Thursday, January 31, 2013

Subject To Rulers & Authorities (part 1)

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. – Titus 3:1  (NET)

Why would the Apostle Paul write such things to Titus?  If we give it a moment’s thought, we’ll realize the eminent practicality of this communication.  We can embark upon the process of realization by asking what it was that was the substance of the message that Paul preached?  He preached, above all things, that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Along with that over-arching message, Paul preached the crucifixion and Resurrection of the Christ.  For Paul, the Resurrection of the Christ functioned as the demonstration of His Lordship over all things. 

Paul, along with other early believers, consistently posits that the power that raised Jesus out from the dead was unleashed into the world for and through the preaching of the Gospel message.  This unleashing was for the purpose of sharing eternal life (bringing the life of the age to come into the world) with and through those who would believe that message.  Those who believed the Gospel proclamation, and thereby acknowledged Jesus as the supreme Lord and Master and Savior, were then said to be in union with Christ (believing in Him and joining His kingdom movement), transferred from kingdom of the Satan into the kingdom of the Christ. 

The warning then served two purposes.  With his understanding of human nature, Paul would have been keenly aware of where it was the conception of Jesus’ supreme rule could lead.  As we come to terms with the substance of this message, and what it would mean for ourselves as we operate in the world, we’ll have to confess that it would be rather easy for us to take the position that, since we are under the Lordship of Christ, and seeing as how He is in fact the Lord of all, with all principalities and power and rules and authorities under His feet, then we no longer have any need or compunction to submit to the human rulers to whom we find ourselves subject.  Of course, this can be nuanced to take into consideration the idea that, in a democratic republic such as that which exists in the United States of America, that the citizenry is not properly understood to be subject to the governing powers, but that the elected and appointed officials stand in subjection to the citizenry.

That said, “If we are a part of Christ’s kingdom,” some might think, “then we are in union with Christ and rule with Him, so we do not need to indulge any human authorities with our continued obedience or support.”  Such thoughts that would have naturally arisen are why it was so practical and appropriate for Paul to tell Titus to “Remind them,” that being the believers to which Titus was responsible, “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.”

Another purpose served by this warning was eminently practical, in that followers of Jesus were, by definition, not followers of the Caesar.  They did not participate in the Caesar cult, nor the public worship of the Roman gods, and therefore were looked upon as subversive of public order, as the Caesar cult was a unifying force across a wide and diverse Roman empire.  With this perception of Christians coming to be widely held by those in positions of authority, and with various kinds of persecution potentially attached to this perception (if their leader was crucified as a rebel, it would be natural to crucify His followers that are continuing His rebellious mission).  Thus, the reminder to be subject, along with the insistence towards the doing of good works (deeds of public benefaction for their communities), which would show them to be the best citizens---indeed, the embodiment of what it would mean to be truly human.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Slavery (part 2 of 2)

This turn of events was not going to go well for Israel.  This was a blatant violation of the terms of their covenant.  Forgetting and forsaking their tradition that celebrated the deliverance from slavery, many went right back to being oppressors.  With this, there was a failure to remember Egypt and their God’s saving action.  Thus, the Creator God’s response to this is to grant His people freedom.  Yes, in the midst of this continued rebellious forsaking of covenant, together with the refusal to rightly bear the image of their God, God says “Therefore, I will grant you freedom, the freedom to die in war, or by starvation or disease.  I, the Lord, affirm it.  I will make all the kingdoms of the earth horrified at what happens to you” (34:17b).  Not only is this a summary of the Levitical and Deuteronomic curses, but this is also an effective summary of what was experienced by the Egyptians at the hands of the Creator God of Israel. 

Since Jeremiah has been speaking of Egypt, we should not then be surprised to find ourselves being reminded of Egypt and Moses and the dealings with Pharaoh as we hear these words from the Lord.  What happened in those dealings?  As we know, and as Israel would be more than aware, Pharaoh would agree to release the slaves, in essence granting them freedom in expectation; but then, he would have a “change of heart,” and turn right around, taking back the people that had been given a proclamation of freedom, forcing them to be slaves again.  Ultimately, what was Pharaoh able to earn through this?  As was just indicated, Israel’s God granted Pharaoh and Egypt the “freedom to die in war,” which we see when they attempt to re-take a freed people back into bondage.  We see that along with the freedom to experience “starvation and disease,” as they most certainly did because of the plagues that God brought upon the land, in which locusts ate up the crops, and in which the peoples were afflicted with painful boils.

Is there an application for Jesus believers in all of this?  It would certainly seem that there is, as each believer can consider himself or herself to have been a slave, earning nothing more than death, with no hope for liberation.  However, through the hearing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Lord, along with the subsequent believing and ordering of life according to the Gospel’s proclamation (Jesus is Lord of all), “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son He loves, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).  For the covenant people of the Creator God, throughout the Bible, the state of non-forgiveness of sins is equated with the state of exile (enslaved by oppressors).  As was done for Israel, that same God reaches into that state of exile and removes a people that are purposed to reflect His glory into the world and to have a hand in establishing His kingdom on earth. 

Before God exercises His saving power towards us, by grace, we share that state of exile from Him and from the blessings of His covenant, with every other person.  Now obviously, we know that some of us are delivered from exile before others.  For some reason, there is a tendency on the part of those that have already experienced their liberation, when they see others experience their deliverance from exile and slavery---when their fellow countrymen are granted freedom and enter into a covenant to that effect---to turn right around and attempt to enslave those that have been newly liberated, to traditions, creeds, subjective requirements, and supposed standards of Christian performance that somehow reflect true holiness. 

Analogously, it would seem that the Creator God’s response to this, and to those that attempt to re-enslave their fellow countrymen, to re-enslave those with whom they shared exile (just as all Israel had been slaves), is to say “I will grant you freedom, the freedom to die in war, or by starvation or disease.  I, the Lord, affirm it” (34:17b).  Let us cease and desist from playing God and becoming Pharaohs to His chosen ones.  Let us really and truly believe, perhaps for the first time, that there is a God, that there is a Holy Spirit, that the Gospel message that we purport to believe truly is the power of God unto salvation, and that “the One Who began a good work” (Philippians 1:6b) is also capable of completing the work by the same power that raised Christ from the dead, empowers His image-bearers via the preaching of the Gospel, and effects transformation into the image of the God in Christ through faith.       

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Slavery (part 1 of 2)

“Every seven years each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you.  After they have served you for six years, you shall set them free.” – Jeremiah 34:14a  (NET)

This seems to be a simple enough directive, and is prefaced with Israel’s God offering a reminder to His covenant people, through Jeremiah, that “I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt where they had been slaves” (34:13b).  The text above is what follows.  Because the people of Israel had been in perpetual slavery in Egypt, with seemingly no way out of it, God wanted to be sure that His people did not perpetually enslave any of their fellow countrymen, who would most likely come into the state of slavery as a result of indebtedness.  Generally, there was a path out of debt slavery, but this would not always be the case, depending on the level of debt incurred. 

Just as their God had entered in to their situation in order to free them from their slavery to the Egyptians, having heard the groaning of His people in their condition of oppression, so their God was, in a sense, here entering in to make sure that a state of slavery among His people would not be persistent.  We can certainly imagine that the God of Israel would not want to have to hear the groaning of His own people, as they are oppressed by their fellow covenant-bearers, and therefore need to deliver the cursing of plagues upon His own people for this transgression. 

