More on the salvation of Israel and the response of the nations

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.

Turning to the Gentiles at Pisidian Antioch

Let us begin by noting that nothing in Paul’s address in the synagogue suggests that God originally chose Israel in order to bless or save the whole of humanity. The nations feature only negatively: the Jews are delivered from Egypt and God destroys seven Canaanite nations in order to give the descendants of Abraham an inheritance in the land. God has now sent a saviour to the Jews for the sake of the promise made to the patriarchs, which must be interpreted, I think, as a promise to preserve this people and safeguard their inheritance in the context of international conflict. At least, that would appear to be the point of the quotation from Psalm 2: when the nations rage and the kings of the earth conspire against the Lord and against his anointed king, the creator God promises his Son that he “will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession”; he will “break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Acts 13:8-9).

I would suggest that Paul believes that YHWH will establish his Son as king over the nations that opposed him—that is over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. What is novel and remarkable about this belief is that the reign of Christ over the oikoumenē will be achieved through the suffering, death and resurrection of God’s anointed Son. This is how YHWH decisively establishes his sovereignty in the world. But otherwise Paul says nothing to amend the essential argument of a Psalm that I think we can assume would have been familiar to his synagogue audience.

Paul concludes his sermon by quoting an ominous warning from Habakkuk 1:5 LXX: “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you” (Acts 13:41). This is not a “work” of salvation. It is a work of judgment: “behold I am rousing [the Chaldeans,] the fighters, the bitter and swift nation that goes over the breadths of the earth to possess dwellings not his own” (Hab. 1:6). Paul can only mean that disobedient Israel again faces judgment through the agency of a vicious and unjust imperial power.

Here we get to the important point. It is this argument which forms the “word of God” that is spoken to the Jews, as Paul and Barnabas explain the following week (Acts 13:46). Since the Jews reject this word—having been stirred to jealousy by the presence of “almost the whole city”—Paul and his companions turn to the Gentiles, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47). When the gathered crowd of pagans heard this, “they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”; and “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (13:48-49).

Now we at least have to recognize that the story about Jesus, as Paul tells it in the synagogue, is a story about the salvation of Israel from its enemies and the prospect of national disaster if the nation persists in unrepentance. It is only once this message is rejected that the apostles are commanded to turn to the Gentiles. This is a postscript to the Jesus story; it is not intrinsic to it.

But it also seems likely that the Gentiles rejoice and believe specifically in the same “word’ that was told “first” to the Jews. That is, the Gentiles believed that by raising Jesus from the dead and installing him as king over a renewed people of the Spirit, the God of Israel has shown himself to be righteous (this is how Paul will develop the argument in Romans) and faithful to the promises made to the fathers.

Just to remind ourselves, finally, this is the prototypical narrative pattern that is found in Isaiah. By restoring his exiled people to Zion YHWH has acted in the sight of the nations, he has “bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations”; “all the ends of the earth” shall see how YHWH has saved his people (52:7-10; cf. 62:2). And having seen this act of corporate salvation, the nations will respond by glorifying Israel’s God, by bringing tribute (60:5, 11), by coming to the light of a righteous people (60:3), by assisting the returning exiles (60:4; 66:20), by participating in the cultus (66:21), and by turning and being saved (45:22). The nations will acknowledge that the descendants of those who return from exile are “an offspring the Lord has blessed” (61:9).

Comments

Andrew, I think you are being very selective in your interpretation of this passage, and in your summary ('the prototypical narrative pattern') of Isaiah. 

Paul is addressing Jews and Gentile God-fearers (Acts 13:26), who were familiar with the scriptures, and would want to know how Jesus related to the history of Israel. That is the point of Paul's summary of Israel's history. Jesus came in the context of a history of a people through whom the coming of the Messiah had been foretold.

At the key point in the address, unremarked on in your commentary, Paul declares what kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. In verse 38 - "through Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you". This entailed not only restoration of blessing to believing Israel, but the reversal of the fallen state of creation prefigured by Isaiah, and demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus towards the poor, sick, lame, blind, deaf, demonised and dead (and continues to be so). At the centre of forgiveness of sins is the death of the Messiah on the cross - "This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" - Matthew 26:28", and his resurrection from the dead.

