Monthly Archives: February 2013

Scripture Behaving Badly in Rome

In my last few posts on Romans 5, I’ve claimed that Paul isn’t necessarily recounting salvation history.  He’s speaking of these things to fully describe the two realms up and running within creation—the cosmic realm called “Adam,” and the cosmic realm called “the grace-gift.”

In “Adam,” the cosmic power of Sin reigns, Adam’s transgression dominates and effects the condemnation of everyone in that sphere.

Verses 20-21 have usually been interpreted as a salvation-historical account of the Law’s entrance onto the redemptive stage.  Paul appears to speak negatively of its introduction: it led to the increase in transgressions (v. 20).  Lutheran and Reformed theologies rely upon this statement to support various purposes or functions of the Law.

I don’t think Paul is speaking salvation-historically here, however.  I think he’s referring directly to the situation the Roman churches are facing.

He’s referring to the renewed emphasis on the Law and Jewish identity with the return of Jewish-Christians from expulsion in 54 CE.  They have returned to find the corporate life of the Roman church(es) far less Jewish than when they left five years earlier, so they are re-emphasizing the Law, along with the Jewish calendar and Jewish patterns of community life.

Because of this, however, the mixed-race Roman Christian community is divided and discouraged.

Romans 5:20-21 can be read as follows:

The Law came in (to Rome) with the result that transgressions would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded even more, so that as sin reigned in (spreading) death (throughout the Roman community), grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is not referring to how the Law reveals human sinfulness in light of the revelation of God’s righteous character.  He’s talking about how the renewed emphasis on the Mosaic Law is making the Jewish Christians constantly point out how the non-Jewish Christians fall short of their standards.  They are creating an endless list of “transgressions” of the ways that the gentiles among them don’t conform to the Jewish practices they are re-instituting.

They are using Scripture to drive the gentile Christians back into their previously subordinate position in the church(es).  Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8 is that such a strategy is an unintended alliance with the aims of Sin and Death, cosmic powers seeking to destroy the Roman community through discouragement and division.

So, when Paul says that “the Law came in,” he’s not referring to the original giving of the Mosaic Law, but to the return of the Jewish Christians after being banished, and their re-emphasis on the Mosaic Law to restore the largely Jewish character of the Roman Christian community.

Tomorrow, I’ll cite some historical evidence to back up this reading of vv. 20-21.

But for now, this reading once again highlights how Romans is a resource for conflict resolution, especially for churches that are divided with various factions seeking to endorse their claims by citing Scripture.

Using the Bible to marginalize others or to exalt ourselves at others’ expense is using Scripture within the cosmic realm called “Adam,” with the result that Sin hijacks it and turns it into a means of discouragement and division.  As Paul will argue in Romans 7, that’s not a problem with the Law, but a disastrous situation that reveals the sinfulness of Sin.


Jesus & the Contagion of Purity

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly touching people.  Not only this, but he touches people he isn’t supposed to be touching, according to the purity codes of his culture.

In Mark 1, Jesus heals a leper:

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed (Mark 1:40-42).

In Mark 5:21-43, Mark wraps one healing story within another, and there’s loads of touching going on.

Jairus pleads, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.”

As Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ house, a woman with a long-term bleeding condition presses through the crowd and secretly touches Jesus.  Mark emphasizes her contact with him:

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (vv. 24-34).

In vv. 35-43, Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house and his daughter has already died.  Jesus heals her by taking her hand (v. 41).

In this double account, Jesus is doubly unclean.  According to Leviticus 15, touching a bleeding person makes him unclean, and according to Numbers 19, touching a dead body makes him unclean.

Mark intensifies things in 7:31-37, with Jesus doing all sorts of touching—he puts his fingers in the man’s ears and seems to exchange spittle with him!  This is not only disgusting to modern readers but extremely offensive in an ancient near eastern context.

This is happening all over the place in Mark.  Jesus hangs out with the all the wrong people (Mark 2:15-17) and he touches everyone he isn’t supposed to touch.

Why all the touching?

For Mark, the Kingdom of God is an invasion of purity.  The Kingdom of God is sanctifying space.  Wherever Jesus is, that’s where the presence of God’s Kingdom is located, and its power is reversing old patterns and dynamics.

