Monday, April 6, 2020

Tuesday Bible Study (4/7/20)

The Question of Christ's Wills and Energies

The Third Council of Constantinople - 680-681 A.D.

A painting by Piero della Francesca of the  battle between Emperor Heraclius
and the Persians in 628 A.D. Heraclius tried to compromise with non-
Chalcedonian peoples in his realm by propagating monoenergism.
Scriptural Starting Places

Luke 22:42 - "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

John 4:34 - "My food," said Jesus, 'is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.'"

John 5:30 - "“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me."

John 6:38 - " For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me."

>> The Greek word for "will" is thelema (θέλημα), which also has the meaning of "desire, pleasure, choice, inclination." The New Testament records that Christ our Lord has a human body, exactly like ours, yet He is fully divine, being the Word of the Father. When the Lord's will is mentioned, it is mentioned in the singular and ascribed to the Person of Christ, not to either His divine nature or human nature.  Christ Himself is ever mentioning His Father's divine will and His desire to obey it perfectly. A debate will arise in the 7th century over the will(s) of Christ in the wake of the Miaphysitism that was now commonly held by Christians throughout Armenia, Syria, Persia, Palestine, and Egypt. The question is, does Christ have one will or two wills? 


The Emperor of the Byzantine Empire had a problem. Finally he had defeated the Persians in several crushing battles between 622 and 627, and had regained vast swaths of territory. On top of that, he had regained the True Cross from the city of Ctesiphon and restored it to Jerusalem.  However, most of the Christians in these newly liberated (or conquered) areas were non-Chalcedonian Miaphysites, meaning they did not share the same Christological views of the Emperor himself and established Byzantine Orthodoxy. Heraclius thought that a commonly held religion would be a unifying force in his empire, but in the face of these conflicting views, what was he to do? 

Aided by Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, Heraclius attempted to attain a Christological compromise position that would bring together the various religious attitudes of the diverse areas of his empire.  The attempt at unity was aided by a  teaching that Heraclius and Sergius, the patriarch of Constantinople, hoped to popularize called Monenergism. Simply put, it was a compromise position which posited Christ had two natures but only a single energy or activity. Later, this teaching evolved into a teaching on the single activity of his will (thelema).  Heraclius and Sergius thought that this teaching might serve a unifying function in the kingdom by bridging Byzantine Orthodox theology with Miaphysite theology.  Sergius won over the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch with this teaching. Yet, beginning in 633, the teaching was opposed by Sophronius of Jerusalem and Maximus. At this time, Sergius sent the Psephos to a theologian of Alexandria, Cyrus, disallowing him and any others from talking about one or two activities (energies) in Christ. The Psephos was then an attempt at ending the conversation, to avoid further controversy. 

In 638 the language about the one energy of Christ evolved into the one will of Christ. Heraclius then issued the Ecthesis (Ἔκθεσις) which attempted to settle the Christological controversy by positing Christ's dual natures always worked through a single will. Sophronius and others rejected this. A contemporary scholar sums up very well the consequences of the Echthesis: "For what Sergius and the emperor had decreed was that there is in Jesus Christ only one will and one truly free and spontaneous activity, the divine activity and will. Granting the existence of a human nature, its activity is completely subordinate to that of the divine; the humanity in the power of the Word is merely a docile instrument which He uses and which is devoid of any initiative of its own" (Leo Donald Davis, 268). 

Maximus Confessor was the key theologian during this time. Fleeing to Carthage and then to Rome in the wake of the Muslim Arab conquest, Maximus was a stout foe of Monothelitism. He put forward the idea that a nature without will and operation is impossible. Christ's two natures therefore imply two wills, though his human will is not our fallen, sinful one (which Maximus calls the gnomic will, from γνώμηgnṓmē, "mind, reason, opinion, judgment"), but rather, our "natural" one which is free of sin, as in Adam and Eve before the Fall. Christ has no fallen will, only an un-fallen one, which always chooses the Good, which is always obeying the divine will. 

By the time of Constans II, emperor of the Byzantine empire, the controversy was still raging, and the emperor released an edict called the Typos in 648. In it he forbade any more discussion on the question of Christ's energies or wills. This was rejected in the West by the Lateran Synod of 649, a synod which Maximus participated in. 

Finally, under the new leadership of Emperor Constantine IV (668-685), a decision was reached to initiate a universal council to decide the issues that had been dividing East and West for some 50 years. 

A mosaic in the Italian city of Ravenna of Christ, saints, and angels.


Monoenergism (μονοενεργητισμός): the teaching that preceded Monothelitism and posited Christ has two natures but only a single energy (ἐνέργειᾰ ). Though rather vague, monoenergism was essentially an attempt to reconciled Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians in the Byzantine Empire. It was accepted by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. Pope Honorius famously accepted it (or at least did not condemn it) in his 635 epistle. 

Monothelitism (μονοθελητισμός ): the teaching that Christ has two natures but only one will. This teaching emerged from Constantinople in 638 as a response to Sophronius' condemnation of Monoenergism as another form of Monophysitism. This view was propagated by the Ecthesis and won widespread approval in the East. Following the death of Honorius, all of the popes in Rome condemned the doctrine. 

Miaphysitism: the non-Chalcedonian position that Christ has a single physis, or nature. Miaphysitism was wide-spread throughout the East. Essentially it posits that the single nature of the Word became enfleshed, fully human, while remaining the Word. Monophysitism is a direct rejection of Chalcedon and implies that Christ has a solitary nature only: the divine

Tritheism: emerging in Alexandria in the 6th century, Tritheism posited that the Three Persons of the Trinity were consubstantial but distinct in their properties. A chief proponent of this view was John Philoponus (c. 490 - c. 570) who was an Aristotelian philosopher of Alexandria and a Monophysite. Essentially Tritheism is any theology which emphasizes or separates the distinctness of each Person at the expense of the unity. 

