This is one of the greatest contemporary Orthodox books I have ever read, and although it is somewhat lacking in citations, I recommend this book to anyone curious in Orthodoxy or Church history. It is difficult to pick out highlights from this book, because every page is filled with highlights. I will only touch on various topics, each of which Fr. Stephen writes much more about. There are many sections I am skipping, largely because I would have to transcribe too much to get to the point. My comments/clarifications within quotes are in brackets.
The Angel of the Lord: Christ in the Old Testament
He provides many more examples of the Angel of the Lord, and in person encounters with God, including Abraham's hospitality to three strangers, one being God (Gen 18:1-15) and Jacob wrestling with God (Gen 32:22-32). A very clear example is found in Jeremiah 1:A key example of how the Hebrew Scriptures express the multiple persons of the God of Israel is the figure of "the Angel of the Lord" in the Torah. In the text of the Old Testament, this figure is identified as Yahweh, the God of Israel, and yet acts as a second person who interacts with both Yahweh and humans. The first such encounter took place in the initial meeting between Moses and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when God revealed his name to Moses. Exodus 3:2 indicates that the "Angel of the Lord" appeared to him in a flame burning within a bush. But in verse 4, when Moses approached, it was "God who called to him from the midst of the bush. Upon hearing this call, Moses covered his face because he was afraid of seeing God (v. 6)
Despite the clear depictions of God having a body, Jews today reject this out of spite of Jesus Christ:The Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah and spoke (v. 4). When He spoke again, He was identified simply as Yahweh (v. 7). Then He reached out His hand and touched Jeremiah (v. 9).
He goes on to explain that on the face of this, this seems to just be a rejection of Christ as the second person of the Godhead, but really it is even more heretical and errant from their scriptures, and denies that God ever appeared to man in bodily form.One feature of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue service is the hymn sung near its dismissal that repeatedly affirms, "God does not have a body." This particular hymn was added in the fourth or fifth century as a direct response to, and objection of, Christianity.
Second Temple Jews were not Unitarians, and believed in at least a "binitarian" Godhead
This notion [of Christ as the divine Logos] is bolstered by the writings of parallel thinkers [to John the evangelist] such as Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Middle Platonist in the first century before Christ, who described the divine Logos as an emanation of the one true God.
Philo... argues that there are two powers of God, His Reigning Power, and His Creative Power, which He Himself stands between and above.
That Yahweh, the God of Israel, had a second hypostasis was firmly entrenched in the religious life and experience of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period, not least because of their familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish world tended to convey this by speaking of the "two powers in heaven."... The New Testament authors identify the Second Person of the Godhead as Jesus Christ, incarnate in their day. In response to this core tenet of the Christian message, the Jewish community that rejected Jesus as the Messiah would also come to repudiate the idea of "two powers in heaven" entirely in the second century.
Angels other than the Devil rebelled against God after the Tower of Babel, who the nations then worshipedSaints Justin Martyr and Basil the Great, as well as Origen, all testify that in their respective eras, Jewish teaching still held that God had a body or a form.
He goes on to write about how Plato understood this, and wrote that the nations of the world had been allotted to the various gods.As punishment [for the tower] and to prevent further such evil, God scattered and disinherited the nations.... Deuteronomy is here recording that when He distanced Himself from them, God assigned these nations to angelic beings in the divine council. These beings became corrupt, however, and were worshiped by the nations they were to govern. This is why all the gods of the nations are demons (see Deut. 32:17; Ps. 96/95:5; 1 Cor 10:20). This situation is also described in Daniel 10, as Daniel's angelic visitor describes being delayed by a "Prince of Persia," against whom he was aided by St. Michael the Archangel (v. 13), and that he is due for further battle alongside St. Michael against both this "Prince of Persia" and the "Prince of Greece (vv. 20-21).
Many nations had creation stories describing their "god" successfully usurping power from a more powerful god, an inversion of the devil's rebellion against God
It is clear that the various pagan religions that used to infest the entire world were worshiping actual demons that were directly influencing their respective nations. Fr. Stephen goes on to explain that given this, the plagues which afflicted Egypt in Exodus makes much more sense as not primarily a judgment against the Egyptians, but against Pharaoh, who saw himself as a god, and the demons which governed Egypt. He explains a significant portion of gentiles living in Egypt, the "mixed multitude" (Ex. 12:38) joined the tribes of Israel in fleeing Egypt. There are strong implications once this sinks in and in light of this,A recurring motif across the myths of ancient religions that surrounded Israel was that the being who presided over the council had not always been in that position. Not only had they been elevated to that status, they ascended to it through violence or rebellion. Zeus attacked his father and imprisoned him, along with the other Titans, in Tartarus. Baal slayed Yam and Mot and was enthroned at the head of the council after leading a successful rebellion to overthrow its previous leadership.
Socrates claimed he was demon-possessed
Fr. Stephen goes on to describe many other such cases in ancient rulers (particularly Roman emperors), who had their "genius" (AKA the demon possessing them) worshiped and idols made for them - a very similar case to Pharaoh in Exodus.In Plato's Republic, Socrates states, "Finally, my own case is hardly worth mentioning, my demonic sign, because it has happened to no one before me, or to only a very few" (496c). In the Apology, he describes his experience further: "I have a divine or spiritual sign which Meletus has ridiculed in his disposition. This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything" (31d).
There were three "Falls of man"
Different Church fathers placed more emphasis on different falls. All were important, and all presented new problems for humanity, which God solved in various ways.Because theological discussion of Genesis has been preoccupied for centuries with the curses handed down in chapter 3, contemporary examinations of this book have paid less attention to the other two events of Genesis 1-11 that can likewise be described as "falls" of humanity. In addition to humanity's expulsion from Paradise in chapter 3, Genesis 4-9 describes the sinful corruption of humanity at the instigation of demonic powers, culminating in the Flood in the days of Noah. Finally, Genesis 10 and 11 describe the sin of humanity at the Tower of Babel and the division of the nations.
Satan is likely a different being than the devil
Why would the devil still be in the divine council after being expelled from Heaven in Genesis 3?The figure of the devil.... Having served as a cherub or seraph, a guardian of God's throne, he sought to supplant God in the lives of newly created human beings out of envy, resulting in his being cast down to Sheol to reign over the dead in a kingdom of dust and ashes in Genesis 3.
Job presents a figure, "the Satan," who remains a member of the divine council long after Genesis 3.
There are clear references in the New Testament to the fall of Satan that seem not to refer to events in Eden.
This second figure [the Satan] is the Archangel Samael. His name, in Hebrew, means "the venom of God." Samael regularly appears in lists of the seven original archangels up to and including that of St. Gregory the Dialogist at the end of the sixth century. In Jewish tradition, Samael plays several roles, none of them very positive. He is primarily identified as the angel of death. This was not in the sense in which the dragon, when cast down to Sheol, was made lord of the dead. Rather, Samael is the angel whom God sent to take lives and claim souls. Though not directly mentioned in the text of Exodus, traditionally he was responsible for the slaying of the firstborn at the Passover. He was likewise traditionally understood to be the angelic being seen in 2 Samuel / 2 Kingdoms 24:15 and in the parallel passage 1 Chronicles 21:15, killing the people of Jerusalem. He is also identified as the angel in 2 Kings / 4 Kingdoms 19:35 who in one night killed 185,000 members of the Assyrian army during their siege of Jerusalem.
As mentioned, Samael's duties included not only bringing about physical death in many cases, but also the claiming of souls and their delivery to Sheol, the underworld. God's preservation of the souls of the righteous from Sheol, therefore, took the form of preserving that soul from the hands of Samael. Here the role of Samael as the adversary (in Hebrew, Satan) begins to be seen. Jude 1:9 refers to a contest between St. Michael and Satan over the body of Moses.
Fr. Stephen goes on to explain that Samael, or the Satan, hated that Christ defeated death, voiding his job as the angel of death and rebelling and being cast from the divine council.In Luke 10:18, Christ says that through the ministry of his disciples, He has seen the Satan fall from heaven like lightning.
Humans were at times invited to the divine council in Heaven
Fr. Stephen goes on to explain that the prophet Elijah is now on the divine council as a result of him not dying and riding the flaming chariot to heaven. This is ultimately the goal of all of us, made so much easier that Christ defeated death by death. With humans on the divine council who have direct access to God, why would we not pray for saints to petition Christ on our behalf?...in Isaiah 6. Isaiah saw the Lord enthroned, "high and lifted up." Closest to the throne are the seraphim, whom he beheld worshiping Yahweh perpetually. When Yahweh spoke, however, it was not to command Isaiah. Rather it was to pose a deliberative question to the council gathering in which Isaiah was now present. The question -- "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" -- is not dissimilar to the scene in 1 Kings / 3 Kingdoms 22:19-20, where the question is posed to the council as to who will persuade Ahab. In that case, a spirit volunteered to go; in this case, Isaiah volunteered to bring the message of judgment to Israel.
The division of the Old Testament Law into three categories and discounting all but "moral" laws is nonsensical anti-biblical Protestant nonsense, and the Law still applies with its fulfillment in the Orthodox Catholic Church
John Calvin, perceives the Law as consisting of civil, ceremonial, and moral commandments [discounting all but the moral].
Only the Church can be said to be the direct continuation of Old Testament worship and fulfill its commandments.As tempting as it may be to parcel out portions of the Law that seem antiquated or irrelevant in Christ, however, this approach is problematic on several fronts. First and foremost, in Matthew 5, Christ is clear that every one of the commandments should be maintained "until the end of this age." It seems unlikely that by this last phrase Christ had meant until the Church begins, since by the time these words were recorded, the Church was already in existence. Indeed St. Matthew is directing his Gospel to the Church. Additionally, while civil, ceremonial, and moral may seem like logical or helpful categories, these distinctions are not found in the Scriptures, neither in the Torah itself nor in the New Testament. The Torah and its commandments are a coherent whole -- there are no actual divisions in the text that make some commandments important for Christians and others obsolete. What divisions or categories can be assigned are only heuristic or descriptive.
Just as the Law in its entirety is not compartmentalized into categories, the Ten Commandments-- a kind of microcosm of the Law-- is not subdivided, not even between the first four (which initially seem focused on the proper worship of God) and the final six (which seem more concerned with the proper functioning of human relationships). Idolatry is treated everywhere in Scripture as a moral offense, not a ceremonial one. The statements of moral offense in the Law are almost always accompanied by civil penalties that result from the violation of these commandments or ceremonial prescriptions for expunging the offense, or both. A typical commandment format might be, "If a man commits manslaughter, he shall be put to death unless he offers a ram and a young lamb as a sin offering." This is a simple example to show how a single commandment could fall into all three of the categorizations Calvin and others have proposed. Christ never taught only one-third of these commandments were to be done and taught. But even if He had, it would be difficult to identify the strictly moral laws in the Torah with certainty, given that so many of them overlap...
The alternative to picking and choosing which commandments Christians are to follow is to simply take what Christ said in St. Matthew's Gospel seriously. This does not entail following the Torahic commandments as they were followed in ancient Israel during the Second Temple period, or even by Orthodox Judaism today; neither does it mean to cast them aside as practically and spiritually irrelevant. Instead it means to understand and follow them in a richer, deeper way -- through Christ. In Christ, the Church is called to implement all the commandments in their lives in this more full sense. They have been filled full, to overflowing, by Christ.
Excommunication is the fulfillment of Old Testament commandments to cast people out for their sin
Excommunication from the Church community, the remedy for unrepentant sin throughout the New Testament, is the direct equivalent of exile from the Old Covenant community (see Matt. 18:17; 2 Thess 3:6; 1 Tim. 1:20. In addition to being expelled from the place where Christ dwells, one is excluded from eating from the Tree of Life, as fulfilled in the Eucharist, the ongoing source of life in the Kingdom (John 6:53-57). Far from being a "watering down" of the juridical penalties of the Law, excommunication from the Church community, as taught by the apostles and practiced by the Church through the centuries, is a direct application of the principles, and the penalties, of the Torah understood in their deepest sense.
The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century is a fantastic work that is apologetic, historical, and catechetical in nature. No matter your circumstances, I recommend this book, which goes well with a reading of the Orthodox Study Bible and its footnotes. I hope Fr. Stephen one day expands on this book with more citations in an academic version or writes a catechism for the Church in English.