p.ost

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

Why did the risen Jesus send the apostles out to make disciples of all nations?

A narrative-historical hermeneutic has to respect the distinctions and boundaries—even the cracks and disjunctions—that emerge in the telling of the story. If we allow ourselves to read later developments back into earlier passages, we muddy the waters and risk getting the whole story, to whatever degree, wrong. Scripture has to be read forwards, not backwards. So I have argued that the Gentile mission was a revelation of the risen Christ or of the Spirit to the post-Easter church. Prior to his death Jesus nowhere teaches that Gentiles will be included in the new covenant people. The impending intervention of YHWH in the history of his people will make an impact on the nations—indeed, news of this coming intervention will be proclaimed to the nations in the period leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. This is a familiar Old Testament idea: the Lord bears his holy arm before the eyes of the nations, and the ends of the earth will see God’s salvation of his people (Is. 52:9-10). It does not require some sort of ingathering of Gentiles into the family of Abraham.

Given that, let me try and explain what I think the so-called “great commission” to make disciples of all nations is all about (Matt. 28:19-20). We start with Jesus’ teaching on the Mount of Olives.

During a period of great “tribulation” the disciples will proclaim the gospel of the kingdom “throughout the world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:9-14). Those who stay faithful to their task through to the end of this period will be saved. The “end” will consist in judgment on Jerusalem and the recognition of Jesus as the Son of Man—that is, as the one who has been given kingdom, the authority to judge and rule (Matt. 24:29-30). This is the message that is taken into the world—not that Jesus has died for people’s sins but that God has made his Son Lord and Christ, judge and ruler of the nations.

After the resurrection Jesus tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). This is also a reference to Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man, to whom is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13).1

This is the context and ground for the “great commission”. The apostles’ task was, on the one hand, to proclaim to the nations not only the coming of the kingdom but now, following the resurrection, the kingship of Jesus, until the end of the age, when the substance of the proclamation would be fulfilled; and on the other, to bring about obedience to Jesus in light of that predicted outcome. Craig Evans gets the political dimension right in his commentary on this passage:

Under the authority of its Messiah, Jesus, Israel’s jurisdiction over the nations can now be fulfilled…. All will be brought to an obedience and understanding of the faith of the patriarchs and the prophets…. Israel will conquer the nations, not with the sword… but with the gospel, the good news of the reign of God.2

Similarly, Peter Leithart: after the resurrection Jesus “claimed a dominion that surpassed Cyrus’s…. He was the greater Cyrus, a new Nebuchadnezzar into whose hand all the peoples of the world had been given.”3

The point here is not that Gentiles are included in the covenant people—that is at most a secondary implication, albeit an important one. It is that the future rule of Jesus over the nations is being anticipated not only by Jews but also by the people who will be most affected by such a régime change. The testimony about the coming kingdom and the coming reign of Jesus as Lord and King is not only proclaimed by Jewish apostles, it is concretely and socially embodied in communities that are no longer exclusively Jewish. Gentiles are also to be recruited and trained as messengers and harbingers of God’s new future. Obviously, the fact that the kingdom is coming in a way that will have repercussions for the nations requires “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (cf. Lk. 24:47), but that is a trailing rather than a leading argument.

Baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is baptism into the unfolding eschatological narrative: the Father who sends, the Son who will be judge and ruler of the nations, and the Spirit who inspires and empowers communities of disciples specifically for this eschatological purpose.

The “end” or the “end of the age”, to reiterate, is not the end-of-the-world. It is the end of the age of second temple Judaism, when Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed, Jesus will be seen to be the fulfilment of Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man who is given kingdom, and the disciples are delivered from their enemies.

This is exactly how Paul accounts for his own mission in Romans. Because the Christ became a servant to the Jews, the Gentiles will glorify God for his mercy, and Isaiah’s words are thus fulfilled: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12). Then he speaks of what “Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience… so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:18-19). The obedience or “discipleship” of Gentiles specifically anticipates the coming rule of Christ over the nations. Paul has done exactly what Jesus instructed the apostles to do.