Pope Honorius I (pope from 625 - 638) initially
supported Monothelitism, though he did not know
what was at stake. He was careful to guard against
the teaching of two contrary wills in Christ.

Key Personages

Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610 - 641): a very successful military commander, Heraclius waged war against the Persian Sassanian Empire and won a series of major victories. Unfortunately, most of his gains were reversed a short time later during the Muslim Arab invasions. Famously, Heraclius re-captured the true cross from the Sassanians in Nineveh and restored it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. During peace time, Heraclius was keen to unite the disparate Christian groups of his vast empire. The theological foundation for unity was the compromise doctrine of Monenergism (later, Monothelitism) formulated by Sergius I. Indeed, for around 40 years there was a rough reconciliation between Armenians, Jacobite (followers of Jacob bar Addai, the so-called "Syriac Christians"), and Egyptian Copts, but this did not last long. 

Sergius I of Constantinople (patriarch from 610 - 638): the architect of Monenergism and Monothelitism which were two attempts at preserving the Chalcedonian distinction of the two natures of Christ while also admitting the single activity of will of Christ. This was more acceptable to the various Monophysite groups in Armenia, Syria, Persia, and Egypt. It was hoped by Heraclius and Sergius that this formulation would unite the empire.

Pope Honorius I (pope from 625 - 638): a controversial figure, Honorius was embroiled into this Christological controversy which he did not fully understand. In a letter to Sergius he writes, "Hence, we confess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ also, because surely our nature, not our guilt, was assumed by the Godhead..." Honorius was careful to preserve the sinless aspect of Christ and was afraid that attributing a human will to him meant also attributing ignorance, sin, and imperfection. Honorius probably did not have the vocabulary to defend his position, as his successor to the papacy points out. Despite this, he was anathematized in the canons of Constantinople III. 

Pope Agatho (pope from 678 to 681):  the pope during the Third Council of Constantinople, Agatho's letter Considerante mihi as well as a synodal letter from the Synod of Rome were read and approved by the council fathers. Agatho wrote in his letter, "When we, however, confess two natures and two natural wills and two natural operations in our one Lord Jesus Christ, we affirm that they are not against or contrary to one another... nor are they as if separated in two persons or subsistencies.  Rather we affirm that just as there are two natures in our Lord Jesus Christ, so does he have two natural wills and two operations, namely, divine and human; the divine will and operation he has in common from eternity with his co-essential Father; the human he has temporarily from us with our assumed nature." 

Sophronius of Jerusalem (c. 560 - 638): a monk and ascetic, friend of John Moschus the chronicler of the monks of Palestine. He was a staunch defender of Dyothelitism (the teaching of the two wills of Christ) and famously viewed the Muslim invaders of Palestine as "unwitting representatives of God's inevitable chastisement of weak and wavering Christians." All that survive of his writings is the so-called synodical letter, written to other bishops in the East and warning of the heresy of Monothelitism. It was read aloud at the council almost 50 years after Sophronius's death. 

Maximus Confessor (c. 580 - 662): erudite, well-travelled, and fearless, Maximus picked up the mantle of orthodoxy from Sophronius and defended Dyothelitism until his tragic death. He was born into a well-to-do family in Constantinople, and was a chief secretary to Emperor Heraclius before becoming a monk. In the face of Muslim conquest, he left the East for Carthage and then for Rome. Under Constans II, Maximus was called to Constantinople and punished for his views. His tongue was cut out of his mouth and his right hand was severed. He died later in exile on the Black Sea.  Many of his writings are still extant. Maximus argued that in the Incarnation Christ "accomplishes in all truth the true human destiny that he himself had predetermined as God, and from which man had turned: he unites man to God." 

Pope Agatho depicted in a Byzantine service book, c. 1000 A.D.

The Council Itself

It opened on Nov. 7, 680 with 43 bishops present. Eighteen separate sessions would meet over the next 10 months, with the final session ending Sept. 16, 681. 

Papal legates (representatives) demanded the clergy of Constantinople to explain the doctrines of Monenergism and Monothelitism. Macarius of Antioch (a Monothelite) did not aid his side's case when he produced volumes of extracts from Church Fathers which were corrupted and twisted out of context. In the eighth session, the patriarch of Constantinople, George, compared Patristic texts in Constantinople to the texts that the legates presented in favor of two wills. He was convinced, and confessed two wills. 

When it was discovered that Macarius and his assistant had falsified Patristic texts in an attempt to make their heresy sound orthodox, they were deposed. A new patriarch of Antioch was accepted in Macarius's place. 

At one point, a Monothelite priest named Polychronius attempted to prove the validity of his party's position by raising a dead man to life. It failed. Another priest named Constantine proposed a view that upon the cross Christ had abandoned his human will so that only the divine will remained. These two men were removed from the priesthood, their views condemned. 

Eventually all patriarchs of Constantinople from 610 to 666 were condemned for their heretical views, and Pope Honorius (d. 638) was condemned for his Monenergist views presented in his letter. 

The final Christological teaching espoused by the council fathers was this: "We likewise proclaim in [Christ], according to the teaching of the holy Fathers, two natural volitions or wills and two natural actions, without division, without change, without separation, without confusion. The two natural wills are not - by any means - opposed to each other as the impious heretics assert; but his human will is compliant; it does not resist or oppose but rather submits to his divine and almighty will. For, as the wise Athanasius says, it was necessary that the will of the flesh move itself, but also that it be submitted to the divine will; because, just as his flesh is said to be and is the flesh of God the Word, so too the natural will of his flesh is said to be and is God the Word's very own, as he himself declares: 'I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.' He calls the will of his flesh his own will because the flesh also has become his own."

