Friday, 2 May 2014

Eternal Security - the view from the book of Hebrews

Eternal Security
The view from the book of Hebrews

There are two common criticisms of the ‘eternal security’ doctrine, each expressing an opposite view.

Those who hold that once you are saved, you cannot lose that salvation are accused of inviting people to be saved and then encouraging them, either directly or indirectly, to live as they like, to continue in sin, because why do they need to live holy lives if they cannot lose their salvation?

On the other side of the argument, we have those who believe that salvation is conditional being accused of depending on themselves and their works of obedience to keep them safe, and not on the finished work of Christ.

Of course, neither is entirely true. There are and always will be some who fall into those kinds of category, but in general, there is little truth in the statements. In fact, both sides will say that their particular view of the doctrine of eternal security actually encourages them to hold fast their profession and to persevere, even when the pressure is on to give up.

We have addressed this subject before, but on this occasion, I want to look at the subject from the letter to the Hebrews in particular. The book was written to encourage people on the brink of giving up, to continue in their faith and to warn of the dangers and consequences of departing from the faith. The early Jewish Christians were being persecuted mercilessly. Hoping to escape this persecution, some were considering reverting to the Jewish traditions and going back to Judaism. After all, the Jews and the Romans had got along side by side for some time (albeit unhappily), so they thought it would be less uncomfortable being Jewish than it was being Christian. Some scholars think the letter may even have been written to a specific group of Hebrew Christians who were thinking of or attempting to merge with a Jewish group at Qumran. Little did they know at that time, had they reverted, they would still have been the subjects of persecution as Rome turned its attention to the Jews, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

The writer therefore sets out to encourage them not to give up and issues some dire warnings about the consequences of turning back. While this letter was written primarily to Hebrew Christians and has much to say about Jewish ceremonial practices, there is still plenty of instruction for all Christians about the dangers of putting one’s hand to the plough and then looking back.

The specific verses I wish to draw to your attention can be found as follows:
Hebrews 3v12-14
Hebrews 6v4-6
Hebrews 10v26-29

Shortly after I first became a Christian, I was reading in the book of Hebrews, chapter 6, and was alarmed at what I read there. Apparently, it was possible to be saved, but then lost again! I went to see the person who had led me to the Lord and said, ‘It says here I can lose my salvation!’ Their reply: ‘It doesn’t mean that; it just means you can’t be born again, again. There is no need to be born again, again, if you are truly born again in the first place.’ While that response satisfied me in the short term, I couldn’t get away from the fact that the passage plainly stated that if I fell away, I was once again lost in my sins. Could it mean something other than it said? Was my friend right? Was it actually impossible to lose your salvation? And why did the passage mean something other than it stated? Did God mean what He said or not? I was confused!

So what does Hebrews 6v4-6 actually say?

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

Can this passage be interpreted to mean, as many claim, that the people referred to were not truly converted in the first place; they were only ‘hangers on’ and so when the heat of persecution came their way, they couldn’t resist and fell away? Let’s unpack it a little to find out:

They are described as those who were – ‘once enlightened’ – have ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’ – are ‘partakers of the Holy Ghost (Spirit)’ – and who have ‘tasted the good word of God’.

Some have tried to say that these people had only experienced these things vicariously – that is, they experienced them second hand, because they were associating with Christians. Can this be true? Can someone be called a ‘partaker’ of the Holy Spirit, if they have merely seen and associated with Christians? I do not believe so. These words can only describe a genuine Christian. A partaker is someone who internalises something (usually referring to food or drink). If you go to a party, but don’t eat the food, can you be said to have partaken of the food there? If there were no other description of these people, this one would be enough to determine that they are genuinely born again people referred to in this passage.

But let’s not stop there. The verses continue: ‘if they shall fall away’. Can you fall off something you are not on? Can you leave somewhere when you are not there? Of course you can’t; that would be nonsense. If I am in Liverpool, I cannot leave London; I would have to be in London to leave London. So to say that these people fell away from the faith when they didn’t actually have any faith makes nonsense of the passage.

Furthermore, the passage goes on: ‘to renew them again’. Becoming a Christian is making a person new: ‘If any man (person) be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5v17). They have been ‘renewed’; this can only mean they have been converted and made new creatures. The word ‘again’ means there was a previous occasion. The passage says it is impossible to renew them again. You cannot do something ‘again’ if you have not already done it at least once. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland who, when offered ‘more tea’ replied, ‘how can I have more when I haven’t had any?’

No, the detail of the description, the idea of falling (you have to fall from somewhere), and the repeated use of ‘again’ indicates with certainty that the people here referred to were genuine believers and were in danger of falling away – hence the warning of the consequences of such falling away.

Now let us turn our attention to Hebrews 10v26-29, which says:

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despiseth Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?

