Friday, March 26, 2010

Resurrection, Justification and the New Covenant Community

Ephesians is quickly becoming one of my favorite Pauline books (However, whenever I am studying Paul, the letter I am studying usually becomes my favorite). There are so many great things that could be said about it but two themes in particular have been sticking out to me.

1) There is saving significance in the resurrection of Jesus. Does the resurrection actually contribute to or accomplish God's salvation? Or does it just prove that the cross was the effective means of salvation? I was reading a book on the cross this week, one of my favorites, and the author was saying, if I understood him correctly, that God accomplished our salvation on the cross and that the resurrection proved that it was so. In my mind this seems to downplay the importance of the resurrection; as if the resurrection was nothing more than God's approval of the cross. It is that, to be sure, but it is much more. Resurrection, in the Old Testament, was a vivid metaphor of what would happen to God's people when YHWH established his sovereign rule and met with his people in forgiveness. This was the beginning of the 'New Age', in fulfillment and faithfulness to God's promise with Abraham, where God would be with his people, he would remember their sins no more, the nations would come to God, they would know him and all things would be made right. This is what Paul had been waiting for and he saw that God had brought the kingdom in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. This meant that, since Jesus had been raised in advance of the final day, God's new day had already begun. Not only that, all those who are united to Jesus by faith participate in this redemption now. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-7, "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." In Romans Paul can talk about the cross as the moment of redemption but here he talks about the resurrection. Without the resurrection there is no redemption, no salvation.

2) In Christ Gentiles become true members of the covenant family. Gentiles should rejoice that through the work of Christ they become partakers of the covenants of promise, they join the family of God and they are reconciled to God. All these ideas are closely linked in Ephesians. Both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God through the cross to form God's new covenant community. What Paul says here sounds very similar to what he says about justification in other letters, "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith" (Galatians 3:7-9). Being made right with God and being members of the covenant people are two sides of the same coin. What God has joined together let us not separate. I do think we can still speak of the vertical and horizontal aspects of justification. But for Paul, at least in Ephesians, the ideas of 'being made right with God' and being apart of the covenant people are one.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Christian's Vision

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:7-10).

As Christians we all have our individual stories of how we came to faith. For me, when I was entering into high school I was becoming increasingly aware of my own sin and my need to truly repent and pledge my allegiance to Christ; some people have conversion accounts that are quite different than mine. But there is one large over-arching story that unites all Christians.

God has a plan. When our first parents sinned against him and came under God's judgment the Creator did not utterly abandon his creation. He could have easily squashed us all and started over, but that's not what he did. Although the book of Genesis takes many twists and turns there is one character that stands out. God called a man named Abram, later changing his name to Abraham, and made him a promise that he would inherit a 'land' and that many nations would be blessed through him. Later on in the biblical storyline we see that God also makes a promise to King David; one of his descendants would sit on an eternal throne and reign justly forever.

These are the stories that Paul has in the back of his mind when he is writing this amazing blessing in Ephesians 1. God's plan is to unite all things under the headship of his Son. He has made it possible, by election, redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and adoption for all those who are united to Christ in faith. The church is not some side project for God. When Paul uses phrases like 'chose us' he is recalling the stories of Abraham and Israel; God's work in Christ is the climax of God's promises to Israel.

Moreover, God has given us his Spirit. Paul says that the Spirit is the 'guarantee' of our inheritance. He is the foretaste of what is to come. He is the future brought into the present who enables us to live as new creations.

As I study Ephesians I am amazed by this big vision that Paul had. He cared for individual Christians and wanted to see individuals put their faith in Christ; but Paul was not an individualist. It was this great mystery now made known through Jesus that captured his gaze. Is this what captures ours as well?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Brian Vickers on Imputation

"...there is not a strict division in these texts between the ideas of Christ's 'active' obedience he rendered to the Father in terms of obeying his will or keeping the law, and Christ's 'passive' obedience, referring primarily though not exclusively to his dying on the cross...the obedience Paul speaks of in Romans 5:19 most likely refers to Christ's death, even though his death ultimately cannot be detached from his life. At the same time, the clear emphasis in that text is on Christ's obedience to God in contrast to Adam's disobedience. At the cross, Christ obeyed the will of his Father...God made Christ a sacrifice for sin and Christ fully obeyed God and became that sacrifice for sin. He willingly accepted God's wrath against sin as it was placed upon him (passive) and he willingly bore that penalty for sin on the cross (active)...Christ's role as the second Adam does, in fact, include the provision for forgiveness of sins and a positive standing before God on the basis of Christ's obedience" (Jesus' Blood and Righteousness, Brians Vickers, pp. 196-7)

Are You Looking Forward to Easter?

