Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sin in 1 Corinthians 13-14

1 Corinthians 13 is of course the "love chapter." Sin of course is not mentioned, although we might suggest that love is in some respects the opposite of sin. Paul will say elsewhere that love of one's neighbor is fulfillment of the law. In that sense, the person who loves is a person who does not sin.

1 Corinthians 14 deals with the heart of the spiritual gift problem at Corinth. Chapter 12 was leading up to this and chapter 13 gives the solution to this problem. But it is only in chapter 14 that we really see what the problem is: the use of tongues at Corinth.

Not much on sin. Paul does encourage them to be infants when it comes to evil (14:20). Prophecy is also mentioned as a means by which God reveals secrets, presumably secret sins, if you would (14:24-25).

14:35 of course says that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. I do not believe Paul wrote this verse, as I've aruged elsewhere along with Gordon Fee, Richard Hays, and others. If it were original, it would have to refer to disruptive speech rather than spiritual speech, since it is assumed that woman can pray and prophesy in church in chapter 11. Is shame the same as sin for Paul? Not sure.

Paul in 14:38 implies that a person who does not accept Paul's teaching here is not accepted either (cf. 11:16). Unclear exactly what this might mean in terms of sin.

Monday, July 30, 2007

1 Corinthians 11-12

No words for sin are used in either of these chapters. Chapter 12 deals with the way spiritual gifts should function in the church and dissuades a person from looking down on others, but there is no discussion of this as sin.

Chapter 11 deals with the veiling of women and problems with the Lord's Supper. On the first topic, Paul is talking about appropriate dress in worship, particularly as women pray and prophesy before angels and men. No mention of sin is made.

However, the tone becomes more serious as we move on in the chapter. Paul makes an intriguing comment about how the conflict in the community is necessary to show who is "approved" (dokimos). The implication seems to be that some in the Corinthian church are not approved. The term dokimos is related to what Paul hopes not to be in 9:27--"unapproved" (adokimos). Apparently the divisive behavior and attitudes of some at Corinth shows that they cannot be acceptable to God.

As Paul discusses the Lord's Supper, he suggests that some in the community have in fact died because of the way in which they treat the body of Christ, meaning the body of believers (11:30). He also mentions that some have become sick as a result. These things Paul apparently sees as the judgment of the Lord (11:32):

"When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we might not be condemned with the world."

This is a fascinating statement! Paul seems to imply that those who have become sick are being disciplined but that they will still be part of the kingdom! We remember the man in 1 Cor. 5 who is turned over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh but for the salvation of his spirit.

In any case, these sins must be punished, even if "Christians" are doing them.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Theology Sundays: The Pre-Existent, Divine Christ

The question of Christ's pre-existence and divinity moves us close to the heart of the question of biblical theology in relation to Christian theology. Christians believe that Christ was the pre-existent, divine, second person of the Trinity, "light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father."

However, there is some debate about exactly how the NT authors understood Christ's pre-existence and divinity. Although the majority of scholars believe John and Paul affirmed the literal pre-existence of Jesus, a significant minority sees this language as highly metaphorical, Christ as the embodiment of God's wisdom and his Word for the world. Further, is language of Christ's divinity an exalted expression of his royal representation of God the Father rather than an affirmation of ontological substance?

This raises the question: do we have to come to a particular conclusion regarding the original meaning of the NT on these issues in order to be orthodox Christians? Certainly this is the modernist evangelical position and, in a different way, it was the presumption of liberal scholarship of the modernist era as well. Evangelical scholars of course do not believe that the NT expresses a full blown Nicean Christology, but they would usually argue that the NT has a seminal Christology that is in continuity with later Nicene affirmations.

In theory, however, orthodox Christian beliefs about Christ could be true whether or not they were what the NT authors themselves were thinking. The biblical text itself can certainly be read in accordance with Christian beliefs. Does it matter whether this is what the NT authors actually had in mind with the words? Could God have intended more with the words than the original authors could have imagined, much as when Caiaphas said it was better for one man to die than for all the people to die? We smile because we see in these words a meaning Caiaphas himself could not have seen--that Jesus died so that God's people did not have to.

The earliest candidate in the NT for a statement of Christ's pre-existence appears in 1 Corinthians 8:6: "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom [are] all things and we for him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom [are] all things and we through him."

Most scholars would see this comment as a reference to Christ's literal agency in creation. This conclusion of course depends on what Paul means by "through whom are all things." Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and James Dunn see this in relation to Christ as the one through whom God has reconciled all things rather than a reference to his pre-existent agency in creation. Nothing in the words themselves disproves this interpretation. The words in themselves could mean either!

It is perhaps most Christian to read these words in relation to Christ's agency in creation. Can we read the words in that way regardless of what Paul meant? The modernist evangelical tends to say no. But we can debate this claim. Certainly most Christians throughout the ages have not been a position really to ask or know how to go about answering this question. And the NT often does not read the OT in context.

The debate over the original meaning quickly gets us into a discussion of Jewish logos speculation. Philo's writings reflect a tradition of God's word or logos as the instrument through which God created the world and through which God acted in the world. We can even speak of a kind of specialized "metaphysics of prepositions" in philosophical circles where the expression "through which" was used to express the instrumental cause of something.

Since logos imagery is used elsewhere in the NT, it is as plausible as not that the places where Christ is said to be the one through whom God created the world was originally based on the idea of Jesus as God's logos. Passages other than 1 Corinthians 8:6 of this sort include

Colossians 1:15-16:
"He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation,
because by him all things were created ...
all things through him and for him have been created"

Hebrews 1:3
"Who is a reflection of the glory
And the stamp of his [God's] substance
And bringing all things by the word of his power"

John 1:1-3
In the beginning was the Logos
And the Logos was with God
And the Logos was God.
This one was in the beginning with God
All things through him came into existence
And apart from him not even one thing came to exist.

This imagery all seems to draw on a similar thought background. Hebrews' comment probably alludes to Wisdom 7:26, which refers to God's wisdom:

"She is a reflection of eternal light...
And the image of his goodness"

God's wisdom and God's word (logos) are closely associated in these Jewish traditions, as Wisdom 9:2 indicates:

You "made all things through your wisdom,
And by your word made humanity"

In the case of these texts in Colossians and Hebrews alone, it seems difficult to know whether the imagery is meant literally or highly figuratively--Jesus as God's wisdom in creation and as his authoritative word for the world. In the case of John, however, texts elsewhere clearly mention that Jesus existed "before the worlds began" (e.g., John 17:5). The question is whether John represents a new development in NT thinking or whether Paul thought this way much much earlier.

In discussions of Paul, the interpretation of the Philippian hymn seems determinative, and most scholars believe it speaks of Christ's literal pre-existence. We might note in passing that Christ's agency in creation is not evoked in the Philippian hymn. Passages about Christ as the one through whom God made the world imply pre-existence, but some interpret this language literally and others figuratively. Some of those who take language of pre-existence literally in Philippians still take the language of agency in creation figuratively.

The Philippian hymn states about Christ that
Although he existed in the form of God
He considered equality with God something not to exploit
But he emptied himself
Having taken the form of a servant

Having become in the likeness of humans
And having been found in shape as a human
He humbled himself
Having become obedient to the point of death

Therefore God super-exalted him
And gave him the Name above every name
That every knee should bow and tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is LORD.

There are a million breakdowns of the poetry here. I've omitted three portions of the hymn as potential Pauline additions. I remain deeply in doubt about the form of the third stanza. In my opinion, we will leave a discussion of the original meaning of the hymn with great uncertainties dispite colossal argumentation on all sides on many, many issues.

As far as pre-existence is concerned, the locus of the debate centers on what I have as the first stanza. "Form of God" is in contrast to "form of a servant," which leads me to side with those who see the issue as one of status rather than being "in very nature God" as the NIV translates the phrase. Dunn of course famously argues that form of God refers to "image of God" and thus depicts Christ as the last Adam. Most do not follow him on this interpretation. If the second line is to be translated as I translate it, Dunn's interpretation is eliminated.

Nevertheless, even going with "form of God" as a reference to Christ's royal status as Son of God might or might not imply pre-existence. "Taking the form of a servant" is something we all might reasonably do as we "have the mind that was in Christ Jesus." Shape is not evoked indisputably until the line "having been found in shape as a human." In short, the meaning of this passage seems uncertain to me in itself. The final interpretation will have a lot to do with what you bring to the text rather than the actual words of the text. And we simply do not have enough information on what Paul brought to this text to know for sure what the original meaning was.

When we as Christians affirm the pre-existence of Christ, therefore, we are affirming a belief of the church drawn most certainly on the Gospel of John as well as on the church's traditional interpretation of Paul, regardless of what he might have actually meant himself.

The question of Christ's divinity faces similar questions of pre-suppositions. As Christians we interpret a number of passages with Christian beliefs about Christ as the eternally begotten Son of the Father, begotten, not made. Again, it is not clear that it would be wrong for Christians to read such passages in this way even if the NT authors were not thinking in precisely the same ways.

Language of Jesus as Son of God, for example, evokes royal imagery from the OT. Psalm 2, 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 89:27, even Psalm 45:6-7 all referred originally to a human king. The language of Jesus as Son of God, Christ, and Messiah would not in itself, therefore, imply as much as we understand to be true about Christ. Acts 2:36; 13:33; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:11; and Hebrews 1:4-5 all locate the timing of Christ most poignantly receiving these titles, including that of Lord, as the point of his exaltation to God's right hand, post-resurrection--not of the pre-existent Christ.

