Alan Streett is Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College. He is the author of several books. His book, Caesar and the Sacrament, frames the following interview.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching and interview videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: Would you describe the motivation behind tackling these two subjects?
Streett: Nearly twenty years ago I began to take a fresh look at the “kingdom of God.” I was amazed to discover that the kingdom of God was at the heart of all NT gospel preaching (Mark 1:1, 14; Matt 10:7; Luke 4:40‒43; 8:1; 9:2, 57‒60; 10:1, 9‒11; 12:22‒32; 16:16; John 3:3‒5; Acts 1:3; 2:30‒32; 8:12; 17:7; 19:8; 20:24‒25; 28:23, 30‒31, etc.). Jesus went so far as to say that the “end of the age” will not come until the “gospel of the kingdom” is proclaimed to all nations (Matt 24:14).
I traced the theme of the kingdom from Genesis to Revelation in my book Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now (Harvest House, 2013). This initial study led me to investigate further how baptism and the Lord’s Supper were connected to the kingdom. For example, John the Immerser linked baptism with the kingdom’s arrival (Matt 3:2). Jesus linked the Last Supper, the basis for our Lord’s Supper, to the coming kingdom (Luke 22:18, 28‒30). I discovered that the first-century church not only viewed these two rituals as pro-kingdom in nature but also as anti-imperial acts. As a result, I felt compelled to write Subversive Meals (Pickwick, 2013) and Caesar and the Sacrament (Cascade, 2018).
I fear the contemporary church, especially in the West, suffers from amnesia. It has forgotten the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as prophetic enactments in the original context of the Roman Empire.
Moore: I greatly appreciate you taking the time to define critical terms. Communications of all sorts break down because we don’t give enough attention to defining key words/concepts. Some would say defining words may be necessary in writing a book, but not in sermons. Do you think there is ever much of a need to define key words/concepts in a sermon?
Streett: David, this is one of the major weaknesses in most preaching. When we fail to define key theological terms, our listeners cannot comprehend our message. For example, what does a preacher mean when he uses the word “saved?” Is he talking about going to heaven when we die, a quality of life that can be experienced in the here and now, the forgiveness of sins, or all the above?
Unless we define our terms, we fail to communicate effectively. While the preacher means one thing, the audience may interpret it another way.
Definitions, however, do not need to be belabored or boring. A simple sentence or explanation is all that is needed. A preacher might call on his listeners to repent and then add, “That means making an about face” or “That means a change of mind that leads to a change of action” or “That means a turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness.”
At other times a good illustration will provide context without having to give a formal definition. Such as, “Repentance is like going down a one-way street the wrong way and turning your car around when you face danger ahead.” The illustration itself provides the meaning of the word.
Moore: You write that “Jesus and his followers did not live or minister in a sociopolitical vacuum.” Describe that for us a bit and then give us your take on whether the majority of American Christians think they themselves live in a sociopolitical vacuum.
Streett: Jesus and the first-century believers lived under Roman domination. Rome claimed a divine right or manifest destiny to rule the world. Caesar was the Son of God and Lord over land and sea. He ruled on Jupiter’s behalf. Rome conquered nations, forced tribute from its subjects, and demanded absolute loyalty. Roman elites and native client kings, comprising 10% of the empire, grew wealthy as peasants and day-laborers worked for subsistence wages without hope of advancement. Pax Romana (Roman Peace) was advanced through the point of the sword.
In this context, for believers to follow Jesus whom Rome executed as an enemy of the State, was a politically subversive act. To proclaim Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Son of God was more than religious talk. It meant Caesar had a challenger. To announce the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom meant Rome’s rule was a failure and needed to be replaced.
Things have not changed much. No modern-day church resides in a political vacuum. Countries adopt various governmental models. The specific socio-political context will determine how believers must navigate that system while serving the Lord. Believers under Communist regimes will face certain challenges. Those living under a dictatorial strongman like Assad of Syria will have another set of challenges. What about those living in countries controlled by tribal chiefs, or monarchs or socialists? Others may find themselves living in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu lands. The political sphere determines where a church meets and how it functions.
In a democracy like America, Christ-followers seem unaware that the way we do church is the exception to the rule. Believers in most other countries cannot be cultural warriors. They do not have a place at the table. Depending on the government, they may not get a vote. When they raise their voices in public, they are hauled off to jail or worse. This is how the church lived in the first century under Roman domination. Imagine the consequences the Philippian jailer faced when he was baptized and pledged his allegiance to Jesus as Lord.
Moore: Your writing about the dove descending on Jesus is fascinating. Why is it significant that it was a dove?
Streett: To the first-century readers the description of the Spirit’s descent on Jesus as a dove had special significance. It denoted that God chose Jesus to be Israel’s new king. The scene was familiarly reminiscent of the way Rome chose its leaders.