So does the “great commission” have any relevance for us now? Perhaps not in its original terms. But the fact remains that we are a people chosen by the living God to bear active, socially-embodied witness to him among the nations, as a new creation in microcosm. The New Testament story about kingdom is behind us, but we live with the consequences. Jesus is judge and Lord of his people, and that must determine how we think and behave. And if the creator God calls people to become part of this project, or if people are attracted to the cause, then it is our responsibility to teach obedience, to disciple them for the task. It’s not quite the mission that the risen Jesus gave his followers in the first century. The historical parameters have changed. But it’s what we have to do.

It’s not an argument for passivism. We can be as “missional” and as activist and as confrontational as we like. But our mission is not to proclaim to the world that God is about to judge his people and install Jesus as Lord over an idolatrous pagan empire. That’s been done already.

  • 1. Cf. D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (WBC, 1995), 886: ‘Dan 7:13–14 provides important background material to vv 18–20, referring to one like a Son of Man who receives “dominion and glory and kingship,” an everlasting dominion, “that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him”….’
  • 2. C.A. Evans, Matthew (NCBC, 2012), 484.
  • 3. P.J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Cascade Books, 2012), 37.
Image of Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Theopolitical Visions)

On Amazon (US):

Peter J. Leithart
Wipf & Stock Pub (2012), Paperback, 214 pages, $24.00

Comments

Scripture has to be read forwards, not backwards.

There’s an illogicality here. First, you have to read backwards in order to read forwards. It’s a rule dictated by the passage of time. We’re not in a position to be in the shoes of those who lived in Old Testament times, so the enterprise of trying to read forwards from their times is always a matter of conjecture of how things would have appeared, and how the story was encouraging its adherents to believe it would actually turn out.

A complication is that Jesus encouraged a very different response to contemporary events than, for instance, would have been gleaned (reading forwards) from the Maccabees, or from most of the OT with its polemic against Gentile oppressors of Israel. There’s also the complication that the experts in those times who did use the scriptures to look forwards, and had passed on their wisdom to those to come (reading forwards), tended to get it horribly wrong - John 5:39.

Because most were taken by surprise by the coming of Jesus and what he was setting out to do, perhaps we should not be surprised if the ‘reading forward’ expectations of what was to come from earlier times were frequently wrong. The clues from the narrative as it was available did not give the clearest indication as to how it would turn out. Hence the failure, in the main, of Jesus’s contemporaries to realise who he was, including those closest to him.

The way in which the narrative actually turned out is an essential tool to understanding what the scriptures had been saying. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. When Jesus took the two disciples through the scriptures, beginning with Moses and the Prophets, and “explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself” - Luke 24:27, he was evidently interpreting to them, ie bringing a fresh understanding from the present (reading backwards), in a way which they had not been given by traditional readings handed down from the past (reading forwards).

So I have argued that the Gentile mission was a revelation of the risen Christ or of the Spirit to the post-Easter church. Prior to his death Jesus nowhere teaches that Gentiles will be included in the new covenant people.

Because Jesus didn’t teach it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. And in any case, we should be talking about what the gospels are presenting, which is not limited to what Jesus did or did not say; what he modelled is also important. What was happening through him and around him speaks as loudly as what he said. The way in which material is presented speaks as loudly as what Jesus did or did not say. There is the clearest evidence that the faith with which Gentiles received Jesus was greater than the faith exhibited by Israel, and that the gospel, and kingdom, were coming to them as well as Israel. There is the clearest evidence that a discipleship training course, which mixed direct teaching and narrative, was in the end (Matthew 28:19-20) for the benefit of Gentile disciples as much as Jews.

This is a familiar Old Testament idea: the Lord bears his holy arm before the eyes of the nations, and the ends of the earth will see God’s salvation of his people (Is. 52:9-10).

But on the whole, what the nations tended to see, and increasingly so, was judgment against Israel for her sins. This did not encourage the nations to put their trust in Israel’s God then, nor did it with the fall of Jerusalem and its temple - the archetypical OT judgment on Israel for her sinfulness. What did bring the nations to put their trust in Israel’s God was something they had not seen before: a quality of character and lifestyle in the followers of Jesus, prompted by evidence of the manifest presence of God amongst them in signs and wonders. This was hardly something that the OT narrative had prepared anyone for, and the scriptures had to be explained with power to prove that they had indeed been fulfilled by Jesus the crucified, risen messiah.

