Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is Hierarchical Pastoral Leadership Biblical?

J.P. Moreland in one of his lectures on why our cultures has become secular said that he believed the notion of the senior pastor is an unbiblical notion. Moreland said:
“I do not be such thing called senior pastor… [The] single thing that has damaged the church is the idea that we ought to have a person called the minister.”

But how does this concept of hierarchical leadership in the church come about?
After all, there is only one scriptural reference where the word “pastors” is mentioned and it is in Ephesians 4:11 and even then it is stated in its plural form. The Bible makes no mention of hierarchical pastoral structure. Ephesians 4:11 merely mention pastors as a function in the church, just as some are to function as apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers. It does not describe who these pastors are.

In chapter 5 of their book Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Frank Viola and George Barna documented from various sources a number of factors of how the plurality of pastoral leadership evolve into a hierarchical one with the senior pastor. These include:

1. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107 A.D.)
Although Ignatius of Antioch may have the good intention of combating false doctrines and preserving church unity through a rigid power structure patterned after the centralized political structure of Rome, but this has inadvertently he was the first one to have set the ball rolling down a slippery slope towards hierarchical pastoral leadership.

Ignatius of Antioch in his series of letter elevated one of the elders above the others. The elevated elder was called the bishop.  Ignatius of Antioch said:
“Plainly therefore, we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself…All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father….He that honors the bishop is honored of God.

2. Clement of Rome and Tertullian
Clement and Tertullian were among the first writers to have distinguished the clergy from the laity. The word laity is derived from the Greek word laos, which means “the people” and the term clergy is derived from the Greek word klēroō which means “a lot, a share, an inheritance”. But the New Testament never uses the word klēroō for any particular leader or groups of leaders. Rather, it uses the word for the whole people of God (see Eph 1:11, Gal 3:29, Col 1:12, 1 Pet 5:3).

3. Hippolytus
The writings of Hippolytus further gave power to the bishops to even forgive sins! 

4. Cyprian of Carthage
Cyprian of Carthage reintroduced a number of OT concepts such as the need for priests, temples, altars. The bishops began to be called priests. Cyprian also introduced the doctrine of spiritual covering because he believed that the bishops have no other superior other than God. Cyprian also taught the notion that when the priest offered the Eucharist, he was actually offering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By the fifth century, the concept of the priesthood of all believers had completely disappeared from the Christian practice.

5. Constantine and the influence of Greco-Roman culture
Under Constantine, Christianity was both recognized and honored by the state. But this has blurred the demarcation between the church and the state. Bishops were given tremendous privileges by Constantine and they began to became involved in politics. Secular-spiritual, laity-clergy and profane-sacred gaps widened.

6. The reformation.
Although the reformation brought about many good things, it failed to address the issue of hierarchical leadership structure. Although the office of the bishop was rejected, but the underlying concept of hierarchical leadership in the church was maintained albeit a different name, i.e. pastors.

In my analysis, I agree and disagree with J.P. Moreland. I would agree with him that hierarchical pastoral structure with the senior pastor at the top is not found in the Bible. The only verse regarding pastors is in Eph 4:11 and that is expressed in its plural form to describe the shepherding function for some in the church. Nowhere did it mention the senior pastor as compared to lower ranked pastors.

I agree that the notion of senior pastors can sometimes create codependency between the senior pastor and his members as long as both of them continue to depend on each other to meet each other's psychological and spiritual fulfillment. For the members in need of counseling, they will look up to their senior pastor for answers. For the senior pastor, the danger occurs when he feeds on the admiration and praise of his members for affirmations and identity. Furthermore, this sort of hierarchical pastoral structure can create a lot of loneliness for the people on top.

However, for J.P Moreland to say that this is the single thing that has damaged the church, I think this is an overgeneralization. A lot of good things can come out from the senior pastor leadership when the senior pastor is one who is humble and sensitive to the leading of God. Paul, although is not officially declared a senior pastor, is often looked up to and probably has played the role of the senior pastor.