The council also confessed two actions (energies) in Christ, "without division, without change, without separation, without confusion, namely, a divine action and a human action... For we do not in any way admit one natural action of God and the creature, so as neither to raise to the divine essence what is created nor to lower the sublime nature to the level proper to creatures. For we know that both the miracles and the sufferings belong to one and the same, according to the different natures of which he consists and in which he has his being..." 


This council would have far-reaching ramifications for the Vatican I doctrine of papal infallibility, given that Honorius I is specifically condemned for his heretical views. This was a condemnation the papal legates knew and accepted at the council, 680 - 681. 

Lutheran scholastics in the late 16th and early 17th centuries would further develop the Chalcedonian and Constantinopolitan definitions. The technical idea here is called the communicatio idiomatum - the "communication of attributes (properties)."  Lutheran theologians organized the attributes into three genera ("classes, kinds"): 

- genus idiomaticum (idioma = "attribute"): the properties of one nature, human or divine, is transferred or applied to the whole Person. There is not a "fleshly Christ" and a "heavenly Christ," for this would be Nestorianism.  An example of this genus in action would be something like Peter says in 4:1 of his letter: "Christ suffered in the flesh," etc. 

- genus apotelesmaticum (apotelesma = "work"): the actions of Christ belong to the whole Person of Christ. One or the other nature does not "shut off" during a particular action. The Apostles do not speak of the "divine nature" becoming a ransom, but of the Christ Himself.  An example could be what Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:5 - "[T]here is one man Jesus Christ who gave himself as a ransom for all..." 

- genus maiestaticum (māiestās = "dignity, prestige"): the human nature of Christ is clothed and magnified by the attributes of the divine nature. An example of this would be Paul's words in Philippians 2:10 - "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and earth..." Another example would be the Lord's Supper: by eating the flesh and blood of Christ we are also partaking of His very divinity. 

If you are interested in learning more about Orthodox Lutheran Christology (which is essentially Cyrillian, check out: 

Mosaic of Christ at Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (6th century)

Friday, April 3, 2020

A prayer of David. 

This psalm is an individual lament in which David expresses his distress and overcomes that distress through praise and worship. There is a sense of urgency demonstrated by some 14 prayer requests..

1 Hear, O LORD , and answer me, for I am poor and needy. 
2 Guard my life, for I am devoted to you. 
You are my God; save your servant who trusts in you. 
3 Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long. 
4 Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 

“poor and needy” = obviously David was not poor financially, but when he approaches God, the poverty of his spirit is evident... and so all he can do is beg the Lord to turn His ear toward him and hear his request.
as a lamb trusts in his shepherd to care for him and provide for him, so David lays his life into the hands of his God. Why? Because his heart is devoted to Him ... He is the One in whom David “fears, loves and trusts” (1st commandment)
“all day long” = unending prayer for the mercy (the undeserved love) of God and that God would not treat him as his sins deserve.
The soul of man cries out for fellowship with God. The only true joy and peace comes from knowing that all is right between us and our God.
How do we approach God in prayer? As privileged children making demands? Or as humble beggars realizing we deserve nothing from our God?
What gets the priority in our lives? What gets our time? What (or whom) does your heart trust in?
What does it mean to have “joy” in our lives? How does that flow from our relationship with God?

5 You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you. 
6 Hear my prayer, O LORD;  listen to my cry for mercy. 
7 In the day of my trouble I will call to you, for you will answer me. 

God’s forgiveness flows freely because He is good and perfect and loves to gift His children with His blessings.
Because of this, we know that we dare not fear approaching our God with our petitions... confident that He will hear us.
While we do not fear, we also approach in humility - purely dependant on the mercy of God.
David had his troubles both inwardly and outwardly, in private and in public life. There are also times when troubles come from outside of us to which we feel victims.
In all our challenging times, we can come to God in prayer, for we know He will listen and respond.
David is confident of this both because God has promised as such...and from his life experience.
How can God’s forgiveness become the foundation of our prayers?
Why does God’s love give us comfort as we call upon Him?
What troubles do you bring to the Lord?
Are there ever any challenges we face that we don’t “want to bother the Lord” about?
How can we be confident that God will answer our prayers when we call to Him?

8 Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with yours. 
9 All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; 
they will bring glory to your name. 
10 For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God. 

“Among the gods” = David is here contrasting the true God with the imaginary gods of the pagan nations.
No one can match the creation of all the world and everything in it, and around it. No work was ever greater than what God did for all of us.
"All nations...come and worship” = the psalmists and prophets often look into the future messianic age when people of every nation will bow down and worship God.
God is great, greater than all.
“marvelous deeds” = upholds all things by His powerful word (think “First Article” gifts)
“you alone are God” = anything else is but a pretender/fake/false.
Why do people so easily give their worship to other things if God is so great?
How does verse 9 foreshadow Philippians 2:10-11: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”?
What is God’s ultimate “great and marvelous deed”?

11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; 
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. 
12 I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. 
13 For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave. 

David understands that we can only walk in God’s truth when He teaches us by His Word. You can’t live by the Word unless you KNOW the Word.
“undivided heart” = to be single-heartedly loyal to his Lord.
Because David has experienced the blessings of God in abundance, he resolves to giving praise to God with all that he is... but this is only possible as God grants his prayer for an “undivided heart”.
All that God does for us is purely motivated by His love. “God IS love.”
Because God loves us, He acts to deliver us from abandonment to the grave...the ultimate consequence of our sin and disobedience. Yet God provides salvation.
How does God teach You His Way today?
Is your heart divided? How do you know?
How can you give praise to God?
Again, where do we see God’s ultimate act of love toward us?
How has God delivered us from the deadly consequence of sin?

