I’m currently teaching an Introduction to the New Testament class at St John’s Nottingham. I started last week with a quotation from Martin Hengel: “There cannot… be any proclamation of the gospel which is not at the same time a narration of past history.” That can be taken in different ways, but if we are going to make “gospel” a defining factor in what we are here for, our mission, then to connect it closely in this way with the narration of past history seems to me exactly right. Perhaps we can even put it the other way round: the narration of past history is the proclamation of good news. It certainly was for the early church.
What I will try to show in this introductory course is that the historical material is not just more-or-less-optional background to the self-sufficient content of the New Testament. It is the whole point of the New Testament. If we don’t slot the story of the New Testament into the story of Israel as it was being remembered and experienced in the first century, we will misunderstand Jesus, his mission, and the message of the early church about him.
Today I used this simple little diagram—not quite as successfully as I’d hoped, perhaps—to explain how I understand the core argument or narrative or trajectory of the New Testament.
We begin with a sense that something is profoundly awry. I like the reference to Ezekiel 36:22-23 because it’s presumably the sort of thing that Jesus has in mind when he teaches his disciples to pray, “Our father who is in the heavens, may your name be hallowed…” (Matt. 6:9):
Therefore, say to the house of Israel, This is what the Lord says: I do not act for you, O house of Israel, but rather on account of my holy name, which you profaned among the nations, there where you entered. And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in their midst, and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when I am hallowed among you before their eyes. (Ezek. 36:22–23)
There are other ways in which we could encapsulate or explain the dilemma—not least, we could tell the story of the last three centuries since Alexander the Great set off to conquer the east, which we did today. But it comes down to the fact that the name of Israel’s God was not hallowed amongst the nations.
The place to get to—the end that the story has in view at this juncture—is identified by Paul. It is that the idolatrous nations will turn to the God of Israel to be “saved”, that every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge that YHWH has given all authority to his Son (cf. Phil. 2:9-11; Is. 45:22-23 LXX). The “every” is not hyperbole, but neither does it mean that every individual will personally convert in our modern sense. It is a political statement. It means that nations or societies will abandon the old gods of Greece and Rome and will collectively worship instead the God formerly associated exclusively with the small and distant nation of Israel. As Paul says, this radical political-religious realignment of the ancient world will be to the glory of God the Father—in other words, the name of YHWH will be hallowed amongst the nations.
What the New Testament then gives us is the historical process that bridges the gulf between widespread contempt for the name of YHWH and the confession by the nations that Jesus Christ is Lord. In the immediate context of Philippians 2 it is the story of Jesus’ renunciation of the model of pagan kingship, his acceptance of humiliation and suffering, his execution by the Romans, and his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God.
But this story about Jesus is inseparable from the story about Israel. His ministry is an engagement on all fronts with Israel over its historic destiny. His death anticipates the dreadful suffering that will be inflicted on the Jews by Rome. His resurrection and ascension give assurance of the future vindication of his followers, who believe that he will rule over Israel in the age that will follow God’s decisive judgment of his people. The “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11, if that is what it is, is precisely a celebration of the part that Jesus played in the bigger political-religious drama, in repudiating one form of kingship and embracing its antithesis.
It is, therefore, the whole crisis of Israel in the first century that eventually brings about the justification of YHWH—the demonstration of the rightness of Israel’s God that Jesus had in mind when he taught his disciples not to pray in the manner of the Gentiles. Memories of brutality and desecration are part of the story. The impotence or invalidity or folly of other Jewish reactions to pagan domination are part of the story. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is part of the story. The faith and faithfulness of the disciples and the churches are part of the story. Jesus is pivotal to all of this, of course, but there is no “pivot” apart from the mechanism that hinges around it. It is by means of the whole drama that that YHWH achieved his purposes.