"Each epistle clearly displays the challenges faced by the fledgling Christian church in the last quarter of the 1st century."
The latter collection of letters in the New Testament were written by apostles such as Peter and John, as well as two of Jesus’ half brothers, James and Jude. Each epistle clearly displays the challenges faced by the fledgling Christian church in the last quarter of the 1st century. Scattered across the Roman Empire, the churches faced persecution from both the Jews and the Roman authorities. They were infiltrated and attacked by false teachers. Doubtless, they also encountered personal struggles requiring endurance and perseverance.
And yet, through them, the kingdom of God grew and the gospel message changed lives from Alexandria around to Rome, and beyond. Each of the following passages reveal something of the concerns, pressures and problems facing the first Christians. For each passage, make some notes in your journal that ‘shed light on the scene’ of daily life in the churches at the latter end of the 1st century.
Jesus is Supreme
The Christians of Jerusalem were under great pressure to return to the ways of Judaism, with a full adherence to the Law of Moses and the life of the Temple. The writer of Hebrews writes a series of sermons to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to all that has come before him and has superseded the shadows of the Old Testament forms and ways of worship. The key theme that launches Hebrews is ‘revelation’: God communicating himself and his ways to humanity.
How has God revealed himself? In the past he has spoken through the prophets. But now, climactically and finally, God has spoken to humanity by his Son. Of course, there are differing kinds of revelation— some clearer than others. God spoke to the Old Testament generations of faith in various ways; like a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes coming in and out of focus. Prophets and poets, judges and kings; and in the minds of the traditional Jews of Jerusalem, supremely, through the Law of Moses.
But now, in the clearest revelation possible for the invisible God: the Son has come to us as the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of the divine being. Jesus is a clearer, better, and ultimately the culmination of all of God’s revelation of himself. Although the law, said to have been mediated to Moses by Angels on top of Mount Sinai, reveals God— Jesus is superior to those angels and the Law they ‘mediated’ to Moses.
For reflection: ∙What are the many-faceted ways in which God had revealed himself before the coming of Jesus? ∙What makes Jesus’ revelation of God superior over all that came before?
The High Priest, the tent tabernacle and ‘Ark of the Covenant’, prescribed in such detail in the second half of the book of Exodus, serve as an illustration for the present time. They tell us something about Jesus Christ and his work completed through his cross and resurrection. And yet, the reality of Jesus’ ministry surpassed the merely human forms and shadows in place throughout the Old Testament— he entered the Heavenly Realities to make atonement for us, as the mediator of a new covenant.
For reflection: What do the earthly shadows of priest and tabernacle tell us about the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf?
The Christian life is lived in the midst of all kinds of challenges— which are to be counted ‘all joy’. Indeed, there is great blessing in persevering under trial. But Christian faith that does not engage with the practical world of poverty, injustice and need is hard to verify. True religion expresses itself in care for the vulnerable, holy living, love and compassionate charity.
For reflection: ∙Which of your actions and activities would get you convicted on the charge of ‘being a Christian’? ∙How does your faith in Jesus make you a different person?
2 Peter 1
The apostle Peter, near to death, writes to encourage and affirm Christians who are tempted to waiver in their faith. He assures them of the veracity and reliability of the gospel they have received and encourages them to remain anchored in the scriptures– both the Old Testament and the writings of the apostles now circulating among the churches (see 2 Peter 3:15-16).
The ageing apostle John writes to ‘the lady chosen by God’. There is conjecture as to whether this recipient is a church (using the feminine pronoun) or whether it is an individual. Either way, John’s concerns for her ‘children’ reflect the challenges of living in 1st Century society as a Christian.
The second of Jesus’ half-brothers whose letter has been preserved in scripture (the other is James) writes to contend for the faith that was ‘once for all’ entrusted to God’s holy people. False teacher are arising and trying ruin the faith of many. In response, readers are to remember the teachings of the apostles, to pray, and to wait patiently for the return of the Lord Jesus.
Two Rugby League fans are talking in Brisbane, Australia. One says, “The Roosters slayed the Dragons and the Storm demolished the Green Machine.” The other replies, “Yes, and the Skinny Coach and Big Mal squashed the Cockroaches.” Both nod their sage approval, fully understanding their conversation— and yet, to the uninitiated, they seem to be talking about some kind of fairytale.
The picture language of the book of Revelation (apocalyptic literature) seems very strange to us, and yet the forms and cultural references within it were commonly understood among the Christian churches spread across modern Turkey and Syria. But to the Romans persecuting these Christians, John’s visions recorded in the apocalyptic style would be difficult to follow. And yet, through this picture language God gave his people encouragement and hope to persevere.
For reflection: ∙How is Jesus presented to the reader of Revelation? ∙What encouragement might this presentation of Jesus give to the Christians in the province of Asia?
The Psalms as a ‘Prayer Book’
The life of the Christian was to be infused with prayer, meditation on scripture, and fellowship. During the early centuries of the Christian church, while the canon of the New Testament was still being formed, the Psalms continued to be a place of spiritual formation as Christians mediated on them, prayed them and sung them in worship settings. The identity and the role and the majesty of the Messiah continued to be revealed as Christians learned to live lives of faith in challenging times.
Our Growing Disciples ‘Read through the Bible in a Year’ plan immerses us in the book of Psalms during the month of December. Whether you have been following this strand or not throughout the year, take time to draw near to God through the varied expressions of worship, praise, faith, distress and hope given voice in the Psalms. Try to appropriate some of these as your own prayers.
For reflection: ∙Which Psalms can be appropriated as Christian prayers, and which show the pathway of ‘spiritual formation,’ and yet, do not invite us to sit in the posture of the Psalmist?
Try this exercise in ‘looking backward’. Read 1 Peter 1-2 and identify the references back to Old Testament language, motifs, people, and practices. Make a list. Then, for each one, note down how the coming of Jesus Christ has changed or redefined them.
Read Revelation 21-22 and identify the references back to Old Testament language, motifs, people and practices. Make a list. Then for each one, note down the future reality described in this passage. Whenever you can, try to move past the apocalyptic language and symbolism to describe the realities being narrated. As you do this exercise, you might reflect on how deeply embedded the New Testament is in the thought-world of the Old Testament, and how much the two elucidate each other.