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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Forgiveness and the wiped out document nailed to the cross

And you, being dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven you all the trespasses, having wiped out what was written against us by hand in the decrees which were opposed to us, and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross; having stripped the rulers and authorities, he made a show in openness, having triumphed over them in it.

One of the implications of a narrative-historical hermeneutic is that the community, not the individual, is made the locus for New Testament theological reasoning. So, for example, eschatology—the “end” stuff—is not about what happens to individuals when they die but about what happens to communities, nations, empires, when God steps in to change things. This is not to say that the fate of individuals is unimportant, just that it is not at the centre of New Testament thought.

The same argument applies to soteriology—the “salvation” stuff. I am inclined to think that it is at least misleading to reduce salvation to the formula “Jesus died for my sins”, as though the cross were an event in our personal narrative:

Rather, I think we need to say something like: Jesus died for the sins of Israel or for the sake of the survival God’s people. The cross was an event in Israel’s story. My personal narrative has certainly intersected with the story of a people saved from destruction and radically transformed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense, my life has been deeply impacted by the cross, and I don’t think it’s simply wrong to say that Jesus died for my sins; but the narrative structure of salvation looks rather different:

With this cautious “thesis” in mind, I have been looking at the connection between Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins in the New Testament. Much of it has seemed fairly straightforward, which may only mean that I’m missing something. I plan to post a general piece shortly. But I did run up against Colossians 2:13-15 and I want to make some more extensive notes on it here.

There is an important connection between the forgiveness of sins and the cross in Colossians 2:13-15, but Paul’s argument needs to be followed carefully.

The metaphor Paul uses for forgiveness is that of the wiping clean or blotting out (exaleipsas) of a handwritten document consisting in decrees (to… cheirographon tois dogmasin). The document is then nailed to the cross. Exactly what sort of document this is is unclear. I rather like the parallel with Numbers 5:23 LXX: “And the priest shall write these curses on a scroll and shall wipe them out (exaleipsei) into the water of reproof that brings the curse.” Perhaps the more likely meaning, however, is suggested by Testament of Job 11:11, where cheirographon refers to a record of debt, which is cancelled.

In any case, it is difficult to read this as an argument for forgiveness on the direct and personal basis of Jesus’ death. Forgiveness comes about by the action of God wiping out their debt. The word for “decrees” is also found in Ephesians 2:15: “Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the Law of commandments in decrees (dogmasin).” Conceivably, then, the image of nailing the document to the cross makes a similar point: it is Jesus’ death which has brought about a situation in which not only Jews but also Gentiles—previously dead in the “uncircumcision of your flesh”—might find forgiveness.

The idea is found earlier in the Letter: the Gentile Colossians were once alienated from the God of Israel, being hostile in mind towards him. But they have been reconciled “in the body of his flesh through the death” (1:21-22). As in Ephesians, the thought is not that they have been individually reconciled through Jesus death but that Jesus’ death removed the dividing wall of the Law, with the result that Gentiles may be individually reconciled to God.

But Paul does attribute a clear efficacy to the cross in Colossians 2:15. The cross is the means by which the “rulers and authorities”, which he fears might exert a damaging influence over the Colossians (cf. 2:8-10), have been put to shame and defeated. As a result Christ has been made, by the resurrection, the “head of every ruler and authority” (2:10). So what the cross has directly led to in Paul’s argument here is not the salvation of individual Gentiles but the overthrow of the powers that governed the pagan world and the installation of Jesus as Lord.

Comments

I like the questions, Andrew. In your diagram, I think the ersonal story might come into the line through the cross, rather than ‘after’ the cross.

Also - once you have Col1 - I think you meant Col2 each time. Re that passage - it is all plural, and I assume the we is inclusive rather than separational. The plural can be read corporately and also severally, i.e. each one has to assimilate the reality of the obedience of faith, the burial (v12) and quickening (v13).

This assimilation is identical to the process outlined in the Psalms to create a people of mercy who have also known mercy.

