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The Christadelphian | June 2009

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Fellowship in the Gospel: 10 – Keeping the traditions
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Secret strength” | Harry Tennant
  • CD / DVD Review: Daily Bible Readings on CD / DVD | Andrew E. Walker
  • Sorrow and mourning | Bereaved in Christ
  • Love one another fervently | Dudley Fifield
  • Pause and ponder 29 – Married in the Lord, part 12: Fidelity – being faithful in marriage | Stephen Whitehouse
  • “With me in paradise” | Steve Weston
  • What do people want to know? | David Jennings
  • Being a Christadelphian | The committee of The Christadelphian
  • The challenge of the cross | James Andrews
  • The Letter to the Philippians 6 – “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12-16) | Mark Allfree
  • Signs of the times Annexation by stealth?
  • Israel and their land Under pressure
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

The challenge of the cross

AT the time the Apostle Paul arrived in Corinth (Acts 18:1) in around AD 51, the city was the third largest in the Roman Empire. Since being re-founded by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Corinth had been a Roman colony with a thoroughly Roman administrative structure. However, the Greek traditions and philosophies of the surrounding area were a strong presence in the city, and its position as a wealthy seaport made it a melting pot for many different philosophical schools and pagan cults.

We know of a large Jewish presence in the city not only from Acts 18:8, which records the conversion of the synagogue leader Crispus and his household, but also from documentary and archaeological sources outside the Bible. Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher, mentions Corinth as one of the cities of the Jewish Diaspora; and an undated door lintel has been discovered in the remains of the city inscribed with the words “Synagogue of the Hebrews”.

However, the Apostle Paul’s surviving letters to the early ecclesia in Corinth reveal that its membership was not only made up of Jewish Christians, but was representative of the ethnic, cultural and social diversity of the city as a whole. In his call for the ecclesia to be united in Christ Paul says that all were baptized into one body, whether “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12:13 – all quotations from the ESV) – a statement which must reflect the ecclesia’s make-up. Besides that, the Corinthian letters contain Roman names (for example, Fortunatus, Quartus and Justus) and Greek ones (Stephanus, Achaicus and Erastus), as well as referring to Jews like Aquila and Prisca.

So in his letters to the Corinthians, Paul felt it necessary to draw a sharp distinction not only between the Gospel message and the contemporary teachings of Judaism, but also between the Gospel message and the ‘wisdom’ of the Greeks. The message of Christ crucified, he said, was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Greco-Roman religions

The people of the ancient Greek and Roman world popularly derived their religious understanding from their myths, the stories of the gods and their occasional and generally capricious interventions into human lives. These myths survive in works like the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the plays of great tragedians like Aeschylus and Sophocles, and the writings of Roman poets like Ovid and Virgil.

In the Greek and Roman myths the gods live apart from mortal life, deathless, ageless and strong, feeding on continual supplies of ambrosia and nectar. The twelve gods of Mount Olympus live in tranquillity and peace and their home is never disturbed by wind, rain or snow. The gods of the ancient world embodied an idealised form of human life – what human life would be like without the weaknesses and frailties to which human beings are subject. The gods intervene in the messiness of human affairs only when it suits their whims.

The pagan writer Celsus reveals most clearly how alien the Christian concept of God was to those who followed the popular traditions of the Greco-Roman cults. His writings show that from a pagan perspective, the message of a god who desired to be the father of “sinners ... the needy ... [and] the very offscourings [of men]” (Contra Celsum, 6.53) was anathema.

Still more incredible was the idea that a god would send his own son to associate with sinners. Celsus’ incredulity that such a person as Jesus could be the son of a god is apparent in his account of Jesus’ ministry: “Jesus having gathered around him ten or eleven persons of notorious character, the very wickedest of tax-gatherers and sailors, fled in company with them from place to place, and obtained his living in a shameful and importunate manner” (Contra Celsum, 1.62).

Pagans like Celsus expected their gods to be powerful and beyond all human weakness. But as Paul taught the Corinthians, the true God is a God who is concerned for all human beings, especially those who are weak. For, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world … so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

The “folly” of the cross

Celsus wrote his anti-Christian polemic The True Word in the late second century AD. It is known to us because it is extensively quoted in the refutation of the work by the Church Father Origen in his Contra Celsum (AD 248). Celsus’ writings recorded in this later work provide us with one of the best illustrations of the fact that the cross of Christ was, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “folly to Gentiles”.

Celsus wrote at a time when the false doctrine of the deity of Christ was beginning to be developed in some Christian circles. Interpreting the Christian message in the light of that doctrine, Celsus asks a series of rhetorical questions about Christ’s attitude at the time of his crucifixion: “What great deeds did Jesus perform as being a god? Did he put his enemies to shame, or bring to a ridiculous conclusion what was designed against him? ... If not before, yet why now, at least, does he not give some manifestation of his divinity, and free himself from this reproach, and take vengeance upon those who insult both him and his father?” (Contra Celsum, 2.33, 35).

For a pagan, it was impossible for a god or a son of a god to display such apparent weakness as Jesus. A god would never accept abuse or insult, or refuse to take vengeance on his enemies. Divinity, as far as the Greco-Roman religious cults were concerned, could be proved only by a demonstration of power far above the frailties of human existence – and certainly not by willing submission to the cruellest form of human torture and death.

Yet Jesus’ life, teachings and death on the cross were a witness to the world that the true path to God lies only in humility, obedience, service and self-sacrifice. They were a challenge to a world which idolised the rich and powerful whilst ignoring the poor and downtrodden.

So today, the message of the cross of Christ continues to overturn human aspirations, revealing that true riches are to be found not in the pursuit of the ‘perfect’ lifestyle of modern celebrity culture – perhaps our equivalent of the myths of the ancient gods – but in God alone. As Paul writes:

“He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30)

James Andrews


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