Category Archives: Thinking Theology Aloud [Random]

This category includes all post of a theological nature that are not included in the Bible Bites or Church Chat categories.

How Do We Know Jesus Rose from the Dead?

How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? We discussed this question today at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta as part of our Easter celebration. How would you answer it?

Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta, backyard Easter service, 2018.

The resurrection is the basis for our Christian hope. Paul said that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we won’t, either, and that if we have no hope of being raised at Christ’s return, then our “faith is futile” and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19).

I believe Jesus’ resurrection is also the foundational reason for trusting that the Bible is what it claims to be—words from God. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is who he claimed to be—the Christ sent from God. And if that is indeed who he is, then what he believed about the Scriptures must be true.

But this raises a bit of a logical problem, right? If we are not careful, we end up with a circular argument:

  1. We know that Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says so.
  2. We know that the Bible is true because Jesus rose from the dead.

If this were indeed the basis for Christian faith, then we should rightly be scoffed by any reasonable thinker.

But that is not the true nature of Christian faith. While faith reaches beyond the evidence, it is always, if you dig deep enough, rooted in  and in line with historically and empirically verifiable evidence. The apostles didn’t go around saying “just believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” They didn’t even simply say “believe that Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible (the Jewish Scriptures) said he would,” though that was true and they did indeed say so. But they did more: they said “we are are eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, and here is what we saw, heard, and touched.”

So that is a good place for anyone with doubts to begin with Scripture: simply treat it as ordinary, valid evidence to be considered in your personal court of law. That is where I begin with my list below. When the Bible receives this fair but ordinary reception, it can be used by the Holy Spirit to lead a person to saving faith in the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

All that is prelude to the following nine points that we discussed this morning. This is not a scholarly defense of Jesus’ resurrection. It is simply a series of points that I wrote to summarize some key facts that can bolster our faith that Jesus really did rise from the dead. There are no footnotes. You can find these same points and many more in much greater detail in books by authors such as Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Jonathan Morrow, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, Gary Habermas, and many more.

HOW CAN WE KNOW
JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD?