14 The arrogant are attacking me, O God; 
a band of ruthless men seeks my life –  men without regard for you. 
15 But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, 
slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. 
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me; 
grant your strength to your servant and save the son of your maidservant.
17 Give me a sign of your goodness,  that my enemies may see it and be put to shame, 
for you, O LORD , have helped me and comforted me. 

“ruthless men” = those who act contrary to God - against Him and His people.
The world hates God and those who trust in Him. Satan works hard to punish those who dare to put their faith and hope in God.
And yet, David understand that God is like a loving parent who freely bestows his compassion and grace and supports us in our time of need – in spite of how we may live and react.
“slow to anger” = bears with us and waits to pour out His love ... being faithful even when we are not.
David asks for God’s favor like a servant born in the household (versus one born outside the house)
Again, David seeks God to not look upon him in judgment, but in mercy... and to give him the strength he needs to live faithfully as His child.
“a sign” = literally a ‘token’ ... some sort of favorable indication that would demonstrate that God was truly on David’s side – that he belonged to God.
David knows his help and comfort are in the Lord. He just wants all his enemies to know it too.
How does the world come after you because you are a child of God?
In the midst of the trials of life, how/where do you see God’s love and faithfulness?
In what ways does God provide strength to you to continue your service in His name?
What signs of God’s goodness are displayed in your life for others to see?

In the most difficult and trying circumstances of our lives, our God urges us to call out to Him. He promises to hear us and deliver us according to His mercy.  His love and goodness to us are seen over and over in His provisions of the daily bread that we need to support our bodies and our lives.  For that alone we should fall down in praise and worship of Him.

But that is not the end of His gracious love.  In Christ, He defeats the enemies that would seek to lead us astray – the devil, the world and our sinful flesh.  In His Word He speaks His truth and guides us into His grace which surrounds and protects us from those who would seek to defeat us and drive us away from Him. By His Spirit, He gives us a heart that trusts in His love in Christ and assures us of His love and faithfulness toward us.  May everyone see our dependance on Him and His goodness and long for His gifts as well!

Thanks to for some help with the notes!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tuesday Bible Study (3/31/20)

The Question of Islam

Scriptural Bearings

Matthew 5:44 - But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. 

2 Peter 2:1-3 - But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.  And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

1 Peter 4:12-14 - Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you

>>Summary: Jesus Himself tells his disciples that hard times will come to them, but that they must love, forgive, and even pray for their enemies. Remember that since Abel, the son of the first man, the righteous have suffered and died. In the centuries and centuries of Islamic rule, many Christians in the Orthodox, Oriental, and Syriac Christian groups would suffer discrimination, persecution, and martyrdom. It's important to note at this point, that by the 7th century, different Christian churches (and traditions) had emerged in the world. In the West, there is the more monolithic Latin or Roman Catholic Church. In the East there is Orthodoxy, the state religion of the Byzantine Empire, which holds to all of the ecumenical councils. There are then two groups that split off from Orthodoxy beginning in the early 5th century: the Oriental Orthodox and the Nestorian, also called the 'Church of the East.' The Oriental Orthodox church was formed after the fall-out from disagreement and political wrangling after the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). These Christians, primarily in areas like Armenia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Ethiopia, were (and are, there are around 70 million in the world today) miaphysites, that is, adherents to a kind of Cyrillian understanding of the one, unified nature of Jesus that is simultaneously fully divine and fully human. The Church of the East, which spread from Persia all the way to Mongolia, China, and India, were primarily Nestorian, rejecting the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) and accepting as dogma the belief that Christ's two natures were distinct and separate. This is an oversimplification, as modern-day views in the Church of the East (which has about 1.5 million members worldwide) hold Christological views which don't necessarily accept Nestorius and all of his teachings. Note that in what follows, I heavily rely on Derek Cooper's book Twenty Questions that Shaped World Christian History (Fortress). 


Around the year 570 a person was born who would change the world forever. This man was Muhammad, who would soon take political control of Arabia. Immediately after his death his followers launched a conquest of vast swaths of the Middle East, Africa, and India - areas with large Christian populations and deeply-rooted Christian culture. 

The Church of the East - a branch of Christianity with a geographical reach from Syria to China - lost leaders, churches, and monasteries to the new Muslim powers which quickly overran the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The speed of it all was stunning. As scholar Judith Herrin puts it, "In a single decade, the Arabs had occupied Syria, Palestine, and the richest province of Egypt, including the Christian Holy Places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem." 

Arabs under Umar, the leader of the Rashidun Caliphate, captured Jerusalem in 634 and built a wooden mosque atop the temple mount. This later was replaced by the very famous Dome of the Rock, modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and directly opposing the Christian dogma of the Trinity and the Sonship of Christ by its gilded writing on the exterior which reads, "There is no god but Allah alone. [He] did not beget." 

Muslim armies quickly and easily captured the major Christian center of Antioch, and in 640 they captured the most important city in Syriac Christendom: Edessa (modern-day Homs, Iraq). Two years later the central city in Armenian Christianity was captured, and in 645, the important Eastern Christian city of Ctesiphon fell. During this time, Christians had to pay a special tax called a jizyah. Often those who did not want to pay it were imprisoned and persecuted, or, they were convinced that conversion to Islam was the right course of action. 

As the new way of life unfolded, Christian monks, priests, and leaders felt the need to write sermons and books that made sense of such an unthinkable situation. 