I think the personal story might come into the line through the cross, rather than ‘after’ the cross.

Bob, that would be another way of constructing it, but it immediately compromises the narrative approach. Paul’s personal story intersected with the historical event of Jesus’ death and resurrection because he was a member of the community that was historically impacted by it; he was directly embroiled in the story and made much of the fact, as we can see from Colossians 1:24.

My personal story does not intersect with Israel’s eschatological crisis in the same way. It intersects with the current existence of the people of God, which is a people with a Lord, a people in the Spirit, and a people with a highly significant history.

I say this not so much to diminish the significance of the cross for me personally as to bring clarity to its significance in the New Testament context. It may well be a good thing for us imaginatively to embrace the cross for ourselves, but that should not be confused with the work of New Testament interpretation.

Thanks for pointing out the typo.

To be provocative (how unlike me!), what exactly does happen to my sins, Andrew, according to this presentation? How are they dealt with, if not by the same means as the sins of Israel? The question can also be asked of ‘the gentiles’, who are not a corporate entity, but the variegated inhabitants of nations other than Israel. They are “everyone else”. There was an atonement for Israel’s sins; do gentile sins not require an atonement?

It’s a disturbing observation, but the diagram and argument might be taken as a sophisticated way of avoiding the implications of a personal encounter with the cross of Jesus today, certainly to a level and depth which is brought out in the NT letters. According to you, we can ‘join in’ afterwards, but not worry about the cross addressing anything in us personally. I wonder if at this point, a serious underlying problem with the narrative model is brought to light?

Lest it might be thought I keep asking the same questions, that is only because I keep waiting for an adequate answer. Again, I suggest the model needs modifications - and rather radical ones at that. For all the cautiousness and tentative language of your thesis, it’s for these basic reasons that I suggest a return to the drawing board.

There was an atonement for Israel’s sins; do gentile sins not require an atonement?

No, I’m not sure the sins of Gentiles did or do need atonement. What happens to their sins? They are forgiven. Why? Because they believed that God had raised his Son from the dead.

It’s a disturbing observation, but the diagram and argument might be taken as a sophisticated way of avoiding the implications of a personal encounter with the cross of Jesus today, certainly to a level and depth which is brought out in the NT letters. According to you, we can ‘join in’ afterwards, but not worry about the cross addressing anything in us personally. I wonder if at this point, a serious underlying problem with the narrative model is brought to light?

Yes, it could be a problem with the narrative model. Or the narrative model may here highlight a problem with a soteriology that makes individual salvation directly and personally dependent on Jesus’ death.

I will have more to say on this in the coming days. For now, I will quote a few paragraphs from David Brondos’ excellent book Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle’s Story of Redemption . It’s not exactly my line of argument, but it’s close:

…the reason biblical scholars and theologians have never been able to reach any consensus regarding the way in which Paul understood the significance of the cross is that they have been looking in his letters and elsewhere in the New Testament for something that is simply not there, namely, an answer to the question of how Jesus’ death saves and redeems human beings. This question reflects the mistaken assumption that Paul taught that Jesus’ death effects human salvation and redemption in some way. In fact, Paul did not. … Instead, what Paul did teach is that by means of Christ’s death God has saved and redeemed human beings and has reconciled them to himself.

In other words, for Paul, Jesus’ death is certainly salvific and redemptive, but not in itself, and not through any “effects” it has. Rather, it is salvific and redemptive only in that it forms part of a story.

