Sunday, April 7, 2024

CHURCH BRINGS VALUE TO COMMUNITY

This past week I was explaining the meaning of “social capital” to some of my students. The term is used by sociologists in reference to “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling the society to function effectively.”

Social capital refers to the resources, networks and relationships that exist within communities. Social capital contributes to trust, reciprocity, mutual support and collective action among individuals and groups within a society.

Religion, and more specifically the church, makes a significant contribution to social capital within communities. By fostering trust, reciprocity, and collective action, social capital contributes to the development of societies and enhances the overall quality of life for individuals and communities alike.

For instance, the phenomenon of education for the masses has its roots in Christianity. Christianity shattered the idea of education for the elite only. It gave rise to the concept of education for everyone. Furthermore, the idea of the university has its roots in Christianity as well. The greatest universities worldwide were started by Christians for Christian purposes.  It was because of the sweat and sacrifice of Christians that Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other universities were created.

The idea of education for everyone grew directly out of the Christian Reformation. Agreed, there were sporadic attempts at educational reform before the sixteenth century, especially under the reign of Charlemagne. But after his death in AD 814, major attempts at education for everyone died. It wasn’t until the Bible became the focal point of Christianity again that education for the masses was reborn. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century was significant in this development.

The contribution of Christianity to social capital was also evident in civil liberties, medicine, the Arts, economics and sexuality. Influencing the disciplines was what Jesus had in mind when He called his followers salt and light. His followers were expected to make a difference wherever they were placed. His followers were expected to bring flavor, preservation and reduce darkness. Unfortunately, some professing Christians have contributed to decay and darkness at specific periods in history. However, those negatives represent the exception, and not the rule.

In his letter to young Timothy, Paul admonished him to pray for everyone, especially for those in national leadership. Why? “… that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior…” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). In another letter, Paul challenged the Romans to “live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:16-18).

The Bible expects Christian churches to make a difference in the communities in which they are located. In other words, what would your community miss should your church relocate? Some communities would miss the after-school programs, others the soup kitchens for the less fortunate, the creative arts classes and sports clinics.

I can only hope that your list would include activities that facilitate character change. Activities that result in spiritual conversion, emotional healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Like Satan, our mission is not to steal, kill and destroy life, but rather to facilitate superabundant living that Jesus provides.

The Christian church is much more than real estate property in the community. It is social capital, bringing value and meaning to life. It undermines crime. It promotes the institution of marriage. It is salt, bringing flavor and avoiding corruption. It is God’s light in the kingdom of darkness. What a privilege to be a part of the institution, Jesus referred to as HIS CHURCH.

 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

RESURRECTION: BEST OF THE OPTIONS

 

Far too often Christians have been led to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is an issue of faith, and not history. However, I believe there are a few historical questions that can best be answered by a belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

 

One such question concerns the empty tomb. First-century historians and New Testament writers confirm that the practice of entombment was a normal occurrence. As a result, it is not a problem to accept that Jesus was placed in a tomb, following His crucifixion. The New Testament contends that the tomb was empty three days later. This claim was made and documented within the lifetime of most of the persons who witnessed the crucifixion.

 

To date, we are not aware of any credible first century historian who has refuted the Christian claim of an empty tomb. Explanations for the empty tomb include theft by the disciples of Jesus and resuscitation. In light of the Roman reputation for conducting crucifixions, both theories are implausible. To be honest, the resurrection of Jesus is by far the most plausible explanation for an empty tomb.

 

We are also aware that bone boxes or ossuaries were used to store the bones of persons who were entombed. If Jesus were not resurrected, His bones would have been transferred to an ossuary within eighteen months to two years after entombment. Outside of such ossuaries, the names of the deceased were engraved. To date, many ossuaries from that period have been found, and most have been identified.

 

In order to refute the claim of the rapidly growing Christian church in the first century, how is it no one has ever been able to locate the bone box of Jesus? Archaeologists have found bone boxes for Pilate and even James, the brother of Jesus, but no credible claims have been made concerning Jesus’ ossuary. Is it likely that no bone box can be found because no bones were left behind?

 

In his book, The Jewish Messiahs, Professor Harris Lenowitz indicates that prior to and following the life of Jesus, Jewish leaders arose claiming to be the promised Messiah. Each professed Messiah attracted a following. However, with the death of each Messiah, the followers scattered, and the messianic movement died. In the New Testament, Gamaliel went further with a similar argument. He cited Theudas and Judas as having many followers. However, following their deaths, the movements died (Acts 5:36-37).

 

Christians contend that unlike other messianic enthusiasts, the Jesus movement did not die following the death of Jesus. There were sure signs of the movement collapsing during the proceedings before and immediately after the crucifixion. The hopelessness of the two men on the road to Emmaus was reflective of the mood of the Jesus movement.

 

What then could have accounted for the massive turnaround among the followers of Jesus? Within days they were transformed from wimps to witnesses and from cowards to people of courage. This turnaround took place in front of the same authorities before whom they were terrified. The only plausible answer could be a major event that transformed them. Christians contend, the resurrection of Jesus fits that description.

