The Age of Catholic Christianity 70 – 312 AD: Persecution and Orthodoxy

These are notes from our Wednesday night class on church history, this evening (13 Sept 2006) taught by our Associate Pastor at FPC Edmond, John Gruel. John is a former doctor and orthopedic surgeon, and has a wonderfully intellectual and insightful approach to ministry, as well as the interpretation and application of God’s word in our daily lives. John gave me permission to podcast his presentation this evening, which is the fourth session in a 15 part study on this history of the Christian church. For our primary historical text we are using Bruce Shelley’s “Church History In Plain Language Updated 2nd Edition.”

What does “catholic” mean? Universal. From the inception of the followers of Jesus through about the first three centuries, there really was just one expression of “Church.”

The early church was molded or formed by several things:
1- the exclusion from Judaism
2- persecution from Roman culture
3- the development of heresy (beliefs that challenged common thinking and led the church to develop its orthodoxy and common scriptures)

When we left off last week, Christians were really a subset of Jews (Romans had been giving some slack to Judaism)
– as soon as Christians were no longer a subsect of Judaism, they started to experience persecution by the Romans
– unlike forbearers, Christians were very active in proselytizing
– in the past you could become a Jew, but Jews were not very active trying to convert people
– because of several factors, Christians were seen as more of a threat
– in the 60s under Nero particularly, Christians began to be seriously persecuted

Interesting: that women in higher classes as well as lower classes were active in spreading Christianity

Reason Christians experienced persecution:
– called themselves “saints” (that didn’t mean perfect, but in a strong sense it meant set apart, holy ones)
– people are always suspicious of those who are different
– early Christians lived simply and by Jesus’ teachings, that becomes almost a condemnation of the current culture
– rejecting the Roman gods made them social misfits, couldn’t do any crafts associated with pagan temples, work in pagan hospitals, etc
– soldiering was a treacherous occupation
– were regarded as atheists, rejecting the gods: seemed in the culture to be people without faith
– different ideas about marriage and sex, about slaves, about economics
– in early times, Christians often worshipped in secret

Because worship was secret, some rumors about orgies (from the kiss of peace) and cannibals (drinking blood and eating flesh)
– because of worship without any images of the Deity and not worshipping Roman gods
– Nero blamed the Christians
– superstitions led people to blame the Christians for many things

At same time the growth of emperor worship was happening in Rome, Christianity was on the rise
– emperors began to be seen as the embodiment of Rome and deities: in death and later under Nero in life
– by end of 1st century, it was common to demand emperor worship and see him as a god/king
– emperor worship made compulsory in 3rd century

Uncompromising faith of the early Christians really got them in trouble
– led to increases in persecutions
– were 10 Roman Caesars in the Roman period before Constantine
– Nero probably had both Peter and Paul killed
– Domician was probably the one who banned John to Patmos
– Trajan passed laws against Christianity, had Ignacious burned at the stake
— you could be forgiven for

What was the result of this persecution
– the church always thrives in an era of persecution
– in Eastern Europe after the Berlin wall came down, mission
– it has always been the case that persecution strengthens the faith

As the church grew and develop
– heresy: “out of bounds” (too far in one area)
– orthodoxy: “in bounds” or accepted thinking
– these questions led to the rise of theology (God talk, words about God, the study of God) – theos = God
– theology is always a secondary enterprise, primary things are God’s revelation (through scriptures, actions of others– through the scriptures and through the life of Jesus)
– scriptures and their meaning are all subject to interpretation: the theology is the interpretation of these things

Our primary response to God’s revelation should be praise and worship
– secondarily: to seek to understand these things

In a community of belief, it is the community that eventually defines what is clear thinking and what is out of bounds. Several things led to the need for theological thinking:
1- movement of Christianity from a Jewish tradition into a Gentile tradition (Jews has a worldview already that included God’s active hand in the lives of his people. Greeks, however, did not and were more philosophically oriented) Jewish believers accepted Jesus as part of what God had been up to.
2- Gentiles

Creeds developed, from Latin “credo” (I believe)
– Romans 10: Confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord: this was likely a creed
– Things reinforced by creeds: Jesus came in the flesh, was bodily resurrected
– credo of the trinity was being developed, look at the end of Matthew

