Being Skeptical of the Skeptics: a Critique of the Jesus Seminar

The following was published in the May, 2011 Central Florida Episcopalian

The recent Jesus Seminar course advertised in the Central Florida Episcopalian underscores the need for the clergy and laity within the Diocese of Central Florida to be wise and discerning in the matters of our common Christian faith and life. From the ad in the April 2011 CFE, headlined, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: “The Gospels portray Jesus as the Messiah and divine savior. Within the Gospels, however, we can glimpse another Jesus, a Jewish teacher and healer with a radical vision of the kingdom of God. The search for the historical Jesus examines the Gospels in order to discover who Jesus was before he became the object of Christian belief.”

The basic premise of the Jesus Seminar scholars is that the “Jesus” that the Church worships and follows in life practice is a different Jesus than the actual flesh and blood person who walked the Earth 2000 years ago. The basic charge from the Seminar is that the later followers of Jesus mythologized the figure of Jesus in order to create a religious theological system called Christianity and an institution called the Church.

On face value, the basic premise of the Jesus Seminar’s teachings sounds quite plausible especially to our modern minds which have been thoroughly schooled in materialistic secularism. The modern mind has no categories for the miraculous, the mysterious or the supernatural.

The Seminar’s teachings often find a sympathetic audience for another reason. There is a general skepticism in the culture with institutions in general but especially the institutions of the Christian Church. This is not entirely without good reason. Turn on the news and we are shown a pastor in Gainesville burning Qurans; priests and bishops being sued for a pedophile scandal; and prominent Christian leaders caught in extra-marital affairs. A recent research study titled UnChristian concludes that “An overwhelming percentage of non-Christians sampled said they perceived Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, too political, and antihomosexual, among other things.”

The media rarely reports on Christians feeding the homeless, teaching the next generation in Christian schools and ministering to the sick and dying. If it bleeds it leads. The institutional Church has many self-inflicted wounds which make the headlines. So the claims of the Jesus Seminar that the institutional Church has gotten it wrong for two millennia about the “real” Jesus resonates in a secular society already skeptical of the Church.

To be honest, institutional churches have at times been wrong in teachings and doctrines. The Protestant Reformation is a good example of a period in Church history where scholars and theologians challenged the institutional Church to reform its teachings to bring them back into conformity with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer and others were willing to be branded as heretics, even to put their lives on the line in order to challenge what they perceived to be corruptions in teaching and practice by the institutional Church.

Episcopalians are the heirs of that rich protestant heritage of questioning our catholic institution. As Protestants, we are always seeking to reform and renew our beliefs. In our prayers for the Church, the Book of Common Prayer provides the petition: Gracious Father, we pray for thy Holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

Following the teachings of the Jesus Seminar, bishops and clergy like the Rt. Rev. Jack Spong have fashioned themselves as the Church’s newest protestant reformers. They are calling into question the long standing creedal and doctrinal teachings of the Church on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the divine nature of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the reality of heaven and hell, the promise of a second coming of Jesus, the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, the Cross of Jesus as an atonement offering for the sins of the world, and so on.

One of the workshops offered at the seminar event last month was titled What Jesus Wasn’t and the Kingdom Isn’t. The website promoting the workshop asserted: “The followers of Jesus exchanged the vision for the visionary. They elevated Jesus to godhood, interpreted his death as a blood sacrifice, and organized Churches. Christianity eventually constructed an all-encompassing official theology with the divine Jesus at its center. This workshop tells how this happened, assesses its costs, and explores modern options for thinking about God that take the historical Jesus seriously.”

So, has the Church been wrong about Jesus all these years? Was the “historic” Jesus merely a man who not only lived and died as one of us, but never really walked on water, calmed the storm, fed the five thousand, died on a cross for our salvation, or bodily rose from the dead? Was all of that made up by the Church, a form of religious mythology? Is Jesus merely an inspiring historic figure, but nothing more? If the Jesus Seminar’s critique is correct, one is left wondering what is the point of continued participation in the Church? Indeed, many people have come to accept the skeptical teachings of the Seminar through the years and as a result have wandered away from life in the Church.

