New Series: Exploring Orthodox Christianity, Part I: The First Division

This is the first part in an ongoing series exploring Orthodox Christianity from the POV of that of a convert to Orthodox Christianity. 

English: Grapevine cross, the symbol of Georgi...
English: Grapevine cross, the symbol of Georgian Orthodox Christianity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

THE DEVOLUTION OF CHRISTIANITY

Divisions, Denominations, and Differences
Part 1: Christianity and Judaism: The First Division

Christianity is not a new religion, as popular secular opinion holds, which unfortunately includes the opinions of many self-led theologians, nor is it an offshoot of the ancient Hebrew religion of Judaism. Christianity is the ancient Hebrew religion, and Judaism is an offshoot.

Have I got your attention now? Good.

Some of you are getting all puffed up, and demanding how I could say such a thing, and loading your theological cannon with a round of ‘Antisemite!’ accusations, but before you light it off, think about what I just said, and think about this little parable of mine.

Lets say you’re in a military unit, with an officer in command, and the officer orders you to “Follow me this way.” Some in the unit obey, but some refuse the order, wanting to sit tight right where they are, and the officer takes the obedient ones with him and leaves. Which group of soldiers are still part of the unit? The obedient ones, obviously, even if they’re in the minority; the rest are not only no longer part of the unit, but are deserters from it, and lose all the honor and status of being part of that unit. In fact, they are traitors, because, in refusing to continue to serve the cause they took an oath to upon their enlistment, through their inaction they are serving the enemy instead.

English: Logo of Turkish Orthodox Church. Logo...
English: Logo of Turkish Orthodox Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who was the Captain of the ancient Hebrews? God was their Captain, the one they followed. They followed His orders onto the ark, out of Egypt, into the promised land, into battle after battle. And who is Christ? God, one Person of the Trinity, as any Christian will tell you (Anyone who tells you He’s anything less than God is not Christian.), who condescended to come to Earth clothed in humanity, to save his people from their sins. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Often referred to as ‘the Logos’ in the Greek language (the universal language at the time), meaning the Word, He came, in His own words, as the fulfillment of the law, the words of God divinely-inscribed on the fragments of stone tablet carried within the Ark of the Covenant. He was their God who came down and walked among them, as God walked with Adam in Eden, and the disciples and apostles – all or nearly all of which were Hebrews – ultimately accepted Him and followed Him as exactly that…but the majority of Jews, including almost all their religious leaders, their scribes and pharisees, refused to do so. To compound their error, their rebellion was not simply a passive one of refusing to move, like the imaginary soldiers in the story above, but one of open rebellion active treason in which they sought and eventually managed the assassination of their officer through pagan hands, before going on to persecute His followers for centuries (often, even today in the state of Israel), and to blacken His name and reputation (The Talmud claims that Mary was a harlot and Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier, a sorcerer, and is in Hell being boiled in hot excrement forever.) at every opportunity.

religions in Europe, map en. See File:Europe r...
religions in Europe, map en. See File:Europe religion map.png for details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite their persecutions, and the later ones by various pagans, Christ’s followers continued and continue to obey His orders, because they are the ones who are still part of His unit, His army, His Church, and the deserters, traitors, and rebels – the apostates – have been left behind encamped in their own disobedience.

The Bible, including the teachings of Jesus Himself, through His parables, as well as the later writings of the Apostles, Paul in particular (when taken in context rather than using cherry-picked verses interpreted only through the lens of Evangelical Christian Zionist doctrine), make two things very clear.

