Monthly Archives: October 2012

Who’s Really Running the World?

To everyone who has ears to hear, let them hear:

When read carefully, none of the biblical apocalypses, from Ezekiel through Daniel to Mark 13 and John of Patmos, is about either pie in the sky or the Russians in Mesopotamia.  They are about how the crucified Jesus is a more adequate key to understanding what God is about in the real world of empires and armies and markets than is the ruler in Rome, with all his supporting military, commercial, and sacerdotal networks.

Then to follow Jesus does not mean renouncing effectiveness.  It does not mean sacrificing concern for liberation within the social process in favor of delayed gratification in heaven, or abandoning efficacy in favor of purity.  It means that in Jesus we have a clue to which kinds of causation, which kinds of community-building, which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word (the inner logic of things) and the Lord (“sitting at the right hand”).  It is not that we begin with a mechanistic universe and then look for cracks and chinks where a little creative freedom might sneak in (for which we would then give God credit): it is that we confess the deterministic world to be enclosed within, smaller than, the sovereignty of the God of the Resurrection and Ascension.  “He’s got the whole world in his hands” is a post-ascension testimony.  The difference it makes for political behavior is more than merely poetic or motivational.

J.H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, pp. 246-47.

Paul Embodies Christ Crucified

A few days ago, I wrote that Paul speaks of his original visit to Galatia as a public display of Christ’s crucifixion.  This may have been the beginning of Paul’s use of cruciform language to frame his apostolic ministry.

He uses similar language for his ministry mode among the Corinthians.

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

Paul certainly preached Christ crucified to the Corinthians.  But his reference to knowing nothing among them except Jesus Christ crucified has to do with more than his preaching.

It captures his entire mode of ministry, his presentation of himself to them, his personal bearing, and the posture from which he related to them.

His presence was a performance of the crucified Jesus, embodied by a ministry style of weakness.  He intentionally avoided cultivating their approval and playing to their desires for impressive speech and powerful rhetorical displays.

Had he accommodated to their corrupted cultural expectations, he would have obscured the power of God.  Embodying cruciformity through weakness and servant-shaped ministry postures, however, unleashes God’s power.

Paul’s conception of his ministry—like the cross—is seriously counter-cultural, subverting human modes of working in every age.

People in ministry need to discern, then, what practices and patterns of ministry embody “the wisdom of this age.”  And what ministry practices embody cruciformity, thus unleashing the power of God?

Seminary Graduates: Blessing or Curse?

Provoked by some great class discussions, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between seminary training and practical ministry.  How does a person make the most of her/his seminary training and truly bless the church?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the “seminoid” phenomenon.  I stole the term from a former pastor who playfully used it of the seminary interns in need of overcoming the condition.

So, how does one move from seminary training to being useful in ministry?  There may be more to come on this, but for now, a few thoughts:

(1) Put “the ideal church” out of your mind.  It doesn’t exist.  You talked about it in the classroom, but it doesn’t exist in the real world.  Goodness, it didn’t even exist in the New Testament!  The Book of Acts displays a church struggling to figure things out and most of the NT letters are problem-solving documents.  Be patient, don’t try to change everyone and everything overnight, and realize that your church doesn’t have an ideal pastor, either.

(2) Get the “serious/unserious” mix right.  Take very seriously the task of blessing the church, praying for them, loving them, and serving them.  But don’t take yourself very seriously.  Learn to laugh at yourself and you’ll have a long ministry at a happy church.

(3) The church is not a classroom.  The classroom is about critical engagement.  We lift up the hood on Scripture, Christian thought, and church practice, holding everything up to scrutiny from every conceivable angle.  Most seminary students get turned on by those fascinating discussions.  But you’ve got to leave them in the classroom.  If you do that from the pulpit, those who aren’t sleeping will think you’re an out of touch nitpicker.

The point of your seminary training is to help you grasp the truth profoundly and comprehensively.  But you’ll need to learn to communicate that truth to the church with other language.