Viola, Frank, and Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream, IL: Barna, 2008.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hume's gap and its consequences in the church today

As outlined by Nash in his book The Word of God and The Mind of Man, a common misconception about the philosopher David Hume is that Hume was an atheist outright to disprove the existence of God. In reality, according to Nash, Hume was not an atheist. In fact, Hume actually denied the supremacy of the human reasoning. To a certain extent, I agree with Hume that our human reasoning has definite boundaries.

Unfortunately, Hume went too far to the extent to say that in the metaphysical realm, in religion as well as in ethics, our human reasoning is subservient to our non-rational nature or our “passion”.  Hume believed that man couldn’t possibly have any knowledge about the transcendence.  Nash called this “the Hume’s gap”.

To quote Nash,
“According to Hume, we should ignore the arguments of the rationalists and trust our instincts. He believed that investigation ought to be limited to areas, such as mathematics, where knowledge is possible. Speculative knowledge-claims about certain topics in metaphysics, theology and ethics should be avoided; such matters should be accepted on the basis of faith, not knowledge.”

Hume’s own preference seems to have been for a non-rational faith in a god unsupported by reason, revelation, miracles or evidence of any kind.

Hume’s Gap is the rejection of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God and objective religious truth. Hume was a precursor of those philosophers and theologians who insist that religious faith must be divorced from knowledge and who believe that the impossibility of knowledge about God will in some way enhance faith.”

Unfortunately, I believe, this kind of dichotomy has serious consequences to the church today.

1. The dichotomy between reason and faith results in spiritual laziness in the church

The creeping of Humean philosophy in the church promotes a sense of inertia among Christians to engaging their minds with reasons. After all, if God cannot be known through reason and knowledge, why should we even be bothered to try anyway? This leads to spiritual laziness among many Christians. As a result, many Christians would say that they should just accept these metaphysical assertions “by faith”. Unfortunately, when such Humean philosophy is cemented as a form of dogma, some churches would even say that to doubt and reason is a sign of a lack of faith. Just accept it by faith!

Furthermore, our ideas have consequences. If a Christian believes that he can’t possibly integrate faith and reason, then he is threading down a slippery slope that would lead him to a “god-of-the-gaps” belief.  The “god-of-the-gaps” belief is the tendency to invoke the concept of “God” to plug the holes where science is incapable yet to explain. Unfortunately, the “god-of-the-gaps” is not the God of the Bible because as scientific discoveries increase, increasing number of phenomena can be explained naturalistically, thus, the role of “God” diminishes accordingly. It is a caricature that is spineless that would lead to increasing skepticism.

2. The dichotomy between reason and faith results in spiritual abuse in the church

As a consequence of the spiritual laziness as delineated above, the dichotomy between reason and faith results in a lot of subjectivism in the church. Many christians may delegate the onus of their Christian education to their pastors, church leaders, etc. They put their church leaders on a pedestal and depend on them to tell them what is right, what is wrong, what is God’s will for them, etc.  This can open to all sorts of spiritual manipulation, deception and abuses. This is especially so for Christians who are gullible in seeking for miracles, emotionalisms and signs.  Those who seek for the gifts more than the Giver without a firm foundation of the reasonableness of their faith would risk being deceived and manipulated. This is so unlike the early Berean church in Acts 17:11 where they diligently studied the Word of God to see if what they had been taught by Paul is true.

I strongly believe that the effect of Hume’s philosophy is compounded in the juvenilization of Christianity, as expounded in an article titled “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity” by Thomas E. Bergler, in the June 2012 issue Christianity Today. In that article, Bergler defines juvenilization as “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults”.  The positive side of juvenilization of Christianity was the rejuvenation of church attendance in the 1970s and 1980s when young people began to enjoy attending church services.

