My diligence in collecting blogworthy material far exceeds my blog output. With this post, I partially offload the contents of one of my Evernote tags (I love Evernote!) in the hope that something here will bless you—and those you pray for:
Eight weeks ago, I suggested a reading plan for the Lenten period which I partly followed, sometimes substituting my own readings. Since this is the internet where everyone can share their opinion, however misguided or ill-informed, allow me to air my views on what I read during my morning commutes and lunch breaks.
(By the way, if you’re interested in reading all of the church fathers over a seven-year period, click on over to Read The Fathers.)
Day 1: Didache
Date: ca. 100 AD
The Didache (subtitle: Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is mostly about moral behaviour, with no mention of Christ or His sacrificial death, or the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Days 2-3: Epistle to Diognetus
Date: ca. 130-200 AD
Mathetes, a Christian, writes to Diognetus, a pagan investigating Christianity. If you can’t or won’t read any other part of this document, read chapter 5, which is all about what makes Christians distinctive from those who don’t believe.
Day 4: Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
Date:ca. 110-140 AD
Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the apostle John. In this letter, Polycarp quotes scripture often; even telling the Philippians to read Paul’s letter to them.
Days 5-11: Ignatius of Antioch
Date: ca. 105-115 AD
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writes letters to a number of churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. The letters I read were written to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna; as well as a letter to Polycarp (see above).
Ignatius doesn’t write much about Christ’s work, nor does he quote scripture often. On the other hand, he is very free with praise for the recipients of his letters. But the thing that put me off was his constant admonition to loyalty to the bishop (“do nothing connected to the church without your bishop”, and the like).
Days 12-17: Justin Martyr’s First Apology
Date: ca. 150-160 AD
I was unable to read this on my commute and had to find a quiet place in which to concentrate.
Justin writes a defence of Christianity to the Roman emperor. He’s big on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, often quoting OT scripture.Some of the quotations had different wording to what I’m used to, probably because they are from the Septuagint and not from the Hebrew text (which underlies our modern English translations).
It is in this document that we find a description of a Sunday service in the mid-second century (Chapter LXVII)
Days 18-20: 1 Clement
Date: Probably as early as 95 AD.
Clement was bishop of Rome from 92-99 AD, making him the second or third pope.
1 Clement, written to the church at Corinth, is a salutary paraenesis. His writing is warm, pastoral and hortatory – Clement is always saying, “Let us…” He quotes entire chapters of scripture. In chapter 45 (of 68), he gets to the issue of division in the Corinthian church, which was probably the reason for writing. In chapter 47, he urges the Corinthians to re-read what Paul wrote to them.
Days 21-29: Athanasius – The life of Anthony
Date: ca. 360. Anthony lived ca. 251-356
Athanasius of Alexandria (he of the Council of Nicea) wrote a biography (hagiography?) of Anthony of Egypt, a man who took asceticism to a whole ‘nother level. Anthony ate little, showered infrequently and often had encounters with the devil and demons. Anthony—who died at the age of 105 with no teeth missing— was also renowned for healing people and for prayer.
[At this point, I departed from the prescribed readings and chose my own.]
Day 30: The martyrdom of Polycarp
Date: ca. 150-160 AD
Polycarp, the same who wrote the letter to the Philippians (see day 4 above), was burnt to death for his belief in Christ around 155 AD. When the city proconsul urged him to deny Christ, Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
It is likely that the original account of Polycarp’s martyrdom was later embellished with legendary material.
Day 31: The martyrdom of Ignatius
Ignatius really, really, really wanted to be a martyr because that meant reaching perfection as a disciple of Christ. It would seem that as soon as he got off the ship that transported him to Rome he was directly led to the amphitheatre where wild beasts awaited him.
Days 32-33: So-called Epistle of Barnabas
Date: ca. 80-120 AD
This is a fine example of allegorical interpretation. For example, when Moses gave the Israelites instructions concerning clean and unclean animals, he didn’t mean it literally. Rather, he meant that they should avoid ungodly people (such as those who plunder other people’s food, like birds of prey), and so on.
