Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Mark)

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THE OLD TESTAMENT CHALLENGED

Recently, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has received a lot of pushback from the Christian community for telling Christians to “unhitch” their faith from the OT: “[First century] Church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures,” said Stanley.

I wasn’t a Christian long when I realized I preferred to spend my time of Bible study in the New Testament (NT) rather than the Old Testament (OT), which isn’t surprising. After all, we call ourselves Christians because of Jesus Christ, so it’s natural to want to spend more time in his teachings and the letters of his disciples in the NT. With this, the OT is much more ancient, longer, and more difficult to grasp than the NT. Frankly, many Christians don’t know what to make of much of the OT and when considering challenging issues concerning the Bible, many Christians find themselves wishing the OT simply wasn’t there.

Where Stanley still claims the OT is the inspired word of God, those who hold a less-traditional view of Scripture assign the OT lesser status than the NT, some even dismissing much (or all) of the OT as not part God’s divine Word. In fact, many – whether they realize it or not – chop up the Bible and create a hierarchy of biblical authority. According to this thinking, the four Gospels – and particularly Jesus’ actual words in those Gospels – are more authoritative than both the OT and other NT writings.

The church’s traditional, historical view of the Bible is that it’s all God’s Word. Whether it’s Moses’ words, Jeremiah’s words, Matthew’s words, Paul’s words, or Jesus’ words, it’s all “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) and holds the same level of authority: the authority of God.

But the fact remains, many Christians do their best to simply avoid the OT. Yet, the longer I study the Bible, the more I have realized that one cannot make sense of the NT without the OT (and vice versa). The Bible is not two separate, unrelated revelations of God, but one continuing revelation.

The OT is important for all Christians to wrestle with and gain a better understanding of, and I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to understand this.

So, to get this point across, I will NOT be arguing for a traditional view of Scripture or explaining why the canon is divinely-inspired or laying out biblical theology so one sees the logical connection between the OT and NT.

No, we’re simply going to look at Jesus’ attitude towards the OT. We’ll work through one gospel per article, starting with Mark.

I think you’ll see that Jesus’ thinking and theology are all perfectly in line with the OT and that Jesus considered what we call the OT anything but irrelevant.

THE DATA: MARK’S GOSPEL

I decided to start with the Gospel of Mark for one simple reason: it’s easily the shortest of the four. How much will Jesus refer to the OT in it?

Mark contains 16 “chapters.” As I read through, I simply jotted down every reference to the OT I came across (excluding most of the times Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man,” though this is a title adopted from the OT). Though chapters were not part of the original manuscripts, they give us a rough idea of the length of each Gospel as compared to the others.

I counted 18 OT references.

Of these, 15 were said by Jesus himself. So, all but 3 came from Jesus’ mouth.

Thus, 83% of OT references, allusions, and quotes in Mark’s Gospel are Jesus’ words.

THE GOSPEL OF MARK:

16 Chapters

18 References to OT

15 References to OT made by Jesus

83% of OT references are made by Jesus

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

Let’s look quickly at 5 significant passages from those 15 OT references by Jesus:

#1

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:2–9).

When questioned about divorce, Jesus without hesitating points his opponents to the Jewish Scripture (what we call the OT). Not only does he refer back to the creation story in Genesis 1-2, but he quotes directly from it (while indirectly referring to Adam and Eve). With this, Jesus refers directly to Moses (and his writings on divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

It’s interesting to note that Jesus clearly teaches that not all OT commandments by Moses are universal. (For a more on why certain OT commandments are still followed by Christians and other are not, click here.) But what is most significant is that Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 – pointing way back to creation before the fall into sin – to give his definition of marriage: one man and one woman becoming “one flesh” for life through God.

#2

24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:24–27).

Here, Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, who don’t believe in the future resurrection of the dead. Again, it’s striking how Jesus immediately refers back to the OT to argue his stance, even chastising them for not knowing Scripture and plainly telling them “you are wrong.” Once again, he refers to Moses, mentioning specifically Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, as well as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from Genesis.

But what is most interesting is that Jesus bases his whole argument on the tense of a single verb! As proof of a future resurrection, Jesus quotes God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the God of Abraham…Isaac… Jacob.” From a human standpoint, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead at the time of Moses’ life, yet God is – not was – their God. Jesus is using the present tense Hebrew word for am to prove that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still experiencing life with God. To those on earth, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were gone, but Jesus says it’s not so; God is still their God because they still live.

