Preaching in Acts | The Voice 9.45: November 10, 2019

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The Voice

Preaching in Acts

Luke wrote the book of Acts to set forth how Jesus worked and taught through His Apostles as He sent them out to bear witness to Him in Jerusalem, all Israel, and throughout the Roman Empire (Acts 1:1-3, 8). At crucial points in that narrative Luke went to great lengths to record the way the Gospel was proclaimed by Peter and Paul: Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), Peter in the Temple (Acts 3:11-26), Peter before Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43), Paul in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41), and Paul on Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31).

These five sections represented the times when Peter or Paul would proclaim the Gospel to crowds; to that end they provide invaluable insight into the philosophy and substance of how the work of God in Jesus was set forth among Jewish and Gentile people of the first century. Luke also recorded the defenses, or apologies, of Peter, Stephen, and Paul (Acts 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 7:2-53, 22:1-21, 24:10-21, 26:2-29); they also provide great value and insight into apostolic witness of the Gospel, yet in a different context. In the five examples of Peter and Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel under consideration the Apostles and their message find no constraint and focus entirely on what God has done in Jesus; if we would learn from the Apostles how the Gospel should be preached, we do well to explore these examples.

In every instance the core, fundamental emphasis in the proclamation of the Gospel in Acts centers on Jesus’ resurrection: the proclamation of the resurrection as a factual historical event, prophesied in Scripture, and confirmed by apostolic witness (Acts 2:24-35, 3:15-26, 10:40-42, 13:29-37, 17:18, 30-31). References were made to Jesus’ life, ministry, and death, yet all to lead up to Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. Acts 2:22-23); the Apostles explained how Jesus was made Lord in the resurrection, and would come again in judgment, yet both were dependent on Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. Acts 2:36, 17:30-31). Among the Jewish and God-fearing peoples of Israel the Apostles assumed previous knowledge of what Jesus had done and that He had died (e.g. Acts 2:22-23, 10:36-37); it was the news that God had raised Jesus from the dead that shook the world and changed everything. Jesus’ resurrection allowed for a reassessment of His death: He may have been seen as an insurrectionist criminal, a failed Messiah, but the resurrection demonstrated how His death was to provide for the remission of sins and liberation from the forces of evil, fulfilling what had been declared by the prophets, and vindicating Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 3:15-26, 13:29-40). Furthermore, even though they had been granted authority from the Holy Spirit on high, the Apostles presented themselves as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and its implications (e.g. Acts 2:14-36). Even when Peter or Paul would point out the sinful behavior of the people, they provided the means of explanation or escape: they acted in ignorance, and God was now calling on them to repent (Acts 3:17-19, 17:30-31). The Apostles understood themselves as those sent with the message of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection: they did not claim or presume a posture of imperiousness, arrogance, or sanctimony, but gave all the glory to God in Christ.

The Apostles did not depend on their own witness alone; they understood that all things ought to be established by two or three witnesses, and as they preached the Gospel, they firmly rooted it in the heritage of Israel and the promises of the prophets. The majority of Peter’s proclamation on Pentecost set forth what Israel saw as the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 and Jesus’ resurrection as foretold by David in Psalm 16:9-11 (Acts 2:14-36). When Peter spoke of Jesus in the Temple he cited Moses’ promise of a prophet like him to arise among the people in Deuteronomy 18:15 and the Abrahamic blessing of Genesis 22:18; Peter’s entire presentation of the Gospel is saturated in oblique references to prophetic themes (Acts 3:11-26). Paul began his proclamation of the Gospel before the Antiochians of Pisidia with a recounting of Israel’s history, appealed to Psalm 2:3, 7 and 16:9-11 to set forth Jesus as the Son of God in the resurrection, and concluded with the prophetic warning of Habakkuk 1:5 (Acts 13:16-41). Even though Paul never explicitly quoted the Hebrew Bible when preaching to the Athenians on Areopagus, his rhetoric was rooted in the emphases of the psalms and the prophets: God as One, the Creator, displaying covenant loyalty, and not an idol (Acts 17:22-29). The Gospel of Jesus the Christ can never be divorced from the Hebrew Bible; the Apostles never suggested that Jesus could be accepted but His heritage dismissed. Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel and all God had promised Israel; the Gospel of Jesus cannot be proclaimed without reference to the story of how God has interacted with His people throughout time, and seen as the climax of God’s involvement with His people (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).

The Apostles did not force or impose the Gospel on anyone; in each circumstance they were given the invitation to speak in some way or another, to explain what was going on or to provide a word of encouragement (e.g. Acts 2:12, 13:15). Peter and Paul sought the point of agreement in understanding, and began there: for Israelites, all the prophets had promised, and what Jesus had done; for Gentiles, the truth of the Creator God behind the religiosity they maintained in their ignorance (e.g. Acts 2:22-23, 17:22-29). Paul warned the Israelites about what the prophets had warned (Acts 13:41); Peter and Paul warned the God-fearers and Gentiles regarding the day of judgment to come (Acts 10:42, 17:30-31). Many heard and obeyed (Acts 2:41); others did not (Acts 17:32). Whatever the result, the Apostles had done what they were charged to do: they had witnessed to Jesus as the Risen Christ (Acts 1:8).

Christians today live almost two thousand years later and were not eyewitnesses of what God accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; nevertheless, we can gain much from how Peter and Paul preached the Gospel in Acts. Even if we do not see the signs and wonders as were performed in the first century, we still find opportunities to find and reach people with the Gospel; outreach and finding the opportunities are important, but as with the Apostles, so with us: until we tell someone about what God accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have not yet proclaimed the Gospel or truly evangelized. We do best to bear witness to what the Apostles witnessed as confirmed by the prophets, and to provide that witness when invited to do so. There is no place for coercion or compulsion in evangelism, or association between the faith and nation-states: it should never have been presumed that members of a given nation-state should have been Christians because they were citizens of that nation-state, and the “spread” of forms of “Christianity” by the sword remains forever lamentable. We ought to find the point of agreement with others, and from there explain what God accomplished in Jesus and what it means for the creation. People do need to have some understanding of sin and transgression and its eternal consequences in order to appreciate the forgiveness of sins offered in Jesus (Romans 5:6-11, etc.); nevertheless, warnings about judgment are only found at the end of the presentation of the Gospel by Peter in Paul in certain instances, not at the beginning, and with appropriate provisions to assure the people how they acted in ignorance and how God will forgive if they will repent.

The Apostles proclaimed Jesus the Christ crucified and risen, and the world has never been the same. The same Gospel still has the power of salvation, and God still desires for all to hear the Gospel and be saved (Romans 1:16, 3:10-11, 1 Timothy 2:4). We ought to be thankful for the examples of preaching in Acts; how would we know how to approach evangelism without them? We do well to bear witness to the apostolic witness and encourage all to anchor their trust in God in Christ and hope in the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hellfire and Brimstone Evangelism | The Voice 9.44: November 03, 2019

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Hellfire and Brimstone Evangelism

You have seen them out on the streets: men and women holding signs that condemn all sorts of people to hell for various sins. Some will call out passersby, call them names, and tell them they are going to hell. You have heard the sermons that intend to frighten people into submission, the message saturated in wrath and hellfire. Those who do and proclaim such things often seem to revel in confrontation, disagreement, dispute, and denunciation, proving self-satisfied, having “preached the truth hard” and been “persecuted for their righteousness” as a result.

