What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?: How Should Christians Relate to Ideas and Practices Which Originate Outside of Christianity?

In this episode of the Theology for the People Podcast, Michael and I discuss the topic about which I wrote my BA dissertation: How should Christians relate to ideas and practices in our culture and society which have their origin outside of Christianity?

Some good examples would be:

  • Can Christians practice yoga? (Origins in Hinduism)
  • How about martial arts?
  • What about Christmas? (December 25 was originally a pagan solstice festival which Christians “took over,” detached it from its pagan origins, and infused it with new meaning and made it all about Jesus)
  • What about psychology?
  • How about certain instruments, like drums?
  • What about rock music and electric guitars?

This discussion of how Christians should relate to ideas and practices which originate outside of Christianity can be traced all the way back to a historical argument between Tertullian and Justin Martyr, early Christian apologists and theologians, and can be summarized by Tertullian’s classic question: “What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?”

In this episode, Michael and I discuss the relevant principles from the Bible we should follow as guides in navigating these matters.

How does the redemptive narrative arc of Scripture affect how we relate to these practices? How about what Paul says about meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14?

Check out our discussion in the embedded player below, or by clicking here: What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?: How Should Christians Relate to Ideas and Practices Which Originate Outside of Christianity?

What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?: How Should Christians Relate to Ideas and Practices Which Originate Outside of Christianity? Theology for the People

In this episode Nick Cady and Michael Payne speak about how Christians should relate to things which originate outside of Christianity, such as yoga, psychology, Christmas, drums, or rock music.  This discussion can be traced all the way back to a historical argument between Tertullian and Justin Martyr which can be summarized by Tertullian's classic question: "What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?" Visit the Theology for the People blog site at nickcady.org – where you can ask questions or submit suggestions for future episodes.

Reformation Day: Martin Luther, the Bible, & the Gospel

Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Gospel

Originally posted on CalvaryChapel.com

If you own a Bible in your own language, it is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, and the key figure God used to ignite that worldwide movement of returning to the Bible was Martin Luther: a German monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg.

I grew up attending a Lutheran school until eighth grade. During my time there, I learned a lot about Luther, including studying his catechism. Years later, when I put my faith in Jesus and was born again, I started attending a Calvary Chapel church; and over the years, I have grown in appreciation for Martin Luther and the pivotal role he played in God’s work in the world.

The last day of October is celebrated around the world as Reformation Day, because it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther set into motion the movement now known as the Reformation, by mailing a letter. Yes, you read that right: on the eve of All Saints Day (Halloween = “All Hallows Eve”), Luther mailed, not nailed, a letter.1 2

The letter was addressed to the Archbishop of Mainz,3 and Luther sent it because he wanted to alert the archbishop that plenary indulgences were being sold in the archbishop’s name by a man named John Tetzel. Tetzel had been sent from Rome the year before to sell these certificates promising the release of a soul from purgatory in exchange for their purchase, as a fundraising campaign for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther assumed the archbishop was unaware that this was going on, and that upon receiving his letter, the archbishop would tell Tetzel to cease and desist. That, however, is not what happened.

As a result of the archbishop’s inaction, Luther, as a professor, decided to organize a scholarly debate on the topic of indulgences: whether they were actually effective in procuring the release of a soul from purgatory. To this end, he wrote up what are now known as the 95 Theses, which he titled: A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. This paper, which was posted on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, was an invitation to a scholarly debate, but in it Luther challenged both the selling of indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory as unscriptural. By doing this, Luther was challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching and authority, and insisting that the Bible, not the church, should be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes correct doctrine.

The posting of the 95 Theses is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation: a movement which sought to reform the church by shedding man-made traditions and returning to the faith which had been handed to us by God in the Holy Scriptures. 

Today, there are nearly 1 billion Protestant Christians in the world.4 In the “majority world,” including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Muslim world5, Protestant Christianity is growing faster than any other religious movement by conversion.6

Before Luther, there were others who sought to reform the church and bring the Bible to the people. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) taught the Bible to the common people in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.

Over a century before Luther, Hus had protested the sale of plenary indulgences, pointing out that the idea that God’s favor or blessings could be earned in any way, runs contrary to the message of the gospel and the testimony of the Scriptures, and the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the biblical teaching of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement on the cross.

