When you think of Judas Iscariot, you probably think of someone like this picture portrays. The sneaky rat who stole from the rest of the apostles, scorned the woman-who-wiped-Jesus'-feet's sacrifice and gave Jesus away to torture with a kiss.
He's up there with the baddest bad guys in human history, the one who gave up the gentlest and best of men to die a horrible death because he was so hungry for a paltry handful of silver coins. Sound about right?
While the basic facts are true, I think we would probably be shocked at what a decent guy Yehudah of the Cities really was. In fact, even in the moment when Satan entered into him, I suspect you would've had to be a spiritually observant person to see it that way. Even his best friends sitting around him had no clue until they looked back on that night later.
My theory begins because of something I never could figure out: why did a distressed Judas throw the silver coins into the Temple before killing himself in violent despair? Did he really just suffer a fit of remorse because he knew Jesus was innocent, which is what the Gospels seem to say, or was his remorse because of something even more tragic than the betrayal of a wonderful man? Did Judas really believe he was doing something GOOD and couldn't understand what went wrong?
This thought comes about because for people to do bad things, they usually have to convince themselves they're good things. People do not get out of bed in the morning and say "I think I'll turn the Messiah over to be tortured today." And it's understanding how we can convince ourselves that bad is good that helps us continue to discriminate between good and almost good - which is really evil, because sin is simply "missing the mark" of Good, as Paul says.
What did Judas actually think he was doing when he did the unthinkable and betrayed the Messiah with a kiss?
As I've pondered this, a totally unexpected transformation of my picture of Judas Iscariot has gradually taken place.
I think Judas was trying to help Jesus take his rightful place as Messiah, King of the World.But he listened to the Spirit of Man rather than God, which is what made it possible for him to act with Satan's motivations.
He had the opposite of the spirit Jesus had which said to the Father, "Not my will but yours be done."
The Spirit of Man doesn't look like a bad spirit to us. It's been our downfall from the day Eve touched the fruit, thinking that if she just ate it she would be wise like God and wisdom is a good thing God would want, right?
It will be the tragic downfall of many of us in the future when we hold the philosophy - the number - of Man before our eyes and on our hands instead of God's. That 666 number everyone superstitiously regards as an Evil Number? It's called "the Number of Man". It's only one number off from 777, the number signifying God. It's almost right. It's therefore totally wrong, a symbol of wrong thinking.
And it is the ultimate reason Judas betrayed his beloved Teacher with no idea what was really going to happen next.
I think right from the beginning Judas fervently believed Jesus was Messiah. He saw things we can't imagine seeing, knew God in a way it's hard to quantify. He saw the face of God every day, just like Satan did. And like Satan, in the end he thought he knew how to make the plan of salvation work better than God did.
From little comments throughout the gospels, the picture I've begun to get of Judas is of a man who was always trying to make things happen the way he thought they should. That's why he stole from the purse, because he wanted things his way. It wasn't that he wanted bad things, but like other rebels throughout human history, he wasn't convinced God had everything under control. I think he was frustrated Jesus kept walking away from confrontation with the leaders. He couldn't understand why someone with Jesus' obvious power over even the weather didn't just take control and make things right in the world. He'd had a lot if experience with watching Jesus make the completely wrong right. He'd seen the dead rise, for goodness' sake. I doubt he even realized Jesus could die. It would be like thinking a superhero wouldn't come out on top in the end of the story.
But Jesus had this frustrating flaw: he just would NOT step up on that throne which was obviously rightfully his and get around to ruling the nations with a rod of iron as Messiah was supposed to do.
Judas decided to do what most of us often try to do in similarly frustrating circumstances when God isn't getting with our program: he thought he'd give Jesus the nudge he needed to get off his backside and get this rebel bunch of Pharisees and Saducees under control. Judas would put Jesus in a situation where he would just HAVE to reveal himself and then all the doubters would be blown away and every knee would bow and Jesus would finally make all the wrongs right.
That's why he chose the familiar kiss of greeting as his betrayal signal. He was letting Jesus know this was all good, this was the moment to reveal himself. "I've set this all up for you, Rabbi! You are King Messiah. You can handle this! Call the angels!"
It was the same thing Satan did when he took Jesus to the top of the Temple and said, "hey, you could prove yourself right now because you know your Father wouldn't let you hit the ground and everyone in the Temple would know who you are."
Of all the flaws any of the apostles had, it is this one it seems we're most susceptible to. We want our ways to be God's ways. We want his Kingdom to come through our will being done in Heaven as it is on Earth. That really wouldn't be God's Kingdom, but we tend just assume if we're happy with a plan, God will share our enthusiasm.
