Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: Everything to Lose, Nothing to Gain

Jesus came to teach the Torah. The rabbis spoke of “fulfilling” the Torah, which to a rabbi meant to interpret it so his listeners would properly honor it.

But in Asia Minor, among the Greeks, there was no concept that religion should affect how you live. The idea that spiritual matters changed how one lives was entirely novel. They believed religion could get them to heaven, but not that it changed people for the better.

Rabbis used word pictures and concrete illustrations to teach. Rabbis worked to form a community of followers.

The Greeks taught someone to be a self-sufficient teacher, an expert in the truth. The Jewish model to was incorporate people into a community — to hold one another accountable.

Rabbis taught “faith” in the sense of a passionate commitment to action, rather than the Greek notion of faith as what you know.

Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, known as the “gates of hell.” This is where the Greeks worshiped Pan in very degrading ceremonies.

Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him … ,” and the disciples honored this command. Jesus prepared his students well.

In Caesarea Philippi, there was a deep spring. The Greeks thought some of the gods lived underground and that a spring like this was a path to Hades, the realm of the dead. Hence, this was known as the “gates of Hades.” (The KJV incorrectly translated “gates of hell.”)

They worshiped Pan here, where sacred goats were kept. Dancers — “nymphs” — danced sexually suggestive dances to work the crowd into a frenzy. Goats in heat were brought out, and the crowd engaged in an orgy with each other — and the goats.

The Jews said the Messiah would destroy the gates of Hades  because of its evil.

Jesus’ disciples would have been surprised that Jesus would take them to this place. Jesus asked them, “Who am I?”

Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” — “living” as opposed to the dead idols that surrounded them.

Jesus told him that God had told  him this. He then said, “On this rock I will build my church!” What? On this rock — this place of pagan sin?

Jesus was saying that the church would be built on the ruins on paganism — “this rock” is this very place. (But see Tim Archer’s article disagreeing.)

Jesus continued, “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it!” This means that the disciples would be on the offensive.

Jesus said to the crowd, “Anyone who wants to come after me must “take up his cross and follow me! … Anyone who would save his life will lose it.” He was announcing that paganism won’t work. It’s a path to spiritual death.

He says to the crowd, “What good is it if someone gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Amazing that Jesus would issue such a challenge to the pagan worshipers!

“Anyone in this wicked, adulterous generation who is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with his angels.”

Jesus was building a passion into his disciples. We cannot be afraid to confront a worldly culture and declare the glory of Jesus.

The disciples stood before kings and arenas and theaters and spoke Jesus’ words with calmness and passion.

This was among the last lessons Jesus taught before leaving for Jerusalem to complete his work.

He taught one more lesson on the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem. Some of the apostles, recalling the prophecy of Daniel, asked whether the kingdom would be restored now?

Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses …”

He raised his hands to bless them and ascended to heaven to be with his Father.

In the distance, they would have seen the Herodian fortress — built on top of a mountain, as large as a mountain, and looking for all the world like a volcano. To the far east, they’d have seen the Dead Sea.

Imagine someone saying of the Herodian, “Look at that mountain Herod moved!”

Jesus would have stooped to pick up a mustard seed, saying, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go jump in the sea!’ and it would go.”

They had faith through which God would do far greater things.

Shortly before Jesus’ ascension, the Roman emperors had begun declaring themselves divine. When Julius Caesar died, a comet appeared and many declared that this meant his soul was going to heaven to become a god. Witnesses testified that they saw his soul leave and go to heaven, making Augustus the “son of a god.”

The apostles, therefore, had to teach that the true king of kings is Jesus. Only he is the Son of God. This resulted in persecutions but in a passionate faith that changed the world.

DISCUSSION:

The KJV translates “gates of hell” rather than “gates of Hades,” but the Greek concept of Hades is the place people’s souls go when they die. It can be a good place (the Elysian Fields) or bad (Tartarus). Everyone goes to Hades.

