which demonstrate the growing Gnostic and speculative-philosophical tendencies in some parts of Christianity in the late first century and on into the second and third centuries.
The positive qualities which are highlighted in this letter, noted above, are especially related to Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells” (2:9–10), a doctrine which sits at the core of a distinctive hymn in which Christ is portrayed as an all-encompassing cosmic figure (1:15–20). This is one key point where the letter moves beyond what is found in Paul’s authentic letters to the formulation of a post-Pauline doctrine. This, it seems, is central to “the word of truth” that is highlighted from the start of the letter.
My own conclusion is that Colossians was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.
In this second post on the story of “the Good Samaritan” (the story set as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday), we give consideration to where this story takes place—and whether than matters for how we hear and understand the story. Was Jesus telling this story in Galilee? Or in Jerusalem? Or somewhere else? And how might this matter?
Much of the activities of Jesus take place in Galilee, in both Mark’s earliest account (Mark 1–9), and in Matthew’s later reworking of his narrative (Matt 4–18). Those activities, in Luke’s orderly account, are compressed into a much shorter narrative (Luke 4–9). At a crucial turning point, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Galilee was behind him; Jerusalem was before him.
However, to get from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south, it was necessary to pass through Samaria. Matthew, following Mark, skips over this essential component of this trip; Jesus leaves Galilee and arrives in “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” in the space of just one verse (Matt 19:1, following Mark 10:1a). For the Matthean Jesus, who insisted that he had nothing to do with Samaritans (Matt 10:5), the avoidance of any comment about this geographical necessity in this Gospel is quite understandable.
Not so for Luke. Jesus quite explicitly travels through the region of Samaria, as we have noted in exploring previous sections of this Gospel. He journeys in Samaria in 9:52–56. He is “on the way” to Jerusalem (10:38; 13:22, 31–35), but is apparently still in Samaria many chapters later. Curiously, Luke reports that, after a full seven and a half chapters, Jesus was still “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee” (17:11). He heals ten lepers and sends them to the priests to be “made clean” (17:14); and the one who returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan (17:16).
We should note that when Luke tells of the meal that Jesus and with Martha and Mary (10:38–42), we might well expect that he was in Bethany, far to the south, near to Jerusalem—for this is where John locates the sisters (John 11:1; 12:1–2). However, Luke simply says that this meal was in “a certain village” (10:38), and it is clear that Jerusalem is still some way in the distance (13:33–35).
We know from other sources that there was entrenched, longterm distrust, even hatred, between the Jews and the Samaritans. John reflects this in his account of Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob (“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”, John 4:9).
The Samaritans were regarded as being the descendants of the people who committed idolatry after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5–6) and resettled the northern region with people from other locations in their empire (2 Kings 17:24), from “every nation [who] still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived” (2 Kings 17:29).
Flavius Josephus, a late 1st century CE historian, retells the sequence of events we read in 2 Kings, indicating that the Samaritans descended from this hybrid, unfaithful group of people (Antiquities 11.297–347). He also recounts an incident which entrenched the antagonism of southern Judeans towards the northern Samaritans (Antiquities 11.297–347).
The Samaritans attempted to undermine the returning exiled Judeans with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 4:6–24). Josephus notes disagreement about which site should be the location for the temple (Josephus, Antiquities 12.9-10); the same issue is reflected at John 4:20-22.
Samaritans had built a temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the ancient holy sites in the northern kingdom (Deut 27:12; Josh 8:33–34; Judg 9:7). That temple was destroyed in 107BCE, when John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple and the capital city of Samaria.
Josephus recounts a later time when some Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the in portico of the Jerusalem Temple, thus rendering it unclean (Antiquities 18.29-30), and he gives a graphic description of the time when Cumanus (governor of Judea 48-52 CE) was bribed by some Samaritans, leading some Judean brigands to mount an uprising. Cumanus ordered the Romans to join with the Samaritans in battling the Judeans; many were killed, many more taken captive (Antiquities 20.118-123).
