John Barclay on grace in Paul’s letters

In a recent interview with Wesley Hill of Christianity Today (31st Dec 2015), John M. G. Barclay talks about his latest book, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), and explains his understanding of the grace of God. In many ways Barclay speaks of my own understanding of grace, based on what I have learned in recent years through my engagement with the poor, cross-cultural mission, and my study of the issues around poverty and culture. It seems to me that, to a large extent, our understanding of the meaning of grace, the gospel, and the Scripture determines how live out our Christian life.


Barclay said many amazing things in the interview, and here are some of them (emphasis added).

Paul talks about Christ as the gift of God, the grace of God. What is striking about this is that this gift is given without regard to the worth of the people who receive it. God doesn’t give discriminately to seemingly fitting recipients. He gives without regard to their social, gender, or ethnic worth. Nothing about them makes them worthy of this gift.

Think of someone who sits with a homeless man on the street and listens to him, . . . or those who give up “good jobs” in order to spend their lives with people with severe learning difficulties . . . When he talks about the grace of God in Christ, that is the kind of gift Paul is talking about.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries.

[S]ome Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace . . . However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace . . . While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

That’s why some of the most exciting churches today are not necessarily the big ones, but rather the small, multicultural, urban churches where you discover that different ethnicities and languages don’t count before God. Our education, our age, our job, the kind of music we listen to, the books we read—these do not ultimately define us. What defines us is who we are in Christ. We all are on the same level together and are therefore able to form countercultural relationships despite our differences. And that opens up the possibility for hugely creative Christian communities.

Source: Accessed on 13th Jan 2016

Reflections on the long journey of becoming a biblical scholar

Truth be told, I am an academic by nature (although I am not very smart). I am not a practical person. In high school, I liked Pure Maths, but didn’t enjoy Applied Maths. At University I liked browsing the academic journals in the library. When I finished my BSc (Hons) and MSc degrees, my professors suggested that I should do a PhD. But I didn’t take up their offers because I thought I wasn’t smart enough.

Edward Boyle Library

Then I migrated to Australia and worked in IT. When I turned thirty, I enrolled at a Bible college. I thought God wanted me to serve him, and theological training was a steppingstone to full-time ministry. I started working in my church as a pastor while I was still at college. But meanwhile I discovered (once again!) that I loved academic studies.

Pastoral ministry taught me a lot. I had many opportunities to hear the stories of people whose lives had been transformed by the gospel. I spent time with the poor, as well as the wealthy. I visited the sick at hospital. I learned to deal with inter-personal conflicts between church members. My wife and I had little money, and we learned to trust God for his provision. Life was difficult, but I would not trade those years for anything else.

But my passion for academic studies continued. I enrolled in an MPhil as soon as I finished my BA in biblical studies. The MPhil was a research master’s degree, where I had to write a major thesis. God led me to study under a respected New Testament scholar in the UK. But the MPhil was costly, because I had to fly to the UK a few times (even though I could do most of the research in Australia). Yet, once again God supplied all our needs, even though we had little income.

After that I worked in an international aid and development organisation. My job was to speak at theological colleges and churches about poverty and development. For almost seven years I studied the issues surrounding poverty and social injustice. Meanwhile, we attended an inner-city church where a significant number of members were refugees or living with mental health issues. This gave us the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

I learned that poverty was a complex matter. And the longer I was involved in aid and development, the more I found my life impacted by the pain and suffering of those living with poverty and social injustice. Since my academic discipline was in biblical studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the Bible had to say about poverty. I began to realise that there was a big gap between academic biblical studies and the lived reality of those living with poverty.

During that time, I started working on my doctoral degree part-time. Since my primary passion was the Bible, I decided to research on the New Testament, rather than poverty and development. And since I believed that the research topic should be relevant to real life issues, I chose to study the apostle Paul’s view of suffering. I completed my PhD at the age of fifty, and by God’s grace a revised version of my dissertation is now published. Unfortunately, nowadays there are very few tenured teaching positions for New Testament scholars. And so I don’t see myself getting a permanent job for a long time, if it happens at all. But God has given me plenty of opportunities to teach as an adjunct lecturer.

Reflecting on this long journey, I would like to say a few things about what I have learned in the process.

First, the Bible is important. I don’t say this lightly. I say this based on years of pastoral experience and involvement in aid and development. I say this after a lot of time living in want and having to trust God for his financial provisions. I have no regrets in doing many years of intense study on the Scripture. It is a privilege.

