Friday, August 31, 2012

Kingdom For All (part 2 of 2)

Once the operative realm of the concept of justification is understood, and as we are able to operate more freely and comfortably with its connection to covenant inclusion, irrespective of national origin or physical descent, we find the way that it is introduced into the letter to Galatians is more than sensible.  Paul brings the issue to the table by recounting his experience with Peter in Antioch, writing “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong.  Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (2:11-12).  The “pro-circumcision” party are those that expected Gentile believers in Jesus to Judaize.  They expected these believers, in demonstration of their joining up with the elect people of God, to undergo circumcision.  Most likely, this would have included an expectation that they would adhere to Sabbath-keeping and food laws as well, with this presumption founded on Paul’s talk of Peter’s eating with Gentiles and his subsequent cessation of this practice. 

According to Paul, Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentiles was equivalent to agreeing with the need for Gentile believers to Judaize, thus devaluing the confession of Jesus as Lord as the sole necessary covenant marker that identified one as a participant in the covenant people, in the church, and as ambassadors of the kingdom of God that had been announced and inaugurated by Jesus.  Paul will later go on to point out that a devaluing of this confession, which is not to be separated from the crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus, is functionally equivalent to devaluing the death of Christ and making it irrelevant.  In addition, this action on the part of Peter apparently flew in the face of his own confession and that to which he had previously agreed, which was that there was no need for Gentiles to undergo the rite of circumcision in connection with their covenant-based confession, and no need for them to adopt any of the traditional covenant markers. 

As previously noted, when Paul visited Jerusalem, with Titus in tow, Titus was not “compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek” (2:3b), thus ultimately confirming the truth of Paul’s gospel (2:5).  The influential leaders of the church, in Jerusalem, as Paul said, added nothing to his message (2:6), which pronounced justification through an oath of loyalty to Jesus alone (faith alone), apart from the works of the law.  Peter had played a role in the assessment of Paul’s message, but now, by his actions, he was effectively adding to Paul’s message and even contradicting it to an extent, affirming the insistence that circumcision must take place, and treating the Gentile believers as if they were, somehow, fundamentally different and in need of making themselves look like Jews so as to participate in the covenant people (thus contradicting his experience in Acts chapter ten, which would have been well-known to all the church, and especially to Paul as the Apostle to the uncircumcised). 

For all of these reasons, Paul accuses Peter of rank hypocrisy, adding that “the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy” (2:13).  To that, Paul adds, echoing the words of the fifth verse of this chapter, “But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the Gospel,” which finds no separation between Jew and Gentile while promoting the unity of the church of Christ under one and only one covenant marker, “I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew,’” implying that Peter himself had abandoned Sabbath-keeping and food laws, thus abandoning any pretense of the value of those in light of what God had accomplished in Christ, “’how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (2:14)  This is a stinging indictment of one who had a reputation as a pillar of the church (2:9), and no doubt caused Peter to reflect on his rooftop visions, his experience with Cornelius and his household as recorded in Acts, and now his own failure to live out and live up to the truth of the Gospel. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Kingdom For All (part 1 of 2)

But when the one who set me apart was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles… - Galatians 1:15-16a  (NET)

This mention of Paul’s call to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles is an excellent precursor to what follows in the second chapter of this letter to Galatia.  Raising the issue of Gentile inclusion under the banner of the covenant, which is the purpose of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, necessarily invokes considerations of adequate covenant marking.  In regards to this, as Paul relates the story of his journey to Jerusalem in the years following his own conversion, and as his ministry and message of Gentile inclusion among God’s covenant people based on confession of Jesus as Lord has been established for quite some time, he writes “not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek” (2:3).  This is key, as it assists Paul in laying the foundation for his arguments concerning justification---what it is, how it occurs, and what it represents---which comes later in the second chapter. 

Why is it significant that Titus, a Gentile, was not compelled to be circumcised?  It’s significant because of who it is that did not do the compelling, namely, the “influential people” (2:2) in the Jerusalem church.  If these “influential people,” located in Jerusalem, which was the obviously the bastion of Judaism and the geographical source of those that went out to other churches in other areas insisting on the need for Gentiles to Judaize in order to properly and legitimately participate in the covenant and to enjoy its promised blessings, did not insist on circumcision for Titus (with circumcision also standing in for the other covenant markers of Sabbath-keeping and food laws), then this spoke volumes for Paul’s message and his understanding of the justification that he had been preaching for fifteen years.  In fact, Paul makes it clear that the only ones that insisted on Gentile circumcision and their performance of the works of the law were “false brothers with false pretenses” (2:4b).  By deduction then, true brothers with true motives were those that recognized the basis for Gentile justification as belief in Jesus as Lord. 

Further elaborating on his time in Jerusalem, and further validating the argument that he is presenting to the Galatian brethren, Paul informs them that “those who were influential… added nothing to my message” (2:6a,c).  Not only was his message about justification and its corresponding covenant markers that allowed Gentiles to enter the covenant people as non-Judaizing Gentiles accurate, but there was no fault to be found with it.  It is also possible that Paul meant this statement as a double entendre, insisting that nothing needed to be added to the acceptance of the Gospel, such as circumcision, Sabbath keeping, or adherence to food laws (this is not about doing “good works”), to validate one’s justified status. 

With what immediately follows, we see that Paul never loses sight, and never allows his audience to lose sight of the all-peoples inclusion and world-encompassing nature of what the God of Israel had accomplished and set forth through the Messiah Jesus, as he adds to the lack of the addition of anything to his message, writing “On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised… they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (2:7,9b). 

Though there is a distinction drawn in terms of ministry focus, there is no distinction drawn between Jews and Gentiles in terms of their position relative to the covenant God or in their participation in His kingdom that has been inaugurated through the Resurrection of Jesus, nor is there a distinction in the message that is to be preached to Jews and Gentiles.  Both groups are to hear and accede to the message that confession of the Gospel’s claim is now the basis for God’s ongoing covenant with His people, and that His people now consist of people drawn from all nations, without distinction. 

