Category Archives: Sermons

The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (2b)

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, when God is creating the world He says:

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26)

In other words, God is saying “us” “our” and not simply “I” or “my”. It seems that there is a hit of plurality here. Jewish scholars and even some Christians would say that “our” and “us” is a plural of majesty. For example, in the ages of kings and emperors in Europe, they would send out orders and command in “our” name. The king might say “we are pleased” or “we are happy” or “we give our approval”. This may seem strange to us, but this custom still exists in some places even today. But again, we as Orthodox Christians, interpret these verses as a hit about the Trinity. Or in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, when Isaiah was in the temple he had this experience:

“In the year that King Uzzi’ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Is 6:1-4)

Orthodox theologians have always seen the triple “Holy, Holy, Holy” as pointing to the Trinity. Or in the Book of Psalms the church has always seen the “word and breath” as referring to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.” (Ps 33;6)

Of all these hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament, the one that has left the most traces in Orthodoxy is the s tory of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre. Abraham is sitting outside his tent at Mamre,

“And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” (Gen 18:1-5)

At first the casual reader might miss the Trinitarian reference. There are three men (angels) who approach Abraham. However, Abraham addresses them as “my lord” in the singular. He does not say “My lords” in the plural. This is even clearer in an older translation,

“And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.”

We see here that Abraham addresses the three angels as “thy”. We no longer use this word in modern English, but it is in the singular. This distinction exists in many languages between the singular you (thee) and the plural. So, we see here clearly that Abraham is addressing the three angels as “Thy” in the singular.  However, in the next verse Abraham addresses them as You in the plural.

Orthodox theology has always seen this alternation between singular and plural as a prefiguration of the Holy Trinity. Obviously when Jews read the passage they do not see a reference to the Trinity.  But when when the Christians read it, we read it in light of the New Testament. In other words, for us Christians, it is the theme in both Testaments.

This passage has also influenced iconography. We cannot draw an image of God the Father, because the Father is invisible and of course, the Holy Spirit cannot be depicted as a human being. Therefore, this icon often depicted in this passage has become the standard icon of the Trinity.  It has to be admitted that one sometimes sees icons which depict the Father as an old man. This kind of icon is not “heretical’ but it is a later development. Probably the greatest icon of the Trinity is Andre Rublev’s, made in the 15th century. It is now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and has influenced the making of Trinity icons ever since.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (2a)

We Christians are monotheists, meaning we believe in one God. This is a belief we share with Jews and Moslems, as well as some other religious systems. However, there is a big difference. We say God is one but also three. God is one, but the Son and the Spirit are also God. For Jews and Moslems this is either nonsense or blasphemy, and they often claim that we are polytheists. However, we are simply being faithful to God’s revelation to us as expressed in the Old and New testament.

Others, even some Christians, would say that this belief in the Trinity is a result of pagan religion or philosophy influencing the simple message of love of God and neighbor. In other words, the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Still other critics will say that this belief was imposed on the Church by power-hungry bishops or emperors, but once again we say that we are being faithful to the one God who as revealed Himself to us as Trinity.

It is true that we don’t find the word “Trinity” in the New Testament. However, we certainly see the lived reality of the Trinity in the New Testament. For example, in St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he writes: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor 13:14) as a blessing at the end of the letter. We see quite clearly the persone of the Trinity here. Or at Christ’s baptism:

“And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16-17)

Here again we see the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit revealing themselves. Or at the Transfiguration:

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Eli’jah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli’jah.” He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Mt 17:1-5)

The Father speaks, the Son is transfigured, and the Holy Spirit is there dazzling light surrounding Christ’s person and overshadowing the whole mountain. Finally, at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel Christ says:

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)

Here, after the resurrection, Christ is telling the disciples that the belief in the Holy Trinity is the basis of Christian faith. So, we Christians believe that the New Testament clearly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity.

But what about the Old Testament? Certainly, when the Jews read the Bible they could not find any mention of the Trinity here, and frankly the Jews consider this interpretation of the Bible to be totally wrong. Now it has to be said that the Trinity is not present in the Old Testament. However, from the earliest days of the Church the Christians found hints about the Trinity even in the Old Testament. And we must remember that when the Apostles went out to preach, the only Bible they had was the Old Testament and they found the Trinity in that book.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (1)

There are many people who wrongly contrast the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament saying that the God of the Old testament was an angry God, a God of judgement, and that the God of the New Testament is a loving God, a forgiving God.

This contrast goes back at least to Marcion, a 2nd century false Christian teacher. He said that the God of the Old Testament was a lesser God, even an evil God, and that the Father of Jesus Christ was the true God. Because of this he wanted to take the Old Testament and the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John out of the Bible, leaving in an edited version of the Gospel of St. Luke (because Marcion said that the Gospel of Luke was the least “Jewish” of the four) and some of the Epistles of St. Paul.

It is interesting that in Nazi Germany there were people who said that Jesus was not Jewish, and that the whole of the Old Testament should be discarded.

However, in the 2nd century and in the 20th century the Church condemned the idea saying that the God of the both Testaments were the same so that the Old Testament is indeed part of the Bible, although read now in the light of Christ.

A Christian reading of the Old Testament is based on prophecy and typology Many people think that the prophet’s only job was to predict the future. Of course, this is part of prophecy but only one part. We can say that the main role of prophecy was to proclaim God’s word to a concrete people and concrete situations. Sometimes the prophets criticized the people when they worshipped false Gods and oppressed the poor. But when the people of Israel were suffering, perhaps during the Babylonian captivity, God’s prophets proclaimed a message of hope very openly promising a Messiah, a Redeemer who would rescue His people.