Not only was the basis for the freeing of slaves rooted in the remembrance of their Egyptian slavery and the subsequent deliverance that they experienced, but the act of freeing the slaves would be a great reminder of God’s saving power.  By freeing their own slaves, and doing so in a way that demonstrated mercy along with a willingness to sacrifice and endure hardship for the sake of their fellow citizen, the people of Israel were able to seize on the opportunity to enact and reenact the deliverance that had come their way in Egypt.  Unfortunately, we go on to hear the Creator God saying “But your ancestors did not obey Me or pay any attention to Me” (34:14b). 

What was the contingent basis for this communication from their God through Jeremiah?  During the reign of King Zedekiah there was an agreement that the people of Jerusalem were “to grant their slaves freedom” (34:8b).  It had been the case that “All the people and their leaders had agreed to this” (34:10a).  We can read that, “They originally complied with the covenant and freed them.  But later they had changed their minds.  They had taken back their male and female slaves that they had freed and forced them to be slaves again” (34:10c-11).  “That was when the Lord spoke to Jeremiah” (34:12), expressing His displeasure at this situation.  An analogy could be here adapted, in which the Israelites who freed their slaves, but then changed their minds and took them back again, are akin to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, who eventually freed their slaves and attempted to take them back.  This, of course, did not go well for them. 

For a moment, by freeing their slaves, the people showed their God something quite different than what He had been consistently shown by their ancestors.  Through Jeremiah, this God reportedly says to His people that “Recently…you yourselves showed a change of heart and did what is pleasing to Me” (34:15a).  It could be said that they actually showed some trust in their God, relying upon His just decrees and trusting that things would work out just fine even if they were to suffer what might seem to be financial loss in releasing their slaves.  God says that they pleased Him in that “You granted your fellow countrymen their freedom and you made a covenant to that effect in My presence in the house that I have claimed for My own” (34:15b).  However, they quickly returned to what had come to be their historical form, as God says “But then you turned right around and showed that you did not honor Me.  Each of you took back your male and female slaves whom you had freed as they desired, and you forced them to be your slaves again” (34:16). 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Finger Of God (part 2 of 2)

The astute reader of the story of Scripture will inevitably notice that the exodus from Egypt is a constantly recurring theme throughout the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Owing to this, it would make a tremendous amount of sense for the reader to be cognizant of it as a theme in Jesus’ ministry as well, especially as the exodus was the act and is a picture of God’s rescue, redemption, salvation, and deliverance of His people, all of which are said to take place according to His covenant faithfulness.  The messiah, who is presumed to be Jesus, is the one that was expect to bring these things about for Israel.  Thus, the idea of exodus would understandably weigh heavily on one that seems to present Himself as that messiah.

So is it reasonable to hear echoes of Exodus here in Jesus’ words that are recorded in the eleventh chapter of Luke?  Let us examine what follows so as to be able to find out.  Jesus says, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are safe” (11:21).  If the remembrance of exodus is strong here, and we believe it to be so, then reflecting on Pharaoh, we could certainly understand him to be a strong man, fully armed, guarding his palace and his possessions (the enslaved Israelites).  We must always bear in mind that Jesus, as a member of the nation of Israel, would understand His life and situation and place in the world defined by the ongoing self-understanding of Israel, which was heavily influenced by the seminal event of Israel’s history, which was its exodus from out of Egypt.  With such thoughts in mind, and continuing on in Luke, Jesus says, “But when a stronger man attacks and conquers him, he takes away the first man’s armor on which the man relied and divides up his plunder” (11:22).  Could this not be read as an analogy to what took place in Egypt?  Is it reasonable to presume that Jesus’ fellow citizens could hear His words along these lines? 

Because the plagues are shown to be the result of Pharaoh’s stubbornness, the narrative shows them as being primarily directed towards him so as to influence his thought and actions, though they dramatically affected his people as well.  Clearly then, a reader is able to see Israel’s God as the stronger man attacking and conquering him.  Initially, Pharaoh had the “armor” of his magicians being able to match the displays of power, which allowed for a hardness of heart, but that armor was eventually removed.  Furthermore, when the point is reached that Israel is going to be released from its bondage, we find that “The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and they gave them whatever they wanted, and so they plundered Egypt” (Exodus 12:26). 

We also realize that any use of exodus language would be somewhat readily connected to thoughts about Israel’s expected messiah and the long-awaited establishment of the kingdom of God (heaven come to earth).  Just as the Creator God is said to have engaged in His creation on behalf of His people to deliver them from the oppression of Egypt and to bring them into their promised land, so there was an expectation that their messiah, that God’s representative much like Israel, would deliver the people of God from the subjugation of foreign rule, and deliver Israel’s land back to them as their own sovereign possession.  So it is with these echoes of Exodus that we can comfortably understand Jesus making a messianic claim for Himself, as He concludes His thoughts in connection with the finger of God and the kingdom of God, by saying, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters” (11:23).  Jesus’ hearers, if they were making the exodus connections, would likely hear Him talking about Israel’s God being the stronger man that would attack and plunder the Romans.  However, Jesus had a greater enemy in mind that would fall at the execution and demonstration of power, with that enemy being death. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Finger Of God (part 1 of 2)

The magicians said to Pharaoh, “It is the finger of God!”  But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted. – Exodus 8:19  (NET)

As we read this verse, we find ourselves in the midst of the story of the plagues that are reported to have come upon the land and people of Egypt prior to Israel’s exodus.  The statement above, in regards to the finger of the Creator God of Israel, was specifically made in relation to the plague of gnats.  With this plague, we find that “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron, “Extend your staff and strike the dust of the ground, and it will become gnats throughout all the land of Egypt”.’  They did so” (8:16-17a).  As we would expect when reading the Scriptural narrative, this is what happened, as gnats did indeed come upon the land.  Up until that point, each time there had been a miraculous demonstration of power credited to the God of Moses and Israel, be it the turning of a staff into a serpent, the conversion of water into blood, or the bringing of frogs on the land, the reader is told that the magicians of Egypt were able to accomplish the same by their “secret arts”. 

When it came to the production of gnats upon the land, the men of Egypt attempted to follow suit.  Of course, it would be rather difficult to understand why they would want to continue doing so, as more gnats certainly wouldn’t be something desirable, but it is reasonable to imagine that there may ben an honor and shame component at work underlying the interactions and the narrative.  However, “When the magicians attempted to bring forth gnats by their secret arts, they could not” (8:18a).  Finally, a point had been reached where they could no longer go point for point against Israel’s God, and they came to realize that they were dealing with a power that was beyond them.  This is what elicited the cry of “It is the finger of God!”  However, even with these words from his magicians, the Pharaoh did not listen, thus aligning with a divine prediction that “although I will multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you” (7:3b-4a). 

The term “finger of God” is used elsewhere in Scripture.  It has a role in the New Testament, as we actually find it on the lips of Jesus in the eleventh chapter of Luke.  There, Jesus had cast out a demon, and some of the witnesses of this event attempted to explain this occurrence by saying “By the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, He casts out demons” (11:15).  Jesus responded with an indication that this made no sense at all, saying “So if Satan too is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (11:18a)  It is logical to ask why in the world Satan would go about casting out Satan (himself).  Going further, Jesus says, “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you” (11:20).