What kind of confidence in the authority and preservation of the OT must Jesus have to base his whole argument of the tense of one verb?

#3

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)

This passage is important because it shows Jesus’ understanding of the continuity of the OT and NT. Many Christians shy away from the OT because, they think, its teachings do not fit well into NT teachings. Jesus clearly doesn’t think there’s any disconnect between the OT and NT. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18; thus, the greatest commandments, according to Jesus, come from the OT. As I said above, the OT and NT are one continuos revelation from God.

This should motivate us all to work for a better understanding of the OT. Yes, some of it seems strange and harsh to us, but Jesus did not think so. This should motivate us to wrestle with the tough passages to understand them as Jesus did.

Furthermore, understanding the difference between the OT moral law and the OT religious law and why Christians continue to follow one and not the other is essential. (To start, again see here.)

#4

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,

“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’

37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35–37)

I love this passage because, again, we see Jesus using the specific wording of an OT passage to astound his listeners. This is also significant not only because Jesus quotes Psalm 110 and confirms David as the author, but also Jesus states that David wrote this by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus basically asks, if the Messiah will be David’s descendant (“son”), how can the great King David call him his Lord? Jesus is dropping a loud hint that the divinely-inspired Psalms are telling them that the Messiah will be much, much greater than King David.

#5

49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” (Mark 14:49).

This final passage we’ll look at in this article is from Jesus’ arrest before his crucifixion. Though he doesn’t make a specific reference to an OT passage, he refers to “the Scriptures” – which to a Jew of Jesus’ day could only be what we call the OT today – and that they are being fulfilled through these events. Thus, Jesus says his arrest and execution actually fulfill the OT.

One comes to understand through Jesus (and the NT revelation) that the whole of the OT is a foreshadowing and preparation for the coming of the God-man and his atonement for sins by his death on the cross. Where it’s beyond the scope of this article to explore how Christ fulfills the OT law, it’s enough to note here that Jesus in Mark 14:49 (and other places in the Gospels) confirms that he does.

But if that’s not satisfying to you, take a moment and read Isaiah 53. Here’s a taste:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Did Jesus consider the Old Testament relevant? He clearly did.

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Confidence in Christ v2

Does Mark, the Earliest Gospel, Have a Divine Jesus? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol in his 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims makes a common claim of those who want to challenge the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. Akyol claims that the belief that Jesus is God was a later development that was not held by the first Christians.

According to Akyol, as Christianity spread from the Jews to the pagan Romans, Jesus’ status was raised to divine. He writes, “…the more Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots and planted itself on Hellenistic soil, the more it perceived Jesus as divine. This was no preplanned scheme, but the natural result of transferring monotheistic Jewish concepts to a polytheistic Gentile setting” (P.47).

Since the Gospel of John is understood to be the last gospel written and the gospel that most explicitly teaches that Jesus is divine, Akyol argues that Jesus’ divinity was a later development. He writes, “Among the four gospels, the one that has the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any, is Mark [the first gospel to be written]… Yet when we come to Matthew and Luke… the emphasis on Jesus as a suprahuman being increases,” finally evolving into the more obvious teaching of Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel (P.48).

Akyol is right that Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest gospel (though some make good arguments that Matthew is the earliest), and the majority of scholars agrees that John was written last, as well as John focuses the most on the divinity of Christ.

But is Jesus’ divinity NOT found in Mark, the earliest gospel? 

In our last article, we already saw how Akyol is wrong about the Epistle of James not holding to the divinity of Jesus, and James is one of the earliest – and likely thee earliest – work in the New Testament, a fact Akyol himself emphasizes.

So, how about the earliest historical narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of Mark? Let’s look at Mark’s gospel and see what it has to say for itself.

 

Jesus’ Divinity in Mark? You Don’t Have to Look Long

If we look at Mark, we don’t have to look far to find Jesus’ divinity. In fact, we only need to look at the first three verses:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

Right off the bat in 1:1 we have an expression to describe Jesus that Muslims do not like: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet, even Christians may understand this not as a divine title but as a title that can be applied to the Jewish, strictly human Messiah. So, let’s put that phrase “Son of God” aside for now and look at the rest of 1:1-3.

