“Fully convinced”?

“Being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”

These are the words that jump off the page for me as I look ahead to the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. These come from Romans 4, Paul’s midrash on the Abrahamic covenant stories of Genesis 15 and 17. For Paul, this is a core element of the faith God desires of us.

“Being fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.”

I don’t think I have that kind of faith, or, at least, not often. “Fully convinced?” Hopeful, sure, that God will do what God has promised. Trusting in God through all things, regardless of what happens, yes. But “fully convinced”? That seems like a faith too great for mere mortals like me.

And then I remember the rest of Abraham’s story. Sure, at these moments of encounter with God, when God comes before him in awe and wonder, then Abraham could well have been “fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” But the rest of the story shows us that Abraham was not always “fully convinced.” In fact, he sometimes wasn’t trusting in God at all.

It turns out Abraham was human after all. Just as human as the God-man Jesus, who wrestled with doubts in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as human as you and me.

God is able to do what God has promised. That reality doesn’t depend on our faith or lack of faith. The invitation to faith is an invitation to rest in this reality. Let’s cherish our experiences of full conviction, for sure. But may we always be encouraged that even great examples of faith like Abraham, even our Lord Jesus, wrestled with doubt in times of uncertainty and distress. This, too, is faith.

Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

Faith and Works

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 4, 2018, based on James 2:14-26.

As the Adult Bible Study student guide notes, it’s possible that James was responding to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. In fact, given the similarities in wording between specific statements in Paul’s letters (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) and here (Jas 2:24), this is likely the case. Some had understood Paul to mean that our actions don’t matter with regard to salvation—all that matters is believing certain things to be true. Sadly, many Christians today also understand Paul’s teaching this way—and they either accept this teaching as gospel or reject Paul as having distorted Jesus’ teaching.

It’s a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that “faith” is simply “belief,” mentally assenting to certain truths—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, for example. However, the word for “faith (pistis) can have a wide range of meanings. It can include “belief,” but it can also mean “trust,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” Paul in fact draws on this whole semantic range of the word pistis: yes, believing certain things to be true is important, but so is trusting in God in a personal way, as well as showing faithfulness and demonstrating allegiance to God. This is underscored by the many ways Paul speaks about genuine faith as that which works itself out in loving actions (e.g. Gal 5:6).

James gives two examples of these “loving actions” that result from genuine faith: caring for the poor (2:1-9, 14-17), and protecting the foreigner (2:25-26). This is significant for at least two reasons.

First, these are prominent themes throughout the Scriptures. Concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan, and concern for the foreigner or stranger, is deeply embedded in the Law of Moses and repeatedly voiced by the Prophets (e.g. Lev 19:10, 34; Deut 15:7-11; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3). This concern for the poor and the stranger, representing the most vulnerable in society, continues through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Matt 25:34-40; Rom 12:13; Gal 2:10; 1 John 3:17).

Second, this is significant because these continue to be prominent needs—and controversial flashpoints—today. Somehow, in certain conservative Christian circles, caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, or calling on governments to attend to these needs, has become a sign of theological liberalism. But can we claim to have genuine, living, saving faith, yet refuse to stand with the poor and the foreigner, with all who are vulnerable and marginalized in society? Both James and Paul—following in the footsteps of Jesus, following the Law and the Prophets—are clear: the answer is a resounding “no.”

The Difference between Gods and God

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 17, 2017, based on Acts 14.

The Bible has a complicated relationship with the “gods” of this world. Some biblical texts suggest that there are in fact other deities beyond the God of Israel. Other texts suggest these other “gods” aren’t true deity at all—there is only one true and living God. Some biblical passages describe other gods as “demons” and call on God’s people to avoid these demonic beings at all costs. Other biblical passages seem to view at least some other gods as reflections, albeit imperfect or incomplete reflections, of the one true and living God.

