3 JOHN: Diotrephes

Finally, we come to the incredibly short letter of 3 John. We see through the study of these letters that John has a group of disciples he is sending out to do teaching among the churches. Some scholars have even suggested that it’s these disciples who pen the three letters of John. I disagree with this assessment, but it does provide some explanation as to why the author of 2 and 3 John calls himself “the elder.” Of course, this title would be more fitting for John himself, but I digress.
The elder, 
To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 
Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Penning the letter from Ephesus, John writes about how his disciples have returned (or other believers have visited) and told of the love and hospitality they received from Gaius. John encourages him to continue walking in this truth. Note again how the idea of truth is attached to the idea of loving others; without loving others, there is no truth, only falsehood. Love is what makes the truth — well, the truth.
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.
Notice the use of the phrase “for the sake of the Name.” Back in our study of David we spoke of the phrase in rabbinic Judaism, rendered in the Hebrew as kiddush HaShem or “to hallow/sanctify the Name.” This idea continues to live into the New Testament where John tells Gaius to continue in his ways of love and hospitality, because it is here where we’ll find a life that truly does kiddush HaShem.
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
However, not everybody is practicing hospitality. There’s a member of the community there refusing to welcome others (particularly John’s disciples). In this he is acting like the pagans mentioned above. This is the defining characteristic that sets believers apart from the pagans — hospitality. It’s interesting to note that Diotrephes means “loved by Jupiter” in the Greek. Could it be that he’s having a hard time letting go of his pagan ways?
Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true. 
I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. 
Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.
But Gaius is not alone. Those who follow God rarely are. Demetrius is also a fellow worker who has a reputation of generosity, love, and hospitality.

The letter of 3 John always serves as a reminder to me of a couple realities. First, there have always been and always will be people who oppose the work of the gospel and our call to be people of love in the world. For whatever reason (and there are often many), there are those who stand opposed to work that would kiddush HaShem. But second, this letter reminds me, yet again, that the way of truth is not truth because some abstract, absolute truth exists. The way of truth is truth because it is the way of love.

I know it’s very popular to say that “truth without love isn’t truth and love without truth isn’t love.” That may be true, but the Bible does not teach this idea directly. Yet the idea is undeniably evident, especially in the writings of John, that love is the foundational element, and you will find truth within love. Love always has truth in it.


2 JOHN: the "Woman"

John pens another letter, sent to a curious character.
The elder,
To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth—because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: 
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.
John sends this to a “chosen lady.” This leaves us with a few options.

John could be addressing this letter to an actual woman and her children. This letter could very easily be written to a particular woman in Asia or Asia Minor (or elsewhere for that matter) and we are getting to see a very personal correspondence from John to her. It is entirely possible that any effort to come up with another explanation is simply overthinking the situation.

John could be addressing a certain body of believers (a church) as a woman. This would be entirely commonplace as the Church is often pictured as a bride, the outlying villages of a larger city as “daughters,” etc. To bolster this idea, there is the fact that when “she” is referenced in the rest of the letter, John uses the masculine Greek to address the recipient(s). This would not be expected in a personal correspondence.

It could very possibly be both. This could be a letter written to a particular woman with allegorical (whether intentional or unintentional) overtones, but we have already witnessed John’s incredible ability as an author to operate on multiple levels. Another very good possibility is that the “woman” in question is also the leader of a house church or an even larger body of believers in that area. In this regard, John would be writing to her, but intending the letter for a larger audience, as well.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
John rejoices because he has heard as the “Pastor to Asia” about her faith and how she lives it out. He has heard she walks in truth and, as we discovered in 1 John, this means she is walking in love. Without love, there would be no truth in her or her family; but she is a family of love and, therefore, she is walking in truth.
I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.
Could these “deceivers” be the (possible) Gnostics of John’s address in his first letter? Could these deceivers be those “Judeans” who followed Paul throughout Asia, and especially Asia Minor, opposing his gospel? Could they be legalistic believers who are attempting to disengage the culture and hold up in a corner? Could they be the Nicolaitans of Revelation? Any of these are great options and would fit the bill described above.
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 
The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.
Finally, John’s sign-off seems to suggest that the latter two options above may be at play here, as the phrasing is awkward if we are talking about actual individuals. But before we look ahead to 3 John, I always like to pause and consider: If John were to write a letter about our family, “to the chosen lady” whom we find ourselves children of, what would be said? Would John rejoice in hearing that we walk in the truth because of our commitment to love?


