Prove all things

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV)

“but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, ESV)

So says the Apostle Paul, and it sounds like a very ‘modern’ statement, sitting quite well in our scientific age.  But my suspicion is that we don’t apply it quite as much as we might like to think! When choosing to vote for a politician for example, is it always done on the basis of assessing their intellectual arguments or rather on how we feel about them, or even how they look?

Regardless of the accuracy of my suspicion about how people decide what is true, there is a clear and consistent call in the Bible for us to apply our reason to God, his existence, his activity and what he calls upon us to do.  God calls on Israel for them to “reason together” (Isa 1:18), Paul reasoned with Jews in their synagogues (Acts 17:2), and Peter was prepared to give a “reason for the hope” which he had (1 Peter 3:15). Far from being a blind, inexplicable feeling which someone either has to doesn’t have, Biblical faith is a rational, reason-based thing.  Biblical faith certainly may provoke plenty of emotion but fundamentally it has its foundation in reasoned deduction.

That all sounds very “reasonable” but if we are to test everything – against what? What is the standard or the benchmark for testing something as true? In its context Paul’s urge to test everything sits side by side with the example of the Bereans who were considered particularly open to reason.

“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

Acts 17:11

So the testing which Paul is advocating is against something authoritative, either Old Testament scripture or, in a 1st century context, the authority of the Apostles. John, when also advocating the continual testing of the spirit behind what people teach puts it pretty bluntly:

“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

1 John 4:1-6

Acceptance or not of the authority of the Apostles’ words (particularly about their witness to the resurrected Jesus) was the ultimate test of truth or error for John.

So in a 21st century context what does “test everything” mean? Well, although it may be necessary for us to engage in a whole lot more effort to prove the existence of God and the authority of the scriptures these days, that doesn’t take away from Paul’s point. Today, just as in the 1st century, the test of Christian belief and practice is still against the established benchmark authority of scripture and although the Apostles have long gone, we have their authoritative writings alongside the Old Testament scriptures.

Do we “test everything” against the appropriate authority in the way Paul advocates, or do we test things using other criteria? Are we prone to prefer a continuation of what has become traditional, or what we have become used to, or what makes us feel safe and comfortable?

Knowing our Bible and reading it effectively is an important first step in following Paul’s advice – and guess what, we have a course that may be able to help you with that in 2022!

The God of the gaps?

One of the less successful Christian responses to the progress of human knowledge was to claim that there would always be aspects of life, the universe and everything which could never be explained by human discovery and that God would always be needed to explain these gaps in human knowledge.

Alister McGrath in his 2007 book ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ notes:

“At certain points, William Paley’s famous Natural Theology (1801) uses arguments along these lines. It was argued that God requires to be proposed in order to deal with these gaps in scientific understanding. It was a foolish move, and was increasingly abandoned in the twentieth century.”

Writing while in a Nazi prison in 1944 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained the problem with the “God of the Gaps” concept.

“How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p310,  Letters and Papers from Prison

It is a peculiarly modern mind set which views material things or events as either the product of natural events or of the supernatural. The two possible explanations are seen as mutually exclusive, it’s one or the other. If a phenomenon is perceived by human analysis to have a cause and effect explanation, then to modern ways of thinking, that’s all there is. There is no need for anything else outside the natural systems observed. The supernatural (by which we essentially mean God) is therefore squeezed into the ever decreasing areas which defy human explanation.
However Bonhoeffer, in the final sentence of the extract above hinted at the Biblical explanation for the relationship between the natural and supernatural, and it does not suffer from the ‘shrinking God’ problem. Consider Psa 104:27-30:

“These [animals, trees etc] all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Psalm 104:27-30

Here the normal, every day occurrences of life, birth, death and animal day to day sustenance and survival are attributed to God. Even though they are unremarkable commonplace events, God was seen as part of them in some way. The same attitude is seen in Acts 17:28 when Paul quotes the poet Epimenedes to make his point about the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being”.  Similarly, the aspects of nature pointed out to Job in chapters 38 and 39 and the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:26-30 both illustrate the same view of God’s all-pervading connection with the natural world.

So to use the analogy proposed by John Walton in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One”, we should not think of the relationship between God and the natural as a pie, with the God-slice always decreasing as natural explanations are found. Rather we could think of it as a victoria sponge cake, with the natural world as the bottom layer and the top layer as God’s involvement, interfacing with the natural layer at all points. The integration of God with his creation is thus understood to be at such an intimate and universal level that we can have only the slightest comprehension of it. God is not the God of the gaps, he is the God of the whole show!