(4) Along that line, learn to talk “normal.”  Express your thoughts in everyday speech so that normal people can understand you.  The hard work of preaching is finding language that draws people into the truth so that it transforms them.  Put another way, work hard to express truths clearly and compellingly so that the truth moves into the life of the church and transforms it.

You want people to walk away thinking that the way of Jesus is the way of hope and promise.  If they walk away thinking about how smart you are, your sermon was a disastrous failure.

You want them to say, “thank you, that is so helpful,” and not, “wow, you are so smart.

(5) Quote your people and not the experts.  Most people in our churches don’t know the rock stars of the seminary world, so why mention them?  They don’t know Word Biblical Commentary from Hermeneia, nor ICC from NICNT.

There’s no point, then, of saying things like this: “As Cranfield, in his magisterial, two-volume commentary, says, . . .”

But consider something like this: “I was talking with Dennis this past week, and he noted that in 1 Corinthians, Paul . . .  That really challenged me, so I . . . ”

Or: “After the service last week, Anne asked me a question I hadn’t really considered before, so I did some thinking about that and . . . ”

Quoting the experts rhetorically sets you apart from your church.  Wearing your training on your sleeve puts a chasm between you and them and it discourages them from studying Scripture.  It’s something only you can do.

Find ways of rhetorically setting yourself among the rest of the church and draw them into the process of discovering God’s word together.  That’s a way of getting everyone excited about Scripture, which is really what you want, right?

They may never find out how smart you really are, but, again, you’ll enjoy a long ministry with happy people.

God Is On Our Side! Pt. 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the danger of presuming the righteousness of one’s cause.  History is filled with instances of nations and political parties claiming God’s endorsement of their side.  We could point to the “Christian” empires on opposite sides in WW I and the rhetoric (and hymnody!) generated by both North and South in the American Civil War.

Another reason for caution comes from the Scriptural background to a text typically called to mind during election seasons—times of increased intensity in the culture wars that dominate our national life.

I’ve heard Ephesians 6:10-18, and its reference to spiritual warfare, cited quite often in order to draw for this or that political effort.  Not only is such rhetoric completely out of place, those who employ it neglect the subversive Scripture on which it draws.

Israel had failed to be a holy nation.  They exploited the poor and neglected the orphans and the widows.  They became a nation of injustice rather than justice.

Because of this, Isaiah announced that the God of Israel was going to do something extremely unexpected.  Rather than fighting on behalf of Israel against its enemies, Yahweh was going to take up arms against Israel as his enemy:

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm brought him victory,
and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness like a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.
According to their deeds, so will he repay;
wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies;
to the coastlands he will render requital.
So those in the west shall fear the name of the Lord,
and those in the east, his glory;
for he will come like a pent-up stream
that the wind of the Lord drives on (Isa. 59:15-19).

Isaiah’s use of the divine warrior tradition turns expectations on their heads and reverses all assumptions about how the God of Israel acts.  Israel had grown complacent and presumptuous.  They figured that because they were God’s special possession, they could rely on their “insider” status with God to avoid any consequences for their failure to love one another and serve the nations on God’s behalf.

Yahweh took up arms, therefore, against his own people because they had proved disloyal to him and his cause of restoring the nations.

Those who assume the righteousness of their cause and rally people to their efforts using biblical military imagery ought to keep in mind God’s impartiality and commitment to judge injustice wherever he finds it.

And they ought to keep in mind that history is also filled with political figures who posture provocatively in the public square using biblical militant language only later to be exposed as morally compromised.

The use of such language to speak of God’s warfare against his own people, however, ought to serve as a warning to Christian people against the careless presumption of the righteousness of a chosen cause.

Paul Performs Jesus’ Crucifixion

Paul refers to his original gospel preaching to the Galatians with quite striking language.  In fact, he doesn’t refer to his preaching or teaching.  Here’s what he says:

You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publically portrayed being crucified?