Ancient peoples tended to name as “gods” those realities which they believed had power over them and so required their passive submission, their pious veneration, or even their total allegiance. We in the modern west might not use the language of “gods” to describe these powerful realities, but they are still with us. Political ideologies, economic systems, nationalism and materialism and racism and more—all with their founding mythologies and sacred rituals and mediating priesthoods—hold sway over us in various ways, calling for our submission, our veneration, and even our allegiance.

Within this matrix of many “gods” and “lords,” whether ancient or modern, stands this word from the Apostle Paul, perhaps reflecting a common early Christian confession: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

What might it mean for us today to turn from the “gods” of our day to the one true God, to live as if God alone really is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we exist”? What might it mean for us today to confess that “Jesus is Lord” and no one or nothing else is “lord,” to live as if Jesus alone truly is the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist”?

And are we willing, like Paul in Lystra, to call the world to allegiance to the one true God and Lord even if it means suffering in the way of Jesus?

Who or What Is in Control?

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 10, 2017, based on Acts 13:1-12.

Acts 13:6-12 is a story of identity and power.

Names are important in the story. There’s Bar-Jesus (“son of Jesus”) also called Elymas (“the sorcerer”), and “Saul also called Paul,” as well as Sergius Paulus (that is, also “Paul”). It can be confusing, but all this narrative naming boils down to this question: which of these is a true “son of Jesus,” and which is actually a “son of the devil”? This is a story of identity.

It’s also a story of power. On the one hand you’ve got Elymas cozying up to the powerful, seeking to use the powers that be (both human and supernatural) for his own ends. On the other hand there’s Paul speaking truth to power, the truth of the gospel, the good news of One who died at the hands of the powers that be to free us from all evil powers (both natural and spiritual).

Even Paul participates in a display of supernatural power, speaking a temporary blindness upon Elymas. Yet notice what wins over the proconsul Paulus in the end: “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). It was the persuasive gospel, not coercive sorcery, that brought about change. It was the strange story of a crucified king, not the sheer force of a supernatural power, that saved the day.

We have many temptations today to seek or maintain worldly power. This is especially so when our lofty plans for bringing about good in the world seem to be thwarted. We can then become frustrated and impatient, and start to look for alternate ways to accomplish those good ends. If only we had some real power on our side, imagine all the good we could do! If only we had political control, judicial authority, economic clout, cultural influence, spiritual dominance, or even just sheer physical force, imagine what we could accomplish for the kingdom!

But this is not the way of Jesus, who deliberately rejected worldly power at both the beginning and end of his career (Matt 4:1-11; 26:36-56). It’s not the way of the gospel, the beautiful good news of a crucified and resurrected king bringing about an upside-down kingdom through patient, persistent, selfless love.

In the end, it is those who trust in and live out this “weak power” of God (1 Cor 1:21-25) who prove themselves to be the true “Bar-Jesus.”

What’s up with Paul’s language of “the flesh”?

Last night our church held a prayer service in which I invited the congregation to listen for God’s voice to us as I read Scripture. We then responded to this “word of the Lord” through silence, prayer, and song. It was a wonderfully simple service.

One of the extended Bible readings we did was Galatians 5:13–6:10. This is a “how should we then live” passage, the kind found in many New Testament letters sketching out what it looks like for followers of Jesus to live in community with one another in light of the great theological truths just expounded.

As I read this passage, I stumbled over Paul’s use of the word “flesh.” This happens sometimes when I read Paul’s letters publicly. The reason? I fear that people will get the wrong idea.

“The flesh” is a common expression, especially in Paul’s letters, and especially in Romans and Galatians. Just a few examples:

  • “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5).
  • “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
  • “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).
  • “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Gal 6:8).