As we peruse the pages of the Bibles, we will find “finger of God” used four times, two of which we have now already seen.  The other two are Exodus 31:18, where Moses recounts that the tablets of stone that he received on Mount Sinai had been “written by the finger of God;” and in Deuteronomy 9:10, where, recounting the events first recorded in Exodus, Moses speaks again about the tablets that were “written by the very finger of God.” 

Thus, three of the usages of the term are explicitly connected with the exodus of Israel, with two of them being found in the book of Exodus itself.  Therefore, because we know that Jesus would have chosen His words quite carefully and purposefully, and because, as a Jew, Jesus would have understood Himself according to Israel’s historical/traditional narrative, it is reasonable to conclude that when Jesus uses the phrase, and when Luke reports Jesus using the phrase, also considering the fact that Jesus’ audience is Jewish (though Luke’s may not have been), that it is meant to be an implicit reminder of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the power of the Creator God that was on display in that exodus, and the deliverance of Israel.  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Groaning (part 2 of 2)

Continuing his train of thought, the apostle goes on to write, “For the creation was subjected to futility---not willingly but because of God Who subjected it” (8:20).  Again, it seems that what we have here is an echo of Israel’s subjection by the Egyptians.  Just as the story of Israel has the people being subjected against their will, owing to the king that did not know Joseph (with the story indicating his having apparently forgotten what Joseph did for Egypt), so too was the creation subjected to futility against its will, with this presumably owing to Adam’s forgetting of the commands and covenant of the Creator God.  However, in both cases, there is a reminder that the same Creator God remains in control, cognizant of the situation and His continuing purposes.

In Romans, this subjection comes with a hope “that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:21).  Here, the analogy to Israel in Egypt grows increasingly clear.  Just as Israel was going to be set free from its bondage and returned to their long-looked-for land of promise, so also will the creation be set free from its bondage to death and decay, and from its thorns and thistles, being returned to that state for which its Creator intended it, and which He had originally declared to be good. 

The creation then functions much like Israel in Egypt, and we can grasp that as Paul writes “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now” (8:23).  Just as the Creator God heard His people and remembered His covenant with Israel’s forefathers, so He also hears the groans of His creation, as it reacts to its futile subjection and oppression and rigorous servitude.  Not only does Paul set forth creation’s groaning like Israel, he also connects the groaning to the people of God in Christ, who have come to be the renewed Israel with a renewed covenant based on its new forefather (Jesus), writing “Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).

As the Passover narrative of Exodus culminates in the redemption and rescue of Israel, together with the destruction of its enemies, so too does the use of exodus language as it is applied to both the creation and the renewed Israel in union with Christ (those that confess Jesus as Lord).  Paul and others have come to understand that through the Resurrection death was defeated; and though all living things still die, death has no ultimate power, as fear has been replaced by hope.  Because of the Christ’s Resurrection, those that believe in Him, join His movement, and share in the kingdom of the Creator God (its means and its purposes) have the sure and steadfast hope and promise of a resurrection to come, when the kingdom of heaven, already inaugurated through the ruling Lordship of Christ, is fully consummated upon His return. 

Though there is an ongoing groaning, because of Christ’s Resurrection, death can no longer oppress.  Through that same power for resurrection, the creation also eventually escapes oppression, expecting renewal.  Just as redeemed humanity regains the image of Himself that had been God’s intention, so too will the creation experience the benefits of God’s covenant faithfulness.  As the Creator God reverses the curses pronounced against man upon his fall, so too does that same covenanting God reverse the curse pronounced upon His good creation.  As God’s work for His people in Egypt began with groaning and progressed through God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people, so too can we contemplate and comprehend God’s work for His people---for though we groan, and though the creation groans, we experience His eternal life (the life of the age to come) in the midst of hope because of the miraculous intervention that God performed through His Christ, and when He miraculously intervenes in His world through His image-bearers that bear the name of the crucified One. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Groaning (part 1 of 2)

During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor.  They cried out, and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God. – Exodus 2:23  (NET)

This king of Egypt was the king mentioned in the first chapter of Exodus.  It is said that he “did not know about Joseph” (1:8a), and “put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor” (1:11a).  This king “made the Israelites serve rigorously…by hard service with mortar and bricks and by all kinds of service in the fields” (1:13, 14b).  This could almost be read as something of an echo of the “fall” of the Genesis narrative, when hard and rigorous labor was introduced to the original covenant-and-divine-image-bearers. 

It was in the midst of this subjection to a foreign power that the Israelites were said to have groaned and cried out, with that cry going up to their God.  It is said that their“God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (2:24).  This is part of the story that is told in association with the Passover.  Passover, of course, is the yearly remembrance of the deliverance of the Creator God’s people from their oppression in Egypt.  It is a celebration of the end of exile, and of the beginnings of exodus wrought at the hands of their God.  Though the story culminates in redemption and rescue and the destruction of their enemies, the story begins with the groaning of the people and progresses through God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people.

As a reader of Scripture considers the entirety of the Scriptural narrative, recognizing that the thinking of the New Testament writers was shaped not only by the Christ-event, but also by the story of Israel , this use of “groan” and “groaning” is quite interesting.  It is a tremendously evocative word, as it conjures up a depth of emotion that is reserved for describing truly great suffering.  We find “groan” used most descriptively and usefully in the New Testament, in the eighth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, with Paul employing these words in what would appear to be a clear connection to the story of the Exodus. 

If we are paying close enough attention, and if we are reading the text properly and with a mindset shaped by the long-running covenantal narrative, we can find the Apostle Paul using the language and imagery that would be associated with ideas correlated to exodus throughout his writings.  With this, Paul seems to be following quite comfortably in line with the prophets of Israel that came before him, as reference to the exodus from Egypt, along with imagery designed to evoke thoughts of exodus, is regularly used throughout the works that comprise the Hebrew canon.    

So how do we find these words used in Romans?  Paul uses them in relation to the creation---the natural world.  He begins by writing, “For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19).  This reminds us that the creation itself is an important concern of the God of Scripture, and that salvation is not limited to people alone.  It is with these words that we can begin tying this to the Exodus account, in that there had been a prophecy that Israel would sojourn in Egypt for a set number of years. 

Much like the people of Israel in the first century knew that the time was drawing near for God to act on behalf of His people through His Messiah (owing to the 490 year term that was associated with the prophecy of Daniel), God’s people in Egypt knew that the time was drawing near for their long sojourn in Egypt to come to an end.  They merely awaited a deliverer to lead them out from their place and state of subjugation, awaiting such with eagerness.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rebuking & Rebuked (part 2 of 2)

When we hear Peter call Jesus “the Christ,” we are forced to recognize that he was answering Jesus’ question with an acknowledgment of the possibility that Jesus was indeed Israel’s Messiah.  With that report, we must understand that the narrative represents Peter as saying that he believed Jesus to be the long-awaited King of Israel, in the line of David, on which rested the hope of so many.  It is a statement with both political and religious underpinnings and overtones. 