Second, I thank God for biblical scholars. I am indebted to those who have gone before me to master the biblical languages and provided students with valuable tools to study Greek and Hebrew. I am thankful to scholars whose works enrich and deepen my own understanding of Scripture. Ultimately the church is the beneficiary of their labour.

Third, and most importantly, I tend to think that academic biblical study is an integral part of a long journey of knowing God and his purpose for his creation. For me, academic study is not a pathway to a promising career. Nor is it something to satisfy my intellectual carving for abstract ideas. I did a PhD because I wanted to know God, and it is still my desire to know him through the Scripture. An academic vocation may be a by-product. And yes, I like playing with abstract concepts in my head. But my primary reason to study the Bible is that I may know God through the Scripture, and allow God to transform my life for his purposes.

Of course, God does call people to be full-time academics. But it is not a “career” to be pursued in order to become successful. Instead, it is a vocation that calls for cruciform commitment for the sake of the Christ in the service of the church and the mission of God. The apostle Paul, a very learned figure in the Bible, did not set out to become a renowned or distinguished scholar. Instead, he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings—being conformed to his death (see Phil 3:10).

(I suppose many would disagree with me here. I should say that these are my reflections on my own journey. Different people have different experiences and convictions.)


Fourth, it is worth taking time to work outside the academy. When I was a pastor, I realised that I could become out of touch with the world if I spent all of my time dealing with people inside the church. Likewise, biblical scholars can lose touch with the reality faced by the people outside their teaching institutions. After all, the Bible is about real people living in the real world, and one cannot truly understand the biblical text without spending time outside the academy.

I know that it is not practically possible for many—if not most—scholars to engage in work outside the academy. And I want to emphasise here that full-time biblical academics have my highest respect. But I wonder whether there are creative ways to engage with the world in some tangible and concrete ways?

I grew up working in a factory in East Asia, and I worked in IT in corporations in both Australia and overseas. These life experiences are incredibly valuable when I teach the Bible. I did my MPhil and PhD part-time while I was working part-time (in IT or the aid and development sector). And now I have a small office-cleaning job, which serves as a reminder of what it is like to earn a living through low-paid menial tasks. Again, Paul, being a leather-worker (or “tent-maker”), was a good model of being a bi-vocational pastor, missioner, and theologian.

Fifth, let us realise that genuine Christian faith involves Christ-centred transformation in every sphere of our lives. The goal of biblical interpretation is not primarily about apologetics or defending the truth, but living out the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in everyday life. Some years ago, a respected scholar was invited by an aid and development organisation to speak at a special event about poverty. He eloquently demonstrated that in church history Christians were generous in giving financially to the poor. He refuted the claim that the church failed to care for the needy. He called on the audience to continue the long church tradition of involving in charity work.

I agree with this scholar’s argument, and I admire his humility in his presentation. But I was disappointed by his simplistic view of poverty. Even a standard textbook on aid and development will show that financial generosity alone (though important in itself) is a limited and insufficient solution to poverty. He might have won the argument in showing that the church was active in serving the poor in the past. But his rather simplistic view of poverty reduction would not win the heart of those who actively walked with the poor in the twenty-first century.

I understand that it is impossible to know everything and be involved in everything. But it wouldn’t do to ignore the culture and the struggles of people outside the four walls of the seminary or the building of a well-resourced middle-class church. If we don’t have friends from a low socioeconomic background, how can we truly understand Jesus’ fulfilment of the Isaianic text of proclaiming good news to the poor in Luke 4:18? If we are ignorant of the issues around refugees, and if we don’t personally know any refugee, how can we understand the many biblical texts concerning them? If we don’t have friends from different ethnic backgrounds, how can we recognise the cultural and racial dynamics in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters? If we don’t get to know people living with a disability and those suffering from domestic violence, how can we teach the Good News in the Scripture effectively?

In the four Gospels we find that Jesus was very often on the road, and he gathered a community of believers from all walks of life, not least the poor and marginalised. The narratives in the Gospels serve to draw us closer to God’s heart, and challenge us to see our own inadequacies. Spending time with those who suffer helps us to see the amazing work of God in their lives and understand the biblical texts accordingly. We will do well to follow Jesus’ footsteps.

So, is it possible for a biblical scholar to do all of the above? Given the heavy workload and demand within the academy, it is very hard. But I know scholars who do the above in various ways. They do personally spend time with the poor and marginalised, and pour out their heart to those in need in prayers. They engage with real people in the real world. Some do that a lot, and others do less. But no matter how much or little they do, they are an inspiration.