“Hellfire and brimstone” evangelism has a long history, particularly in America: Jonathan Edwards remains famous for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, after all. Yet Edwards preached before a congregation out of concern regarding the salvation of his people. What would lead people to stand on street corners and pronounce such condemnation? Why would preachers not only constantly emphasize the theme, but even elevate its emphasis as a marker of faithfulness?

We do best to give the people who participate in hellfire and brimstone evangelism the benefit of the doubt and not automatically assume selfish or impure motives. They have heard the Bible’s call to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ to everyone (Matthew 28:18-20). They have read the prophets of the Old Testament and have seen how the prophets denounced the Israelites for their sins. They have heard the belief that America is a “Christian nation” and thus assume everyone should have some knowledge of Christianity and Jesus. Thus, all Americans should know better and should stop sinning. They feel they have a type of “prophetic ministry,” to go and tell Americans about their sins like the prophets spoke to Israel and Jesus to some of the Israelites of His own day.

Likewise, we do well to give the benefit of the doubt to those who believe emphasizing “hellfire and brimstone” in the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus did warn Israelites about the dangers of hellfire and the outer darkness (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30, 13:47-50, 25:31-46); Paul also warned about the condemnation of the wicked (e.g. Romans 1:18-32, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Throughout time many have wished to suppress or eliminate the doctrine of hell through outright rejection, denial, or simply ignoring the matter by neglect. In response it is tempting to strongly, consistently, and continually preach about hellfire and brimstone to demonstrate opposition towards all who would deny or suppress the doctrine. Many also believe it is healthy to have a strong fear of hellfire and damnation; some remember a day when such preaching would lead some to repent and come to salvation in Jesus.

Israel’s prophets did denounce the Israelites with very strong condemnatory language (e.g. Ezekiel 5:1-17). Yet the prophets spoke to Israel, the people of God. They recognized, and confessed, YHWH as the God of Israel who had brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt. They served YHWH; they also served other gods and acted like everyone else did in the ancient Near Eastern world, and this latter worldliness was the problem. YHWH warned His people regarding imminent doom in very stark, powerful, and even vulgar terms (e.g. Hosea 1:1-3:5, Ezekiel 16:1-63). Yet God did so out of the pain of betrayal and unfaithfulness, illustrated by the frequent metaphor of Israel as the faithless, adulterous wife. Through the prophets YHWH did also denounce the nations around Israel, but generally because of what they had done to Israel; furthermore, these prophecies were proclaimed to the Israelites, not to the nations themselves (e.g. Isaiah 13:1-21:17, Amos 1:1-2:3).

Jesus also infamously denounced people with sharp condemnation (e.g. Matthew 23:1-36); Jesus warned regarding hellfire more than anyone else in Scripture (e.g. Mark 9:42-48). Yet it is important to keep in mind those to whom Jesus spoke. Jesus did declare how all the unrepentant wicked would be condemned (Matthew 13:47-50), but generally warned Israelites about condemnation (e.g. Matthew 8:11-12, 25:14-41): the people of God, zealous in their devotion to God, yet not entirely according to knowledge. Furthermore, Jesus did not thus denounce the sinners of Israel; He had compassion on the people of Israel, called them to repentance, and they heard Him because He did not treat them the way their religious authorities did (e.g. Matthew 9:9-13). Instead, Jesus denounced those who should have indeed “known better”: the Pharisees, scribes, and other religious authorities, as displayed in Matthew 23:1-36. In a sad irony, the type of people whom Jesus would most strongly warned regarding the dangers of hellfire and brimstone today would be the very people out condemning others themselves.

The Apostles also warned about judgment, especially regarding the condemnation of unbelievers (e.g. Romans 1:18-32, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10). Yet these warnings were written to Christians, not to unbelievers. Warning about condemnation is a part of the proclamation of the Gospel even among those who do not believe (e.g. Acts 17:30-31), but let us consider how Paul declared it. Paul began by proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection among the Athenians (Acts 17:16-21); he then proclaimed to them the “Unknown God” they had served in ignorance, demonstrating how God is our Creator and cannot be portrayed with an image (Acts 17:22-29). Then, and only then, Paul told them that God would judge everyone through Jesus, and gave assurance of the day of judgment through His resurrection (Acts 17:30-31). Before they could be warned about condemnation, the pagan Gentiles needed to know something about the Creator God and what He had accomplished in Jesus. A picket sign of condemnation cannot provide that kind of understanding.

The United States of America is not, and has never been, a truly “Christian nation.” Its people are not automatically the people of God and should not be treated as such. Americans need to hear the Gospel, including warnings about the judgment day to come, but they must hear the full and complete Gospel, starting with who God is and what He has done for us in Jesus. We cannot assume people understand who God is or that they have sinned or anything else of the sort; to just hear a message of condemnation is not to convey the love of God in Christ.

The Apostles preached and taught among believers regarding judgment and condemnation, and for good reason: Christians ought to be reminded occasionally about the dangers of sin so as to continue resisting against the forces of evil, and to be reinforced in God’s justice and the coming wrath of God against all iniquity (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 6:9-17, 16:1-21). Those who would preach “hellfire and brimstone” do well to remember how Jesus did so primarily as a warning to those people of God who profess Him but do not follow His commandments (Matthew 25:14-36). The condemnation of unbelievers is explained to demonstrate the sinfulness of all people and to give hope of God’s judgment, not as a reason to cackle and delight in the death of the wicked. We have no basis upon which to insist that “hellfire and brimstone” preaching be a primary means of communicating the Gospel; while it has its place, we must also remember that there is no fear in love, and that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). “Hellfire and brimstone” preaching can lead many to properly revere God and avoid sin; the same preaching can also traumatize many, especially young children, and continual emphasis can lead to malformed and maladapted faith. Fear can motivate only so much and so far; only love can motivate a person to a full self-sacrificial faith in Jesus (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 1 John 4:7-21).

There is a place for warning unbelievers about the judgment and the prospect of condemnation, but holding signs and speaking words of condemnation as an evangelism tactic is not appropriate. They must first learn about God our Creator and His work in Jesus before warnings about judgment and condemnation will make any sense. Christians ought to hear preaching about judgment and the danger of condemnation, not to try to establish some kind of bona fides, but out of concern for the souls of people lest they fall away from the faith and fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 3:12, 10:31, 12:29). “Hellfire and brimstone” preaching can be potent, and that power must be used responsibly with a clear understanding of its potential deleterious effects when over-emphasized. Jesus came with a warning, but He came primarily in love; may all who hear the Gospel and see it embodied in us find the love of God in Christ, and come to a knowledge of the truth and salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Babel and Sexuality | The Voice 9.43: October 27, 2019

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Babel and Sexuality

We have witnessed unprecedented changes in socially acceptable approaches toward human sexuality over the past few generations in Western society. Many factors lie behind these changes, but we would be remiss to neglect the role of medical and technological developments in these matters. Ideas and practices which were entirely theoretical not long ago are now being practiced or soon will be; practice has outpaced ethics and morality in these medical and technological advances.