Paul also declares, at this key point (verses 38-39), unremarked on by your commentary, "Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses" - verse 39.

The quotation from Habakkuk which immediately follows suggests that forgiveness of sins and justification would take place in a similar time of trouble, and warns of what will happen to those who reject this justification.

The reference to justification is particularly important, because it provides a meaning which goes beyond the definition as a boundary marker, as in Wright and the NPP's view of justification. It includes the act of forgiveness and absolution from "all things" for which the law of Moses had failed to provide absolution. It was not simply the identification and declaration of righteousness. This is not to say that Wright or NPP are wrong, but that justification must have a broader semantic range than they have assigned it.

It is to this climax of Paul's peroration that "the Jews and the devout converts to Judaism" respond (verse 43), to a declaration of sins forgiven (in the broad meaning of the term), demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which had not previously occurred in Israel's history.

We see in the passage the significant discontinuity brought by Jesus into Israel's history, as well as the unique way in which Jesus as Messiah addressed Israel's history. Jesus did what the law of Moses failed to do, because it could not do. 

The Gentiles referred to in verses 16-41 are "devout converts to Judaism". Subsequently, when Paul addresses a crowd of Gentiles from the whole city, he responds to Jewish agitators among them by offering the Gentiles the very salvation (verse 47) of forgiveness of sins and justification which the Jewish agitators reject. 

Am I wrong in saying you have omitted this section (Acts 13:38-39) from your commentary? I think it is the key to the whole passage.

This entailed not only restoration of blessing to believing Israel, but the reversal of the fallen state of creation prefigured by Isaiah, and demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus towards the poor, sick, lame, blind, deaf, demonised and dead (and continues to be so).

I disagree with this. This is the forgiveness of Israel’s sins, not the forgiveness of humanity’s sins (cf. Acts 5:31). It is a forgiveness that frees them “from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (13:39). Paul is only speaking about the Jews. Similarly, Isaiah’s “new creation” is a figure for the restoration of Israel. And I would argue the same for Jesus’ miracles: they are a sign of what God is doing and will do for Israel. They are to be interpreted within these narrative constraints (see Re: Mission, 55-62). This is also true for Jesus’ statement about his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Nothing points to the inclusion of Gentiles in this. If there is an echo of Isaiah 53:12, the orientation towards Israel is only reinforced.

So, no, I haven’t overlooked Acts 13:38-39. It makes exactly my point—that Paul speaks of Jesus specifically as the one who through his death has saved Israel from (the consequences of) its sins.

The quotation from Habakkuk which immediately follows suggests that forgiveness of sins and justification would take place in a similar time of trouble, and warns of what will happen to those who reject this justification.

I don’t follow you here. Where does justification come into it? The quotation from Habakkuk 1:5 in the LXX is a direct warning to a morally and spiritually complacent people that God is raising up a “bitter and swift nation”, by which they will be judged. The threat is not to those who reject justification but to those Jews who disregard the Law of God.

We see in the passage the significant discontinuity brought by Jesus into Israel’s history, as well as the unique way in which Jesus as Messiah addressed Israel’s history.

So why does Paul spend so much time here demonstrating to these Jews that what God did through Jesus’ death and resurrection was precisely in continuity with the story of Israel. Yes, Jesus’ death achieves for Israel what the Law could not achieve—it guaranteed the survival of the people beyond the judgment of AD 70. Because of Israel’s persistent rebelliousness the Law could only pronounce a final judgment—they could not be freed by the Law (Acts 13:38). But Jesus has established an alternative, narrow way for a few leading to life, which Paul in Romans 1:17 sums up by reference to Habakkuk 2:4: under the difficult conditions of divine judgment the righteous who put their trust in YHWH will live.

This whole story about Israel is then, in effect, told to the Gentiles, and they believe it, they rejoice, and no doubt many began to worship this powerful and righteous God, effectively abandoning their pagan past. And then naturally, there is nothing to prevent them from sharing in the new life of this forgiven people, so they are baptized, putting off the old sinful man and putting on the new man in Christ Jesus.