Some writers, such as Anastios of Sinai and John of Damascus, read the Koran and knew personally many Muslim scholars and leaders. John gave a well-researched and organized response to Islam in several books. Others were misinformed about Islamic beliefs and wrote or spoke off-hand, condemnatory remarks that have survived history. Muslims were often called "Ishmaelites," as the Arabians were believed to be descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abram through Hagar, the servant girl. Every major Christian writer and leader considered Muhammad to be a false prophet and Muslims to be heretics, not members of a different "religion."  


622 A.D. - Muhammad and his followers travel to Medina and establish an Islamic State

630 A.D. - Muhammad enters Mecca and its citizens accept Islam

633 A.D. - Muhammad dies - his friend Abu Bakr, becomes the first caliph. Others (Shia Muslims) believed Muhammad's cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was the first rightful caliph.

634 A.D. - Caliphs invade Syria and Palestine, conquering much of the Levant

639-642 A.D. - Muslim armies conquer Egypt

645 A.D. - Seleucia-Ctesiphon - one of the most important cities for the Church of the East (picture below) - falls to invaders

647 - 742 A.D. - Muslim conquest of the Maghreb - North Africa

711-714 - Under Muhammad bin Qasim, Muslim conquest of Indian subontinent begins

711 - 721 - Invasion of Hispania (Spain) and Gaul (France) by Ummayad Caliphate
1864 photograph of Taq Kasra in Ctesiphon

Key Personages

Muhammad (c. 570 - 632 A.D.): Arab religious leader and founder of Islam (meaning "submission"), a monotheistic religion. At age 40 he claimed to have been visited by the archangel Gabriel in a cave where he was living in seclusion. Rapidly gathering followers, Muhammad claimed also to have been given the Quran by the angel.  By the time of his death, almost the entire Arabian peninsula had converted to Islam. 

Sophronius of Jerusalem (c. 560 - 638): The head bishop of Jerusalem from 634 until his death. An Orthodox Chalcedonian, Sophronius opposed Monoergism during his lifetime - the teaching that Christ had one energy (in Greek, ἐνέργειᾰ - enérgeia), that is, one active principle or operation. Sophronius was in Jerusalem as it was besieged by Arab forces under Abu Ubaidah. After four months, the Byzantines surrendered. Sophronius signed the the Umariyya Covenant which surrendered the city and gave civil and religious liberty to Christians in exchange for tribute money. 

Hnanisho I (died 698 A.D.): The catholicos (head patriarch) of the Church of the East between 686 and 698. In response to a question from the fifth Caliph Abd al-Malik, the bishop famously said, "[Islam] is a kingdom founded by the sword; and not, like the Christian faith and the old faith of Moses, a faith that is confirmed by divine miracles." The caliph ordered his tongue cut out, but some friends interceded for him. Deposed by an illegitimate usurper, Hnanisho was later thrown off a cliff to die, but he survived. After being nursed back to health he reclaimed his patriarchate. 

Pseudo-Methodius (late 7th c. A.D.): a Syriac Christian writer posing as St Methodius (died 311) who wrote an apocalyptic document (known as the "Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius") which influenced eschatological thinking in the following centuries.  In it, Muslims are called "Sons of Ishmael," and the writer notes, "It was not because God loves them that he allowed them to enter the kingdom of the Christians, but because of the wickedness and sin which is performed at the hands of the Christians, the like of which has not been performed in any of the former generations." 

John of Damascus (c. 675 - 749 A.D.): Priest and monk honored as saint and "Doctor of the Church," also regarded as the "last of the Church Fathers." Growing up in Damascus, John lived his adult life in a monastery in Palestine, writing theological and liturgical works. In his important work The Found of Knowledge, John gives a severe critique of Islam. About Muhammad he writes, "There are many other extraordinary and quite ridiculous things in this book which he boasts was sent down to him from God. But when we ask: ‘And who is there to testify that God gave him the book? And which of the prophets foretold that such a prophet would rise up?’—they are at a loss."

Icon of St John of Damascus. Often considered the "last of the Church Fathers,"
John is an important bridge between ancient and medieval thought, as well as
an interesting, early interpreter of Islam.

Jacob: "What can you tell me about the prophet?  Jewish Teacher: "He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword." - The Teaching of Jacob

"The godless Saracens entered the holy city of Christ our Lord, Jerusalem, with the permission of God and in punishment for our negligence." - John Moschus, monk and writer

"But the present circumstances are forcing me to think differently about our way of life, for why are wars being fought among us? Why do barbarian raids abound? Why are the troops of the Saracens attacking us?  ... Why are the birds of the sky devouring human bodies? Why have churches been pulled down? Why is the cross mocked? Why is Christ, who is the dispenser of all good things and the provider of this joyousness of ours, blasphemed by pagan mouths so that he justly cries out to us: 'Because of you my name is blasphemed among the pagans.' ... That is why the vengeful and God-hating Saracens, the abomination of desolation clearly foretold to us by the prophets, overrun the places which are not allowed to them, plunder cities, devastate fields, burn down villages, set on fire the holy churches, and overturn the sacred monasteries. ... Moreover, they are raised up more and more against us and increase their blasphemy of Christ and the church, and utter wicked blasphemies against God.  These God-fighters boast of prevailing over all, assiduously and unrestrainably imitating their leaders, who is the devil, and emulating his vanity because of which he has been expelled from heaven and been assigned to the gloomy shades." - Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem

"Civilization is now itself being ravaged by wild and untamed beasts whose form alone is human." - Maximus the Confessor

> Other Christian leaders, especially those in the far Eastern churches who had experienced horrible persecution under Persian rule beginning in 226 A.D. with the Sassanians coming to power, experienced Muslims as more benevolent rulers. 

"As for the Arabs, to whom God has at this time given rule over the world, you know well how they act towards us. Not only do they not oppose Christianity but they praise our faith, honour the priests and saints of our Lord, and give aid to the churches and monasteries." - Ishoyahb III

The Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Armenia, seat of the catholicos of
the Armenian Orthodox Church. 


