Author's details

Name: Mitchell
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Mitchell Lewis: After John was Arrested — January 21, 2015
  2. Mitchell Lewis: Circumcision, Ethics and Language: Gospel Relevance for the Gentiles — January 17, 2015
  3. Mitchell Lewis: Kindle Deal from my Wish List — January 14, 2015
  4. Mitchell Lewis: O Come Let us Adore Him … at His Baptism — January 11, 2015
  5. Mitchell Lewis: A Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins — January 11, 2015

Most commented posts

  1. Mitchell Lewis: Western Jurisdiction: Operate Outside the Discipline — 2 comments
  2. Mitchell Lewis: Scott Jones on United Methodist Doctrine — 1 comment
  3. Mitchell Lewis: The Crucifixion, The Romans and the People of God — 1 comment
  4. Mitchell Lewis: Some Thoughts for Free Citizens — 1 comment
  5. Mitchell Lewis: Chaplain Emil Kapaun, Medal of Honor — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

Jan 21 2015

Mitchell Lewis: After John was Arrested

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Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:14-15

The public of mission of Jesus ends with a crucifixion; it begins with an arrest. What kind of good news is this?

I’ve frequently missed the very first words of Mark 1:14 or pondered their significance. They are the first hints of what Mark is up to in his gospel.

Jesus works wonders – healing the sick, casting out demons, calming storms, walking on water, feeding the crowds, raising the dead – generally plundering Satan’s realm – but that picture of Jesus is misleading and incomplete until we also learn that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) Jesus is more than just a wonder worker, and his kingdom work incorporates more than just his works of power. 

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Jan 17 2015

Mitchell Lewis: Circumcision, Ethics and Language: Gospel Relevance for the Gentiles

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How did the the early church integrate non-Jewish adherents into the Jewish sect that eventually came to be called Christianity? The answer depends on whether you are speaking about circumcision, ethics or the language of faith.

Circumcision: Were non-Jewish converts required to convert to Judaism, undergo circumcision (the males) and take upon themselves the yoke of the Law, the 613 commandments (as later rabbis counted them) that went with being a Jew?

  • The answer that clearly emerged within biblical Christianity was “no.”

Ethics: Were non-Jewish converts expected to live in accordance with ethical principles commonly accepted within the Jewish community as applicable to all humankind?

  • Yes, but there was fuzziness around the edges of how to apply those principles.

Biblical Language and Story: Were non-Jewish converts expected to identify themselves with the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people as recorded the Law and the Prophets? Did Christians from gentile backgrounds have to learn about Abraham and the covenants, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and the conquest, David and the kingdom, the priesthood and the temple, and the prophets who spoke in God’s name?

  • None of the New Testament writings makes any sense apart from the great story of the Old Testament.

Paul and Circumcision

When the Apostle Paul carried the gospel of the Jewish messiah to the gentiles of the Roman Empire, he did not require non-Jewish Christians also to convert to Judaism. In fact, he did just the opposite. He taught that gentile Christians should not take on the yoke of the law through circumcision; through their union with Jesus Christ, they were already part of the one, eschatological people of God.

The thinking of Paul’s opponents was simple: Jesus came to bring the story of Israel to its completion and to save God’s chosen people. To participate in God’s saving work in Jesus, one must be a member of the people of God, the family of Abraham, the congregation of Moses and the kingdom of David. That is, in first century terms, one must be a Jew, an heir of the promise. If you were a gentile who believed in Jesus, you should join the family that Jesus came to save. And the way to do that was to be circumcised and take upon yourself the burden of living in accordance with the Law of Moses.

Paul believed, however, that by faith in Jesus Christ, believing gentiles had already been grafted into Israel. By faith, they were already Abraham’s seed. Thus, gentiles need not be circumcised into the covenant that God made with Moses or live within its boundaries. To seek a place in God’s kingdom through circumcision was to underestimate the superior work of Christ. Circumcision yoked one to the 613 mitzvot of the Law of Moses. Baptism united one to Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah. The Law – with its rituals, manners and boundary markers – was a waypoint on the path to something greater. For those who belonged to Christ, to take upon oneself the yoke of the law was a step backward, not a step forward.

The Jerusalem Council, the Diaspora and Righteous Gentiles

In Acts 15, Luke describes how, at Paul’s urging, the so-called Jerusalem council imposed only a minimal set of expectations on the emerging gentile Christian community.

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.  Acts 15:28-29

In some ways, this concession to God-fearing gentiles was nothing new for Judaism. Among the congregants in Diaspora synagogues were so-called “God fearers,” gentiles who esteemed the God of Israel, participated in congregational life and lived virtuous lives. Gentiles who aligned themselves with the God and people of Israel were “resident aliens,” the same phrase that the Bible uses for foreigners who lived in the land of Israel and who were afforded certain rights in the Law of Moses. Even thought many of these God-fearers never converted to Judaism by undergoing Jewish proselyte baptism and (for males) circumcision, they were nonetheless regarded as “righteous gentiles” who might inherit the age to come.

The Talmud would later codify seven Laws of Noah that righteous gentiles were expected to follow.

  • No idolatry
  • No murder
  • No theft
  • No forbidden sexual relations
  • No blasphemy
  • No eating the flesh of an animal while it is still alive
  • Have a just set of laws and courts

The Noahide Code sound suspiciously like the list of ethical requirements laid down in Acts 15, and apart from the portions relating to the flesh of strangled or maimed animals, you can see echoes of both throughout the New Testament.