This cannot be said enough, as it is the ground in which the concept of justification is rooted.  We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by an incorrect approach to the issue of justification, especially as it is addressed in Romans three and Galatians two, which would have us considering the subject in terms of attaining an individual salvation that looks to an eternity in heaven as the reward of “faith alone” that stands against an attempt to achieve heaven via performing “works” in accordance with a code of law.  This approach, which would not be recognized or understood by Paul himself, must be removed from the field, as justification has primarily to do with being included in the covenant people of God. 

“Faith alone” versus “works” is only relevant to a discussion of covenant markers, inseparable from the Jew/Gentile divide and the barriers that had heretofore prevented the enlargement of God’s covenant people, with “faith alone” standing for the new covenant marker that coincides with the new age of the kingdom that has dawned and the new creation that manifests itself whenever a person confesses the Lordship of Jesus and so is “in Christ,” while “works” stands for the old covenant markers that Paul now equates with the old age that preceded the coming of the kingdom of God (that must exist and already be ongoing because of the claim that Jesus is Lord and King) and the old creation that is steadily passing away in the face of the victory of God foretold and begun in Christ’s victory over death and the grave.             

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Community Of The Justified

In Paul’s letter to the church of Galatia, the issue of justification (covenant standing) receives an overt treatment.  For that reason, it often stands in comparison to Romans, and is explored alongside the letter to the church of Rome in order attain a richer understanding of the subject.  The letter must be approached with the understanding that justification has more to do with covenant standing, that the means by which one is understood to be justified has to do with covenant markers, and that justification is something that had once been limited to Israel (and to Gentiles that made themselves look like Israel through the adoption of law-related practices), but was now thrown wide open to Gentiles through Jesus.  With such a framework in place, it is actually possible to visit Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and even the letter to Titus, to find Paul’s conception of justification at work – the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, once separated, as a unified humanity under the sole identifying marker of the confession of Jesus as Lord. 

Once we factor in the leveling out of the church that is fostered by the equal acceptance of both Jew and Gentile under the same covenant marker, and realize the way that it can be applied in multiple areas of a culture that was defined by exclusion, division, and separation of people into groups (Paul’s insistence on there being neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free), with this application flying in the face of, undermining, and subverting long-standing cultural norms, then we could also realize that justification, with its implications, makes its presence felt in the letters to Corinth, to Thessalonica, to Timothy, and to Philemon.  The creation of a worldwide covenant community that represents the Creator God of Israel in and for the creation, as the harbinger of a new creation portended by the Resurrection of the Christ is a major theme for Paul. 

The implications of the nature of justification prompt a question, which is, if God has removed the barriers that separated and delineated Jew and Gentile in order to make them one covenant people with a single purpose, and doing so through His own intervening activity in Jesus of Nazareth, then what right do we have to continue to allow other barriers to remain standing and effective?  We see Paul essentially asking and answering this question in his addresses to other churches and to other individuals (though the letters to Timothy and Philemon would certainly have been read aloud in a gathering of the church).  Paul’s push towards unity within the church, with that all-important unity, manifested in the exercise of sacrificial and self-subverting love, traversing all of the identifiable and stratifying elements of society, is his answer, as it demonstrates the reach of a full-orbed justification. 

Because we well know that Galatians deals with justification, and because we know the primary issue of justification (Jew and Gentile relations and appropriate covenant boundaries), we are wholly unsurprised to find Paul writing “For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it.  I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (1:13-14).  Why was Paul persecuting the church and trying to destroy it?  It was because of his zealousness for the traditions of his ancestors.  What were the traditions of his ancestors?  Those were the works of the law, or the covenant markers that served to identify God’s covenant people. 

The church of God, in Paul’s view, by preaching confession of Jesus as Lord as all that was needed to gain entrance into the covenant and therefore access to its blessings, was completely undermining that which identified God’s elect people.  For Paul, this was horrifying, and as far as he was concerned, because this supposed church of God was a Jewish messianic movement centered upon a crucified and therefore accursed man (who couldn’t possibly be the messiah for that very reason), and because it primarily consisted of Jews that were now abandoning the covenant markers (though they would already be circumcised, many were no longer recognizing the Sabbath, and they were violating food laws by eating freely with Gentiles in imitation of the one that they looked to as Messiah, while also insisting that Gentiles could be included in the covenant people without having to adopt the traditional covenant markers), this could only bring the wrath of God upon Israel.  Paul’s position is quite understandable.  Based upon Israel’s history, which he knew quite well, Paul’s position was both logical and reasonable. 

Paul, however, had an experience that changed these things.  Making reference to Jesus’ appearance to him on the road to Damascus, as knowledge of the Resurrection changes everything, and as we find his build-up to the passages concerning justification containing references to both Jew and Gentile, Paul writes of “when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles” (1:15-16a).  Thus, in Galatians, it is his mention of Judaism and Gentiles by which Paul sets the stage for his treatment of the issue of justification.            

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

God Of The Gentiles

When we gather around the meal table of the Roman church and hear “But they are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), we are forced to hear Paul within the contextual realm of both Jews and Gentiles being encompassed by the covenant through the same means.  They are justified in connection with Jesus, as God graciously expands the reach of His covenant---stretching out the curtains of the grand, covenant tent, as expressed so beautifully by Isaiah.  Furthermore, Gentiles, without Judaizing (becoming Jews by adopting the covenant markers of Judaism – circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary restrictions), also experience the redemption that has long been cherished by Israel, which, when this term is employed by a member of Israel, is a reference to the experience of exodus-ing from out of a state of exile, with this exodus always being a movement that includes a journey towards, a return to, or a restoration of sovereignty in, a land of promise. 