Martin Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and inadequacy, until his own reading of the Scriptures led him to an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.” This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: Romans 1:17Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us sinners as a gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by faith. After all, the Bible explains, this is how Abraham, the father of our faith, became righteous: he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6Romans 4:322). We receive God’s righteousness, which he has provided for us in Christ, in the same way.

Luther became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and he took it upon himself to translate the Bible into German, a translation that is still in use to this day. Soon the Bible was translated into other languages, including English, as the Reformation spread.

Martin Luther called people back to a belief that the Scriptures are perspicuous (clear), and can be understood by those who read them. He called us back to a belief in the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture: that it is the ultimate rule of faith, by which we are to measure both doctrine and our lives.

In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther refused to do so, famously stating:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant.”7

This October, as we celebrate Reformation Day, may we take the opportunity to open the Bible and read it for ourselves, and may we embrace and celebrate the message of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that we are justified freely by his grace as we trust in him by faith.

NOTES

1 Marshall, Peter. 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. OUP Oxford. 2017.

2 Little, Becky. “Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the Church Door.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 31, 2017. 

3 “Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517).” Historyguide.org, 2002. 

4 “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” PewResearchCenter. Accessed December 2011. 

5 Miller, Duane A., and Patrick Johnstone. Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census II (2015): 2–19. academia.edu

Melton, J. Gordon (22 October 2005). Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9780816069835 – via Google Books.

7 “Here I Stand: Martin Luther’s Reformation at 500.” Abilene Christian University Special Collections, March 11, 2019.

Bible Translations: Translation Philosophy, Textual Criticism, & Source Documents

Shane Angland (MA Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary), joins the podcast this week to talk about Bible translations and what makes some translations better than others.

Shane is the lead preaching elder at Ennis Evangelical Church in Ennis, Ireland. A native of the west coast of Ireland, Shane served as a missionary in Ukraine with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and later earned a Masters Degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, where the focus of his studies was on Textual Criticism.

In this episode, Shane explains what Textual Criticism is (and is not), and explains the important elements involved in Bible translation, such as translation philosophy and source documents. He also dispels some common misconceptions about Bible translations, such as that newer translations remove content from the Bible, or that they are less accurate than older translations.

Shane and I have some common friends in Ireland and Ukraine, and it was great getting to know him and listening to him share his knowledge on this subject.

See also the series of articles on Bible translation I posted here years ago:

  1. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1
  2. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible
  3. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

You can listen to this week’s episode by clicking this link, or by listening in the embedded player below: Making Sense of Bible Translations – with Shane Angland

Making Sense of Bible Translations – with Shane Angland Theology for the People

Shane Angland (MA Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary), joins the podcast to talk about Bible translations and what makes some translations better than others. Shane is the lead preaching elder at Ennis Evangelical Church in Ennis, Ireland. A native of the west coast of Ireland, Shane served as a missionary in Ukraine with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and later earned a Masters Degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, where the focus of his studies was on Textual Criticism. In this episode, Shane explains what Textual Criticism is (and is not), and explains the important elements involved in Bible translation, such as translation philosophy and source documents. He also dispels some common misconceptions about Bible translations, such as that newer translations remove content from the Bible, or that they are less accurate than older translations. If you’ve benefited from this episode, please share it online, and leave a rating and review for this podcast in the Apple Podcast store. Also, visit the Theology for the People Blog at nickcady.org.

Bible Stories Gone Wrong in the Louvre

After our recent trip to London for my masters graduation, we took the train to Paris, and during our time in Paris we spent a day at the Louvre museum, which (along with the British Museum in London) is full of items of biblical relevance.

However, in the extensive Italian painters section, I came across several famous paintings which depict biblical scenes, albeit incorrectly.

The Wedding at Cana

This famous painting by Paolo Veronese is one of the highlights of the Louvre, and is held in the same room as the Mona Lisa. It depicts the famous scene from John 2 in which Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding in the town of Cana.

The only problem with this painting is that it is set not in a small Jewish village in Galilee, but in a large Greco-Roman city reminiscent of Athens. Cana was a small town, a village even, right north of the border between Samaria and the region of Galilee.

