The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 3

This is a continuing series on violence, war, and how the early church fathers responded in light of the Gospel of Jesus. If you haven’t yet, please read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Today we will look specifically at how the church fathers responded to the violence inflicted upon them. This is important as it pertains to discussions on self-defense (which we will touch on next week) and the role of the martyrs in the plan of God for evangelism and bringing others into the kingdom. This post addresses what the world sees and feels when they see Christians refusing to use violence in any form, even in the face of great violence against themselves.

Martyrdom as a Display of the Cross

The sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world. Martyrdom became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire. Long before persecution was systematized in January 250, Christians for two-hundred years had been choosing to lay down their lives (rather than fighting for them), dying for their faith (instead of killing for it) in various corners of the empire, and the influence of the martyrs cannot be understated.

It has always been so that, when the church suffers persecution, it grows faster and stronger than at times of peace. And while Roman’s believed that the persecution of the church would represent an unflattering advertisement to those looking to join Christianity, many who watched the Christians die ended up becoming Christians themselves. They marveled at those who would suffer such things and wondering what incredible power this faith must contain that people would ever die for it. Indeed, the courage to respond to violence with utter peace was something that Rome ultimately could not overcome in the war of ideology.

Public martyrdom is responsible for creating some of the greatest thinkers of the early church. Irenaeus of Lyons personally knew and was heavily influenced by the famous martyr, Polycarp, who had been ordained by the apostle John. He served the church during the persecution in what is now France, he spent the rest of his days defending the church against Gnosticism and Heresies, and he is believed to have been martyred near the turn of the third century.[1]

Tertullian started as a well-educated and devout citizen of Rome but was converted to Christianity at the sight of their persecution. He was impressed with their courage and resolve as they were being thrown to lions and burnt alive in broad daylight. Long after his conversion, he is known to have written: “The more we are mown down by you, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.[2]

Origen, one of the most influential figures in ancient Christianity, saw his father arrested and martyred when he was only 17 years old. He is known to have written a letter to his father, urging him to stand firm in the face of persecution, urging him not to forsake his faith and not to fear for the family he was leaving behind.[3] As he grew, his greatest desire was to suffer the martyrdom that so many great church leaders endured, something that would ultimately escape him as he is known to have survived severe torture at the hands of the Romans for his faith. This torture left him broken, scarred, and unable to continue his work in his old age, but his courageous example of faithful and peaceful endurance of the evils of violent men was passed on to his pupils as well. Notably, during one particularly violent outbreak of persecution under emperor Decius, Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Origen’s pupils, actually survived persecution because of his peace and courage in the face of violence. The soldiers had been scouring the city for days searching for him, and they did not think of going to his house where they would have found him patiently and prayerfully awaiting his arrest and execution.

In AD 165, a debate ensued between Justin Martyr and a pagan philosopher called Crescens in which Crescens, having lost the debate, complained to the authorities that Justin was teaching a forbidden religion. Justin was swiftly arrested, and his trial was brief. He refused to make any sacrifices to the Roman gods before the courts, and together with six other Christians who also had been arrested for their faith, he was scourged and beheaded.[4] He has been seen as an archetype of Christians in persecuted countries ever since, and the word martyr has been permanently transfixed to his name as a way of communicating to all other persecuted Christians that they are in good company.

And by far, the most exceptional example of peaceful Christ-like resistance is the life of Ignatius. Everything that we have of his, the information about his life and the writings of his hands, come to us from captivity while he was awaiting execution for his faith. He was arrested during the persecution of Antioch and was sent to Rome under the guard of ten soldiers. As they sailed west, he was frequently visited by other Christians whom he urged not to intervene with violence to free him. Instead, they are encouraged to let himself “be poured out as a libation to God while an altar is at hand.”[5]

As Ignatius traveled, he wrote of how, through his mistreatment and his bonds, he had become more of a disciple than ever before, even praying that he might “benefit from the wild beasts prepared” for him.[6] He knew that upon his death, the Christians would give him more of an ear than ever before, for the words of the martyr carry more weight than the words of regular men and women, and he knew that he must use this opportunity to edify and instruct the churches.

