A recent (Nov 19, 2011) World Magazine interviewed an Afghan Christian named Sayed Musa which detailed his coming to the Lord, his imprisonment, torture and eventual release.
In the article entitled “Holding Fast” the interviewer asked him if he had told his friends about his new found faith and he replied, “As I studied the Bible, in my heart it was like a flame. I was never afraid. I spoke of the word of God, and some appreciated it, but some were against me.” It was this courage to speak which his friends described as “full of boldness” which led to his imprisonment. Sayed Musa’s life seems to be drawn right out of the early historian Josephus’ textbook which advised that “to speak candidly, proclaim the truth, and eschew evasions and lies exposes a person to danger and presupposes the overcoming of obstacles.”
How does the Bible define this boldness? This will be the subject of this paper, especially in light of the fact that some current missiological methods would appear to advocate timidity, self-consciousness and even cowardice–all under the convenient rubric of wisdom and longevity.
Boldness in the Graeco-Roman and Inter-testamental worlds
A word which literally means “the freedom to say everything” has been translated with many nuances. The Greek word parrhesia or parrÄ“sia which some suggest was coined in Athens, has been rendered as: frank speaking, candor or candid trusting speech, forthrightness, boldness/courage in speaking, public speech, fearlessness and a joyful sense of freedom and confidence. Any citizen of full standing had the freedom to express his opinions freely, whether before other assembled people, or in the marketplace. Plato fought for this freedom of speech and suggested that in a democratic state “one is free in such a state, freedom reigns everywhere, with free speech*, the ability to say what one pleases,” and Euripides great desire was that “the sons whom I have brought into the world have a free man’s free speech*.”
The Greeks asserted with this right to speak, came a high level of candor. Simply put, without evasiveness, flattery or timidity, one could assert their thoughts. The golden-tongued orator of Athens, Demosthenes, said, “I am going to speak to you openly*; I will not conceal*anything” and Diogenes said, “…, I want to be the prophet of truth and of candor*.” In the private sector, this term was used to describe forthrightness between friends without resorting to flattery.
Candor, as we have seen in the life of Musa can come with a cost. The certitude of one’s declaration of faith will also provoke a reaction. The apocryphal book of Wisdom declared: “The righteous person stands boldly* before those who have tormented him” and according to 4 Maccabees, this same candor coming from the third brother to be tormented made his captors even more furious. Thus being “terrified by the audacity* of these potent words, they cut off his hands and feet.
For the Greeks this freedom of speech was a two way street. Superiors could address inferiors that way, and vice versa. It was said, “The man who does not allow anyone in his household to speak freely* is a petty tyrant.” This could be done both in public and private, yet with some controls as Philo a Jew from Alexandria recounted that Joseph addressed the Pharaoh “with freedom of speech* tempered by modesty” This same Joseph, he reported said, “I leave flattering words to others… I will distribute praise, warning, or blame without flaunting foolish and misplaced arrogance, but showing, to the contrary, a sober candor.*”
In a few words, boldness was defined as the freedom to openly and clearly speak one’s convictions without fear of reprisal, social conventions notwithstanding. Contrast this with Musa’s reward for speaking forthrightly: “The beating by security officers continued off and on for two months.”
In the Bible
The Bible takes the range of use of this word, and infuses it with new life. Whereas the Greeks might have enjoyed boldness and freedom of speech that came from being a full citizen of a city, citizenship in the Bible is redefined as being part of God’s people whom He had liberated. Whereas the Greeks enjoyed this privilege due to maintaining clear lines of friendship, the Bible now can talk about a clear conscience before God and even friendship with God due to being purified from sin. Whereas the Greeks knew where they stood as freemen in their society and so could speak frankly due to their self-confidence, the Bible talks of the confidence that comes to adopted and cherished children of God who know where they stand, and can address God as Father in prayer with open and ready access. In union with Christ they are also given Holy Spirit empowered boldness to talk, not so much about the wonders of democratic Athens, as about His exploits.