Many Christians have taken “the flesh” in these and similar verses to mean quite literally “the physical body”: our eyes and ears, our feet and hands, even (or even especially) our genitalia. All the language about “not living according to the flesh” or “making no provision for the flesh” or “not sowing to the flesh,” is about denying our physical body in some way in favour of some inner spirituality (“bodies are bad, the spiritual is good”). Often this is expressed as downplaying or even rejecting our bodily desires, our desires for food, drink, sex, intimacy, and more.

But this doesn’t quite work. It’s true that the Greek word sarx in common usage meant “flesh” or even “the fleshy parts of a body.” But it could also take on a variety of figurative uses. “All flesh,” for example, means “all living creatures.” “Flesh and blood” can mean “human beings,” or even “one’s own kin.” “One flesh” refers to “shared kinship.”

Paul can use the word “flesh” in these sorts of ways, none of which is inherently negative toward our bodies. Paul can even say, positively, that “the life I now live in the flesh (sarx) I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Paul also uses the word “body” (sōma) quite a bit, and many of these uses are positive. Paul describes the believer’s “body” as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). He calls on Christians to offer our “bodies” to God as an act of worship (Rom 12:1). He insists that our future resurrection state—imperishable, immortal, untouched by sin and death—will still involve a sōma, a “body” (1 Cor 15:35-44).

In other words, it’s complicated.

I think we can get at what Paul means in verses like those I quoted above if we dig into the contrast Paul makes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” (stick with me here, it’s worth it).

Paul likes these kinds of binary contrasts: “flesh” in contrast to “Spirit”; “Law” in contrast to “Christ” or “faith”; “this present age” in contrast to “the coming age.” It’s this last one—“this present age” in contrast to “the coming age”—that helps make sense of the rest of them.

You see, Paul held to a common Jewish notion that human history was divided into two “ages.”

The “present age” is the one we’re in, and it is characterized by “powers” that have influence over us, even control over us. Human kingdoms and rulers and authorities. The internal forces that animate these groups and leaders. The structures and systems they create. These “powers” are not necessarily bad, but they can become “evil powers,” perpetuating injustice and oppression, committing violence and bringing destruction. Behind these “evil powers” is the worst of them all, evident in each and every human life: “sin” and the wide-ranging “death” that accompanies it.

The “coming age,” by contrast, is the promised “kingdom of God,” the “new creation,” in which the powers of sin and death are eradicated and all things are brought under God’s liberating, loving reign. The end result? Life: abundant, eternal, harmonious, flourishing life. Shalom, you could also say.

Here’s the thing: because the Messiah has come, the “coming age” is already here, though it is not yet fully here. The kingdom of God, God’s new creation, has entered this present age in anticipation of its future fulfillment. As followers of Jesus the Christ we are called to live out God’s reign, to live out God’s new creation, resisting the evil powers of this age which are over us, among us, and within us.

This is what the contrast between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” is all about. These are, effectively, contrasting ways of being human in the world.

“Living according to the flesh” means “living according to a self-centered, selfish way of being human,” which is at the root of our sin and all its deathly consequences. Indeed, this “self-centered, selfish way of being human” is what lies behind all the evil powers of this present age: corrupt governments and corporations and presidents and CEOs and more, animated by a spirit of greed or vanity or domination, creating oppressive structures and unjust systems within society.

“Living according to the Spirit,” by contrast, means “living according to a God-centered, other-oriented way of being human” which Jesus taught and lived out among us. The “Spirit,” after all, is “the Spirit of Christ,” shaping us into the image of Jesus. When we “live according to the Spirit,” or we “walk in the Spirit,” we are choosing to walk in the way of Jesus, Jesus’ way of love: a deep devotion to God expressed through humble compassion and care for others.

When Paul talks about “the flesh” in these passages, then, he is not talking about our natural, bodily desires for food, drink, sex, and more. He’s talking about those desires turned inward, distorted through our self-centered selfishness.

The antidote is not to deny our bodily desires. These are part and parcel of what it means to be human. They are God-given, a part of God’s “very good” creation.