The redemption of exodus, which is tightly connected to the Red Sea and also symbolized by baptism (especially that of John the Baptist, as he was recognized to be leading a new exodus movement, recapitulating the entrance of the people into the promised land through baptism in the Jordan River, which was doubly symbolic, serving also as a reminder of the Red Sea crossing), was a defining portion of Israel’s story.  Part of the story that Israel told about itself was that of the Egyptian exodus, and rightly so.  It was a dramatic story of the intervention of the Creator God on their behalf, and is intimately tied to the story of their election as the special, covenant people of that Creator God.  It is important to also note that Paul locates the story of Jesus in continuity with Israel’s history, and sees it as the climax of their story.  Of course, we know that it is impossible to understand the story of Jesus, or to attach any significance to His ministry, death, or Resurrection, apart from its being set within the story of Israel and its covenant relationship with their God, as the story stretched back to Adam.  That said, because Israel identified itself as an exodus people, who had experienced God’s redeeming activity on their behalf numerous times, the fact that Gentiles are now included in talk of those that experience redemption, with redemption being used by an Israelite and therefore carrying the freight of Israelite sensibilities, becomes yet another mark of their being adopted into the ranks of the people of God’s election.  Gentiles are now free to attach themselves to Israel’s story and tell it as their own.

When we detach verses twenty-three and twenty-four from out of their context, to read and hear Paul’s statements from within our individualistic, historically disconnected concern with a personal salvation experience, they sound nice, but we miss so very much.  Truly, when we read “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  But they are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” we can take some comfort.  Unfortunately, if we tear these words from their historical and cultural context, without allowing the history of Israel and its covenant to define them (instead, we define them based on our own conceptions, which might actually have no connection with Paul’s conceptions or those of his audience), we miss out on the full spectrum of meaning contained by “all,” “sin,” “glory,” “justified,” and “redemption.”  Ultimately, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when utilizing or proffering constructs such as the “Romans road to salvation,” as this tends to lead people away from the Gospel message of “Jesus is Lord,” with the range of kingdom and covenant concerns therein entailed, and toward a selfish concern with the eternal destiny and situation of one’s personal soul.

Having provided his “thesis” concerning the nature of justification, and having done so within the parameters of Jew and Gentile concern, as we move along to the twenty-eighth verse, we should not be surprised to hear Paul return to explicit mentions of Jew and Gentile.  Paul writes “For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law” (3:28).  That statement, of course, demands to be heard as a component of the narrative that Paul has structured, so, as elsewhere, this verse is not to be lifted and applied in isolation.  Therefore, it is worthwhile to reiterate and expand what is being said.  The statement of verse twenty-eight, more fully unpacked, is “we consider that a person is said to be a part of the covenant people of God through the confession of a trusting loyalty to Jesus as Lord and King, with this loyalty extended to the Creator God via the loyalty to Jesus; and it is no longer necessary for any person to demonstrate this loyalty by circumcision, Sabbath keeping, or food laws, which is currently being utilized as the identifier of the people of the covenant, but no longer.”  To drive home the point that, through his talk of justification, Paul has been concerned with Gentile inclusion and the elimination of the barriers that have been used to keep the covenant exclusive to Jews and to prevent Gentile participation unless they were willing to Judaize, he goes on to write “Or is God the God of the Jews only?  Is He not the God of the Gentiles too?  Yes, of the Gentiles too!  Since God is one, He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:29-30). 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Jew, Gentile & Justification (part 3 of 3)

Having grasped this, being conscientious of the Jew/Gentile issue that is in view, and being cognizant that there is no distinction in the eyes of God between Jew and Gentile, we are now more well-equipped than ever to hear the famous words of verse twenty-three, which are “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  It is helpful, of course, to bear in mind that sin, as Paul has essentially defined it in this letter (allowing the narrative and its context to dictate the way that words are heard and concepts are treated), is the failure to rightly bear the divine image, and consequently to fail to reflect God’s glory into the world (emphasized in the latter half of chapter one).  This had been the original charge given to Adam (commonly conceived of as the son of God), which had subsequently been passed along to Israel (also referred to as the son of God).  Both had failed.  Jesus, unlike Adam and Israel, had not failed in this regard. 

As we consider the import of this verse, generally focusing on sin, falling short, and glory, we need to, once again, cast our attention on an equally important word for the Apostle, which is “all.”  Because Paul is consistently concerned with bridging the gap and eliminating the wall that has been created by adherence to and insistence upon the outward covenant markers of Israel, we must be consistently aware of that which receives Paul’s attention. 

Also, lest we lose sight of where we began and where we are going, this ongoing awareness of what Paul is doing will very much come into play when it comes to comprehending our title text, which is “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame” (10:11).  Quite simply, it is impossible to understand that at which Paul is driving in this letter, and especially these words from the third chapter that are definitive and that have been generally and unfortunately lifted from their context as the means of creating an artificial and unrecognizable (for Jesus and Paul) juxtaposition and dichotomy between “salvation by works” and “salvation by faith through grace.” 

Living in a post-Reformation world, we are trained to focus our attention on this particular aspect of Romans and of Pauline doctrine.  However, once we understand what is meant by “works of the law,” as denoting the covenant markers that identified one as a member of God’s elect and covenant people (as an acknowledging response to God’s grace towards Israel), and then place that alongside a proper understanding of the grace of God as relating to the fact that covenant membership (and its associated promises, blessings, and responsibilities) is being freely extended to Gentiles, with their covenant marker (the new covenant marker for all peoples) being a trusting loyalty in Jesus and to the Gospel claim that He is Lord of all, then we can take in the wider view of that which is being addressed. 

That wider view allows us to take notice of that which seems to be just as important, to Paul, as what is generally looked upon as the stand-alone issue of justification and how one is justified (usually defined as “saved” and therefore able to go to heaven when one dies), which is that of the inclusion of Gentiles as part of God’s elect people.  This explains Paul’s repeated emphasis on the “all.”  Briefly backtracking then, we see this in verse nine of the chapter, and “for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are ALL under sin” (3:9b).  This “all” leads into the “no one” of verses ten, eleven, twelve, and twenty, the “all” that is also to be found in verses twelve and twenty-three, the “every mouth” and “whole world” of verse nineteen, and the “all who believe” of verse twenty-two (with its attendant “no distinction”). 