New book Suffering in Romans (Foreword by Todd Still and written by Siu Fung Wu) is now available

The new book, Suffering in Romans, is now available for order. (Click here to go to the publisher’s website.)

Draft Book Cover—Front

Book description.

Most of the Jesus-followers in Rome would have been familiar with socioeconomic hardship. Suffering was a daily reality either for themselves or for someone they knew. Many lived below or just above subsistence level. Some were slaves, homeless, or chronically sick. Followers of Christ might have experienced persecution because of their refusal to take part in the local religious festivals. Suffering is, of course, a significant theme in Rom 5:1–11 and 8:17, 18–39. Paul mentions various types of afflictions many times in these texts. How might Paul’s audience have understood them? In Suffering in Romans Siu Fung Wu argues that Paul speaks of the vocation of the Jesus-fllowers to participate in Christ’s suffering, with the purpose that they may be glorified with him. Indeed, their identification with Christ’s suffering is an integral part of God’s project of transforming humanity and renewing creation. It is in their faithful suffering that Christ-followers participate in God’s triumph over evil. This is counter-intuitive, because most people think that victory is won by power and strength. Yet the children of God partake in his cosmic victory by their suffering, aided by the Spirit and the hope of glory.

An excerpt from Professor Todd Still can be found here.

Endorsement by Tim Gombis can be found by clicking here. Endorsements by Keith DyerGeorge M. Wieland, and Sean Winter can be found here.

Tim Gombis’ endorsement for the new book Suffering in Romans

In a previous post I mentioned the new book Suffering in Romans, which will be released soon. Here is Tim Gombis’ endorsement for it. (For more information about the book, click here.)

Wu’s analysis of Romans 5–8 represents an original contribution to the study of Paul’s great letter . . . Against the backdrop of his social reconstruction, Wu elucidates Paul’s argument regarding the creation of a new humanity in Christ and its vocation to suffer in anticipation of sharing in Christ’s glory. Deftly drawing together several lines of inquiry —Scriptural echoes, the Greco-Roman religio-political matrix—Wu engages a wide rang of scholarship to provide a sound exegetical study.

Timothy G. Gombis, Associate Professor of New Testament, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

Draft Book Cover—Front

New book on Suffering in Romans (Foreword by Professor Todd Still)

A new book Suffering in Romans will be released soon.

This is from the Foreword.

Dr Wu treated with clarity and care the theme of suffering in Romans 5–8 with special reference to 5:1–11 and 8:14–39 and persuasively demonstrated the centrality of the subject in that pivotal portion of Paul’s magisterial letter to Roman believers . . . Herein you will find a serious, scholarly study that offers salient insight into a long-neglected topic in an oft-interpreted text. Indeed, it is the most comprehensive and persuasive treatment to date.

Todd D. Still, DeLancey Dean and Hinson Professor, Baylor University, Truett Seminary

More endorsements of the book can be found by clicking here.

Draft Book Cover—Front

The crucified Christ in 1 Corinthians (Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s insights and my reflections)  

I am reading 1 Corinthians at the moment. Yesterday I thought I might take a look at Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s Thinking Through Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), expecting that they would provide me with a good overview of the letter. I was not disappointed, for I came across some succinct and insightful comments about 1 Corinthians.

Longnecker and Still think that the centre of the letter’s vision is “nothing but Christ crucified,” which I wholeheartedly concur.

A good passage to cite here would be 1 Cor 2:1–5.

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV; emphasis added)

I do wonder how often preaching today is characterised by eloquent speech, human wisdom and power, rather than weakness, fear and trembling?

I do believe that well-prepared sermons and thoughtful biblical reflections are very important. But that’s very different from eloquent motivational talks that say little about the crucified Christ and primarily appeal to the emotion.

This is what Longnecker and Still say regarding the crucified Christ.

As Paul unpacks the phrase “Jesus Christ crucified,” he shows that it involves a radical redefinition of life and a sweeping reconfiguration of lifestyle. If “Jesus Christ crucified” is something of a slogan for Paul, it is a slogan that informs the repatterning of whole sectors of life—individual and collective, ethical and ecclesial . . . (Page 116; emphasis added)

These words from [1 Cor] 2:1–5 exemplify what Paul does throughout much of this letter. That is, he highlights a strand of the gospel that subverts the Corinthians’ cultural norms and expectations and applies it to their situation in ways that reorient them along the path of the gospel’s outworking. (Pages 116–7; emphasis added)

The cross is not only for our benefit. The grace of God through Christ also calls for a radical reorientation of every sphere of life.