(1) There is a New Covenant, and while the old one, broken in the worst possible ways by the Jewish religious leaders, was one of flesh and blood – ie., for the Jews – we are no longer under it because it was fulfilled in the coming of Christ as foretold by the prophets. Those who chose not to accept the fulfillment of the law have their branches broken out of the tree of life, or perhaps rather have broken their own branches out, casting themselves away through their apostate rebellion. Those who accept the New Covenant – Jew or Gentile, for the New Covenant, and the resulting Kingdom of God, is a thing of the Spirit, not flesh and blood – have moved beyond that, just as a graduate moves beyond his old teachers from school, as in, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”

English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Gre...
English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Greek Orthodox Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(2) Those who are in obedience to God and so follow Christ, whatever their background, are grafted into the tree of life in their pace, and are, literally, Israel: counted as the seed of Abraham and inheritors of all of the promises of God relating to him. It’s also worth noting, even though the New Covenant worship methods (particularly in the traditional ‘High Churches’) are based on the old Jewish ones (not surprising, since it’s the same religion), one didn’t have to physically become a Jew to be part of it – no circumcision, no dietary restrictions, etc. – and the false idea that they did has always been considered a heresy by the Church, officially referred to as Judaizing, ever since the issue was settled in the famous debate between Saint Peter, who was initially sympathetic to the idea, and Saint Paul, who was staunchly opposed to it, prevailed, and the doctrine was fixed. For 1800 years, until the century of heresy (to be addressed in a future post), it was universally accepted, and anytime it raised its pernicious head, which it did on a regular basis, it was slapped down as what it was: heresy.

As for the formulaic Judaism practiced by the several Jewish sects of the days of Christ (Pharisees, Saddusees, Essenes, Herodians, Zealots, etc.), it is dead and gone; it died spiritually at Pentecost, and physically in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the temple, ending the commanded sacrifices there that were a necessary and integral part of their belief; in fact, many Jewish groups themselves teach that the sheckhinah, the glory of the presence of God, departed with that destruction, because, without the temple at Jerusalem, they were literally incapable of practicing their traditional, Old Covenant faith.

The only Jewish sect to ultimately survive was the Pharisees, and Christ made it very obvious what He thought of them. These are the founders of the splinter religion of Judaism practiced today: a physical faith, based on ceremony, race, matrilineal bloodlines, and ethnic tradition rather than spirit; for instance, a Jew by birth who is an atheist can still be considered a good Jew if he does the prescribed Jewish things. In some ways, it could even be argued that one of the primary philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism is that Christianity requires a denial of self, while Judaism is a reinforcement of self, and those two things are not compatible.

 

Next post: Constantinople and Rome: The Great Division

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Guest Post: Confessions of a Neo-Anabaptist

Dave connected with me via Mike Beidler around my collaborative effort. He said I could share it. Here it is:

I believe I fall somewhere along the more conservative end of the broad spectrum of Neo-Anabaptism, with an eye on the Ante Nicene period of the Church. To me, a Neo-Anabaptist is someone who holds broadly to the core fundamentals of historic Anabaptism1, while rejecting many of the apparent problems with the original movement and the accretions of later centuries.2It is someone who seeks to carry on the spirit of the original Anabaptist movement, which was to do away with unhelpful traditions of men, and get back to an emphasis not just on faith in Jesus which the Reformers did; but like the Ante Nicene Church, that of obeying Jesus. This may mean that in some instances a return to what may be perceived as something closer to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is called for.Or for something unknown and unpracticed in any of the churches since the days of the Apostles. But of course it may mean remaining as we are if things are as they should be.

For me an emphasis on the Ante Nicene writers is helpful in this regard as they knew the Apostles personally or were only one or two generations removed, and thus in a much better position to ascertain the  faith once delivered to the saints. Of course this does not exclude the possibility of error creeping in even at that early date, and so discretion is used and a reminder is given that final authority (not sole) is given to the Bible starting with the words of Jesus. To say that sole authority is not given to the Bible is simply a recognition of the many ways in which we may be instructed regarding the faith. This may include but is not limited to Apostolic traditions, the later Church writings, modern Church writings and commentaries, early and modern scholarship, the individual’s conscience and so on. Of course none of these methods are infallible, while by faith we believe the Bible is. Each believer is ultimately held responsible before God for what he does with Jesus and the written word, while not stripping the Church of its God-given right to judge.4

A Neo-Anabaptist is someone who takes seriously the teachings of the NT especially the words of Jesus, while not getting bogged down in theology and wrangling over words. This does not mean a rejection of theology, but rather an awareness that an overemphasis can lead to division rather than unity. It means putting non-essentials where they belong: in the non-essentials category of the Statement of Faith. It is recognizing that what makes a Christian is a minimum of theology (nicely summed up in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed for example) and a whole lot of Jesus. It is someone who is not afraid of the hard questions, but does not ask them just for the sake of contention. It is someone who seeks for unity in diversity rather than unity in blind submission to human opinions or traditions. While saying that, it is also someone who recognizes that there is value in human traditions and thus seeks to maintain and honour them in their own right whenever the Bible and/or circumstances permit. Above all it is someone who seeks to be like Jesus.