The letters men like Ignatius come to us from the path of the cross, instead of the sword. They display the power of the cross of Christ in ways that can never be diminished. The victory of the sword of Roman persecutors was swift, but it was temporary, for the world would quickly see the truth that Christ himself has shown us that the cross is stronger because it ends in resurrection. Rather quickly, the writings of the martyrs rose to places of prominence and authority in the church. The church began to gather annually over the graves of the martyrs to venerate and admire their faith, and to ask for strength to follow their examples. This tradition continues until today in some parts of the world.

Thesis

The word pacifism is often confused with the idea of pacifying or letting the enemy have what they want. However, the actual meaning is found in the root Latin word pax (peace), and it means peace-making. According to Commodianus (250), the call of the Christian is to “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”[1] In the Roman empire, where the pax-Romana meant peace at the tip of a sword, the church fathers knew that Jesus taught non-violent peace-making. The passage of scripture that comes up more than any other in the writings of the church fathers is Isaiah 2:4-5, which says:

“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

 

The people of God were looking forward to a day when war, and training for war, would be a thing of the past. They believe that the age of the church was ushering in that day. They believed that they should now focus on planting and reaping, and on kingdom-building and worship, instead of war and survival. They believed that in Christ, God had indeed judged the nations and that it was now time to walk in the light of the Lord; that peace had finally come and was also still coming; that God’s realm was here already, though not yet fully present. Furthermore, they believed that, in this kingdom, there is no place for weapons of war.

[1]C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).

[1]Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.

[2]Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.

[3]Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.

[4]Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17

[5]Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.

[6]ibid

The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 2

READ PART 1: HERE

This week we are diving into the theological arguments of the Early Church Fathers regarding the use of weapons (the sword in their day, the gun in ours) and their use (or lack thereof) to the Christian in responding to evil.

Tertullian’s Argument from Gethsemane

The theological argument for the pacifism of the church fathers comes directly from scriptures, and Tertullian made much of the interactions of Christ with weapons of war in his day.

Matthew 26 records an incident in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus and his disciples were directly confronted by men with swords (1st-century form of law enforcement) seeking to arrest Jesus and have him tried on trumped-up charges. One of the disciples, in an attempt to defend Jesus using violence, draws his sword, and according to Luke, striking a soldier with it. Instead of commendation from Jesus for standing his ground in defense, he receives a rebuke and a command to put the sword away.

So why did Jesus tell them to bring a sword if they weren’t allowed to use it? Luke (22:36-38) informs the readers that the reason he carried the sword was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (that the Messiah would be seen as a violent insurrectionist), and so that he could teach them that the kingdom of God would not be established through the sword, but rather through the cross.

Tertullian, referring to this episode in Gethsemane, says: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1]

Skeptics will point out that chapter nineteen of Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” pertains explicitly to military service. However, Tertullian’s argument is not merely that a Christian cannot serve in the military because it is a rival master (although that argument is made there as well), but rather that a Christian cannot serve in the military because the Christian cannot bear the sword. The problem is not merely idolatry, but the use of violence against the image of God in others.

In Tertullian’s day, as well as our own, some choose to look past Christ to the Old Testament in order to justify the use of violence for modern Christians. We can see from his writings that some were arguing that, since Moses carried a rod, and since Aaron carried a buckle (to secure a weapon to his side), and since Joshua led a warring army, then it follows that the Christian might find it acceptable as one of Gods people to also engage in military service.[2]

However, Tertullian will not allow Jesus to be silenced by the Old Testament. He points to Jesus, who heals the soldier that Peter struck with his sword and proclaims: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” [3]

For Tertullian and the early church fathers, Jesus is the full expression of God, and he has revealed God to be completely and utterly non-violent; choosing to go to the cross rather than to wield the sword.