It’s not that they’ve clearly heard the gospel, or were taught it clearly.  While he makes reference to such teaching elsewhere in the letter, here Paul regards them as having “seen” a public portrayal of Jesus Christ being crucified.

To what is he referring?  I don’t imagine it’s the flannelgraph Sunday School lessons of my childhood.

William Congdon, “Crucifixion #2” (1960)

I think Paul is referring to his physical condition that brought about his initial visit to Galatia.

In Gal. 4:14, he notes that when he originally came to them, his physical condition “put them to the test,” probably indicating that he was a wreck in some way and for some reason.

This founding visit, in my opinion, comes just after Paul is stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:19-20).  A group of men who have stoned someone and suppose that person to be dead have likely done a good job of breaking bones and perhaps even delivering serious blows to the head with large rocks.

As in other instances in Luke-Acts, Luke is indicating that Paul is killed, left for dead, and miraculously resuscitated—brought back to life after having died.  But that doesn’t mean he’s all cleaned up and put back together.

When Paul and his companions arrive at this community (or, these communities) for the founding visit, they probably do so in order to rest and help Paul recuperate.  He’s in a position of total weakness and physical trauma.  He’s in such bad shape (skull misshapen? bones sticking through the skin?) that he admits that his condition turned their stomachs and put their hospitality to the test.

Looking back, Paul frames his condition as a performance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Paul embodied Christ’s world-altering event, portraying in his condition, his bearing, and in his mode of ministry, the cross of Christ.

Paul’s original visit, then, was Paul improvising Jesus, specifically in his self-giving on the cross.  It was an adaptation—Paul playing a character in a new time and new place—that was a faithful re-telling and re-performing of the original.

And for Paul, the Galatians’ defection is all the more serious for having witnessed a public display of the crucifixion of the Son of God.

The Problem of Christian Celebrities

It appears that in Galatians 2 Paul has some strikingly sarcastic things to say about the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem.  He refers to them four times with variations of the expression “those who seem to be something” in vv. 2-9.  Is Paul picking a fight with Peter, James, and John, pillars of the early church?

I don’t think so.  It seems that the Jewish-Christian missionaries from Jerusalem who are persuading the gentiles in Galatia to convert to Judaism in order to enjoy God’s salvation in Christ are “name-dropping.”

Among other strategies, they are likely trying to impress the Galatians with the credential of their connection to the “big boys” in Jerusalem.  They are indicating—inappropriately—that “the pillars” support their case that gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses in order to be set right before God.

Rembrandt, “Two Old Men Disputing”

Paul doesn’t criticize the Jerusalem leaders, but calls out the Galatians’ inappropriate regard for them.  Rather than exalting Peter, James, and John as larger than life, their opinion ought to match God’s, who shows favoritism to no one (v. 6).

The problem for Paul, then, is not the presence of leaders and teachers in the church, but rather that the Galatians are so in awe of Peter, James, and John that they’re considering abandoning the gospel.

The problem is that Christian people can be moved to take on disobedient modes of life because of a perverted regard for prominent figures.

This isn’t a problem that has gone away.  Similar dynamics of celebrity-worship pervade evangelical Christianity.

The existence of this or that well-known speaker, teacher, scholar, writer is not the problem.  The trouble starts when we line up behind them and make them “team captains,” fighting against other Christians as opponents.  This dynamic has fueled the tribalism that configures the current state of a Corinthianized evangelicalism.

Well-known figures can be gifts to the church.  Let’s learn from them and consider what they say in order to orient and shape lives of faithfulness to Jesus.

Well-known figures are also flawed, like Peter (Gal. 2:11-21).  Let’s not set them up as unquestioned authorities, and let’s most definitely avoid lining up behind them and dividing into teams to fight one another.