The context of these verses is in verses 23-25:

‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope, without wavering’. Once again, we see the writer is speaking to those who have a ‘confession of hope’; he encourages his readers to ‘hold fast...without wavering’. Can you hold fast to something you do not have hold of in the first place? Can you waver from something you do not believe? The book of James has something to say to those who are wavering:

‘Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways’ (James 1v6-8)
But the writer goes on to encourage the believers to meet together to encourage one another and exhort one another, and even more so as the Day of the return of the Lord gets ever closer.

Now let’s look at the specific verses of our main passage in detail:

  1. v. 26 ‘If we...’ – to whom does the word ‘we’ apply? When I say ‘we’ I usually mean those I am with, including myself. No-one has ever, to my knowledge, tried to claim the writer to the Hebrews (commonly asserted to be Paul, but in truth, we do not actually know) was a false believer. Yet in this passage, he is including himself along with those to whom he is writing.
  2. v. 26 ‘sin wilfully...’ – ‘wilfully’ includes the ideas of habitually, deliberately and continually; in other words, it is not the occasional slip up we are speaking of here, but a deliberate turning away from God and back into our old life.
  3. v. 26 ‘after we’– again the writer refers to those to whom he is writing and includes himself; ‘have received the knowledge of the truth’ – if I am sent a letter too large for my letterbox but I am not at home to take it from the postman, he will leave me a card asking me to collect it. Have I received the letter? No, not until I have fetched it from the sorting office. It isn’t ‘received’ until it is in my possession, even when delivery has been attempted. The same is true of salvation; these people could not be considered to have ‘received the knowledge of the truth’ until they had accepted it and made it their own. This is yet another reason I believe we cannot be speaking of anything other than truly born again Christians.
  4. v. 26 ‘there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins’ or, in a different translation, ‘there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins’. The Jews had had the sacrificial system for generations; the death and resurrection of Jesus had done away with all that, by offering Himself as a sacrifice once for all time (Hebrews 9v26), as the culmination, or fulfilment, of the shadows and types (Hebrews 10v1-4).
  5. v. 27 and 28 puts the warning in context – if a person rejected the law of Moses, then he could be put to death at the mouth of two or three witnesses. To whom was this addressed? To the Jews under the old covenant. Rejection of God’s new covenant therefore can only bring ‘judgment and fiery indignation’.#
  6. v. 29 how much worse do you suppose it will be for those who have:
a.    trampled the Son of God underfoot;
b.    counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing;
c.    insulted the Spirit of grace

I recently heard it stated that these lines do not describe a child of God, a Christian. No Christian, they said, could do these things. However, it is a good description of apostasy, an apostate.

What is an apostate?

First of all, it is not a false believer, a hanger on, someone who pretends to be a Christian, someone who has been deceived or has deceived themselves into believing they are a Christian when they are not.

What it is, is someone who has rejected their faith, turned away from God, turned back to the world. The dictionary describes it as:

Apostasy, noun – the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle. Synonyms: renunciation of belief, abandonment of belief, recantation, treachery, perfidy, disloyalty, betrayal, defection, desertion...

Abandonment of ones religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause. [ middle English – apostasie, from Old French; from Late Latin apostasia, defection; from Late Greek apostasia; from Greek apostasies, revolt...

Does that sound like apostasy refers to someone who was not a true believer in the first place? To say that these verses describe a false believer shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word ‘apostasy’.

There is another phrase within this verse that indicates that these words refer to true believers and not false ones – v. 29 ‘counted the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified...’ (emphasis mine).

To whom does the word ‘he’ in this verse refer? The subject of the whole passage is ‘he’. Which ‘he’ is the subject? Could it refer to Christ, bearing in mind He was mentioned in the previous clause? But at what point was Christ ‘sanctified’ by His own blood? His blood was shed for sinners, to bring them to God, that he might sanctify them – who are ‘them’? Sinners! Not Himself! The meaning of ‘sanctified’ is ‘to make holy’ – when was Jesus not holy? When did He need to be made holy by His own blood? No, Christ’s blood is to sanctify believing sinners – ‘but ye are washed, ye are sanctified’ (1 Corinthians 6v11). Nowhere in the New Testament do we read that Christ needed to be sanctified. Christ’s blood was shed for the remission of sins; Christ had no sin of His own. Jesus cannot have been ‘sanctified’; He was already holy, already sinless, otherwise His sacrifice could not have been accepted by the Father.

No, ‘he’ can only refer to the apostates – those who have trampled the Son of God under foot, who have counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, who have insulted the Spirit of grace. In the immediate context, ‘he’ still refers to apostates; ‘how much worse punishment...will he be thought worthy...’ It would make no sense grammatically to take ‘he’ in the middle of v. 29 and make it apply to Christ, who was the object of the preceding clause, not the subject.