Rather, the antidote is to rightly order those natural desires around love for God and others, seeking the common good. It is to strive to fulfill those desires through this God-centred, other-oriented way of love, empowered by the very presence of the resurrected Jesus in us and among us.

It is, in other words, to “live by the Spirit.”

Gaia’s Story

Temple of Apollo, Acrocorinth in background (Holy Land Photos)

Temple of Apollo, Acrocorinth in background (Holy Land Photos)

Over the past six weeks I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians 1-3. I’ve done narrative preaching before, but in this series that was the focus: throughout the series I told the story of Gaia, a fictional woman from first century Corinth who hears Paul’s words for the first time. The story follows Gaia as she works through the implications of Paul’s words for herself and the community of Jesus-followers in Corinth.

Here are the audio recordings of “Gaia’s Story,” along with a link to a concluding post I wrote on our church blog giving some of the historical and biblical background to the story. The goal was not complete historical accuracy but historical verisimilitude, with a larger focus on speaking the essential ideas of 1 Corinthians 1-3 to a modern audience.

Episode 1: “The Fellowship of Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

Episode 2: “Jesus is Not Divided” (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

Episode 3: “Jesus, Crucified King” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

Episode 4: “Jesus, God’s Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4)

Episode 5: “Co-Labourers with Jesus” (1 Corinthians 3:5-17)

Episode 6: “No Foundation but Jesus” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23)

Addendum: Some Notes on “Gaia’s Story”

Scripture and Jesus on Love

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

reg_div_typeIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need over and above anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Let’s start with a quick survey of some biblical texts. It’s not just that “love” is mentioned a lot in the Bible—that’s true, but it’s more than that. It’s the way love is talked about in the Bible that’s so significant.

Take the Great (or Greatest) Commandment. Here’s Matthew’s version of the story:

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:35-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18)

Jesus’ response is right in line with similar teachings from other great Rabbis (e.g. Hillel), and the first part is straight out of the Shema, the daily recitation of devout Jews. But Jesus does something distinctive if not novel: he binds a second command to the “greatest and first,” he connects loving people with loving God. These two loves go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other.

The final statement is crucial. All the Law and the Prophets, the Jewish Scriptures, the entire Old Testament—every command, every promise, every story, every poem—hangs on the hook of these two commandments. This two-dimensional love—vertical love for God, horizontal love for others—is the point of everything in Scripture, it is Scripture’s end goal. If we read anything in Scripture in a way that does not lead us to greater love for God and love for others, we have not read Scripture correctly.

The earliest Christians got this. Take Paul in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10; cf. Gal 5:14)

What’s the one thing we owe each other? The one, single thing? Love.

And what sums up every commandment God has ever given? I mean, every single one—including commands like “Be holy” or “Speak the truth”? Love.

And what is it that expresses the underlying intention and overarching goal of the Law of Moses, that brings the whole Torah to fruition? Love.

Sounds a whole lot like Jesus to me.

Interesting, too, to note why these things are true: because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Love does not cause harm to others. Put the other way, love brings good to others. Love is life-giving. That’s why love is the fulfillment of the Torah, whose purpose was to bring God’s people life (Deut 30:11-20).

Then take 1 John. This is hard to quote and summarize because these themes of love are woven throughout the letter, but some key texts are 1 John 3:11-20 and 4:7-21. A few highlights:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Strong words, all of them. Yet they are right in line with Jesus’ Great Commandment teaching: love is at the essence of life, at the heart of God’s will for us, and our love for God is inseparable from our love for others. No wonder another text of John’s depicts Jesus saying that love is the hallmark of true disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).

There’s more. Much more.

There’s Jesus teaching on love throughout the Gospels, in all the Gospels. Loving neighbours the same way a Samaritan does (Luke 10:25-37). Loving enemies the same way the Creator does (Matt 5:43-48; cf. Luke 6:27-31). Loving prodigal sinners and self-righteous brothers the same way a Father does (Luke 15:11-32). Loving fellow disciples the same way Jesus does (John 13:34-35).