2 main flavors of heresies concerning Jesus
1- people who say Jesus was a great GUY but not God (emphasize humanity of Jesus)
2- People who emphasize Jesus’ deity

Orthodox thinking has attempted to hold together both views: That Christ was 100% human and 100% God
– Ebionites were one group that defined Jesus as a human primarily
– “Jesus Seminar” curriculum take the this tack also (Jesus was wonderful but in the end just a man)

Trinity
– had been traditions of God as spirit in the OT
– didn’t really hammer out the doctrines until the Councils started meeting, but these thoughts were already developing

Docetists said Jesus was all spirit (all God, not human)

Then came the biggest challenge: Gnosticism
– took hold around the end of the 1st century
– gnosis means knowledge or “to know”
– was a broad movement with several common elements
— 1- sense of secret knowledge (secret knowledge imparted by Jesus and it has been passed along, Da Vinci code is an example)
— 2-

Like orthodox Christians, gnostics did accept idea of one God, salvation
– had a sense of dualism: Universe is setup with balance of good and evil
– they saw spirit as good and matter as bad

Christian view of death is “I will be resurrected” but we still carry some of this spirit good/matter bad in our views
– Gnostics held that if matter is bad then God couldn’t have anything to do with humans
– have weird sense of material and spiritual, and the dualism that permeates gnostic teaching
– the gnostics did hold that Jesus came to redeem the world, but he wasn’t clear in his teachings so you need to get in on the secrets

Some of earliest Christian creeds: earliest written one was Apostle’s Creed
– these were statements that battle these three elements of heresy
– humanity needs salvation by a savior, not by secret knowledge
– salvation is through what Christ DID, not through secrets that he passed along

As church leaders were debating on orthodox beliefs, they had to determine which of the writings that were developing were authoritative

Formative event

Saducees just believed in first five books: The Torah
Pharisees

When did plenary inspiration come in? Mid 19th century. In those days religious leaders did not consider all scripture equally authoritative. Torah could trump later prophetic writings.

Paul used a lot of “echoes of scripture” in his writings (there is a book by Hayes that shows a lot of echoes of the Apocrypha in Paul’s writings)

What does “scripture” mean: something authoritative to you, that guides your life
– for us it has become a closed canon

Bible is formed by the witness of the worshipping community
– self-evidencing power to transform people’s lives
– if it is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking– it has this “self evidencing” quality– that is how it becomes scripture

Scripture has this ability: it is living an active, sharper than a two edged sword, separates joint from ligament (Hebrews)
– has this ability to be ALIVE
– that is one of the tests you can apply to scripture! Do this! Read some of that stuff that didn’t get included. It does not have the same quality and power
– that is how things become canon
– look at lists of books from early church fathers: Ireneus, Origen, etc (just like with the Jews, everyone includes Torah, most of major and minor prophets, and same was true with the four gospels)
– some cited gospel of Hebrews (none cite the gospel of Thomas!)
– most letters of Paul, first 10 at least
– some others are not always there: Revelation, Jude, others
– some books that we don’t have as our canon: Clement’s letter to Corinth, the Shephard of ____ (at one time these were held up as almost as authoritative of scripture, but they did not become part of the canon)

Apocrypha includes 12-15 books not included in the Hebrew canon
– apparently a dispute between Martin Luther and someone caused Luther to declare that Protestants do not accept the authority of the Apocrypha

One of the earliest lists of these books is dated to 190: The Muratorian Canon
– widely accepted by churches
– is a bit different from the Bible we have now

Books to be included had to either be apostolic or closely associated with an apostle (Mark associated with Peter, and is thought to have written Peter’s testimony)
– mid to late first century for books authorship
– within the next century, we had acceptance

Most gnostic literature was written later
– how were these letters distributed? It is hard to bind that type of material

Marcion developed idea that OT God was bad, and NT God was good
– threw out Matthew
– about 140 he was influenced by gnostics

Montanus around 160 began preaching as a new prophet with a new message about an imminent return of Christ
– this was a lot like Mormonism
– this was a challenge to try and add more to the canon

Key thing: the development of the Canon took place over time as a gradual process
– big question: is it worth dying for? Officials would come to kill a church leader or ask for their holy books
– some books would be kept, others turned over

The idea that Peter was crucified upside down is in “The Acts of Peter” not included in our canon

The development of what we would call a catholic Christianity

Next time: development of leadership of the church and theological thinking

Zero sum time and priorities

Chris Craft asks some very important questions about time spent blogging and in the virtual world, and the critical need our families, friends, and even casual acquaintances have for us in the face-to-face (F2F) world. He writes, in the context of time spent blogging:

But at what expense? Whose daughter wants mommy to trade the computer monitor for a picnic? Whose spouse is wondering what time her husband will stop coding and come to bed? I hope not mine.