Here I will argue that the story behind Paul’s language regarding the cross is essentially the same simple story we find in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, which in turn developed out of the foundation story running throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient Jewish writings. This involves the claim that Paul understood Jesus’ death primarily as the consequence of his dedication and faithfulness to his mission of serving as God’s instrument to bring about the awaited redemption of Israel, which would also include Gentiles throughout the world. In this case, for Paul, Jesus’ death is salvific not because it satisfies some necessary condition for human salvation in the way that most doctrines of the atonement have traditionally maintained nor because it effects some change in the situation of human beings or the world in general; rather, it is salvific because God responded to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death in seeking the redemption of others by raising him so that all the divine promises of salvation might now be fulfilled through him. Through Jesus’ death, a new covenant-community (the church) has been established, in which people from all nations may now find salvation and forgiveness of sins as they live under his lordship, led by the Holy Spirit. For Paul, this is what Jesus lived and died for, and what he attained by giving up his life and consequently being raised and exalted to God’s right hand. It is in this sense that Jesus died for others and for their sins. In short, Paul regarded Jesus’ death as salvific because for him it formed part of an overarching story culminating in the redemption of Israel and the world; it is this story, and in particular what precedes and follows Jesus’ death on the cross, that makes that death redemptive.

Thanks for the response. Finding appropriate words is always challenging. David Brondos seems to have found some helpful words:

God responded to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death in seeking the redemption of others by raising him so that all the divine promises of salvation might now be fulfilled through him

The point here is that God responded. What else is Torah but God responding? What else is my work, but to respond to this God? That makes it individual and personal - as well as dragging in ‘all my relations’. It is personal because I am given my person through God. It is personal because I have my personhood in the community. I am not isolated in my individualism, and when I am taught (or saved) it is also in and for the community.

Nonetheless I, I am the one who must identify with the various strands of what I am taught by this God. That carries me from Lot to Moab and to all representative enemies that I am from and among which I must rule (Psalm 110 vs 2). Every identification I choose (Abel, Cain, Joseph, Job, Jonah, etc) leads me into the cross as a means of ruling through the wound (vv 5,6) received by the Beloved. This narrative turns in on itself in a thousand ways but it is never inward looking, always outward seeking so that the glory may be known in all nations.

I knew this first as a gentile in need. I then knew it through the poets of the psalms and the trajectory of the narrative of Israel contained in those poems. Others may be called from the east and from the west but -I- could not have come any other way but through the cross - whatever else it means in the history of the people (s). The cross reveals to me the mercy-seat that is the gateway to the Holy.

Like the ‘I’ of Romans 7, the personal pronoun emphasized above will change ‘by the Spirit’ to the ‘we’ of Romans 8.

Thanks, Bob, I appreciate the wisdom. What I would question, however, is to what extent we see this self-centering in the biblical narrative, this self-identification “with the various strands of what I am taught by this God”, actually performed in scripture. I can’t think of anyone in the New Testament, with the exception of Jesus, who “reads” scripture in this way.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that there is a good reason for that. People in the New Testament are much too conscious of the fact that they are part of the historical narrative being told. Because we are so far removed from that narrative, we do not instinctively locate ourselves in it; rather, we rearrange the narrative around ourselves.

That to me would highlight the interpretive problem that we face. We want to make ourselves the centre of things, whereas scripture makes the historical people of God the centre of things and us barely a twinkle in the New Testament’s eye.

I can’t think of anyone in the New Testament, with the exception of Jesus, who “reads” scripture in this way.

That’s a great challenge. Does Paul in identifying with Jesus, deliver to us this focused way of reading the Scriptures? Does the writer of Hebrews 11 suggest such a process of identification? Does Mary identify with Hannah, or Simeon with the author of second Isaiah?

I am pinned by your question and thrusting the sword of my memory at random… The question of how I read and how I identify and how I learn will stick with me… Perhaps this is how the word works, its process of bearing fruit.

- thanks for the stimulus.

Andrew,

No, I’m not sure the sins of Gentiles did or do need atonement. What happens to their sins? They are forgiven. Why? Because they believed that God had raised his Son from the dead.

Good statement, mostly. This is all tied to what I have been trying to get you so see. It’s all directly tied to the sin and the death. Throughout the NT the sin and the death that Paul is dealing with is a very specific sin and death, which below to Israel and her alone. Paul even addresses them as “the sin” and “the death” (See Romans 6-8). Only Isarel is under this “sin” and “death”, not the Gentile. Israel was because Adam was their corporate head, which his why Jesus is Israel’s second Adam.