We see these tendencies manifest in how our culture treats contraception, fertility treatments, and transgenderism. Contraception is now a given in Western culture: men and women both believe they can and should have complete control over the reproductive process. They will decide if, when, and how many children they will have. If they encounter difficulties, fertility treatments may be used. Thanks to fertility treatments men and women who practice homosexuality can bear children, either themselves or through surrogates. We do not have the time to discuss the fate of many of those frozen embryos which are created but are “left over” after the fertility treatments have concluded. The newest “hot button” issue features transgender individuals and the ability to somewhat “transform” and express the physical gender characteristics of the opposite gender.

We may find it profitable to consider these matters in light of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At Babel man came together to build a monument to his own greatness lest he be scattered over the whole earth (Genesis 11:4); ever since, mankind has attempted to exert authority and power over nature and the natural way of things, and seeks to resist the created order of things.

To some degree this contest is a natural part of the fall: we strive to eke out a living despite the dangers around us (Genesis 3:17-19). We live in houses with climate control and take advantage of medical and technological advancements which help us overcome natural limitations and difficulties. A desire to preserve and improve life is not contrary to God’s purposes.

And yet consider how many secular advocates of contraception, fertility treatments, and transgenderism speak. They take pride in resisting nature; they glory in facilitating that which is ultimately unnatural and contrary to God’s created order (Romans 1:18-32). They are able to actually accomplish what the pagan Gentiles of old could only dream about. Western fertility rates have plummeted beyond the natural rate of replication on account of contraceptive choice. Men and women who practice homosexuality in committed relationships can only have children through artificial means if they would remain “faithful” to each other. Those who attempt to “transition” between genders are commended as proving “courageous.” How do they express this “courage”? They attempt to fight against the created order of things.

The Scriptures make it clear that God is the source of life, practicing homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s will, and God made man and woman distinctly and yet both in His image (Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 139:13-14, Romans 1:24-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). We must approach these matters with discretion and wisdom. The New Testament does not require married couples to bear children or dictate how many each should have; nevertheless, we do well to ask whether contraceptive choices and/or fertility treatments are being used to glorify God or whether they are our attempt to maintain artificial control over our lives like at Babel. While God has made people male and female, we should not find it surprising that in the corruption of creation in the fall some people may have hormones that do not correspond to their body parts, and vice versa (Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-22). And yet, is not deciding to reject the physical expression of gender and to “transition” to a different physical gender like unto Babel, resisting God’s created order and making a monument to man’s ability to overthrow nature?

Difficulties surrounding contraception, fertility treatments, and transgenderism will not be going away anytime soon. We do well to ground our consideration of them in Christ, how He created the world, and the consequences of the fall. May we do all things to God’s glory and resist participating in building new Babels to man’s greatness and fears!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Idolatry | The Voice 9.42: October 20, 2019

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Works of the Flesh: Idolatry

The Apostle Paul displayed great concern for the Christians of the churches in Galatia. He wanted to make sure they understood what kind of character and behaviors embodied the follower of Jesus, and the character and behaviors which proved inconsistent with what God made known in Christ. He deemed the latter the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul’s first three concerns involved a kaleidoscope of challenges generally related to sexuality: sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness. These sins were especially challenging for the many Gentiles who had come out of the sexually licentious Greco-Roman society, as was Paul’s next sin, idolatry. The word translated as “idolatry” is the Greek term eidololatreia, defined by Thayer as:

1) the worship of false gods, idolatry
1a) of the formal sacrificial feats held in honour of false gods
1b) of avarice, as a worship of Mammon
2) in the plural, the vices springing from idolatry and peculiar to it

We should not be surprised to find idolatry among Paul’s concerns. As an Israelite, Paul well understood how his ancestors’ compromise with the ways of the world in seeking to serve both YHWH as God and the host of “gods” of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian world as gods led to the devastation of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and exile into foreign lands (2 Kings 17:6-23, Ezekiel 16:1-65, Hosea 1:1-3:5). The Jewish people of the Second Temple Period had their difficulties and sins, yet they recognized the great danger of serving the gods of the nations around them. Many proved willing to suffer greatly, even to the point of death, rather than capitulate by defiling their service to God or to serve other gods.

Meanwhile, the Greco-Roman world of the first century remained awash in temples with statues within them representing all kinds of gods (cf. Acts 17:16). Christians among the nations had just escaped from such idolatry and would have lived under great pressure from their society and culture to honor the ancestral gods again (1 Thessalonians 1:9, Revelation 2:12-29). Little wonder, then, that Paul would condemn idolatry here as well as in 1 Corinthians 10:13, and Peter would testify to the same in 1 Peter 4:3.

Such idolatry was easily rationalized based on all that peer pressure: those gods are not really gods; it is not a big deal; I can just pretend to honor idols but really fully serve God. Or, perhaps, the consequences of affirming one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ could be costly; what if we are wrong? Would it not be wiser to hedge our bets and give honor to all gods?

The prophets had addressed these kinds of matters with Israel of old, and Paul set forth similar arguments in Romans 1:18-32. The One True God is a jealous God; He would have His people glorify and honor Him for what He has given them (Exodus 34:14, Ezekiel 16:1-65). When Israel committed idolatry and rationalized it in ways similar to those given above, God through the prophets compared Israel to an unfaithful wife committing adultery and prostitution (cf. Hosea 1:1-3:5, Ezekiel 16:1-65). God is loyal to covenant; His people expect Him to be loyal to His covenant; it is not too much to expect His people to be loyal to their covenant with Him. Attributing the gifts of God to the things which God has made does not glorify God; God’s jealous anger will be poured out on those who do so!

What Paul and the prophets had to say about idolatry was never limited to physical statues and the “gods” people believed they represented: it also related to the fears and impulses which led to the imagining of such “gods”. In Ephesians 5:3 and Colossians 3:5 Paul associates covetousness, or greed, with idolatry. Such is consistent with Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:24 regarding how no one can serve both God and Mammon, a personalization of money or wealth. Jesus explains clearly the difficulty with serving money and serving God: you cannot do both satisfactorily, and you will be forced at many opportunities to choose one over the other. Idolatry, therefore, is much more than just bowing down to a statue of a god; idolatry occurs any time a person gives honor and glory which ought to be given to God instead to something God created. This is understood with money: if you desire much money, you will be often tempted to acquire it either shamefully or at the expense of your conscience and fellowship with God. If you are willing to dedicate the majority of your time, interest, behavior, and desire to get money, then money is your god, and you sacrifice plenty upon its altar. All you are missing is a statue of the Almighty Dollar!

But it is not just money. If we think about it, almost anything that God created can be made into an idol. Many people have made a god out of sexual desire. Others deeply lust for fame and recognition. Many offer undue devotion to their nation, their ethnicity, their hobbies or passions, or even toward people with whom they share relationships. Some make gods out of various disciplines of knowledge, science, or of knowledge itself. Not a few have made a god out of themselves.