However, exploring these ideas is not just idle thought experiments. There are real, daily practical implications attached to perceiving the Divine involvement in life in this way.  Jesus gives this perspective in two passages from the Gospels:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Matthew 5:44-45

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Luke 6:35

Here again the every day, perfectly normal and natural sunrise and rainfall is attributed to God. But the point here is that God, in sustaining a world which indiscriminately supplies these daily benefits to many who give him nothing in return, is a behaviour model for those who would try to reflect ‘his image’.

Transferred to his kingdom

The Church at Colosse was not founded directly by the Apostle Paul, but through another disciple, Epaphras, who probably heard the Gospel from Paul in Ephesus (Col 1:7)

The road from Laodicea to Colosse

Like many cities of the Roman province of Asia, the prevailing religious culture was one of polytheism. However, there was also a large Jewish community in this city and in the adjacent cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. With pagan polytheism alongside Jewish mysticism, the religious environment was pervaded by the worship of many gods, as well as by the Jewish traditions of veneration of spirits, protecting powers and angels.  Worship practices frequently involved asceticism and abuse of the body (Col 2:23). There is direct mention of this Jewish mysticism in the “worship of angels” in Col 2:16-23 where it is linked with the observance of Jewish festivals, new moons and Sabbaths.

Another feature of the religious environment in places such as Colosse was the willingness to blend together religious ideas from a number of local traditions. This is known as syncretism and there were evidently individuals seeking to influence the Colossian believers in that direction (Col 2:18-19). Hearing about these teachers in the ecclesia is probably what prompted Paul to write this letter and he describes them as ‘puffed up without reason’ and ‘not holding to the Head’ i.e. Christ.

In Col 1:12-13 we find part of Paul’s counter argument to this influence. Speaking in v12 about the impact of their response to the Gospel, he says they “give thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light“. There is just the merest hint here of an allusion to the time of the exodus, with the anticipation of the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness waiting to receive their inheritance in the promised land.

This suspicion of an allusion is confirmed by the language of v13:

“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son“.

Colossian 1:13

The word transferred (gk. methistemi) is rare and has a specific meaning of “to transfer from one place to another” (BDAG Greek-English lexicon). This definitely continues the exodus allusion of people being relocated, as Israel were delivered from Egypt and constituted as a new nation with the prospect of a promised inheritance. Paul wants the Colossians to think of their transition from a previous way of life to a new one in the same sort of way. Just as Israel escaped their slave masters in Egypt (the domain of darkness) and entered a covenant to serve a new Master, he wants the Christians of Colosse to think of themselves as having escaped bondage to old superstitions to now be under the rulership of a new king, the beloved Son. He doesn’t want them to look back or try to blend their old ways with the Gospel, but to leave it all behind and press forward.

To get the full impact of Paul’s statement we also need to appreciate the broader definition of ‘kingdom’ as meaning royalty, or royal authority. This explains why the phrase is in the past tense: “he has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son“. In committing to Christ, Christians, whether in 1st century Colosse or today, place themselves under the royal authority of the anointed Son of God. In this sense they have already been transferred from the domain of darkness into his kingdom, from serving an old master to living under the royal authority of a new king (Christ). In writing to the Romans, Paul puts it like this:

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Romans 6:17-18

The Colossian believers needed to leave their “Egypt” behind along with those trying to blend the Gospel with their previous philosophies and  practices. That seems like a call that is equally relevant for Christians today.

Note: Paul’s allusion in Colossians to the exodus is typical of the many “echoes” across different Biblical texts. How to identify them and apply them to help interpret the text is covered in our “Learn to read the Bible effectively course“.

Why read Leviticus?

Some parts of the Bible make great reading, they have action, drama and engaging characters.  Other parts might seem dull as dishwater or just plain weird – like Leviticus!

Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, coming after Genesis and Exodus.  It’s all about how to perform sacrifices, what food is clean and unclean, how Israel’s priests should remain holy and Israel’s annual cycle of feasts.  Irrelevant to a 21st century Christian right?  Well, maybe not entirely…

Firstly, the book is positioned immediately after the end of Exodus where the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, is completed and the record says; “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle”.  So the question that Leviticus addresses is ‘how can God dwell amongst people?’  Secondly, Leviticus is very carefully structured in a symmetrical form with the focal mid-point being chapter 16, the arrangements for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  This single day in the religious calendar of the ancient Israelites is about removing the uncleanness of sin from the people and the sanctuary so that God may continue to dwell among the people.  If the book of Leviticus is providing an ancient perspective on the question ‘how can God dwell amongst people?’ then it may well have something to say to Christian communities wondering about how God might be with them.