According to Bergler,
“[Juvenilization contributed to increased church attendance among young people]…by making the Christian life more emotionally satisfying. Passion was in, duty was out. This kind of individualized, emotional connection to God sustained religious interest in a changing society in which custom, tradition, and social pressure would no longer motivate people to care about faith or attend church.”
Unfortunately, to further quote Bergler,
 “Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith. In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers, even those who are highly involved in church activities, are inarticulate about religious matters. They seldom used words like faith, salvation, sin, or even Jesus to describe their beliefs. Instead, they return again and again to the language of personal fulfillment to describe why God and Christianity are important to them…Teenagers learn these beliefs from the adults in their lives. It is the American cultural religion. Teenagers are "moralistic" in that they believe that God wants us to be good, and that the main purpose of religion is to help people be good. But since it is possible to be good without being religious, religion is an optional tool that can be chosen by those who find it helpful. American Christianity is "therapeutic" in that we believe that God and religion are valuable because they help us feel better about our problems. Finally, American teenagers show their "deism" in that they believe in a God who remains in the background of their lives—always watching over them, ready to help them, but not at the center of their lives.”

3. The dichotomy between reason and faith results in skepticism and apostasy

The divorce between faith and reason as a consequence of this Humean philosophy results in increased skepticism.  One way many Christians deal with this is to keep their faith compartmentalized and private, away from our public life in schools and workplaces. However, as Timothy Keller pointed out, ultimately it is impossible to keep our faith completely compartmentalized because we derive the convictions of our conducts in the public square from our faith.

That is why, in 2011, in a five-year project headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman to explore the challenges of faith development among young people from 18 to 29 years old, it is found that 3 out of 5 Christians (60%) leave church, either permanently or for a long period of time after the age of 15 years old. According to this research, one of the six reasons why young people felt disconnected from church is because of the tension they see between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is that “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%), “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%).


In conclusion, to reiterate what Nash said about Hume, Hume did not directly attack Christianity by denying the existence of God. Rather, Hume said that metaphysical topics such as the existence of God cannot possibly be studied through reason and knowledge. But this proposition is far more damaging like a malignant cancer that grows subtly and slowly. To quote Nash again,
"The threat to Christianity today from the legacy of David Hume is not a full-fledged frontal assault upon Christian theism with all the troops advancing in full light of day. This kind of attack would fail because it would arouse Christians to a rational defense of their faith. David Hume's legacy is more insidious. It undermines the faith not by denying it but by directing our attention away from the importance of its knowledge-claims and its truth-content."

  1.     Nash, Ronald H. The Word of God and the Mind of Man. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 1992.
  2.     Bergler, Thomas E. “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity” Christianity Today. June 2012. 56(6).
  3.     Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.
  4.     Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church. In: The Barna Group website. Available at: https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church Accessed 17 Oct 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is the logos more important than the pathos or the ethos?

Although the intellectual component of the Christian faith is important, it is also vital to remind ourselves that the intellectual component does not take precedence over the other aspects of persuasion.

As Aristotle said, there are three means of persuasion - the ethos, the pathos and the logos. Speaking for myself, if I am not careful, I can be easily drawn to the logos (logic, intellectual, etc) to the exclusion of the pathos (the emotional side of persuasion, e.g., for all we know, the person who is resisting the gospel may be having an issue of the heart rather than an issue of the head). Ethos (our integrity, our credibility) too must never be neglected because people are watching our lives as much as our message. It is not just our orthodoxy (the doctrinal basis of our faith) that is important, but our orthopraxy (how we practice our faith) as well.

Ravi Zacharias used to often say:

“...behind every question is a questioner, who brings the context with which they are asking the question. We must answer not only the question, but also the questioner”

I find that I can be quite cold and hard in “winning” an argument to the point of losing the conversation and losing the person. To quote Ravi again, “once you’ve cut off a person’s nose, there’s no point giving them a rose to smell.” How we say it is equally or even more important than what we say. This is my constant struggle, and a constant reminder to me to cool down, and not to say anything than to say anything that I may regret later.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Legalism and Antinomianism - two sides of the same coin?