In itself, the use of "Lord" holds more potential implications in relation to "divinity," for Paul quotes passages about the exclusive worship of the LORD from the OT in relation to Jesus (e.g., Isaiah 45:23; Joel 2:32). Surely the "Name above all names" in the Philippian hymn is Yahweh, LORD. And John 8:38 surely indicates that Jesus is the LORD who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, "Before Abraham was, I AM."

Yet one can also argue that this is all highly metaphorical language of Jesus' cosmic kingship. The Philippian hymn ends with the qualifier that the super-exaltation of Jesus as LORD is still "to the glory of God the Father," and it occurs post-resurrection. And although Jesus is called God in Hebrews 1:8, the next verse disquishes Jesus as God from "God, your God." Even Psalm 110:1 distinguishes between the Messiah as Lord and Yahweh as LORD, and this verse is applied at the point of the resurrection (Acts 2:36; Heb. 1:4-5).

Larry Hurtado has argued vigorously that Jesus is worshipped in these hymnic passages in the NT, not to mention in Revelation. He argues for a significant break between Christianity and Jewish monotheism very early on. N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham also argue for a kind of "christological monotheism" that we see in the earliest pages of the NT. But the usual verb to worship, proskyneo, is used of human kings as well as God. The consistent subordination of Jesus to God in the NT makes it quite possible that Hurtado's argument is overstated. And key texts from 1 Corinthians 8:6 to Ephesians 4:5-6 make a sharp distinction between the one God and the one Lord.

On these matters, the question of biblical versus Christian theology is posed most urgently. Must we demonstrate that the original meaning of these passages declares the faith of the later church in a literal way? The fact that the NT often does not interpret the OT contextually undermines to some extent this impetus of the modernist approach.

Perhaps the most important fact is that the biblical text in itself can be read in an orthodox way, regardless of the specifics that Paul and others might have had in mind. These specifics of the original meaning are uncertain to a very high degree, in my opinion. Of course both Arius and Athanasius invoked Scripture in the great trinitarian arguments of the fourth century. The Nicene Creed as it stands was forced to turn to extra-biblical categories to set the boundaries of orthodoxy.

As with the matter of Christ's pre-existence, it seems to me that regardless of what the authors of the NT themselves had in mind in the key christological texts, their original meaning, there is a "Christian" way to read these texts. This Christian way of reading understands Christ to be the eternally begotten Son of the Father, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father. And this reading does not clearly depend on the specifics of what Paul or the other NT authors actually had in mind when they wrote these things.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sin in 1 Corinthians 9-10

No terms for sin are used in these chapters. However, what is to me some key verses on Paul and law in the life of a believer appear in 9:20-21:

To those under law [I became] as under law--although I am not myself under law--so that I might gain those under law. To those without law [I became] as one without law--although I am not without the law of God but am "enlawed" of Christ--so that I might gain those without law.

I hear in these words some of the background to the Corinthian slogan--"All things are permitted to me." But here (and in Romans) Paul makes it clear that not being under the law is not a moral free for all. God forbid! While he may not be judged by the Jewish law in its ethnic particulars, there is a core law of God, law of Christ under which he is still "enlawed." This interpretation of "under law" and "without law" bear further support from other texts, but for now I throw them out for the time being.

So here I would argue Paul believes that there is a law that applied to believers even though they are not "under law" (cf. Rom. 3:31). The remainder of 1 Corinthians 9 demonstrates that it is possible not to attain salvation even after being a believer. Paul talks about how he disciplines his body (note the connection to flesh language elsewhere in connection to sin) so that after preaching to others, he will not be adokimos, disqualified, unworthy.

If anyone has any doubts about what he has in mind, we need only read on into the next chapter, remembering that the chapter divisions are not original to 1 Corinthians. In chapter 10, Paul uses the example of the wilderness generation to show that it is possible to be in the people of God and in fact be overthrown in the desert (10:5). The sins of idolatry and porneia that Paul mentions subsequently are sins he has already said will keep a person from inheriting the kingdom of God. There can be little doubt, therefore, that he is suggesting no one--he or the Corinthians--are guaranteed the kingdom no matter what they do, that neither he nor the Corinthians are "eternally secure."

So Paul implies that sin can disqualify a believer from the kingdom of God, particularly the sins of idolatry and porneia here. He is not arguing from the standpoint of "one sin you're out," however, but his arguments target sustained sinful behavior that goes uncorrected. Such temptation can be avoided, for "no temptation has overcome you but what is of a human sort. But God is able, who will not allow you to be tempted more than you are able to bear, but will make a way of escape with the temptation, that you will be able to bear it" (10:13). This is a plural "you," but it clearly indicates that sins of the sort he mentions are avoidable, indeed that they must be avoided.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Sin in 1 Corinthians 7-8

The verb "to sin" appears five times in these two chapters (hamartano). In chapter 7, Paul is responding to the suggestion of some Corinthians that married couples should stop having sex: "it is good for a man not to touch a woman" (7:1). The chapter is thus about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate with regard to sex and marriage.

We have already established from 1 Corinthians 6 that Paul considered the act of porneia to be an act of sin (6:18). In particular, it is a sin against the body of Christ. So Paul's advice in 7:2 for husbands and wives to have regular sex is meant to avoid sin, the sin of porneia.

In 7:28, Paul asks whether two further marital actions constitute sinning. The first is whether a man sins if he has been "loosed from a wife" and remarries. Paul indicates that this is not sinning--it is not wrongdoing. Similarly, if a virgin marries, she is not sinning--she is not doing wrong.

7:36 deals with yet another question of the appropriate action. I am in the minority in thinking the NASB is more likely correct to see the situation here as a father deciding whether or not to marry off his daughter. If he chooses to marry her off, "he is not sinning. Let them marry." The majority interpretation of course takes this comment in relation to a man deciding whether to marry a woman to whom he is betrothed: "he is not sinning. Let them marry." In either case, the question is whether the man is doing wrong, whether he is sinning.

By implication, we should probably therefore see sinning in the earlier part of the chapter where Paul (and the Lord) forbid certain marital actions. The woman is sinning when she divorces her husband (7:10) and if she remarries thereafter (7:11). The husband is sinning when he divorces his wife (7:11). A person does wrong when they do not practice self-control and "burn" with passion (7:9), meaning have sex with individuals to whom they are not married.

I believe there are contextual and cultural factors involved in these statements, but they give us a fair enough feel for how Paul thinks about sin. It is wrongdoing. Paul does not specify that there has to be an object of the wrong. We could no doubt think up parties wronged in each case, but Paul says nothing about this so we shouldn't either here until he gives us warrant to (the nature of inductive study). I believe language of sinning--of wrongdoing--can function without specifying a particular party that is wronged.

Paul is thinking in this chapter almost completely of believers in this chapter. He does speak of the sanctification of an unbelieving spouse and one's children in 7:14. This person is not yet guaranteed salvation, even though sanctified (7:16). Sanctified here means brought into the sphere of the holy, into the state of something that belongs to God or that touches God. It must be treated differently than the common.

Paul does not specify whether the types of sinning implied in this chapter would keep a Christian from inheriting the kingdom of God. Certainly he has already indicated that porneia can. But he does not clearly identify divorce or remarriage with porneia in the chapter.

1 Corinthians 8 begins Paul's discussion of food offered to idols (primarily, I believe, meat sacrificed to idols). He uses the word hamartano twice in 8:12. The situation in this case is "wronging" your brother. Therefore, in this case Paul does give a specific object of wronging.

The first person wronged is the brother whose conscience you wound by leading him to stumble by indirectly encouraging him to eat things sacrificed to idols. [By the way, I know I'm using masculine words here, but Paul's language is biased in that direction at this point.] Because you wound a brother, you are also "sinning against Christ." In other words, you are wronging these two, harming or offending them.

Although Paul does not use the specific word sin in relation to the actions of the broather, he uses analogous language and imagery. You become a "stumblingblock" (proskomma) to others (8:9). The person Paul has in mind is the person "whose conscience is weak" (8:7), the person who does not "know" is not "conscious" of the fact that "an idol is nothing in the world" (8:4). This person's conscience is "defiled" (molyno). By eating such food when their conscience is not clear on it, they "are destroyed" (8:11). They "stumble" (8:13).

This language seems to imply sin on their part, indeed very serious sin. The "knowing brother" has caused them to violate the first and second commandments, the most important of all because they deal with God himself. The word "to perish" (8:11; apollymi) is massively serious.

1. A definition of sin as "wronging" another or "doing wrong" has worked very well for these two chapters, just as it did in 1 Corinthians 6. Sometimes no party is mentioned as being wronged. Paul can simply say a particular action is not "doing wrong." At other times a specific party is mentioned as being wronged. In particular, Paul mentions wronging a brother and doing wrong against Christ. In chapter 6 he mentioned wronging the body of Christ corporately.

Presumably the brother whose conscience is defiled wrongs God so seriously that he "is destroyed," this brother for whom Christ died. No sense of eternal security here unless we import it from outside the text.

2. These chapters primarily have believers in view.

3. Paul considers it necessary, not merely attainable, that Christians do not sin in the ways mentioned in these chapters, just as in 1 Corinthians 5-6. There is no sense of sin as something a Christian will hopelessly do.

Paul does not indicate that all the sinning mentioned in these chapters destroy a person. He does not indicate in these chapters, at least, that divorce, a woman's remarriage, or causing another to stumble means that you will not inherit the kingdom of God. He does imply that the brother who stumbles is destroyed and of course Paul has already indicated that those who practice porneia will not inherit the kingdom.