A Unique People in the World

It is a fundamental understanding of the ancient church in the first two centuries that the Christian community is to be sanctified, set apart from the ways of the world. Paul, speaking directly to the church in Rome, did not diminish the importance of the uniqueness of the Christian life. In Romans 12, Paul explicitly instructs both Jewish and Gentile Christians gathering there to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”[4]

Paul is expectant that the follower of Jesus will live a life that is remarkably different from the Roman culture that they are immersed in every day. For Paul, this uniqueness of life comes from the revelation of Christ, whose response to sin and violence leveled against himself on the cross was a willingness to forgive and restore.

Like Paul, Justin Martyr reflected on the words and the revelation of Christ. He describes the church as:

“we who hated and slew one another, and because of customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same from the God who is Master of all.”[5]

Justin considers the rejection of violence and the ability to forgive and pray for enemies as one of the marks of God’s people; it is a part of our unique identity in the world.

Elsewhere Justin references the prophecy of Isaiah and says that Christians have “changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.”[6] The implication here is that the church is a kingdom without weapons of war, for the church does not see war as a tool of any use to the world that they are working towards.

The fundamental answers that the church has to offer the world in response to evil is not the same answer that the kingdoms of earth are offering. If the church’s answer to evil is war, bloodshed, and violence, then our king is not unique, and our kingdom is just as “of this world” as any other. The church fathers understood that the power of the church to bring restoration to the world was rooted in its other-worldly answers. The strange dichotomy of the gospel is that victory comes through defeat, that life comes through death, and that peace comes through the cross, and not the sword.

Next Week:

We will look at how the sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world, and indeed became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire.

 

[1] Tertullian, On Idolatry,XIX.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 26:52). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 12:2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Justin, Apologia I, XIV. 3.

[6] Cadoux, Cecil John. 2015. The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. Kindle Location 1954.

The Peace-makers: Exploring war, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 1

The Same Way, or a New Way?

The response to evil in the world is something that the church claims to possess above all other claims. The church claims that the cross of Christ is the answer to those prone to violence, those quick to use the threat of physical violence to coerce, and to those who would attempt to bring peace at the tip end of a sword (or the barrel of a gun). Throughout human history, that answer has been to fight fire with fire; to use violence to try and end violence. Moreover, though the use of ‘redemptive violence’ (a term first coined by American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, Walter Wink) has grown to epic proportions over the last century as an answer to evil, violence in the 20thcentury has not been diminished. In fact, the 20th century was the most violent in human history. Despite the best efforts of good people, war and violence have never ceased for even a single day.

This series of posts will seek aim to clarify the position of the early church to present its answer to violence and war in the world, along with its response to those who would wield it. In this first post, I will look at the attitude of Christians towards the military, the next post will be an exploration of the church Father’s theology of Pacifism. In subsequent posts, I will outline the unique mindset of the Christians in the world that led them to reject the ways of the world, and in my final post, I will speak to the modern church about regaining this uniqueness and aligning herself once again with the power of the cross, and not the sword.

Military Service and the Church

Perhaps the most significant difference between the modern church and the church of the first and second-century has to do with their collective attitude towards military service, something that most American Christians naturally assume is an acceptable and even encouraged vocation for a follower of Jesus. Readers of first and second-century Christian writings are often surprised to find that there was no conversation about the merits of armed forces. In fact, it was assumed that being a follower of Jesus and being a soldier is incompatible.

From the end of the New Testament period to the about A.D. 170-80, there is no evidence whatsoever of Christians serving in the military.[1]In the writings of the early church fathers, military abstention seems to be taken for granted. What is clear is that, outside of the biblical account of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8) and the jailor baptized by Paul (Acts 16:33), there is not a single reference to or record of a Christian serving in the military before 170 CE.[2]

Hippolytus, one of the most important theologians of the second and third centuries, wrote a manual to help guide the church body in his day. In that document entitled The Apostolic Tradition, he states that “a military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor… he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”[3]With that last sentence, Hippolytus is direct and clear in his statement that there is no place in the life of a member of the church for military service.