References to the Samaritans in the 3rd century CE Mishnah may reflect views current at the time of Jesus: “Rabbi Eliezer used to say, ‘He that eats of the bread of Samaritans is as one who eats the flesh of swine’” (m. Seb. 8.10); “the daughters of Cutheans [Samaritans] are menstruants from their cradle” (m. Nid. 4.1).
The Lukan Jesus takes a clear stance on the Samaritans; he is deliberate in his acceptance of those most hated of outsiders, the Samaritans. He stops his disciples from bringing harm on the Samaritans (9:52–56); he uses a Samaritan as an example of neighbourliness (10:29–37); and he commends a Samaritan leper for his faith after he had offered thanks to Jesus for being healed (17:15–19).
The Samaritan motif continues into the story of the early faith communities; it was the people of Samaria who first accepted the Gospel when it was preached outside of Judea (Acts 8:5–25). Indeed, Samaria figures in the programmatic statement that Jesus makes when he appears, resurrected, to his followers, and instructs them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
These Samaritans bear witness to the ways that Jesus and the earliest followers of Jesus would welcome outcasts into their midst. The community of the faithful would reflect diversity in this way, that both respectable and disreputable would be given a place.
That Jesus was, according to Luke’s erratic geography during the journey narrative of chapters 9–19, still in Samaria when he tells a story about who is “a good neighbour”, is telling. That it is a Samaritan who is that good neighbour, adds power to the story he tells. In this story, no Jew exhibits the behaviour that the Torah mandates, of loving your neighbour; it is a Samaritan who lives this way. The power of the story is intensified by where it is being told.
I think that most people know about the story of the man who was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers” (Luke 10:30). The story that Jesus tells probably rates as one of the two most widely-known “parables” of Jesus. Alongside the “parable of the prodigal son” (Luke 15:11–32), the “parable of the Good Samaritan” (10:30–37) must have a similar recognition level.
As we hear this story read in worship this coming Sunday, what is there that is new, or not much known, to be said about this story? I’m going to canvass three different aspects of the story, over three consecutive posts.
First, I want to propose that we consider the nature of this story—and we might reconsider whether this story was actually a “parable”. A parable is a story which puts one thing alongside another; in Hebrew, it was called a mashal, meaning “comparison”, whilst the Greek word, parable, literally means “thrown side-by-side”.
The classic parable in the Gospels begins, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed …” (Mark 4:30–31), or “it is like yeast that a woman took …” (Luke 13:21), or “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field …” (Matt 13:44), or “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard …” (Matt 20:1).
Most parables told by Jesus begin this way. But not the story of the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho; Jesus simply starts into the story in response to a question from a lawyer, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). And the story of the prodigal younger son, and gracious father, and resentful elder son, simply begins, “there was a man who had two sons …” (Luke 15:11).
In this regard, these stories (found only in Luke’s Gospel) are much like the classic mashalim (comparisons) found in the Hebrew Scriptures, which simply launch into things: “there were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor; the rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb …”(2 Sam 12:1–3), or “let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard … “ (Isa 5:1).
The comparison is revealed at the end of the story: “you are the man”, says Nathan to David (2 Sam 12:7), “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting” (Isa 5:7); and in the case of the story told by Jesus, a closing question, posed to the lawyer: “of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). In this case, the lawyer draws the comparison intended (“the one who showed him mercy”), to which Jesus then concludes, “go and do likewise” (10:37).
So is this parable a parable? Yes, in the terms of the Hebrew Scripture, it is. But it is not explicitly a parable about what “the kingdom of God is like”. It is, rather, a story which instructs on how to live as a “good neighbour” to others in this world, in this time. The punchline (10:37) is instruction about living a just and righteous life.
As a story with a clear ethical punchline, it sits alongside of many of the explicit teachings of Jesus, indicating how we are to live in this life: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:35); “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23); “sell your possessions, and give alms” (12:33); “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13); “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33); “you cannot serve God and wealth” (16:33); “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25); and so on.
The story is told after a discussion between Jesus and a scribe (an interpreter of the Law), about the question raised by the scribe: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). In the discussion, conducted in typical rabbinic style (a question posed, answered with another question, leading to yet another question …).
Over the next five months, the lectionary is taking a dive into the books of the prophets. These are offered as companions to the Gospel readings from the “orderly account” of Luke that we are hearing, week by week. It is, after all, Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).
