Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Everyone Who Believes (part 2 of 2)

With Cornelius’ presumed familiarity with the idea about sin and exile and the forgiveness of sins, and the exclusive application of those things as relating only to Israel, it would have been quite the unanticipated revelation to hear Peter saying, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34b-35).  Cornelius would have never heard such things said by the Jews around him, no matter how much they thought of him.  All he would have ever heard, concerning Israel’s God, was that He was indeed a God of partiality, concerned only with the plight of His special, covenant people, with this being the case since the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob. 

Following that, Cornelius hears the familiar term of “good news” (familiar because it was a common term associated with the Caesar and proclamations concerning him), and the attendant, parenthetical declaration that, by the way, that man “Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)” (10:36b), which would have been another titular designation of Caesar.

While processing these things, Cornelius would then hear Peter say that Jesus had “rose from the dead,” which was a story that must not have been news to Cornelius, as Peter has already said, in relation to his speech about Jesus, that “you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee” (10:37a).  To his statement about Jesus’ Resurrection, Peter would then add, that “He,” this living though crucified on a Roman cross Jesus (which would have weighed heavily on the mind of a Roman centurion that had probably carried out or overseen crucifixions in the past), “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the One appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead” (10:42).  The idea that a man that had been crucified on a cross was the One appointed to such a thing was a fairly unusual idea.  As if that was not enough, in that day and most likely, though he was God-fearing, in Cornelius’ mind it was Caesar himself that judged who lived and died---the judge of the living and the dead.

As if that was not enough to occupy Cornelius’ mind, Peter goes on to tell his hearers that “all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name” (10:43).  This would have been new information for Cornelius.  Again, as a Gentile in the land of Israel, and worse, a leader in the occupying force in the land, Cornelius would probably have never heard such a thing.  He would have undoubtedly heard, over and over again, that the Old Testament prophets spoke only of Israel and of its return from exile and the forgiveness of sin therein entailed.  Now Peter is telling him that the forgiveness of sins applies to everyone who recognizes and calls Jesus Lord, extending beyond Israel to a much wider group of God’s covenant people, from every nation, and that this was truly the thing of which the prophets wrote and bore witness. 

In these words, Cornelius hears Peter saying that all peoples, not just Israel, are in exile from the land (promised blessings) that God has for them, and that return from exile and entrance into the eternal life that is the forgiveness of sin, is accomplished through belief in the Lordship of Jesus, which is a gift of the faith that comes from hearing the pronouncements of the Gospel.  One might inquire as to how all men entered into that exile, when it was Israel that violated their God-given covenant, suffering exile as a result.  With that inquiry, we are reminded that all men experienced exile through Adam’s failure to trust God and to fulfill God’s intention for him and for all those that were created in the image of God.

From Peter, we learn that belief in Jesus as Lord equals the forgiveness of sins which equals a return from exile which equals eternal life.  This makes a great deal of sense, especially as we consider that the belief in Jesus stems from the gifting of faith that comes from an indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of, and evidenced by, calling Jesus Lord.  The faith for belief is always brought about by the Holy Spirit, and we are reminded of this in the forty-fourth verse of this chapter, which says, “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (10:44).  Their belief in Jesus was the evidence that the Holy Spirit fell, with the “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (10:46b) the secondary evidence of the falling and working of the Holy Spirit. 

The presence of the Holy Spirit, signified by this confession (Jesus is Lord!), is the signal that eternal life has been granted, and that the eternal life is right here and right now rather than something awaiting us on the other side of the grave.  With this signal confession, we (along with Cornelius) are also made to know that the exile from God’s promised blessings has been brought to an end, and that the ongoing sin of failing to live according to God’s intentions for a creation of His own image has been forgiven, with this being done because Jesus bore the wrath of God (death) that was owed to all who entered into this sin.  With belief in Jesus, a renewed, restored, redeemed life has commenced, as through that belief, the blessed believer is made to share in the awesome power that brought about and was sent forth in Christ’s Resurrection.    

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Everyone Who Believes (part 1 of 2)

To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name. – Acts 10:43  (ESV)

Forgiveness of sins is for everyone, with the caveat to that being that it only comes to those who believe in Him, that being Jesus.  What is it that must be believed?  In its most basic form, what must be believed is that Jesus is Lord, that He is supreme above all other rulers and authorities, and that His Lordship extends to the whole of creation (human, animal, vegetable, mineral).  With the words of our text, we find that Peter is speaking here to a man named Cornelius, a Gentile, and presumably, to a group that consisted predominantly of Gentiles, consisting of “his relatives and close friends” (10:24b). 

Peter, of course, is a Jew, a member of the nation of Israel.  Cornelius was a Roman centurion who lived in Caesarea, and was said to be “an upright and God-fearing man” (10:22b).  In addition to that, he was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (10:22c).  To that, we can add that he “feared God with all his household” and “gave alms generously to the people” (10:2b).  His being well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation is obviously hyperbole, meant to inform us that the people with whom he dealt on a regular basis were quite fond of him.  This was probably due in part to his giving of alms to the people.  Clearly, he was a shrewd man that knew how to deal with the people that were, in some sense, subject to his authority. 

Owing to all of this, it is highly likely that Cornelius was familiar with the great, national aspirations of the people of Israel, their understanding of their plight of ongoing subjection to pagan rulers, and the continued exile from the promises of their God that such subjection represented.  With that, it is reasonable to presume that he well understood the way that Israel generally looked upon Gentiles, which goes back to what had to be one of the main factors in his generous contribution of alms. 

If he did in fact understand these things, then it is also likely that he had a very basic grasp on the importance of Israel’s national symbols of circumcision, land, Torah, and Temple.  We must also hold to an idea that Cornelius would be quite surprised to be instructed to send for a Jew to come to his house, as Jews did not generally enter the house of a Gentile, and especially the house of a Roman centurion, who would represent their hated oppressors.  Not only would the instruction be a surprise, we would have to figure that Cornelius would also be surprised with the fact that Peter did in fact come into his house.  This makes the fact that upon meeting Peter, Cornelius “fell down at his feet and worshiped him” (10:25b), all the more interesting.    

Peter addresses an obvious sense of relief on the part of Cornelius when he says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without objection” (10:28-29a).  With this, Peter is, of course, referring to the vision he had received while on the roof of the house of Simon, in Joppa.  In that vision, Peter heard God say to him, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (10:15b).  When Peter was found by the men that Cornelius had sent to bring him to Caesarea, he immediately connected the words of God with future association with Gentiles, so he did not hesitate to answer the request to come.  One has to wonder what happened to this willingness to extend the fellowship of the Gospel (Jesus’ Lordship over all nations and peoples) when we find out about his behavior in Antioch, which we learn about in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.     