I like this painting though, especially how there’s a ton of interesting stuff going on in it, and Jesus is just chillin’ in the midst of it.

The Pilgrims at Emmaus

This is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels, and a key passage in understanding Christ-Centered hermeneutics, as Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures, showing them how all of the things written in the Books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets (i.e. the entire Old Testament) was about him (see Luke 24:13-49)

However, you might notice the beautiful Alps in the background of this painting – which would make sense if Jesus had been in northern Italy rather than in Jerusalem. Apparently, although Titian was a great painter, he had never been to Israel, because then he would have known that there are no snow-capped mountains visible from the Judean desert near Jerusalem.

This is of course not to mention the anachronism of the servant’s clothes, which were not in style until at least 1000 years after the events recorded in Luke 24.

Saint Stephen Preaching in Jerusalem

This painting by the Italian master Carpaccio, is one of my favorites, because it shows that it’s possible to be good at painting, but bad at history.

It depicts the story found in Acts 7, in which Stephen, a deacon in the early church, preached to a crowd in Jerusalem right before they stoned him to death for his faith in Jesus, making him the first martyr of the Christian faith.

However, you might notice that Carpaccio’s depiction of Jerusalem has it filled with minarets: towers attached to mosques from which the Muslim call to prayer is heralded. Furthermore, notice the many people in turbans, the traditional dress of Muslim men in the Middle East.

At the time of Carpaccio, Jerusalem was indeed full of mosques and muslims. However, Islam wasn’t invented until over 600 years after the events which took place in Acts 7! In the 1st Century A.D. there were no muslims and no mosques in Jerusalem!

Sometimes people criticize Christian pop music and movies as being subpar, but these paintings show us that it is possible to make great art that is quite inaccurate from a biblical perspective.

The Offense of the Cross: Cicero, the Early Christians, and Us

Boulder County & the Flatirons

The symbol of the cross is universally recognized today as the symbol of Christianity; for many in the Western world it is familiar and welcome. However, in the ancient world, in the first century AD, when this symbol was first used by early Christians, it was downright scandalous.

Paul the Apostle refers to the message of the cross as foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews, and an offense to all. (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, Galatians 5:11)

The reason is because, for people in the ancient world, the cross was a terrible instrument of torture and execution. 

The thing that made crucifixion so terrible is that it didn’t kill you right away; it was designed to make a person suffer as much as possible, for as long as possible. And for this reason, crucifixion was reserved for only the very worst kinds of criminals.

Because of how terrible crucifixion was, the Romans did not allow their own citizens to be killed by crucifixion, no matter how dastardly their crimes; only slaves and those without rights were allowed to be crucified, since it was exceedingly inhumane. 

Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher said that crucifixion was so horrible, that the word “cross” should never be mentioned in polite society.

Let the very word ‘cross,’ be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens, but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears.

Cicero, 106-43BC, Pro Rabirio Postump 16

For the Jewish people in particular — to be crucified on a cross was considered a fate worse than death, because according to the Jewish Scriptures, anyone who was killed by being hanged upon a tree was considered “accursed”. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

And so, just imagine if you told someone back then that you were a follower of Jesus — a man who had been crucified… That person would have thought: “Whoa… Even if he was innocent, that’s probably something you should keep to yourself! That’s not something you want to go around advertising, because: that’s humiliating!”

But: here’s what’s interesting: for the early Christians, the fact that Jesus had been killed upon a cross was not something they tried to hide. Instead, the symbol of the cross became the main symbol they used to identify themselves – which is surprising, because the cross was generally consider to be the ultimate symbol of humiliation and defeat.

Furthermore, the message that the early Christians embraced and wanted to share with the world was what they called, “the message of the cross,” and “the good news of Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul the Apostle knew that the message of the cross was difficult for many people to accept. For the Jews, the idea of a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block. For Greeks, the idea that you could be saved through the death of an executed Jew seemed ridiculous. The idea that God would come to Earth and allow himself to be beaten, mocked, rejected and crucified, seemed completely unreasonable. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it. The Greek gods made humans serve them; they didn’t serve people – and they would never sacrifice themselves to save guilty people. 