In turn, over the coming months we will read and hear excerpts from the northern kingdom prophets, Amos and Hosea; then from the southern kingdom prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of the “major prophets” of Israel; followed by three “minor prophets”, Joel, Habakkuk, and Haggai; and then a section from the closing vision in the much later set of oracles collected at the end of the book of Isaiah. We should buckle up for the ride; the prophets pull no punches and speak in ways that can confront, accuse, and terrify!
We have these books in our scriptures and read and reflect on them in our services of worship because, although these voices sounded forth long ago, their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”, through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and in the various “minor prophets” that we will encounter.
Justice is the common theme in these prophetic books—God’s justice; the justice which God desires for the people of God; the justice which God speaks through the voice of the prophets; the justice that God calls for in Israel; the justice that provides the measure against which Israel will be judged, and saved, or condemned.
In the later scriptures of the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages of Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century.
As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.
This Sunday, we will hear the vision of the plum line (Amos 7:7–17); next Sunday, the vision of the basket of fruit (Amos 8:1–12). Amos, who came from Tekoa in the southern kingdom (1:1), was active in the northern kingdom (Israel) during the reign of Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of Israel, who reigned for four decades (786–746 BCE; see Amos 7:10). It was a time of prosperity, built on the trading of olive oil and wine with the neighbouring nations of Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. But the sinfulness of the time was too much for Amos.
Although the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus for religious activity in the southern kingdom (Judah), there were a number of religious sites in the northern kingdom—Dan, Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba (Amos 5:5; 8:14)—where not only was the Lord God worshipped, but idolatrous images were used in worship services (5:26). Amos is trenchant in his criticism of the worship that the people offer (5:21–27); embedded in this crisis is a doublet of poetry, words most often associated with Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
Indeed, it is the perpetration of social inequity within Israel that most causes him to convey the anger of divine displeasure. He admonishes the rich for the way that they mistreat the poor: “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7); “you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain” (5:11).
Again, Amos rails: “you trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land … buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat” (8:4, 6). In a biting oracle, he criticises the “cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria” for the way they “oppress the poor, crush the needy” (4:1).
Bashan was the mountainous area to the northeast of Israel (Ps 68:15), which rejoiced in majestic oaks (Isa 2:13) and extensive pasture lands (1 Chron 5:16). The luxurious lifestyle of these people can well be imagined. The reference to “winter houses … summer houses … houses of ivory … and great houses” (3:15) is telling. Luxury and opulence is evident amongst the wealthy.
So, too, is the description of “those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (6:4–6). The extravagance of the wealthy is obvious, juxtaposed against the plight of the poor, as we have noted.
Amos indicates that God had given Israel a number of opportunities to repent, “yet you did not return to me” (4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). God pleads for Israel to “seek me and live” (5:4), “seek the Lord and live” (5:6), “seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14).
But this is all in vain; ultimately, the prophet insists, the Lord God will bring on the day of the Lord—a day of “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18–20). God is determined; “the great house shall be shattered to bits, and the little house to pieces” (6:11); later, he insists again, “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place” (8:3).
In a series of visions, Amos sees how the judgement of God will be implemented. He sees a plague of locusts (7:1–3), a shower of fire (7:4–6), a plum line (7:7–9), and a basket of summer fruit (8:1–6). Finally, he sees “the Lord standing beside the altar” (9:1–8).
The first two visions give Amos an opportunity to intercede on behalf of the people: “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!” (7:2), “O Lord God, cease, I beg you!” (7:5). On both occasions, God relents, declaring, “it shall not be” (7:3, 6).
Not so with the following visions, however. The vision of the plum line signals that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:8). The vision of the basket of fruits signals that “the end has come upon my people Israel” (8:2). In the vision of the Lord at the altar, God declares a definitive judgement on Israel: “those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1).
Interrupting the sequence of visions, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, confers with King Jeroboam of Israel, informing him that the prophet has spoken of the king’s imminent death and the people’s exile (7:11). Amaziah, disturbed by this pronouncement, commands Amos to flee south, to Judah (7:12-13).
