Saturday, March 31, 2012

Miraculous Signs (part 2 of 3)

To this point, we have limited our look at “miraculous signs” to the plural.  However, we must not overlook its usage in the singular as well.  It cannot be said that the singular phrase is limited to the Gospel of John alone, as a singular use is also to be found in Luke’s Gospel.  However, as it is a single instance, it does not appear to play a role in the overall structure and movement of Luke, and this most certainly cannot be said of John.  If we add the uses of the singular “miraculous sign” to that of the plural, we have an additional five instances of its role in the Gospel, bringing the total number of “miraculous sign” language to fourteen.  Clearly, it is a key component of what is being communicated.  This makes sense, especially as we reflect on the fact that the pre-supposition of this Gospel is a very high Christology, operating on the premise that Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s God.  The hearers then, are not going to be surprised that miraculous signs follow Him. 

“Miraculous sign” makes its first appearance in the fourth chapter, following the healing of the son of a royal official.  This is recorded as “His second miraculous sign when He returned from Judea to Galilee” (4:54).  It makes two of its five appearances in the sixth chapter, which is heavy with “sign” language.  All told, between the singular and the plural, the listener and the reader encounter this language four times in this chapter.  Considering the fact that the chapter contains both the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walk on the water, along with His discourse related to bread (which ultimately springs from the feeding), this is unsurprising.  Does the key Christ-follower activity of love play a role in any of this?  In this chapter that is filled with miraculous signs, and references to the same, are we able to make any additions to our understanding of what “love” may means on John’s terms?  As is almost always the case, the qualifying answer is “perhaps.” 

In the fourteenth verse, we read “Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, ‘This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”  This is an allusion to a statement from the book of Deuteronomy---a component of the Hebrew Scriptures that weighed heavily on Jewish self-understanding in the second Temple period.  In the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, as Moses continues to address Israel, we find him saying that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you---from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (18:15).  Because Moses, of course, was understood as the man that God had raised up to lead Israel out from under Egyptian oppression, we must hear these words, as reported by John, in that light.  The people were affirming Jesus as the new Moses.  Therefore, He must be the one that is going to lead them out from under Roman oppression and occupation.  For the crowds, this is confirmed by the fact that Jesus has miraculously provided bread to a multitude of people there on the mountainside, just as Moses (though it was Israel’s God at work---we can say the same for Jesus from the perspective on offer by John) miraculously provided bread to the nation of Israel in the wilderness.

This is not simply conjecture on our part, because it is obvious that this is the way that these things are meant to be understood.  To this point, later on in the sixth chapter we hear Jesus saying “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but My Father is giving you true bread from heaven” (6:32).  This explicit mention of Moses (in the wake of the implicit mention of Moses in the fourteenth verse), in the midst of a section of the Gospel full of references to miraculous signs, calls our attention to the single use of the plural “miraculous signs” that is to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  That use is in the one hundred fifth Psalm.  There we read, within a context of the Psalmist speaking about Moses and Aaron and the display of divine power that precipitated God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt, that “they executed His miraculous signs among them” (105:27a).  Thus, we can surmise that John’s “miraculous sign” structure, especially here in the sixth chapter, plays on the exile and exodus motif that John effectively established in the third chapter. 

When it comes to the question of love on display, we return to the fifteenth verse and find it written that “Jesus, because He knew they were going to come and seize Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone” (6:15).  How does this show love?  This self-restraint on the part of Jesus, as He refuses to succumb to the people’s desire to make Him king, and perhaps even the temptation to receive the acclimation, must at least partially stem from the fact that an acclimation of Him as king is going to come with a declaration of war against Rome.  Of course, the author writes from a position of the knowledge of what happened when the Jews rebelled against Rome a few decades preceding the time of the written composition of this work (though we do admit that it is a possibility that the oral tradition that eventually took this written form preceded the written work by a number of years), whereas Jesus is implicitly presented as having knowledge of what will happen if He allows Himself and His people to travel the path that will follow from their desire to make Him king.  Not only will destruction come to Israel, but the plans for the kingdom of God, and how it is to be brought about, will be nullified.  Here, by this withdrawal, Jesus preserves His disciples, these people, and His nation, in a way that does not derail the purposes of the kingdom.  So yes, this could be looked upon as an example of love to be worked out, understood, and manifested by the community of those that claim allegiance to Jesus.   

Friday, March 30, 2012

Miraculous Signs (part 1 of 3)

The sixth chapter of the Gospel called “John” is where we find the Johannine account of the “feeding of the five thousand.”  Just before we find the author delving specifically into the account of the feeding, the reason for the large numbers that are following Jesus is given.  Verse two informs us that “A large crowd was following Him because they were observing the miraculous signs He was performing on the sick” (6:2).  As we rightly seek to order our lives according to that of the Resurrected One, surely this presentation of Jesus as concerned with the sick is a component of the defining of the way that the love of Jesus is to be on display by, for and through His disciples.  At the same time, this use of “miraculous signs” is something in which we can take interest. 