There are presumably several reasons for this, including the pagan insignia that soldiers were required to wear, and perhaps most of all, the early church would point to the fact that military service required an oath of allegiance made to both the emperor and the gods or the emperor as a god. However, the baptized Christian has been reborn into the service of Christ and Christ alone; they have a single allegiance, and therefore any allegiances given to others are incompatible with the Christian faith as the early Christians understood it. Indeed, they would have rejected any ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to any earthly state or nation. Those pledges would fall under the category of idolatry.

Another reason for the rejection of military service amongst the early church would be the matter of the shedding of blood. The Roman military was brutally violent, often making a public display of torturing and killing dissenters. One incident during the reign of Diocletian describes a Roman Proconsul traveling through the city of Tebessia in Numidia (Algeria) on a mission to recruit soldiers.  He came upon a twenty-one-year-old Christian man named Maximilian and demanded that he serve in the third Augustan legion. The young man refused, citing the fact that his Christian faith forbids him to wear the seal around his neck because the seal of Christ had marked him. He was summarily executed as a warning to all passersby.[4]

Besides Hippolytus and Justin Martyr, we also have the words of a protagonist writing against the practice of the Christians to refuse military service. Celsus, a pagan and a critic of Christianity, lashes out against the Christian community for their refusal to serve the empire. His words make it evident that he is well aware of the Christian position, and he argues that “if all men were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent the king from being left behind in utter solitude and desertion, and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians.”[5]He argues that Christianity is a threat to the empire because Roman peace is upheld by the sword, which means that if Christianity spreads, there will be no more swords to uphold the empire at all!

This was not the first time that the Christian ethic of refraining from military service caused problems in the empire. Justin Martyr, in his The First Apology, writing to try and ease the fear of emperor Antoninus Pius, argued that Christians are no threat to the empire because our king is not an earthly and human one. Rather, it is a kingdom that cannot be seen, and which has been already inaugurated, only to be revealed when Christ returns. He quotes the Prophet Isaiah’s words about how his followers will beat their swords into plowshares” and how they “will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,”[6]all intended to stave any fears of a violent Christian uprising. He says: “We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ.”[7]

Here, in chapter 39 chapter of Justin’s letter, he has set the tone for how the early Christians would exist in the world amongst other kings and kingdoms. The mere attempt to live a normal life in the Roman empire was often disrupted with challenges loyalty to Caesar over Christ. Christians might find themselves unable to buy, sell, or trade in the agora marketplace, a right which was often accessible only after offering incense to Caesar as a god. They would find it impossible to serve in seats of parliament, which required incantations and offerings to other kings and deities.

The propensity of the Romans towards the use of violence was not just limited to military culture, but the broader roman culture also. It was entirely normal to witness extreme acts of violence almost daily in the roman world; gladiators engaging in “blood sport;” men and women alike, fighting in the arena by torchlight in the evenings,[8]and public executions were regular evening events, but these things offended the sensibilities of the Christians, keeping them away. Furthermore, Christianity, not being an officially recognized religion in the empire, was generally looked upon as a bizarre fringe group and a strange thing to be a part of. They were called antisocial for not taking part in attendance of the violent gladiator games; they were called atheists for not worshiping the local deities,[9]and they were called cannibals because of the way they spoke about taking part in the eucharist. All of these things made them a threat to the empire, both culturally and politically.

It is clear then that, while the church was divided amongst many theological issues, there was unity amongst Christians about abstaining from military service. The first recorded instance of a member of the church serving the empire in this way comes to us around 173, listed amongst the ranks of the Thundering Legionunder Marcus Aurelius. From that day forward, the number of Christians amongst their ranks and other areas of government began to grow.[10]

Tertullian confirms, in 197, in his Apology, the presence of Christians in the senate, the forum, and the military;[11]and though he does not explicitly condemn the acts in this particular writing (which was intended to argue that Christians are good citizens and pose no threat to Rome), he also does not offer his support to these supposed members of the church serving earthly kings in this way. In fact, a rebuke of voluntary enlistment written by Tertullian just 15 years later[12]will confirm his disapproval of the practice.