Ultimately, the picture of Judas the Evil Betrayer has done us no favors. It's created a monster we don't think we would ever imitate. Which is one of the dangers of making untruthful monsters instead of trying to understand the real people...who ultimately look a lot like us. I could've betrayed Jesus just as completely as Judas did. I might have gotten up in the middle of Jesus' Passover remembrance and gone out to make things right my way. And it is by pondering and remembering this that there is hope to avoid the same evil when I am faced with it in the plans God has made for my time.
The old proverb that absence makes the heart grow fonder has a lot of truth...and a dark side. I think it should be quoted better as "absence makes the heart see whatever it wants to."
Because the heart does that. It makes snap judgements that are often completely wrong.
To defeat the heart's tendency to picture what it wants, I think there are a few key strategies: kindness, critical thinking (which is different than being scornfully critical) and spending time actually in the presence of the real person.
Kindness is important because without it, assessments can become harsh rather than straightforwardly truthful. Thinking the best of someone until proven otherwise is not a weakness, especially if you are working to know them truthfully. But you have to be careful that kindness doesn't make you untruthful in your own mind about what you see and hear.
Critical thinking is a skill that has to be learned. It's part of learning to truthfully assess what you see and hear. To be able to understand what is rather than what we imagine to be is crucial to any good relationship, whether between friends, parents and children or spouses. Critical thinking is asking "is this idea I have correct? What is the evidence? Have I missed anything? Is there another way to look at this?"
Then we wrote emails for several months doing our best to understand the other person's character and way of thought. We kept asking each other "is this what you mean? What makes you draw that conclusion? Why do you want to do that?"
We really liked the picture we were getting, which is why we went to the last step and spent as much time as we could with each other and our families to discover if our minds had formed an accurate picture. This is the third piece of getting through any illusions the heart might be creating.
If it's really important for you to know another person - and there are many people who come into our lives worth really knowing - it's invaluable to keep in mind that your heart will try to form an inaccurate picture of them. It's worth countering the heart's tendency. Because the truthfulness level of your relationships will affect your entire life.
Don't let your heart make bad images for you either way.
The first year Ben and I celebrated Passover, a family member had a comment that we've heard variations of ever since: "That seems kind of presumptuous, celebrating something we didn't have any part of. I mean, it really wasn't our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt."
The question is...who are we then?
Paul addresses Gentile Roman believers in this passage about the true worth of his people and the mechanism by which Gentiles were being included in the covenant with Israel - which is what Jesus' life and death was all about. He began the passage speaking about how God always retains a remnant of his people for himself but that many had been blinded for the sake of allowing the Gentiles to seek a place in God's family.
11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!
13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
The tree that we belong to, the root from which we are nourished, is that of God's People. Rather than having somehow evolved beyond them, we were brought in. We aren't a higher enlightened version of God's People...we are stand-ins. Wild branches being brought in to bear fruit when the natural branches wouldn't. But the stalk and the roots are the same. We are not supposed to be a new brand of God's People. We are supposed to be of the same kind. So when God says, "Speak to the Sons of Israel and say..." he is speaking to US if we have been grafted into the tree of his promise and covenant. It is as if we ourselves have been cut away from our own genealogy - our wild olive roots - and spliced into a different one. No longer Jews and Gentiles but one People. By faith, we become part of the family...just as by lacking faith we can be broken away from the family again.
It's interesting, by the way, to note Paul's reference to the dough being offered as first-fruits. That is an ceremony commanded in God's instructions for his people to do every year at the time of Passover. Paul is clearly not past celebrating it, since he declares the ceremony holy.
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
We have not evolved beyond the faith of Abraham. We hope to share it, to be like his children. To bear the fruit God was looking for from the beginning. This is part of what it means to love God with all our hearts and souls and strength: to acknowledge the root from which we come and to celebrate the things God has done for us as children adopted into his family.
Get ready! Passover is coming. The leaven needs to come out of our houses. It's time to remember that we too have been freed from slavery by God's intervention.
Common wisdom in the medical field these days is that a child really only NEEDS to be nursed until 12 months old, after which there's no measurable benefit to the child to continue.
Anyone who postulates this theory has never met Abby. Nursing is her security blanket, her favorite thing, her reward. If she had her way, she would still be nursed every two hours like clockwork and would have raisins or macaroni and cheese as a snack between bites. I considered weaning her when my milk supply ran out in the middle of Susannah's pregnancy, but put it off when I began trying and she was absolutely resistant to the idea. Oh well, I thought. There's still time.
Then Grandma Lila got sick, our house was completely torn apart and I had absolutely no ambition to make the determined effort to convince Abby to stop nursing. Poor baby - her whole world was being turned upside-down in every way possible and I wasn't so sure it was worth depriving her of nursing on top of it.