Returning to the subject of exile, it must be pointed out that exile was one of the results of the sin of Israel, and their faithlessness to God’s covenant with them.  When we look through the books of the Hebrew Scriptures that chronicle the history of Israel, whenever we find the people in subjection to foreigners, whether in their land or outside their land, they are considered to be in a state of exile.  This exile will always be connected with sin, usually idolatry.  When the people would have the yoke of subjection and oppression broken, and are either enabled to overthrow those who ruled them in their own land, or to return to their land (in the case of the Babylonian exile and the return under the Persians), we find that it was because the people were said to have repented from their sin, receiving the forgiveness of their God.  So return from exile was equated with the forgiveness of sins.  We can surmise that Cornelius, with all that is said of him, was familiar with this idea. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

This Jesus Is The Christ (part 2 of 2)

However, this did not mean that now all the other men who had gone to their deaths as the head of messianic movements were now to be looked back upon and viewed as potential messiahs, because part of Paul’s argument from Scriptures was to show that the Messiah must not only suffer and die, but that He also must rise from the dead.  Naturally, Paul argued unceasingly for the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and it was this fact, supported by correct understanding of the Scriptural prophecies of Messiah in regards to having to suffer and die on behalf of the covenant people of God, that proved that He alone was the Messiah and should be recognized as such. 

We can imagine here that Paul went into a dissertation in regards to the resurrection much like we find in the fifteenth chapter of Corinthians, recounting the over five hundred eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ that could be produced to offer testimony of that fact.  In addition, Paul would most likely have pointed to the fact of the empty tomb and the implausible theories put forth to explain that empty tomb, as evidence in favor of a living Jesus. 

With this now placed in proper perspective, what was the result?  “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (17:4).  So not only were some of the Jews convinced that Jesus was the Messiah (the Christ), but some Gentiles were convinced of this as well.  Gentiles were agreeing to the claim of Jesus as Messiah.  They were believing in Jesus.  They were believing in the Messiah that, in predominant Jewish thought, was supposed to be the Messiah for Israel, and Who would set Israel over all nations and all peoples.  With this development, it was no wonder that we find that “the Jews were jealous…set the city in an uproar” (17:5), and attacked the house where Paul and Silas were apparently staying. 

Strangely enough, these Jews that are mentioned here were saying of Paul and Silas that “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (17:6b).  While it is true that the message of the Gospel was turning the world upside down (breaking down all class and social barriers through the proclamation of a universal kingdom of which Jesus was Lord), we probably have to imagine that the thinking behind this statement, considering the source, was a bit more provincial, carrying with it the connotation that the expectations of the Jews, of Israel, in regards to what would happen when the Messiah came---when their God acted to exalt Israel above all nations---is what was being turned upside down. 

Rather than being a Messiah for the Jews only, it appeared that this Jesus was being a Messiah for all peoples (redeeming all people from exile), thus dashing superior, nationalistic hopes.  In that light, echoing what was said to Pilate in order to convince him to condemn Jesus and send Him to the cross (John 19:12b: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.  Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar”), these men added, with an odd and ironic turn of events, that “they are acting against all the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (17:7b), acting as if they cared about Caesar in the least little bit, when all of their messianic hopes included rebellion against Caesar and a desire to see him deposed from his throne.         

Sunday, October 28, 2012

This Jesus Is The Christ (part 1 of 2)

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, Whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” – Acts 17:2-3  (ESV)

The setting here is Thessalonica, and the place into which the Apostle Paul went for the reasoning, explaining, and proving was a “synagogue of the Jews” (17:1b).  This was the heart of Paul’s mission.  This is what concerned Paul, himself a Jew, who had been, along with nearly every other Jew in his day, awaiting the Messiah---awaiting God’s entering into history to vindicate and redeem His covenant people.  Having come to terms with the fact that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, what else could he do, especially considering that, owing to the experience of the Damascus road, he had been specifically appointed to this task by Jesus Himself.      

So Paul is in the synagogue, reasoning with the Jews about Jesus.  Most would have been quite skeptical of his claims.  It was not that Jesus was not liked and appreciated, the problem was that the story that was being told about Jesus did not fit with Jewish expectations concerning the expected Messiah (the Christ).  Among many other things, the Messiah was to be a king in the mold of David and of Solomon.  The Messiah was to have overthrown the oppressors of their nation, returning control of the land to the people of Israel.  Contrary to all Messianic expectations, this Jesus fellow had been crucified, just like so many potential and failed messiahs that had come before Him. 

The fact that Jesus had been crucified, regardless of all that He had said and done, was all the proof that the Jews of the day needed to establish the fact that, no, he was not the Messiah.  He had not overthrown the enemies of Israel.  He had been overthrown and cut down by those enemies in the way that they dealt with all challengers to the power of Rome and Caesar, by death at their hands on the cross.  He had engaged the hope of the people but been cut down.  Big deal.  Nothing to see here.  Time to move on.  Owing to these things, Jesus could not possibly have been the Messiah, so what more did they need to know?

This is the mindset that was faced by Paul.  It was not that the Jews were opposed to the message of Jesus.  Some were, but this would not have been true for the vast majority.  As far as they would have been concerned, this Jesus, while His ministry had been noble, had let them down like all the others, by not being a new Moses, leading a new exodus of sorts, resulting in the re-establishment of Israel as sovereign, autonomous, and independent in their land of promise. 

Based on all that they had been taught, had seen, or was relatively fresh in the collective memory of the Jewish people, Jesus did not meet the requirements of Messiah-ship, especially since He had been killed at the hands of the Romans, which would have been the most important point in the argument against the fact that the disciples of Jesus, Paul himself, and the other followers of “the Way” were proposing.  This is why Paul’s main task was to reason with them, from the Scriptures, and in doing so, show them, explain to them, prove to them, that it must be understood that Jesus’ death on the cross did not preclude Him from being the Messiah, but that His suffering and death (and therefore the Messiah’s death) was necessary according to the Scriptures. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Consider Your Ways (part 2 of 2)

When we busy ourselves with our own houses, consistently and proudly setting ourselves in opposition to others of God’s chosen and closing ranks around our creeds and traditions (as did Israel instead of being a light to the Gentiles), rather than busying ourselves with God’s house (which can be more properly understood as His kingdom and its blessings of eternal life and new creation in covenant with Christ) by consistently reaching out for purposes of discipleship, for showing care and compassion and concern, for preaching so that others of God’s chosen can have the Gospel revealed to them by God’s Holy Spirit working through us, our God responds by saying, “Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce” (1:10).  This makes for an unfruitful situation for sure. 

To that is added, “And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors” (1:11).  For their sin of turning inwards and not being a light for the world as demanded by their covenant God, Israel was to be re-introduced to the curses that were to result from a failure to uphold the covenant that we find in Deuteronomy (see Deuteronomy 28:38-51).  Let us not forget that these cursing words of withholding and drought are the words of our God that does not change.   

On the other hand, how would God respond to their attention to and service of God’s Temple?  How would God respond to Israel’s being the light for God’s glorification?  For us, the question would be, what is God’s response for those that are about His business of preaching the Gospel, giving to the preaching of the Gospel for the ongoing establishment of His kingdom and the renewal, restoration, and re-creation of eternal life that is the powerful attendant of the message that Jesus is Lord?  For that answer, we turn to Malachi. 

In the third chapter, God’s cursing of His people is mentioned because Israel as a whole was not about God’s business but their own, so we read, “You are cursed with a curse” (3:9a).  However, in attending to the Temple, to their duty to be a light, and consequently to our duty as renewed Israel (God’s people under the new covenant in Christ) to be God’s image-bearers to God’s chosen of the nations and stewards of the creation that He is renewing through the power of the Resurrection that flows to and through us by the Holy Spirit, God says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house.  And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.  I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts.  Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts” (3:10-12). 

