Monday, April 22, 2013

The Unifying Theme, The Faithfulness of Jesus [Romans 3.21-31] (15 April 2012)

I remember when I was in seminary, and we were interpreting John 16.33, the professor said that when Jesus says, “I have overcome the world” he clearly meant “I have overcome Satan.” After class, a classmate of mine was livid. He said, “So John 3.16 should mean God so loved Satan.”

In his “Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans”, Martin Luther, the great German reformer, wrote:

“This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”
After such a lofty beginning to the preface, Luther continues by telling the reader what various common words in the letter mean – words like law, sin, grace, etc. But the problem is that, like my classmate, Luther understood all these words in one-dimensional ways. To Luther, the word ‘law’ meant ‘Old Testament Law’ no matter what. And similarly with the other words.

So great was Luther’s influence on the later Christians, that his interpretation of Romans was taken as – pardon the pun – gospel truth till the middle of the 20th century when the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made scholars look anew at these critical words. Unfortunately, this has not affected our translations.

So to begin with, I am going to ask you to close your bibles. You may open them later. But for now, as I read my translation of the passage, I request you to close you bibles and open your minds and hearts.

"But now, separate from legislation, the righteousness of God has been openly declared, being witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ toward all who believe. For there is no distinction and given that all have sinned and are rendered deficient with respect to the glory of God, they are being declared righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God exhibited for himself as the place of reconciliation through the faithfulness of his blood in order to declare his righteousness through the tolerance of previously committed sins. That time of the tolerance of God was an indication of his righteousness so that in the present he could be righteous and the one who declares righteous those who exist through the faithfulness of Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded! By what sort of principle? Of works? No! Rather by the principle of faithfulness for we assert that a person is declared righteous by faith separate from legislation. Or is God only of the Jews and not of the Gentiles? Indeed also of the Gentiles! And since God is one he will declare righteous the circumcised because of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through faithfulness. Do we annul the Law through faithfulness? Ridiculous! Rather, we uphold the Law."

You may open your bibles!

Over the next few weeks, we will be going through key passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Some, if not many, of you will perhaps be familiar with what Evangelical Christians call ‘The Romans Road’ – a set of verses from this letter that walks one through the whole doctrine of salvation – who needs it and why, who provides it, how and on what terms, etc.

It is my task today to speak on a passage that contains the first verse of the Romans Road. Can anyone cite it for me?

In order to understand these letters, we normally have to answer many questions: When was it written? By whom? Under what circumstances? What is the social and cultural background of the recipients? And many more. But we do not have the time for all of that today.

But let us ask some questions about opinions: First, what according to you is the central concern of the letter? Second, how well organized is Paul’s presentation of his central concern?

On the issue of the second question, many Christians hold the view that Romans is as close to a systematic theology as Paul ever wrote. However, Romans is by far the most difficult of Paul’s letters to interpret. In fact, new Testament scholar, N.T. Wright has this to say about the letter:

"Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision."

Among the possible answers to the first question, the one about the central concern of the letter, are ‘justification by faith’ or ‘the doctrine of salvation’ or ‘life in the Spirit’. This cuts across denominations and traditions. Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians would agree about these views.

So it might surprise you to hear me say that these are concerns that have arisen much later. For example, we might see ‘justification by faith’ as central only because for Martin Luther and John Calvin it was central. Or we might see ‘life in the Spirit’ as central only because for Charles Finney it was. But these are not the central concerns of the letter or of Paul.

What then is the central concern of Paul? Why, in other words, did he bother to write such a long letter? We do not have the time to discuss this thoroughly. But we can get a little glimmer if we look at the immediate context of the cherished verse from the Romans Road.

Did you catch those words when I read then? “Toward all who believe, for there is no distinction and given that all have sinned and are rendered deficient with respect to the glory of God, they are being declared righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is saying, “Just because the Law was given to the Jews, does not mean that only the Jews have sinned. No! Jews and Gentiles have sinned. But God must have one way by which he will declare sinful humans righteous because God is one. And so all must be declared righteous by his grace through Jesus.”

This makes sense of the latter part of our passage where Paul explicitly mentions Jews and Gentiles. If it were not for the central concern that I will soon mention, the entire passage is disjointed, first speaking of all having sinned and ending with some random comments about Jews and Gentiles and the oneness of God.

But you see Paul was answering a deeper, more important question: Is God to be trusted? What do I mean? For most of the last twenty centuries, the Church has claimed that all the blessings given to Israel have been transferred to the Church. Towering figures like Augustine, Ambrose, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Moody, Hodge, Spurgeon, Clarke and others have held to this view.

