Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Believing In Him (part 34)

Peter takes up the challenge that is presented to him, which is also a challenge to the legitimacy of the Gospel message and to the commission given to him and the rest of the disciples by Jesus.  As if to emphasize that this subject is quite crucial to the church of the Christ, Luke has Peter retelling the whole of the story of his encounter with Cornelius (so we get to read the story twice, back to back---by contrast, we read the story of Paul’s “conversion” three times in Acts, all of which are offered separately).  Indeed, “Peter began and explained it to them point by point” (11:4).  He talks about the men that came to him, saying “The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation” (11:12a).  He also points out that six of the brothers that were with him, presumably all Jewish believers in Jesus, went with him and also entered the house of the Gentile Cornelius (11:12b). 

Peter relates Cornelius’ words to him, which were that “he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’” (11:13-14)  Peter emphasizes that it would be the message that would bring salvation---a message that would bring these Gentiles into covenant and so begin the process of transformation (the working out of their salvation, if you will), rooted in belief (like Abraham) in the Gospel that generates an unswerving loyalty to the faithful God revealed in Jesus, that will conform these believers into the image of God in Christ and so cause them to more accurately bear the divine image as truly human beings, reflecting the glory of God into the world and articulating the praises of all creation back to God.  Inherently then, it is belief in this message that grafts these Gentiles into the tree of God’s covenant people (to borrow some terminology from Paul, as he reflects on what God has done and is doing in and for the world via His kingdom people).  The belief that Jesus is Lord generates salvation.  The adoption of covenant markers (works of the law) as that which brings salvation, continues the process of salvation, or indicates salvation, here goes un-contemplated. 

Yes, Paul must lean heavily on this experience of Peter.  Peter will go on to build on the fact that it is the message, with its content and the power of that content, that generates salvation (justification, right-standing, covenant inclusion).  Before we go on to hear what Peter says, so as to remain mindful of the fact that we are analyzing this portion of Acts so as to understand Romans and the thinking of Paul, we should take this opportunity to remind ourselves of Paul’s insistence that “the Gospel… is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16b).  Being reminded of that, we get to hear Peter say “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as He did on us at the beginning” (11:15).  Though it is not reiterated, we know from the story of chapter ten that these Gentiles were said to have spoken in tongues and praised God, with this following his reminding them of cross and Resurrection of Jesus.  The actions, said to be indicative of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, are the indication of belief in Jesus as Lord, with all of this occurring independent of the exercise, application, adherence to, or mention of any of the works of the  law.  When Peter tells the story in Jerusalem, he does not make mention of this occurrence, instead forcing the recollection of what happened to them at “the beginning,” at Pentecost, when they too enjoyed this experience.  

God indeed shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11).  The Holy Spirit is poured out on all who believe the Gospel, adopting people into Abraham’s family (God’s household) without discrimination.  He continues to make his case and to contemplate what all of this means, adding “I remembered the word of the Lord, as He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (11:16), as the stories of Israel’s defining water-crossings resonate and come to be shared by these newly adopted sons and daughters through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and its work to produce a believing trust in the message of the Gospel.  Continuing, Peter says “Therefore if God gave them the same gift as He also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ,” with that gift being the inclusion in God’s kingdom project that was begun in the Resurrection and is carried on through the announcement and conscientious enactment of the Gospel, “who was I to hinder God?” (11:17)  The question is informative and enlightening, while also being a damning verdict on those that wanted to maintain certain boundaries and covenantal delineations.  With these words on the lips of Peter, we are not left to wonder why Paul would eventually accuse Peter of hypocrisy. 

With Peter having voiced his position and his question, a collective verdict is rendered.  We read that “When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.’” (11:18)  With this statement, as we realize the covenant and story-of-Israel language that it conveys, this group of early church elders realized that Gentiles, without restriction and without the need to adhere to the traditional covenant markers (as evidenced by the fact of their belief in Jesus, their speaking in tongues, and their praising of God that made them equal to themselves as those that experienced Pentecost, which also aligned them with the story of Abraham and belief that preceded circumcision or any other requirement), now share in the story and covenant and inheritance of Israel, standing with them in exile and joining with them in the experience of exodus that was the life of the resurrection of the body.     

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Believing In Him (part 33)

With Peter having pulled the Gentiles into the story of Israel (the story that began with Abraham) via talk of belief and forgiveness of sins, which are distinct covenant terms, the story receives its climax as Luke reports “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message” (10:44).  This metaphorical falling had witnesses.  Indeed, “The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45).  Luke’s construction of this passage inside the narrative is obvious, as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, here linked to Peter and his preaching, also links back to the second chapter and Peter’s explanation of the strange events that utilized the prophet Joel and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that was to accompany the last days. 

This clues us in to the fact that Peter and Luke, along with Paul (because he seizes on these metaphors), believed that the last days (the eschaton) had begun with the Resurrection of Jesus and was being carried forward into the world via the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Likewise, this is as a reminder that the original community of Jesus believers, employing a Jewish eschatology that would have been shared by Jesus Himself, did not view the “last days” as an end-of-the-world conflagration in which the world would cease to exist.  Rather, they viewed the “last days” as the time when the loving reign of the Creator God over His creation would be implemented.  They believed that this state of affairs had sprung into factuality in the resurrected Christ and in His church, with this being the natural accompaniment of Jesus’ repeated declaration that, in His presence and person, the kingdom of God was at hand. 

Highlighting the connection to the second chapter of Acts and to the events of Pentecost, not only do we have the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, but we also have the fact that the circumcised believers heard the Gentile believers “speaking in tongues and praising God” (10:46).  This had been the experience of those that composed the assembly of believers in chapters two and four.  With this, Gentiles were now experiencing the power of God via the Spirit.  As far as Israel’s story was concerned, this experience of being empowered by the Spirit of God had been the exclusive domain of the specially chosen people of God.  So when it comes to the story of the operation of God’s covenant, what is here reported to have taken place is groundbreaking.  Undoubtedly then, this plays into the presentation of groundbreaking theological and covenantal premises in Paul’s letter to the Romans. 

With his own witness to the pouring out of the Spirit, the speaking in tongues, and the praising of God, which would be an explicit reminder of Pentecost, Peter says “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (10:47)  Peter uses the inclusive language of “we,” as we have heard Paul use repeatedly.  We are also reminded of chapter two’s informing us that “those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added” (2:41).  Along with that, as we hear the telling of this story and the words of Peter in the context of the story of Israel, it is impossible to disconnect the concept of baptism from the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan River (both on dry land).  These are pivotal events within Israel’s story, and they are told as tales of God’s faithfulness to His people.  Also, the baptism in chapter two would have been exclusively Jews, in Jerusalem, during a great Sabbath, whereas that of chapter ten was a baptism of Gentiles.  Thus, because both Jews and Gentiles experience baptism, both stand before God in a state of equality. 

Baptism, when connected to Jesus as Messiah of Israel, allows those that undergo the experience to participate in that tale of God’s faithfulness, symbolically crossing from a state of exile to a state of exodus.  Because the baptism that stems from a belief in Jesus is also rooted in the understanding that the Resurrection of Jesus brought an end to the old age and ushered in the new age, baptism becomes the picture of the believers deliverance from the exile of the old age/creation, into the new age/creation.  We can comfortably presume, based on his writing, that such thoughts found a home in the mind of Paul as well.    