For clarity, some modern versions of the Bible, to assist us in our understanding, capitalise the pronouns used for God and Christ; the ‘he’ in the middle of v.29 is not capitalised, indicating that the translators did not consider this ‘he’ to be referring to Christ.

Finally, let us look briefly at Hebrews 3v12-14:

‘Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end’.

Who are the ‘you’ referred to in the first line? The answer is the same as to the question, to whom is this letter written – Hebrew Christians, who were struggling under persecution.
Are they true Christians? I believe I have shown that they are. So how can a true Christian be referred to as having ‘an evil heart of unbelief’? Well they can’t, as a statement standing alone, but in context, they can – ‘an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God’. If you depart from the living God, you no longer have faith in Him to keep you; you no longer believe; your heart can become hardened due to the deceitfulness of sin and unbelief. Either you trust Him or you don’t; if you trust Him, hold fast to your confidence; if you do not trust Him, then you are departing from the living God – and there is no other sacrifice available to you. The sacrifices under the old covenant have been done away with, there is no other sacrifice for sins than the blood of Christ.

There was a poignant little story in the gospels – after Jesus had spoken of being the bread of life, many went away and ‘walked with Him no more’. Turning to His disciples, He said, ‘will ye also go away?’ Peter replied, ‘to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.’ There is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby ye must be saved’. If we reject Christ, there is no other salvation available. But the warning is there – if we turn back, we can expect only judgment and fiery indignation. ‘No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God,’ (Luke 9v62).

The Necessity of the Cross

The Necessity of the Cross

To understand the necessity of the cross, we first need to look at the concept of sin.

What is sin? The Bible does not leave us without a definition of this subject. In its most basic form, sin is described as ‘transgression of the law’ (1 John 3v4) and ‘rebellion against the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 9v7). Expanding on this definition, the Apostle John says ‘all unrighteousness is sin’ (1 John 5v17). In the Sermon on the Mount, we see that Jesus described sin as starting from within; it is not simply a matter of what we do, but also of what we think. Thoughts are as bad as the action; thoughts in the mind can lead to action in the body (Matthew 5v21-30).

The word translated ‘transgression’ carries with it two meanings:

1.    To step across (an established boundary)
2.    To miss the mark

Sin, therefore, is stepping outside and beyond the boundaries God has set in His law. It is active rebellion against Him. It is a going astray: all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, (Isaiah 53v6).

To read more about the Bible’s definition of sin, please go to the following links:

Where did sin come from? When God created the world, He declared it ‘very good’. If there had been sin present, it could not have been ‘very good’. So where did sin originate? The ultimate crown of God’s creation was mankind, Adam and Eve. God set them in the garden to tend and keep it and gave them one rule – they could eat anything in the garden, but ‘of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat’ (Genesis 2v17). But Adam and Eve did eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The devil tempted Eve and she ate, then brought some to her husband and he ate also. Thus mankind fell prey to the penalty for their sin (transgression of God’s law).

What was that penalty?

‘In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis               2v17)

         ‘...till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust               you are and to dust you will return’ (Genesis 3v19)

         ‘But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God            and your sins have hid His face from you’ (Isaiah 59v2)

        ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake...thorns and thistles it shall bring             forth’ (Genesis           3v17).

How does this affect me?

        ‘Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin;           and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned’,                         (Romans 5v12). 
        ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ – we all sin, there is         no-one who does what is right and good. (See Romans 3v23 and Romans         3v10-12). Therefore, we are all under the same condemnation, all worthy         to suffer the penalty of death and separation from God.

But God did not leave it there; He also provided a remedy.

For generations, until the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, God’s people, the Jews, presented sacrifices to atone for sin on a regular basis, some daily, some annually and some in between. But these sacrifices did not take away sin, it merely covered it for a time, then the whole process had to be repeated:

For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins, (Hebrews 10v1-4, emphasis mine).

In an obscure part of the world in around AD 30, there came a man named John, preaching repentance, preparing the way for the One who would come after him, saying ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ and ‘he who comes after me is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.’ Who was he referring to? Well, the very next verse tells us:

‘the next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, Behold, the Lamb of       God, that taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1v29). Did you notice that? The       Lamb who would take away the sin of the world, not just cover it (hide it temporarily). The book of Hebrews goes into great detail about how the new covenant that God was establishing was better in every way compared with the old covenant – this covenant would take away sin:

‘And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice forever, sat down at the right hand of God’, (Hebrews 10v11-12, my emphasis). There is no longer any need for sacrifices; Jesus was our Passover Lamb, slain on our behalf, to take away sin:

This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord... their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more. Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin, (Hebrews 10v16-18).

A new covenant was established between God and mankind, a covenant based on the death of the Lamb of God, Jesus Himself, and not on the repeated sacrifice of animals.

