Grover Gunn

Insights on Enduring Persecution from the Church at Smyrna

A generation ago, the world called Christians fools because they believed in Jesus as He is revealed in the Bible. Today the world calls Christians bigots because they believe what Jesus teaches in the Bible about right and wrong. We are in a time when being faithful to Jesus is becoming more costly. The cost may continue to increase, but we must resolve to overcome and to remain faithful. 

I believe that the book of Revelation is especially relevant today but maybe not for the reason that many might expect. The church always finds special comfort in the book of Revelation when the church is experiencing persecution. We are today experiencing what may prove to be the early stages of a time of persecution. Some Christians have experienced various forms of persecution because they could not in good conscience provide certain services upon request for a same sex “wedding.” Some Christians in the medical profession may have been excluded from certain positions because they could not in good conscience take the life of a criminally innocent person either in the womb or in old age. Some Christian teachers may not be welcome in certain schools because they will not teach young children racial prejudices or sexual perversions. These are just a few examples, but I think that they are sufficient to give a sense of the times in which we are living. We don’t know if this persecution is going to intensify and expand, and we don’t know to what degree it will affect our own lives. We pray for a coming spiritual awakening that will radically change the direction in which our culture has been heading. Yet as long as persecution is on our horizon, the book of Revelation will have a special relevance for us. What was comforting to those seven churches in the closing years of the apostolic age can also provide comfort for persecuted Christians from then onwards down to the end of the age.
We find some insights on enduring persecution in Jesus’ letter to the church at Smyrna, found in Revelation 2:8-11. We learn here that Jesus is well aware of the church’s difficulties in a hostile world. In verse nine, Jesus said to the church at Smyrna, “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich) …” When we first read this, we might assume that this church existed in an impoverished area where jobs were scarce and resources were limited. But no, Smyrna was a large and prosperous city. The Christians there were poor because of prejudice against Christians. One could not there openly confess Christ and also get ahead socially and financially.
Like every pagan Greek city, Smyrna had its own patron deity. In addition, each trade guild would also have a patron deity. There were occasions when and situations where everyone was expected to give a certain token worship to a particular pagan deity, whether the patron deity of the city or the patron deity of a trade guild. Many would not take kindly to Christians who in principle refused to participate. Many would quickly blame such Christians for offending the gods whenever anything bad happened in the city.
Yet what was perhaps an even greater challenge in Smyrna was the rising cult of Caesar worship. The city of Smyrna had been loyal to Rome long before Rome became the dominant power in Asia Minor. About 195 B.C., Smyrna became the first city in the world to build a temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess Rome. In A.D. 26, all the major cities of Asia Minor petitioned Rome to be the site of a new temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman Emperor Tiberius while he was still alive and ruling. Smyrna was chosen for this honor and became a temple warden for the imperial cult. Cicero, the Roman orator, called the city of Smyrna Rome’s most faithful and ancient ally. We can only imagine what it would have been like to have been a Christian in the city of Smyrna during Roman times and to have refused to offer a pinch of incense to the goddess Rome or to the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
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Thanksgiving in Embittered Times

1) Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, 2) let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and 3) whatever you do, do all in the name of Jesus. I believe that obedience to these commands is the soil in which the spirit of thanksgiving flourishes. Obedience to these commands is the lifestyle which is most conducive to the thankful spirit.

This coming Thursday is Thanksgiving, that uniquely American holiday on which we take off from work and school, eat turkey and dressing, and watch parades and bowl games on television. But we need to remember that Thanksgiving should be more than a day off and a special meal and seasonal TV programs. Thanksgiving was instituted as a day which our culture sets aside to count our blessings and to give God thanks. Yet we must acknowledge that Thanksgiving as originally instituted is becoming more and more foreign to much of our culture. A radical form of ingratitude has come to characterize the culture that today dominates in certain spheres of our society. The philosophy behind this radical ingratitude is neo-Marxism, a new embodiment of the failed economic theories of Karl Marx.
The original version of Marxism tried to promote revolution through conflict between factory workers and the capitalist owners of the means of production. In the twentieth century, economic versions of Marxism were tried in numerous places and without exception proved to be economically disastrous. At the same time, the economic status of workers continued to improve in societies with a free market. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, socialism and communism were abandoned in many nations as failed economic experiments.
Sadly the ghost of Marxism has risen from the grave in the twenty-first century. The newer version of Marxism tries to promote revolution through conflict not between economic classes but between social classes referred to as the victims of oppression and the oppressors. Instead of promoting gratitude for the real blessings that people experience, neo-Marxism encourages people to view themselves as oppressed victims even when they are not. Neo-Marxism tries to convince people to view truly good things about our culture as sinister means used by the powerful to maintain power and to oppress their victims. To give some examples, free speech is opposed as a form of hateful violence, police protection for high crime neighborhoods is opposed as racial profiling, private ownership of defensive weapons is opposed as the cause of criminal violence, constitutional limits on government are opposed as barriers to radical social change, the traditional family is opposed as a barrier to new sexual liberties, and so on. In today’s world, things for which we should be grateful are labeled as means of oppression.