Amos responds with what we recognise to be the humility of a true prophet: “I am no prophet” (7:14; cf. Moses at Exod 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13; Jeremiah at Jer 1:6), yet then he proceeds to reiterate his prophecy: “you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (7:16-17).
Returning to the sequence of visions, Amos notes that the day will come when God “will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight” (8:9–11). On that day, “the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst … they shall fall, and never rise again” (8:12–13).
Resolute in the intention to punish those who have perpetrated social inequity and religious idolatry, God insists that “I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good” (9:4); “the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth” (9:8).
Yet, at the very end, Amos relays the news that God has modified this intention: “I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord” (9:8); “on that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (9:11). This final oracle from Amos (9:11–15) envisages a restored and rebuilt Israel, a land once again productive, and ends with a strong expression of confidence in the people: “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord” (9:15).
Little did the prophet actually know what lay ahead; soon after this oracle, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s; two decades later, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).
This coming Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday. It’s an unusual occurrence, for two reasons. First, it’s the only time in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story. And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.
Yes, there are passages that canvass some aspects of the Doctrine—how the Son relates to the Father, what is the essential character of God, how the Spirit was experienced and understood, and how Son and Spirit might relate. But there is no biblical passage which articulates the full scope of the Doctrine of the Trinity: God is three, God is one, Father, Son, and Spirit, consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run (as it were).
That’s quite understandable, since the full expression of this Doctrine took a number of centuries to develop, after the period in which the texts of the New Testament were written. If the latest NT text comes from the end of the first century, the earliest form of the Doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Apostles’ Creed, adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, and a more fulsome and complex form is to be found in the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.
So we should not expect the lectionary to provide any texts which set out the Doctrine of the Trinity. What we do find, however, is that certain texts are offered, in which some, or all, of the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—are in view.
In fact, two texts name all three persons in a quasi-formulaic way: the benediction at the close of 2 Corinthians 13, and final words of Jesus in Matthew 28. Indeed, these two passages are set for Trinity Sunday in the first of the three years of the lectionary, Year A. Associated with these two passages is a text that expounds something of the nature of one of these persons, God the Creator, in Genesis 1.
In Year B, two texts are offered which focus somewhat on the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit: Romans 8, where Paul wrestles with the role of the Sprit, and John 3, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, which includes reference to the Spirit. The Hebrew Scripture offering in Year C draws from the wonderful depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs 8; while the epistle in Year C, from Romans 5, appears to be included because it manages to refer to each of the three person of the Trinity within the space of five verses.
The Gospel offered in Year C (the current year) is just a short section (John 16:12–15) from the last chapter in the lengthy “farewell discourses” of Jesus (chs. 14–16), which John reports as being given to the disciples at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (from 13:1 onwards). It contains the fourth of four brief references in these “farewell discourses” to the Spirit, identified as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the parakletos (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and “the Holy Spirit” (14:26).
These passages are considered to provide some biblical material for the Doctrine of the Trinity relating specifically to the third person, the Holy Spirit. In particular, I am interested in how the Spirit is defined in relation to the other two persons of the Trinity.
There are three ways in which the Spirit is defined in relation to Jesus. First, the Spirit is identified as a parakletos—a word with multiple translation options. It could mean one who advocates for, one who provides counsel, one who offers help, or one who gives comfort.
Whatever option we take in translating this word, it is striking that Jesus says that the main role of the Spirit (at least as we encounter the explanation in this gospel) is to be “another parakletos” (14:16). The implication is that Jesus himself has been a parakletos—an implication that is confirmed when we read the statement in 1 John, that “we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).
This first statement about the Spirit thus places the Spirit in the position that Jesus had whilst living in human form amongst the people of Israel. The Spirit is the present manifestation of the role that Jesus of Nazareth had all those centuries ago. The Spirit is, in effect, a “replacement Jesus”.
Indeed, this is strengthened by the affirmation that this figure will “abide with you … and be in you”, precisely the same terminology used of Jesus in the earlier parable of the vine (“abide in me and I abide in you”, 15:4) and in the final prayer that Jesus prays before his arrest (“may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”, 17:22–23]). The reality of the presence of the Spirit is the same as the reality of the presence of Jesus when he was with the disciples.