These verses are more than just a command and incentive to give tithes, but a command to be about God’s business, not isolated, not separated, not holding to barriers of tradition and creeds, but being a light, with God at work in us and through us, by the gift of faith for belief and the work that flows from that gift, to be the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to bless all the families of the earth.  Tending to the business of God’s covenant faithfulness, and to that which represents God’s covenant faithfulness, that being the message of the Gospel preached without hesitation or reservation so that all may hear, is what causes God to open the heavens, to reverse the curse.  By the preaching of the Gospel, as Christ’s reign and God’s kingdom are extended to the reaches that God intended, eternal life in Christ is extended, and through that renewing eternal life, God reverses the curse on His chosen people and on His good creation, bringing them out of the exile of the oppression of death that is the accompaniment of sin, to which all of mankind and all of creation have been subjected.

As we contemplate our role and responsibility as chosen ones of this kingdom and stewards of the business of our Lord, in light of the example that we find in Israel, the words of the prophet ring true: “Consider your ways.”       

Friday, October 26, 2012

Consider Your Ways (part 1 of 2)

You looked for much, and behold, it came to little.  And when you brought it home, I blew it away.  Why? declares the Lord of hosts.  Because of My house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. – Haggai 1:9  (ESV)

These words of the prophet Haggai were spoken to the band of Israelites, and their offspring, that had returned from their exile in Babylon, with the charge to build the Temple of God.  They had been allowed to return under the Persian king Cyrus, and here it is, in the second year of Darius, and the people were still saying “the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord”  (1:2b).  God, clearly un-amused and unconvinced by the people’s decision making prowess, responded through His prophet by saying, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (1:4)  With that, the people were asked to reflect on how things had truly gone for them, in their return to the land, while they failed to attend to what it was that God had stirred up Cyrus to encourage His people to return to do. 

God says, “You have sown much, and harvested little.  You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill.  You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.  And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes” (1:6).  Because His people had failed to be about their God’s business, turned inward and attending to their own needs first and foremost, those needs were never truly met.  The prophetic warning links the fact of their lack with their failure to rebuild the Temple. 

Apart from the obvious encouragement to give so as to be able to participate in God’s covenant purposes as a gracious gift of God, what is it that we can take from the words of the prophet?  Does this force us to consider our own, modern sense of Christianity, in which this life of faith is perpetually directed inwards?  Israel’s concern with only their own, individual needs can be likened to the proliferation of an existential, me-centered Christianity, that has turned the movement of the Spirit of God that was designed for the extension and establishment of the kingdom of God through the Lordship of Christ over all peoples and things, into little more than a private, religious experience in which we find ourselves concerned with my salvation, my faith, my walk, my holiness, my avoidance of what my church and pastor has defined as sin, and my personal relationship with Jesus.  Even our outward service to our fellow man is generally based on the confluence of “my” factors, rather than with an understanding of God’s pressing concern about His kingdom and the responsibilities that He bestows upon those with whom He shares His covenant.  While we can say that all of those “my’s” are fine, because they serve as a component of the life of the Spirit, they are only a small part of a much larger and more important whole. 

This is where we can learn from the example of Israel.  While they would eventually rebuild the Temple (concerning themselves with God’s business for a time), it did not change the fact that the people, individually and corporately, were still turned inward.  Through the years that followed the Temple’s re-construction, leading up to the time of Christ, as they were ruled over by the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and then the Romans, Israel was thoroughly concerned with maintaining their marks of identity as God’s covenant people, above all else.  They determined that this was God’s business and carried it out exactingly.  Their primary concern was their city (Jerusalem), their Temple, their land, and their rituals, while an entire world and an entire creation continued to languish in a lack of light, as those people that were to be the stewards and revelators of God’s covenant blessings to the world busied themselves in building impenetrable walls between themselves and the Gentiles by which they were surrounded. 

This was not God’s intention then, and it is now God’s intention now.  If we find ourselves in isolation, purposely cutting ourselves off from other members of this family of God’s kingdom, pronouncing judgments, ridiculing sincere servants of Christ, creating dualistic scenarios in which we elevate ourselves or our group, fostering an “us versus them” mentality, awaiting God’s action to judge the wicked and reward the righteous, we put ourselves in the position to be recipients of God’s ongoing wrath, along with continued exile from His promised blessings, much like we find to be the case with Israel.    

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rome, Corinth & The Liberation Of Creation (part 3 of 3)

It is important to continue to remember that Israel’s groaning was to escape bondage, but not to escape the world.  The idea that the world was something shabby, second-rate, and to be escaped, is nowhere present in Jewish thought.  Rather, the world was very much understood to be a good creation sullied by the very ones given a charge to keep.  That same creation was to be renewed by God, who would accomplish it by His own intervention and His own power, through the instrumentation of the same beings that had originally failed in the performance of their assignment.  This was the way that the story of Abraham, according to the structure of the very foundations of Israel’s story (Genesis one through eleven), was perceived. 

As it relates to Israel in Egypt, which is the paradigm on which Paul clearly operates for quite specific purposes, the groaning was based on a desire to return to the place where God had visited and placed their forefathers.  This then is the attitude that is to be adopted by the church, which will include confirming the mindset that sees creation as inherently good, while rejecting the mindset that creation is something that is less than good, which is a way of thinking that is foreign to all of Scripture, foreign to the thought-world in which Jesus lived and conducted His ministry, and foreign to the Apostle Paul.  We recognize the advent of the kingdom and its restoration of the physical creation by means of the Resurrection, and so groan to escape the bondage of the old age of sin and death by participating in the new age of the life of the Spirit.  This is accomplished whenever Jesus is proclaimed as Lord, be it in word or deed, as our actions are explained by adherence to the principles and ideals of the kingdom of God as announced by Jesus. 

We, who compose the church of Christ and function as glory-to-God-bringing Ambassadors of the kingdom of God, do not groan to escape the world, but to enter into the land originally promised to the original divine image and covenant bearer (Adam), which is the restored creation, as the renewal of that creation is foretold and foreordained by the promise of God and the Resurrection of Jesus.  Our heavenly dwelling is two-fold, in that it is (1) the creation that will be overrun by the power of God’s kingdom, which is (2) to be enjoyed by His image-bearers in glorified, resurrected bodies that are suited for the world of God’s kingdom reign.

To that point we append Paul’s subsequent language, wherein he adds “if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked.  For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:3-4), thereby linking the promised land of the new creation, which is obviously far more explicit in connection with the groaning in Romans, with the implications of the Resurrection.  The old age (flesh/mortal) is swallowed up by the new age (spirit/life).  It is for this, and for what should be our desire, if we call Jesus Lord, to participate in God’s kingdom program in the here and now as effective and loyal citizens, that the “Spirit helps us in our weakness,” and “intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning” (8:26a,c), as we groan like Israel in Egypt, in knowledge of promises, a land, the faithfulness of our God, and His purposes for us in and for this world. 