Perhaps the most tragic consequence of neo-Marxism is the current trend for young people to be dissatisfied with the biological sexual identity that God has encoded into every gene in their physical bodies. It is a sign of our times that instead of saying with the psalmist David, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” many young people resent the physical bodies which God has given them.
In contrast to much of our culture today, the biblically defined Christian is characterized not by an embittered ingratitude but by thanksgiving. To use the language of the hundredth Psalm, we enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise. Giving thanks to God is the Christian’s duty. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul exhorts us, “In everything, give thanks.” And consider Ephesians 5:3-4:
3 But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints;
4 neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
Worldly people may be known for their dirty jokes and filthy language and coarse jesting, but the Christian should be known for giving thanks to God.
I chose Colossians 3:15-17 as our passage for today because it mentions the concept of thanksgiving three times, once in each verse. This is very obvious is verses 15 and 17. Verse 15 says, “be thankful,” and verse 17 says, “giving thanks to God the Father.” The reference to thanksgiving is not as obvious in verse 16, at least not in the New King James Version, which reads, “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” The reference to thanksgiving in verse 16 is obvious in some other translations. For example, the New American Standard and the English Standard Version both translate verse 16 as referring to singing “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
The Greek word here is usually translated “grace.” Yet like most words, this Greek word has more than one possible meaning. The meaning of this word which we are probably most familiar with is the goodwill which motivates a giver to give a gift as an undeserved and unearned favor. This is the meaning that this word has, for example, in Ephesians 2:8, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” This is a reference to grace as the goodwill which motivated God to give us the unmerited and undeserved gift of salvation. Yet this Greek word also has other related meanings. It can refer to the gift itself. It can also refer to the gratitude of the person who received the gift, to the gratitude motivated by the reception of the gift.
In verse 16 of our text, the Apostle Paul is here using the Greek word often translated “grace” to refer to the gratitude of someone on the receiving end of God’s undeserved favor. This is the possible meaning that makes the best sense of verse 16 and is also the meaning that is most consistent with verses 15 and 17, both of which mention thanksgiving.
I believe our passage for today gives us some insight into how we as Christians can maintain the spirit of thanksgiving in spite of the ingratitude that dominates so much of our culture. Our passage today consists of three verses, and each verse contains a command. The three commands are 1) let the peace of God rule in your hearts, 2) let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and 3) whatever you do, do all in the name of Jesus. I believe that obedience to these commands is the soil in which the spirit of thanksgiving flourishes. Obedience to these commands is the lifestyle which is most conducive to the thankful spirit.
I want to look at these commands and through them exhort us to give thanks to the Lord our God.
Paul’s first command is, Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. Now notice at the onset that Paul is not talking about just any old inner peace. There are plenty of people who are at peace with themselves who should not be. Many people have hearts like the false prophets of old who cried out, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. The Bible describes the unregenerate heart as calloused and stony, which is a metaphorical way of saying unfeeling. Their lives are burdened with sin and with guilt and yet they feel no inner grief. They have the peace of spiritual indifference, the peace of spiritual ignorance, the peace of spiritual death. Their hearts have the peace and quiet of the graveyard.
Paul is not referring to just any old inner peace. He is referring to the peace of God. This is the peace which Jesus promised as His legacy to His people in John 14:27, where He said,
27 “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
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The Double Cure

The opposing law that can overcome the law of sin and death is the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit is able to overcome the law of sin and death with life by working faith in the sinner’s heart and thus uniting the sinner to Christ as the source of the sinner’s salvation. By working faith in the sinner’s heart, the Spirit applies to the sinner the redemption accomplished by Jesus.The hymn “Rock of Ages” says, “Be of sin the double cure: save from wrath and make me pure.” Another version of the same hymn says, “Be of sin the double cure: save me from its guilt and power.” Both versions are expressing the same thought. Lost sinners have a double problem. Sinners have broken God’s law and therefore have a bad legal record before God. They are guilty of sin and are under God’s condemnation and are subject to God’s judicial wrath. Their second problem is that they have a bad heart, a heart that is in rebellion against God, a heart that is inclined toward disobeying God’s law. This is the double problem, and Jesus through His saving work is the double cure. Our salvation through our saving union with Jesus saves us from the condemning guilt of sin and from the enslaving power of sin. In Christ Jesus, we have a new legal record and a new heart.
Now these two cures are two distinct cures that address two distinct problems. We mustn’t confuse them or mix them together. At the same time, we mustn’t separate them. These two cures always occur together because they are both based on our saving union with Jesus. Jesus never gives someone a new legal record without giving them at the same time a new heart, and Jesus never gives someone a new heart without at the same time giving them a new legal record. Someone may say that he wants Jesus to forgive his sins but not to deliver him from his sinful lifestyle. This sort of thinking is not uncommon today. Someone more religious might say that he wants Jesus to deliver him from sinful living but that he does not want Jesus to forgive his sins outright because as a matter of pride, he wants to help earn his own forgiveness, as if that were possible. Jesus says no to both these requests. Salvation is always a double cure. Saving faith is trusting Jesus and Jesus alone for salvation, and that salvation consists in both forgiveness of sins and deliverance from sin.