Just as the message of the cross ran contrary to popular thinking back then, the message of the cross also runs contrary to popular thinking today.

The message of the Cross requires you to admit that you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that you are powerless to save yourself. This is why Paul talks about “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11)

The message of the cross offends our sensibilities and our pride by telling us that we are sinners who need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves. In order to receive this salvation, you have to humble yourself before God.

Another part of the offense of the Cross is that the message of the gospel is exceedingly simple. Many people in Corinth seemed to believe that in order to “find God,” you had to be really smart, or exceedingly “good.” And yet, God chose to bring salvation to the world in a way that was so simple that even  even a child could understand it, and in a way that it was available to people who had lived immoral lives. 

Another part of the “offense of the cross” is that God says that His reason for saving you was not because you are better than other people. Salvation is simply an act of God’s grace: completely undeserved and totally unearned. You can’t take credit for it. The message of the cross leaves no room for pride or arrogance.

And when you really embrace the message of the cross, on the one hand it forces you to be incredibly humble, but on the other hand it fills you with an incredible sense of confidence – because the message of the Cross is that God loves you, and He has acted to redeem you, and if you have put your faith in what Jesus did for you, then God has sealed you and made you His own: He has adopted you as His Child, and placed His Spirit inside of you — and therefore you can be incredibly confident, knowing that you have nothing to fear in life or in death because God has promised that He will cause all things to work together for your ultimate good and for His ultimate glory.

For more on the message of the cross, see this sermon titled, “The Message of the Cross & the Power of God”

Is Christmas Pagan?

A while ago I addressed many common, but incorrect claims that the origins of Easter are pagan: “Does Easter Come from Ishtar?”

But what about Christmas? Does Christmas have pagan origins?

The Claims About the Pagan Origins of Christmas

Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice?

Didn’t Christians simply take over the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia and call it a celebration of the birth of Jesus? After all, that’s why we celebrate Christmas right around the same time as the winter solstice, isn’t it?

I used to believe this one myself. However, upon further investigation, it turns out this may not be true. Here’s why:

We don’t know what time of the year Jesus was born. The one thing we know is that it was almost certainly not in late December. The reason for this is because Luke’s Gospel tells us that the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, sleeping in the fields. In Israel it gets too cold in the winter for that; shepherds sleep outside from about March-September. Clement of Alexandria wrote that some believed May 20 was Jesus’ birthday, others believed it was April 19 or 20, others still believed it was in late March. [1]

Early Christians also did not celebrate birthdays in the same way we do because ancient cultures did not celebrate birthdays like we do in our modern culture. Only two of the four Gospels talk about Jesus’ birth. The early Christian writer Origen dismissed birthdays as something only celebrated by tyrants, such as Pharaoh and Herod in the Bible. [2]

Things changed in the early 300’s with the beginning of the celebration of Epiphany, which commemorated the revealing of the Messiah to the Gentiles at the coming of the Magi to see Jesus after his birth. This was celebrated in early January in the Eastern church, not because they believed this to be the birthday of Jesus, but because of how it fit into the liturgical calendar which gave a plan for teaching through key events in the Gospels every year.

The Western (Latin speaking) part of the church wanted to have a festival similar to Epiphany, and decided that since they did not know when exactly Jesus had been born, they would have their festival of the celebration of the incarnation and the birth of Jesus in late December, before Epiphany – since the Magi would have arrived after the birth of Jesus.

Again, the decision of this date was based on liturgical calendars, not on the taking over of pagan festivals. It was considered significant, however, that the coming of “the light of the world” should be celebrated at the time of the year which is the darkest in the Northern Hemisphere. After this date, the days get longer and the darkness wanes. This symbolism was not lost on the early Christians, but rather considered to be a great symbol of the effect of Jesus’ entrance into the world.

Here’s what’s so interesting: there is a document from about 350 which tells us that Romans celebrated the festival of Sol Invictus Natali (the birth of the unconquered sun) on December 25, and that same document also tells us that Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on this same day. There is no earlier evidence or report of a Roman pagan festival on December 25. In other words, it is just as likely that the pagan Romans chose this day for their pagan festivals because Christians were already celebrating the birth of Jesus on this day, and wanted to have their own counter-festival, than that Christians chose this day because of an existing pagan festival.