As we consider that the Gospel writer has a structure in mind, and that, rather than throwing together stories and sayings haphazardly, we see that structure being carried out across the whole of the Gospel Thinking along those lines, we find that this use of the term “miraculous signs” is something of a “trigger phrase.”  When it comes to the Gospels, it is unique to John, and it is encountered on nine occasions.  Taken together with the preponderance of the use of “love” in the Johannine corpus, the repeated use of “miraculous signs” becomes significant.  Though we do not go so far as to make a direct correlation that says that the miraculous signs are the evidences of “love”, though it would be difficult to disconnect the signs from the conception of the love of God that was on display and being outworked through His Christ, one cannot help but think that the “signs” are somehow closely related to the way that “love” is to be understood, and how it is to be expressed by those seeking to truly understand what it means to be disciples of Jesus. 

Let us take a look at the uses of “miraculous signs.”  In the second chapter we see its use in conjunction with the changing of the water into wine, as the author writes that “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a).  This was said to have been a way in which “He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11b).  Consequently, the presentation of the signs are often linked to the issue of belief.  In the twenty-third verse of the same chapter, we read that “while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in His name because they saw the miraculous signs He was doing.”  Interestingly, this mention of miraculous signs is not connected to any account of the performance of miraculous signs.  It is simply an assertion on the part of the author that seems to rely on the knowledge of the Jesus tradition in the community for which this Gospel was composed. 

At this point in the record, all that Jesus is said to have done in Jerusalem was the driving out of those changing money and selling animals (2:15), along with making a statement about the Temple being His Father’s house (2:16).  In response to His activity in the Temple, unsurprisingly, Jesus is questioned by the Jewish leaders, with a demand to know why, and under what authority, He had done what He had done.  In fact, as it relates to our purposes at this point, it is even asked of him “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” (2:18b)  Here, the use of “miraculous” is not offered.  Jesus responds to the query with “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19), but there is certainly nothing in this story that approaches the level of “miraculous sign”.  From there, John immediately moves us to the story of an encounter between Jesus and a Jewish leader named Nicodemus.  With no chapter breaks in the original composition, and with it most likely designed to be performed orally at a single setting, the listener hears about a direct movement from Jesus speaking to a group of Jewish leaders, to Jesus speaking with one Jewish leader.  Presumably then, it is to be understood that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus as a direct result of what took place in the Temple.  It is probable, for the purpose of this Gospel and its author, that the listener is supposed to presume that Nicodemus was himself present at the event in the Temple and heard what Jesus said. 

In his opening statement to Jesus, Nicodemus says “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with Him” (3:2b).  Once again, this talk of “miraculous signs” presumes a shared knowledge within the community, for there is nothing in the Jerusalem-situated narrative, to that point, that could truly be labeled as such.  In Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, we have the first use, in John, of the all-important phrase “kingdom of God.”  Jesus said to Him, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3).  This will go on to tie in quite well with Jesus’ talk, within the same conversation, of perishing and eternal life (which, as we have already established, is linked to conceptions of exile and exodus, both of which speak to the nature of the rule of God over His people, and through them, the whole of creation), and of the salvation and redemption of the world that is part of God’s design and purpose for the Christ.  Naturally, Jesus goes on to speak about the need for belief (3:12,16,18), thus relating Nicodemus’ use of “miraculous signs” with belief. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Love & A Samaritan Woman (part 2 of 2)

Jesus, undeterred by the violation of cultural norms, which are also put on display when His disciples return and we find that they were “shocked because He was speaking with a woman” (4:27b), engages in a rather in depth conversation with the Samaritan woman.  Not only is he speaking with a woman, and not only is He speaking with a Samaritan woman, but He is effectively engaging in a conversation that takes the shape of a rabbinic debate.  Of course, this simply does not happen.  In that day, women were not considered at all worthy to be involved in such things.  The encounter begins with a request for water, and then moves to a conclusion in which Jesus utters words in confirmation of His messianic status, with this following a fascinating give and take. 

Most often, the focus of the story becomes the content of the conversation---the questions of the woman, the responses from Jesus, her responses to His words, and the woman’s present marital status.  These are legitimate things on which to focus, but they can also create a situation in which we miss seeing the forest because we are looking at all of the trees.   With the conversation and its content, not only is Jesus doing cross-cultural ministry, but Jesus is also elevating this woman---flattening out the social dynamics.  This causes us to reflect on the developed and developing theological tradition within the church that operated on the basis that there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  Is this not love at work?  Is this not an advance illustration, at least as far as the presentation of the narrative is concerned, of the power of the Gospel. 

What follows from Jesus’ declaration of His status as Messiah?  The woman returns to her town, saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Surely He can’t be the Messiah, can He?” (4:29).  In response to this, the author reports that “they left the town and began coming to Him” (4:30).  Effectively then, this woman becomes the first evangelist.  We cannot underestimate how odd it would have been for John’s hearers to learn that “many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the report of the woman who testified” (4:39a), especially if we consider that a woman’s testimony was considered to be worthless.  We also cannot underestimate how significant it is that a group of Samaritans, at the instigation of a woman with what would have been a rather disreputable standing in the community (on top of the fact that she was a lowly woman) are apparently the first to believe Jesus en masse.  This tells us something about the Johannine community, and does so on multiple levels.  On one level, it points to the sensitive issue of Gentile inclusion in the church, answering those that may have wanted to reserve the message of the Gospel to Jews alone.  On another level, it indicates that there may have been those who believed that women were not to have a prominent role within the church, and serves to silence those that gave voice to such unwarranted opinions.  On a third level, it informs us that women were most likely already in prominent roles---including non-Jewish women, with the story serving to underscore the legitimacy of their status. 

