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? 

The Word Became Flesh

Though he does not mention it explicitly, John begins his gospel with the cross. He looks ahead to the cross as the light’s decisive victory over the darkness. The darkness will seek to destroy the light, but the light will not be overcome(1:5).

These cosmic entities of light and darkness are not just abstractions for John. They are human characters. Jesus is the light and Satan is the darkness. Jesus is life, Satan is death. The setting is likewise not some cosmic plane. Our own world is both the stage in which they do battle and the prize for which they fight. Jesus, the awaited Messiah and rightful king of the world, has overcome the present “ruler of the world.” The darkness has been lifted.

As Jesus’ time draws near, he speaks to his disciples of the fate of the current ruler.

“Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of the world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die(12:31-32).

This casting out of Satan is the reason Jesus has come into the world. In defeating the one who holds the power of death, Jesus himself will seize eternal life. Death will no longer have any authority over his body.

It is this defeat of Satan that allows John to write of the cross as being for others. Everything Jesus gains, will be declared to those who believe(16:15). In attaining eternal life then, Jesus gives eternal life to those who believe. Jesus bears the cross so that all people might obtain eternal life(3:16).

For John, the flesh of Jesus is a necessity for this imputation of his eternal life to others. Jesus’ victory is of no use to flesh and blood if he himself is not flesh and blood. His body and our body must be of the same kind for us to receive his eternal body.

This is the primary way in which the writer understands the cross. Jesus has defeated the one who holds authority over death and in doing so achieved an eternal body. Any who eat of his flesh will receive the body that Jesus won(6:51).    

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Glorification of the Son of God

The raising of Lazarus is a strange story. Jesus could have prevented his friend’s death but chooses not to. He intentionally remains where he is for two days after hearing his friend is sick(11:6). Upon arriving, Martha, Lazarus’ sister, tells Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”(11:21).

Why would Jesus let him die? No one wants to die. The answer Jesus gives can be troubling. “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that Son of God may be glorified through it”(11:4). Has Jesus let his friend die merely so that he can display his power? So that people can come to believe in him?

While this is clearly a part of the reason(11:42), the glorification of the Son of God Jesus speaks of represents something quite different.

For John the evangelist, the raising of Lazarus serves as the impetus for the arrest and execution of Jesus by the chief priests and Pharisees(11:53). After this sign, they fear “everyone will believe in him(Jesus), and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation”(11:38).  It is not the incident in the Temple, as in the Synoptic Gospels, but this resurrection that sets into motion Jesus’ demise.

John believes that this demise is the very way in which Jesus will be glorified. The cross is the instrument of his glorification. This can be seen clearly in a couple passages.

During the last day of the Festival of Booths, Jesus proclaims that all who come to him will receive rivers of living water. This water is the Spirit, which was to come after Jesus is glorified(4:39). It is only until after his death and resurrection that Jesus breathes out his spirit onto the disciples(20:22).
The night before his death, Jesus begins his Farewell Discourse with the words, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”(12:23). This hour, he tells his disciples, troubles him(12:27).

Jesus does not orchestrate the raising of Lazarus merely so that others may believe. He orchestrates it so that he will be glorified through the outrage of the religious authorities. By raising Lazarus, Jesus clears a path by which he may be glorified. Glorified on a cross.

Election: A Blessing to All

Paul has a serious problem. The Gentiles in Rome are wondering why Israel has rejected her Messiah, her king. Is this not a sign that God has abandoned His people? Has the promise God made with Abraham been broken? If so, what’s to say God won’t abandon the Gentiles too? How can an unfaithful God be trusted?

Paul begins answering these questions by directing his readers’ attention to the story of Abraham. Why did God call him?

Ever since sin and death entered the world, God has desired to remake the world. This desire led God to call a people through whom creation might return to its former glory. God called Abraham and his descendants so that the whole world would be blessed(Genesis 22:18). God was going to reign on earth as he had in the beginning. Through Israel He would accomplish this. But now that Israel has rejected her Messiah, Paul says the Gentiles will carry on the promise given to Abraham.

Knowing this background allows us to better read the Letter to the Romans. Certain traditional readings should be rethought. For instance, God’s crafting of vessels of wrath is not an indication that God has predestined some to eternal hell(9:22-23). Likewise, the hatred God has for Esau before his birth does not represent God’s unconditional hatred for the non-elect(9:13). Instead, these comments are aimed at convincing Gentiles that they should not be proud of their current position as God’s elect. Whom God elects, is entirely up to God. The Gentiles, just as Israel before, did nothing to deserve it. At certain times God has used one people and not the other to carry out his purposes. Being called is not something to boast of(11:18).

The Gentiles would now fulfill the promises made to Abraham. They would be the people through whom God would reign as king on earth. This understanding of God’s promise to Abraham is crucial to understanding the letter. The election Paul writes of is not for the sake of the elect, but for the sake of the world.

God’s intention was always to bring all people into His family. Even Israel will not be estranged from God for long. Paul is certain Israel will return to her God. Though it appears God has given up on Israel, Paul says God never breaks his promises. “And so all Israel will be saved”(11:26). The Gentiles, as well as the Jews, will at one point participate in God’s restoration of the world as His elect.

The Sign of Jonah

In the Book of Acts, Luke describes the early Church as being one in mind and purpose. When the apostles receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they go out into the world to preach the one true message about Jesus.

The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas seems to contradict Luke’s description. The Gospel of Thomas, some scholars say, is early, possibly earlier than the Synoptic Gospels. Interestingly though, two of the most important aspects of catholic Christianity are absent in Thomas; the passion and the resurrection. It has thus been assumed that the early Christian community that created Thomas was not concerned with the passion, and perhaps, did not believe in the resurrection.

The Q Sayings Gospel, a hypothetical source for the shared material between Matthew and Luke, similarly calls into question the unity of the early Church on display in the book of Acts. Q, it is said, also lacks material about the resurrection and the cross. However, certain sayings of Q present evidence to the contrary. In my view, the Q community was not largely divergent from the Synoptic community.
One Q text is found in Matthew 12:39, with its equivalent in Luke 11:29.

An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Here, in response to unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus likens his own prophetic work to that of Jonah. Matthew, but not Luke, continues the thought “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth”(12:40). For Matthew, this is the obvious intention of Jesus in comparing himself to Jonah. Just as Jonah, Jesus will be redeemed from the grips of death and serve as a warning to the people. As a Jewish prophet, Jonah is unique in that his story is one of a kind of death and resurrection. There were many prophets of judgment Jesus could have identified with. If not for the reason that Jesus will also die and rise, why does Jesus identify specifically with Jonah?

Luke follows the Q verse with “For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation”(11:30). Luke and Matthew are in agreement. Jesus will become a sign in the manner that Jonah did. Luke’s logic of judgment falls apart otherwise. It is because Jesus will die and rise that Nineveh will be the rightful judge of this current generation(Lk 11:32). Nineveh believed the prophet who came out of the belly of the monster but the Pharisees will not believe the prophet who came out of the belly of the earth.

The verses in Matthew and Luke that follow the Q saying may be the creations of the late Church. Perhaps to interpret the sign of Jonah as they did, requires post resurrection faith. This seems highly implausible.

First, the verses in Matthew and/or Luke that proceed the Q saying may very well be from the Q document itself. There is absolutely no way to know when Q stops and the evangelist begins.

Second, in the minds of his Jewish contemporaries, “The sign of Jonah” would have heavily implied a kind of death and resurrection. What else could Jesus have meant by this? Why this prophet?

This, I believe, is strong evidence that the Q community, if it existed, thought of Jesus as the resurrected messiah, just as did Mark and the other Synoptic evangelists. There were no early Christian communities, as far as we know, that thought otherwise.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Follow Me

A rich man came to Jesus asking how he could attain eternal life. Jesus gives the expected answer; follow the Ten Commandments. Surprisingly, though, Jesus fails to mention the first four commandments. He lists those commandments regarding right behavior towards others but not those regarding right behavior towards God.

In these first four, idols and the worship of other gods are forbidden. Did Jesus think these commandments were irrelevant to attaining eternal life? Or did he just assume the man kept them because he was a Jew?

I don’t think any of these options work. Jesus did address these commandments but in an unexpected manner. A simple question would not have gotten to the heart of the man’s issue. Jesus knew the man did not recognize that his possessions were preventing him from worshiping God alone. Only a challenge would open the man’s eyes.

“You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me”(Mark 10:21).

Jesus does not giving him a new commandment about money, but reinterprets the old ones pertaining to God. The man’s failure consists in those commandments Jesus did not mention. His possessions are an idol, another god. He needs them and cannot part from them.

What is particularly striking about Jesus’ challenge though is not that he commands the man to give all these up. The striking thing is what he asks him to do afterwards. “Come follow me.” The claim Jesus is making is that once one’s idols are cast out, following Jesus is the way one worships God. For the man to follow the commandments he must give up his idol, money, and worship God alone.
To worship God, Jesus says, is to follow his son.  

This has implications on how we read the rest of Gospels. Jesus commands his followers to keep the Torah in Matthew 5:17-18, but he defines Torah in an unexpected way.

On the mount, he speaks of his teaching’s relation to Torah, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, not until heaven and earth pass away, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until it is all accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”(Mttw 5:17-19). And at the end of the sermon “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock”(Mttw 7:24). What we find is that The Sermon on the Mount is not another interpretation of Torah among many others. It is a redefinition of Torah. Jesus’ words are Torah.

Christians thus, are to obey Jesus’ words precisely because the Law and the prophets will not be abolished. Devotion to the Law must remain but its observance now consists in following Jesus. Jesus speaks the Law which the Torah was only a shadow of.

The first of the two greatest commandments then, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”(Mark 12:30) is made manifest by going after Jesus. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Brother Forever

The apostle Paul writes a letter from a prison cell. Handing the letter to his new friend through the bars, Paul tells him to take it home to his master. This friend is a runaway slave. Going home means severe punishment, maybe death. Why would Paul ask this of him?

The slave trusts Paul though. Paul has brought to eternal salvation. Perhaps Paul can now save him from his master’s wrath. Besides, as a slave he will not survive long apart from his master in the harsh Roman society.

He returns and hands the note to his angered master. While he anxiously awaits the verdict, he envisions two possible scenarios. His master may accept Paul’s message, welcoming him home, or reject it, tearing the letter up. Hoping for mercy but expecting punishment the slave waits.

Two thousand years later, this letter survives, canonized in the New Testament as Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. Though it is less than a page in length, this letter accomplished more for the slave than he could have imagined. It seems that even in prison Paul had his successes.

In writing the letter, Paul hopes to attain mercy for his friend, Onesimus. More than this though, he aims to transform the master’s entire mindset. He attempts this by offering this master, Philemon, to ascertain the significance the crucified Lord might have upon his relationship with Onesimus.  See, Philemon is also a Christian, a friend of Paul. He yet has something to learn from Paul about being a Christian.

For Paul, to become a Christian is to be adopted(Galatians 3:29). While a Roman man would adopt an orphan in order to acquire a male heir to ensure his family’s survival, Paul speaks of a God who has become the father of many adopted children at his own expense. In Jesus, the Gentiles have been adopted into the family of God. Acting as a surrogate for God, Paul speaks of Onesimus as his own son to make this clear to Philemon. Paul is adamant that Onesimus no longer belongs to Philemon. This slave is now Paul’s son.

I am appealing to you for my child, whose father I have become during my imprisonment(1:10).

Onesimus has been removed from one family and been grafted into Paul’s. As such, Philemon can no longer view Onesimus as his property. To do so would be to do violence to Paul. Philemon does not yet understand, but he and Onesimus are siblings, both graciously adopted by God. From now on, Onesimus and Philemon are not slave and master, but beloved brothers.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord(1:16).

Paul has made a claim on the life of Onesimus and brought him into his own family, the family of God, where “there is neither slave nor freedman”(Galatians 3:28). In doing so, he has pressured Philemon to act in light of this new reality. Paul asks only that he treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul. As his son, Onesimus is Paul’s very heart(1:12), and should be welcomed as if he were the Apostle himself(1:17). To do any less would be to reject the very one who brought Philemon his salvation. “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”(1:19). Philemon owes everything to Paul, and thus everything to God, who adopted him out of grace. How can he offer anything to Onesimus but mercy?

Next, Paul asks Philemon to consider if he can treat Onesimus as a slave at all. He states that he desires his son, Onesimus, to remain with him from now on(1:13). Philemon is to complete a certain “good deed”(1:14). In light of Paul’s desire, this good deed should unequivocally be taken as the release of Onesimus from his bonds.

 Paul could demand this explicitly but he “preferred to do nothing without your consent”(1:14). Here he teaches Philemon to think as a Christian, to be transformed by Jesus. The truth is Paul has sent Onesimus back so that they might not remain estranged but be reconciled as brothers.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, describes how brothers in Christ are to treat each other. In declaring the two brother, Paul is encouraging Philemon to ask what it means to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”(Philippians 2:5-8). What does it mean for Philemon to worship the Lord who took on the form of a slave?

The adoption enacted by God and made evident by Paul has radically altered the master and slave relationship, effectively replacing it with a fraternal one. One should ask, can slavery exist in any meaningful way between people who “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”(Philippians 2:3)?

Paul has accomplished what he set out to do. He has entirely disarmed Philemon. Philemon may be able to demand retribution from a slave, but can he from a beloved brother in the family of a gracious God? How can he make demands of Paul’s child, when he himself owes Paul his entire life?

Having finished the letter, Philemon is running out of time to act. Paul writes he will be visiting him once he is freed from his own bonds(1:22).

Philemon takes a deep breath. His eyes slowly lift from the paper and onto Onesimus who is fidgeting, staring at the ground. Hearing those words never before spoken between master and slave, Onesimus lifts his face. “Welcome home, brother.”

Taking him into his arms, Philemon continues, “Our friend Paul needs you to be with him from now on. Let me give you money for your trip.” 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

I Permit No Woman...

Paul’s conversion story has been and continues to be meaningful for countless Christians. Nobody rides horses today but who would pass up the opportunity to fall out of one’s vehicle of choice and see that blinding light? Maybe like Paul, your life would be forever changed for the better. At one moment persecuting Christians as a violent Pharisees and at the next writing the poem we read at weddings.

One thing remains perplexing and troubling though. If Paul came to love Jesus, the one he says “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross”(Philippians 2:7-8), why do his views on women seem so self-serving and patriarchal? Would Jesus, who praised Mary for leaving her “many tasks” at home to come be a disciple at his feet, speak of women the way Paul speaks of women(Luke 10:38-42)? Would Paul belittle the women who supported Jesus’ ministry, caring for him at the cross when all the male disciples had fled in fear(Mark 15:40-41)?  Some Pauline texts suggest he would. How then, can a Christian follow the example of Paul who in 1 Timothy 2 argues women should have no authority over men because Eve was the one who sinned? Adam, he assures us, was only deceived.

A common response to Paul’s apparent misogyny is to point out that he did not in fact write many of the letters contained in the New Testament. For instance, very few scholars believe Paul actually wrote 1 Timothy or Titus, though they bear his name. If these two letters do not represent the views of Paul then some of the harshest language against women in the New Testament belongs not to the apostle, but to later writers.

One text that cannot be dealt with this easily is 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36.

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

1 Corinthians is considered one of the 7 “undisputed letters” of Paul. Scholars are in agreement that Paul penned it. This text presents what I would consider to be the only evidence that the historical Paul forbid women from speaking in his churches. Some scholars though argue that even this text is on shaky ground. Perhaps the most damaging argument to its authenticity is that the ancient manuscripts are not in agreement as to where it goes in 1 Corinthians. Some have these verses after 14:40. This suggests that the verses were a note at some point placed in the margin that later scribes tried to fit appropriately into the text. These scribes did not agree as to where it went because it was not originally in the letter.

The internal evidence against the verses is also striking. What law forbids women to speak and commands them to be subordinate? There seems to be no such law in the Law of Moses. In addition this is not how Paul argues in his undisputed letters. The Law is neither the model of right living nor the reason for right living. In 2 Corinthians 3, in fact, Paul calls the Law of Moses “the ministry of death” and says the ministry of the Spirit has replaced the Law, setting it aside(3:10-11). Paul’s vision of ethics comes from the story of Jesus not from the Law. For instance, in Romans 8, Paul argues for right living on the basis that the spirit of Jesus lives in those who believe. Or in Philippians 2 where he encourages his readers to love simply because Jesus loved.

Finally, despite what this text teaches, there are places in the undisputed letters where it is clear that Paul has given women positions of authority. He names Phoebe a minister(Romans 16:1),  and calls Junia one prominent among the apostles(Romans 16:7). A woman named Chloe appears to be his messenger for the church in Corinth(1 Corinthians 1:11). Most damning to the text in question comes from 1 Corinthians itself. In 11:5 Paul implies that it is right for women to both pray and prophesy in his church. How then, can he write only three chapters later “women should be silent in the churches”?

If this text is inauthentic, as it appears to be, Paul’s words in Galatians can and should be considered one of the most radical claims ever made in the ancient world. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”(3:28). The experience Paul had of Jesus truly changed his life. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Defilement of the Pharisees 2: A Renewed Israel

The claim of N.T Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, is that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish eschatological prophet. Jesus thus carries on the tradition of the Prophets before him, proclaiming a coming judgment if Israel does not repent. With this established, Wright believes much of the content in the Synoptic Gospels fit well the profile of a Jewish eschatological prophet. For instance, he reads The Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ challenge to Israel to become the nation God always intended her to be. 

Jesus’ call for Israel to be a shining city on a hill then is a call for her to bring her God to all peoples. Through the leadership of Jesus, Israel will finally fulfill God’s promise to Abraham; that through him and his descendants the entire world would be blessed(Genesis 12:3). In receiving a renewed heart, Israel will become a blessing to those who have been for so long estranged from God.

The evangelist who makes this point most strongly is certainly Matthew. Jesus in Matthew has a unique mission to be the good shepherd the Pharisees and the priests have failed to be. His leadership will restore Israel and bring about this blessing. The defining characteristic of Israel will no longer be sacrifices(9:13, 12:7); it will be a heart that loves God and neighbor. For Matthew, once Israel can do this she will then be a blessing to the nations.

With this in mind, we can now begin to deal with the difficult texts; those that suggest that for Matthew, Jesus’ mission was only for the Jews. In chapter 10 Jesus sends out the twelve “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(10:5-6). Wright points out that the twelve he sends are representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. This particular mission then, is symbolic of the restoration of Israel. Through this restoration, God’s promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled. Consequently, this saying does not mean Matthew thought Jesus and his disciples avoided Gentiles throughout the entire ministry. Matthew’s text itself proves this is not the case.

Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus blesses Gentiles, healing a centurion’s servant(8:5-13), and exorcising the Gadarene demoniacs(8:28-34). The scene with the centurion is remarkable because Jesus tells him, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will sit with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”(8:1-12). For Matthew, many Jews and much of their leadership will not make it into the restored Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven. This centurion and many other Gentiles like him will partake in God’s blessings instead.

Matthew also takes from Mark the story of the Syrophoenician woman along with its entire greater context. There is some indication however that Matthew did not perceive how Mark was using the story. Notably, Matthew adds to it an urging on the part of his disciples to send her away and a saying about mission on the lips of Jesus.  

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment(Matthew 1522-28).

It seems that Matthew has tried to make clearer what he believes to be the plain meaning of the text in Mark. Jesus did not come to bless the Gentiles, only the Jews.

This reading is problematic. How can Jesus say he was only sent to Israel when his actions speak otherwise?  Earlier in the gospel we saw him heal gentiles and proclaim a Kingdom including both Jew and Gentile. Perhaps rather than being a statement to the woman, verse 24 is a question to the disciples. “Was I sent only to the house of Israel?” Having seen the blessings given to Gentiles already, do the disciples really believe that Jesus was sent only for the house of Israel? Matthew then has Jesus ask the woman the same question in the form of a riddle as in Mark. She sees what the disciples do not and is commended for her faith. She understands Jesus’ teachings about defilement. The Israel Jesus comes to call is not concerned with washing or food laws or temple sacrifices or even circumcision. The true Israel is concerned with inner purity, a renewed heart.

Matthew’s Jesus freely heals the Gentiles and states clearly that those who enter the Kingdom will not necessarily be those who were expected to inherit it. If read in light of God’s promises to Abraham, Jesus’ sending of his disciples exclusively into Israel in chapter 10 is not further exclusion of Gentiles but the enacting of their full inclusion by means of restoring Israel. Matthew then, along with Mark and Luke presents a Jesus who invites all who will follow. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tying up the Strongman

The Beelzebul Controversy of Mark 3 reveals that no one, not even his enemies, denied that Jesus exorcised demons. He was well known, perhaps best known, for being a powerful exorcist. Expectedly then, The Synoptic Gospels, present Jesus performing exorcisms frequently. Instead of turning water into wine, the very first public act of Jesus’ power in Mark and Luke is the cleansing of a man with an evil spirit. From the time he starts his public career, Jesus is engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Jesus enters a world in which Satan has obtained authority over all the kingdoms(Mttw 4:8-10, Lk 4:5-7). He must act to restore God’s creation, freeing it from the control of Satan.

This restoration is the good news Jesus proclaims. However, it is not until after being tempted in the wilderness that Jesus begins to make this proclamation. Jesus must tie up Satan before he can bring the reign of God.
Jesus asserts this during the Beelzebul Controversy.

And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house”(Mark 3:22-27).

The scribes are correct that Jesus has the power to cast out demons but they do not understand where this power comes from. In seeing the kingdom of Satan falling they assume Satan has become divided. Jesus, possessed by a demon, is casting out demons.

The truth of the matter though is that one greater than Satan has come. Jesus tied up the strongman in the wilderness and is now freely plundering his kingdom with the exorcism of demons. Those in Satan’s grips are being freed because Satan cannot stand.

Matthew and Luke include in their version of the controversy, “But if it by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom has come to you”(Mttw 12:28, Lk 11:20). Exorcisms are the manifestation of one kingdom replacing another.

The definitive blow to the kingdom of Satan comes when Satan is dethroned. In the request of James and John for thrones of power(Mark 10), Jesus reveals his means of dethroning Satan. Jesus himself will be seated in a throne but it will be a throne of weakness rather than power. The cross is his throne. In taking it up he will overthrow Satan.

Many of the elements of a royal coronation and enthronement are present in Mark’s passion narrative. Jesus is robed in purple, crowned with thorns, and mockingly paid homage. Though those witnessing his crucifixion are blind to the truth, the true messiah, the ruler of the whole world, is being made king before their eyes. Satan falls like lightning as Jesus is lifted up. In secret, like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of God has entered the world.