I want to examine this double cure as it is found in the first four verses of Romans chapter eight:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NKJ)
In Romans chapter eight, the Apostle Paul first said, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The key word here is “condemnation.” That is a legal term, and that tells us that the Apostle Paul is here referring to the legal aspect of salvation. When a judge condemns someone, he declares him guilty. That is the opposite of justification. When a judge justifies someone, he declares him innocent or righteous. When the Apostle Paul said that there is no condemnation to the person who is in Christ Jesus, that was just a negative, backdoor way of saying that a person who is in Christ Jesus is justified.
The second thing to notice here is the use of the word “now.” The word “now” indicates that this new legal status is immediate. It is a complete reality at this very moment. A person doesn’t have to wait until the end of this life to see if he is justified because his good works outweigh his bad works or if he is condemned because his bad works outweigh his good works. That is the way that many people think about salvation. They think that they won’t know and can’t know if they will spend eternity as a justified person or as a condemned person until after this life is over. That is not what the Apostle Paul said. The Apostle Paul said that “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The third thing to notice here is the use of the little word “no.” The word “no” as in “no condemnation” indicates that the legal status of justification is perfectly complete. The Apostle Paul didn’t say that the person who is in Christ Jesus is mostly justified or has only a smidgen of remaining condemnation or has been washed almost as white as snow. The Apostle Paul said that there is absolutely no condemnation, not one iota, not one molecule, not one single scrap, to those who are in Christ Jesus. All of a Christian’s guilt, one hundred percent of it, has been erased, removed and buried in the depths of the sea.
The fourth thing to notice here is that this is true of all those who are in a saving union with Jesus Christ, a saving union that we experience as our faith in Jesus alone for our salvation. The Apostle Paul was here describing the legal status that gets a person into heaven, the legal ticket that gains admission to heaven, the legal key that opens the door to heaven. This is the perfect and complete righteousness that only Jesus can provide for us based on His saving work in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus accomplished this through what some call the great exchange. Jesus accepted responsibility for the guilt of the Christian’s sins and then suffered the punishment for that guilt through His suffering and death on the cross.
But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:5-6
Jesus accepted the responsibility for the guilt of our sin. Jesus then bore the punishment for that sin and paid the penalty in full. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” or “It is paid in full!” Jesus then gives those who believe in Him forgiveness based on His atoning work in their place. That is one half of the great exchange.
The other half of the great exchange has to do with Jesus’ legal record of perfect obedience. Jesus never once sinned in thought, word or deed. Though tempted by the devil with the full force of his diabolical ability, Jesus never once sinned. Though obeying the will of His heavenly Father meant submitting to the painful and shameful death of the cross, Jesus never once sinned. Jesus has a perfect legal record before God, and Jesus imputes this perfect legal record to all who believe in Him. Jesus reckons this perfect legal standing of righteousness to all who believe in Him. Jesus is our righteousness.
For [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.2 Corinthians 5:21
This is the great exchange: Jesus receives our guilt, and we receive His righteousness.
So the Apostle Paul begins chapter eight with this wonderful statement about the Christian’s justification. The Christian’s legal status before God is right now, at this very moment, perfect and complete based on the Christian’s saving union with Jesus and Jesus’ saving work.

The Cross’s Cry of Abandonment

Jesus there on the cross felt in His human soul a disruption of His fellowship with God. The disruption was real, and the agony which Jesus experienced as a result of it in His totally pure and uncalloused human soul is beyond our ability to comprehend. In His question from the cross, Jesus was talking about His experiencing through His human nature the wrath of God against sin.
We are today going to consider the middle of the seven sayings of the cross. The fourth word from the cross is “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Of all the seven, this is both the most mysterious and the most revealing. Of all the seven, it is the clearest expression of the suffering which Jesus experienced in our place as the payment for our sins. Yet of all the seven, it is also the most difficult for us to understand. Thinking about this cry of abandonment reminds us that God’s ways are past our finding out. We can know God, but we can never fully comprehend Him with our creaturely minds. As we come to the essence of our Lord’s atoning suffering, even Jesus in His humanity cries out “why.” Jesus in His divinity understands all mysteries, but Jesus in His humanity on this occasion cried out, “why.”
As we consider today’s text, we will be approaching the limits of what we can understand. We must prayerfully seek to understand more and more of God’s truth. Yet we must also be prepared to acknowledge in humility when we have reached those truths which are beyond even the grasp of an angel’s mind.
In order to provide some context for the fourth saying, I want to look today also at two other sayings, the second and the sixth. The second saying from the cross, found in the gospel according to Luke, is “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The fourth statement is in our text for today in the gospel according to Mark. It is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The sixth statement is found in the gospel according to John. It is, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
We will look at these three sayings from the cross under the headings, Confidence, the Cry and Completion.