Very often in the New Testament writers say that some word of deed of Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy. This is especially true of St. Matthew’s Gospel. For example:

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Mt 2:13-15)

Or in the same chapter:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” (Mt 2:16-18)

Typology is when some event in the Old Testament is seen to point forward to New Testament events. So, for example, the blood of the lamb which saved the Jewish people from an avenging angel is a type of our salvation through the blood of Christ, or the feeding of the people in the desert with manna is the bread of heaven, a type of Christs last supper and the Divine Liturgy.

Or the Adam of the Old Testament was a type of the New Adam, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:14) “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.”

St. Paul continues this line of thought to 1 Corinthians:

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (I Cor 15:21-22,45-49)

The first Adam was from the earth, the new, true Adam (Jesus Christ) is from heaven.

So, we can see that the prophesies and typology find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Of course the Jewish people do not read the Hebrew Bible in this way, but we Christians have the light of Christ which shows us the deeper meaning of the Old Testament.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The New Testament – Church History (7)

There is always a great interest in the end of the world. From supermarket tabloids to scholarly tomes, it is a subject that never goes away. The sources of such interest ranges from the Mayan calendar to the Bible.

Such interest usually focuses on the violent, chaotic changes that will take place. There will be earthquakes, volcanos eruptions, floods, lightening and so on. Indeed, such imagery is found in the Bible, especially in the Book of Revelation, but also in the Second Epistle of St. Peter. For example,

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!” (2 Peter 3:10-12)

Here we see the elements of fire, and noise.

However, this exclusive focus of the violence of the end is somewhat misplaced. It’s important to remember that God loves the world he created. Of course, this world today is obviously not the paradise that God created. In some mysterious way the world, the cosmos fell into sin and corruption. But at the end of time, after the fire, chaos and violence there will be a great renewal. The only thing that will be “dissolved by fire” is sin and evil. The good will be restored, renewed. As St. Peter wrote, “But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13). The “very good” world of Genesis will be restored, and this world will be a paradise of no sin and death, but joy and life eternal.

We see a similar scenario of destruction and renewal in the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation, the first book of the Bible, was written at the end of the 1st century when Christians were undergoing great persecution under the Roman Empire. In this book Roman, the great persecutor is symbolized by Babylon. It is said of her,

“And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!

It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird; for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.” (Rev 18:2-3)

The fate of Babylon (Rome) is described as follows,

“…so shall her plagues come in a single day, pestilence and mourning and famine,

and she shall be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.” And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and were wanton with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! alas! thou great city, thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.” Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and shall be found no more; and the sound of harpers and minstrels, of flute players and trumpeters, shall be heard in thee no more; and a craftsman of any craft shall be found in thee no more; and the sound of the millstone shall be heard in thee no more; and the light of a lamp shall shine in thee no more;

and the voice of bridegroom and bride shall be heard in thee no more; for thy merchants were the great men of the earth, and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery. And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth.” (Rev 18: 8-10, 21-14)

As mentioned earlier, the Book of Revelation was written to comfort Christians undergoing persecution from Rome, symbolized by Babylon. But this has a meaning for all time. Throughout history there have been “new Romes” and “new Babylons” which persecute the church. We can think of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Under such regimes Christians took comfort from the Book of Revelation because it teaches them that no matter how great the persecution, the new Babylon and new Rome will fall and there will be a few, renewed world where sin, death and pain will pass away.

Finally, it should be noted that when it is written that 144,000 will be saved. This number should not be taken literally because this number symbolized fullness, wholeness. It points to the number of all that are saved. God’s salvation would never be limited to such a relatively small number. God’s salvation is for all humanity.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The New Testament – Church History (6)

No doubt all of us have felt guilt or shame over something we’ve said or done. We see this in the Book of Genesis, that after eating the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve feel shame.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:6-12)

This feeling of shame or guilt comes from our conscience. Atheists and secularists will tell us that what we call our conscience is nothing more than the rules of our family, church, school, society, etc. which we have internalized. We certainly cannot deny the influence of these external factors, but nevertheless the Church would insist that the conscience is an integral part of our humanity as creatures of God.

Of course, conscience is not limited to Christians but is shared by the whole of humanity. Because of this we see similarity with how people deal with guilt. One way of freeing oneself from a guilty conscience is sacrifice. People might sacrifice fruit, vegetables, small animals, large animals and even men and women as a way of being freed from guilt. The idea is that the sacrifice, being something important or valuable to ourselves, will satisfy the wrath of the Holy God who hates sin, but loves the sinner.

This common human response to sin is seen in great detail in the Old Testament. The third book of the Bible gives detailed instruction on how to do this. This is the origin of the word scapegoat. An unblemished valuable animal is selected, then the priest transfers the sin and guilt of the people to this animal which is then slaughtered. This is supposed to release people from sin.

This may seem barbaric and superstitious to us, but in Judaism before Christ and much of the non-Christian world today, sacrifice is an important element of human religion.

However, even in Old Testament times, people especially prophets, began to recognize the futility of animal sacrifice and longed for something more meaningful, more profound. Sensitive people realized that this never-ending road of sacrifice did not really do the job. The Old Testament sacrifices were a shadow of something more.

Of course, this something more is Jesus Christ. Throughout the New Testament Jesus is seen as the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice offering. Jesus is the one pure and spotless lamb. And most importantly, He is truly human. As the Divine-Human Son of God, Jesus took on the burden of all of human sin and through His death, the effects of human sin and death was finally blotted out.

This idea of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all the sacrifice of the Old Testament is the dominant theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle gives a detailed examination of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law of sacrifice.

Fr. John