Having said these words, Jesus’ response was probably thoroughly surprising for Peter, as Jesus “warned them not to tell anyone about Him” (Mark 8:30).  In the highly charged atmosphere of the time, in which a messiah would seek to gain as many followers as possible for the purpose of “storming the castle,” keeping such things secret would seem antithetical, at cross-purposes with messianic expectation, regardless of the type of messiah one envisioned.  Along with that, there is the social component of the accrual of honor, which would also be crucial for any would-be messiah.  Failing to spread the word, though there was a risk of alerting Roman ears to talk of another king and so running the risk of sending Jesus to the cross prematurely, would work against the hopes of the covenant people. 

So in that day and time and in Peter’s mind (along with the rest of the disciples), what Jesus just said would have made very little sense.  Apart from the risk of alerting authorities that would have wanted to keep a movement in check, why keep this quiet?  As if it was not bad enough that Jesus issued them a warning not to tell anyone about Him, contrary to every urge that they would have had to quietly spread the word and gain supporters, “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man (a messianic title) must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). 

What’s that, Jesus?  What is this talk of suffering, rejection, and death?  Quite rightly, the disciples would have been stunned by this.  By saying what He said, Jesus was speaking the language of failure.  Israel’s messiah was not supposed to suffer.  A suffering messiah, with that suffering taking place on a Roman cross, was a failed messiah.  On the contrary, Israel’s messiah was supposed to make Israel’s enemies suffer, and bring Israel to the place of exaltation.  It was at least partially for this reason that “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (8:32b). 

Undoubtedly, this rebuke consisted of Peter informing Jesus that they needed to make Him known, to tell people that He was the Messiah, to remind the masses of the miracles that He had already performed, so that they could gather allies, start an uprising, keep all of these things that He had just mentioned from happening, and usher in the kingdom of God in which Israel was indeed exalted above all nations so as to rule the world.  Indeed, the mindset of the disciples would not have been altogether different from most people of the day.  Though there were different ideas as to what the messiah would do, and the actions he would take, it seems to be an almost universally held notion that the messiah would free Israel from its subjugators.  Yes, messianic expectations were certainly Israel-centric.  Naturally, the course of history, and Israel’s own defining narrative, suggested that the route to be taken from under oppression would involve some type of dramatic calamity befalling an oppressor. 

Even after Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection, we get a glimpse of what they believed His Messianic purposes to have been, when they ask, “Lord, is this the time when You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6b).  It is with all of this in mind that we can understand what follows, when “after turning and looking at His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan.  You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s’.” (8:33)  Jesus’ disciples were focused on what God was going to do for Israel.  Jesus was focused on what was going to be done by God, through Him, for all peoples.   

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rebuking & Rebuked (part 1 of 2)

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered Him, “You are the Christ.” – Mark 8:29  (NET)

Regardless of when the very popular book of Daniel had been penned (whether in the time of Daniel or a few centuries later), a denizen of first century Israel, with messianic expectations while living under the boot of Rome, would hold to the idea that it had been nearly five hundred years since the time that the prophecy of Daniel’s seventy weeks of years (four hundred ninety years) was thought to have commenced.  Accordingly, there was a general understanding that the time had come for God to act “to put an end to rebellion, to bring sin to completion, to atone for iniquity, to bring in perpetual righteousness, to seal up the prophetic visions, and to anoint a most holy place (Daniel 9:24b).  In that writing, these things are reported to have been said to Daniel, by the angel Gabriel, “concerning your people and your holy city” (9:24a).  So at the time in which the Christ walked the earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in connection with aforementioned messianic expectation, these words from Daniel, for many, had become intimately connected to what the Creator God was finally going to do for His people, for Jerusalem, and for His Temple. 

Owing to this expectation and reckoning of the time (with a range of opinions on when that four hundred ninety year period began), many would-be messiah’s had risen up in Israel before Jesus’ day (others would continue to rise up after His day as well).  Yes, because Jesus was ultimately rejected as Israel’s Messiah, with that rejection being a very natural response to His crucifixion, other would-be Messiah’s would rise up after Him.  When men would rise up and begin to draw followers to themselves, one could almost naturally expect the claim of messiah to be either claimed by the individual or applied to him by his devotees.  Once the claim was verbalized, it would inevitably be spread around and draw more people to his movement. 

Now generally, this movement was revolutionary and violent in nature.  That is because Israel, by and large at that time, believed that their God was sending His messiah to them for a few specific reasons.  Naturally, there are exceptions and nuances to these generalization, but they believed that in the messiah, the Creator God would bring Israel’s history and purpose in and for this world to a climax.  They believed that the messiah was going to lead Israel to defeat its pagan oppressors and drive them from their land.  They believed that through the messiah, their God was going to re-establish His Temple and His presence in that Temple, so that the Lord God would dwell in their midst as had been long-promised.  They believed that their God was going to establish a new creation.  They believed that at long last, Israel’s exile, in which they did not control their land---their inheritance---was going to be brought to an end.  They believed that Israel was going to be set in power and authority over all nations. 

In their minds, the coming of messiah, and the working of messiah, was quite naturally going to involve and require a popular uprising that would be sparked and lead by the messiah himself.  Owing to hundreds of years of foreign subjugation, both inside and outside their land, there were many in Israel who eagerly looked forward to being able to participate in such actions.  So it is natural to conclude that any man who believed himself to be that messiah, and whose followers believed him to be that messiah, would want to noise such things abroad, in order to draw men in for the purpose of fighting in the battle to come, in which their God Himself was expected to have a heavy hand.  Indeed, that had largely been the case up to that point, so why would it be any different for Jesus?  Messianic aspirants had long attempted to rally fervent nationalistic support around the images and language of revolution achieved by the taking up of arms, to fight alongside their God.  Since Jesus had already drawn huge crowds and fed thousands of people at a time, and since, without a doubt, such things would have been being said about Him already, the disciples probably figured that Jesus represented the best opportunity to rally enough support to meet all of those prevailing expectations.     

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Transgressions & Sins (part 5 of 5)

This measure of eternal life that is enjoyed in the here and now, and of which we can be assured that we are sharing, in the union with Christ that is the evidence of the Spirit’s inward working to make it so that we truly believe and live as if Jesus is Lord, is the guarantee of the eternal life to come.  Maintaining that consistency, we bear in mind that at least partially for Paul, the eternal life to come is when the believer ultimately shares in Christ’s eternal life, experiencing the power of God in the same way in which Christ experienced that power, by being raised from the dead and given a new, physical, glorified body, in this world, that cannot and will not see death.  It is in this light that we can truly understand Christ being the first-fruits of a new creation, as the beginning of the final movement of God’s plans to redeem and restore His creation.

Reaching what most see as the pinnacle of this chapter, we then go on to read, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Here, we actually find Paul repeating something already written just a few lines ago, while adding a short but important thought.  He repeats that it is grace that brings about salvation, and that this is by faith.  Not only would there be the well-understood (in that day) component of the social construct of the circle of grace, with the appropriate, accepted, and expected response to the demonstration of grace by a patron towards a client or potential client, but the grace for salvation, which is the deliverance from exile owing to transgressions and sins (as we have been thinking about them), into the eternal life of union with Christ in His already established kingdom of heaven on earth, is the demonstration of God’s faithfulness in fulfillment of His covenant. 