Paul’s Political Gospel, Pt. 5

Paul’s gospel, then, is thoroughly political, but not “political” according to the corrupted status quo of what we call politics in our 21st century American culture.  Paul doesn’t call for the church to try to agitate for power and influence, and certainly wouldn’t tolerate rhetorically denouncing other people or fellow Christians in the name of differing party loyalties.  In Paul’s view, God is making all things new through Jesus Christ and through him alone.  God is working out his purposes in and through the church, pouring out his blessing on his people as they seek to faithfully embody the broken-hearted love of God for all people.  So, some practical implications for contemporary church practice:

First, a lesson from Saul the Pharisee.  He had a mind and heart more thoroughly saturated by Scripture than anyone currently alive.  His aims and ambitions were completely oriented by God’s agenda!  Or so he thought.  It’s all too easy, once our passions are aroused, for us to distort Scripture, to see in the Bible what we want to see, and to have our notions of the ideal society shaped by cultural prejudices or other cultural voices than by God’s agenda.  And it’s all too easy, driven by growing anger, to adopt a cultural mode of violence and coercion—even if it’s only verbal and rhetorical, and not physical.  We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re advocates for God’s agenda, but instead be in serious need of political repentance.  Just as Saul converted from a politics of violence and coercion, Christian people must resist the temptation to rhetorical, verbal, and most certainly physical violence.  We must develop and foster practices of gracious speech and other skills associated with peace-making.

Second, when it comes to politics, Christian people ought to think first of their church, its internal networks of relationships and its postures toward outsiders.  For Christians, politics has to do with how we conduct ourselves in our churches and how our churches relate redemptively toward outsiders.

Third, our Christian identity, our loyalty to Jesus and those in our church, far outstrips any earthly affiliation and especially national political party identification.  While Christians differ over policies and political ideologies, we ought to celebrate our common participation in the life of God in Christ by the Spirit.

Fourth, we must reconsider what is shaping our imaginations.  Through whose eyes are we seeing the world and our national situation?  Cable news?  Newspapers?  Talk radio?  Politically-charged web-sites?  Are they so stirring us up with anger that we speak of this or that political figure derisively and in angry terms?  Do our stirred-up passions drive us to think, act, and speak as non-Christians?  Let’s have minds and hearts shaped by Scripture, oriented by hope in the coming Kingdom of God.  Let’s set our hearts and minds on eternal things, on that Kingdom that is to come and which is already here in power.  And let’s reconsider our words, and treat people as if we truly are followers of Jesus.

Fifth, when it comes to political action, let’s indeed get involved!  But let’s think first about the efforts of our local bodies of Jesus-followers acting among our wider communities and neighborhoods.  How can we get involved in practical ways to bless our local communities in the name of Jesus?  We are to be communities of shalom and justice and self-giving love, rather than coercion and quests for power and influence, making demands that others meet our standards or become like us.

We can talk all we want about how policies should be different regarding immigration and local economics.  But, whether you identify yourself as a Republican or Democrat, or whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, here’s just one practical suggestion for embodying the servant-shaped posture of Jesus toward the world.

Thinking especially of our situation here in West Michigan, why not get to know the leaders of local migrant worker communities and offer to help them figure out how to get legally documented?  Do immigrant communities fear for their children or have trouble getting integrated in their schools?  We can be advocates on behalf of those who are strangers and who live in fear.  If we did, we would manifest the character of God.

Listen to what the God of Israel says to his people:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:21-24).

God hasn’t changed.  That is still his heart, and we can embody the character of that God in our social practices, acting as the polis of Jesus in our wider communities.

What if your church initiated an effort as advocates for immigrants?  I can tell you right now it would be difficult.  Strangers are . . . strange!  It would mean sacrifice, re-orienting your lives, changing community patterns, getting to know people with whom you’re not comfortable – all behaviors that just might help us get over our constant complaints that our church communities are stagnant and complacent and lacking in excitement.  Solve the problem.  Get to know someone in need.  He just make you draw upon God’s grace and ignite your heart with God’s own love with which he loves the alien and the stranger.  And if they ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can tell them that you’re acting in the name of Jesus Christ so that you yourself can be pressed more deeply into the heart of the One who gave his life so that the world might truly live.