In any case, Paul’s doctrine eventually the majority position in the church. None of the New Testament documents give any hint that gentile converts must convert to Judaism, submit to circumcision or live in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law. There is plenty of evidence, however, that gentile converts were expected to live within the moral code that Judaism envisioned as applicable to the entire world.

Was Paul’s Gospel Relevant to Gentiles?

One of the first exegetical tasks I was ever assigned was an interpretation of Romans 1:3-4. Here is that passage in context.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. Romans 1:1-6

I wrote thousands of words on grammar, language, social context, literary allusions, and so forth, but I missed the forest for the trees. Paul begins Romans by setting the gospel within the context of salvation history. God promised it beforehand through the prophets. It is about his son who was descended from David. It is about Jesus, Jewish messiah who rose from the dead. This was the gospel that he preached among the nations! The Second Letter to Timothy captures this exact framework in a single sentence.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel. 2 Timothy 2:8

The gentiles might be familiar with myths about descending and ascending redeemers, divine men, and the like, but what did they know about David, the prophets or the Jewish messiah? Why would they care? This question bears some weight today, as well. Why should modern, secular people care about these things, either?

I frequently read arguments that go something like this. Christians use religious language and ideas that non-believers don’t know anything about. The world is no longer steeped in biblical imagery or doctrinal language.  We need to follow the example of the New Testament, we are told. Just as you didn’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian, we shouldn’t impose the “foreign language” of the Bible on new Christians or potential converts today. We need to be more relevant.

I’m not convinced. The church of the New Testament era did not make its gentile members convert to Judaism, but neither did it shrink back the great story of God’s salvation in the Jewish scriptures. In its art, teaching and liturgy, the early church immersed its gentile converts in the idiom of the Old Testament. To become a Christian was, at least in part, to learn the language of Zion. Christian identity was, and is, inseparably bound to the whole work of God that began with our ancestor Abraham.

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Jan 14 2015

Mitchell Lewis: Kindle Deal from my Wish List

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Today, $3.99 on Kindle. The Gospel of the Lord by Michael F. Bird It was $14.85 when I put it in my wish list.

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Jan 11 2015

Mitchell Lewis: O Come Let us Adore Him … at His Baptism

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Artists frequently portray the shepherds or the magi kneeling in the presence of the baby Jesus. Similarly, works of art also depict people kneeling at the cross where Jesus died. Perhaps we should also create paintings and sculptures of the faithful kneeling in wonder as Jesus is baptized.

The Son of God is baptized in the Jordan. The Holy Spirit descends. The Heavenly Father speaks: this is my son, the beloved. The Holy Trinity in whose name the church baptizes is visibly and audibly present at Jesus’ own baptism.

Whatever else it does, Jesus’ baptism gives us a glimpse of his glory. O come let us adore him.

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Jan 11 2015

Mitchell Lewis: A Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins

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John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In reflecting on this fact, two thoughts occur to me.

First, I think that there is a significant difference between God and human beings when it comes to forgiving others. It’s hard for us to both offer and receive genuine forgiveness. Our understanding of forgiveness is complicated by our own experiences. Our ability to forgive or receive forgiveness, even more so. Self-deception is a constant peril. We can manipulate others through giving or withholding absolution. On the receiving end, we can presume upon the mercy of others or take it far too lightly. Certainly, human beings understand something about of the power of forgiveness, but God’s mercy far surpasses anything we can come up with on our own. God’s forgiveness is more thorough, more genuine, more cleansing.

Second, John’s proclamation means that God has opened the door for forgiveness for all who repent. We justifiably think of John as a frightening, fire-and-brimstone preacher who presented his audience with a rather scary picture of God. God is already taking an ax to the roots of fruitless trees, John proclaimed. He’s separating the wheat from the chaff, and burning the chaff away with fire. This is hardly a new picture of Israel’s covenant Lord. The prophets of the Old Testament had similarly described the justice and judgment of God. But in his preaching of a baptism for repentance, John also proclaimed that God was ushering in a new era of forgiveness. With John’s appearance, new possibilities exist. The sinful can repent, and the penitent can be forgiven.

God was rising from his apparent slumber and starting to do something new. For some, to be sure, God’s actions would lead to eternal damnation. For many others, however, John’s preaching opened the door to restoration with God. In fact, a lot of surprising people responded to John’s preaching.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31b-32)

John’s preaching, then, is not just bad news for the unrepentant, it is good news for all who believe in the possibilities he proclaims.

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Jan 10 2015

Mitchell Lewis: Baptism and the Beginning of the Gospel

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It’s appropriate that “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1) is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John recorded in Mark 1:2-11.

Baptism is a beginning, not an an end.

In Baptism and the Christian Life, I wrote:

Sometimes the Christian story is told like this: “I was sinner. I didn’t listen to God and I kept on sinning. I sinned like this and I sinned like that. Then I got saved and was baptized so I’ll go to heaven someday. The end.”

The version of the Christian life envisioned in the biblical image of baptism, however, is very different. It goes more like this: “I was a sinner, but God invited me to come to him anyway. So I got baptized. Then I began to live as a member of his family, the church. Then I started to learn more about what my faith means. Then I started to serve him. Then I started to share his love with others. I had set backs, but God has stayed beside me and kept me growing as a Christian. As long as I’m breathing, there will be no end to this story. And when I stop breathing, well that’s just the start of the next chapter.”

Baptism marks the beginning of one’s life as a Christian disciple, not just the end of one’s journey to become a Christian believer.


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