As we continue to remember the context of the kingdom of God that was the foundational premise for this section of Paul’s letter, we hear Paul reminding at least some portion of his readers that this was not something that they had brought about or would bring about through their own endeavors (revolutionary overthrow) to usher in God’s kingdom and the rule of His Messiah (remember this potential element of Paul’s thinking about what constitutes transgressions and sin in the context that he has created).  We have to consistently remain cognizant of the fact that “salvation” was not an ethereal term, denoting a spiritual experience or a certain way of feeling, but that it meant forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness of sins was also a very concrete term with a concrete and definitive reference as established by Israel’s defining narrative (Scripture), as it was connected with the return of God’s people from exile and their placement in their land of promise. 

When this land of promise was ruled by God’s Messiah, with His people no longer subject to a foreign power (foreigners, including death for our purposes) that was when it was understood that the kingdom of God had been established.  The Jews had been expecting this in conjunction with the land of Israel---with the Messiah ruling Israel, and Israel ruling the world.  However, because Jesus is to be understood as Lord of all the earth, then the kingdom of God encompasses the entire world, and all peoples (Jew & Gentile) can experience forgiveness from sins (exodus – deliverance from exile), as God’s faithfulness is now demonstrated in the new covenant that has been set forth in Christ. 

Because it is the gift of God, with God establishing His kingdom in a way that was unheard of by Gentiles (self-sacrificial love), and completely antithetical to the way in which it was expected by the Jews (which we have to imagine was well explained to their Gentile brethren), Paul can safely add that, “it is not from works, so that no one can boast” (2:9).  Of course, this mention of “works” is shorthand for “works of the law,” which in that time had been reduced to the covenant marks of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws, which would be maintained by Israel, and perhaps forced upon others, as a means to demonstrate righteousness in the hope of forcing their God’s hand to expel their subjugators.  The “boasting” hearkens us to the social construct of honor and shame, in which the ability to boast would be a way of achieving honor in the court of public opinion.  There would be no accrual of honor in the keeping of the covenant markers, such that the Jews would be able to lord their position over the Gentiles in the kingdom of God. 

So along with that, it could be said that in this kingdom no one is going to be superior to another.  No one is going to be able to claim special privilege or status.  Neither Jew, Gentile, slave, free, man, or woman would have a reason to boast and accrue honor for themselves, because God, through Christ, did something completely unexpected by His grace, as a gift, because He is faithful.  That grace, of course, demands a response, as it is the supreme patron (the Creator God via His Christ) that gains honor as His people boast about Him and His kingdom.  This people of God can then be said to be “His workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them” (2:10).  Now this people of God, by the power of Resurrection at work in them by the Spirit, can take up the task of being God’s image-bearers, stewarding His creation and being a blessing to all peoples, just as God had intended for the creatures made in His image (Adam), and just as He promised to the first man that He called to Himself (Abraham).      

Monday, January 21, 2013

Transgressions & Sins (part 4 of 5)

It was in spite of all of this that the love of the Creator God broke on and in to the scene of history, was demonstrated through the Christ’s self-sacrificial crucifixion, and unleashed into a fallen world as part of the power that raised up Christ from the dead.  The Apostle seems to insist that Resurrection power, which includes the love of God that makes one alive together with Christ, is contained in the message of the Gospel, and is made manifest in the Gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord. 

Those who adhere to this grand statement, holding to this confession as the covenant marker of faith, have been exodus-ed from out of the realm of death, delivered from the exile attendant upon their transgressions, and now share in the eternal life (the life of the age to come) embodied in the resurrected Christ in the inaugurated kingdom of God, in full expectation of a coming consummation of that kingdom, along with the renewed physicality of a bodily resurrection (just like Jesus) in a renewed and restored creation (just like the one that God pronounced very good) upon Christ’s return. 

Because of that hopeful expectation which exists because, as Paul says, “by grace you are saved” (2:5b), meaning that his readers/hearers have been redeemed from exile and delivered from death into eternal life (here and now and in the age to come) as God’s gracious gift, there is an obligation to continue in demonstration of the same type of love revealed in and through Jesus, to bless all peoples through sharing the message of the Gospel, continuing the powerful, onward, life-altering march of the kingdom of the Creator God through the simple affirmation that yes, Jesus is Lord.   

Though all of God’s people had been dead in transgressions and sins, in exile from God’s promises because of that fact, that exile is ended, life is gifted, and death is overcome through the power that was set forth in the Resurrection.  This salvation, this being saved, which is a sharing in the gift of eternal life in union with Christ (confessing Jesus as King and living accordingly) because of the Gospel, while in the hopeful expectation of the Resurrection to come, is a gracious gift of God.

Paul makes a further elaboration on this idea of being “saved,” writing that “He raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).  Not only would this be taken as a statement of honor within the culture, as being seated with a king would have significant implications, this raising, being made alive together (2:5) as Paul says, is the exile-ending resurrection from death into Christ’s kingdom, as the people of God in Christ.  Does this mean that the point of the salvation is a dis-embodied existence in a far-away place, having escaped the evil world and the chains of mortal flesh?  If we want to be consistent with all of the Apostle Paul’s writings, we must understand the “heavenly realms” as yet another way in which he makes reference to the kingdom of God on earth that was inaugurated by Christ’s Resurrection (not to mention that heavenly realms can also be thought of as temple-related talk, which fits well with Paul’s broad insistence that believers are the temple of God---the place where heaven and earth overlap, which was also the way upon which the Temple itself was looked). 

Being raised and seated with Jesus, with its component of elevation to honor from a lower place or a place of shame (though the Christian, like his or her Lord, willingly embraces shame and takes the lowest spot---in this case, Paul seems to be speaking metaphorically), would appear to include the idea of being delivered from the exile of death that is an existence apart from the kingdom (and service to the kingdom) of the Creator God, and delivered into the kingdom of heaven that has been established on earth, enjoying a measure of eternal life as the Gospel is believed and proclaimed, and experience its power for salvation (eternal life).  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Transgressions & Sins (part 3)

Having looked at the first three verses of the second chapter of Ephesians, and having laid the groundwork for a fuller understanding of what is presented there (as well as what is to come), we can now move forward.  Upon that forward movement, we read “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (2:4-5a). 

So even though Israel was still in exile (a foreign power ruling over them --- “slaves” in the words of Ezra and Nehemiah), having been unfaithful to their covenant God’s intentions for them, which was to be a light to the Gentile nations; and even though in that unfaithfulness they sought not to reveal God’s glory to them, but rather harbored animosity and resentment as part of a desire to drive them from their land rather than being a beacon that would draw them to their God and His temple, the Creator God was rich in mercy towards His covenant people.  Even though all men from all nations, due to, according to the Scriptural narrative, Adam’s fall in which man willfully submitted himself to worshiping what was made rather than the Maker of all things, were in exile from God’s intention for them to bear His image and have dominion over His creation, the Creator God was rich in mercy.  He would not allow those created to bear His image to fail in that task.  He would not allow for His once good creation to remain in a condition less than that which had been intended for it. 

Why was He rich in mercy?  Because Israel was His chosen, covenant people.  He was rich in mercy because He had another chosen people, with which He was making a new covenant through union with the Christ (confession of Jesus as Lord).  God had a renewed Israel that He was bringing forth---a people in union with Christ through belief in the Gospel, that would, through a submission to His rule characterized by loving self-sacrifice (evidenced of the Spirit of God at work), to proclaim God’s glorious rule over the entirety of the cosmos (in stark contrast to all other gods) through the Christ’s universal Lordship, and so establish and extend the kingdom of God, thereby allowing that group of covenant bearing people to bea blessing to all peoples. 