This is only the first paragraph of the post! Much of the rest is familiar territory, where I am in agreement that the gospel is the kingship of Jesus, and the kingship of God through Jesus. However, the phrase “not that Jesus has died for people’s sins” goes to the heart of the problem with your interpretation. Jesus’s kingship came about through his death on the cross. The inscription of Pilate over the cross was not simply showing what Israel had done to her king, it was showing how he was becoming king. This was a very different kind of kingdom than anything that the OT (reading forwards) had prepared anyone for, except in extraordinary and previously inexplicable glimpses. So the way in which this kingdom was going to be expressed through Jesus, and the way in which it could be entered, was only by what the cross accomplished. This was forgivness of sins for Jews as well as for Gentiles, to all who received it by faith and obedient faithfulness.

The point here is not that Gentiles are included in the covenant people—that is at most a secondary implication, albeit an important one

You’ve said it: the Gentiles are included in the covenant people. But that’s not quite the same though as saying they are included in the covenant - that the new covenant is as much for Gentiles as Jews. So the benefits of covenant membership for Gentiles may still elude us. The Abrahamic promise of descendants in all four corners of the earth (Genesis 28), understood by Paul to be all those incorporated into the messiah Jesus, Jews and Gentiles, still remains to be affirmed or rebutted.

The Grest Commission - to make disciples of all nations; why should we think that these Gentile disciples are to be any different from the model laid down for Jewish disciples in the gospel which contains the commission? Why should “teach(ing) them to obey everything I have commanded you” (which is reading backwards) be anything other than what has been commanded of the Jewish disciples in the gospel in which the commission is given?

baptism into the unfolding eschatological narrative: the Father who sends, the Son who will be judge and ruler of the nations, and the Spirit who inspires and empowers communities of disciples specifically for this eschatological purpose

This is a very speculative explanation of baptism, and even if baptism is into a narrative, an explanation will be needed as to why it doesn’t include baptism into the preceding part of the narrative, which includes Jesus’s death on the cross, and which parts of the narrative it does include (future physical resurrection, for instance?). If it is baptism into a narrative, it is also much more than that. Baptism by John, which preceded it, was baptism for for repentance and forgiveness of sins. This is taken up in baptism into Jesus, which includes incorporation into his death and resurrection, not simply a narrative about these things. Baptism is consistently understood in the NT as an act of covenant incorporation. In Romans it is directly into the death and resurrection of Jesus, which even if limited to a narrative about his death and resurrection, would still apply to Gentiles the sacrificial offering of himself.

“The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12)

As an explanation of Paul’s ministry, this covers the essential kingship of Jesus, but should not exclude the meaning of that part of the narrative which included forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross. For you, this was not a benefit directly extended to the Gentiles.

And if the creator God calls people to become part of this project, or if people are attracted to the cause, then it is our responsibility to teach obedience, to disciple them for the task

Obedience to what, precisely? Since the Jesus of the gospels is behind us, and that phase has gone and is no longer part of the story at this time, how are we to know what we are to become obedient to?

The way I see it, there is a big difference between what Jesus or Paul were doing as prophetic re-interpreters of scripture and what we do as responsible exegetes. These are two quite different tasks.

As for the rest of your very lengthy critique, it suffers from the same misrepresentation of my argument as the previous conversation. Of course Jesus’ kingship came about through the cross, but what I said was this: the message proclaimed to the nations was not that Jesus died for sins but that God had made him king. The gospel to the nations was that Jesus has been put in control. This is clear from Acts. At every point his death is mentioned as the basis for kingship, but not as an act of atonement.

Similarly, I said repeatedly in the previous exchange that Gentiles come to be included in the covenant people. I am baffled that you feel you need to crow about the fact that I said it here.

This is a classic example of splitting hairs: “But that’s not quite the same though as saying they are included in the covenant - that the new covenant is as much for Gentiles as Jews. So the benefits of covenant membership for Gentiles may still elude us.” The same for your comments about baptism. As far as I can see, you are arguing for argument’s sake, and I really don’t see any point in responding.