Peter stated the following in his post to you.

The question can also be asked of ‘the gentiles’, who are not a corporate entity

This is not true. Paul clearly shows this is Eph 2:12-14

12 remember that you [Gentiles] were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Paul is addressing here to the two corporate heads…Adam and the Gentile man. Adam was Israel’s corporate head, the Gentile was not part of Adam. In Christ there is now only one body.

What promise was Paul alluding to? The promise that God made to Israel - their new Covenant, Resurrection, new Heaven and Earth, etc etc.

Your entire blog was beautiful. It shows the context very clearly. This is Israel’s story. Sure, via extension, the Gentile is including by coming into Christ (Paul’s the wild olive shoot being grafted into Isarel [Israel must be raised first for them to be grafted into] - Romans 9), but Jesus came to redeem Israel. To resurrect her out from under “the death” due to “the sin” of her corporate head, Adam. This “death” was destoryed when Isarel was judged and Resurrected (AD 70). This is why Rev 20 states

13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

The Gentile man was in the “sea”. Only Isarel was in “Death” and “Hades”.

Again, I wish you would listen to the audio presentation I provided a link to in my last post. It deals with this subject very well.

Adam was Israel’s corporate head, the Gentile was not part of Adam.

I don’t understand this at all.

I agree. Adam as the first of Israel is an odd concept - almost Islamic (Adam as the first Muslim). Gentiles emerge in the mythology from the beginning by a series of successive choices. There appears to me to be a series of exclusions, or a series that has as its ultimate focus, Jacob = Israel.

There may even be a sense that all Israel include the gentiles. (To confuse the matter further). In interpreting Romans 11:25-27, Staples (Staples, Jason. (JBL Vol. 130, no.2, 2011). What do the Gentiles have to do with “All Israel”? p. 382) citing Hosea identifies the seed of Ephraim with the Gentiles and thus “all Israel” in Paul’s mind. It is an interesting reading and application for Paul.

Andrew, you have to read James Tabor’s new book about Paul. Some of it is not new, in which it sets up Paul as the opponent of the Jerusalem disciples. In this reading, which goes back centuries and has found new life through scholars such as Barrie Wilson, Jeffrey Butz, Tabor and others, Paul creates Christianity, as opposed to shaping it or pointing it in a new direction.

The most valuable part of the book, though, gets into an analysis of Paul’s thought, which is difficult because

1) his mindset was so thoroughly different than ours (for example, he was rife with concern about unseen agents, demons and the like), and

2) it was not entirely consistent, and his views likely evolved.

Anyway, the main point I took from first reading is that Paul saw himself as a pioneer of sorts who was given a mystery from Jesus that superceeded anything that was taught before. There was a huge element of charisma and a huge element of urgency, since Paul did not expect the world to last long.

I love the narrative theology’s attempt to make sense of the context of the bible and the way it respects the authors’ intent. I like the way it largely avoids projecting modern political values into ancient texts. But I have a hard time reading one consistent narrative into such a diverse set of texts.

Thanks. I’ll look out for the book.

But I have a hard time reading one consistent narrative into such a diverse set of texts.

I’m not myself convinced that the texts are anything like as diverse as is often assumed. But in any case, I would put the emphasis less on the texts than on the historical people whose narrative is contained in the texts, and at this point I think a Christological hermeneutic becomes rather important. I am not particularly impressed with the argument that we should read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus, but I do think that Jesus, as the early church understood him, determines fairly clearly how the narrative finds coherence, both leading up to him and leading beyond him.