It’s no longer the case that touching unclean people makes one unclean.  When Jesus touches unclean people, they are healed and made clean.

In the Kingdom of God purity is contagious.

This is an affirmation that all are welcome to join God’s Kingdom.  It’s also a challenge to God’s people to embody Jesus’ glad invitation to marginalized groups to fully participate in the Kingdom of God.

It seems to me that this is also an invitation to churches to consider how they may have unintentionally made certain people feel unwelcome.  Do certain ethnicities feel out of place in our churches?  How about divorced people?  Do single mothers feel that they don’t belong in our communities?

Mark invites us to consider how we can transform our imaginations and community dynamics so that all are welcome and no one feels “unclean.”


The Pastoral Promise of Paul’s Apocalyptic

In my last two posts on Romans 5 (here and here), I wrote that Paul speaks of justification as God’s having acted powerfully on behalf of the Roman Christians.  They are not only declared righteous, they are transformed, rectified, made new, transferred into a new cosmic realm called “this grace.”  They take up a new location that has a range of Spirit-empowered dynamics operating within it.

They inhabit a life-giving realm in which there is constant renewal and transformation.

They no longer inhabit the realm in which Sin reigns and in which Death operates.  These cosmic powers are in league with “the Flesh” in the realm called “Adam” into which all humanity is naturally born.  It is the realm in which relationships break down, groups agitate for dominance over one another, rivalries proliferate and escalate, and communities come undone.

The realm called “Adam” is headed for destruction, while the realm called “the gift” is headed for ultimate transformation into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

This apocalyptic scenario of two realms operating within the world might be a bit mind-bending for most Western Christians accustomed to thinking of salvation in terms of “what happens to me, within my heart,” but there is loads of payoff for reflection on Christian realities.  That’s why Paul thinks from this scenario in most of his letters.

When Paul sees rival groups developing in churches (e.g., Rome, Corinth, Galatia), he analyzes the situation in terms of communal behaviors that are stirring up the dynamics of destructive cosmic powers.  When one group makes a power-move over-against another, Paul warns them that they are “sowing to the Flesh,” unleashing into the community the dynamics of Sin, Death, and Flesh.

The results can only be destructive.

Because these dynamics are at work, such moves provoke responses of sinful anger, escalating the situation and inviting malicious and outraged counter-responses.

Paul sees these things going on in the Galatian churches and warns them that “if you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15).

He goes on to tell them how they can determine if the power of the Spirit is operative in their community (vv. 22-25), or if the cosmic power of the Flesh has taken over (vv. 19-21).

When rivalries develop in a church, each group imagines that it is doing God’s will, so it will call upon Scripture to endorse its claims.  It may even come up with slogans to rally the troops and assert its claims over others (e.g., “to the Jew first, and then to the Greek!”).

This is Paul’s point—in my opinion—in Romans 7.  Some in the Roman church(es) are using Scripture to endorse their claims and imagine that their motives are pure in doing so.  But they are unwittingly making Scripture an ally of Sin as it seeks to destroy the Roman church(es).

This approach can bear much fruit for pastors and church leaders as they seek to resolve conflicts in their communities.  Are there rivalries, competing sides, outbreaks of malice, slander, and gossip?  Is the community stuck in cycles of retaliation and revenge?

In some way, corrupted communal behaviors are stirring up the destructive dynamics of Sin, Death, and Flesh.

Pastors can identify destructive behaviors and creatively come up with alternative behaviors that flow from the realm called “this grace,” or, “in Christ.”  Such behaviors and relational postures stir up the life-giving and renewing power of the Spirit so that communities may be healed and reconciliation can occur.

This is Paul’s strategy when he writes to reverse communal breakdown.  This approach has so many implications for churches, relationships, marriages, and families, and it’s the strategy Paul adopts throughout Romans 5-8.


Learning to Receive the Gospel

*A homily, originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Feb. 7, 2009.

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

2 Kings 4:8-37
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39
Psalm 142

We are in the season of the Christian year between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  As we’ve said over the last several weeks, this season focuses on the church’s mission to make God known to the world.

