In my post on the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit I made the remark that Cornelius is described as a ‘pious man, who feared God, who prayed continually; a righteous and God-fearing man, who was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”’ (Acts 10:2, 22). Mike has asked in what version Cornelius is described as being “righteous”. I thought at first that he was being facetious (I get a bit paranoid sometimes), but it looks like a reasonable question.
Daniel Kirk wrote a piece recently about Christians “being greater than angels”, looking at Paul’s enigmatic remarks in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3 about the saints judging not only the world but also angels. It’s a short piece, and the focus is mainly anthropological: an “idealized humanity” will judge the world; a “redeemed humanity occupies a higher place in the cosmic order than angels”. But what about the eschatology of this passage? What about the when?
In the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his arrest, Jesus becomes “greatly distressed and troubled” and says to his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” He moves some distance from them, falls to the ground, and prays “that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him”. Mark records his words: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk. 14:32-36; cf. Matt. 26:36-39; Lk. 22:41-44).
I’m currently in Sulaymaniyah in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq with my wife, meeting some extraordinary people who are doing some extraordinary things. I say that partly to impress, partly to explain why I’ve been a bit slow following up on comments and questions. But I do want to keep my series on the role of the Holy Spirit in the story of Israel, as it is being told in the New Testament, plodding along.
I have argued that “salvation” in the context of Peter’s sermons in the early chapters of Acts means the salvation of at least some part of Israel from the coming disaster of the war against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the humiliation of a nation. This prospect is part and parcel of the “word” that is proclaimed by the disciples in Jerusalem: only those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved and will experience the life of the age to come. But what of those who lose their lives for the sake of this gospel? Yinka asks the question:
Wondering how martydom of the righteous plays into this. In what sense is one who has called on the name of the lord, only to lose his/her head, ‘saved’?
I argued with respect to Pentecost that the outpouring of the Spirit was interpreted by Peter as an eschatological rather than ecclesiological phenomenon. It was a sign—not least because the Spirit was experienced as a power to speak prophetically—that a time of crisis was approaching, from which only those Jews who called on the name of the Lord would be saved. This is a straightforward extension of Jesus’ own prophetic proclamation to Israel. The Spirit is received as the power to bear witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:8), to proclaim the mighty eschatological works of God to Jews of the diaspora (Acts 2:11), to foresee the judgment that was coming on Israel (Acts 2:17-18), and to declare to the rulers of Israel that the people could be saved from destruction only through Jesus (Acts 4:8-12).
This post is really just for the good folks—Marv in particular—at the Theologica forum, who have been earnestly discussing my views on the virgin birth and my perceived cageyness regarding the divinity of Jesus. Marv has responded to the complaint that the defenders of orthodoxy are unwilling to discuss the actual analysis of the text with a lengthy and, I think, constructive comment that can be found here. It deserves a proper response.
Let me say, first, that I am all in favour of “orthodoxy”, but I am inclined to think that biblical orthodoxy should take precedence over theological orthodoxy. Or to put it another way, I see no reason why the philosophically informed reading of the New Testament that prevailed in the fourth century should be regarded as a more reliable guide to interpretation than a historically informed reading in the twenty-first century. I think that the historical reading of the New Testament—quest for the historical Jesus, New Perspective, etc.—has brought us to the point at which we at least have to ask the question whether formulae generated under the peculiar intellectual conditions of early Christendom still offer the best way of making sense of the narrative of Christian origins. That is another debate. For now I want to focus on Marv’s argument with respect to the Synoptic Gospels.
I remarked in my post about Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire that there is “no reason to generalize or spiritualize” John’s prophecy of a coming judgment on Jerusalem: he is saying no more and no less than that the city faces military destruction as a consequence of the sins of its residents. KarenL picked up on this point and suggested that by the time we get to Acts 1:6-8, we do indeed have to generalize the narrative because the whole world has come into view: the disciples are sent as witnesses to the end of the earth, and soon the Gentiles will be granted “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
She rightly points out that the disciples here “express very clear Israel-centered eschatological expectations”, but in what way or to what extent does Jesus correct these expectations? Do we see here the beginnings of a generalization of the “Israel-centered” perspective, a move beyond the Jewish narrative? I don’t think so, for the following reasons.
For readers looking simply for a finished ecclesiology the events of the day of Pentecost simply kick off the institution of the church in dramatic fashion. They are proof that the church is something special—a Spirit-filled community, a new covenant people, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a body in which gifted people cooperate, and so on. All of that is good and true and no doubt worthy to be preached, but it misses the whole point of the story. The outpouring of the Spirit on a small number of Jews meeting in an upper room in Jerusalem a few weeks after the death of Jesus has very little to do with ecclesiology and everything to do with eschatology.
There is remarkably little in the Gospels that directly links Jesus’ ministry to the activity of the Holy Spirit. He is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matt. 4:1); he returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14); he rejoices in the Spirit when the seventy-two return from their mission trip (Lk. 10:21); the Son speaks the words of God because he has been given the Spirit (Jn. 3:34); and after his death he will send the Spirit to stand by his disciples (eg. Jn. 15:26). Apart from these brief references, the most important statements that we have about the role of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus are quotations from Isaiah which speak of YHWH’s “servant” as one who has been given the Spirit in order to fulfil his vocation.