This series of events caused no little consternation amongst the circumcised believers in Jerusalem (11:2).  Those that took issue with what Peter had done, accusing him of going to uncircumcised men and sharing a meal with them (11:3).  These are the same issues at work, against which Paul stridently speaks, in Galatians two, though the setting was Antioch rather than Jerusalem.  This is nothing short of a clear disavowal of the covenant markers of Judaism, as Peter has, by confirming the presence of the Holy Spirit in the uncircumcised and by violating food laws (though Sabbath is not in view), has transgressed and effectively repudiates the marks that had previously been the means by which one was identified as a covenant member in good standing.  Though they can certainly be practiced, they are of no particular use or value, when set against the new covenant marker of belief in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel and Lord of all (the Gospel).  Again, all this is stressed, though it seems to not necessarily have any bearing on Romans, because Paul will be more than aware of all of these things, and would most likely heavily rely on Peter’s experience and telling of the experience in formulating his positions about Gentile inclusion under the covenant and their participation in the promises of Israel’s God.         

Monday, November 28, 2011

Believing In Him (part 32)

This theme continues in the tenth chapter of Acts, with Peter’s visit to the household of Cornelius.  He is a Gentile, which makes the record of this encounter of particular interest to our study.  We will not recap the whole of the interaction or what led to Peter’s dealings with this prominent Gentile (though there will be some recapping), and we will begin by recounting that it is near the close of the story that we hear Peter say “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people” (10:34b).  This is not about individual favoritism, but favoritism towards peoples or nations, so it should not, at first, cause us to take the position of an inward focus or cause us to direct our thoughts at some type of earned salvation or status with God. 

With that established, we continue, hearing “but in every nation,” which reinforces the point just made, “the person who fears Him and does what is right is welcomed before Him” (10:35).  This welcome is, quite obviously, a welcome to the covenant people of God.  To this point, briefly reaching into the story of Cornelius, and doing so that we might appropriately hear the words of Peter within the narrative that is on offer, rather than visiting the text with possibly foreign notions of what is meant by “does what is right,” we find very little activity or doing attributed to Cornelius.  We are alerted to the fact that Cornelius is a God-fearing man that performed acts of charity and regularly prayed (10:2).  Right away then, he is introduced in a far more flattering way than was Abraham.  We go on to learn that “About three o’clock one afternoon he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God who came in and said to him, ‘Cornelius.’  Staring at him and becoming greatly afraid, Cornelius replied, ‘What is it, Lord?’  The angel said to him, ‘Your prayers and your acts of charity have gone up as a memorial before God.’” (10:3-4)  This should give us some pause, causing us to reflect on God’s opinion about “good works” and their ultimate value.  Again, and for what it’s worth, Cornelius is introduced into the narrative of the people of God in a more positive light than was Abraham, which is something to keep in mind. 

Cornelius receives instructions: “Now send men to Joppa and summon a man named Simon, who is called Peter.  This man is staying as a guest with a man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea” (10:5-6).  With this said, we find that “When the angel who had spoken to him departed, Cornelius called two of his personal servants and a devout soldier from among those who served him, and when he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa” (10:7-8).  Later, after Peter has come to his house, Cornelius, relating his story, speaks to Peter and says “I sent for you at once, and you were kind enough to come.  So now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to say to us” (10:33).  We’ll notice that Cornelius, in both verse four and verse thirty-three, uses the word “Lord.”  Based on the whole of Luke’s presentation, and especially the story of Saul’s blinding on the road to Damascus, where he says “Who are you, Lord?” and heard “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (9:5), we should presume that Cornelius’ references to the “Lord” are to be considered to be references to the Lord Jesus.  Therefore, Cornelius effectively gives voice to the Gospel, calling Jesus Lord, thus taking upon himself the mark of the covenant.  It is these things told about Cornelius that, according to the story on offer, fall into the category of “does what is right” (demonstrating a respect of God by engaging in charity, praying regularly, and calling Jesus “Lord”).   

This use of “Lord,” with Peter recognizing it for what it is, allows him to move immediately to his speech, pointing to God’s lack of favoritism and His desire to welcome people from all nations before Him.  It is telling that Peter does not go into the story of Abraham, nor does he tell the story of Jesus as if Cornelius is hearing it for the first time.  Instead, he says “You know the message He sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)” (10:36).  We shall not fail to here note that Cornelius is a centurion---an official in Caesar’s army.  He, of all people, would be well aware that “good news” is routinely linked to the Caesar.  In addition, the use of “Christ,” which is “Messiah,” and means “king”, together with a proclamation that He and not Caesar is “Lord of all,” was quite a bold statement by Peter, considering his setting, while also being emblematic of the proclamation of Christ-followers from the beginning. 

He adds “you know what happened through Judea,” thus reiterating Cornelius’ previous knowledge and building from his use of “Lord” in reference to Jesus, “beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced; with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power” (10:37-38a).  A bit later, after mention of the Resurrection, Peter adds “He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that He is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42).  Conversely, this is not Caesar’s role.  Furthermore, “About Him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (10:43).  Forgiveness of sins, for the prophets, was firstly a gift of God to Israel, and was to be equated with exodus from exile or rescue from foreign subjugation (as proof of God had forgiven them for failing to rightly bear His image in and for the world).  In the name of Jesus, or by acting on behalf of His kingdom because of the confession of Jesus as Lord of all, all are able to receive this gift that had been promised to the covenant people of God. 

If the talk of the “pouring out of the Holy Spirit” that was to be found in the story that the church told about itself, part of which found its way into the Acts of the Apostles (much like Israel’s story was told through the Hebrew Scriptures), was in Paul’s mind when he was penning the fifth chapter of his letter to Rome, then we can reasonably suggest that so too was Peter’s insistence that “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness through His name” was in mind while Paul composed what would eventually be designated as chapter ten, as he says much the same thing about believing in Him.   

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Believing In Him (part 31)

Peter, still speaking in the second chapter of Acts, continues the use of the pouring metaphor, saying “This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it.  So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, He has poured out what you both see and hear” (2:32-33).  The correct response then, is to “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (2:38a).  The result?  “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38b). 

It is not exactly a groundbreaking idea to put forward the thought that whereas the Gospels as we know them are the story of Jesus’ ministry, that the story of Acts is that of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and thus Jesus’ ministry by a different means, that being His church by the Spirit.  The unique twist in what we are here doing is to point out that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that Paul mentions in chapter five of Romans, as it is linked to the conclusions that he is drawing from his understanding of Gentile participation in the covenant (justification) based on the believing example of Abraham, is based on the understanding of that ministry of the Holy Spirit that we see recorded in Acts (though Acts would not yet have been composed and promulgated, so Paul is relying only on what he has learned) and the regular use of the “pouring out” metaphor. 

Obviously, Joel’s vision of God’s “last day” actions was looked upon quite favorably.  The fact that Peter picks up on this, and that Paul, by his adoption, in Romans of the language of pouring, picks up on Joel’s language as well, allows us to grasp a yet deeper sense of Paul’s ideology concerning the “last days.”  Putting the pieces together, it is not at all difficult to see that Paul believes that the “last days” have begun in the Resurrection of Jesus, and that these “last days” have little if any comprehension of time or its duration.  Rather, the last days are those days in which God has become King, and this is marked by the expansion of His covenant people as just one piece of His plan for the restoration of creation, which is a mark of the advent of the kingdom of God. 

In chapter four of Romans, Peter, having been arrested and released, speaks to his fellow believers.  As belief is so elemental to covenant, and is quite demonstrably the key covenant marker, having been so from the earliest part of the narrative that details God’s dealings in His world, it may be useful to train ourselves to think of “believers” as “sons of Abraham.”  At the conclusion of his speech, Luke records “When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously” (4:31).  Here again, we have “filled” as the metaphorical vehicle, communicating God’s gracious activity.  Luke could just as easily have again spoken of the Holy Spirit begin poured out, as it would have communicated the same message. 

Not too long after this another arrest takes place.  There is a reminder that the disciples were given “strict orders not to teach” in the name of Jesus (5:28a).  Another speech is offered to those responsible for the arrest.  In that speech, Peter (presumably, though the text says “Peter and the apostles replied” – 5:29a) says “We must obey God rather than people.  The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging Him on a tree.  God exalted Him to His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him” (5:29b-32).  Here, it is the giving of the Holy Spirit that stands in for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  Crucially for us, this giving is linked to obedience, which hearkens the hearer to Abraham, his belief, and his obedience that demonstrated itself as unswerving loyalty to the faithful, covenant God.

