Jul 29, 2007

This post will summarize one of two Pauline "themes" that were the focus of our third class: that of Messiah and Apocalypse. A post on the second theme (that of "Gospel and Empire") will hopefully follow in a few days.

In Paul's world, there was a belief that a Messiah would come and accomplish the task of restoring Israel and God's world. Among other things, it was believed that Messiah would serve as Israel's representative to the world, that he would defeat the pagan kings which occupied Judea, and that he would re-build the temple.

NT Wright argues that Paul saw Jesus as this Messiah, though it was necessary to "reinterpret" some of the things that the Messiah was supposed to do in light of the events of Jesus' life. For example, Wright says, Paul believed that the temple was re-established within the church, such that God's spirit is now present within and among God's people, whose bodies are now the temple.

Where our translations will generally refer to "Jesus Christ," Wright prefers to use the phrase "Jesus, the Messiah" in its place. This reduces the temptation to think of "Christ" as Jesus' last name, and puts the emphasis on the meaning of the title "Christ."

While the concept of Jesus as Messiah is not that controversial to us, by refining our understanding of what was expected of the Messiah, we can better come to understand some of the things that Paul is saying. When Paul goes out of his way to point out how Jesus' death and resurrection was a defeat of the "powers and authorities," for example, he is telling us something about how Jesus did, in fact, do the things that were expected of the Messiah.

Paul also lived in an age when "apocalyptic" literature was popular. Apocalyptic literature developed during an age where God seemed largely silent. There was no explanation as to why he was not fulfilling his promises to restore Israel. This literature assumed that there must be an "unveiling" or "revelation" of the purposes of heaven, which are mysterious to man. Often these "apocalypses" involved grand stories of great catastrophes and images of angelic warriors coming into the earth to restore God's authority.

When we think of the apocalyptic, we tend to focus on a grand, Armageddon-like ending to the world. However, Wright tells us that Paul believed the great "apocalypse" had already occurred in the events concerning Jesus. Thus, when he speaks of God's mysteries, previously unknown, being revealed in Christ, he is saying that God's "apocalypse" or "unveiling" has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a sense, the "unveiling" is yet to come to complete fulfilment, but God's plan and purposes can now be readily seen.

Jul 18, 2007

During our second class in this series, we walked few multiple texts that deal with the theme of creation and covenant, both in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings. Here are the texts that we reviewed:

  • Psalm 19
  • Psalm 74
  • Deuteronomy 28:1-14; 15-19
  • Isaiah 51:12-16
  • Colossians 1:15-20
  • I Corinthians 15
  • Romans chs 1-11

The theme of creation and covenant is most succinctly seen in the Colossians text, which reads as follows:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

In this text, we see Christ both as the means by which creation is renewed ("firstborn over all creation") and the means by which covenant is fulfilled ("God was pleased...through him to reconcile to himself all things"). Wright tells us:

[Paul] believes that Israel’s God, the creator, has acted decisively to fulfil the covenant promises and to renew both covenant and creation. Paul thereby understands himself to be living at a different moment in the story….The new age has already begun, though the old age continues alongside it….

…[T]he twin themes of creation and covenant offer a context, an implicit narrative, within which we can grasp Paul’s understanding of what has gone wrong in the world and in Israel and how it is put right…

For Paul, God's "project" is to fulfil his covenant promise to renew creation. Everything that God is doing through Jesus serves the purpose that he has held all along - that of rescuing the world from bondage to sin and death and bringing it into new life.

Next week, we will look at two additional themes in Paul's writings: (1) that of Messiah and Apocalypse and (2) that of Gospel and Empire.

Jul 11, 2007

July 11 marked our first class on NT Wright's book Paul in Fresh Perspective. For those who missed it, or who want a refresher on what we covered, this post will serve as a quick overview of the discussion during the first class.

During this class, we introduced the distinctive ideas that Wright brings to the table when reading Paul's letters, and we then focused on the first major theme that Wright recognizes in Paul's letters: that of Creation and Covenant.

Here are some of the differences between the traditional ideas about Paul and the ideas that Wright will discuss in the book:

1. Paul's Opponents. In the past, I have thought of Paul's opponents as people who professed that you could "earn your way into God's favor." But Wright contends that no one in Paul's world - even the most self-righteous Pharisee - would think such a thing! Instead, he believes that Paul's opponents were those who believed the Gentiles should be "marked" as the people of God through the requirements of the Mosaic law (for example, by circumcision or by the type of diet that is observed).

2. Paul's Message. Likewise, Paul's extensive discussion on such subjects as faith, works, and grace are not present merely to explain the mechanics of salvation. Instead, Paul is showing how God is "marking" his people through, for example, faith - rather than through the Mosaic law.

3. God's Righteousness. Christians have often thought of the phrase "the righteousness of God" to refer to the way God imputes his righteousness on us. But Wright thinks this phrase normally (always?) refers to God's righteous act in reclaiming his world.

4. God's Future. We tend to think of God's "project" as getting people into heaven after they die, but Paul uses the language of resurrection and new creation to describe God's future. These two concepts bear some similarities, but they are dramatically dissimilar in other ways.

Wright believes that, in order to understand Paul, we must understand his world and his questions. Paul, he tells us, finds himself at a particular point in history - and it is necessary to understand the questions of his people and of his day to understand his letters.

Wright identifies three major themes/narratives in Paul, the first of which is the theme of Creation and Covenant. Here is the short version of the "Creation and Covenant" story/theme:
1. God created the world; it was good
2. Creation became marred by sin and death
3. God made a covenant with Abraham to restore creation; pursuant to this covenant, Abraham's children were to become lights to the world
4. Abraham's children failed to fulfil the covenant; instead, they decided to treat the covenant as an exclusive privilege

Our tendency is to move straight from point #2 to the crucifixion/saving act of Jesus on the cross. But, Wright tells us, Paul wrestles with #3 and #4: how will God act to fulfil the covenant now that Israel has failed in its assigned task? The need to explain Israel's "failure" and the ways that God will nonetheless move forward with his covenant are an important feature of Wright's interpretation of Paul.

Next week, we will have a look at the way the theme of Creation and Covenant is developed (a) in the Old Testament and (b) in Paul's writings.

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