by, Feb 13th 2012 at 07:31 PM (227 Views)
"What's In a Name?"
In the first part I chronicled Paul's work in Athens and distinguished it from the earlier work in Thessalonica and Berea. Athens was somewhat of a cultural estuary that typified some of the attitudes among the cultural elite in the Hellenic settings of the world that Paul traveled in. Paul, the Pharisee, was able to communicate with the Greeks because he could become like 'one not under the law'. His experience there typifies what we face today.
Our modern setting is one of religious pluralism; there are a growing number of 'new' religions from outside Christianity, and a diverse opinion amongst Christians themselves as to what Christianity is. We are divided among Evangelicals, Othodox, fundamentalists, Liberal, Conservation, Mainline Denominational, Biblical, etc. etc. It is this pluralism that makes us so like the Athenians. This diversity competes for our attention, our time, our hearts, and our lives. As the Gospel was being spread in the first century, it encountered a society that was diverse, pluralistic, and largely secular with a deep Hellenistic background and a Roman sense of peace and jurisprudence. The Gospel was just one 'Way' among thousands in which to view the hope of so many lives.
The first century believers were called 'Christians' in the same way that followers of Epicurus were called 'Epicureans' and the followers of Plato were called 'Platonists'. (The Stoics are a curious case; their founder was Zeno, and they were named for frequenting the Stoa of porch in the Agora or marketplace.) The Cypriotes who were witnessing in Antioch talked about 'Christ' and the Greek citizens of Antioch (a thoroughly Greek name for a city) naturally called them 'Christianoi' or 'Christians'. The name does not appear to be derogatory, but simply descriptive of the name that was on their lips and that described the 'new religion' they were preaching. As we have seen, this is actually more descriptive than what Paul was/will be called in Athens.
Years later, Peter will make this admonition to his readers in the fourth chapter of his first letter, '...16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. '. The name of 'Christian' is now an honorable association that brings glory to those who suffer under that name. For Peter and his readers, the name associated them with God and His will; to bring God the glory through what they suffered. By this time, they were a 'sect' to the other Jews and Gentiles, a name that was filling the whole world with the message of the Gospel, as Paul told the Colossians. By the end of the first century AD, the Christians were found almost everywhere in the Empire. Rich, poor, elite, down trodden, upper class and slaves were all represetned in the 'Body of Christ.
There are some who have crossed this board who find the term 'Christian' unacceptable for a variety of reasons; much of it having to do with the modern connotations and usages of the term. I can sympathize, but I take my cue more from the New Testament writings, as such. Before we go further, I would like to go a little backwards in Acts, to the fourteenth chapter and the city of Lystra. This is Paul's first missionary journey, and he is traveling with Barnabas (John Mark left them when they left the city of Paphos on Cyprus bound for Perga.) They would preach in the synagogues in each city until the Jewish leaders threw them out, then they would go preach to the Gentiles.
In preaching to the Gentiles, they had to show how they differed from the accepted teaching of the leaders, and how the message of the Gospel was the true fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures (the 'Bible' of Paul, so to speak.) We will shortly look at an example of how the Roman authorities treated such disputes, but for now you can follow Paul's progress from Antioch (in Pisidia) to Iconium and then, finally, to Lystra and Derbe. Paul and Barnabas picked quite a bit of opposition form the Jews and Gentiles for their efforts, and it tended to follow them along the way. In short, Paul and Barnabas took a lot of religious flack for their teaching.
So, they roll into Lystra one day and set up shop. Paul is preaching, when he sees a lame man just setting there, listening. Now, the first point I see is this, they did not start teaching in a synagogue, but were in the open market place. Why no synagogue, it was the place where Paul usually started. I think there was none, just as there was only a 'place of prayer' at Philippi. Lystra was a smallish, 'back woods' type of frontier town; big for the area, but small overall. It was in the Lycaonian district, and was just another Roman district in the Povince of Asia. As such, it had a varied, and colorful history but had lately sunk into the Roman Pax and suffered relative obscurity for the moment. Not far from Iconium, it was a 'truck stop' on the upper highway, a natural highland road that ran from about Ephesus to the Cilician Gates.