It is someone who is willing to leave unresolved or difficult issues as they are: unresolved; rather than come down hard on something that simply has not been revealed to us or is still open to further inquiry or to a number of positions. This means a rejection of the infallibility of the Church or the Pope and of Fundamentalism as developed in the early 20th century and still carried on today. This means in practice a rejection of the infallibility of our own opinions (even if we say, along with those who hold opposite views, that those opinions are simply what the Bible clearly teaches). It means an acceptance of other Christians who may have differences of opinion of issues we feel strongly about, but which are unclear or silent in Scripture and which the Church historically (especially the very early period) was either silent about or divided over. It is an acceptance that you will be called a liberal unbeliever by some, and a closed minded, bigoted Fundamentalist by others.5

A Neo-Anabaptist is someone who uses their head as well as their heart when sifting through the issues of faith and life.It is someone who is devoted to faith in Jesus but not given to emotionalism or irrationalism, thus it is also someone who is devoted to empirical reality, while not lifting this above faith. This is a difficult balance to keep and therefore much leeway is given to those who differ with one another on issues touching this.6  This means an acknowledgement that faith in Christ is just that: faith. Faith is not built on facts and figures. Facts and figures can and should be used to substantiate the claims of the Bible, but a Christian does not rest on that.7Abraham is the prime example of this.

It is someone who seeks to answer the difficult questions of faith and practice in this generation as posed to us by a sin-sick world, modern skepticism and scholarship, and by fellow believers seeking real answers that are not sugar coated or tampered with by Christians who are scared to face reality. This means not being afraid to come up with answers that seem liberal, and at the same time not being forced into positions that seem conservative. It means not being scared of being misunderstood and rejected by those whom you thought would understand and support you.

It is someone who seeks to live the faith, rather than explain it first and foremost. I am still a long way off this ideal and there are many brothers and sisters in the faith, past and present, who have done far better than me at living the faith out in daily life. There is also much else to say regarding what a Neo-Anabaptist is such as social action, evangelism, finances, morality. But these are issues I feel less equipped to speak of, so I will leave that for someone else more capable than me to deal with.

____

Many excellent introductions exist describing the Anabaptist movement, but I will suggest only three. First is “The Anabaptist Vision” by Harold S. Bender, who was himself an historic Anabaptist. Second is the scholarly but very readable “The Anabaptist Story” by William R. Estep who was not an Anabaptist but was sympathetic. Third is “Conservative Anabaptist Theology” by William R. McGrath, which is very hard to find, but written by a 20th century convert to Anabaptism.

2 Some of these issues would include the strict dress codes for women, closed communion, beards, permissible articles of clothing, permissible forms of activity and employment, never ending splits over secondary or tertiary issues etc. These and other issues all stem from the various statements of faith and practice, which a “proving member” must agree to before full membership is granted. All of the various rules and regulations of the Old Order Amish stem from such documents, which are heralded as being Biblical in nature, but which very often make null and void many of the teachings of the NT.

An example of this in earlier times would be the Plymouth Brethren movement. Most Evangelical churches today do not practice weekly communion services, and they certainly do not make such meetings the central point for which they gather. This is very often perceived as a Catholic thing to do, yet enter any assembly hall on any given Sunday and that is what you will see. A solemn gathering of men, women and children all seated around the bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus. Read Justin Martyr’s description of a church gathering in 160 AD and it will seem very similar.

