Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hardliners and Mutations of a Simple Gospel

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Jesus hid many things from His enemies in that there came a point when He found the need to protect from them His teachings meant to nurture His Word in the heart of His believers. While those who honored His teachings held on to His Word with child-like faith, Jesus made sure the birds of the air find no success in devouring His seed (Matthew 13:4). He surrounded His teachings with a spiritual cloud undecipherable by faithless understanding. To our days, our appreciation of the parable stems from its illustrative power to drive important spiritual points. An interesting detail on parables, however, is that they were effective only when Jesus used them; in contrast, under the employ of other teachers, parables were nothing much than pictures on a narrative. The effectivity of a parable did not depend on how Jesus masterfully crafted and positioned these literary gems but on how He used them to accomplish two objectives: to drive the Truth of God into the hearts of the believers, immune from the adulteration of the Pharisees and experts of the Law; and to insulate the teachings from the latter’s understanding who are capable of intercepting to corrupt it or steal it away. Remember that when Jesus explained the use of parables in His teachings, He mentioned about how unwanted elements could endanger the seed of His teachings from gaining stability in a believer’s life. And out of all the unwanted elements He mentioned in Matthew 13, Jesus spent considerable amount of time citing His detractors, those who willfully rejected His Words and tirelessly searched for something to trap Him with, those slanderers whom He meant confined in the blindness they in reality chose to dwell—

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“The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them. But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:11–17).

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The destruction of Jerusalem was one of the matters that Jesus decided to hide from His adversaries. In His words in Luke 19:42 and 44, He mentioned that, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes…because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Seventy or so years after Jesus ascended to the clouds, the days came when Jerusalem’s enemies built an embankment against her, encircled and hemmed her in on every side, dashed her and her children to the ground, and finally left her without a single stone above another. Before this happened, however, Jesus made sure, through the workings of His promised Holy Spirit, that He would take care of His own, that not one of His cherished believers who held faithful to His teachings would be swept along the torrent of destruction. When Roman brutality fulfilled what Jesus tearfully prophesied, not a Jewish Christian was left in their beloved Jerusalem; they had been long gone, sown all over the key cities of the Roman Empire spreading the teachings of Jesus with their words and the example of their holy lifestyle.

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With the absence of physical boundaries to protect and promote the preservation of the Law, the very religion that expelled Christianity out of Palestine was in danger of dissolving as well. But the Law had the breath of God in it, as Christianity has, and it continued to endure in the same way Christianity did, though it did not gain the worldwide stature attained by the latter. Nevertheless, even in the international arena, Pharisaic Judaism persisted to pose challenges to the integrity of the Christian faith.

By this point, Christianity brought a whole new perspective in looking at spirituality, and with it, a growing spectrum of sub-sects that were mutates by Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek thought. In Galatians, Paul goes into a rampage in defense of the salvation of Jesus against a new brand of counter-evangelization advanced by a group that theologists today identify as the Judaizers, a sect adhering to the tenet that Christ’s believers must continue to keep the Law to complete the salvation they have in God. And the outward representation of this dedication was the ritual of circumcision, an act based on the world where the believers had been freed from living in any further—

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“The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them’” (Galatians 3:12).

In following the circumcision of the flesh, the Galatian believer condemns himself back in following the Law back to the letter in which a single slip of disobedience brings the curse of death (5:3). Paul, in the epistle therefore, raises the concepts of faith and the fruits of the Spirit into battle positions to rally a strong phalanx against the hungry wolves of ancient doctrine of bondage. The invading counter-doctrine of the Judaizers emphasized on the superficiality of the Law where the circumcision of the flesh attempted to offset whatever redemption and power Jesus provided at the cross (2:21). In short, this meant putting confidence in the flesh, in an act which scarred the human body, rather than a faith aimed at the One who was scarred for the sins of all humanity. For this, Paul devalued any merit there was in the flesh, referring to it as “the sinful nature” (5:13), enumerating its acts as only opposite the liberty and life found in the Spirit of God. “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious”  (5:19), Paul begins, stressing that there is nothing in the flesh that any believer must attach the slightest worth:

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“sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, self ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (verses 19–21).