Furthermore, there is nothing particularly pagan about celebrating anything at the darkest part of year, right before the days start getting brighter. Judaism, for example, celebrates Chanukah – the Festival of Lights, in which they light candles in the darkness to celebrate God’s faithfulness at this same time of year. Pagans don’t own the symbolism inherent to the orbit of the Earth.

Are Christmas Trees Pagan?

There is some evidence that Roman pagans liked to decorate their homes with greenery during winter festivals, and that early Christians decorated their houses with greenery during Epiphany as well.

It should be remembered that in the ancient world, decorating with greenery in the winter was also common because it was bleak outside and they didn’t have Wayfair.com to depend on for affordable home decor.

Some people claim that these verses in Jeremiah are speaking about the practice of Christmas trees:

“Learn not the way of the nations…for the customs of the peoples are vanity.
A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.

Jeremiah 10:1-5

Sounds like a Christmas tree, right? Except that’s not what it’s describing. What Jeremiah is describing is the creation of a household idol out of wood. Isaiah talks about a similar practice in which people would fashion an idol out of wood, stone, or metal, and then worship the very object they had just created.

The history of the Christmas tree dates back to medieval Europe, in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which December 24 was celebrated as “Adam and Eve Day” which was celebrated with the decorating of “paradise trees” by attaching apples to them (think how much bulbs look like apples) – a rarity during the winter, so they were considered treats. Because it was winter, and especially in Northern Europe, evergreen trees were popular to use for this. [3]

Modern Pagan Christmas?

Perhaps of bigger concern is the way in which our modern consumeristic Christmas traditions can detract from the celebration of Jesus and the incarnation which Christmas is meant to be about.

May we, even in the joys and the fun of our modern celebrations, not lose sight of what it is that we are celebrating this season: that to people like us who live in deep darkness, a light has shone: the promised Messiah has come to save us from our sins and give us the light of life forever! That is certainly something worth celebrating.

What Has Happened to Me Has Really Served to Advance the Gospel

I saw a Christmas ornament advertised online today: a dumpster fire with 2020 written on it. 2020 has been a year filled with difficulty, frustration, tension, and sorrow, to the point where people are apt to say that they are “over it.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said something incredible, especially when you consider the circumstances in which he wrote it:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel

Philippians 1:12

This statement is particularly surprising when you consider what things Paul is referring to here that had happened to him:

What Had Happened to Paul?

When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he was being held as a prisoner in Rome.

Prior to his arrest, Paul had spent years traveling around the Roman Empire as missionary: preaching the gospel and starting churches, and training others to do the same. But then, some people who wanted to hinder Paul’s work and hinder the spread of the gospel, started spreading fake news that Paul was an anti-government revolutionary. As a result, Paul was arrested.

While under arrest, Paul was no longer able to travel the world to advance the gospel. Because of corruption in the judicial system, Paul was left in prison for several years, until he appealed his case to the Roman supreme court, which is how he came to be in Rome at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Paul was under house arrest, awaiting trial, and chained to Roman soldiers 24 hours a day.

With those details in mind, consider again what Paul wrote to the Philippians:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel

Philippians 1:12

The things which had happened to Paul were:

  • The loss of his freedom
  • False accusations
  • Suffering at the hands of corrupt officials.

It would be easy to look at those circumstances and conclude that these things which had happened to Paul were preventing him from advancing the gospel, but Paul says, “No. Everything that has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”

Being under house arrest had obvious limitations, but it also afforded Paul some unique opportunities.

One of those opportunities was: down time, and Paul used that time to pen four letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which are now part of our New Testament canon, and for the past two millennia have been used by God to bring encouragement and instruction to those who read them.

Another unique opportunity this situation gave him, was that Paul was chained to members of Caesar Nero’s Imperial Guard for 24 hours a day, the soldiers being changed out on shifts. Rather than seeing himself as restrained, however, Paul viewed this as an evangelist’s dream! It wasn’t that he was chained to soldiers, Paul thought, but those soldiers were chained to him! For hours at a time, he had a soldier’s undivided attention, and when their time was up, a new soldier would be brought in and chained to him. Paul viewed himself as a missionary to those people in that place. I imagine Paul’s biggest struggle must have been finding time to sleep because he was so excited to make new friends and tell them about Jesus.

