“Glory to the newborn King” or “Hail the incarnate Deity”?

The Gospel Coalition has a blog post by Joe Carter: 9 Things You Should Know About Christmas. It’s all fairly trivial stuff: Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th, there’s no mention of a donkey in the texts, we don’t know how many wise men there were, Martin Luther disapproved of Santa Claus but may have been the first person to decorate a Christmas tree with lights, and so on. Nothing that’s going to break any paradigms there.

I would add a more substantial misconception—if you’ll excuse the pun. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not about an incarnation (“Hail the incarnate Deity!”). It’s about the birth of a king (“Glory to the newborn King!”). The New Testament does not construct the divinity of Jesus on the stories of his birth. I have a lot of marking to do before the end of the year, so I’ll keep this brief.

A half-truth of modern evangelicalism: Jesus lives in the heart of the believer

The controlling New Testament story about the resurrected Jesus is that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, having received authority to judge and rule over the nations. The thought runs from his words to Caiaphas (Matt. 26:64; Lk. 22:69), through the preaching first of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:56), then of the apostles in the Greek-Roman world (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 12:2), to John’s climactic vision of the martyrs reigning with Christ, at the right hand of God, throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:4). Behind it lies the influential and highly “political” promise made to Israel’s king in Psalm 110:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! (Ps. 110:1-2)

This is not, by and large, the story that modern evangelicalism tells. The modern evangelical Jesus spends most of his time not sitting at the right hand of God but living in the heart of the believer; and a person is converted to this faith by explicitly inviting Jesus into his or her heart.

The good news of a different future

I am recording a couple of video lectures next week on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. The approach I want to take is to highlight the story that lies behind the two letters, constructed partly from the more or less credible account of Paul’s time in Thessalonica that Luke provides (Acts 17:1-9), partly from Paul’s own record of the circumstances of his preaching there, but more significantly from the extensive eschatological material for which 1 and 2 Thessalonians are well known.

I’m assuming that both letters were written by Paul, that the First preceded the Second, and that they were separated from each other by a relatively short period of time. What this post does is tell this story, which is the story of how Israel’s God intended to put an end to pagan hegemony through the faithful witness of such communities as the “church of the Thessalonians”. It overlaps somewhat with a recent post on 1 Thessalonians as a “document of eschatological formation”.

From the River to the ends of the earth: Jesus and empire

I’m working my way through the first of the two volumes that make up N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God . So far it’s all fascinating background stuff about the eschatological narratives of the Pharisees, the philosophies of the Greeks, and the religion and politics of the Romans, all wrapped up in an elaborate ornithological metaphor.

There are a few points that I would like to highlight. One (for now) is a comment made somewhat in passing at the beginning of his assessment of the “reality” of the Roman empire in the first century, which stood out because it lends support to one of my main working theses:

By the time Paul was born, the empire of Augustus Caesar stretched from one sea to another—the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean to the English Channel—and from the river Euphrates to the ends of the known world, the far western outposts of Spain and France. There, of course, lay the problem for the devout Jew: that was more or less the extent of empire which the Psalmist had promised to the Messiah. (284)

A narrative statement of missional faith

I’ve been engaged in a little exercise with some friends rewriting a mission organization’s statement of faith. What I have presented below is my reworking of a rough, more cautious, but actually rather effective first attempt to make “a bit of a narrative out of our core beliefs, rather than a bunch of rigid, stand alone statements”. How much of my more elaborate and idiosyncratic version will survive corporate scrutiny remains to be seen. It has rather less missional oomph to it.

We didn’t set out with a very clear set of guidelines. My sense is that we wanted primarily to get away from the ponderous and defensive doctrinalism of traditional statements of faith. We wanted to construct it more or less in narrative form, though it remains explicitly a statement of belief—a way of saying, “These things matter to us.” We wanted to bring the full story of God’s people back into focus to counter the unremitting individualism of modern expressions of faith. We wanted to highlight the missional dynamics of the story. We wanted it to be compelling.

We didn’t want it to be voguishly postmodern or so unlike traditional statements of faith that people could not see the connection, though I suspect I may have erased a little too much of the language of orthodoxy.

“Hell” and the individual sinner

Rob got in touch with a couple of questions about my post on the unbiblical doctrine of hell. My argument is roughly that the language of painful judgment in the New Testament—Gehenna, wailing and gnashing of teeth, violent destruction, etc.—refers not to what happens to individuals after death but to what happens to Israel or to the political-religious enemies of Israel in the course of history. For example, bodies being thrown into Gehenna—into the valley of the sons of Hinnom—is something that typically happens when Jerusalem is being besieged by an enemy (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). It is a prophetic symbol of God’s punishment of his people. What Rob asks is this:

I’m attracted to much of the argument but just wonder how you deal with texts where the individual seems in the crosshairs. Eg., Jesus urging people to lose eyes or hands etc. as better than entering  into hell. Any thoughts? Is it just saying better than being annihilated?

What also of texts where the devil seems to be headed for torment? If that’s for him, and sinners go to the same place, why would they not also have a similar fate?

Violent Jesus vs. non-violent Jesus. And the winner is...?

I’ve been reading David Neville’s book A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives in order to review it for the Evangelical Quarterly. Neville sets out the problem he means to address in the opening paragraph:

There is a discrepancy at the heart of the New Testament. Briefly stated, the discrepancy is this: although the canonical Gospels present a fairly uniform picture of Jesus as an advocate of peace and practitioner of nonretaliation, certain texts within these same Gospels and in other parts of the New Testament apparently anticipate a future arrival, or parousia, of Jesus in the guise of a violent avenger. The same Jesus who blesses peacemakers, teaches non retaliation, and responds nonviolently to violence directed against himself is nevertheless associated with end-time violence. (1)

The book describes how this tension manifests itself in the Gospels and Acts and in Revelation. I don’t recall a reason being given why the epistles are excluded, though Neville notes that in Paul’s view “rectification by grace does not preclude judgment of human works”—in this respect, he says, “Paul and Matthew were of the same mind” (21).

Who or what will see the Son of Man coming in clouds? And where?

According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that, as the apocalyptic storyline reaches its climax and the lights start going out over Jerusalem, “they” will see the Son of man coming in clouds (Mk. 13:24-26). But who—or what—are “they”? In A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives David Neville offers an interesting line of interpretation that has not often been considered.

Triumphalism, empire, and the early church

Paul Dean is troubled by the inclusion of the word “triumphantly” in the closing sentence of the previous post on The end of narrative for Christians and Jews: “For the church, narrative came to an end triumphantly in the conversion of the empire and was replaced by theology.” He asks: “Why is that word there? Do you think it was a good thing or is the word a psycho-historical interpolation?”

The word is there basically to heighten the contrast with the end of narrative forced upon the Jews by the catastrophe of the failed revolts against Rome and the subsequent emergence of rabbinic Judaism—a shift “from politics to piety”, as Wright puts it.

The end of narrative for Christians and Jews

The New Testament is an eschatological text. It tells a story, which is essentially a Jewish story about the fulfilment of age-old, deeply held hopes expressed in the Psalms and the prophets. The death and resurrection of Jesus brings that story to some sort of climax, but not to an end. There is much still to come: revolt, war, persecution, resurrection, judgment, vindication—and the day when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations. The message that the apostles took to the nations of the Greek-Roman world had as much to do with the future as with the past. The “gospel” looked back to what God had done in Christ, but it also pointed forwards to the judgment that would soon come on the great idolatrous empire:

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Rev. 14:6–7)

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