Your final paragraph sums up the problem with the line you have taken, Andrew. First, it doesn't make sense. It says, in effect, that the Gentiles were told a story about what God had done for Israel and not for them. This makes them believe in this God. Then, unaccountably, they appropriate for themselves what God had done exclusively for Israel - namely, in putting off the old sinful man and putting on the new man in Christ Jesus. Since that very change of life is only possible through appropriating personally the benefits of the cross of Jesus, his death and resurrection, sealed by the Spirit, through faith in Jesus himself, and since you are saying that this same death of Jesus was for Israel's sins alone, you have just described a complete contradiction. It's what I've been saying all along.

Acts 13 does confirm what I have been saying. Forgiveness of sins was in the first place for Israel's sins. It includes specific acts of disobedience to God, but it is much more than that. Jesus's ministry demonstrates in advance what forgiveness of sins looks like. It demonstrates the beginning of the reversal of the fallen state of creation, which is described in Isaiah. Of course Isaiah is describing this in terms of what happens to Israel, becaused Israel is the place where this reversal is conceived and enacted. Acts 13 shows that the same forgiveness of sins could be received by the Gentile world. Acts shows that this was God's intention. The promises to Abraham had the Gentiles directly in view, and this direct intention, denied by you, is now coming about. 

Renewed Israel is the new creation only in the sense that Israel is where the new creation began. It rapidly ceases to be a national or ethnic phenomenon

Habakkuk 1:5 is significant in the flow of Acts 13 in that the reference follows directly from Paul's declaration of forgiveness of sins through Jesus, and justification. To reject the free offer is to face judgement, just as Israel was facing judgement in the time of Habakkuk. Paul applies the context to the first century. It also applies universally. The scoffers here are not the Gentiles, but the Jewish agitators. What happened to Israel in AD 70 bears out Paul's warning. The warning has little to do in this context with Rome. Have I understood you rightly here?

The significance of justification 'from all that the law of Moses could not provide justification for' is in the first place for the devout Jews and God fearers whom Paul is addressing .Later in Acts 13, Paul addresses a crowd of non-believing Gentiles, and by implication, since there is no other option, with the same message, but probably, in view of how Paul addresses Gentile audiences elsewhere, without the lengthy preamble of Israel's history. 

Clearly, justification, in the contextual meaning of the word in Acts 13, is as important for non-Jews as Jews, since it relates to any means whereby anyone would seek righteousness before a universal God. That's how it is presented in Romans - for Jew and non-Jew. I just don't think you have got it right over the outworking of God's purposes through Israel, in relation to a creation which includes Gentiles and Jews, as the biblical story describes. There is a basic exegetical flaw, and the logic of what you are saying breaks down, as in the first paragraph of your comment above.

These conversations are somewhat frustrating, since I do not wish to get into polarised arguments with you, which is what often seems to happen when I disagree with you. You did omit a key section of Acts 13 from your commentary, and there is no akcnowledgement of that.  In my opinion, the verses change drastically the line of thinking you are developing. On the other hand, I do buy many of your observations, and wish to follow them through. I simply think there must be better ways of following them through to their conclusion, since there are problems with the conclusions which you are presenting - logically, exegetically and historically. I don't know why you can't see this.

Goodness me, this goes on! Have we really nothing better to do?

First, it doesn’t make sense. It says, in effect, that the Gentiles were told a story about what God had done for Israel and not for them.

I think the logic of the Gentiles’ response is that they see the character and power of Israel’s God demonstrated in what he has done for his people. In a context where there is considerable competition between gods, this is more relevant than it might appear to us. Remember, this idea has its origins at least in Isaiah 40-66, where the question of the power and effectiveness and legitimacy of Israel’s God is very much to the forefront. We also have the Psalms that Paul quotes in Romans 12:9-12, where very clearly the nations are described as praising YHWH for his saving actions towards his people.

YHWH is shown to be “righteous” in the world—before the eyes of the nations—through his saving power directed towards Israel. The same line of thought is apparent in the Sibylline Oracles passage I’ve just posted about.

