Monday, October 31, 2011

Believing In Him (part 5)

As he continues to build from his question of “what advantage does the Jew have…?” (3:1a), which has led to his declaration that “Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin” (3:9b), Paul accelerates the process of leveling out all people before God, thus contributing to his efforts towards Gentile inclusion under the covenant through the declaration of faith in Jesus rather than the works of the law (current covenant markers), as he pieces together disparate statements from the Psalms and from Isaiah, writing “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God” (3:10-11).  This would certainly be more than a bit deflationary to his Jewish listeners. 

He continues with “All have turned away,” as we note the importance of “all” to Paul both in Romans and in the remainder of the Pauline corpus (always remembering, in all that he writes, that he is the Apostle to the Gentiles), “together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one” (3:12).  This is quite the accusation, and it probably deserves to be heard together with the ringing accusations of the first chapter, which can be applied to Jew and Gentile alike.  Because these verses are prefaced by reference to “Jews and Greeks,” we also hear Paul co-opting words from the Psalms that were originally penned as polemics against the enemies of the king of Israel, so also enemies against Israel and Israel’s God, and re-deploying them as polemics against all peoples, both Jews and Greeks.  All are placed under God’s judgment.  Even in judgment, the equality of all peoples before God is paramount, regardless of the sources of equality.  So, regardless of what Israel may say or think about itself, Paul, by utilizing the language used by members of Israel and reserved for their enemies or the enemies of their covenant God, groups Jews and Greeks together and universally insists that “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.  Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” (3:13-14). 

Borrowing from Isaiah, and from words directed to an Israel that was failing to live up to its covenant responsibilities, Paul adds: “Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known” (3:16-17).  He rounds out his rhetorical flourish with a return to the Psalms and finishes with “There is no fear of God before they eyes” (3:18).  So yes, even though Israel has their covenant markers, and by those covenant markers can be identified as members of the covenant, they are not truly participating with God under that covenant and are therefore truly indistinguishable, in God’s eyes, from Gentiles that bear no covenant markers.  Consequently, a new covenant mark is needed and it is one that is going to apply to all people. 

Having said what he has said, and having utilized the words from the Psalms and from Isaiah, Paul wastes no words, continuing on to write “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19).  Generally, our focus when we look upon that verse is the law and the silencing of mouths, with this presumably directed to those who, because of the source of their righteousness (the covenant markers that indicates their status as “justified”), believe themselves to have some type of claim on God that is owing to the “good works” by which they believe themselves to have attained unto righteousness.  Of course, we know that this idea of “good works” as a means to attain righteousness, set in juxtaposition to a position of “grace alone,” is a foreign concept that really has no place in consideration of the messages of Jesus and of Paul. 

Perhaps, in accordance with what seems to be the general tenor and flow of Romans to this point, the focus should be more usefully directed towards the end of the verse and the whole world being held accountable to God?  The “whole world” is significant, as is “held accountable.”  Based on the “all peoples” focus of what had led to this statement, might we be better served if we hear Paul speaking towards a basis for justification (inclusion in the covenant people for the enjoyment of its promises and benefits) that is going to be on offer to all peoples?  If we hear Paul in this way, then our thoughts are undoubtedly driven to the message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) as the basis (covenant marker) by which God has now chosen to hold the world accountable  Of course, Paul has described this Gospel (Jesus is Lord) as “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16b), adding “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel” (1:17a). 

If we believe this to be the case, and if we believe that this is Paul’s intention, and if we believe that the movement represented by this realization should be the recipient of our attention at this point in the letter, we are not at all disappointed to hear Paul say “For no one is declared righteous before Him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20).  Indeed, as Paul elevates the Gospel as the basis on which the whole world (Jews and Gentiles) will be held accountable to God, he naturally diminishes the works of the law (then current covenant markers) as the basis for the declaration of “righteous” (justified---included in God’s covenant family), reiterating that it is through the law, with the covenant markers serving as knowledge-providing reminders of the whole of the law and as the reminder that Israel had failed to adhere to the law and therefore had failed to rightly bear the divine image (sin).     

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Believing In Him (part 4)

Paul’s recitation of mankind’s abuses would flow from out of him quite naturally, as for all practical purposes all that is to be found in verses eighteen through thirty-two of Romans one, was very likely nothing more than standard rhetoric directed at Gentiles by members of Israel, as they sought to maintain the purity, integrity, and identity of their people and their special, preferred status in the eyes of the Creator God.  The words that can be found there could form something of a propaganda against Gentiles, playing into the “us versus them” mentality that marked much of second temple Judaism (and unfortunately much of Christianity). 

This is not difficult for us to understand.  We in the church are quite accustomed to adopting such language and using it in such ways.  We sit in our pews and applaud (or perhaps just nod our heads in tacit, comfortable agreement) as preachers and teachers lift accusatory fingers and point them at the pagans and heathen of “the world,” whom our just God will rightly judge.  This is done while perhaps tossing in pithy and condescending statements (in the face of not-well-masked vitriol) such as “but Jesus loves them,” or “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  Even worse, we often find the “us versus them” mentality moving from the church versus the world (there is some necessary opposition, though it is often mis-directed) to church versus church, as one church, inevitably holding itself up as the repository of the true Gospel message, offers blanket condemnations to other churches that, by extension, fail to preach the “true Gospel.”  It must be said that this dualistic mentality is quite difficult to escape or to avoid altogether, requiring Christians to be on constant guard against falling into its unhelpful and damaging-to-the-Gospel clutches. 

How can we, after a perusal of the second half of chapter one, draw a conclusion in which we see Paul employing the propagandizing rhetoric that Israel has reserved for Gentiles?  Is this a legitimate observation?  We are aided in our reaching of that conclusion by that with which Paul opens the second chapter, which is “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else.  For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things” (2:1).  Following some intervening material in which Paul highlights God’s judgment, kindness, forbearance, and patience, in which he also tosses in “He will reward each one according to His works” (2:6) while also briefly railing against “selfish ambition” (2:8), we proceed to stumble upon a statement that we have already reviewed in our build-up to looking at chapter three, which is “There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.  For there is no partiality with God” (2:9-11).  The language of covenant extension and inclusiveness is everywhere. 

By this we are again reminded that we simply cannot pick and choose statements from Paul, pluck them from their context, and hear them however we desire to hear them.  There is a narrative flow, and one statement builds on the next, with Paul making it more than abundantly clear that covenant, covenant markers, and covenant participation is the primary field of concern for this letter.  We can comfortably blanket that field under the cover of “justification.”  Paul’s concern is that God’s righteousness, which is well-defined by Scripture as His faithfulness to His covenant and to His covenant people (covenant faithfulness), will be demonstrated and God will be vindicated.  This must be linked to the activity of Jesus, to the cross, and to His Resurrection, as Jesus sums up the story of Israel. 

To expand on that point, Paul sees Israel’s story climaxing in Jesus, with Jesus, as King and therefore as representative of God’s covenant people, fulfilling all that God expected of Israel.  More than that, Jesus perfectly fulfills all that is expected of humanity, bearing the divine image as God intended.  As Israel’s story and responsibility cannot be extricated from the covenant, and as Israel only exists as a people because of God’s covenant with Abraham, we simply cannot think of Jesus, His ministry, or His saving work apart from that covenant.  The Gospel that Jesus is Lord, and therefore the justification that is linked to that message of the Gospel, cannot be understood or propagated apart from a proper understanding of the covenant and of what God is doing in relation to His covenant.  When we add in that Judaism did not posit “earning salvation” by works (works of the law, adoption and practice of covenant markers, were the response of those already included in the covenant---justified) which disposes of the long-cherished and often confusing contrast between “works” and “grace” as means to salvation (justification---being included in the covenant people), we put ourselves in a much better position to understand the letter to Romans, the Gospel, the kingdom of God, and our role in and for that kingdom and the world in which it is to be found (God’s will being done on earth as heaven), which is accomplished according to and through the deed and word proclamation and manifestation of the Gospel.  