We will now consider the second saying from the cross under the heading Confidence. Jesus has been officially condemned as guilty by the Roman governor Pilate, even though Pilate also unofficially admitted that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death and was an innocent man. In God’s providence, that course of events fit perfectly with the spiritual reality. Jesus was indeed innocent of any crime, even sinless of any sin. Yet He was legally condemned for sins, not sins that He had committed, but our sins for which He voluntarily took responsibility. The Roman soldiers carried out the Roman sentence that resulted from the Roman condemnation. They nailed Jesus to a wooden cross, a tree of sorts. This also fit perfectly with the spiritual reality. According to the law of Moses, being hung on a tree is a sign of God’s curse. And Jesus was under God’s curse so that all who believe in Him might receive God’s blessing. So here we have Jesus condemned and cursed. Yet the second saying from the cross reveals to us that Jesus was optimistic even in these circumstances. He was optimistic because He was living by faith, faith in God’s revealed will, faith in the message of the Bible. That is why the writer to the Hebrews wrote in chapter twelve of his inspired letter that Jesus, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame. What joy? The joy of obeying His Heavenly Father. The joy of doing that work which was necessary for the salvation of those sinners whom the Father had sent Jesus to save. The joy of the anticipated exaltation with which Jesus knew that the Father would exalt Him after His work of humiliation was completed. Jesus had all these assurances because Jesus knew the Old Testament, the extent of the Scriptures in His day.
When the resurrected Jesus appeared to His twelve disciples in a closed room on the evening of the Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus explained to them the Old Testament predictions of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day…Luke 24:45-46
This message of Scripture is the basis for the confidence that Jesus had when He said to the believing thief on the cross: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Speaking from the place of condemnation and curse, Jesus said with confidence that He would be in Paradise later that very day. Paradise is here a reference to heaven, the location of the New Jerusalem, that celestial holding place where the spirits of departed saints go to await the coming day of bodily resurrection. Jesus was not resurrected from the dead until Sunday, the third day after His death, but on Friday, the very day of His physical death, Jesus’ human spirit went to be with His Father in heaven. Jesus also spoke with confidence that the believing thief on the cross would also go to heaven that very day. Jesus died first, and Jesus’ human spirit was in heaven to greet the soul of the believing thief upon his arrival. Jesus knew when He spoke to the believing thief that He would complete His saving work upon the cross, the work which would be the basis for the thief’s salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.
Notice that Jesus said to the believing thief, “Assuredly, I say to you …” Some translations say, “Verily” and others say, “Truly.” The Greek word is a Greek spelling of the Hebrew word “Amen,” the same word that we say at the end of our prayers to express our confidence in the Lord to whom we are praying. As our Shorter Catechism says, “in testimony of our desire and assurance to be heard, we say, ‘Amen.’” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you,” or “Verily, I say to you,” or “Amen, I say to you,” because Jesus was confident in the outcome of His ordeal of suffering because of the witness of Scripture.
Let’s now consider the fourth saying of the cross under the heading, the Cry. Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” When Jesus cried out those words, He was quoting the first verse of the twenty-second Psalm, which we call the Psalm of the Cross. This is one of the passages from which Jesus in His humanity had learned that the Messiah must suffer and die and that God would deliver the Messiah from death.
This question taken from the first verse of the twenty-second Psalm is such a mysterious question as it applies to Jesus. Jesus is fully divine, and surely God cannot forsake God. And also, Jesus here addressed God as His God. How could Jesus here say, “My God, My God,” if God had forsaken Jesus? Those are good questions about Jesus’ question, and I am going to begin by stating what Jesus’ question does not mean.
This question about being forsaken does not mean that there was ever any disruption in the sweet eternal fellowship of the Godhead, in the perfect communion between the three members of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Great “I AM” does not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. No member of the Godhead is ever forsaken by any other member of the Godhead. That would be a most radical change in the very essence of God’s eternal being. Such is unthinkable.
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The Angel at Bethsada

When the angel stirred the waters, the only person healed was the first person to enter the water. And the sicker a person was, the less likely he would be able to enter the water first. These limitations point to the fact that the ministries of the Old Testament were shadows pointing to a coming greater ministry, the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The passage John 5:1-16 is one of those rare instances where some translations include and some translations omit an extended portion of a passage. The words at issue are the last phrase in verse 3 and the entirety of verse 4, where we read, “waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” This text is included in the Geneva Bible, the King James Bible and the New King James Version. Most modern translations, however, omit these words, and most people just accept this omission. The reason commonly given is that the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4 are missing in the oldest and best manuscripts. In my opinion, that statement is not totally correct. Some early manuscripts do omit the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4, but I don’t think that they are all among the better manuscripts. On the contrary, let me share with you what Bruce Metzger, perhaps the foremost authority on ancient New Testament manuscripts, says about one of these early manuscripts that omit verse 4 of our passage for today (D, Codex Bezae). He says, “No known manuscript has so many and such remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal New Testament text. [This manuscript’s] special characteristic is the free addition (and occasional omission) of words, sentences, and even incidents.”[i] Some of the other “oldest and best” manuscripts that omit verse 4 have some serious irregularities as well.