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

A testament is like a will; it only becomes effective on the death of the testator. If Christ had not died, the new covenant could not have been established. Matthew Henry puts it like this:

Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary

Hebrews 9:15-22 The solemn transactions between God and man, are sometimes called a covenant, here a testament, which is a willing deed of a person, bestowing legacies on such persons as are described, and it only takes effect upon his death. Thus Christ died, not only to obtain the blessings of salvation for us, but to give power to the disposal of them. All, by sin, were become guilty before God, had forfeited everything that is good; but God, willing to show the greatness of his mercy, proclaimed a covenant of grace. Nothing could be clean to a sinner, not even his religious duties; except as his guilt was done away by the death of a sacrifice, of value sufficient for that end, and unless he continually depended upon it. May we ascribe all real good works to the same all-procuring cause, and offer our spiritual sacrifices as sprinkled with Christ's blood, and so purified from their defilement.

The final question therefore would be: how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation? (Hebrews 2v3).

In Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible we read:

How shall we escape,.... the righteous judgment of God, and eternal punishment... if we neglect so great salvation? as the Gospel is, which is called salvation; in opposition to the law, which is the ministration of condemnation; and because it is a declaration of salvation by Christ; and is the means of bringing it near, and of the application of it in conversion, and so is the power of God unto it: and it is a "great" salvation; the Gospel which reveals it is great, for the author of it is Christ; it has been confirmed by miracles, and attended with great success; and has in it great things, great mysteries, and exceeding great and precious promises: and the salvation which it declares is great; it is the produce of great wisdom; it is wrought by a great person, by a Saviour, and a great one, and who is the great God, and our Saviour; it has been procured at great charge and expense, even at the expense of the blood and life of the Son of God; and has been obtained through great difficulties; and is the salvation of the soul, the more noble part of man; and it is a complete and everlasting one: to "neglect" this, is to be careless of it; to condemn it, and to despise the ministers of it; and to make anything else but Christ the way of salvation: and the danger such are in is very great; it is not possible that they should escape divine vengeance, since their sin is so great

Without shedding of blood there is no remission (of sins) (Hebrews 9v22). There is no longer a sacrificial system; there is no Temple. The sacrifices have been overwritten by God’s new covenant. If we reject His new covenant, there is no salvation. Only the death of Christ could take away sin.

Now God commands all men everywhere to repent. Repentance is the method God chose for salvation. It is a Godly sorrow for sin and a turning from sin to serve God; from pleasing ourselves, to pleasing Him.

Repentance from dead works, faith towards God. Our works are useless to save us; we need to rely on God’s promises, not on what we do. Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; they are tainted with our sin and no matter how much good we do, we can never cancel the debt of sin. To put it another way, if we have committed a crime worthy of punishment by the civil authorities, then no matter how much good we have done other than the crime, we are still worthy of punishment. We do not have to pay for our sins ourselves, but only by trusting that Christ paid that penalty on our behalf can we be forgiven.

For by grace are ye saved through faith (Ephesians 2v8-10). God has offered us salvation, freedom from sin, a place in His kingdom. The qualifications for entering that salvation are repentance and faith. This offer is all of grace. God did not have to offer salvation to anyone; we have rebelled and chosen to go our own way; we have broken His laws. But because He loves us, He chose to offer salvation. We can refuse to believe, we can reject God’s offer, but we will end up paying the penalty for ourselves. Unless we repent, therefore, we shall all perish – eternally separated from God. Since Christ’s sacrifice, God commands all men everywhere to repent.

Was the cross necessary? Yes, I believe it was! 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

He is Risen! part 3

He is Risen!
Part 3

Last time, we saw how Constantine and the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea changed the time Easter was celebrated. Today, I would like to look at the significance of this change.
The date chosen for Easter was the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, rather than associating the day with Passover. It was also the time the word ‘Passover’ was replaced with the word ‘Easter’. It is unlikely to be coincidence that this date coincided with the ancient day to honour Oestre (also spelled Eastre and pronounced ‘Easter’), the goddess of Spring, renewal and fertility/new birth:

“The name [Easter] probably comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, to whom was dedicated a month corresponding to April....Traditions associated with the festival survive in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in coloured Easter eggs, originally painted with bright colours to represent the sunlight of spring, and used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts...” – [Encarta Encyclopaedia]. 