The growth of Christian presence in the military in the third century is also confirmed by the presence of two soldiers in Cyprian, apparently martyred during the persecution of Decius in 250, and a record of Galerius’s attempts to weed out the Christians from amongst his ranks.[13]When the persecution broke wide, the Christians in the military were the first to suffer as a number of them are recorded as being executed.

But it is the Christian east which seems to have stood firm for a great deal longer. We have evidence that the Christians were far more inclined to reject taking up the sword in defense of the empire. One piece of that evidence is Origen’s rebuke of Celsus in 248, where he states plainly that where he comes from, “we do not fight under the emperor… although he require it.”[14]

Next week:

We will look at what Tertullian has to say about the episode with the sword in the garden of Gethsemane, and explore what it means for the church that Jesus commanded Peter to put away his sword.

 

[1]Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace:a Historical Survey and Critical Reevaluation, 67.

[2]John Howard Yoder. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 53.

[3]Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, ch16.

[4]Jonathan Hill, The First Thousand Years, 77.

[5]Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 68-69.

[6]The New International Version. (2011). (Is 2:4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7]Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 39.

[8]Burge, Gary M. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, 72.

[9]Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought,16.

[10]Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace,68.

[11]Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi.117-121.

[12]Tertullian, De Corona Militis, XI.

[13]Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace, 68.

[14]Origen,Contra Celsum, VIII, 73.

How to Use a Commentary: 4 ways to get the most out of your daily study.

FYI: Skip to the bottom for my list of recommendations

Reading a commentary while you study the scriptures is the best way to ensure that you are correctly interpreting the text. There is no shortage of people, even pastors, interpreting and teaching the Bible without any help from biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to helping you better understand the text and interpret it the way that it was meant to be interpreted.

First off, you might be asking “what is a commentary?”. Well, it is a book (usually pretty large) that is written about a single book of the Old or New Testament. They move chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the text and are often times the culmination of years of arduous and intense scholarly work. It’s like having an expert in biblical interpretation walking you through the text, pointing out things that you might never have seen.

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A good commentary will equip you with the tools that you need to read the text in a way that is well-informed and even life-changing. When the text is rightly interpreted, it can make you a more loving and content person and a blessing to those around you. When it is misunderstood and the meaning is simply guessed at or even twisted to fit our own agenda, the Bible can easily become a dangerous book that can bring out tribalism and even promote idolatry that hurts the world at large.

So as an avid commentary reader and one who has made a daily habit of expanding my Biblical literacy, I wanted to write some advice to put you the path to well-informed biblical interpretation. My hope is that you will eventually come to stand on your own and not rely on the interpretive skills of others, even more so, I want you to be able to spot bad interpretation in a sermon, a small group, or in the media. Too often we say to ourselves “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply don’t know why. Well, read these tips, grab a cup of coffee, and start interpreting.

#1 Choose a commentary from the last 25 years.

While certain long-established segments of Christianity tend to read commentaries from the 19th century, and all the way back to the medieval time period, I would recommend reading something much newer. Biblical scholarship has made huge strides in the recent half-century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naag Hamadi Codices, many things have changed:
– Our understanding of Judaism in the first century has been vastly altered, which affects how we read books like Romans and Ephesians.
– Our understanding of the Greek language has been greatly expanded. And with a deeper understanding of casual greek, many words have taken on more complex meanings.
– This is just the tip of the iceberg here, there are so many things that historians and archeologist have brought to the table, and this work is still being done, so try and keep up!

Despite what you have heard, biblical scholarship and how we understand the work of God and the church really does change with the academic work and scholarship of every generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, and it comes to new conclusions about how different texts should be read and understood. Newer commentaries will be interacting with both the theology of the past and the newer discoveries of the day.