So this topic of relationships has been circling in my cerebrum for some time now. Simultaneously I have chosen to undertake the daunting task of creating learning communities in my own classroom. I toyed with a number of ways to do so with a dozen or so open source software programs all supposedly interested in helping me create community. I will spare you the exhaustive list because the software itself is irrelevant; it is the underlying principle up for discussion.

The bottom line to this is simply that my own thoughts on relationship are centered on a need for face-to-face connectedness. I am not saying that there is no place for online community, rather that there needs to be time and attention given to intentional relationship building in a live environment in person.

I do not have the answer to this, but this is certainly an issue with which I contend and need to contend with more. I know at times my wife does resent my time on the computer. Late evenings (which tonight is an example) are the prime time when I generally blog– and the exclusive time when I blog here about my personal journey of faith. (I’m called to fulltime ministry like all other believers– but blogging about my walk is not something I think my employer would metaphorically “smile on” since it is not directly job-related!)

Time is zero sum, and it can be argued that it is one of our most precious resources. How are we spending our time? Are we blogging our lives away? If we are, is this time will spent? (I suspect it can be.) But are our families bearing a tangible penalty for our prolific writing and virtual work? On the basis of sheer prolific posts alone, I know Miguel deals with this question too when it comes to blogging.

I think the issue is one of balance and “digital discipline,” a term I hope to flesh out in an actual book sometime in the not-too-distant future. I have even gone so far (several years ago now) to reserve a domain name… but for now that remains a lower priority. Balance. Perspective. Time invested in the lives of those I love, and those I care for most deeply. These are critical questions with very tangible consequences. I guess I should ask my family to chime in on this one– they’re the ones whose opinion matters the most in this regard!

Images of God

This frontpage headline from USA Today caught my attention today: “View of God can predict values, politics.” According to the article:

A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs…Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

There were many findings from the survey, but the key one the article focused on was this:

Though 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force, they had four distinct views of God’s personality and engagement in human affairs.

The “four views of God” were named by the researchers as “Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant.”

Was there a survey response for “Holy” and “Intercessor?” And what about the question: Who do you say Jesus is and was? That’s a key question. Apparently it wasn’t asked in this survey, however.

Why did researchers assume that people’s view of God could be neatly compartmentalized into a single category? After all, we are talking about GOD here, the LORD– and even a cursory reading of Biblical passages (Old and New Testament) reveals that God has many names. We did a short study last Spring in our Sunday School class in Lubbock on the names of God– I knew many of them, but I hadn’t realized that when most English translations of the Bible spell God’s name LORD or Lord in the OT, they are actually referring to a different Hebrew word for “God.”

God is authoritarian, from the standpoint that He is holy– literally “set apart” and without sin. That is why we can’t approach his throne or even be in his presence without our intercessor who has paid for our sins– and washes us clean in God’s eyes. God’s word and his Holy Word (the Bible) are just that: THE WORD. He is properly understood as THE AUTHORITY. There is no higher power greater than God, there is no authority equal to or above Him. He makes rules, and expects us to try and follow them. Thankfully, he also is forgiving and overflowing in grace– but he does judge and he will judge. Authorities do this. God is THE authority. (See Psalm 66 and Hebrews 10: 19-39)

God is benevolent, because he extends the offer of eternal salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, by GRACE– not through our works. This is benevolence defined. Thank goodness God does not simply offer us “justice.” We are all sinners, every one– and anyone who says differently is deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive others. (Romans 3: 9-19) If God wasn’t benevolent, we would all be headed for the pit. Thank goodness he is benevolent! 🙂