Positioned on either side of the chapters about the Day of Atonement are chapters which describe two different kinds of impurity or uncleanness. 

11-15Ritual impurity
Associated with: contact with the dead,
unclean meat, corrupting skin diseases,
procreation and birth.
Unavoidable parts of daily life
Impurity is not permanent
The uncleanness is contagious
There are procedures to be made clean
There is no personal guilt attached to it.
18-20Moral impurity
Associated with: idolatry,
sexual immorality,
bloodshed and murder
They are actions of personal choice
They bring personal guilt
They leave a stain on the individual, the land
and the sanctuary
There is no procedure to remedy it
If practiced would lead to exile from the land
and God’s departure from his people
Source: Klawans, J., 2004. Concepts of Purity in the Bible. In A. Berlin & M. Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 2041.

This seems to highlight two perspectives.  Firstly, the ritual impurities recognise the weakness inherent in being a human being and the cycle of death and birth associated with mortality.  While it is important to recognise this inherent weakness, it does not prevent God from working with and dwelling amongst people. In fact, large parts of the Biblical narrative are about God continuing to work with flawed people!  This is just as relevant to Christian communities today – yes, we must be humble in the face of our inherent weakness but be comforted that God does not hold us guilty for being human, on the contrary, he wants to work with us.

Secondly, the moral failures described in Leviticus show that when people commit to those personal choices they alienate themselves from God and this has an affect on their community.  Leviticus shows that the Law had no remedy for these acts and this sets up a contrast between Law and Faith which is drawn out in the New Testament particularly in the book of Hebrews.  No legal procedure could deal with these moral impurities but the impact that the sacrifice of Jesus can have on a person’s conscience is able to produce the faith and change of heart that leads to full forgiveness.  This is summarised in Hebrews 9:13-14.

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

So maybe Levitius does have something to say to Christians after all!

To the end of the earth

The final words of Jesus to his disciples, as he stood on the Mount of Olives before disappearing from their sight were: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

This commission to his followers is clear enough but if you continue reading the book of the Acts of the Apostles you start to realise that it is charting the outworking of that command. 

After the introduction in chapter 1, the narrative tells of remarkable events in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when Peter and the apostles spoke to the gathered crowds.  Regardless of their native tongue, the people heard a remarkable claim – God has created something new, he has raised Jesus his son from the dead!  He had been seen alive again and this was the evidence that he was God’s Messiah, not just for Israel but for “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21).  Acts chapter 2 to 7 recount the impact of this extraordinary claim on the people in Jerusalem.

From chapter 8 to 12 the narrative spreads out from Jerusalem to the surrounding countryside – Judea and Samaria. The first non-Jewish converts start to embrace the universal call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (e.g. Cornelius in Acts 10).  Communities of believers start to develop, founded on the ground-breaking concept that no temple or building is required to worship God, the very community itself is the temple – a living temple!

The spread of the message of this new way of living which breaks down barriers (between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female) now starts to snowball.  Acts chapters 13 to 20 describe the missionary journeys of Paul through the Roman Empire.  His church planting achievements are astonishing, but the work for Paul was all consuming, fraught with both physical danger and the emotional stress of guiding the young Jesus-communities.  Despite all this, Paul had one further ambition – to take the Gospel of Jesus to the very centre of the Empire that stood for the opposite of Jesus – to take the Gospel to Rome.

Acts chapters 21 to 28 tell of the unexpected turn of events that eventually brought Paul to Rome, where, even while under house arrest, he actively preached the Gospel and supported the church there.  And here is where the book of Acts ends.  The Gospel had indeed travelled from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria and to the other side of the Empire. It had spread from Jerusalem in the backwater province of Judea to the centre of the world – Rome. 

But the book also finishes with this description of the people in Rome who heard Paul: “and some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved” (Acts 28:24).  It’s almost as if the book is begging the same question of its readers – will you be convinced?  Read the book of Acts for yourself, follow the extraordinary history of the spread of the Gospel along with the trials and triumphs of the characters that fulfilled their Master’s commission and perhaps be inspired to take it up yourself!

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