Sunday, 17 April 2011

Love or Fear?

Appendix 2 - Love or Fear?

At the risk of being repetitive, I feel compelled to highlight a particularly important aspect of the transition from Old to New Testament. It is the element of fear to which I would like to dedicate some paragraphs.

All throughout the Old Testament there are references about the need to fear God. There are differing views on that meaning of fear and some see it as a healthy form of respect, rather than actual fear.  Furthermore not all fear is bad and some of it plays a necessary role in our lives, like being afraid of fire, or water, if we don’t know how to swim. Equally, fear can also become debilitating and prevent us from many good things, like learning how to cook on fire or swim in water. The fear of God can likewise be either helpful or debilitating.

In the Old Testament the “fear of God” was a necessary virtue, a restraining one that kept from trouble because it was essentially a fear of consequences, burning or drowning. To better understand, consider these verses from the Proverbs of Solomon: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death" [1].

In the New Testament, instead, there is a different approach and what prevails over fear is an invitation to respond to a God of love with love. Here's an example: “We have come to know and believe in the love that God has for us. God is love, and the person who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him… There is no fear where love exists. Rather, perfect love banishes fear, for fear involves punishment, and the person who lives in fear has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us… This is how we have come to know love: Christ gave his life for us"[2].

Law and fear
So there is a distinct difference that is rooted in the very reason of that change from Old to New Testament. As we’ve seen, in the Old God led his people through symbols, rituals and illustrations of spiritual realities not yet manifested. At the same time he edged them about with a strict law that had dire consequences for breaking it, like the death penalty, which was a powerful deterrent. Since man only knew God indirectly, he couldn’t really love him yet in spirit and truth [3]. The Holy Spirit, that token of God’s presence which humans can actually experience, had not been given yet (a sort of anointing of God’s Spirit was available in the OT, but only for a few selected people, such as kings and prophets). Without that direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, the fear of God, which was nothing more that fear of consequences, was the only instrument available to keep people from hurting themselves. It was a way of managing a people that only had a distant relationship with God.

Love and freedom
With the coming of Christ all that changed and the Holy Spirit was freely given to all who received him and were thus spiritually reborn. Their relationship with God took a whole new meaning and became equated to a marriage. Both collectively and individually, believers became “the bride of Christ” and entered a direct, intimate relationship with God. They were no longer strangers, but family: "I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father"[4] " ... the marriage of the lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready "[5]. So, in The New Testament, Jesus invites us to have a new relationship with him, that of friends, brothers and spouses.

But that relationship was not always within reach because there was the historical infancy of the Old Testament. Individually, said infancy, is still a natural phase of life. A child thinks as a child and cannot relate to adult’s reasoning, therefore he needs rules and guidance until he will also grow to become an adult. Finally he will also be able to marry and have his independence. "I passed by you and looked on you, and, behold, your time was the time of love… And I swore to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became Mine” [6]. So God waits for humanity, and individuals, to pass through their childhood and mature, until they can finally reciprocate in a full-grown relationship, where it will no longer be as before. Paul explained:  “That is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great secret, but I am talking about Christ and the church” [7]. "As long as an heir is a child, he is no better off than a slave, even though he owns everything. Instead, he is placed under the control of guardians and trustees until the time set by the father. It was the same way with us. While we were children, we were slaves … but when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption” [8].

For those who haven’t yet come into that New Testament relationship, the Old hasn’t actually passed. Being still under the tutorship of guardians, they are not yet under the freedom that Jesus offers: "where the Lord's Spirit is, there is freedom" [9]. But even for those who have come into it, it is not always easy to handle such freedom responsibly. There were, there are and there will continue to be abuses of the liberty which we have in Christ. It may even appear as if none really deserves to have it, that it is too lofty an ideal with little practical chance. However, as problematic as its application might be, it is God’s idea and what Christians have struggled to learn for a long time. The apostle Paul, faced with the same dilemma, instructed: "For you, brothers, were called to freedom. Only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity to gratify your flesh, but through love make it your habit to serve one another" [10]. The question remains as to why would God free Christians from the old rules, and especially from the restraining fears they generated, if he knew that they would act immature and abuse their liberty. The answer is simple - God frees them because he’s seeking a deeper relationship with them, which only comes from love, and love can only be such in freedom, never in fear.

Religious because of fear?
Then why so much fear in religion? Because fear makes us religious. Fear makes us superstitious and leads us to think that through some deed we may buy God’s help, and ward off bad luck.  Fear leads us to seek God, but mostly for selfish reasons, not love. Fear, in fact, makes us incapable of love and causes us to implode in ourselves, to become self-centered. Fear is not of God, and though it appears that in time past He did require some form of it, now He invites us to replace it with faith and love.

The power of fear
Unfortunately, apart from its natural phase, there is also a sinister side to fear motivated by religion. Fear can sometimes be a powerful tool to prevail upon others, and there are many throughout history who have used it as such. Then there is also that range of mental disorders caused by religious teachings that enhance fear, feelings of guilt, and anxiety. Sadly, many still preach the Old Testament instead of the New, fear of hell and God’s judgments, instead of his love and desire for us. Knowingly or not, some use the fear that such teachings generate, to keep their followers subservient to them, instead of freeing them into their own adult relationship with God. In extreme cases some even exploit fear related to physical illness, mental weakness or other critical condition to attract a following and create dependence. Similarly, some have played on fear and guilt to extort money. Fear, however, is employed even more extensively in large religious institutions, where it serves as a leverage to keep followers from “straying” into other churches. The fuel of that fear is the monopoly which some Christian institutions claim to have on God. Through an elaborate mix of tradition and theology, a fear of losing the only chance of salvation is induced on the devotees, who are made to believe they are privileged to be part of the only “true” Christianity. Though some would want us to believe that such tactics are the exclusive domain of modern cults and sects, it is in fact a very ancient method used by major religions and powers throughout history. Unfortunately it does work and grants great power to those who use it, therefore it is not easily nor willingly surrendered.

The love, respect and gentleness of Jesus’ invitation
These were just some examples of how fear is used in religion for selfish human interest and against the spirit of Christ. Jesus ran totally opposite to such methods and never used fear to obtain, much less retain followers. His was always and only a loving invitation “If anyone wants to follow me..." [11] "Look! I am standing at the door and knocking. If anyone listens to my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him” [12]. There is no coercion with Jesus. He does not scare us into following him. He’s a real gentleman who taught: "Come to me, all of you who are weary and loaded down with burdens, and I will give you rest. Place my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is pleasant, and my burden is light "[13].

Jesus’ yoke is not an oppressing one of fear, guilt and anxiety, but he gave us freedom from such through his loving sacrifice on the cross. Let us then enter into his joy and freedom and let us not allow anyone, not even our own selves, to ever deprive us of it again.

Faith and fear are opposites that cannot abide in one’s heart at the same time. But fear is also a form of faith, because it despairs and anticipates the worse, thus manifesting faith in darkness. Faith instead has hope because it trusts in the light of God, which is Love.

1. Proverbs 1: 7,  9: 10 and 14: 27
2. 1st John 4: 16 to 19 and 1st John 3: 16
3. John 4: 21 to 24
4. John 15: 15
5. Revelation 19: 7
6. Ezekiel 16: 8
7. Ephesians 5: 31, 32
8. Galatians 4: 1 to 5
9. 2nd Corinthians 3: 17
10. Galatians 5: 13
11. Mark 8: 34
12. Revelation 3: 20
13. Matthew 11: 28 to 30

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Part V - The Old Testament

The Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, was written by various authors in a period roughly spanning from 1200 to 200 BC. There are some variations in the number of books it contains, ranging from 39 to 51, depending on which religious traditions and the canon it used. The first five books, starting with Genesis, are referred to as the Torah, Pentateuch, or Books of Moses. Here it tells about the birth of humanity, its childhood and gradual steps towards maturity. In these we find also the Mosaic Law, or Commandments, and for this they are the most fundamental of Old Testament books. When Jesus or the apostle Paul spoke of the Law, they were referring to these same books, as they were what regulated Jewish life ad society. After these five, there are more historical books, then the poetry ones, wisdom and finally the books of the prophets, though the order does vary in some Bibles.

Knowing the past is crucial for understanding the present and to discover what may come tomorrow. Without historical references we risk loosing sight of the road we are walking in, stop progressing in it and perhaps even begin to move backward. Thus the importance of knowing and understanding also the Old Testament, which I invite you to study, albeit with some foreword.

Two testaments, but the same God
The biblical word "testament" refers to a contract between God and man. For reasons which we have already touched on, and will now further develop, God replaced the old contract with a new one. The differences between the two, however, are so great that they lead also to differing images of God. Some have even raised the questioned if indeed the God of the Old Testament is the same as that of the New. The Bible itself leaves no doubt about that - it is the same God, the same landlord, you might say, but it is the contract that has changed, which determines a different relationship. Indeed, those who have accepted Christ's sacrifice, are no longer under a contract, but are wedded (a form of contract) to the owner (God) and have became heirs. This metaphor is not mine, but was used by the Apostle Paul to describe the paradigm shift from Old to New Testament. In fact, Paul wrote at length to explain why the New Contract, signed in the blood of Jesus, had replaced the Old one, but now we will step back and look at why there had to be the an Old Testament.