He gives us no sense of eternal security or election resulting in the perseverance of the saints. Indeed, these concepts are foreign to his basic logic. The brother who is destroyed is one for whom Christ died (8:11). Certainly Calvinist theology can walk around these texts easily enough. We merely wish to point out that the texts themselves know nothing about such coping strategies.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sin in 1 Corinthians 5-6

1 Corinthians 5-6 deal with some sins that people in the Corinthian church are doing. We should begin with some general statements at the end of chapter 6 (6:18-19)

Flee sexual immorality (porneia). Every transgression (hamartema) whatever a person does is outside the body. But the one who acts immorally sexually (porneuo) sins (harmartano) against his own body. Or do you not know that your (plural) body (singular) is a temple of the Holy Spirit in/among you (plural).

I have tended to think this passage has a dual meaning in that the word body is a play not only on your individual physical body but on the body of Christ corporately. Notice that while "your body" has a plural "your," the word "body" is singular.

The verb "to sin" has the connotation of "wronging" here. To sin against the body is to wrong it, even to harm it. The word "transgression" or "sin" here (hamartema) is a -ma noun. These nouns generally, although not always, have a sense of that which results from the related verb. So in this case, a hamartema would be that which results from sinning, the wrong done.

Paul identifies the acts of the man sleeping with his "father's wife" in chapter 5 as a porneia, so we can conclude that Paul considers this man to be sinning in his actions and indeed to be sinning against the body of Christ at Corinth. The dynamics I have suggested for 6:19 thus show up explicitly in 5:6 when Paul tells them that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump."

Although there is much debate about what 5:5 means, with many suggesting that the "destruction of the flesh" points to the man's death, Paul's use of flesh elsewhere points more to the destruction of the part of the man leading him to sin sexually. They are to expel him, deliver him to "the Satan," the tester, the adversary (5:5, 13).

The dynamics of how this works are unclear. In my commentary, I took the safe route and suggested Paul is being redemptive, hoping that a little time back in the realm of Satan will cause the man to come running back to Christ (so also Hays). A bizarre alternative would read this passage along the lines of 3:15. This man would experience judgment on the coming Day of the Lord, fire, but would be saved in the end, a kind of "temporary security" ;-) As we will see below, this is not likely Paul's meaning.

5:7 compares Christ to the Passover lamb. It is difficult to know how much thought Paul invested into this imagery. But it at least could look something like this: because of Christ's blood we are saved from God's wrath.

Paul mentions some types of Christians a believer must not associate with: a sexually immoral person (pornos), greedy person (pleonektes), thief (harpax), idolater (eidololatres), slanderer (loidoros), or drunkard (methysos). Presumably Paul considers all these activities to be sins. Christians are to judge such people (5:12).

He has a similar list at the end of chapter 6, where he indicates that "the unrighteous (adikoi) will not inherit the kingdom of God" (6:9). This includes "sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes?, those who practice homosexual sex?, robbers, greedy, drunks, slanderers, thieves" (6:9-10). Since Paul is addressing believers, he is telling those in the church that they, along with those outside the church, will not be part of the kingdom of God.

There is no finely argued distinction between the elect and those who are falsely among us. Paul does refer to all in the church as "someone who is named a brother." But Paul's argument is very general. If a person is in the church and can aptly be described as a person who behaves in these sorts of ways, they will not be a part of the coming kingdom of God.

In chapter 6, Paul identifies going to the Roman court system as going to "the unrighteous" (adikoi) for judgment (6:1). Certainly we are meant to contrast such people with believers, who apparently should be "the righteous" (dikaioi).

These two chapters deal with various sins, particularly sexual sins, and so give us much material on our questions.

1. Words for sin are actually used in 6:18. Here sin has the connotation of wronging or harming another, particularly the broader body of Christ. Paul operates with almost Levitical categories of defilement in these chapters. People who participate in the activities he mentions defile or corrupt the purity of the body of Christ. Other sins wrong parties outside the body of Christ. The sins of these chapters wrong the body of Christ itself.

2. Paul speaks of the types of sins he mentions as behaviors in which some of the Corinthians used to engage in (6:11). But they were washed (of the uncleanness and impurity of such acts); they were sanctified (and brought into the state necessary for one who belongs to God); and they were justified (made innocent in the eyes of God as Judge). Clearly such behavior was meant to stop when they became a brother.

3. Paul finds the continuing practice of such things highly problematic for believers. He gives no theological rationale. He simply dismisses the possibility that such people will be part of the kingdom of God, end of story. Indeed, he finds it essential that the church judge such believers and cast them out of their fellowship for the sake of the body's continued health.

He says this at the same time that he does not contradict their slogan "All things are lawful for me." Apparently Paul has taught the Corinthians that they are not under the law as believers. But clearly this is not the end of "law" (Rom. 3:31) for Paul. There are still ethical demands of a Christian's life, and failure to meet those demands implies that a person will be judged.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sin in 1 Corinthians 3-4

Here we finally have some juicy stuff. Remember the three original questions:

1. How does Paul define sin?
2. What does Paul say about sin before one believes?
3. What does Paul say about sin after one believes?

1 Corinthians 3 has a number of implications for question 3.

First, Paul complains that while the Corinthians apparently think of themselves as "spiritual" (pneumatikos), in fact they are "fleshly" (sarkikos, sarkinos). The association with the flesh implies sin, since Paul makes this association. Being in the flesh yields fruit for death (Rom. 7:5, 18-20). This fruit for death is sin (Rom. 6:23).

So it is fair to say that Paul sees the jealousy and strife among the Corinthians as sinful, proceeding as it does from their flesh (1 Cor. 3:3). He associates such patterns of behavior with being "babes in Christ" (3:1).

A number of cautions are in order. First, Paul does not say that all beginning Christians have this problem. In other words, Paul does not say that a believer must go through such a fleshly baby phase. He is not setting up an ordo salutis here.

But he does imply that believers should grow out of such a state if they are in one. He sees such attitudes as unfitting for believers. This is particularly clear as we will see from his comments on the flesh in Romans and Galatians. There, in a more theoretical form, he will disassociate fleshliness from the believer in a more either-or form of argument.

Secondly, Paul talks about the "work" that Christian leaders do on top of the foundation of Christ (3:10-11). Some build better materials on this foundation than others, and the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment, reveals its worth. "Fire will test the work of each one, of what sort it is" (3:13). Some will see their work burned up, but they will be saved through fire (3:15). On the other hand, if someone destoys God's temple, the body of Christ, God will destroy that person (3:17).

This is a puzzling passage. It seems to imply that some believers will face some level of judgment at Christ's return because of the "stubble" they have built on Christ's foundation. But they will still be saved. Apparently the person who destroys God's house has a bleaker outcome to face.

So, thirdly, we have in this chapter and the next indications of Paul's view that the works of Christians as well as non-believers will be judged before the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10). When the Lord comes, he "will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make seen the plans of the hearts" (1 Cor. 4:5).

Finally, Paul speaks of the discipline he himself may have to administer to believers in 4:21. The attitude of the Corinthians is incorrect, particularly their spiritual boasting, and Paul means to correct it. This boasting likely connects to their claims of superior knowledge and wisdom, as well as their boasting in spiritual gifts and being spiritual. They act like they are already kings in the kingdom of God and are not sufficiently thankful to God as the patron who has bestowed their gifts on them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sin, 1 Corinthians 1-2

1 Corinthians comes next, written from Ephesus to Corinth on Paul's "third missionary journey."

Paul calls them "sanctified" (1:2) and implies that God can keep them "guiltless" (anenkletos) until the end (1:8). Given the profile of the Corinthians elsewhere, this cannot involve complete moral perfection. This is something to keep in mind as we move through the letter.

Of note is that God's choice of the weak shows His strength. We have no basis on which to boast before God (1:29). We are to boast in the Lord (1:31). Christ is our "wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1:30). What Paul means is that the cross defines true wisdom over and against the wisdom of the "Greeks." Christ provides the only effective path to justification or righteousness. Christ is the one who can put us in the state of belonging to God. And Christ is the one who has redeemed us from our sins.

1 Corinthians 1 thus plays into a positional sense of holiness and righteousness, although as we have seen and will see, it does not contradict a requirement for true righteousness for believers as well.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sin in Philemon

Perhaps surprisingly, I'm toying with the possibility that Philemon might have been the second of Paul's letters written. 2 Thessalonians I have great difficulty placing. It seems more appropriate in the time of Nero to me than at the time of 1 Thessalonians. Others see Paul in Greece in the early 40's (rearranging Acts) but I'm not convinced of this either. They might even date 2 Thessalonians before 1 Thessalonians (the numbering derives solely from the lengths of the two writings, not from any knowledge of their respective dating).

Ephesus makes far better sense of hints in Philemon to me than Rome. Paul was not intending on visiting East when he would get to Rome, and the proximity makes more sense of Onesimus finding him. Plus 1 Corinthians 15:32 seems to allude to a tustle with the law at Ephesus, although not one as serious as 2 Corinthians 1:8 points to.

The arguments against this early dating are 1) that Paul calls himself an old man (9) and more significantly 2) the similar names and situation that seem a part of Colossians 4. In Colossians, Paul speaks of the gospel reaching the whole world, which doesn't fit well with the time when Paul was in Ephesus. Is it likely that Paul would have the same crew around him in Rome some five years later?

Right or wrong, Philemon today it is.

