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Boldness: A Distinguishing Characteristic of Christians


Hebrews 4:14-16

   Acts 4:13    John 11:14    Colossians 2:15    Proverbs 28:1


What single word says the most about the Christian life?  I imagine that most people would say “love”.  Others would say “faith”.  A few might say “discipleship”.  In the book of Acts, however, the single word that is used most frequently to speak of the Christian life is “boldness”.  Christians are bold. They speak boldly. They act boldly.

Actually the one Greek word PARRHESIA is translated by many different English words in scripture: boldness, forthrightness, frankness, confidence, plainness, outspokenness.  The one Greek word admits, even requires, so many different translations in that it resembles shot silk.  Shot silk is a textile that is dyed a particular colour; blue, for instance. As light falls on blue shot silk from different angles; as the angle of vision on the part of the viewer changes, the blue colour takes on slightly different hues: blue-shiny, blue-flat, blue-grey, blue-black.  It is still blue, but because of the shot silk it is always a variegated blue, a blue with constantly changing nuances depending on the angle at which light falls on it as well as on the angle from which the viewer views it.

So it is with the word “bold”.  Bold, yes, but not in the sense of cheeky; bold, but not in the sense of pushy or nervy or smart-alecky.  The latter kind of boldness only puts people off.  There is nothing to commend a boldness that is little more than rudeness.

In the book of Acts the apostles are said over and over to speak and act boldly, frankly, openly. A dozen different English words are used in any translation of the bible to translate the one Greek word (PARRHESIA) that describes the public demeanour of Christians. There is a forwardness about them that isn’t cheeky, a directness that isn’t discourteous, a forthrightness that isn’t insensitive, an outspokenness that isn’t saucy, a bluntness that isn’t brutal, a plainness that isn’t brazen, a confidence that isn’t cocky.  This characterizes Christians, says Luke, even as it first characterized him who is the Christians’ Lord.


I: — Speaking of confidence, the book of Hebrews exhorts us, “Let us with confidence (“boldly”) draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  We don’t doubt our need of mercy or our need of help.  We need mercy inasmuch as we are sinners whose sinnership is so deep in us that by comparison deep-seated medical problems such as systemic infection appear almost superficial.  We need help inasmuch as we are chronically needy people whose fragility is exposed every day. Every day we are clobbered by someone’s heavy artillery, infected with someone’s poison, caught off guard with a surprise attack.

The fact that we need mercy and help, however, does not guarantee that mercy and help are available. Yet it is the promise of the gospel that what we can’t generate of ourselves, God supplies out of his sheer kindness.  As we look to God, to the sovereign one himself, says the book of Hebrews, we see that the sovereign’s throne is occupied by grace!”

Doesn’t this startle you? Most people expect a throne to be occupied by power, sheer power.  They feel that if they are lucky such power might be slightly benign. (After all, in the history of the world a benign or benevolent sovereign has been so rare as to render his subjects exceedingly fortunate.)  But the throne that is above all thrones is occupied by grace.  This takes my breath away. My life is ruled ultimately, as your life is ruled ultimately, as the entire cosmos is ruled ultimately by grace — grace being the sin-forgiving, all-embracing, unimpedable favour and blessing of God.

Because grace rules, grace is effectual; grace isn’t a useless warm fuzzy as ineffective as a pipedream.  Grace penetrates; grace permeates; grace achieves what grace alone can achieve. At the same time, because it is grace that rules, that “Other” to whom we look and in whose presence our lives unfold; this “Other” is neither an arbitrary tyrant nor a heartless judge.  From my first breath to my last breath my life, with all its labyrinthine convolutions and subterranean murkiness and who knows what else; my entire life is gathered up in and comprehended by and riddled with grace. Therefore I can look to God knowing that he wants only to bless me.  And since grace rules, since grace is sovereign, I can look to God knowing that nothing can impede the blessing he wills for my life. Then I must always with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.

The author of Hebrews insists that there is one ground of our assurance that grace rules; one ground, therefore, of our confident drawing near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and help.  The one ground is this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has withstood all the assaults that render us prone to collapse and all the temptations that render us prone to corruption.  Resurrected and ascended, he has been crowned sovereign.  It is entirely reasonable to draw near with utmost confidence, for now we know we shall surely find mercy and help.

Our confidence isn’t cockiness.  Still, we have been emboldened to approach expectantly the only ruler the world will ever have and know that we shall be met with grace and nothing but grace.