God is critical, because He is just. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t forgive us when we ask for forgiveness with a contrite spirit in the name of his Son– but it does mean that he judges. That is God’s role. There is right and wrong, there is moral and immoral behavior. To the extent that God certainly makes value judgments– he is the ultimate judge of morality in fact– he can be said to be “critical.” That may not be a politically correct word– but I don’t think God is “into” political correctness. God is “into” things like love, forgiveness, and compassion. But He is also quite definite on morality. He is critical of immoral, sinful behavior. If he wasn’t this way, he wouldn’t be God. (See Colossians 3: 5-17 and Romans 2)

Lastly, at times I think God can be accurately understood as “distant.” God is holy, we are not. We strive to be holy, to be set apart for God and his purposes– but we cannot on our own will alone become truly holy. There is a bridge which separates us from God, and that bridge is sin. Without Jesus and his atoning sacrifice– which paid for our sins and the sins of all humanity once and for all (this is “justification”) we would have no hope of ever being in God’s presence. The need for atoning sacrifice– for atoning blood in fact, is the reason the OT Jews regularly offered sacrifices on holy altars. We don’t see these types of religious rituals today, so the idea likely seems quite foreign, but in the days of Jesus’ physical life on earth it was well understood.

So, I think God can be properly understood as multi-faceted– and definitionally defying our meager, limited attempts to define, name, and understand him fully. He is GOD, He is THE LORD– He has many names, and each name we have for him attempts to better define His essence, power, nature and spirit. Coming from a Reformed perspective, I understand God to be three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not three gods, he does not have three personalities, He is the ONE GOD and His name is THE LORD. The trinitarian, triune nature of God is a divine mystery, but it is important to understand. God is multi-dimensional and is not bound by time and space in the same ways we are. I think we are, in our rational interactions, four dimensional beings perceiving height, width, depth and time. God’s perception transcends these four dimensions, because we know God is, was, and always will be. Infinite. Omniscient. Omnipotent. Who can comprehend this fully? Certainly not I.

To be fair, the survey researchers do point out in the article that these “views of God” are not “mutually-exclusive,” which means there is room for overlap in the perceptions of many:

The four visions of God outlined in the Baylor research aren’t mutually exclusive. And they don’t include 5.2% of Americans who say they are atheists. (Although 91.8% said they believe in God, some didn’t answer or weren’t sure.)

This finding from the survey is also significant:

Sociologist Paul Froese says the survey finds the stereotype that conservatives are religious and liberals are secular is “simply not true. Political liberals and conservative are both religious. They just have different religious views.” About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%. The Baylor survey, unlike others, asked people to write in the names and addresses of where they worship, and many who said “none” or “don’t know” when asked about their religious identity named a church they occasionally attend.

Often in political discussions today, some (perhaps many in the media) automatically assume that those professing faith as “Christians” must be conservative Republicans. Personally, I refuse to be defined in my political perspectives by a single label. I am proud (as well as humbled) to call myself a Christian. But that fact does not necessarily define all my political views. I am glad to read a survey that is recognizing this reality for many others. The media often (perhaps always) attempts to oversimplify the complex. In the case of people’s religious views, this certainly seems to be the case frequently. This finding actually seems to contradict the very title of this article, “View of God can predict values, politics.” Belief does not necessarily point to political viewpoint. (On some issues I think Christians should be together, but on many others I think it is natural and not a bad thing that we are a diverse bunch. That would actually be a good topic for a future post!)

Lastly, this finding shows the importance of discussing our faith and defining what we believe.

Rodney Stark, former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and part of the Baylor team, says: “We wanted to break from the past 30 years of narrow questions. ” ‘Do you believe in God?’ Everyone says yes. “If you ask ‘Are you a Protestant, Catholic or Jew?’ people don’t even know what denomination they are today or what the label means.”

If you say you believe in God, what does that mean to you? If you are not comfortable with a denominational label (and I think that is fine, because God and Jesus didn’t invent denominations after all– they are very much a human-creation) then how do you define what it is that you believe?

For me, my journey of faith continues. I do not have all the answers, but I am confident knowing where the answers can be found! I’m glad you’ve found this small space in the blogosphere where others are reflecting and sharing about their own Christian journeys of faith, and I hope you’ll always feel free and welcome to contribute your own ideas.