In the New Testament, “Hades” is used where the Jews would speak of Sheol, the grave, the realm of the dead.

RVL argues that “gates of Hades” refers specifically to the location of Pan worship in Caesarea Philippi. But the scriptures are filled with double meanings. What else could “gates of Hades” refer to?

[The “gates of Hades” would also refer to death — the path into the world of the dead. Thus, Jesus might also be saying: “Death will not prevail against the Kingdom.” And this makes sense in two senses as well.

First, physical death will not prevail, because those in the Kingdom will be resurrected to live eternally.

Second, spiritual death will not prevail because the Kingdom will enter the pagan world and rescue people from spiritual death. Death will not keep its prey.]

RVL points out that the Greek view of religion was a path to heaven but not ethics — how to live. They thought certain rituals would get them to heaven, not changed lives and certainly not some Jewish rabbi.

How is our view of Christianity similar to the Greek view? How do we sometimes separate ethics from heaven?

[We often emphasize the ritual — regular church attendance, getting certain acts of worship right — as the primary path to heaven. We sometimes see ethics as secondary to ritual. Therefore, we tend to center our theology on Paul rather than the Gospels, because the Gospels are all about ethics and Paul is more likely to teach church organization and worship.

We therefore are far more willing to consider a church down the road out of fellowship — not one of “us” — because they interpret Paul’s writings on leadership or the assembly differently, whereas it’s unheard of to reject a sister congregation for failing to honor the teachings of Jesus.

Worse yet, some within the Church even go so far as to teach that Jesus taught before Pentecost and is therefore a Mosaic-age teacher. Some would have the Gospels bound into the Old Testament — which grossly misunderstands both the Gospels and the Old Testament.

At another level, we tend to emphasize some elements of ethics — sex, divorce — over other elements — forgiveness, concern for the poor and the orphan.]

Why do we emphasize some ethical teachings of the Gospels and ignore others?

[Victorianism? A preference for emphasizing sins that we aren’t guilty of?]

How does Christianity change the place of ethics verse ritual?

[In baptism we are baptized into Jesus and become a part of the body of Christ. Our new life, the new creation, the Spirit-led life, is all about living as Jesus lived. Salvation has been accomplished and so we are now added to a community on a mission.

We join into a community that’s been around 2,000 years and has spread across the world, all participating in a common mission. God’s Spirit fills us so we’ll proclaim and live God’s word.

Therefore, because of who we’ve become, we live the mission.]

Does faith move mountains today? Have you ever seen it happen?

The early church faced persecution because Caesar demanded to be worshiped as a god. What idols do we face today that insist on coming before God?

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2 Responses

  1. Jay:
    Regarding religion in Asia Minor, while Ray Vander Laan certainly gets at ethical issues embedded in the Asian cults, examples exist that reveal his conclusion to be too confining.

    See, for example, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1380. In matters of religion, Isis had “made the power of women equal to that of men.”

    Feminist scholars have made much of the statement, and they are justified at this point. We have probably underestimated the impact of religious thought on social actions and associations (in Asia Minor and beyond). See also Philip Harland’s book entitled Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).

    Yours in Christ, Bruce Morton

  2. Worse yet, some within the Church even go so far as to teach that Jesus taught before Pentecost and is therefore a Mosaic-age teacher.

    I think I understand where you’re coming from… yet I’m not entirely comfortable with it. The traditional church of Christ view about the timing of the institution of the new covenant is based on many supporting scriptures. Compare Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler, to Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailer. Same question, two very different answers. Consider also Mark 9:1, Heb 9:16-17, etc… Things fundamentally changed after the cross. I suspect that none of us would tell someone that the way to inherit eternal life today is to obey the ten commandments.

    However, I agree with what I think is your underlying point. Because of passages like those, we’ve discarded a lot of things that did not change. Right and wrong didn’t change. Wise and foolish didn’t change. God didn’t change. God’s will for how we should live didn’t change. Jesus didn’t come to give teachings that only mattered for a period of three and a half years.

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