The Jesus Seminar is perhaps most famous for its gatherings of scholars to vote on the sayings attributed to Jesus in Gospel texts using various colored beads placed in a basket to register their individual degree of certainty or skepticism that the words authentically represent the historic Jesus. The voting system has been roundly criticized by many scholars, such as N.T Wright, author of Jesus and the Victory of God, for its use of a weighted average that favors ruling a saying of Jesus to be inauthentic. Wright muses, “I cannot understand how, if a majority … thought a saying authentic or probably authentic, the ‘weighted average’ turned out to be ‘probably inauthentic’.”

The Seminar itself which is self-selected vastly under-represents the multitude of New Testament scholars around the country that affirm the basic historic accuracy of the Gospel records. Thus the results of their voting are biased toward a skeptical reading of the Gospel texts in favor of non-Canonical texts such as the “Gnostic Gospels”. Many have questioned whether the Jesus Seminar seems at times more motivated by a desire to say something controversial which might land them a media appearance on the latest made for TV Easter or Christmas documentary.

One of the most important things to know about the methodology of the Jesus Seminar is their prior assumptions. The Seminar has created many different criteria that govern whether they will determine that a saying of Jesus is authentic or inauthentic. Raymond E. Brown in An Introduction to the New Testament is critical of the methodology: “It [the Jesus Seminar] has operated to a remarkable degree on a priori principles, some of them reflecting an anti-supernatural bias. For instance the bodily resurrection had no real chance of being accepted as having taken place. The session dealing with the authenticity of Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death was dominated by the initial refusal of most of the participants to allow the possibility that Jesus could have spoken of his impending death by virtue of “super-ordinary” powers; accordingly they voted black (he did not say it) on eleven Synoptic passion predictions.”

A text such as John 14:1-14: “I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am life”, cannot be an authentic saying because it has Jesus referring to himself. Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar writes: “It is unthinkable…that Jesus said many of the things he is reported to have said. He certainly did not make claims for himself. To have done so would have contradicted his fundamental disdain for arrogance and hypocrisy and run counter to his rhetorical strategies. Sayings like those we find in the fourth Gospel could not have originated with Jesus.” But why could not Jesus have referred to himself? The circular logic is that Jesus would not have said such things so he certainly did not say such things—says Funk.

It is not surprising then that the “historic” Jesus whom the Jesus Seminar reconstructs closely reflects their prior assumptions. Luke Timothy Johnston, author of The Real Jesus, remarks that their conclusions were “already determined ahead of time,” which Johnston says is “not responsible, or even critical scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade.” And Brown concludes, “The question has been raised whether once again, as with the discovery of the liberal Jesus in the last century, the quest [for the historic Jesus] is not producing the Jesus the quester wished to find.”

And just who is the Jesus Seminar’s Jesus? He is a wise peasant, a Jewish cynic, a faith healer who is committed to a social reform ministry on behalf of the poor and marginalized. But, he is a Jesus who does not see himself as God in the flesh, who does not have the aim of creating a continuing community called the Church after his death, who does not provide any theological significance to his death, or anticipate his eschatological return. This Jesus most certainly did not bodily rise from the dead.

The other founder of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, goes so far as to say that after Jesus body was taken down off the cross (if it even was) it was most likely thrown into the town garbage heap to be eaten by carrion and wild dogs or buried in a mass grave. For Crossan, the resurrection of Jesus is a faith experience on the part of the early Church, not a historic reality.

Brown summarizes the many “bluntly critical” writings about the Seminar: “One finds therein such devastating judgments as: methodologically misguided; no significant advance in the study of the historic Jesus; only a small ripple in NT scholarship; results representing the Jesus the researchers wanted to find; the pursuit of a specific confessional agenda; and dangerous in giving false impressions.” Such critiques come from a wide range of New Testament scholars from faculties such as Baylor, Duke, Emory, Yale, Catholic University, and Wake Forest.

The leaders of the early Church also were very critical of false prophets and teachers. The writers of the New Testament anticipated that there would come a day in which false teachers would slip into the common life of the Church and question the eye-witness testimony of the Apostles and the Commandment of the Lord Jesus. “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.” (2 Peter 2:1-2)

The people of God must always be prepared to discern between true and false teaching—even within our own diocese. There are plentiful reasons why someone might want to deny the historicity and accuracy of the Gospels. Some motivations are seemingly selfless (for example, a desire to be non-judgmental, and all-inclusive). However, the main reason often proves itself to be one of hardness of heart and stubborn willfulness. The challenge of Jesus is his sovereign Gospel summons to the Kingdom of God which calls all people to repentance and obedience of faith in the Messiah, the Christ. In pride, human beings do not want to submit to a higher authority, especially one that challenges them to renounce self. Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead in time and space vindicates him in his lordship. The resurrection provides to those who trust in Jesus name a historic guarantee of salvation from sin and death and a tangible foretaste of new life in the coming Kingdom of God.