4 Matthew 18:15-35

Matthew 11:16-19

6Examples would include creation vs. evolution, conspiracy theories and KJV Onlyism. The first touches on science. The second touches on history and politics, and the last touches on history, faith and textual criticism. All of these position require a faith position even if proponents deny it. Creationism starts with faith and seeks to interpret the evidence that way. Most conspiracy theories are lacking in solid evidence and thus never seem to be able to show anything conclusive. KJV Onlyism starts and ends with faith and has no footing in historical fact whatsoever.

7 Matthew 11:25-27 & 16:13-17

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Review: Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah

bryan resurrection of the messiah
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With a special thanks to John C. Poirier for this review:

Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), reviewed by John C. Poirier.

Christopher Bryan’s The Resurrection of the Messiah is structured in three parts, not counting the extensive (= eight) “additional notes”. The first part (“The Setting”) presents background historical information pertaining to the doctrine of the resurrection – less thoroughly, of course, than some recent studies – but in proper proportion to the rest of the book. The second part (“Witnesses”) discusses the resurrection passages in the New Testament, devoting a separate chapter to Paul and to each of the gospels. This section borrows the format of a running commentary, and reads in a way very similar to some of the less detailed, narrativally focused commentaries (Harper’s, etc.). The effect of having five chapters deal with separate writings in this way is interesting – it’s almost as though someone took parts of five commentaries and put them together. This undoubtedly was an easier way for Bryan to deal with the topic, but it also presents the discussion in a way that serves well for future reference. The third part of the book (“Questioning the Witnesses”) provides a synthesis and theological commentary on the second part. The “Additional Notes” engage topics that might have been discussed in parts one and three.

The Resurrection of the Messiah has as one of its objects a measured response to various scholarly attempts to dismiss the resurrection, or to re-theologize it in potentially docetic ways. In the face of these challenges, Bryan does a good job of keeping the reader’s construal of the New Testament’s claims tied to the apostles’ presentation of the gospel. He could have said more along these lines – that is, he could have engaged a few more challenges on this front – but what he does he does well. One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that its author knows when he has dealt sufficiently with a given point.

Although the book engages other scholars, it seems to be aimed at a somewhat beginning level of academic reader. It seldom breaks new ground. It does, however, present its arguments well, in a modest tone, and with a good sense of the reader’s needs. One could, of course, imagine a more rigorous engagement of many of this book’s points, but that seems not to be this book’s purpose. The style of the commentary section within this book establishes its limited range of engagement with the facts of historical context, philology, etc. The author’s goal, it seems, is never to let incidental details get in the way of a simple argument. The book’s theological burden, I believe, justifies this approach.

This is a good book for anyone considering the place of Jesus’ resurrection in NT theology.

 

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Review: Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians @ivpress @ivpacademic

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Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). Reviewed by John C. Poirier.

At 560 pages, Kenneth Bailey’s Paul through Mediterranean Eyes represents a good introduction to 1 Corinthians, moving through the letter at a somewhat rhetorical level, and with due attention to matters of cultural background. It is really a sort of rhetorical commentary, although its author presumably doesn’t think of it as a commentary. The book is well written, and will appeal to pastors and lay students of 1 Corinthians.

Why “pastors and lay students”? Although the book’s imprint is “IVP Academic”, it is not really academic in the full sense. It is more pastoral, although it possible that Bailey thinks of his discussion of Paul’s supposed use of ring composition (see below) as a contribution to scholarship. Much of the commentary that Bailey provides falls into the category of preaching rather than of serious exegetical work. When he unpacks seven supposed aspects of the Pauline conception of evangelism from 1 Cor 12:22–24 (pp. 344–45), for example, he is moving in the realm of an enlarging homiletical style of interpretation rather than serious exegesis. And while the allusions to a “mountain-pass journey” that Bailey finds in 1 Cor 12:31–14:1 (p. 358) are about as ethereal as anything I’ve read, I have no doubt that they’ll “preach”. Although this work will undoubtedly be welcomed by many scholars, it is clearly more at home on the pastor’s shelf. This impression is strengthened by the sparseness of the footnotes, and by the (otherwise remarkable) fact that the bibliography lists no works in German or French.