Tandem nursing is usually something reserved for twins or parents who really super-seriously believe in the benefits of mother's milk for their growing children. While I've heard lots of good things, I think I'm probably more of a lazy believer. I believe it's good because not only did God make a convenient way to feed babies that is perfectly geared toward their immature digestive systems, but it's free and comes easily to me. I can't give you statistics and studies and a breakdown of what's actually in the milk that makes it perfect for babies, but if nothing else I'm very happy with the convenience of it (except when I would like to wear nice dresses again). If Abigail had easily weaned before Susannah's birth, I would've been fine with that.
But she wasn't. So when Susannah entered the world, I learned a lot about tandem nursing. At first, every time Susannah needed to be fed, Abigail would be right there. She was so ecstatic there was milk again she pretty much quit eating real food for the first two weeks (and got fat in the process...go figure). This meant I spent much of Susannah's earliest life with my lap constantly full to overflowing with babies. I would wake up in the morning usually under a pile of babies. While Susannah usually only woke up twice in the night to nurse, Abigail still wanted to get up once or twice too. Logistically speaking, nursing two babies at once can be a little comical. It requires patience, a good tactical sense ("Now if I get Susannah settled first, Abigail can just squeeze in here...")...and extra pillows to make up for not having enough hands to hold everyone.
Most nursing moms of newborns feel as if that's all they're able to do. In my case, that really was about all I did for at least six weeks. Eat, feed babies, change diapers and sleep.
In the middle of this time-consuming process, something very special happened: Abigail started holding Susannah's hand while they were nursing. I would see two little sets of eyes looking at each other, one little hand clasping an even littler hand. Talk about a way to melt a mother's heart.
More than their ages, I think this decision - to nurse my babies together - has caused them to be more like twins than single babies. Abby is now always concerned that I do everything with my "two babies". She uses the phrase all the time. "Mommy hold two babies? Mommy nurse two babies? Mommy read to two babies?"
I have no idea what this extended nursing time really does for Abigail physically. Maybe pediatricians are right that there's no measurable benefit to the extra reassurance, cuddling, time and maybe even nutrition Abby is getting. But one thing is for sure: if I had followed the guidelines and weaned her at 12 months, we would've all missed out on a lot of particularly lovely moments and I doubt my two girls would be anywhere near as close as they are. It was a decision based on Abigail's spirit more than her body and I think that's ultimately what has been nurtured as a result. It's not something I planned to do or ever saw myself doing until it was time to do it, but tandem nursing my girls has been absolutely worth the extra effort.
Now to convince Abigail that she's getting to be a big girl and she really can eat plenty of delicious food without needing "milk for Abby" too..
Have you ever noticed there are some people you can visit with whose entire conversation will be criticisms and complaints about others? Criticisms of how the government functions, about how their mother-in-law is stupid, or their boss is a jerk, or their husband is a child who can't manage a grocery trip without the wife's supervision...and the list goes on. Pet peave overload, here we come!
Because there are many stupid things in the world (and yes, many stupid people in it), it's easy to have these conversations. And not all criticisms are wrong or useless.
But I wonder if you would be as surprised as I was to realize that this kind of talk is scoffing. I have been seriously taken aback by this. Probably because this is something I'm very guilty of.
Yes, saying "very guilty" is sort of like saying "a little pregnant": either you are or you aren't. But I am VERY guilty of scoffing. I don't just do it now and then. I do it all the time. Criticism comes naturally to me (obviously because I am so perfect that everyone else just can't measure up, right?). It's easy for me to look at the frailty or mistakes of others and be quick to scoff at it. Ben calls it "The Tsk-Sigh Syndrome", where you look at something and say, "Tsk, *sigh*, can you believe how dumb/bad/ridiculous this is?!"
To speak to someone or about something in a scornfully derisive or mocking way.
"department officials scoffed at the allegations"
synonyms: mock, deride, ridicule, sneer at, jeer at, jibe at, taunt, make fun of, poke fun at, laugh at, scorn, laugh to scorn, dismiss, make light of, belittle; informal pooh-pooh.
In Psalm 1, an overview of a blessed man begins with the statement, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers." The word "lutzim" (mockers) is literally translated as "to make mouths at, i.e. to scoff; hence (from the effort to pronounce a foreign language) to interpret, or (generally) intercede."
When you are making fun of someone or criticizing in a "I can't believe how stupid this is!" way, you are scoffing.
There is a difference between scoffing and illustrating wrong thinking in a humorous way to teach someone something important. When I say to Abigail, "So you thought it was a good idea to take your milk and pour it onto your sandwich? Do you think soggy sandwiches are really delicious?" I am not scoffing at her, but helping her to think through the consequences of her actions without declaring, "Thou shalt not ever, ever, EVER pour your milk on your sandwich!!!!!!"