As Paul reflects on the heavenly house, which should produce thoughts not far removed from the idea of the household of believers and therefore the family of Abraham that is united under a single head through the confession of Jesus as Lord, along with groaning, a tent (thoughts of the tabernacle of the wilderness is not too far away if exodus is in mind), clothing, and the creation that is under the sway of mortality being overcome by the power that brought Jesus back from the dead (this is how kingdom people could usefully perceive their service of God in the world), he goes on to declare that “the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment” (5:5). 

Having gone to some length to demonstrate the companionship between the two passages that are here on offer, we again consider those popular words from Romans, and within the same echoing chamber hear “And we know that all things word together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (8:28).  Yes, it is within this rubric of God’s purposes for His covenant family and His creation that we then consider Paul’s words concerning those who are predestined, called, justified, and glorified---conformed into the image of His Son (Adam, Israel, Jesus, the church). This reminds us, yet again, just how incredibly crucial it is to hear these Scriptures not only in their immediate context, but within the context of the story of the redeeming God who is going about the business, through His covenant family, of setting His world right.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rome, Corinth & The Liberation Of Creation (part 2 of 3)

Momentarily skipping down a few verses in Romans, and attempting to hear these words while remembering their connection to the plight of an Israel in bondage in Egypt while contemplating their connection to a covenant people and a creation that acknowledges the promise of resurrection and an inaugurated kingdom within a creation whose restoration/renewal/redemption has begun, we find: “For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance” (8:24-25).  Picking back up with the verse that finishes the thought begun in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses: “because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen.  For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:18).  As we can see, there is an obvious sharing of ideas between the passages from the two letters, and that sharing continues in to chapter five.

Returning again to what really is an altogether fascinating series of thoughts on offer by the Apostle Paul, we join the Roman congregation in hearing “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now.  Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23).  It must be recognized that the language here employed by Paul, specifically that of groaning and redemption, is the language of Israel’s defining story (bondage, Passover, exodus). 

We also here note Paul’s use of “we” in his engagement with Gentiles, which appears to be Paul’s way of self-identifying with Gentiles and to play a role in his desire to see a united family of God.  Building on that, the use of “adoption” in precise connection with these highly charged terms merely amplifies and exacerbates the end that Paul believes to be on offer in the Gospel’s announcement (the Lordship of Jesus that portends the inauguration of the kingdom of God).  It is easy to understand Paul’s aims in this regard, as the congregation of Roman believers is generally understood to be a more evenly mixed congregation of Jew and Gentile and therefore in need of the “adoption” of an inclusive family language for what must become an inclusive family story.  The fact that Paul spends time in his letters specifically addressing what would be largely Jewish concerns reinforces the picture of that relatively even mixture. 

While there are also Jews in Corinth, and undoubtedly Jews as part of the assembly of Jesus believers there, the situation in Corinth is understood to be a bit different.  Perhaps there are a very small number of Jewish believers, so their concerns are not particularly germane to the entire assembly?  Accordingly, there is no pervasive crisis.  Consequently, the abiding concerns of his Jewish brethren do not warrant the overt attention of Paul.  It is possible that the Jews there were more Hellenized, and therefore less stringent in their adherence to the traditions addressed in the Romans letter, such as table fellowship and the marks of covenant inclusion.  Speculation could continue.  However, what is unmistakable is Paul’s employment of overtly Israel-centric terminology here in this passage that is quite the mirror of part of Romans eight. 

Again echoing the above-quoted words of that chapter, with words such as “suffering,” “eternal,” and “glory” ringing in our ears as that which closes the fourth chapter, along with the “creation,” “groans,” “suffers,” “adoption,” and “redemption” of Romans eight (realizing that these terms are all conceptually linked by the narratives of Israel and Jesus), we advance into the fifth chapter of the second letter to the Corinthians and hear “For we know that if our earthly house is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens” (5:1).  Crucially then, in the next verse, Paul writes “For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling” (5:2). 

In yet another unmistakable fusion of the disparate peoples of the world into the family of God whose continuing story of relationship with the Creator God has as its foundation the story of Israel (which, we remember, goes all the way back to Adam, though Adam is also understood to be the progenitor of humanity), Paul calls to mind the exodus.  Israel, who had the promise of a return to the land that had been promised to the family of Abraham---and we do not miss the connection to the church of the Christ as the family of Abraham and the whole of creation as the land originally promised to Adam as the divine image-bearer, presumably groaned under their bondage precisely because of the remembrance of that promise (at the very least, this is what is to be taken from the people-of-God-defining narrative as supplied by the Hebrew Scriptures), longing to put on their heavenly dwelling, which was their promised land. 

Rome, Corinth & The Liberation Of Creation (part 1 of 3)

Just as we cannot approach Paul’s presentations of “justification” in the isolation of individual verse, but must look to Galatians, Philippians, and Ephesians in order to ascertain the all-peoples-inclusive language that is the bedrock of justification, while also looking to the stories in Acts to aid us in coming to terms with the development of Paul’s theological, soteriological, ecclesiastical, and eschatological positions, so also we do not consider what can be discovered in the eighth chapter of Romans, as it is a vital interpretation of the work of God in Christ and the ongoing story of Israel, in isolation as if it is an isolated occurrence.  In that spirit, we cast a net upon the waters of Paul’s letters that we might be able to see that Paul’s position on display in the eighth chapter of Romans, with its connection to the broader narrative of Israel’s history and its being foundational for the call and purpose of the church to live as the community of Resurrection, is most assuredly not isolated. 

Where might we look to find an echo of the prominent themes of the latter half of chapter eight of Romans (glory, renewal/redemption, groaning, and the affirmation of the goodness of God’s physical creation)?  Though these themes can be found littered throughout the Pauline literature, we find them rather tightly packed in the second letter to the Corinthians.  Now, while it is quite possible that what we have in the New Testament as the second Corinthian letter is actually a conglomeration of multiple letters, there can be little doubt that the section at which we will be looking, which comes to us as the end of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five (according to the chapter divisions introduced into the text in the thirteenth century) is from the same letter. 

We read: “But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, ‘I believed, therefore I spoke,’” as Paul includes (adopts?) the Gentile Corinthians as recipients of and participants in Israel’s Scripture and its story, “we also believe, therefore we also speak.  We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into His presence” (4:13-14).  This fits nicely alongside “And if children, then heirs (namely heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)---if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with Him” (8:17). 

Of course, this also causes us to back up just a bit so as to incorporate some very Israel’s-exodus-story-like-but-now-transformed-by-Jesus-Gentile-believer-inclusive language of suffering and glorification that is found in “We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed but not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body” (4:8-10), which, for Paul, is the body of believers as a microcosm of the whole of the covenant people of God, just as Israel, both the people and the land, were a microcosm of the redeemed covenant people of all nations and the redeemed creation. 

Continuing with that thought: “For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body.  As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (4:11-12).  Returning then to Romans in our comparison, we read “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (8:18).  Back to Corinthians: “For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God” (4:15).  To Romans: “For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility---not willingly but because of God who subjected it---in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:19-21).  To Corinth: “Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, or inner person is being renewed day by day.  For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (4:16-17). 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Jesus was the place of the overlap of heaven and earth (which is also the ancient understanding of the Temple---the place where God’s existence invaded the place of man’s existence), and this was evidenced by His constant defeat of the forces that stood in opposition to God and God’s purposes (healings, exorcisms, raising the dead, etc…).  The responsibility to be the place of that heaven/earth overlap was that which Israel was charged to uphold, but did not.  Jesus embodied Israel and succeeded where there had been failure, and this charge has been passed along to those that identify themselves as part of God’s family by Jesus’ name (affirming allegiance to Him, His kingdom, and the tenets of His kingdom program---bearing the covenant marker of belief in Him). 