Longnecker and Still continue to say,

At the heart of all this is what Paul calls “the message of the cross.” As he readily recognizes, that message is “foolishness” when analysed in reference to the quest for honor that enraptured the Corinthian ethos. Paul calls the Corinthians to look beyond that perception of foolishness in order that they might be empowered with “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18; also 2:4–5), enabling them to be reoriented to the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (Page 117; emphasis added)

The challenge for us, then, is to abandon using our human wisdom to achieve the mission and purposes that God has given the church. Instead of asking how “successful” we are, and measure “success” in terms of the value system of the world, we should ask whether our message is “foolish” from the perspective of the world.

This does not mean that we don’t use wisdom or that we should abandon learning. Neither should we present the gospel in ways that are not thoughtful. But we should always be careful that we don’t deviate from the message of the crucified Christ and a (corporate and individual) life that embodies the cross, which will always appear to be foolish in the eyes of the world.

Longnecker and Still make the following comments regarding Paul’s own life.

The apostolic pattern of Paul’s ministry itself demonstrates that God’s wisdom runs against the grain of cultural constructed systems of honor. So Paul characterizes his ministry as, among other things, foolish, weak, and dishonorable by cultural standards (4:9–13), concluding that he has “become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.” (Page 120)

Here is something that every Christian leader needs to take heed of. Our celebrity culture today is fertile ground to foster leadership patterns that seek honour and glory in front of the world. Personality cult in the Christian circle is all too common. Paul would have nothing to do with it.


The transformation of power through the cross (Richard Hays on 1 Corinthians)

I am reading Richard Hays’ commentary on 1 Corinthians in the Interpretation series (2011). It’s an excellent book. Hays lists the major theological themes of 1 Corinthians, and one of them is the following.

The transformation of power and status through the cross … Paul repeatedly argues that the gospel overturns the world’s notions of power and social standing. Those who acclaim a crucified Christ as Lord find that God has chosen what is “low and despised” in the world to “reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1:28–29). This has earth-shaking implications for the social structure of the community of Christ’s people; As the body of Christ, they are linked together—rich and poor, slave and free—in a network of mutual love and concern. Old status distinctions no longer count “in the Lord,” and all power relations must be reinterpreted in light of the cross. The Corinthians had some difficulty grasping this vision (e.g., 11:17–22, 27–34), but Paul insists that it is a necessary entailment of the gospel.

Tim Gombis on “The Paul we think we know”

Recently I came across an article written by Tim Gombis, which was published by Christianity Today (22nd July 2011). It’s called “The Paul we think we know.” It’s a great article and here I will list a few quotes.

Evangelicals typically regard Paul as focusing on believers’ private spirituality to the relative neglect of the church’s communal character and social dynamics.


Paul, on the other hand, preached that God is saving individuals, taking up residence in their hearts, and giving them a heavenly destiny. His vision of the Christian life is one in which believers cultivate inner piety and practice private devotion.


This view of Paul is reinforced by our pietistic heritage and our individualistic culture. More recently, however, evangelicals have been awakening to the primacy of the church and its related corporate practices… Far from focusing on privatized piety, the apostle’s conception of salvation concerns the arrival of the kingdom of God—a fundamentally communal reality.


Paul does not, then, view salvation in individualistic terms apart from the arrival of God’s kingdom in the church. As individuals, we have been saved for life-giving relationships within kingdom of God communities, not merely for privatized walks with Jesus. We become our true selves only in community, exercising our gifts and learning to receive the gifts of others. Paul’s vision for the church includes the renewed social practices of forgiving and being forgiven, reconciling formerly alienated individuals and communities, learning to speak words of grace and kindness, practicing justice, and absorbing loss rather than taking vengeance for wrongs suffered. Social practices such as these suffer from neglect in our culture, especially when we orient ourselves by individualized and internalized conceptions of being Christian.

And the following is spot-on.

If we encountered Paul today, we might be disappointed to find someone quite unlike the strong and decisive leader we often imagine. In fact, many of our contemporary churches would hardly consider him a viable pastoral candidate. In this regard, as in so many others, the New Testament evidence resists efforts to re-create Paul in our own image.

(The article can be found here.)

Story of Adam, Eastern Orthodoxy and the arc of the Bible’s story

Joel Willitts has posted a great blog post (8th Dec 2013) about what Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, says about one theological aspect of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Here is a quote from Willitts’ post.