Based on the Abrahamic covenant that had been passed to them through their forefathers, this had been Israel’s charge, but it had been almost completely abandoned due to their turning inward and erecting barriers and walls of separation between themselves and the peoples of the world.  Nevertheless, God exercised His great love for those that He had gone forth to redeem, doing it in the midst of their transgressions (their actions that worked against the outflow of the covenant, and after the revelation of the Christ and the way of God as represented by the Christ, their continuing to pursue the kingdom of God through inappropriate means). 

Paul, being part of two camps, Israel by descent and renewed Israel through belief in Christ as Messiah (the covenant mark of faith), speaks of all being dead in transgressions.  Effectively, the transgression of both camps was exactly the same, with that transgression being rooted in idolatry.  Israel’s continuing exile was engendered by idolatry, and though idol worship had ceased from the land, the idolatry was manifested in an exaltation of the marks of national identification that set themselves apart from the other nations whom God sought to bless, along with the desire to impose those marks upon other peoples.  For those that would be renewed Israel, the idolatry is easier to understand, as we can simply scan the pages of history up until that time and since, to see the lengths to which men will go in their creation of beings to worship, rather than worship the One being Who was their Creator. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Transgressions & Sins (part 2)

With this being prefaced by talk of the subjection of all to the Christ as Lord (with the employment of the Caesar rhetoric ringing in our ears), and all that would be implied by the ideas of subjection, is it possible that these were the transgressions and sins of seeking to violently expunge their pagan oppressors from their land, and in that way to establish the promised kingdom of God, with national Israel as its exalted nation and its people as its supreme rulers?  Is it possible that, drawing from the Jesus tradition, that these were the transgressions and sins, based upon hatred, spite, isolation, and exclusivism, from which John the Baptist, and Jesus in His first recorded proclamations in Mark’s Gospel, urged the people to repent?

This was not God’s method, as clearly revealed in Christ.  This was the method of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” the rulers and authorities and powers and dominions (earthly and spiritual), of which we read in the first chapter of this letter to the church at Ephesus.  This appears to be the continuing spirit that Paul believed to be energizing a good portion of his fellow countrymen, in ongoing disobedience to God’s plans and purposes and intentions for His people to be a light to the Gentiles.  As they were refusing to embrace Jesus’ kingdom message, Paul sensed that they were, instead, persisting in their headlong rush towards revolutionary activity that was eventually going to result in the destruction of Jerusalem and its people.

In this message, Paul does not stand separate from the Jewish populace, merely throwing accusations, but he hearkens back to his former days as a Pharisee of Pharisees.  Doing so, he lumps himself in with those that were on the same path that had violent overthrow in sight or mind.  Bearing in mind the kingdom of God context that he has created, and which permeated the air that he and his countrymen breathed, he wrote that “all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind” (2:3a).  Here, he confesses that he too had a desire to pursue the violent route to national independence and the violent ushering in of God’s kingdom through a Davidic messiah that would run roughshod over the enemies of Israel.  This could be seen in his reaction to the kingdom message of Jesus. 

Indeed, in his violent persecution of the church, Paul was actively attempting to eliminate those that were saying that the kingdom had been ushered in through Jesus and who were encouraging their brothers and sisters to drop their nationalistic desires.  Accompanying the relinquishment of nationalistic desires, these same people were abandoning the covenant markers that set them apart from the peoples of the world (circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food laws), thus jeopardizing Israel’s future and ability to gain independence. 

From Paul’s previously held point of view, if Israel abandoned these marks of covenant, then they were abandoning their standing as the righteous people, thus giving up any hope of their God acting on their behalf, or alongside them, in any attempt to cast off their Roman subjugators.  This way of thinking must be held in mind when considering Paul’s talk of kingdom, inclusion in the covenant people, the true ruler of the world, and thoughts about “the flesh,” along with transgressions and sins.  While we don’t limit talk of transgressions and sins to this context of desires for violent revolution, it certainly seems to be appropriate to make sure that the two are attached as the message of this letters is under consideration. 

Reiterating and restating the point previously made, it is quite possible that, in Paul’s way of thinking, this acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, along with its recognition of the Creator God’s entering into history to establish His kingdom through a renewed Israel that preached the Gospel of Christ, would merely lead to fewer people being willing to take up arms when the time for rebellion against Rome presented itself.  Now though, Paul looks upon such cravings and desires of the flesh and mind as serving to create a generation of his fellow Jews that were going to be “children of wrath” (2:3b), who would eventually be utterly conquered by Rome.       

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Transgressions & Sins (part 1)

And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience… - Ephesians 2:1-2  (NET)

Before we embark on an attempt to understand Paul’s communications here in the second chapter of Ephesians, it is imperative that we find its context.  To do so, we revert to the first chapter of Ephesians, where we find Paul in presentation of the establishment of God’s kingdom in and through the Christ.  He writes: “…He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (1:20b-21).  When we hear such things, it is probably worth considering the possibility that Paul is not necessarily merely making statements about the location of the Christ or offering facts about heaven, but that he is also adopting the lofty rhetoric of the Caesar cult.  Paul and other New Testament authors routinely lift and adapt language applied to the Caesar, and instead apply it to the Christ---the world’s true ruler. 

Additionally, we must make note of Paul’s statement in regards to “this age” and “the one to come.”  It seems that Paul wants his readers to avoid any possibility of thinking that Christ’s reign is something limited only to the future, but that it is very much present in this age, owing to history’s climactic events of cross and Resurrection.  Indeed, it is manifest whenever the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) is preached in word and deed.  His talk of the age to come in which all things will be renewed, of which we are given a taste in this age in the power of His eternal life in union with Him as we preach and act according to the Gospel’s proclamation (ordering our lives according to the claim and acting according to the example and teaching of the Christ), points us to the hope of our faith, which is to participate in the Christ’s kingdom, to share in the resurrection, and to participate in God’s restoration and re-creation of the world. 

To drive home the point that Christ reigns in this age, with His kingdom very much present, Paul writes, “And God put all things under His feet, and He gave Him to the church as head over all things” (1:22).  Yes, all things are under His feet.  There, that “all” means “all,” as in “Jesus is Lord of all;” and His Lordship is extended through His people of this confession.  Again, it is worthwhile to hear Paul parroting the language of the Caesar cult, insisting that these things are actually true of Jesus, with the Caesar and his empire being merely a parody of the kingdom of God and its King. 

Having established that Paul is referencing the kingdom ruled by the Christ, Paul appears to engage in the presentation of a contrast concerning kingdoms.  Based on what we have already observed, not only can we sense a subversive counter-imperialism to be understood by all of his readers, but we can also acknowledge the potential premise of a polemic directed at those of his hearers that would have been Jewish.  Owing to their long-held expectation of their God’s entrance into history on their behalf, and the attendant kingdom that was to be established with all nations becoming subservient to Israel, we can surmise that Paul’s Jewish hearers would have been steeped in a nationalistic mindset as it relates to the kingdom of God.  Along with that, we can be confident that his audience consisted of both Jews and Gentiles, because in the eleventh verse of the second chapter, he directs his words specifically to “you, the Gentiles in the flesh.” 