1 JOHN: Love and Truth

We’ve mentioned before that John moved to biblical Asia to help lead the growing church in the larger Greco-Roman world. Known as the “Pastor to Asia,” John was an expert (as we’ve seen in his gospel) in talking to the audience in Asia and Asia Minor. We have record in the writings of Polycarp (John’s disciple) that the churches in Asia are using this letter, which is being circulated among them.

It could be that this letter is written in order to combat a Gnostic heresy similar to what we studied in the book of Colossians. Known as “Docetism” — a belief that argued against the humanity of Jesus and claimed he never really came in the flesh — there are many statements in John’s first letter that would make sense if he’s arguing for a physical incarnation and a Jesus who took on flesh.

Nevertheless, my favorite part of the letter of 1 John is his insistence on loving each other. In 1, 2, and 3 John, one of the themes you can see running through these letters is the theme of love and truth, and it’s never stronger than in 1 John.

The letter starts with what sounds like an Essene teaching. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we found references to teachings of the Essenes that taught about the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness.” To walk in obedience to God’s path and God’s way was to walk in the light; to oppose God’s ways was to be a “son of darkness.” We previously explored the strong connections to the Essenes that Jesus may have had, and it’s hard to miss the possibility here in the first chapter:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
In continued Essene-like fashion, the letter goes on to speak about how one can discern between people who walk in the light and those who do not. Whoever claims to follow Jesus would live life the way Jesus lived life. This would make sense if we remember studying what it meant to follow a rabbi.
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
This entire conversation raises a question of John: How did Jesus walk, and what is the defining characteristic of being true to the way of Jesus?
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
John seems to be very clear on the issue of what it means to be a son of light. To walk in the way of God, as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus, is to be a person who loves. If you do not love, you do not walk in the light. As if this couldn’t be more clear, John won’t let this idea go — the entire third chapter revolves around this argument. We continue to see this argument all the way into the fourth chapter:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.We love because he first loved us.  
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
It has often been said in the world I minister in that we have to maintain a balance between love and truth. We have to be loving, but we cannot give up on truth. John, I believe, would suggest we have that conversation entirely backwards. If you are not loving, then what you have is not true — period. Love is what makes it true. In a world that wants to demand we hold to truth in order to show the world what God is like, we simply need to read more of chapter 4:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
The way we can show the world an accurate, true picture of what God looks like, is to love. We can have all the theology and doctrine imaginable — truth stacked up in books — yet if we don’t have love, John says it’s a lie. This might sound a lot like Paul who claimed that if we have all knowledge, but don’t have love, we are nothing more than “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Whoever claims to be in Him must walk as Jesus walked. Above all else, Jesus loved. May we strive to do the same.


2 PETER: The Other Side of the Conversation

In addition to 1 Peter, we have a second letter from Peter to what we would assume is the same region. While the first letter was written to almost all of the region of Asia and Asia Minor — which would have included a Jewish population of around 20% — it is my opinion that his next letter, while meant to be heard by both Jewish and Gentile audiences, is aimed more specifically at the struggles of these Gentile converts. I believe this because of Peter’s address:
Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For a Jewish teacher, righteousness is the idea of generosity and kindness. I read Peter’s address to say, because of the kindness and generosity of Jesus, the Gentiles have also received a faith just as precious as the Jewish faith. His next comments really define what he’ll spend his time arguing for. Peter tells them that they (the Gentiles) have God’s divine power helping them deal with escaping the temptations of their pagan world, and their sinful desires to indulge in those practices.

Peter is going to go on to make very Jewish, rabbinical arguments, which are even rooted in the midrash. Does this mean I’m wrong in my assumption of a Gentile audience? Does it mean a trained Gentile audience? Does it mean the Jewish audience is going to assist in the reading and learning of these teachings? Or does it simply show that Peter is trying to put God’s Text into context and let His words go to work?

Either way, Peter references some real “humdingers” of teachings. The bulk of his letter is a plea to the Gentiles not to give in to the teaching of false teachers. Now, in our typical evangelical world, we immediately start thinking in terms of orthodoxy, assuming there are teachers who are teaching incorrect doctrine and enticing them into wrong belief. But this is obviously not the case with a careful reading of the letter. These false teachers are leading them into wrong practice, and Peter’s main concern is orthopraxy.