Sometimes a little humor makes it much easier to get someone's point than if they solemnly and firmly declared everything they thought you needed to know.
But a little humor in love is a lot different than the arrogant puffing up of scoffing. Criticism given even-handedly for good is different than making myself feel smarter or better than someone else by looking down scornfully on what they are doing.
The lesson for me? Don't mock. Don't laugh at what others do, whether I believe it's right or wrong. Don't make fun. Don't scoff. Don't start thinking lots of people are really stupid for thinking what they think because it's different than what I think. There will be no blessing in that.
"People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth."
That's the beginning of a paper by two men from the department of psychology at Yale. Once you take out all the five-dollar words in the article, it boils down to this: people form personal theories about the way the world around them works. Once they have a personal theory, they will practically fight to the death for it in the belief that their feeling is actually insightful understanding about the subject. However, most of us form the skeleton of an understanding which we then convince ourselves is everything we need to know. And we're wrong.
How Arguments Are Usually Conducted
An argument is typically a war of ideas. Two people have conflicting opinions and each of them tries to "win" the war by convincing the other person they're wrong.
Take the Global Warming Debate, for instance. (Actually, since too much evidence has been presented that "warming" isn't happening, I notice this has now become the safer "Climate Change Debate".)
Person One will state, "Look, the entire scientific community has proved this is happening. The ice caps are shrinking. The weather is showing weirder and weirder patterns. Anyone who doesn't believe in Climate Change is just a stupid Republican and they're the reason we're all going to die because no one is doing anything about this problem!"
Person Two says, "Hey, there are plenty of scientists who say climate change is a myth and we've always had weird weather. I mean, hello, haven't you ever heard of the ICE AGE? You wacko liberals just never bother to think for yourselves and that's why you're so stupid and brainwashed!"
Both people use sweeping statements and their own personal theory of life to try to bludgeon the other person into submission. Notice that neither one really knows their subject, though. They are simply repeating things they've heard that go nicely with their own views. Because they have both spent a lot of time listening to other Smart People they agree with make solid-sounding statements, both people think they have a good insightful depth of understanding into the issue of climate change: whether it's real or false, what action should be taken, and who might be opposing them.
Intuitive Theories Make Us Overconfident: We Think We Know What We Don't
These two invented people have an illusion of depth to their views of life and they have never really tested those views for truthfulness.
The truth is they don't really care what the truth is, just what feels good to believe in. They believe in intuition, not truth.
The Yale paper calls this kind of knowledge "intuitive theories". Because we like to go with our gut, we'll accept very weak evidence that supports our theories while overlooking strong evidence that our theories are wrong. The trouble with having intuitive theories is that we then become overconfident that we know what we're talking about when it comes to anything in life, from metaphysics to child-rearing.
"Intuitive or lay theories are thought to influence almost every facet of everyday cognition", the article says. "...it is also now evident that folk theories are rarely complete or exhaustive explanations in a domain. Indeed, even the theories used daily to guide scientific research are now considered to be incomplete, or at least less formally logical than classical views assumed them to be. Science-in-practice is often driven by hunches and vague impressions."
(I've taken out the references and some of the longer sentences because I had to read them three times to try to figure out what was being said.)
One of the very interesting things that their following study showed was that when people were warned that they are going to be tested on their complete understanding of something they felt knowledgeable about (say, how a car works), the illusion of explanatory depth immediately evaporated and the study subjects would then be surprised at how much they didn't know about a subject they thought they were quite familiar with.
Why Is This Important?
This whole paper describes how all of us are able to make such stupid decisions in our lives: because we have a Feeling of Knowing that leads us to overconfidence in what we know and gives us an illusion that we have all the understanding we need. We create skeletons of understanding that once formed are nearly impossible for us to change because that skeleton transforms into fully complete understanding in our minds. We often are no more capable of changing our basic intuitive beliefs than we are of flying like a bird because we don't think there's anything to change.
The trouble is, we need to be able to change our minds if we are shown that something we took for granted to be true might not be.
An argument shouldn't be about which side wins. It should be about both sides testing their skeletal awareness and seeking to find out if what they believe is truthful rather than trying to get the other guy to agree with them. It should be about both sides admitting to themselves that not only do they not know anything, the Smart People they like to listen to don't know much either. None of us does. "Winning" an argument should be about both sides coming to understand a truth, whether either of them started out with it or not.
One of the very important points the Yale researchers made at the very end of their paper was that the reason human beings settle on skeletal knowledge and then expand it in their minds into an illusion of in-depth knowledge is because otherwise our brains would become overloaded by "potentially inexhaustible searches for ever-deeper understanding".