According to the Judaizers, conversion to Christianity meant conversion to Judaism if the believer was a Gentile, and strict observance to the Law’s fundamentals if he was a Jew. Paul denounced this, declaring that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female since all are one in Christ Jesus, making all Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (3:28–29). And by “Abraham’s descendants,” he means every soul justified by faith in God.

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Historians do recognize a same group claiming that Jesus was a Jewish Messiah sent only to the Jewish people. This was the Ebionite sect, which TIME magazine held as an example of “how flexible early Christianity was” (David Van Biema, p.36). It, in fact, was, as we mentioned, one of the vast spectrum of false doctrines that tried to survive branching away from the true teaching of Jesus. And Jesus did foretell that “false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24 and Mark 13:22, NET). To the Ebionites—the “poor ones”—Jesus was originally mortal, a man who faithfully kept the entire Jewish Law, perfectly fulfilling all its hundreds of commands and requirements. This extraordinary display of righteousness caught the attention of God who decides to adopt Jesus as His son and assign him a special mission to become the ultimate sacrifice for the atonement for sin (Ibid.).

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When Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 8:17), He did it for all, for all whom He invited to come to Him, those who were heavily burdened seeking assurance for their souls (11:28–30). In the same way as He came to die once for all, man’s obligation to fulfill the hundreds of the Law’s requirements came to an end. Yet the power of the Law did not wane upon those who chose to obey it and refuse the Salvation offered by divine grace through faith: "For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" (Romans 2:12, NET Bible), and that, "whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law” (Romans 3:19, NET Bible).

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In Romans 3:21, however, it says that “apart from the law…the law of righteousness of God has been disclosed” (NET Bible). St. Paul explained that this “law of righteousness” was “the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe" (v.22).  The salvation through faith was the aspect missing in the Law and was therefore what the Law could never provide, even with all its ritual baths and circumcision. What the Law was about was atonement for the justification of sins which needed the sacrifice of the blood of animals, animals that typified a facet of Jesus the Messiah, to cover for the sins committed consciously or subconsciously. Yet while the blood of animals could only coat these sins over, the blood of Jesus cleansed every sin. An act completely alien to the Law. This was the ideal expressed by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11 when he said:

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“I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (NET Bible).

Yet he could not make himself any clearer when one day he pointed at one Man coming to be baptized and said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

This sect that called itself the “poor ones” came at a transitional period in Christian history when the evangelization of Jesus’ message was emerging out of the Jewish walls and into the Gentile world. The Ebionites were said to have particularly hated the Apostle Paul for spearheading this move of gearing the teachings of Jesus to appeal to non-Jews. Fifteen years  after Jesus’ death and resurrection, whatever influence the Ebionites asserted to win over the early believers was lost, thus reducing them into a minority as Christianity shed its Jewish manacles to became a religion of no specific nationality, with much thanks to the faithfulness of those who carried out the Great Commission.

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The Ebionites were among the many that would arise out of the woodwork to fit array of the false doctrines which Jesus foretold. Some, however, had developed a mystical outlook as it mixed Christian aspects to Eastern tendencies, among which was a group called the Mandeans. This sect, established in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, embrace the rites of baptism and the Eucharist, and holds a special place in their doctrine for John the Baptist. And that’s as far as the Judeo-Christian element gets; the rest of the group’s system features facets from Babylonian, Indian, Persian, and even Muslim beliefs, with much allegorization of ancient myths.

The Mandeans, however, came much, much later in the second century A.D.  Another group that was more or less a contemporary of the Ebionites came about 140 A.D. when a millionaire businessman named Marcion entered the Church scene with a grand donation of 200,000 sesterces then produced two books of theology that articulated the idea of a bad Jewish God who was replaced by the more gentle “God of Jesus” (David Van Biema, p.38).