The beginning
Genesis, the first book of the Bible and perhaps the one studied the most, is a simple and concise account of the origins of life and of our world. Some look at it as a figurative, symbolic account, while others consider it historical. The two approaches are the cause of an intense debate that we will not discuss here, mainly because there is already ample material, in books, websites, etc. dealing with this subject. I recommend for anyone who’s interested to research it without prejudice. For a more informed choice, having probably already studied Darwin, I’d suggest getting familiar also with the scientific aspects of intelligent-design, or creationism. In any case, in this introductory study of the Old Testament, it is necessary for us to approach the book of Genesis in its traditional view.

I will not go into all aspects of that magnificent book, but I will highlight those that I consider necessary to a fuller understanding of God's plan. In Genesis, we see God (His Word) communicating with man and woman through a theophany, which means that He manifested Himself in a bodily form, walking and talking with them, as one of them. This direct contact may leave the impression that Adam and Eve were privileged by an enhanced understanding of God, but it was not so. Adam and Eve, though physically created as adults, were otherwise like children, just starting to experience and learn. Their limited scope is evidenced by what happened right after the fall - it is written that when they heard God approaching in his usual way, walking, they were afraid and hid themselves. The fear is understandable because of their disobedience, but the fact that they thought they could hide from him, reveals much about the missing elements in their understanding of God. There is a similar situation with Cain, who after killing his brother was met by God who asked him: “Where is Abel thy brother?”  - obviously also Cain was seeing God in a theophany and could not understand about his omnipresence and omniscience, or he would have not answered "I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?” [1]. Further along we also read that "then began men to call upon the name of the Lord" [2]. From these examples we understand that initially humans had a very limited and childish idea of God. Only gradually and over time did they begin to realize that God was more than the bodily representation (theophany) some had seen, to the point that they finally understood that they could even call upon him (pray) without seeing him.

A Sacrificial Lamb
No matter how limited was that first human perception of God, sin had caused a great sense of loss and helplessness which then drove man to seek God. In return, God was already reaching out for him. In His foresight he had known that man would need this apparent separation, so he had not only allowed it to happen, but he had also prepared a way back, or rather a way to transform this apparently disastrous experience into a wonderful recreation. Abel’s lamb sacrifice was an illustration of that way, of a conciliatory mediation between man and God. It was the killing of an innocent animal which Abel, still vegetarian, probably carried out against conscience and probably only because God’s had asked. It was an irrational act of obedience, on pure faith in the suffering of another for his own sins, which pleased God and gave Abel the benefit. That simple act allowed him to receive that gift which already existed in God, but which had not yet been revealed in the earthly dimension - something incomprehensible, which could only be receive through faith, as manifested in the obedience of the  Lamb sacrifice.

Cain, instead, reasoned with his own sense of religiosity, doubted the method and preferred to give his own suffering to God. He gave his sweat, his sacrifice, the fruit of his hands, rather than the blood of an innocent lamb. He believed that his religion, which is the root of all human religions, was better than the cruel one of Abel. Unfortunately, his “better” religion resulted in the first religious persecution and murder. From then on this has been the natural consequence of all religions based on man’s presumptuous self-effort, instead of on the work and grace of God.

Thus began, as described in the first chapters of the Bible, man’s adventurous journey towards its final destination, which the concluding chapters of the Bible tell us it is to be reborn, grow in His image and eventually become one with Him in love.

The development of a child
In its infancy humanity could only perceive God indirectly, through representations. As a child learns the things of adulthood by playing with toys that bear a resemblance to real things, so God gradually led humanity towards maturity through religious representations. The entire Old Testament is in fact a long string of historical, ritual and enacted illustrations of God’s spiritual truths. Events, sacrifices, tabernacles, temples, priests, prophets, altars, purification baths and holy feasts were as the stage, actors and props needed to represent God, who needed such to communicate with man within the limits of his understanding.

The symbol of Jesus from the beginning
The first thing God did for man and woman after they had sinned was to sacrifice some animals in order to clothe them with skins [3]. The first rite of mediation between man and God was also the animal sacrifice of Abel. In John’s Revelation Jesus is referred to as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" [4]. It becomes obvious then that God had planned this redemptive sacrifice from the very onset. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he exclaimed: "Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world" [5]. Jesus was that Lamb that was slain from the very beginning to clothe man and woman with new life. The ancient animal sacrifice was merely the enacting of a figurative play through which man could claim, by faith, the forgiveness and reconciliation promised by God, as in the case of Abel.

The fear of God and the Law
Through these representations man sought God, but more out of fear than of love, and certainly not yet in spirit [6]. God, knowing that man’s journey to spiritual adulthood would be long and arduous, watched over him, sometimes helping him, sometimes restraining him with a firm hand. The fear of God’s judgments was in fact an effective deterrent against all manner of evil. However, it is those divine judgments and retributions for wrong doing that sometimes cause us to see the Old Testament’s God as cruel and intolerant. The Laws that He gave to Moses, were also very severe and the infringement of many of them carried the death penalty.

The apostle Paul rhetorically asked: "Why then the Law?” then he answered his own question saying “It was added because of transgressions"[7]. So the Mosaic Law was not the original intent of God, the way in which He intended to relate to humans and Paul further explained its role as that of a guardian: "before this faith came, we were held in custody and carefully guarded under the Law in preparation for the faith that was to be revealed. And so the Law was our guardian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith"[8]. The severity of the Law had a temporary role in God's plan - that of preserving until maturity could be reached in Christ.

In the Old Testament, the fear of God and of the dire consequences for transgressing His Law, held back from evil, as defined by the Law itself. The law generated social order and individual rectitude, but because it operated through imposed behavioral requirement, the result were only superficial and not an inner regeneration of the human spirit. The law was therefore only a temporary necessity which could not fulfill God’s original and final intent.

Jesus fulfilled the original plan
It was Jesus’ sacrifice that paid the full price required by the Law for our sins and therefore fulfilled it. The Law’s mandate was thus complete and the believer was no longer under its yoke [9]. By loving us to the death, Jesus redeemed us from the legal constraints of external religiosity, that which controls through legalism and fear. Through Jesus, God’s outstretched hand grabbed the soul that sought Him, drawing it to Himself and causing it to be spiritually reborn. From then on came an invitation to a new, loving, free relationship with God, which was the original intent, since creation, but was not feasible before - not until man had matured in his heartfelt desire for spiritual communion with God [10], that same desire that causes him to recognize and accept God's invitation [11]. When that happens, for that soul, the Mosaic Law is no longer needed. The inhibitory power of the fear of God and of His judgments is no longer the right tool but is replaced by the liberating power of love for God and others. For the soul who has entered into this new relationship with God, the Old Testament is thus fully finished.

Syncretism of the two Testaments
Because of some wide differences between the two Testaments and the near impossibility of harmonizing the two texts, there have been cases in history when some Christian movements thought to exclude the Old and keep only the New. Granted, having two different Testaments in the same book does in fact create some confusion, especially for those who are jus starting in their faith journey. In fact, it is rather common to meet folks who place both Testaments on the same value scale, mainly due to unawareness of the differences and reasons for the passage from Old to New. Many fall into the most common of errors in Christianity, that of taking elements from both Testaments and creating a sort of syncretism of the two. The best known is that of mixing the Laws of Moses with the teachings of Jesus, as did the Jewish Concision, which Paul repeatedly opposed in his epistles. But as Paul made use of the Old Testament to present his case in favor of the New, we also must use it. It’s true that the Old has passed, as an expired contract, but unless we know it and understand it, neither can we know and understand the significance of the New. This is why it was included in the Bible and why we must also study it.

Being balanced in
I must warn, however, that a constant reading of the Old Testament could bring about a spiritual imbalance. It can, for example, lead to a religiosity that gives more importance to outward rituals and rules, rather than a personal relationship with God and living by the principles of love Jesus taught. Or it could lead to the justification of war, racism, or other violent acts which may appear sanctioned in the Old Testament. As I said, it is not uncommon to meet those who attribute the same importance to the Old Testament as to the Gospels, but Christian means a follower of Jesus Christ and He never condoned violence, revenge and aggression towards others - indeed, He taught exactly the opposite.

Concluding remarks
If Christianity consists only of the New Testament, some might ask, then why hold on to and read the Old? Firstly because, as we have seen, it is the same God and if we can search and understand His reasons for the past, we can also understand His reasons for the present and future. We’ll understand why the New replaced the Old and why a new Law of Love replaced the old one of fear, so that not as children, who must have guardians, but as grown ups we could freely become one with Him. Then shall we begin to see also the final goal of God’s program.