  1. The New Testament writings, which claim that Jesus rose, are basically trustworthy historical documents. Historical evidence shows that it takes more than two generations for legends to develop and wipe out the truth about historical figures, and that matches when the later fake “gospels” about Jesus began to be written. But the New Testament was written down within the lifetime of the events it describes. We have more ancient hand-written copies of the New Testament than of any other ancient writing, and these copies are dated closer to the time of their authors than with other ancient writings. There are also references to Jesus in ancient writings outside the Bible and no ancient claims that he never existed. If you believe the historical accounts about people such as the Roman emperor Augustus or events such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, as all historians do, then you have every reason to also believe that the New Testament writings, which claim that Jesus rose, are basically trustworthy historical documents. 
  2. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection have the ring of eye-witness testimony. Each of the Gospels tell the same story of the resurrection, with the same core events and characters. But they each tell the story differently, with different details mentioned in ways that make it look at first as if there is some conflict between their accounts. This shows that the writers were not merely reciting some agreed-upon fake story. Rather, they were each telling about the same historical event in their own way. The core story in each Gospel matches, and the apparently conflicting details have been harmonized by careful Bible students. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection have the ring of eye-witness testimony. 
  3. Jesus did actually die. First he suffered a brutal lashing using a whip of braided leather with metal balls woven into it. According to the third-century historian Eusebius, “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews, and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” Many people died during such Roman lashings. Then Jesus was nailed to a cross. Crucifixion caused its victims to die of asphyxiation (loss of oxygen) as the victim lost strength to push themselves into a vertical position to breath. Loss of oxygen then led to an irregular heartbeat and death. If a Roman soldier let a prisoner escape, the responsible soldier would be put to death themselves, so they made sure every victim was dead before they were removed from a cross. Jesus did actually die. 
  4. Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb. All four Gospels say a Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his own tomb. Joseph was a member of the council that had voted to kill Jesus. If Jesus’ followers wanted to invent a burial story, why would they invent such a specific story, which people could then check out and prove false? The very earliest Christian creeds, like in 1 Corinthians 15, mention that Jesus was buried. In ancient writings there are no other competing traditions about Jesus’ burial besides the ones found in the Gospels. Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb. 
  5. The tomb was actually empty several days after Jesus’ burial. According to the Gospels, the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women. But women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless in the ancient world that they weren’t allowed to serve as legal witnesses under Jewish law. In that case, why would the early Christians invent such an embarrassing story about women witnesses if it wasn’t actually true? Besides, the site of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was known to Jesus’ enemies, so if the body was still there, they could have shown so. But neither Roman authorities nor the Jewish leaders ever claimed that the body was still in the tomb. Instead, they invented stories to try to hide the fact that the tomb was actually empty several days after Jesus’ burial. 
  6. Nobody stole Jesus’ body. This is what the Jewish leaders feared Jesus’ followers would do, so they arranged with the Roman governor to have the stone covering of the tomb sealed and for a group of soldiers to guard the tomb. After Jesus’ body disappeared, the Jews spread the story that the guards had fallen asleep and that Jesus’ followers had stolen the body. But Jesus’ followers were terrified; they had just watched Jesus die. They had no motive to steal his body and then die themselves for this lie. And Jesus’ enemies certainly didn’t steal his body. If they had, they would have displayed his body publicly in Jerusalem to prove that he was still dead. Nobody stole Jesus’ body. 
  7. Jesus’ followers didn’t expect him to come back to life. In the New Testament accounts, everyone is surprised when they learn that Jesus is alive again. The women, who were first to witness the empty tomb, were there because they planned to anoint Jesus’ dead body, not because they expected a resurrection. When they saw the empty tomb, their first thought was that someone had stolen the body. At first the men didn’t believe the women’s claims that the tomb was empty. It was embarrassing for the Gospel writers to admit that the leaders of the church were so slow to believe Jesus’ prophecies about his own resurrection. But ancient people were even more familiar with death than most of us are, and they knew as well as we do that people don’t normally come back to life after they die—certainly not without dying again later. Jesus’ followers didn’t expect him to come back to life. 
  8. Jesus was seen alive after his death. The Gospels, the book of Acts, and 1 Corinthians 15 all record multiple witnesses who saw Jesus after his resurrection. Within weeks of Jesus’ death his followers were publicly claiming that they had seen him alive, and these claims were written down during the lifetime of the witnesses so readers could investigate their claims. These witnesses were not hallucinating, because hallucinations don’t happen to groups, and there are records of groups ranging from 11 to 500 who saw Jesus at the same time. Within weeks of the crucifixion, thousands of Jews believed the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. They started abandoning Jewish laws that they formerly believed they had to obey to avoid damnation. These appearances of Jesus were powerful enough to change Jesus’ half-brother James from a sceptic into one of the main leaders of the early church, and to change Paul from a violent persecutor of the church into one of its most courageous preachers. Those who knew best whether Jesus had actually risen or not went to their deaths claiming it was true. Not one of the inner circle of apostles ever recanted his claims of having seen the risen Jesus, even though most of them were martyred for their testimony. Jesus was seen alive after his death. 
  9. Jesus continues to change lives today. The first followers of Jesus were changed from selfish, fearful followers or even enemies of Jesus into courageous, loving preachers of the resurrection. In the same way, throughout history to this day, millions of followers of Jesus testify that he has changed their lives. This matches what the first followers of Jesus claimed. They said that all who join Jesus receive the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and that this Spirit of God tells them that they are now God’s children. God’s Spirit within makes us feel the reality that Jesus is indeed alive and will return again. We show others Jesus rose by pointing to the historical evidence, and we know for ourselves that he rose not only because of that historical evidence but also because of the witness of the Spirit of Jesus within our hearts. Jesus continues to change lives today.

After examining the evidence, it still takes faith to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But in the face of such evidence, it would also take faith to believe that he didn’t. Coming up with viable alternative explanations for the evidence is not as easy as it might look at first. Many have tried and failed.