There are many people to this very day who continue to venerate, serve, and honor statues as if they truly represented God or the gods; nevertheless, in the Western world, many have prided themselves on having “progressed” beyond such “barbarities” or “primitivism.” And yet idolatry remains as rampant in the modern world as it was in the days of Paul and the prophets. In truth, idolatry happens whenever we take something God gave to be good and to make it into an absolute in our lives: giving the glory due to the Creator to His creation (Romans 1:25). If it is profitable we can describe all sin in terms of idolatry, for sin crouches to ensnare us whenever we cease glorifying God as God and look elsewhere for satisfaction of our desires and impulses.

To this end we must give God the glory and honor due Him as our Creator who has maintained covenant loyalty with His people. If we give the glory and honor due to God to any aspect of His creation, even though those things God has created are good and for our use, exploration, and wonderment, we have committed idolatry, just as Israel of old did. Israel and Judah were taken into exile for their idolatry; how much more guilt shall we incur if we commit idolatry, seeing that God has sent His only Son to die for us that we may have eternal life? Indeed, not for nothing did the Apostle John leave Christians with the following meditation to conclude his first letter in 1 John 5:21:

My little children, guard yourselves from idols.

Ethan R. Longhenry

Paul on Areopagus | The Voice 9.41: October 13, 2019

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Preaching in Acts: Paul on Areopagus

At the time the event seemed hardly noticeable: just another babbler from a far-flung part of the Empire who had come to town to proclaim some strange new divinity. The Athenians had heard such people before, and would hear such people again. Yet it was not just another “babbler” proclaiming just another strange new divinity; it was Paul, and he had proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as the Risen Lord. The events of Jerusalem had been proclaimed in the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire and what it deemed the “civilized” world.

Paul had come to Athens from Thessalonica and Berea, escaping Jewish persecution and hostility (ca. 51; Acts 17:1-15). While waiting in the city his spirit was provoked by seeing all the idols around (Acts 17:16). He went and reasoned with the Jewish people in the synagogues and daily in the agora, or marketplace, in which Athenians would frequently gather and discuss and debate ideas (Acts 17:17, 21). Among those who encountered Paul were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, whose curiosity were piqued: to many he was just a babbler, others thought he was proclaiming strange gods (for they thought he spoke of Jesus and Anastasis, or resurrection), but they wanted to give him a hearing, and wanted to know what these things meant (Acts 17:17-20). In the first century Epicureanism and Stoicism were the most popular schools of philosophy, and stood in opposition against each other: Epicureans were firm materialists, believing the good life featured avoiding pain and seeking pleasure in moderation, while Stoics accepted the gods and fate, and encouraged all passions to be controlled through reason. Regardless, all were curious about what Paul had to say, according to the customs of the Athenians (Acts 17:21).

Paul then stood on Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill, a place used as a court by the Athenians for trials regarding murder and religious affairs (Acts 17:22). He began by recognizing how the Athenians were very deisidaimonesterous, which can mean “religious” with a positive connotation, or “superstitious” if given a negative connotation; this vagary is notable across translations, although it makes better sense to believe Paul was attempting to win over his audience, and thus used the term in a positive sense (Acts 17:22). He spoke of having come across an altar “to the unknown god” (Acts 17:23): the Athenians had a legacy of concern about dangers from gods of whom they were ignorant but who might get angry because no sacrifices were offered to them (cf. Euripides’ Bacchae). Paul used deft rhetoric, declaring that he was proclaiming to them the God whom they had been serving in ignorance (Acts 17:23). The God who had made the world and all within it, as Lord of heaven and earth, did not dwell in temples made by humans, nor was served by human hands, as if He were deficient; He gave to all life, breath, and everything (Acts 17:24-25). God had made from one man every nation of mankind dwelling throughout the earth, determining seasons for them and the limits of where they lived, and made them so that they would seek Him, if they might feel after Him (Acts 17:26-27). And yet God is not far from us, and Paul quoted Epimenides in his Cretica and Aratus from the Phainomena: in God we live and move and have our being, and we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:27-28). Paul drew his first conclusion: if humans represented the offspring of God, then humans cannot conceive of God as a statue of gold, silver, or stone, made by human skill (Acts 17:29). The Athenians had acted in ignorance; God would overlook that ignorance (Acts 17:30). God now commanded all humans everywhere to repent, for He had fixed a day on which He would judge the world in righteousness by the Man appointed to do so; He has given assurance of this judgment by raising this Man from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).

Upon hearing Paul proclaim the resurrection of the dead, some mocked (Acts 17:32); an understandable reaction, since most Greeks found little value in the flesh, and yearned to escape it. Some wished to hear Paul speak further regarding these matters (Acts 17:32); we cannot know whether they were sincere, looking for a more thorough explanation, or just enjoyed hearing ideas they deemed odd or strange. But a few heard, believed, and clung to Paul: Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and some others (Acts 17:34).

We cannot know how Paul felt after he went out from among the Athenians (Acts 17:33); maybe his experience in Athens was on his mind when he critiqued the Greek quest for wisdom in this world in 1 Corinthians 1:18-30. Nevertheless, his proclamation of God and Jesus on Areopagus was a master class in rhetoric and a demonstration of how the Gospel would be proclaimed among those without any heritage among the people of God in Israel.

Paul spoke to the Athenians where they were, literally and figuratively. The bulk of his proclamation represented a standard boilerplate Jewish apology for God and critique of pagan idolatry: at no point did he explicitly quote or appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures, and yet his language is suffused with themes which can be found in Genesis 1:1-2:25, 1 Kings 8:27/2 Chronicles 6:18, Psalm 50:7-14, Ecclesiastes 3:11, Isaiah 37:16, 40:12, 28, 44:9-21, 55:8-11, 66:1. When he did make an appeal to authorities, he quoted two Greek authors with whom he expected his audience to have some familiarity. It would have made no sense for Paul to appeal to the authority of Scripture to those entirely ignorant of Scripture. The Athenians were very religious and wished to serve the God who was unknown to them; Paul was more than happy to proclaim this God, His essential nature, His relationship with mankind, and His call for mankind to repent on account of a day of judgment to come.

We can easily make too much out of the differences between Paul’s preaching on Areopagus and other examples of Gospel preaching in the book of Acts. Peter had made much of the ignorance of the Jewish people in killing Jesus in Acts 3:17-19, and warned Cornelius of the coming day of judgment in Acts 10:42. While Paul has a different starting point on Areopagus, the conclusion remains the same: God has acted powerfully in Jesus and calls upon everyone to repent and serve Him as Lord.

God was serious when He commanded for the Gospel to go out into all the world and be proclaimed among all people (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15). Exactly how the Gospel gets proclaimed may look very different based upon different situations. We must begin the message at different points based upon wherever we can find a point of agreement. More principles of God’s truth might have to be made more explicit for those who have never heard. Yet the Gospel always ends up in the same place: Jesus of Nazareth lived as God in the flesh, the Son of God and Son of Man, fulfilled all God intended for the Messiah and of Israel, died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, was raised in power on the third day, was made Lord in His ascension, is Lord, and will return again. All mankind is to hear this message; all mankind is called upon to repent before the great and terrible day of judgment. May we all heed the Gospel, serve God in Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fear in Culture and Faith | The Voice 9.40: October 06, 2019

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Fear in Culture and Faith

As individuals, most people are sensible and rational. In groups, however, humans can easily become very irrational, affirming and doing things they would otherwise have abhorred. Fear represents a major catalyst for this kind of contrast.