In the Old Testament man partook of a temporary reconciliation with God through the lamb sacrifice. As the sprinkling of the lamb’s blood on the doors saved the Israelites from the angel of death, so now the blood of Jesus saves us from death and brings us to God. The difference is that in the Old Testament there were representations, "a reflection of things to come "[12], as Paul called it, but in the New Testament, Jesus is the ultimate and original sacrifice that makes all previous representations obsolete.

Like a woman who no longer plays with dolls when she marries, conceives and becomes a mother, so even a Christian no longer plays at religion, with its childish representations, once he’s met the real thing. The ancient religion has terminated its preparatory purpose and has given place to true life with God.

Human religiosity
In his natural state, before entering into a real relationship with God, man is subject to various images of God. Unable to enact a maturation and closeness to God by his own efforts, man clings to what he usually perceives visibly as religious. In this condition even the New Testament can revert to the Old. Certain practices from it can be turned into rituals, some admonitions can be turned into a new Pauline Law, certain recommendation into a new priesthood, temples and so forth. It is, therefore, quite possible to be reading the New Testament but still live in the Old one.

Like Cain, who was very religious, and wished to sacrifice, but had his own idea of how he could find favor with God, by working hard. Like some who thought that with the Mosaic Law they could make themselves perfect, just by trying hard. God, instead, had given it to contain iniquity, and it could not produce spiritual life, and neither can any religious effort and practice, but only God.

Paul even said that the Law strengthened and defined sin "I wouldn't have known sin if it had not been for the law. For I wouldn't have known what it means to covet if the law had not said, “You must not covet"[13]. Even in the Old Testament, forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God could not be obtained by adherence to Law, but only through animal sacrifice [14]. This involved an act of faith in something inexplicable, rather than a laborious adherence to a religious discipline. It originated long before the law, with Abel, continued with Abraham, was confirmed by Moses and was always an illustration of the sacrifice of Christ, of that New Testament which, although not yet manifested, had been established from the start.

It was the same spirit of Cain’s religion, fueled by religious presumption and legalism, to which the law gave an excuse, which finally killed the sacrificial Lamb of God.  Just like the simple faith of Abel humbled Cain’s religious self-efforts, Jesus also humbled the futile pretense of the religionists to save themselves by their religious rules. The natural man loves religion, instead of God, because religiosity exalts his desire for goodness, righteousness and holiness. Religiosity is often the method by which men attempt to spiritualize themselves. Jesus is the end of outward religiosity, the end of fake holiness and sanctimonious pretense. Jesus is the return to God in truth and in spirit [15], without the artificiality of human religiosity.

Human religion shed the blood of the true Lamb of God, Jesus, thus fulfilling God’s plan of redemption. The circle was complete on the day when men hated God so much that they decided to kill Him, and God loved men so much that He died to save them. The greatest evil against infinite love, and love won. The price for our sins was paid and the law, which required it, was fulfilled and superseded. Now, through Jesus, every person who so wishes can be forgiven and is fully accepted by God.

The thread
Some might argue that in this section we have not addressed sufficiently the Old Testament, but have talked instead about other things. As with previous sections, I reiterate that the purpose of these introductory pages is not that of providing a summary of Bible contents, which should be studied directly on the Bible. As always, my intention is only that of supplying some interpretative keys, some elements than can hopefully make whichever Bile section we are dealing with more understandable. My other intent, especially in this case of the Old Testament, was also to show the one thread running through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and beyond. Jesus, the theophany and Lamb of God is that running thread. He’s the beginning “In the beginning was the Word” [16], the heart “and the word was made flesh” [17], and the end of the Bible “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end” [18]. We see Him in the garden of Eden, then with Abraham, Moses, in the furnace with Daniel’s friends, in the manger, hanging on the cross, and one day we will see him returning in the clouds, then finally in that wonderful wedding feast of the lamb [19].

The Bible, including the Old Testament, is the most fascinating love story ever written. A loving God created others to love and share himself with. He placed them in a temporary dimension, where he knew they would turn away from him, as well as ultimately return to him. He purposely remained hidden, not interfering with their choices and watched them grow. He saw them making right and wrong choices, which he knew would inevitably and eventually prepare them for a final destiny with him. In this way and in this dimension, they partake in their own creation, deciding their eternal being through their choices. They are self-determining, until, as free entities, they will seek him and discover that he had always been there waiting for them, courting them and preparing them for an eternity together that goes beyond all imagination. It is the greatest adventure there is, with none to compare with, and the ending is extremely happy [20].

Some will say, "but not for those who go to hell," but there is hope for them as well, and we’ll look at it in a future study.

At this point I would wish you a happy reading of the Old Testament, but considering the length of it I know that for some it will be rather daunting and not that happy a task. I would, therefore, recommend using a bookmark and read it is small portions, like one or two chapters per day. The first part, the historical one, is full of adventure and compelling stories and is therefore the easier part, except for those chapters containing the genealogies and the actual Mosaic Laws. History, however, is great reading, even for those moments when one is a bit tired and wishes not to think too much. The psalms, instead, are perfect for when one feels a bit 'down. The proverbs contain wisdom which never expires. The prophetic books, instead, are a bit more complex, requiring a good knowledge of history. We will address these, though briefly, in the next section.

1. Genesis 4:9
2. Genesis 4:26
3. Genesis 3:21
4. Revelation 13: 8
5. John 1:29
6. John 4:23, 24
7. Galatians 3:19
8. Galatians 3:23:24
9. Romans 10:4
10. John 4:23
11. John 1:12.13
12. Hebrews 10: 1
13. Romans 7:7
14. Leviticus 17:11 and Hebrews 9:22
15. John 4:23, 24
16. John 1:1
17. John 1:14
18. Revelation 22:13
19. Revelation 19:7, 9
20. Revelation 21:4

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Part IV - John

God is Love

John was the last apostle who wrote a Gospel and some epistles. What he wrote is remarkable, deserving careful study and consideration. Amongst the apostles, John stands out for a number of reasons – he was referred to as "the one whom Jesus loved" [1] - he was the youngest - the only apostle present at the crucifixion and the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother’s care.

John had been very close to Jesus and an eyewitness of the events surrounding his earthly life, but in his Gospel he didn’t just tell the story of what had happened, as the others had done. He told it differently, and added many profound realizations which had matured with him in time. He omitted many of the events already recounted in the other Gospels, and added others. There is the impression, when reading John’s gospel, that he wrote to complete, to add what others had omitted and to explain what they hadn’t yet understood.

Often referred to as the theologian par excellence, John lived a few decades longer than his fellow apostles. With time he matured that understanding of the Word made flesh, of the nature and origin of Jesus and became the personification of what the master had spoken: "I still have many things to tell you, but are not within your reach for now, but when He, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth "[2]. As already noted, the disciples didn’t fully understand Jesus while he was with them. Many things they only understood after his death and resurrection, and others still later. It seems as if John, by virtue of his longer life, was able to mature an even deeper and fuller understanding of the nature and mission of Jesus.

With the passing away of the apostles and other eye-witnesses, some strange "new gospels" had also begun to surface. Untrue or simply distorted, we now call these accounts or collections of sayings as apocryphal. John dedicated part of its first epistle to refuting one such fallacy. An idea had begun to circulate that Jesus had not "come in the flesh" [3], that he had not become human but had remained essentially spirit, like a ghost in some sort of visible form, but not like human flesh. As with this one, John also had the task of rejecting some of the first Christian forgeries.

His most important work, however, was to confirm, deepen and complete what Jesus had described as a progressive revelation of himself. He did this beautifully and in his writings he gave us more truth about the nature of Jesus and God than anyone else before him. Simply think of these words: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh. As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God. You must be born again. Born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting. God is love "[4].

John’s writings went beyond recounting simple historical events; they led to the very origins of time, to the One who planned it all, "before Abraham was, I am '[5]. In the words of Jesus, which he quoted more than anyone else, he gave us an unparalleled view into the mind and heart of God.

God is Love 
In his first epistle, John tells us what no one else had yet understood so clearly, that God is essentially love – that He loved us so much that He gave his son for us, to bear our sins and make us justified by faith. This priceless gift of God’s grace was already spoken of by Paul, but John revealed it to its greater extent. In simple but unmistakable words John said:" Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not knows not God, because God is love. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him" [6].

Already implied in the Old Testament, this law of Love was later emphasized by Jesus: "Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said unto him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” [7]. The “law” was the books of Moses containing the commandments and the “prophets” were the prophetic books. In practice Jesus was saying that the entire Bible known until then, could be summed up in two simple rules, love God and love others. Paul also devoted an entire section of his first epistle to the Corinthians to this very theme, and it is in chapter 13. In the previous chapters he had spoken of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the corresponding roles that these imparted to believers. Then he concluded in that 13th chapter saying that all skills and charismas imparted by the Holy Spirit, were nothing if there was no love.