The logic so far is very Jewish and very biblical.

What happens next is that the Gentiles believe in this account of what God has done for his people and they begin to praise or worship the God of Israel; and when it becomes apparent that this worship is evidence that the Spirit has been given to the Gentiles, the logical next step is to baptize them (cf. Acts 10:44-48). In this way they leave their old lives and become part of the renewed community of Abraham’s descendants.

That makes good sense to me—it accounts for the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people without introducing an argument that is not actually made by Peter or Paul, namely that Jesus died for the Gentiles.

Since that very change of life is only possible through appropriating personally the benefits of the cross of Jesus, his death and resurrection, sealed by the Spirit, through faith in Jesus himself, and since you are saying that this same death of Jesus was for Israel’s sins alone, you have just described a complete contradiction.

Well, that rather begs the question! Does Paul really argue for such a personal appropriation of the benefits of the cross? Ephesians 2:11-22 is worth considering here. The cross is made central to the argument about about the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God, but there is no reference to the Gentiles’ sin. Rather the cross serves to break down the dividing barrier of the Law, which had hitherto excluded Gentiles from the covenant people. In other words, Jews and Gentiles benefit from the cross in different ways.

Jesus’s ministry demonstrates in advance what forgiveness of sins looks like. It demonstrates the beginning of the reversal of the fallen state of creation, which is described in Isaiah.

I would agree with this. The debate is over the narrative path by which we get from Jesus’ demonstration of forgiveness to Israel to the “salvation” of Gentiles. I think we have to be patient and let the story unfold at its own pace.

The promises to Abraham had the Gentiles directly in view…

I’m not sure that the New Testament actually makes this point. As I’ve said before, reference to the promises to the fathers seems always to have to do with the integrity and prosperity of Israel and its eventual inheritance of the world. Can you suggest a text?

The warning has little to do in this context with Rome. Have I understood you rightly here?

I’m not sure. Why does it have nothing to do with Rome if the warning is borne out by what happened in AD 70?

Later in Acts 13, Paul addresses a crowd of non-believing Gentiles, and by implication, since there is no other option, with the same message, but probably, in view of how Paul addresses Gentile audiences elsewhere, without the lengthy preamble of Israel’s history.

He may have dropped the preamble, but we are again in the synagogue, and the obvious way to read this is to suppose that the “word” the Gentiles rejoiced at was the same “word” that was told to the Jews—in other words, the story of Israel’s salvation.

Perhaps this helps to clarify the problem: Is the “word of God” that is spoken first to the Jews the account of Israel’s salvation that Paul gives in 13:16-41)? Or is it a general “word” of personal salvation that is addressed first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. I incline towards the former whereas your preference seems to be for the latter. Is that fair?

Clearly, justification, in the contextual meaning of the word in Acts 13, is as important for non-Jews as Jews, since it relates to any means whereby anyone would seek righteousness before a universal God.

That’s our perspective. But there is nothing in Acts 13 to suggest that Paul put before the Gentiles an argument about their justification or that Jesus died for them. I’m not going to stick my neck out here and say that Paul never speaks of Jesus dying for the sins of the Gentiles. In any case, Gentiles are certainly incorporated into a people for which Jesus died, so the boundaries will be obscured sooner or later.

You did omit a key section of Acts 13 from your commentary, and there is no akcnowledgement of that.

If you mean 13:38-39, I did acknowledge it but felt that these verses reinforced the point that in this sermon Paul speaks only of the salvation of Israel. Or did you have something else in mind?

I've very many other things to do, which somehow I find time to do as well as this.

Agreed with much of what you say, but:

God's promises to Abraham had the Gentiles directly in view - not only in the original promises in Genesis, but in, for instance, Romans 4. Abraham was a Gentile, and illustrated to Israel God's plans for the Gentiles: verses 9-11, by faith verse 12.

Abraham is 'heir to the world' - verse 13. By accident or design?

And on and on in Romans 4. The promise is 'guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring - not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham' - verse 16. Doesn't guarantee suggest direct personal intention?