Now, one may think that this is reading too much into a single instance, but this fits quite well with what is to be found at the end of this Gospel, when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb.  She “saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance” (20:1b), and “went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (20:2a), who was the un-named author of this Gospel, with a report that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb.  With this, a woman becomes the first witness to an empty tomb.  Then, after Peter and the other disciple left, “Mary stood outside the tomb weeping” (20:11a).  She went inside the tomb, is reported to have a conversation with “two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying” (20:12b), which is something of an echo of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, and then is said to “have turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14b).  So a woman who becomes the very first person to see the resurrected Jesus.  This parallels the fact that, according to this same Gospel’s witness, that a woman (and a hated Samaritan woman at that) was the first person to hear an explicit declaration from Jesus that He was, in fact, the Messiah, while subsequently becoming the first successful evangelist. 

Not only does Mary become the first to see Jesus, but she speaks with Him and is instructed to “Go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” (20:17b)  So “Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’  And she told them what Jesus had said to her” (20:18).  Interestingly, there seems to be an indication that Jesus’ own disciples did not necessarily believe Mary’s report, whereas the Samaritans believed the report of the woman.  This also gives witness to the nature of the spread of the Gospel and of the church in the days of the composition of this Gospel narrative.  Taken together, these two instances provide a context that pushes us into a deeper understanding of what “love” means for this author, for his community, and for the church. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Love & A Samaritan Woman (part 1 of 2)

A Samaritan woman came to draw water. – John 4:7a  (NET)

In the fourth chapter of John, we encounter the story of Jesus and His conversation with a Samaritan woman.  This was a highly unusual event.  It is written that Jesus, while passing through Samaria, which was a customary practice of a Jew, “was tired from the journey” (4:6b), so He sat down next to a well.  We also learn that this well was known as “Jacob’s well” 4:6a), and that it was “near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (4:5b).  Because these are not haphazard presentations, but calculated theological treatises, mention of a well, along with mentions of Jacob and Joseph, are clearly designed to cause the listener or the reader to reflect upon the patriarchs of Israel.  We are not surprised to find this to be the case, as the author has already presented a reflection back to Jacob at the close of his first chapter (“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” which is designed to invoke thoughts of Jacob at Bethel).

This talk of Jacob’s well is significant.  Without going into an exhaustive recounting of all of the instances in which they are to be found, let it be said that wells are prominent a rather prominent feature within the Genesis narrative.  We find wells associated with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Of course, the words that open this Gospel account, “In the beginning” (1:1a), tell us that the author intends the Genesis narrative to lie consistently in the background as the story unfolds.  Beyond Genesis, wells are mentioned in connection with men such as David and Samson, among others, so it only seems natural that the story of Jesus include a story about a well as well. 

In addition to such thoughts, a cursory glance at the narrative itself informs us that the treatise of John is deeply rooted in the history of Israel---giving it a historical depth, which should weigh on our minds as we consider that, in the end, the author intends to convey a message about a man that actually lived, actually died, actually rose again, and is still, by the presence of His Spirit, alive, well, and an abiding force within and for this world.  We find this historical rooting amplified when we take note of the fact that questions about John the Baptist are couched within concerns related to the prophet Elijah.  Along with that, Israel’s history is called upon in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in the third chapter, as Jesus mentions Moses, alluding to Israel’s time in the wilderness following the exodus (which plays right into the exile and exodus theme that is found in John 3:16’s statement that contrasts perishing and eternal life, both of which are terms heavily influenced by Israel’s self-defining conceptions of exile and exodus ).  So even though John offers up a very different type of historical narrative than that to which we are accustomed, we must remind ourselves that it is not to be looked upon as being a-historical.

Returning to the well in Samaria, and to the unusual event there recorded, we hear Jesus speak to the aforementioned Samaritan woman and say “Give me some water to drink” (4:7b).  We cannot underestimate the startling impact that this would have had upon the woman.  She would have been completely taken aback by the fact of this Jewish man speaking to her.  Unless an audience was familiar with the story of Jesus, and presumably, John is initially composed and performed for a community or communities that were familiar with the Jesus story, this could be a bit surprising to a listener, especially if the one hearing or ready the story was from one of the Jewish communities of the diaspora.  Of course, we are given a clue that this Gospel is composed for a mixed audience, as the author is compelled to include the fact that “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (4:9c), which comes on the heels of this woman, startled by the very fact of speaking and the request that it contained, says “How can you---a Jew---ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink” (4:9b).      