II: — The angle of vision changes slightly and the same word takes on a slightly different hue. Peter and John have been hauled up before religious authorities.  The officers of the church courts (who pride themselves on being religious experts and procedural masters) assume that they will be able to convict, humiliate and dismiss or punish the two disciples of Jesus whose faithfulness to him has landed them in trouble with the church courts. How surprised they are to find that there is something about Peter and John that they can’t quite put into words, something that they can’t do anything about, but also that they can’t deny.  Luke writes, “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and then they recognized that these two had been with Jesus.”

Uneducated, common men — yet bold.  In first century Palestine “uneducated” didn’t mean “ignorant,” let alone “stupid.”  It meant “without formal rabbinical training, without a degree in theology”. “Common” meant “having no professional status”.  Yet it is these two men who are possessed of something that ecclesiastical authorities can’t handle; and whatever it is that possesses them, it arises from their having been with Jesus.

The boldness of Peter and John isn’t cockiness.  Their boldness is conviction plus courage plus transparency.         Living in the company of Jesus supplies this.

I am the last person to belittle learning of any kind, including theological learning. (After all, I make my living from teaching theology.)  At the same time, a pastor’s having passed an examination in theology will never benefit his congregation unless he has been with Jesus and continues to be. Congregations that are discerning at all know this; they aren’t fooled. For eight years I sat on a committee that assessed candidates for the ministry.  The committee was made up of different kinds of people: clergy, businesspeople, teachers, others holding postgraduate university degrees. Many of them struck me as naive about who should or should not be ordained to the ministry and entrusted with a congregation. But there was one kind of person who was never fooled: the middle-aged housewife with the slenderest formal education of anyone on the committee. The godly fifty-year-old homemaker with a grade ten education was never taken in by big words or paper credentials or letters of recommendation or impressive-sounding arguments. She intuited the appropriate boldness (conviction, courage and transparency) of the candidate who had been with Jesus.  She was able to recognize its presence (or absence) inasmuch as she throbbed with it herself.

I profit enormously from scholars who genuinely are scholars.  That is, I profit enormously in terms of rich mental furnishings and intellectual stimulation. After all, scholars excite fellow-scholars.  Yet as often as I like to think I am a scholar I remember that I am always a needy human being; I am a fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer with all humankind, whether scholarly or illiterate.  And therefore when I need help more than I need stimulation I look to those who are “uneducated and common”.  They have neither formal theological training nor professional status, yet they sustain me and nourish me and encourage me.  Such people (for me) are the sober alcoholic, the person addicted to anything at all who has come to know a great deliverance, the mother of the disabled child whom nothing and no one except our Lord has kept unembittered and unresentful and even radiant for years, the parishioner who could never preach a sermon yet understands her pastor’s struggle and loves him through his bouts of emotional spasticity.  Nothing can take the place of having been with Jesus.  Professional standing and formal training are categorically distinct from this. The church authorities who attempted to stampede Peter and John learned as much. There is a conviction, a courage, a transparency; that is, there is a non-belligerent boldness, confidence, forthrightness that comes only through intimacy with our Lord.


III: — The angle of vision changes slightly and the root word, “bold”, now has the force of simple starkness. The disciples assume that Lazarus is sleeping.  They talk about going to wake him up.  Jesus says plainly, according to John, “Lazarus isn’t asleep; Lazarus is dead.” Simple starkness. Jesus tells them plainly, boldly, without embroidery or embellishment.  The bluntness isn’t meant to brutalize; it is meant only to recover realism.

Divorce is painful; painful to contemplate, painful to endure.  “Divorce” is a word we prefer not to use.         Biblically speaking, divorce is a manifestation of death.  Let’s not pretend anything else.  Painful as marriage-breakdown is, however, when a marriage is dead the only realistic thing to do is to say in a firm voice, “This is dead.”         Jesus was every bit as plain with respect to Lazarus.  Our Lord does not lend us a religious softening of realism; instead he insists we confront reality.  Simple starkness always befits a frank acknowledgement of reality.

Several years ago when our two daughters were teenagers the Shepherd family’s supper-table conversation swung round to Christ’s driving the fleecers out of the temple.  Mary, sixteen years old at the time, asked, “Did Jesus seek forgiveness for what he did?” “No, he didn’t”, I replied; “there is no suggestion that Jesus had any awareness of sin in himself, no awareness of guilt at all.”  “But he acted violently”, Mary came back.  “And not only was he violent” I added, “his violence was premeditated. After all, he didn’t walk into the temple, observe the exploitation of defenceless people, and then lose his temper. On the contrary, he braided the whip from a handful of cords.         He spent ten minutes doing this, ten minutes thinking about what he was going to do once he had finished braiding.         His violence was premeditated.”

