How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

In the likeness of sinful flesh

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Last week it was Romans 9:5 and the question of whether Paul says that the Christ is “God over all, blessed forever”. Since then I have been fretting over Paul’s account of Christ’s self-emptying and vindication in Philippians 2:6-11. I am working on a paper developing an idea about the conceptual background to the passage that would be strongly supportive of the view that Jesus must be understood primarily as an apocalyptic figure—both in the sense that he interpreted Israel’s predicament apocalyptically and in the sense that the full canonical narrative about Jesus is an apocalyptic one. I made the point recently, reflecting on a piece by Scot McKnight, that the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament is the “Jewish apocalyptic Jesus who proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God in the near future”. While it is certainly correct to say that Jesus completes Israel’s story, the more important historical point to make is that he also sets out a vision for the political future of his people that cannot be reduced to the expansion and evangelistic activity of the church.

This emphasis on the narrative-historical context of New Testament thought has implications for interpretation. If the wood is narrative, the trees are narrative. This is why it must be stressed in the first place that the apocalyptic prophet Jesus proclaimed a gospel of judgment and restoration not to the whole world but to first-century Israel, that he died not for the sins of the whole world, whatever John may later have inferred, but for the sins of his people. The story unfolds further—stories always do—but it never ceases to be a story about the concrete political existence of a people.

Part of what I want to argue with regard to Philippians 2:6-11 is that, regardless of whether we think that its christology is incarnational, Jesus is not presented as a quasi-gnostic, a-historical redeemer figure—a sort of reversed Felix Baumgartner, who free-falls from heaven to save humanity (thankfully, Baumgartner did not die in the attempt) and then re-ascends by helium balloon. Rather, the passage makes a political statement about the nature of Jesus’ kingship as part of an overarching narrative about Israel and the nations.

The statement that Jesus came to be or was born “in the likeness (homoiōmati) of men” (Phil. 2:7) belongs to this political narrative. It is not merely an assertion of his humanity counterbalancing a statement of divinity in verse 6. The passage should not be reduced to pure christology. It is not about identity or nature but about kingdom.

A similar point can be made about the phrase “in the likeness (homoiōmati) of sinful flesh” in Romans 8:3-4:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (ESV)

I suggested in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom that behind the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is:

a story of Jesus’ apparent implication in Israel’s rebelliousness—his death, in the end, looked like God’s judgment on Israel by the agency of Rome. (114)

In other words, this is not a general argument about the salvation of sinful humanity. It is a narratively delimited argument about the salvation of sinful Israel when it stood under condemnation by the Law of Moses and faced destruction.

The reasons I gave for taking the phrase in this way are, briefly, as follows:

1. The “flesh” is what bound Jesus, who was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3), to his people.

2. Israel’s “flesh” in this context has proved incorrigibly sinful: hostile to God, unwilling to submit to the Law, unable to please God (8:7-8).

3. While Jesus was not himself rebellious but remained true to his prophetic or messianic “sending” (cf. Jer. 1:7-8), he was judged by Israel and by Rome not to be righteous but to be worthy of crucifixion as a false messiah alongside two criminals. He appeared to all the world as a sinner. The argument is roughly paralleled in Wisdom of Solomon. Righteous Jews are insulted, tortured and put to death by impious and unjust rulers who resent their claims to be divine sons and the constant tut-tutting at their behaviour (Wis. 2:12-20). In the “sight of human beings” the righteous appear to have been punished, but “their hope is full of immortality”. Their “sacrificial whole burnt offering” is accepted by God; “in the time of their visitation they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about” (cf. Dan. 12:3; Matt. 13:43); and they will “judge nations and rule over peoples” (Wis. 3:4-8). All thoroughly apocalyptic!

The point? Well, as I said, if the wood is narrative, the trees are narrative. The apocalyptic-historical framework is not simply a fancy antique toy box in which we are now supposed to keep all our modern playthings. If the toy box is antique, so are the toys. If the belief-system is apocalyptic, so are the beliefs.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 10/25/2012 - 15:58 | Permalink

I’m interested in the discussion, and will follow it discreetly and respectfully, though not sure it is leading anywhere useful for me.

I felt I made a profound comment at on the Scot McKnight thread, though it may have been like those profound thoughts you sometimes have in dreams, which turn out to be meaningless when you wake up.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting, amusing even, to think that the Jesus of the gospels and NT, already a theological Jesus of course, is said to be someone who continues not only to live, but to be in active communion with his people, shaping their lives, and through them the world.

If this is the case, one wonders (a) what he thinks about his people being said to have totally misunderstood him for two millennia, according to the historical methods cited, and (b) what he believes about the historians who think that a historical figure such as he can be analysed without taking into account his continued existence.

I’ll be interested in what you come up with in the Philippians passage. The most recent, and to me the best, account of the passage I have read recently is in Larry Hurtado’s “When on earth did Jesus become a god?”

My guess is that the Jesus who currently reigns at the right hand of the creator God for the sake of God’s people knows very well how human history works and why it is important for us to try to hold in tension confession and critical enquiry. To my mind, Peter, your fourth category is an extension of the historical-canonical Jesus, as theologically interpreted from within the New Testament before he is interpreted from outside it. As I said in this post, the story doesn’t stop. Jesus, the supreme story-teller, must understand that.

Daniel | Thu, 10/25/2012 - 16:52 | Permalink

“The passage should not be reduced to pure christology. It is not about identity or nature but about kingdom.”

I agree that the passage is not first of all about christology. But it isn’t first of all about “kingdom” either. I’m sure it hasn’t passed you by, but since you didn’t mention it in this post, Philippians 2:6-11 is actually part of an exhortation toward the kind of behavior Paul wants the Philippians to exhibit. It’s given as a model of the vindication and exaltation that the Philippians believers can expect to meet their own self-emptying. What it teaches us about kingdom and christology is almost incidental.

But when it comes to the christology, I guess the question I would have is this: What’s the purpose of the qualifiers “being born in the likeness of men” and “being found in human form” (v.7-8), unless there is an implication that there was something other than merely human about him?

I need to rush out to this event, but just to clarify: Philippians 2:6-11 is about kingdom, but Paul makes use of it for a clearly parenetic purpose, having to do with how unity is maintained in the community.