1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of humans and angels but have no love, I have become a reverberating gong or a clashing cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can understand all secrets and every form of knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains but have no love, I am nothing. Even if I give away all that I have and surrender my body so that I may boast * but have no love, I get nothing out of it. Love is always patient, Love is always kind, Love is never envious or vaunted up with pride.  Nor is she conceited, and never is she rude, never does she think of self or ever get annoyed. She never is resentful, is never glad with sin, but always glad to side with truth, whenever the truth should win. She bears up under everything, believes the best in all, there is no limit to her hope, and never will she fall. Love never fails. Now if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. For what we know is incomplete and what we prophesy is incomplete. But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will be done away with. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways. Now we see only a blurred reflection in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now what I know is incomplete, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. Right now three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I lack space and time to list all other scriptures pointing to a God of love and to a new covenant in which the new law is "love", but I’ll quote one of my favorites, "Love does no wrong to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (commandments) [8].

The apostle Paul explained how the Old Testament and Mosaic Law had fulfilled the role of a "guardian" [9]. Its rules, prohibitions and consequences for wrongdoing had been for the purpose of keeping people from hurting each other and to enforce acceptable standards of behavior. He explained how the law had been added because of transgression [10], because of a lack of love in mankind, but how it hadn’t been the original intent of God, let alone the final one. It was simply a passage, as a guardian is for a child, until in Christ, man comes to maturity. About this Paul wrote more specifically: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" [11]. The childish things he was speaking of were these exterior more visible aspects of religion, be they commandments, rituals or showy charismatic gifts, and concluded with what he felt were the real solid elements denoting maturity: "three things last: faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love" [12]. And so, that which was merely implied and almost cryptic in the Old Testament Law, was later revealed by Jesus, further expounded on by Paul and finally completed by John. Gradually, and with increasing clarity, the Holy Spirit revealed through these that love is the intent, substance and final goal of the relationship between man and God. As Christians, that’s what we should aim for, and it’s what denotes the passing of our spiritual childhood, the transition from external piety to a genuine spiritual maturity.

Growing in love
It is not within us, however, to constantly aim towards growth and maturity, which we cannot produce by our own efforts anyway. So we often settle for the more childish and visible aspects of our faith journey and do not reach for more, for what God actually give us. Instead we accept being tied to the past, to a religion that is still made of illustrative objects and symbolic ceremonies, and do not take hold of enduring spiritual realities. Finding some sense of the sacred in religion, with its buildings, rituals and customs, we settle for it and do not attempt to go past it, to discover a living relationship with God, without the crutches of religion. When a Samaritan woman, of a different faith, asked Jesus which was the right place and way to worship God, he told her " Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father… but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" [13]. By these words Jesus indicated that neither Jerusalem, a local sanctuary nor any other external religious function, could affect true spiritual communion with God.

So simple, deep and clear and yet, for a lack of desire for this type of relationship with God, we are prone to substitutes, exteriorities, counterfeits and toys that look like the real thing. Instead of God we choose the sacred, instead of loving God and others, we hide behind religion, in the illusion of spirituality that it creates for us. Nonetheless, God is a God of love, actually, He is love itself, and as such is not angry with those of us who are still children and play at religion. God loves us so much that He accepts us at all stages of our lives, knowing that we are destined to mature, and guides us through those life experiences that will help us to move forward.

The apostle Paul explained: "for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" [14]. So even if we were to always make forward progress in our relationship with God, it is only when we shall see Him face to face that it will all be clear. In the meantime, as creatures that need to live, grow and mature, we are each destined to walk at our own pace and to see whatever each stage of our growth affords us to see.

The Great Criteria
God does not judge us by some theological criteria, knowledge, ability, or anything of the kind, but by the love we give, and that’s why he said that “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another - the last shall be first - whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” [15]. Love is humility and true humility is love. They are one and the same and we cannot love without humility, nor be truly humble without love. If we really wish to grow in our faith journey, to be more in tune with Him, then we must grow in love and humility. We must strive for this, clothe ourselves in it, embrace it and refuse to other way… the judging and pointing of the finger. We need to let God be God and not try to take His place, instead, we must look at ourselves and judge all that we do by the standpoint of love. This is our part and the way of the New Testament. We will never fully succeed, for we are human and fallible beings, but our failings will keep us humble and merciful with others, helping us to avoid the pride that comes from religious effort. But love is the way to walk. Love is all the religion that’s needed. It’s our purpose because it is where we came from and where we are heading. Love is the nature and light of God.

The light of God
Love, however, must not be confused with moral relativism and ethical subjectivism. Being nonjudgmental, tolerant and accepting of differences doesn’t annul the fact that absolute truths do exist, which implies judgment. Just as love is the light of God, the absence of it equals darkness and all its manifestations. It says, in fact: "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness" [16]. We cannot, however, fight darkness with darkness. Darkness is only defeated by light because darkness is merely an absence of it. This is why Jesus, hanging on the cross, did not breathe out vengeance and resentment against those who unjustly judged him, but said instead: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" [17]. That’s why he had also taught "Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who insult you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other one as well, and if someone takes your coat, don't keep back your shirt, either. Keep on giving to everyone who asks you for something, and if anyone takes what is yours, do not insist on getting it back. Whatever you want people to do for you, do the same for them. “If you love those who love you, what thanks do you deserve? Why, even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what thanks do you deserve? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect to get something back, what thanks do you deserve? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back what they lend. Rather, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging, and you will never be judged. Stop condemning, and you will never be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you, a large quantity, pressed together, shaken down, and running over will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use, you will be measured” [18].

This was the light that Jesus lit and it is what lights the way of every Christian. "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love for one another" [19]. The God that Jesus and the apostles showed us is Love. May the God of love then give us strength to represent Him to men as He is and not to our limited image. A God who judges, vindictive and austere is much easier to emulate. A tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye is to most of us an instinctively natural response. Even the disciples reacted this way when Jesus "sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village … and they did not receive him… and when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?  But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them” [20]. Thankfully God’s love is not like ours, but is unconditional: "But God demonstrates his love for us by the fact that Christ died for us while we were still sinners" [21].

May the light of God's love then shine in our hearts and free us from the chains of pride and human religiosity, what we often call light, but is not. May His light shine until the perfect day, when we will be in perfect communion with Him and one another.

This ends our study of the origins and purpose of Christianity. The first epistle of John it is a fitting conclusion for it and I invite you to read it fully and meditate upon it. Our study of the Bible, however, does not end here. We haven’t yet approached the Old Testament, with the story of creation, the fall of man and God’s plan of redemption, which are necessary elements for reaching a fuller understanding of God’s intents. The Gospels, however, will always remain central for each of us who have chosen to be Christians, so I wish you a profitable studying of the first epistle of John, and a continued review of the Gospels.

1. John 13: 23  20: 2  21: 7,20
2. John 16: 12,13
3. 1st John 4: 2
4. John 1,2,3 – 1st John 4: 8,16
5. John 8, 58
6. 1st John 4: 7,8,16
7. Matthew 22: 35 to 40
8. Romans 13: 10
9.  Galatians 3: 24,25
10. Galatians 3: 19
11. 1st Corinthians 13: 11
12. 1st Corinthians 13: 13
13. John 4: 21 to 24
14. 1st Corinthians 13: 12
15. John 13: 35 Matthew 23: 12
16. Isaiah 5: 20
17. Luke 23: 34
18. Luke 6: 27 to 38
19. John 13: 35
20. Luke 9: 52 to 56
21. Romans 5: 8

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Which Christianity?

Appendix 1 - Which Christianity?

Some might be wondering from which branch of Christianity, or theological current, this script derives from. To answer this question it is necessary to step back a moment and look at the overall landscape of Christian institutions, their history and theology. It can only be a brief, concise view, not an exhaustive study on the matter, but I hope that it will be sufficient to frame my answer and satisfy the legitimate curiosity of the reader.

About one third of the world population defines itself Christian. Generally speaking, these two billion people are divided into three major groups, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants. Some prefer subdividing into five groups, instead of three, but for the sake of brevity and to avoid entering into endless hair-splitting differentiations, we will stick to the three larger ones.

The Orthodox Churches are traditionally the older ones and adhere to unchanging traditions. They usually take pride in that fact and view themselves as keepers of the original tradition that was handed down by the apostles. In that view, they perceive most other forms of Christianity as having more or less departed from the true Christianity. Having dealt with various heresies in the early centuries of Christianity, they have given much importance to tradition as a stabilizing factor and a mark of true faith. In their view the Bible is important but insufficient by itself and can only be interpreted correctly when compared to the tradition that was given by the apostles.

The Catholic Churches also have a tradition, but a different one. Their Apostolic tradition is the Primacy of Peter, a sort of apostolic lineage coming down to us through the papacy. They see in the popes the continuation of a spiritual mandate given by Jesus to Peter. As such the popes have the power to introduce new revelations, dogmas and a maturation/modification of the ritual traditions. This state of affairs has provided the stabilizing effect of tradition, while allowing also maturation and innovation. The Bible is the essential original revelation, but the proper understanding of it is ensured by apostolic continuity as represented in the Pope and his Magisterium.