As we can see, justification is completely, one hundred percent inseparable from covenant and from Gentile inclusion.  Paul was obviously consumed by what God was doing for the world, and was not terribly concerned with creating, adopting, or propagating an “us versus them” mentality.  On the contrary, recognizing the grand scope of what God had done, was doing, and would be doing through the message of the Christ, the cross, and the Resurrection, Paul advocates a “them becoming us” frame of mind, desiring that all people everywhere experience, in this life, adoption into God’s covenant family, without hindrance, so that they might participate in His kingdom on earth both now and forever.        

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Jew, Gentile & Justification (part 2 of 3)

Perhaps, in accordance with what seems to be the general tenor and flow of Romans to this point, the focus should be more usefully directed towards the end of the verse and the whole world being held accountable to God?  The “whole world” is significant, as is “held accountable.”  Based on the “all peoples” focus of what had led to this statement, might we be better served if we hear Paul speaking towards a basis for justification (inclusion in the covenant people for the enjoyment of its promises and benefits) that is going to be on offer to all peoples? 

If we hear Paul in this way, then our thoughts are undoubtedly driven to the message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) as the basis (covenant marker) by which God has now chosen to hold the world accountable  Of course, Paul has described this Gospel (Jesus is Lord) as “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16b), adding “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel” (1:17a). 

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

It is now that Paul makes his bold move.  Having built to this point, keeping the Jew/Gentile issue in focus and having placed all peoples under the same judgment regardless of their perceived status in relationship to the covenant, Paul writes “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed” (3:21).  That is, the covenant faithfulness of God, or that which is the ultimate manifestation of His covenant faithfulness to His elect people, to all people, and to His creation, has been disclosed.  What is the ultimate manifestation of His covenant faithfulness?  What is it to which the law and the prophets have been pointing?  Why, it is God’s own intervening action in and for the world, “namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” or Jesus the Messiah, “for all who believe” (3:22a). 

While the “believe” portion of this statement is surely of significance, as believing in God, in His covenant faithfulness, in His messianic manifestation in Jesus, and in the claim that Jesus is Lord (the Gospel) are paramount to a kingdom-of-God-oriented life, the “all” of the statement, reflecting on what we have heard from Paul to this point, is just as significant.  “All” plays into what closes this verse, which is “For there is no distinction” (3:22b).  What does Paul mean when he says that there is no distinction?  To what is he making reference?  Obviously, based on what has led to this statement, he is asserting that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile when it comes to their position in relationship to the covenant, to their need to enter upon the covenant, and the ultimate basis on which their membership in the covenant people rests (their covenant marker), which is the belief in Jesus as Lord. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jew, Gentile & Justification (part 1 of 3)

Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? – Romans 3:1  (NET)

This questions flows from the presentation of the first two chapters of Romans (there wouldn’t be any chapter divisions in the letter).  Paul builds from his question of “what advantage does the Jew have…?” (3:1a), which leads to his declaration that “Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin” (3:9b).  With this, Paul accelerates the process, important to him, of leveling out all people before God, thus contributing to his efforts towards Gentile inclusion under the covenant through the declaration of faith in Jesus rather than the works of the law (current covenant markers), as he pieces together disparate statements from the Psalms and from Isaiah, writing “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God” (3:10-11).  This would certainly be more than a bit deflationary to his Jewish listeners. 

He continues with “All have turned away,” as we note the importance of “all” to Paul both in Romans and in the remainder of the Pauline corpus (always remembering, in all that he writes, that he is the Apostle to the Gentiles), “together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one” (3:12).  This is quite the accusation, and it probably deserves to be heard together with the ringing accusations of the first chapter, which can be applied to Jew and Gentile alike. 

Because these verses are prefaced by reference to “Jews and Greeks,” we also hear Paul co-opting words from the Psalms that were originally penned as polemics against the enemies of the king of Israel, so also enemies against Israel and Israel’s God, and re-deploying them as polemics against all peoples, both Jews and Greeks.  All are placed under God’s judgment.  Even in judgment, the equality of all peoples before God is paramount, regardless of the sources of equality.  So, regardless of what Israel may say or think about itself, Paul, by utilizing the language used by members of Israel and reserved for their enemies or the enemies of their covenant God, groups Jews and Greeks together and universally insists that “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.  Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” (3:13-14). 

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

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

Friday, August 24, 2012

Propaganda & Covenant Inclusion (part 2 of 2)

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

To expand on that point, Paul sees Israel’s story climaxing in Jesus, with Jesus, as King and therefore as representative of God’s covenant people, fulfilling all that God expected of Israel.  More than that, Jesus perfectly fulfills all that is expected of humanity, bearing the divine image as God intended.  As Israel’s story and responsibility cannot be extricated from the covenant, and as Israel only exists as a people because of God’s covenant with Abraham, we simply cannot think of Jesus, His ministry, or His saving work apart from that covenant.  The Gospel that Jesus is Lord, and therefore the justification (participation in the covenant people of the Creator God) that is linked to that message of the Gospel, cannot be understood or propagated apart from a proper understanding of the covenant and of what God is doing in relation to His covenant. 

When we add in that Judaism did not posit “earning salvation” by works (works of the law, adoption and practice of covenant markers, were the response of those already included in the covenant---justified) which disposes of the long-cherished and often confusing contrast between “works” and “grace” as means to salvation (or justification---being included in the covenant people and therefore carrying a heavy responsibility to represent the Creator God of Israel by bearing His image), we put ourselves in a much better position to understand the letter to Romans, the Gospel, the kingdom of God, and our role in and for that kingdom and the world in which it is to be found (God’s will being done on earth as heaven), which is accomplished according to and through the deed and word proclamation and manifestation of the Gospel.  