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Redemptive Love (part 2 of 2)

Having established that the motif of relational love that demonstrates the fact that one is a disciple of Jesus is love functioning in a redemptive manner in relation to the establishment of the kingdom of God (mimicking Jesus’ love, which is the manifestation of God’s redemptive and reconciliatory love for the world), we can achieve and operate with a better understanding of what is truly meant by Jesus’ insistence that His disciples love one another as He has loved them.  We must remember, as we consume and consider the message of Jesus and of Scripture, that the type of love given voice in the declaration concerning the way that God loved the world, within this Gospel presentation that explicitly equates Jesus with the Creator God of Israel, will color the way that love is perceived by the recipients of this narrative.  Beyond that, God’s love for the world, with its connection to concerns related to exile and exodus (perishing or eternal life) and the fact that an overt presentation of Jesus as the very embodiment of God means that Jesus was and is the Messiah of Israel, is indissolubly connected to prevalent notions about the messianic banquet, and of the types of things that will accompany the hoped-for-and-messianic-banquet-signaled in-breaking of God’s reign on earth. 

The declaration of the fourteenth verse of the first chapter of John, that “the Word became flesh and took up residence among us,” is not only an unequivocal declaration that Israel’s God was present among humanity, and in the world as Jesus, but it is also an unmistakable use of Temple-related language.  Thus, an implied conflict with the Temple authorities, because of that claim, becomes the explanation for the underlying source of antagonism between Jesus and those that present themselves as His adversaries, as well as the ultimate cause of His death (though the raising of Lazarus will be reported as the proximate cause of His death---though this is understandable, as the raising of Lazarus, historical or not, certainly underscores the claim that Jesus is the place in which God’s power is present and therefore the true Temple).  Because the dwelling place of God was always thought to be the Temple, the author makes it clear that everything that follows in His narrative (written at least a couple of decades after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in association with the Jewish revolt in 70 A.D., though it most certainly draws from traditions in circulation from the days of Jesus on), portrays Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Temple.  This helps us to make contextual sense of John the Baptist’s quite early declaration in the Gospel that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29b), as the removal of sin mentioned in this statement that is provided by its context by the Day of Atonement (without even getting into John’s legitimate claim to the high priesthood), is something that was carried out in connection with the Temple. 

Why mention this here?  We mention it because the presence of God among His people, with Jesus serving as the Temple (especially in the light of the fact that at the time of these writings the Temple of Jerusalem no longer existed), signaled the end of exile.  God’s presence meant that exodus was at hand.  God’s presence meant that Israel was free from its oppressors.  A new and glorious Temple (“the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth---1:14b), would cause a hearer or reader to hearken back to the construction of the first Temple, under the reign of Solomon, when Israel’s glory reached its full height and extent, and all nations came streaming to Israel and to Solomon, paying homage and tribute.  This could also call attention to what is to be found in Ezra and the story of the establishment of the second Temple, in that those that had seen the glory of the first Temple wept.  If this situation of glory in relation to the Temple was again in effect (and the language suggests such thoughts), then the messianic age---the kingdom age---had dawned in and with Jesus, and the remainder of the narrative, including the notion of the love to be meted out by Jesus’ disciples, must be heard amidst these words as echoes of that fact.  Jesus’ words and actions can then be understood within that context, as they reveal the love of God, while providing the model for love for one another that marks out the fact of the kingdom of God on earth that was inaugurated and commensurate with all that was included in the incarnational Word. 

In light of all of this, it will be the concrete activities of Jesus, as reported within John, that identify what is to be the lived-out love of the Christian community.  Therefore, the first instance of Jesus’ activity, apart from Him coming to be baptized at the hands of His forerunner, is the call to follow Him.  Surely, the greatest example of love to be expressed between Christ’s disciples is the ongoing encouragement to follow Jesus.  Of course, the idea of what it means to follow Jesus (and therefore love in the way that He loves---which is the way that God loves) must be rounded out and given its full orb through the procession of the presentation, which is precisely the path of John’s narrative. 

We first see Jesus calling men to follow Him in the first chapter, as He answers a question posed to Him by two of John’s disciples in regards to where He was lodging, with a simple “Come and you will see” (1:39a).  In the forty-third verse, Jesus speaks to Philip and says “Follow me.”  These disciples will go on to learn about what it will mean to follow Him, as He reveals to them the kingdom of God through His functioning as the Temple, which will also be the experience of those that hear or read this Gospel.  To that end, the first chapter closes with Him telling these newly minted disciples: “I tell all of you the solemn truth---you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:51).  These words, with the use of “Son of Man” language, are designed to evidence messianic and therefore kingdom of God sensibilities, while also building on the Temple language previously used, while also causing the informed hearer to think of Genesis and “Jacob’s ladder.”  In that story, following the vision of his dream in which angels were going up and down on the ladder or stairway (depending on the translation), Jacob exclaimed, among other things, that “This is nothing else than the house of God” (28:17b), thus prompting him to name the place “Bethel” (house of God).  By using these words, the author makes clear the fact that Jesus is presenting Himself as the Temple, thus defining Himself as the locus of God’s activity and of the life of Israel.  All of this serves to prepare us to see Jesus as God in the flesh, and by extension, the outworking of the redemptive and restorative love of God that is to be the model for living life in the way of Jesus.  