The Reformation, or Protestantism, doesn’t see much value in tradition and defers to the Bible as the sole authority. Their motto is "sola scriptura", meaning “only the written word”. In their view the Bible is the absolute word of God and all that is needed to determine the way of Christianity. Their lack of a common tradition has fostered greater individualism and fragmentation into different churches that adhere to various interpretations of Bible scripture. This doesn’t mean that there are no traditions within their institutions, as it is impossible to build a continuing one without them, but rather than structural or ritual ones, it is the case of interpretive traditions, the particular significance which the individual church attributes to Bible scripture.

From these three systems spring forth countless others. Regardless of which church, or no church, one belongs to, most Christian will identify with one of the three, which often combines also with a critical view of the other two. Sadly, it is no different from the polarization that happens, for example, between the political right and left, where issues are rarely valued in their own merit, but become affected by age-old suspicion running between opposing factions. On the bright side it is also true that much progress has been made in recent years to overcome prejudice and ancient animosity. There is, in fact, much beauty within all three systems, as well as much that could be overcome, and though some qualitative judgment could be made on each, I am neither qualified, nor wishing to try. Furthermore, the multiple aspects of worldwide Christianity are not the aim of this study, but the study of the Bible is, which I hope to place within anyone’s reach. I wished, however, to touch on it lightly in order to make this one point - that there is diversity within Christianity, even deep diversity, but it is a non issue when it comes to determining individual Christianity. Real Christianity is a relationship with God and a lifestyle, and this can be found within any of the three systems, as well as without. Furthermore, I am also convinced that most differences were determined by cultural, political and other factors that had little to do with real faith. Christianity does, in fact, still drags along an unbearable burden of accumulated rubble from the wars and feuds of the past. Unfortunately it is this unnecessary load that perpetrates prejudice and ill feeling amongst many Christians.

It is not the dress that makes a monk
In other words, you may be wearing a monk’s habit but that alone won’t make you one. It’s an ancient Italian proverb describing how outward religious appearance doesn’t necessarily signify inner faith. By the same token it isn’t adherence to a religious order or system that determines one’s Christianity, but it’s their personal relationship to Christ that does. I therefore invite the reader to rise above the partisan and culturally inherited prejudices associated with the three main systems of Christianity. Please desist from pigeonholing what you read here, or in the bible, within one of them. I encourage you, instead, to think for yourself and begin this journey of discovery of the Bible using the method I have proposed, but then letting God’s Words and Spirit lead you to a personal, direct relationship with Himself. My sole intention is to provide some keys which will enable anyone using them to unlock and understand what they read – tools that can help overcome the apparent contradictions and old prejudices, so that the reader can discover, not an ancient literary work, but a living God.

To adhere or not to a particular church is a personal prerogative and does not, in my view, determine the degree of closeness to Christ, which cannot be judged by external factors. Since there is, however, both the benefit as well as the need to share one’s faith with others, I think it is also a matter of personal choice with whom to associate for this purpose. To be considered is the availability and proximity of a church, or other Christian group in the country where one resides. Obviously there are more choices in some places than in others, but thankfully it is always possible to find someone with whom to share the faith journey. I am convinced that God is able to lead each one to the situation that is most suitable for them.

However, I repeat, it is neither the church nor the group that makes a Christian, but the personal choice to live by Jesus’ teachings. All religious institutions have faults and virtues and their differences are largely based on human aspects, rather than Christian. It is, therefore, not excessively important which church one belongs to, as long as its foundation is in Christ. Being a Christian is somewhat of an intimate and personal affair, which cannot be overly dependent on adherence to a particular institution. If you are Christian, however, you could be a valuable contribution to any church, and receive in return, but beware not to equate Christianity with adherence. Just like entering a mechanic workshop doesn’t make us mechanics, neither does entering a church makes us Christians.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Part III - The Epistles of Paul

From the Gospels we learned what Jesus was like, then in the Book of Acts we saw the Holy Spirit coming into the scene and how the first Christians put Jesus’ teachings into practice. We also read about some difficulties they had in separating from their former religion, and about the ensuing split between Paul and the mother church in Jerusalem, the reasons of which became a recurring theme in Paul’s Epistles. Although this very issue and the whole of Paul’s writings appear rather complex, please bear with me and you will see that by employing a few simple tools, some interpretative notions, it will all become rather simple and understandable.

The Law
Paul wrote extensively about “the law”, but what he was referring to was substantially different from what we understand by “law” today. Paul was referring to the Mosaic Law, the so called commandments, which were not merely ten, but hundreds, and regulated life to the smallest details. It had been the legal system of the Israelite nation since the days of Moses, and to get an idea of what it might have been like, I had drawn a comparison to a present day state ruled by Sharia, or Islamic law. It might not be the best association but it does provide a semblance of the type of culture and environment into which Christianity was born. Let us take, for example, the story of the woman caught on adultery who was brought to Jesus for judgment. According to the law she was supposed to be stoned to death, but Jesus knew they had brought her to him so that they could find something to accuse him of. They had often heard him preach a ethic that went contrary to that of the Mosaic Law. They had heard him preach mercy and forgiveness, while the law taught “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.  They were using this woman’s case to try and force him into openly disagreeing with the Mosaic Law, so that they could declare him an enemy of their system and a false prophet. Jesus did not answer for a while and wrote on the ground, then upon their insistence He gave them the famous answer "He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her", and they all left. It was truly a divine answer, because he couldn’t have openly opposed the law without serious consequences. The only way out for him and that poor woman, who though a sinner did not deserve to die, was for him to consent to the law, while adding a condition which none of her accusers could measure up to. By this, Jesus did three main things; he saved the woman, himself, and exposed the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be followers of the law. We will study the reasons for the Mosaic Law when we delve into the Old Testament, but here we will see why Paul taught that Jesus had introduced a new Law of Love, which did away with the old one. In any case, to further explain the effects of the law in the socio-climate of that time let us simply consider that the infraction of most of the first Ten Commandments carried the death penalty as a consequence. Even Jesus, on the strength of such a commandment, was eventually condemned to death for blasphemy.

Reform or Revolution?
As we saw in the Book of Acts, the first Christians were all Jews, born and raised under the Mosaic Law. For most of them Christianity represented only a reformation, a softening of the Law with more love and mercy. Paul, instead, fought tenaciously to demonstrate that the old system, based on the Mosaic Law, had been completely superseded by Christ. He used the law and the Old Testament scriptures (the only Bible known at that time) to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfillment and conclusion of the same. According to Paul, Jesus had closed the Old Testament and had begun a New One. The Old One, however, was until then the only recognized Bible available for anyone believing in the God of Abraham, including Christians. It had been in circulation for centuries, while the New Testament was still unwritten and unknown. Therefore Paul, like a lawyer in a courtroom, insistently used the Old One (often referred to as “the law” because the five books of Moses containing the law were the basis of it), to present his case for a New Testament. Eventually Paul’s Epistles, with his argumentation for a New Testament became the very text of it.

Paul also used the Old Testament scriptures to counter the attempts of the Jerusalem church to Judaize (bring under the Mosaic Law) those Christians of pagan origins. The most classic example is found in the Epistle to the Galatians, which tells of some envoys sent by James, Bishop of Jerusalem, to Judaize the people of Galatia, who had been converted by Paul to Christianity. Peter also became involved with this, at first supporting Paul, but then doing an about-face for fear of these emissaries from Jerusalem. Paul felt betrayed by Peter’s hypocrisy and rebuked him openly.

God’s people are never perfect
The Bible never hides the weaknesses of his men and talks openly about their mistakes. This allows us to give credit to whom credit is due, which is God, and to see God’s work in spite of the frailty of his human tools. Peter was such a tool and his weakness highlighted the power of God working through him. Also Paul had flaws and weaknesses and it is helpful for us to identify them, so that we can recognize the difference between a personal opinion of his, and a teaching inspired by God. The reason why his epistles became the greater part of the Biblical canon was due to their divine inspiration but, unavoidably, there are also some human aspects.

Why God chose Paul
As by reading the gospels we saw what Jesus was like, by reading the epistles we shall see what Paul was like, his education, character, strength, as well as his weaknesses and inconsistencies. As the gospels did not conceal the weakness of Peter and the other disciples, neither will the Epistles hide those of Paul’s. All the same, the Epistles are the greatest proof of the reasons why God chose Paul. And why did He?

Paul was what none of the others were. He came from Tarsus, an influential center of Greek culture, and was educated in Jerusalem in the rabbinical school of Gamaliel. Paul was a Pharisee and part of that ideological current which first persecuted and killed Jesus, and then Stephen. To them Jesus was a false prophet, a threat to the integrity of their religion and culture, centered on the Mosaic Law. Paul was a legalist and ready to act in order to eradicate the new Christian heresy. He was the image of the crusader, the inquisitor, the protector of the true faith and tradition of the fathers.

If we were to describe Paul in just one word it would be "zeal". There were no half-measures with him, and that which was worth living for; it was also worth dying for. That intensity of emotions and ideals that first drove him to hunt and persecute the Christians, drove him after to proclaim the name of Jesus.