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

Propaganda & Covenant Inclusion (part 1 of 2)

For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give Him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. - Romans 1:21-23  (NET)

The above passage goes on to speak of impurity, dishonorable passions, unnatural sexual relations, shameless acts, error, unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility, gossiping, slander, boasting, evil, disobedience, heartlessness, ruthlessness, and approval of all such things.  Paul’s recitation of mankind’s abuses would flow from out of him quite naturally, as for all practical purposes all that is to be found in verses eighteen through thirty-two of Romans one, was very likely nothing more than standard rhetoric directed at Gentiles by members of Israel, as they sought to maintain the purity, integrity, and identity of their people and their special, preferred status in the eyes of the Creator God.  The words that can be found there could form something of a propaganda against Gentiles, playing into the “us versus them” mentality that marked much of second temple Judaism (and unfortunately much of Christianity). 

This is not difficult for us to understand.  We in the church are quite accustomed to adopting such language and using it in such ways.  We sit in our pews and applaud (or perhaps just nod our heads in tacit, comfortable agreement) as preachers and teachers lift accusatory fingers and point them at the pagans and heathen of “the world,” whom our just God will rightly judge.  This is done while perhaps tossing in pithy and condescending statements (in the face of not-well-masked vitriol) such as “but Jesus loves them,” or “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” 

Even worse, we often find the “us versus them” mentality moving from the church versus the world (there is some necessary opposition, though it is often mis-directed) to church versus church, as one church, inevitably holding itself up as the repository of the true Gospel message, offers blanket condemnations to other churches that, by extension, fail to preach the “true Gospel.”  It must be said that this dualistic mentality is quite difficult to escape or to avoid altogether, requiring Christians to be on constant guard against falling into its unhelpful and damaging-to-the-Gospel clutches. 

How can we, after a perusal of the second half of chapter one of Romans, draw a conclusion in which we see Paul employing the propagandizing rhetoric that Israel has reserved for Gentiles?  Is this a legitimate observation?  We are aided in our reaching of that conclusion by that with which Paul opens the second chapter, which is “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else.  For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things” (2:1). 

Following some intervening material in which Paul highlights God’s judgment, kindness, forbearance, and patience, in which he also tosses in “He will reward each one according to His works” (2:6) while also briefly railing against “selfish ambition” (2:8), we proceed to stumble upon a helpful statement, which is “There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.  For there is no partiality with God” (2:9-11).  When reading Romans, we have to recognize the fact that the language of covenant extension and inclusiveness is everywhere, that it is woven into the text as a central theme, and that it must effect our reading and comprehension of Paul’s position. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Kingdom People (part 3 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kingdom People (part 2 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kingdom People (part 1 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

God Of Tents (part 4 of 4)

All of this movement, from Adam to Jesus, can be thought of as examples of exodus (along with appropriate applications of exile), which is the way that God effects His purposes.  God reveals Himself, through the example of those that He has ordained to represent Him, as a God of “going-out”---as a God of exodus.  This, of course, is why Scripture and its story exists---to represent God.  They exist not primarily to serve man and to inform man how to live, but rather, they exist primarily to reveal God, and in that revealing, to bring Him glory.  This revelation for the purpose of knowing God is given so that those who are supposed to bear His image might be able to do so rightly.  This, of course, is why we undertake and so highly value theology, for we cannot serve our Creator God with a knowledge of His purposes for us if we do not know Him. 

We do not approach the Scriptures so as to first learn about ourselves, or to gain encouragement for ourselves, or to find out what God has for us.  All of these things take place as secondary results.  We approach the Scriptures in order to learn about God.  Because we are made in His image, it is in learning about God that we learn about ourselves.  This is encouraging because we learn that God has a purpose for us as His image-bearers, and the Scriptures provide us with a hope that He is at work, quite faithfully, to bring about those purposes in us, for us, and through us.  If we ever take a moment to consider why it is that we gather together as Christians, in church, it is in this that we find the answer. 

The author of the letter to the Hebrews is adamant about the regular gathering together of those that call Jesus Lord, as he writes, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings…encouraging each other” (10:24-25a).  When looked at on the surface and from the outside, by those that do not yet call Jesus Lord, we would have to be compelled to admit that our regular (predominantly Sunday) gatherings as individual church bodies is quite the peculiar practice.  Naturally, it is as peculiar as the very message upon which the church is built, which is that of an eminently shameful and ghastly crucifixion, the extraordinarily ridiculous notion of a man’s resurrection from the dead, and the somewhat ludicrous idea that those two things, taken together and then punctuated by an ascension, prove that the crucified man was the very embodiment of God and is the sovereign and ruling Lord of all in a kingdom that has been inaugurated on earth and awaits its final consummation in the coming together of God’s realm of existence (heaven) and man’s realm of existence (earth). 

So why do we do it?  What is the primary function of “going to church”?  Is it for ourselves?  Of course it is.  Why?  We do it to escape the pressures of the world for an hour, as something akin to a temporary rescue from foreign subjugation within our larger rescue from foreign subjugation.  We gather to be encouraged by a message of God’s love in Christ.  We come together to sing songs of praise as a correct response to the grace of God.  We gather to hear the preached Word of God.  First and foremost, we gather to hear the Word preached in some way, shape, or form, that we may learn how to play our parts in the grand drama of God’s creation and new creation project.  All other reasons take second place, for it is the divine proclamation that is of paramount importance. 

We can see the evidence of this throughout Scripture.  God speaks and brings the created order into existence.  God speaks to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and so forth.  The prophets make proclamations.  John the Baptist proclaimed the near advent of the kingdom of God.  Jesus fused His doing with teaching.  Jesus sends His disciples out to tell His message.  The church springs into existence and thousands are ushered into the kingdom when Peter and the disciples begin to preach the message of the Gospel.  Paul points out the crucial elements of hearing and preaching as the way that faith is implanted and the power of the Resurrection takes root within the hearer.  Revelation is a series of pronouncements.  One could go on and on.  It is in the proclamation of the Word of God that God is revealed, and this is the fundamental and primary purpose of the church’s gathering. 