Redemptive Love (part 1 of 2)

At the time of the writing of John, and based on the way that Jesus is presented, it is clear that the high Christology of God in Christ has been worked out quite fully.  This would be, in no small part, due to the efforts of men such as the Apostle Paul, whose preaching, teaching, and letters had been a major influence in the development of what could be called Christian orthodoxy.  It was the love of God, demonstrated by His grace and mercy while being firmly rooted in His faithfulness to His covenant and His creation, that best explained the whole of the Christ-event (incarnation, ministry, death, Resurrection, ascension).   

This said, it is incumbent upon a member of the believing community to ascertain the way in which a disciple of Jesus is to define love, based on the terms on offer in the various John writings, and in accordance with Jesus’ command of the thirteenth chapter to “love one another.”  To do so, we can observe the very first use of “love” in the Gospel of John, as it lays the groundwork for the uses of “love” that will follow.  Following up on our assertion that God’s faithfulness to His covenant and His creation was foundational for His actions in and through His Christ, it only makes sense that the first use of love, forming the premise of the way in which we are to understand the insisted upon love for one another on John’s own terms (according to Jesus’ directive in the thirteenth chapter), is the well-known sixteenth verse of the third chapter.  As this Gospel receives its oral performance, as it would have been presented to a group via an oral telling heard in community rather than as a written text to be consumed in an independent and isolated reading, the very first mention of this foundational element for the Johannine community falls from the lips of Jesus and we hear “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

For John then, we learn that giving is foundational for love.  However, it is not giving for the sake of giving, but giving that is purposed in the direction of redemption.  The concept of redemption provides the context for the tension between perishing and eternal life.  The interpretive framework that stands behind the contrast between perishing and eternal life would have been that of exile and exodus.  For a Jew of the first century (and we can surmise that the author and the audience of John were primarily Jewish, and if not Jewish by descent, well- instructed in the history of the Jewish people, as it is only in being well versed in the story of God’s covenant and His activities for and through His covenant people that the message of the Gospel of Christ is going to make any sense whatsoever, especially in light of the fact that Christianity is simply a messianic Jewish movement centered upon Jesus), unlike the vast majority of overly Greek-influenced Christendom in the early twenty-first century, perishing would not have produced thoughts concerning an eternity in hell.  Likewise, “eternal life” would not have conjured up thoughts of going to heaven when one died.  Rather, perishing would have been equated to exile (according to Levitical and Deuteronomic curses, as well as the continued oppression of Israel under foreign powers), whereas eternal life would have been equated with exodus into a promised land.  That promised land would have been understood as God’s renewed creation (God’s kingdom come on earth with all things set right), enjoyed by those that have been resurrected to new life with bodies suited for that glorious age. 

Therefore, what we see is that the love of God (for John) must be understood in accordance with the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.  So immediately we get the sense that the love of one another that will evidence the fact that one is a disciple of Jesus is love that serves as a signal that the kingdom of God has come and is coming.  This is reinforced by Jesus’ statement that love between and among His followers would be modeled on His love for them.  Since John is operating with a very high Christology in which Jesus’ is presented as God manifest in the flesh from the very outset (John 1:1), the love of Jesus for His disciples can be equated with God’s love for the world.  So along those lines, it would not be a stretch to say that love, as desired by Jesus (according to John) must function redemptively.  It is this thought that will serve as our guide. 

At the same time, though we have detailed the usage of “love” words, it is not necessarily the case that we can then only grasp the Johannine community’s conception of love in conjunction with the use of those words.  That is to say, we don’t limit our exploration of what love of one another will look like (again, on John’s terms) to those places in the Johannine texts that use related words.  We simply note that the growing use of “love” as a Scriptural and doctrinal motif, to illustrate the ascendancy of the notion of love for one another, now understood to be based on God’s love for the world (for both His image-bearers and His creation) within the context of His redemptive purposes, as something very close to the heart of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.     

Monday, March 26, 2012

Calculating New Testament Love

If we are going to attempt to come to grips with the concept of Christian love, then the New Testament’s Johannine compilation is the place to go.  If we are looking to ascertain the conception of love, and to do so on the terms of a particular New Testament author, while considering the topic as vital to Christian living, then the collection of “John” writings should be our preferred destination.  In the Gospel of John, a term that is translated as “love” is employed twenty times.  “Loved” appears twenty-one times.  Adding the epistles of John, we find “love” used an additional twenty-eight times (twenty-three for 1 John, three in 2 John, and two in 3 John).  The epistles employ “loved” three times, with all three appearances in the first letter of John.  In total, we find “love” or “loved” employed a total of seventy-two times in the Johannine corpus.  This is unsurprising, as the presumed author refers to himself in terms of love.  We know him self-referentially as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

By way of comparison, a quick glance through the synoptic Gospels provides us with a total of twenty-five variations on “love” (love-22, loved-2, loving-1).  Surprisingly, while detailing the activities of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles contains no mentions of “love” or any of its variations as a motivating factor for the earliest of Jesus-believers and kingdom adherents.  The New Testament letters, excluding those of John, are well-represented in this area.  Romans, the letters to Corinth, and the letter to the Ephesians reach into the double digits in their employment of the term.  In the sixteen chapters of Romans, we find “love” or “loved” on fifteen occasions (twelve and three), the first Corinthians letter uses love thirteen times (six times in the “love chapter”), second Corinthians scores twelve uses of “love” and “loved” (eleven and one), and the relatively short letter to Ephesus (though, because it does not contain the types of specifics to be found in other Pauline letter, and because it doesn’t seem to deal with any particular vexing issues or pressing matters within a particular church, it may have originally been a circular letter designed to be shared by a number of churches) clocks in with nineteen mentions of “love” or “loved” (fourteen and five) within its scant six chapters. 