How might this look?  What are some of your initial impressions when you hear this?  What sort of sense does this leave you with?  We might think like this: We’ve got work to do.  It’s up to us to make God known, so we’ve got to get some initiatives going.  We need to make a plan, get organized, get motivated, get mobilized.  We need to get everyone excited to evangelize, get some flashy lights, loud music, put up some banners, and come up with a slick motto that we can put on the marquee out front.  And right when all the momentum starts to die and we get a bit worn out, then we’ll have to start using guilt as a motivator.  “God did so much for you, the least you could do is . . .”  It’s pretty familiar and we all know the drill fairly well.

But how might these passages re-shape, re-form, and re-configure how we think about our task of making God known to the world?

As a reminder, at Midtown we follow the church lectionary.  We don’t focus on just one passage of Scripture, a method which has a lot of value—there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  We focus on a number of passages set together, because often in comparing passages, there is a deeper Scriptural logic that emerges into view.  We look across these texts, taken together, to note their contours and the basic shape that Christian discipleship is to take.  And we’re always asking, “what are the ways of God with his people?”  “What is God like, and what does he want from us?”

As we do that, therefore, with these texts, what is the Scriptural logic that informs how we make God known?

We can ask the question of our texts in this way: What does God require of his people, in calling us to make him known to the world?  Our texts provide us with this answer: God wants his people to be needy, to be in the position of receiving from God, and from one another.  We make God known to the world by being and becoming a community of weakness, always returning to the reality of our dependence on God.

Let’s see how this works in our passages.

The 2 Kings passage tells a very interesting story, and there is this wild exchanging of roles between Elisha and the Shunamite woman.  Elisha is in the position of receiving from the woman and her husband.  He’s been traveling and he often passes through Shunem, so this woman comes up with a creative way to provide him with hospitality.  After regularly feeding him a meal on his occasional passage through town, she says to her husband: “Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God.  Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”

Well, there we have it!  We could stop right here and talk about how this is all about using our resources to come up with creative ways to meet concrete needs.  After all, this is no small thing that this couple has done – they build a spare room and set it up nicely so that Elisha has a place to stay when he comes.

But that isn’t the point because the story doesn’t end there.

Elisha wants to give back to her, to repay her kindness, but here’s where the complications are introduced.  Elisha’s gift creates both a blessing and a curse.  Not only this, but there’s an obstacle: The woman is a giver, not a receiver.

Elisha inquires how he can do her good, but he is rebuffed.  “I’m sorry, Elisha, you don’t understand, I’m the one who helps, not the one who receives help.”  She says to him, “I live among my own people.”  Translation: “I have no needs.”  She’s very likely an upper-class woman who has resources and can make things happen.  She’s decisive and strong, as she demonstrates throughout the story.

As it happens, Elisha finds out that she has no child, so he summons her and announces that she will have a son.  But, surprisingly, the woman is resistant.  “Don’t deceive me,” she says.  It is interesting to note that she does not ask for this, we are never told in the passage that she actually wanted a child in the first place, and she never gives thanks to Elisha for the boy.  I’m not sure that she’s at all happy with having received this gift from Elisha.  She’s not comfortable having been put in the position of receiving a gift.  She’d much rather be in the driver’s seat in a relationship.

As it happens, however, she bears a child.  A son.  And then tragedy strikes, as it does.  That’s sort of how life is, and I wonder if this is the posture from which the woman is operating.  I wonder if this is how she lives her life.  If you never receive from others, you’ll never be hurt.  If you withhold your commitment from people, if you never send out your heart, you’ll never experience tragic loss.  If you’re only a giver, you can always be there when others have pain and loss, but you’ll never really have to experience it yourself.

But now she has a son.  And over time she’s grown to love him.  And the child dies.

Now she is in need, and she doesn’t like it.  It’s worth asking whether or not she’s really pleading for her son’s life when she comes to Elisha.  We are not told that this is her intention.  As I read this story, I think she wants to “have a word” with the prophet.  It may be that she’s angry at Elisha for putting her in this position of having lost something she’s come to love.  Look at her words.  She never asks for anything, but only scolds Elisha for putting her in the position of having to receive and then experiencing tragic loss.

What is interesting, though, is that having been put in this position of need, she embraces it fully.  Elisha sends his servant to see to the situation back in Shunem.  But the woman tells Elisha, “I’m not going anywhere unless you’re coming with me.”

Elisha is now again in a position of extreme need and he pleads with God, first through Gehazi, then through the extended process of bringing the boy back to life, which seems fairly drawn out.