By comparison, the rest of the apostles, maybe with the exception of Matthew, were simple and unlearned men. God did use them greatly, but he needed Paul to develop and write the first Christian theology and to lead Christianity beyond the confines of Judaism. God, knowing that the main obstacle to overcome was the old religion, chose a rabbi from the fundamentalist group of the Pharisees, so that once converted he could understand the breadth and depth of the change that had come about with Christ’s sacrifice. Paul, devoted most of his epistles to explaining this, using the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant as a means to prove their own demise. This is what caused him endless persecution by his own people, who accused him of being "the man who teaches all everywhere against the people and the Law and this place (temple)" [1].

Not everyone understood him, not even his teammates, and even Peter wrote of him "in all his letters… are some things hard to be understood"[2]. God, however, had chosen and prepared him for the job and after some time his ideas were finally vindicated and recognized. In order for Christianity to survive and fulfill its universal mission, it needed to become its own entity and break away from the old system. Paul became God’s instrument to lead Christianity out of its cultural nest of the Mosaic Law, and to bring it to adulthood, into the freedom of the New Covenant.

Jesus had been the author of that New Covenant and had signed it with his own blood. His disciples, however, did not immediately understand this, but discovered it gradually. It was impossible for them to comprehend right away all that He was and the magnitude of the change He was bringing about. Even if they had understood it, the Israelite culture in which they were born, was just too strong an obstacle for such simple fishermen to effectively challenge it. In the first chapters of the Book of Acts, we saw that under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, they did actually make some outstanding strides forward. But, as in trench warfare, they soon found themselves stuck in Jerusalem, the temple, the synagogues, and so tied to the old ways that they could go no further. To break the impasse God had prepared Paul, whom he led out of Jerusalem into other countries, from which he then led the young Christian movement towards its global expansion.

Human aspects of Paul
We’ve alluded to some inconsistencies in Paul and indeed there were. His personality, as with all of God’s people, did not always reflect that of the master, and his reactions to certain situations were sometimes contrary to those of Jesus. These shortcomings, though minimal by comparison to the beauty of his teachings, are worth noting in order to avoid getting confused on some matters. One may ask, in view of this, how we can know when something taught by Paul is actually inspired by God and when, instead, it is simply a matter of personal opinion. If we apply the very principle which we’ve established from the beginning, there will be no difficulty in knowing the difference. We simply need to ask what Jesus would have done, or said, if he had been in the same situation. If there is a marked difference, then we know who’s right. It’s very simple… Jesus becomes the criterion, and not our subjective judgment. I will give some examples:

If we look at the historical context of that period, we discover a very male-dominated society in which women were rarely given any significant roles outside of the home. By contrast, the Gospels tell us of a good number of women near and around Jesus. There were women who followed him, others who supported him, there was Mary Magdalene, who accompanied him till the end, there was the one of ill repute who washed his feet with tears, then the adulteress whom he saved from stoning, the sisters Mary and Martha, the Samaritan woman at the well, the other with the incurable flow, who touched him and was healed, not to mention of his own mother, Mary, and more. The women around Jesus were as visible as the men, and that put him in stark contrast with the reality of that time. Even his birth, with God choosing a young unmarried girl to conceive His son, was scandalous. According to their laws and tradition, Mary didn’t deserve admiration but lapidating. Even in today’s world it would be fairly shocking, especially considering the young age of Mary, about 14, but imagine what kind of reaction it would have caused to see an unmarried pregnant girl in that period and society. Because the story of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus has become part of our Christian culture, it hardly raises a brow, but at that time it was extremely embarrassing and counter-current. It is further evidence that the Gospels weren’t invented to create an attractive Christian myth, in which case the authors would have certainly avoided such embarrassing parts. Only someone telling the truth would have told such potentially damaging aspects of Jesus’ life and origins.

Not only the Gospel writers, but Paul also, challenged the traditional view on women when he declared: "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" [3]. He also spoke of women who played important roles in the church, who were assisting him, who prophesied, who housed churches in their homes (in the Epistles the word "church" did not refer to a building, nor to a religious institution, but to groups of believers who gathered together, usually in someone's house).

Nonetheless, Paul derived from a cultural milieu in which women were different and inferior to man and, from time to time, his intrinsic cultural baggage did resurface in his comments and instructions. Thankfully, when writing on these things, he sometimes prefaced his comments with “I speak this by permission, not of commandment “ or “I speak, not the Lord” [4], as if he was sensing an insufficient approval of is personal views. Furthermore he was also the only unmarried apostles, as he himself indicated, "Do we not have authority to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brothers of the Lord do, and Peter? [5]. His own celibacy, his high recommendation for such a lifestyle, his idea that marriage was “ok” but not the best, and his general view on women, did also denote a different kind of influence in his life. It was not the typical Hebrew male mentality that wished to exert authority over women but looked upon marriage, sexuality and having children as Godly virtues. The celibacy ideas, which he expounded with a mixture of doubt and conviction, were common instead in those centers of Greek culture, such as Tarsus, where he was raised, and the other northern countries where he lived most of his life. It was part of a Gnostic, dualistic influence that affected many religions and philosophies of that period.

On women, there are therefore some contradictions in Paul, as is even demonstrated by his injunction to “Let your women be silent in the churches; for it is not permitted to them to speak, but to be in subjection, as the Law also says” [6]. It contradicted what he himself had just said about the equality of the sexes, as well as what Peter had said on Pentecost, that “ your sons and your daughters shall prophecy” [7], which would be impossible to do if the daughters are to keep silence. Obviously, this rule of Paul is disregarded by most Christians.

In any case it is not necessary to list all of Paul’s comments about women, as you will inevitably come across them while reading his epistles. Some men might not mind them, while some women could find them offensive. In most cases, however, they will appear outdated. Please don’t allow this to make you doubt the wonderful work and tremendous teachings of Paul. Just consider the time in which Paul lived, what the prevailing attitudes about women and slavery were then, and you will see that he was heading towards their liberation. It may not appear so, when compared with today's reality, but I'm sure that you will forgive Paul for being simply the fruit of his time. If you study carefully that which was before him and that which came after, you will see the very hand of God using Paul to free Christianity from the shackles of the past and push in the right direction.

Note: The life and work of Paul was in its time a crucial step in the fulfilling of God’s plan for Christianity, the next stage in a journey that still continues today. Form creation to the grand finale of God, there is in fact a progressive revelation taking place, one that involves a gradual maturation and deepening of man’s understanding and relationship with God. This, according to Paul and John, will culminate with the second coming of Christ, and the so-called marriage supper of the lamb, which we will study separately. At the beginning, this progressive revelation manifested itself in various encounters and covenants with promises, such as those that God made with Abraham, Moses, etc.. Paul spoke of these calling them "shadow of things to come" so that "when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son” – “for we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect thing comes, then that which is in part will be caused to cease” [8]. By this we understand that the relationship between man and God, both individually and collectively, is a reality that changes with time, a journey that has a beginning, as well as an ultimate end.

Justification by faith
Paul refused any compromise with the old law and used the same scriptures which had proclaimed it, to demonstrate its fulfillment, conclusion and demise. He devoted much of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Hebrews (though not written by him, it reflects his thinking) to this very theme. According to Paul, there couldn’t be a salvation half by works of obedience to the law, and half by grace, through Christ’s sacrifice. It was either one or the other: " But if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it is of works, then it is no more of grace; otherwise work is no more work" [9]. Christ’s atonement was sufficient and to offer any other sacrifice was an affront, as if declaring his blood ineffective. Paul attacked this human presumption over and over, and yet, very few Christians really understand at heart what he tried to get across. Even though Paul devoted many arguments to it, the predominant influence of the old Mosaic Law in the cultural legacy of those who wrote the Bible, as well as human nature itself, prevents most from seeing the reality of justification by faith. Our ego, in fact, makes us more prone towards a religion of works (like Cain), rather than grace (as Abel), and so Paul’s words often remains veiled in mystery.

Some inconsistencies in Paul himself may also be responsible for some confusion in this matter. Being a man of strength and of great responsibility towards the churches he had founded, when there appeared some deviance that threatened their harmony and good conduct, Paul became intensely animated with zeal for their welfare. From this zeal sprang some scathing rebukes that ran contrary to his own teachings on justification by grace – or those of Jesus, who did not place any conditions on salvation, but faith.

Likewise, while Jesus was often accused of preferring the company of sinners [10], Paul taught instead to avoid them. While Jesus never uttered harsh words against prostitutes, adulterers, criminals and corrupt tax collectors, Paul, in his zeal for the church, said instead that these were not allowed into the kingdom of God [11]. This is a classic example of how to apply the Gospel and the image of Jesus as a criterion for judging what else we read in the Bible. Obviously, when there is a difference, the Christian will follow Jesus’  example.