To this very day there is tension, confusion, and misinformation among Christians regarding Muslims, and among Muslims regarding Christians. Though Muslims are no longer considered to be "heretics," but rather, members of an entirely new religion founded by Muhammad, many Christians today consider Islam to be an off-shoot of Eastern forms of Christianity, even showing similarities in theological, social, and sexual views. 

When we get to the First Crusade in 1095, and subsequent wars and conflicts with peoples and nations following Muhammad and the Koran, we run into more trouble and confusion, with atrocities committed by men in the name of the Church and Christ and men in the name of Allah and Muhammad.  The fall of Constantinople to Muslim forces in 1453 was a huge blow to Eastern Christendom and marked the final end of Byzantium. 

There are still today pesky questions today about the relation of the West (which is arguably formed by Christian culture but is no longer "Christian") to the Islamic world. Are we still living in the shadow of the Crusades? Is terrorism such as that practiced by Al-Qaeda and ISIS espoused in the original Islamic documents? Who is Allah in relation to the triune God that Christians proclaim? 

There are doubtlessly many other questions, but this study is to be an introduction to the early challenges Christians in the East faced when Muslims began their wars of conquest. As we can see today, the last 1400 years have seen the steady destruction of Orthodox churches, monasteries, and monuments in places like Iraq, Iran, and N. Africa. Early forms of Christianity in China virtually disappeared in the Middle Ages due to persecution. Early Nestorian Christianity in China is a misunderstood thing today, with lots that scholars simply don't know. As Christian populations in those places have steadily declined, many have emigrated to American cities and planted new congregations. 

This important stele (stone slab) from 781 describes
the mission of Nestorian Christians in China.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon for Lent 5 - "Raised to Be Free"

“Raised to Be Free”
John 11:1-45
A - Lent 5 - Gospel
March 29, 2020

 With the constant threat that COVID-19 has brought upon us, we all are constantly thinking about life...and death.  Many of us are probably more concerned about someone we love catching the virus than even if we were to contract it. No one willingly wants to face the sickness and perhaps death of a loved one.  Most of us have walked that road before... when someone who is near and dear to us has passed from our lives... and the pain and heartache it causes is horrible.  Whenever someone we love dies, we are forced to own up to our own mortality... and the question of, “What comes next?”  With death comes fear, uncertainty, pain and deep, deep sorrow.

 That is what we find in our Gospel lesson for today ... Jesus runs head long into death and the human struggle that goes along with the loss of a loved one. And in this time, Jesus shows what He has come to do... how He will conquer death and set us from sin and the eternal consequences that come with it.  In His love, Jesus raises us to be free!

 Jesus certainly loved Lazarus and his family.  When Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, want to notify Jesus about their brothers' illness, they did it by sending word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."  Jesus did indeed love Lazarus... but not just him.  Scripture tells us He had a close bond with the whole family.

 Jesus' love for that family was not just a matter of words – like the shallow way that people often mean it today.  This was a genuine and heart-felt love.  And so, after learning that Lazarus was severely ill, Jesus wrapped up his business in the region of Perea and He went back to Judea to be with them.  Jesus' concern for Lazarus and his sisters was so great that He was willing to risk His life for Lazarus. The disciples warned Him that it would be better for Jesus to stay out of Lazarus' home region because the Jews who lived there were hostile to Jesus and His message.  But Jesus knew that His love would triumph in this situation. There was nothing to fear.

 After Jesus arrived and He was told that Lazarus was dead ... and when He saw Mary and all of Lazarus' friends crying, His own heart broke.  As He stood outside of the tomb of His friend, Jesus wept... the shortest verse in Scripture...but one of the most powerful.  The tears He cried were genuine.  He wept over the sorrow that death brings. He wept over the pain that sin reeks on the children of God.  He wept for those who did not believe in Him and so – for them – death was the end.  He wept for the days of His own death to come.  And as He wept, the Jews who were around the tomb noticed and commented:  "See how He loved him."  Yes, Jesus really knows what it is to grieve over the loss of someone you love.  God understands the pain and sorrow that touch our lives because of the brokenness of sin ... and its ultimate consequence, death. He understands because He has been there. Jesus has experienced the very same pain and sorrow that we feel.

 Knowing that Christ has walked the same way we have walked...experienced the same heartbreak and loss that we have felt... makes it easier to love Him.  When we see how much and how deeply He loves ... how can we not respond in a deeper love for Him? Martin Luther made that observation in a sermon he preached in 1518 on this very gospel story.  As he reflected on the love of Jesus for Lazarus, his family, and indeed for each one of us, Luther commented, "Let us therefore learn to know from the gospel how kindly Christ deals with us; then we shall without a doubt love him and avoid sinning and so see everything in a different light."

 What is that light in which we see things?  In Christ, we see both death and life in light of the resurrection.  Jesus brought Lazarus back to life from death.  But that is not just the fate of Lazarus.  Death will not have the final word with you and me either... for we have Jesus' promise:  "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."  The promise of the resurrection and the new life that goes with it are ours ... right now.

 So often when we talk about “the resurrection” we only think of it as something that lies ahead of us ... somewhere in the distant future.  But the account of the raising of Lazarus casts a whole different light on the matter.  After all, Lazarus' resurrection was not far off in the future.  It happened that very day that Jesus came to him – just four days after his death.  In Lazarus we are reminded that resurrection and the new life that comes with it is a very present reality!

 Let that sink in for a moment.  The idea that the new life given in the resurrection is already available to those who trust in Christ is an important theme in Jesus' preaching.  Recall how often in the gospels Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God "is at hand."

