Israel and the nations: the limits of Old Testament expectation

This is a rather technical piece—some notes I made while working on something else—but the gist of the argument can be gained from the introduction and the conclusion. I have been looking at how the idea of a Gentile mission emerges in the New Testament. I made the point in “The parable of the wedding feast and the man without a wedding garment” and the ensuing discussion that Jesus does not contemplate a Gentile mission or the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of his followers before his death. He may have expected Gentiles to be included, or at least involved, at the parousia, but the mission that he inaugurated was basically a Jewish mission to Israel.

Behind Jesus, of course, is the Old Testament, and it is generally held by those who would attribute a Gentile mission to Jesus that the Psalms and the Prophets in particular foresee a day when large numbers of Gentiles will be incorporated into the covenant people. Christopher Wright, for example, has a good section in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative in which he makes a progressive case to this effect, culminating in the contention that “there were voices and visions within the Old Testament that looked for the day when nations would be included within Israel in such a way that the very word Israel would be radically extended and redefined” (455).

How are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

I don’t think I’d noticed this before. I have frequently maintained that what Jesus means by the “judgment of geenna” is not post mortem torment in what we call “hell” but the suffering and destruction that would result from the war against Rome. Basically, the argument is that Jesus adapted the imagery from Jeremiah’s predictions of the horrors of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). For lack of space to bury the dead in the city, corpses would be thrown over the walls into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom—the valley of Gehenna—where they would be “food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away” (Jer. 7:33). For the details see “Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of” and my book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective. But I may have overlooked the significance of this passage….

The parable of the wedding feast and the man without a wedding garment

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently about Matthew’s rather startling and perplexing version of the parable of wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14). Don Lambirth, for example, sent me this question:

In your opinion who are the people who are invited but don’t come? Who are those who are invited later and do come? And this is the one that always puzzles me… who is the guy who shows up not dressed properly? And why is he kicked out? What if he was poor and couldn’t afford a wedding garment? Would Jesus and Paul have presented this story differently? And what I mean is did Jesus speak of the outsiders as the dregs in Jewish society whereas Paul may have flipped it into a story of the outsiders being Gentiles?

Matthew has this as one of three parables told to the chief priests and elders of the people in the temple: they are like the son who said he would work but did not; they are like the tenants in the vineyard who produce no fruit but kill the servants sent to them and even the owner’s son; they are like guests invited to the wedding of the king’s son who can’t be bothered to attend. Luke has Jesus tell the story in the house of Pharisee, over dinner, in response to the man who exclaimed, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Lk. 14:15-24). The note of judgment is muted in Luke’s version.

Why I believe in the rapture

With all the current excitement/dismay in the US surrounding the release of yet another Left Behind film, starring Nicholas Cage, I thought I would offer a quick overview of arguments that I have presented in The Coming of the Son of Man and elsewhere regarding the offending passages. I was chatting with my friend Mike in Seattle about this yesterday (he’s in Seattle, not me, just to be clear). How does this sort of doctrine work in relation to a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament? What has it got to do with the gospel? My concern here is less to discredit the modern dispensationalist notion—it looks like the film is doing a perfectly good job of that itself, with a 2% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—than to relocate the New Testament language in a field of realistic historical expectation.

How to make narrative sense of miracles of healing

The question of whether God heals miraculously today—or, for that matter, ever has—is obviously a difficult and contentious one for the church in a rationalist secular context. A comment by James Mercer, however, in connection with my post on the narratives of mission highlights a different and neglected aspect of the issue. Not: Do miracles happen? But: What do miracles mean?

I have just re-read Re:mission and continue to find your narrative of the task of ‘post-biblical’ mission fascinating and encouraging. You identify Jesus’ healing ministry as being intrinsically linked with the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What place might prayer for healing have within post-biblical mission? I ask as this is a conversation we are having within and between churches in Harrow.