Those who deny the faith given to us by Jesus Christ and his Apostles harm not only themselves, but of greatest concern is the harm they do to those who follow them. Be skeptical of the skeptics. Those who question the Lord need to be questioned themselves. Jesus calls us to trust and obey.

Sarah Bailey Pulliam: Momentous vote in Indy on gay marriage

“Foundational institutions in the U.S. are under assault from the culture, further fragmenting the United States,” said Charles Holt, a rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and School in Lake Mary, Fla., who spoke in opposition of the move, seeing the liturgy in contradiction to the Book of Common Prayer, which defines marriage as between a man and woman. “To change liturgies would not find acceptance in the wider church and would be an affront to unity.”

Read it all

Reinventing Paul: A Review of the book by John Gager

At the encouragement of a post to the House of Bishops and Deputies Listserv of the Episcopal Church, I just finished reading the Kindle Edition of Reinventing Paul, Oxford University Press by John G. Gager, PhD, recently retired chair of the Religion Department at Princeton.

Ted Mollegen, Deputy from Connecticut wrote to the other deputies:

“We need to prepare for some oncoming sizeable theological shocks.  St. Paul was the author of approximately half of the New Testament. Biblical scholarship of the last two-plus decades is leading to the conclusion that St. Paul’s epistles — especially Romans and Galatians — have been very badly mistranslated and is interpreted — from the third century onward….

“When all this is sorted out, some very well respected biblical scholars of the last two decades have concluded that Paul believed in (a) the Abrahamic covenant and the Torah as God’s means of salvation for the Jews and in (b) Jesus’s faithfully dying to accomplish salvation of gentiles.  Thus justification by faith really meant salvation (justification) because of the faithfulness OF Jesus, not justification because of individuals’ faith IN Jesus.  This new understanding means that such church giants as Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther have seriously misunderstood the theology of Paul.  If the new understanding of Paul’s theology continues to be borne out under increasing scrutiny, the situation will be profoundly embarrassing to many present-day church leaders, some of whom will probably meet it with frantic denial and attempted rebuttal.”

Dr. Gager is certainly taking some of the “New Perspective” work on Paul of eminent scholars such EP Sanders to a radical extreme.  Gager’s argument in a nutshell is that Paul really taught that the Gospel and Jesus’ redemption is ONLY for the Gentiles, and NOT for the Jews. That Paul taught that Jesus is only the Lord and Savior of non-Jews. The implications being that Jewish people continue to be under the Law (Torah) and will find salvation only through being faithful to the Torah and not through faith in Jesus.

Here are a couple of pull quotes:

“For Paul, Jesus is neither a new Moses nor the Messiah, he is not the climax of… God’s dealings with Israel, but he is the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the Gentiles.” (John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Locations 1529-1531). Kindle Edition.)

“The law remains in effect for all who are circumcised.” (John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Location 1548). Kindle Edition.)

YIKES! The primary flaw in Gager’s argument (other than making the text of Romans say exactly the opposite of what it says) is that he doesn’t contemplate the Davidic Covenant. Paul begins affirming Jesus as David’s heir according to the flesh and the one who was declared with power to be the “Son of God”. (Romans 1:4, cf. Psalm 2 and 2 Sam. 7:14ff.) Nor does Gager integrate the implications of the saving confession “Jesus Christ is Lord”. (Romans 10:9) Paul says of this confession that leads to salvation:

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him.” (Romans 10:12)

For Paul, Jesus is Lord (YHWH) and Savior for both Jew and Gentile alike. He totally misreads Paul argument in Romans 1-3 that all are in need of the Good News of the Gospel. Paul writes:

“What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin…. Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:9, 19b-20)

The Decline and Fall of Christian Scholarship in America

I want to lament the state of scholarship in the United States, especially the fall of Princeton University (note: Princeton Theological Seminary is a seperate institution) as a once great Christian institution. There was a day when Princeton University was a bastion of Christian belief and thought.