It’s interesting that Mark chose to begin his account of the ministry of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Mark conflates two OT passages: Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. As you read on, it’s clear that Mark is applying these OT passages to John the Baptist. Thus, John the Baptist is “the messenger… who will prepare your way.”

So, we have to ask: who is “your” a reference to?

Let’s continue on to 1:3 to find out: John is the one to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Now, no one can read any of the four gospels and come to any conclusion other than that John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Thus, Jesus is the Lord.

Further, when we turn to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in the OT and read them in context, who is the messenger of these passages preparing the way for? God. The LORD. Yahweh – the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14. The God of Abraham and Moses. There is no controversy about this; it’s a plain as day. In Malachi 3:1, the Lord Yahweh is speaking: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Isaiah writes in 40:3: “…prepare the way of the LORD [literally: Yahweh]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

So we see, not even four verses into Mark’s gospel, Akyol’s argument is already destroyed. Mark begins his gospel by telling his audience that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God, Jesus Christ. 

 

Did Jesus Claim to Be God?

Another claim Muslims like Akyol like to make is that Jesus himself never claimed to be God. Thus, Mark – the author – may have claimed Jesus is God, but Jesus never did. Yet, when we read Mark’s account carefully, we see Jesus claimed divinity by both his actions and words. Let’s look at three examples of this:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7)

Akyol may not understand the significance of what Jesus is doing, but Jesus’ fellow Jews certainly did because God is the only savior (Isaiah 43:11, 25). For a man to claim to forgive sins, something only God can do, is blasphemy – as Jesus’ 1st Century audience clearly understands. By claiming he has the authority to forgive sins, Jesus is claiming divinity.

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

In 14:62, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself) of Daniel 7:13-14. This Son of Man is described as a being who comes into the presence of God without being destroyed; yet, no sinful human can come into God’s perfect presence without being destroyed. Further, this being is also given glory in God’s presence. Can anyone be given glory other than God is God’s presence? God shares his glory with no one! (See Isaiah 42:8; 48:11; also see John 17:1-5.)  Again, Jesus’ fellow Jews understand that he is making a claim of divinity, as we see by their strong reactions and accusations of blasphemy.

And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:36–41)

Now, ask yourself, when the men in the boat witnessed Jesus calm the storm with a verbal command, how would they – all first century Jews, let me remind you – answer the question Mark ends this episode with: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus was showing these men something, and these men where NOT Roman pagans or twenty-first century Westerners, but Scripture-reading and -believing Jews; thus, they would understand this “something” as first century Jews.

So, how would they understand this?

First, in the very first words written in the Jewish Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) God creates all things by simply speaking them into existence. Take note that Jesus does not pray to God to calm the storm; he simply speaks.

Furthermore, Psalm 107:23-32 tells of God controlling a storm at sea. Verse 29 reads, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Finally, one cannot read the details of this account and not think of the Book of Jonah. Jonah unwisely attempts to escape God’s commission by fleeing by boat to a faraway land. Because of this, God sends a storm, which Jonah sleep through, only to be awoken by the crew of the ship in a panic. Jonah knows the storm was sent by God because of his disobedience and, thus, tells the pagans to throw him overboard to save their lives. Once Jonah is overboard, the storm immediately stops. The pagans, in turn, worship Jonah’s God.

So, again, I ask: how would a 1st Century Jew answer: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The answer is clear: God.

Akyol’s Big Mistake

As we discussed in an earlier article on Akyol’s understanding of the NT letter of James, Akyol makes the mistake of assuming every work in the NT was written to convey the same message to the same audience, and every NT writing should cover the entirety of Christian theology. This is not the case.

For instance, Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, so it appears his primary audience were Jews, so he focuses primarily on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. Yet, even Matthew portrays Jesus as God in the same ways Mark and Luke do, and at the end of Matthew we have the unignorable Trinitarian proclamation by the resurrected Jesus to baptize in the singular name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, Akyol does quote historian Larry Hurtado, who writes “a remarkable level of devotion to Jesus erupted in the earliest years of the Christian movement,” and Cambridge professor Richard Bauckham, who states, “the earliest christology was already the highest.” But other than these cursory mentions, Akyol ignores any historical scholarship contrary to his theory and quickly moves on.

Yet, let me point out that Akyol himself says that the Gospel of Mark has “the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any.” Thus, even Akyol seems to begrudgingly admit that Mark may contain a divine Jesus.