Peter and Jude (to be studied later) are going to draw on the same stories from the Text and teachings in the midrash to make their case. I am going to draw these arguments out in detail when we study the book of Jude, but for now, I want the reader to examine the second chapter of Peter’s letter and realize that Peter is talking about these false teachers in the terms of their refusal to acknowledge 1) the ungodliness and idolatry of their culture, 2) their desire for prestige, power, wealth, and influence, and 3) the sexual immorality that is incongruent with the way of Jesus.

When viewed alongside Peter’s first letter, this becomes a great one-two punch addressing the struggle of the Greco-Asian church. You have to overcome the persecution and the suffering you endure in order to be different and tell a different story in the world. But you cannot give in to the ways of culture and lose your testimony, either. You have to remain committed to the mission of God.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. We talked about this all the way back in the books of Joshua and Judges. We were shown what it looks like in the life and ministry of Jesus. And we are reminded of it again now.

God has always wanted a people at the crossroads of the earth — a kingdom of priests ready to show the world what God is like. But the temptation to give in to the ways of culture will be strong, and we must be sure we don’t have any pig bones. The mission of God has always been the same. It has always been one story, and God has always been looking for partners. At different points in history, God has sometimes found those partners and sometimes struggled.

What chapter of history will we be?


1 PETER: Living Stones and a Spiritual House

We come to a letter I feel I have so much yet to learn about. The Apostle Peter writes two epistles that end up in our New Testament canon and I always have to step back and catch my breath before I read them. When we read 1 and 2 Peter, we are reading the late writings of the apostolic leader of the early church. If I was honest, I would say the letters of Peter occupy the same place in my mind where they sit in the New Testament — almost in obscurity, toward the back. While I grew up very acquainted with the works and writings of Paul, the books of Peter were used significantly less often. If James is the leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem, and if John is the Pastor to Asia, then when I read Peter, I am reading the head of this early apostolic movement. But more on that later.

Peter addresses those who are chosen by God to carry our their calling in the region of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia,Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
The region of Cappadocia
On one hand, this is a wide audience that represents the Greco-Asian church spreading readily throughout the Roman empire. But as we’ve discussed before, some of those places aren’t exactly “on the way” through Asia. Places like Galatia are far enough off the beaten path that Rome rarely finds a large presence there. Another place mentioned is even more so — Cappadocia. The region of Cappadocia was where people went in order to escape or hide. Filled with underground cities carved into the soft rock (called “toofa”), this was a place for the persecuted.

If Peter was writing this letter toward the end of his life, it’s entirely probable that the church finds itself under some of the earliest persecutions of the Roman world under emperors like Nero. Thousands of people would flee to a region like Galatia and Cappadocia to escape the cultural torrent swirling around them. While many believers chose to stay, and often die, in the face of persecution (in places like Asia, also mentioned in Peter’s address), others heeded the word of their Rabbi Jesus: “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.”

This seems to be the cultural context of Peter’s letter. He speaks about hope. He speaks about the need to submit to rulers and masters when the temptation is to fight back and stick up for their own rights. He speaks of suffering — a lot. Consider some of the passages we find in 1 Peter:
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,
“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Unbelievably powerful words when one considers the likely context of this letter. Peter will also say this:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
But if we go back to the beginning of the letter, we might find some of the reasons Peter is able to say these things. Peter said God was taking His chosen people and building them into a “spiritual house” (which is how early Jews would have spoken about the Temple). In a similar fashion to Paul, who said that we (plural) are the temple (singular) of the Holy Spirit, Peter claims we are all living stones, chosen and quarried by God to be built into a spiritual house. Central to Peter’s encouragement of the early believers is a belief that the way they persevere and overcome — together — tells a story and shows the world what their God is like. If this is true, then in the midst of the persecution, there is incredible hope — hope that the world might know more clearly the love and faithfulness of God.

I think there are so many things we can learn from this letter and see paralleled in our own culture. I am not saying we live in a culture of persecution. I find the “culture wars” of our day to be a disgusting spit in the face of people who actually know what persecution looks like. Quite simply, we are not a persecuted people, no matter how we perceive the culture around us (and this is not speaking of individuals, but as a people group; specifically American Christians). Our “trials” cannot lay a finger on the things suffered by those early Christians in places like Cappadocia.