Combined, the remainder of the New Testament letters make mention of “love” in some variation an additional seventy-four times, meaning that, outside of the Johannine texts (this excludes Revelation), we find one hundred fifty eight words variously translated as “love,” “loved,” or “loving (133, 22, 3).  Added to the seventy-two instances to be found in the Gospel and Epistles of John, “love” appears in the New Testament texts two hundred thirty times.  Nearly a third of the total number of uses are located in the Johannine texts.  While we note that not all of the uses of “love” are presented in a positive sense, we have little reason to wonder at the reason that the doctrine of love becomes foundational for the life of the Christian community.

We can note the development of the doctrine, as it take center-stage for the followers of Jesus.  Over time, love begins to define the life of the community, as Christians attempted to put into practice what they believed was implied by the Resurrection and the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth.  Putting aside the letters, the majority of which pre-date the written forms of the Gospels, we make note of the use of “love” in what is taken to be the earliest Gospel, which was that of Mark.  Mark makes use of “love” only three times.  Matthew and Luke, which rely heavily upon the Markan narrative, while also drawing on other sources (both oral and written), expand the usage of “love,” with Matthew offering up ten instances of the term, and Luke employing the vocabulary of love on twelve occasions. 

By the time that the Gospel of John is composed, with the letters of John most likely being roughly contemporary with the Gospel, it is love that has taken the field as the driving force that underlies the living out of the life of allegiance to the claims of Jesus and the response to His Resurrection and His kingdom.  That is evidenced by the narrative of the life of Christ that has been constructed by the author of the Gospel of John, and it is reinforced by the sensibilities of the Johannine-related community which are revealed to us by the letters of John.  It is obvious that love has taken center-stage for the Christian community to which the writings of John are directed (and perhaps for the wider Christian community as well), and this is reflected by the narrative that has been passed down to us.  It is also possible that the author wanted to push the community in the direction of love, but with the growing presence of “love” in the synoptic Gospels, it seems more likely that John’s structure is a response to the direction that has been previously taken.   

New Commandment

I give you a new commandment---to love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples---if you have love for one another. – John 13:34-35  (NET)

Most certainly, this is a very familiar saying that is attributed to Jesus.  Some might insist that this statement represents the cornerstone of what it means to live as a Christian, and it would be difficult to disagree with that assertion.  Surely, those that lay claim to a confession of Jesus as Lord would and should have a desire to live out the prescription of these words, thereby showing themselves to be functionaries within the community that has oriented their lives around Jesus and His pronouncement of the kingdom of God.  These words are reported to have fallen from the lips of Jesus at what is generally referred to as the “Last Supper,” and is immediately bracketed by Judas’ departure for the purpose of executing his plan to betray Jesus to the Temple authorities, and Jesus’ insistence that Peter is going to be shortly offering a three-fold denial of his Lord.

So what is meant by these words?  What is implied?  What will it look like when Jesus’ disciples are loving one another?  Quite rightly, each of us comes to this text and these words with our own ideas concerning what it means to love.  Due to the fact that we are relational creatures, formed in community with other relational creatures, we come to define love in relational terms.  For the most part, we formulate our conceptions about love primarily according to that which we receive from parents and family.  The love of fathers and mothers readily serves to shape and define the parameters that are placed around the concept of love, and we generally consider the love of a father or mother to be the strongest type of love there is.  It is this type of love, generally of the completely unconditional variety that is simply presumed upon and taken to be an unalterable matter-of-fact, that we most often desire to cultivate in our relationships, regardless of the type of relationship. 

The model of love that we associate with our mothers and fathers, whether it is a good model to which should be aspired or a faulty model which might possibly need to be avoided, lies behind the age-old adage (within societies that do not participate in arranged marriages) that insists that women most often marry men like their father, whereas men desire to marry women that remind them of their mothers.  For better or for worse, we are programmed to seek out love based on the terms of love that have been presented to us from the time of our birth.  Unsurprisingly then, it is this type of love (painting with an overly broad brush), that we desire to offer up as part of the experience of our relationship with God, and that we believe God desires to share with us---defining the God of love based upon (generally) parentally constructed concepts of love.  Of course, this does not hold true one hundred percent of the time. 

Thinking about this quite broadly then, when we come to the words of Jesus we almost automatically presume that what Jesus means when He commands His disciples to love one another accords neatly with our pre-constructed opinions about the nature of love.  However, as we are always seeking to build and reinforce an appropriate framework from which to view the Scriptures (which is an important component that must be in place before we attempt to assess and ascertain meaning), and especially the words and life of Jesus in accordance with His life-setting and the life-setting of the community by and for which this Gospel was compiled, it behooves us to approach these words of Jesus apart from our own terms. 