Legalism can occurs in many forms in the church today. Some may insist conformation to a certain church practices, or a certain membership of a sect before one can be saved. This is a big heresy because by depending on our own efforts to achieve our own salvation, essentially we are saying we reject the redemptive work of Christ. Galatians 2:21 clearly says:
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Gal 2:21 NIV)
In fact, when we say somebody has “fallen from grace”, that does not mean that he has committed a public sin, but Galatian 5:4 says, it means that person is depending on his own efforts to achieve his own salvation. Furthermore, legalism always have the tendency to major on the minors and minor on the majors.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:4 NKJV)
The other extreme can also occurs in church today. It is the form of complete liberalism or antinomianism. It is a form of living in total disregard to the righteousness of God even as someone who allegedly professes to be a follower of Jesus.

Someone who practices antinomianism would say to himself since God loves to forgive so much, why not give him more opportunity to forgive? If forgiveness is guaranteed, that means we already have the total freedom to do whatever we want including sinning as much as we want. Or an antinomian may think, since God is so loving, He would not judge me or he may say, well sin may not be so bad after all as it teaches valuable lessons. Or he may justify his basis for indulging in the sinful vices of the world by saying that he needs to stay in touch with the culture around him.

As Roman 3:8 and 6:1 says:
Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved.
(Rom 3:8 NIV)

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
(Rom 6:1 NIV)
However, someone who justifies his habitual sins or has totally no regard to God’s righteousness actually does not really understand the seriousness of sin.

As the Life Application Study Bible comments:
“God's forgiveness does not make sin less serious; his Son's death for sin shows us the dreadful seriousness of sin. Jesus paid with his life so we could be forgiven. The availability of God's mercy must not become an excuse for careless living and moral laxness.”
Similarly Gal 5:13 exhorts:
For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Gal 5:13 NKJV)

In fact, freedom or license to sin is no freedom at all, because once we misuse it to indulge in sinful behaviors, it is no longer a freedom. It binds us and enslaves us to bondage to Satan or our own sinful habits. Christians, by contrast, should not be slaves to sin, because they are free to do right and to glorify God through loving service to others.

Titus 2:11-13 brings even a step further to say that the grace of God, when properly understood actually teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Tit 2:11-13 NIV)
This is in line with Paul’s command in Roman 13:8 and Galatians 5:13-14 that it is imperative for Christians to remember that although we are no longer under the Law (Rom. 6:14) to attain salvation, we still need to fulfill the Law of love.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.
(Rom 13:8 NIV)

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
(Gal 5:13-14 NIV)
In other words, we are perpetually “in debt to Christ” for the lavish love he has poured out on us. The only way we can even begin to repay this debt is by fulfilling our obligation to love others in turn. Because Christ's love will always be infinitely greater than ours, we will always have the obligation to love our neighbors (2).

My understanding is that actually legalism and antinomianism are two sides of the same coin – and in both cases, they are threats to the Christian life because they promotes self-focused or self-centered obsession rather than giving glory to God. If we are self-centered on our efforts to achieve the ultimate good (salvation), we always have the tendency to be proud of ourselves, and tend to look down on others who could not achieve what we achieve. We feel a sense of superiority: self-indulgence.

On the other hand, if we totally disregard God’s righteousness, thinking that since God has already taken care of my after-life, my life here on earth is mine to enjoy and to navigate in any way I want so as to maximize my self-fulfillment and gratification on my short life here on earth – again, self-indulgence. The only way to get out of these two extremes is to always focus our gaze on Christ on the Cross – his sacrifice for mine, because of my wretchedness and utter hopelessness as a result of the devastating consequences of sin, and therefore I am forever indebted to Him, and forever be grateful to Him, and therefore, my life is now His, and only in Him, I can live my life to the fullest, in serving Him by serving others.