Fear seems to drive how many approach conversations and issues regarding life, society, politics, and the like in modern Western culture. If there were ever a golden age of philosophically liberal principles in which people disagreed about important issues but remained confident in the good faith of those with whom they disagreed, it is now behind us. Powerful forces encourage and stoke the fears of people across the political and cultural spectrum, suggest binary thinking, and impose the “good versus evil” framework over everything. A person of good faith who disagrees with you becomes a mortal enemy against all that is right and good when fear takes hold. If one’s opponents obtain political power, fear intensifies and scrutinizes: everything they say or do is seen in the worst possible light. If one’s allies obtain or maintain political power, fear is lessened, but any criticism by the opposition will stoke the fearmongering once more. Furthermore, any misdeeds of political allies in power are easily justified and rationalized as if it would be far worse if the opposition were in power. In such a climate of fear no compromise can be reached; extremists easily win the day. Most people fear their particular fears; few are they who interrogate their own fears and strive to understand other people’s perspectives and why they fear what they fear.

In the world the Machiavellian posture, “it is better to be feared than loved,” works. Striving to make the world a better place by displaying love, friendship, kindness, and compassion remains an honorable endeavor, but it is fear that drives television ratings, voters to the polls, and foot soldiers for the cause. It remains easier to get a person to fear anyone who is different than they are than it is to get him or her to love their neighbor no matter their differences. It is always easier to blame a marginalized other for the problems of the day than to take a hard look in the mirror and admit one’s own deficiencies. Anyone who can conjure up an enemy and then provide a solution that will make people feel safer will find it easy to win elections.

While fear may be the currency of the world today, as Christians, we must submit ourselves to the purposes of God in Christ. It is true that Christians are called upon to submit to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21); “fear” might be better translated there as “reverence.” We are to revere and honor God as God, and never forget how much greater He is than we are. Likewise, if we fall into transgression without repentance, we have every reason to fear God with great terror; it remains a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

The core premise of the Gospel of Christ centers on the love of God displayed toward us in Christ Jesus (Romans 5:6-11, 1 John 4:7-21). As God has loved us, we are to love one another and our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37, John 13:34-35). Love, not fear, must provide the foundation for all we think, feel, and do as Christians: without love we gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

For generations many Christians have attempted to justify fear as a motivation toward righteous conduct; many sermons have featured a kind of “hellfire and brimstone” proclamation designed to terrify those who hear regarding the dangers of hell to encourage obedience to the Lord Jesus. We must be very careful about how we communicate about such things. Jesus Himself warned people regarding hellfire (e.g. Matthew 13:47-50); the Apostles warned Gentiles regarding the judgment to come (e.g. Acts 17:30-31).

A person might be motivated by the fear of the terrible consequences of damnation to turn to the Lord Jesus, but fear cannot sustain a full and complete righteousness which is pleasing in the sight of our God. God did provide warnings; yet God also provided not just promises, but primarily and fundamentally, the example of His Son Jesus. The call to follow the Lord Jesus and take up the cross can never be empowered by fear; only love. For good reason John declared that there is no fear in love, and how perfect love casts out fear in 1 John 4:18. Fear, by its very nature, creates a sense of division and alienation between the one fearing and the object feared. That which is feared is made into a terrifying other, and the other must be destroyed or suppressed before the fear mechanism can be allayed and a feeling of comfort and safety can return. Love, by its very nature, draws near to the beloved. Danger still exists, but love seeks to overcome that danger with presence, care, and understanding. Whatever we fear we cannot truly love. We can only love when fear has been cast out.

One of the most counter-cultural things Jesus declared was for His disciples to love their neighbors as themselves, even those neighbors who hated them and sought their harm (Luke 6:27-36, 10:25-37). The Apostle Peter expected the Christians of Asia Minor to do good for those who hated and persecuted them while they entrusted themselves to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:12-19). Anyone loves those who love them; Jesus calls Christians to love even those who hate them and would do them harm.

Love that seeks the best interest of the beloved even at the harm of the one loving does not come naturally. We naturally resist those who would harm us. God has commended His love toward us, however, by having Christ die while we were sinners, enemies, acting contrary to His purposes (Romans 5:6-11). The Christian’s only hope of salvation is in love displayed toward those who are unworthy, undeserving, and even, at least for a time, hostile.

Christians, therefore, must stand firm in resistance of the modern cultural turn toward fear and fearmongering. Those with whom we disagree politically, culturally, and/or socially are not our enemies; our common Enemy has deceived them (and us as well, at least for a time; Ephesians 2:1-3, 6:12). We are not to fear them; we are to revere God (Matthew 10:28). As long as we remain in a posture of fear we cannot empathize, only demonize; as long as we demonize, we create distance between “us” and “them,” and thus can never show them the love of God in Christ. We must take the courageous step of not living in fear but in loving trust in God who has saved us in Christ. We might well find ourselves under pressure and persecution from the world; we might well find ourselves disadvantaged. Yet what is worse, to have been taken advantage of and harmed by our enemies or never displaying the love of Christ for them?

The Gospel is God’s power unto salvation (Romans 1:16); modern cultural, political, and social fearmongering does not advance God’s purposes in Jesus. Christians must never presume to be above the fray of the common experiences of life with their fellow man, but they must transcend the fray of fearmongering if they would truly honor and serve Christ by loving their neighbor as themselves. We must seek reconciliation with our fellow man, not alienation on account of the factions and partisans of the world. The Lord Jesus knew what He was saying and doing in John 13:35: disciples of Jesus will not be known or seen as such by their partisan political affiliation, their crusade in a culture war, or other endeavors which glorify the powers and principalities of this world, but by their love for one another. Love extinguishes fear. It is up to us to decide whether we will stand for love and resist fear or give into the fear and become as the world. May we love one another and our neighbor as Jesus has loved us, and obtain eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Acts of Paul and Thecla | The Voice 9.39: September 29, 2019

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The Acts of Paul and Thecla

The Acts of the Apostles details some acts of some of the Apostles; ever since it was written there has been an audience for additional stories about the exploits of the Apostles. Later Christians, motivated by a sincere but misguided piety, proved willing to tell stories to satisfy this audience. These stories often tell us far more about these later Christians than they would about the Apostles; and so it is regarding the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla is an episode in a larger work known as the Acts of Paul, of which it is the best preserved and best attested part. It was originally written in Greek but spread throughout the world of Christendom: the story is preserved to some degree or another in Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, and Syriac versions. The Acts of Paul, and thus the Acts of Paul and Thecla within it, was not written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle, and is thus an apocryphal work. Tertullian provided testimony regarding its origin:

But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul’s name, claim Thecla’s example as a licence for women’s teaching and baptizing, let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul’s fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office (On Baptism 17.5; ca. 190 CE).