All voices are valid, all perspectives should be considered. Through dialog, listening, reflection and prayer, God does and will continue to lead each one of us closer to Him. 🙂

Church History: Rome and the Apostolic Era

Our Wednesday night dinners and classes at church started this evening, and I joined the “Back to the Future” class that is being co-taught by Ken Rees and John Gruel. It will be a 15 week course, and as a text we’re using Church History In Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley. This may sound like an extremely dry subject to some, but I am actually very enthused about it– in no small part due to the fact that both Ken and John are fantastic teachers and scholars, and I know I’ll learn a great deal just going to class! However, unlike many of my high school, undergraduate, and (sadly, yes) even graduate classes– I really want to do the assigned readings each week to get even more out of the study. Yes, the road to certain places is paved with good intentions… and I’ve started out courses with similar pledges (“Yes, I WILL do all the assigned readings!”) but hopefully this will be different. The fact that I’ll be able to blog my reflections and notes will certainly help, I think. I considered tonight starting an “Eyes Right” podcast, and among other things I may see if Ken and/or John will let me record and podcast some of their lessons.

Mainly for my own edification (but perhaps for yours as well) here are my re-written notes from tonight’s class. I actually didn’t take a laptop to class (gasp!) and took hand-written notes (a rare occurance for me these days) but that oversight shall be remedied next week!

There are several reasons we are doing this study of church history:

  1. To better understand each other! Even in a “Presbyterian” church, we have a very diverse group of members who share a diverse set of religious experiences. It is important to know “where we come from” and where the church has been, to better understand its present as well as its future.
  2. We are studying the history of the church to better understand how God has preserved His church. One major evidence of God’s active hand in the affairs of men and women today as well as throughout history is the fact that the church still exists and is strong! At so many points of its history, you would think the church was going to be killed off! Yet it still survives. This is good to know and appreciate, because it is a testament to God’s faithfulness as well as his active role in our lives.
  3. As a church congregation, we are seeking to recapture for our own time the real missional calling of THE CHURCH. Like the old kid’s rhyme goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a meeting place THE CHURCH IS THE PEOPLE!” And we are called to be missional! We are not supposed to go to a church building on Sundays and maybe other days of the week, and just fellowship and be “fed.” We are also to go and SERVE. Studying the history of the church will give us all a better understanding and perspective on what it means to be “missional” today in the 21st century.

Early Roman Church History

The circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christian church really were remarkable and unique. It was no accident that God chose to send his Son into the world at the precise moment of history that he had chosen. Had Jesus lived 100 years earlier, or 200 or so years later, the Roman empire would have been at a very different stage in its development. At that time, Rome was a very unique innovation in the world. Rome represented about 20% of the world’s population and a large percentage of its commerce. Rome’s government was very unique: People could be Roman citizens (like Saul of Tarsus, later to be named Paul) even if they were not born in Italy, and even if they were Jewish. Rome was one of the first truly multi-ethnic states. Jews were even given special dispensations by the Roman Caesars. They did not have to have Roman images in their temples, for example. This was a quid-pro-quo for assistance the nation of Israel had given to Rome in previous years.

Rome introduced roads to many parts of the world, and although these were established primarily for military purposes they also brought many associated benefits. Rome was the first nation with the strength to have a navy which patrolled sea lanes in the Mediterranean, and their suppression of piracy (at least some of it) was a historic first.

The Romans didn’t push their language on everyone. Latin was spoken in Italy, but Greek was the predominant language in much of the Mediterranean and was a common and unifying language to a large extent. About one third of the population in Rome during this era were slaves, and they had a pretty hopeless existance with little chance for freedom. Slavery at that time was NOT based on race. There were many ways a person could become a slave, and not many ways to become free.

People during this era were alert to the idea of a Messiah coming. The Jewish Zealots would periodically have a leader arise who would claim to be the Messiah, and that person along with his followers were violently put down by the Romans. Still, people were attuned to this idea and alert to the possible arrival of a Savior.

When the dark ages came (approx. 500 – 1500 AD) a real window of opportunity for the spreading of the Christian gospel throughout the Mediterranean via the Roman empire closed down.