And many of us have followed suit. To counter this, there has been the view that God made two covenants – one with Israel and one with the Church – and that a Jew benefits from one of them and a Christian from the other.

But neither of these views is what Paul espouses. Paul is in a quandary. If God is to be trusted, what happens to the promises made to Israel before Jesus showed up? We Christians tend to spiritualize them and apply them to Jesus or the Church in almost an ad hoc manner. But if our approach is right, then how can we trust God to not apply promises we think are for us to some other group? If he could simply annul promises to the Jews, then on what basis can we trust him not to annul promises made to us? So Paul must conclude that the promises made to Israel must still be valid. 

What happens then to the redemption that is in Jesus? Is it only for Gentiles? This would support the two covenant approach. 

But Paul would have none of this. He says that because God is one, his plan must have a unifying theme to it. And the unifying theme is – mind you – not faith in Jesus, but as I have translated, the faithfulness of Jesus.

We have a unique problem. Before I open that can of worms, let me mention something you have probably heard before. The Greek language had four words that are translated as ‘love’. Three of these appear in the New Testament. These are ‘storge’, ‘philia’ and ‘agape’. The fourth word, ‘eros’, does not appear in the New Testament. 

When we read our English bibles, we are unable to determine what word lies behind each occurrence of the word ‘love’. And some of us have probably heard a sermon or two on the interaction between Jesus and Peter by the sea after the resurrection, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” using both ‘agape’ and ‘philia’.

And as I said, we have a problem. Hebrew has many words that are translated with the Greek word ‘pistis’. The more common ones are ‘aman’, ‘batah’, ‘mibtah’ and ‘yahal’. Key here is that ‘aman’ refers to ‘belief’ whereas the form ‘emunah’ refers to ‘faithfulness’. But both are translated with the word ‘pistis’.

So how do we know what is intended? Just as Hebrew modified ‘aman’ to ‘emunah’ and English modifies ‘faith’ to ‘faithfulness’, Greek also does something similar. And it is here that Christians, notably Martin Luther and his spiritual descendants, have not been careful.

Romans 1.17, which is a quote from Habakkuk 2.4 where the word ‘emunah’ is used, should be translated ‘the righteous by faithfulness shall live’. And this tells us that when Paul uses a particular construct – for those of you who love grammar, a genitive construct – he intends to use the word ‘pistis’ to mean ‘faithfulness’. 

And he does so in our passage seven times – in vv. 22, 25, 26, 27, twice in v. 30 and finally in v. 31. He uses another construct once in v. 28. 

Once we realize how all encompassing the idea of Jesus’ faithfulness is in this passage, we are able to make sense of v. 25, where Paul writes, “Whom God exhibited for himself as the covering of the ark of the covenant through the faithfulness of his blood.” Most translations use the phrase ‘mercy seat’ or ‘propitiation’ or ‘sacrifice of atonement’ to translate the Greek word ‘hilasterion’. 

However, ‘hilasterion’ referred to the lid that was placed on the ark of the covenant. But no sacrifice was offered on the ark! The altar of sacrifice in fact was not in the holy of holies. It was outside. We do injustice, and have done so since Martin Luther used the German word ‘Gnadenstuhl’ to translate ‘hilasterion’. The phrase ‘mercy seat’ is simply a cop out for it raises more questions than it answers. The ideas of sacrifice miss the point because as we have seen no sacrifice was ever linked to the ark of the covenant.

Rather, the ark of the covenant was where the tablets of the Law were kept. And God promised Moses that he would meet him between the seraphs on the lid. In a hugely metaphorical way, but hugely powerful way, Paul is saying that Jesus is now the locus of interaction between God and humans – both Jew and Gentile. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness humans and God are reconciled.

So now we are in a position to understand what Paul is writing in this passage. God is one. So his plan regarding Jews and Gentiles must have a unifying theme. And we know that Jews and Gentiles have sinned. Both are in need of God’s intervention. And because God is God of both Jews and Gentiles, he must be concerned about both and have a plan that includes both. God’s plan cannot be such that it accords preferential treatment to anyone. In other words, it cannot depend on any human or divine piece of legislation.

And so God redeems people on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus and not on the basis of the works of Jews or Gentiles. Both Jews and Gentiles can only depend on the faithfulness of Jesus for through his death God has shown all humans the place where we are reconciled to God. This reconciliation is effected by the faithfulness of Jesus and is embraced and made real by an act of faith by both Jew and Gentile.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Different Messiah [Matthew 22.41-46] (25 March 2012)

During the last three Sundays we have dealt with passages in which Jesus was questioned by different groups. First was the issue of paying the census tax to Caesar. Then was the issue of the resurrection. And finally last week was the matter of the greatest commandment. Today we have Jesus initiating a dialogue with the Pharisees.