The preacher preaches (the teacher teaches) so that God may be made known.  The preacher preaches so that his hearers can learn about God and know more about God.  Knowledge about God is transmitted so that those that are made in the image of God, who are called to be covenant bearers, might be able to correctly and effectively bear that image and covenant, so that they might be a blessing to all peoples, that God may receive the glory that is due to Him for His mighty acts.  While God is acknowledged through our praises, knowledge of Him is conveyed through preaching.  The primary subject of proclamation in the time and places of regular Christian gatherings for worship must be God, and the primary activity must be proclamation.  Yes, in accordance with the way and the story by which the Creator God is revealed to us, the primary activity that must take place at these regular appointments must be preaching and teaching, for it is in this that the power of the Resurrection is sent forth, and it is in this that knowledge is seated. 

This instruction in knowledge, which has and always will require great discipline and diligence, is of paramount importance, and should not only inspire the hearers to a constant desire to learn more about God, but also to live lives of praise to God.  Living this life of praise will not result in a withdrawal from the world around them, into a self-imposed and ungodly exile that has the believer erecting their own temples.  If learning more about God causes the hearer to retreat from the world, in separation, isolation, and condemnation fostered by an “us versus them” mentality, then that preaching has gone woefully astray from that which is modeled by Jesus, and springs not from a diligent study of Scriptures so as to learn more about God, but from a subjective and self-satisfying interpretation of Scripture designed for little more than the gaining of personal control over the lives of the hearers and the all too familiar pursuit of power.  Instead, living a life of praise will result in the erection of tabernacles, as a symbol of constant exodus, in which, like the one claimed as Lord, the believer goes out to show forth the blessings of God’s kingdom to “tax collectors and sinners,” to the sick, to the thirsty, to the hungry, to those lacking clothes, to those in prison, and to the places where pain and evil are corrupting God’s creation and thwarting the advance of His kingdom.      

Sunday, August 19, 2012

God Of Tents (part 3 of 4)

Now at this point these are merely the words of Isaac.  However, we do know that the blessing of Isaac will eventually be confirmed and become the blessing of the Lord, as the Lord will take it upon Himself to extend the status of covenant-bearer to Jacob.  It is with this confirmation in mind that we can now make an application to the Temple. 

Jacob’s “living in tents” lets us know that the one who now represents the Lord is to be found in a tent.  This was true of Abraham and Isaac as well.  They had no permanent dwelling.  After the exodus, the covenant people of Israel that were dwelling in tents, built an Ark that represented the presence of their covenant God in their midst.  This Ark was housed in the tabernacle---a tent.  So on a very fundamental level, the impermanent nature of the dwellings of those that bore the covenant, and who were then tasked to be a blessing to all nations as they enjoyed the blessings of God and to do so in a way that would cause people to recognize the majestic and all-encompassing rule and true power of their God, fits quite well with God’s desire that man “Fill the earth and subdue it!” (Genesis 1:28b), and to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (9:1b).  God wants those that are His image-bearers and covenant-bearers (as both Adam and Noah are tasked with certain covenants) to spread throughout the whole of creation, to remind the creation of His glory, and to rightly worship Him (in whatever way that all that God has created can function to worship Him). 

We have seen that this occurs to an extent, but that man then takes it upon himself to discontinue this operation for the purposes of building a tower that will reach to the heavens, and to gather around that tower so that they will not “be scattered across the face of the entire earth” (11:4b).  This stood in direct contrast to that which God had instructed man to do, which is why it provoked such a dramatic response, with that response by God said to have “scattered them from there across the face of the entire earth” (11:8a), which is precisely what God had desired in the first place.  Even this “punishment” was evidence of God’s covenant faithfulness, as He was at work to accomplish His redemptive purposes for a fallen world.  We should then not think it a coincidence that this event is immediately followed by the exodus-ing call of Abraham, and of God’s covenant with him, and through him, for the world. 

When it comes to rightly representing Him, it seems that God desires movement and a constant state of readiness for movement, whereas man seems inclined to want to settle down in one place.  God wants man to represent Him throughout the whole of His creation, indicating to that creation that He is the Lord and ruler of the whole, whereas man wants to gain a piece of territory for himself, establish his own rule there, and then invite God to show forth His power in that place, so as to provide divine sanction for that rule that man has achieved.  That seems to be something of the dichotomy between the tabernacle and the Temple.  The tabernacle served as a mobile and portable reminder of the whole of the story from creation to exodus, was a witness to the covenant call to be blessing to all nations, and reminded God’s people of the constant movement of their covenant-bearing forefathers.  That story is one of a constant going out.  Though it will be constructed in the mold of the tabernacle, the Temple struggles to convey such things. 

The first command that was given to man, when God said to “fill the earth,” effectively said to “go out.”  After their transgression, God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden.  Though this was an unfortunate result of that transgression, God did not send them out of the world, so we can presume that the requirement to fill the earth and subdue it was unchanged.  Ultimately, God sent Noah and his family out of the ark, with the familiar command to fill the earth.  Abraham was sent out from his family to go and be a blessing.  The many movements and “goings-out” of Abraham and Isaac are well-chronicled in Scripture.  In the New Testament, Jesus will command His disciples to go out to take His teaching of the arrival of the kingdom of God to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  After His Resurrection, He would then command that same group of men, to go into all the world with the message of His crucifixion, Resurrection, and Lordship.  When Jesus called His disciples, He circumvented the common practice of the gathering of disciples, which was that men would choose for themselves a rabbi under which they would learn, and then go and sit at his feet.  Instead, He went out and called men to Himself, and He did this even though He had no place to lay His head.  In a sense, it could be said that Jesus, who was most assuredly the bearer of the divine covenant, and who referred to Himself as the very Temple of God (destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up), lived in tents, having no permanent place of dwelling. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

God Of Tents (part 2 of 4)

All and that is well and good as it relates to Israel, but of what do tents speak when this message is to communicated to those outside Israel?  The answer is much the same.  As the tents reminded an Israel that regularly found itself in conditions of exile (under foreign subjugation, whether inside or outside of their promised land), and with hopes for exodus (as exodus is an ongoing process, whether in the wilderness, in their land, or in exile), so too does it serve for all of humanity.  These tents, and the impermanent nature of settlement which they imply, remind humanity of its wider exile.  Not in the sense of creating the escapist attitude of “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through,” but that humanity finds itself in exile from its God-given intentions to bear the divine image in this world, and that God is at work through a tent-dwelling people, to re-establish His order in this world. 