Now what is at issue here? As to our understanding of the event recorded in the text, even those who omit verse 4 tend to recognize the verse as an uninspired record of an ancient tradition. They tend to acknowledge that they can’t understand verse 7 without the information that is found in verse 4. In verse 7, the lame man talks about the stirring of the water and about others stepping into the stirred water before he is able to do so. Verse 7 doesn’t make any sense apart from the information that we find in verse 4 about the occasional supernatural angelic activity at the pool. Everyone needs verse 4 in order to understand what verse 7 is talking about. Those who accept verse 4 as part of the inspired text believe that an angel actually did on occasion stir up the waters and heal someone at that pool. Those who regard verse 4 as merely an uninspired ancient tradition often agree with this, but not always. They may regard the ancient tradition as merely a superstitious myth that drew people to this pool. If verse 4 is only an uninspired record of an ancient tradition, then they are free to regard the account of the angel that way as well.
What is of greater concern is that this dispute about the reliability of the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4 of our text might cause some to question the reliability of the New Testament in general. No, the Greek New Testament is by far the best attested ancient writing in existence. There are over 5,000 ancient Greek documents, 8,000 ancient Latin documents that are translations of the Greek and many other ancient documents that are translations into other languages.[ii] In addition, there are many quotations from the New Testament in the surviving writings of early Christian leaders. No other ancient writing comes anywhere near such a vast array of surviving manuscripts and witnesses. Just to give you a basis for comparison, consider Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a classic Latin text which I had to struggle with when I took high school Latin. There are only nine or ten good ancient manuscripts that have survived, and the oldest was copied about 900 years after Julius Caesar wrote the book.[iii] I could give you other similar examples. Again, there is no other ancient document with a surviving textual record anywhere near like that of the Greek New Testament.
Also, in the vast multitude of these hand copied documents, there is a strong overall consensus as to what is the original text of the books of the New Testament. God has preserved the text not by making every copyist infallible but by providing us with a vast multitude of documents with “a high degree of textual uniformity.” And this high degree of textual uniformity increases significantly when we limit ourselves to the vast majority of the documents that are in large agreement with each other.[iv] Yes, there are those accidental slips that occur when someone copies any long document by hand, but these tend not to be an obstacle to discerning the original text, especially when multiple copies of the document are available.
If that is the case, then you might wonder why there is some question about verse 4 in our text for today. The majority of the copyists did a good job in faithfully copying the content of earlier copies. Yet early on there were a few copyists in certain regions who felt free to expand the text here and there, to add an occasional something that was not in the text that they were copying from. In response to these few early expanded manuscripts, there were some copyists in Egypt who tried to purge the text. Too often these Egyptian copyists left the extraneous expansions in and took out instead portions of the true text. Yet even these manuscripts with this occasional foolish unauthorized editing tend to agree in large part with the consensus text that is in the majority of the manuscripts. And these manuscripts where the text has been inappropriately changed in some places can often be identified because they do not agree with one another in the changes that have been made. For example, the vast majority of the manuscripts containing our passage for today call the pool Bethesda. Yet in a few older manuscripts, the pool is called Bethsaida or Bethzatha or Belzetha. These few texts agree in changing the name of the pool but can’t agree on a replacement name. Disagreements such as that are a good indication that some copyists did indeed make some changes in the text that they were copying. Contrary to what many today claim, these few manuscripts which leave out verse 4 are not among the better manuscripts.
Let me give you one interesting piece of evidence for the reliability of Bethesda, which is the majority text reading, as the name of the pool. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the mid-twentieth century, and among these ancient scrolls is a scroll made out of copper. This copper scroll is dated between A.D. 35 and 65, which would be sometime after the death of Jesus and before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. This very ancient copper scroll existed long before the surviving Greek New Testament manuscripts were copied, and it confirms that the name of the pool was Bethesda, the name that we find in the majority of the ancient Greek manuscripts.[v]
Most of these ancient manuscripts do include verse 4 of our passage, but there are a few early manuscripts that omit verse 4. Yet a manuscript can be an early copy and also be the work of a less than reliable copyist. Age does not necessarily guarantee reliability. In addition, verse 4 has its own early witnesses. Tertullian in the third century wrote about the water stirred up by an angel in John chapter 5 and thus testified to the validity of verse 4. Verse 4 is also included in the translations of the Gospel according to John into Syriac and Latin that date back to the second century. So there is ample ancient testimony for the inclusion of verse 4.
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The Christological Argument against Images of Jesus

The elements of the Lord’s Supper understood as a true natural image of Jesus must incorporate the literal physical body and blood of Jesus. This understanding of the Lord’s Supper is a logical implication of the eighth century Christological argument.