Well, there are so many more practical ways of living out Paul’s political vision, but I’ll leave it to you and your creativity to come up with those.

During this election season, you ought to consider well what candidate to vote for, and you ought to vote.  But whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green, you should also be aware that voting is only one among a limitless range of options for Christian political behavior—and there are many others that are far more effective, life-transforming, and community-enlivening, and that serve to manifest the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.

Paul’s Political Gospel, Pt. 4

I’ve claimed thus far that Paul’s gospel is political, and I’ve already given some hints about the basic shape of his outlook.  But what are the more specific political contours of his thought?  Just how does this work out when we turn to the sorts of things he actually wrote to churches?

First, as I’ve already mentioned, the heart of Paul’s gospel is the announcement of a new ruler—Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord.  This is, of course, a political title. Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel, but Lord over all things, highly exalted over all powers and authorities (Eph. 1:20-22).  Jesus Christ is the political ruler of a newly gathered people—the new creation polis of God.

Second, Paul’s gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited Kingdom of God, a new and life-giving, reality-altering, community-transforming realm into which God is drawing people by his Spirit.  This political reality is the emergence of a God-empowered, Spirit-animated realm that manifests the reign of the Lord Jesus through a radically new social order—the polis of Jesus.

Writing to the Colossians, Paul says that God “has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  He calls on this same imagery in Gal. 1:3-5:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore (vv. 3-5).

At salvation, God snatches people out of enslavement within the oppressive matrix of the present evil age, brings them into the life-giving Kingdom and sets them under the gracious reign of his Son, Jesus Christ.  We now participate in the reality of the being-restored creation by the power of the Spirit.  This is the fundamental reality about which Paul speaks—a new political reality with renewed political practices.  Paul says to the Galatians that no longer does ethnic identity determine personal value (Gal. 3:28).  He condemns those who compel or coerce non-Jews to become Jews.  According to his gospel, Jews and gentiles must accept and love one another because they together inhabit a new political reality and have been united by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul went on at least three missions to establish Kingdom communities throughout the world, revisiting them, sending ministry partners to them, praying for them, and writing them letters to see that they would flourish and grow.

Third, the church as a body politic takes its orientation from Israel as a political entity.  The church is not Israel, nor is it a nation like other nations, determined by one ethnicity and situated on a distinct patch of land.  But Israel’s identity and mission shape the church’s identity and mission.  This is signaled by Paul’s language for the church, which he borrows from Scripture’s language about Israel.

Paul calls the church “holy ones” in several places, and uses “holiness” language quite often to speak of his churches’ identity with reference to God.  This does not merely point to a moral purity before God (though it may include this).  It points to Israel’s politically-oriented vocation.  God called them as a radically different sort of people who were to embody a radically different domestic set of social practices, and a completely unique set of relationships with the surrounding nations.  When Paul uses “holiness” language for the church, he’s getting at how the polis of Jesus is supposed to be this sort of people among the various peoples of the world.

In several of his letters, Paul refers to readers as “chosen,” or “elect.”  He’s not developing a doctrine of predestination in these places, but again, referring to Israel’s election.  God chose Abraham and Israel, not because he loved them more than the nations, but precisely because he loved the nations.  His chosen ones are those who are special recipients of God’s love so that they can be agents of that love to others.  When Paul uses election language of the church, he’s thinking of the identity of Israel as agents of God’s pursuit of the nations and of the missional character of Israel.  This vision of a political unit that embodies God’s relentless love for the nations shapes how Paul conceives of the church.

Finally, Paul begins nearly every letter with a greeting of “grace and peace.”  Peace, of course, is one way of translating the Hebrew term shalom.  Beyond merely indicating the mental or spiritual state of his readers, Paul wishes for them an experience of the political order of universal flourishing that was to characterize God’s world from the beginning.

Much more could be said about this, but this is just to say that the political identity and political mission of Israel determines how Paul conceives of the church.