All this is to say that the major characters in this story are all put in a position of weakness and need, both from each other and from God.

This reading of the story is corroborated by the other passages.

The Psalm runs along the same line – pleading with God.  The psalmist is in desperate need and calls out to God, brings his complaint before God.  This is also a sort of honesty before God that we’re not comfortable with.  We often imagine that we’ve got to have our lives sorted out before we go to God, rather than just bringing to God our contradictions and complexities, our trouble and our turmoil, and dumping them before him.

We see this same logic revealed in the NT passages, but only if we look carefully.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul notes how it is that in his own ministry, he became all things to all people in order to share in the blessings of the gospel.  Notice what he does not say.  He does not say that he went to all people with the gospel.  He did not go to the weak with the gospel.  Look at his words.  He became weak in order to share in the blessings of the gospel.

He does not say that he marshaled all his resources to bring the gospel to as many people as he could.  That is exactly how we would say it if we were to put this in our terms.  That is, if we were to tame the gospel and own it and pervert it so that it fits our own conceptions of how we make God known.

Paul did not become the dispenser of the gospel to various sorts of people.  If he did, he would not be able to share in the gospel.  This is a discussion of absolute and extreme sympathy.  Paul went to people and became along with them a person who needed the gospel.  For those who need the gospel, we must make ourselves people who need the gospel and receive it, and share in it along with them.

Notice that precisely the same pattern is at work in the Gospel text.  The disciples are receivers from Jesus, and then they help others receive from Jesus.  They are not in the position of power, they are not in the driver’s seat as they go with Jesus.  In fact, it’s wrong to say that they first receive and then give, or that they first receive and then preach the kingdom.

Note the order of how things unfold.  This brief episode begins with them being blessed by Jesus, as Jesus raises up Simon’s mother in law.  She then begins to serve them.  They then begin to bring others to Jesus, and finally it is Jesus—not Jesus and the disciples—who begins to go and preach the kingdom.  They are with Jesus, but it’s interesting that they don’t become givers, they are recipients along with others.

So, what do these texts teach us about life in the Kingdom of God and the gospel?

The gospel is not a message that we bring to people.  The gospel is not a package that we happen to possess, and which we dispense.  It is a reality that is lived, and it is a gift that is received.  And we cannot give it unless we are also at the same time receiving it.

Paul does not say that he wants to “share the gospel.”  He wants to “share in it.”  We share in the blessings of the gospel, we participate in the reality of the gospel and experience it only as we become weak and put ourselves in the position of being receivers.  If we ever become the patrons, the ones who have arrived and are now deciding to bestow good gifts on others, we put ourselves outside the gospel and we do not share in it.

The gospel calls us all to become weak, to become recipients.  We are called to tell the truth about ourselves and our situation.  That we are often confused or depressed.  That we are in need of help or rescue.  We all need each other, and we all together need God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think that when we read the story of the Shunamite woman, we immediately identify with what she does for Elisha.  It makes perfect sense.  She gives!  She builds a spare room!  Wonderful!  That’s the lesson–we need to be givers.  We’re good with that.  We’re not always consistent, but that makes a lot of sense to us.

And that’s good—there’s nothing wrong with that.  But I think that especially for those of us who have so many resources, there’s a temptation to play to our strengths and not invite the gospel in to show us where God wants to heal and restore.  We can become so used to providing for others that it becomes difficult to ask for help from others.  It becomes difficult to admit that we’re in need and may need a break, or some help.

I don’t care to give our church a label, but if we are any “kind” of church, we’re a missional church.  And the missional question is, “how can we help?”  But we also need to be willing to say to one another, “I need some help.”  And we, as a community, need to make sure that we as a church are always putting ourselves in a needy and receiving posture toward God.  As Paul says, we need to make sure that we are always becoming weak so that we may partake in the gospel.

And this is what is meant by the collective prayer: “Set us free from the bondage of our sins and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”  In this prayer, the gospel is revealed to us.

So, in conclusion, it is very interesting—and perfectly in keeping with God’s upside-down logic—that the way we make God known to the world is to make sure we are the kind of community where God is always making himself known to us.

We do not finally or exhaustively or completely know God.  That is, we do not possess or own God, having him figured out so that now all we have to do is turn and pass him out as if we were handing out a product.  The way we make God known to the world is to confess that we are the ones who need to repent from our strengths, who need to receive, who need to come to know the grace and goodness of God anew.