I am convinced that the best explanation for the evidence is the one that is also the best news you could imagine—“in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). When I don’t feel the truth of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus is a factual foundation that I come back to, a sure place to rest until I regain spiritual sight.

Again, this is not a scholarly defense of Jesus’ resurrection. So, if you are a skeptic, I invite you to look closer before you scoff.

But if you are a believer, I invite your response: How do you know Jesus rose from the dead? Share your favorite evidence in the comments below. Then live as if it really happened, because it did!


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What Does a True Follower of Jesus Look Like?

How can you identify a real Christian? What are the marks of a genuine Christian?

Mark Dever is famous for his list of “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” Others, including the Protestant reformers, produced lists of marks of the “true church.” (A church can be unhealthy but still true, so the latter lists are shorter.)

But I am asking primarily about the individual, not the group: How can you identify who truly belongs to Jesus?

There are many good, biblical ways to ask and answer this question. What does Christian mean, anyway? The term was first used in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, and it appears that unbelievers were the ones who coined it. According to commentator Ben Witherington III, the term Christians (Χριστιανοι) in its original historical context meant “those belonging to, identified with, or adherents or followers of Christ.” (Pardon his poor grammar!) So in this post I’ll frame it this way: What does a true follower of Jesus look like?

I was motivated to ask this question because our little church gathering here in West Lake, Atlanta goes by the name of Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta (FJCA). Since we chose to bear that name, I decided I should examine the New Testament more closely to see whom we are supposed to be!

I shared my findings with our church and we discussed them together. Now I’ll share them with you.

First, some clarifications.

What follows is not a summary of the gospel. If it was, I’d need to be clearer on the work of Jesus.

Nor is it a description of the church. If it was, I’d need to discuss things like leadership and decision-making.

Some might fault this list because it focuses strongly on behavior. But this is a natural result of simply reading how the Bible, Jesus in particular, describes followers of Jesus. They are certainly people who believe certain things—and my list begins with belief, even if it doesn’t use the traditional language of faith. But they are also people who act, or at least ought to act, in certain ways. Again, this focus on behavior is because I am aiming to describe not the gospel itself, but a primary fruit of the gospel—people who are changed to follow Jesus.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It began with a simple concordance search for “follow.” Immediately several central themes (suffering for Jesus, selfless love, etc.) became clear. Though I expanded my search, there are too many related concepts to have found all the relevant biblical data. I did try to throw a wide net—sometimes perhaps too wide—but I realize now that even some basic concepts like repentance and faith could be strengthened. I expect I’ll update this list from time to time.

Lastly, perhaps this list would be better titled “marks of healthy followers of Jesus,” since no one follower exhibits all these qualities perfectly.

Read my summary paragraphs after each heading. Compare my summary statements with the Scriptures that follow. Perhaps you’ll find Jesus’ call to follow as challenging as I did!


Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Suffering witness: Jesus’s followers bear confident witness to his true identity as fully God and fully man—the Son of God, the promised Messiah-Christ-King, the Lamb of God who saves us from our sin, and the risen, ruling Son of Man. These followers are so devoted to Jesus that they willingly suffer for his sake, leaving all—possessions, family, and honor—for the sake of Jesus and the eternal rewards of his kingdom.

They bear witness of Jesus and his kingdom to each other, to the watching world, and to all of creation. They bear witness by word and action, by their gathered worship and their daily lives, and ultimately by their deaths.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his greatest commandment—to love God with all our being.

Matt. 4:19; 16:15-17; 28:18-20; John 1:35-49; 6:66-69; 10:4-5, 27; 15:26-27;  1 Cor. 11:23-26; Col. 3:16-17; Rev 14:1-5; Matt 4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9; 10:37-39; 16:24-26; 19:21-23; Mark 8:34-37; 10:28-30; Luke 5:11, 28; 9:23-24, 57-62; John 12:23-26.

Loving service: Jesus’ followers imitate his way of loving others. They gladly suffer injustices without retaliating. They offer generous forgiveness to all who offend them, without holding grudges. They pray for their enemies and look for ways to creatively bless them, refusing to take up the sword. They are faithful in their marriages and all other relationship commitments.