1.    Life Application Study Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996
2.    Antinomianism. In: Dictionary. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Available at URL: http://carm.org/dictionary-antinomianism Accessed 16 September 2014

The Jerusalem Council and what can we learn from this council

The primary issue dealt by the Jerusalem Council was whether Gentile believers should comply to the Mosaic law in order to be saved.

The Judaizers had wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised (Act 15:5). I could imagine if this issue was not handled properly, it could have potentially split the church and if that happened, what we would have today are two different religions.

Of had the Judaizers won that day, the Gentiles would have been required to be circumcised and this would have brought the message of Jesus back to square one. Christianity would have been part of Judaism or another form of Judaism.

The situation was so intense that Paul, Barnabas and others decided to take the issue to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). Although this was seemingly a human decision, Paul later revealed in Galatians 2:1-2 that he went up there “by revelation”. 

There, in a speech, Peter gave four compelling reasons why the Gentiles need not comply to the Mosaic Law:

1.    It was God’s will that the Gentiles should hear the message of Christ (Acts 15:7)
2.    And that the Gentiles had been given the Holy Spirit, thus, proving the genuineness of their salvation (Acts 15:8; 2:4)
3.    Why would the Jews want to impose a yoke that they themselves could not bear? (Acts 15:10)
4.    The salvation that was received was by the grace of God to everyone, both Jews and Gentiles and not of their own works (Acts 15:11)

Later, James also gave a speech. James's judgment was that Gentile believers did not have to be circumcised, but they should stay away from food sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality (a common part of idol worship), and from consuming blood (Lev 17:14) or eating meat of strangled animals.

But if circumcision is unnecessary for salvation, then why were these restrictions imposed? These restrictions were given not as prerequisites for salvation but for respecting the “weaker” brother (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8). The counsel to respect dietary restrictions was intended to demonstrate love and respect for the Jewish Christians. Because of their background, Jewish Christians would have struggled to share a meal with Gentiles who would not comply with the traditional Jewish dietary customs (cf. Acts 15:19–21). In short, love seems to be the motivating factor in resolving this conflict.

A number of other lessons could also be learned from this issue confronted by the Jerusalem council:

1.    Paul and others were courageous to confront the issue.
2.    All sides must be given a fair hearing before a decision would be made.
3.    The discussion should be done in the presence of wise counsel (leaders who are spiritually mature and trustworthy to make wise decisions).
4.    One the decision is made, everyone should then abide by the decisions.

1.    Tenney, Merrill C., and Walter M. Dunnett. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985

2.    Life Application Study Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996

3.    Wiersbe's Expository Outlines on the Old and New Testament: David C Cook, 2010.

4.    Gospel Transformation Bible: English Standard Version: Crossway, 2013.

The Physiology of the Early Church

I would liken the characteristics of the early church as a healthy spiritual body whose head is Jesus Christ Himself.

Below are the physiological characteristics of this spiritual body as gleaned from the mentioned scriptural verses:

1) The head
Acts 4:32 says that the believers "were of one heart and one soul". They were focused on Jesus, the head (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18). The body is connected to the central commander that allows for smooth, coordinated execution of the various functions of the healthy body. Imagine if the individual organ parts want to execute functions autonomously and independently from the central nervous system that controls and coordinates them.

2) The heart

The heart pumps and distribute blood and supply of oxygen and nutrients to the various organs according to their requirement, functions and metabolism. The organs that require more will be distributed more. The heart will ensure each organ does not lack the needed blood supply. At the same time, the heart does not pump excessively more than what is required by that particular organ. In certain critical conditions such as bleeding, the body can also redistribute blood from one organ to another organ that requires more. The organ that has more blood reserve cannot hoard the excessive blood and refuses to give out its blood reserve when another organ critically needs it for its own survival.

Acts 4:34 Nor was there anyone among them who lacked

Acts 2:44-45 all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone has need.

3) The limbs
The limbs of the church are actively working to extend the love of Christ to all people.

