There are some weeks when the sermon illustrations jump up and slap you in the face. This was one of those weeks.
I’ve been leading my congregation through the book of Acts for a couple of years now, and the text this week is Paul being assaulted in the temple and arrested by the Roman guard.
An Angry, Reactive, Embattled Religious Group
Mobs assaults at US embassies in the Muslim world, the killing of a US ambassador and foreign service staff, assaults, flag burnings and shootings fill the news today. In time analysts will tease out the motivations but the presenting offense is a movie created to insult Islam. The mobs are reported to be demanding the arrest of the film maker. This of course will not happen, and should not, not matter what you feel about the film.
One reaction of course begets another and US citizens that see images of their flag being burned or their diplomatic buildings being ransacked or looted similarly demand that their leaders mirror their emotions, and the cycle continues. Anger is met with anger, evil is met with evil, violence is met with violence.
Jerusalem the Tinderbox
I’m not speaking about Jerusalem today, but Jerusalem in May of 57 AD. Jews in Jerusalem, Judea and the Galilee had felt themselves to be on the losing end of the cultural, religious onslaught of the Roman way of life. The epicenter of this was of course the Temple refurbished by Herod the Great but ironically some of those most zealous for defenders of the Temple were diaspora Jews who lived in the major cities of the empire and came to Jerusalem for the religious festivals.
Twenty five years before the conflict between Stephen, a diaspora Jew who became a leader of the Jesus followers and other diaspora Jews resulted in the death of Stephen. At that time another diaspora Jew named Saul of Tarsus gave ascent to the killing and launched his own program of religious cleansing until his conversion to Christianity.
Now Paul is returning to Jerusalem with an relief gift of money for the poor of Jerusalem as well as a group of Gentile Christian leaders representing the Gentile harvest of Paul’s work throughout the major cities in what is today Turkey and Greece. Ben Witherington describes it in this way.
Josephus described the period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. The Jerusalem elders were in somewhat of a bind.
On the one hand, they had supported Paul’s witness to the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Conference. Now they found Paul a persona non grata and his mission discredited not only among the Jewish populace, which they were seeking to reach, but also among their more recent converts. They did not want to reject Paul. Indeed, they praised God for his successes. Still they had their own mission to the Jews to consider, and for that Paul was a distinct liability.
Witherington, B., III. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles: A socio-rhetorical commentary (643644). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Paul The Jew
The leadership of the Jerusalem church knew better than anyone the pressures of Paul’s visit. Knowing the real dangers involved in Paul’s visit they admonished him to participate in Jewish ceremonial purification in order to make an outward show of solidarity with his Jewish culture.
The church was doing the difficult work of figuring out the practicalities of being a multi-cultural church. Could there be room in Christ for Jews being Jews and other ethnic and cultural groups expressing their cultural diversity within the body of Christ? How could all of this be played out coming from a tradition where specific application and expressions of piety and devotion to God were assumed?
Paul followed the advice of the Jerusalem council and publicly participated in the ritual.
FF Bruce notes the following.
Some people cannot readily distinguish between the essential and the non-essential: if they abandon an old order for a new one, they feel it necessary to give up everything associated with the old order — neutral or even helpful features as well as others. But this is to exchange a positive form of legal obligation for a negative form. Thus, at the opposite extreme from those Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who followed the ancient customs as a matter of course there may have been others elsewhere who discontinued them on principle. Paul’s policy was different from both. Truly emancipated souls are not in bondage to their emancipation.
FF Bruce “Paul” pg. 346
Nuance is Usually Lost on the Mob
After his purification Paul goes into the temple and is spotted by those who have been waiting for this moment. Now they have Paul right where they want him and quickly energize a riot that they hope will lead to his death.
Just as it appears Paul will die in a similar way to Stephen the Romans step in to quell the disturbance, take Paul into custody, which waves his life, and begin to try to figure out what is happening. Next week we’ll hear Paul’s defense.
The Dangers of Imagery turned into Idolatry
The attacks on US embassies in the Muslim world revolve around the use of the image of Muhammad. This is not a new issue of course and it is not only an issue for Islam. Images are the currency of the day and whether the images are literal (pictures, drawings, statues, movies) or symbolic (the image of a presidential candidate, analogous to “reputation”) much work goes into creating an image, maintaining that image and using that image towards particular ends in this world.
The power over image is probably one of God’s greatest creative gifts given to us and therefore one of the gifts most subject to abuse.
In the Ten Commandments Yhwh famously commands Israel NOT to create an image of Yhwh. Why? Part of the reasoning is clearly to discourage them from indulging in fantasy of imagine they can control God. Images are made to be controlled and manipulated towards our own ends. Yhwh commanded Israel to have no part of it. Why? Because they can’t do it and it is damage to them to even try.
Other artifacts, however, were in fact given to the Israelites that would in time become images that would lead them to stumble. One famous one was the bronze serpent created by Moses at God’s command in the wilderness to save the people from the pestilence (Numbers 21:4-9). That serpent would later become an idol and a stumbling block to the people (2 Kings 18:4).
