It is essential for the integrity, credibility and mission of the church that we read the Bible well. Modern evangelicalism has preserved a particular theological outcome, a thesis, from scripture—the argument that God became incarnate in Jesus for the purpose of dying for the sins of the whole world so that we might be saved or redeemed or justified or reconciled with God, live holy lives here on earth, and have the ultimate hope of going to heaven when we die. This thesis, however, has been so critical not only for the identity but arguably for the survival of the modern church that it has come to be understood not simply as a particular theological outcome but as the determinative canon for the reading of scripture. The effectiveness of the modern gospel has, therefore, come at a considerable hermeneutical price.
I argued in the recent posts on Luke’s Christmas stories and on Paul’s description of Jesus as a “servant of circumcision” that a central plot-line in the New Testament narrative is that God saves Israel through Jesus and the Gentiles respond to this, in the first place, by praising the God who has proved himself righteous, proved himself faithful to his people, shown mercy to his people in this way. The “salvation” of the Gentiles is secondary to that and has a quite different narrative-historical dynamic.
I want to pursue the argument a bit further by considering two rather disparate texts: Paul’s address to the Jews and God-fearers in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), and an account of the eschatological restoration of Israel in Sibylline Oracles, which I think I will save until tomorrow.
At the beginning of last year a lot of people were proclaiming the imminent demise of the emerging church. That prognosis may have been premature. Andrew Jones is sometimes credited with having written a self-defeating obituary from within the movement, but he has clarified his position: the emerging movement has not died, it has evolved. An upbeat post by Jonathan Brink on the Emergent Village Weblog also suggests that what Anthony Bradley declared dead a year ago was merely a passing form of the phenomenon—and good riddance to it. Meanwhile, the underlying issues have not gone away: “People were still gathering together in pubs, coffee houses and homes, wrestling with questions of faith, reformation, atonement, the goodness of God, what it means to follow Jesus, and how to live in a post-Christian culture.” He goes on to list a number of publications and events as evidence that the emerging movement is still active and influential. He concludes:
The emerging church isn’t dead. It’s just finally wrestled with the angel and won. It’s shedding it [sic] old image, the one that got people so riled up in the first place. The conversations won’t ever go away because in the end, we’re looking for what it means to be human. We’re looking to discover the reality that Jesus was trying to present, one of infinite grace and beauty, stark reality of the kingdom of God in our midst, and a renewed sense of possibility for the restoration of the world.
What we are faced with here is a basic dilemma regarding the structure of the story about salvation in Jesus. On the one hand, we have a conventional view, according to which Jesus is sent into the world in order to save humanity from its sins. On the other, we have the argument that Jesus “came” to save Israel from its sins, an event which subsequently came to have radical implications for the Gentiles. This was the tenor of the posts on the true-meaning-of-Luke’s-Christmas. In relation to Romans 15:8 there is the further particular issue of how the significance of the salvation of Israel is pertinent for the nations.
My argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul is thinking in rather consistent Old Testament terms of the nations praising YHWH for his mercy towards Israel. What prompted this inconsiderately lengthy re-examination was some comments by Peter Wilkinson disputing this reading of the text. His argument is essentially that the “blessing” of the nations as the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham is much more directly in view in Paul’s argument.
In a comment on the first of my true-meaning-of-Luke’s-Christmas posts my old friend Rogier asks whether the argument about judgment has not been overstated:
I raise this with you, because in so many of our conversations it seems like you interpret much of the gospel and the Jesus-story through the historical event of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans. Now, I don’t disagree that there are passages in scripture that allude to this — but is it possible you see this coming judgment in too many places in scripture? I, in spite of your writing, don’t actually see it in this passage.
It’s a good question, one that gets to the heart of the dilemma that we currently face as committed interpreters of the New Testament.
Embedded in the familiar story of the birth of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel are a number of resonant prophetic and poetic statements: the announcements to Zechariah and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, and the angel’s message to the shepherds. They interpret the birth as a singular sign that the God of Israel was about to overturn the existing political-religious order of things. Israel’s metaphorical state of exile would be brought to an end; a corrupt elite in Israel would be brought down, the humble poor would be lifted up; a new king would bring peace to a people terrorized by its enemies; and he would reign over this redeemed people throughout the coming ages. This is not a story of the beginning of personal salvation; it is not the story of God taking on human flesh in order to save mankind. We need to clear our minds. It is the story of the birth of an exceptional king, through whose agency God would save his people from the disastrous consequences of their sins.
During the reign of the god and saviour Caesar Augustus Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to be registered. While they were there, Mary gave birth to a son. She wrapped him in old cloths and put him in a feeding trough where the animals were kept because the house was overcrowded.
Even more remote from the centres of imperial power—by a few barren hillsides—a group of shepherds were visited by an angel, who told them about the birth of Israel’s royal saviour, appropriately in the city of David. This was a good news diametrically opposed to the “gospel” of salvation, prosperity and peace supposedly vouchsafed by the divine Augustus. They would find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough.
The Benedictus of Zechariah, like Mary’s Magnificat, is a pastiche of Old Testament phrases and imagery celebrating the fact that the God of Israel is acting to transform the socio-political circumstances of his people. A previous commentary post from Christmas 2006 lists the most obvious points of reference. Psalm 106 is especially important. It recounts God’s faithfulness towards his disobedient people at the time of the exodus and entry into Canaan. His anger is kindled against them; he “gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them”; their enemies oppressed them; nevertheless, he “remembered his covenant” and had mercy on them (Ps. 106:40-46).
Mary’s extraordinary hymn of praise to God her saviour gives us an excellent opportunity to consider the question of the relation between the individual and the national in Luke’s Christmas narrative. The point I have been trying to make in these Christmas posts is that the true-meaning-of-Christmas cannot be articulated in terms of individual salvation—or, for that matter, in the simple incarnational formula of God becoming man at Christmas. If the miraculous conception of Jesus in Luke and Matthew is a sign of anything, it is—in keeping with the thrust of the stories generally—a sign of the coming judgment and kingdom. (Coincidentally, I see that Daniel Kirk is going through Matthew’s birth narratives in a similar vein.) The birth stories, in a multiplicity of ways, point to events that will transform the standing of the people of God amongst the nations: judgment, renewal, and the “defeat” of Israel’s enemies.
Six months later the angel is back. According to Luke’s matter-of-fact account Gabriel is sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth. She is a virgin engaged to a man from the house of David called Joseph. The girl’s name is Mary. With the customary angelic formalities Gabriel tells Mary that she has no need to be afraid because she has “found favour with God”.