Prayer for the Weekend

Father, grant us grace to take up our crosses and follow Jesus in the way of suffering and death.  We know that the only way to resurrection and victory is through suffering and the cross, but it is difficult.  We love our pleasures.  We love the trivial pursuits that take up our time and fill up our days.  We also love our foolish practices, the secret sins to which we return again and again, even though we know that they will destroy us.  Give us wisdom and understanding that we may discern in every situation how to embody the cross that we might experience life.  Help us to put to death our sin that we may share in the life of Christ by the power of the Spirit.  Amen.


Knowing Jesus Through the Cross

The cross is central to the Gospel of Mark.  Though his Gospel is much shorter than the others, Mark’s passion account is just as long as Matthew’s and Luke’s.

Mark also introduces the plot to kill Jesus much earlier (3:6) than the others.  Mark fixes his readers’ gaze on the cross, the lens through which they must see everything about Jesus and his mission, the identity of God, the nature of discipleship, and everything else connected with Christian realities.

Mark uses several devices to shape his readers’ vision along this line.

William Congdon, "Crucifixion #2" (1960)

William Congdon, “Crucifixion #2″ (1960)

Most prominently, perhaps, is the “messianic secret.”  Throughout Mark, Jesus exhorts everyone to keep quiet about him.  In Mark 1:40-43,

a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. Immediately Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning. He told him, “See that you do not say anything to anyone

This happens so often that it seems that Jesus is the “anti-evangelist” in Mark (3:7-12; 5:35-43; 7:31-37; 8:27-30; 9:2-9).

That’s not necessarily the case.  It’s just that Mark has a keen grasp of the human tendency toward triumphalism and power.

Mark makes his readers wait until the very end of his account to fully experience all that God is.

Don’t get caught up in the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, the transfiguration.  Keep quiet about all of that.  Hold your fire.  If you get excited too early, you’ll miss it.  You’ll preach and embody something less than the truth.

When does it come, then?  When do we get the full revelation of the identity of God and of his Son, Jesus?

That comes in this climactic scene:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:33-39).

Mark purposefully juxtaposes the tearing of the temple veil and the confession of the centurion so that the climax of Mark answers this question: “where is God?”

In this scene, the temple is exposed as a sham.  The veil isn’t torn to symbolize that the way to God is open.  It’s torn to indicate that the temple apparatus is a fraud, corrupted by power and greed.  There’s nothing there and there’s nobody home.

So where is God?

He’s that corpse out there on that cross.

And Mark puts the dramatic confession in the mouth of a Roman centurion.  God’s people missed it.  The religious leaders missed it.  Jesus’ own disciples were mystified and offended by the cruciform character of Jesus’ identity and mission.

Readers and hearers of Mark need to make it to the end.  And then take up and read and hear again, and again.  Like his disciples, we find ourselves arguing about positions of prominence (10:35-45) and wishing Jesus had accomplished salvation some other way (8:27-38).

Like his disciples, we need to keep quiet, knowing our tendency to fashion Jesus in our own image.  We need a constant re-orientation by the cross-shaped narrative of Mark’s Gospel.


What Did Paul Look Like?

In class the other day we discussed Paul’s personal presence.  He notes in 1 Corinthians 2 that when he was in Corinth he intentionally avoided impressive rhetorical displays by purposefully embodying the crucified Christ.

Passages like that provoke the imagination—how exactly did that play out?  And, beyond that, what did Paul look like?

We can’t know for sure, obviously, but we get a few clues from the New Testament and early church history.  Putting it frankly, he probably wasn’t all that pleasant to behold.

Icon of Paul

He wasn’t terribly polished and well put-together, and was probably a poor public speaker.  In 2 Cor. 10:10, he acknowledged that many in the Corinthians church were criticizing him for his unimpressive preaching:

I know what some people are saying: “His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing” (CEB).

Beyond being unimpressive, however, his appearance may have actually been revolting.  In Acts 14:19-20, Luke records this incident:

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

Luke is provoking our sanctified imaginations regarding the brutality of this scene.  It’s supposed to be shocking!  Paul’s injuries must have been horrible if a riotous crowd fueled by religious zeal brutalized Paul so badly that they thought he was dead!