Orthodox theology begins its doctrine of sin with the story of Adam, as you would expect. Louth sets Orthodoxy apart by beginning his discussion addressing two problems with non-Orthodox approaches to the story of the “Fall” in Genesis 3. First, Louth makes the point that this theology expressed through the telling of stories. Storytelling he says “is fundamental to how we humans come to understand ourselves.” Louth wishes to stress the storied nature of our theology of sin because he is concerned about an approach that is anxious about whether we are to take the stories in Genesis “literarily”. He writes, “It seems that they were neither taken at a simply literal level [by the Fathers], nor at a level that dispensed altogether with a literal interpretation” (68-69). Second, he observes that many “objectify” the “Fall”. “The Fathers simply do not talk about ‘the Fall’ as some objective event” (69). They don’t even use the term “Fall” when telling the story. Instead the Fathers, according to Louth, just describe what Adam did: he sinned, he was disobedient, he turned away from God (69). The consequences were disastrous of course, but they are pictured differently for Orthodox theology, or at least the emphasis is differently placed. The world of harmony that God created and intended of the cosmos was destroyed. Harmony was taken away and elements that should fit together for blessing disintegrate and fragmented and became opposed to one another. Louth talks about this as a process. And consequently not an objective complete event. (Emphasis added)

In many ways I came to similar conclusions independently when I did some research on Romans 5 and 8 (and Genesis 1–3).

Willitts also highlights another theology aspect of Orthodoxy from Louth’s book. Here is the citation from Louth’s book (from Willittts’ blog post here).

In treating the question of sin and death and destruction, it seems to me that the theology of the Fathers never lost sight of a more important consideration; that the world had been created to be able to draw close to God and bring into being a union of wills . . . if what God wants is a loving union between himself and the being that he has created primarily the human beings he has made, then these beings need to learn to love. They cannot be created knowing what that emans: it is something that comes form experience, either innocent experience or (as it turned out to be the case) an experience that has to learn by its mistakes. God created human beings that need to learn to love; he created a beginning that needed to move towards fulfillment (page 69).

Since I do not share the same Eastern Orthodox faith background as Louth, I don’t think I can fully appreciate this. But my reading of Romans 8 is that we are to share in Christ’s suffering and glorification (8:17), and that we are being conformed to the image of the Son (8:29). I think these are important verses in Paul’s letter.

Finally, Willitts says the following regarding Louth’s observation.

The greater arc of the story of the Bible is not “fall to redemption” (this is a “lesser arc”), but from “creation to deification”.

Much to ponder!

A summary of Paul’s letter to the Romans

I will be teaching Romans tonight for the subject New Testament Introduction. I find it hard to study Romans. The academic debates are endless. But here is my attempt to summarise Romans.

It seems that Romans is a pastoral letter to exhort the Jew-Gentile house churches to participate in God’s saving purpose of gathering a worldwide Spirit-empowered Christ-community that displays God’s glory through their faithful conformity to the image of the Son. On the one hand, the salvation of the community is based on the work of the Messiah, whose suffering, atoning death and resurrection constitute the fulfilment of the covenantal faithfulness of God. On the other hand, this Christ-community is to be a missional community, bearing witness to Christ by their love-filled communal life, non-violent relationship with outsiders, and support of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.

Paul wrote to the urban poor in Rome

In N T (Tom) Wright’s Paul for Everyone – Romans Part 1, he aptly describes the type of people his audience would consist of. I think this provides useful information for us to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans, and what the gospel (literally means “good news”) means for Paul’s audience.

In ancient Rome as today, of course, the rich people lived up in the hills, the famous seven hills on which the city stands. The original imperial palace, where the Emperor Augustus lived at the time when Jesus was born, occupies most of one of them. Nero was emperor when Paul was writing this letter; his spectacular palace is on another hill, the other side of the Forum. But then as now the poorer people lived in the areas around the river; not least, in the area just across the river from the main city centre. And that is where most of the first Roman Christians lived. The chances are that the first time this great letter was read aloud it was in a crowded room in someone’s house in the low-lying poorer district, just across the river from the seat of power. (page 6; emphasis added)

Ancient and modern individualism VS Paul’s ethics

I am reading James W. Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011). In the following Thompson talks about the individualistic understanding of human flourishing in ancient Greek culture, which is really worth noting.