'As it is written: 'I have made you the father of many nations' - vesre 17. By accident, or by design?

Justification - mentioned briefly, but crucially in Acts 13, is spelled out in Romans 3. Justification is not simply for Israel of the Torah, but the Torah, law and prophets, 'testify' - verse 21 - to the righteousness of God, or a righteousness from God (it amounts to the same whichever way you read it), apart from the law. So which way is this pointing - righteousness for Israel of the law, or righteousness for those not of the law? Clearly, a righteousness for those not of the law, as the rest of Romans 3 describes:

verse 22 - 'righteousness from/of God through faith in/the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe.'

verses 23-24 - 'all - are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which came by Jesus Christ.' The way the argument is going does not confine the redemptive activity of Jesus to Israel alone, but to Jew and Gentile. It is through faith in Jesus for Jew and Gentile, not faith in Jesus for Jew, and faith-in-what-Jesus-did-for-Israel-alone for Gentile.

verse 28 - 'For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.' This means not faith versus self-effort, but faith apart from the covenant community of the Torah.

If the point has not yet been made clear enough, Paul asks: 'Is God the God of the Jews only?' - verse 29 - which is what your confinement of his actions through Jesus are making him. The question assumes and brings the following answer:

verses 29-30: 'Yes, of the Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by that same faith.' But you are saying (a) justification is only for Jews (at least in Acts 13), and (b) Gentiles believe by a different faith - that of observing what God has done for the Jews and believing in that, but not having the same as the faith by which the Jews believed and were justified in Jesus.

Romans 4 then goes on to show that Abraham is not only the great forefather of Israel, but the main argument for God's purposes being towards the very Gentiles whom Israel was either excluding, or wanting to relegate to a secondary position in God's plans.

It is with this perspective that we need to read Romans 15:8-9, and understand the significance of the references from the Psalm 18, Deuteronomy and Isaiah, summing up the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, law, prophets and writings, which follow.

God's promises to Abraham had the Gentiles directly in view. But only through what God did in the crucible of Israel.

There - my promise didn't last very long, did it Andrew?

Andrew (it's me again), you said (blockquote): "As I’ve said before, reference to the promises to the fathers seems always to have to do with the integrity and prosperity of Israel and its eventual inheritance of the world. Can you suggest a text?"

In addition to the texts mentioned from Romans 3 & 4, how about Galatians 3:8-9 (blockquote): "The scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.' So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith."

The good news here is described in terms that do not mention Israel at all, but do mention the Gentiles, blessed along with Abraham, also an uncircumcised Gentile when the promise was made.

This is important, because if the gospel here is the same as the gospel elsewhere in the NT, it is not a small gospel about the survival and prosperity of Israel through historical catastrophe, but a large gospel about God's plans for the world. Likewise, the biblical story is not a small story about Israel, but a large story about God's plans for the world.

Peter, that is a good point about Galatians 3, but I’m not sure about the broader conclusions that you draw from it.

On the one hand, the Letter certainly has the question of what constitutes salvation for Israel in the background—Paul’s concern is that by submitting themselves to the Law is that they become part of an Israel that cannot be saved. This is why circumcision is the critical issue—for Paul it would be a sign of incorporation into an obsolescent community.

On the other, that sounds like a false distinction between “the survival… of Israel through historical catastrophe” and “God’s plans for the world”. God’s plans for the world are surely to be achieved through the people whom he has chosen to be his servant. Israel according to the Law faces destruction, which is why the basis for membership in the family of Abraham has been redefined—and in such a way that Gentiles may now be included without being circumcised, etc. But the question of the “survival” of the people does not go away, which is why Paul speaks about waiting for the “hope of righteousness” (5:5) and a future inheritance of the kingdom of God (5:21).

This is a too hasty response, and I’ll have look at it properly sometime. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that God’s plans for the world are achieved through what he does in and through the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). I think what I still want to say is that in the New Testament the “salvation” or “justification” or “blessing” of the nations is to be understood as a plot element in the story of what is happening to the people of God at a time of crisis or wrath or eschatological transition.