This idea is confirmed by the second statement about the parakletos, who is the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), the one “whom I will send to you from the Father” (15:26). Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that “if I do not go away, the parakletos will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). This seems to suggest that the Spirit is unable to take up the role assigned to it until Jesus has departed from his followers—the Spirit is a “replacement Jesus”.
Indeed, at an earlier point in the narrative, on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37; the festival referred to was Booths, 7:2), Jesus was speaking about the Spirit, and portraying the “rivers of living water” that the Spirit would give, as something still to come. The narrator informs us that he was speaking “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:37–39).
This, of course, is directly contradicted by the many references in Hebrew Scripture to the activity of the Spirit in Israel (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5, 44:3, 48:16, 59:21, 61:1, 63:11–14; Num 11:16–17; Deut 34:9; 1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29). Nevertheless, the definitive arrangement of things that is held to quite firmly in the book of signs, is that the Spirit comes only after Jesus has returned to the Father.
The language of sending is used frequently in the fourth Gospel, in describing the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father is regularly described as the one who sent the Son (3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 30; 6:29, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; etc). In the final prayer of Jesus, the Father is “him who sent me” (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). Amongst the final words of the risen Jesus, we hear Jesus say again, “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).
So, when Jesus refers to the parakletos as the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), he is reinforcing the notion that the Spirit is the “replacement Jesus”. This is further strengthened by the affirmation that the parakletos will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The language of teaching also recalls a key function of Jesus, who “went up into the temple and began to teach” (7:14), who “sat down and began to teach” the people in the temple (8:2), who characterises his ministry as “I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (18:20).
Further, Jesus describes the role of the parakletos as “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15). Jesus has already declared that “my teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (7:16) and “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (14:24); now he passes that divinely-given material on to the parakletos, clearly stating that “he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14–15). The teaching function that the parakletos performs is to replicate the teaching role that Jesus has already enacted.
The content of the teaching provided by the parakletos is also evocative of the teaching that Jesus has provided. The parakletos will teach “about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8, expanded in 16:9–11). In relation to sin, what Jesus does as “the lamb of God” is to “take away the sin of the world” (1:29); he provides freedom from the slavery of sin (8:34–36), and the final commission that he gives his disciples (who are sent just as he has been sent) is to decree that they have the authority of grant forgiveness of sins (20:23).
Likewise, in relation to judgement, Jesus has stated, “as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5:30), and again, “even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (8:16)—although later, Jesus asserts that “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (12:47–48).
Thus, as the parakletos teaches about sin, and about judgement, the teachings of Jesus on these matters are repeated. (On the matter of righteousness—apart from a single reference to God as “righteous Father”, 17:25—this Gospel is silent.) Again, we see that the parakletos is a “replacement Jesus”.
Finally, the distinctive term used in this Gospel to describe the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, also reinforces this way of viewing the relationship between the Son and the Spirit. The Johannine Jesus is “the Word became flesh” who “lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14). It is through Jesus Christ that “grace and truth came” (1:17). Jesus describes himself to the leaders in Jerusalem as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (8:40), and to the Roman Governor, Pilate, he declares, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).
So Jesus tells his followers that “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31–32), and even affirms unreservedly that “I am the truth” (14:6). Again, the language applied to the Spirit links in with key terminology that describes Jesus and his role. The Spirit of truth now teaches “the truth that will make you free”, that the one who is the truth had taught.
Finally, it is noteworthy that nowhere in the book of signs is there any direct statement about the relationship between Father and Sprit. Although Jesus states that “God is spirit” (4:24), the relationship is always, apparently, mediated through the Son: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the parakletos; the Son teaches what the Father provides, the parakletos continues the teaching of Jesus; the Father incarnates the Word “in truth”, the Son teaches and is “the truth”, so the Spirit is named as “the Spirit of truth”.
In summary, the relationship between Son and Spirit reads to me as a quite hierarchical style of relationship—not at all a relationship of equals who abide in each other, who are of the same nature and share the same substance with one another, who exist co-eternally and inherit co-equally. Indeed, in the relationship between Father and Spirit/Parakletos, there is no direct link, as there is in the classic Doctrine of the Trinity; all is mediated through the Son, as we have seen. The fourth Gospel offers a different, distinctive—we might even say, unorthodox—theology of Father, Son, and Spirit/Parakletos.