Just after this episode, Paul and his companions made their way to Derbe, likely one of the churches to which he wrote Galatians.  In Galatians 4, Paul says that he visited them the first time because of a bodily condition that “put them to the test” (Gal. 4:13-14).

He probably had to crash in Derbe just to recuperate from the broken bones, cuts, bruises, and crushed skull.  It’s reasonable to assume that if a frenzied crowd stoned a person (think “boulders,” not “stones”) to the point where they were sure he was dead, that’s the sort of shape he’d be in.

His physical presence in Galatia probably turned stomachs.  He finishes his letter by saying of his scars, bruises, and injuries that “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17).

Apostle Paul

I used to joke with my undergraduate students that if Paul were to speak in our university chapel, the large screens at the front that display the speaker’s image might just so happen to not be working that day!

I’m not sure how accurate it is, nor to what extent these New Testament indications influenced it, but there’s a mention of Paul’s appearance in the second-century apocryphal text called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.”  It’s sort of a comical description, but it imagines Paul as “a man small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, stocky with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed.”

If we imagine Paul through our modern projections of what ministry super-stars are supposed to look like, we’d be seriously disappointed if we ever did meet him!


How Justification Transforms Boasting

In these posts on Romans, I’ve been claiming that Paul wrote the letter not as a work of abstract theology, but as a pastoral letter to unify the divided church(es) in Rome.

Paul argues in Rom. 1:18-3:20 that all the Roman Christians (Jew and non-Jew) were united in condemnation, and that all (Jew and non-Jew) are united in justification (Rom. 3:21-31).  Further, Abraham is “the father of us all” (Romans 4).

And I wrote yesterday that for Paul justification is a new location on the cosmic map.  The Roman Christians are no longer located in a cosmic location called “Adam,” a realm in which Sin reigns and serves the purposes of Death.

God has done something powerful to their community, transferring them through their union with Christ into this new realm called “the grace gift” (or, “this grace,” or “the gift”), and elsewhere called “in Christ.”  Christ rules in this realm and its very environment is God’s life-giving Spirit.  This notion of two cosmic realms with opposing dynamics has loads of interpretive payoff for Romans, and is also huge pastorally (we’ll get to some of that later).

For today, I want to note how justification transforms the Roman Christians’ boasting.

Paul had previously said that the boasting of one group over another group in Rome was eliminated through a proper reading of the Law (Rom. 3:27) and a clear understanding of justification by faith (3:21-31).

“Boasting” that fosters division, should be eliminated from the Roman church(es).  That sort of boasting—or, glorying in one group’s identity over-against another group—serves the purposes of the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, destroying the community.  Such boasting is “Adam”-oriented behavior, and it stirs up the corrosive dynamics of that realm.

But boasting isn’t completely eliminated in the realm of grace.  It is transformed.

Paul uses the Greek verb for “boasting” in Rom. 5:2, 3, and 11—the verb that is related to the noun “boasting” in Rom. 3:27.  Some translations render it “exult,” “glory,” or “rejoice.”  The NIV and CEB do a pretty good job of relating how justification’s boast transforms the previous perverted boasting.

The boasting that belongs to the new realm unites the community.  It is for all the people of God—Jews and gentiles—since they share together in justification.

Since this realm is headed for ultimate transformation and final salvation, the community that belongs together in this realm can “boast in hope of the glory of God” (v. 2).

And they can also boast in their current trouble (v. 3).  Because this realm is animated by and pervaded by God’s Spirit, even current stresses and difficulties are transformed.  God is at work in this realm to transform current troubles into fuel for perseverance, generating even stronger hope in God’s future transformation of all things. (vv. 3-5).

And finally, the community can together “boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (v. 11).

Paul conceives of things apocalyptically—that is, he interprets earthly situations in terms of heavenly realities.  He sees the two realms up and running and he wants the Roman Christians to inhabit more effectively the realm of “this grace” in order to draw on its unifying and renewing dynamics.

Rather than boasting in ways that further the developing divisions, they can boast (or, “glory” or, “rejoice”) in ways that celebrate the common identity of all those in Christ and empower them together in the hope of God’s glorious future.