#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at least for now).

Some people start reading commentaries, but they get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For instance, you might be reading Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew 11 and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, see something like this:

(Jos. Life 66; Theissen 1991:36).

This can get confusing because you might worry that you are missing something. Don’t worry, you aren’t. In fact, go ahead and assume that if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not for you.

But here’s a quick crash course anyways: The first part (Jos. Life 66) is letting you know that he learned what he just wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) is simply referencing a scholar named Theissen’s writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36.

Remember, you are not missing anything. Don’t feel like you are stepping into the middle of a conversation. If there was something important to know, it would be written in the text.

In time, you will learn to move right on by without even noticing them. And if you keep reading, one day you will see a reference to a scholar that you’ve already read in those parentheses, and you will suddenly say to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!”. It’s a great feeling!

#3 Don’t get bogged down in the details.

Most commentaries start with an introduction to the passage, then they move to a verse-by-verse analysis, then they end with a summary and some thoughts. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. That is where the scholar is bringing it all together.

The middle verse-by-verse will often be difficult to read. It will contain ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and will talk about how those words were used in their day. It will also often times take part in a debate with the commentaries that were written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given more argumentative support. It is okay to skip these parts if they are arduous and boring for you and move to the meat of the applicable material.

#4 There is no Rush!

For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, and their study habits tend to reflect that. They typically want to study large swaths of scripture in short periods of time. But the reason I love commentaries is that it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery of each paragraph. Walking slowly through the text and resisting the urge to rush through is a spiritual discipline that yields a ton of fruit.

So if you find yourself considering picking up a commentary (I highly recommend that you do!) Here are a few on my current commentary reading list on the book of Matthew which is what we are studying in the church where I minister (Watermark Tampa).

Craig Keener:
The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
(Thorough and contextual, but a bit pricey)

Donald A. Hagner: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33a, Matthew 1-13
(Very affordable, more scholastic. Focus on the Intro’s and Summaries of each passage)

Leander Keck: The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Volume 8)
(Well rounded and accessible, I would recommend this for a wide range of people)

Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A personal Favorite. Very easy to read!)

N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15
(Great for Beginners)

William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I (The New Daily Study Bible)
(Inexpensive, super easy to read, can be used as a daily reader.)

Brian K Blount: True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Covers entire New Testament in small bites from an African American Perspective)

 

Bruce Malina: Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
(Covers entire New Testament, fascinating social study of 1st century Culture, not theologically focused)

 

Evangelicalism’s Life or Death Moment

Euangelion. It is a simple word that means “good news”. It was, from the mouths of Jesus and his band of disciples, a message of hope. That God, through Jesus, is fixing everything that is broken and setting all things to rights again. Not through the power of earthly might, but by the cross.

In the 1960’s a group of prominent former fundamentalists resurrected a term (evangelicalism) that had been used to describe a movement in 19th century Great Britain that was centered around reforming an increasingly hopeless society by the simple act of teaching them what Jesus taught. Jesus message of reconciliation, grace, mercy, love and salvation coming through Jesus own life being poured out for us took root in the hearts of people and was instrumental in the healing of society in that nation. It was believed that the good news of Jesus could do the same here.

In the last 2 days I have received emails from family, friends, acquaintances, church members, and other pastors linking to videos of politicians, pastors, and various leaders, all evangelicals, and their message is the same: “Do not bring the refugees fleeing the middle east into our nation and our states”.

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In the last several decades evangelicalisms message has shifted from “good news for a hurting world” ever steadily towards “news”. And the news is not good.

The “news” is that we no longer believe that God is in control, we believe that we are.
We no longer believe in Jesus when he said:

“Do not be afraid”.

We no longer believe Peter when he said:

“the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”.

We now believe that when Jesus said:

“he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”

he meant “the righteous poor from our own country”.

We now believe that when Jesus said:

“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

He really didn’t mean all captives, and he didn’t mean all who are oppressed.

And we think that when Jesus said:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

that none of it applies to us.