Next question at the Shepherd supper-table: “Is premeditated violence ever justified on the part of the Christian?”  One more question: “Is premeditated violence ever required of the Christian?” It is painful to contemplate such a question.  No doubt it is far more painful to do violence.  Nevertheless, Jesus plainly, frankly directs us to recover realism. And so I told my children of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s complicity in the plot against Hitler, Bonhoeffer knowing that if Hitler were removed hundreds of thousands of allied and German lives would be spared.         We talked about the role of police departments, prisons, the role of United Nations’ forces (peace-keeping forces, be it noted, keep the peace by threatening violence), even the role of the school principal in forcibly expelling the student who assaults other students or teachers.  There is no point in pretending we live in a Pollyanna world where such situations don’t develop.  They do. And Jesus Christ directs his people to own the realism of these situations.

“Lazarus isn’t sleeping; he is dead.”  Our Lord speaks boldly and bluntly not to brutalize his hearers, but rather to keep them from hiding their head in the sand unrealistically. He does as much for his followers today. Herein we are to be bold as he was bold before us.


IV:         — Change the angle of vision once again and another nuance of “boldness” appears. Paul says of Jesus Christ, “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them.”  Public example. Open example. Manifest example.  In other words, what he did to the principalities and powers he did boldly. He disarmed them defiantly, decisively, definitively.

Principalities and powers are any of the influences and forces that tell us who we are and make us what we are.  To say the same thing, the principalities and powers are any of the influences and forces, including all ideologies, institutions images and “isms” that give us personal identity and public identifiability.

The force can be genetic. “He’s retarded”, we say, “retarded” — as though the boy’s humanity, his entire human significance, were exhausted by his inability to do co-planar geometry.

The force can be corporate. The company you work for dismisses you.  Company executives leave you feeling that you are a failure: failure is now your personal identity.  Not only that, the manner of your dismissal publicly advertised you as a failure. Failure is now your public identifiability.

The force can be racial. “She’s black, you know, really black”. Or ethnic: “They are nice people, even if they are Chinese”.  Or social: “He’s wealthy”– pronounced with a sneer.  In every case there is a private identity and a public identifiability.

And then there are the people who work for a company or belong to an institution that really does give them a mind-set and a character-set in conformity with the company or institution itself.  I have watched someone’s mind and heart, attitude and outlook shaped increasingly by the management theory of the major corporation for which she worked, while all the while she was entirely unaware of the transmutation visited upon her.  Such people have been made what they are (or at least appear to be), and usually they are unaware of it.

The truth is, I am not any of the things I am thought to be.  I am not even what belonging to an institution has made me to be.  I am not, finally, any of the things that my friends or my employers or my upbringing have made me.         I am not even the sum total of all the influences and forces that have stamped themselves upon me, simply because Jesus Christ has disarmed all of these, and publicized his triumph.

I am a creature of God. By faith I am a child of God, a younger brother of my “elder brother” (Hebrews), Jesus Christ. I am that person whom only God knows so well as to know who I really am.  I am that child of God whose identity is known to God and guaranteed by God, which identity will be made plain to me and others on the day of our Lord’s appearing. It is enough for now that I know myself to be that one whose true, real identity is known to God and preserved inviolate by him.  It is enough for now that I know myself to be that child of God for whom there can never be a substitute, upon whom inestimable love and patience are poured out, and with whose Father I am appointed to live eternally. I do know myself to be this, and can know it on the ground that Jesus Christ has made a public example of those influences and forces that he has disarmed. He has disarmed them decisively, and every bit as boldly (in his resurrection) displayed them as inoperative. Then nothing will ever be able to deflect me from who I am before God.


I began today by asking you what single word best described the Christian life. Frankly, I don’t think this is a helpful exercise. No single word is adequate.

Nonetheless, a particularly rich word is the word “bold”.  Like shot silk, it’s meaning changes subtly as the angle of light falling upon it and the angle of vision of the viewer herself change.

It means confident but not cocky in our approaching that throne whose grace rules our life as well as the entire world.

It means bold yet not brazen in our transparency to the Lord whom we know and cherish.

It means stark as we own the realism of life.

It means public, open, manifest as we recall our Lord’s triumph over everything that gives us a false identity and false identifiability.


This one word has sustained me for years.

Victor Shepherd                                                                                          

February 2006