Just to sum up, the church’s politics can be seen in at least three concrete ways that I’ll just mention briefly.  The Lord’s Supper was a political practice that reflected the sort of community that embodies the death of Jesus Christ.  How is this so?  When the world eats its meals, it gathers rich with rich, poor with poor, people from this side of town with people from the same side of town.  Social groupings are determined by ethnicity, shared interest, income level, social class, etc.  When they eat, the more important people sit at the head and near other important people—they have seats of prominence that reflect their status.

Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 11 present a different scenario that reflects the church’s subversive character as a holy body.  Everyone was to wait for one another.  The poor were welcome and weren’t to be shamed, but could enjoy a feast even if they had nothing to bring.  And the wealthy were to bring more than they could afford, sharing from their bounty with others and sitting alongside people of lower status.  This would have hurt their social capital in the eyes of the world, so eating the Lord’s supper would have been politically dangerous and risky for those with wealth.  But when people gather in Jesus’ name and depict their new political identity with this sort of political practice, the Lord’s death is proclaimed, and the church powerfully witnesses to Jesus Christ’s Kingdom reign.

Second, the church’s politics can be seen in their care for the poor.  In Acts 2 and 4, Luke mentions that there was no one needy among the polis of Jesus because everyone was looked after.  People were selling their possessions in order to share with one another.  Further, in Gal. 2, Paul reports that when the two major arms of the church, represented by Peter and Paul, got together, the one thing they heartily agreed on was that they should remember the poor.  The polis of Jesus must have as one of its central concerns a care for the marginalized and poor within its ranks, and a heart for the poor and suffering in their surrounding communities.  This is yet again an instance in which God’s commission for Israel shapes Paul’s vision for the church.

Third, the internal life of the church and its posture toward outsiders must always be cruciform and servant-shaped.  God triumphed over his enemies and the corruptions of the world by going to the cross, giving his life for his enemies.  That means that the internal sets of political behaviors must embody self-giving love and cruciform servanthood.  And the corporate shape of the church that relates to the world must be cruciform.  As the body politic of Jesus encounters the political bodies and structures of the world, we must maintain postures of humility, weakness, self-giving love, cruciformity—in an effort to see God at work among them and so that God will powerfully work in us for the glory of God’s name.

These political bodies were alternative communities that manifested in their social practices the triumph of God and the reign of the Lord Jesus.  They did this in their care for one another, in their use of property and money to meet each others’ needs, in their deference toward one another rather than domination of one another, and in their regard for the larger communities in which they were set.  All that is to say, their political behaviors—their conduct as the polis of Jesus—functioned as a public monument to the reign of Jesus over all things.  Just as he is a Lord who triumphs and rules in a radically unexpected and unprecedented manner, so his body politic functions internally and externally in a way that is completely different from any other political body on earth.

Paul’s Political Gospel, Pt. 3

It would be an outrageous understatement to say that when he saw the exalted Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul’s perspective changed.  Of course, it did.  But we must take some time to unpack just how it changed and what aspects of it were transformed.  First, when Saul saw the resurrected and ascended Jesus on his heavenly throne, he realized that resurrection had come—God had initiated his salvation program.  And remember, for Paul resurrection was not merely a spiritual reality.  It was holistic, involving political, economic, and social aspects of life, and even the transformation of the cosmos (God had defeated Sin, Death, and the powers that rule the present evil age).

Second, Saul realized that God had begun his resurrection agenda with the crucified Jesus—the crucified Jesus.  We’re so used to this that we have difficulty realizing how shockingly scandalous it is.  In the midst of a Jewish culture craving revenge, fantasizing about violent retaliation against their oppressors, God accomplishes salvation through Jesus’ death on the most potent political symbol of imperial domination and shameful political defeat.  Jesus dies on a cross along with political agitators, violent criminals, and others that Rome simply wants to be rid of.  Far from being cursed by the God of Israel, this Jesus has been vindicated, shown to be in the right, revealed to be God’s chief agent of salvation, resurrected, exalted, and installed as Cosmic Lord, ruler of all things in the heavens and on the earth.  God does not accomplish his saving purposes through power, domination, or coercion, but through self-giving love, servant-hood, and giving himself fully for the life of the world and the flourishing of his enemies.  That is, God saves only by his grace, and not based on works of righteousness.