Anyway, the word sin does not appear anywhere in Philemon. Verse 18 does use the word adikeo, which means to do wrong or injustice. Paul is talking about any injustice Philemon might have experienced because of Onesimus. Paul also speaks of Philemon owing Paul for himself, presumably for his salvation.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Theology Sundays: Justice of God

No full piece today, but some notes.

In the OT, I suppose the justice of God has to be judged by the covenants to which He binds himself. I'll have to think about whether I think there is any sense of universal justice to God in the OT. Frankly, God is God, El Elyon, the most powerful of the gods and the only legitimate God for Israel to worship. In such a case, justice seems to be God's vindication of Israel on those who dare aggress against her. Also God has certain items like His ark or temple or city that you don't mess with or face God's wrath.

God has also bound Himself to a specific covenant of blessing with Israel. In that sense hesed is His covenant people is blessing them when He said He would and punishing them when they don't keep their end of the deal. There are parts of the OT where punishment seems automatic. Uzzah dies apparently without divine deliberation.

But God can show mercy without anyone having to pay the price. There is no sense of penal substitution. The Day of Atonement goat takes the defilement and pollution of Israel away from them, it doesn't take on the guilt. And, in the end, God desires obedience rather than sacrifice.

In the NT, Jesus is a ransom and a sacrifice, but again, the NT has no sense of Jesus paying any mathematical equivalent of penalty. The Parable of the Prodigal Son indicates that God can forgive us on His own authority. His justice does not have to be satisfied legalistically.

Nevertheless, Jesus' death does show that God is just even though He has passed over previous sins. The desire to show God as just is therefore in the mix.

The question of eternal punishment raises the question of God's justice. Eternal punishment is infinite punishment. Is failure to accept God such a sin that justice requires eternal punishment? Perhaps it does.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Want to read the Book of J?

I've been reading through an article in the most recent Journal of Biblical Studies entitled "The Yahwist: The Earliest Editor in the Pentateuch." Many of you know that just as there are theories about the sources of the Synoptic Gospels, there are theories of sources behind the Pentateuch.

100 years ago, Julius Welhausen's famous JEDP was being discussed and modified (and blasted). But of course the discussion has continued for 100 years, apparently with German scholarship still taking the most interest in such things. Welhausen's theory is not sacrosanct among scholars by any means--scholars can make their name by dismissing theories as well as suggesting new ones. A great deal has happened in discussion of this issue since him.

Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is still important in some circles for various reasons. Some pack more punch than others. Potentially the most powerful argument for Mosaic authorship is the way Jesus and the NT authors refer to it as "Moses says." But I'm not sure that this isn't simply "incarnated" speech, referring to the books in the way all the Jews of the day referred to the books. In any case the NT use of the OT is not a straightforward thing, since NT authors regularly read the OT "spiritually" rather than "historically."

This is the only significant argument for Mosaic authorship, since the books themselves don't "want" to be read that way. Genesis never mentions Moses and throughout the other four Moses is mentioned in the third person--we are told about Moses in them, including about his death. Nowhere is Moses said to be the author of the books themselves. From the standpoint of listening to these texts (rather than imposing ideas on them), we would not conclude that Moses put them in their current form. Of course sometimes faith requires belief in that which goes against the evidence.

In any case, the author of this article argues that someone he calls the "Yahwist" was the earliest editor of the material that is currently the Pentateuch. This author, he argues, spliced together six already existent stories, including those of Adam, Abraham and sons, Joseph, Moses, exodus, and Balaam. Later a priestly writer edited in further material, and Deuteronomy was added.

I have no stake in this debate and am not arguing for it. You might, however, find the web version of his "Yahwist" source interesting. The stuff in bold is what he thinks the Yahwist inherited and the italics is the Yahwist's editing, if I understand the site correctly.


2 Thessalonians and sin

2 Thessalonians does not use the word sin. It does, however, use the word lawlessness (anomia). In particular, 2 Thessalonians speaks of a "man of lawlessness" (2:3; also 2:8) and a "mystery of lawlessness" (2:7). Lawlessness here seems closely connected to opposition to God (2:4). Indeed, this lawless one seems to lead some sort of "rebellion" (apostasia) (2:3).

We should not commit the anachronistic fallacy and assume apostasia means a turning away from faith. The group this lawless one leads astray are "those who are perishing" who "did not receive love of the truth" (2:10). These are "all who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness" (adikia) (2:12).

Sin in 1 Thessalonians 2 is thus once again opposition to God and what He is enacting in history. In contrast to the unbelievers above, the Thessalonians have been "chosen for salvation by the sanctification of the Spirit and by faith in the truth" (2:13).

Chapter 2 ends with a prayer for them to be established in "every good work and word" (2:17), again showing that works do not contradict faith.

There is talk in chapter 1 (1:5, 11) of the Thessalonians being worthy of the kingdom because of their endurance of suffering and because God has fulfilled in them "every good pleasure of goodness and work of faith in power" (1:11). Again, we find no sense of careful distinction between faith and works. Both are in the mix of worthiness for the kingdom.

3:2-3 talk of God's protection "from the evil one" in being delivered from "wicked and evil people." My sense is that this does not refer to deliverance from sin but deliverance from persecution.

The last part of 2 Thessalonians 3 warns against idleness. But it does not identify it as a sin.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

1 Thessalonians 5

We should surely understand those "in darkness" to be associated with sin. I assume Paul largely has in mind those who are not believers, so there is an association between sin and experiencing God's wrath here (5:9).

So believers are thus "sons of light" (5:5), Qumran imagery. That means they are "awake" and looking for Christ's return (5:4), when instead of wrath they will get "salvation" (5:9). Believers put on the breastplate of faith and love and the hope of salvation as a helmet (5:8). Faith and love and hope are dispositions that imply actions. Thus encourages them to move in a certain direction attitudinally and behaviorally.

Paul gives other exhortations at the end of the letter. He wants them to be at peace. He insists that the lazy must work. Again, he makes ethical demands. If he believed in eternal security, the idea shows up no where here. From this letter, we get every implication that believers are to live a certain way and that not living that way can have serious consequences.

In 5:23, Paul expresses his desire that the God of peace "sanctify" them completely. What that entails is seen by the state in which he then desires them to remain thereafter--that their entire spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless. To sanctify them thus implies that they become blameless, something Paul says God, the one who calls them, will do because He is faithful (5:24). Peace surely also has something to do with God's sanctification of the Thessalonians, for otherwise why would Paul mention it here?

The picture that emerges from 1 Thessalonians with regard to sanctification is that to be holy as a church and as individuals in that church is to be operating in a blameless way in relation to God. For individuals, it implies things like abstaining from sexual immorality and not being idle. For the collective church it implies loving one another and being at peace with each other.

As far as Paul's view of sin in 1 Thessalonians, it seems to be actions that are wrong. Paul assumes what that might be. It is what he understands to be wrong. That includes worshipping the wrong god or opposing the Christ or being sexually immoral, etc. Although he only uses the word sin once in the letter, and that of the Jews who oppose Christ, we'll work with this operating sense of sin until proven otherwise.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

1 Thessalonians 3-4

Material relating to sin
1. Paul draws a connection between increasing and abounding in love and being established blameless in holiness before God (3:12-13). We don't want to read this anachronistically and invest some wholesale theology into the words.

But it's hard to deny that Paul links loving one another and, indeed, all people with being blameless in holiness before God. Holiness has to do with being in a condition appropriate to belonging to God. We often speak of this condition in terms of purity, and that works. But we should notice that "purity" in such things is a very "deep" construct. It is not like telling a shirt is dirty because it has stains or smudges. Impurity in religion is, from an anthropological perspective, can appear somewhat arbitrary from those looking in from the outside.

Paul here implies that wholeness, blameless holiness before the Christian Jewish God, implies loving one another and in fact all.

2. In the first part of 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul is clearly concerned with "how it is necessary to walk and please God" (4:1). There is no sophisticated theology here. It says what it says. Believers have to please God in how they live, period.

The will of God is their "sanctification," their holiness 4:2). Paul then gives one poignant example of what this might mean--"that you stay away from sexual immorality." We should be careful not to equate holiness here straightforwardly as ethics. Rather, holiness implies certain ethics.

To be in a condition appropriate belonging to the Christian Jewish God, abstention from sexual immorality is required. Someone who participates in sexual immorality is not "blameless in holiness."

Paul then presents a sexual ethic that holds ones "vessel," one's body, "in holiness/sanctification and honor" (4:4). I presume that Paul has men primarily in mind. They are not to operate "with the passion of desire" like the Gentiles, wronging their brother.

The brother would most naturally refer to a fellow believer. Paul indicates that God will avenge that brother (4:6). Whether Paul has in mind committing adultery with a believer's wife or sleeping with his daughter, I don't think we can say. Perhaps Paul has all such things in mind.

Paul contrasts "uncleanness" with "holiness/sanctification" in 4:7. Uncleanness is simply that which is inappropriate for someone belonging to the Christian Jewish God. The person who rejects these ideas is not rejecting Paul but "the God who gave his Spirit, his Holy Spirit to you (plural).

The presence of the Holy Spirit inside believers individually and corporately is very relevant, for it is the Holy Spirit more than anything else that makes a person be in a status of belonging to God. Uncleanness is incompatible with God's presence in a person--holiness and uncleanness represent opposite statuses or conditions.

Other matters of interest
1. Whether Paul was still in Athens when he was writing, 3:1-2 tell us that Paul had sent Timothy to Thessalonica to make sure they were holding up under persecution. Timothy has just returned at the writing of the letter (3:6).