When it came to the establishment of kingdoms, what was this world’s present path?  The path was war.  The path was violence for overthrow and for subjugation.  Specifically, Caesar’s path for the expansion of his kingdom was “war, victory, peace.”  In a stark contrast, we know that the path that Jesus took to establish His kingdom was far different.  Of course, we can all well understand that peace attained through the constant threat of violent death is a shaky and transient peace indeed.  It seems to be in this light that Paul addresses the Jews in his audience, when he says that “you were dead in transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path.”  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Joseph & Jesus (part 3 of 3)

Returning to the book of Genesis, we find that “Joseph was thirty years old when he began serving Pharaoh” (41:46a).  Likewise, Jesus was presumed to have been about thirty years old (Luke 3:23), when He begins to make His presence felt among His people in service of the kingdom of the Creator God.  It is written that “Joseph was commissioned by Pharaoh and was in charge of all the land of Egypt” (41:46b).  When Jesus appeared, He did so with the announcement that “the kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15b).  To this, Jesus added that it was time to “Repent and believe the Gospel” (1:15c). 

In His day, the people would have known that word “gospel” to refer to proclamations concerning the Caesar, concerning the one who was then considered to be the ruler of the world, concerning the one called lord and savior, and concerning the one known as the son of god.  For Jesus’ people, the connection of “gospel” with the “kingdom of God” was an unmistakable reference to the time of their God’s action on behalf of His people, to restore national Israel to sovereignty and independence, and to set Israel and its messiah-king over all nations.  The call to believe the Gospel was to believe in the Lordship of the messiah, in complete trust that their God was fulfilling His covenant promises through that messiah; and that this messiah, as ruler of the people and nation that was destined to rule all peoples, had now been given charge of all the land.  A natural corollary to this was that any foreign power that happened to be ruling over Israel at that time would be defeated and cast off. 

Looking again at the life of Joseph, we see that “While the famine was over all the earth, Joseph opened the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians.  The famine was severe throughout the land of Egypt” (41:56).  Joseph limited the provision of grain to the land of Egypt only.  This is a story of an intra-Egypt exile (famine) turning to something like an exodus (provision for all).  Turning to Jesus, we think about the fact that even though the entire world was gripped in the famine of the effects of death (exile), and that even though all the world was clearly in need of His touch and His healing presence, in the Gospels we find Jesus confining His ministry to the area of the land of Israel (Israel alone, with minor exceptions, is able to experience the exodus to be provided by Jesus.  However, returning to Genesis, we go on to see that “People from every country came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain because the famine was severe throughout the earth” (41:57).  Similarly, though Jesus first instructed His disciples to direct their own ministries to the house of Israel, His parting commandment was to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a), and that they were to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8b).

Because Egypt was the one place in the region that had food (as indicated by people from every country coming to Egypt to buy grain), Egypt would have ascended in its might and power.  Just as we are able to read that the people of Egypt sold their livestock, their lands, and even themselves in order to obtain food from Joseph’s hand, so too could we expect the people from other countries to be doing the same types of things.  Because Joseph held such great power, being a ruler of Egypt and second only to Pharaoh, when the people would come to buy grain, they would bow down to him.  We know this to be the case because, though they were sons of a wealthy and powerful man, “Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces to the ground” (42:6b).  Though his brothers attempted to strip him of his honor, Joseph accrued more honor than anyone could possibly have imagined. 

Not only do we see this administration of grain to many nations at the hands of Joseph as something of a fulfillment of the Creator God’s covenant to bless the families of the earth through Abraham’s family, but more importantly, we can use this so as to be pointed to Jesus, as “the bread of life” (John 6:35a).  As we can see in the case of Joseph’s brothers, throughout the duration of the famine, people had to come to Egypt multiple times to obtain their sustenance; but Jesus said “The one whom comes to Me will never go hungry” (6:35b).  Additionally, and again joining with the early Christian community in reflection on the life of Jesus, and doing so within and alongside the story of Israel (our minds shaped by that narrative tradition), we are directed to the letter to the Philippians, where it is said “that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow---in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (2:10).  Not only will they bow, but all will acknowledge His power and His rule---just as many did before Joseph in acknowledgment of the power and growing rule of Pharaoh and of Egypt---and submit to the authority of His kingdom, when all are made to hear “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (2:11).   

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Joseph & Jesus (part 2)

A bit later, “they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead” (37:25b).  We should note that “Ishmaelites” would have been family.  These men would have been related to this group through their great-uncle Ishmael, the brother of their grandfather, Isaac.  This adds an interesting kinship dynamic to the story to go along with the honor competition.  It is said that the Ishmaelites were heading to Egypt, so Judah said “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?  Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not lay a hand on him, for after all, he is our brother, our own flesh” (37:26b-27a).  His brothers agreed to this and struck the deal.  Theoretically, by not killing him, and merely selling him as a slave, his brothers believed that they would have not have his blood on their hands.  We then go on to learn that Reuben was not a party to this, with the narrative indicating that he was quite dismayed upon learning that this had occurred.

Thinking back to the connection between the lives of Joseph and Jesus, we can see that link in the continuing demonstration of Joseph’s brothers’ animosity towards him.  When Jesus is betrayed by Judas, he is betrayed to Jewish leaders.  Ethnically, these would have been Jesus’ brethren.  With the honor and kinship model at play in the ancient world, it would indeed be something of a rare occurrence for members of Israel to willingly turn a fellow Israelite, and especially a messianic claimaint and potential king over to their foreign subjugators.  Thus, the honor competition, and Jesus’ apparent unwillingness to align His movement (and therefore His potential throne) with the powers-that-be of the day, trumped the broad familial tie.  Again, Jesus would accrue too much of the limited good of honor to Himself, and Jesus had not brought any of the ruling authorities into his circle of patronage and clientage.  Thus, He was not only of no use to them, but He also needed to be removed from the honor competition altogether.  Accordingly, they sought to kill Jesus. 

With that desire at play, they were able to successfully bring a charge of blasphemy against Him, which would merit the death penalty.  However, they did not carry out the execution themselves.  Yes, there were restraints on the execution of capital punishment, but this was clearly a special circumstance, and Jesus’ blood was not going to be on their hands.  Rather, they drew Jesus out of the metaphorical (and possibly literal) pit into which he had been placed, and carried Him to the Romans, in order to bring about His demise.  In a sense then, much like Joseph’s brothers believed to be the case when they handed their brother over to those that were effectively foreigners (though related), if the Romans also found Him guilty and carried out the sentence of death, then Jesus’ blood was on them.

Changing gears a bit, and fitting the two stories of Joseph and Jesus into the encompassing Scriptural themes of exile and exodus, it could be said that the entrance of Joseph into Egypt was the beginning of the people of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.  His presence there marked the beginnings of the first exile from the land of promise, which would be rectified by the exodus under the leadership of Moses a few hundred years later.  Just as Joseph was sold into Egypt by the Ishmaelites, to whom he had been handed by his brothers, Jesus was effectively sold into the exile of death by the Romans, to whom He had been handed by His brethren. 

Though sold into Egypt as a slave, we know that Joseph did not remain a slave.  He first found favor in the house of Potiphar, and then found favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison into which he had been unjustly cast.  Finally, due to what is said to be the Creator God of Israel’s gift to him of dream interpretation, Joseph found favor in the eyes of Pharaoh.  As the story goes, owing to the Spirit that was to be found in Joseph, Pharaoh said to him, “Because God has enabled you to know all this, there is no one as wise and discerning as you are!  You will oversee my household, and all my people will submit to your commands.  Only I, the king, will be greater than you”  (Genesis 41:39b-40). 