Paul expects nothing less than that the believing community model Jesus in succeeding in being the Israel of God,  writing “because those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that His Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29).  This is not about some foreordained calling of some percentage of the human population, such that some go to heaven and the rest go to hell.  This is simply not in view, especially as we consider that such thinking was foreign to Paul’s worldview.  It undoubtedly is the case that not all will embrace Jesus and acknowledge the Creator God through Him, so there is a group of people that will participate in the kingdom of God during their lives while others do not.  That said, the passage is not intended to convey information about the final destination of a human soul. 

If we trace the context of the passage, its connection to the exodus of Israel, and its placement within the whole of the letter that seems to have to do primarily with the family of God and its representation of the kingdom of God in and for the world, we realize that thoughts about predestination, in the sense of determining “who’s in and who’s out,” are simply not on the field.  Once we put that out of the way, what we see---and this seems to be far more appropriate---is that the passage is about the covenant faithfulness of the Creator God, that faithfulness that is recorded in the narrative of Israel that runs back to the story of Adam, and the impetus for the unified covenant family that is composed of all peoples to take up its role.  The passage is about what God is going to do for His creation, how He has been doing it, how He is going to do it, and about the people of the covenant getting on board with and participating in that plan. 

God had called Israel His son---His firstborn.  Israel, the groaning people of Egypt (we can’t forget our groaning context), was foreknown by God as evidenced by the promise to Abraham about His people that would go into captivity and then come out of captivity.  The foreknowing of God demands to be understood in accordance with the story of Israel.  God’s intention for Israel, whose story and purpose is predicated by God’s interactions with Abraham, was to set the world to rights, reversing the failure of Adam, who was looked upon as the son of God, created in His image, given a covenant responsibility, and failed.  Thus, Israel, whom God foreknew (as established by the narrative that includes promises and prophecies to Abraham), was predestined (purposed) to succeed where Adam had failed. 

Jesus, who pieced together the messianic mission from His understanding of Israel’s story, along with the wisdom and prophetic literature, thus establishing the idea of foreknowing and predestination for Him as well, succeeded where both Israel and Adam had failed.  So the foreknowing of God in regards to Jesus also demands to be understood in accordance with the story of Israel.  The same can also be said for the church whose mission is foretold and purposed by the Jesus-centered-and-shaped messianic tale, and which is now tasked with announcing and carrying on the successes and even the seeming failure of Jesus. 

Here, we remember that crucifixion was a mark of decided failure.  However, the Resurrection reverses the seeming failure, making it possible to understand the cross as the place where Israel’s full cursing (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) is carried out against Jesus as embodied Israel.  Accordingly, the Resurrection tells the covenant community that embracing the cross, which will mean going to the place of willful experience of suffering and shame (mimicking Jesus in His “failure”) if it will advance God’s creation-and-humanity-redeeming kingdom program, and doing so on behalf of others so as to be the place of the coming together of heaven and earth and an announcement of the kingdom of God. 

Thus, the church (the covenant people of God culled from all of humanity, not just ethnic or national Israel, who bear the covenant marker of belief in Jesus), whom God ultimately foreknew in Abraham, was predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, reproducing a family of divine image-bearers.  It is with this purpose clearly in mind that we then hear Paul say “And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified” (8:30).  Paul believes that according to the Scriptures (from Abraham through the prophets), God, as planned, is calling out a people from all nations (called), including them under His covenant banner through belief in Jesus (justified), and tasking them with reflecting His glory into the world (glorified). 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Remaking Creation (part 4 of 4)

Then, having brought the creation into the scope of God’s redemptive operation and thus indicating that the power of death and corruption has been (is, and will be) nullified, Paul moves on to the people of God that are the people of God because of their covenant inclusion via belief in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah and Lord of all, stating “Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  The groaning is paramount, and provides the conceptual link going forward, as Paul also proposes that the groaning is the interceding of the Spirit of God (8:26). 

So, it is with Israel’s redemption from the bondage of Egypt in mind, as it is situated as evidence of the Creator God’s faithfulness towards His covenant with Abraham, that Paul goes on to say “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (8:28).  How do we know this?  We know this because a groaning Israel, with a promise of something akin to resurrection, received liberation from Egypt.  God heard, God understood, and God acted.  If God’s covenant faithfulness towards Israel is any sort of guide, then we know that God will do the same for His new and expanded covenant family that have been brought together in fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, and to fulfill the role that Abraham’s family was to have in and for the world.  With this, because of the movement of the letter and of the immediate exodus and covenant associations of what surrounds it (the groaning), we see that the statement of verse twenty-eight is rooted in the historical narrative of God’s dealings with Israel.

Israel was most certainly a people called according God’s purpose.  The creation itself was called into existence for a purpose.  The worldwide covenant family that has been made so through believing in Jesus has definitely been called out for a purpose.  As Israel routinely suffered in the midst of their being called, as the creation continues to suffer, and as those that have confessed their allegiance to the kingdom of God through their confession of the Gospel of Jesus continue to suffer, there is groaning.  There is the intercession of the Spirit.  This groaning, which we might be able to equate to a recognition and admission of the continued existence of evil and that which binds and continues to attempt a thwarting of God’s purposes and to halt the ongoing manifestation and continual advance of His kingdom (as evil seeks to discourage our holding fast to a realization of the covenant faithfulness of the Creator God), serves as a reminder to those that are part of the people that have been placed within the narrative of God’s restorative plan and who are charged to live in accordance with the activation of that covenant plan, that God hears, God understands, and that God does indeed act. 

How does He act?  While we do not limit God’s ability to act directly in the world, we, along with Paul, realize that He deigns to act through His covenant family, as they have been charged to be the righteousness of God (the covenant faithfulness of God) in the world.  Accordingly, covenant participants are to act in ways that serve to defeat that which seeks to continually deface and mar God’s creation, whether that defacing is directed towards the creation into which we have been placed or the beings created in His image, either of which limits the ability of the creation to offers its praises or the image-bearers to adequately reflect God’s glory into His creation (thereby limiting the creation’s ability to praise its Creator in a vicious, stultifying circle).  Kingdom actions are those things that demonstrate and announce the advent of the kingdom of God, with these taking the form of both word and deed (deeds being far more weighty).  The model for this, of course, is Jesus, who went around announcing the kingdom of God, and through His actions that served to show forth God and therefore the image that humanity was to put on display, proved that the kingdom had come and that God was becoming King through Him, as He carried out God’s will on earth as in heaven. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Remaking Creation (part 3 of 4)

Fusing the story of Israel’s groaning with what Paul’s words, and making what seems like appropriate parallel analogies to the end of the effort of seeing the united, worldwide covenant family of God and its shared story as they live in this world with an understanding shaped by God’s kingdom purposes, and asserting without hesitation that Paul has the Exodus account in mind as he pens these words, we can say that Israel did not know how to pray.  In the midst of their bondage, which could most certainly be referred to as their “weakness,” they groaned.  By way of reminder, “the Israelites groaned because of their slave labor,” their futile subjection, and “They cried out, and their desperate cry went up to God.  God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant” (Exodus 2:23b-24a).  They had a promise. 