Wait a second.
As believers in a God who created the entire universe, aren't we supposed to be on an inexhaustible search for an ever-deeper understanding of what is true?
Just a thought...
A few weeks ago, I saw a sight I've been waiting since Susannah's birth to see: Abigail recognized Susannah as a person.
People have asked us for the last seven months how Abby is handling being a big sister and we've said, "Fine, as far as we can tell." That was true. But Abby tended to treat Susannah like a novelty toy, maybe like a live doll. She wasn't doing anything bad to Susannah, but she was kind of oblivious to Susannah's personhood.
That's gradually begun changing. During bathtime, Abby began tenderly pouring water over Susannah's hair after I had lathered her up with soap. "Abby wash Baby," she told me. "Abby water Baby hair." Then she began informing me the second Susannah woke from naps. "Baby wake! Baby wake!"
For her part, Susannah adores Abigail. She watches her constantly and smiles if Abigail even glances her way. It was during one of those big adoring smiles that I saw Abigail make eye-contact and smile back, the genuine eye-crinkling grin of recognition. It was the acknowledgement of one person to another. "I see you smiling at me and it makes me happy."
Sixteen months isn't much of an age gap. As long as these two girls live, they are going to remember always being pretty much the same size. Their diapers are nearly interchangeable now and they're having to take turns sitting in the booster seat for meals. They nurse together - often holding hands - and Abby has taken to bringing toys to Susannah saying, "Here Baby, bear for you." With their round cheeks, blue eyes and ashy brown hair, they are looking more alike by the day. Abigail's hair is fluffy and curly while Susannah's is thick and straight, but I can see why we were asked for the first time recently if they were twins. When Susannah starts running around, that year's difference in age is going to close really fast.
When I was growing up, I marked time by the births of my siblings. Every time another one came along, life got better. I've been waiting for months to see that grin of recognition from Abigail because I knew how wonderful having Susannah was going to be for her. Sure, a new baby sister means competition for lots of things Abby got all to herself before, but the trade-offs were definitely going to be worth it.
Welcome to being a big sister, Abby. It's going to be great.
In my last blog, I wrote about the true question the Jerusalem Council was asked to decide: "Is there something physical we have to do to receive Eternal Life...or is it something we believe?
After summing up the agreement of the Council of Elders that salvation comes by faith rather than any physical actions, James proposed an answer to be sent back to the Gentile churches.
In order to understand what was really said to the Gentile churches, it's important to note something about these new converts: they were pagans.
A Jewish Believer who came to faith in Messiah already knew God. He might have extra commands to unlearn, but ultimately he was familiar with who YHVH was and what pleased him. He did not have to start from scratch just learning adultery was bad, for instance. It wasn't wicked for him to continue living in the basic way he'd been brought up.
Most new Gentile Believers were raised in traditions that were wicked to the core. They were used to attending ceremonies at pagan temples where prostitution was a part of worship. They had shrines in their homes where they set out food for the household gods. It was mandatory to publicly worship Caesar. All facets of life - birth, marriage, death, daily life, holidays - were based on beliefs God abhors.
These new believers had to rework pretty much everything in their lives just to get away from serving other gods. If we were to teleport back in time, we'd probably be shocked at what basic things the Gentile Christians had to change. And it wasn't something that could just happen overnight.
The Advice: Focus on the Biggest Problem First
My violin teacher had an interesting way of approaching students who'd learned to play badly: she always picked the thing that would make the biggest difference to work on and left all the other problems alone. It didn't mean all the other problems weren't there - just because she was working on your bow-hold didn't mean your position shifts were fine - but until the bow was fixed she would ignore the other issue.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." - Acts 15:19
James knew the Gentile Believers had a lot to learn about what it meant to live a Godly life. It wasn't wrong for more mature Jewish Believers to be counseling the new converts how to live. What was wrong was expecting them to take on all the commandments, the traditions of the elders and the ceremony of circumcision for them to be saved. It was faith that saved and the life was changed as a result, not the other way around! Expecting them to totally re-work their lives and telling them salvation depended on it was making it difficult for the Gentiles turning to God.
But that didn't mean some changes weren't in order.
“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” - Acts 15:20-21
Why did James feel it necessary to add that last piece about Moses and his teachings? What was he indicating by that comment?
He's indicating an incredibly important point: he did not tell Gentiles to ignore God's Law. Instead he recognized that the Gentiles were already attending synagogue every Sabbath and learning about what God had told Moses to instruct God's People.
When James says the Gentile Believers should be instructed to abstain from food polluted by idols, from immorality and from the meat of strangled animals, he is not only citing God's Law but the way the Jewish Believers interpreted it!