 

Furthermore, why did the Christians within a few months of the death of Jesus practice the following?

- corporate worship on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2);

- referencing the first day of the week as “the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10);

- reinterpreting Jewish baptism to signify the death and resurrection of Jesus; and

- associating hope of life after death with the resurrection of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:20).

 

The most plausible answer to the above is the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week. Even normal greetings among Christians in the first century reflected their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Christians greeted each other with the words, “He is risen” – the response? “He is risen indeed.” Why would such a greeting be necessary if they did not believe that Jesus was resurrected?

 

In the television series, The Bible, it was clearly shown where ten of the twelve disciples of Jesus died as witnesses. They were prepared to die rather than deny what they saw and knew to be true. Interestingly, no one dies for what he knows to be a lie. People will die for what they believe to be true – but never for what they know to be a lie. (An excellent resource – The Fate of the ApostlesExamining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, by Sean McDowell)

 

Furthermore, how do historians account for the rapid growth of Christianity so soon after the death of Jesus? It was not only the courage of the disciples but also the outcome of their testimonies before persons who witnessed the death of Jesus. Were it not for the resurrection, the tragic death of Jesus would not be enough of an incentive for new believers. Agreed, the resurrection of Jesus was miraculous, but accounting for the empty tomb is historically defensible.  

 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

WHO KILLED JESUS?

No trial or execution in history has had such crucial outcome as that of the trial of Jesus. For instance, when Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, was released in 2004, it was feared that it would instigate world-wide antisemitism, because the film suggested that the Jews killed Jesus.

The impact of the film was also felt among Muslims. The film was banned in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. They believed in the Koranic teaching that Jesus did not die, as portrayed in the New Testament.

Although almost 2,000 years have gone, the death of Jesus continues to arouse attention. This ongoing interest is what prompted the BBC to update an archived article entitled, Who Killed Jesus? The article suggested that three sources shared responsibility for the death of Jesus.

The first source was Jewish. The Jews tried Jesus as a Jew. They saw him as a threat to the religious establishment. Jesus assumed messianic authority when he raided the Temple, the heart of Jewish religion, and attacked money-changers for defiling a holy place.

The Temple apparatus brought in huge revenues for simple matters like purification and the forgiveness of sins. Archaeologists have discovered about 150 ritual baths, which Jews used to purify themselves before any act of worship. Jewish people could only enter the Temple if they were ritually pure, and almost everyone arriving in Jerusalem for Passover was deemed ritually unclean. They had to use a ritual bath before they could fulfil their religious obligations. The priests controlled these baths and charged people to use them. There were so many regulations requiring ritual purification that control of the baths became a way of making money.

Jesus stormed into the Temple and accused the money-changers and sacrificial dove sellers of extortion and of turning the Temple into a den of thieves. This is how John described Jesus’ reaction: “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the Temple area, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market’” (John 2:15-16).

To assume that authority was to assume divinity. In many other situations Jesus assumed divinity, and that was tantamount to blasphemy – assuming to be God. Such a charge was punishable by death. However, as a colony of the Roman Empire, the Jews had no authority to invoke capital punishment. In addition, the Romans were not interested in conducting a religious trial.  

 

Because the Jews were so determined to have Jesus killed, they referred the matter to the Romans, accusing him instead of treason. They contended, Jesus claimed to be king. In essence, he is guilty of insurrection and would eventually become a threat to the Romans. Caiaphas and Pilate, both Roman representatives,  conducted sham trials and did not find any reason to sentence Jesus.

 

They both tried to release themselves from the trial. Pilate offered the murderer Barabbas as an alternative, worthy of death. The Jews objected and publicly expressed their dissatisfaction. In order to avoid public revolt, Pilate capitulated. So, Jesus was crucified by the Romans, at the insistence of the Jews. 

 

The BBC article to which I referred earlier, contended that if the Jews nor the Romans could be held responsible, then Jesus may have been responsible for his own death. Jesus, it was felt, conducted himself in a way to warrant his trial, which resulted in his death.

 

I would agree that Jesus could have extricated himself from capital punishment. On previous occasions he miraculously walked away from death traps. In addition, he rebuked Peter when he attempted to defend him in the Garden of Gethsemane. He informed Peter that he could have called some 10,000 angels to his defence. Then, why didn’t Jesus utilize the resources available to him to avoid crucifixion?

 

The New Testament strongly advances the view that the death of Jesus was no accident. In announcing his birth, the Angel said to Joseph, “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the Lord saves.

 

At Jesus’ dedication, Simeon the priest mentioned to Mary his mother, “… and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). In addition, at the launch of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist introduced him as “the Lamb of God”. In brief, Jesus predicted his death. He knew a tragic death was expected of the Messiah.

 

Following his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day…” (Luke 24:46). Jesus was referring to Scriptures from the Hebrew Bible, written some 700 years earlier.

 

The proper question should not be, who killed Jesus? Rather, the question should really be, why did Jesus die? Among others, Paul answers that question in one of his letters: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

 

And, that is the story of Easter – Jesus Christ died for our sins.