We can look back on that promise as something of a promise of resurrection.  When we look back upon the whole of the story, we see that it was most certainly a promise of restoration to the place of God’s intention for them.  With that promise, and with the story of Israel, as structured, presuming a knowledge of that promise, Israel groaned.  The promise was not articulated.  Exodus does not report a calling out to God to remind Him of their promise to Him.  It is more than possible that there were many members of the nation that had no specific awareness or knowledge of the God of Abraham, and that did not acknowledge the Creator God of Abraham that was about to act to make them His covenant people (His children, His firstborn) through an act of veritable resurrection.  However, in the midst of bondage and futility, there was a groaning, and Scripture tells us that God acted on behalf of His people, in remembrance of His covenant, because of that groaning.  The same Spirit that “intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning,” is the same Spirit of the same God that interceded on behalf of Israel with inexpressible groaning. 

Reinforcing his point, Paul then writes “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will” (8:27).  What was God’s will for Israel?  It was liberation from subjection into the glorious plan and role that God had for His covenant family, as they were to become a light to the nations---blessing all peoples.  What is God’s will for the covenant family that has been and is being brought together by belief in Jesus?  It is the same as Israel---to be a light to the nations.  Continuing the analogy, Paul has said that “our present sufferings,” like Israel’s suffering in Egypt, “cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (8:18b).  In fact, this glorious future of the children of God who cry out to Him, extends to the new promised land (the whole creation), which “eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19).  Israel’s promised land also awaited the revelation and arrival of the nation that God called His firstborn son. 

Having made the analogy firm, connecting the experience of those in Christ (and the to-be-redeemed creation) to that of Israel in Egypt, replete with groaning that God hears, we find that we have been well-prepared to comprehend verse twenty-eight.  Just before doing that however, because we are going to cover a quite popular and well-worm verse that is often treated in isolation and therefore lacking all context, we enhance the credibility and legitimacy of our opinion by quickly retracing verses twenty through twenty-three of chapter eight. 

So by way of review, Paul has written that “the creation was subjected to futility---not willingly but because of God who subjected it,” which could be tentatively said of Israel in Egypt because of the knowledge of God’s promise to Abraham, “in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.”  Any talk of God’s children is an indication that the story of Israel as the covenant people of God, historically, as summed up in Jesus, and as continued by those that believe in Jesus, looms large in the background.  “For we know that the whole creation,” like Israel, “groans and suffers together until now.” 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Remaking Creation (part 2)

It is with thoughts of this defining story of a captive, groaning Israel now placed squarely in the midst of Paul’s words here that we now read “Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).  God redeemed Israel from their slavery and delivered them into a land of promise, flowing with milk and honey, and so too is He going to do the same for His renewed Israel who call Jesus “King.”  We know this to be true because the Spirit has convinced us of the truth of the firstfruits of that redemption, that being Jesus, raised physically and bodily into a world that was now forever changed, His physical body now a spiritual body because it is animated by the power of heaven.  God redeemed Jesus’ body from its bondage to death, delivering it, renewed, remade, and re-created from the grave, and that same Spirit is now at work, renewing, remaking, and re-creating anywhere and everywhere a person engages in an activity that declares a belief in the Gospel of Jesus and the kingdom that said belief and Gospel entails.  Israel’s small portion of good land was merely a signpost of the good land that would be the restored creation.  

Like Israel out of Egypt, “in hope we were saved” (8:24a).  It is hope because we can only catch glimpses of it, in the midst of the ongoing bondage that is to be observed all around us.  Yes, this family of God is very much like Israel in Egypt, who groaned in hopeful expectation; and to this end, Paul writes “Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance” (8:24b-25).  Israel hoped and God acted.  We hope and God acts.  We will continue to hope and we will continue to see God acting, through us, as those actions, which may entail suffering and shame, continually point us towards the consummation of all things and the glorious advent of the kingdom of God on earth.

As we move on to verse twenty-six of chapter eight, we see that Paul continues the theme that is at work, which is the enfolding of all peoples within the defining narrative of the covenant people of God.  He writes “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning” (8:26).  The context for this statement is still Israel’s groaning under Egyptian bondage.  The context for this is still the crying out of verse fifteen, the bondage of decay of verse twenty-one, the groaning of creation expressed in verse twenty-two, and the inward groaning of verse twenty-three.  As we saw in verse twenty-five, and in the hoping for what cannot be seen, Israel hoped for what it could not see when in Egypt.  According to the story, known by Paul and by which Israel defined itself, Israel had the hope of a promise that had been made to Abraham.  In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis we read “Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country.  They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.  But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve.  Afterward they will come out with many possessions” (15:14). 

With the point being made repeatedly in Paul’s communications that the Gentile peoples have been enfolded into the story of Israel, in a need to embrace that narrative as their own that they may understand the ministry of Jesus and the actions, intentions, and desires of the Creator God as they go about the business of participating in the kingdom of God that had been announced, enacted, and advanced in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus; and with that enfolding necessarily reaching beyond Israel as a unique people and stretching back to Abraham as Gentiles join the worldwide covenant family that was promised to Abraham (of which the nation of Israel was a foretaste, much like Israel’s promised land, hearkening back to the unsullied world and the garden of Eden, was to be a glimpse of the restored creation to come), it is necessary to include this particular portion of the Abraham story, as it is gives shape to the groaning of Israel in Egypt.  Though the labor of their bondage may have seemed futile, there was a hope, based on a promise, and they were able to entrust that God was at work. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Remaking Creation (part 1)

Paul seems to be infatuated with the idea of the new creation.  He firmly believes that the family of God---the heirs of the covenant, through their implementation of suffering-embracing-and-alleviating kingdom principles, are new creation-bringers.  In fact, he says that “the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19).  These sons of God are not is not a special class of super-spiritual beings.  This is the justified, covenant-enfolded family of God, called into existence by belief in Jesus. 

The creation itself, long “subjected to futility” (8:20a), awaits the advance of God’s kingdom, doing so “in hope” (8:20c).  When we consider the nature of the hope of creation, it would be foolish for us to disconnect it from the cherished hope of the people of God, that being the general resurrection, so we acknowledge that God also intends to bring resurrection to His once good creation.  This is precisely the point at which Paul reaches, writing “that the creation itself will also,” along with humanity, “be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:21).  With this, Paul carries forward the words of verse fifteen, where he, speaking to the global family of God, said “you did not receive the spirit of slavery,” or bondage, “leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” 

Paul has also done something else with the words that he has here employed.  Not only has he joined together the fate of humanity and the fate of creation, with both joyously experiencing the power of the Resurrection and the new age (the creation doing so because of the kingdom principles that have been adopted and are being employed by the family of God, in wise stewardship as tenders of God’s garden, like Adam and like Jesus, who was resurrected into a garden and was even mistaken for a gardener), but he has also called to mind the exodus, which is the defining story of Israel (Passover, Israel’s most important holy day, which is the time of the crucifixion and the Resurrection, is forever and inextricably linked to the defining story of the renewed people of God, which is something to always consider).  His use of “bondage” and “the freedom of God’s children” serve to bring the experience of the exodus into the frame. 