The whole are was a high table land, about three thousand two feet in elevation, a good day's walk, all in all. So, Paul and Barnabas arrive and set up a preaching post in the market place. They did not appear to have visited the synagogue, possibly because there was not one. As he is preaching, Paul sees a lame man listening intently to his message. Luke says that Paul understood he had 'faith to be healed', perhaps was highly receptive to the message, so Paul heals him. Now, I see a clear line in scripture that goes from Christ, to Peter, and finally to Paul. In the New Testament writings, they all three healed lame men and had to defend what they did and why they did it. Paul's was unigque in that it involved Gentiles and their religious views.
In John eight, Jesus heals a man who has been sick and lame for many years. The story, however, is really centered around the Pharisees, and Jewish, reaction to what Jesus did and claimed. It is instructive to read that chapter in light of Jesus' testimony about who He is, and what the Pharisee's 'know' and 'think'. In short, Jesus tells them that they put their trust in the Scriptures, yet it is the scriptures who testify of Him. The Jews, Jesus claims, do not even understand the scriptures. They sent to talk about John, yet John testified to Him. They accepted John's testimony, and yet reject the testimony of One who is greater than John.
Jesus than points out that He does greater works than John, but they do not accept the works, and in this case the healing of the lame man, at face value; that they point to the veracity of Jesus testimony. They choose to dismiss it or to simply see it as proof that he is working miracles by the power of Beelzebub. (Actually, it is the Synoptice who teach us this about the Pharisees.) My point here is that the Jews had a way of 'filtering' the phenomena to fit in with what they believed. Jesus did not accept their teaching, so He 'HAD' to be wrong, and so he was not really doing what He did by the power of God. The one Jesus healed seems to have turned against Jesus and reported Him to the Jewish authorities. It might have been his way of simply following orders, or maybe he had some doubts about Jesus, even as he walked around on the legs that Jesus had healed.
So, we move on to Acts three and four. In the third chapter, Peter heals a lame man (I have heard it said that certain people in the New Testament must have had a sneakers endorsement because they created so many new walkers and runners). Then, in front of an astonished crowd, he preaches a gospel message. Predictably, the Temple police come along and arrest Peter and John. What is significant is that it is the Sadducees (who are the ruling High Priests) who instigate the arrests. The Pharisees are not mentioned in this setting. Luke states that the two Apostles were arrested for preaching about the resurrection; the Sadducee did not believe in a resurrection of any kind.
In these two incidents we have an example of message clarification, both were attempts to state the true faith, or meaning, in the light of prevailing error and opposition to the truth. We see that today, and it just clouds the message. The miraculous element is cut out of the message, the distinctiveness is blurred, or an attempt is made to blend the Gospel in with other religious themes. So now, we return to Paul and how he dealt with the Gentile misconceptions.
Luke tells us, in Acts fourteen, that the crowd, on seeing the lame man healed, immediately wanted to give thanks to the local deities, interpreting as an act of the power of their Gods. They felt that Zeus and Hermes, in the form of Barnabas and Paul respectively, had come to visit them. So, the local priest wanted to offer a sacrafice to those two deities. The crowd, even though Paul had been preaching to them, still wanted to force their own religious views on the situation. It took the two Apostles a lot of energetic talking and acting to stop the crowd from carrying out their wishes, the bulls offered to Zeus were safe for that day. There was much grumbling among the populace over this.
So, when the Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived, they were able to turn the crowds against the two teachers of 'atheism' (so Christians were later accused of for denying the existence of the gods). Paul was stoned, but was able to get up and go back and preach some more. The upshot is that the Jews who opposed Pagan deities, also made common cause with dthe same Pagans to stop the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel had to be preached in the face of Pagan teaching, and in the face of Jewish opposition and influence of the prevailing teaching about the Law of Moses. In Antioch and Iconium the Jewish leaders were able even to turn many Gentiles who were 'God Fearers' against the message.
The analogy for us is striking in that we often see opposition to a right interpretation of the Gospel message; it is still true that in many parts of the world the gospel is mixed up with politics and with prevailing attitudes of morals and 'civil' rights. The Lycaonians saw the healing as an act of the gods, the Jews wanted to disregard the power of the healings because the message preached clashed with 'accepted doctrine'. It all sounds so familiar to today.
I had planned to end this, but I am afraid it will go on for at least one more part. Believe me, I am as anxious to move on as your are for me to be done with this. But, I have not talked about at least two events that append in Chapters eighteen and nineteen of Acts. My whole point has been this, that the first century was not as monolithic as you might think in regards to understanding of the Scriptures. You could even see the events of Acts fifteen as being a sort of 'coming to an understanding' about what it all meant.