Finally, isn’t even just ONE reference to Jesus’ divinity in a gospel enough to establish it? If I, for instance, only mentioned once in a story that a woman is pregnant, wouldn’t that be sufficient to establish for the whole of the story that the woman is pregnant? As we saw, Mark begins his gospel by making it clear that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God.

To try to invalidate the witness of the gospels to Jesus’ divinity by arguing that earlier gospels contain less about Jesus’ divinity is like arguing that you’re “kind of” pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not, and you are either God or you’re not. All four Gospels witness to Jesus’ divinity. The amount of space each gives to it is irrelevant to the discussion.

Read: James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Confidence in Christ v2

James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Did the Apostles Paul and James believe in the same Jesus?

The thesis of Mustafa Akyol’s 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims is basically this:

The first faithful followers of Jesus (who, like Jesus, were Jews) understood Jesus to be the completely human Messiah who the Jews had been waiting for. These Jewish Christians stayed faithful to all of the Old Testament law and their leader was the Apostle James, brother of Jesus.

Then, the Apostle Paul came along. He taught that Christians didn’t have to follow the Old Testament law and that they are saved by faith alone. Furthermore, mixing in some beliefs of the pagan Romans, these Christians proclaimed Jesus to be God in the flesh.

Clearly, according to Akyol, these two branches of early Christianity were at odds with each other, but Paul’s version won out and survives to this day as mainstream Christianity, which is the corrupted version of true Christianity. Akyol seems quite confident in his theory, even stating that it’s “historical fact that the two men had become the originators of two different branches of Christianity.” (P.5) Yes, you read that right; this, according to Akyol, is “historical fact”! According to Akyol, the true Christian faith of the first Jewish Christians “vanished in history,” condemned as heresy.

Akyol isn’t the first person to try to argue that Paul invented Christianity as we know it or that Paul corrupted the pure Christianity of Jesus. Akyol isn’t even the first person to pit Paul against James.

Akyol puts much stock into his idea that the Epistle of James, which is part of the New Testament canon, demonstrates an “implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity.” (P.4) Christians throughout history have noticed what may be a tension between Paul’s emphasis on salvation-by-faith-alone and James declaring “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and this has been addressed by many, many Christian theologians and scholars over the centuries (and we’ll take time to address it in a later blog), but Akyol goes even further in suggesting that the letter of James is totally at odds with historical, orthodox Christianity, as if it’s a remnant of the earliest, truest Christianity that has somehow snuck itself into the New Testament canon.

Akyol points out that James’ letter never calls Jesus “the Son of God” (P.3) and elsewhere he states James (and the early Jerusalem Church, which James led) did not believe Jesus was God incarnate (P.35).

If Akyol is right and James’ letter  is representative of the first Jewish Christians – the true followers of Jesus, according to his theory – then the letter would NOT confirm the deity of Jesus. 

Did James believe Jesus was a strictly human messiah? Did James not believe Jesus was the incarnate, divine, second person the Trinity? If the idea of Jesus being divine was foreign to James, we should expect, at least, that he is silent on the issue of Jesus’ divinity in his letter, right?

“LORD” VS. “GOD”

Let’s go to the actual letter of James in the New Testament and see what James has to say himself:

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

So, as we start with chapter one, we are only one verse in and we already run into an issue with Akyol’s theory. (Yes, we didn’t even get out of James 1:1!) Here, James begins by referring to Jesus as “the Lord.”

Here’s the thing: we modern people see the word “God” and we think – well – “God,” meaning a divine being. And when we see the word “Lord,” we think that could just be a human. For example, Lord Byron was just a man. And those familiar with the Bible likely see “Lord” and think, “Well, that could be God, but it could also be just a human.” And how they determine which “Lord” it is – divine or human – they must look at the context of the writing to figure it out.

But there’s the rub: when we read the New Testament and we see “Lord,” it is a divine title. In other words, “God” means God and “Lord” means God. Thus, when Jesus is called “Lord” in the New Testament, he is being called “God.”

Let’s go back to the Old Testament.

The name of the one, true God of the Bible is Yahweh, as given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is God’s personal, proper name.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, adonia is a title often given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh, but it is a title that can also be given to people. Adonia is usually translated as “lord.”