The Hebrew (Old) Testament
When the Hebrew Testament was first translated into Greek, the translators used this word for speaking freely and openly only a handful of times. Leviticus 26:13 demonstrates the relationship between liberation by God and their resultant freedom: “I am the Lord your God who, when you were slaves, led you out of the land of Egypt and smashed the bond of your yoke and led you forth in a state of freedom*.” As opposed to slaves who had no right of this free speech, the Israelites now had been given a new civil status among the people of God.
The book of Proverbs further illuminates the theme: “Wisdom … in broad places speaks openly*.” (1:20); “he that reproves boldly* is a peacemaker” (10:10) and the ungodly “has no confidence” (13:5).
The New Testament:
The noun is found 31x and the verb form is found 9x and like its Graeco-Roman antecedents is almost always found in the context of speaking.
In the Gospels:
In his verbal communication Jesus was the paradigm of free-speech, even though it cost him his life. He spoke publicly, clearly, with boldness and with freedom, and also with wisdom. Thus he announced his passion “openly*” to his disciples (Mark 8:32), and spoke to them “clearly* [without ambiguity]” (John 11:14) and later said he told them that He would speak to them “of the Father in full clarity*” (John 16:25, 29).
The public remarked that “he speaks freely* and no one says anything to him” (John 7:26; cf. 7:13) and toward the end of his ministry Jesus Himself said, “I have spoken to the world publicly*. I always taught in the synagogue and in the temple, where the Jews meet; I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20). The boldness that Jesus had came from the uncontestable fact that He knew that He was the light of the dark world, was the Word incarnate fully cognizant of the Father’s approval of His mission which no one could derail. Even death could not derail this plan, and it is with a delicious irony that Paul tells the Colossians that Jesus, “Having despoiled the principalities and powers, Christ put them on display in public/conspicuously*leading them in his triumphal procession” (Col 2:15).
The Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles:
Just as Jesus could declare at the end of his ministry that he had spoken boldly, so the book of Acts closes on the same note. In the center of the Roman empire, Paul as the ambassador for Christ is able to declare his allegiance to another empire and he did so for two years “with full freedom* and without obstacle” (28:31). At first flush this might seem like an easily arrived at conclusion.
The source of this boldness, as we will see is the fact that the source of the message is from God–”the word of his grace” (14:3); the content of the message is about God’s saving action in Christ which they have “seen and heard” (4:20); and the message has eternal significance for its hearers. It is also secured by the incontestable fact of the resurrection and the Risen and reigning Lord who both empowered them, commissioned them, and comforted them despite their hardships.
Re-rolling the cameras tells us more. Peter, the former coward, now full of the Holy Spirit, addresses his audience with “full assurance*” (Acts 2:29). The ruling religious authorities of the Sanhedrin are astounded at “the boldness* of” the unschooled, uncultured “Peter and John”–failing to see that their “having been with Jesus” (4:13) and being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8) was the source of this power. Just when every excuse for cowardice before aggressive and threatening authorities was a tempting option for the church, they pray instead that God would “enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness*” (4:29). Divine approval is manifested with the physical shaking of their meeting place, and they left “filled with the Holy Spirit” and speaking the “word of God boldly*” (v. 31). Stephen pays with his life for the fact that his opponents “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” (Acts 6:10) and that these words caused them to be “furious” and they “gnashed their teeth at him.” (7:54). Other examples of bold, clear, public, Holy Spirit empowered speech can be found at Damascus, Phillipi, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium before any and all audiences. In fact it is a hallmark of the book of Acts that as a result of gospel proclamation, opposition arises, and the proclaimers respond with asserting the truth with openness and fearlessness. There is a price to pay as the opposition, the stonings, the imprisonments in the book of Acts and in the life of Musa clearly attest. In the words of the article: “A man he describes as the “prison mullah” called him an infidel and encouraged inmates to abuse him.”