Their whole lives are characterized by selfless service, for they imitate the One who came not to be served but to serve—who gave up his divine rights, washed his disciples’ feet, and laid down his life for the world.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Mark 15:41; John 12:26; Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 6:27-36; 22:25-27;  1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:9-18; 5:1-3; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 25; Col 3:13; John 13:14-16; Phil 2:4-7; Rom 15:1-3, 7.

Christian unity: Jesus’ followers know there is one Flock and one Shepherd. They affirm that all who belong to Christ, the Head, also belong to the Church, his Body. They rejoice that people of every culture, color, and class find oneness in Christ alone. They know Jesus has promised to build his own Church which he purchased with his own blood.

They don’t divide over human leaders, but they do honor the teaching and imitate the example of Jesus’ apostles, whom he appointed as a foundation for his true Church. They welcome all whom Christ has welcomed while disciplining those who falsely claim to belong to him.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his final recorded prayer for them—that we may all be one in him.

Matt. 12:30; 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; John 10:16; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; 20:28;  1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3-9; 11:1; 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6; Rom. 15:5-7;  2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17; Rev. 7:9-10, 17.

Spirit-powered obedience: Jesus’ followers honor his words by doing them. They do this by the Holy Spirit, their Helper sent by Jesus. They know they—like Jesus during his earthly life—will bear good fruit only by the power of the Spirit within them.

They expect the Spirit will bear witness to Jesus by miraculous signs and special graces given as he wishes. They also expect the Spirit will empower them to live clearly counter-cultural lives of moral purity, relational integrity, and neighbor- and enemy-love—lives of humility, contentment, and trust in their heavenly Father.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor the great commission he gave them—to make disciples who are taught to do all that he commanded.

Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 6:46-49; John 14:15, 21-24;  1 John 2:4-6; Matt. 5-7; 22:37-40; Acts 10:38; Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-2, 14-15, 18; Luke 3:16; 11:13; 12:11-12; 24:49; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 32-33, 38-39; Gal. 5:16-25.


Here is a PDF version of the same list:

Download Here

Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Where are North American Christians most falling short of these marks? How would you summarize the biblical picture of a true Christian? Share your insights in the comments below.


Endnote: As I did my research, I ended up with about seven main points. I wanted to be more concise, in case we end up using some version of this list as a church values statement someday. So I combined points until I had only four somewhat memorable headings. Many other combinations could have been equally possible, however. For example, combining “suffering” with “love” rather than with “witness” would also have expressed something that is clearly biblical: “Suffering love.” “Spirit-powered unity” also sounds good! The richness of Scripture cannot be summarized in any four, seven, or nine marks.


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“Red Letter Reductionism” Expanded

Recently I received word that someone might be interested in publishing my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay that I first shared in 2013—if only I could reduce it a little.

So I expanded it from 23 pages to 31 pages. Then, with great effort and the judicious advice of a friend, I cut it down to 14 pages. Now I have two red letter reductionism essays:

  • “Red Letter Reductionism” (expanded version, 31 pages)
  • “Red Letter Reductionism and Apostolic Authority” (reduced version, 14 pages)

This is all rather expansive for an essay about reductionism, but I am thankful for the results.

I’m not sure I want to post my abbreviated essay until it has been published in print (trusting it will be). But here is the expanded version of the original essay:

Red Letter Reductionism

What is this essay about?

Red letter Christians are any Christians who in some way prioritize the words of Jesus over the rest of Bible, including over the rest of the New Testament. While the words of Jesus are indeed important, I think that elevating the Bible’s red letters over its black letters is a bad practice that can lead to bad results.

In this essay I explain why, focusing especially on the authority Jesus gave to his apostles, including his promise to speak through them.

From the essay introduction:

This essay is about red letter theology and red letter Christians. It is about the authority of the New Testament and the nature of the gospel. First, we need an introduction to red letter Christianity. Then we will ask whether it is harmless. To answer our question, we will consider the promise of the Spirit, the limits of pre-Pentecostal revelation, and the nature of apostolic authority. We will take a close look at Paul, examining his gospel and his apostolic claims. We will examine John 3:16 as a test case for red letter theology and then ask whether this theology paints a shrunken, two-dimensional Jesus. We will consider the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel and ask whether Anabaptists are truly excited about the gospel. Finally, we will consult Matthew’s opinion on red and black letters, then conclude with two clarifications and five suggestions for readers of this essay.