He was advocating instructing the Gentile believers to first abandon all vestiges of idol worship as God's Law commanded and focus on learning the rest of God's Instructions during weekly Sabbath teachings.
He was focusing on the bow-hold and leaving the shift changes for later.
The Formal Letter
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Are These The Only Things A Christian Must Do To Live A Godly Life?
It is often said that the only command remaining for Christians to follow is one of loving one another. Ironically, this pivotal passage supposedly supporting the idea that there are no more commands for Gentile Christians doesn't mention love at all. It does list a few commands and in this translation (I chose the NIV since it's the most common) it even sounds like these commands are the only things a Christian has to do to live a Godly life.
That interpretation makes no sense.
If these are really the only commands remaining for Gentile Christians, why do we take God's command not to murder seriously?
I read one teacher who said that since the new Law for Christians is Love, than we can murder anyone we want so long as we do it in love. He obviously meant that tongue-in-cheek, to show how ridiculous the idea of murder being fine with God is...but where are the Elders of the Church stating any such thing regarding the "new" law of love here?
If they were really declaring that Gentile Christians are now only bound by a "Law of Love" and the Law of God is useless, you would've expected them to write this letter saying, "Now don't be concerned, dear new believers, you don't have to bother with God's Law. We have a new law now, and as long as you love others as you love yourself you are free from all bondage to Jewish law. Continue on as you were since nothing you do is wicked anymore."
But that isn't what they wrote. They said, "You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality."
Nothing about a new "Law of Love". Nothing about freedom in Christ. In fact, they are referring - in the case of refraining from eating blood - to dietary commandments and ones guarding against the worship of pagan gods. This is obviously not a comprehensive list of what they thought a Christian life should look like. If it were, there would not be 1,000+ other commandments issued in the New Testament. But there are.
Paul Proves the Law is Still Relevant for Gentile Believers
Paul goes on to prove that the Jerusalem Council did not believe in cancelling God's Laws but were merely settling the question of salvation by deed versus faith first and deed after.
When he went about his mission of taking the Council's letter to the Gentile Churches, he met a promising young disciple named Timothy. Before taking him along on the very mission to supposedly proclaim freedom from the Law to all Gentiles, he circumcised Timothy.
1Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. - Acts 16-1-5
Okay, I'm not sure what Luke means here when he says Paul circumcised Timothy "because of the Jews in the area". Clearly Paul had no problem at all debating his Jewish brothers up one side and down the other when it came to circumcision for salvation - that's why he was in Jerusalem at the Council in the first place! Perhaps this was something done for Timothy's sake since Timothy had obviously already taken hold of the New Covenant and was saved. I don't know.
But one thing is glaringly obvious: the letter Paul carried to the churches absolutely could NOT have been announcing that the whole Law was done away with and there was no value for Gentiles in keeping any part of it. It couldn't even be saying circumcision was of no value to a faithful believer. If that's what it said, Paul just went and nullified the whole thing by proclaiming to the world for the past 2,000 years that he still thought it was a good idea for Timothy to undergo circumcision.
Either Paul was a schizophrenic con man trying to fake people into thinking he believed something he didn't, or he knew the letter he carried was not telling the Gentiles to ignore God's Laws.
The truth is, as Paul explained, there is great value in circumcision and keeping God's Law: but those things must come from faith and a redeemed heart to be rightfully done.
"What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God." - Romans 3:1-2
"Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law." - Romans 3:31
"Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not!" - Galatians 3:21
The Jerusalem Council was not making a decision regarding the validity of God's Law. They were making a clear judgement that there was no physical pre-requisite to receiving God's gift of eternal life and the Holy Spirit. It's not what you DO, it's what truth you BELIEVE that gives you life.
Their advice to Gentile Christians came straight from God's Law rather than ignoring it, strengthening the concept that God's Instructions set out the way he wants those who believe in him to live. Rather than saying, "Forget about following God's Laws", they said, "You are forgiven already! Now leave your old ways behind and live a new and God-pleasing life."
And how do we know what kind of life pleases God? By listening to what he himself declared pleases him!
"For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
The third witness to the validity of God's Instructions is how they were regarded by the first Believers.
When we started trying to interview this witness, we had a whole list of statements to consider. Acts 15 immediately went to the top of the list. This chapter describes a pivotal decision reached by the first Elders of the Church about 20 years after Jesus' death, including what is often thought to be the authorized list of the only commandments Christians are now required to follow.
When Ben and I read this chapter, we were seeking anything contradictory to what our previous two witnesses - God's Unchanging Nature and Jesus the Renewer of the Covenant - had already testified to. We had been given the distinct impression that until Acts, there was no question about whether followers of Jesus should follow the commandments or not. Our previous witnesses had unequivocally stated that God's Instructions were still as firmly in place as the heavens and earth.