Thoughts of Jesus should not be too far removed from our mind upon reading these purported words from Pharaoh.  Bringing in some early post-Christ-era reflections on Jesus, what do we find in the Ephesians letter?  “And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and He gave Him to the church as head over all things” (1:22).  This is thought to be so because the great and powerful Creator God “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:20b-21).  This is set forth alongside the idea that there was a people of God, a household of faith, chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world” (1:4a)---a worldwide family of divine image-bearers that had always been the intention of the Creator.  It is these people, identified by their adherence to the Gospel of Jesus, and their submission to its claim that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, that faithfully submit to the commands of Jesus to love one another and to preach the message of the Gospel, through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.  There is a household to be overseen.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Joseph & Jesus (part 1)

Now Joseph’s brothers saw him from a distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.  They said to another, “Here comes this master of dreams!  Come now, let’s kill him, thrown him into one of the cisterns, and then say that a wild animal ate him.  Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out!” – Genesis 37:18-21  (NET)

Just before this set of verses, which is set within a larger narrative (and within a sociological setting) that must always be borne in mind as the Scriptures are approached, as we are introduced to Joseph, we learn about his dreaming of dreams, and their implication that one day, his father, his mother, and his brothers will all bow down to him.  Coupling this with the fact that he was his father’s favorite---being the son of his father’s favorite wife---and had received special gifts due to that favored status, it is understandable why it is that his brothers did not care for him.  Natural sibling rivalries and jealousy aside, this also takes place within a world defined by honor and shame, and the competition for honor.  Here, Joseph is receiving greater honor from his father, while also attempting to accrue more honor to himself.  In a society in which honor is a limited good, he is creating problems for himself. 

As we are able to view all of Scripture through the lends of the Christ-event and the cross, so much of what we see in the life of Joseph becomes a pre-reflection of themes that will eventually be found in the life of Jesus.  This makes sense, especially when the biographers of Jesus are steeped in the story of Israel, defining themselves in accordance with the shared traditions associated with the stories of their patriarchs.  Thus, as we hear the words of his brothers, do we not also hear those that presented themselves as opponents of Jesus?  Can we not hear the scribes and the Pharisees, along with the other leaders of the people of Israel in Jesus’ day, with whom Jesus would not align Himself and with whom He would not come into agreement in the larger competition for honor, saying “let’s kill Him and see how His dreams turn out”?  Obviously, we do not have to look very far to find the plot to kill Jesus, as we find it executed in the pages of the Gospels. 

As the story goes, Joseph was sent to his brothers by his father.  After a bit of searching, we find that “When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped him of his tunic, the special tunic that he wore” (37:23).  This was the famed “coat of many colors” with which we are all familiar.  This was the special gift from his father that indicated his special status (enhanced honor standing) and invoked the ire of his siblings (envy---a powerful social force in the honor and shame society, of which Jesus will also be victim). 

Following that, “they took him and threw him into the cistern” (37:24a).  This was done because Reuben, Joseph’s oldest brother (the first son of Jacob and his first wife Leah---ironically, the one that should have been held in the highest honor by his father and brothers), convinced the rest of his brothers not to kill Joseph.  Reuben had said, “Let’s not take his life!...  Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this cistern that is here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him” (37:21b-22a).  Following this, we are given a special glimpse into Reuben’s mindset, as we read “Reuben said this so he could rescue Joseph from them and take him back to his father” (37:22b). 

It is likely that Reuben saw this as an opportunity to gain some honor for himself while also returning to his father’s good graces, after having sexual relations with one of his father’s wives (35:22).  We cannot allow ourselves to forget that every interaction in the ancient near east would have a component of the competition for honor.  Not only would this have been the case, but anyone who heard this story told would naturally expect there to be some element of honor competition and would process the story along those lines.  Indeed, it would be counter-intuitive for an interaction, or the story of an interaction such as this, to lack this element. 

Pilate's Dilemma (part 3 of 3)

We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals or “thieves.”  Crucifixion would not be employed for something so relatively benign as thievery.  Crucifixion was designed and employed to remind subject people of their place in the world.  Barabbas too was more than a thief.  Barabbas had been arrested and was being held for insurrection.  It is quite likely that Jesus, who is now being accused of an insurrection of His own, is taking the cross that had been intended for Barabbas, and is crucified along with Barabbas’ cohorts.  Ironically, as an insurrectionist, Barabbas was actively agitating against Rome, most likely doing so by inciting the people of Israel to a violent revolution in which he himself had already taken up arms.  Given the tide of a popular opinion in that day then, there is little wonder that the people are reported to have requested the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. 

So Barabbas was imprisoned and was most likely awaiting death, having been charged with the type of things that a great many of the people would have preferred to see Jesus doing, which was attempting to effect the overthrow of Roman rule through violent rebellion.  As had been made clear, Jesus was not doing that, so yes, though He had healed the sick and restored people to life, He had also stirred up hopes that He was apparently not going to take steps to fulfill, so “away with Him!  If He is going to fail to do what we expect our messiah to do, He is a failure and must suffer the fate of all failed messiahs.” “Crucify Him!” (27:22b)  “Crucify Him!”  (27:23b)

Pilate, obviously conflicted with the knowledge that Jesus had truly done nothing that would provide sufficient and legitimate grounds for the infliction of such a punishment, had said, “Why?  What has He done?” (27:23a); but again, the tide of popular opinion had turned.  The court of public opinion was speaking.  Ironically, there was always the under-current that Roman action against popular, potential messiah figures would induce rioting by the populace, as riot and revolution was the goal of those that rose to prominence under the messianic banner.  In this case, however, Pilate was seeing that the people were going to riot if he failed to crucify this particular, potential messiah (27:24) that was unwilling to induce rioting or the usual type of revolution.  This was a strange turn of events.  This group of people, in all of their expectations and fervor, were now demanding what can only be understood as an unjust execution by crucifixion, especially in the absence of evidence of violence and attempted overthrow that would normally render the judgment as obvious and necessary.

As we move forward in the story and conclude our study we find Barabbas released, with Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified (27:26).  Having been handed over, “They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe around Him, and after braiding a crown of thorns, they put it on His head.  They put a staff in His right hand, and kneeling down before Him, they mocked Him: ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’” (27:28-29).  Such activities are fairly standard in accompaniment of crucifixions.  If someone was deluded enough to envision themselves as a king, then they would receive their coronation.  While we see rightfully see this as the mocking for which it was clearly intended, we can also understand the pragmatism on display here in this case. 

Pilate, like most politicians, was concerned for his position and his future, and imperial actions such as crucifixions were most likely accompanied by reports to his superiors in Rome.  So just to be on the safe side, seeing as how he had condemned this man to crucifixion for His claim to be a king in spite of his reservations because there was appeared to be no evidence ready at hand that suggested any harm to Rome or to Caesar in this statement, a rather standard coronation ceremony was conducted, with all the necessary mock royal emblems and honors.  Now, having been presented as a king, by and to Roman soldiers no less, this Jesus fellow could safely be sent to the cross; and Pilate, having “washed his hands before the crowd” (27:24b), could be done with the whole messy ordeal.