In the seventh chapter of Acts we encounter the story of Stephen.  He offers an impassioned speech that has, as its subject, God’s covenant activity beginning with Moses, concluding with “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears!  You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did!  With of the prophets did your ancestor not persecute?  They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become!” (7:51-52)  Naturally, it is the poured out Holy Spirit that is being resisted.  To this Luke adds, “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55).  This cannot help but take us back to Romans five and Paul’s talk of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the hope of God’s glory, and peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Might Paul also have this story of Stephen in mind, together with what comes before and after it in Acts, having presented, in a very Stephen-like manner, the story of Abraham?  

Believing In Him (part 30)

From whence, for Paul in Romans, arises this talk of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit?  Naturally, as we have already pointed to Acts, thus preparing ourselves for a trip to that second part of the Luke-Acts narrative, we now venture to the story of the growth of the church and its continued announcement of the kingdom of God, with its unexpectedly crucified and improbably resurrected King.  Though Paul does not figure directly in the stories that we will be referencing, it would be a grave mistake for us to presume that Paul was not thoroughly aware of the events there recorded and of their implications for covenant and kingdom. 

Our first stop is in Acts one.  Before ascending, which was a way of communicating the fusion of heaven and earth in Him and thus solidifying the conception of Him as the Temple, which was a thought that is heavily developed in Luke, Jesus tells His disciples that “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (1:5).  In verse eight, as He answers a question regarding the kingdom of God, He continues His efforts to reshape and recast the vision of His mission as Messiah, saying “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (1:8).  That which they were to serve as witnesses was the Gospel, proclaiming His Lordship and thus the advent of His kingdom.  Talk of being baptized with the Holy Spirit and of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, as we shall see shortly, were simply ways of communicating the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. 

On to chapter two, and beginning with verse one we read “Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them” (2:1-2).  Now, we must not allow ourselves to get too hung up on the imagery and activities here presented.  This is the baptism.  This is the coming of the Spirit.  We can grasp whatever metaphor is useful, but we must realize that these are metaphors for something that has occurred at the hand and direction of Israel’s God.  To fit with the metaphor that Paul uses in Romans five, as he there chooses to use that particular metaphor for purposes that should become obvious to us, we can helpfully think of this as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  Since Acts essentially becomes a biography of Paul and the church, and as Romans, from the beginning, was considered to be a highly significant presentation of the Gospel by the apostle to the Gentiles (Luke was a Gentile), it is not difficult to imagine that Luke purposely highlights “pouring out” as a preferred metaphor.   

This is reflected in the inclusion of Peter’s speech, as he gives us insight into what has taken place and how it was interpreted by the disciples themselves.  To explain what is happening, Peter reaches for the prophecy of Joel and says “’And in the last days it will be’, God says, ‘that I will pour out My Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.  Even on My servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.  And I will perform wonders in the sky above and miraculous signs on the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke.  The sun will be changed to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes.  And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:17-21). 

So not only do we here have a pouring out of the Spirit of God, but we also have a programmatic statement about the reach of the kingdom of God, in that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  This parallels well with Paul’s programmatic statement that “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11).  “Everyone,” we now know, is to be heard against the limiting of saving and shame-avoiding, by Israel, to those that were physical descendants of Abraham or Gentiles who submitted to and bore the covenant markers of Israel (the works of the law).  From the outset of the church it would be the calling on the name of the Lord in conjunction with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (the metaphor that is used to describe what took place to cause hearing and believing that results in an unswerving loyalty to the King), that would delineate the covenant people, advancing and expanding the kingdom that had clearly come.   

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Believing In Him (part 29)

In verse five, Paul continues to push forward the proposition of the hope of the believer, with the life associated with hope resounding in concert with the believing hope of Abraham, and writing that “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (5:5).  Just as Abraham’s hope was not disappointed, “with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement” (4:18b) even though such a thing was hardly believable, so too might we believe in the Resurrection that issues in justification for all peoples, while also hoping to personally participate in the resurrection that is yet one component of God’s long-planned and promised restoration of creation.  The reason why all can trust, like Abraham, in the God whose faithfulness is the foundation of all hope is because, as Paul has said, “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” 

Because of the argument concerning Gentile justification that Paul is advancing, with that argument involving unconditional inclusion and full-scale participation under the auspices of covenant, this statement about the pouring out of the Holy Spirit goes well beyond the field of generalized acclimation and approbation of the Holy Spirit.  This is more than just a praise from the apostle, but is a soteriological statement that concerns itself with the ongoing justification of Gentile justification by means of their confession of Jesus as Lord and nothing more.  Again, with the use of “us” Paul is identifying with the Gentiles.  In doing so, he is drawing from a crucially important component of the story of the developing church. 

This story of development is chronicled in the book of Acts.  Though Acts will not have been written at the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans, just as the Gospels had not been written at the time of the letter to the Romans, we can be assured that, along with the oral Jesus traditions (a portion of which would eventually come to be codified in the Gospels), there were oral traditions concerning the church and the experiences of the community of Jesus believers that had been circulating from the days of His Resurrection and ascension until the day that Paul penned his letter.  Some of these oral traditions of the early believers would also be codified in the book of Acts, and we’ll get to that momentarily. 

At the same time, we do find biographical information about the believing communities in the letters of the New Testament.  As it relates to this issue of justification and to Paul’s communications that most explicitly deal with this subject, the letter to the Galatians, which we reviewed earlier in this study, reveals some specific information about the goings-on with that particular congregation.  In fact, there we can find Paul making mention of the Holy Spirit, doing so in the midst of his considerations of Gentiles and their justification.  In the third chapter we read “Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?” (3:5)  Of course, before that it was “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (3:2b) and “Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?” (3:3b) Considering the location of talk of the Spirit’s role in the life of the believer in the letter to Rome, in Galatians we are unsurprised to find Paul moving from mention of the Spirit to mention of Abraham, as he then writes “Just as Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (3:6).  Believing what was heard is a hallmark of the Abraham story.  It is a hallmark of the believer’s story---the church’s story---as well. 

Though the story of Abraham has the Creator God speaking directly to Abraham with no mention of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of God is always “moving over the surface” (to borrow some terminology from verse two of Genesis one---“hovering” if you will) of the Abraham story.  Indeed, this could be said of the entire Scriptural narrative.  So though the Spirit is not directly in sight when Abraham is presented in the Genesis narrative, Paul appears to ascribe the communication between God and Abraham to the Spirit.  This is what we seem to be able to discern when we hear Paul ask about giving of the Spirit in verse five, the “Just as Abraham believed” of verse six, and the “so then… those who believe are the sons of Abraham” in verse seven.  The Spirit is the instrument that facilitates the believing of the hearer, generating a response like that of Abraham and bringing all believers, be they Jew or Gentile, into the Abrahamic fold.  Eventually, this issues in Paul’s declaration that what has taken place, which is contained and communicated in the Gospel (Jesus is Lord), has occurred “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit by faith” (3:14).  As we have now seen a number of times, Paul stands with the Gentiles, as when he mentions Gentiles he also is careful to articulate a “we.”  This reception of the Spirit by faith, an idea which Paul has also now brought into close contact with Abraham, and therefore with the well-known narrative of Abraham that was part of the story that every member of Israel (and by extension every member of the covenant people of God) told about himself and his relation to God, is akin to the mention of the pouring out of the Spirit in Romans.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Believing In Him (part 28)

What has all of this talk of kingship and kingdom to do with belief and with justification?  Quite simply, it is a question of loyalty.  Acknowledgment of a ruling power engenders questions about the demands being placed on those subordinate to that power.  Since being declared righteous (coming under the covenant, being justified) has to do with belief, and because belief, again reaching back to Abraham and to that which is fundamental for Paul as he observes the ramifications of the Christ-event and the full sweep of the covenant people of God, has to do with the production of an unswerving loyalty to God, concerns of kingship and kingdom have everything to do with the believer’s justification.  Because the kingship of Jesus extends to each and every component of this creation, calling Jesus “Lord” (acceding to His Gospel) has inescapable consequences for how one engages in and with the world, bearing on every decision and every moment. 