Day 34: Fragments of Papias
Date: ca. 110-140 AD
Papias was bishop of Hierapolis (a town not far from Colossae). Just as the name suggests, this is what remains of longer writings, making it hard to summarise.
Day 35: Justin Martyr: Discourse to the Greeks
In Greek mythology, the gods were described as doing a host of immoral acts that humans would do well to avoid. Justin speaks to the pagans of his day, inviting them to come and learn of the true God—just like he had.
Day 36: Justin Martyr – On the sole government of God
Date: ca. 150-160 AD
The author, like the apostle Paul before him, starts by quoting Greek luminaries who testify to a number of biblical truths, for example, that there is only one God.
Day 37: Justin Martyr – Fragments on the resurrection
Justin comes down hard on those who deny a physical bodily resurrection. He argues that God can do it, the physical body is precious to Him, He shall raise both souls and bodies, Christ took on a physical body after resurrection, and so on. As per his usual style, he uses illustrations from Plato, Epicurus and the Stoics to bolster his points.
Day 38: Justin Martyr – Other fragments and martyrdom
Fragments: a collection of quotations of Justin’s writings as found in other writers.
Martyrdom: Justin, along with six other Christians, was decapitated in Rome around 165 AD.
Day 39: Fragments of Irenaeus
Topics covered include typology, Samson, Balaam, etc. In his discussion of typology, Irenaeus adopted the allegorical method of interpretation.
Day 40: 2 Clement
Date: ca. 140-160 AD.
This document has been wrongly attributed to Clement of Rome (see days 18-20). It is mostly concerned with moral conduct, and approvingly quotes purported sayings of Jesus from extracanonical material.
Have you ever, on completing something you were reading, felt a twinge of sadness that you would no longer enjoy the company of the characters or the author? I felt none of that here—with the exception of 1 Clement and Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians.
In particular, I was taken aback by two things:
a) How quickly Christianity became all about behaviour and conduct. The Didache, Ignatius’ letters, the so-called epistle of Barnabas and 2 Clement were all written within 2 generations of Christ’s ministry. Yet they contain very little about that. It reminded me of something I’ve often heard Don Carson say: “The first generation believes the gospel and holds that there are certain social, economic and political entailments. The second generation assumes the gospel but identifies with the entailments. The third denies the gospel: the entailments become everything.” (paraphrased).
b) How quickly anti-Jewish sentiments arose among Christians. The epistle to Diognetus, the so-called epistle of Barnabas and maybe one other document I read had some rather unkind things to say about the Jews’ mode of worship. It’s not hard to see how in a few centuries Christians would end up persecuting Jews simply on account of their religion, despite the New Testament not giving any warrant to do so.
My main takeaway from these 40 days with some church fathers is this: we as believers need the Spirit of God so that we may continue holding to the central point of the Word of God: God’s marvellous plan to save humankind from sin.
In the days of the early church, the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem had decided that what the apostles were doing wasn’t of God and actively opposed them. They were getting nowhere, and one of their number, Gamaliel, advised a let’s-wait-and-see approach. If the fledgling church’s actions were of human origin, they would come to nothing. But if they were moved by God, they would be unstoppable (Acts 5:34-40).
Unusual and perplexing spiritual experiences exist up to this day. How do we tell apart the genuine from the spurious?
For starters, we need to know that our culture, temperament and theological framework all influence the opinions we hold. For example, I have what I call ‘the gift of suspicion’: I always want to check out and verify everything, which no doubt drives people around me up the wall (sorry!). People like me need to be aware that cynicism can be a useful tool to the Enemy. Likewise, people unlike me need to know that openness can also be used to further Satan’s ends.