I HAD SEVERAL THOUGHTS OF MY OWN DURING THIS LESSON TONIGHT, NOT MENTIONED BY THE TEACHER BUT WORTH RECORDING HERE:

  • I THINK A CASE CAN BE MADE THAT A “WINDOW” FOR SPREADING THE GOSPEL AGAIN OPENED AROUND 1500 THROUGH THE WORK OF LUTHER AND THE OTHER REFORMERS. TO A LARGE EXTENT, DURING THE DARK AGES I THINK THE PERPETUATION OF THE GOSPEL MESSAGE WAS RELEGATED TO MONKS ISOLATED IN THEIR MONASTERIES. LUTHER BROUGHT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE AGAIN TO STAGE CENTER AND HELPED THE CAUSE OF CHRIST IN MANY WAYS. OF COURSE TECHNOLOGY (THE PRINTING PRESS) PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN THIS PROCESS OF DYNAMIC CHANGE– WHICH WAS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED BY THE CHURCH WHICH HAD BY THAT TIME BECOME INSTITUTIONALIZED.
  • ALL OF JESUS’ TEACHINGS WERE BASED ON THE OLD TESTAMENT. WE NEED TO REMEMBER THAT HE DIDN’T HAVE THE NEW TESTAMENT TO REFER TO OR TEACH FROM, BECAUSE IT HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN. WHEN PEOPLE ASK QUESTIONS REVEALING THEIR MISCONCEPTION THAT THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WAS A DIFFERENT GOD THAN THE GOD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, IT MIGHT BE HELPFUL TO POINT THIS OUT. JESUS WAS THE FULFILLMENT OF OT PROPHESY, AND IT WAS HIS LITERACY OF THE OT (AS WELL AS THE LITERACY OF OTHERS, LIKE PAUL) WHICH WAS PIVOTAL IN CARRYING THE MESSAGE TO MANY OF THE JEWS.
  • JESUS HAD MANY ROLES IN LIFE, BUT ONE OF HIS PRIMARY ROLES WAS THAT OF AN EDUCATOR!
  • PAUL WAS A WRITER, AN ENCOURAGER, A COMMUNICATOR, AND AN EXHORTER!

Jesus’ message was unique and contrasted sharply with that of many others living at the same time.

  • The Essenes were a monastic group that retreated away from the world. Jesus always remained in and engaged with the world. He did retreat at times to the wilderness and other places to rest and restore his body and spirit, but he always returned to engage. This is a good model we should keep in mind and follow in our own lives!
  • Unlike the Jewish Zealots, Jesus advocated peacemaking and coexistance with Roman rule.
  • The message of Jesus consistently focused on the concept of a “new kingdom.” At times it was unclear if that kingdom was in the present or future, and if in the future in the near or long term. “Kingdom” was a unifying theme, however.

The Sadducees were the elite in Jewish culture because they were in charge of Temple worship. They were very “cozy” with the Romans. The Pharisees’ name means “separated ones.” They were not necessarily wealthy, but were distinguished primarily by their focus on legalism and following the law. They were interested in purity and generally withdrawing from “unclean ones,” which contrasted sharply with the example of Jesus who embraced the sick, the poor, and the ritually unclean. Pharisees were focused on synogogue worship, which had sustained the Jews throughout the Babylonian captivity when the Temple was destroyed and not available for worship.

Jesus didn’t give his disciples a standardized test to measure their aptitudes! He was also very unique in his day because he included women in his circle of close confidants. Leaders selected by Jesus were empowered with a variety of charismatic gifts, which means “gifts of the spirit.” His instructional model included direct instruction followed by internships as the disciples went out two by two, and then came back to report, reflect, and share. Jesus modeled his servant-style of leadership during the Last Supper as he washed the feet of his disciples.

After the death/crucifixtion and resurrection of Jesus, Peter is transformed from a coward and a very awkward speaker to a powerful spokesman challenging established Judaism. In the early church, Christians were called “the way” and both thought of themselves as a sect of Jews and were regarded that way by others. They practiced traditional Jewish customs and rituals but also added their own, like gathering on Sundays to share about their faith.