Following the multivalent suggestions of verse one of the fifth chapter, in which Paul has expressed the peace with God that is established and that goes hand in hand with submission to the fact of His becoming King through Jesus (and as it stands in contra-distinction to the peace promised by Rome and its son of god), Paul writes “through whom we also have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (5:2a).  “We” includes both Jews and Gentiles, and the access by faith is the means by which one enters upon the covenant (is justified, declared righteous, saved).  Based on the scope of his analysis of what has been and is being wrought in and for the world through God’s faithful action, which will continue to be made manifest by His covenant people, we can surmise that the “grace in which we stand” is yet another way of referring to covenant standing.  This could be taken to refer to the gracious extension of the covenant to those previously excluded, which would fit nicely with Paul’s continual identification of himself with Gentiles, but it can also just as easily be applicable to members of Israel, who are to be cognizant of the fact that, beginning with Abraham, they were also specially chosen by God through no effort or causation of their own (with this made explicit based on the words of God delivered to Israel through Moses).   

Regardless of applicability, the recognition of God’s grace rightly leads one to “rejoice in the hope of God’s glory” (5:2b).  This rejoicing in hope points us forward to the hope that is so profoundly expressed in the eighth chapter of Romans (which will fall outside of the scope of this study), while mention of God’s glory reminds us of the words of the third chapter and Paul’s insistence that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  We remember the importance of the “all” there, as the statement is provided its context by the context of Gentile justification (gaining of covenant standing) through belief in Jesus. 

Jesus, having revealed the glory of God by being the first to rightly bear the divine image, not only reminds us of where and how we fall short of living up to what was intended by God for humanity, He also points the way and displays the means by which we too can be truly human and so reflect the glory of God into the world.  At the same time, as Paul draws conclusions from which he can build as he moves on to the next period of thoughtful reflection, these words from the beginning of chapter five draw on the fourth chapter, as Paul continues to root talk of righteousness, peace, faith, and grace in Abrahamic sensibilities.  It is Abraham’s loyalty to God that serves as the model, along with that of Jesus (which first mimics that of Abraham) of the believer’s loyalty to God, which we are able to demonstrate through loyalty to the words and ways of Jesus, as He has taken up His throne of all power and all authority.  More specific to Abraham and the fourth chapter, talk of “hope” and “God’s glory” remind us that Abraham believed with hope, against hope (4:18).  Can we not say that belief in a crucified and resurrected Lord, through which one enters into covenant with God, is also a hopeful belief against hope?  Abraham’s hope concerning the promise that had been spoken to him, which runs parallel with our belief in the Resurrection and the hope of resurrection in the same manner as that which was experienced by Jesus, redounds to God’s glory, just as was the case for Abraham, who “did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God” (4:20). 

While we can certainly imagine Abraham glorifying God, we can just as easily make the case that it was Abraham’s lack of wavering, continuing in belief, that gave glory to God.  Regardless of what he saw, regardless of his age, regardless of his wife’s age, and regardless of all those things that could militate against his trusting in the promises of God concerning descendants, Abraham believed.  How can we make this application in the here and now?  As we believe in the Resurrection, so believing in Jesus (standing in covenant with God in the process and so standing in the line of descendants of Abraham and being positioned to share in the blessings promised to him), we believe that He was the first of those to be raised from the dead.  We believe that this portends another Resurrection.  Regardless of that which we see around us, as evil seems to make its way in the world without fetters or restraints (though this is patently false), we believe that the kingdom of God has come, that Jesus is ruling, and that we participate in that kingdom, in its peace, and in its life.  We stand by faith and “rejoice in the hope of God’s glory,” trusting that He is going to bring His kingdom to full consummation and restore His creation as was promised and for which was hoped and expected by the prophets of old (with Jesus and the earliest believers operating with the same hope), such that “we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope” (5:3-4).  By this, we are allowed to imitate our Lord, so learning how to represent Him in the world.         

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Believing In Him (part 27)

Though this is an obvious understatement, Paul has said much.  Having done so, he begins to reach some immediate conclusions and logical deductions that are forced by what has been presented in the first four chapters of the letter.  Those deductions begin with “Therefore.”  He writes “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).  Having been brought into the covenant people (declared righteous) through the instrumentality of faith (belief in God and its concurrent unswerving loyalty to the claims made by that God, per the example of Abraham), a state of peace between humanity and God is engendered.  This peace is attached to the Lord, who is Jesus, who is the Christ (the Anointed One/Messiah/King). 

“Peace” operates on a number of levels.  One of those levels will be overtly addressed by Paul in relatively short order.  A second level of the operation of “peace,” which is more subtle and subversive, is surely also implied, and we can see through it the juxtaposition and choice of particular words used at this particular place in the letter.  What’s subtle and subversive in the use of peace?  Doesn’t everybody desire peace?  Answering that question and addressing that issue requires us to ask another question and to see where that might lead us.  About what might a citizen of Rome think when they hear the word “peace”?  It would be much more than an inward state of bliss or mellow contentment, or a cessation of against-ness, or of a lack of spiritual conflict.  The fact that Paul will go on to describe peace with God, the need for peace with God, and the way that such peace is generated, might inform us that these particular dimensions of peace (with which Paul deals in verses six through eleven of this chapter) would not necessarily spring to mind when Paul speaks of peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

It may very well be the case that Paul expects his Roman audience, as they are fully ensconced within the city of Rome and therefore live at the seat of Roman imperial ideology and its associated imperial theology and attendant propaganda, to think of the “pax Romana,” or “Roman peace” when he writes to them concerning peace.  This was an exalted ideal for Rome, as they imagined themselves to be the bringers of peace and justice to the world, with this having begun under the revered and exalted Emperor Caesar Augustus.  This peace, of course, was brought about primarily through military conquest.  Following military conquest when Rome deemed it necessary (some would simply acquiesce to the power of Rome without raising arms against them), the Roman peace would be secured by the ongoing threat of the exercise of military power.  Together with that, any thoughts of rebellion were quelled and quenched by the reminder of Rome’s power of life over death, with this best (and most horribly) embodied by the Roman cross, as it was the means of execution reserved for recalcitrant slaves and rebels against Rome.  Crucifixion was employed to send a political message.  Even the crucifixion of a recalcitrant slave would convey Rome’s political might, as it reminded those that would witness the event, because of its also being used as a means of execution for those that challenged the power of Caesar, that all were slaves of Rome. 

By a variety of means, Caesar extended his power and his version of peace.  All good and well, one might think, but one might also question the need to generate thoughts along such lines as we read through Romans.  Addressing that, one has to come to terms with the fact that not only does the message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) have a spiritual component, as a declaration that heaven and earth has overlapped in Jesus (heaven come to earth), but it has a substantial political component as well.  “Peace” was a charged and controversial term.  Assuredly, the means of achieving peace were as debated in Paul’s day as it is in ours.  “Gospel” itself is a term associated with the Caesar and his rule.  Calling Jesus “Lord” is a subversive activity, as it usurps the power of the Caesar, who was looked upon as Lord and Savior.  “Christ” is not a neutral term either.  It is not merely a religious or spiritual term.  When somebody says that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior, they are making claims in relation to the kingdom of God that Jesus announced had come to earth and of their loyalty to that kingdom and kingdom program above loyalty to any other person or nation.  Whether they know it or not, or realize it or not, calling Jesus Savior does not have to do with going to heaven upon death.  Laying claim to salvation is about God becoming King on earth, as in heaven. 