The Temple of the LORD, The Temple of the LORD
The temple would of course become the center of the religious life of the nation of Israel. It was the resting place of Yhwh, and that resting place was not a lounge area but the center of the earth, the place from which Yhwh’s presence would draw and rule the nations.
The prophet Jeremiah noted that this gift given by God to his people for the welfare of the earth had become an idol. It became something by which the people imagined they could manipulate God.
Jeremiah 7:4–7 (NRSV)
4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
Jeremiah goes on to suggest that God will do to the temple in Jerusalem what he did to the tabernacle in Shiloh mentioned in the book of Samuel. Shiloh was destroyed, and so too will the temple be destroyed.
Jesus and the Temple
Jesus’ relationship with the temple in Jerusalem was complex. On one hand he afforded the temple the honor it deserved as the ceremonial house of “his father”. You can see this in Luke’s story of the boy Jesus lagging behind as his parents journeyed back to Galilee. Jesus also defends the temple when he overturns the money changers and quotes from Jeremiah 7.
At the same time Jesus in Jeremiah’s tradition pronounces judgment on the temple. The temple has become a stumbling block for the people and will be replaced with a new temple, not one made of stone, not a literal image of a temple, but Jesus’ body which we call “Christ”. Jesus was accused at his trial of speaking against the temple.
The Jerusalem Church and the Temple
In reading the book of Acts the attitude of the Jerusalem church towards the temple always mystifies me. On one hand the Galilean apostles seem very much at home with the temple. They use it for their meetings, they continue to observe the Jewish festivals and customs. It is almost as if Jesus never said anything about the temple at all. It seems that the replacement theology we find in the book of Hebrews had not yet really dawned upon them.
At the same time it is the diaspora Jews, the Jews who grew up in the context of broader empire that come to blows over the temple. Stephen is accused of “saying things against this holy place” and of seeing Jesus as somehow undermining the law and the traditions of the Jewish people.” These are precisely what Paul is imagined to be violating.
It seems that Stephen and Paul are very much the heir of Jesus’ complex relationship with the temple. In less than a decade from Paul’s arrest a revolt will begin that will culminate in the destruction of the temple just as Jesus had prophesied. The destruction of the temple would change Christianity and Judaism for ever.
Defenders of the Sacred Image
It is ironic that two of possibly the most iconoclastic religions, Judaism and Islam carry so much passion over defending an image. Just as rioters are looking to tear down the images of American power in their countries, so also the mob attacked the Apostle Paul in the temple in an attempt to defend their sacred image.
What seems to be lost is in fact what both religious ought to note, is that the original image gift was given to the man and the woman in the garden in the book of Genesis. The image giver gave His image to the image bearers. It is a deep and tragic irony to destroy God’s image in the image bearers in the supposed service of defending a sacred image.
The Cruciform Image
The Apostle Paul told the Colossians “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
In the midst of image bearers doing violence against other image bearers in the name of defending sacred images the principal image bearer stands apart, offering his own image as a sacrificial image for the welfare of the unholy, ungodly and unworthy.
Paul is in Jerusalem to follow Jesus and will offer up his own life if the situation demands. Paul is there in the midst of a mob that has little hope of understanding what it is doing to bear witness to Jesus who gave his life for the rescue of many.
The Only Safe Image
Japanese author Shusaku Endo wrote the book “Silence“. It is novel based around the attempt to end Christianity in Japan during the 17th century. In the novel a young priest is sent to investigate the apostasy of a Jesuit brother.
Christians are being arrested, tortured and killed. Those alive are being coerced to renounce their face by stepping on the “fumie”, a crudely carved image of Christ.
In the climax of the novel Christ breaks his silence and invites the priest to trample upon him.
Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often in Portugal, in Rome, in Goa and in Macau. It was not Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance to pain; nor was it a face with strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet [in the fumie] was sunken and utterly exhausted…The sorrow it had gazed up at him [Rodrigues] as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’
Breaking the Cycle
When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Eden he asks why he was approached with clubs and swords. When his own disciples raised a sword in defense of Jesus he healed the wound. Jesus didn’t come to lead a rebellion, he came to undo the cycle of rebellion. Paul comes into Jerusalem and becomes a victim of the same movement.
The Age of Decay Affords No Image But One
Defenders of sacred images are devoted to an endless task. If you’re attempting to avoid portrayals of Muhammad, or Yhwh, or Jesus or Buddha your task can be thwarted by any child with a crayon.
On the cross the image of the invisible God gave himself up, allowed himself to be abused by a violent government, scoffed by violent enemies, and ridiculed by bandits and mockers so that those who would follow in his way would become image bearers that would never see decay.
Reactive defenders of images generally destroy what they were attempting to save. The first century Jews would bring the power of Rome against them that would level their sacred house, the ruin still standing to this day. Reactive defenders of burning American flags simply invite more flag burnings insured by their own reactivity. Those who live by the sword, even swords wielded to defend sacred images, die by the sword, often wielded in defense of other sacred images.
In the age of decay the image of the invisible God offers himself for the welfare of those who would kill him. The resulting death is predictable. All death is in fact predictable. What is noteworthy, good news worthy, is in fact the resurrection, the creation of an image that fears no defamation.