In the history of the Christian church, there have been two very significant documents related to an argument against all visual representations of Jesus, an argument commonly called the Christological argument. The first document is a statement of the decisions of a church council held near Constantinople in 754. The second document is the eighteenth century book by Ralph Erskine, Faith No Fancy. The eighth century and the eighteenth century versions of the Christological argument have much in common, but they also have their differences. Each version was also associated with a particular understanding of the Lord’s Supper.
Let’s begin with the eighth century Christological argument. A church council in the year 754 condemned all images representing Jesus in His humanity based on the Christological argument. A subsequent church council in 787 reversed this decision and also condoned the veneration of images as an element of Christian worship. The 787 church council was the Second Council of Nicea, the seventh and last of the early ecumenical councils recognized by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. After the 787 council, the controversy flared up again in the east but was soon settled permanently in favor of those who venerated images.
After this, the eighth century Christological argument seemed largely forgotten. The eighth century Christological argument had stirred up controversy in the eastern churches associated with Constantinople but not in the western churches associated with Rome. Also, as we will see, the eastern understanding of images of Christ soon changed in a way that made the eighth century Christological argument irrelevant even in the east.
In the years leading up to the 754 council, the eastern emperor Constantine V originated the eighth century Christological argument. His main critic was John of Damascus, a Christian theologian who lived in an area under Muslim control where he was free to criticize the emperor’s views. These two opponents shared a common foundational understanding about the basic nature of any visual representation of Jesus. They both regarded such images as natural images as opposed to artificial and external images. Using modern comparisons, this means that their common understanding of an image of Jesus had more in common with a clone, which is a natural image, than it had with a digital picture, which is an artificial and external image. Their common foundational understanding was based on the idea that God the Son as the divine image of God the Father is the pattern for understanding the relationship of a visual image of Jesus to Jesus himself. God the Son is a natural image of God the Father in that they both are fully divine and thus both have the same nature. Thus, they reasoned, a visual image of Jesus must also be a natural image of Jesus. They shared this understanding of visual images of Jesus but came to opposite conclusions. John of Damascus believed that such images should be venerated, and Constantine V believed that they should be prohibited. There was no thought of the possibility that there could be an artificial and external visual representation of Jesus in His humanity that was neither a proper object of worship nor a necessary object of censure.
The eighth century Christological argument presented a dilemma regarding any visual representation of Jesus that was regarded as a true natural image. A summary statement of this dilemma is found in the decisions of the 754 council:
Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians. (Percival, p. 544)
In other words, if anyone tried to make a visual representation of Jesus that was a true natural image, he had to choose his poison, either monophysitism or Nestorianism. A true natural image of a monophysite Jesus is theoretically possible because the human and divine natures are blended and thus are depictable in a true natural image through the human element. Also, a true natural image of a Nestorian Jesus is theoretically possible because the human and divine natures are separated, with a divine person subsisting in the one divine nature and a human person subsisting in the human nature. The human person subsisting in a human nature is depictable in a true natural image separate from the divine person subsisting in the one divine nature. Yet an orthodox Jesus is not depictable through a true natural image. The orthodox doctrine, affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, is that Jesus has two natures, the one divine nature and a complete and genuine human nature, that are never separated but also never mixed or confused. For anyone who tries to make a true natural image of Jesus, the choice is between either depicting the undepictable or separating the inseparable. Both choices involve a serious Christological heresy: either Nestorianism, which separates the two natures, or monophysitism, which blends the two natures. With both horns of the dilemma rejected, the implication was that all visual representations of Jesus should be prohibited and avoided. This argument was very effective in a context where Christological heresy was taken very seriously.
Yet the eighth century Christological argument did not deprive the church of every possible visible representation of Jesus. The 754 council pointed to the Lord’s Supper as a valid visual image of Jesus. What finite humans could not do through icons, God could do miraculously through the Lord’s Supper. According to the eighth century Christological argument’s understanding of a valid image, the Lord’s Supper must be a true natural image of Jesus in order to be a valid image of Jesus. If the Lord’s Supper is not a miraculously effected natural image of Jesus, then the dilemma of the eighth century Christological argument would apply to it as well. The same 754 council that stated the eighth century Christological argument also made this statement regarding the Lord’s Supper:
And the body of Christ is made divine, so also this figure of the body of Christ, the bread, is made divine by the descent of the Holy Spirit; it becomes the divine body of Christ by the mediation of the priest who, separating the oblation from that which is common, sanctifies it. (Percival 2011, p. 544)
The elements of the Lord’s Supper understood as a true natural image of Jesus must incorporate the literal physical body and blood of Jesus. This understanding of the Lord’s Supper is a logical implication of the eighth century Christological argument.