So while Constantine and the Bishops did not wish to be associated with the Jews and a Jewish festival, they were quite content to be associated with a pagan festival.
In fact, we can see from letters written later that the coincidence of the dates and times was deliberate:

Pope Gregory I “verified the practice of the conversion from Passover to Easter in a letter to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The Pope suggests that converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards Christianity instead of to their indigenous gods, whom the Pope refers to as "devils". "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God... It would have been suicide for the Christian missionaries to celebrate their holy days with observances that did not coincide with celebrations that already existed. To save lives, the missionaries, in a devious clandestine manner, spread their religious message slowly throughout the populations by allowing them to continue to celebrate pagan feasts, but to do so in a Christian manner. Even the name of the ancient celebration, Eastre was adopted and eventually changed to its modern spelling, Easter.(Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, "Ecclesiastic History of the English People") 

And thus we see the start of the paganising of the Christian church. The Apostles and believers of the New Testament, along with the believers in the church pre-Constantine, would have recoiled at this association:

Tertullian had much to say on this subject:

“furthermore, you Christians have no acquaintance with the festivals of the Gentiles.”

 “What less of a defilement does he incur on that ground than does a business...that is publicly consecrated to an idol? The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s as the Saturnalia is Saturn’s...Likewise, New Year’s gifts must be caught at. The Septimontium must be kept. And all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted. The schools must be wreathed with flowers...The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday. Every ceremony of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian teacher?"

“We must now address the subject of holidays and other extraordinary festivities. We sometimes excuse these to our wantonness, sometimes to our timidity – in opposition to the common faith and discipline. The first point, indeed, on which I will join issue is this: whether a servant of God should share with the very nations themselves in matters of this kind – either in dress, food, or in any other kind of festivity....”There is no communion between light and darkness”, between life and death...If men have consecrated  for themselves this custom from superstition, why do you participate in festivities consecrated to idols?”

“The Saturnalia, New Year, Midwinter festivals, and Matronalia are frequented by us! There are New Year gifts! Games join their noise! Banquets join their din! The pagans are more faithful to their own sect!...For even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord’s Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!” [Emphasis in the original]

Origen agreed with him:

“The so-called public festivals can in no way be shown to harmonise with the service of God. Rather, on the contrary, they prove to have been devised by men for the purpose of commemorating some human events – or to set forth certain qualities of water, earth, or the fruits of the earth. Accordingly, it is clear that those who wish to offer an enlightened worship to the Divine Being will act according to sound reason and not take part in the public feasts.”

If that was their view, then how much would they have detested the paganising of the church in this way, a deliberate act, by those who were supposed to be leading the very church of God?

So how and when should we celebrate Easter? For my own part, there is a compelling argument that we should celebrate the resurrection on the first Sunday after Passover. This would be the day of the feast of first fruits, in the Jewish calendar, which supports the idea of Jesus being the first fruits from the dead. But I would not begrudge those who wished to celebrate it at Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. However, I believe that it is entirely inappropriate for Christians to attempt to worship God at a time set apart for the honouring of a pagan goddess. Oestre is depicted with a hare and surrounded by eggs as symbols of life and fertility. Today, Christians exchange ‘Easter eggs’ and talk of the ‘Easter bunny’ as if it is just a pleasant diversion. But it is quite clear both from Scripture and the early writings (pre-Constantine) that such mingling of paganism with Godly worship is to be avoided.

The early church did not celebrate with chocolate, eggs, bunnies or any other paraphernalia. They spent the day before Easter (ie the day they celebrated the resurrection) in fasting and prayer. They even stayed up all night, praying on their knees (as a sign of their penitence) and reading their Bibles. Then at sunrise, they rose from their knees and began a joyous celebration, which lasted all day, including an assembling of themselves together, whether they held that day on the Sunday following Passover, or on another day, associated with the Passover itself.

“They will assemble together at easter, that most blessed day of ours. And let them rejoice!” [Commodianus (c240AD)]

 “you have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to enquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall....It will be cordially acknowledged by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection...” [Dionysius of Alexandria (c262AD)]

 “it is your duty, observe the days of Easter exactly...You should not, through ignorance, celebrate Easter twice in the same year, or celebrate this day of the resurrection of our Lord on any day other than a Sunday.” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c390AD)]

“Break your fast when it is daybreak on the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – until cock-crowing....And from that point on, leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead!” [Apostolic Constitutions]

Christians should not be adding pagan rituals to their celebrations, such as Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, sunrise services and even calling it ‘Easter’. And it seems appropriate to celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday following Passover, as the symbolism of the feast of firstfruits is important to the Christian message. Does it matter? Yes, I believe it does!

Next article: The Necessity of the Cross

Monday, 21 April 2014

He is Risen! Part 2

He is Risen!
Part 2

In my last post we concluded with a brief look at the ‘Paschal Controversy’. In this post I want to explore the reasons that Easter is no longer associated with the time of the Passover (though from time to time the two coincide, as this year 2014). This will necessitate a glimpse of the Jewish calendar, and what happened at the Council of Nicaea that changed everything.