This sequence poses a small issue with regard to Acts. In Acts, Paul leaves Timothy and Silas behind in Berea, while he goes on to Athens (17:14-15). Acts does not tell us about them rejoining him until 18:5. By contrast, 1 Thessalonians has Paul and Silas in Athens sending Timothy back to Thessalonica.

I personally don't think that Acts means to be precise in its history, so I am not bothered to try to reconcile these accounts. I am very willing to believe they can be reconciled. But my default inkling is to go with Paul and see 1 Thessalonians written from Corinth, with Paul and Silas sending Timothy back to Thessalonica when they were at Athens.

2. Paul considers persecution to be appointed to at least him and Silas, but he may imply persecution is appointed for all believers (3:3-4).

3. Paul refers presumably to Satan as "the tempter" in 3:5.

4. Paul apparently expects the Thessalonians to be alive when Christ returns (3:13).

5. Of course the eschatological passage of 4:13-18 has many interesting facets. I have suggested that Paul did not discuss the resurrection much with the Thessalonians while he was there, his focus being almost completely on the second coming or parousia, as he puts it.

Paul refers to the dead as those who sleep, and I am not sure that Paul had any sense of an intermediate state for the dead at this point in his ministry (he would later, I believe). Notice it is only the dead in Christ who rise. If Paul believed that the OT saints would be a part of the resurrection at this point in his life, he gives us no indication of it.

N. T. Wright has suggested that meeting in the air should be understood on the model of a group going out to welcome an ambassador approaching a city in order to lead the person in. I do think Paul sees us meeting Christ in the air not to go off to heaven but to assemble for participation in the judgment of the world and of angels.

Monday, July 16, 2007

1 Thessalonians 1-2

My dictionary entry on mediation in the Bible is finally done, and I am left pondering what I should do with the rest of the summer in terms of writing. My proposal is to read through Paul's writings at about two chapters a day on average asking the following questions:

1. What definition of sin does Paul operate with?
2. How does he depict the relationship between a non-believer and sin?
3. How does he depict the relationship between a believer and sin?

If I go in my ordering, 1 Thessalonians is the first book in the NT Paul wrote, so I'll start there.

1 Thessalonians 1
The word sin is not used in this chapter. The chapter of course has several delicious tidbits. There is Paul's praise of their "work of faith" (1:3), which shows that faith "works."

1:5 seems to indicate that "power" of some sort accompanied the reception of the gospel by the Thessalonians.

1:6 indicates that the believers at Thessalonica encountered suffering as a consequence of their faith.

1:8 refers to their "faith toward God," which I believe is indeed the default of Paul's thought rather than faith in Christ. It is not that the two contradict each other. I'm only trying to listen to the way Paul formulated such things.

1:9 comes the closest to a sin reference. Under question 2, Paul mentions that they had formerly served idols.

1:9--Clearly the Thessalonian church is primarily Gentile--they used to serve idols.

1:10 gives us some soteriology. First is the mention that God raised Jesus from the dead (notice that God is the active one in this statement, as in Acts). Also, Jesus rescues us from coming wrath, presumably the coming judgment of the world that will ensue when the Son returns from heaven.

1 Thessalonians 2
2:10: Here Paul describes the way he and Silas and Timothy were to those who believed at Thessalonica: they behaved "holily, righteously, and blamelessly." In the category of question 3, Paul apparently believes that a believer can live righteously.

2:12: Part of Paul's teaching to them was for them to walk "worthily of the God who called you into His own kingdom and glory." Again, there is clearly a sense of ethical expectation here.

2:16: Here is the first mention of "sins" in Paul's writings. Notice that it is plural, not singular. He apparently has in mind as sins here the opposition of Jews in Jerusalem to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, perhaps in addition to killing the Lord and the prophets. Sins here would appear to be opposition to God's will and plan.

Paul intriguingly says that wrath has finally come on them (if this is the right translation). What does he have in mind? This would be around 50-51. That's 10 years too late for Caligula, at least if we go with the sequence of Acts. Apparently the Roman procurator Cumanus killed some Jews during his tenure. Perhaps Paul has some recent event in mind.

Other tidbits:
2:2 confirms the sequence of Acts--persecuted in Philippi, continued to Thessalonica.

2:7--Paul identifies himself and at least Silas as "apostles," ambassadors sent on Christ's behalf.

2:9 seems to refer to Paul and Silas working night and day so that they would not have to rely on the patronage of the Thessalonians. We learn from Philippians 4:16 that the Philippians also aided Paul materially while he was in Thessalonica.

2:14--mention of the "assemblies of God" in Judea :-) This is a plural, showing that Paul tends to think of an assembly as an individual assembly.

The churches of God in Judea in Messiah Jesus apparently suffered from "the Jews." This is a very interesting reference since, well, they were Jews too. Is Paul thinking of the Hellenists (who were Jews too)? Is he using the word "Jew" in some sense like "Judean"? In any case, it would be wrong to read some full blown "parting of the ways" into this comment.

2:15--Paul indicates that he was "pursued out" of Judea by the Jews as well, those "who killed Jesus and the prophets." We might ask whether these are Christian prophets that Paul has in mind. It could of course be a reference to individuals like Stephen.

It would of course to build some sort of anti-Semitism out of this statement.

2:16--If we take Paul's comments straightforwardly, was he was already speaking to the Gentiles at that time or is he lumping all those Jews who have opposed him into this comment, including Judaizers?

2:18--Interesting that Paul singles himself out as having wanted to come to them. Does this imply anything about Silas?

Paul refers to "the Satan." This is the more apocalyptic version, as opposed to John and Hebrews' "Devil."

2:19--Paul expects the Lord to return while he and the Thessalonians are still alive. They will be a crown of boasting at Christ's return.

Sin Summary:
1. The operating definition of sin implied in these chapters is opposition to God. Idolatry is of course not worshipping God appropriately and violates the first commandment. Killing the Lord and his prophets is opposition to God's will.

2. Paul does not assume that the Thessalonians knowingly did not serve God prior to their turn to the true God. He does speak of their "election" (1:4). The Jews who opposed Christ and Paul may not know the truth either. Paul doesn't address the state of their knowledge.

3. Paul expects blamelessness and righteous living after a person trusts on the true God.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Christ as Mediator: King

Christ as King and God
As king, Jesus also plays a mediating role between God and the world. The Messiah is the "anointed one," understood in Jewish terms to be the king who would restore the fortunes of Israel (e.g., Ps. of Sol. 17:21-25). God would thus use the Messiah to liberate Israel from its oppressors and renew its relationship with him. We find in the New Testament traces of messianic thinking in relation to Israel proper. Jesus does not deny a future restoration of the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6, and Acts 3:20 addresses a Jewish audience as it extends hope that God "may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus" (cf. also Rom. 11:26).

Nevertheless, the New Testament expands the kingship of Christ well beyond the borders of Israel. The verse immediately following Acts 3:20 speaks of a coming apokata/stasis pa/ntwn in conjunction with Christ's return from heaven. Certainly part of Christ's kingship is now those who trust in him. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13 citing Joel 2:32). Since Christ is the way God has chosen to show his righteousness (cf. Rom. 1:17; 3:21; 10:3), submission to his lordship is submission to God's lordship.

For those who do not come to know the righteousness of God, whether Jew or Gentile, Christ will mediate judgment as God's representative. Indeed, "all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor. 5:10). Paul criticizes the Corinthians for their inability to make sound judgments among themselves when in fact "the saints will judge the world" (1 Cor. 6:2). Similarly, Matthew 19:28 predicts that Jesus' disciples will "sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." In these ways, therefore, Jesus will mediate God's royal authority over all the people of the earth.

Christ's mediation, however, extends even beyond the realm of mortals to the realm of angels and demonic forces (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:3). Jesus' earthly ministry already demonstrated this fact as Jesus declares, "if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20). Jesus' exorcisms thus mediated God's rule over the demonic forces that surrounded the earth to where Jesus could say that he "watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (Luke 10:18). Colossians, as it addresses a Jewish "philosophy" with a high view of angels, makes it clear that Jesus is the "firstborn of all creation" (1:15). All things were created through him--"things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers" (1:16). He is indeed the "head of every ruler and authority" (2:10).

The Philippian hymn captures this cosmic lordship of Christ over all creation well when it gives God's demand that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (2:10-11). Paul does not understand this lordship of Christ to be independent of God. It is rather a lordship that mediates God's lordship. The confession of Jesus as Lord is "to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:11). Indeed, the subordination of Christ's enemies to him occurs in preparation for the ultimate subordination of everything to God himself. "When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28).

Christ's kingship thus represents and mediates God the Father's kingship over the entire creation. Jesus Christ is Lord, but "the LORD says to my Lord" to sit at his right hand (Ps. 110:1; cf. Mark 12:36-37). Jesus Christ is God whose throne is forever and ever (Heb. 1:8), but "God, your God, has anointed you" (Heb. 1:9). In each case, the lordship and divinity of Christ is subordinate and representative of the ultimate lordship and divinity of God the Father. Christ's kingship over the cosmos thus serves to mediate the kingship of God the Father.

Christ as Mediator: Priest

Christ as Priest and Servant of God
Romans 8:34 indicates that Christ intercedes for us at the right hand of God. This statement may very well indicate that already by the time of Paul, some Christians had begun to think of Christ in priestly terms. Certainly the idea that Christ is a sacrifice appears in the earliest writings of the New Testament. Romans 3:25 may very well draw on an early Christian affirmation Paul himself inherited when it says that God put Jesus "forward as a sacrifice of atonement." Romans 8:3 may refer to Jesus' death as a sin offering, and 1 Corinthians 5:7 pictures Christ as a Passover lamb.