I hear Christians say “But they hate us”, which is exactly why Jesus said:

“for [the Most High] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

The fact is that we are in danger of turning away tens of thousands of people who are actually homeless, actually starving, actually sick, literally outcasts, very very poor, extremely persecuted, utterly rejected and totally unwelcome in, not just their own country, but in almost every country in which they have sought asylum. Surely the people who, for decades, have claimed that we are a Christian nation built upon Christian values can remember what Jesus said about the poor, the immigrant, the starving, the naked the hungry and the persecuted. Surely the same evangelicals that spent millions of dollars to legislate morality understand the immoral act of locking the doors on these people when we have so much and they only have each other! Surely we understand the demand that our scriptures lay upon us to take in these people, to love them, to welcome them into our communities and our shelters.

Do we not understand the significance of God using the cross to bring salvation to a world that believed that it could only be done by the sword? Do we really think that our walls and our guns can save the world this time? If that is so, then evangelicals have traded their crosses back in for swords.

In case you haven’t noticed, millennials no longer trust evangelicals. Time after time the hypocrisies in our message have ensnared us and repelled them. For the most part, they have been rather gracious to us in all of our glaring faults, our conflicting messages, and the way that we have cozied up to the empire. But this will pull, whatever fragments of wool are left, away from their eyes. They will finally see what american Christianity has become: “Anti-Christ”.

If I may channel the ancient prophets for a moment, I would argue, as strongly as I can, that the fate of evangelicalism and the fate of the Syrian refugees are bound together. We will never recover from the decision to turn them away. Our sins will light up the sky. Our heartlessness will be our downfall. The lampstand will be removed and we will be sent into the exile of irrelevance until we are either replaced or until we are repentant and Jesus once again sits on His throne in the heart of the evangelical movement.

But if we have compassion, if we open our eyes to the opportunity that is laid out before us, to be the arms and eyes and hands and feet of our risen Lord, if we die to our old ways and repent, then resurrection awaits. These people need Jesus, and never before has the church had this kind of opportunity. Instead of going to them, they are coming to us!

If we respond in love it will be as Isaiah 11:16 describes Gods people coming back to Him: “There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt.” Isaiah is saying that every obstacle will be removed, and Gods people will come running to the temple to worship.

Is it risky? Is it a little scary? Is it a little dangerous? Of course, love is always risky, a little scary, and dangerous. No one knows this more than Jesus Himself, who’s love for you sent Him to the cross. But remember his words, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”

My 4 Rules for Responding to Nasty Emails.

Every so often I receive an email written out of anger, hurt, or any one of the various emotions that cause people to lash out against others. Sometimes these emails are specifically written to inflict pain and shut down communication, while other times they are written to elicit a specific response from me.  I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people endure, but I’m fairly certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.

Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what many people fear, and, until recent history, this is what has kept them and their emotional outbursts in check.

But in this day and age we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day, through email. And for the bitter minded, this is far too big of a temptation to pass up.

So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.

Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.

I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.

This does 2 things:

1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger, combined with unfetered access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often times I will receive a follow up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.

2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.

Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.

Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.

If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.

Rule #3: No negativity!

Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.

Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.

If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.

Rule #4: Look for substance. 

Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.

Those are the rules that I have for myself, perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.

Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.

They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance”. This is not only about eterna relationship with God, it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.

When the dust settles you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again, or standing alone. But then you will have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?

I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him then you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.…

Stones in your Garden.

A few years back my wife and I bought a fixer upper and we worked on house until it was exactly what we wanted it to be, on the inside that is. One day we decided that we would start working on the yard and it was entirely different territory to us.

The yard had not been worked on in years, and the house is 85 years old. Which means that there are 8 decades of yard projects that had been buried like ancient ruins. One layer on top of another. The most prevalent object in each layer was rocks. Subsequently when we started raking the yard in preparation for making a garden we realized that there were far too many rocks to plant anything.