Tertullian did not provide a specific time frame regarding this presbyter and his work, but most believe he was an early contemporary of Tertullian, and thus wrote the Acts of Paul sometime around 160 in the Roman province of Asia. We cannot know whether the author of the Acts of Paul had any testimonial basis for anything he wrote. He wrote in a misguided piety, seeking to further glorify what God had done through Paul, but according to the taste of the middle of the second century. To this end, the Acts of Paul and Thecla would presume to glorify God for what He was believed to have accomplished through Thecla, although, as we shall see, much of what was said and done stand at odds with what Paul proclaimed in the New Testament.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla can be read here. The Acts of Paul and Thecla began with Paul entering Iconium with Demas and Hermogenes, who take offense when Paul greeted Onesiphorus well but had not done so for them; Paul then entered Onesiphorus’ house and taught the church there regarding abstinence and the resurrection, and Thecla, a virgin betrothed to be married, heard it and accepted it (Acts of Paul 2:1-7). Thecla’s mother Theocleia was very concerned about her daughter, and encouraged Thecla’s prospective husband Thamyris to see to her welfare; he found out about her listening to Paul, and Demas and Hermogenes met with him and indicted Paul for defrauding men of their wives to chastity (Acts of Paul 2:8-13). Thamyris then had Paul brought before the governor to give an account; Paul was then imprisoned (Acts of Paul 2:14-17). Thecla visited Paul in prison and kissed his chains; she was found there; Paul was cast out of the city, and Thecla was condemned to be burned, but was miraculously preserved from the fire (Acts of Paul 2:18-23). Thecla then found Paul and sought baptism, but he counseled patience; they both entered Antioch of Pisidia; Alexander the Syriarch saw her and desired her, but could not have her, and thus had her brought before the governor, who condemned her to be sent out to wild beasts; she was brought into the house of Tryphaena, a local queen esteemed by Caesar, to be kept there until the struggle; Thecla baptized herself before the contest; the wild beasts tore one another apart and Thecla was again miraculously delivered (Acts of Paul 2:24-36). Tryphaena was converted on the basis of Thecla’s experience and adopted her so she could obtain her inheritance; Thecla yearned to see and hear Paul, and found him in Myra; Paul commissioned her to go and preach the Gospel (Acts of Paul 2:37-41). Thecla returned to Iconium and found Thamyris dead but her mother living, and sought to convert her mother (many manuscripts add a note indicating she was not successful in this); she then traveled to Seleucia, converted many to the ways of the Lord Jesus, and later died (Acts of Paul 2:42-43). Some copies add further stories of Thecla being preserved in old age from a man who would have hurt her by entering a rock which opened for her; other stories would then add that she thus traveled to Rome, seeking to explain why her body ended up there.

What shall we make of the Acts of Paul and Thecla? There was an Antonia Tryphaena, a Roman client queen of Thrace, who would have lived in Cyzicus of Mysia from 38 until her death in 55; her brother married Julia Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa I, converted to Judaism, and likely later to Christianity. Based on the Acts of Paul and Thecla she was reckoned to be a Christian and eventually a martyr, but we have no other corroborating evidence to suggest any of this. Demas and Hermogenes were no doubt to be associated with the Biblical personages of those names in Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 1:15, 4:10, and Philemon 1:24; while Demas would forsake Paul for this present world, and Hermogenes would turn away from him, these events would not take place until at least the early 60s, years after Tryphaena died. We have no evidence that either Demas or Hermogenes were associated with Paul during the first or second missionary journeys, during which these events would have taken place.

What is presented in the Acts of Paul and Thecla regarding Paul’s teaching remains at odds with what Paul taught in the New Testament. Paul did encourage celibacy, and exhorted Christian engaged couples to maintain celibacy if they could manage it, yet all the while spoke of marriage as good, said couples who married did well, and would not have encouraged one of the betrothed to resist marriage if the other desired it, as seen in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40). We have no reason to believe that Paul would have been preaching abstinence and the resurrection; “blessed are they that possess their wives as though they had them not, for they shall inherit God,” as said in Acts of Paul 2:5, is at odds with what Paul said about husbands and wives not depriving one another in 1 Corinthians 7:5. We also find no reason to believe that Paul would have counseled patience for Thecla when she desired baptism, or that Thecla should have baptized herself; all who sought baptism from Paul received it immediately (e.g. Acts 16:31-33). Paul’s commission for Thecla to go and preach in the Acts of Paul and Thecla came under significant censure from Tertullian, prompting his comment in On Baptism 17.5; Tertullian can have a tendency to go to extremes, and it is possible for Thecla to have been thus commissioned while remaining faithful to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

In all of these variances we see the effects of the emphases of Christendom in the second century: the glorification of celibacy beyond what the Apostles decreed, the expectation for catechumens to wait for baptism, and ministry for women among women. Thus the Acts of Paul and Thecla tell us much more about the state of Christianity in Asia in the middle of the second century than it does about the Apostle Paul. While Thecla of Iconium would be venerated across Christendom, likely on account of this narrative, we cannot know whether Thecla ever even existed; miraculous deliverance from certain death represented a common trope in early Christian stories, and we have no means by which to ascertain if she did exist, what she may or may have done, whether she was miraculously preserved or not, or anything of the sort. We can, however, appreciate the warning behind the story of the Acts of Paul and Thecla: God appointed the apostles and their associates to make known the great works of God accomplished in Christ and the Apostles, and it is not for any of us to add to them. Whatever we might think to add, even with the best of intentions, will undermine confidence in what was truly revealed, and ultimately will say more about us and what we emphasize than anything about the truth of God in Christ. May we uphold what God has made known in Jesus, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Works Consulted

Antonia Tryphaena” (accessed 24/09/2019).

The Acts of Paul” (accessed 24/09/2019).

The Acts of Paul and Thecla” (accessed 24/09/2019).

Babel and Religion | The Voice 9.38: September 22, 2019

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Babel and Religion

Consider, for a moment, many of the most iconic buildings created by humans around the world. What purpose did they serve? Some are funeral monuments for powerful rulers, but most have some sort of religious function. The temple complexes of Thebes in Egypt, the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, many of the temples in central America and southeast Asia, and many medieval churches and mosques were all dedicated to the service of some god or another. In our “secular” age many of the great building projects are really devoted to some “god” of our age: money, power, fame, etc.

We should not be surprised by this tendency; it was manifest in humanity from almost the beginning. In Genesis 11:1-9 we are told of the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain in the land of Shinar. Early humans built this tower to make a name for themselves and so they would not have to be dispersed around the earth (Genesis 11:4). But what sort of tower would they have built? In ancient Mesopotamian societies only one type of building compared: the ziggurat, terraced stepped pyramid structures built to serve the various gods of the Sumerians and Akkadians.

But why would the Genesis author speak of a large “house of worship” for Mesopotamian gods as motivated by an attempt to make a name for themselves and so they would not be scattered? The Genesis author is no doubt making a critique on the religion of the Mesopotamian world akin to the message of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-32. The Mesopotamian pantheon did not really exist; the Mesopotamians did not honor God as the Creator, even though they should have perceived His hand in the creation and within themselves, and so, futile and darkened in their thinking, ascribed the glory and honor due to the Creator to the various forces in His creation. Mesopotamian religion, which would go on to influence Canaanite and even Greco-Roman religion, was man-made. The monuments they built did not honor God their Creator; they were tall, awesome, and seemingly majestic, but they were all to glorify and honor the humans who created them.