But our third witness seemed to be giving confusing testimony. In spite of God saying things like "Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it" (Det. 12:32), or Jesus saying, "I did not come to abolish the Law", the first Apostles seemed to feel completely authorized to select what they should and should not obey. And we did not think Jesus' words to Peter about the keys to the Kingdom and being able to bind or loose really meant Peter and the other Apostles could do away with God's word. That would be destroying the very foundation their faith was built on, since Jesus is the living embodiment of God's Word!
Principle of Testing: Do Not Allow Contradictions To Remain Unchallenged
When you discover an apparent contradiction in a foundational Scripture, it's important to resolve before forming a belief. Otherwise beliefs become based on personal assumption rather than truth and that's a dangerous thing.
In Acts 15 we had an apparent contradiction. God said no one could add or subtract from his Law, Jesus said he didn't come to abolish the Law, but the men he had personally trained and who had become full of God's Spirit were apparently ignoring this.
In order to really think Acts 15 through clearly, we had to first untangle what question the Jerusalem Council was truly considering. Our first step was to challenge the assumption that the debate was about God's Law. What were the earliest Christians really trying to decide in the important meeting known as the Jerusalem Council? Was it the validity of God's Law or something else altogether?
The issue began in Antioch while Paul and Barnabas were visiting and teaching there sometime around 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. - Acts 15:1-2
Today we often call what the Judean believers were teaching "works-based salvation": the belief that there is physical action which must be taken as the requirement to inherit Eternal Life. If that action isn't taken, you can't receive the Holy Spirit and you're not saved.
Some Christians today have this belief about baptism, but that's a whole 'nuther issue.
Paul calls these two opposing philosophies "the Law of Works" and "the Law of Faith" when he outlines this debate in the book of Romans:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. - Romans 3:27-31
So far, there are just two ideas in question here:
Number 1 states Gentiles can't receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit unless they've been circumcised. Physical actions are the cause of salvation.
Number 2 is the opposing view: the only qualification for receiving Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit is faith in God. Physical actions are the evidence of salvation.
It's absolutely critical to note that both groups believed in keeping God's Law ("Do we then overthrow the Law? By no means!") but differed in the spirit of keeping it. This was not a debate about whether God's Instructions should be followed. It was a debate about what enables a person to receive Eternal Life.
The Jerusalem Council Convenes
So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
The church [in Antioch] sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” - Acts 15:2-5
Popular reading of this passage interprets the debate to be about two new topics now:
Number 1: Gentile believers need to keep God's Law and all the traditions of the Elders to be real Christians.
Number 2: No, the Law is too burdensome and difficult to be followed and the Gentiles only need to have faith in God. A believer is not to physically do anything to please God.
But Did The Debate Really Change?
After reading this quite a few times, we can't agree with this popular reading. The debate didn't change midway through the Council. It was still about the same question it started with: do we receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit by something we DO or something we BELIEVE?
The Christian Pharisees simply expanded what they thought needed to be done in order to receive Eternal Life. They agreed with the men of Judea and therefore took the works-bring-salvation position in the debate.
They also clarified that not only should a Christian be keeping God's Instructions, but they should also be following the Traditions of the Elders - this is indicated by the fact that God nowhere states in his Instructions dictated to Moses that circumcision of adults is a pre-requisite to being part of his people. He only talks about the circumcision of baby boys as a sign of faith by their parents. When the Christian Pharisees listed the circumcision requirement separate from God's Law, it was an acknowledgement that they knew it wasn't something God commanded. However, they felt the tradition of the Elders was strong enough and important enough that the new believers ought to be obeying it as well as God's Instructions.
So even after the statement by the Christian Pharisees, this debate didn't change directions. It didn't become centered around the validity of God's Instructions but stayed focused on what qualified a person to receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit.
The question before the first church Elders was still an argument between the two mindsets: "You need to keep these rules to be given Eternal Life" versus "God gives Eternal Life as a gift to those who have faith in him."
The Turning Point
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” - Acts 15:7-11
No one else's words and arguments are quoted from this debate except Peter's. James later sums up and concludes the debate's results, but this is clearly a turning point where the Christian Pharisees began abandoning their previous argument.
In common interpretation, we are usually told that the "yoke" Peter referred to here is the Law of God. This presents a problem, because God himself says that the simple keeping of his commands is not difficult and Jesus - the incarnation of the Unchanging God - says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. - Det 30:11-14
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” - Matthew 11:29-30
Peter notes correctly that no one has ever been able to attain Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit except by God's grace through faith. However, if God also states that the keeping of his Law given through Moses is easy, Peter can't contradict God and say it's impossible so Gentiles shouldn't even bother! That would be subtracting from the words of God and would therefore make Peter a false prophet who should have been stoned if that was really what he was saying.