Some of these guards, Paul tells us, were becoming Christians. If Paul had not been in custody, but had rather knocked on the door of Caesar’s Palace and said, “Hi, I’m Paul, I’d like to talk to you about your sins and convert you to Christianity,” they would have slammed the door in his face, but because of what happened to him: the injustice, the slander, and the corruption, Paul now had unique opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel which he could not have had otherwise.

Paul was able to see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity, and he wanted his readers to develop that mindset as well.

Paul’s Mindset In Our Situation

The events of this past year have been difficult and uncomfortable for all of us, from the pandemic, to the racial and political tensions, the economic hardships, the isolation, and the online fatigue. But how would the Apostle Paul have looked at this situation, and how would he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have encouraged us to view these circumstances? Would it not be to view them through the eyes of faith, knowing that all of these difficulties have presented us with unique opportunities for the furtherance of the gospel, and that “what has happened has really served the furtherance of the gospel”?

God has placed us who are believers here for such a time as this. May we be faithful to steward this great gospel message in a world that needs it, and may we see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity for the furtherance of the gospel.

Augustine on Ambition

Should Christians be “ambitious”? Is “ambition” the opposite of humility?

Augustine of Hippo, the African bishop from the 4th and 5th Century has a take on ambition which might surprise you.

The Opposite of Ambition is Not Humility

According to Augustine, “the opposite of ambition is not humility, it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.”

We sometimes like to comfort ourselves by imagining that the ambitious are prideful and arrogant so that those of us who never wish and never aspire, who never launch out into the deep, get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility, but this is just a thin cover for a lack of courage, even laziness.

James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

Interestingly, Augustine’s view on ambition is that “playing it safe” and not taking risks is not actually an expression of humility like many may assume, but is often based in pride and a fear of other people thinking less of you if you were to fail.

In James K.A. Smith‘s recent book, On the Road with Saint Augustine, he tells the story of Augustine’s journey from provincial North Africa to Carthage, and from there to Rome and Milan, originally as a rhetoric teacher, not as a priest. It was Augustine’s ambition which originally led him from his birthplace to these places, but in Milan his friendship with Ambrose, bishop of Milan, changed his life and led him to pursue a relationship with God which led to him stepping into vocational ministry for the rest of his life.

See also: Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

Smith argues that Augustine never stopped being ambition after giving his life to the Lord. What changed was his goal, the aim of his ambition.

The Ultimate Ambition

According to Smith, the Augustinian question when it comes to ambition is: “Whom and what do I love when I am being ambitious?”

The goal, he would argue, is not to be devoid of ambition, but rather to live a life which has “friendship with God” as its supreme ambition.

This is the only ambition, Smith points out, which comes with a guarantee of success and ultimate security! (“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8)

Solomon and the True End of Ambition

Augustine challenges us to ask, What if buried in your ambition to succeed in business, academics, sports, and other pursuits, is a desire for something else, something more – which is found in God himself?

Currently at White Fields we are studying through the life of Solomon in 1 Kings. Solomon was an ambitious person; he asked God for wisdom so that he could govern the nation well, and he succeeded both in making the nation wealthy and powerful, but also in becoming wealthy and powerful himself.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells the story of his ambition; he acquired many lovers, much money, incredible power, extensive knowledge, as well as exotic animals, parties and entertainment. And yet, in the end, he found all of it to be empty and ultimately unfulfilling. None of it did for him what he had expected it would.

In the end, Solomon comes to the realization that buried in his ambition was ultimately the desire for God himself, and what could only God can give.

Solomon’s conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes is a cliff-hanger, because Solomon says that the chief end of humanity is to keep God’s commandments (in order to be in relationship with Him). The only problem of course, is that Solomon failed to keep God’s commandments — and so have we! What is needed therefore, is one who can reconcile us to God by somehow bridging the gap created by our shortcomings and sins. The good news of the gospel is that this person has come, and his name is Jesus!