The problem with today’s passage is not that Jesus deals with an Old Testament passage here. Rather, the force of what Jesus has done while dealing with this passage has all but obliterated what was done with the passage before Jesus came along. This came to mind when I was preparing for today’s message. 

And so we have a few things to ask ourselves. Why did Jesus choose this passage from the Old Testament? How was this passage interpreted among the Jews at that point? What is Jesus’ interpretation of the passage? And what is it about Jesus’ interpretation that actually silenced the groups that were trying to trap him? 

Before proceeding to answer these questions, we must set in order a couple of things. First, while Jesus probably knew and spoke Greek, given that he was a carpenter in Galilee, it is most likely that he spoke Aramaic while in Jerusalem. Also, while quoting from the Old Testament, he would have quoted from the Hebrew text rather than from the Greek Septuagint.

Second, we must avoid the view that, since Jesus stumped the various groups of interlocutors, these people must have been not very smart. Rather, we must realize that Jesus stumped these teachers of the Torah because he was exceptionally smart. In other words, he is like the good teacher who brings out treasures both old and new depending on whether the wineskins can accommodate the teaching or not.

So what does the Hebrew text say? 

Na-um YHWH la-Adoni: 
shev limini ad-asheet ow-beka ha-dom la-regleka

The poetic nature of the passage is evident in both the rhyme and rhythm. Let me repeat.

Na-um YHWH la-Adoni: 
shev limini ad-asheet ow-beka ha-dom la-regleka

In English we would translate the verse: 

The word of Yahweh to my Lord: 
Sit at my right till I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.

But we still have interpretation problems. And you may ask, “Why in the world is this important?” Why did Jesus bother with this passage? Remember, he is the one who brings it up.

In the 2nd century BC, angered when the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple at Jerusalem, the Jews revolted under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. When the Jews evicted the Seleucids from Jerusalem and its vicinity, the Maccabees set themselves up as rulers. But the Maccabees were priests in the Temple and had to justify their rule since they were not descended from David.

They found support in Psalm 110, which Jesus quotes here in our passage for today. Psalm 110.4 says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” This allowed the Maccabees to say that Yahweh’s plan was to have a priestly ruler.

The Jews accepted this for two reasons. First, they were honest with their scriptures. While speaking about Solomon in 2 Samuel 7, God promises that God will establish Solomon’s throne forever. But the Jews knew that something had gone wrong. Solomon’s throne, David’s throne, had not lasted more than a few centuries. Wave after wave of foreign invasions had finally resulted in the deportation of the last Davidic king to Babylon. And since that time there had been no throne of David, no throne of Solomon.

Second, Psalm 110 was an obscure scripture that no one knew what to do with until the Maccabees came to the picture. We find this hard to believe given that Psalm 110.1 is the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. But before the Maccabees, this psalm was an obscure one. So when the Maccabees interpreted the scripture in a certain way, the Jews were just glad to have an interpretation!

So how did they interpret it? They interpreted it as a regular prophecy one might find in any of the prophetic books. So they interpreted it this way:

The oracle of Yahweh: To my lord, (that is to Yahweh’s king,)
sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.

According to this view the words “my lord” refers to anyone whom Yahweh installs as king. Then apart from the fact that the psalm was written by David, there is no further need to keep David in the picture. 

According to the Maccabean view, the verse is not talking about a king descended from David, but any Jewish king who ruled from Jerusalem. And so the Maccabean rulers are also included in the interpretation.

When the Maccabean rulers soon became corrupt in just over a decade and themselves profaned the worship in the Temple, the Jews now had no way of critiquing their rule because they had already accepted the Maccabean interpretation of Psalm 110.1. Eventually, the Maccabees were removed from power by the Roman General Pompey in 63 BC, just a century after the Seleucids were driven out.

So for a period of about 150 years the Jews had no way of critiquing rulers like the Maccabees. And then came Jesus. What he did was twofold. First, he reinterpreted the Psalm. Second, he indicated the single most important factor about the reign of the true Messiah. And on both counts he excludes the Maccabean rulers. But he also critiques the then – and now – prevalent view of the reign of the Messiah.

So let us see how Jesus reinterpreted the psalm. Prior to the Maccabees, the psalm was ignored. Then for about 150 years the psalm was interpreted according to the template provided by the Maccabean rulers. Then Jesus reinterpreted the psalm and the interpretation he offered for this psalm is the interpretation it has held ever since. Even the Jews subsequently accepted this interpretation that they learnt from the Church even though they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. And this is why uncovering the earlier interpretation of the Maccabees is extremely difficult.