The Trinity is a complex idea, a doctrine with many subsets and dimensions and component parts. Although there are passages in scripture which many say point to this doctrine, nevertheless gaining a full understanding of this doctrine really means entering into the world of metaphysics, philosophy, and linguistics of a later age.
All of this is beyond the capacity of the lectionary to provide, nor can it be done in a relatively brief reflection time within a Sunday worship service—and it runs the risk of charging away from the world of ideas in which the biblical texts were written, and opening up the danger of imposing later ideas, anachronistically, onto those texts.
The little passage from the Gospel of John that we encounter in the lectionary this coming Sunday actually points us in quite another direction!
The Christian church follows a pattern of seasons throughout the year, forming what is known as the “liturgical year”. Each Sunday, in worship, a set of scripture passages are designated, to provide a rich diet of readings for reflection. The readings follow a pattern for each year, in which designated parts of scripture are provided.
You can see the pattern of readings in the coming months in this schedule:
This year is known as Year C, and during this year it is the longest version of the story of Jesus, an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, which is provided for our weekly Gospel passages.
This orderly account, offered to a person named lover of God (in Greek, Theophilus), we are told, was written so that this Theophilus might know the certainty concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1–4).
Of course, we know this as the Gospel according to Luke. And we know that the author of this work (unnamed in the actual text; by tradition, known as Luke) also wrote a companion volume, in which we hear accounts of how the followers of Jesus bore witness to him in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
In introducing his,work, the author of this orderly account notes that he received accounts from eyewitnesses and servants of the word which he investigated carefully over an extended period of time, before constructing the orderly account designed to make known the certainty of the story that he tells (Luke 1:1–4).
(In making this claim, I am translating the Greek often rendered as “from the beginning” in 1:3 as “over an extended period of time”; and the word rendered as “the truth” in 1:4 as, more accurately, “the certainty”.)
As we read and ponder stories from Luke’s orderly account, we do well to remember that Mark’s beginning story was one of the sources used by Luke. Comparisons with the earlier Markan version will identify differences which may well be significant. Has Luke intentionally modified a turn of phrase, or reshaped a story outline, or even relocated a particular incident to a different point in the overall story? Or are the differences just minor, insignificant, of no major importance? Those questions stand, week by week, as we work through the stories offered in the lectionary.
In like manner, we will need to recognise that this Gospel is but “the first book” addressed to Theophilus (Acts 1:1), and so the way that the story unfolds in later chapters, after the time of Jesus, through the actions and words of key followers, as told in the second volume, which we know as the Acts of the Apostles, will inform the way we approach and understand the orderly account of the years of Jesus, told in the Gospel.
So as we read, we would do well to have one eye, as it were, looking back, to the sources used by the author—the Gospel of Mark, and the hypothetical Q source of sayings of Jesus, and perhaps others—looking to see how the author of the orderly account has tweaked and massaged and ordered his material. (This is doing what scholars call redaction criticism; paying attention to the redactional work of the person editing all the material into a cohesive whole.)
And as we read, we would also do well to have the other eye metaphorically looking forward to the second volume by the same author. We do this in order to pay attention to the way that what has happened in later decades, as reported in this second volume, and on up to the time when the author was writing, has shaped and influenced the way the earlier story of Jesus is told. (This is paying attention to the social context of the author and the way that earlier material is reported in ways influenced by that context.)
So reading this orderly account requires attention to a number of elements, with one looking back to sources, to see how they are used in telling the story of Jesus, as the other eye looks forward to subsequent events, to see how they influence the story of Jesus. And as we read, and reflect, we may well note a number of key features that characterise this orderly account and which take us to the heart of matters which, to the author, are of vital importance.
I am currently working as Editor to a resource that is published four times a year, With Love to the World, which contains short commentaries for the biblical passages offered each week, as well as a short prayer, a song for singing, and a question to spark discussion about the passage if used in a group setting. It’s a helpful, user-friendly resource that is used by thousands of people each day.