By late 4th century AD, the raw transformative power of the Gospel was already in deep decline. The way of Christ was being supplanted by the Constantinian institutional Christianity. Since the tangible power of God was not widely demonstrable, something else was bound the take its place. That “something else” was forensic, legally focused Christianity. In redefining the overarching meta-narrative of the New Covenant as being exclusively a legal matter, the practical power of the Gospel was theologically legitimized. Institutional Christianity became a purveyor of solutions which were purely speculative, experientially unverifiable, and requiring one to die before the veracity of their theories could be personally ascertained. In other world – that so-called gospel was not much use for the for the living. It was only useful for the dead.
Historically, here’s how things got to where they did. In 410 AD Rome was sacked by Visigoths. At that time, Rome was viewed as the mother city of Christianity, and it came as a huge shock to the Western world that their relatively newly adopted religion – Christianity – was powerless to stop that sacking by pagan barbarians. In response, in mid-420s AD Augustine penned his opus magnum “The City of God”. In that volume he made important doctrinal corrections, but committed probably just as many worldview errors as he sought to correct. In trying to salvage Christianity from its alleged failed responsibility to protect Rome, he simply relegated everything that can be expected of God to the realm he called “the city of God” which can be accessed only after death.
Last weekend, while in youth church, my pre-teen son stumped his instructors with a simple question about the crucifixion of Jesus: how does executing someone else for your sin justify you? His instructors tried to explain it by referring to animal sacrifices and their significance, to which he again replied: how does killing an animal remove the punishment due you? And also – as a young person, what did I ever do to deserve death in the first place? They said to him something about even a small sin being enough to deserve death. To which he objected that punishing a petty misstep and a major crime with the same extreme punishment of death seems to be the very opposite of justice. Eventually the instructors said that it’s something that he should ask his parents at home.
It’s quite remarkable that they way the atonement of Christ is commonly explained collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions, even under the most simple of questionings. Since many people in the Western Christian tradition believe that penal substitutionary atonement (or PSA for short) is the only way to understand what happened on the cross of Calvary, they have simply learned to suppress their own deep questions about it.
Often times, questioning the common *interpretation* of Christ’s atonement is frequently equated to questioning the *value* of the atonement itself. Such set of tactics which discourage people from exploring the deeper foundations of their faith are a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, with its dichotomous all-or-nothing thinking. That’s why I applaud my son’s instructors that they didn’t shut him down, leaving open the possibility for him to continue looking for answers outside of the paradigm which couldn’t give him the answers which he was looking for (did I mention that I quite like that church?).
The Bible assigns a very special place to the “Word of God”. In fact, we even capitalize the word “Word”. Let’s take a deeper dive on this concept.
Often times, we equate the Word of God with the Bible, pretty much without thinking. After all, that’s the normal usage of the phrase, right? So, “studying the Word” turns to “reading the Bible”. “Flowing with the Word” becomes “knowing details about Biblical events” (culture, history, perhaps even Hebrew / Koine Greek, etc.)
Let’s take a close look at this notion. The Word of God is very important indeed:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
Let’s try to substitute this with the word “the Bible”, and see if this bears out:
“In the beginning was the Bible, and the Bible was with God, and the Bible was God.” (John 1:1)
There are a few problems with this. One, the first book of the Bible was likely penned in about 1500 BC, and the last book of the Bible was most likely penned shortly before 70 AD. The entire Bible was put together in its (more or less) final form no earlier than circa 367 A.D. Clearly, those 1800-1900 or so years happened long after “the beginning” of John 1:1.
Generally speaking, there are about 8 or so atonement theories out there, with variants. To me, it’s easier to divide them into two groups.
One group of atonement theories postulate that the problems primarily stem from personal dimension of people (who are fundamentally perverse), and of God (who is fundamentally angry about people.) What Jesus did was more or less redirect the focal point of God’s anger to himself, thus getting us off the hook. The main idea is that of legal transaction.
The other group of atonement theories postulates that the problems to be solved are of systemic nature. They lie with both with human psyche individually (egotism) and socially (systemic oppression and scapegoating). There is also a cosmic dimension to the problem statement (decay and death). What Jesus did is he absorbed the individual, the social, and the cosmic sin (and therefore death), triumphed over them, and created a mechanism of being able to tap into the power to overcome all those.
I would submit to you that the second group of atonement theories has much more coherence and explanatory power. Also, the 2nd group is the one that leads you to living like a responsible, fully empowered representative of God in every area of life. It’s the only one that can underwrite consistently replicable results, and not just occasional haphazard “victories”.
It’s popular to draw parallels between ancient Israel and modern Western religious organizations. In many sermons that seem to capture popular thinking of the Sunday-morning masses, Israel is likened to church, priests to pastors, Levites to worship teams, pulpits to altars, Sabbaths to Sundays, and tithes to money collections. Certainly, we can draw some parallels, but as with any comparisons, we need to see where the comparison holds, and where it does not.
Here’s how Israel is (superficially) similar to Western religious organizations:
- Both Israel and church worship the same God
- Both priests and modern religious leaders, such as pastors, have leadership roles
- Levites and worship teams sing religious-themed songs
- Both Israel and church had buildings used for various religious purposes
- Pulpits and altars are central points of religious gatherings
- Both Sabbaths and Sundays can be thought of as days of rest
- Both tithes and money collections are used to sponsored various activities
Well, at this point I should say that I would like to switch our focus from Western religious organizations to the one invisible universal New Covenant church that Jesus Christ has created and that he personally heads. The church of Jesus Christ can be locally expressed through a religious organization, but the two aren’t really the same thing.
And so, the church of Jesus Christ is quite different from Israel, even if you take into account modern Western religious particulars.
Here’s how Israel is fundamentally different from the church:
DEATH ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES SERIES – TABLE OF CONTENTS
Now, after we have disambiguated ourselves of extra-Scriptural meanings, we are in a position to define what the scriptural meaning of death is.
DEATH OPERATES ON THE BODY OF THE FLESH
Death that has been plaguing humanity ever since the fall of Adam operates on the bodies of flesh, and not on spirits. This is stated in the Scriptures quite clearly, but scripture expositors rarely tie this knowledge in with the topic of death, for whatever reason. Sin (dysfunction, being “apart / amiss” from God’s design) operates in the flesh, producing death, as apostle Paul noted most notably in Romans chs. 5 – 8, and this is also noted in a lot of other places in the Scripture as well.
Here are some passages pertaining to sin / death operating on the bodies of flesh:
2 Corinthians 4
11 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members [of the body] to bear fruit to death.
I don’t know why this eluded me for so long, but in the past few days I had this hunch about the Acts 2 events, as pertaining to the question of baptism. Here’s an interesting twist that I’ve discovered.
Please follow me through Acts 2, all the way from the beginning of the chapter.
37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
[ … ]
41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
pay close attention to v. 41. The ones that gladly received the word were baptized, and the same day were added 3000 souls / persons to the number of the outcalled (ekklesia, or church).
All the events in v. 41 – they heard the word, they gladly received it, were baptized, and they were added to the rest of the believers – all of these happened in the same day. That much is 100% clear from the passage. The specific question that I want to address is: can we clearly establish at all, as per the passage, that they were or were not water-baptized? Well, it turns out, we might be able to.