Justification is a Location

In Romans 5, Paul begins to interpret the conflicted situation in the Roman church(es) from an apocalyptic perspective.  There’s far more going on than just a social tug-of-war between two factions in the Roman Christian community.  That’s an interpretation from a merely human perspective.

Paul sets their situation within a larger drama on a bigger stage—there’s more going on than they’ve realized, and they won’t be unified until they come to grips with how their behavior is being affected by cosmic realities.

Paul, therefore, gives them a heavenly vision of reality that has a cosmic scope.

From this perspective, they need to see that there are two realms within reality.  There’s a realm called “Adam,” in which all humanity is located.  In Romans 5:12-17, it appears that Paul is giving something of a biblical history lesson, talking about what happened with Adam, Moses, the entrance of the Law, etc.

Paul is doing far more than recounting salvation-history, however.  He speaks of these things in order to more fully describe this realm called “Adam.”  It’s the realm with a history of oppression, enslavement to sin, and a future of condemnation.  In this realm the cosmic powers of Sin and Death “reign” and the guilt of Adam spreads to all humanity.

And this is key for Paul’s argument throughout Romans 5-8: when the Law enters this realm, the cosmic power of Sin hijacks it to serve the purposes of Death (we’ll return to this when we get to Romans 7).

Everyone in the Roman church(es) was formerly located in that realm, but by virtue of being justified by faith, all those in Rome have been relocated.

They don’t live “in Adam” anymore.  As Paul says at the beginning of this section,

having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand (Rom. 5:1-2).

Justification is more than a status that God declares in the heavenly court.  “Justification” in this sense is something more like “rectification”—an act whereby God actually does something to us.  He sets us right, rectifies us—transferring us from the realm where Sin and Death reign into a new location in the cosmos.  Paul calls this new realm “this grace” throughout Romans 5.

It is a location within the cosmos in which we enjoy God’s shalom, and over which Christ reigns as life-giving Lord.  God’s resurrection presence and renewing power radiate to all inhabitants of this realm by God’s Spirit.  Because God himself permeates this realm and animates it, it has distinct operating dynamics and is subject to certain pressures.

It has a glorious history, stretching back to the death and resurrection of Christ.  And it has a radically hopeful future, which is the “hope of the glory of God” (v. 2).  The “glory of God” points to the full transformation of human bodies so that we finally will play our rightful role in God’s creation, a role called “the glory of God.”

This realm, then, called “this grace,” or “the gift,” is the realm of the “already” aspect of salvation, in which we are reconciled to God and in which the renewing power of God is at work.  It’s the realm headed for the “not yet” of salvation, the final renewal of human bodies and all of creation—final “rectification.”

The distinction of these two realms is huge for understanding Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8, and especially for untangling what’s going on in Romans 7.  Frankly, it’s huge for the whole of Paul’s theology.  I’ll draw out Paul’s argument in Romans 5 over the next few days and hopefully we’ll see how Paul’s pastoral counsel hangs together.


Introduction to Messianic Judaism

Zondervan has just released Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations.  I’ve been looking forward to this book’s publication since first hearing about it a few years ago.  The reassessment of Paul’s relationship to Judaism in the wake of E. P. Sanders’s work has opened up new possibilities for faithfully envisioning the relationship of Christian discipleship to Judaism.  This very important offering may well be a catalyst for further research and spark conversations in bringing unity to God’s entire family in Christ.

9780310330639

Edited by David Rudolph and Joel Willitts, the book has two parts.  First, a history of Messianic Judaism, along with an overview of the sorts of communities that make up the movement.  These chapters, written by leaders of Messianic communities, are intended to help Messianic Jews understand their own movement better and to introduce it to Christians who have little or no awareness of it.

The second part provides the biblical basis for reckoning with the relationship between Judaism and the Christian movement.  These chapters, written by leading New Testament scholars, “demonstrate how post-supersessionist interpretation of the New Testament results in readings of the biblical text that are consistent with Messianic Judaism” (p. 18).

* “Supersessionism” envisions the relationship in the New Covenant between God and the Christian church as replacing the relationship in the Mosaic Law of God with the nation of Israel.  Several strands of church tradition are officially supersessionist, but an implicit supersessionism lies at the heart of much Christian theology.

Congratulations to David and Joel on its publication!  I’m eager to dig into it and I do hope that it does much to bring about the unity of the body of Christ for the glory of God.


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