Rightly then, we do not approach these words of Jesus based upon what we believe to be Jesus’ terms (defined self-referentially through our own ideas concerning love), as outlined by the portraits painted by the authors of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or by the path laid out by New Testament authors such as Paul, Peter, James, Jude, the author of the letter to the Hebrews, or John the Revelator.  Rather, we must approach these words of Jesus, and attempt to understand their full import according to the terms that are presented by the author of this Gospel.  We must hear the witness of the Johannine community concerning love, doing so through the Gospel and the Epistles that bear the same name.  We must hear Jesus’ words within the narrative construct and presentation of Jesus offered by this author as He seeks to present Jesus.  We must allow love to be defined on John’s terms, and in so doing, we will position ourselves as disciples that are ready to adequately respond to Jesus’ command to love one another and so be identified as people who have thrown their lot in with Him.    

Friday, March 23, 2012

Peace In The Body

Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. – Colossians 3:15  (NET)

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

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

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

So as Paul rounds out his dissertation that is very much concerned with the church as a place of unity amongst “all” the saints (saints is a term that is no longer applicable only to those of Israelite descent or of covenant mark keeping) and the elimination of barriers between peoples so that all may participate equally in the inheritance promised by God and portended by Jesus’ Resurrection, he tells of Epaphras, “a slave of Christ” (4:12b), not unlike Paul himself.  We quickly reflect on the fact that he also said this of Tychius (a Jew), thus providing a point of contact and mutuality between a Jew and Gentile.  Paul writes that Epaphras “is always struggling in prayer on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (4:12c).  This predominantly Gentile church needed assurance that they were, in fact, though they did not bear the covenant markers of Judaism, within the will of God and fully participating in His kingdom as confessors of Jesus.  Hearing this from Paul could only be a great encouragement. 

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

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

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Baptism, Exodus & A New Humanity (part 2 of 2)

The cross to which God-manifest went has changed everything.  Discarding the shame that was normally attached to a crucifixion (the most shameful and shame-ascribing event of the ancient world), as is Paul’s custom as well as that of the church, Paul exults in what the cross has accomplished in and for all the world and all creation, without exclusion, writing “Disarming rulers and authorities,” who had thought that Jesus was the one that had been disarmed, “He has made a public disgrace of them,” even though they had thought that it was Jesus and His followers that were suffering disgrace and shame, “triumphing over them by the cross” (2:15).  The place and the instrument that was said to be that of Caesar’s triumph is actually the place of Jesus’ triumph.  As Caesar employed the cross as part of his efforts to create, solidify, and control a worldwide kingdom of his own making, so the cross was employed by Jesus to actually accomplish that end.      

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism, Exodus & A New Humanity (part 1 of 2)

Having been buried with Him through your faith in the power of God who raised Him from the dead. – Colossians 2:12  (NET)

With verse twelve of the second chapter of Colossians, as we operate with the realization that baptism is not unique to the experience of the Christian faith, we find Paul adapting exodus language on behalf of Gentiles as he writes “Having been buried with Him in baptism, you also have been raised with Him through your faith in the power of God who raised Him from the dead” (2:12).  Just as Paul allows Gentiles to participate in the exodus-related identity of Israel whenever he uses words like “redemption,” he here does the same.  Functionally, “being buried with Him in baptism” is the equivalent of exile, while being “raised with Him” is the equivalent of exodus, with these two concepts very much part and parcel of the story of Israel. 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Servant To Every Person

As we read the Colossian letter, we must find ourselves carefully attuned to the underlying concerns of the Apostle, this church, the churches of Asia Minor, and the church-at-large, that we might be able to grasp the monumental scope of the kingdom project and hear it being referenced when Paul writes “This Gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant” (1:23b).  The “all” of “all creation” resounds with theological and eschatological gravity!  It is with such gravitas, as he willingly, in the manner of His Lord, adopts the position of servant to the previously unwashed masses of Gentiles, that Paul writes “I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God---given to me for you---in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints” (1:25-26).  These “saints” now include Gentiles, who had been previously excluded from the covenant people, and could only enter upon that covenant by adopting the Jewish covenant markers.  Now, Paul insists, they enter into the covenant people of the Creator God, as Gentiles, through the confession (in word and deed) of a trusting allegiance to the Gospel of Jesus (He is Messiah/Lord/King of all). 

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shaming & Exclusion (part 3 of 3)

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

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

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

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

He says “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today” (22:3).  Talk of being a Jew, raised in Jerusalem, trained under Gamaliel, who honors ancestors, and is zealous (this is a specific term for a way of life and approach to the law and the covenant), would be quite satisfactory.  Furthermore, Paul says “I persecuted this Way,” that being the belief in a crucified man by the name of Jesus being the Messiah (we can never forget that the message of a crucified messiah would have been extraordinarily shameful for a Jew, and would be something from which all would have naturally recoiled), “even to the point of death, tying up both men and women and putting them in prison, as both the high priest and the council of elders can testify from me.  From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I was on my way to make arrests there and bring the prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished” (22:4-5).  As the crowd listens, they can begin to realize that not only are these not the words of a person that would bring a Gentile into the Jerusalem Temple, but that they are not the words of somebody who “teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary” (21:28b). 