What is true about the Tower of Babel remains true about human religion to this day. People build large buildings and large organizational infrastructures to make a name for themselves even if it is nominally in the service of some god or another. Much of what goes by the name of “religion” is really just the vain imaginings of humanity imposed upon others. How many religious values promise humans what they have always really wanted? If such things seem too good to be true, they probably are.

These days fewer and fewer people give credence to the ideas of “organized religion,” yet they prove just as enthralled with manmade gods as their ancestors. The Sumerians served Inanna and the Greeks served Aphrodite; too many Americans prove willing to serve their views of love and sex just as fervently. Money is the preferred god of many; others seek after fame or power. Not a few have made a god out of themselves and what they think. All evoke the fundamental sin of mankind at Babel.

We can see all around us how many people attempt to make a name for themselves and to maintain a tribal identity in the name of religion. Yet we ought not prove blind to how we are tempted to make a Babel within Christianity as well. Many profess to follow Jesus but really attempt to make a name for themselves; their religion is not motivated by the Christ as much as selfish ambition and personal gain (cf. Philippians 1:15-18). Even sincere Christians are tempted to make a Babel out of their interpretation and understanding of Scripture, attempting to definitively declare things to be true based on their interpretive structures without merit in what God has actually revealed. Such is why we must continually subject ourselves, our understanding, and our behavior to God in Christ, and seek in all things to glorify Him and not ourselves, lest we make a Babel out of our religion, and find ourselves condemned on the final day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lasciviousness | The Voice 9.37: September 15, 2019

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Works of the Flesh: Lasciviousness

Paul manifested great concern for the Galatian Christians who were in danger of seeking to be perfected by the flesh after having begun in the Spirit (Galatians 3:3). For most of the letter that concern centers on following after the Law of Moses and falling from the grace of Christ in the process (Galatians 1:6-5:15). Yet Paul maintains the same concern in terms of behavior, warning the Galatian Christians against pursuing the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The temptation to practice sexually deviant behavior was strong among the pagan Gentiles; even though uncleanness can refer to any sin which would render a person impure, Paul applied the concern specifically in areas of sexual uncleanness. Paul then completed his triad of sexual concerns with lasciviousness.

Jesus spoke of lasciviousness as one of the evil thoughts within a man which defile him in Mark 7:21-23. Paul considered lasciviousness as inconsistent with walking in the light of day in Romans 13:13. Paul yearned for many among the Corinthians to repent of their participation in sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness in 2 Corinthians 12:21. Paul would further condemn lasciviousness as the behavior to which the Gentiles gave themselves up in their alienation from God and the depravity of their minds in Ephesians 4:17-19; Peter pronounced a similar condemnation in 1 Peter 4:3-5. Peter expressed how Lot was sorely distressed by the lasciviousness of his neighbors in 2 Peter 2:7. Jude warned Christians about those false teachers, likely of a Gnostic variety, who would turn the grace of God into lasciviousness, and deny Jesus our only Master and Lord in the process (Jude 1:4); Peter explained how similar false teachers would seek to persuade recent pagan converts to participate in lascivious conduct in 2 Peter 2:18.

The New Testament supplies many witnesses who strongly condemn lasciviousness; the Apostles associated the practice with pagan Gentiles or false teachers living in debased and depraved ways. Yet what is involved in lasciviousness?

“Lasciviousness” is not a term you normally encounter. Sensuality, lustfulness, wantonness, filthiness, depravity, licentiousness, promiscuity, debauchery, lewdness, even luxury represent other terms used to translate the term used by Paul in Greek, aselgeia, defined by Thayer as the following:

Unbridled lust, excess, licentiousness, lasciviousness, wantonness, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence.

Whenever we come upon a Greek term which may be expressed in such a wide range of translations, we must recognize that the core concept cannot be fully expressed in any English idea. Aselgeia, like akatharsia (uncleanness), features an alpha privative, expressing a negation of a term, most likely “not seemingly” or “not becomingly”: the core idea, therefore, involves a loss of shame in an individual, who has no problems freely engaging in sexual activity, excessive consumption of food and drink, and fully committing his or her life to the pursuit of pleasures. The Gentiles of the Roman world were known for these things, frequently engaging in drinking parties and orgies and many other shameful deeds. These were done without even a hint of a conscience; in fact, it could be said for the men in the Roman world that you were strange if you did not engage in adulterous relationships. The prevalence of erotic imagery painted on the walls of many houses at Pompeii and in the drinking vessels of the Greeks and Romans attests to the widespread nature of such lustful, wanton behavior.

Paul most likely did not intend to provide a strict, specific delineation among all the various sins which he condemned as “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21; we can find many points of redundancy and overlap among them, and participation in many of them took place together in concert. For our purposes we can highlight three specific domains of concern manifested in the triad of sexual works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19: porneia (sexually deviant behavior) focused on the sexually transgressive behaviors prevalent in the Gentile world; akatharsia (uncleanness) focused on the spiritually (and sometimes even physically) defiling consequences of sexual transgression; and aselgeia, lasciviousness, focuses on the mentality and desire which fueled the sexually transgressive behavior and its consequences.

In Christ it is not enough to repent of sinful sexual behaviors; giving space to sinful sexual desires, whether acted upon physically or not, is considered committing adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-30). Such is why we maintain the use of the otherwise antiquated term “lasciviousness” for aselgeia: lasciviousness involves being inclined to lustful desire and sexual arousal for anyone to whom God has not joined a person in marriage (cf. Hebrews 13:4).

The modern Western world proves as saturated with lasciviousness and sensuality as did ancient Rome. We live in an age with easy access to all sorts of pornographic imagery. Sensual, lascivious dancing and cavorting is prominently featured in music videos, teenage dances, and collegiate parties. Clothing is tailored to cheekily reveal parts of the body so as to stimulate the sensual imagination of others. While some shame comes upon those who participate in pornography, those who participate in sensual dancing or who wear revealing clothing feel little to no shame anymore, and in society no shame comes upon those who consume pornographic or sensual forms of entertainment. People in society do not think these things to be a big deal and consider it part of the natural order of things. Our society has truly been given over to a debased mind in these matters!

What Paul says about sexually deviant behavior in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 has application to lasciviousness. While some aspects of lascivious behavior may lead others to sin, the person who wantonly indulges in lascivious and sensual entertainment or behavior is primarily sinning against himself or herself. Truly, indeed, what has been seen cannot be unseen: pornography especially has become the predominant means by which most young people in the Western world learn about sex and sexuality, and their desires and expectations are shaped by what they see in porn. The core concept of porneia, that which one does with a porne or prostitute, is morally abominable, but it at least involves becoming one flesh with another person (1 Corinthians 6:16): with exposure to pornography, the mind and body experience all the arousal of sexuality without any contact with any person. All the person consuming pornography has are pixels on a screen; their sexuality is being literally dehumanized and depersonalized. Those who consume pornography must forget how the pixels on the screen most often represent a living human being who has hopes, dreams, her or his own thoughts and feelings, family members, etc.