A word should be said about the title, as Bailey seems to take the word “Mediterranean” in a unique direction. In keeping with his earlier books on the Gospels, Bailey seeks to illuminate the NT text through Middle Eastern culture, and his use of “Mediterranean” appears to be an attempt to say that Paul was influenced by both Greco-Roman and Semitic contexts. The main point of Bailey’s book, in fact, is to show that there are a number of Semitic aspects to Paul’s writing and reasoning that we should not neglect. But the word “Mediterranean” only works if one comes at this study within the context of Bailey’s earlier work, where one already knows the author’s agenda. The descriptor “Mediterranean” does not fit if one comes at it from the range of meaning usually attributed to it. Dictionaries typically define “Mediterranean” people as dark-skinned Caucasians, and not as Semites. Thus to read Paul through what dictionary editors would call “Mediterranean eyes” would mean to read him within the same Greco-Roman context that scholars have been accustomed to using. Thus there is a bit of a problem with the book’s title.

I noted that the work falls into the category of commentary, but, in at least one respect, Bailey aimed at doing something much more than write yet another guide to 1 Corinthians: he argues at length that there are literary-structural aspects to Paul’s writings that traditional (“Western”) treatments have failed to elucidate. He argues that Paul does not write in a straightforward linear progression of thought, but rather uses “ring composition” – a stepped-and-inverse-stepped approach to unfolding meaning (as in an A-B-B-A, or A-B-C-C-B-A style). According to Bailey, one must match up the corresponding opening and the closing steps (or steppes) in the ring composition in order to understand all that Paul is trying to say about a particular point: “If the author is presenting his/her case using an ABC-CBA structure, then half of what he/she has to say about (A) will appear at the beginning and the other half will appear at the end” (p. 50). In fact, Bailey litters his book with charts purporting to show that this sort of approach pervades the entire letter. Unfortunately for Bailey, he never makes his case that these structures are really there, or that they must be recognized as such in order to understand Paul completely. The purported examples of ring composition are often wispy at best. It is very doubtful, for example, that the first three verses of 1 Corinthians contain an A-B-B-A ring structure – that structure seems to have been forced on the text (p. 55). And Bailey makes a wholly unfortunate choice when he includes 1 Cor 12:31 and 14:1 within the ring structure that he imposes on 1 Corinthians 13 (p. 353). He does this, of course, to show that ring structure analysis makes a difference: the “faith, hope, and love” of 1 Corinthians 13 (Bailey argues) are the “higher gifts” that Paul mentioned in 1 Cor 12:31 (p. 356). It’s an interesting experiment, but it’s unconvincing: Paul does not view faith, hope, and love as the gifts of 12:31. (To read 1 Corinthians 13 as a bridge does not preclude reading 12:31 as a “hinge verse”.)

I don’t think that ring composition, even when it was intentionally practiced, was intended as a sort of puzzle that the reader set out to solve after reading the whole section. Bailey uses Isaiah throughout his book to demonstrate how ring composition works. According to Bailey, an “ancient, literate (and illiterate) Hebrew” would be able to discern the ring-compositional structure of Isa 28:14–18, and “would naturally compare the two cameos numbered 1 on the outside and then the pair of cameos numbered 2 and so forth” (p. 49). But how likely is it that Isaiah’s readers really read that way? Is it not more likely that Isaiah’s meaning simply unfolded through straightforward attentive reading without the help of Bailey’s secret decoder ring? The mind (Eastern or Western) is able to read complete meaning units just as easily as it can write them. Aspects of simple ring composition often occur subconsciously as the imprint of a complete meaning unit within the writer’s mind. And they are properly read in the same way. Bailey thinks that the “average modern reader” is at a disadvantage when reading ring compositions (p. 48), but the fact of the matter is that simple ring structures seem to be a natural structural aspect of communicating meaning. Modern writers employ ring structures without even noticing it. For example, did Bailey notice that his exposition of the A-B-B-A structure in 1 Cor 7:14 (p. 207) was itself written in an A-B-B-A structure?