And yet, I do believe their example is one that directly applies to so many of the conversations we wrestle with today. As we continue to move away from a Christian world to a “post-Christian” world (something I personally do not mourn in the least), we must consider what our role to play in the world is. How do we tell the story of our Jesus? Do we fight back? Do we stand up for our rights?

Or do we persist in doing good, no matter what the future brings or how the world reacts? Do we overturn the systems of oppression and injustice and choose forgiveness, love, and compassion at our own expense? This is what leads to my final observation.

It’s interesting to consider the life journey and transformation of Peter. The same Peter who wrote this letter had decades before declared he would take his sword and die for his rabbi. He claimed he would never disown him and never forsake him. Then, after learning the humiliating taste of dishonor, Peter experienced the light of hope and resurrection. He experienced forgiveness. Peter finds a new identity leading the church of Christ in a way that looks much different than the road he wanted to choose in the gospels. This is a Peter who has been changed.

I say all of this because there is hope for a guy like me. There is hope for someone like you, as well. We can still choose the way of grace and peace; we can still choose to be changed by a living hope.


JAMES: Mitzvoth

So then we come to the book of James. In a lot of ways, we’ve done all the intro work for James back in Galatians. While I’m not going to spend all my time trying to parse the different perspectives and details on exactly who the author is — by that I mean which James wrote the book — I am going to work off of the generally accepted view that the author of James is one of the members of the triumvirate — Peter, James, and John — who followed Jesus around. As we mentioned in the Galatians series, I believe this is also the “brother” of Jesus.

James was the leader of what is sometimes called the “Jewish church” in Jerusalem. As Peter had charge over the entire Christian movement, church history tells us (also corroborated by the Text) James stayed to oversee the church in Jerusalem. This is where the early church had its beginning — and a very Jewish beginning it was. As the church got pushed out, relocated its “headquarters” to Antioch, and as Paul began to spread this movement into the Greco-Asian world of the Greeks (which would eventually be led by John, thus giving us the roles of the “three pillars,” Peter, James, and John), James took up the mantle of leading this very Jewish church centered in Jerusalem.

As we mentioned before, most progressive scholarship is going to say there was massive disagreement (even evident in the New Testament) between James and Paul. In fact, many will say they were enemies and there were two different “churches” — the Jewish church in Jerusalem (led by James) and the Gentile church in Asia and Asia Minor (led by Paul). I disagree with this assessment based on the witness of Luke in the book of Acts (and Paul in Galatians). I do believe James probably leaned a different direction than Paul, but I also believe the early church led them to a union that preserved the church of the New Testament.

So why bother you with all these details? Because this is essential to understanding the context of the letter from James.

People have, for centuries, tried to bring synergy to what appear to be opposing arguments from Paul and James about the role of obedience and faith. While some claim no contradiction exists, it certainly seems like James is trying to “correct” Paul’s arguments about justification by faith.

However, realizing James is playing a role as the leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem is incredibly helpful. Consider the opening to the letter:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:Greetings.
James writes to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” This is clearly a reference to a strictly Jewish audience in the world of Asia and Asia Minor. It appears to me that James is wanting to speak as the Jewish leader of a Jewish church to the Jewish participants in a rapidly changing world. James is not trying to usurp Paul’s authority; James it trying to be who God has called him to be and let Paul do what God has called him to do.

James is writing to Jews about what it means to live in a Gentile culture and follow Jesus.

This matters, because when James talks about “works” or “deeds” (also known as the mitzvoth to Jews), he is not talking about miqsat ma’asay haTorah like Paul was. When Paul talked to a Gentile church about “works of the law,” he was referring to the parts of the law that make you Jewish. But for Jews, this part of the law was never up for debate. In the New Testament, the Jews never argue about whether Jews should follow the Law. This is never a question! What they argue about was whether or not Gentiles would follow the Law.

What this means is when James talks about “works” and “deeds,” James is talking about obedience.

The letter of James is written to plead with a Jewish presence in Asia and Asia Minor not to lose their distinctiveness amidst a bunch of Gentiles who live with a freedom that Jews are not called to — at least not in the same way Gentiles are. Consider how this would affect the way the audience reads the central passage of James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? 
Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Considering the difference between Paul and James when it comes to their definition of “works/deeds” is critical to wrestling with James’s message. I also find the reference to Rahab (a Gentile prostitute) at the end of this passage to be interesting. I believe James is insinuating that this truth is true for all of them — Jew and Gentile alike.