Without a word of remorse Paul recalls what happened at Phillipi in Acts 16:11-40 and writes to the Thessalonians “In spite of the sufferings and insults that we had just endured at Philippi, our God gave us the boldness* to proclaim the gospel of God to you amid strong opposition” (1 Thess 2:2). Earlier, Paul had spoken “loudly” to the crippled man at Lystra and his reward for this proclamation was stoning. Strong opposition to bold Gospel proclamation seems to be a given. Yet it is God who is the source of this boldness which is rooted in the hope of Christ as the Ultimate Victor–even over death. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Having such a hope, we exercise great boldness* … (2 Cor 3:12). Recall Musa’s words:
“I cried and asked the Lord, ‘Why did you do this? I did not do any bad things. Why don’t you help me?’ During the night I saw a dream and in it Jesusâ€‰…â€‰saying, ‘Musa, I am always with you.’ I am lying on the ground and Jesus gave me His hand.” Musa said he woke up in a sweat, but afterward, “When people in prison speak bad to me, I laugh at them because I see that my Lord is alive.”
Hebrews and I John:
No groveling before His Majesty, but a measured confidence based on the finished work of the Great High Priest Christ (Heb.4:16; 10:19) is the supreme motivation for the audience of the book of Hebrews. Because of being purified from sin, the Christian has the right/privilege to approach the throne of grace where Christ has already gone, to find timely help, and do so with boldness. One contrast set up in this book is between timidity–those “who shrink back”(10:39) and this confident access which the audience is urged not to “throw away” as it has “great reward” (10:35).
Whereas the writer to the Hebrews emphasizes present confident access, the letter of I John assures its audience of what one writer called an “audacious confidence in the most fearful of all situations” namely the Day of Judgment. Thus he tells them, “Abide in him [Christ], so that when he appears we may have assurance* and may not be confounded/put to shame by him at the Parousia” (I John 2:28). Certainly this confidence is what inspired the likes of Polycarp, Patrick Hamilton, George Wisehart, William Tyndale and many others to stand firm and resolute in the face of temporal human judgments that took their lives away. These people knew that if their hearts would not accuse them due to Christ’s work, they would “have assurance* toward God.” (3:21) and this too would lead to “assurance* on the Day of Judgment” (4:7).
This assurance certainly gave Musa confidence, his bodily condition and his political situation notwithstanding. He told, and we might add, with parrÄ“sia, a British Sunday Times reporter Miles Amoore “I don’t care if they crucify me upside down,”…”My spirit will still be alive. I am only afraid of God. Only he can send my soul to hell.”
Might we be inspired by all of these examples not to fear people, but to fear God: to speak with Holy Spirit empowered boldness about the wonders of His Majesty as the situation warrants. Paul the bold ambassador for Christ asked the church at Ephesus to “Pray also for me so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness* the mystery of the gospel, for which 1 am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly* as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:19-20). With little regard for preserving his comfort, he said: “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage* now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).
For further reflection:
1. Critics of Musa might easily assert that his boldness got him into trouble. Perhaps they might suggest that taking the “below the radar” approach would have made him a “much more effective witness.” How does this square with examples from the New Testament.
2. Certainty, candor, boldness and assurance which were valued by the Greeks and by the New Testament authors, might fall under the present day rubric of being intolerant, overly self-assured and less than respectful of other’s opinions. Might post-modern values start to influence our reading of the Biblical text, and also exert an influence on a desire for such boldness? Think, of the way Musa spoke about the boldness that he received from knowing the truth of the Bible, and compare it to a quote from someone else who is said to be involved with missions:
“What do you learn more about God? It’s one of the key concepts, I think, in all of this is if we, uh, accept the fact that, that God created all of us, and He created us in His image, uh, don’t you think by getting to know somebody who’s different from you that you’re going to learn something, a different aspect about God that you never, uh, maybe knew before.”
3. The term “follower of Jesus” seems to be all the rage. Part of the package deal being offered is that you can be this “within whatever religion you choose.” However, the early church were true followers of Jesus, that is to say, like Him, their bold speaking got them in trouble with the Jewish religion and the Graeco-Roman state and pagan religions. Could it be that this in-vogue phrase wants the title and the benefits, but not any of the costs?
4. Parrhesia or “bold speaking” put Musa, the apostles and Jesus in danger to the point of giving their lives because they loved truth telling more than their personal comfort. How might present day missions need to rediscover this word?