Andrew, you may not see any point in responding further, but that simply leaves the very carefully crafted points I have made unanswered.

As for the response you have made, there is clearly a big difference between us as to what being responsible exegetes means. You say that Paul was reinterpeting scripture in quite a different way from Jesus. There’s nothing new in that. Many scriptural interpreters have said the same (and been proved wrong). You are doing it in rather a different way.

The problem with the way you are doing it is that while it is quite valid to lead us to a different viewpoint (your own), and invite us to see how things look from that perspective, you must also face the consequences of those who see flaws in the project, and are willing to point them out.

For instance, if Paul was not reflecting on essentially the same atory which comprises the material in the gospels, and deducing from that, and from his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, and from his conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead through his own encounter with him, then where did he get his information from that the gospel was to be preached not only to Israel, but also to the nations? And this question is valid even if we allow for the very different understanding of the gospel which you have from almost every other Christian interpreter who has lived.

So Phil Ledgerwood suggests, on your behalf, that Paul had his revelation from the Spirit, rather than an understanding to be obtained from the kind of material we have in the gospels about Jesus, and that this was a post-resurrection consciousness. I think another way of approaching things, without falling into the trap of critical or historical naivety which you so abhor, is to ask how Paul could have obtained his views based on the kind of material which is available to us in the gospels. (He evidently did have some access to other material, because he quotes a saying of Jesus which is found nowhere else. He also quotes from OT apocryphal material, but that tends to lead us in a different direction if we place too much weight on it). This leads us to another hill, which I am standing on, and has formed the basis of what I say about the Gentile encounters of Jesus in the gospels.

At the same time I have to acknowledge the areas where I am in agreement with you. It is true that Jesus does not teach the inclusion of Gentiles with the people of the covenant in the gospels. He does not invite them to follow him, then or later. So in what sense are the gospels connected with the Gentile mission of Acts?

I’m also in agreement with you that the gospel is the gospel of the kingship of Jesus. However, it is (to me, at least) overwhelmingly clear from the NT letters, as well as what Paul modelled in his apostleship, that the cross of Jesus was at the heart of what it meant for Jesus to become king, and that this was at the heart of what he proclaimed. Cross and resurrection are there in the gospel proclamations of Acts. At that stage in the story perhaps, the atoning implications of these events are not spelled out in detail. It would be difficult to deduce from this that they simply did not form part of the gospel which was being proclaimed. Atonement is, however, overwhelmingly the inner core of the gospel which is spelled out in painstaking detail in the letters. You can only go down the route you are taking if you argue that each part of the NT exists almost hermetically sealed from the other, and there is little or no cross referring that can be done between each part.

Similarly, I said repeatedly in the previous exchange that Gentiles come to be included in the covenant people. I am baffled that you feel you need to crow about the fact that I said it here.

You say that the Gentiles come to be included in the covenant people. (I wasn’t aware at all that you were saying it repeatedly. You seemed to be very cagey about it, as I recall). You do not say that they are included in the covenant, or that the purpose of the covenant was to include them in it together with the Gentiles. There is a difference, and it goes to the heart of the difference between what you are saying, and what almost without exception every other commentator has ever said. I’m not crowing about anything - I’m simply noting that you choose your words very carefully, and you make sure you leave room for a viewpoint which can often be very significantly different from those most people hold. It’s not me that is splitting hairs, it’s you.

I don’t have any idea what you mean about what I’ve said about baptism. It’s an act of covenant inclusion - not simply in the covenant people, but in the covenant itself. It describes and performs the whole point of the covenant which runs through everything from the time of Abraham onwards, which was God’s plan for the Gentiles through Israel. Paul saw this writ large, and the only way you can get round it is by saying that we mustn’t look backwards in intepreting the narrative (as if Paul never did that!), but only look forwards, since what has gone before (the gospels, for instance), like stocks and shares, is no guide to what may come in the future.