As we know, “Christ” is the Greek translation of “Messiah,” and the Jewish Messiah was well-understood to be the King of Israel.  As the Messiah was also understood to be the physical manifestation of the Creator God of Israel, the Messiah was also thought to be King of the entire world.  That, of course, along with many other titles (son of god, to choose one), was a title of, and a claim made by the Caesar.  Applying these titles to Jesus, calling Him Lord and Master and Savior and King while also speaking about Him in terms of peace and salvation (that which was then said to be brought to the world by Caesar and by Rome), could not be more of a direct challenge to Caesar, to his rule, to his way of orchestrating and ruling his kingdom, to his claims about himself, to the claims made about him by others, and to the power (death) that stood behind him and any other pretender to God’s rightful place of rule of this world that was brought into existence at His word and hand.      

Monday, November 21, 2011

Believing In Him (part 26)

Thankfully (hopefully), we have reached the point at which we are successfully and helpfully resisting any ingrained tendencies to equate circumcision and its associated works of the law with the completely Scripturally irrelevant paradigm of performing good works as the means of entrance upon God’s covenant and a membership standing among God’s kingdom people that have been called together (elected) for His kingdom purposes.  Similarly, we should have also reached the point at which we no longer think of justification (salvation) in terms of the promise of a heavenly existence once death comes a-calling, but in Hebraic terms of covenant, exodus, exile, restoration, re-creation, and God’s meta-narrative of concern for His created order and the divine image-bearers that He formed to inhabit it that encompasses the entire arc of Scripture.  Though it seems as if this thought might be re-visited too often, it is necessary to incessantly militate against mindsets and worldviews that would have had no place in the mind of Jesus, or for our more immediate purposes, the mind of Paul.

With this re-presentation of an important part of our hermeneutic, as we seek to come to terms with the scope of Paul’s own hermeneutic and vision of the kingdom of God through this analysis of Romans and Paul’s thought-world that began with his statement in chapter ten of Romans that “the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame’” (10:11), thus approaching the issue of justification from a slightly different direction that takes in the overt justification texts (Romans 3, Galatians 2) while also calling attention to the Abrahamic covenant rooted issue of participation in the covenant people of God and the inclusion of Gentiles in the mission of God as part of God’s plan to accomplish that which He has purposed from the time of the establishment of His cosmic Temple (creation and the creation account), we proceed to the twenty-third and twenty-fourth verses of chapter four and hear “But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24). 

This statement is jam-packed with weighty statements that touch upon a number of ideas that are at work.  Remember, Paul’s concern is Gentile justification and the covenant marker that indicates their justification that is the counterpart of the new age of the new creation that dawned with the Resurrection of Jesus.  That which was credited to Abraham, of course, was righteousness.  Abraham came into covenant with God.  Naturally, any writing about this was not done for the benefit of Abraham.  He did not need to read about it.  He lived it.  The Abraham story is included in the narrative tale of God’s people and God’s purposes, specifically constructed to demonstrate that belief in the God of the covenant is paramount, with specific covenant reminders tacked on at a later point in the story so as to serve as reminders of the faithful God and the believing response to that faithful God that produced loyal actions post-covenant (as if the entirety of the creation, generated at the hand and command of that same God, at least according to the story on offer in the first two chapters of Genesis, is not enough to serve as a reminder of that faithfulness---a point that Paul raises in the first chapter of Romans).

Paul’s use of “for our sake” gains prominence again, as part of his ongoing efforts to identify himself with Gentiles and his efforts to downplay his Jewish status.  He continues to place all those that are believers in the covenant God on the same level, insisting that the same righteousness (justification, covenant membership, part of salvation, as we seek greater specificity in our conception of salvation as an ongoing experience of living under the covenant and participating with God in such a way that generates the overlap of heaven and earth through our conscious, kingdom cognizant activities) that was credited to Abraham will also be credited to those that do what Abraham did, which is believe in God.  This God, of course, is the one that raised Jesus from the dead, thus reminding his hearers that the Resurrection can never, and should never be too far from the thoughts of the covenant community, as it is the basis for the widening out and advent of God’s mission to defeat death and bring resurrection and restoration to His creation, and for the “all-peoples” participation in the covenant.  To that point specifically, Paul writes “He was given over because of our transgressions,” our failures to live as truly human beings in the image of our Creator (falling short of the glory of God), “and was raised for the sake of our justification” (4:25).  Justification, as it goes out to all nations, cannot be disconnected from the Resurrection. 

In addition, the fact that in his statement about believing in the same God in whom Abraham believed, while mentioning His raising of Jesus (the basis for justification and an implicit reminder of the veritable resurrection of Isaac), he makes it a point to refer to Jesus as Lord, thus referencing Him as King (and what King lacks a kingdom?), does not go unnoticed.  In Jesus, God has become King.  Heaven and earth have come together in Him (He is the Temple and so too are those who are filled with the same Spirit that raised Him from the dead).  The fact of His kingship and His kingdom is determinative for how covenant members will engage in, with, and for the world in which He is King.  We cannot allow justification to be separated from such considerations.  These concerns are not additions, but are fundamental.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Believing In Him (part 25)

Belief is transcendent.  It transcends the works of the law.  It does not stand over and against the works of the law that were but reminders of a previous covenant shaped by previous faithfulness and a faithful response, but rather serves as the foundation.  To make this point, Paul adds that “it is by faith so that it may be by grace” (4:16a).  Grace, of course, was present in God’s dealings with Abraham, and did not receive its advent with that of Jesus.  Thus it has “the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants---not only to those who are under the law” (4:16b), the Jews, “but also to those who have the faith of Abraham” (4:16c), who are all those that enter into covenant (including those who have the law) by means of their belief in the God of the covenant. 

In conjunction with these moves, Paul makes a point to here reiterate that Abraham, “is the father of us all” (4:16d).  In a culture that places a heavy emphasis on the father as the head of a household and the honor of that position, whether that culture be Jew or Gentile, with much additional honor (for the Jew) attached to being a member of Abraham’s household, this is not an insignificant statement.  The household could extend beyond blood relations, which we see in the story of Abraham, as he is willing to look to a servant in his house as a completely legitimate heir to the covenantal promise, and would have considered God’s carrying on and carrying out of His promise through that servant as a demonstration of His covenantal faithfulness.  This would not necessarily be an unusual position for Abraham to take, as it was a common and accepted practice for a favored servant to enjoy benefits in line with being a biological or adopted son.  Therefore, this particular use of the Abraham example is doubly emphatic when applied to the status of Gentiles in relation to the covenant (not to mention the whole of the believing community), in that there is an egalitarianism insistence, in that all that come to belief in Jesus are of the same family and bear the same status, while it also joins Jew and Gentile together in a mythic physical descent, as Paul adds “(as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)” (4:17a). 

A moment of reflection causes us to consider that we would not be reaching in the least to suggest that there are multiple levels of thought upon which Paul is operating, with multiple layers of application being suggested as he continues to work out the implications of the Resurrection of Jesus.  Certainly, if we are to take the Resurrection seriously, recognizing it as the dynamic event that it so obviously is, causes us to also recognize that said dynamism, having sent and continuing to send ripples into the world, meets and greets us at every turn of our daily lives, demanding a Resurrection-shaped response (the Resurrection reminding us of the life of Jesus) to even the most mundane situations we find presented to us.  If a continual assessment of the implications of the Resurrection (and the whole of the Christ-event) is going on with what Paul is offering, as it incorporates concerns about the God that was manifest in the Christ and His own faithfulness as it relates to Abraham and the people of the covenant that both physically and metaphorically spring from his loins, then it would be foolhardy and a bit shortsighted if we did not also suggest and accept that his hearers were able to hear him at multiple levels and from multiple positions of acculturation, while assessing the multiple layers of implication that are on offer.  This can be taken as an indication, humbly suggested, that there can never, nor should there ever be a final word about what Paul thinks, means, believes, is attempting to accomplish, or desiring to see from this congregation.