There’s Paul speaking of love in his letters. That love is the “most excellent way,” a far greater way than seeking knowledge of right doctrine, or pursuing mountaintop spiritual experiences, or striving for an ascetic, avoid-it-all, moral purity (1 Cor 12:31-13:13; cf. 8:1-3). That the “only thing that counts,” the thing that really matters most, is “faith working—or being expressed—through love” (Gal 5:6). That love is the virtue that is “over all” other virtues, that “binds together” all other virtues (Col 3:14), including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (3:5-14).

There’s John’s three-layered love theology that circles through his writings over and over again: the Father loves the Son, the Father loves us through the Son, and so we are to love one another in the way of the Son (e.g. John 15:9-12). There’s James’ Jesus-like description of “fulfilling the royal law found in Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Jas 2:8). There’s Peter’s Paul-like summary: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

It’s everywhere. This bottom-line, heart-of-the-matter, sums-it-all-up kind of perspective on love is everywhere in the New Testament, weaving together threads of love that run through the Old Testament.

Love really is all we need.

But what is this love? What does it look like? That’s the next post.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Christians and Israel (2) – Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel

This series is adapted from a sermon I preached on August 3, 2014, “What should we think about Israel?” See here for part one, “Describing the Crisis,” below for part three, “God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.

As Christians, how should we think about Israel? That’s the question I’m considering in this series. I’m not attempting to solve the Palestinian crisis or give a sure-fire plan for Mideast peace. Rather, I want to walk through a few thoughts that should shape the way we as Christians think about Israel and Palestine.

Last post I introduced the problem with a quick sketch of the origins and history of modern Israel and the Palestinian crisis. In the next two posts I’ll make two claims. First, the modern nation state of Israel is not the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel. And second, as followers of Jesus seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

Let’s start with the first claim: the modern nation state of Israel is not the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel.

I know it’s tempting to think it is. It is true that there are some strong promises made to Israel in the Old Testament, promises which are reiterated in one way or another in the New Testament (see especially Rom 9:4-5 and 11:28-29). And it is true that modern Israel was founded to be a home for the Jewish people, a safe haven from anti-Semitic oppression—quite an amazing story, to be sure, after Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews.

But the modern nation state of Israel is not the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel—and here are a couple of reasons why.

First, it is simply wrong to equate modern Israel with ancient Israel—they are two different things entirely. Ancient Israel was a theocratic monarchy in covenant with YHWH, a covenant centered on the Torah, the Law of Moses. Modern Israel, while making special provision for Jewish citizenship and drawing on Jewish ideals and values, claims (or at least aims) to be a secular liberal democracy. It makes no official claim to be in a divine covenant and does not have the Torah as the basis of its laws.

Just as many people equate “Palestinian” with “Muslim,” so many people equate “Israeli” with “Jewish.” Both equations are false. As for the “Palestinian = Muslim” equation, there is in fact a small but significant Palestinian Christian community. And as for the “Israeli = Jewish” equation, the ethnic and religious demographics of Israel are much more complex than this. Around 20% of Israelis are Arab, most of those practicing Muslims, and over 40% of Jewish Israelis identify themselves as “secular Jews”—Jews by ethnicity only, not by religion.

It was ancient Israel, a theocratic, tribalistic society that became a monarchy, that God brought into covenant with himself through Moses. I’m glad that the modern nation of Israel strives to be a liberal democracy, but that in itself means it is not the equivalent of ancient Israel.

But even if modern Israel could be equated with ancient Israel, it still would not be the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel—because the biblical writings themselves suggest otherwise. Let me sketch out some of this biblical theology with a special focus on the Apostle Paul’s angle on things, since he’s got the most to say on the question among New Testament authors.