Jesus said that we should interpret the psalm not as a regular prophecy, but as a poem that is presenting a mystery. “Yahweh said to my lord, that is David’s lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” According to this view, the words “my lord” refers to the Messiah, who alone could qualify as David’s lord. But this immediately presents a mystery in the first century, how can the Messiah be David’s son?

But the mystery is also unraveled if we listen carefully to Jesus. What Jesus is doing is saying, “We know that the Messiah is David’s descendant But this psalm indicates that David calls the Messiah ‘Lord’. Let us interpret the difficult passage – Psalm 110 – in light of the easier passage – 2 Samuel 7.”

So what does 2 Samuel 7 say? In that passage Yahweh promises David, “I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.”

In other words, while the Messiah was expected to be David’s son, at a deeper level the Messiah would have a relationship with God so special that he would be God’s son.

This is much like the saying where Jesus says that those who do not hate their father and mother are not worthy of entering the kingdom of God. We know what he means there. He is telling us that our love for him must be so great, so intense, so all-encompassing that in comparison the love for our parents would seem to be completely missing.

In the same way, while the Messiah is David’s descendant, his son-ship to God is of such a nature that it would seem as though his son-ship to David were lacking.

While not discounting the importance of the biological descent of the Messiah, Jesus insists that the spiritual descent is more important. The Messiah is first and foremost God’s son as revealed in the promise to David. Indeed, if we look at the practices then prevalent in the Middle East we would realize that at the right hand of the king was where the crown prince sat.

It is because his son-ship to God takes precedence over his son-ship to David that the Messiah is asked to sit at God’s right hand. But more than this, it means that there is something inherently different between someone who is primarily David’s son and someone who is primarily God’s son.

And this brings us to the most important factor about the Messiah’s reign, something we so easily skip. After Jesus’ reinterpretation of Psalm 110 as a Messianic Psalm, we forget what the Psalm says. So let us go back to the Psalm and see what Jesus quotes: “Yahweh said to my lord” That was the riddle or mystery, which we have solved to indicate that Yahweh spoke to David’s lord, the Messiah. And Jesus continues, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This is a critique of all views that insist that the Messiah is a military conqueror. Yahweh tells the Messiah, “Sit!” He does not say, “Fight at my right hand and both of us will make your enemies your footstool!” He says, “Sit!”

Jesus tells his audience and us that the true Messiah is asked to be passive while God orchestrates history to the point where all the enemies of the Messiah acknowledge his authority over them.

What Jesus has done is provided his audience with an interpretive tool by which they can critique any messianic claimant. If they follow Jesus’ scheme of things they will be able to see that Judas Maccabeus and his brothers did not fulfill Psalm 110 for two reasons. First, they were not descended from David. Second, and more importantly, they did not “sit at God’s right hand”. In the same way they could have dismissed every single of their messianic claimants because every one of them wanted to fight. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If your view of the Messiah includes a battle waged by him then you are expecting a false messiah.”

This critique holds true for us Christians too. As I prepare for the studies on the Revelation of Jesus Christ, I come across so many interpretations that are gory and reveal the thirst for blood that many Christians have. Jesus, according to many of these interpretations, will return and wage war against his enemies and the Antichrist and destroy them.

But according to Psalm 110 the Messiah does nothing to make his enemies submit. That is done by God and we don’t know how he will do it. In other words, Jesus will not return until God has brought Jesus’ enemies to the point where they will acknowledge his authority over them.

Do not conclude that I am saying that Jesus cannot return today. Neither you nor I know whether Jesus’ enemies are ready to submit to him or not. All I am saying is that he will return when God has brought his enemies to the point where they are ready to submit. That may be today. It may be many years from now. 

The chronological time is not the crucial issue – unlike so many people trying to predict the date when he will return. Rather, it is the momentous time that is crucial. He will return when God has fulfilled Psalm 110.1.

Our major creeds tell us that Jesus is right now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And that when he returns, it will be to judge rather than to fight. This current age is the time captured by the word ‘until’ in Psalm 110.1. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and will continue doing that ‘until’ God has brought Jesus’ enemies to the point where they will acknowledge his supremacy.

Jesus will return when the time is ripe. His enemies will submit then. But he will not come to wage a conquest over his enemies. Indeed, in about 12 days we will observe the solemn day on which he was victorious over his enemies. If we are looking for a conquering Jesus to return, we are looking for a figment of our imagination and we then need to repent. The only Jesus who will return is the one who has already won when he hung on the cross.