Not every person is tempted to commit every sin; few are those among us, however, who can honestly and sincerely say they have not been tempted to participate in lasciviousness, or who have not been overcome by lasciviousness. Statistically almost every man under the age of 50 has viewed pornography. Most men with heterosexual inclinations would confess the strong temptation to lust for women, and in many cases no matter how much the woman’s clothing would reveal. Many women have also viewed pornography and participated in various forms of sensual behavior; many women wear specific forms of clothing in specific circumstances to attract sexual attention from men. Sexual desire between a husband and wife whom God has joined in marriage is a good thing, and the reason why God made us with sexual desires (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, Hebrews 13:4). And yet maintaining purity in sexual desire can prove challenging for those who would serve God in Christ, and especially in the midst of such a decadent, depraved culture as our own. May we seek to find contentment in God in Christ, maintain the proper use of sexuality in the context of marriage, and avoid all forms of sexual temptation and transgression to obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Paul in Antioch of Pisidia | The Voice 9.36: September 08, 2019

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Preaching in Acts: Paul in Antioch of Pisidia

As the Apostle Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean world, he would begin proclaiming the Gospel in any city by visiting the local synagogue (e.g. Acts 17:1-2). How would he have proclaimed Jesus in such an environment? Luke has recorded for us an exemplar of Paul’s preaching in the synagogues: his exhortation to the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14-43).

Paul’s visit to Antioch of Pisidia took place not long after the Holy Spirit had called him and Barnabas to go out to do the work God had called them to do (Acts 13:1-3). Antioch of Pisidia was part of the Roman province of Galatia, but owed its name and standing to its development as a border town of the Seleucid Empire against the Galatians. The town had a significant enough Jewish population to warrant a synagogue, and Paul and Barnabas visited it on one Sabbath (Acts 13:14). It was apparently a custom for Jewish men from other places to be able to speak a word of encouragement to the people, and Paul took up this offer and opportunity to teach them about the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel in Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 13:15-16).

After summoning his audience of Israelites and God-fearers to listen, Paul began by rehearsing aspects of Israel’s history which emphasized God’s provision: God chose Israel, lifted them out of Egyptian exile, bore them as a nursing father in the wilderness, gave them the land of Canaan as an inheritance, gave them judges, and then Israel asked for a king, and received Saul and then David (Acts 13:16-22; cf. Exodus-2 Samuel). David is honored as an exemplary king, who would do the will of God (Acts 13:22; cf. 1 Samuel 13:14, 16:13, Psalm 89:19-37). Paul then spoke of the promise God had made to bring a Savior from the descendants of David, and declared Jesus to be its fulfillment: Paul appealed to the witness of John the Baptist who proclaimed a baptism of repentance but did not claim to be the Christ (Acts 13:23-25; cf. 2 Samuel 7:12, Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:11).

Paul rhetorically appeals for his audience of the children of Abraham and those who fear God to hear him, for he now would set forth the core of the Gospel, for to Israel the word of salvation has come (Acts 13:26). The rulers of the Jews and those in Jerusalem did not recognize Jesus as the Christ, even though they read the prophets every Sabbath, but fulfilled their words by killing Him even though He had done nothing wrong (Acts 13:27-28; cf. Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Luke 22:47-23:49). They took Him “down from the tree,” and laid Him in a tomb (Acts 13:29; cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Luke 23:50-56). Paul then announced how Jesus was raised from the dead and seen for many days by those who had come up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and who bear witness to the resurrection to that day (Acts 13:30-31; cf. Luke 24:1-53). This is the good news of the promise which had been made to their fathers, and fulfilled recently in the days of their children, that God raised Jesus up, thus declaring Him the Son of God, and Paul quoted Psalm 2:7 to this end (Acts 13:32-33; cf. Romans 1:4). Paul also appealed to Isaiah 55:3 and Psalm 16:10 regarding Jesus’ resurrection, testifying how David died, laid with his fathers, and saw corruption, but Jesus of whom He spoke did not see corruption (Acts 13:34-37). Through Jesus, therefore, a forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Israel, for the one who believes in Him is justified from all things by which they could not find justification under the Law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39; cf. Romans 3:1-31). Paul concluded with a warning from Habakkuk 1:5: God has done a work in their days which they would not find credible, but if they do not accept it, they will perish (Acts 13:40-41).

Those in attendance received the Word warmly: they wished to hear more such words spoken the next Sabbath (Acts 13:42). Many of the Jews and devout proselytes believed in Christ; Paul urged them to continue in God’s grace (Acts 13:43). The next week saw a great number from the city come to hear what Paul had to say, even among the Gentiles: the Jewish people became jealous and started to contradict what Paul said (Acts 13:44-45). Paul boldly declared how this was God’s purpose: the Word of God would come first to the Israelites, and since they thrust it aside, it would now go to the Gentiles, as prophesied in Isaiah 42:6, 49:6; many Gentiles were glad, glorified the Word of God, and came to faith in Christ Jesus (Acts 13:47-48).

We can find many points of continuity among Paul’s preaching in Antioch of Pisidia, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, 10:34-43, and Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:2-53. Paul rehearsed aspects of Israel’s history, selecting elements of the story to establish God’s provision for leadership for His people, just as Stephen rehearsed Israel’s story in such a way to emphasize Israel’s rebelliousness despite God’s faithfulness. Paul appealed to the testimony of David in Psalms 2 and 16 just as Peter did, confirming Jesus’ resurrection by prophetic witness. As Peter spoke as a witness of what God did through Jesus of Nazareth, so Paul appealed to that witness. Paul also made much of the witness of John the Baptist, extraordinary on two fronts: we do not otherwise hear much about John from Paul’s writings, and Paul is not speaking in Judea to some who might have heard John themselves but in Antioch of Pisidia among Jews of the Diaspora. Paul’s preaching is saturated in Biblical references and allusions, as with the witness of Peter and Stephen. All such continuity points to similar evangelistic and rhetorical strategy, and to the end of encouraging the Israelites to see in Jesus of Nazareth not some new superstition but the fulfillment of all which God had promised for Israel: God’s rule is now manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the embodiment of Israel’s story.

Yet we can also hear Paul’s distinctive voice and characteristics prevalent in his writings. God had provided in Jesus a way forward for Israel to which they did not previously have access; in Jesus was a form of justification which could not be obtained under the Law. Paul preached salvation and justification to the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia, just as justification and salvation would become prevalent themes in his letters to the Roman and Galatian Christians a decade or so later. Paul expected these themes to resonate with his audience to some degree, and by the results we can be assured it did. Some in Israel were looking for the Christ and the promised new covenant in which they would obtain the forgiveness of sins, the end of the baffling time of distance between God and themselves, suffering under the oppression sin and death.

We think of Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and rightly so (Acts 22:21); nevertheless, it was Paul’s great desire for his fellow Israelites to hear the Word and be saved, and Paul diligently preached Christ among the Jewish people he could find wherever he went (Acts 17:2, Romans 9:1-5). He likely would have entered each synagogue with a similar message to that which he proclaimed among the Israelites of Antioch of Pisidia. God has fulfilled the promises He made to Israel: the Christ has come, and He was killed by His people, yet raised from the dead and made Lord of all, and now all mankind can find justification and salvation through faith in Him. May we come to faith in Christ Jesus and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry