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The Debtor Metaphor of Romans 6

In Romans, Paul has an extended development of the idea of slavery and liberation—fundamentally, an exodus theme. In the midst of that development, he writes in Romans 8:12 that we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.

That cryptic statement in context raises questions. Is this is a simple negation (“we are not debtors to the flesh”), a denial with an unspoken corresponding affirmation of where our debt genuinely rests (“we are not debtors to the flesh, but to the Spirit”), or perhaps an emphatic statement about a new situation that was previously not the case (“we are no longer debtors to the flesh”)?

Perhaps Paul doesn’t want us to answer the implicit question in just one of these ways; perhaps he wants us to acknowledge the truth of some or all of these ways of reading his statement.

It is interesting, though, to trace the idea of debtorship in connection with Paul’s theme of slavery. Under the social and de facto legal conditions of Paul’s world and Israel’s history, one could be sold into slavery for one’s debts, and was therefore bound to serve the creditor. That seems to shed some light on Paul’s argument in much of Romans 5–8, not least 6–7. (more…)

Righteousness in Romans 6

Wright suggests that in Romans 6, “righteousness” (dikaiosune) is a virtual proxy for God himself. In extensive use in chapter 3, “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosone theou) refers to God’s covenant faithfulness, and much of Romans 3–8 has an underlying narrative substructure of exodus—a transition from slavery to freedom. But then, 6:18 speaks of “slaves of righteousness.” Here’s Wright: (more…)

A Note Re: Wright on Israel’s Future

In his article, “Romans and the Theology of Paul” (reprinted most recently in Pauline Perspectives), N. T. Wright emphasizes that the narrative of Paul’s letter to the Romans is keyed to the story of Israel, seen within the light of Jesus as the Messiah. This is a crucial point that is often overlooked, but in a number of places, I think he takes wrong turns or doesn’t quite get the grasp of the handle in the right place.

For example, in regard to Israel’s “fall” of which Paul speaks, Wright frequently notes that Israel was called to be a light to the nations and she failed, largely because of pride in covenantal position.

(more…)

Abraham’s Faith Revisited

When we correlate Genesis 15, Genesis 22, Romans 4, and James 2, we will come to understand that there is no tension whatsoever between Paul’s view of faith and works over against that of James. Both appeal to how Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15 is accounted for righteousness, but both in fact go beyond that.

Like Paul, James affirms that Abraham’s faith in Yahweh’s promise was counted as righteousness (i.e. in Genesis 15, when God made the initial promise of seed). He affirms that within the framework of stating that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar (Gen 22, frequently referred to as the akedah). The point he makes is that the faith of Abraham (which Yahweh counted as righteousness) was active, and that it was completed by action. The offering of Isaac, says James, fulfilled the Genesis 15 statement that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. (more…)

Matthew 18 and Church Discipline

Matthew 18 is a series of portraits of grace: the grace to those who humble themselves as children, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the unforgiving servant, with its attendant call to forgive our brothers 70×7 times. It also includes a warning against putting a stumbling block in front of other people (which is not at all the same as the modern notions regarding “being offensive”; rather, it is about not being the occasion of tempting others to sin).

In the midst of this is a short passage that, if considered carefully, provides discomfort for various Christians. I am referring in particular to vv 15–20, which in some Bibles comes under the heading “If Your Brother Sins Against You.”

The little passage is uncomfortable for those who pretend the Church has no authority, who think “Judge not, lest you be judged” means accepting everyone no matter what they do. In these verses, Jesus gives the Church the authority of binding and loosing, so that the impenitent are set outside the Church, with the promise that such activity will be ratified in heaven. All of that implies, of course, that the Church is supposed to exercise discipline. It implies that there is such a thing as sin, and more importantly, that recalcitrance (an insistence upon maintaining wrongdoing; a refusal to be corrected) is grounds for expulsion.

But the details of the passage also prove problematic for those who like to think of these verses as outlining “the steps of discipline,” which in fact is simply not true. (more…)

Why the Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah Matters

In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul identifies the resurrection as one of the cornerstone truths of the Christian faith. Along with the Messiah’s death “for our sins,” he identifies the resurrection with “the gospel” (1 Cor 15:1–4). He even goes so far as to say that if the Messiah has not risen, we believers are of all men most pitiable (v 19); indeed, we are still in our sins (17) and our faith is vain (14).

But why? Isn’t the resurrection just a proof of the deity of Christ? Is it really necessary for us?

Much in every way.