There were two primary groups of Jews in this era. The Hellenistic Jews were Greek speaking, and had a more rationalistic/scientific approach to thinking. They generally preferred Greek to Hebrew. The family of Jesus was very important in the early years following his death and resurrection. We don’t read much about Jesus’ half-brother, James, during the years of his ministry. However, James played a very important role in leading the early church after Jesus’ resurrection. After Stephen’s death in 36 AD, most of the Hellenistic Jews left Jeruselum for Antioch and other locations. This was a phase of the Jewish diaspora.

Much of the growth of the early church happened in the cities rather than in smaller, rural towns. About 60 AD, Nero led Rome and he really thought he was a “god.” Paul and Peter were both executed in Rome approximately 66 AD as part of Nero’s persecutions of the Christians. Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome. This period of persecution led to a final breach between those who continued to call themselves “Jews” and those who become known as “Christians.”

THIS WAS A GREAT START TO THIS CLASS AND I LOOK FORWARD TO LEARNING MORE! OUR LESSON FOR NEXT WEEK IS TITLED, “PERSECUTION AND ORTHODOXY.” OUR ASSIGNED READING IS CHAPTERS 4, 5 AND 6 OF OUR TEXT, SO I BETTER START READING SOON! 🙂

21st Century Gideons’ Guide

One of the things I have always noticed about Gideons’ Bibles in motel rooms is that they include an excellent guide of verses, categorized by topic and issue. A Lubbock friend (Billy Hull) sent me a link to God’s Yellow Pages today, which is like a 21st century Gideons’ guide to the Bible.

The entry that caught my attention tonight was one for “courage.” I blogged earlier today about courage— how it is not the lack of fear, but rather the ability to act despite fear– but this verse (Psalm 27:14) puts yet a different spin on courage that I need to be reminded of.

Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

Courage, in a Christian sense, also means remembering WHO IS IN CONTROL of this world and what my place in it actually is. I think we often think of “courageous people” as folks who went out and “made things happen” — I at least don’t always think of courage as something that involves God’s will– often I think of it as something that is a product of human will. Certainly the choices we make matter… I think a great part of the Christian walk is the struggle to make GOOD and BETTER choices, when faced with temptations and adversity– but in the end we need to recognize the existance of God’s will and His sovereignty.

I am not sure about others, but I know that I RARELY want to wait. For anything. Waiting is not really considered virtuous anymore, in popular culture. Perhaps it never was, but it seems that it was held in higher regard by previous generations. The emphasis now in our consumer-driven society is to NEVER wait: always buy now, always satisfy your urges with rash spending and impulsive decision-making.

Those are poor habits. The Psalmist reminds us that we should strive to be courageous people– and we should take courage in the strength and in the perfect plan of the LORD. Waiting is difficult for adults, at times, just as it seems excruciatingly difficult for my two year old. Yet in waiting, we all should take heart– and have courage. For we may not know the future, but we know who holds the future…. and we can rest easy knowing that the future is in good hands. 🙂

For additional links like these, refer to the official website of the Gideons and click on “Bible Helps” and then “Help in Time of Need.”

Indeed you are powerful

I am thrilled to have found a wonderful Friday morning men’s fellowship group at our new church here in Edmond, Oklahoma, very similar to a Friday morning men’s group I participated in back in Lubbock for the past few years. Ever since I went to my first Promisekeepers event, which was probably back in 1998 or so, seeking the fellowship, accountability, laughter and levity of another group of Christian guys has become a very important part of my life.

Our Edmond men’s group is about 50 or 60 men strong each week, and one of the best things about it is that we have men who are all different ages. There are probably more retired guys than younger ones, but I think the age range is very good– it runs from 30s (I don’t think we have any in their 20s in there currently) up to 70s and maybe even 80s. Older guys have so much more “lived experiences” and wisdom than us young whippersnappers, that it is a great opportunity usually to just hang out and listen. I want to have the “margin” and perspective on life that these older guys do NOW, and not wait another forty years to get it. That is a real struggle, but hanging out with these fellows, listening to them and learning from them seems like a good recipie for learning their secrets. Maybe some of that patient, gentle spirit will rub off on me! I am not sure if it is working, but I think there’s a good chance it might be doing some good.