Why a tent-dwelling people?  Because a tent-dwelling people is a people that are prepared for exodus.  A tent-dwelling people are a people that are God’s instruments to spread across the earth so as to establish the message of His kingdom, His reign, and the restoration of His creation that demands to be understood if in fact a controlling hermeneutic of Scripture, and of God’s purposes for His creation and for the divine image-bearers specially placed within that creation, is that of exile and exodus.  Those are the people that will go out as witnesses to the glory of God, doing so with an understanding of the blessing of being a part of a chosen people that have been placed upon the trail of restoration to the ideal of humanity that was God’s original creation.   With a knowledge of God’s blessing, and the grace implied thereby, those who bear in mind the tents, and so bear in mind the exile, and exodus by extension, joyfully take up the Abrahamic call and promise to be a blessing.  This blessing operates through the telling of the promises of the covenant God, and living the blessing invites more to hear the telling.  As Abraham’s descendants, this was Israel’s task.  The Scriptures make it fairly clear that this is the task of all that consider themselves to be Abraham’s descendants. 

It is as we think of tents that we can consider the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even the narrower context of a consideration of Solomon’s building of the Temple.  There is an application to be made, but before making that application there is a step that must be taken.  To take it, we can look to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, which comes about as a result of deception and subterfuge.  Rebekah went to great lengths to be certain that her ruse would be successful, so when Jacob went before his father, pretending to be Esau, Isaac was indeed fooled.  Owing to this, Isaac, in a way that we did not see with Abraham, raises his voice and says, “May God give you the dew of the sky and the richness of the earth, and plenty of grain and new wine.  May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you” (Genesis 27:28-29a).  Connecting these words to Jacob with that which becomes a controlling factor in the consideration of God’s dealings with His people to come, we might note that such things are reflected in the promised blessings of the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy (and the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus), whereas the promised curses of the same chapter essentially reflect the opposite. 

With that said, it is incumbent to mention the words of “blessing” that will be delivered by Isaac to Esau, as he says, “your home will be away from the richness of the earth, and away from the dew of the sky above.  You will live by the sword but you will serve your brother” (27:29-40a).  Because they are the mirror of what was said to Jacob, these words also reflect the Deuteronomic & Levitical curses.  Speaking to Jacob, Isaac continues, saying “You will be lord over your brothers, and the sons of your mother will bow down to you” (28:29b).  With this, Isaac confirms what the Lord had promised to Rebekah concerning her sons before she had given birth.  The blessing is finalized by the delivery of that which was fundamental to the Abrahamic covenant, as Isaac then says, “May those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed” (28:29c).  Of course, Isaac is not being selective in his choice of words.  He is not simply passing along only a portion of the Abrahamic covenant.  As the quotation of brief snippets of Scripture by Jesus and by the New Testament authors are meant to call to mind entire stories, the mention of blessing and cursing stands for the whole of the covenant with Abraham.  So as Jacob hears these words, having grown up in the household of both his father and grandfather, and having undoubtedly heard the story of Abraham’s call countless times, he also hears his father communicate the words of God and saying “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing…and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:2,3b). 

Friday, August 17, 2012

God Of Tents (part 1 of 4)

When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents. – Genesis 25:27  NET

At first glance, this simple statement doesn’t seem all that significant, and has all the appearances of a basic relaying of biographical information concerning Esau and Jacob.  When we read something like “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents,” it might seem like the natural course of action would be to focus on the first piece of information concerning both of these men, drawing analogies based on the fact that Esau is described as a “skilled hunter,” with Jacob referred to as “even-tempered,” and from that, making applications to how we are supposed to live as people of the covenant God. 

That may be a useful exercise, but is not that which we will be doing here and now.  The far more compelling information is found in the second part of the biographical statements, in which we are told that Esau is “a man of the open fields,” whilst Jacob was “living in tents.”  This becomes an important statement when considered within the light and context provided by the larger Scriptural narrative.  We must remember that the author of Genesis (presumed to be Moses---and we have no reason to argue that point, though it doesn’t really matter for our purposes) is here recounting the foundational history of man in general, and of Israel in particular.  The record of what are commonly known as the five books of Moses indicate that he was doing these things while Israel was living in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, following their exodus, during the forty years of wandering that was imposed upon them by God because of their basic lack of trust in Him.  At that time, Israel was dwelling in tents.  The Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent.  Moses met with the Lord in a tent.  Because of the repeated filling of the tabernacle with the cloud of the presence of the Lord, it could be said that God Himself was also dwelling in a tent.  Looking further down the road, it will be said that in the Messiah, God would and did strike a tent in human flesh so as to tabernacle with His own creation.  In that context, it becomes singularly interesting that the trade of the Apostle Paul was that of tent-maker. 

As we can broadly reflect on Genesis and consider that tents are routinely mentioned inside and along with the stories of Abraham and Isaac, we can consider that there is something significant about tents.  Not only were the tents of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel instrumental in better facilitating their regular movement, that they might be better positioned to become a blessing to the multiplied peoples of the earth, but the tents would also serve as an ongoing reminder of their exile and their exodus.  For Israel, as the narrative that leads up to Exodus and the beginnings of Israel’s history as a distinct people is compiled, the tents of the Genesis narrative take on a particular importance.  This is especially so when we consider the yearly Feast of Tabernacles, when the nation is required to take up residence in tents, as an explicit reminder of their exodus and its associated time in the wilderness. 