It is a popular fact that the Mandeans claim John the Baptist as their chief prophet. When the Islamic world first penetrated the Mesopotamian region in the sixth century A.D., the Mandeans and other ethnic religious groups were faced with forced conversion. The Mandeans attempted to negotiate for their survival, asserting their connection to the cousin of the Jewish Messiah. Since John the Baptist appears in the Qur'an, the conquering Muslims granted the Mandeans the status of "People of the Book," a recognition given to groups of people who appear or are related to characters in the Muslim holy scriptures.

According to the Marcion theology, the world was created by a ruthless Jewish God who sent into punishment and death anyone who failed in following his laws and statutes, all in their stellar standards. Then suddenly, out of the heavenly blue, emerged a gentler more loving deity and sacrificed himself to free mankind from the clutches of his stern predecessor. What this second God did in effect was to provide humanity with an alternative salvation to those who sought relief from the burden of following perceivably demanding obligations just to qualify in a salvation which in truth could be accessed by anyone who would acknowledge the holy sacrifice made by the new God.

That sure covered Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28—“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”; but what about the fundamental truth which Jesus unequivocally approved when the scribes stated, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…God is one and there is no other but him” (Mark 12:29,32)? Or, what about the fact that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:16–17)? Jesus did not come to empty the hands of the Father of followers but the opposite: to give glory to the One who sent him—

“He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him” (John 7:18, King James Version).

But perhaps the plainest verse in the gospels where Jesus gave back glory to the “Jewish God” was in John 12:27, where before a vast crowd He prayed, “Father, glorify your name!” Here’s how it went down:

“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!  Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said that an angel had spoken to him” (verses 27–29).

The gospels, especially the Book of John, stated how Jesus sought not the glory of Himself but of the Father. In Matthew 7:21, He stressed: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In 12:50, He gave the standard of what He considered as His family: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” And as for the Father’s standards of salvation, Jesus explained it far away from the survival-of-the-most-obedient context of the Marcionites: “…it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish” (18:14). What fundamental logic would there be then to even assume the truth of this last statement if the Father, the “ruthless Jewish God” were to impose impossibly high legal standards for His children’s salvation?

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Marcion’s theology in effect was a flight from basic monotheism. In addition, it provided a direct contrast which bleached Jewishness in a bad light. Jesus referred to the first Jewish God as One of wrath and punishment, who, as we mentioned, imposed high legal standards impossible for the Jewish people to perfectly fulfill. It would have then followed that the Jewish people would have been sore with this sadistic God. But no. When Jesus came along with a new, gentler, loving, caring God, the Jewish people of His time, instead of flocking to this “second” God, clung tighter to the First One, defended Him and in doing even killed Jesus. The Jews, according to Marcionite theology, made their decision; and because of this, Marcion decided to edit out the Jews and Judaism from his version of the Holy Scriptures.

Jesus came to earth as a Jew; He will come back a Jew. In His teachings He referred to the Jews as “the first” (Matthew 19:3, 20:8–10, v.16, 21:28, v.31; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30, 14:18, 16:5, 19:16). The Scriptures record Jesus’ words when He explained that He “came for the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), how He trained His disciples to concentrate preaching, teaching, and healing around the Judean countryside (Matthew 10:6). Jesus loves these sheep of His pasture, calling Himself their Shepherd (John 10:11). When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman by the well, He stated that "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). And remember how He wept over Jerusalem on the morning after He stormed away the merchants and the moneychangers from His Father’s Temple? The gospel accounts unanimously document how Jesus expressed in analogy His desire to shelter the children of Jerusalem from the coming judgment like a hen that gathers its chicks in twilight.


David Van Biema, “The Lost Gospels,”  TIME (December 22, 2003).
NET Bible, ©Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C, 1996–2007.
The Holy Bible, King James Version.

All other verses with no indication of version come from the New International Version.

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