Joining the family of God in Christ together, Paul goes on to write “He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed” (4:17b).  There’s that mark of covenant again.  Taking the time to identify an attribute of that God, and doing so as a reminder of the Resurrection, Paul adds “the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do” (4:17c).  Though Paul quickly moves to make this Abraham-specific, adding “Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, ‘so will your descendants be,’’ along with “Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (4:18-19), thus providing a historical context to making the dead alive and summoning things that do not yet exist as they do, and in the process highlighting belief and faith, thoughts of Jesus and His Resurrection and the covenant family that will be culled from all nations surely lurk within the attribution that has this God summoning the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.  Indeed, a worldwide covenant family is almost immediately suggested to Abraham upon God’s first speaking to him, and this comes to fruition when that God makes the dead alive.      

Continuing to speak of Abraham in a way that could just as easily be contributed to Jesus and what He perceived as His vocation and His role as the Messiah through whom God would extend Himself and His covenant to all nations (if we want to consider the faithfulness of Jesus as significant in this whole issue of justification), Paul adds “He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God” (4:20).  If Jesus is also in mind, perhaps a consideration here of the human responsibility to rightly bearing the divine image, Paul’s understanding of the connection with doing so to the glory of God (as demonstrated in chapter three), and Paul’s opinion (voiced in the Colossian letter) that Jesus exactly bore the image of God, is appropriate?  Regardless, Paul goes on to say of Abraham that “He was fully convinced that what God promised He was also able to do” (4:21).  That said, with the words that follow, he breaks away from a dual application to Abraham and Jesus, and once again elevates belief as that which confers right standing in relation to the covenant (justification), completely independent and prior to circumcision, writing “So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness” (4:22).  By faith, Abraham was enfolded into the covenant, in right standing with the Creator God.      

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Believing In Him (part 24)

Crucially, as we continue to progress through this fourth chapter of Romans, as it is dictated by the communal conception and remembrance of Abraham, the doing of good works, which is so often confused with the keeping of the law as a means of attaining salvation is nowhere in sight.  It is not only not in sight in the sense of being the antithesis of the message of justification by faith, it is also nowhere in sight in terms of it being a recognizable category for Paul.  We cannot foist the dichotomy of faith versus works on to what Paul sees as the crucial issues of justification, which are the inclusion of Gentiles, the basis of their inclusion, the transformation of the recognized covenant markers because of the cross and the Resurrection, and the fulfillment and extension of God’s covenant through what took place in and with Jesus as the Messiah. 

With that said, we move to the thirteenth verse and Paul’s insistence that “the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (4:13).  Though it has been said over and over, mental habits that have been constructed over extended periods of time must continue to be resisted, with this best achieved by constant reminders concerning the terminology with which Paul operates.  The tendency to allow ourselves to mentally regress to thinking of “law” as “the doing of good works,” rather than properly thinking of “law” as shorthand for the covenant markers of Judaism (circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and dietary laws---with circumcision often also functioning as shorthand for the three) that identified someone as being a covenant member, with the ongoing recognition of the value of these things lying in the fact that they are reminders of belief in the faithfulness of God in general and His faithfulness to His covenants with Israel in particular. 

Though it seems to require significant mental exertion, and though it certainly requires us to hold together different ideas, right understanding dictates a realization that the performance of these covenant markers did not cause one to be in covenant, just as it was not the confession of Jesus as Lord that caused one to be in covenant.  The performance of the covenant markers (be it the Jewish covenant markers that served to isolate the people of God and wall off the covenant, or the confession of Jesus’ Lordship in the world and over one’s life), as was the case with Abraham and his circumcision, is the reminder of the belief in a faithful God.  It may be the case that this understanding had become blurred, in that there was a conception, perhaps held by some Gentiles, though it may be the case for Jews as well, that it was the performance of the covenant markers themselves, rather than the belief that stood behind that performance, that actually produced and induced an individual’s justification.  This runs back to what was said in verse twelve, which was “he is also the father of the circumcised… who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.”  Belief, whether under the old covenant markers or the new covenant marker, was and is the means of entry into the covenant. 

The point that Paul is making, which is that from which he builds while also being that to which he is heads, is that the presence of God in Christ, with all that has attended that grand event, has generated a massive change, and that the new reminder of belief that creates covenant (justifies), the declaration of which also possesses the power to generate belief on the part of those that hear the declaration, is the confession of the Lordship of Jesus, with this being inseparable from the realization that the kingdom of God has come upon earth (as announced by Jesus), that this kingdom was truly inaugurated at the Resurrection (introducing the renewal of creation into the world), and that it will be fully consummated at some point in the future (a course of events that was completely unexpected).  So when Paul reminds his hearers, who, like us now, are familiar with the story of Abraham, that the promise did not come to Abraham because of his adherence to the covenant marker (which came later), and that Abraham received his righteousness (standing inside the covenant, justification, salvation, right standing with God---all of which comes with responsibilities for this life and in this world, having little if nothing to do with the destination of one’s eternal soul and whether or not one ends up in heaven or hell) through faith, he is not juxtaposing works and faith in relation to justification.  Rather, his focus remains on covenant markers and legitimating Gentile inclusion, with the latter being an obvious part of God’s plan from the very beginning.  It seems clear that Paul recognizes, in Jesus, at least a partial (if not complete) fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, so the spreading of the Gospel message (Jesus is Lord) to the Gentile world, with the subsequent submission to that message and to the Lord of the message, is a very natural progression.  Accordingly, this fits very well with, and makes much sense of the words of the prophets of old that are very obviously world-encompassing.    

With verse fourteen, Paul points up the inherent conflict involved in ascribing justifying activity to adherence to covenant markers (thus contributing to the possibility of a mental blurring of lines that we mentioned before), when he writes “For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified” (4:14).  Again, covenant membership (justification) does not and cannot come from the covenant markers.  The markers are reminders of belief.  Importantly, God has not changed His mind (we can relieve Him of the charge of schizophrenia when it comes to His plans for His world and His people).  The example of Abraham proves this.  He was in covenant because of belief.  If this is not so, and if he was not actually in covenant until the event of his circumcision, then belief is indeed empty, for it produced nothing.  The promises made to him then, all of which came before his circumcision and from the very beginning point to the global people of God that become His people through the same means employed by Abraham (faith), are null and void.  Though Abraham obviously is not in a position to confess Jesus as Lord, we see the story of his life as his confession, reflecting His unswerving loyalty to the God of the promise.  Those of us now in the position to confess Jesus as Lord should similarly seek that the story of our lives be the silent confession of the same unswerving loyalty, generating the opportunity to offer verbal, public declaration.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Believing In Him (part 23)

Having sufficiently (hopefully) immersed ourselves in the story of Abraham, such that we have now heard and comprehended the crucial components of that story of covenant within its proper order, we can now comfortably re-proceed with our interaction with the fourth chapter of Romans.  We resume there with the ninth verse, in possession a renewed potential for enlightenment, now hearing this portion of Paul’s argument for Gentile justification (covenant standing) as the adjunct to all that has preceded it and as a preface to that which is the weighty subject matter of chapters nine through eleven.  Reading then, we hear Paul asking his mixed congregation of hearers “Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision?” (4:9a).  This “blessedness” is of a piece with the Abrahamic covenant (begun in chapter twelve of Genesis, with annexations over time and the course of the text).  We do ourselves a tremendous disservice if we do not maintain our cognizance of this fact, along with the Abraham story, as we hear the answer to Paul’s rhetorical question, which is “For we say, ‘faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.’” (4:9b)  Yes, ‘twas Abraham’s faith---his belief that engendered an unswerving loyalty to the covenant-making-and-keeping Creator God---that brought him into right standing (covenant) with God. 