The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon. They have twelve months, each one being either 29 or 30 days long, alternating. The problem is that there are 12.4 lunar cycles in a solar cycle. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that 12 months of 29 or 30 days gives a year of 354 days, eleven days short of a full year. That means the Passover comes eleven days earlier each year than the previous year. Without some adjustment, Passover would soon be happening in December, October or at any other time during the year. So, to balance the lunar cycles with the solar year, an extra month (a ‘leap month’) is added every two or three years. This has the effect of Passover moving around, but only within the months of March and April. Therefore, Passover, being on the 14th day of Nisan (the first month in the Jewish calendar) always falls around the middle of the lunar cycle in March/April. Just as a birthday for example in our calendar will be on the same date each year, but a different day, so too is the 14th of Nisan. The difference is that the day is not simply one day different from the year before, but will be eleven days earlier for two or three years, then will jump forward when the additional month is included.

As we saw previously, some of the early Christians celebrated Easter at the time of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the Sunday following Passover. Also as we saw, while there were differences, these did not detract from the unity it enjoyed; the early Christians did not allow those differences to become divisions.

Earlier in the history of the church, it was clearly established that certain days were celebrated by Christians. Origen states:

“We ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days. For example, there is the Lord’s Day, the Preparation, Easter, and Pentecost...they require some sensible (ie things appealing to the senses) memorials to prevent spiritual things from passing completely away from their minds.”

However, by the end of the fourth century (390AD and following), the Christian calendar had developed to include more ‘holy days’ than these only:

“Brethren, observe the festival days. First of all, there is the birthday that you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month [ie December 25th]. After that, let the Epiphany be to you the most honoured, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own divinity. And let that feast take place on the sixth of the tenth month [ie January 6th, by our calendar]. After that, the fast of the Lord is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s manner of life and teaching. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of Easter, beginning from the second day of the week and ending at the Day of the Preparation. After those solemnities, breaking your fast, begin the holy week of Easter, all of you fasting in this week, with fear and trembling...From Easter, count forty days, from the Lord’s Day to the fifth day of the week, and celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord.” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c AD 390)]

So what changes did the Council of Nicaea introduce? The Council of Nicaea was convened to discuss heresy that was infiltrating the church at that time. They also addressed other issues, one of which was establishing a more set date for Easter.

The Roman Emperor Constantine was the son of a Christian mother (Helena) and a pagan father. Constantine himself professed conversion to Christianity and declared that there would be no more persecution of the Christian church in the Roman Empire. This was good news for the Christians who had suffered greatly for their faith under Constantine’s predecessors. But not content with simply allowing religious freedom, Constantine wanted a say in how the church was run. He convened Councils of Bishops from time to time, over which he appointed himself overseer, or ‘chair’, to discuss matters of doctrine and practice. One of these Councils was the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The original purpose was to discuss what to do about certain heresies that were infiltrating the church at that time, but the Council members also discussed many other issues, including the date that Easter was celebrated. Between the Emperor and the Bishops, they determined that Easter should no longer be tied to the Jewish Passover, but should be the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (established in the ecclesiastical calendar as 21st March).

“Easter was first created during the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, which was the first ecumenical conference of bishops of the Christian Church convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, just 13 years after his conversion to Christianity following the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD. Constantine declared Easter would replace the Hebrew Passover and be observed the annual Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.”  [Eusebius, Life of Constantine]

An important historical result of the difference in reckoning the date of Easter was that the Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observed [the Resurrection] according to the date of the Passover festival. The churches of the West, descendants of Greco-Roman civilization, celebrated Easter on a Sunday. 

Constantine the Great, Roman emperor, convoked the Council of Nicaea in 325. The council unanimously ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox; and that if the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover was thus avoided.”  [Apologies – forgot to make a note of where this quote came from].

What motivated Constantine and the Bishops to make this change? Constantine himself leaves us in no doubt about that – he did not want the Christian celebration of Easter to coincide with the Passover, because he held a deep hatred of the Jews. Following the Council of Nicaea, he wrote a letter to the Bishops in which he stated:

"... it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way." (Eusebius, Life of Constantine)

From a letter to the bishops who were not present at the First Council of Nicaea Constantine stated:

"It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. ... Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries. ... avoiding all contact with that evil way. ... who, after having compassed the death of the Lord, being out of their minds, are guided not by sound reason, but by an unrestrained passion, wherever their innate madness carries them. ... a people so utterly depraved. ... Therefore, this irregularity must be corrected, in order that we may no more have any thing in common with those parricides and the murderers of our Lord. ... no single point in common with the perjury of the Jews." (Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History”
“At the council we also considered the issue of our holiest day, Easter, and it was determined by common consent that everyone, everywhere should celebrate it on one and the same day. For what can be more appropriate, or what more solemn, than that this feast from which we have received the hope of immortality, should be kept by all without variation, using the same order and a clear arrangement? And in the first place, it seemed very unworthy for us to keep this most sacred feast following the custom of the Jews, a people who have soiled their hands in a most terrible outrage, and have thus polluted their souls, and are now deservedly blind. Since we have cast aside their way of calculating the date of the festival, we can ensure that future generations can celebrate this observance at the more accurate time which we have kept from the first day of the passion until the present time. (4.) Therefore have nothing in common with that most hostile people, the Jews. We have received another way from the Savior. In our holy religion we have set before us a course which is both valid and accurate. Let us unanimously pursue this. Let us, most honored brothers, withdraw ourselves from that detestable association. (5.) It is truly most absurd for them to boast that we are incapable of rightly observing these things without their instruction. On what subject are they competent to form a correct judgment, who, after that murder of their Lord lost their senses, and are led not by any rational motive, but by an uncontrollable impulsiveness to wherever their innate fury may drive them? This is why even in this matter they do not perceive the truth, so that they constantly err in the utmost degree, and will celebrate the Feast of Passover a second time in the same year instead of making a suitable correction. (6.) Why then should we follow the example of those who are acknowledged to be infected with serious error? Surely we should never allow Easter to be kept twice in one and the same year! But even if these considerations were not laid before you, you should still be careful, both by diligence and prayer, that your pure souls should have nothing in common, or even seem to do so, with the customs of men so utterly depraved.

(7.) This should also be considered: In a matter so important and of such religious significance, the slightest disagreement is most irreverent. (8.) For our Savior left us only one day to be observed in remembrance of our deliverance, that is the day of his most holy passion. He also wished his catholic church to be one; the members of which are still cared for by one Spirit, that is by the will of God, however much they may be scattered in various places. (9.) Let the good sense consistent with your sacred character consider how grievous and inappropriate it is, that on the same days some should be observing fasts, while others are celebrating feasts; and after the days of Easter some should celebrate festivities and enjoyments, while others submit to appointed fastings. For this reason Divine Providence directed that we put into effect an appropriate correction and establish uniformity of practice, as I suppose you are all aware.

(10.) So first, it was desirable to change the situation so that we have nothing in common with that nation of father-killers who slew their Lord. Second, the order which is observed by all the churches of the western, southern, and northern parts, and by some also in the eastern is quite suitable. Therefore, at the current time, we all thought it was proper that you, intelligent as you are, would also cheerfully accept what is observed with such general unanimity of sentiment in the city of Rome, throughout Italy, Africa, all Egypt, Spain, France, Britain, Libya, the whole of Greece, and the dioceses of Asia, Pontus, and Cilicia. I pledged myself that this solution would satisfy you after you carefully examined it, especially as I considered that not only are the majority of congregations located in the places just mentioned, but also that we all have a most sacred obligation, to unite in desiring whatever common sense seems to demand, and what has no association with the perjury of the Jews. (11.) But to sum up matters briefly, it was determined by common consent that the most holy festival of Easter should be solemnized on one and the same day; for it is not at all decent that there should be in such a sacred serious matter any difference. It is quite commendable to adopt this option which has nothing to do with any strange errors, nor deviates from what is right.”

Ironically, in 2014, Passover fell on Tuesday April 15th, making Sunday April 19th (Easter Sunday this year), the first Sunday following Passover.

In my next post, I will be looking at the significance of this change. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

He is Risen!

He is Risen!
Part 1

The word ‘Easter’ occurs in our New Testament only once. It is translated from the word ‘pascha’, which appears 29 times. Twenty eight of those times, it is translated ‘Passover’; once it is translated ‘Easter’, in Acts 12v4:

“And when he [Herod] had apprehended him [Peter], he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”

To most people, the term ‘Easter’ refers to the whole period that includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, or any part thereof. The early Christians used the word ‘pascha’ in their writings to refer only to the day they celebrated the resurrection. However, for convenience, I will be using the word ‘Easter’ to refer to the Christian celebration, meaning either the resurrection day. I do this for two reasons; first, in common usage, most people understand the word Easter to be referring to that period when the Christian church commemorates the death and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Secondly, using the word Passover might cause confusion with the Jewish Passover, rather than the Christian festival. It is also the word used (for the same reasons) in the quotations from the early Christian church writings, even though the original in those works is also ‘pascha’.

In my last post, I put forward the idea that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday, but rather on a Thursday. My intention was to show that the Bible does not support a Friday crucifixion with a Sunday resurrection. The early Christians fasted prior to the day of resurrection, but it would seem that their fast was held the day immediately prior to the resurrection day, rather than on the Friday (ie, two days before):

“Break your fast when it is daybreak on the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s Day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – until cock-crowing....And from that point on, leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead!” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c390AD)]

Dionysius of Alexandria (c262AD) wrote:

“You have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to enquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall....It will be cordially acknowledged by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection.”

So appealing to a traditional day of fasting by the early church does not teach us that the Christians fasted on the Friday, but on the day before Easter. If Easter was on a Sunday, then the day of fasting would necessarily be on a Saturday.