The Hebrew word elohim is another title, which is usually given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh. This is usually translated “god.” But, the thing is, elohim can (though not often) even be a title given to powerful humans. For example, see Psalm 82:1 and 82:6 (and Jesus’ comments about this Psalm in John 10:34-35). Yet over time, as we see in our day, the title “god” came to only refer to divine, supernatural beings, and when someone says “God” today, they are referring usually to a specific idea of a divine being and using it like a proper name for that being.

(Important note: Biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have lower and upper case letters; thus, when reading the original languages, we can’t depend on a word being capitalized or not – like in English – to help us interpret the understanding of certain words. We must look at context.)

In ancient Israel, in order to not accidentally break the commandment to not use Yahweh’s name carelessly (one of the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:7), the ancient Jews would avoid saying “Yahweh,” even when reading Scripture, and would instead substitute it with adonia (Lord). They would do this in writing as well.

This tradition carried over into the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament). So, where the original Hebrew reads “Yehweh,” the translators of the Septuagint instead wrote the Greek word for LordKyrios.

This tradition continues into our modern English translations today. If you open up your English Old Testament to a random page, you’ll likely find “THE LORD” written in all small caps. This is to signify that the original Hebrew reads “Yahweh.”

The evidence in the New Testament shows that when Jesus and the first Christians quoted Scripture, they quoted the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. Scholars confirm this. Thus, the Septuagint was the translation of Jewish Scripture primarily used and read by Jesus and the Apostles, and the Septuagint refers to the only one, truly divine being as Lord (Kyrios).

My point?

Just as “god” became a word to exclusively mean divinity, the word “lord” (kyrios) to the New Testament writers was a word to describe divinity as well. In other words, when the New Testament authors write that Jesus is “Lord,” they are saying Jesus is the God of Israel.

Read the New Testament letters carefully. You’ll notice almost exclusively (with some exceptions), God the Father is called “God” and Jesus/the Son is called “Lord.” (And, yes, sometimes, Jesus is called “God” too!)

So, James 1:1 should be understood as follows:

“James, a servant of God [the Father] and of the [God] Jesus Christ.”

The New Testament writers understood the Father and the Son as two persons (of three) of the Trinitarian Godhead; they were different persons sharing the same divine substance. Thus, they referred to one divine person by the title “God” and the other by the title “Lord,” yet both were titles for divine beings.

If you don’t believe me, let’s let James speak for himself…

 

JAMES SPEAKS FOR HIMSELF

Make a short, short jump from 1:1 to 1:5-8, and we already see this in James’ letter:

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Here, James first says to ask for wisdom from God. Then, James explains how to ask properly, saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll “receive anything from the Lord.” James is clearly using “God” and “Lord” as interchangeable synonyms; God is the Lord, and the Lord is God. Who did James call “Lord” in 1:1?

Later in Chapter 1, James refers to God as “the Father” (1:17) and also writes “God, the Father” (1:27). Though God is referred to as a father in the Old Testament, referring to God as “the Father” and as “God the Father” are unique titles given to God by the writers of the New Testament, implying the Trinity.

Chapter 3 of James’ letter begins with the famous “taming of the tongue” section, where he warns of the dangers of careless talk. Using the tongue as a symbol of human speech, he writes:

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)

Already, we saw how “God” and “Lord” are interchangeable in 1:5-8 and also that “Father” is a title for God. Here in 3:9, we see that “Lord” and “Father” are interchangeable. Not only that, but the whole point of 3:9 is that humans are not to use the same mouth they use to praise God to curse humans, who are made in God’s image. Clearly, the Father, the Lord, and God all share an identity.

Moving on to Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” throughout. Should we understanding these to be references to the strictly human, non-divine Jesus of Akyol’s theory or as references to Jesus, God the Son, second person of the Trinity? Let’s see what the context tells us:

Verses 7 and 8 speak of the end times coming of “the Lord.” If what we looked at above is ignored, a Muslim like Akyol could likely argue that this reference is to Jesus and nothing about it implies divinity; it’s a common Muslim belief that Jesus was a human prophet of Allah who will also return at the End Times. But as we read on in Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” (which is how Jesus is referred to in 1:1) is clearly God, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament:

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (5:10-11)

Take note, James refers to the prophets (which can only mean the Old Testament prophets) “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” i.e. Yahweh, i.e. God. Next, we have a reference to the book of Job of the Old Testament and Job’s encounter with “the Lord,” which can, again, only mean Yahweh, i.e. God.