What is new in this edition?

First, I combed the entire essay, trying to improve clarity and weed out overstatements. Then I added significant new content.

I invite you to read the entire essay, even (perhaps especially) if you’ve read it before. Most paragraphs were tweaked at least a little.

But I don’t want you to miss some of the new material I’ve included, so I’ll share four excerpts here (minus footnotes).

1. On the term “the authority of Scripture”:

We must pause to examine what we mean by “the authority of Scripture.” First, following N.T. Wright, I believe that “the phrase ‘the authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’”[1] On the one hand, this definition prevents us from directing worship to a book rather than to its Author; on the other hand, it reminds us that reverence for Scripture as the word of God is not idolatry but essential fear of God. Second, the term authority is used variously to refer to both (a) the divine origin of Scripture and (b) the weight or influence that any portion of Scripture carries to shape our interpretations and behaviors. In this essay I am primarily addressing the question of the divine origin of Scripture, arguing that red and black letters alike are words from God and, in that sense, equally authoritative. But one question leads to another; those who question whether all black letters truly come from God will also not allow them to shape their interpretations and behaviors as strongly. So near the end of this essay I will briefly address the question of which passages of Scripture should rightly shape our interpretation of Scripture most directly and strongly.

2. On the self-awareness of the New Testament authors about the authority they exercised as they wrote:

At least some New Testament authors seem to have been aware of the authority entrusted to them as they wrote. Peter addresses his readers as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:1), declaring that what he had “written” was “the true grace of God” in which his readers must “stand firm” (1 Pet. 5:12). This self-identification as “apostle” is found at the beginning of many New Testament letters, and should not be missed. When an Old Testament prophet said “Thus says the LORD,” he was using a standard messenger formula—the same formula that was used by the herald of a king, who would preface his message by saying “Thus says king so-and-so.” This formula indicated that the prophet was on assignment, speaking God’s words.[1] A similar thing seems to be happening in the New Testament whenever an author claims to be an apostle. He is using this title to assert that he is God’s messenger—“the special envoy of Christ Jesus commissioned by the will of God.”[2]

…John… prefaces his prophetic visions with a blessing best reserved for the word of God (cf. Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:28): “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3a). At the end of Revelation, Jesus repeats this blessing on those who “keep” what John has written (Rev. 22:7; cf. 22:9), just as faithful saints elsewhere in the book are said to “keep” the commandments of God (12:17; 14:12) and the word of Jesus (3:8, 10).

John’s prophecy ends with a most solemn warning (that may come from the lips of Jesus himself):

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19)

This warning adapts similar warnings found in the Law of Moses (Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32; 29:19-20), leading Oxford theologian Christopher Rowland to this observation:

In utilizing this prohibition from Deuteronomy John appears to regard his own revelations as being of equal importance with earlier communications from God given to Moses. There is no question here of this book being regarded by its author either as a series of inspired guesses or intelligent surmise. John believes that what he has seen and heard actually conveys the divine truth to his readers… John sees himself as the one who has been commissioned to write down the divine counsels for the benefits of the churches (Rev. 1:19).[3] 

3. On whether Paul undermines nonresistance:

Another reason some people are uneasy about Paul’s influence is because they fear he is not sufficiently clear on nonresistance. After all, a majority of Protestants historically have been all too quick to take up the sword and repay evil with evil. Does this endorsement of violence flow naturally from the Pauline Reformed theology that many of them embrace? More explicitly still, Romans 13 certainly has been and still is used by many Protestants to defend the Christian use of the sword. Isn’t it safest—even essential—to subjugate Paul’s ambivalent teachings on the sword to Jesus’ clear command that we must not resist evil?