They [Greek philosophers] were individualistic, attending to human flourishing (eudaimonia). They all assumed that the context for individual eudaimonia was the Greek polis, or city-state, in which the harmony of the larger community was essential. Consequently, Plato put justice at the heart of the virtues, Aristotle associated justice with the concern for others (Eth. Nic. 5.1.1129b), and the Stoics insisted on the good of others within the context of the ancient city-state. These philosophers assumed that correct behaviour is derived from proper insight. Consequently, they assumed that through knowledge humankind could overcome destructive impulses and do the good. (Page 8; Emphasis added in blue)

In light of this, one wonders whether today’s Western individualism has something to do with this ancient Western heritage? Indeed, we should consider whether our brand of Christianity is somewhat coloured by this ancient Greek worldview. Is our ethics primarily based on the flourishing of individuals?

What about the apostle Paul’s ethics? Here is what Thompson says.

But despite the formal connections that scholars have observed, major differences between Pauline ethics and the ethics of the Hellenistic moralists suggest the limitations of Hellenistic morality as a consistent source of Pauline ethics or as the basis for the coherence of Paul’s ethical instructions. In contrast to the focus on individual flourishing (eudaimonia) within the city-state in Greek ethics, Paul speaks to communities, insisting on practices that are consistent within the subculture of the house churches. His focus on sexual vices has little analogue in Hellenistic ethics. Similarly, Paul never refers to the four cardinal virtues; the term aretē appears only once (Phil. 4:8). The dominant place of faith, hope, and love in Paul’s ethical instruction has few parallels in the Hellenistic moral tradition. Moreover, Paul’s emphasis on humility (tapeinophrosynē) transforms a Hellenistic vice into a positive quality. (Page 11; Emphasis added in blue)

If Thompson is right, then Paul’s ethics is not based on individual flourishing within the city-state. Rather, his focus is on the community’s faith, hope and love, which are practised within the house churches.

In light of this, it seems to me that our ethics should centre around communal attitudes and behaviours that seek to love and embrace one another in faith and hope. Human flourishing takes place within the community of faithful Christ-followers, which, in turn, serves to bear witness to Christ in the world.

The gosepl message in Acts 26

I read the Book of Acts recently. The following passage caught my attention. Here Paul made his defence in front of Agrippa. He recalled his experience on the road to Damascus where he met Jesus. The passage is a good summary of the gospel message that the earliest church understood. I think it would help if we take a look and see whether the message we proclaim today is the same as that.

“[Jesus said to Paul] ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [made holy] by faith in me.’

19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” (Act:26:15b–23; NIV; emphasis added)

This message obviously centres around the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (ie. the Christ). It speaks of the fact that the gospel stems from the Old Testament. The gospel message includes the call to repentance and faith in Jesus, so that believers may receive the forgiveness of sins. Importantly, the gospel is about the defeat of evil through Jesus, and that those who belong to him have been set free from the power of Satan.

What a blessing it is to be recipients of this message, and what a privilege it is to participate in proclaiming and embodying this message in our daily life!

A life-giving world-changing community envisioned by Paul (Part 3)

[This following is the second part of the series of posts about the community Paul envisioned. The last post can be found here.]

Modern and ancient perspectives

Reading this passage from our perspective in Australia can be misleading, because the majority of us are not poor. Many of us have sufficient resources (in terms of income, skill set and intellectual ability) to flourish in life. The reverse was true for Paul’s audience. Those with ample resources were the minority. Often we don’t have to spend time with the poor. But it was highly likely that in every house church in Rome there were slaves, unskilled workers and homeless people.

For us, showing honour to people living in poverty would mean something like not looking down on those living in the slums in Asia or Africa. To put into practice “crying with them” would be to give financially, like sponsoring a child through a Christian organisation. But for Paul’s audience it would be totally different. If they were to love without pretence, those with better financial resources would find themselves sharing their wealth sacrificially with the community. If they want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, they would be compelled to help someone on the verge of selling himself/herself into slavery. For them, to associate with people with no status meant to eat with them, allow their children to play with them, and share their menial tasks whenever they gathered together.

What does a Jesus-community look like in Melbourne?

What would this Jesus-community look like in Australia? I live in a suburb in Melbourne about 20km east of CBD. But God led me to a little inner-city Christian community some years ago. It is there that I have come to realise that a measure of Paul’s vision can be realised in Australia.

I have been immensely blessed by people whose circumstances are exceedingly difficult. I have met asylum seekers who have spent months or years in detention centres. Their stories break my heart. I have come to know refugees who were persecuted because of their Christian faith. But their determination to overcome obstacles is amazing. I have heard stories of people living with a disability when they are bullied at work or treated unjustly by the society at large. But I have come to understand that they are people full of dignity. Their tenacity is inspiring. Their ability to look to God in the worst of times is extraordinary.