Andrew,

And you (Gentiles), being dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven you all the trespasses, having wiped out what was written against us (Israel) by hand in the decrees (law) which were opposed to us (Israel), and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross; having stripped the rulers and authorities, he made a show in openness, having triumphed over them in it. Col. 2:13-15

Paul is referring to law, which didn’t start with Moses. Israel’s law started in the Garden with Adam. God, by raising Israel (1st century remnant) out from among the dead via Christ, He was able to graft in the Gentile. In order to raise Israel He first had to fulfill the law via Christ, which Paul said was “obsolete and growing old” (Heb. 8:13) and ready to “vanish away” (which it did in AD 70). The rulers and authorities, have nothing to do with the pagan world (this is one of the identification issues you have). It has everything to do with law, which Paul called a “ministry of death” that hung over Israel like a wet blanket, and those in power (Pharisees, High Priest, Sadducees) that held Israel captive. In fact, it was these “rulers and authorities” that Paul fought against as they tried to force the gentiles, who were coming to Christ, to submit themselves to the law right along with Israel. Of course law was the very thing that held Israel captive to which they were dying to, via being baptized into Christ death.

In Luke 12:11 Jesus says, “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say….” The phrase is exactly the same as Paul’s: tas archas kai tas exousias. Why do we not assume that Paul is talking about the literal “rulers and authorities” who condemned Jesus?

I like that way of thinking about it. The idea of a debt record being nailed to the cross plays well with the idea that Jesus was announcing a jubilee.

After reading Trocme and Yoder I’ve been seeing jubilee everywhere when I read the gospels, hadn’t thought about how that would bleed into Paul until now.

Sorry for such a late comment. I am increasingly curious about the whole business of the forgiveness of sins: what it actually means. In the case of the passage you cited, I think there is great importance in carefully examining the pronouns:

And you, being dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven you all the trespasses, having wiped out what was written against us by hand in the decrees which were opposed to us.

Why does ‘you’ suddenly become ‘us’? I suspect this is very significant, as it also is in Eph 1, where he begins by talking about ‘Us’ (vv 4-12) and then in v 13 switching to ‘you’. To the Jew first. Then to the Ephesian.

I observed this feature of Ephesians without developing it in an overlengthy comment on the ‘What is the benefit of Jesus’ death to the Gentiles?’ thread. I’m sure it has been commented on before.

When Paul uses the 1st person plural in Ephesians, the context supplies the meaning of the word. It may be (i) Jew as opposed to Gentile, or (ii) Paul and his companion believers as opposed to the addressees of the letter, or (iii) Paul and his companion believers and the addressees of the letter together.

In Galatians 2:15 - 3:14, Paul makes a distinction between Jews (himself and other Jewish believers) and Gentiles (the circumcision group he is addressing) to illustrate what happened to him as circumcised Jew, namely, that circumcision was of no benefit to him with regard to righteousness and justification, and neither will it be to those being urged to adopt it. The death of Christ is adequate for both Jew and Gentile. The meaning is supplied by the larger argument.

In Ephesians, there is no suggestion that Paul means anything different, that is that Jew and Gentile enjoy the same benefits of the death of Jesus on equal terms, because Jesus has abolished the differences in himself.

This is the framework through which we can interpret the we/you language. It would be bizarre to suggest that Paul, who has embraced the abolition of distinction between Jew and Gentile in Ephesians 2:15-16 (cp Galatians 3:28) should now be saying there is a distinction between what we (as Jews ) enjoy through believing in Christ, and what you (Gentile Ephesians) enjoy.

So in Ephesians 1, we/us in 3-12 does not suggest a distinction between “we who were the first to hope in Christ” (12) and “you also” (13). The also brackets the we and us. The benefits of 3-12 are also those enjoyed by the Ephesians. At the point where Paul could have made any distinction clear, he does the opposite by saying “when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your (not our) salvation” (13).

The same line of thought continues into Ephesians 2. The ‘you’ of 2:1-2 is bracketed by the ‘also’ of 2:3 with ‘we/our’. Everything suggests that there is no distinction.

Paul says the same in Romans 3:22. “The righteousness of God which comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ unto to all and upon all who believe” is reinforced by the immediately following “there is no difference”, ie there is no difference in this regard between Jew or Gentile. They believe in his faithfulness which has the same intention and consequence for them both, albeit Jew first, then Gentile.

Paul’s argument in Ephesians is consistent with what he says in Galatians and Romans.