It is simply amazing to consider how much importance is given to Israel’s Egyptian exodus within the history of the nation, with the reminder provided by the feasts of Tabernacles and the Passover, not to mention the regular recitation of the people’s history, and the near constant reference to Egypt in the mouths of Israel’s judges, and prophets.  Because Jacob is the immediate father of the nation of Israel, with the fact that his name is changed from Jacob to Israel providing witness to that fact, we are not left to wonder at the reason for this mentioning of Jacob as one who lived in tents.  For Israel, it would provide a sustaining and encouraging link to the past and to their forefathers, as they, though they were the covenant people and were in possession of a promise of a specific land of their own, dwelt in tents in a desert during the time of Moses’ leadership.  So this becomes a very useful connection in fanning the flames of hope amongst the people of Israel. 

Because the Biblical record presents us with relatively short and fleeting periods of time in which Israel is actually in controlling possession of the promised land (implicitly near the end of Joshua’s leadership; sporadically during the time of the judges;  consistently during the time of the united monarchy kingdom monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon; and tenuously throughout the entire period of the divided kingdom), and that apart from the reign of Solomon, this control is always challenged by enemies on various sides, the tents serve a purpose well beyond the time in the wilderness, always reminding promised-land-occupying-Israel of possible exile and triumphant exodus, and ideally, of its responsibility to be a blessing to the nations in spite of its perceived difficulties.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Deceptively Revealing (part 2 of 2)

When Isaac spoke these words to Esau, it was not to his ears alone that they came.  “Rebekah,” Isaac’s wife, “had been listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau” (Genesis 27:5).  Apparently, she was rightly alarmed at what she had heard.  When Isaac, who had been marked as the bearer of the divine covenant that had first come to Abraham, spoke to Esau about blessing him, Rebekah knew that, because of Isaac’s use of “bless,” that it was the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant to which he referred.  Isaac was intent upon passing the blessing on to Esau. 

Before we contemplate the way that Rebekah responded to what she had heard, we should take a moment to consider what it is that Isaac is doing, and whether or not he can actually do what both Isaac and Rebekah (and most likely Esau) know that he is about to attempt to do.  Can Isaac actually pass along the Abrahamic covenant?  No, he cannot.  That is the prerogative of the God that enters into covenant.  Isaac did not have the covenant passed along to him by Abraham, but rather, the Scriptures inform us that it was the Lord who spoke to Isaac and informed him that he was to be the bearer of the divine covenant.  This lined-up with what Abraham had been told about the son that would be born to he and Sarah.  Here, Isaac, fully aware of his plans and intentions, is presuming to usurp the promise that had come to him, while presuming to encroach upon an area that belonged to God alone.  So though it is unlikely that Isaac’s actions are going to be effectual in relation to the bearer of the covenant, his completing the task to which he had set himself would only prove to be problematic down the road, especially in the area of family relations and positions of honor within the extended household. 

This is only a part of what it was that prompted Rebekah to take action.  What was that action?  Well, it was deception.  Rebekah, in full awareness of the family’s history of deception, jumps right into the family “business,” doing what she believes to be an absolute necessity.  Just as Isaac figured that deception had worked for him and his dad in the past, so too could Rebekah reach the same conclusion.  So “Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘Look, I overheard your father… Now then, my son, do exactly what I tell you!’” (27:6a,8)  With that, she proceeded to unfold a plan and give Jacob instructions that would allow him to go before his father in his brother’s place, telling her son that in this way his father would “bless you before he dies” (27:10b). 

Why would she go to such trouble?  It is because she had a promise from the Lord.  That promise came to her when she was pregnant with both Jacob and Esau.  She was told that “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from within you.  One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (25:23).  Because Rebekah was married to the younger son of Abraham, and because it was he that bore the divine covenant in the world, this would naturally lead to the belief that her younger son (the one that came out second) would also be the recipient of the covenant that the Lord had made with Abraham and was carrying out at that time through Isaac.  One would think that it would be foolish to believe that she did not make this promise known to Isaac.  However, it might very well be the case that she did not do so.  So naturally, as the boys grew, Isaac would have favored the older son, which would not have been surprising, and we are told that “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for fresh game” (25:28a).  However, it is specifically said that “Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28b). 

While it is quite natural for the older son to be favored, we can probably attribute this special love for her younger son to the promise that she had received, and the knowledge that it was he that was going to receive and bear forth the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant.  Viewed in this light, it would not be terribly difficult to believe that Rebekah kept the Lord’s message to herself, though this would carry the risk of Isaac attempting to do what he was now doing, which is what has now prompted Rebekah’s actions.  As we remember that Isaac himself was the younger son of Abraham, it is doubtful that he would have difficulty accepting the receipt of a report from Rebekah dealing with what she had been told by the Lord, so his actions to bless the older son further indicate that he had not been made aware of this promise. 

When Rebekah speaks to Jacob, he responds with a protest, indicating that he didn’t see how it was possible for him to carry out this deception, due to the physical differences between he and his brother.  Within his protest, we get a glimpse of the notion that Rebekah has shared the knowledge of her promise with Jacob, as he says, “My father may touch me!  Then he’ll think I’m mocking him and I’ll bring a curse on myself instead of a blessing” (27:12).  It is with this that Jacob reveals the fact that he is aware of the promise concerning his position, but is simply concerned with how his mother is suggesting he go about receiving the blessing that would affirm this in the eyes of his brother and the whole of his father’s household.  Along with this, by use of the language of blessing and cursing, he demonstrates his awareness of the covenant that his father carries.  We should expect this of him, as Isaac would have made this well known to his sons.  Rebekah’s response has her taking up the language of covenant as well, saying “Any curse against you will fall on me, my son!  Just obey me!” (27:13b).  She was confident that the deception would be successful, and that it would result in blessing, as such things (deceptions) had so often done for her husband and her father-in-law.