We also need to hold together reason and experience. The Holy Spirit uses both our intellect and our emotions to communicate God’s truth. When we’re born again, both our intellect and emotions are redeemed and consecrated to God. We don’t become more or less emotional, just as we don’t obtain a greater or lesser IQ.
As for spiritual experiences, Christians need to distinguish between what is promised in the Bible and what is possible. It is possible for God to appear to me in a bush that isn’t burning (He’s done it before!), but that isn’t promised in His Word as an experience every believer should seek after. God has appointed means of grace through which we can expect to deepen our spiritual experiences—prayer, praise, preaching and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To neglect these and to expect to grow is unreasonable and presumptuous.
Here are some guidelines for evaluating others’ spiritual experiences:
True religious experience recognises that divine things are good in themselves, and not only because of the benefits they bring. God is good, gracious and wonderful whether we benefit or not. Is the person taken with the glory of God or the beauty of the experience?
True religious experience delights in God’s holiness and in the beauty of His moral perfection.
True religious experience is based on the truth of the texts of scripture. The person is not without an understanding of the Bible and of the Gospel.
True religious experience results in sin not having dominion and in a longing for more of God and less of sin. This accompanying holiness is an outworking of point (2) above.
True religious experience results in consistency and integrity. The person acts the same whether in company or in private.
If we cannot find anything objectively unscriptural it is our Christian duty to accept, love and rejoice with those who experience spiritual realities that perplex us. Judge nothing before the appointed time (1 Corinthians 4:5), for the certainty of separating sheep and goats belongs to Christ alone.
In all these things, we can reach settled and provisional conclusions. We need to have courage to speak out as well as to be quick to encourage the good wherever we find it. Be patient with others as others (and God!) have been patient with you.
For many of us, even for some long-term believers, our picture of God’s kingdom to come derives from an unlikely combination of ancient Greek philosophy and modern Hollywood movies. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato taught that the physical world is a kind of grubby reflection of the ultimate non-physical reality to which everything is headed. Buddhism and Hinduism with their goal of nirvana, share a similar outlook. Somehow Hollywood got hold of this idea and now almost always portrays the afterlife as an airy-fairy, fourth-dimensional existence with clouds, haloes, bright lights and the ever-present harp music.
In the years after I came to believe in Christ, it always troubled me that I was now meant to enjoy the thought of escaping the physical world and entering a spiritual one called heaven. I love the taste, smell, sight, sound and touch of this world. And here I was, being told to look forward to losing these five senses and having them replaced by a spiritual sixth sense. I wasn’t terribly excited about it. Then someone challenged me to point to biblical texts that describe the afterlife as a disembodied nirvana-like bliss. I couldn’t. Every passage I turned to challenged the Hollywood version of heaven.
It turns out that the biblical coming kingdom is not an ethereal place of clouds and ghosts, but a tangible place of real existence. It is a new creation. Whether or not we gain a sixth sense, I’ve no idea, but I think we can count on keeping the other five senses. This is a future I can get excited about! It is life in the fullest sense of the word, a reality in which the moral and physical tensions of our current world will be resolved through an extraordinary act of divine re-creation. And when I find myself doubting that that such a fantastic hope could ever become a reality, I need only go down to the beach near where I live or look up at the glorious night sky and remind myself that God has already done it once. The proof is right there before my eyes, why should I question His ability to do it a second time?
Well, should we? Should being in unbroken fellowship with the triune God for all eternity be our sole motivation as we go about our earthly lives? Randy Alcorn was interviewed about his book The Treasure Principle on episode 242 of The Boundless Show podcast. Following is an edited transcript of what he said on the matter:
[From timestamp 32:04]
We might say, “Well, wait, that sounds mercenary. We should never be motivated by reward.” Actually, we’re wired to be motivated by reward. And of course, we should not think that heaven will be a reward for a life well-lived as if we could do good things that could earn our way to heaven. Christ has earned our way to heaven, there’s only one way to get into heaven: that’s by trusting in his merit, his righteousness and not in ours.