 John seems to make that same point in our text: “When Jesus finally got to Bethany (Lazarus' hometown) and learned from Lazarus' sister Martha that Lazarus was dead, then Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha responded, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’" (Doesn’t Martha sound like us modern Christians? We believe in the resurrection... in the new life... but we think of it as something far off in the future.) But notice... Jesus responded to her and to us  "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

 The resurrection is already present in Jesus.  We already have the resurrection... the new life... when we have Him present among us.  In fact, when Jesus is present... death is no more!  The new life is given and death has no power over us any longer.  Jesus shows us that the resurrection victory is already present and that we do not have to wait for it as some far off point in the future by proceeding to raise Lazarus from the dead.

 With this miracle, our Lord assures us of what He grants to those who are His by faith.  In Christ, we have resurrection and new life... now.  We do not have to wait for them.  That is the different light in which we can view the sufferings, sins and the evil that are in the world.  They do not have the final word in our lives... or in the lives of our loved ones who depart this life in the faith.  Fear, sin, suffering, and even death, have all been conquered by our Lord's death and resurrection.  Their power is gone. Death has been robbed of its’s like a toothless dog whose bark may be fearsome, but cannot harm us.

 But what exactly is the nature of this resurrection...this new life that is already ours by faith in Jesus?  All three of our Scripture readings for today give us some clues.

 In the Gospel, Jesus had gone to the tomb of Lazarus – a cave with a stone on it.  Jesus commanded that the stone be removed.  Lazarus' sister Martha noted how after four days the body would smell if they removed the stone.  But Jesus insisted! After the stone was rolled away, Jesus thanked the Father in heaven, explaining that in this way, the people would know that He was sent by Him.  Then He called out with a loud voice:  "Lazarus, come out!"  John tells us what happened next: "The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, 'Take off the grave clothes and let him go.'"

 John says that Lazarus came out of the tomb bound with the embalming bandages and wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus commanded that he be loosened... unbound.  The Greek understanding of this word for “unbinding” or “loosening” is usually used in connection with sin.  Perhaps Jesus want us to understand that the death bandages and cloth wrapped around Lazarus symbolize sin.  In raising Lazarus from the dead... in giving him new life... Jesus was in reality unbinding or loosening Lazarus from sin!  Lazarus really could not begin to live that new life Jesus had given him until Lazarus was first loosened and freed from sin.

 The Scriptures clearly associate death with sin.  The victory over one is the victory over the other.  Jesus conquered death that day when He raised Lazarus from the dead.  He also freed Lazarus from sin.

 Lazarus was given a new life that day at the tomb.  It is rather like the new life that God gave us in our baptism.  The new life that Jesus gave Lazarus was a life freed from bondage... set free from the bandages and the cloth that bound him in death... loosed from the sin that trapped him and us.

 The same thing is discussed in our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel.  God showed Ezekiel how the preaching of His Word could take the dry, dead bones of Israel and raise them up to live again. By the proclamation of His powerful Word, God gives new life ... delivering those who hear it from the exile of death and the bondage we are under.  He promises to put His Spirit within all those who hear the promise of His Word.  Earlier God made it clear that this giving of the Spirit... this new life that He gives Israel and us... involves a cleansing from sin... the creation of a new heart in the faithful.  This new life that God gives us sets us free from sin and the fear of death... free to serve Him anew.

 Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Romans.  He is talking about the new life which comes to those who have faith in Jesus Christ when he says: “...through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."

 “ from sin and death.”  That is what the new life is all about.  Paul later declares:  "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you."

 God has given us life.  This new life is tied to the resurrection of Christ...and it is a life of freedom – freedom from sin and evil... freedom from being anxious and troubled about our death and the death of our loved ones.

 Resurrection, new life, and freedom are not just realities still to become evident in the distant future.  The new life and resurrection are happening now.  They happen whenever Jesus Christ is present among us, because  He IS "the resurrection and the life."  Whenever we believe in Him, the new life... the reality of the resurrection is ours.  Hear Jesus' words again to Martha: "... He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

 When we believe and trust in Jesus... when we know that the sacrifice that He made on the cross of Calvary was made for us... when we recognize with our head and our heart that His love for us was demonstrated in the giving of His body and blood so that we would be forgiven, then we have the assurance that death, sin, evil and temptation will never have the final word in our life.  You and I have been set free from such anxieties!  The resurrection and the new life are a life of freedom from the power of sin and from all the uncertainties about what comes during and after this life.

 Jesus showed us the depth of His love as He gave His life on the tree of the cross – carrying and paying for our sins with His holy and precious blood. And His victory over sin, death and hell for us is seen as He bursts forth from the tomb – no grave clothes of our sin binding Him, but left behind...for the tomb.  Now, He pours out upon us the fruits of His victorious sacrifice – new life and the reality of the resurrection – in His the water of Holy Baptism... in the bread and wine of His Supper... in the announcement of the forgiveness He won for us which now sets us free.

 As these last days of our Lenten season draw to a close... and as we continue to labor under the uncertainties of our life in this ever-changing world... we are reminded today that one thing is true and holds fast: in Christ, our resurrection is certain.  In Him, no matter what happens, He is victorious over sin...over death... over the grave... over everything that threatens us.   He calls to us today, in the midst of such uncertainty, to trust in Him... to come forth – out of the graveclothes of our sins of thought, word and deed – and to embrace the freedom of the new life and resurrection that He won for us and freely gives us in His love.

 In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, March 27, 2020


 A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.

● This is usually classified as an individual psalm of praise or thanksgiving for deliverance. 
● It was used at the rededication of the temple in 164 B.C. after Judas Maccabeus defeated Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had profaned the temple... but was written by David long before that.