Third, because of this, Saul now realizes that God’s politics must be shaped by the cross.  If the Lord, whom God has installed as ruler of all things, triumphs by means of the cross, then all those loyal to him must be cruciform—that is, oriented by and shaped by the cross.  If the ruler is cruciform, then the body politic—the polis of Jesus—must have its political, economic, and social life holistically determined by the cross, and not by power; not by coercion; not by violence.  For Saul this was a breathtakingly radical reversal, indeed, so profound we can hardly grasp it.

A fourth transformation of Saul’s political vision—resurrection doesn’t work like Saul had anticipated.  He expected one singular end-time event—the Day of the Lord.  This was to be the day when God would judge the wicked, save his people, raise the righteous dead, transform creation, and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom—God’s new creation political order.

But Saul comes to understand this mystery—that God has begun his work of salvation, but will complete it over time.  Christ is the first-fruits and God will raise from the dead all those who are loyal to Jesus in another future end-time event—the day of Christ.  In the meantime, however, God is building his church—his alternative body politic—the polis of Jesus set among the poleis of the world.

Fifth, Saul undergoes a radical reversal regarding Israel’s relationship to the nations.  Saul certainly had the same prejudices as his fellow Jews toward non-Jews.  He had little doubt that the God of Israel was going to return to rescue Israel and blast the nations off the map for their idolatry and their status as God’s enemies.  For Saul to hear, then, from Ananias in Acts 9 that he was to bear the name of Jesus “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel,” it must have come as quite a shock.

Saul now sees that God doesn’t hate the nations (i.e., the gentiles) nor does he long for their destruction.  The God of Israel loves the nations and Jesus died so that they might truly live.  And God is no longer reaching the nations of the world through the nation of Israel, but is building a new people—a new body politic, a new polis, drawn together of all the nations, Jew and non-Jew, of those who follow Jesus.  In fact, as God builds his new body politic, he is drawing in people from all ethnicities so that the singular defining identity marker is “Jesus-follower,” and not Jew, or non-Jew, Greek, Scythian, European, Italian, Irish, white-American, African-American, Hispanic, Arab, Michigander.  All are united in the one new polis of Jesus in which all other identities are subjugated to our membership in the body of Christ.

Saul of Tarsus, therefore, had a radical political conversion.  His conversion wasn’t merely “spiritual,” involving a profound change of heart.  Saul came to see that God had installed a new ruler of all things, seen and unseen, things in heaven and things on earth—the Lord Jesus Christ.  Saul’s conversion, then, is a thoroughly political one, and his politics are transformed thoroughly.

Paul’s Political Gospel, Pt. 3

Saul the Pharisee would have shared the vision of salvation elaborated in the previous post.  The Pharisaic hope was in the God of Israel fulfilling his promises to set Israel free from oppression and to restore the nation to its rightful place as God’s chief agent of salvation and rule over creation.  The God of Israel would return and install the nation as the throne from which he ruled over the nations.

Because he was passionate about this hope, Israel’s current domination and oppression at the hands of Rome was intolerable.  It needed to be set right.  This desperate need set the agenda for the Pharisees.  As Saul read the Scriptures of Israel, therefore, he understood that the nation had been sent into exile for unfaithfulness to God, for idolatry, for neglecting the Mosaic Law and its practices.  The logic made perfect sense to him and it fired his zeal.  If unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Law led to exile, then renewed faithfulness to the Law at the national level would surely move God to act on behalf of Israel to deliver the nation from its enemies and bring about salvation.