I now know that Paul’s command to honour one another is a mutually enriching experience for everyone. Both the rich and the poor benefit from it. Those at the lower end of the social ladder receive the rare honour that they would not otherwise get. But it is in honouring others that those at the upper end of the social hierarchy learn that indeed everyone deserves their respect. The faith and resilience of the marginalised and disadvantaged are profound.

In fact, there is no such a thing as the rich helping the poor in the Christian community that we are part of. It is true that the well-to-do may assist others financially in private. But we all know that this community is about mutual giving, for the haves and have-nots are equally generous. Some years ago we provided accommodation for about a dozen asylum seekers. These folks held temporary visas that did not allow them to work, even though they wanted to. They did not have their families with them and would not know when they would be reunited with their loved ones. Then Victoria experienced the worst bush fire in memory a few years ago. On hearing this, these socially disadvantaged and financially poor people showed us their exceptional generosity. They ran a fund-raising dinner to support our church’s effort to assist the victims of the bush fire. Those who suffer are often the ones who love most.

My experience in our community has convinced me that sharing lives with the poor and marginalised will help us come to a better understanding of the Scripture and God’s heart. Paul’s vision is that we will associate with the lowly – the outcast, the poor and needy (Romans 12:16). It is not about the rich reaching down to the poor. Instead, it is about learning from them and realising the grace of God that has been poured out into their lives. It is about crying with them and standing in solidarity with them.

Paul’s mission and ours

I wonder what a Jesus-community in Taiwan would look like? Without being there myself I hesitate to comment. But here is my imagination of what a church in my home country looks like. People from all walks life gather regularly to worship God. Both the educated and unlearned partake in discussing the biblical stories when the Scripture is read aloud in their gatherings. Outreach programs are organised to welcome new migrants from rural areas. The elderly do not feel lonely or abandoned. The factory workers do not feel that they are second-class members of the church because of their lack of education or economic resources.

Where did Paul get his vision of the church from? I suspect that he has been inspired by the love of God that is found in the sacrificial death of his Son (Romans 8:3, 31-39). In his letters Paul repeatedly talks about the grace of God that has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ (e.g. Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24; 15:1-8). He urges us to participate in his suffering, death, resurrection and glorification, so that we may be conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 6:1-11; 8:17, 29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The outworking of this renewed image-bearing is that we, as a Jesus-community, should love one another (Romans 12:1-15:13). Likewise, in the Book of Acts we find that Paul proclaims Christ with great perseverance despite immense persecution and danger (e.g. Acts 26:19-23). Importantly, wherever the gospel is preached, he establishes Jesus-communities and exhorts them to follow Christ wholeheartedly (e.g. Acts 20:13-38).

I believe that Paul reckons that his mission is to proclaim Christ and form Christ-centred, love-filled and life-transforming communities everywhere in the Roman Empire, for that is God’s way of turning the world upside-down. May our lives be so transformed by the life-giving gospel that we will give our lives totally to participating in God’s community-forming project. [e]

[e] Parts of this article appeared previously in Sight Magazine. See

Power and Paul’s cruciform leadership

I have been thinking about leadership and power. Over at ETHOS there is an article entitled “Reflection on Power and Powerlessness” (Feb 2012). Here are excerpts from the article that speak of Paul’s cruciform leadership (Emphasis added).

But how does this cruciform power work? I find Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians really helpful. Most scholars recognise that some members of the Corinthian house churches were unhappy with Paul’s leadership, and he has to defend his apostleship in his letter. Paul does not deny his apostolic calling. But his view of the right use of power is thoroughly based on the life pattern of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. He repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in the letter (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him, and it is this life of affliction that displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ and in the process our lives reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). He utters this astonishing statement,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

On one level this teaching is about how we should rely on Christ in our own hardships. But given the context of Paul’s defence of his apostolic credentials this reveals Paul’s understanding of his authority and power as a leader. Power, then, is about embodying the paradox of the cross. There is no resurrection without death. Strength is found in weakness. Glory is found in a life of suffering, sacrifice and love.

Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel, that is, the anointed King who was to come, as anticipated by the prophets. Based on this, Jesus announced his mission to proclaim good news to the poor. Of course, salvation and forgiveness of sin is available to all – both the rich and the poor. But undeniably Christ’s ministry was characterised by his solidarity with the social outcasts and economically disadvantaged. It is true that Jesus used his power to heal the sick and deliver those under the bondage of evil spirits. But he did not exercise any political, social or economic power that one would expect from the royal son of David. Quite the contrary, he died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of Rome’s dominion over its subjects. But at his obedient death God raised him up, and exalted him to the highest place. Paul bases his ministry on this Christ-story, and models his own life on the paradox of power in powerlessness. He determines not to use worldly power to respond to his opponents. Instead, he ensures that the power of Christ is manifest in his weakness. Both Christ and Paul know what it means to be powerless. Christ is the rightful King, because he was crucified and raised to life. Paul is determined to follow him, and we are called to go and do likewise.