But, God nonetheless says to his children, “Now here’s what I want for you: I want to reward you. And I’m going to look at your giving, and I’m going to look at the way you use your time, and one day at the end of your life, I’m going to say, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant,’” hopefully, if it has indeed been well done, “‘enter into your master’s joy,’ and I’m going to give you the rewards that I think are fitting to the labour that you have done to serve me.” And that is just exciting.
[From timestamp 37:23]
And also, just to address this idea that I know goes through people’s minds, the mercenary problem, because I have people say this to me all the time: “Rewards? We shouldn’t want rewards; we should just want to be with Jesus.”
Well, first of all, it’s the Bible that tells us that we should want rewards: the apostle Paul, the words of Jesus. An analogy that I use is back when my daughters—who are now 33 and 31, and I have 5 grandsons now. Suppose when they were back in high school, that I’d said to them, “Okay girls, this Saturday we’re going to have a family workday.” To which I know they would have said, “Oh boy, that sounds like fun!” “But we’re going to have a family workday, and at the end of that day I’m going to pay you both $60 or whatever and then I’m going to take you out to a nice dinner at the restaurant of your choice.”
Now if I tell them this, do I want them to look forward to being paid the $60 or going to the restaurant of their choice? Of course I want them to look forward to it. But suppose instead I said to the girls, we’re going to have a workday on Saturday. And then my girls get together and they say, “Well, Dad, we’ve talked it over and we decided that unless you’re willing to pay us $60 and take us out to a nice dinner, we’re not going to do that workday thing.” How would I feel if they said that?
What’s the difference between those two things? There’s a huge difference. If reward was our idea, it would be a bad idea. We don’t even deserve to go to heaven, what are we doing talking about wanting to be rewarded? But the whole point is: it’s not our idea, it’s God’s idea, and God takes pleasure in the idea of rewarding us his children. So let’s not deny God of that pleasure, let’s celebrate the fact that it’s His idea, and He’ll take delight in our wanting what he’s offered in terms of reward, just as I would take delight in my daughters wanting what their Dad has offered them.
As I sat listening to the sermon at church last Sunday morning, I was struck by a big division. Some folk were scribbling earnestly in notebooks as the end of 2 Corinthians was unfolded for us. Others just sat listening.
He goes on to give some points in favour of and against note-taking. I found the latter interesting, never having considered why a pastor would ask the congregation to refrain from taking notes. Personally, I’m in the just-sit-and-listen camp. I cannot claim any high ideals behind my decision, however: I simply fell out of the habit of taking notes.
As more people make the move from regular cell phones to smart phones and tablets, many want to use the “smart” features during worship services to access the Scriptures, take notes, and even interact with the pastor. This has led to an ongoing, though fairly quiet debate about the proper place of such devices in church.
The author proposes three reasons why we find electronic devices so distracting, along with some helpful recommendations. I appreciated his stance—neither “get rid of them” nor “get used to it”. I also identified with some of his cynicism 🙂
Notes, screens and me
From my personal experience, I’ve not found note-taking to be a hindrance to concentration. However, for most of my Christian life I regarded sermons solely as containers for information, so maybe it was good that I stopped taking notes. Nowadays, most of the notes I take are from MP3s that I can listen to endlessly, and occasionally I even turn them into blog posts.
As for gadgets, I’ve not developed adequate resistance to the draw of shiny screens. I probably care too much about my image to be caught using my device for non-biblical purposes during a service, but I rather prefer to keep as far away from that temptation as I reasonably can!
How do you find out what God has called you to do? Moses got a burning bush, Isaiah and Ezekiel saw heavenly visions and Saul of Tarsus was blinded. Dramatic stuff. Matthew was at his tax-booth, Zacchaeus was up a tree and Timothy was in a local church when each was called. Not quite as dramatic. Clearly, one size doesn’t fit all.