The dilemma of the eighth century Christological argument could have been avoided altogether if visual representations of Jesus in his humanity had been regarded as artificial and external images. This insight was not suggested until later by Patriarch Nicephorus (c. 758-828), who was the first to give an effective answer to the eighth century Christological argument. John of Damascus had thought in terms of ontological Platonic participation. In contrast, Patriarch Nicephorus analyzed the issue in terms of Aristotelian logic. In his argumentation against the eighth century Christological argument, Patriarch Nicephorus defined the icon as an artificial external image:
It is a likeness of its living model, and through this likeness it expresses the entire visible form of the one it depicts; yet it remains in essence distinct from this model because it is of a different matter. (Schoenborn 2011, location 3036, p. 87)
With this understanding of visual representations of Jesus in his humanity, the eighth century Christological argument became irrelevant.
Sadly the eastern church continued its veneration of icons of Jesus. A third and final foundational thinker on this issue arose in the eastern church, Theodore the Studite (729-856). Like Patriarch Nicephorus, he explained images in Aristotelian relational terms and not in Platonic terms of ontological participation. Yet he went beyond Patriarch Nicephorus by clearly stating that to see an icon of Christ is to look upon the divine person of Christ. The basic contention of Theodore the Studite was that an icon of a person depicts not that person’s nature but that person’s person. He claimed that the personal connection between a visual image of Jesus and Jesus himself was the icon’s physical resemblance to the historical Jesus. The eastern church had a legend explaining how the knowledge of Jesus’ physical appearance had been preserved for use in painting icons. Like John of Damascus, Theodore the Studite held to an intrinsic connection between the image and its prototype, though on the level of personhood and not on the level of essential nature.
The 754 council became irrelevant even in the east, and many of its documents were lost. We know about their content mainly from their being quoted by the 787 council in the process of condemning them. We do not later read about the eighth century Christological argument even as a defense of the iconoclasm associated with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Protestant Reformer Peter Martyr did mention the 754 church council and the eighth century Christological argument, but only to express his disagreement with the argument. John Calvin also mentioned the 754 church council but not in an effort to glean an argument against the worship of images. Calvin noted both the anti-image council in 754 and the pro-image council in 787 as part of his argument that church councils can disagree with one another and therefore cannot be infallible. In the course of his argument, Calvin implied his agreement with the 754 council’s decision to remove images from churches and strongly condemned the 787 council’s approval of worshipping images. Yet his main contention was that “… we cannot otherwise distinguish between councils that are contradictory and discordant, which have been many, unless we weigh them all … in the balance of all men and angels, that is, the Word of the Lord” (Institutes 21:1173 4.9.9). Calvin did not mention the eighth century Christological argument.
After the eighth century controversy, the Christological argument did not receive any significant attention to my knowledge until Ralph Erskine in the eighteenth century wrote his book Faith No Fancy. Ralph Erskine was apparently not even aware of the eighth century Christological argument when he began writing his book. Well into the writing, he revealed that he had learned about the 754 church council and the eighth century Christological argument through reading Peter Martyr:
Then [Peter Martyr in Loc. Com.] makes mention of the seventh synod, (which was not allowed by the Papists, and) which was held by Constantine and his son: wherein it was decreed, “That Christ was not to be painted, feigned or figures, no not as touching his human nature. And the reason is set down and assigned, because it is not possible to describe by art any thing else but his human nature. Wherefore they that make such things, seems to embrace the Nestorian error, which separated the human nature from the divine.” When above I supposed Mr. Robe’s doctrine of mental imagery touching Christ’s human nature to savour of Nestorianism, I had not glanced at this passage, so as to see my opinion fortified by the decree of such an ancient synod. (page 294)
At this point, a little historical background to Ralph Erskine’s development of the eighteenth Christological argument would be helpful. In Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards wrote an account of the awakening that occurred in his church from 1734 to 1735. An unabridged version entitled  A Faithful Narrative was published in London in 1737, and reprints appeared in Edinburgh in 1737 and 1738. In 1741, Edwards preached a sermon on the distinguishing marks of a true spiritual awakening. This was published under the title The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. Editions were published in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1742. Also in 1742, Edwards’s earlier work A Faithful Narrative helped inspire awakenings in two congregations of the Church of Scotland, William McColloch’s church at Cambuslang and James Robe’s church at Kilsyth. George Whitefield then preached in these churches in June 1742. Ralph Erskine and James Fisher were members of the Associate Presbytery, a group that had seceded from the Church of Scotland in 1733. According to James Robe, Fisher sent circular letters “Misrepresenting this blessed Work as a Delusion, and Work, of the Devil, very soon after its first Appearance at Cambuslang.” On July 15, 1742, the Associate Presbytery called for their churches to fast on August 4 in response to Whitefield’s ministry in Scotland and the alleged works of delusion. James Robe quickly wrote a book defending the Scottish awakenings, and Fisher quickly responded with a critical review. This was followed by a series of published letters between Robe and Fisher. After Robe’s fourth letter, Ralph Erskine wrote Faith No Fancy in 1745 as his definitive response to Robe.