In case we are not quite convinced that this is so, and if, for some reason, we disregard Paul’s extended effort to cause the believers to see themselves as an equal family before God, the previously defining barriers of covenant identification now removed and replaced by confession of Jesus as Lord, what comes next clinches the argument, as Paul writes “For we know that the whole creation suffers and groans together until now” (8:22).  This language is borrowed from the second chapter of Exodus.  There, we can read “During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of their slave labor” (2:23a).  We note the groaning and the bondage.  We also find that “They cried out,” much like all can now cry out to God as their Father, and much like the creation itself is able to cry out, “and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God.  God heard their groaning” (2:23b-24a). 

What did God do for the people on whose behalf He was going to exercise His redemptive power, and with whom He was soon going to enter into covenant?  As He has done, is doing, and will do for His new covenant people, the people who confess their trust in Him through their belief in Jesus and the fact of His Lordship, “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, God saw the Israelites, and God understood” (2:24b-25).  He provided freedom, introducing them into a covenant-shaped life. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Law & The Turn Of The Ages (part 3 of 3)

Lest we surmise that a revival of talk of justification and its requisite accompaniment of the family of God is not applicable to this portion of Paul’s letter, we need only skip down to verse twelve, where we hear “So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation” (8:12a).  To whom or to what?  “Not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (8:12a), for that is the old age of division and a fractured humanity.  Emphasizing the seriousness of the new obligation of the new covenant, Paul expands upon and punctuates that statement with “(for if you live according to the flesh, you will die)” (8:13a).  Further elaboration has Paul offering the contrasting position: “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (8:13b).  This business of God’s kingdom come to earth is a matter of life and death. 

Without getting sidetracked into an examination of what Paul may mean with verse thirteen, we find him quickly returning to the familial theme with verse fourteen and “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God” (8:14).  What is the evidence of being led by the Spirit?  It is belief in Jesus as Lord (the mark of justification/participation in the Creator God’s covenant people), and the resultant participation in His kingdom purposes (with its promises, cross-shaped responsibilities, and blessings).  Further extending the family metaphor, and perhaps offering a suggestion as to the nature of the composition of the congregation of believers to which he writes, Paul goes on to adapt the language of, and rely upon familiarity with, the practices surrounding the act of adoption in that day, writing “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” (8:15) 

Though there are numerous ways to hear these words, and while it certainly is suggestive of the type of relationship that can be individually enjoyed with the Creator God, it is important to keep this in line with what we have learned to this point in the letter, and to assert that this ability to cry out to God is about Paul’s continued insistence that all peoples can now rightly cry out to the God of Israel as their Father.  Before now, in their role as the covenant people, which we realize had degenerated into a defensive, protective, and excluding stance, it was only Israel that could rightly and justly cry out to their Father God and expect to be heard.  This is no longer the case.  Paul declares that “The Spirit Himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.  And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)---if indeed we suffer with Him so we may also be glorified with Him” (8:16-17). 

Talk of heirs reaches back to what was suggested in the fourth chapter, being firmly ensconced within the world of the Abrahamic covenant and the inheritance to be had by all those that are his children, by a faith like that which he exercised.  Here, Paul reaches out to the four corners of the world, suggesting a united, renewed humanity under the new covenant and in the new age that has dawned in the Resurrection, with that humanity joined together with the Christ, and called to a kingdom-oriented life that takes its cues from the suffering and shame of the cross.  This suffering, which we can certainly equate with conceptions of honor and shame as the implications of a willful journey to the cross are explored and embraced, is efficacious as the means by which Jesus’ Lordship is proclaimed and by which the kingdom of God is advanced. 

Because every act that would, in that day and age, bring shame upon the believer (at least as understood by the world and the court of public opinion), was an embracing of the cross and of the tenets of a Lord and a kingdom that is manifest in such ways, and because every shame-embracing act is performed because of the hope of resurrection and the renewal of creation, Paul cannot help but say “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (8:18).  For those that believe in Jesus, behind every kingdom-directed thought and every kingdom-inspired action lies the idea that just as Jesus was raised from the dead into a glorious existence of a glorified body here in a creation that has begun to experience its renewal through the resurrecting power of the Spirit, so too shall all those that believe in Him (with that belief the evidence of the Spirit’s present work and evidence that the power of the new creation is at work) experience the same.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Law & The Turn Of The Ages (part 2 of 3)

Continuing in his train of thought, and highlighting the struggle of the old age, Paul writes “For I don’t understand what I am doing.  For I do not do what I want---instead, I do what I hate.  But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good.  But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.  For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me” (7:15-20). 

We must resist the temptation to reductionism, hearing this as Paul’s personal, spiritual experience.  Instead, because Paul operates within a story that shapes his theology, his soteriology, his ecclesiology, his sociology, his politics, his economics, his psychology, his philosophy, and his missiology (though we don’t pretend that these are necessarily separate categories for Paul), we must hear Paul echoing the plaintive cry of all those, prior to the cross and against the powers at work in the old age, that have been called to carry the covenant and to reflect God’s glory into the world. 

Understanding the voice by which he cries, we hear him continue on to say “So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.  But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:21-24)  The answer, not just for Paul as an individual, but for all that have been called to bear the divine image and to carry the covenant banner, comes with the Christ and the cross, as Paul (as we are continually mindful of who it was that carried the title of Lord, along with the city to which Paul sends this letter) exclaims: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:25). 

The true self, which is the true human being of a renewed humanity animated by the Spirit of God, has come to life with Christ in the new age of the Spirit, in which the true law of God (love and sacrifice as manifested by Jesus) is served.  The flesh of the old age died with Christ on the cross.  This epic struggle, though it may not always appear to be the case, has now been set right in the new age of life in the Spirit, which, among other things, does away with the law and its covenant boundaries and creates a united humanity as a new family of God, capable of rightly bearing the divine image and of reflecting the glory of God into the world.  As we attempt to understand the various components of Paul’s thinking, picking apart various statements so as to gain an appreciation of Paul’s insights into what is accomplished by the work of God in Christ, we do not lose sight of the bigger picture that is being conveyed to the body of believers, which is the wholesale unity of those believers under one Lord as they serve as ambassadors of the kingdom of God.

This brief foray into the seventh chapter, as we have continued to find Paul encouraging a unified family of God, facilitates a more nuanced (and perhaps better appreciated) understanding of what can be found in the eighth chapter.  While we consider the over-riding corporate (people of God) application as opposed to the individual (person of God) application of Paul’s communication, along with Paul’s giving voice to the failed covenant bearers from the beginning, the contrasting presentation of the ways of the old age versus that of the new age allows us to make eminently more sense of “For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit.  For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:5-8). 

