Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Matthew's Nativity

In his birth story, chapters 1-2, Matthew attempts to improve Mark in two significant ways.

Firstly, in Matthew, Jesus is not just Son of God at his baptism, he is Son of God at birth. In the Hebrew Bible, the nation of Israel is the Son of God(Ex 4:22, Hosea 11:1). Similarly, David and the Davidic kings, as representatives of Israel are also Sons of God(Psalm 1). In Mark’s Gospel, it is at the baptism that Jesus begins to recapitulate Israel’s history. He comes out of the waters, receives both theophany and anointing of God’s spirit, is named beloved son, and is finally driven into the wilderness to be tempted. Matthew of course, retains this baptism schema, but begins Jesus’ recapitulation of Israel’s history at his birth.

Besides attaching Jesus to the line of Abraham, the father of Israel, and David, the king of Israel, Matthew likens Jesus’ birth to the birth of the greatest of Hebrew prophets, Moses. Jesus’ birth contains elements of both Moses’ birth and the exodus of Israel. This exodus of Jesus though, is an exodus not from the king of Egypt, but from the unworthy king of Israel, Herod.

Just as the infant Moses escaped from the hand of Pharaoh, the infant Jesus escaped from the hand of Herod by fleeing to Egypt. Just as God took His son Israel out of Egypt, God too redeems His son Jesus from Egypt. Matthew ends his birth story with a quote from Hosea 11:1 “Out of Egypt I have called my son” which signals the reader to look and see how Jesus’ early life as just narrated figures the history of Israel. As such, Matthew hopes to show his readers that Jesus’ beginnings follow a familiar pattern. For those with eyes to see, Jesus truly is the climax of Israel’s history.

Secondly, and more importantly, the birth story functions to foreshadow Jesus’ climactic recapitulation of Israel’s history in his own final days. Matthew, as with the other Gospels, is at heart an apology for the idea of a crucified Messiah. Its purpose is to answer the question, “How could a man who died on a Roman cross be the Messiah of Israel?” Besides the proof afforded by the resurrection, Matthew tells his passion story in such a way that he too can say with Paul, “Christ died and was raised in accordance with the scriptures.

The death and resurrection in Matthew are replete with images from the Exodus, Israel’s founding story. Jesus likens his death to a baptism, he establishes a new covenant in his own blood, and he finishes the final cup of the Passover on the cross. So if Jesus relives the exodus in his first days, he more so relives the exodus in his last days. As he did with Israel, God faithfully raises Jesus up from the waters, from the grave.

In addition, the ingathering of the nations into Israel which is foreshadowed by the declaration of the centurion at the cross is itself foreshadowed by the adoration of the magi. The new Israel reconstituted by Jesus in his calling of the Twelve will include the faithful Gentiles as well as faithful Jews.  

The Gospel of Matthew is a brilliant attempt at Christian Midrash. Matthew successfully shows how God’s salvation of Israel was figured in His salvation of Israel through Jesus.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Grace is Enough

In my last post I attempted to show that the heart of Paul’s gospel is human participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. United with Christ, the believer plunges into the grave and is raised up into new life. The old passes away and there is new creation. The sin-enslaved body which gives death as its wage is crucified and the spiritual body is raised to life. Sin lies defeated, no longer able to work death in the believer.

In each movement, the believer is with Christ and is in Christ. Christ undoes death by death. In summary, “One has died for all; therefore all died”(2 Cor 5:15).

We can lay out Paul’s thought in four basic propositions. 1-Christ took on our vulnerable flesh. 2-Christ destroyed our flesh on the cross. 3-God faithfully raised Christ to new, bodily life. 4-Christ’s new body, though similar to ours, can never again be touched by death.

This is the story Paul compels his readers to take part in. Baptism serves as the symbol of our participation with Christ(Romans 6:4).

If this participatory interpretation of Paul’s theology is not yet fully convincing, we may look to Paul’s life for further insight. If participation is truly central to Paul’s gospel, his self-understanding should reflect this.

2 Corinthians 10-13 appears to be a useful place to start. Here we find Paul’s defense of his ministry to his church in Corinth. It is his most zealous and passionate writing. Many scholars believe it to be the “Letter of Tears” referenced in 2 Corinthians 2:4.

At this point in Paul’s ministry, everything he had been working for in Corinth appeared to be falling apart. His church was being torn from his arms by a group of Christian apostles. These “super-apostles,” as he calls them, convinced many Corinthians to reject Paul. It is here at this point of desperation that Paul pens arguably his finest work.

To win back his children Paul seeks to prove that he is truly qualified to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The super-apostles had made the Corinthians well aware of Paul’s dubious credentials as an apostle. Paul wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, nor did he ever meet Jesus. He didn’t even have a letter of recommendation from a real apostle!   

There was even more damning evidence brought against Paul by the super-apostles. Here is what classified Paul as a pseudo-apostle.

“Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way”(2 Cor 11:7-9).

The super-apostles had persuaded the Corinthians to doubt Paul’s ministry because of his refusal to receive payment. “Surely a true apostle requires compensation,” the Corinthians thought, “Really valuable, life-changing messages don’t come cheap. How can someone who lives in poverty be worthy of honor?”

Undoubtedly, these super-apostles influencing the church were quite impressed with themselves; so impressed that they expected a worthy payment. They had wealth, power, charisma and success; all things Paul never obtained. In a culture that believed Heaven rewarded the honorable and punished the shameful, the super-apostles were apparently upstanding gentlemen. So upon arriving in Corinth their question concerning Paul was simple. Is Paul a man of honor or of shame? Could he, a man apparently stricken by God, really be a true apostle?
Here is how Paul decided to answer.

“But whatever anyone dares to boast of-I am speaking as a fool-I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman-I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship and thirsty, often without food, cold, and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble and I am not indignant?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus(blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor, under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands”(2 Cor 11:21-33)

In a breathless list of persecutions, anxieties, vulnerabilities, and humiliations, Paul makes the case for his apostleship. The Corinthians now have an extended list of reasons to abandon Paul. In a culture of honor and shame, Paul brings only those things which bring him disgrace to the forefront. How does he expect to persuade anyone? He explains himself,

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with my weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong”(2 Cor 12:7-10).

In Paul’s eyes, the cross of Christ, the weakness of Christ, has proven the world upside down. What the world deems wisdom is foolishness. What it deems success is failure. If Christ, the one worthy of all honor, died in shame on a cross, all human accomplishments are reduced to nothing. Nothing remains unaltered by this single fact. He now sees his weaknesses as strengths. In his weaknesses, he experiences Christ. Therefore, Paul will only boast in the cross and the salvation it brings.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”(Philippians 3:10-11).

Knowing Christ through sharing in his sufferings has become the only desire of Paul’s heart. With his heart and mind transformed, he understands what boasting truly means. The one who boasts in strength proves himself estranged from Christ. Anyone who scorns weakness has refused to die with Christ. There is no salvation, no new life, apart from death in Christ. In every beating, every flogging, Paul dies with Christ. In every anxiety, persecution, and hardship he is with Christ and Christ is with him. He in Christ and Christ in him.

The cross-shaped communities Paul sought to establish and maintain were under constant threat of being undone because of the vision of the cross espoused by the super-apostles. Theirs is an incredibly attractive vision, but one that lacks the full force of Christ crucified. It does not bid man to come and die so that he may truly live. Nor does it reveal the one great truth, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

To accept the cross-less gospel is to abandon Christ. To miss the meaning of the cross is to miss everything. In weakness and suffering, the Christian must participate in the death of Christ. There is no hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrected life if the cross is traded for worldly strength and success.
For this reason alone, Paul chose to persuade his children with a list of his weaknesses and failures.

These autobiographical passages have presented us not just with evidence, but with the fullest, most sublime expression of Paul’s participatory vision. In every instance Paul envisioned his ministry as participation in the cross of Christ. His profound understanding of Christ and his cross unquestionably make him worthy not just of the title apostle, but Apostle of the Lord.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Found in Him

The Apostle Paul was constantly fighting an uphill battle. Among the Gentiles his message of the cross was mocked as foolishness, devoid of any profitable wisdom. Worse still, it was declared a curse from God by his own people. Despite this, Paul took his unattractive message of the crucified Messiah into these cultures of beauty, power and wisdom.

But what was it about the cross that Paul found so compelling? Reading his letters it becomes apparent that he found in the cross a moment of incomparable salvation. Though paradoxical, the power of God was on display at the crucifixion; power to reduce even the wisest to complete foolishness.

To understand the Pauline vision of the cross we look to 2 Corinthians 5 as an outline and then Romans 5-8 for a fuller exposition.  

“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”(2 Cor 5:14-15)

The idea that Christ died for all is agreeable to most Christians. Perhaps less agreeable though, is Paul’s declaration that through Christ’s death, everyone died. Christ’s death and the Christian’s death are inseparably tied in Paul’s thought.

One should ask then, what is gained from the death of the believer? For Paul, the death of the believer meant a freedom from slavery to sin which he believed was the universal condition of humanity(Romans 3:9). This salvation affected by the cross is the transformation of one’s very nature.

Christ’s death, and thus our death through participation in his, allows us to live no longer for ourselves but for Christ. This is the beauty of the cross for Paul. The self-seeking life, the one which pays death as its wage is undone(Romans 6:23). The resurrected life of Christ is now available to all.

“From now on, therefore we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:16-21)

To the believer, a profoundly new way of understanding Christ and his cross has become apparent. It is neither a stumbling stone, nor foolishness any longer, but the very power of God to renew the whole of creation. Paul calls this salvation more precisely reconciliation, the making of peace. The believer is reconciled to God because of Christ.  

Now, some have interpreted this reconciliation as a kind of appeasement of God’s wrath. That through Christ’s death, God was no longer wrathful at the world. This misreading cannot, fortunately, be reconciled with the text. The fundamental problem at the heart of everything for Paul, is not a wrathful God but a wrathful, rebellious creation. Creation can do nothing but rebel as she is enslaved to sin having a mind set on the flesh.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s laws-indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:6-8)

For Paul, hostility and death are tied to the life of the flesh, but peace and life are tied to the life of the spirit. What the cross does for humanity then, is unshackle us from the life of wrath towards God. The creation, despite her trespasses, is made new by Christ. She is finally at peace with her Creator.

It seems common to have this understanding of God exactly backwards. But does God need appeasement before He can love? Is not His every movement compelled by love?

Romans 5:9 can be a stumbling block for this understanding. Most translations read “saved through him[Christ] from the wrath of God.” The translators have assumed the words “of God” as they do not appear in the Greek. Based on its context though, we must take this verse to be describing salvation from our own wrath, not God’s. Paul correctly calls all people ungodly, sinners and enemies of God(5:6,8,10). Despite all this, he says, God sent Christ to die for us because of love. It is clear then, that we are the hostile enemies of God, not the other way around. We have broken the peace, and severed the relationship, not God. With steadfast endurance we violently resist the God of peace. All of this to say that despite our hatred for Him, God’s fundamental posture towards His creation is love and pity. Through our death in Christ, God has offered us a way to put an end to our hostility.

Therefore, Romans 5-8 also supports a view of the cross that is participatory rather than penal. We may now resume our analysis of 2 Corinthians 5.

Back to our 2 Corinthians passage, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) The first half of this verse is initially difficult to understand. The struggle, I believe, stems from the pre-existing framework we have brought to the text. Though Christians often come to this passage with a penal understanding of the cross, it just will not fit. Paul has not all of a sudden ceased to think of the cross in terms of participation. Remember, “Christ died for all; therefore all died.”

For clarity we must turn to Romans once again. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7) Notice first, the lack of retribution language in both of these texts describing the cross. Christ’s death here is not a kind of punishment for humanity’s sins. Instead, the believer participates in Christ’s death and resurrection. By doing so, he gains freedom from his sinful nature(body of sin). The believer hands over his sinful body to Christ so that it too might be crucified.

“He made him to be sin” Here Paul is setting out to prove that the body of Christ that was on the cross is analogous to our own sinful bodies. This is very important for Paul. Christ’s death is only effective for us if his body is like our bodies. Christ, though he was blameless, became a body of sin, our body of sin, and destroyed it once and for all.

The effect of this death therefore, is not forgiveness per se, but new life. Just as God was faithful to raise Jesus to new life, He is in the same way faithful to the believer. Our new life, as with Christ’s resurrected life, is no longer vulnerable to sin and death. In becoming the very righteousness of God, the believer lives a life of the spirit. The sinful body can no longer compel him on towards destruction.

Thus, at the center of Paul’s thought is participation in the death and new life of Jesus Christ, our Lord. In the death of Christ, weakness has become power, sin has become righteousness, hostility has become peace, death has become life upon life, and the repulsive cross has become unimaginable beauty. What is foolishness to the world has proven to be the pearl of greatest price. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”(Philippians 3:8).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Statement of Faith: Scripture

I’m going to write here a couple of posts of commentary on a typical evangelical church “Statement of Faith.” I find these documents fascinating as windows into the thinking and thus practice of many churches. The instinct to codify the foundational teachings is a noble and necessary endeavor that is as old as the church itself(1 Cor 13, Apostle’s Creed).

The sometimes dubious texts used to support the doctrines presented here and in other statements prove that Christians must be vigilant in the pursuit of sound exegesis. The pull to read into the text is strong and ever present. So here ya go.

The Scriptures or Bible
We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the verbally inspired word of God, the final authority for faith and life, inerrant in the original writings, infallible, and God-breathed. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21; Matthew 5:8; John 16:12-13)

This church understandably begins with its views on the scriptures. This arrangement is certainly common but remains outside of orthodoxy. The Bible cannot be the starting point for Christians because the scriptures were unequivocally not the starting point for the first Christians.

Christians, uniquely among religions, believe a person is the truth, not a book. John the Evangelist tells us this in his epilogue. Paul also calls Jesus “the image of God,” something he never uses for his scriptures. The NT writers were adamant that Jesus of Nazareth is the truth about God and the truth about everything. Nothing and no one else will do. This Jewish peasant carrying his execution stake up the Hill of Calvary is the full and total revelation of who God is and who God has always been. For this reason the center of the Christian faith has always been the historical person and work of Jesus and should remain so. But why did the sacred authors of the NT claim such a thing about this man? The answer lies in a single historical event they claimed forever changed their perception of reality.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, that this particular event affected each of the twelve disciples three days after the crucifixion of their rabbi. The belief of the twelve that Jesus was raised from the dead by God is the sole reason the church began and the sole reason we have the NT writings. Resurrection proved for the disciples that God was faithful to his servant, their Lord. Paul declares this clearly in 1 Corinthians 13, and also says that in raising him up from the dead, God appointed Jesus as son, proving him righteous and true (Romans 1). So without the resurrection, Jesus is nothing but a peasant crushed by Rome. He is not Messiah, Son of Man, nor Savior.

The fidelity of the NT documents also hangs upon whether or not Jesus got up after the crucifixion. If what these authors experienced of Jesus is true, then their message, preserved for us, is also true. The Evangelists, Paul and the rest of the NT authors eagerly, sincerely and reliably point to this single historical event which vindicated the words and deeds of Jesus. For the earliest Christians, the resurrection of Jesus meant that the story of his life really matters; it meant he matters more than the Jewish scriptures, more than any revelation of God ever given. Nothing is outside of the supremacy of Jesus for the Christian.

Which leads us into the Old Testament. It is important to appreciate that as Jesus travelled from village to village, he met with fierce opposition from those who read the Jewish scriptures the most, not the least. While he was alive, those who knew the scriptures saw little that was special about Jesus. The Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees certainly did not believe the scriptures testified to him! But this is the very point the Gospels strive to make. Jesus didn’t make sense to most Torah observant Jews. Those who saw him alive after crucifixion had no choice but to read the OT in light of him.  If God raised Jesus from the dead, then Jesus is the truth that all other truths are subject to.

All of this goes to say that there is no Christian way to read the as the “verbally inspired word of God, the final authority for faith and life, inerrant in the original writings, infallible, and God-breathed” without first understanding the absolute centrality of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

The kind of descriptors being used for the Bible here is also concerning. All of them seem good and true, but they set the reader up for failure. There is no acknowledgement that the Bible is a library of books by many different human authors, some of whom did not agree. A plain reading of the texts as if they are a whole does not produce the singular voice that this statement suggests. If what binds all the books of scripture together is their attestation to Christ, as Jesus claims on the road to Emmaus, we need to do a better job expressing the limitations and purposes of the Bible. If we enter into the whole of the scriptures with the expectation of absolute, plain truth about anything and everything, we will undoubtedly find a God that looks little like Jesus.

At best this church’s initial statement of faith simply ignores the historical and contextual issues related to reading the Bible. At worst, it condones the belief that the Bible is the Truth which only Jesus can truly provide. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

For He Will Save His People

I want to look at one of the ways Matthew makes sense of the cross. Fortunately, Matthew tells gives us his answer up front. His messiah is named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins”(1:21).

I am going to suggest that Matthew believes Jesus accomplishes this salvation in a three-step process. First, Jesus becomes a surrogate for idolatrous Israel. He is the new Israel, the Israel that rejects the idols of violence and power.

Second, as the faithful Israel, Jesus takes upon himself the natural consequences of her infidelity. With great mercy, God, acting through Jesus, saves His people from the consequences of their sins, utter destruction at the hands of the Romans. The violence and evil of Israel will be the very means through which He accomplishes this.

Third, Jesus sends out his disciples to the ends of the earth to call a new people of God, one which displays devotion through love and mercy. In this new community, cross-shaped love, not the sword, will be the means by which the kingdom is brought to earth.

In regards to the first point, Matthew relates the story of Israel to the story of Jesus in a number of ways. Matthew tells us that Jesus is called out of Egypt as a child(2:21). He is lifted out of the waters of the Jordan, just as Israel was lifted out of the Red Sea(3:16). He is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days without food(4:2). He goes up the mountain to receive and then reveal the Law of God(5:1). Jesus reenacts the story of Israel. In a very important way though, Jesus is different from Israel. He does not go after idols but remains faithful to God.  

Jesus’ final temptation is exemplary of this. When offered all the kingdoms, the very things Israel has desired for so long, he refuses. In this act, Matthew tells us, Jesus worships God alone. He does not succumb to the idols of power and authority. Unlike Israel, he desires only to do the will of God. In her constant pursuit of power, Israel reveals she is not concerned with God. The very expectation of a warrior messiah who will defeat the Romans is a product of this idolatry. Revolt after revolt, she tries to restore her kingdom. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force”(11:12). The logical end to this rebellion will be her destruction; the destruction of the people of God. The means through which God will restore the whole world will be no more. God will fail.

From here we are in a position to make sense of Jesus’ insistence on the cross and his teachings on retaliation. Nonviolence is not just the will of God it is to be the sign of Israel’s devotion to God. The people of Israel are to be peacemakers, love their enemies, and greet those who hate them. They are to be persecuted for righteousness sake. These acts will be the proof of Israel’s rejection of idols. Jesus himself will embody this ethic in the most radical way. He will love his enemies to the point of allowing them to destroy him. Jesus will forgo the wide path of the sword and instead, take the narrow path of the cross. This is his obedience to God. This is the obedience Israel could not accomplish.  

This leads us into the second point. Though he does not take up the sword, he will be punished as if he did. Upon a cross, the scourge of rebels, Jesus will relinquish his life.

At a moment of extreme political tension, Jesus takes the punishment Israel deserved. This was to be the moment of the destruction of Israel. She would receive the wages of her sins. During this Passover, Israel would attempt to restore her kingdom and be forever crushed under the weight of Rome. Barabbas and the two rebels at Jesus’ right and left would be the instigators of this catastrophe.

God though, does not give up on His unfaithful people. Jesus steps into the mess, offering up his body and blood for Israel. At the perfect moment, Israel’s fervor is diverted away from Barabbas and onto Jesus. An entire nation that desires the violent defeat of the Romans calls for the blood of Jesus(27:25), the very blood to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins(26:28). In Jesus’ death peace is secured; unfaithful Israel receives life and forgiveness in exchange for her disobedience.

In addition to saving Israel from her sins, Jesus offers her a new way to be God’s people. A way that leads to life instead of death. She is to seek the Kingdom of Heaven by giving up the desire for power. The pagans will know her as God’s people by her love of mercy, service and humility. This is true devotion to God. This is how the people of God will escape the wrath of the pagans.

For Matthew this is the most important way in which the cross is a moment of great salvation. God’s plan to restore the whole world is not thwarted by the sin of His people. Israel is saved and called to embody Jesus in the world. The cross, and not the sword, is how the kingdom will come. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sit At My Right Hand

In the Gospel of Mark, a chair is not simply a chair. Rather, the seat one takes is the indicator of one’s social worth. At each meal, everyone takes his proper place at the table. The powerful sit with the powerful in the highest positions and the weak sit with the weak in the lowest positions. To sit in a better seat is to demand respect from those below you.

Naturally, the characters in the Gospel desire the highest seats. Thinking that Jesus will receive the seat above all others as Messiah, the disciples come to him asking for thrones on his right and left. As friends of the king of Israel, they expect to receive the very best seats, seats above those of the current rulers of Israel, the priests and the scribes.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”(Mark 10:35-45).

James and John have no idea what it means to sit at Jesus’ left and right in glory. Just as the scribes who like to have the “best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets”(12:39), the disciples likewise desire to take seats above others. They want to be powerful and respected too. Jesus responds by redefining greatness, or rather, by correctly defining greatness. Being great means taking the worst seat, putting one’s self last. One who is great renounces power and refuses praise from men.    

This error of the disciples stems from a misunderstanding of the Messiah. They, along with the scribes, believe he will be a king as David was a king. He will be a son of David in the sense that he will rule Israel, and then the world, as a political and military tyrant. The scribes use psalm 110 to support this vision of the Messiah. In typical fashion, Jesus turns the scripture against them.

“Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’
David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”

Jesus’ claim is that the Messiah will be greater than David. David himself calls the Messiah “Lord.” If a son inherits the traits of his father, the Messiah will not be a son of David. The Messiah is someone entirely different. Do not expect another king like David.

This does not mean that Jesus does not fulfill the scriptures.  It means that he fulfills them in an entirely new and unexpected way. Jesus will sit in the greatest seat, the one at the right hand of God, but few will notice it. His seat will be the cross.

From the cross, Jesus’ enemies are put under his feet.

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the Temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’(15:29-30)

The word used for “come down” in this verse is καταβαίνω. Κατα means “down” and βαίνω is a verb for “go” or “step.” It is closely related to the word for foot, βάσις. If Mark wished to convey a simple going down he could have used κατέρχομαι which has no relation to feet or the act of stepping. Through this choice of καταβαίνω, Mark suggests that Jesus was asked to step down from his cross by his enemies. The mocking voices come from below Jesus’ feet. The rulers of Israel have truly seen “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”(14:62).

In choosing the lowest seat in the world, the seat reserved for slaves and criminals, Jesus has chosen the greatest seat in the Kingdom of God. Taking up one’s cross and following Jesus means sitting in the worst seat. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Resurrection Now?

Those who believe Colossians and Ephesians were not written by Paul often appeal to their teachings on resurrection. On this issue, it seems these letters do not match the undisputed Pauline letters. While Romans and 1 Corinthians speak of resurrection as a future hope, Colossians and Ephesians present resurrection as a present reality for those believe. For this reason, most scholars consider Colossians and Ephesians to not be from the hand of Paul.

The evidence is rather convincing. In Romans 6, Paul is careful to show that believers have only experience Christ’s death, not yet his resurrection.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Chris Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him”(6:3-8).

The closest Paul comes to proclaiming a present resurrection in his undisputed letters is also in Romans. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”(6:11). They must consider themselves to be risen despite the fact that the resurrection has not yet come.

In the Letter to the Colossians though, this language of future glory is absent. Instead, the resurrection is spoken of as already having taken place. “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead”(2:13).
One writer preaches a baptism into death, and another writer a baptism into death and into life.

One method of arguing for the authenticity of Colossians and Ephesians is to say that Paul’s theology developed over the course of his life. The undisputed letters then, represent an earlier theology of baptism and resurrection while the “disputed” letters represent a latter development in his thought.
Those who find this argument convincing will also often claim that the Pastoral Letters of Paul, including 2 Timothy, are similarly authentic. The problem with this is that 2 Timothy, a letter which claims to be written in the last days of Paul’s life, attacks those who believe the resurrection has already occurred.

“As for me, I am being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”(2 Timothy 4:6-7).

“Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place”(2 Timothy 2:17-18).

If one were to only have the Letter to the Colossians, he could not be blamed for believing that the resurrection had already occurred. The writer of 2 Timothy has set out against just such teachings.

It seems, then, that Paul could not have written both Colossians and 2 Timothy. Either his theology developed later in his life as is seen in Colossians and Ephesians, or he remained adamant that believers had not yet experienced resurrection. If 2 Timothy is authentic, then even in his last days Paul was teaching against this false doctrine of present resurrection. It would be truly perplexing if all of these letters were by the same person. What other ways are there to make sense of them?