While I don’t believe James is usurping Paul’s message of faith and justification, I do believe James is offering his Jewish perspective to the conversation to make sure this early church doesn’t lose its distinctiveness.

As we consider this letter, may we also be moved to remember that words mean very little unless they are incarnated in our actions. May this be true in all of us — Jew and Gentile


HEBREWS: Atonement 101

There’s one last conversation I would like to put on the table before we jettison the book of Hebrews: atonement. 

For many, the theology of atonement isn’t one that bothers them; they aren’t even aware there’s a “conversation” about it, and I hesitate to bring it up at all. But then I’m reminded of the other folks who have serious questions and I remember the importance and need to bring questions to the table. I know that years ago, I would have said atonement is at least the one thing all believers in Jesus understand clearly and believe in, but I have since come to realize this isn’t the case.

And I’m glad.

I’m glad because as I’ve continued to study the Bible and theology, I have found the way we talk about atonement alarming at times, to say the least. I was once in a church service where the teacher was telling a story about how his daughter had recently been harassed by a man at her workplace. Week after week, this person would make her uncomfortable and she would take great measures to avoid him. On a family excursion out of town, coincidentally, they ran into the individual at a department store. The preacher explained how he put his daughter behind him and stood in front of her, shielding her from the individual’s view, so when he came around the corner he didn’t see the daughter, but the larger, more intimidating dad. The preacher then said, “That’s what Jesus does for you. When God looks at you, He doesn’t see you. He sees Jesus standing in front of you.”

My mouth dropped open as I realized he had just allegorically equated God the Father to a sociopathic predator, and the room nodded in agreement, muttering soft “amens” and “hallelujahs” under their breath.

That is disturbing theology.

But I’m thankful for the conversation, because I had very similar questions about my understanding of atonement when I was growing up. Logically speaking, isn’t this where evangelical theology has to land? It was liberating to find the conversation surrounding atonement is much bigger than I was aware.

I bring this up in the book of Hebrews because Hebrews is the book in the New Testament that speaks directly to and about atonement. I find it ironic that we go to the book of Romans to explain our evangelical understanding of atonement — a book that doesn’t speak directly to atonement at all. As we learned with our time in Romans, the book is about justification, not atonement. Especially from the Jewish perspective of the New Testament and its authors, these are two wildly different conversations (even though the two ideas are directly linked in evangelical circles).

I will give a very quick overview of the different theologies of atonement that have shaped Christianity over the last 2,000 years. I will not resolve the conversation, for this is not what I believe is most helpful; I will simply point out that there is a conversation. I should also say there are other resources that will do what I am about to do much better than I will. There is a short (three chapters) e-book by Tony Jones, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, that does a wonderful job explaining the conversation in a way that helps one understand the basics. He has written another book titled Did God Kill Jesus? that deals with the subject matter.

At any rate, one of the oldest theologies of atonement is the idea of Ransom-Captive theology. This idea is more poetic in its theology than mechanical. It espoused the idea that Satan had held the world captive to sin. He was willing to make a deal with God that if He would give Jesus as a ransom payment, Satan would let God’s children go. God agrees, handing over Jesus, who is crucified; Jesus then rises from the dead, leaving Satan empty handed. One might recognize this theology as playing a part in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

The problems with this theory are multifaceted. To name just a couple, it puts the power in the hands of Satan and makes God out to be a deceiving hustler. Centuries later, this theory had run its course and needed to be replaced.

This led to the idea of Christus Victor. For the next handful of centuries, Christians held to the idea that Jesus came to conquer the realm of sin and death. There was the Order of Death that had reign and influence in this world, and Christ’s death and resurrection defeated this order and ushered in the Order of Life. This theory of atonement has recently made a comeback, with a repainting of the old understandings; theologians like Greg Boyd promote this reclaimed understanding of Christus Victor.

The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t have a mechanical explanation for the atonement of personal sin; while it explains the meta-narrative of two kingdoms and the struggle of light and darkness, it doesn’t actually explain how my mistakes are atoned for. It’s worth noting that the theories of atonement are largely driven by the historical context of their inception. Ransom-Captive appears on the scene of a persecuted church, being held captive by powerful enemies and needing to be liberated. Christus Victor is developed during the period of imperial conquest and the Crusades.