Four brief responses can be given. First, Reformed or even Protestant theology simply does not explain most of the Christian use of the sword throughout history. Roman Catholics, too, have historically affirmed the Christian use of the sword, despite not being shaped by the Pauline theology of Luther which set the trajectory for Protestant doctrines. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics alike waged war and persecuted Anabaptists. And Christian just war theory is much older than the Reformation. It stretches back at least to Augustine (A.D. 354-430), was developed most significantly by the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274), and remains the official doctrine of the Catholic church to this day.

Second, Paul is not to blame for Augustine’s formulation of just war theory. Augustine believed that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor meant that Christians must normally not kill in self-defense. Yet, drawing explicitly upon Greco-Roman pagan thinkers—especially Cicero[1]—he made an exception for “just wars.” Romans 13 was not his “starting point,” despite the chapter’s later close association with just war theory by thinkers such as Aquinas and Luther.[2] Augustine concluded, as one scholar summarizes, that “‘times change’… pacifism was appropriate… in the time of the apostles [but] not… in a day and age when kings and nations have succumbed to the gospel” in fulfillment of prophecy.[3] Augustine was well aware of what both Jesus and the apostles taught, but concluded that new circumstances called for new behaviors. Augustine’s theology was too pagan, not too Pauline.

This leads to a third point: the influence of politics on theology. Catholics and Protestants alike developed their theology within the context of a Christendom that extended back to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to bear the sword in the name of Jesus. Political allegiances shaped the magisterial theology of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin, with each relying on the sword-bearing support of city councils or German princes. The Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, in contrast, counted the cost of losing political legitimacy at the time they chose believers’ baptism. Living as a persecuted minority, they were free of political entanglements that might have hindered them from following Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent enemy-love. Yet they developed their nonresistant theology, it must be noted, while also wrestling meaningfully with Paul’s teachings in Romans 13.[4] This influence of political power over our theology of the sword continues to this day, as Reformed theologian Preston Sprinkle has observed:

It’s fascinating (one might say disturbing) to see how each person’s political context or position shapes his or her understanding of Romans 13. Christians living in North Korea or Burma tend to read Romans 13 differently than Americans do… Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa. American Christian leaders did the same during the years of slavery and segregation.[5]

“Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far,” Sprinkle continues. “But only a bit.” He notes how Wayne Grudem has applied this chapter to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assuming that America is the good government and that Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad governments. “Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validate Afghanistan’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes on civilians,” Sprinkle suggests, “most Americans would see this as a misreading of Romans 13.”[6]

Which brings us to our final point: Paul is far clearer on nonresistance than many Christians, red letter or not, tend to acknowledge. In fact, Paul’s writings are in line with the entire New Testament, which “highlights Jesus’s nonviolent response to violence as a pattern to follow more often than any other aspect of his ministry.”[7] Paul “has the Sermon on the Mount ingrained in his soul,” Sprinkle observes, and most of “Paul’s litany of commands… in Romans 12… has the scent of Jesus’s Sermon.”[8] “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves… if your enemy is hungry, feed him… overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21). The clarity of Romans 12 and other Pauline passages should remove all doubt that when Romans 13 puts the sword into the hand of the third-person government (“he,” not “you”), Paul cannot be affirming Christian vengeance. After all, “Paul explicitly forbids the church in Romans 12 from doing what the government does in Romans 13.”[9]

4. On whether Matthew—the favorite gospel of many red letter Christians—promotes red letter theology:

David Starling addresses such questions in his recent book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.[1] First, Starling notes that both the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the six “antitheses” of Matthew 5 give Jesus’ own words a prominence that matches and perhaps even exceeds the law of Moses. Similarly, at the center of Matthew’s Gospel we find the mount of transfiguration, where God the Father exalts Jesus with an assertion (“this is my Son”) and a command (“listen to him!”). Starling suggests that “the assertion and command… (echoed by Jesus’s own assertion and command in Matt. 28:18-20a) are the twin foci around which Matthew arranges the material of his Gospel.” Thus, there are “five big blocks of red-letter content (chs. 5-7; 10; 13:1-52; 18; 24-25) in Matthew,” each underscoring “the identity and authority of Jesus as the Son of God.” Starling summarizes what this reveals about Matthew’s purposes as a Gospel writer:

The bulk and the prominence of these five blocks of teaching suggest that Matthew intended not only to narrate Jesus’ story but also to preserve and propagate his teachings, so that his disciples might learn and obey them. Evidently, according to the shape and content of Matthew’s testimony, the redness of the red letters in his Gospel is of no small significance to Jesus, to Matthew, and to God himself, and ought to be of no small significance to the Gospel’s readers.[2]

So far, so good for red letter theology. But Starling continues:

But what exactly is the nature of that significance? How does Matthew want us to understand the relationship between Jesus’s words and the words of the Old Testament Scriptures (and, for that matter, Matthew’s own words as the writer of the Gospel)?[3]

Starling answers by examining both Jesus’ words and Matthew’s words. The first words of Jesus recorded in Matthew (at his baptism) implicitly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 3:15). The next recorded words (at his temptation) directly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). The Beatitudes “are soaked in recollections of the Scriptures,” and “it is harder to imagine a stronger claim for the enduring importance of the Law than the language Jesus uses” in Matthew 5:18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”[4] As we continue reading Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words, the pattern of quoting and honoring the Scriptures continues. So Starling concludes:

The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel can hardly be interpreted as an attempt to wrest authority away from the black. Any notion we might have that Jesus’s words could replace or supersede the words of Old Testament Scripture is dispelled as soon as Jesus starts speaking.[5]

Matthew’s own words have a similar effect. Starling suggests that Matthew is teaching a way of reading the Scriptures. He does this by using a “constant interleaving of biographical narrative [about Jesus’ life], typological allusions [from the Old Testament], and scriptural citations [also from the Old Testament].”[6] Craig Keener explains:

Matthew has constructed almost every paragraph following the genealogy and until the Sermon on the Mount around at least one text of Scripture. He thus invites his ideal audience to read Jesus in light of Scripture and Scripture in light of Jesus.[7]

The references to the Old Testament continue throughout Matthew’s narrative, “so that we might learn to read Scripture, and to understand Christ, accordingly.”[8]

Starling ends his chapter with insightful and mature reflections, worth quoting at length:

The red letters of Jesus’s teachings do indeed… fulfill a particular function in the economy of Scripture. Christians who… attempt to read the Scriptures as a timeless, undifferentiated compendium of divine commands, may revere Scripture but can hardly be said to have understood its message: those who faithfully trace the lines of Scripture’s black letters must inevitably be led to the place where they become hearers (and doers) of the red.

But the relationship between the black letters and the red is not a one-way street; it is a recursive, reciprocal relationship. The black letters of the Old Testament prophecy and apostolic testimony lead us to Jesus and urge us to listen to him; the red letters of Jesus’s teaching, in turn, commission and authorize his apostles as heralds of the gospel and send us back to the Old Testament to learn its meaning and its implications afresh in light of his coming. The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel are joined to the black in an indispensable, mutually authorizing, and mutually interpretive relationship; what God has joined together no interpreter should attempt to separate.

For evangelicals in our own time, confronted with the claim that we must choose between two different kinds of Christianity—one defined by the red letters of Scripture and the other defined by the black—the Gospel of Matthew provides a timely warning against false dichotomies and needless schisms. It reminds “red letter Christians” of the indispensability of the black letters and reminds “black letter Christians of the centrality of the red (or, more precisely, of the one who speaks them).[9]

To this exhortation I say “amen”—adding only a little more precision by reminding us that it is actually the risen Jesus himself who is speaking in the black letters of the apostolic writings, as we noted above. In summary, Christians who try to use Matthew’s Gospel to create a more perfect red letter version of Christianity do dishonor to Matthew and to Jesus himself.

May God help us all read and honor his written word and his risen Christ more faithfully!

The original version of this essay was much improved by the feedback of some readers—including some very rigorous ones on the crashed-and-rebranded former Mennodiscuss.com. (Thankfully, I downloaded and saved much of that feedback!) I welcome your feedback here, too, in the comments below. Thank you!


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