We can imagine that it did not take long before Jesus' death on the cross was interpreted in sacrificial and salvific categories. Indeed, it is possible that Jesus anticipated his own death and drew an analogy between it and the Passover lamb. The logion in Mark 10:45 surely indicates what at the very least must have been an early understanding of Jesus' death: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." This saying may very well presuppose an identification of Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, God's servant who "shall make many righteous" (Isa. 53:11).

If some dispute the allusion to Isaiah 53 in Mark, Luke 22:37 actually cites Isaiah 53:12 in relation to Jesus' approaching death. Acts 3:13 and 26 refer to Jesus as a pais, using the same word for servant as Isaiah 53. Further, Philip explicitly interprets Isaiah 53:7-8 for the Ethiopian eunuch in reference to Jesus' death. It is a more than reasonable conclusion that many early Christians also read Isaiah 53:6 in reference to Christ's death: "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Therefore, Christ's death served to mediate atonement and reconciliation with God in the manner of a sacrifice. Several Jewish texts are regularly brought into discussion of how the early Christians might have conceptualized the mediating value of Christ's death. Wisdom 2-3 wrestles with the son of God who has died an unjust death at the hands of the ungodly. The souls of such individuals are said to be in the hand of God (3:1), who has accepted them "like a sacrificial burnt offering" (3:6). In 2 Maccabees 7:38, one of seven brothers faces his impending death in hope "through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation." Then most explicitly, 4 Maccabees 6:28-29, a text roughly contemporary with Paul, narrates a righteous martyr asking God to "let our punishment suffice for them [Israel]. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs." While we can debate the precise nuances of these passages, they indicate a common understanding among certain Jews that a righteous individual's death might have mediating value of some sort in the relationship between God and mortals.

It is one thing to consider Christ's death as a sacrifice. The book of Hebrews goes one step further and pictures Christ as the consummate high priest offering the only truly effective sacrifice of all time. While Romans 8:34 may allude to Christ as a priest in some way, Hebrews is the only book in the New Testament explicitly to refer to him as such. The concept of Christ as both priest and sacrifice is heavily metaphorical. The literal picture of a high priest offering himself on an altar stretches the imagination and, in any case, does not fit with the imagery of Hebrews.

The other sacrificial imagery in the New Testament does not demand that Christ's death be the end of the sacrificial system (cf. Acts 21:26). Nor does it indicate that Christ's death might in some way atone for the righteous under the old covenant. In this respect, Hebrews presents startling claims with regard to the priestly mediation of Christ. It claims that none of the sacrifices under the old covenant were actually able to take away sins (10:11). Accordingly, none of the witnesses to faith in the old covenant could be made perfect until the sacrifice of Christ (11:13, 40). By contrast, "by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (10:14). The priestly mediation of Christ is thus universal in scope and time, the only effective means of atonement and reconciliation between God and humanity.

Half of the actual occurrences of the Greek word mesites actually occur in Hebrews (8:6; 9:15; 12:24). The word in each case refers to Christ's role as the mediator of a new covenant. This new covenant, in contrast to the covenant mediated through Moses, bodes better promises (8:6). For Hebrews, this is the promise of true redemption (9:15), of the actual forgiveness of sins. The blood of the new covenant "speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (12:24; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). Hebrews thus conceptualizes Christ as mediator almost completely in cultic terms.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Christ as Mediator: Prophet

I want to think a little about Christ as mediator in the New Testament, seeing how far I can get with the basic rubric of prophet, priest, and king.

Christ as Prophet and Word of God
Luke 4:16-21 understands Jesus' earthly mission in prophetic terms. The Gospel of Luke presents Isaiah 61:1-2 as the appropriate interpretive lens through which to view Jesus' mission. The Spirit of the Lord anointed Jesus to mediate and proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, and sight to the blind. Jesus likely referred to himself as a prophet on more than one occasion (e.g., Matt. 13:57; Luke 13:33), and others also seem to have understood him in this way (e.g., Matt. 21:11; Mark 6:15).

The book of Acts understood Jesus to be the prophet like Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15 (3:22; 7:37), and the Gospel of John alludes to this passage in more than one instance in relation to Christ (John 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). God's statement at the Transfiguration that the disciples were to "Listen" to Jesus (Mark 9:7) draws on the same verse in Deuteronomy. Jesus' role as a prophet in these passages seems not so much about specific prophecies that he uttered on earth. Rather, Jesus' prophetic "word" here seems more directly related to the more abstract "word of salvation" proclaimed through his incarnation (cf. John 6:14), death, and resurrection (cf. Heb. 2:3). Jesus as prophet is the "apostle" of our confession (Heb. 3:1) whom God sent as a mediator to reconcile the world to himself (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18).

We can thus speak of Jesus' prophetic mediation on two levels. On one level, Jesus functioned in Galilee as a prophet who brought on God's behalf both good news to the "lost sheep of Israel" and warnings of coming judgment. The miracles he performs echo those of Elijah and Elisha, and his symbolic acts find their meaning against the backdrop of the words of prophets like Jeremiah (e.g., Jer. 7:11). On another level, Christ's cosmic ministry brokers a new covenant with all humanity, as Moses brokered the first covenant with Israel. Early Christians likely conceptualized such mediation through the lens of patron-client relationships, with Christ as the designated broker of God's grace.

John 1:17 gives one perspective on these two mediations: "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The idea that Christ brokered God's gracious patronage to both Jew and Gentile is a key concept for Paul's writings. The "law brings wrath" (Rom. 4:15) "since all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Salvation, escape from God's wrath, is a gift of God (cf. Eph. 2:8) that follows from God's willingness to justify the ungodly on the basis of their faith (Rom. 4:5). Justification thus "depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace" (Rom. 4:16).

For Paul, such grace can no longer come directly, as it apparently did in the case of Abraham, who "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:3; Gen. 15:6). God has rather brokered this new covenant through Jesus Christ. Several New Testament writers emphasize the exclusivity of this path to God: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12), and "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Salvation is possible now because of the consummate mediatorial act Paul describes as the faith of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16), his obedience "to the point of death" (Phil. 2:8). Only "by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). The New Testament thus seems not only to understand Christ as a broker of God's grace, but indeed the only truly effective broker.

Paul presents the cosmic scope of this mediation through the image of Christ as the "last Adam." "[S]in came into the world through one man," Adam, "and death came through sin" (Rom. 5:12). By contrast, with Christ, "one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all" (Rom. 5:18). "The first man, Adam, became a living being" but "the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Cor. 15:45). Indeed, the exalted Christ has brokered a new covenant in which the Spirit of Christ inhabits the renewed children of God (cf. Rom. 8:9, 14; 2 Cor. 3:6).

Christ is thus a prophetic mediator well beyond the bounds of any Old Testament prophet, including Moses. "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). This prophetic logos is the very Word of God itself. The Gospel of John draws on the Middle Platonic idea of God's logos and applies it to Jesus as the very will and purpose of God for the world. For this reason the New Testament can speak of Christ as the instrument of God in creation, the one "through whom he also created the worlds" (Heb. 1:2; cf. John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16).

From one point of view, Christ is thus God's highest ambassador to the world. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). Christ is God's consummate apostle (Heb. 3:1), sent with the commission to bring salvation to all who believe. He is the very Word of God (John 1:1) who is one with the Father (e.g., John 10:30; 17:11). He is the ultimate prophet, through whom God has proclaimed and effected reconciliation with the world (2 Cor. 5:19).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Moses and Law in mediation

I'm continuing to turn the soil to reformulate, refine, and revise subsequently. Today I'm asking how Moses and the Law might have served mediating roles between God and Israel.

For Moses, there is of course his role in mediating the exodus. God sends him to Pharaoh (Exod. 3:10) and to Israel (3:13). God makes him as a god to Pharaoh, thus mediating God's authority to Pharaoh (7:1). Moses' role in these pages is very prophet-like in some ways.

Indeed, Deuteronomy 18:15 predicts the future rise of a "prophet like me." Regardless of who Deuteronomy originally had in mind, the passage clearly categorizes Moses as a prophet, in whom God "will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command" (Deut. 18:18). Many scholars (although probably not evangelical ones) think this might have originally referred to Josiah. If so, the passage leans toward a "king-prophet" type. Certainly when we take the passage in relation to Christ, this is the case.

Exodus 20:18-21 gives us a striking picture of Moses as mediator between God and Israel, striking in that the people beg Moses to be the one who talks to God. They are afraid of the thunder and lightning coming from the mountain. Deuteronomy 5:5 refers to the same event, saying, "At that time I was standing between the LORD and you to declare to you the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain."

Leviticus 26:46 is quite straightforward about Moses as mediator of the law: "These are the statutes and ordinances and laws that the LORD established between himself and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai through Moses." The wording is very similar to Galatians 3:46, so Moses is the mediator through whom the Law came.

So Moses was a foundational mediator between God and Israel. God used Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. God used Moses to reveal the Law to Israel. The people relied on Moses to mediate these things because they were afraid. These roles are primarily prophetic, but at the same time lean a little toward the kind of mediation a king would provide for a people in relation to God.

At the same time, Moses interceded for the people as well, just as Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah. This is a prophetic function as well.

When Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded with God not to destroy them (Exod. 32:11-14). Moses suggests that God doesn't want the Egyptians to be able to speak ill of God if He should destroy Israel in the desert. Moses reminds God of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In result, the LORD changes His mind (Exod. 32:14).