Enough about ring structures – how does Bailey’s book hold up as a commentary? It is worth reminding the reader that this book is more pastoral than academic, and on that level it succeeds. In fact, I can see pastors (etc.) deriving a great bit of benefit from this book. It is also worth reminding the reader that the book is not a commentary in the pure sense, in that it is also something more like a narrative reading guide. As with commentaries in general, this book has a mixture of good and not-so-good judgments. For example, Bailey’s personal experience with a Middle Eastern brass-makers market (p. 360) adds a fascinating dimension seldom found in works of this type. But Bailey’s identification of prophecy with preaching (pp. 337, 362) made me feel like I was reading a book from the 1950s. (Is that idea still with us?)

I doubt that scholars in general will glean much from this book. Pastors and lay readers, however, will find much in it that helps them understand 1 Corinthians better. Yet, it is my hope that such readers don’t take Bailey’s overdone treatment of rhetorical structure too seriously.

 

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Questioning Christianity – Guest Post

In response to a post from this morning, a friend sent this along…

Questioning Christianity

“The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth.” Peter Abelard

Two points to start out with:

a. I am not a huge Abelard fan. I simply use this quote to press a point.

2. This quote was taken from Brainy Quotes and I do not attest to its verbatim accuracy.

What our friend, Saint Peter (of the Abelard kind), is trying to encourage is personal investigation. He was a philosopher before he became a theologian, and formed much of his theology using his philosophical mind. This was actually what got him into a lot of trouble with superiors in the Catholic Church.

But, quotes like this make modern-day Christians cringe. We have been taught for many generations, not to question our religion. If it is in the Bible, it’s true. If it is said from the pulpit, it’s true. So, church-goers put on a happy face, sit in the pews and nod their heads at the sermon without actually considering, internalizing or applying the message to their lives.

If they were to do this, they would find that most sermons (good sermons) don’t really have any answers. Instead, they ask many questions. The challenge is to consider these questions through reading the scripture, asking God in prayer and listening in meditation.

One of the highlights to my relatively new career as a pastor was one a lady called me on a Monday. Nobody was in the hospital, fired, injured, or in any type of financial or physical distress. She called because she had a question about my sermon. Praise God! ‘You said this …,’ she said, ‘but what about that?’ I gave her my thoughts, (stress ‘my thought’) and led her to investigate more.

Jesus didn’t demand blind obedience, He answered questions. God didn’t bless us with an amazing ability to question and understand, so that we could follow Him as His mindless servants. Instead, we are to be His mindful servants, seeking Him and asking the hard questions to those He appointed Pastors.

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Introduction: Search the Scriptures Blog

From time to time, I ask others bloggers to introduce themselves. Sure I could do it, but they can better describe themselves.

Continue reading “Introduction: Search the Scriptures Blog”

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Wycliffe: Bible Translation Statistics

This is part 1 of a 4-part series from Phil Prior of Wycliffe UK, a fine organization whose mission is to bring the word of God to everyone, in every language.

Last year, Wycliffe Bible Translators in the UK commissioned some research of young Christians (those in their 20s and early 30s). One comment sticks in my mind,

“I had worked on the naïve assumption that the Bible was available in every language”.

Continue reading “Wycliffe: Bible Translation Statistics”

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Prophet, Priest and King

The priesthood of Christ does not consist merely of an external legal transaction of sacrifice, a paying of the bill, so to speak, but also of a reconciliation accomplished in his person and maintained in his person. (Rom. 4:25) This is why life not death is the “essence” of the atonement, that by which sin is covered (Rom. 5:10). Though of course it was His perfect life given up in death that came first. Note in the text both are together, but the “much more” is “we shall be saved by his life.” The Levitical killing of an animal in sacrifice meant the fullest offering of its lifeblood. What was presented to God was not the death, but the life of the creature (Lev. 17:11). So the highest conception of offering death has no place. Had man never fallen it would still have been a duty to offer himself together with all he possessed to God in whom he lived, moved, and had his being. The effect of Christ’s priesthood, then, is to accomplish something within us, something that changes us and reconciles us from the inside out. And of course this is the work of the Holy Spirit as Paracletos (John 14: 26) in us.

Continue reading “Prophet, Priest and King”

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