The full article can be found here.

A life-giving world-changing community envisioned by Paul (Part 2)

[This following is the second part of the series of posts about the community Paul envisioned. The last post can be found here.]

The make-up of house churches in Rome

But I find hope and comfort in Romans 12:9-16. In this passage Paul shows us his vision for the house churches in ancient Rome. To understand this passage we need to first take a look at what life was like for the Christians there. The Roman society was strongly hierarchical. People’s social status determined their identity, place in the society, and their prospect of life. Within such a social system, economic exploitation and social oppression were common. The vast majority of Rome’s inhabitants were non-elites. Slaves consisted of around one third of the population. Children of slaves and female slaves were often subject to sexual abuse. Many residents were war-captives or their descendants.

Homeless people were not uncommon in Rome, and many others lived in crowded apartment blocks or even slums. Bruce Longenecker estimates that roughly 65% of Christians in Paul’s churches lived at or below subsistence level. [b] Just under half of them would be struggling significantly because they are the unskilled day labourers, widows, orphans or people with a disability. About 25% of Christians would have “some minimal economic resources,” but they “would clearly have been conscious of their economic vulnerability and their proximity to poverty.” People like Priscilla and Aquila would probably belong to this group. It does not, however, mean that the followers of Jesus in Rome were all destitute. Longenecker estimates that about 10% in the Christ-community would have “moderate surplus”, although not without economic risk.

In a separate study Peter Oakes provides us with an informative analysis of the social make-up in Rome. Using the archaeological findings in Pompeii, Oakes carefully constructs a hypothetical social description of a house church. [c] It might have about 30 people. There might be a craftworker who rents a fairly large workshop, with accommodation for his wife, children, a small number of slaves and perhaps one dependent relative. There would be other householders who could afford to rent, but with less space for their families, slaves and dependents. In the same house church there would be a couple of slaves from other households, a few free or freed people, and a couple of homeless people. It is remarkable how this social make-up fits into Longenecker’s economic profile. The craftworker and other householders would have moderate surplus. Not a few others, especially the householders, would have reasonable resources to make ends meet. Others, including skilled and unskilled workers, widows and beggars, would be living at or below subsistence level, with various degrees of vulnerability.

Paul’s vision for the Christ-Community

It is to Christians in house churches like this that Paul outlines his vision for them in Romans 12:9-16, which says,

Let love be sincere. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be heartfelt in your love to one another, like members of your family. In honour, go ahead of one another. In zeal, do not be lazy. Be set on fire by the Spirit. Serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope. Bear up under tribulation. Be devoted to prayer. Participate in meeting the needs of the saints. Pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Think the same thing toward one another. Do not think highly of yourself, but associate with the lowly. Do not become proud in your own estimation. [d]

This passage speaks of some amazing characteristics of a Jesus-community. It is a love-filled fellowship where people share life together. They love without pretence (12:9). They rejoice and cry together (12:15). There is profound healing power when a community shares their joy and sorrow in sincere love. They welcome strangers into their homes (12:13; CEB), which is immensely life-giving for a city with lonely people needing shelter and love.

It is also a life-transforming community, where people are honoured regardless of their social standing. They show honour to one another (12:10). They consider everyone as equal, and associate with people who have no status (12:16; CEB). One can imagine that in this community the relatively well-to-do craft-worker embraces the slaves and homeless. Generosity is a by-product of genuine affection for one’s siblings in Christ, rather than simply an act of goodwill. People can be a leader or minister by virtue of their God-given gifts, regardless of their social or economic positions (cf. 12:3-8). This community is most countercultural – and at the same time life-giving – in an intensely hierarchical society where slaves are not honoured and unskilled workers are despised. Thus Paul envisages a community that practises status-reversal and hence redefines people’s identity according to their intrinsic value in Christ.


[b] References for the following discussion can be found in Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 57, 246-9, 295.

[c] Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii (London: SPCK, 2009), p. 96.

[d] This follows the translation by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 796-70, with some changes to the punctuations. I have also changed the first half of Rom 12:10 from “In brotherly love, be heartfelt in your love to one another” to “Be heartfelt in your love to one another, like members of your family”.

[To be continued here.]