[By the way, this is high anthropomorphism from a Christian standpoint, although we have no reason to think the ancient Israelites might not have understood it literally. From a Christian standpoint, an omniscient God always knew these things would happen and can't be reminded of things by a human]

The Law itself was key to Israel's relationship with God, particularly in the post-exilic period. The evidence we have from Judges, Samuel, and Kings suggests that the Law played a negligible role in the life of Israel until the days of Josiah, and even then it is probably the book of Deuteronomy that began to take on a normative role.

In particular, Deuteronomy 28 sets out an extensive list of blessings and curses that follow in consequence of Israel either keeping or violating the law. The deuteronomistic history of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings understands the vicissitudes of Israel's fortune in the particular light of whether Israel served other gods or not.

From the time of Ezra's reforms, however, the Law in its fuller Exodus-Leviticus form seems to come into fuller play. Jeremiah 7:22 seems to imply that Jeremiah knows nothing of Levitical law at the hands of Moses. Malachi in particular (400's) refers finally to the statutes delivered to Moses (notice the striking absence of such rhetoric in the pre-exilic prophets and books like Judges, Samuel, and Kings). The Sabbath also seems suddenly to become more important from the late exile on.

In the intertestamental period, high priest seem to have become the focus of political and religious power in Israel. In that sense, the primary role of mediation between God and humanity came through a priestly channel. But it was probably not until the Maccabean period that the Law as we think of it took on full force within Palestinian Jewish life, and even then probably only in certain sects like the Hasidim (who become the Pharisees) and the Enochics (who become the Essenes).

The Sadducees are probably the heirs of the temple priestly class displaced by the Maccabean priests (the Hasmoneans). Since the roots of the Diaspora are prior to this period, we should not be surprised to find forms of Judaism outside Palestine that surprise us, such as the Jews at Elephantine who had a temple of their own. Even within Palestine the Samaritans had their own version of the Pentateuch and had no sense of obligation to the Jerusalem temple.

Although we can question how extensive E. P. Sanders' "covenantal nomism" was within Judaism. It certainly does describe some of the sects we mention above. For these, the Law in its canonical form was seen as the mediating factor between God and Israel. If Israel kept the Law, God would restore her land to her. If not, Israel's enslavement to the Romans would continue.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Servant of the LORD and mediation

We traditionally speak of four "servant songs" in the middle of Isaiah.

1. The first appears in Isaiah 42:1-4. This servant will bring forth justice to the nations. I might incidentally that I'm working on this for a dictionary article, so I'm first asking what the likely original meaning of these passages was in their literary contexts.

The context of this portion of Isaiah is the late exile, whether one thinks it was written at that time or prophesied by Isaiah himself some 200 years earlier. 45:1 mentions Cyrus king of Persia and calls him God's "anointed." Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem in 538BC. In context, therefore, Cyrus is one candidate for the servant of the LORD in chapter 42.

However, Isaiah 41:8 identifies the servant as "Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen." Therefore, inductively, we should work on the assumption that the servant of the LORD is Israel unless other contexts push us in a different direction.

Israel is thus a mediator through whom God will bring justice to the earth, and God does this by placing His spirit on "him" (42:1).

Other images of God's servant appear in the chapters that follow. 42:19 speaks of the servant of the LORD as blind and deaf. 42:22 make it clear that God is talking about His people, Israel, who has been robbed and plundered. And God himself is the one who gave them up because of their sin (42:24).

43:10 also refers to Israel as "my servant." This identity is clear because God sends off for them in Babylon in 43:14-15. 44:1-2 again refer to "Jacob, my servant." 44:21 again, "O Jacob and Israel... my servant," and their transgressions are mentioned (44:22).

44:26 mentions a servant of God that is slightly different in nuance. Here God says that He confirms "the word of his servant, and fulfills the prediction of his messengers." Here we see the first blurring of servant language. We might think of Israel as the servant predicting its own restoration. But this in practice would have to be a synecdoche, the whole for the part. Messages of this sort come from individuals. One might easily suggest that the servant language here alludes to a prophetic voice speaking for Israel, a "prophetic" mediator of some sort, predicting the restoration of Judah and the edict of Cyrus.

By 45:4, we are back to Jacob as God's servant. 48:20 also mentions "his servant Jacob."

2. The second servant song appears in 49:1-6.

This passage is confusing. At one point, the text reads, "you are my servant, Israel" (49:3). But the rest of the passage seems to read as if the servant is a "mediator" between God and Israel: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel" (49:6). Here the servant sounds more like Cyrus or some leader of Israel who is restoring Israel. Otherwise Israel is God's servant to raise up Israel.

There are a few possibilities of what might be going on here. One is that an individual is embodying Israel here. "You are my servant Israel" would then mean, "you are representing Israel." This would fit with what we saw in 44:26.

Cyrus is alluded to in 48:14-15. And someone says, "the Lord GOD has sent me and his spirit" (48:16). This "me" in 48:16 is intriguing. "Draw near to me ... the Lord GOD has sent me." This cannot be God. Then 49:1, "Listen to me ... the LORD called me..." This again is not God.

It doesn't seem to be Cyrus either. If it were Cyrus, these words would be placed on his lips as a literary device and he would metaphorically be saying that God formed him to bring Jacob back to God. It seems much more likely to me that this is a prophetic voice at the point of Israel's return from exile.

If so, this person seems to represent Israel (49:3) and will be instrumental in Israel's return from Babylon (49:6). This speaks of a mediatorial role probably beyond that of a prophet. Of the names available to us, Sheshbazzar, the "prince of Judah," has to be high on the list of possibilities (cf. Ezra 1:8; 5:14), for he is possibly of royal descent and did in fact lead the Jews back to Jerusalem. Of course these things are much debated and disputed.

3. The third servant song appears in Isaiah 50:4-11.

This passage has an even more striking tone of an individual, "The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher" (50:4). It is of course conceivable that the entire passage is to be understood as Israel speaking. But then who is the servant of 50:10 talking to, "who among you ... obeys the voice of his servant"? We are possibly pushed again toward some prophetic mediator for God with his people. Hard again to say. I've always sympathized with the Ethiopian eunuch who couldn't figure out who Isaiah 53 was about.

4. The fourth servant song is 52:13-53:12, the classic text.

As I look at this text now after looking at the others, it actually seems less ambiguous. Throughout this section of Isaiah, the primary referent for the servant has been Israel, stated explicitly time and time again. In a couple instances, the servant language has blurred over into someone who seems to have played a prophetic and/or leadership role in the return of Israel from Babylon.

The lead up to Isaiah 53 reads like a procession of Israel from Babylon back to Jerusalem. How beautiful are the feet of them who bring the good news of Israel's return from exile (52:7). The ruins of Jerusalem break forth into singing (52:9). Holy vessels are being carried, as Ezra 1:8-11 indicates Sheshbazzar brought back with him.

So the servant who is marred beyond human likeness is Israel returning from exile. Israel was rejected in Babylon, paid for its own sins with its suffering, like a sin offering. But the restored servant will divide the spoil with the strong (53:12). Given the overall context of this part of Isaiah, this interpretation makes the most sense. "For a brief moment I abandoned you [Israel], but with great compassion I will gather you" (54:7).

It is figurative language which turns on itself if taken too literally. Israel itself mediates atonement for Israel itself. It is a beautiful set of imagery for the salvation of Israel. Of course the NT will find in it a parable of Jesus Christ, the consummate servant of the LORD.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Paul 4.3

On the second Sabbath, Lydia, one of the women, believed on Jesus as the Messiah. She was not a Jew, but worshipped the one true God along with others who were Jews. Lydia was originally from the city of Thyatira and was wealthy, for she sold purple cloth, the material of kings.

Lydia had brought her whole family to the river that Sabbath, including her husband. They also believed on Christ and were baptized in the Gangites River, even her youngest child who was two. Once they were baptized, she invited Silas, Timothy, and I to stay in her home. And so we did.

Steadily the number of believers in the city grew. Epaphroditus and Clement, Euodia and Syntyche were some of the earliest. We immediately recognized in Epaphroditus and Clement individuals who might oversee the Christians at Philippi long after we had left. Lydia would also help as long as she was there, but as a trader she would not stay in the city forever. It was not long before the church was meeting in Epaphroditus' house.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Paul 4.2

We found a ship headed off along the coast of Macedonia and boarded it. It set out first for the island of Samothrace, where we stayed overnight. The next day it headed for Neapolis, on the southern coast of Macedonia, where we got off with our things. From there it was less than a day's journey along the Via Egnatia to Philippi.

Philippi was a Roman colony. It's official language was Latin, although we had no problem speaking Greek there. Luke had some relatives in the city, who were glad to put us up until we could arrange other accommodations. I set myself up in the marketplace the next day to repair leather goods like tents and such. Then I tried to tell whoever came within earshot about the Messiah.

We were shocked that in such a significant city there was no synagogue to be found. When the Sabbath came, we figured there might be a place of prayer along the Gangites river. Perhaps there were not enough Jewish men in the city to form a synagogue or none of them had a large enough home in which to meet.

Sure enough, we found a group of women praying at dawn along the Gangites. I told them that we were Jews and asked if we might worship with them. When it was time, I asked if I might read the Scripture. Then I presented the good news that the Messiah had indeed come, the hope of Israel. They were excited at the message, and invited me to return the next week to come speak to them again.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Theology Sundays: God as Loving

It is sometimes said that God is a God of wrath in the OT but a God of love in the NT. This of course is not true, even if it is not difficult to see where the idea comes from. God is both said to be gracious and compassionate in the OT and is wrathful in the NT.