Keying in on the order of events, as he continues to elevate the covenant marker of belief in Jesus over and against the Jewish covenant markers of the day, Paul, as if poking and prodding at his listeners for an answer that should be all too obvious to them, while also conveying just a little bit of shame on those that have insisted on the necessity of circumcision to be identified as a covenant person and so enjoy its benefits, asks “How then was it credited to him?  Was he circumcised at the time, or not?” (4:10a)  Forcing his point, the answer comes forth as “No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised!” (4:10b)  This, when read to the congregation by a tradent, would undoubtedly be read in such a way as to convey the singular importance of this point when it comes to dealing with this quite pressing and, for Paul, possibly church-and-kingdom-of-God limiting issue. 

The next verse points up what Paul sees as something that presents an insurmountable contradiction for those that insist on circumcision (along with Sabbath-keeping and food laws, neither of which are anywhere near the Abraham story) as the means of entrance upon the covenant.  He writes “And he received the sign of circumcision,” which we remember was to serve as a “reminder” of the fact of his right standing with God and the promises that had been made to him, “as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (4:11a).  Now, even the most ardent defender of circumcision as a covenant marker would not be willing to insist that Abraham was not in covenant with God before being circumcised.  Circumcision, Paul reiterates, was the sign of what God had already determined in regards to Abraham because of his belief.  Thus, confirming his position in regards to Gentiles and what is required of them to become covenant people (to be justified), this order of events was neatly orchestrated by God “so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised” (4:11b).  Why?  “That they too could have righteousness credited to them” (4:11c).  That is, that they too could, because of their faith, showing itself forth as an unswerving loyalty to the covenant and Creator God of Israel as manifested in Jesus the Messiah, attain the justification that was attained by Abraham, in advance and independent of circumcision.  Belief was and is the key, and the prophetic insistence on God’s performance of a circumcision of the heart rings in our increasingly alert and sensitive ears. 

While proposing all of these things, Paul is still sensitive to the position of those that are the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac, who have lived as the covenant people according to the dictates of the covenant as governed by the Mosaic law (and morphed over time into the shape that had been taken in the days of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, and who bear this particular covenant marker because of the ongoing faith of a covenant people.  This sensitivity is well demonstrated in chapter nine, the precursor of which is to be partially found in this statement: “And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised” (4:12).  There are no second-class citizens.  Bearing the mark of circumcision does not mean that one does not walk the path of faith.  Paul does not allow his hearers to lose sight of that fact that Abraham was faithful both before and after circumcision.  Circumcision did not diminish faith.  In fact, as we can see in the Abraham story, it was the faith by which Abraham was justified that eventually led to him being gifted with a reminder of that covenant---a unique, identifying mark.      

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Believing In Him (part 22)

Finally, we reach the point of the Abraham narrative in which circumcision, as a covenant marker, is introduced.  As we listen to the words of God to come, just think back to how much we have already heard about Abraham, and how long it has been (both in terms of the text of Scripture and the passage of time) since God has first called Abraham to Himself and for Himself, to be His light to the nations.  In verse nine of the seventeenth chapter of Genesis we read “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep the covenantal requirement I am imposing on you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.  This is My requirement that you and your descendants after you must keep: Every male among you must be circumcised.  You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins.’” (17:9-11a) 

Well this pretty much clinches the argument for those that insist that circumcision must be undergone for entrance upon the covenant (for justification), so Gentile believers need to line-up to undergo the procedure as did Abraham.  Putting aside that Paul does speak of the circumcision of the heart (with a reminder that he is not the one that comes up with that idea), we need to take into account the fact that this is the point at which circumcision is finally introduced to Abraham.  Are we to presume that Abraham, up until this point (actually, shortly thereafter, when the circumcision is performed), Abraham has, in fact, not been in covenant with God (not righteous, not justified, not in right standing, not “saved”)?  Of course not.  Such a proposition would be ludicrous.  We could not suggest such a thing for even a moment.

However, with what follows, this idea gains traction.  We read “Throughout your generations every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not one of your descendants.  They must indeed be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money… Any uncircumcised male who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin will be cut off from his people---he has failed to carry out My requirement” (17:12-13a,14).  Clearly, this is difficult to square with Paul’s position.  The language has not changed.  We are still hearing about descendants.  This includes the “nations” of which we have heard so much.  It seems rather straightforward, and if we are listening to Paul with the story of Abraham in mind, as this  story is crucial for the comprehension of the extension of God’s covenant and its associated justifying, then those that insist on circumcision as crucial for entrance upon the covenant must win the day. 

Is that what is being presented?  Well, in a word, no.  We are not looking at circumcision as that which allows Abraham, or anyone else for that matter, to be counted among those justified (those looked upon as being righteous).  For Abraham, the circumcision is the mark of God’s covenant.  Naturally, at that time, there is no Jesus.  There has been no crucifixion.  More importantly, there has been no Resurrection.  That’s significant, because the Resurrection changed everything.  For Paul, it marked the beginning of the new creation.  For Paul, it is the Resurrection that allows for the circumcision of the heart.  It is the Resurrection (as the culmination and summation of the Christ-event) that marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham concerning the multitude of nations (that have filled the earth) that are his descendants. 

Conversely then, not only does the Resurrection begin the process of truly encompassing all nations under the covenant tent (thinking of Isaiah and the lengthening of stakes), but it is the Resurrection and its associated proclamation of Jesus as Lord that begins to create a people and a kingdom that subsumes distinct peoples and nations, creating a new nation of covenant people whose features, in imitation of Christ as the quintessential human being, supersedes all other heretofore recognized distinctions.  This is yet another reason that, for Paul, circumcision and its related covenant markers fall by the wayside.  Besides, if we, from our point of view on Paul, looking at the situation from a position thousands of years removed, entertain the necessity of circumcision because of what is to be found in Genesis seventeen, then we must jettison Paul and deny the influence of God’s Spirit upon him as he took the message of the Gospel into the Gentile world.  We are probably not going to be willing to do such a thing, though there were many in his day that were happy to do precisely that. 

At the same time, the astute reader would have noticed that, in the recounting of the selected passage from Genesis seventeen that has to do with circumcision and its requirement, some statements were omitted.  Those statements were “This will be a reminder of the covenant between Me and you” (17:11b) and “The sign of My covenant will be visible in your flesh as a permanent reminder” (17:13b).  The mark of the covenant was to be a reminder of the covenant standing.  It did not provide the standing.  What provided the covenant standing (righteousness) was belief.  True for Abraham, true for all.  Circumcision did not convey righteousness (justification, covenant inclusion) upon Abraham.  Similarly, simply uttering the words “Jesus is Lord” (if there has been no circumcision of the heart, and putting aside any plucking of out of context proof-texts from a letter to Corinth), if there is no belief in the God that is at work in Jesus, does not convey righteousness.  However, considering that, historically, saying “Jesus is Lord” did and does not exactly earn one any special favors or privileges, with this being ever so true in Paul’s day, Paul would find it hard to believe that anyone would say “Jesus is Lord” without it being a core belief.  For this reason then, the words, as they belie a believing response of faith and loyalty, serve as the covenant marker, standing in for circumcision and all that eventually accompanied that particular rite.         

Believing In Him (part 21)

After God promises Abraham that he will be made fruitful, He adds “I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you” (17:6b).  Thus, in Abraham and through the family that will spring from him, the earth will be filled, as Abraham, and God working through Abraham and his descendants, serves to fulfill that to which the original human pair had been purposed, and the divine image is rightly borne throughout all of God’s creation. 