While Gager is likely not intending to make a statement about the institution which then employed him this quote says volumes not only about his own presuppositions and worldview but about the spiritual decline of the institution with which he was at that time affiliated:

“As for myself, I have no particular religious or theological view to defend.” I am Christian only in the broad cultural sense of that word; I am affiliated with no religious institution of any kind.” –John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Locations 208-209). Kindle Edition.

Indeed, he is right in saying that he is not affiliated with a “religious institution of any kind.” The founders of Princeton in the mid 1700’s would never have contemplated hiring a person such as John Gager who considers himself an “nonbeliever” and cultural Christian only (his words). The founders of Princeton would have considered their school “a religious institution”.

The founders of Princeton (while suspect to the Anglicans at that time) were seeking to kindle the fire of the Great Awakening along the principles taught by such preachers and theologians as Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, and George Whitefield.  It is sad how far away we have moved from the strong faith of the founders of this country. Perhaps, we Anglicans really should be suspect of them now!

Gager reveals only at the end of the book that his statement that he has “no theological view to defend” is really quite feigned when he says this:

“It may seem rash for me, as a non-believing “Christian,” to venture onto theological territory. I do so because of my conviction that there is more at stake here than mere Christianity. My proposal is that we strip away the apocalyptic framework of Paul’s thought in a different way. If we remove this apocalyptic mystery altogether, that is, the notion that in the final days of this era God causes Israel’s momentary stumble in order to redeem the Gentiles, we are left with two basic affirmations: one, God’s unshakable commitment to Israel and to the holiness of the law (= Judaism); and, two, the redemption of the Gentiles through Jesus Christ ( = Christianity).” (John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Locations 1620-1622). Kindle Edition.)

It would seem that John Gager is ashamed of the very Gospel which Paul so clearly says is “First for the Jew and then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) Gager does no favors for the Jewish people in “reinventing” Paul. In seeking to do so he would deny them their birthright and the promise of God to them in their Messiah, Jesus. The promise of the Gospel, Paul unashamedly argues, is properly theirs to inherit FIRST!

I leave you to ponder a quote from NT Wright’s excellent commentary on Romans in the “New Interpreter’s” series which I believe more aptly incorporates the “New Perspective” on Paul without throwing the theological baby out with the bathwater:

“When Paul thinks of Jesus as Lord, he thinks of himself as a slave and of the world as being called to obedience to Jesus’ lordship. His apostolic commission is not to offer people a new religious option, but to summon them to allegiance to Jesus, which will mean abandoning their loyalties. The gospel issues a command, an imperial summons; the appropriate response is obedience.

“The ‘obedience’ Paul seeks to evoke when he announces the gospel is thus not a list of moral good works but faith. Faith, as Paul explains later (10:9) consists in confessing Jesus as Lord (thereby renouncing other lords) and in believing that God raised him from the dead (thereby abandoning other worldviews in which such things did or could not happen…) This faith is actually the human faithfulness that answers God’s faithfulness.”  (N.T. Wright, Romans Commentary, NIB, vol. X p. 420.)

As well meaning as John Gager may be in seeking to provide a new paradigm to “help along” Jewish-Christian relationships by reinventing Paul and the Gospel. Paul himself would tell us that the Gospel of Jesus remains the only and singular hope of peace between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is the one who will “tear down the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile.  Paul writes, “Jesus Christ is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one.” (Ephesians 2:14)

Storming the Gates of Hell!

Sermon (listen now)

The gospel story of the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi marks a major turning point in the battle for the heart of the world’s people. The moment marks the first time a person, one man, Simon, confesses Jesus as Lord: “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God”. Jesus commends Simon as “Peter” (the name means rock) as the “Rock upon which I will build my Church.” As I indicated in my sermon (listen here), there are three, yea four, ideas as to what the Lord means by “this Rock”: Peter himself, the faith of Peter, or Jesus as the object of Peter’s faith. As I argued, all three are important for understanding the “this Rock”. Jesus is the Rock and having a rock-solid faith in Him will give a man a rock-solid character. They go together and should never be separated. There is a fourth element to the phrase “this Rock” we need to consider implied by the location of the Confession itself.