Thus, the “Lord” of verses 7 and 8 who will return at the End Times is Yahweh, and both Christians and Muslims agree that it is Jesus who will return at the End Times. Further, again, who is called Lord in James 1:1?

There are other times “Lord” appears in James, but I think you get my point. James calls Jesus “the Lord.” James calls God “the Lord.” Thus, James believed Jesus is God.

 

OK, ONE MORE VERSE

Finally, let’s jump back to James 2:1:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

If this is a proper translation, here we find James explicitly stating that Jesus is God. To a good Jew like James, only Yahweh is “the Lord of glory”! Now, to be perfectly transparent, this is a hard sentence to translate, and other translations do not translate it in the same way as the ESV quoted above. Here are other ways to translate it:

“…faith in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord of glory, Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory.”

“…faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

Some of these translations may be giving Jesus a divine title more overtly than others, but in David P. Nystrom’s commentary on James, he states, “In any event it seems clear that in this rare case of Christology in the book of James, Jesus Christ is identified with the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of the divine. James believes that in Jesus God is revealed… the very manifestation of God’s glory” (James: NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan P. 114).

In support of this understanding, see 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Paul speaks of Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” and Acts 7:2, where Stephen describes Yahweh as “the God of glory.”  

Ironically, Akyol actually quotes 2:1 in his book to emphasize how Jesus is only mentioned by name twice in Jame’s epistle, not realizing the significance of Jesus being called “Lord” in both passages where Jesus is named and “the glory” in 2:1.

 

WRAPPING IT UP

To wrap up, Akyol makes a mistaken assumption when using James’ letter to argue that James did not believe in the divinity of Christ: he assumes that just because James’ epistle is in the New Testament, that the letter must explicitly declare the divinity of Christ. Think about it: if – for example – a pastor was writing to his church, which he already knew believed Jesus was God, would he need to lay all that out to them again?

Yet, Akyol does not take into account the specific purpose, audience, or even genre of the writing. If James is writing to Christians already familiar with Christian beliefs, why would he need to explicitly declare Jesus’ divinity? Why assume every letter written by an Apostle will lay out the whole of Christian theology?

The truth is, most letters in the New Testament are not theological manifestos. They are written to specific churches about specific topics and issues. With this, James’ epistle more closely follows the genre of Proverbs than the theologically heavy letters of the New Testament, such as Romans or Hebrews.

Finally, as we’ve seen, what Akyol misses is that James does declare Jesus to be God. Does James explicitly proclaim it? No, he assumes it. This implicit proclamation is weaved throughout his letter, and once noticed through careful reading, it is just as powerful as any explicit declaration of the God-man Jesus Christ.

 

Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

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Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The above photo is of the earliest known visual depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from an ancient church or even from Christian hands. It’s a piece of ancient graffiti scratched into a wall in Rome, dated to just before 200 AD. In it, a man looks upon a naked man with a donkey’s head crucified on a cross. The Greek reads, “Alexamenos worships god.”

When studying history, what is sometimes called “enemy attestation” is considered the strongest sort of evidence. The idea is that all historical writings have the bias of the authors, so a historical record from a certain people about themselves will likely have a positive spin. On the other hand, historical writings about those same people by those who opposed them will likely have a negative spin. Thus, enemy attention is valuable when it affirms the same information as the other side. Such harmony is of high value to the historian.

The ancient graffiti above appears to have been created by a Roman mocking Christian beliefs. The graffiti artist degrades the beliefs of the Christian Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified man, going so far as to portray Alexamenos’ God with the head of an ass.

This piece of enemy attestation from just before 200 AD not only confirms the crucifixion of Jesus, but also confirms that ancient Christians worshipped Jesus as a God. (This is confirmed in the earliest Roman writings about Christians as well.)

This is significant to Christians today because many modern skeptics often explain away Christian beliefs about Jesus as legends that developed long after Christ walked the earth. A popular claim (which is not argued in the academic world but lives on thanks to the internet and the book The Da Vinci Code) is that Jesus was deified at the Council of Nicea over 300 years after Jesus’ ministry or, at least, some time after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD and – as the dead theory goes – mixed pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs. This simple piece of scratched slander on a Roman wall alone disproves that theory.