The two questions cannot be treated in isolation from each other. But the biblical narrative suggests that we may be missing the point if we only address the issue of healing as a matter of apologetics, as part of a competition with modernity over whose view of reality is right.

The narratives of mission

I suggested in passing in a recent post on mission and blessing that in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative C.J.H. Wright (not to be confused with N.T. Wright) ‘has misconstrued the “grand narrative” of the Bible as oriented towards salvation rather than “kingdom”’. JR Rozko, who is writing what sounds like an intriguing dissertation aiming to “develop a soteriological vision in light of the relationship between the missio Dei and the Kingdom of God”, asked in a comment what I meant by this statement.

Can you unfurl that a bit more? Qualitatively, how do you understand the difference here in Wright? How would you, briefly, reframe this…?

I’ll give it a go….

Was Jesus wrong about Abiathar the high priest?

For the background to this see Ian Paul’s very interesting post “What do we do when the Bible is ‘wrong’?” Ian starts by discussing Peter LaRuffa’s (on the face of it) ludicrous statement:

If, somewhere within the Bible, I were to find a passage that said 2+2=5, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it.

He ends with a recent online spat over a particular instance of supposed biblical inaccuracy—Jesus’ asssertion that David entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” (Mk. 2:26). The problem is that the high priest in question was Ahimelech not Abiathar (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The discrepancy was mentioned in a contribution made by John Byron to Peter Enns’ series of scholarly “aha” moments.

Is it the mission of the church to be a blessing to people? DeYoung and Gilbert say no

I suggested recently that in their book What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert highlight some legitimate concerns regarding current “missional” thinking. There will be differences of opinion, but I think they are right to complain that, both in theory and in practice, the pendulum of mission has swung too far away from gospel proclamation in the direction of social transformation. The authors argue that it needs to swing back again: mission is fundamentally about making individual disciples of Jesus Christ, as defined by the so-called Great Commission texts. But here I disagree. I think that the narrative-historical approach offers us a way to get beyond the tired and unbiblical dichotomy of proclamation and praxis, though I’m not going to try to explain what I mean by that here.

Satan, serpents and the dreadful forces of political change

This is a further—and final—response to some productive comments made by Paul K. regarding my argument about the narrative-historical method and its implications for our understanding of the kingdom of God. He argues that the gospel deals with spiritual powers as well as “socio-political forces”—he has in mind the serpent in the garden “who usurped Mankind’s rule, and the kingdom of God through his people, becoming the god of this age and enslaving humanity and keeping them in bondage”. So whereas I am proposing that it is the story of Israel and the nations that dominates scripture, he thinks that a much bigger story about God and humanity provides the interpretive framework.

I question, in the first place, whether we can make such a firm distinction between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” in scripture. It seems to me that once we get to Babel and the call of Abraham out of empire and as an alternative to empire, the whole story through to Revelation 20:10 is worked out in political-religious terms. The focus may oscillate between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” aspects of this two-sided construct, but at no point does the narrative break away from the political context, like a bird breaking out of its cage, to fly free in the open skies of an a-historical spirituality. This point was made in an earlier post, but it can be further illustrated by looking at the particular question of the role of Satan in the story.

Narrative rules. But which one?

My last post dealt with some specific texts which Paul K. suggested do not fit the kingdom paradigm that I am proposing. A more general question raised in his comment has to do with the relation of the story about kingdom to the theme of creation. Paul agrees that “there is something bigger and fuller going on than individual salvation and individualistic Christianity” but thinks that it is God’s story, not Israel’s story, that should be at the heart of the interpretive framework. He takes the kingdom narrative back to Genesis 1, where Adam and Eve are “given the commission to rule the earth (under God’s rule)”.

There are three narrative levels in the Bible—this is implicit in Paul’s comment. At the top there is an overarching story about God and creation. At the bottom there are innumerable individual stories. Between the two there is a story about Israel as a people struggling in the course of history to maintain its identity and vocation in engagement, for better or for worse, with the nations.


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