We see why this is so when we understand Romans 4:25, which says (literally) that Jesus our Lord was “delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised because of our justification.”

We like to talk about Jesus’ death as representative—carried out on our behalf. But that representative death by itself is an enactment of condemnation. (This is why the concept of substitution, while valuable, cannot carry within itself the whole significance of Christ’s work.)

It is Jesus’ resurrection that constitutes His vindication in the face of the condemnation against Him and us. In other words, His justification, which is why in 1 Timothy 3:16 Paul writes that God was “manifest in the flesh, justified by (Greek en) the Spirit, seen of angels, proclaimed to the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”

This is why if Jesus died but did not rise, we are still in our sins. If the representative Man was not justified, neither are the represented men. If the representative death did not issue in representative resurrection, then death and only death is rightly ours.

The resurrection is not simply a sign of the glory of Christ. It is that, of course—it is in response to it that James blurts out, “My Lord and my God!”

But it is more than that.

It is our hope.

Jesus the Water-and-Spirit Man

John’s Gospel is loaded with references to water.

The purification jars of water in Cana get transformed into wine jugs. Jesus tells Nicodemus that Israel must be reborn of water and Spirit, and then goes beyond the Jordan, where His disciples start baptizing more disciples than John. Meanwhile, John’s disciples are in a dispute with the Pharisees over purification—whose point of reference would be the baptisms of the Mosaic law.

Subsequently, Jesus goes “out of His way” (i.e. takes the direct route that self-respecting Jews wouldn’t take) to ask a Samaritan woman for some water, and then promises her “living water” (an allusion to the law’s requirement for living water). Then He goes back to Jerusalem and meets a man who has no one to throw him into the healing waters of Bethesda. Jesus heals him, and in so doing instructs him to break the rules against carrying burdens on the Sabbath. (more…)

Nicodemus the Man

Good interpreters remind us that the chapter divisions in Scripture are not inspired. They certainly are useful—it’s much easier to find things! But when interpreting the Bible, we shouldn’t make the mistake of stopping or starting at a chapter break without thinking about the connections.

John 2–3 is a case in point.

In John 2, Jesus performs the water-into-wine miracle in Cana, and then goes to Jerusalem and cleanses the temple. These are both “signs” (albeit, of different sorts to our eyes, as the former is what we typify as “miracle,” while the latter is not), and many people believe on Jesus as a result of His signs (2:23). (more…)

The God-Happy Way of Life

Initial sermon draft for this Sunday (I’ll be preaching in Jonesboro, Arkansas) is now complete.

Sermon text: Psalm 1.

Title: “The God-Happy Way of Life.”

Kidner suggests that the term usually translated “blessed” is better translated “happy”—there is, after all, another Hebrew term for “blessed.” Beyond that, “blessed” is a very mushy term in our Christian culture. (Especially down here in the South, but it’s a general affliction, I think.) Kidner suggests that “happy” is a better translation.

At the same time, we need to be clear that the Psalm is not just talking about any happiness. The “happy” in verse 1 is looking forward to the rest of the Psalm. Not least: “Yahweh knows the way of the righteous.”

There is nothing wrong with desiring to be happy. But we must define happiness, and we also must orient ourselves toward the proper sort of happiness. When our delight is in the Word of the Lord, it is the Lord who determines and defines the nature of happiness.

Thus, the Psalm is not merely about “how to be happy” in some generic sense. It is the portrait of the God-happy way of life.

Two Assemblies of Psalm 1

It’s sometimes overlooked due to the ambiguity of English renderings such as “the wicked” and “the righteous” (translations of words which in fact are plural in the Hebrew), but Psalm 1 is a thoroughly communal statement regarding competing assemblies. Yes, it is talking about “the man” who is blessed, and indeed some of his activity is the sort of thing that would mark his life in private (e.g. his day and night “meditating” upon Yahweh’s Torah).

Nonetheless, the focus of the Psalm as a whole is communal. It is the counsel of wicked men which he does not walk in, and he does not sit in the seat of the scorners. That last clause could just as suitably be rendered he does not dwell in the assembly of the scorners, and this assembly is then ultimately contrasted to the congregation of the righteous men in verse 5.

Thus, while Psalm 1 is (legitimately) lent to the idea of something like private devotions, it is ultimately a statement about community. The righteous meditator is not one whose meditation is that of hermit, but rather is one whose meditation takes place within the congregation of the righteous. His righteousness is as public as the unrighteousness of the sinners in whose way and counsel he refuses to walk and stand.