1 I will exalt you, O LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
2 O LORD my God, I called to you for help and you healed me.
3 O LORD, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down into the pit. 

● “exalt” =  means to raise or lift praise 
● “lifted me” = means to draw up or lift up, and was used, among other things, for drawing water from a well 
● Here we have the psalmist responding to being lifted up from a bad situation by lifting up the Lord’s name in praise.
● As well, he rejoices in the fact that he did not have to suffer the humiliation of taunting and mockery from his enemies.
● “healed” = means to heal or to restore to health ... here it could mean a restoration to his proper place after the defeat of his enemies.
● “grave” = Sheol ... the place of the dead
● “pit” = a well or cistern ... here a parallel to “grave” in the first half of the verse
● Here the psalmist expresses thanks and praise that the LORD kept him alive so that he might not be abandoned to the pit––the place of death––the dreadful end.

● Can you think of specific examples in your life where you called out to the LORD...and He delivered you?
● How has God spared us from having to have a “dreadful end”?

4 Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name.
5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

● “saints” = means kind, merciful, or here those whose lives display their faith in the LORD and whose actions are shaped by the LORD’s laws... “holy ones”
● “holy” = means sacred––something consecrated for a Godly purpose
● “name” = means remember or remembrance, so this verse would be best translated, “his holy remembrance”––but most translations say “his holy name.” When people remember the things that God has done, they remember His name.
● “anger” = means nostril (like our idea of “flaring nostrils”) ... God’s righteous indignation at sin
● But the psalmist says that God’s anger is but for a moment...but His love and delight are forever.
● weeping or sorrow or fear might trouble us by night, but they evaporate with the rising of the sun
● God might permit us to suffer for a time, but will also bring us relief.

● How did you become one of God’s saints... His holy ones?
● How do you praise/remember God’s name in your day-to-day life?
● Is God’s anger justified? Why or why not?
● Is God’s favor justified? Why or why not?
● Over what things do you find yourself weeping? How can God work rejoicing in them?

6 When I felt secure, I said, "I will never be shaken."
7 O LORD, when you favored me,  you made my mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed. 

● In the next several verses, we see the progression in the psalmist’s life ... when he was successful, when he faced adversity, his despair over his situation and his cries for mercy.
● “never be shaken” - things were good...really good and the psalmist thought it would never end.
● The psalmist is remembering a time of prosperity when he thought the good times would never end... totally unprepared for what was to come.
● The psalmist finds himself realizing that all his success and security was a gift from God.
● “hid your face” = means that God distanced himself from the psalmist.  God’s help was nowhere to be found.  The psalmist found himself standing alone.
● “dismayed” = means terrified...the kind of terror that we experience when the ground is suddenly cut out from beneath you.

● How do we often find ourselves living with a false sense of security?
● Who do we often credit for our success?
● Who do we often blame in our times of adversity?
● What security in your life can you give thanks to God for?
● Where did God ultimately hide His face so that you would not need to be “dismayed”?

8 To you, O LORD, I called; to the LORD I cried for mercy:
9 "What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me; O LORD, be my help." 

● “mercy” = means to be gracious
● The psalmist is pleading with God to be gracious or to show him mercy––to lift him from the depths to which he has fallen and to restore him to the prosperous place that he once enjoyed.
● In desperation, the psalmist asks God what good could possibly come from his death. Can his decayed body (dust) give Him praise or declare the good things that God has done?
● The psalmist stops trying to persuade God that He has something to gain by helping the psalmist.  Instead, he throws himself on the mercy of the court.

● Have there been times when it seems that your prayers to God for deliverance have gone unanswered?
● What kind of bargains have you tried with God to get what you want?
● Does God need YOUR praise?
● Why, ultimately, must we recognize that God must deal with us purely and simply by his mercy?
● How does God show us His mercy?

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever. 

● Good news! God heard the psalmist and delivered him by the mercy for which he pleaded!
● “sackcloth” = a rough material made from the hair of goats or camels.  It is the kind of cloth that a person would use for heavy-duty sacks (hence its name) or tents, but its coarse texture is uncomfortable when worn against the skin, making it unsuitable for clothing. 
● People would wear it as a sign of grief or repentance.
● But those rough clothes have been replaced with festival garments for rejoicing!!
● In verse 9, the psalmist implied that if he were allowed to live he would praise God and declare His truth.  Now that Yahweh has saved him, the psalmist intends to sing God’s praises and thank Him––forever.

● What was a time when God did a major reversal in your life – turning your sorrow into joy?
● What kind of response did you have at your good fortune?
● How do you think the disciples would have viewed verse 11 on Easter Sunday?
● How do you find yourself being unable to be silent about God’s goodness to you?
● In what ways can we give thanks to God for all that He has done for us?

In this difficult and challenging time, it can seem that God has changed our privileged and stable lives into ones of pure chaos and uncertainty.  What will our response be? Can we claim that we are undeserving of any of the calamity in which we find ourselves? Can we demand God give us something better? Maybe we can try and bribe Him with our promises of faithfulness and service if He will deliver us. The only thing we can do is repent and cry out for His undeserved mercy.

Thankfully, God has already heard our pleas for mercy...and He has acted. In Jesus Christ, He has delivered us from the consequences of our sins and disobedience and He has taken our punishment upon Himself. In return, He dresses us in the blessings of forgiveness, life and salvation won by our Savior on the cross.  In Word and Sacrament, He freely gives us these gifts and promises us that nothing can ever separate us from His unending love.  May we always thank and praise, serve and obey Him for all He has done for us!

(Thanks to for help with the notes on these verses.)

The Question of Christ's Wills and Energies The Third Council of Constantinople - 680-681 A.D. A painting by Piero della Fra...