In the seventh verse of Genesis seventeen, God again takes up the language that is determinative of righteousness, justification, and right standing, saying “I will confirm My covenant as a perpetual covenant between Me and you.  It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations” (17:7a).  These descendants, as we now know, are composed of “nations.”  This is more than one nation.  This is many nations.  As it echoes and intends to fulfill the Adam and Noah stories, and as it reverses what took place at Babel, this promise concerning the covenant extends to the whole of the earth and all of its peoples.  As circumcision is not yet on the table, though it will be in short order, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the honest and forthright teller of the Abraham story, or physical descendant of Abraham, or one who has adopted the mark of circumcision so as to join the family of Abraham and so position themselves to experience the blessings of the covenant of the Creator God, to insist that this covenant and its promises are ultimately limited to one people bearing one mark, that being Israel. 

Further speech continues to reveal the heart of God, and we can imagine Paul embracing the words of Genesis as vital to his mission and his Gospel, as we hear “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (17:7b).  Again, these descendants, whom God counts as His own, and from whom God expects recognition, are composed of a multitude of nations.  There is to be no limitation here.  On what basis might these people groups engage in a relationship with the God of Abraham?  Naturally, it will be through believing the Lord, trusting in the terms and ends of His covenant, and so responding in faith so as to prove genuine loyalty to that God and His purposes for His image-bearers and for the whole of His creation. 

Is this not what is proposed in the New Testament?  Is there not a demand to believe in the Gospel (Jesus as Messiah/King) as that which brings righteousness (justification-covenant inclusion)?  It is loyalty to Jesus’ claims about Himself, and the claims made about Him by His followers, that He was and is the Messiah/King of Israel and therefore God-manifest, that the New Testament demands.  This response of faith puts those that believe in Jesus in the same category as Abraham, with God creating His covenant with Abraham (Abraham entering into a covenant relationship with the Creator God) based on a response of faith.  It would be much later, as we pointed out, that Abraham bears any mark of this covenant, which will be circumcision.  Until that time comes, Abraham’s belief in God, and in His power to bring His promises to pass, more than suffices. 

Though we do not want to get too far afield from the analysis that we are doing, it seems worthwhile to make mention of the fact for those that believe in Jesus, the ongoing mark of the loyal response to Jesus will be the verbal and non-verbal confession that “Jesus is Lord,” with a life of love, mercy, and compassion in imitation of that Lord following the confession.  For those that would insist that circumcision is necessary to be in covenant, Paul grips on to the words of the prophets and looks upon the continued confession of Jesus, in both word and deed, as the circumcision of the heart. 

Having made it clear that God intends for the nations that fill the earth to be the beneficiaries of His promise and to be encompassed by His covenant, He adds: “I will give the whole land of Canaan---the land where you are now residing---to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession.  I will be their God” (17:8).  Now how does this fit with the world-encompassing scope of the covenant and its promises that we have been discussing?  This seems like a draw-down of substantial proportions.  God has been talking about descendants and nations, with this provided its context by the filling of the earth with His glory (His divine image bearers inhabiting the creation in such a way that they reflect the glory of God in all creation), but now seems to limit the scope of the promise and Abraham’s descendants to one piece of land and one group of people that will come to inhabit that one piece of land. 

Without being dogmatic (though we can certainly offer propositions in the utmost of confidence), it could be reasonably suggested that Canaan, because of the obvious connection between Abraham’s and Adam’s stories, is something of a new Eden.  As Eden was for the entire human family, given the context of descendants and nations and kings that will flourish from Abraham, so too would be Canaan.  Though it will not be a focus of this study, Paul most certainly enlarges Canaan.  Through the lenses offered by the crucified and risen Christ, magnified by the words of the prophets of old, Paul comes to see Canaan (the promised land) as a microcosm of what God intends to do for His entire creation, celebrating that promise in the eighth chapter of Romans.    

Monday, November 14, 2011

Believing In Him (part 20)

The sovereign God continues speaking, saying “As for Me, this is My covenant with you” (17:4a).  He does not follow this with “you will be circumcised, observe Sabbaths, and maintain these dietary restrictions.”  Rather, He says “You will be the father of a multitude of nations” (17:4b).  This covenant into which one enters, and therefore enters into a covenantal relationship with the Creator God, and does so in the manner of Abraham (belief), involves a “multitude of nations.”  This is God’s intention from the outset.  God speaks about a multitude of nations, then said words that should be taken to make reference to a multitude of nations rather than a single nation.  Of course, if we are paying close attention to the telling of this story, and if the story is being told as it is supposed to be told (in a single setting, spoken aloud to a group of people that form an oral/aural community), then it has not been too long since the telling of the scattering of the peoples across the face of the entire earth (11:9), which is what, if we remove the genealogy of Shem and the record of Terah, is what immediately precedes the call of Abraham.  One could reach the conclusion that the call of Abraham partially occurs so as to remedy the scattering of peoples across the face of the earth, and that this provides greater import to talk of the blessings and promises made to Abraham reaching a “multitude of nations.”

Because of what we are attempting to observe with Paul in Romans, specifically in chapter four (as of this moment), which demands a thorough working knowledge of the Abraham story, we must notice the progression of the promise.  It begins with Abraham being made into a great nation (12:2), and this includes the promise that “all of the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:3b).  Though this clearly, at the outset, removes the promise from any type of isolation to Abraham alone, it can also be easily construed as a promise in which the families of the earth become subservient to Abraham. 

In the fifteenth chapter, there is talk of Abraham’s descendants as a specific group of people that will be oppressed and enslaved by a specific nation that will receive specific judgment, with this specific group of formerly oppressed and enslaved descendants coming out from that situation and receiving a specific piece of land as proof of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham. 

On to chapter seventeen, the re-confirmation of the covenant and its recurring talk of multitudinous descendants now includes talk of a “multitude of nations.”  With this talk of Abraham now being the father of a multitude of nations, any notion that the blessings to be experienced by the families of the earth will stem from their subservience to Abraham’s descendants, who may be looked upon as a family separated from and set against other groups of people, falls away.  Not only will Abraham be made into a great nation, but he will be a father of nations, which means that, as the head of the household of nations, all nations will share equally in the blessings.  All nations will participate equally in the covenant and its promises.  At this point, all of this is still predicated on Abraham’s belief, his response of faith, and the genuine loyalty entailed thereby. 

Just in case the reader or the listener missed it the first time that talk of nations is directed to Abraham, to the words of verse four is added “No longer will your name be Abram.  Instead, your name will be Abraham because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations” (17:5).  Also, just in case one is tempted to think that “multitude of nations” includes only a portion of the nations of the world rather than implying that God intends to extend His covenant to all the nations and peoples of the world via the descendant(s) of Abraham, the sixth verse disabuses us of any such notion, as we read “I will make you extremely fruitful” (17:6a).  This is an unmistakable reference to God’s words to the first of humankind, which were “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28b).  Of course, these words are also spoken to Noah in the ninth chapter, following the flood, where we hear “Be fruitful and multiply” (9:1b).  This directive is attended by the “fill the earth,” which could certainly be appended to the words spoken to Abraham, with the nations now standing in for the filling of the earth. 

God speaks to the first family (Adam and Eve, though it is not explicit in the text) following the creation and says “Be fruitful and multiply.”  God speaks to the second family (Noah and his sons) following what could be termed the second creation and says “Be fruitful and multiply.”  God speaks to the third family (Abraham and his descendants) at something like a third creation and says, essentially, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  This, of course, is basically what Jesus says to His disciples following His Resurrection that marked the renewal of creation and the beginning of the new creation (at the time of the letter to the Romans there would be no Gospel of Matthew and no written version of “the great commission,” so this would fall under the heading, at that point, of “oral Jesus tradition”).  This is the charge that is taken up by Paul, who will incorporate talk of creation and new creation in his letters, with this understanding concerning nations and multiplication essential to his comprehension of the Gospel and its presentation in the letter to the congregation in Rome.