Easter is quickly approaching and at this time it is custom for Christians to dwell on the meaning of the death of Jesus and his resurrection. A lot of the time Christians use the resurrection as a proof that Jesus is God. While this can be helpful I don't think it gets to the heart of its meaning. N.T. Wright offers us this helpful paragraph in his book 'What Saint Paul Really Said':

'Resurrection' was, in Ezekial 37, a metaphor for the return of Israel from exile. When Paul was faced with the fact of Jesus' resurrection, he concluded that the return from exile had in fact happened. Exile had reached its height in Jesus' death; now he had come through death, through the ultimate exile, and was set free not just from Greece or Rome, from Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas, but from sin and death, the ultimate enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25-6). This meant that the Age to Come, the Eschaton of Jewish expectation, had already arrived, even though it didn't look like Paul had expected. It meant that Israel had in principle been redeemed, in the person of her anointed representative. It meant that the Gentiles were now to be summoned to join Israel in celebrating the new day, the day of deliverance."

Some comments:

- Israel was in exile because they had disobeyed the covenant. They had sinned against God and he gave them up to their sin. The curses of the covenant had fallen on them. He removed his blessing from them and the nations came against them and enslaved them. So exile comes as a result of sin.

- The promises made to Israel in exile were promises of a new day of salvation, a time when God would atone for their sins and they would know God fully in a new creation.

- These promises were not just for Israel; when this new day, this new creation, came the whole world would be able to join in the celebration.

- Essentially, return from exile means that God has dealt with Sin and sins. One of the greatest things about this promised salvation is that the sins of Israel, and all the world, would be dealt with and the world be free from the effects of Sin.

- Jesus bore these curses on himself. All the evil of the world came against Jesus and did its worst to him. God was dealing, first and foremost, with sin on the cross. When God's people, and all humanity, sinned the result was exile. Jesus went into exile even though he was sinless.

- Jesus was raised from the dead. When God finally dealt with sin the images that he gave in the prophets was that of resurrection (See Hosea 6). Since Jesus dealt with sin on the cross God's new creation, the world without sin and it's evil effects, has come.

These are great things to rejoice about. When we think of the resurrection we ought to rejoice that sin has been dealt with and we get to be a part of God's new world, the world without sin, the world of King Jesus. I am looking forward to Easter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Saint Paul Really Said 3

Here are some points of interest in Wright's chapter entitled 'Herald of the King':

- After his 'conversion' Paul remained loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who made promises to Abraham, the God who gave the law, the God who spoke through the prophets.

- The Church misunderstands the gospel when they make the focus some kind of 'order of salvation'. It is not an individualistic and ahistorical message about how one gets saved.

- The background of Paul's gospel stands firmly in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Greek world. Israel awaited a day when God's promises, as predicted by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekial, would come true. God would rescue his people from exile and comfort them. God would be king of the whole world. The term gospel was also an announcement of a great victory, birth or accession of an emperor; this came with promises of peace and security, a start for the new world. If a person was preaching and teaching that the former was coming true then it challenged the latter. If YHWH was king then Caesar was not.

- The gospel is a true story about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus through which God becomes king of the whole world.

- The cross is at the heart of Paul's theology. The cross of Christ is a royal victory which confronts the 'powers' and declares that their time is up. It is the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham where God deals with sin and evil. The cross is a covenant fulfilling act when God executed a judicial sentence on sin itself. It was the fulfillment of the Isaianic message and is the center and starting point for what the gospel is all about.

- If Jesus defeated sin then death could not hold him. When Jesus was raised it meant that sin had been dealt with, God had achieved what he promised to Abraham. The great eschatological event had taken place. For Paul, resurrection meant bodily resurrection. This event was 'according to the scriptures' which meant that the entire biblical narrative was moving in this direction. The Age to Come had arrived but was coming in two stages. It demonstrates that Jesus was and is Israel's true Messiah, the anointed King.

- The gospel is the 'gospel of Christ', or the gospel of the King. This king has defeated evil at its very heart. The messianic promises of salvation have come true in him and he is now the King of the whole world.

- When the King came he would be Lord, not only of Israel, but of the whole world. Paul's language here comes from Isaiah and from the imperial cult.

- The message of the gospel was a message about God, the true God as opposed to false ones. Those who believe the gospel are known by God.