Some final words on Paul’s epistles 
I do wish to make it clear that this introduction to Paul's epistles is not meant to be taken as a summary of the same. The contents of the epistles, in fact, are much wider and I have only barely touched a few. My intent was never to summarize, nor even to give some hints of the contents, which must be read straight in the Book, but simply to provide some interpretative tools. I wanted to give an historical context, some explanation of terms and intents and some advanced preparation for what could appear hard to understand or contradicting. These are things I deemed necessary to settle in advance in order to avoid the doubts and confusion that often assail the unprepared reader. Too many begin reading the epistles without prior preparation and then give up as soon as they meet the complicated reasoning of Paul, his apparent contradictions, or chauvinistic attitudes, and desist from continuing in their study. Sadly they loose a very vital part of their Christian training, which can only be obtained through a thorough study of Paul Epistles. With these simple basic notions, I believe that the reader can now begin to study and let the epistles speak for themselves.

A final word. As mentioned above, Paul was a doctor of the Mosaic Law and quoted it repeatedly to expound his reasoning to those who knew it and lived by it. It is not necessary for us to know all the same details in order to understand Paul’s central message, but eventually we will also look at the Old Testament and we’ll understand better some of his reasoning. For the time being, however, it is more important for us to stay grounded on the Gospels, so if reading Paul becomes a bit tiresome, which is likely, then I suggest returning to the Gospel in order to maintain their fundamental priority.

Wishing you all an enlightening reading.

1. Acts 21, 28
2. 2nd Peter 3, 16
3. Galatians 3, 28
4. 1st Corinthians 7: 6 and 12
5. 1st Corinthians 9, 5
6.  1st Corinthians 14:34
7. Acts 2: 17
8. Hebrews 10, 1, Galatians 4, 4 and 1st Corinthians 13, 9:10
9. Romans 11; 6
10. Matthew 9: 10 – 13 and 11: 19
11. 1st Corinthians 6: 9 -10

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Part II - The First Christians

At this point, having read the Gospels, we should have a fairly accurate picture of Jesus. Let us now hold it firmly before our eyes and use it to measure what we will read next, which naturally, will be the story of the very first Christians, as told by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. It is pleasant reading, but I do wish to make a premise; although the first Christianity was the one started by Jesus himself, the original which we should refer to, it is not always, nor in every way, the best model, and we'll see why.

The book of Acts, or Acts of the Apostles, defined by some critics as a romanticized account, has been proven to be historically accurate and the most reliable for that early period of Christianity. There is much to be learned from this book, where we see the role of the Holy Spirit energizing the first disciples to bear witness and practice Jesus’ teachings - we see God working great miracles to spread his message and protect his young church - we see the courage of the first Christians and their spirit of love, unity and sacrifice - but we also see some problems arising in their midst, a disagreement, the cause of which already existed in Jesus' days, and that ran so deep that it eventually broke into the first Christian schism. Paul’s Epistles, which we will study after Acts, deal extensively with the reasons of this rift. To prepare for their later study, we must then seek to understand the background and dynamics of this event, as told by Luke in the book of Acts (and later by Paul in Galatians). Another reason for seeking understanding of this event is that it is not relegated to the past, but lives on to this very day, howbeit in different forms.

The importance of what is not written
When reading the book of Acts it is also crucial to note what is not written. For example if we see that a particular aspect of our Christianity is not mentioned as part of early Christianity, then it would behoove us  to put it aside, for the time being, and return to the original simplicity. I'm not implying that there are no other valid aspects of our faith, which were revealed or understood later, but I am simply recommending that we proceed by stages, like in the building of a house, the foundations first, then the walls, etc...

On the other hand we will also note that certain practices of the early Christians are no longer part of modern Christianity. They were mainly part of an Israelite cultural heritage, with no particular relation to Christianity and were thus abandoned over time. A closer look at the socio-cultural environment of that period might help us understand better.

The historical socio-cultural context
The Israelites were the “chosen people” to whom God, through Moses, had given his laws, the so-called commandments. To get an idea of how these laws affected society in those days, one could perhaps look at a present day country in which the Islamic Law, or Sharia, is the constituted legal system. I am not using this example because the two things are identical, but simply because it gives an idea of a society where religious commandments do not determine only ethics and morality, but are also the official legal system. In the Israel of the early Christians, the Mosaic Law was the actual law as well as the religion. There was no distinction between the two and it regulated the social order, as well as expressed the will of God to the people. Unfortunately, under this provision, abuses of the law were often committed in the name of God, and those who exercised power did so legally, as well as spiritually, oppressing others in the name of God. Jesus came into this state of things and clashed with it brutally - especially with the religious leaders, those who interpreted and applied the law, who soon had him crucified. It wasn’t any different for his followers, who soon met the same wrath from the same hierarchy.

The beginning of a new era
Despite being ostracized by the authorities, and thanks to the many miracles and powerful manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the early Christians multiplied rapidly. These, including the apostles, all derived from that same Israelite culture which we just described. Though painfully aware of its shortcomings, they were nevertheless still influenced by it. One aspect of such cultural conditioning was that, by virtue of Abrahamic descent, they all felt part of a privileged elite, God’s chosen people and his representatives on earth. Their upbringing brought them to see all non-Jews condescendingly, as gentiles, pagans, infidels, and not worthy of equal respect and dignity. With these “inferior races” they even avoided contact, lest they became contaminated by it.

Many early Christians were also part of those crowds who initially rejected Jesus and voted in favor of his crucifixion. The reason was that he did not match their idea of a Messiah but, rather, that of an impostor. He had not liberated them from the Romans, nor restored the throne of David or made them powerful, as they though the Messiah would do. Later, as they heard of Jesus’ resurrection, saw further miracles by his disciples, many of them changed and came to recognized in Jesus some great one sent by God. It was not yet a complete change, nor enough to give them a new culture and a change of attitudes, and they continued to be Israelites in religion, laws, culture and outlook towards the outside world. For a few decades, Jerusalem’s Christians still lived in the Old Testament, with Jesus as a new supplement to it. Christianity thus belonged to the “chosen people” and, if it wasn’t for God’s intervention to bring about more substantial changes, it would have remained a sect within Judaism.

How did God change things? In the book of Acts we notice some key elements and the first is in chapter ten. There, Peter received a revelation from God instructing him not to consider the gentiles (non-Jews) as unclean, since in his eyes there was no difference between Israelites and gentiles. The enormity of the problem was expressed by Peter when, in obedience to that vision from God, entered the house of a Roman and said, “You know that it is an unlawful thing for a man, a Jew to keep company with or to come near to one of another nation. But God has shown me not to call any man common or unclean” [1]. Nothing could be clearer than that, but it wasn’t enough to bring about a significant change. Instead, the event through which God took hold of the helm of Christianity and changed its route, was the transformation of Saul into the Apostle Paul, as told in Acts chapter nine.

Saul, an educated Pharisee, zealous of the Jewish faith and tradition, had initially fought against the “heresy” of the new Christian sect. God intervened by blinding him, then opening his eyes again and, finally, Saul saw things as they were and became Paul. He then recognized Jesus as the true Messiah, the author of a brand New Covenant, and everything changed. Paul became the apostle par excellence, who then lead Christianity in its transformation from Jewish sect, into universal church.

Being unwelcomed in Jerusalem, Paul went to other nations and population centers of the Roman Empire. There he preached the good news (gospel) of Jesus to the Gentiles, without the heavy burden of old Jewish mores and laws, which he now saw as superseded in Christ. His success was enormous and, with the Spirit of God sustaining him, his new model of Christianity spread rapidly among non-Jewish populations. Eventually this developed into a deep rift with the mother church in Jerusalem, who did not accept Paul, nor his new Christians. If it weren’t for his successes, they would have chosen to ignore him, but because of the numbers who followed his “new” theology, they had to eventually come to terms with him.

The root of the problem
At the root of the problem was the fact that the Jerusalem church did not believe Paul’s doctrine to be correct. To them Paul was a new young upstart who did not really understand original orthodoxy. To be a Christian, they said, it was necessary to first keep the required prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. For them, in fact, Christianity was a supplement to the one true religion, namely that of the Old Testament. Paul, instead, claimed that Christ had begun a brand new era, a New Testament, and that the Old One was no longer binding for Christians.

The clash between these two ways of understanding Christianity was so severe that it never ended. It even resulted in an open confrontation between Peter and Paul [2] and was the cause of the first council of Jerusalem [3], which was resolved by a compromise, but did not end the disagreement.

An epic change and its effects
Paul remained on the outer reaches of the official church and his ideas were poorly received, if not openly opposed, by his colleagues in Jerusalem. This state of things remained fairly unchanged until a catastrophic event occurred. Although prophesied in detail, its fulfillment is not described in the book of Acts, and we must search other historical sources to learn about it. That event was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it was then that that original brand of Christianity, who still followed the old Jewish religion, lost its central role. The Jewish Christians of the so-called Concision (because circumcised) migrated elsewhere, mainly towards Arabia and, supposedly, it was from their descendants that Muhammad learned about Jesus. This could explains why the Quran reflects an opinion similar to that of some factions of early Jewish Christianity, who saw Jesus as a great one, but not as God incarnate, nor as the founder of a New Testament.