In The Distinguishing Marks, Jonathan Edwards had made this comment about mental images:
Such is our nature that we can’t think of things invisible, without a degree of imagination. I dare appeal to any man, of the greatest powers of mind, whether or no he is able to fix his thoughts on God or Christ, or the things of another world, without imaginary ideas attending his meditations? (Edwards 2009, 236)
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Preaching and Mental Images

Expecting congregants to deplete their mental energy in efforts to prevent certain verbal descriptions from prompting mental images is counterproductive. I think it better for congregants to focus on the sermon’s message without troubling themselves about any mental images that may naturally occur in the process.

The Bible is not a logically organized collection of abstract propositional statements of theological and philosophical truths. The Bible is instead a divinely inspired account of God’s redemptive work in history. This infallible record of redemptive history progresses toward, climaxes in and reflects upon the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Preaching that is rooted in this historical context often suggests to the mind of the listener mental images representing concrete historical realities. Among these concrete historical realities are the acts of Jesus described in the gospel narratives and the Old Testament descriptions of God’s appearing to people through created forms. How is a preacher to preach on texts such as these? There are different approaches depending on one’s understanding of mental images that are representations of deity.
Before going on, let me make clear that I am not talking about mental images that are attempts to depict the inner essence of God. The Bible never gives a verbal description of the inner essence of God, which no man has seen or can see. The inner essence of God is eternal and thus indescribable and undepictable. Any effort to depict the divine inner essence visually or mentally would be a serious transgression of the second commandment. All such efforts are futile attempts to do the impossible.
Yet what about the Old Testament accounts of God’s appearing to people in created forms through visions and theophanies and the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus, who is God Incarnate? When preaching from such texts, what approach should the preacher take considering that verbal portrayals may inspire mental images? I will broadly describe three possible approaches and then recommend one of the three.
The first approach is simply to elaborate on the concrete details in the text. For example, a text may imply that Jesus’ head was stained with blood from thorn wounds. The blood of Jesus can be a synecdoche for Jesus’ human nature (the part for the whole), and a mental image of that blood can be a metonymy for the divine person subsisting in that human nature. A mental image of the blood could then be a mental representation of the second person of the Godhead.  Nevertheless, this first approach simply elaborates on the blood without concern that some may envision the blood in their minds. Mental images such as this, though not absolutely necessary to understand what was said, are often a natural and normal part of mental comprehension. Some ministers only elaborate on these concrete realities, and others sometimes go a step further and encourage their listeners to envision them.
A second approach is to emphasize and promote such mental images as channels of worship to God and as channels of grace from God. Some churches teach that one may venerate an image through a lesser form of worship and that the worship will terminate on the prototype of the image and not on the image itself. Some churches also teach that the sacrifice of the cross as an historical event is mystically present whenever they observe the Lord’s Supper. Some churches could similarly teach “that Christ and the events of his life become present to us here and now through the power of human imagination.” (See the section “The Genre of a ‘Life of Christ’” in the Introduction by Milton Walsh to part one, volume one of The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony.) The Jesuits in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation developed and promoted “spiritual exercises” that stressed the imagination’s use of all five senses as a means of being present at historical events in the life of Jesus.
A third approach is for the preacher to warn his congregants against mental images before preaching on certain texts. In preaching on the crucifixion, for example, the preacher could exhort his congregants to think of the crucifixion only in terms of propositional statements about the crucifixion without any mental imagining of what the crucifixion might have looked like. Or the preacher could advise his congregants that they may imagine a man on a cross in order to get a better sense of the crucifixion but only so long as they are careful not to identify that man with Jesus. Here are two sample warnings taken from Ralph Erskine’s book Faith No Fancy:
If therefore, when a believer hath his mind occupied about the knowledge and faith of this truth, That Christ hath a true body, an imaginary idea of that body should obtrude itself, and form an image of that body in his brain, and so shewing it, where it really is not, and where it does not exist, nor cannot be seen; he ought to deal with that imaginary idea as Abraham did, Gen. xv.11 When the fowles came down upon the carcases, he drove them away: So ought believers to drive such vain imaginations away, as they would do the devil himself tempting them, and diverting their minds from the faith of that truth, to an idle fancy about a human body. If he cannot rid himself of it as long as vain thoughts lodge within him, yet he ought daily to pray and plead with God, that he may be delivered from it; otherwise he cannot attend unto the Lord without distraction, 1 Cor. vii. 35. (p. 102, 1ines 29ff.)
An imaginary idea, for example, of his blood, is an idle vain imagination: because it cannot view the divinity thereof, as being the blood of God, Acts xx 28. (p. 312, lines 40ff.)
I agree with the first approach which accepts mental images when they are a natural part of comprehending a verbally delivered message. I strongly disagree with the second approach, which makes mental images functional idols and considers them to be mystical channels of transforming grace. I also disagree with the third approach, though not nearly so strongly. I think that expecting congregants to deplete their mental energy in efforts to prevent certain verbal descriptions from prompting mental images is counterproductive. I think it better for congregants to focus on the sermon’s message without troubling themselves about any mental images that may naturally occur in the process.
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