Rome depended on avian signs, known as augury, to choose it leaders. Augurs were trained to observe the flight of birds to determine the will of the gods for the nation. According to Cicero, Rome’s first legendary leader (Romulus) was chosen by this method. Because the eagle was the most powerful of birds and was able to soar to the highest heavens and swoop down and easily pick off prey, it became the emblem of the empire. The eagle also served as Jupiter’s messenger to divinely confirm the selection of the next emperor. Whomever the eagle settled upon was named the new Caesar.
For the readers of the Gospels, the dove landing on Jesus at his baptism and the accompanying voice from Heaven was understood as an avian sign which confirmed that he was Yahweh’s choice to rule the world. It was his inauguration as king. The dove, however, was antithetical to the eagle. In the Scriptures, the dove represents serenity and gentleness. Unlike Roman emperors, Jesus’ reign is not based on violence and force, but faith and peace.
Moore: For those of us who attend churches that downplay the sacraments, even preferring to go with the idea of ordinance instead, what should we better appreciate about baptism as it was understood in ancient times?
Streett: In a sense, this gets back to your first question. I am convinced that most churches incorrectly define the term sacrament. In the first century a sacrament (Latin, sacramentum) was a common term that described a soldier’s pledge or oath to serve Caesar as Lord. It was his promise of fidelity to the emperor and empire. The early Christians adopted the word for use and applied it to baptism. At baptism believers pledged their allegiance to Jesus as Lord and promised to forsake all other lords.
Jerome (ca 345–430 CE) was the first to redefine sacrament as a mystical event in which God imparts grace to the believer.
While some Christian communities view baptism as a vehicle for transmitting salvific grace and others view it only as a symbolic act or ordinance, I believe both views fall short of the mark. Baptism in NT times was a person’s public sacramentum or vow of commitment in sight of witnesses to serve Christ regardless of cost. In this sense baptism was a status-changing ritual. It changed one’s status from sinner to saint in the same way wedding vows changes one’s status from single to married or the swearing-in ceremony changes a person from an ordinary citizen to the President of the United States.
I wish we could get back to the earliest understanding of baptism and be more in line with the way the first Christians understood the term.
Moore: You are a careful reader of the Scriptures. Would you offer a few things that have helped you the most to be an alert student of the Bible?
Streett: My area of specialty is biblical theology. As such, I place utmost importance on studying the Scriptures in their original context. To succeed I spend an inordinate amount of time and research on biblical backgrounds. The better I understand the Roman Empire, the better I understand the people to whom the Gospels and Letters were written. This involves asking and answering a series of questions. Where did the recipients live in the Empire: Western or Eastern sections, rural or urban settings? When were the texts written: 50s, 60s, 70s, or later? What events are they describing: events at the time of Jesus (ca 30) or events experienced by a church? Who was the emperor at the time of the writing: Claudius, Nero, or Domitian? Were the texts written to Jewish believers, Gentiles, both? Why were the Letters or Gospels written? What were the circumstances surrounding a particular letter? Was the advice being offered specifically to one congregation or did it apply to others also?
Do you see why this preparation is important? Advice given to Christians living under Claudius may be different to those living under Domitian. Instructions for Hellenized Jews may be different than that for Hebrew-speaking Jews. Christians living in Rome, the capital of the Empire, faced different challenges than those living in Galilee or Ephesus. Each learned how to navigate the social and political structure differently. This is why we should not read a NT text and attempt to apply it to all situations for all times.
Familiarity of “Jewish” backgrounds is important and recognizing the structure of a text is essential, but a third area critical for understanding the meaning of a NT text is Roman backgrounds. Without all three, our interpretation is incomplete.
My assignment as a biblical theologian is to take one text at a time and attempt to discover its original meaning in its historical context. The job of the systematic theologian is to try to make sense of it all for the universal church. The task of a pastor is to take the findings and apply it to their local church. We work in tandem with each other.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers learn from your book?
Streett: First, I hope they will begin to look at baptism through the eyes of first-century believers. Long before the post-apostolic church debated the theology of baptism, Christ- followers knew it as a life and death act that defied Roman ideology. To publicly pledge one’s allegiance to Jesus as Lord in the very waters over which Caesar claimed control (He was master over all waterways and seas) was act of political subversion. It amounted to a confession that all of Rome’s claims were false.
Second, I hope they will realize that through baptism the initial Christ-followers aligned themselves with the kingdom of God and its ethics. It was a life-changing event that involved much more than a mere profession of faith.
Third, although we have not mentioned it in this interview, I make a case in the book that the Spirit and baptism are interconnected. God promised to give the eschatological Spirit to the baptized so they could persevere in the faith during the last days. We pay to little attention to the role of the Spirit in baptism.
Finally, I hope each person after reading Caesar and the Sacrament will reevaluate their own baptism and renew their commitment to serve Christ.