At a heavy cost, with the destruction of Jerusalem, the Diaspora of the Jews and of the Church of the Concision, Christianity finally matured and cut his umbilical cord to the Old Testament. Paul, from being the odd one out, became instead the leading Apostle. His vision for a universal Christianity became finally recognized and others followed him to proclaim it to the whole world. His writings, and those of his disciple Luke, became widely accepted and eventually formed the majority of the New Testament.

With this I leave you to the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, which I'm sure you will find fascinating.

1. Acts of the Apostles 10, 28
2. Epistle of Paul to the Galatians 2
3. Acts of the Apostles15

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Part I - The Method and the Gospels

Here is the study method which I proposed. Again, I recommend starting with the laying aside of what’s been previously understood about Christianity. This is not because it’s necessarily wrong, but simply to facilitate an orderly reconstruction upon a sound, clean foundation. Reassessing the building blocks of our faith is, in part, the intent of this method, and to do this we must move from bottom up, putting at the very base only the strongest and most reliable elements. I will not furnish these, but the Bible itself. All I will tell, is where to find them.

The actual course is divided into six main sections, titled Part I to VI. Each consist of some introductory pages, but the actual studying is carried out in the Bible. For example, this is “Part I” and concerns the Gospels and so it must be followed by the studying of the same. We can read the Gospels, or listen to them on audio, but it is essential that we immerse ourselves in these for a while.  For whatever time that will take, it is best to refrain from going elsewhere in the Bible. I recommend the gospels of John and Matthew, as a start, as Mark and Luke are fairly similar to Matthew and can be read later.

Why start at the Gospels? Simply because in them we hear what Jesus himself taught, how he lived and what he did.  Eventually we will move on to other things, but the Gospels will remain our foundation and the criterion for judging what will come later. While studying the Gospels, we will also come across some apparent contradictions and things that are hard to understand. We will eventually be able to resolve these as well, by either looking back to the Old Testament, or forward to the epistles. For the time being, however, we will stick to the Gospels and leave some of these questions for later. If we don’t first give priority to the words and works of Jesus Himself, we risk confusing Christianity with something else and create just one more syncretism, like so many before. This is why we must proceed step by step, laying first the foundation, and then building the rest of the house.

How to read the Gospels 
The accounts of any event, however true and accurate they might be, always involve a measure of subjectivity and personal interpretation. The Gospels, moreover, speak of things that happened two thousand years ago. They were written in ancient languages and were geared to different people and cultures, which accounts for some of their differences in style, emphasis and content. Upon hearing this, some will perhaps doubt their reliability and wonder how much we can really trust them. The answer is simple – VERY MUCH! - and here is the reason why.

There are four evangelists and four Gospels, therefore, four points of view. If four different people see the same event unfolding before them, when they describe it, obviously, it will be from four different points of view. The event was the same but the accounts will be different. Some will emphasize those aspects that seemed most important to them, while others might barely mention them, or ignore them altogether. This diversity of emphasis, perspectives and narrative, however, does not at all weaken the reliability of the story. As a matter of fact it increases it. Why? Because if we had only one eyewitness, we would not so easily recognize the subjective elements of his story. We could not so easily separate his intention, opinion, or simple writing style from the events and the person portrayed in his account, which in our case is Jesus. The comparing of the accounts, allows us to see that indeed the events occurred, that the writers were either eyewitnesses or writing fro those who were, and even from their differences we gain further insight.  In fact, the four stories, from four different perspectives, give us the opportunity to triangulate, so to speak, which allows depth of field and creates a three-dimensional image of Jesus, instead of just a flat one. There are more reason why the four Gospels can be trusted, but the ones I listed are those that account for the fairly accurate picture of Jesus which we received, even at such a time distance.

The personal experience factor
As I mentioned earlier, it all starts with a meeting that allows us to "try" Jesus, to personally experience that He is exactly what he claimed to be. Now we are studying the Gospels because we wish to know Him better and therefore deepen our relationship with him. Learning what He was like, will allows us to know what He is. Reading the Gospels is the most available and effective way of acquiring that knowledge, but it has some limits. Because the Gospels are written in human languages, they are therefore also limited by the same. Thankfully, our understanding of Jesus transcends those limits because He also communicates with us also by other means. The Gospel of John does, in fact, begin with these words "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him not even one thing came into being that has come into being. And the Word became flesh, and dwelled among us. And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father [1]. By this we see that Jesus is referred to as the “Logos”, translated as “Word” and that he is that part of God that creates and communicates. To this end He does also employ human languages and the printed page, but He alone is the eternal "Living Word" and not everything we read, not even in the Bible, can be considered exactly that. (For further reading on this please see appendix "Errors in the Bible?")

The apostle Paul, an expert on ancient scriptures said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall fully know even as I also am fully known. [2]. By this we know that even the most thorough study of the Bible is limited and will only allow us a partial view - maybe not even that, if we don’t combine what we read to our personal experience with God, listening also to the other ways in which he seeks to communicates with us. This, I most earnestly encourage you to do, all through our study, through prayer, meditation and reflection on the partciular way in which God is revealing imself to you.

How to see beyond the words 
So what is it that we want to see in the Gospels? First of all what Jesus was like! We’ve already recognized that the writers had different perspectives of the events concerning Jesus’ life on earth. By the way they recounted their stroy, we will also recognise that they had different personality and somewhat different aims. Matthew, for example, wrote for an Israelite audience and to show them that Jesus was their long-awaited messiah, he often quoted Old Testament scripture. This is a major characteristic of his gospel, probably the first to be written, at a time when Christianity was still contained within Judaism. John, instead, was the last apostles to write a Gospel and he had time to mature things about the nature of Jesus, which others did not understand before. It is John, in fact, who remembers Jesus saying "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you"[3]. John did exactly that in his Gospel, he proclaimed those things which were revealed to him much later by the Holy Spirit, and we shall soon see what they were.

Clearly, it is not necessary for us now to understand all the differences between the four evangelists and their gospels, nor to have a full explanation of all aspect that are a bit difficult to understand. With time a fuller understanding will come naturally and, for the time being, our efforts are better spent in trying to connect the dots and get a picture of what Jesus was like. If Jesus is the Living Word, the expression of God the Father, then if we see Him, we’ll see God: “Philip said unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it suffices us. Jesus said unto him, have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" [4]. So it is in the Gospels that we can see Jesus, and to see Him better we must not only listen to what he taught, but also look at what he did, how he reacted to certain situations and how he handled different types of people. We must also seek to understand the kind of world he came into and the changes he was aiming towards. All these combined elements will help us to obtain the clearest and most complete picture of Jesus available.

How not to read
What we, instead, must not do, is project our preconceived ideas into what we read. By doing so and using only partial aspects of the gospels, we could in effect end up with a skewed image of Jesus, or one that is perhaps more to (or in) our likeness. For example, if we tend to be quarrelsome, presumptuous and judgmental towards others, we could find some excuse for it in the image of Jesus angrily driving out the money changers and merchants from the temple. If we tend, instead, towards self perfection, legalism and an intolerant attitude towards sinners, we could feel justified by Jesus’ statement "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shall not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart"[5]. By focusing only on partial aspects of the Gospel, instead of looking at the whole,  we can easily paint Jesus as an angry prophet who punishes the wicked with a whip, or as an unforgiving moralist who, not only punishes people for the wrongs they do, but even for those they merely imagine.

Getting the full picture
This is why is so important to aim for a full spectrum of what Jesus was like, which is done by reading, comparing and studying the Gospels until each aspect of His life and message blend together as one. Let us take, for example, the sentence which was just quoted on adultery; taken alone it leads to certain automatic conclusions, but if we wish for a fuller picture, we need to search in the Gospels for how Jesus handled the various cases of adultery which he encountered. There is the adulteress who was brought to him for judgment, the Samaritan woman who had had five husbands and was living with a man she was not married to, Mary Magdalene, and so on [6].

This same principle works goes for everything else that we’ll be studying in the Bible. If we now apply it faithfully to our reading of the Gospels, I am convinced that, except for a few questions here and there, we will gain a fairly clear picture of Jesus, of what he taught and how he behaved. What’s more, is that His thoughts will begin to run through our minds, and his behavior will start to show in ours. Hopefully we will have reached the goal of this first part of our study. In any situation which we may encounter, we’ll then be able to ask "if Jesus was here now, what would he do?" and the answer should be easy. At that point we shall be ready to move on, as we will have learned the basic criterion to use for the rest of our study.

I end here this introduction by wishing you a happy and rewarding immersion into the Gospels.

Note: I tried not to be repetitive, but to make each part as complete as possible so that it could be used also as a separate unit, some repeating was unavoidable. Some deeper insights into some aspects of this course, but which I did not consider essential to the same, I have included as appendixes. They are mostly answer to some specific question that may arise while studying.

1. John 1, 1 to 3:14
2. 1st Corinthians 13, 12
3. John 16, 12 to 14
4. Gospel of John 14, 8:09
5. Matthew 5; 27.28
6. John 8: 3 to 11 and John 4: 16 to 19