So Saul’s aim as a Pharisee was to bring about a renewed nation, to present to God a purified people, newly zealous for the Law, every bit as passionate as Saul for the “traditions of the fathers” (Gal. 1:14).  He was convinced that once the nation was pure and obedient, God would be moved to send Messiah who would bring God’s salvation.

Saul’s aims as a Pharisee, therefore, involved an intense pursuit of a national campaign for the honor of the God of Israel, advocating for faithfulness to the Mosaic Law.  This is what Paul, years later, has in mind when he said that as a Pharisee he was passionate for the “resurrection from the dead.”  While this was redefined after his conversion, Saul’s entire life was devoted to seeing the promises to the fathers fulfilled.  This provided the drive for the Pharisaic passion for purity and holiness.

It’s important to understand that for Saul “resurrection” meant far more than God raising the righteous dead.  It was a shorthand way of referring to all of God’s eschatological (or, “end-times”) activity.  Not only were the dead to be raised, but all of the end-time transformations of creation would take place.  God’s very life would be poured out on creation resulting in its total transformation.  The wicked would be judged, Sin and Death would be destroyed, the new age would replace the old, and the Kingdom of God would come in all its fullness.

Now, we can’t be sure that Paul ever heard or saw Jesus before his conversion, but he likely knew of his claims to be the Messiah.  Jesus’ death, however, confirmed to Saul that this Jesus was most certainly not the Messiah of Israel, especially because of his death on a Roman cross.

In Gal. 3:13, Paul cites Deut. 21:23 , that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”  Saul would have contemplated Scripture’s (and, by extension, God’s own) verdict on Jesus: he was cursed by God, rejected as Messiah.  That a movement would have sprung up around this person was blasphemous and intolerable, since it could only be characterized as complete disobedience to the God of Israel, rejecting God’s own verdict on Jesus and his claims.  For Saul, such a movement was a mortal threat to his fundamental Pharisaic aims and ambitions—Christians were standing in the way of God fulfilling the promises to the fathers!  He could not afford to ignore this movement or maintain any kind of neutral posture toward it.

It is no surprise, then, that Saul’s first appearance is at the murder of Stephen, recorded in Acts 7:58-60.  Luke portrays Saul watching over the coats of those putting Stephen to death after his speech to the council (Acts 7:2-53), giving hearty approval (Acts 8:1).  A wave of persecution against the church immediately follows this event, in which Saul plays a leading role.  So great was his zeal that he traveled around Judea, “breathing out threats and murder” (Acts 9:1) in attempts to “destroy the church of God” (Gal. 1:14).  He must have developed quite a reputation as a persecutor of the church, since after his conversion hardly anyone in the first generation of Jesus-followers wanted to have anything to do with him.

Before his conversion, then, Saul’s political outlook was one in which the God of Israel was going to judge the nations and save Israel.  This would come as a result of the presentation to God of a nation conforming to the Mosaic Law.  This set Saul on a religio-political mission of coercion and violence.  If you asked Saul the Pharisee, “What is keeping God from coming in power to save his people and to judge the nations?”  He would answer, “It’s the presence of sinners in Israel, tax-collectors, prostitutes, the disobedient—their lack of faithfulness to the Law and conformity to the traditions of the fathers—they are preventing God from saving Israel and bringing about the resurrection from the dead.”

We need to take note that Saul’s political vision was indeed largely shaped by Scripture—the freeing of Israel from oppression, the restoration of shalom, the transformation of the people into a just nation.  But there were several elements that had become perverted and distorted.  Saul had become captive to an “us” versus “them” mentality, shaped as he was by his cultural prejudices.  He longed for God’s vengeance against foreign nations rather than their redemption.  And his political mode had become corrupted because of his zeal.  He was violently coercive toward others, seeing others as the problem he needed to solve on God’s behalf.  Once people got on board with the Pharisaic agenda of a righteous polis, only then would Israel experience God’s blessing.  Saul was not only coercing other Jews, he was also trying to force God’s hand.  He truly believed that he could get God to send salvation based on works of righteousness.