Another point of interest about this piece of crude ancient art is that it gives us a glimpse into what the ancient Romans thought of this strange new cult that worshipped a crucified God-man.

In this series, we’ll look more at what the Romans thought of Christians and see how it helps us to understand our faith today.

NEXT: The folly of the Cross continued…

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The New Paganism (Part 6) Are the Old Testament Faithful Damned Because They Lived Before Christ?

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The Old Testament Saints

Are the people faithful to God in the Old Testament still damned because they lived before the saving work and death of Christ? This is a question often asked by both Christians and skeptics. The quick answer is: No, they are not damned. The Old Testament faithful are saved by the work of Christ.

To conclude this series on pluralism and inclusivism, we’ll look at one more inclusivist claim of scholar Clark Pinnock. His inclusivist view proposes that one does not have to believe in Christ specifically to be saved, and one way he supports his argument is by pointing to the faithful who are saved in the Old Testament before the coming of Christ.

Surely, Pinnock claims, many loyal people of God written about in the Old Testament had saving faith long before Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I believe he is correct here, as well see by the biblical evidence below.

Pinnock and other inclusivists name Abraham as a prime example. They are right in that Abraham had saving faith before Christ, but they are overlooking important details. Abraham was not a faithful “pagan saint” who came to salvation through his paganism.

First, Abraham came into a covenantal relationship with God by the self-disclosure of God himself, which is an example of special, not general, revelation. Abraham was likely a pagan before God revealed himself to him in Genesis 12, and all evidence indicates that not only did God initiate this relationship but also Abraham was not chosen for any particularly reason, including any sort of righteous behavior.

Secondly, this means Abraham clearly had correct information about God, which—as we have seen—is a requirement for salvation.

Thirdly, Abraham had faith in God’s promises, which would include looking forward to Christ, a promise going all the way back to the Fall in Genesis 3:15. God promises Abraham that through him all the families of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), and Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Immediately following this in 15:7–21, God and Abraham partake in a clear covenantal-sealing ceremony, and we see another covenantal milestone, symbolized by circumcision, between God and Abraham in 17:1–4.

Finally, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

We also see this idea in the Book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Take a moment to read Hebrews 10:1-18, where this fleshed out.

Interestingly, Pinnock cites Romans 4:1–25 to support his view, but Romans 4:20–25 actually counters his view. Paul writes, Abraham had “[n]o unbelief… concerning the promise of God” (4:20), and he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21).

Abraham is not an example of an adherent of another faith moved to saving faith by the Holy Spirit; quite the contrary, he is a man in covenantal relationship with the true God through the self-disclosure of that one true God, and a man with complete faith in the promises of God (Heb. 11:17–19), which include the promise of the coming Christ.

If there is any question about this, Jesus himself says to his fellow Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

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“The Faith Hall of Fame”

Hebrews 11, sometimes nicknamed “The Faith Hall of Fame,” mentions many Old Testament saints who lived in faith. As with Abraham, inclusivists cannot use this to support their case; all those Old Testament saints mentioned knew the God of the Bible, not some generic god or false faith, and believed in God’s promises.

Wellum writes, “[T]he entire context of Hebrews 11 describes a ‘faith’ which is rooted in God’s covenant promises, now brought to fulfillment in Christ.” Hebrews 11 starts by making this clear enough: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (11:1–2). “Commendation” is defined as an award involving praise and can be also translated as “approval.” Likewise, Hebrews 11:13 tells us, “These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.”

Their faith was not in some false religion with some partial truth about God; as in all of the Old Testament, their faith was specifically rooted in the one true God and his promises of salvation.

Thus, Abraham was justified by faith alone, which is confirmed by Paul (Rom. 4:1–25), and Paul confirms believers before Christ are destined to become “sons” (Gal. 3:23; 4:1). Hebrews 11:39–40 confirms that other Jews and pagans were saved by their faith before the coming of Jesus.

Conclusion

In closing, a careful reading of the Bible shows that Pinnock’s inclusivist interpretations of Scripture are not biblical. One must have knowledge of Jesus Christ to benefit from his salvific work, and the Holy Spirit only works in giving saving faith in connection to Christ. The idea of “pagan saints” in the New Testament era is unfounded, and Old Testament saints were saved by God’s self-disclosure and their faith in God’s future promise of salvation through Christ.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

Read Part 5: The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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