…if Paul was not reflecting on essentially the same story which comprises the material in the gospels, and deducing from that, and from his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, and from his conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead through his own encounter with him, then where did he get his information from that the gospel was to be preached not only to Israel, but also to the nations?

According to his express testimony in Galatians Paul received his “gospel” directly from the risen Lord, who was revealed to him precisely so that he might preach him among the Gentiles. If he had gained this insight from the tradition, it would have obviously have been in his interest to say so.

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal. 1:11–17)

Paul also says:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born - 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

This was not received by direct revelation, but by tradition, which closely reflects the gospel accounts.

The gospel was that “Christ died for our sins”, which in context means at least some of the Gentile converts who comprised the church at Corinth.

It is also described as “the gospel I preached to you”, “on which you have taken your stand”, and “By this gospel you are saved” - which he then goes to spell out in detail.

It appears that Paul did model his gospel on the gospel accounts, that it included the atonement, and that this was what he preached, which led to the salvation of the hearers.

Couldn’t be clearer, could it?

Presumably Paul received the tradition when he went to Jerusalem to visit Peter, three years after the revelation on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1:18). The tradition cited in 1 Corinthians 15:2 refers only to Jesus’ death, resurrection and appearance to the twelve. It has nothing to say about the Gentiles or about anything that Jesus may or may not have taught. So my point stands: Paul learnt by revelation that the good news about the risen Lord Jesus was to be proclaimed to the Gentiles; he did not learn it from “the kind of material we have in the gospels about Jesus”.

I think Paul had both direct revelation of Jesus as risen Messiah, and, according to 1 Corinthians 15, reception of the (very early) tradition which so closely reflects the gospels as to suggest the association.

However, you are quite right; there is no reference to any teaching in the gospels about Gentiles which might have influenced Paul. Nor do any ‘editors’ in any of the material suggest such a connection with Paul.

What is interesting (a secondary point) is the presentation of the atoning death of Jesus, which was from a tradition reflecting the gospel accounts (whatever may or may not have been said to Paul at Jerusalem - that’s just conjecture). The death of Jesus on the cross for “our sins” had been preached at Corinth as “the gospel”.

However, we are going to run into the sand here, because I suppose you will then say that the death of Jesus for “our sins” was only for the sins of the Jews, not the Gentiles. Correct?

Hi Peter - What do you make of the Apostle Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean animals in Acts 10? Would you say it was to correct a misunderstanding Peter had about Jesus’ teaching as opposed to a new revelation? Obviously, Peter has some early rockiness (no pun intended) with eating with Gentiles when Jews were present, which could indicate ignorance or misunderstanding.

How would you put all that together?

Interesting question. I think Jesus may have laid the groundwork (eg in passages like Matthew 15:16-20, which was in answer to a question by Peter. But to satisfy the strict rules of exegesis which are required by Postost, I’d have to say there is no explicit link with Peter in Acts 10. On the other hand, Peter wa staying at the house of Simon the tanner; wouldn’t that have made the food that was being prepared unclean? Maybe Peter was already getting a bit wobbly about strict observation of food laws.

And this question is valid even if we allow for the very different understanding of the gospel which you have from almost every other Christian interpreter who has lived

I’m not sure I would go that far.

The Gospel: The Return of the King

Wow, just wow!

I subscribed to this blog to increase my theological understanding. But I’m sad to see such hostility (on both sides) in the debate. Or perhaps I’m too sensitive for this theology thing?

I for one value character of primary importance in those I want to learn from. Please maintain civility and be constructive in your defences or i (for one) will look elsewhere for my learning

Oh dear, I didn’t think it was that bad. There’s a bit of history to it, but it doesn’t hurt to be pulled up on it occasionally. Thanks. I’ll try to do something about it.

As i said, maybe I’m too sensitive. But thanks for your response.

Andrew,

Excuse the semantics. But if “gospel” means good news, then for it to be news, it’s has to be new, right? So what was the “new” news? God has always saved by faith. Always provided sacrifices. Always included Jews and Gentiles. Always washed away sins. So the only “new” news I can see in the New Testament is that Jesus is now Lord and king over heaven and earth and the devil has been crushed and all subsequent devil followers will be crushed soon enough. Just a thought.

Darren