Jesus had taken the disciples into the heart of Paganism. Caesarea Philippi was a city which the rabbis warned, “No good Jew would ever enter!” Not only was it a city that was wrapped up in emperor worship. But it also had adopted the more base and perverse worship of the pagan god, Pan. At the base of the cliff face in Caesarea there is a grotto where a statue of Pan stood. And all manner of perverse rites of fertility and bestiality occurred there. This was the “Sin City” of the region. To make matters worse near the grotto stood the entrance of a cave which bore the name “The Gates of Hell” where access to the underworld was attained. To any good Jew, the city was perversely disgusting and place of tremendous satanic and demonic activity.

So when Jesus says, “on this Rock I will build my Church”, was he indicating that the Church would be planted in the heart of that demonic capital, a Church that would storm the “Gates of Hell” and take the ground of a perverse Pagan city such as Caesarea Philippi for the Kingdom of God? Consider the next statement of Jesus, “And the gates of Hell will not stand against it.” Many in the Church of our day have a “sanctuary-refuge” concept about the church. The church is seen as the place of protective refuge where we escape the evil powers of the world and beyond. Now there is tremendous comforting truth in that perspective; however the Church is not merely a sanctuary. It is also a base of operations, an outpost, for the missionary expansion of the Church militant. The call of the Church is to take ground from Satan and evil powers. This world does not belong to him, but to Jesus. We do not merely defend against evil; we attack!

To the church was given the power to “bind and loose”. We are given weapons to bind the spiritual forces of evil and loose the chains of the human captives held within Satan’s strongholds, like Caesarea Philippi.

Consider this: who has ever been attacked by a gate? Gates are defensive in nature. The challenge to Peter and the Church is that Satan has set up his fortresses all over this world. Yet, the Church of Jesus Christ will storm the gates of these hellish strongholds. As we do, they will not stand. The ground will be taken. Satan’s minions will be bound, the people of God will be set free. Hell will not prevail.

Practically, how does this happen? It begins when, a man, woman or child stands up and confesses the Name of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. At that moment, they have chosen sides. The Confession of Jesus is a flag planted in the ground for the Kingdom of Jesus. Jesus is Lord of all. Our job as the Church is to incarnate that reality in word and deed. As Jesus’ disciples revealed, many people could not bring themselves to fully submit their lives to Jesus as Lord of all. When Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of man is?” The answers were all related to Jesus being a mere spokesperson for God, John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets.” Jesus asks, “But, who do you say that I am?” Simon replied, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God.” Jesus wants submitted souls, not warm acknowledgements.

At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Do not fear the haunts of Hell. On the contrary, Jesus would have the church claim the darkest places on earth for his kingdom. People who live in places such as Caesarea Philippi need to be liberated from Satanic bondage and his stronghold. Only Jesus and the Spirit of the Living God can liberate souls in bondage.

One man or one woman, one child who stands in their place of business, community group or school, and raises the banner for Jesus will find the battle engaged. Start a bible study prayer group in a place governed by evil. That is what the early church did all over the Roman Empire. Peter led the fight in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire! These bold Christians took the fight out and into the pagan strongholds. They stormed the Gates of Hell. Make no mistake Satanic strongholds do not go down without a fight. The devils and demons fight dirty. Victory belongs to the faith-filled. Christians who stand up with rock hard faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will prevail. The gates of Hell will not stand against the Church militant. Down the gates will go. And, go down they should!

Transfiguration and the Prophetic Word

2 Peter 1:16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

19So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

I offer to you an interpretation of this passage that runs counter to many commentaries (ok, all of them except Jerome Neyrey’s 2 Peter Commentary in the Anchor Bible Series):

The key question to ask about v. 19 where Peter writes “we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed”: Is Peter talking about the Old Testament “prophetic message” or the New Testament “prophetic message”?

Indeed, Peter is talking about New Testament prophecy—his own apostolic prophetic writings.
The whole section is written to validate Peter’s own written revelation of the nature and message of Jesus as Lord. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

Why choose the Transfiguration event experience to make such a point? Why not the resurrection, or some other miracle? Why? –For the same reason the Sinai narrative is included in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

The purpose of the Mount Sinai narrative is to validate the authority of Moses as the divine ambassador of the Law. Moses didn’t simply make up the Law and the Covenant. He received it from the King on the Holy Mountain. Therefore, the Law of Moses is Holy and should be listened to, followed and passed on from generation to generation as a perpetual covenant with Israel.