Think about the consequences here. If Peter was really advocating abandoning the Instructions God himself spoke, he would be the prophet God said this about:
"If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him." - Det 13:1-4
Peter is obviously not a false prophet...but if the yoke he was talking about in this verse was really God's Instructions and he was saying they were too heavy to follow, we should be ignoring him today as a test to our faithfulness to God.
There is something else going on here. The yoke he was referring to had to relate to the question being considered, which was laid out in the first verse when it was stated the men from Judea were teaching, "Unless you're circumcised, you can't be saved."
If the original subject is remembered, the definition of Peter's statement becomes obvious: the "yoke" is the network of additional interpretations and commands that had been added to God's Law by men who then considered those commands as equally - or even more - important to those God had given. God did not command circumcision of adults in his Law and he certainly didn't require it of Cornelius before pouring out his Holy Spirit on him. This was conclusive evidence that the Antioch debate was settled, but Paul and Barnabas immediately stood up and began citing miraculous evidence of the Holy Spirit among the Gentile converts to support Peter's statement.
This meant that three witnesses spoke on behalf of the matter of salvation through faith alone: Peter, Paul and Barnabas.
When Peter, Paul and Barnabas finished speaking, Jesus' deeply-respected brother James brought out a fourth witness: God's Words written in Amos 9:11-12.
When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“ ‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’ --
things known from long ago.
This was clear support for Peter, who was speaking on behalf of the believers who stated that Eternal Life comes through faith and obedience to God's Law comes afterward through that same faith.
There were only two positions in this debate and one of them was clearly silenced. There was no way keeping the Law would be able to give a person Eternal Life and instill the Holy Spirit in him: that was a gift only God could grant and he only granted it to those who had faith in him.
But what does Amos mean when he says God will rebuild David's fallen tent so all Gentiles who bear God's Name will seek the Lord? Next up: How the Jerusalem Council instructed Gentile Believers to go about seeking to live a Godly life once their salvation had been established by faith and God's favor.
A few weeks ago when my friend suggested she hoped I would get around to blogging about the challenges to our point of view regarding God's instructions, she probably didn't know she'd become the catalyst to finally push me into writing. We've been saying for months that we need to write down our thought process for ourselves and our children just so we could have some record of decisions we've made for when they need revisiting (as philosophical decisions often do).
As I've been writing these blogs and wrestling with how to lay out these thoughts, I've realized I need to address the idea of the witnesses that establish a matter. We believed we were asked to judge something - whether as Gentile Christians we should obey all, part or none of God's ancient instructions - and the only way to make a judgement is to call for witnesses.
The Testimony of Witnesses
It's a repeated Biblical concept that no truth should be established on the testimony of just one witness.
God told Moses, "On the evidence of two or three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness." (Det. 17:6).
Jesus describes how an offense between two believers is to be resolved by referring back to this scripture: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [assembly]. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and tax collector. [Do not associate with that person]" (Matthew 18:15-17).
Paul advises Timothy and the churches in Corinth with the same principle: "Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses." (1 Tim 5:19) "Every charge is established on the evidence of two or three witnesses." (1 Cor 13:1)
We chose several witnesses to help make our judgement:
The first witness to the continued validity of God's Instructions is God's Unchanging Nature.
The second witness is Jesus' purpose on Earth: God RE-newing his Covenant rather than making something ALL-new. (Greek Thinking, Hebrew Thinking)
The third witness is what the believers who first received the Holy Spirit believed and taught.
That subject is much longer and more difficult to deal with than the other two. I've considered a lot of the New Testament in trying to pin down how to call this witness and I think the best place to begin is with a pivotal chapter in Acts: the meeting of the Jerusalem Council to consider the ramifications of Gentile Christians entering the formerly all-Jewish church. This is taking some time and may even need to be broken down into more than one blog post so that it becomes short enough to read!
In a nutshell, the Jerusalem Council was asked to decide which of two groups of believers was correct about how new Gentile converts should be expected to obey God's Instructions:
Group Number 1 stated that Gentiles couldn't receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit unless they'd been circumcised. The physical sign was the cause of salvation.
Group Number 2 stated that the only qualification for receiving Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit was faith in God. Following God's Law was an evidence of salvation rather than a cause of it.
Coming soon...the testimony of the Christians who first received the Holy Spirit.
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
Please don't be shy! If you're reading the blog updates, we'd like to hear what you think. Click on the "comments" link to send us a note.