We have started a new book study on John Eldredge’s book, “Wild At Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul.” I read this book at least three years ago, it was published in in 2001– and I am so glad to have this encouragement to read the book again, reflect on it, and share about it with other guys. I am also very glad to have this blog as a place to record my thoughts and offer them up for feedback and response. I will try and “chunk” my ideas a bit better for this blog than I sometimes do for my primary blog– because I think people are more likely to read shorter posts and part of my purpose is to encourage dialog and responses.

The first excerpt I want to respond to from the book comes from page 10, in chapter 1. Eldredge writes:

Capes and swords, camouflage, bandannas and six-shooters– these are the uniforms of boyhood. Little boys yearn to know they are powerful, they are dangerous, they are someone to be reckoned with.

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the movie series “Star Wars.” This is from Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi,” and Darth Vader is speaking to Luke on the planet Endor before he takes him up to his star ship to meet the Emperor. Vader says:

Indeed you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen.

I love that statement and observation. Yes, Luke has grown powerful in his own right under the guidance of his mentors, Obi-Wan and Yoda. And now, his own father is recognizing him. All children yearn to be acknowledged and recognized by their parents, I think, for the men and women they have and are continuing to grow up to be.

I got in the habit many years ago of having my own children repeat certain phrases that I would tell them. I know that “self-talk” is very important in terms of shaping identity, and there are so many terrible messages in our popular culture today that reinforce the WRONG messages to both young people and adults alike. For my daughters, I often have them repeat the following after me:

I AM powerful.
I AM strong.
I AM beautiful.
I AM smart.
I AM a good thinker.
I AM good.
I AM nice.
I AM sweet.

I want my own children to speak this reality into their own lives: They ARE powerful because God has created them in his own image to be his children, and to do his work. He has equipped them each with talents and gifts that they are called to discover and to use, and part of my role as their father is to help them discover their identity and learn at the end of the day– or rather on the path of their own journey of faith, that they each ARE powerful…. Powerful beyond words, or as Miguel has written before, “powerful beyond measure.”

I think it is very important as parents, teachers and just adults in our society that we help empower young people to believe in themselves and in the calling which they each have in this world to do important work. I have no idea what my children will do in the future, but I do know that I want them to move forward into that future with confidence and sureity about WHOSE they are, and how wonderfully he has crafted them to be his agents on this often dark planet.

Fixing my eyes on Jesus

Hebrews 12:2 to me is a reminder that I should fix my eyes on Jesus every day. Our world is filled with distractions and its media-centric nature makes it (perhaps) more difficult than ever to concentrate on anything for a sustained period of time. Even when I am listening to a sermon at church, my mind often wanders to think about other things. It is a real struggle to keep focused on a Biblical message even when I am in a church on a Sunday morning! How much more difficult it is to stay focused on Christ and his calling for my life out in “the real world?!”

I am working on making time each day to study God’s Word and spend time in prayer with Him. This is a huge challenge for me. I know I need to spend time not only talking to God, but also being quiet so I can listen to Him! God speaks to us, and he speaks to me, but I find myself often in such motion and a buzz of activity that I think I find it hard to listen to him. Being still and listening is a counter-cultural act today, I think. I am reminded of the Biblical exhortation, which was a song our high school choir sang incidentally many years ago: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

God is the creator of the universe, and he is the Father of us all. I think having an opportunity to write about my own journey of faith in this blogspace is going to be a good process for me personally, and hopefully an encouragement to others who are also on a personal journey of faith. I have previously blogged about my Christian faith on my main blog, “Moving at the Speed of Creativity,” but am now going to post those sorts of thoughts here. By doing this, I in no way want to hide or conceal my faith and my beliefs. To the contrary, I want to have access to a specific forum that is oriented towards topics relating to faith, Christianity, God and Jesus. Because my primary blog focuses mainly on issues relating to educational technology, I have (at times) been a bit reluctant to post ideas, reflections and resources which specifically related to Christianity there. Now that I have access to this dedicated Christian webspace, I do not anticipate having such reservations again!

I do not have all the answers, and I probably don’t have many answers, but I am on a journey of faith that I know in my heart of hearts is the right pathway. God has the answers, and in his time I know he will reveal more to me. He does each day. One of the best things about blogs is the potential they give for authentic sharing and communication. Hopefully the opportunity to share and reflect about our faith will be a blessing to all who visit here. 🙂

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