That's why Acts 2:44 says (the church is) .....having favor with all the people

The limbs also exercise daily to keep the body healthy just like the church exercise their faith daily as in Acts 2:46 says (they)...continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house.

4) The gut
The gut needs to absorbs essential nutrients and not junks. The church has a good intake of spiritual diet
Acts 2:42 continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers

5) The immune system
The immune system mounts up a immune defense at the first instance of detecting a threat that can harm the body.

Acts 6:1 records an internal conflict between two groups of Jews in the body - the Hebraic and the Hellenists. This conflict if not contained, is a threat that can drive a wedge that divides the church. The church does not neglect it or allow it to spread even though it may seem "petty" as compared to the "bigger" plan of winning souls through evangelism.


How does understanding the political, cultural, and geographical context of 1st century Israel help us better understand New Testament scriptures?

Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us
1.    To understand passages in the New Testament that would have otherwise make little sense
2.    To have a greater appreciation of the depth and richness of passages in NT
3.    To see the continuity of the story of God’s interactions with His people from the end of the OT to the beginning of the NT
1. Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us to understand passages in the New Testament that would have otherwise make little sense
For example, in John 4, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, He was leaving Judea and heading towards Galilee. And He said that He must go through Samaria.

Without a proper understanding of the geographical as well as the political background of these regions, Judea, Samaria and Galilee, this passage makes little sense. Galilee was the northern region of Israel and Judea was the southern region. Samaria was the region in between of Galilee in the north and Judea in the south.

Historically, after the reign of Solomon, Israel was weak. This was because, as 1 King 11:1-13 says, Solomon broke God’s commandment by taking in multiple foreign wives and concubines, although God has clearly said to the Israelites in Deut 17:17 that they must not intermarry with foreign wives, nor they with them as they surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods. This led to the break up of the nation of Israel into the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom and the two tribes of the Southern kingdom. All kings of the Northern Kingdom were wicked and they practiced syncretism. They easily accepted pagan worship and failed to be faithful to God despite repeated warnings from prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. 2 Kings 17:7-36 describes the reasons for God’s anger so much so that God decided to send the Assyrian army as “the rod of His anger” (Isa 10:5) to invade the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.

When the Assyrian took over, their strategy to ensure that the Israelites would not revolt was to deport a large number of Israelites from Israel while leaving some of them in Israel; and in return, brought in a large number of non-Jews into Israel to intermarry with the Jews. As a result, a mixed race was brought up known as the Samaritans as many of them settled in the capital city of Northern Kingdom, Samaria. As a result of their syncretism practices, many of the Israelites did not consider them as part of the Jews but rather, considered them heretical.

Because the temple in Jerusalem was located in the Southern kingdom, the Samaritans could not go to Jerusalem to worship God. Also, when the Israelites from the Southern kingdom later returned from the Babylonian captivity, Babylon, they refused to allow the Samaritans to assist in rebuilding Jerusalem (Ezr 4:1-4; Neh 2:19-20; Neh 13:28). As a result, the Samaritans set up an alternative temple at Mount Gerizim, the place where the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place.  By the time of Christ, the tension between the Jews and the Samaritans was so strong that they would avoid each other as much as possible. Therefore, a Jew who travelled from Judea to Galilee may avoid passing through the town of Samaria. Instead, he may travel through Perea on the east to Galilee.

But if we understand the geography of the land of Israel, the land is divided into four longitudinal strips: the coastal plain, the hill country, and the Jordan valley and transjordanian plateau. In order for a Jew to detour to Perea, he had to go through the mountainous route to the other side of the Jordan valley. Yet, because of the strained relationship between a Jew and a Samaritan, a Jew may be willing to take this tougher route. Not so with Jesus. Furthermore, according to the Jewish culture of the day, a Jewish man does not speak to a woman in public, let alone a Samaritan.

He breaks down barriers. His gospel penetrates to all men, regardless of race, status and nations. This is accomplished later on by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Philip to the Samaritans in Acts 8.

2. Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us to have a greater appreciation of the depth and richness of passages in NT

One of the most popular parables in the bible is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. But to have a greater appreciation of this story, we would need to understand the cultural background of the first century Jewish people.

First of all, for a younger son to demand the father to give him his inheritance while the father was still alive is a strange request. This is because according to the Jewish culture, the inheritance would not be given to the sons until the father pass away. Demanding for inheritance while the father is still alive is akin to wishing the father dead!

Furthermore, according to the first century Jewish custom, a Middle eastern man never ran! Matthew Williams explains:

“If he [the Middle eastern man] were to run, he would have to hitch up his tunic so he would not trip. If he did this, it would show his bare legs. In that culture, it was humiliating and shameful for a man to show his bare legs.

Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & the Prodigal, explains that if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony, called the kezazah. They would break a large pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!” The community would totally reject him.”

Matthew further explains that probably the father ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village. By doing so, two consequences occur:

1.    First the father would have humiliated himself by exposing his bare legs and doing something, which was unconventional at that time – run! This would have to be a decided action by the father.

2.    But secondly, by doing so, he would have prevented his son from the humiliation. He got his son before the community gets to him, so that the community would not have performed the kezazah ceremony – a permanent rejection of the son. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son.

Isn’t that the bible says, “We love Him because He first loved us. (1Jn 4:19 NKJV)”?

3. Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us see the continuity of the story of God’s interactions with His people from the end of the OT to the beginning of the NT

From the close of the OT to the beginning of the NT is a long period of 400 years.
But when we open the NT, we see King Herod coming into the picture. Who was he? Why was he governing Israel? Was he a Jew? Or was he a Roman?

During this period of time, a lot of events had happened. Firstly, after the Persian period where King Cyrus permitted Jews to return to their homeland, came the Greeks primarily through the conquest of Alexander the Great. During this time, the Greeks intended to spread their Hellenistic culture including the Greek language far and wide. Unfortunately, Alexander died young; and after him, the empire was divided into four areas among his four generals. Israel was then controlled by the Egyptian Ptolemies. Later on, the Syrian Seleucid gained control over Israel. The Seleucids attempted to spread Hellenism throughout their empire. The Jews were forbidden to practice their religion and the temple in Jerusalem was turned into a pagan shrine. This led to Mattathias and his five sons to revolt. After the death of Mattathias, the leadership was left to one of his sons, Maccabeus. This eventually led to a short period of Jewish independence known as the Maccabean period. Later on, unfortunately, the Maccabean rulers became progressively dictatorial, corrupt, immoral and even pagan. Internal strife led to Jewish people asking Roman general Pompey to come and restore order. Pompey did so, but along with that he also brought in Roman rule.

Towards the end of the Maccabean period, Antipater, the father of Herod the Great, emerged. Antipater was an Idumean. Idumea was the territory just south of Palestine. This was the home of the Edomites. Edom or Esau (Gen 25:29-30) was the brother of Jacob; and therefore, the Jews never regarded the Idumeans including Antipater and Herod the Great as pure Jews. Jews viewed them as pagans. But Antipater capitalized on the chaotic situation at that time when the Maccabean rulers were weak and convinced the Romans to allow his son, Herod the Great to rule over Israel when Pompey took over this nation. This was the “King” Herod who came into the scene in Matthew 2 who ordered for all male babies aged 2 years and below to be killed as he was threatened by the one born King of the Jews (Matt 2:2)

Tenney, Merrill C., and Walter M. Dunnett. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1985

Williams, William C., and Stanley M. Horton. They Spoke from God: A Survey of the Old Testament. Springfield, MO: Logion/Gospel Pub. House, 2003

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Williams, Matthew. The Prodigal’s Father Shouldn’t Have Run. In: Q Ideas website. Available at URL: http://qideas.org/articles/the-prodigals-father-shouldnt-have-run/ Accessed on 27 August 2014.

Grudem, Wayne A., C. John Collins, and Thomas R. Schreiner. Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

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