Slowly we started pulling out the rocks one by one and a couple of hours into it we realized that (1) it was going to take a whole lot of work to get all of the rocks out, and (2) when we finish we are going to have a really large pile of rocks to deal with. We never finished the project, and we now park our car on that spot.

But all of this gets me to thinking about those fields you see all over the world where farmers have plowed the earth and gone through all of the preparation and the work involved in preparing the earth for planting. I think of places that I visited on tour last summer in Germany, and I think of pictures of places like Ireland where the earth is separated into vast fields separated by knee high stone walls that stretch the entire length of the field. There are also roads between the fields that are laid with the same stones used for the walls. They meander between vast green gardens and golden fields of wheat. They now play a very important role in the protection and care-taking of the garden. They ensure that the garden is not trampled, and they keep out those that would trample the life-giving fruits of the well tended gardens.

Stone_Walls_and_Hay_Fields_-_geograph.org.uk_-_525471

Do you know where those stones come from? I used to assume that they were brought in just to be used as separation for the fields, but I have learned that those stones which now protect the fields and define the boundaries of the gardens were actually dug out and removed from the place where the garden now sits.

This is an amazing thought to me, and it seems that there is something to be gleamed (pun!) from that.

We all have an inner garden. Many of us would like to till and plant in the garden of our souls, but when we actually get in there with the right tools (spiritual disciplines, prayer, study, sabbath… etc) we start to find all kinds of things that need to be removed before anything of substance can grow. 

Being a pastor, I interact with allot of people. And when you interact with allot of people, sometimes things can go wrong. People get hurt, and people hurt you. Sometimes it my fault and I need to acknowledge that and say “Here is something in my life that is a hinderance to growth, and it needs to be removed”. Other times the fault is not mine, but is cause by spiritual and moral shortcomings in the lives of those I am working with. When that happens, I need to point and say “That is something that is dangerous, or someone that is unteachable… etc”.

Yesterday I came across one of those emails that pastors sometimes receive. It was from a long time ago and it was angry. It was insulting and attacking and degrading. But wrapped up in it was truths that I needed to hear and things I needed to confront, both in my life and theirs.

Since then much time has passed and new information has been gathered and added to what I now know about that time. But perhaps the biggest thing that I have realized when coming across that old “stone” is that, instead of being a hindrance, these stones are now part of the walls and paths that are daily protecting the garden of my soul.

Some of the stones around the garden of my life and soul are used as barriers, walls. They have helped me set up healthy boundaries that protect me from unhealthy people. People that would trample my garden and destroy the life that is growing there. I have learned that there are healthy people who come and pour into me, and there are unhealthy people that are envious and destructive. In popular psychology they are called vampires (a term coined by Dr. Judith Orloff, and used by others such as Dr. Henry Cloud). They are people who need to be fed, but also need boundaries. I have learned that there needs to be well maintained paths that lead them to the wall where they can be fed from the garden in a way that is healthy and nourishing for both myself and them.

Some of the stone that I have pulled out have become paths that guide people. I point to the stones and say “Here are all of the ways that I have failed, that I needed to change, and the things that were keeping me from growth. Follow the path that I have laid, step on MY stones so that they won’t end up in YOUR garden!”.

My goal is to have a soul that is filled with an overabundance of life-giving food. Overflowing with love for the loveless, grace for the graceless, with peace for those who are constantly at war with the world around them. All of these things are found in Jesus of Nazareth who, many times in scriptures, is referred to as “The stone which the builders have discarded that has now become the cornerstone”.

Often times the things that we have discarded will end up being the same things that will ultimately lead to deliverance and freedom. Not only for you, but also for other people. Even the salvation of your soul was paved with the suffering of the Messiah. But the pain which you inflicted upon him through your sin became part of his path towards your very salvation.

So may you look back on the path that God has led you down and see that it was paved with great toil, but it was necessary to bring you where you are and where He has for you to go.

Further reading: “Necessary Endings” Dr. Henry Cloud. “Boundaries” Dr Henry Cloud”