800px-Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_024The promises to ancient Israel go back to Abraham. According to Genesis 12, repeated and expanded in Genesis 15 and 17, God makes a two-part promise to Abraham: first, God promises to bless Abraham with many descendants, and with provision and protection and land—yes, land—for him and his descendants; and second, God promises to bless all the peoples of the earth through Abraham and his descendants.

Both parts of this promise are crucial, and they point to an important biblical pattern: God blesses the few in order to bring blessing to the many. God can even bless just one person—Abraham, David, Jesus—in order to bring blessing to all people. God never blesses people simply so they can hoard it to themselves, so they can have privileged status with God or before others. God blesses people so that through them God can bless others.

This idea is repeated in the next big covenant God makes, the covenant with Israel given through Moses. This is the covenant that created ancient Israel as a nation. In this covenant God repeats the same promises to Abraham—God will bless Israel with people, protection, provision, and land—yes, still land—and they are in turn to be a blessing to the nations around them. This is the idea behind God calling them “a holy nation and a royal priesthood” as he covenants with them (Exod 19:3-6): they are separated out from the nations and specially blessed by God, in order to be like priests for the nations, mediating God’s blessing to the world.

But this covenant through Moses had one important difference from the covenant with Abraham: it was conditional. With Abraham God just gave a straight up promise: God says, “I will do these things,” period. With Israel God put a condition on the promises: if Israel obeys God’s law, then God will do these things (go back and read Exod 19:5). Abraham’s promise was unconditional, Israel’s was conditional on their obedience.

And, according to ancient Israel’s own prophets, Israel broke the covenant (e.g. Jer 11:1-13; cf. Deut 31:16-21). They disobeyed God’s law, they committed idolatry and injustice and more. And so, as the biblical story goes, they were sent into exile, to Assyria and Babylon and beyond.

God, though, remained faithful to Israel even through their unfaithfulness—and promised a new covenant (e.g. Jer 31:31-34Ezek 16:59-63). This new covenant would be like the covenant through Moses in that it would fulfill the promises to Abraham. But this new covenant would not be like the covenant through Moses in one important respect: it would not be conditional on Israel’s obedience but it would be based solely on God’s love and faithfulness.

Rembrandt Christ ResurrectedMany of the New Testament writings pick up on this new covenant motif, and they all insist that Jesus is the one who brings in this new covenant. To use Paul’s language, Jesus is the descendant (the “seed,” Gal 3:16) of Abraham who fulfills the promises God gave to Abraham, blessing for Abraham’s descendants and blessing for all the peoples of the earth. But here’s the kicker: it turns out the descendants of Abraham include the peoples of the earth, the Gentiles.

For Paul, this is the way that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled: through Jesus the Jewish Messiah both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) can be children of Abraham and heirs of the promises to Abraham. Take a look at a few excerpts from Paul:

  • Romans 9:6-8: “Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.”
  • Galatians 3:28-29: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
  • Ephesians 2:11-15: “You [Gentiles] were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.”

Through Jesus God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled: the blessing given to the few is extended to all. Through Jesus God is making a new humanity that does not divide between “us” and “them,” a new humanity that together receives the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.

And this includes the promise of “land.” It is a curious thing that, while the New Testament refers to Abraham and the Abrahamic promises many times, the specific promise of “land” is never explicitly mentioned. Scholars have long scratched their heads at this, but in light of Paul’s broader perspective this seems to be the most likely reason: the land promise is like the rest of the promise to Abraham—it has been fulfilled in Christ, and is seen in the blessing given to the nations. In other words, the land the children of Abraham receive, all those who believe whether Jew or Gentile, is not just a strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea, but the whole earth.

To put this yet another way, the fulfillment of the land promise to Abraham through Christ is really a return to God’s original purpose for humanity: all of us, created in God’s image, extending God’s kingdom of love and faithfulness throughout the whole earth (Gen 1:26-28).

Which brings us directly to my second claim, and my next post.

See here for part three, “God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.