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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Shaming & Exclusion (part 2 of 3)

Reading further, we find revelation of the generalized attitude towards Gentiles, proving just how deep these long-cherished notions ran, as we are able to read “Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner court of the Temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” (21:28b)  This, of course, was patently untrue, as Luke parenthetically inserts “For they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him previously, and they assumed Paul had brought him into the inner Temple courts” (21:29). 

The inner Temple courts were strictly off-limits to Gentiles.  The words of the crowd, as reported by Luke, are thoroughly informative, as the insistence in regards to Gentiles in the Temple and subsequent ritual uncleanness dovetails well with Paul’s insistence that Gentiles (if we were to consider Paul’s language about the true Temple and Gentiles in both Colossians and Ephesians) are in fact able to be presented before Israel’s God (the one whose dwelling place was the Temple), based on their trust in Jesus as the Messiah and as the one mediator between the Creator God of Israel and all men, as holy, without blemish, and blameless.  This naturally stands in contrast to their being ritually unclean and their being able to confer ritual uncleanness upon the Temple itself. 

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

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

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

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Shaming & Exclusion (part 1 of 3)

What then should we do?  They will not hear that you have come. – Acts 21:22  (NET)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2012

Temple People (part 2 of 2)

To effectively make the point about the way of thinking about the entrance of Gentiles into the Temple (the Temple as the renewed people of God---the shared Jesus tradition, most certainly, would have included the understanding that Jesus had judged the Jerusalem Temple, setting it aside and replacing it with Himself and with the people who have now come to be the covenant people through joining in His movement by confessing Him as Lord ) in the time of Paul, we can venture over to the book of Acts.  Though Acts would have been composed after the time of the writing of the letter to Colossians or Ephesians, as a historical work with a deep and abiding theological concern, it does provide relevant information concerning the period, especially in terms of the general attitude of Jews towards Gentiles.  That said, we turn to Acts twenty-one. 

Here we find the story of Paul’s return journey to Jerusalem.  Beginning in verse seventeen we read, “When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly.  The next day Paul went in with us to see James, and all the elders were there.  When Paul had greeted them, he began to explain in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (21:17-19).  Notice the focus on the matter of Gentiles and the effectiveness of the Gospel’s message.  This, of course, makes perfect sense, as Paul is primarily known as the Apostle to the Gentiles.  At the same time, however, he addresses himself to Jews as well, as his congregations (household meal gatherings in honor of Jesus) are a mixed bag, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.  This is well demonstrated not only by the content of his letters, but by the fact that he spends a great deal of time addressing Jews in the synagogues in the various Gentile-dominated cities to which he travels.  However, Luke, as the author of Acts, is free to pick and choose that upon which he focuses his attention and that which he relays to the readers/hearers of his work.  Interestingly, he consistently chooses to impart information concerning Gentiles, with this information provided its contextual setting by the Jew/Gentile issue that consumed the energy of the nascent church and so much of Paul’s attention.  This lends substantial weight to the idea that the means by which Gentiles are included in the covenant people and share in their promises (the means by which they are justified) was a (if not the) fundamental point of contention in the early church. 

With verse twenty we hear the response: “When they heard this, they praised God.  Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law” (21:20).  That is, they are believers in Jesus who continue to adhere to the covenant markers of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary laws.  Going on, “They have been informed about you---that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses,” or to abandon the distinct covenant markers, “telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (21:21).  This, as can be gleaned from Paul’s letters, is highly debatable, and probably something of a distortion or half-truth (at best). 

Paul’s primary concern was the covenant marker of Gentiles, that being confession of Jesus as Lord (their confession of the Gospel) that made them people of the covenant, and not the submission to the ongoing covenant markers of Israel as that which made them people of the covenant.  This was what made the people of the Temple.  Paul was not concerned with whether or not the Jews continued to hold to these customs, being far more concerned with not forcing Gentiles to submit to them, as doing so would contribute, in his mind, to erecting barriers to the spread of the kingdom of God to all peoples.  Paul clearly demonstrates his belief that it would create unnecessary and probably unhelpful divisions among people, based solely on identifying practices that had nothing to do with the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus. 

If anything, Paul’s preaching probably encouraged Judaizing Gentiles (Gentiles who had adopted the covenant markers of Israel so as to come under the auspices and provisions of the covenant, so becoming Jews) to discontinue Sabbath-keeping and adherence to dietary laws (reversing circumcision, though possible, would probably not be encouraged, especially considering that Jews were not the only people to practice circumcision---it was really the combination of covenant related activities, though these changed over the years to reach the form that they had taken by the time of Jesus and Paul, that served to set Israel apart from other peoples).  This could form the basis for the mild accusation that we hear in the twenty-first verse, as, in order to make a point, they would not make an effort to distinguish between a Jew of national and ethnic Israel, and someone who had become a Jew through the required processes.  This observation of a portion of Acts, being highly revelatory in regards to Paul’s mindset as he dealt with the issues of the day, can serve to guide our approach to the Colossian letter and its (Paul’s) care to insist that all peoples are people of the true Temple in which the Creator God of Israel dwells.