With this being said and now better understood, we again hear Paul addressing the congregation, saying “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you” (8:9a).  What will be the evidence that the Spirit of God is living in them corporately?  One such piece of evidence will be the lack of any division between Jew and Gentile.  Those who want to continue to maintain these divisions, continuing to insist on adherence to certain traditional provisions as marks of justification (covenant participation), rather than recognizing belief in Jesus as the sole necessity for covenant participation (justification), and thus perpetuate a divided humanity (and ultimately a fractured messianic banqueting table) are those that maintain the outlook of the flesh.  Those that rightly embrace the sole covenant provision that brings and indicates justification, are those that have the outlook of the Spirit, and are participants in the kingdom of God (life and peace).  Consequently, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to Him” (8:9b).  Those that want to hold to old covenant markers (old age/flesh/death) do not participate in the kingdom whose head is Christ the Lord.   

Monday, October 15, 2012

Law & The Turn Of The Ages (part 1 of 2)

When we consider the opening of the eighth chapter of Romans, we are eventually and necessarily forced to make a regression into chapter seven, as the letter is a continuous narrative and flow of interconnected thoughts.  In the first verse of the eighth chapter, and in his highly important continuation of the narrative construct of the letter, Paul picks up on that which effectively closes out the movement of the fifth chapter (5:18-19), while also folding in the union with Christ theme that can be seen in the sixth chapter and writes “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).  With what comes in verses three and four, Paul emphasizes the contrast between the old age (flesh) and the new age (spirit)---the old age prior to the Christ-event in which Jew and Gentile were separated by covenant boundaries (law) and the new age after the Christ-event in which Jew and Gentile are joined together as the family of God and in union with Christ, writing “For God achieved what the law could not do” (8:3a). 

What could the law not do?  It could not generate a covenant family of divine image-bearers to represent the Creator God throughout the whole of His creation.  Why could it not do this?  Because it had enemies and adversaries.  “Because it was weakened through the flesh” (8:3b).  It was weakened by that which marked the old age, which was sin and death. 

Indeed, relying on chapter seven of Romans, it was weakened through distinctly non-divine-image-bearing characteristics such as covetousness (7:9).  Certainly, if one is consumed by covetousness, one can hardly be in a position to embody the cross of Christ in and for the world through self-sacrifice and preference of others.  The law and its commandments, which Paul believes to be “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12b), when placed in human hands, were simply overwhelmed by the powers at work in the world, that had not yet been conquered by the cross and the Resurrection.  Their application led to the division of humanity in a way that was far afield of God’s intentions for those created in His image and those that were tasked to carry His covenant.  In Jesus, and in God’s covenant faithfulness therein represented, this division is dismissed.  As a new Adam, Jesus marks a new beginning for a new type of people---those that are animated by the Spirit, which is the power of the Resurrection in the world in which the kingdom of God is a reality.    

This struggle in the old age, even with the law and its commandments as a guide to proper image-bearing, which was perhaps intended to be a sign-post (much like the ministry of Jesus and His church following Him) of the in-breaking of the always-expected age of God’s proper rule over creation, is well-articulated by Paul’s famous and much-debated words in chapter seven of Romans.  He writes “For we know that the law is spiritual” (7:14a).  That is, the law is related to the new age and expectation of God’s kingdom and God’s rule (age of the empowering Spirit), “but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin” (7:14b). 

Paul, speaking on behalf of and embodying all those that had failed to rightly bear the covenant (from Adam to Israel), indicates that the law is wholly unsuited to the people of the old age (people of the flesh).  This, of course, is a component of Paul’s ongoing insistence that the law has been put aside by the grace of God, especially in light of the use of the law to create boundaries around covenant participation, in a manner that was antithetical to God’s ultimate purposes, which was the redemption of all of humanity and all of His creation, rather than just one particular group of privileged people.  Whatever stands in the way of creating a single family of God---a new humanity, must be set aside, with the life of Jesus, as He represents and acts out God’s covenant faithfulness, the new law of life.  Those who believe in Jesus are to be like Him as they take up the command to “present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness” (6:13b).  As Jesus was (and is), so is His church called to be and to do.   

Sin & The New Age

When we consider what is the Apostle Paul’s broad, Scripturally driven definition of sin, which is failing to bear the divine image that God has provided to the various covenant bearers whose stories comprise the salvation history within which Paul works and from which he takes his direction, and also keeping in mind the gracious activity of God, as in Christ as the new Adam the covenant fold is reopened to include the entire world, we can take a look into the sixth chapter of Romans, where Paul writes “What shall we say then?  Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?  Absolutely not!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life” (6:1-4).  Without here attempting an exegesis of this passage, but rather offering a “big picture” outlook, can we see what Paul is doing?

Continuing: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of His Resurrection.  We know that our old man was crucified with Him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.)” (6:5-7)  The “likeness” imagery is intriguing, especially as we are mindful of “image-bearing” in relation to covenant participation, as the story of God’s purposeful creation is always in mind.  Also, Paul appears to be creating a contrast between the old age of sin and death, and the new age of life and resurrection, as a component of the move that he is here making.  On to verse eight and we hear “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.  We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, He is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over Him.  For the death He died, He died to sin once for all, but the life He lives, He lives to God.  So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:8-11).

If we are paying close enough attention, we can ascertain what Paul has here achieved.  If we were to look through the first five chapters of Romans, we would see that Paul has successfully united Jews and Gentiles (all peoples) under one Lord, under the covenant, based on belief in Jesus.  He has also managed to creatively fold Gentiles into the story of Israel, going all the way back to Adam (though Adam was not a member of Israel, the story of Israel as God’s covenant people, and as known by Jesus and Paul, begins with Adam), particularly highlighting Abraham, and reaching out to include Moses (the calling of Israel as a peculiar covenant people).  This provides Jews and Gentiles with a shared history, which goes a long way towards the creation of a covenant family that will share in the responsibilities of Adam (stewardship of creation), in the blessings of Abraham (as reflected in the announcement of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis chapter twelve), and even the experience of the Levitical/Deuteronomic curses of Israel and its exile that was so crucial to Israel’s own identity and sense of place in the world.

Now, here in chapter six, Paul takes that group of people, a unified humanity that comprises the church that is to be the face (and voice, hands, and feet) of the inaugurated kingdom of God, and unites them with the person of Jesus, the embodied God that is also the crucified and resurrected one.  Not only are Jews and Gentiles now one people in covenant, indistinct from each other because of a shared faith, but those peoples are now united with the Creator God, in and through the Messiah.  This union creates a marked contrast between the old age, in which all could not help but fail to rightly bear the divine image, and the new age, in which a new and different form of life (successful image-bearing) is now a possibility, made available to all and sundry as an act of God’s grace.  Thus, as humanity enjoys and indeed exploits this union for the benefit of the world, Paul writes “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires” (6:12).  That would be a sign of the old age.  To that is added “and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness” (6:13a).  This would be more of the old age.  Rather, in union with Jesus (in much the same way as humanity has been united), and like Him, as the harbinger of the new age of the kingdom of God, “present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness” (6:13b). 

Jesus was the demonstration of God’s covenant faithfulness (righteousness), announcing, representing, and making present God’s kingdom wherever He went, as should be those who call Him Lord.  How and why can this take place?  As Paul says, again contrasting the old age of covenant failure (as humanity, including Israel, voiced a resounding “no” to their call to bear the divine image) with the new age of covenant success (humanity, composing a renewed Israel, voicing a collective “yes” to God’s command to bear His image as shown forth through Jesus), as God’s intentions are made manifest through those that believe in Jesus, “For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace” (6:14).