Likewise, the apostolic scriptures (writings) are not simply the “deep thoughts” by the Apostles (see v.20). The Apostles received divine authorization to be royal ambassadors by virtue of their presence on the Holy Mountain where Jesus was revealed to them in full majesty to be the Son of God (Psalm 2 being the inauguration psalm of the Messiah King). Peter solemnly encourages the church to “pay attention”(v.19) to the apostolic sacred writings, they are not made up, they are the words of God. Attentiveness to the “prophetic word” of the New Covenant Scriptures will bring forth the dawn of the Sun into the heart of the believer. (v.19)

The entire point of the 2nd Letter of Peter is a stern prophetic warning against false teachers and false prophets. Positively, it is a prophetic encouragement to adhere to the “the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles” (3:2) and a call to trust in the “precious and great promises” (1:4) announced in the Apostolic prophetic message.

As Peter writes in 1:14-15: “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, 14since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.”

Peter’s concern is to see the faithful persevere in growth in the character of the faith so that they would not fall. But rather by confirming their “calling and election”, they will be assured of a rich welcome in the eternal kingdom of the Lord and Savior Jesus Messiah!

The Apostle Peter’s entire concern in the letter is one of apostolic succession. Not in the fully developed sense of that technical term. More simply, Peter (just like Moses) knew that he was a “short timer” by the Lord’s revelation. It was imperative that he make sure that with his “exodus” from this life, the authoritative message of the Gospel and the Command of the Lord did not make its exodus with him.

The transfiguration event is an amazing glimpse into the true nature of Jesus as the divine King in human flesh. Wondrously, it gives us a glimpse of the glory that is yet to be revealed in us when we are full “participants in the divine nature”. (see 2 Pet. 1:4)

In this respect, the Mount of Transfiguration is for the New Covenant and its ambassadors the Apostles, what Mount Sinai was for the Old Testament and its ambassador, Moses.

Interestingly, 2 Peter as a book in the New Testament is one of the most criticized books in all of the New Testament. Many modern Commentators outright reject its Petrine authorship and its authenticity as a book in the Canon. In doing so they dull, no they mute, its condemnation of their false own teachings and licentious behavior. In many New Testament commentary series, strangely it is often the missing book. Nobody focuses on Second Peter.

One has to wonder what would happen if we would uncrumplethis little three chapter book from the trash bins to which modern scholarship has relegated it. Could the rediscovery of its canonical purpose be a moment not unlike Hilkiah finding the lost copy of the Law of Moses during the evil days of King Josiah the reformer of Israel? (2 Kings 22:8) Could it not speak profoundly to the needs and problems of the modern Church?

Indeed when Jude reflects back on the Second letter of Peter in his terse prophetic woe oracle, he calls the Church to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Jude sounds the warning, “For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Are we not faced with the same?

In “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints”, we have a sacred trust, we are the successors of Peter and the prophetic word of the Apostles’ teaching. We would do well to be attentive to it. For to us is given the high calling to maintain unbroken apostolic succession to the faith that we have been entrusted.

As a sacramental act, we pass on that charge through the laying on of Episcopal hands in ordination and confirmation. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Those Episcopal hands are not merely the symbol of the faith but also signify the substance of it going back to Peter and the command of the Lord. The laying on of hands in and of itself is meaningless ritual without the concurrent conveyance of the faith and the commitment to uphold and teach the sacred prophetic writings of Moses, the prophets and the apostles–the faith once for all entrusted, the faith received.

So we have the very firm prophetic word… We will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.

The Foolish Call of God

“Good is the enemy of great.” Consider the operative word of that phrase coined by Jim Collins in the opening sentence of his book Good to Great–enemy. Great leaders, by pursuing greatness for their organization, business, church, can become the fall guys for the very organization they love and are seeking to reform.

On a deeper level, God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose–true greatness from God’s perspective does not always equal success in the worldly point of view.

In order to reform any organization, whether you are talking about a church or a business, the reformer must have a steel will to persevere.In my circles, it is called faith–faith to see what should be and have the perseverance to see it realized in the face of opposition. But not every effort to reform is met with welcome arms.

The reformer will learn the meaning of sabotage and pain. Sometimes the forces that the reformer is seeking to change are more powerful (at least from a worldly point of view) than the reformer himself.

We live in a world of human systems, whether we are talking about a family, business, government, or a congregation. Humans organize and develop systemic patterns within human relationships. These systems of relationships can be healthy and great or they can be sick and dysfunctional.

The reformers high calling is to take sick human systems and make them healthy and highly functional. When it works, nothing is more rewarding or more fulfilling, not only for the reformer, but also for he many people liberated and enriched by the reforms. When a human system is unhealthy, broken, and mired in mediocrity, there is usually a reason.

Human sin and corruption are often present at the heart of the matter. It does not take long for a corrupted system to either seek to corrupt its reformer, or, if not possible, to eliminate him. This is why the work of reform is not for the faint in heart. It requires courage and will.

Recently I read a book called The Shack that is about a personal reform project of the life of one man. In a very perceptive and profound reaction, the God character in the book, Papa, reflects on corruption in human systems within creation:

“Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired. In your world the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system, whether political, economic, social, or religious–any system actually. First one person, and then a few, and finally many are easily sacrificed for the good and the ongoing existence of that system. In one form or another, this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war, and every abuse of relationship. The ‘will to power and independence’ has become so ubiquitous that it is now considered normal.”

The history of the people of God is littered with the martyrdom of great men and women who saw a better future for their people or human systems under their concern and yet found themselves thrown under the bus by the very people they were seeking to help.

One such Biblical figure was the first deacon of the Church, Stephen. He asked the people who were stoning him, “Which of the prophets did you not stone?”

Thank God there are people of integrity who take a stand for what is right and doing the right thing in every sphere of our society. Such people are the great lights of our race. Unfortunately, history betrays and reveals our true nature with respect to such heroes of the faith and reformers of society; far too often they are deeply wounded and often destroyed by the human systems they have ordained to reform.

In order to reform mediocrity, one must be willing to stand with a stern will; but even the strongest of wills cannot carry a body through the fires of persecution or the assassin’s bullet. Sometimes in this “world of devils filled”, evil seems to triumph over good.

Alas it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the forces to remain the same break the reformer. Which of the prophets did you not stone?

One could ask whether living as such a person is worth the personal sacrifice and whether it makes any difference.On one level, the answer is “no”. The systems of the world have been and will continue to be corrupt.

From another perspective, the answer is a resounding “yes”. We never see the big picture. We never see how God will use our efforts to accomplish his purposes.

While from one side we may not accomplish “success” our brokenness may serve to further God’s plan in some unknown way. This has been the history of redemption through the ages.

We may never know who will be inspired by our stand for what is right, but we should always know that we are always being watched by those around us.We should never underestimate the power of the leader who is upright and walks with integrity to inspire others to the same.

In Christian terms this is called our witness. Are we willing to make our witness to truth, to patriotism, to good business practices, to greatness…but most importantly are we willing to make our witness to Jesus Christ?

The witness of any one reformer is costly in ways that no other person will ever fully be able to relate, financially, relationally, physically and spiritually. And no one can dictate for another the manner of their sacrifice. A witness is free to lay down his life and take it up again of his own volition.

That does not mean that the witness goes unnoticed. For those of us who have journeyed along side the prophet through his trials and faithfulness are encouraged in the heart. The witness does not go unnoticed by those who are opposition and may even be responsible for his trouble. But especially the witness of the faithful reformer does not go unnoticed by God.

Whatever the worldly outcome, the Lord knows the attitudes of our heart and he sees in secret. He will reward those who earnestly seek him.

Vindication in this life for the right is a fleeting thing; even if it comes it ultimately is unsatisfying and inadequate. Vindication is mine says the Lord. He will repay.

There is comfort in that. It enables the victim of injustice to move on with life with peace and grace, to even be praying for the enemies who persecute, even remaining in relationship with them showing them the grace, truth, goodness and love of God. This unusual behavior is the unique mark of the Christian Life, it is the mark of a disciple who has picked up his cross and followed Jesus.

The world will never understand such a way of being human, enemies who receive the grace of those whom they have persecuted often perceive it in negative terms “heaping of burning coals”. Yet this truly is how the world is changed and redeemed for God.

The Lord is pleased to use us most powerfully; not in our successes, but in our failures; not in our victories and vindications, but through our persecutions and losses.

The Cross lies at the heart of God’s salvation to the corrupt problems of the World.