At the risk of over-stating the significance of covenant (and repeating this word ad nauseum), God’s righteousness will be exercised and will be recognized in graciously extending that covenant and its promises to Gentiles, and He is doing this through that which demonstrates loyalty to Him.  Previously, this had been the bearing of the covenant markers (which had morphed over time) that identified Israel as Israel.  Now, this loyalty to Him is demonstrated through the confession of Jesus as Lord and a subsequent reordering of one’s life around that claim.  It bears repeating that this has nothing to do with God granting people a qualitative righteousness, and everything to do with the dramatic proclamation, by the extension of the covenant and its promises to all peoples, on new terms, that God, in Christ, has taken up His place on the throne of the cosmos and is becoming King.    

Believing In Him (part 3)

Paul answers his own question in regards to the advantage of the Jew, as we begin to subconsciously connect Gentiles and their participation in the covenant with any mention of Jews, with “Actually, there are many advantages.  First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:2).  Proclaiming and living the oracles of God had been the mark of Israel’s “salvation” (justification, covenant membership), as a constant reminder of the power of God that resulted in their being delivered from out of Egypt and set on a path towards their promised land, while also connecting them back to Abraham and the miraculous beginnings of their people, which was the birth of Isaac. 

If the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, then the Gentiles are now also being entrusted with what is to be thought of as the oracles of God, which is the Gospel.  Likewise, this oracle serves as a reminder of the power of God, as a reminder of Jesus’ Resurrection and the commencement of a new creation that is being shaped by the power of that Resurrection, by a people being constantly shaped by that power, who have been set on a path to the promised renewed creation.  Paul speaks to this in the first chapter when he writes “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16a). 

As we have already seen, that statement does not end with “everyone who believes,” but continues on to say “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  In proper context then, this “everyone” eschews generality, begging to be understood in specific terms, as inclusive language.  We recognize (perhaps for the first time) that it reinforces the idea that the salvation to be had, which is inextricably linked with covenant membership, involves the coming together of Jews and Gentiles.  As we consider this, it begins to dawn on us that, if we look at Romans as the primary text for the understanding of “justification by faith,” then this issue of justification is inseparable from consideration of who is going to be thought of as God’s covenant people, along with how that determination is going to be made. 

Salvation becomes less mystical or ethereal or concerned with attaining to heaven, with the associated dichotomies of “works righteousness” versus being “declared righteous by grace through faith” (especially when works of the law and faith in Jesus are rightfully understood as markers as covenant participation rather than attempts to get to or tickets to heaven) falling flat in the face of the much more important and immediate concern for the church in that day (as it should be for the church in this day and in all days to come), which is the presence and power of the kingdom of God, its extension to the whole of the cosmos, and its inclusion of all peoples as equal participants in the resurrection-expectation fueled kingdom.     

Jumping ahead to verse nine of the third chapter, we continue to find ourselves unable to avoid the Jew/Gentile theme, as Paul builds to his passage on justification and we hear “What then?  Are we better off?  Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin” (3:9).  Before moving further, we must determine how Paul is defining sin.  We cannot simply insert our own culturally-shaped and prejudiced thoughts and opinions here.  What is sin?  When and where does Paul make this charge as he so claims?  He presents his charge in chapter one, in the extended section that begins with “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness” (1:18).  Sin, in Paul’s mind, can be linked with the failure to bear the divine image, with which man had originally been charged.  We sense this when we hear “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes---His eternal power and divine nature---have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made.  So people are without excuse” (1:20). 

The remainder of the first chapter sees Paul detailing humanity’s failure to bear the divine image with which they had been endowed, drafting a litany of humankind’s abuses.  This, of course, is not limited to Gentiles, as just before launching into this scathing discourse, Paul did mention both Jews and Greeks (1:16).  So as the mixed Romans congregation hears Paul’s letter read to them, and as they hear the words that are appended to the revelation of the wrath of God, they do so in within the falling echo of Paul’s very first linking of Jew and Gentile.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Believing In Him (part 2)

In case one is disinclined to believe this assertion, we’ll have to take a look at the two primary “justification” texts in the New Testament, which are found in Romans three and Galatians two.  When we see what precedes this great “justification” passage, and bear in mind the words from Paul that set the tone for chapters nine, ten, and eleven, we are clued in to the connection between chapter three and chapter ten, and we are also provided with another reminder of what justification means for Paul, which is inclusion in the covenant.  It cannot be too often said that, for Paul, justification encompasses the extension of that covenant to Gentiles, along with the lack of any need for Gentiles to adopt the covenant markers of Judaism (they do not need to Judaize---practice circumcision, keep Sabbath, or observe dietary regulations---the works of the law) in order to demonstrate their joining up with the covenant people of God and their being positioned to enjoy the blessings promised in association with that covenant.  So what precedes talk of “justification” in chapter three?

Realizing that Romans is an argument that builds upon itself, and that groundwork is laid and re-laid so as to be drawn upon as the argument progresses, answering this question forces us to backtrack to chapter two, as Paul expands on the statement from chapter one that the Gospel is “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believe,” which ties itself quite comfortably to verse eleven of chapter ten, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16b).  Remember, “salvation,” for Paul, is just one way of describing participation in the covenant people and experiencing all that is implied by such participation. Picking up on that in the second chapter, consciously holding to the idea that what we hear from Paul in chapter three is provided its color and context by what precedes it, and cannot be correctly understood in isolation from it, Paul writes “There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and for the Greek.  For there is no partiality with God.  For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (2:9-12). 

This talk of Jew and Greek (or Gentile), as it is attended by talk of “all who have sinned,” and “no partiality with God,” equalizes Jew and Gentile in their standing before the covenant God.  To this Paul adds “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves” (2:14).  Without getting into all that Paul is asserting in this statement or attempting to exegete, we pair it with verse seventeen and “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God” (2:17), and continue to recognize the obvious construct of Jew, Gentile, and covenant inclusion that receives Paul’s attention and is the reason for the coming statements concerning justification (covenant inclusion, election) in chapter three. 

Keeping in mind the importance of the then-accepted covenant markers as the distinguishing badges of the covenant people, keeping the concern for covenant inclusion (justification---notice the interchangeability of the terms) front and center, we go on to hear Paul say “For circumcision has its value if you practice the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25).  This statement is important insofar as it is another equivocation by Paul, placing Jew (circumcision) and Gentile (uncircumcision) on the same level, as he builds the case for his theological, eschatological, and covenantal position.  More importantly, the end of this posturing by Paul (using posturing in a positive sense), is the creation of humble, self-effacing, self-sacrificial, honor eschewing unity within the church body that is composed of individuals that are said to be “in Christ.” 

To this leveling Paul adds “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and” building on language from the prophets from whom and which Paul so heavily draws, “circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code” (2:28-29a).  Here, lest he be misunderstood, Paul is not attempting to insist that Gentiles become Jews.  He is perfectly satisfied with Gentiles remaining Gentiles as they join the ranks of the elect, as the tent of God’s covenant people is expanded outward, becoming ever larger.  Consequently, “Jew,” here, combined with talk of circumcision (of the heart and not the flesh), stands in for “the elect/covenant people of the covenant God.”       

The follow-on to that which concludes chapter two then makes perfect sense, as Paul continues to have covenant inclusion and bridging the divide between Jew and Gentile in purview, and says “Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision?” (3:1)  Most certainly, Paul wants to make covenant inclusion attractive.  He wants to encourage Gentiles to adopt the language of election, locating themselves within the stream of history provided by the story of Israel and climaxed in Jesus, and therefore highlights the advantages of national Israel, while also being proud of his heritage, which comes through quite strongly in the opening of chapter nine.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Believing In Him (part 1)

For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.” – Romans 10:11  (NET)

Too often, we allow ourselves to shape the words of Scripture to our own particular needs or notions.  It is likely that when the words of the above referenced Scripture are read, there is a tendency to think of it as a promise to individuals that attends belief in Jesus, with that promise of not being “put to shame” somehow connected to being “saved” and therefore on the route to a post-mortem heaven.  Though it is perfectly legitimate to hear this as a promise associated with belief in Jesus, hearing it from the position of individualism, while prizing a “salvation experience,” and looking to it as one of those verses that can be plucked from the Bible to support a propositional “assurance” of salvation (going to heaven and avoiding hell), profoundly misses the point and misconstrues Paul’s purpose for setting forth these words in his letter to the Romans. 

If we are going to correctly apprehend the import of the words of the eleventh verse, they must, of course, be heard within their context.  Though the context is truly the whole of the letter, the immediate context begins with the first words of chapter nine of Romans, as Paul shifts his theological and eschatological gears, focusing in more squarely on the relationship between Jew and Gentile, as he revisits and expounds upon a subject broached ever so briefly in chapter one, and for which Paul laid a bit more groundwork in chapter two.  Chapters nine, ten, and eleven are introduced with “I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit---I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed---cut off from Christ---for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites.  To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the Temple worship, and the promises.  To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!  Amen.” (9:1-5)  All that follows, for the remainder of this chapter and the whole of the next two, which obviously includes our base text and all that surrounds it, asks to be heard from within the echo of those words.

As is the case for all of Paul’s letters, there is a momentous, profoundly significant issue for the kingdom of God at hand in the church(es) at Rome.  That issue, among others, which contributes to other issues with which Paul must deal in his letter, is that of the relationship between Jew and Gentile, and the basis for Gentiles being included in the covenant people.  We are not surprised by this, as we find this subject being addressed quite explicitly in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians.  The fundamental issue is how Gentiles, being Gentiles and remaining Gentiles (not Judaizing---adopting the covenant markers of Judaism, which were circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws), were able to receive their entrance into the covenant.  That is, how were Gentiles justified?  How did they receive their justification, which would be defined as their being identified as a member of the covenant people?  Apart from the fact that being a member of the covenant people is what allowed a person to participate in the rule of the kingdom of God through His Messiah, and to participate in the greatly anticipated resurrection, justification was not necessarily an existential concern.  It was not a concern related to an imputed righteousness, with righteousness thought to be some type of foreign quality laid upon a person.  Rather, righteousness was related to a finding of status---a determination of standing---which, quite naturally, was of far greater concern to a people (the Jews, which included Jesus, His disciples, the Apostle Paul, and the other New Testament authors, though Luke was a Gentile) that were, according to Scriptural evidence, almost completely (completely?) unconcerned with the eternal destination of one’s immortal soul, and who did not carry with them the mental images of heaven and hell that, with the help of pagan mythologies, a mis-reading of apocalyptic works such as Revelation, and creative writers such as Dante, have been popularized (and orthodox-ized) over time. 

One thing that simply cannot escape notice when we look at Paul’s treatment of justification in Romans and Galatians (though it is explicit in those two letters, it can be found in Ephesians and Colossians), is his complete failure to mention going to heaven or escaping hell as part of those discourses (with heaven achieved and hell escaped because of the imputation of God’s righteousness, which is thought to be qualitative and foreign).  This makes perfect sense, especially considering that Paul’s focus is the kingdom of God and the new creation that has been introduced into the old creation by the Resurrection of Jesus.  For Paul, “justification” is “salvation,” yet when he speaks of that condition, which is a participation in the people of God and the kingdom of God now that it has come in Christ, which Paul also refers to as his Gospel, there is no talk of what so many have been trained to think is the end of the Gospel, which is getting people to heaven and rescuing them from hell.  A natural response to that is that “kingdom” is a reference to heaven, but asserting such a thing in response is actually a projection of Greek-inspired thoughts concerning the afterlife on to the New Testament; and doing so even though, apart from Luke, all of the New Testament authors were Jewish, and therefore thought of as the kingdom not as a far-off place to which one aspired, but as God’s kingdom come to earth, bringing restoration, renewal, and re-creation.    

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 4 of 4)

In the United States of America, mention can be made of the “city that never sleeps,” or “the windy city.”  Those that are used to operating within the social context of the United States, know that these are references to New York city and Chicago.  This is not limited to the United States, but is a common practice the world over.  One could use phrases such as “city of lights,” or “the eternal city,” in full knowledge that the user is making reference to Paris and Rome.  Singapore, in southeast Asia, is sometimes referred to as “the fine country.”  Upon first glance, this appears to be a positive appellation, expressing a subjective sentiment not unlike the way that we have traditionally thought when confronted with the “lukewarm” of Laodicea.  However, upon further examination, though Singapore is indeed a fine place, we find that this use of “fine” is connected to the fact that the government of Singapore, in its efforts to keep the country clean, civil and highly organized, levies fines for littering, spitting, or chewing gum in public. 

An analogy here is probably useful.  In the United States, the city of Cleveland is roughly the midway point between Chicago and New York (much like Laodicea is roughly midway between Hierapolis and Colossae).  If somebody wanted to address the city of Cleveland, encouraging the residents to do order their lives or engage in activities more akin to the goings-on in New York or Chicago for which there is a high level of notoriety (let’s say in the area of theatre), one might write something like, “I know your deeds, you are sleeping and lacking wind.  I wish you were either not asleep or windy!  So because you are mistaken, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!”  (“Mistaken” because one of the not-so-flattering nicknames of Cleveland is “the mistake on the lake”)  Given proper context, the residents of Cleveland would take this as a message that they needed to improve their offerings in the area of theatre, and would most definitely not understand it to be an indication that they needed to sleep less or construct windmills.   

This initially subjective usage that becomes, upon further examination, highly objective, is quite similar to what we have discovered when it comes to the information being conveyed in Revelation’s letter to Laodicea.  Clearly, the terms in use are not meant to convey any sense of morality or spiritual state, but are common identifiers.  On the other hand, there are nicknames that do have negative connotations.  One such nickname would be “sin city.”  A socially and culturally aware reader in our day (like that which we expect in first century Asia Minor) would immediately think “Las Vegas.”  In the time of Jesus and His apostles, “sin city” would have been the nickname of Corinth, in Greece.  These examples (Las Vegas and Corinth) have obvious moral judgments attached to them, but we do not see that with the names associated with New York, Chicago, Paris, or Rome.   

So to put this lack of moral judgment associated with city identifiers into the context of the letter to Laodicea, which now seems to be pointing more logically towards identifiable activities and practices within the churches of the region (Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae) that would have been well known to the other churches (as information seemed to be able to flow freely between and amongst those churches, as indicated by what Paul writes to the Colossians), it would appear that we are no longer looking at a contrast.  Rather, the three temperature-related terms can now be understood as applying in reference to what was taking place in those churches, with a certain activity of Hierapolis and Colossae being approved by God, whereas the related activity in Laodicea has Jesus indicating violent illness.  With this, we now discard any idea that “hot or cold” are in anyway related to “good or bad.”  It seems much more proper to think along the lines of both hot water and cold water as useful (with the practice of the Hierapolis and Colossae churches being useful within Christ’s kingdom and its proclamation), whereas lukewarm water is useless (with the practice of the church at Laodicea failing to serve the purposes of Christ).  Understanding the message in this way will be far more useful to us as well, as we will eventually end up not being left to wonder whether we are hot, cold, or lukewarm based on either a subjective self-examination or the subjective examination of a self-appointed (on both ends of the relationship) spiritual authority that will generally be partially informed and unfortunately biased.     

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 3 of 4)

We know that Colossae and Laodicea are situated in relative proximity, not only because we know that they are approximately eleven miles apart, but also owing to the Apostle Paul’s references to Laodicea in the close of his letter to the Colossians, in which he instructs the church at Colossae to share the letter with the church at Laodicea, while also indicating that they church at Laodicea will share its letter with the church at Colossae.  Paul also makes mention of Laodicea earlier in the letter, when he writes: “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea” (2:1a).  Clearly, there is something of a close connection between Laodicea and Colossae.  The churches were familiar with each other. 

Beyond the multiple mentions (five) of Laodicea, we also happily find a reference to Hierapolis in this letter.  Paul, writing about Ephaphras, says that “he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:13b).  This implies a relationship between Hierapolis and Laodicea beyond that of an aqueduct.  If the church at Colossae “learned the gospel from Ephaphras” (1:7a), as Paul communicates within his opening statements to the Colossians, and then goes on to mention Epaphras in connection with both Laodicea and Hierapolis, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that Epaphras may well have been responsible for bringing the message to all three cities (though we will certainly refrain from dogmatism on this statement). 

Having established the close connection between Colossae and Laodicea, this does not account for the use of “cold” in conjunction with the city.  It is the presence of Colossae’s cold, fresh water streams that would have supplied this descriptive title to the city.  Laodicea was located to the southeast of Colossae, and to the northeast of Hierapolis, near the Lycus River.  This meant that the waters of Colossae (colder because Colossae was situated at the foothills of a mountain), flowed down towards Laodicea.  The water, quite naturally, would lose some of its coolness as it did, rising a few degrees in temperature by the time it reached Laodicea.  On the other hand, the water from Hierapolis had to be brought uphill, which explains the aqueduct.  That water from the hot springs of Hierapolis would, of course, cool down as it traveled the aqueduct to reach Laodicea, though it would still be prized for its healing qualities even if it had fallen in temperature. 

In the case of both the water from Colossae and the water from Hierapolis, by the time it reached Laodicea, the water would be lukewarm.  Thus, the rhetorical effect is preserved, with hot, cold, and lukewarm all making reference to water.  Furthermore, in conceptual terms, the city that would be located roughly halfway between the hot city and the cold city could easily be thought of as the lukewarm city (halfway between hot and cold).  Thus Laodicea would come to be referred to as the lukewarm city, with this being common knowledge for all of the residents of the region, with nary a thought related to the spiritual tenor of the city. 

Because of the interesting geographical positioning, and the unique feature of the water supplies to Laodicea, the cities came to be linked together in common usage as the “triangle cities.”  So if it was common for the cities to be linked and identified together, and if Paul links the cities in his letter, why should we be surprised if Jesus, communicating through the author of Revelation, also links the cities, doing so by taking advantage of common nicknames that were applied to them?  Is it warranted to think that these highly spiritualized (in our own day and way of thinking) terms are little more than nicknames that are meant to help us in identifying the real problem within the church in Laodicea, rather than an indicator of those problems?  Why not?  Once we get it into our heads that we cannot revert back to thinking that hot, cold, and lukewarm are to be applied in spiritual terms or to spiritual state, then we can move towards a far more proper understanding of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to this, one of His churches. 

Is it warranted to think that these were simply nicknames or shorthand references for those cities?  Again, why not?  This is not without precedence in our own day.  Much like what we saw was true of the utilization of terminology in context and according to then-current understanding in order to rightly understand what is being communicated (as in the case of Nimrod), we make these types of applications such that they become second nature, which should cause us to realize that thinking about the letter to Laodicea in this way is not wholly unique.  We freely and casually operate within our own historical and cultural context, so imagining that men and women of the first century also operated in such ways is not exactly far-fetched. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 2 of 4)

Though we are certainly in a position to tease out spiritual truths from the whole of Revelation and from the letters to the churches in particular, we must have a constant awareness, as we analyze the book and the letters, that they were directed to real churches in real cities at a specific time in history, all of which were facing real situations.  It is in approaching the Scriptures in this way, knowing that the Scriptures are rooted within history as they tell us about our Creator and His purposes, that will then make those Scriptures so much more important and telling for us.  In Revelation, though there is an employment of a significant amount of apocalyptic imagery, much like in the prophetic works of the Hebrew Scriptures, this apocalyptic imagery is primarily designed to reveal the spiritual truths and activities that are at work and at play in relation to material and physical happenings. 

As humans, we are limited in our vision, and as Isaiah says, God’s ways and plans are not our ways and plans, nor are His thoughts and deeds our thoughts and deeds (Isaiah 55:9).  There is something of a veil that limits our vision, keeping us from seeing what God sees.  The purpose of apocalypse (revelation), is to remove that veil, which is the very definition of the word.  For those that were receiving communications from God through the Hebrew prophets in the centuries before Christ, and for those in the first century that were receiving communications directly from Jesus through John the Revelator, this removal of the veil, in a world in which there were no separations between religious activities and so-called “secular” activities---no division between the sacred and the profane, the unveiling would be understood as God condescending to reveal the spiritual goings-on that were related to what was happening in the world around them.  This is dreadfully important for our understanding of words to be found within Revelation. 

Let us remember that Paul and Peter, along with the Hebrews author and the author of the letters of John, all wrote letters to specific churches and individuals.  Though these letters would become useful to the whole of the church, they were first directed to and dealt with places, people, and events.  Knowing this, we should be restrained from treating John’s communications differently.  Just because we can happen upon fantastic and difficult-to-understand imagery, that certainly doesn’t mean that we should dismiss John’s insistence that these letters, and this Revelation, are for the “seven churches that are in the province of Asia” (1:4a). 

Returning then to the words of temperature (hot, cold, lukewarm), having insisted that they serve as geographic indicators, we realize that they are something of a play on familiar words and of what is well-known about the area in which Laodicea is set.  We should not be surprised to find Jesus, through the author, employing such a strategy.  Even the Apostle Paul’s famous phrase of “from faith to faith,” or “ek pisteos eis pistin” (Romans 1:17), is lifted from what could be termed as the liturgy of the Caesar cult.  In this, Paul takes a familiar term and applies it to what should be truly understood about Jesus, rather than Caesar.  This is even more pronounced with the New Testament’s employment of the very word “gospel,” which was also in heavy and specific use within the Caesar cult, in application to the works of Caesar himself.  So we see plays on words and the usage of familiar terms, re-worked and re-deployed for particular effect on a regular basis. 

With all of that said, having posited that the “temperature” terms were geographical indicators, we now posit that use of “hot” is in all likelihood a reference to the city of Hierapolis.  It should be said that this is not groundbreaking by any means, and the same can be said for the applications that we will make of both cold and lukewarm.  These things have long been understood, but for some reason, completely obscured in modern and popular considerations of Revelation and its letters to the churches.  It might be casually referenced, but not worked out to its logical and contextual conclusion, as commentators want to tread the far more popular path of Revelation as a book that tells the future, rather than a writing that tells us about a faithful God and what He expects from His people as they go about living their lives in this world. 

The city of Laodicea was located five miles north of the city of Hierapolis.  In Hierapolis, there were hot springs.  Owing to this, Hierapolis gained fame as a health resort, as well as being the place for the worship of the god Heracles, who was looked to as the god of health and hot waters.  Archaeology indicates that Laodicea had an aqueduct that probably carried water from the hot mineral springs of Hierapolis.  If this is the case, remembering that we are attempting to determine the impetus of the communication from the context of what could be readily understood by its recipients rather than from the position of attempting to unravel the events of world history using Revelation as a guide in the effort, then not only should we think “Hierapolis” when we read “hot,” but we can easily imagine that the residents of the region would have thought of Hierapolis in connection with hot as well. 

If “hot” is a reference to a city, then it would make sense that “cold” is also a reference to a city.  Furthermore, if the “hot” of the nearby city of Hierapolis is a reference to its famous hot springs, then for rhetorical consistency, “cold” should also be making reference to water as well; and that city should be in the general vicinity of Laodicea.  Is there a city to which we can logically apply this epithet?  It seems that there is, and the candidate is the city of Colossae. 

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 1 of 4)

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold…” – Revelation 3:15-16a  (NET)

The vast majority of us live in a world that bears very little resemblance to the first century world of the middle east and Asia Minor, and we simply must bear that in mind.  No matter how educated we are in terms of being able to interact in the world on multiple levels and in and with a variety of disparate environments or group, or how Spirit-filled we may consider ourselves to be, and no matter how strongly we declare we reverence the Bible, serious presentations of the all-important message of the Gospel cannot take place without serious study.  In that light, as we look at this sliver of the message to the church at Laodicea, it must be insisted upon that we cannot casually approach the Scriptural text as if the terms in use carry the precise meaning for us today that they did when first written.  In addition, it would behoove us not to overly rely or place a possibly un-warranted confidence in our knowledge of either Greek or Hebrew.  This knowledge often finds us translating the words from their original language and then interpreting the translation according to a modern understanding within our own subjective pre-determination that has been probably been determined by our un-critical (and even unacknowledged) acceptance of a prevalent theology, philosophy, soteriology, ecclesiology, or eschatology, while simply congratulating ourselves on the use of the ancient languages and acting as if we have grasped truth. 

If and when we take it upon ourselves to translate from the original languages of Scripture, we must be all the more attentive to the historical, cultural, and social contexts into which the words were uttered, bearing in mind that the words may have carried a meaning in those days that has been lost to modern hearers or readers, but which can be re-discovered upon the application of adequate effort in such a pursuit.  Words are regularly re-defined through usage, and often take upon themselves a variety of meanings and connotations that may very well be entirely foreign to original usage.  To take a non-controversial Biblical example, let us consider the name “Nimrod.”  We come upon this name in the tenth chapter of Genesis, where we read, “Cush was the father of Nimrod; he began to be a valiant warrior on the earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.  (That is why it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.’)” (10:8-9)  From there, we can go on to find out that he was a king, and the builder of great cities.  Without going into further detail of the life of Nimrod, it is quite clear that he was a man that demanded great respect.  He is called a valiant warrior and a mighty hunter.  He was the builder of a kingdom, and men flocked to his leadership.  His name, in his day and in the days that followed, was a great name.  Now, however, the situation is dramatically different.  In this day, if we refer to somebody as a “Nimrod,” we are offering the name as an insult.  We are calling that person a fool, with the ensuing implications standing at a great distance from “valiant,” “warrior,”, “mighty,” and the like.  In a bygone era, if somebody was referred to as being a Nimrod, it would have been considered an honor.  Today, this is not the case.  Words change. 

Another example would be the word “gay.”  In the past the word meant one thing, but today it signifies something different.  In the future it may carry an entirely different set of meanings from that which surrounds the use of the word in our day.  The same thing occurs in the use of slang, when pejorative terms are employed in a positive manner, and positive terms are often turned about to perform tasks of negation.  The dynamics of language are such that later generations would be hard-pressed to understand common words that we put into use on a daily basis, knowing full well what they mean because we are ensconced within our own culture and language setting, without delving into our history and the events of our day in order to determine the context of those words.  If later generations were to read the work of a social commentator in the early twenty-first century and find him referring to an individual as a “Nimrod,” it would be completely untrue to the author’s intention if they took it to mean that the author was lauding the individual in question as valiant and mighty.  We understand this implicitly, yet when it comes to the Bible, and to attempts to understand the very Word of God, it seems that we, for the most part, have a blind spot in this area---so much so that we freely cast aside all gifts and skills of reason and critical thinking in the misguided attempts at interpretations and understanding according to a thoroughly anthropocentric spirituality.  In this, it seems that we actually approach the Word of God in a far less serious manner than we offer to other written works, with an apparent unwillingness to give the sacred Scriptures the studied attention that they deserve and demand.     

Which now brings us to the issue of “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm.”  Though this will most likely come as a great shock, these terms are most assuredly not employed as references to spiritual condition or relative spiritual fervor and a related general manner of living.  Rather, they are used as geographical indicators.  Though they are not indicators of spiritual temperatures, it is quite likely that they are being employed as a means of approbation and correction, based on an awareness of certain activities. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

All The Saints (part 14 of 14)

Though we commence to the conclusion of our study, we do not tiptoe past Paul’s use of peace here in verse fifteen of chapter three, casually applying our own (possibly inadequate) definition to this important term.  This is much more than just a feeling of serenity enjoyed by an individual, as part of a reconciliation with God.  Though that certainly can be a component of the peace, when approached from within the larger movement of the letter, and the heavy emphasis on inclusiveness and unity as the covenant of God extends outwards to all peoples, we are enabled to understand that this peace is part of the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.  This is rightly evidenced by Paul’s connecting it with the fact the church has been called to peace as part of their calling to be “one body.”

In the twenty-third verse of this chapter, following a digression that deals with the leveling out of the church body in mutual submission and self-sacrifice (remembering that Paul has made it clear that there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free---we can safely add “male or female” to that list, as that would not be a falsification of Paul’s way of thinking), Paul once again plucks language from the lexicon of Israel’s heritage, applying it equally to all, be it Jew or Gentile, when he writes “Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward” (3:23-24a).  Though we may have a tendency to think of this “inheritance” as “going to heaven” or eternal life, or some such limited and far too ethereal and ill-define notion, it is far more likely that this use of “inheritance,” as Paul always, always, always locates the story of Jesus and the church along the path of the story of Israel (for without doing so, the story of Jesus and of Paul’s Gospel lacks substance and meaning), is designed to call to mind the promises first given to Abraham, that had been passed along to Israel, and were now being dispersed abroad and made available to all nations through the spread of the kingdom of God. 

In the close of his letter, Paul makes it a point to mention several individuals.  The first is Tychius, known as “a dear brother, faithful minister, and fellow slave in the Lord” (4:7a).  The second is Onesimus, regarded as “the faithful and dear brother” (4:9b).  Third is Aristarchus, whom Paul introduces as “my fellow prisoner” (4:10a).  Fourth, we hear of Mark, “the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10c).  Fifth is Jesus (Justus).  Having listed these men, Paul takes what may seem at first glance to be the unusual step of saying that “In terms of Jewish converts, these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me” (4:11b).  This, of course, is only unusual if we are not blissfully aware of one of the main themes of the entire letter, which is that of the necessary union, within the church, between Jews and Gentiles (groups formerly held apart but now brought together by the common confession of Jesus as Lord).  With this awareness in hand, the mention of Jewish converts and the kingdom should lead the hearer/reader to expect mention of Gentile converts in connection to the kingdom.  In this we are not disappointed, though Paul does not specifically name them as Gentiles (naturally, this can go unsaid, as if they are not Jewish, then they are Gentile). 

So as Paul rounds out his dissertation that is very much concerned with “all the saints” of the church and the elimination of barriers between peoples so that all may participate equally in the inheritance promised by God and portended by Jesus’ Resurrection, he tells of Epaphras, “a slave of Christ” (4:12b), not unlike Paul himself.  We quickly reflect on the fact that he also said this of Tychius (a Jew), thus providing a point of contact and mutuality between a Jew and Gentile.  Paul writes that Epaphras “is always struggling in prayer on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (4:12c).  This predominantly Gentile church needed assurance that they were, in fact, though they did not bear the covenant markers of Judaism, within the will of God and fully participating in His kingdom as confessors of Jesus.  Hearing this from Paul could only be a great encouragement. 

Paul then writes of Luke and Demas, two more Gentiles that serve him and serve the church, presumably without discrimination.  To that is added “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters who are in Laodicea and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house” (4:15).  Though it is not explicitly stated, we can surmise that Nympha is a Gentile woman and that she hosts kingdom witnessing gatherings in honor of Jesus (the Jewish Messiah).  Along with that, Paul’s use of “brothers and sisters” is yet another gentle reminder that the church of God in Christ is one family, a new human family, unconcerned with those things that were formerly used to delineate or divide one people group from another. 

Paul wants this obvious message of unity and inclusiveness and the extension of God’s election of all peoples noised abroad to all the churches, and therefore requests that “after you have read this letter, have it read to the church of Laodicea,” adding, “In turn, read the letter from Laodicea as well” (4:16).  The kingdom principles expressed in the letter to one group will equally apply to the other, and so on to the whole of the church, as the promises and blessings of the Creator God of Israel are made available to all, and all peoples have the opportunity to bear the name of saint.      

Friday, October 21, 2011

All The Saints (part 13)

To this word of the removal of the oppositional decrees and the reminder that Jesus, as Lord, is the ruler of all (a frequent assertion by Paul as he communicates the Gospel message), along with his position of solidarity with Gentiles, Paul adds “Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days” (2:16).  This can be nothing less than a direct reference to the covenant markers that had previously served as boundaries that, in combination with circumcision, served to maintain separation between Jews and Gentiles, and which some continued to insist were a requirement for Gentile participation.  Paul clearly and repeatedly strikes at this notion.  He has referred to it as a certificate of indebtedness that has been taken away because of the cross. 

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul references these covenant markers as “those things… once destroyed” (2:18), insisting that the taking up of these works of the law, by a Gentile, as the means by which he or she enters into God’s covenant people, or as the response to entrance upon the covenant, becomes the equivalent of breaking God’s law (2:18).  A profound and potentially startling conclusion!  Indeed (though we are not attempting to join text to text, but merely referencing others of Paul’s letters as a means to adequately grasp the thinking of the Apostle), he goes on to insist that if covenant inclusion comes from adherence to covenant markers (if righteousness could come through the law – 2:21), “then Christ died for nothing!” (2:21b) 

Following from the mention of food, drink, feasts and the like, Paul tells his Colossian hearers that “these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ!” (2:17)  While the covenant markers pointed to the kingdom of God, and while they served to delineate those that were participating, or those that were supposed to be participating, or those that were thought to be in a position to participate in that kingdom, it is the confession of Jesus as “the Christ,” or as “the Messiah,” that has enabled the reality of that kingdom and demonstrates its world-encompassing (people, creation, and cosmos) scope. 

Moving along to the third chapter, we find Paul taking up a popular theme from the early church and in his own letters (to Corinth as the most prominent example), which was the idea that the church represented a new humanity---the way of being truly human.  As Paul has championed the fusion of Jew and Gentile into one people, we must hear the words to come with a state of mind shaped by that thought, as Paul says “Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with its practices” (3:9).  This is far more than a simple juxtaposition of the “carnal,” “unsaved,” or unregenerate” man, against the “spiritual,” “saved,” or “regenerate” man.  The ideal that stands behind this statement is the new creation and the new humanity that is shaped by the activity of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. 

The “old man” is the old way of being human, prior to the example provided by God in Christ, which climaxed with the cross and the Resurrection.  That understood, we allow Paul to add to that the insistence that those that confess Jesus as Lord, and who allow their lives and their interaction in, with, and for this world to be shaped by His cross and all that it implies, “have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created it” (3:10).  The new humanity, most importantly, will finally be able to rightly bear the divine image, to steward His creation (now the creation that is being renewed and will be completely renewed), and to reflect His glory into the world, which had been the purpose of God in His act of creation.  In this new humanity of divine image-bearers that have been given the physical and historical example of Jesus to imitate in their quest to bear that image, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” (3:11a).  Accordingly then, “Christ is all and in all” (3:11b).  The Messiah is a Messiah for all peoples, He is the manifestation of God, and He dwells within His people (reverting back to thoughts of the Temple as the place where God dwells and as the place where heaven and earth overlap). 

As if Paul has not made himself clear enough to this point, having made this point about the composition of the new humanity that is the church of the Christ, Paul continues to take up and extend language that had been exclusively reserved to national Israel and to those that had Judaized, building on talk of being clothed with the new man and further describing the appearance that should be taken by this new humanity, writing “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else.  Just as the Lord has forgiven you,” remembering the exodus connotation of “forgiveness,” “so you also forgive others” (3:12-13).  Paul believes that unity is key for the church, and he does not underestimate the difficulties in melding disparate people groups into one body.  Speaking to that, he continues in this stream of thought, writing “And to all these virtues add love, which is the perfect bond.  Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful” (3:14-15).    

Thursday, October 20, 2011

All The Saints (part 12)

With verse twelve, realizing that baptism is not unique to the experience of the Christian faith, we find Paul again adapting exodus language on behalf of Gentiles as he writes “Having been buried with Him in baptism, you also have been raised with Him through your faith in the power of God who raised Him from the dead” (2:12).  Just as Paul allows Gentiles to participate in the exodus-related identity of Israel through the use of “redemption” from verse fourteen of chapter one, he here does the same.  Functionally, “being buried with Him in baptism” is the equivalent of exile, while being “raised with Him” is the equivalent of exodus. 

This is not unique to Colossians, as we are able to glimpse this way of thinking here demonstrated by Paul in his first letter to Corinth.  There, in the tenth chapter we read: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (10:1-2).  Without delving into an exegesis of what is here being said in the address to the Corinthian church(es), we here see Paul intertwining the Egyptian exile and exodus experience (which was so crucial for Israel’s self-understanding, it’s comprehension of its covenant God, and its understanding of its relationship with that God) with the concept of baptism.  For Gentiles, as far as Paul is concerned, as he folds all peoples into the story of Israel that he believes has reached its climax in the story of Jesus, this baptism with Christ becomes something akin to Israel’s experience.  In some respects, for those that are bent towards the need for some outward sign of covenant status, baptism, whatever form it takes, stands in place of circumcision. 

This allows Paul to confidently declare “And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He nevertheless made you alive with Him, having forgiven all your transgressions” (2:13).  Quickly revisiting the first chapter, reminding ourselves of the exodus-related redemption and “forgiveness of sins” (1:14b) there mentioned, we see that this is another deployment of exodus language.  Building from that thought, what we realize this to be is yet another statement employed to generate an equivocation between Jews and Gentiles.  Effectively, this is what God would say to Israel, if and when they violated their covenant obligations.  God would speak of Israel’s transgressions that was bringing or had brought them death and judgment, as they behaved like the uncircumcised people by which they were surrounded, adopting their idolatrous ways.  The end of this judgment would be some form of exile (domination by a foreign power, whether inside or outside of the land). 

When Israel would begin to respond appropriately, re-adopting the marks of their covenant, just as Gentiles responded appropriately to the Creator God by adopting the covenant marker of belief in Jesus as Messiah and King, God would revive Israel and grant them exodus.  This exodus, marked by Israel shaking itself free (always presented as the work of the their faithful, covenant God) from foreign oppression, was looked upon as the evidence of the forgiveness of their transgressions against their God and His covenant.  Here then, Gentiles are enabled to enjoy the same type of relationship with the Creator God as has been enjoyed by Israel lo these many years.  Undoubtedly, it is a privilege that portends a significant responsibility. 

Paul then takes another step.  He, a Jew---a Hebrew of Hebrews, as he describes himself elsewhere---speaks through his letter in such a way that he takes up with the Gentiles.  His inclusive language expands again, as he identifies himself with the Gentiles (a radical step indeed for someone that had been zealously steeped in the Jew-delineating, over and against all other nations, covenant markers that defined Judaism and served to fence off God’s elect people and His covenant blessings) by insisting that “He has destroyed what was against us” (2:14a).  Elaborating on what has been destroyed, he writes of “a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us” (2:14b).  Surely, the Gentiles that Paul is addressing are heartened by this language that he has adopted.  He has moved beyond the comforting “all,” now standing in solidarity with Gentile believers, and declaring that the decrees that had been opposed to “us,” which are quite possibly the covenant markers that Gentiles had been forced to adopt if they wanted to participate in the blessings of God’s covenant people, have been removed.  Indeed, Paul says that Jesus “has taken it away by nailing it to the cross” (2:14c), leaving only a loyal, believing trust in Him as all that is necessary to join up with the Israel of God. 

The cross to which God-manifest went has changed everything.  Discarding the shame that was normally attached to a crucifixion (the most shameful and shame-ascribing event of the ancient world), as is Paul’s custom as well as that of the church, Paul exults in what the cross has accomplished in and for “all” the world and “all” creation, writing “Disarming rulers and authorities,” who had thought that Jesus was the one that had been disarmed, “He has made a public disgrace of them,” even though they had thought that it was Jesus and His followers that were suffering disgrace and shame, “triumphing over them by the cross” (2:15).  The place and the instrument that was said to be that of Caesar’s triumph is actually the place of Jesus’ triumph.  As Caesar employed the cross as part of his efforts to create, solidify, and control a worldwide kingdom of his own making, so the cross was employed by Jesus to actually accomplish that end.      

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

All The Saints (part 11)

Returning to Colossians then, having effectively made the point that it is highly probable that Paul had Gentiles and the Temple in mind when he pens words that refer to them as “holy, without blemish, and blameless before Him” (1:22b), and doing so against the well-established background of difficult Jew/Gentile relations and a hesitance to grant Gentiles an unlimited and unchecked entrance upon the covenant and the language of the elect people of God, we resume our exploration of the inclusive language of the letter. 

Now being more carefully attuned to the underlying concerns of the Apostle, this church, the churches of Asia Minor, and the church-at-large, we are able to grasp the monumental scope of the kingdom project and hear it being referenced when Paul writes “This Gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant” (1:23b).  The “all” of “all creation” resounds with theological and eschatological gravity!  It is with such gravitas, as he willingly, in the manner of His Lord, adopts the position of servant to the previously unwashed masses of Gentiles, that Paul writes “I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God---given to me for you---in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints” (1:25-26).  These “saints” now include Gentiles. 

Pressing that button, he continues, writing “God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27).  Here, it is helpful to replace the Greek “Christ” with the Hebrew “Messiah,” re-reading the affected portion of the sentence to say “this mystery among the Gentiles, which is the Messiah in you, the hope of glory.”  Paul places the Messiah in the midst of the Gentiles, referring to Him as their hope, and ultimately, to their confession of Him as Lord of all as the foundation of their ability to participate in part of God’s purposes for His covenant people, which is to reflect His glory into the world.  Beginning with the call of Abraham, this had been the task assigned exclusively to Israel, with the attached and concordant blessings that would flow to them for successfully carrying out this endeavor.  That which indicated one’s status as a member of Israel were the covenant markers to which we have referred ad nauseum.  With the coming of the Christ, and with the dawning of the new age of the new creation portended by His Resurrection, with an ongoing sense of “already but not yet,” this task is now assigned to the church of the Christ that is composed of all peoples. 

Building to a crescendo in this portion of his letter, Paul adds “We proclaim Him,” that being His Lordship contra-Caesar and all of the world’s pretenders to power, “by instructing and teaching with all wisdom,” though it may seem like the height of foolishness to proclaim the imperial reign of one crucified by Caesar, with such foolishness amplified by the subsequent and attached message of that person’s resurrection from the dead, “so that we may present every person mature in Christ” (1:28).  We do well to hear “every person” as yet another extension of the inclusive and world-embracing “all” which has colored the first quarter of the letter.

Moving along to the second chapter, Paul’s inclusive language expands, and we join together with the gathered church at Colossae and hear “For in Him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form” (2:9).  This “Him,” of course, is the previously reference “Messiah in you, the hope of glory.”  Not only is there an “all” in the filling that has resulted in “all the fullness of deity” dwelling in Him in bodily form (a basic messianic premise), which we should hear according to the melody that has been supplied to “all” in what we have heard prior to this, but Paul emphasizes the totality of that filling, extending it to the church, composed of Jews and Gentiles, looking at them as the manifestation of Jesus in the world and writing “and you have been filled in Him, who is the head over every ruler and authority” (2:10).  As we can see and hear, Paul not only provides assurance to Gentiles, while also exhorting the church in general, but he also seizes upon the opportunity to assert Jesus Lordship and His kingdom as superior to all other kings and kingdoms.  Thusly, he reminds all believers, both then and for all time, as to where their patriotic loyalties should primarily lie, while also reminding them that their loyalty to Jesus, to His kingdom, and to the call and demands of that kingdom, will infiltrate all aspects of their lives.    

That settled, the sensibility-shocking inclusive language expands, and Paul bursts through all manner of tradition and history, as he insists that “In Him you were also circumcised---not, however, with a circumcision performed by human hands, but by the removal of the fleshly body, that is, through the circumcision done by Christ” (2:11).  By this, Paul completely dismisses any idea that the covenant marker of circumcision is necessary.  Of course, we know that the sole covenant marker to which Paul holds as absolutely crucial is the confession of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord of all (the Gospel).  This confession is the means by which a person, be they Jew or Gentile, is justified (becomes a member of God’s covenant family, with the subsequent responsibility to concern themselves with reflecting God’s glory into the world by rightly bearing the divine image that has been exampled out by Jesus of Nazareth---paradoxically, God-manifest).    

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

All The Saints (part 10)

With the riot conditions in Jerusalem, sparked by the thought that Paul may have taken a Gentile into the Temple, having gotten the attention of the commanding officer of the squadron of soldiers responsible for the security of the Temple area, “He immediately took soldiers and centurions and ran down to the crowd” (21:32a).  This crowd, which was about to experience the force of the Roman military machine (all Gentiles, by the way), was clearly not eager to embrace Gentiles as equal members of the covenant.  This continues to reinforce the world-altering (for a Jew) nature of the new covenant boundaries emphasized by Jesus and preached by Paul. 

In a way, this intervention was fortunate for Paul, as “When they saw the commanding officer and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul” (21:32b).  This is new information, elaborating on the seizing and dragging of Paul.  For his “crime,” Paul is being beaten by the crowd.  When Luke writes in verse thirty-one that they were trying to kill Paul, it is more than just a way of expressing a strong sentiment of anger or rage.  They were beating Paul because they were intent on killing him.  Truly, the message he preached was revolutionary, and it serves to explain some of the motivating factors behind the successful effort that saw Jesus put to death at the hands of the Romans. 

Paul was taken into something resembling protective custody (which would be his lot for the remainder of the record of his life as presented by Acts), as the commanding officer sought to take measure of the situation.  He inquired “who he was and what he had done” (21:33b), and the crowd, still agitated by this supposed usurpation of Israelite privilege and position, offered little help, as “some in the crowd shouted one thing, and others something else” (21:34a).  The disturbance continued (the expansion of the covenant to encompass all peoples being the greater and continuing disturbance, ironically) in such a way that “Paul had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob” (21:35b).  Indeed, “a crowd of people followed them, screaming ‘Away with him!’” (21:36), in a scene terribly reminiscent of that which had been experienced by Paul’s Lord.  

Paul’s subsequent and brief examination by the this same commanding officer is an echo of the examination of Jesus by Pilate.  However, as Jesus remained largely silent, offering very few words (according to Luke’s record of Jesus’ time before Pilate), Paul is given and accepts the opportunity to speak to his accusers and to those that are calling for his death, having been prevented from carrying out that intention themselves.  As Paul spoke, the crowd appears to have listened patiently.  Undoubtedly, this was owing to multiple factors.  The first factor is that “he addressed them in Aramaic” (21:40b).  Luke informs us of as much, writing “When they heard that he was addressing them in Aramaic, they became even quieter” (22:2a).  Having quieted the crowd, the second factor comes into play, as Paul begins offering them certain assurances that effectively relieves them of the fear that he would have taken a Gentile into the Temple. 

He says “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today” (22:3).  Talk of being a Jew, raised in Jerusalem, trained under Gamaliel, who honors ancestors, and is zealous (this is a specific term for a way of life and approach to the law and the covenant), would be quite satisfactory.  Furthermore, Paul says “I persecuted this Way,” that being the belief in a crucified man by the name of Jesus being the Messiah, “even to the point of death, tying up both men and women and putting them in prison, as both the high priest and the council of elders can testify from me.  From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I was on my way to make arrests there and bring the prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished” (22:4-5).  As the crowd listens, they can begin to realize that not only are these not the words of a person that would bring a Gentile into the Jerusalem Temple, but that they are not the words of somebody who “teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary” (21:28b). 

Paul’s audience remains respectful until such time as he touches what was obviously the rawest of raw nerves.  When he reports the words of the one that he now calls Lord, telling the crowds that the command of the one called Messiah, who was being worshiped as the physical embodiment of the Creator God of Israel by a small and growing group of believers that were composed of both Jew and Gentile, was that “He said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (22:21), the crowd resumes its earlier disposition.  To that end, Luke reports that “The crowd was listening to him until he said this.  Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Away with this man from the earth!  For he should not be allowed to live!” (22:22)  No longer is the issue the content of Paul’s teaching nor the possible defiling of the Temple.  The lone issue is the extension of the covenant to the Gentiles, and the idea that the title of “saints of God” would no longer be reserved for national Israel and those that had adopted the covenant marks of national Israel alone.  This is representative of part of the mindset of the world into which Paul delivers letters such as the letters to the Colossians.    

Monday, October 17, 2011

All The Saints (part 9)

As Paul is conducting his business in the Temple, something goes horribly wrong.  Contrary to what was insisted would be the result of Paul’s activity in the Temple, which was that “everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law” (21:24b), we read that “When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from the province of Asia who had seen him,” that being Paul, “in the Temple area stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting ‘Men of Israel, help!  This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary!’” (21:27-28a)  So much for expectations.  Instead, a near-riot ensues.  Of course, what is here mentioned is only half of that which is causing people to take issue with Paul. 

Reading further, we find revelation of the generalized attitude towards Gentiles, proving just how deep these long-cherished notions ran, as we are able to read “Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner court of the Temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” (21:28b)  This, of course, was patently untrue, as Luke parenthetically inserts “For they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him previously, and they assumed Paul had brought him into the inner Temple courts” (21:29).  The inner Temple courts were strictly off-limits to Gentiles.  The words of the crowd, as reported by Luke, are thoroughly informative, as the insistence in regards to Gentiles in the Temple and subsequent ritual uncleanness dovetails well with Paul’s insistence that Gentiles (at the point in Colossians that stands in for the Temple-specific language in Ephesians) are in fact able to be presented before Israel’s God (the one whose dwelling place was the Temple), based on their trust in Jesus as the Messiah and as the one mediator between the Creator God of Israel and all men, as holy, without blemish, and blameless.  This naturally stands in contrast to their being ritually unclean and their being able to confer ritual uncleanness upon the Temple itself. 

We cannot dismiss the drama that unfolds here in Jerusalem.  The roots of the drama run deep, portending an ideological, theological, and eschatological divide that is, as revealed in Paul’s constant attention to it, more than a little bit difficult to bridge.  For centuries, Jews stood on one side of that divide, with their covenant and their Temple that so epitomized and represented that covenant and its heretofore exclusive limitation to Israel.  On the other side of that divide stood Gentiles---outside of the covenant unless they were willing to become Jews.  Even then, they would be excluded from full access to the Temple, and by logical extension, from full participation in the covenant.  In the middle stood the Christ, arms out-stretched to bridge that divide.  It would be part of the mission of His church, as understood by men such as Peter and Paul and others, to represent the all-embracing Christ of God, to bring it to pass that when one spoke of “all the saints,” that this was no longer the exclusive domain of national Israel, but was a phrase that was being spoken of a kingdom of all peoples. 

Clearly, the journey to bring such a thing about was going to be long, as even some that participated in the church, conceivably thinking of themselves as components of a new Temple and as citizens of that new kingdom, found it difficult to allow that bridge to be built in such a way as to allow Gentiles and Jews to meet in the middle, figuratively standing upon Jesus alone, and the Gospel claim about Him, as both the bridge and its underlying support.  Opposition to Gentile participation within the covenant was not restricted to Jews that rejected the messianic status of Jesus.  Many believers, from national Israel, presumably along with other Gentiles that had previously Judaized and subsequently became believers in Jesus, accepted Jesus as the bridge and the foundation of that bridge, while also believing it to be necessary for Gentiles to cross that bridge to the side of the Jews as they had, taking upon themselves and placing themselves under the marks of the covenant, so as to participate in the long-awaited and greatly anticipated blessings promised to Abraham. 

So yes, the passions ran deep.  In fact, as Luke speaks with all of the fitting hyperbole that the situation required, we learn that “The whole city was stirred up, and the people rushed together.  They seized Paul and dragged him out of the Temple courts, and immediately the doors were shut” (21:30).  It doesn’t end there.  “While they were trying to kill him,” theoretically for brining Gentiles into the Temple and thereby polluting the Temple, “a report was sent up to the commanding officer of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion” (21:31).    

Saturday, October 15, 2011

All The Saints (part 8)

Verse twenty-two poses a rhetorical question, to which the Jerusalem elders have what takes the appearance of a ready-made response.  That question, following up on the not-entirely-accurate suggestion that Paul teaches “all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to their customs” (21:21b---note the use of the word “custom” rather than “law”---a subtle reminder that the then-employed covenant markers were more custom than law perhaps?), was “What they should we do?” (21:22a)  Coupled with the lack of accuracy in the statement that leads to the question, one is tempted to hear the prepared response as little more than the feigning of concern, as they say “The will no doubt hear that you have come” (21:22b). 

Now, it does exist as a possibility that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, with whom Paul is here dealing, are simply reporting what they have heard, and that they relaying the general tenor of the grumblings about Paul that they hear around the Temple and in Jerusalem.  However, though again, we do not desire to here dwell on it (as it is not the primary issue at hand), this exchange takes on the appearance of an honor competition for position within the church, with the Jerusalem elders seeking to shame Paul.  Knowing Paul as we do through his letters, and through Acts, knowing his demeanor in the lead-up to his return to Jerusalem, which he expected to be fraught with troubles, this potential attempt at shaming would probably not have much of an effect on him.

So a suggestion is offered.  Paul is told that “We have four men who have taken a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved” (21:23-24a).  Is this talk of Paul needing to purify himself a subtle jab that stems from the fact that he spends the vast majority of his time with Gentiles (echoes of Galatians two ringing in our ears)?  The rejoinder to the suggestion, which is “Then everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law” (21:24), indicates that it is a veiled insult.  What they have in mind when speaking about “conformity with the law” is revealed in what follows, as they make reference to an earlier event, saying “But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality” (21:25).  This serves as something of a modified version of the prevalent covenant markers, setting forth the still-underlying position that Gentiles should be required to, in some way, become Jews in order to have the privilege of participation in the blessings of God as a member of the covenant people.  Submission to the God of Israel and to the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel was simply not enough. 

Paul, who, according to what we can find in the twentieth chapter and the first part of the twenty-first chapter, has an inkling as to where all this might be headed, and has already embraced the possibilities, does not argue with the elders.  Because he could look upon this activity as being relatively meaningless in the great cosmic, kingdom picture with which he was concerned, and because he had no desire to create disharmony or dissent in the church, “Paul took the men the next day, and after he had purified himself along with them, he went to the Temple and gave notice of the completion of the days of purification, when the sacrifice would be offered for each of them” (21:26).

Observing a brief (or not so brief) reminder as we continue our examination of this passage from Acts, we remember that we have returned again to this book, and to this section of the book, because of its usefulness in demonstrating the attitude taken towards Gentiles and the Temple.  In co-ordination with Paul’s demonstrably sustained focus on Jew and Gentile relations in the early church, the associated controversies concerning covenant markers and covenant inclusion (justification), the repetitive use of highly inclusive language in the first chapter of Colossians, the incredible significance of the sweeping expansion of the covenant peoples to include Gentiles as Gentiles through confession of Jesus as Lord and Messiah (rather than Gentiles as Gentiles-converted-to-Judaism through the adoption of covenant markers that are generally referred to as “works of the law”), a side-by-side reading of Ephesians two with Colossians one (with expansions and abbreviations noted), we have contended that the statement of the twenty-second verse of Colossians one, “but now He has reconciled you by His physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before Him,” is Temple language that echoes the Levitical code and its provisions for service in the Temple.  Furthermore, we have contended that this short statement stands in for the longer statement of Ephesians two, which speaks explicitly about the Temple and the unquestionable qualification of Gentiles to not only serve the Temple, but to actually be components of the Temple (the place of God’s dwelling and the ultimate symbol of God’s covenant with humanity and with His creation).  What we will see in what comes next in Acts twenty-one serves to demonstrate just how revolutionary this thinking was.