That will help us understand the construction of the atonement theory many of us were raised with, known as penal substitutionary atonement. The idea here is that because of your sin, death is demanded. God loves you too much to let you die, so He sends Jesus into the world to die as your substitute. In this way, the penal demand for death is satisfied and your acceptance of this gift is your ticket to atonement and eternal life. It should be worth noting that this understanding of atonement was explained during the days of the Reformation, in a new world of contracts and legal documents — a world that didn’t exist before that era. Theologians like John Calvin were lawyers who took their knowledge of legal matters and applied it to their theology.

The problem with this theory (in addition to what it does to our understanding of the Trinity as referenced above) is that it suggests God is bound by a non-existent court and a rule book that must be superior to Himself. The true freedom of God is not maintained; He is forced to do certain things in certain ways.

Other theories have been at play, and most of us have simply been unaware of those. The rise of textual criticism, secularism, and liberal theology toward the beginning of the twentieth century led to moral exemplar theory, an idea that said Jesus’s death on the cross was the ultimate example of the self-sacrificial ethic Jesus spent his whole life teaching. These theologians say Jesus’s teaching and life demanded he would lay his own life down on behalf of others, in order to take down corrupt systems of religious oppression. For many of us, this theory stops far too short and has a slightly hollow ring to it.

Another theory, espoused by Jones in the books mentioned above, is solidarity theory. This idea is that God took on flesh in the incarnation and walked among us to join humanity in the greatest movement of solidarity we have ever seen. Jesus came to sweat our sweat, taste our food, cry our tears, bleed our blood, and ultimately die our death.

And yet another theory tries to see atonement through a more Hebraic lens (obviously, my personal favorite). Scapegoat theory was proposed by the late theologian Rene Girard. I believe the world of theology will look back fifty years from now and realize the understated impact Girard’s theology will have on evangelicalism and Christendom as a whole. Scapegoat theory states that Jesus’s death served as the ultimate sacrifice, just as the scapegoat did in the Levitical system. The scapegoat was given as a representation of the forgiveness of God and the removal of your sin, so Jesus was offered “at the culmination of the ages… once for all time” for the cleansing of your conscience. No longer do we have to offer an annual scapegoat, for this sacrifice of God Himself is good for all of eternity to accomplish what the blood of bulls and goats could never do.

I say all of this (again, with no intent of resolution) for a few reasons:

First, simply for theological awareness. While such knowledge will frustrate many — who like their clean boxes and clear answers — it will also liberate others to know that their questions are valid.

Second, because I’m not so sure there is a “right” theology of atonement. I am starting to believe each theory of atonement has a way of explaining a piece of the mystery that is the love of God and the death of Jesus on the cross. The poetry of Ransom-Captive is still moving to this day. The victory of Christus Victor is an annual part of my personal celebration of an empty tomb, and I’m not sure I could understand the resurrection without it. I believe Christ’s death is an example of what self-sacrificial living looks like, just as the moral exemplar theory explains. I believe the mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus came to stand in solidarity with all humanity. And even though we are living toward the end of the age of penal substitutionary atonement — a theory I believe has run its course and has led to some horribly destructive theology — I believe there is good truth in the theory and history will look back on it and its ability to communicate great theology when used correctly.

Third, I believe the above paragraph to be true because the book of Hebrews, the book on atonement, seems to portray all of those theories, as well. Hebrews says early in the letter that Christ offered his life as a ransom (Ransom-Captive). It speaks of Jesus triumphing over death and scorning the shame of the cross (Christus Victor). It speaks of Jesus serving as our example, showing us how to suffer so we might be brought to glory (moral exemplar). It speaks of God offering His Son for our sin (penal substitutionary atonement). It references multiple times the idea that Christ would join humanity in our suffering, being tempted in every way, and experiencing our humanity so he could serve as our great High Priest (solidarity). Finally, the book of Hebrews is consistent with its use of scapegoat theory and the idea, over and over again, that the sacrifice of Jesus is able to clean our conscience — something the blood of bulls and goats could never do.

We may spend the rest of our lives trying to understand the mystery of atonement and God’s love for us, in spite of our sin. But I’m not sure that would be all that bad.