If therefore we can accept that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday, what is there to say that the resurrection actually occurred on a Sunday? Have we got that day wrong as well?

Again, we need to appeal to the early Christian writings:

“Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which we all hold our common assembly, for it is the first day on which God...made the world. And Jesus Christ our Saviour, rose from the dead on that same day.” [Justin Martyr]

“We celebrate the Lord’s Day as a day of joy. For on it, He rose again.” [Peter of Alexandria: (c310AD)]

“On the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s Day, you should meet more diligently, sending praise to God.” [Apostolic Constitutions]

Clement, a friend of the Apostle Paul, stated:

“Christ rose on the third day, which fell on the first day of the weeks of harvest, on which the Law prescribed that the priest should offer up the sheaf.”

From these references, we can see that the early Christians worshipped on Sundays because that was the day the Lord had risen from the dead. There is no mention of fasting, or meeting on Friday or each Friday, in acknowledgement of the death of the Lord.

So, having established that Christ rose on Sunday, and that He Himself said He would be three days and three nights in the grave, then we can safely assume that the crucifixion occurred on the preceding Thursday.

The next question we need to settle is: when is the proper date for the celebration of Easter? When did the early church celebrate it?

First of all, we ought to establish what we mean by ‘the early church’ or ‘the early Christians’. Until around the sixth century, the church was united. There were no separate denominations; all were one. The whole period is referred to as the time of ‘the early church’. However, there were two distinct phases within that period, separated by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

The first period is known as ‘pre-Constantine’; the second, ‘post-Constantine’. That is not to say that Constantine had died, but acknowledges that a change occurred in the constitution of the church at the time of the Council of Nicaea. When I refer to ‘the early church/ early Christians’, I am specifically referring to the time pre-Constantine. These Christians of the first, second and third centuries were much closer to the original biblical writers and some of them to the Apostles themselves. For example, Polycarp and Ignatius were personally acquainted with the Apostle John; Clement was known to the Apostle Paul. These men were taught personally by the Apostles and, in turn, they mentored the next generation of Christian church leaders, teaching them the things they themselves had been taught. Being so close, there was less likelihood of corruption of the practice of the church from the practice of the Apostles themselves and the churches they were overseers of. It makes sense therefore not only to look at what the Bible teaches us, but to see how those early Christians put the words of Scripture into practice. There is no shortage of material within those writings about the early church’s practice of the celebration of Easter. Therefore, the vast majority of quotes are taken from the writings of early Christians prior to the Council of Nicaea.

So let us return to the question of when is the proper date for commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. Interestingly, the church before AD 325 had two opinions on this matter. This became known as ‘the Paschal Controversy’. Churches in the eastern parts of the region celebrated at the time of the Jewish Passover; churches in the east celebrated on the Sunday following the Passover. The one region thought it sensible to celebrate at Passover because Jesus is our ‘Passover Lamb’ and His death occurred at the time of the Passover. The other region believed that as Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, then Sunday was the proper day to celebrate the resurrection. Also, the Sunday following Passover was the Jewish feast of first fruits (the early harvest) and Jesus was described as the first fruits from the dead – ie His resurrection was the first resurrection and guaranteed the resurrection of the saints on the last day (which is still to come):

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept [had died].” (1 Corinthians 15v20)

David Bercot, in his book ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ puts it like this:

“The Paschal controversy concerned the day on which the Passover (Gr Pascha), known today as Easter, was to be celebrated. In the pre-Nicene Church, the main issue about Easter was whether it was to be celebrated on a fixed date each year, Nisan 14, or whether it was to be celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14, regardless of the date on which that Sunday falls. In Asia Minor, Christians celebrated Easter on Nisan 14, and they testified that they received this custom from the apostle John. In most other places, the Christian Passover was celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14.”

Polycrates (cAD 190), states:

“As for us then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest, who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord...These all kept Easter (Passover) on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel.”

Putting the other opinion, Anatolius (cAD 270) says:

“For the obligation of the Lord’s resurrection binds us to keep the Paschal festival on the Lord’s day."

And again:

“The one party, indeed, kept the Paschal day on the fourteenth day of the first month – in accordance with the Gospel, as they understood it. They added nothing of an extraneous kind, but kept the rule of faith through all things. The other party – keeping the day of the Lord’s passion as one replete with sadness and grief – hold that it should not be lawful to celebrate the mystery of Easter at any other time but on the Lord’s day, on which the resurrection of the Lord from death took place.”

Despite these differences, there was no division or disruption to the unity that was in the church at that time.

Firmilian [cAD 256) states:

“There are some diversities among the churches. Anyone may know this from the facts concerning the celebration of Easter...Nevertheless, there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the universal church on this account.”

In my next post, we will explore further the date of Easter and why we celebrate it at the time we now do.