Because of Jesus, our ambition can find its ultimate desire, and can be redirected into areas which are secure and eternally meaningful: relationship with God, and participation in His mission to bring the truth of his love and grace to the world!

May God help us to avoid the false humility which is based in fear and pride, and be ambitious for Him!

What Happened on Holy Saturday?

Holy Saturday is the name given to the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

As I explain in this post: Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up, in reality Good Friday was a Thursday, and Jesus was in the grave on Friday and Saturday. But what happened during that time?

He Descended to the Dead

The Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds – in continual existence since at least the 4th Century A.D. – contains a line which many people have found intriguing: it declares that Jesus “descended to the dead.”

Older translations of the original text into English sometimes translate this phrase as saying that Jesus “descended into Hell.”

Looking at the creed in ancient languages is interesting as the Greek text says: κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which means: “descended to the bottom” – and the Latin text says: descendit ad inferos, the word inferos being translated as “Hell.”

More recent translations into English have chosen to say “descended to the dead” rather than “descended into Hell” as “the dead” would be more accurate biblically and theologically than “Hell.” The reason for this is based on a particular understanding of “Sheol” in the Old Testament and the Jewish mind, which was the dwelling place of all souls, being divided (according to Luke 16:19-31) into two parts: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades, AKA: Hell.

Abraham’s Bosom, we are told in Luke 16, was a place of comfort for those who died in faith, i.e. the “Old Testament saints,” such as those described in Hebrews 11, who died prior to the redemptive actions of Jesus, but died in faith that they would be “raised up to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35)

He Proclaimed What He Had Done, and Led Captives in His Train

In 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, Peter tells us that Jesus’ spirit went to Sheol after his death on the cross but prior to his resurrection, and declared to the souls of the deceased there what he had accomplished in his life and death. This message would have been:

  1. A message of redemption and release from Sheol for those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemptive work of the Messiah (“He led captives in his train” – Ephesians 4:8)
  2. A message of condemnation for those held in the Hades/Hell portion of Sheol.

God Often Does His Greatest Work in the Dark

For the disciples, that first “Holy Saturday” would have seemed much less than holy. It would have felt like defeat and been perhaps the lowest point in their lives. Many of them, having left everything to follow Jesus, would have been wondering, “Now what am I going to do with my life?” – not to mention the fact that they were afraid that they would be next: that the Romans and Jewish leaders would likely come be coming to arrest and execute them as well.

And yet, in the awful silence of that day, God was doing a great work of redemption!

Remember: with God, silence is not absence. Sometimes when God seems most distant to us, is when He is accomplishing his most profound work.

That is the reminder of Holy Saturday: we can’t always see what God is doing.

May God bless you and give you rest in your soul this Holy Saturday!

See also:

Christian Responses to Plagues and Threats in the Past

A virus that affects the vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is a threat that we should take seriously.

As we consider how to respond to COVID-19, it is worth considering some of the responses to plagues and threats by Christians in the past.

The Plague in Rome

Jesse Lusko posted recently:

In 250 AD the plague wiped out 1/3 of the population of Rome. There was hysteria and most Romans abandoned the weak and the sickly and fled. Pagan historians record how Christians instead sacrificially cared for the sick and faced death with joy and confidence. Cyprian writes “In contrast to the prevailing despair, the Christians seemed to carry their dead in triumph.”

The Atomic Age

C. S. Lewis wrote these words in 1948 after the dawn of the atomic age:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Luther and the Plague in Wittenberg

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but what many people don’t realize is that it continued to pop up at times afterwards for centuries.

In August 1527 the plague showed up in Wittenberg, leading to the closure of the university and other social institutions. People began fleeing the city in panic, and many people did get sick. In fact, the mortality rate of those who contracted the plague was 70%.

Martin Luther and his wife believed that they were called to serve the sick rather than to flee their city. They opened up their home and treated many sick people.

No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

In other words, Martin Luther believed there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task.

He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, yet if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another.

For more on this, see: Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Conclusion for Today

As the people of God, it is important that we respond to the current situation in prayer, in faith, in service, and in generosity. We are called to look out for the weak and vulnerable among us, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to speak with a prophetic voice – proclaiming God’s words of life and the message of eternal hope in Jesus.