It would probably be fair to say that in the bulk of the OT, God loves Israel but is not particularly "loving" toward its enemies. Nevertheless, there are also hints of a broader view, such as we find in Jonah, Ruth, and legislation that is favorable toward the stranger in the land. And of course God's love for Israel does not keep Him from judgment either of individuals in it or of the nation as a whole. Judgment is not unloving in itself.

In Genesis, Noah found favor in God's eyes, but we find no mention of love for those who die in the Flood. God is sorry that He made humanity, which might indicate a hope to love all humanity (Gen. 6:6). God chooses and calls Abraham, and He is willing to show mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous people can be found. But He does not find ten, and the cities are destroyed. His willingness to spare a large number for the sake of a few, however, seems to point toward a merciful dimension to God's character even though He has favorites.

In the rest of the OT, we find more than one perspective on those outside of Israel. On the one hand, Deuteronomy 7:7 indicates that God loves Israel and chose Israel in preference to all the other nations of the earth. God promises to defend Israel against them (7:19). Yet God also tells Israel "Do not deprive the alien or the orphan of justice... remember you were slaves in Egypt" (Deut. 24:17-18). The alien is also given from the tithe of produce collected in the third year (Deut. 26:12). These comments assume that there will be non-Israelites living with Israel, and it puts them in the category of the orphan and widow.

Other parts of the OT assume a completely hostile stance toward those outside of Israel. In Joshua, God rebukes Israel for letting the Gibeonites deceive them to get mercy, even though they apparently mean Israel no harm (Josh. 9). Conquered cities like Jericho and Ai are to be whole burnt offerings in which even infants and animals must not be spared. In Ezra, the Israelite males are forced to divorce the foreign wives they have married and put away the children of those marriages (Ezra 9-10). No regard is given for whether these women might be willing to join Israel's covenant. In these instances there seems little room for anyone outside Israel to be favored by God.

This attitude seems in significant tension with that of Ruth, where a Moabitess is free to join Israel. Also, the very point of Jonah's moral failure derives from an attitude toward Nineveh similar to that Joshua and Ezra espouse toward non-Israelities. Of course what is most striking in Jonah is that Nineveh is the nation that will destroy the northern kingdom. Its author could hardly not have known this fact. God is willing to have mercy on one of Israel's most bitter enemies.

Jonah is the point of the OT most on trajectory to the NT. It contrasts interestingly with Nahum's stance toward Nineveh: "The LORD has given a command concerning you, Ninevah: 'You will have no descendants to bear your name'" (Nahum 1:14). Psalm 137:9 similarly expresses that "blessed is the one who takes your [Babylon] babies and dashes them against the rocks." But for Jonah, "you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and full of mercy, and you change your mind about sending evil" (4:2). Nahum also says that God is "slow to anger" (Nahum 1:3), but does not mention the possibility that God might change his mind if Nineveh repents.

2 Maccabees 7 has a very interesting perspective on the way God deals with the sins of Israel as opposed to the sins of other nations. With the other nations, Maccabees proposes, God stores up his wrath until it has reached a certain point where He entirely consumes the foreign people. But with Israel, He punishes them as they go along and so never completely destroys them. Here God's love for Israel is shown even in the way God punishes them, in contrast to the way He punishes other nations with total annihilation.

It is of course in the NT that we get a more consistent picture of God as loving toward all humanity, not only Israel. And God's love is shown not just toward those who love Him by keeping His commandments, but also on the prodigal and on the sinner. There is mercy for the intentional sinner as well as for the unintentional one.

The OT of course has instances of forgiveness for intentional sin. David sins with Bathsheba and with numbering the children of Israel. In both cases he is able to find "atonement" and reconciliation with God. But Numbers 15 "officially" provides atonement only for unintentional sins. The sacrificial system is not meant to provide for so called "sins with a high hand."

Yet one of the hallmarks of Jesus' earthly ministry is his reclamation of the "lost sheep of Israel," those who were lost to the covenant: prostitutes, toll collectors, etc. Jesus never affirms the sins of such individuals, but he makes it clear that God wants to reclaim them. This love for the lost, for the condemned, extends in the NT beyond the lost sheep of Israel to the lost of the world.

Further, this love for the sinners of the world is cosmic in scope. "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes on him will not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Note that the comment is that God loved the world and sent His Son for our sake because He loved us. He is not said to send the Son because He loved Himself or for His own sake. Also, there is not sense here of Jesus coming for the elect. The impression is that Jesus truly came for all.

Romans 5:7-8 similarly points out how phenomenal God's love for His enemies is. Some might give their life for a good person, but God demonstrates His love for "us" in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly, for His enemies. The implication is that God loves even His enemies.

Matthew 5:43-48 explicitly implies the same. There is no honor in loving only those who love you. God is "perfect," "complete" in this regard. He sends rain both on the just who love Him and on the unjust who don't. Since rain falls on everyone, it is clear that God loves even those who never respond positively to His gracious offering. We are likewise called to go the rest of the way and be complete as our Father in heaven is complete.

1 John 4:7-8 tell us that God is love and that Christians are to love one another because God is love. This is, of course, not a literal statement, as if you could put God's "cells" or "atoms" under a microscope and declare, "Hey, what do you know, God literally is love." This is a metonymy indicating that love is so associated with God and how God behaves that we can metaphorically say that God is love.

If omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipotence then tell us what God can do, love tells us what He will do. Love implies a number of other associated terms that depict how God acts. God is merciful, which means that He does not always insist that we experiences the consequences of our actions. God is gracious, which means that He is inclined to give us what we could never earn. He is slow to anger, which means that He does not necessarily administer justice to us when we deserve it--He gives us time to repent. And it is not just the elect, not just the friends of God who God treats this way. He shows His love for the whole world by treating His enemies this way as well.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice

There's a steady stream of critique of sacrifice as an effective medium between Israel and Yahweh. I thought I would lay out some of the verses here as I process this dimension of the OT:

Psalm 51:16-19--"You have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

"Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar" (NRSV).

This psalm is of course usually located in relation to David's sin with Bathsheba. This is the current heading to the psalm (which is not inspired). Certainly the psalm has a richness when read in that light.

But the final two verses make it clear that the psalm--at least in its current form--could not come from David but must date to period between Jerusalem's destruction and when Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of the city.

In this context, these words are not a wholesale rejection of sacrifice but a sense that sacrifice is of no value if a person is not truly repentant.

Isaiah 1:11-13, 15-17--"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

"When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me... I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity ... even though you make many prayers, I will not listen... Wash yourselves ... learn to do goo; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow..."

Here we have the same basic theme as Psalm 51. Sacrifice really isn't that important to God. What is really important is obedience, and obedience has to do not with going through motions but with justice in the prophetic sense.

Micah 6:6-8--"With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings... Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams... Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression... what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

As with the other passages, there is no sense of any need for a Levitical system. Micah, like Isaiah, indicates that what the LORD requires is justice (in the prophetic sense), not sacrifice.

Similar to this passage is
Amos 5:21-24--"I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them... But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Hosea 6:6--"For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

Psalm 40:6-8--"Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, 'Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart."

Hebrews of course reads this passage against the backdrop of Christ and can build its case quite well off of a change that took place in the text of this psalm by the time it was translated into Greek ("a body you have prepared for me").

The psalm itself is different from Psalm 51 in that the individual in question is not repenting of sin but actually thanking God for rescue and seeking deliverance. The rejection of sacrifice in this context is more striking than in the passages above in that sacrifice is not contrasted with justice or a right attitude. The psalmist simply says that obdience and willingness to obey God's law is what He wants.

1 Samuel 15:22--"Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice..."

This is the classic moment where Saul has sacrificed without waiting for Samuel. This statement does not reject sacrifice, but clearly places obedience as far more important.

Psalm 50:8-15--"Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house... For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills... If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving... Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you..."

This is a fascinating argument against one of the functions that sacrifice plays in many cultures, indeed, that is alluded to in various biblical texts. This is the idea that sacrifices feed and empower the god. It is the image evoked from those biblical passages that speak of a "sweet smelling savor" before the LORD.

But this psalm rejects that function for sacrifice. God couldn't care less. He is interested in right living and thanksgiving for His favor.

A final text is very interesting indeed:
Jeremiah 7:21-22--"Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, 'Obey my voice, and I will be your God..."

A look at Jeremiah 6:20 and 7:18 places this statement in context. Sacrifices are not part of God's original covenant with Israel, obedience was. By the way, the NIV adds the word "just" here because otherwise the verse seems to imply that Leviticus was either not known or not accepted by Jeremiah.

If the other prophets were similarly unaware of the tradition that saw the Levitical system as instituted by Moses, that has certain implications for how we take their comments about sacrifices. In particular, prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and the psalmists would not see sacrifice as a "biblical" mandate (a little anachronistic to use the word "biblical" for their time period) but as something that was truly unimportant to God.

Of course I suspect most of us find this "prophetic critique" of sacrifice encouraging, although it does wreak havoc with those who hold to a rigid penal substitution view of atonement. Apparently, God does not need a sacrificial surrogate to allow Him to forgive sins or accept humanity.

Even Hebrews, which says that "without blood shedding there is no remission of sins" (10:22), in my opinion does not represent some mechanistic view of the need for sacrifice. After all, where does the author go with this idea? Where he goes is to the fact that there is no more need for sacrifice because Christ has taken care of it. In my opinion, the Hellenistic author has no real commitment to the need for blood sacrifice, but finds in that idea the possibility of arguing that no more blood sacrifice is ever need again!

Some thoughts...