Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Law Came in to Increase the Trespass: The Story of Two Falls in Romans 5:20

What does Paul mean in Rom 5:20 when he says that “the law came in to increase the trespass”? A common interpretation of this explains Paul as saying here that God’s law functions to give us a standard against which we rebel. Another common interpretation says that, once the condemnatory function of the law is understood, God’s law makes us realize how sinful we are.

Charles Spurgeon is an example of someone who interprets Rom 5:20 in the second way described above: “When once God the Holy Ghost applies the law to the conscience, secret sins are dragged to light, little sins are magnified to their true size, and things apparently harmless become exceedingly sinful … The heart is like a dark cellar, full of lizards, cockroaches, beetles, and all kinds of reptiles and insects, which in the dark we see not, but the law takes down the shutters and lets in the light, and so we see the evil. Thus sin becoming apparent by the law, it is written the law makes the offence to abound” (http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0037.htm). Spurgeon obviously understood Rom 5:20 as describing the psychological effect of divine law on the conscience.

These common interpretations of Rom 5:20 are consistent with the truths of systematic theology, but it seems to me that they pay scant attention to the actual context of Rom 5:12-21, which is the immediate context of Rom 5:20. We need to ask the question: What law is Paul talking about in Rom 5:20? Is he talking about the law of God in general, or the law of Moses? The answer to this question is found in the context. Romans 5:13 talks about sin being in the world before the law was given. Even though “there [was] no law” (Rom 5:13), “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (Rom 5:14). Surely the law in question here is the law of Moses. The time frame corresponding to “before the law was given” is the period of time “from Adam to Moses.” So the law that comes on the scene in Rom 5:20 is not God’s law in general; it is specifically the law of Moses! Paul’s argument here is really about the place of the Mosaic law in salvation history, not about the psychological effects of God’s law on individual sinners throughout history.

A further question: What is the trespass that Paul mentions in Rom 5:20? Psychological interpretations of this verse say that the trespass is the concept of sin in general. Either God giving commandments made rebellion against him possible, and even more likely in that a knowledge of what is right and wrong in God’s sight actually leads to more sinfulness on the part of unregenerate individuals; or else, God spelling out his standard of right and wrong brings our consciences to a knowledge of sin, once the significance of the law is understood. But we need to ask: What is the meaning of the trespass in the context of Rom 5:12-21?

The context gives us the answer. The trespass of Rom 5:20 is nothing other than the trespass mentioned in Rom 5:15, 17, 18, namely, the trespass of the one man, Adam. The trespass that Paul has in mind in Rom 5:20 is the trespass of Adam, not the concept of sin in general! Once again, Paul’s argument is a salvation-historical one. In effect, he is saying that the law of Moses was given to Israel with the express purpose in God’s salvation-historical plan of compounding the problem of sin in Adam through Israel’s disobedience to the Mosaic covenant.

Romans 5:20 shows us that Paul understood the story of Israel in the Old Testament as a story of failure. In other words, the Old Testament is basically a story of two falls. We have the fall of humanity in Adam, and the fall of Israel in Moses. If the “sinning [of those from Adam to Moses] was not like the transgression of Adam” (Rom 5:14), whose was? Adam disobeyed the commandment; Israel disobeyed the law. The sin of Israel “was … like the transgression of Adam.” So Adam is not only a contratype of Christ (Rom 5:14), but he is a type of Israel. The fall of Israel compounds the problem of the trespass of Adam by pointing out the terrible effects of rebellion against God in a much more dramatic and wide-ranging way than the story of the expulsion of Adam from the garden of Eden does. Think about the tragedy of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians: the fear, the starvation, the pain, the suffering, the cannibalism, the sickness, the death and destruction. Surely the tragic history of old covenant Israel speaks poignantly of the awful consequences of sin!

But there is a polemical edge to what Paul is saying in Rom 5:20 as well. Far from ameliorating or solving the problem of human sin, the law of Moses compounded the problem of sin, because the majority of Israel did not have the law written on their hearts, and disobeyed God as a consequence. Paul’s Jewish opponents thought that Mosaic torah could liberate them from sin, but Paul understood that its function in the purposes of God was actually the opposite for the nation considered as a whole. Mosaic torah actually functioned primarily to bring condemnation and death to Israel.

The fall of Israel in Moses compounded the problem of the fall of humanity in Adam, yet this does not mean that God’s intentions for Israel and the world are primarily negative. The failure of Adam and Israel was part of God’s plan for highlighting the grace of God in Christ! Just as darkness makes us appreciate light, it is failure that makes us appreciate success. Similarly, it is in the context of death that we truly appreciate life. In God’s wisdom, he has chosen to move in history from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from death to life. Without the negative, we cannot appreciate the positive. In this way the failure of Adam and Israel forms the historical backdrop against which the grace of atonement and empowerment in Christ can be appreciated for the astounding superabounding hyper-reality that it is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Significance of Jesus Standing in Acts 7:55–56

What is the significance of Jesus standing at the right hand of God, as recorded in Acts 7:55? Why is Jesus portrayed as standing rather than seated as per Ps 110:1 and Acts 2:33–35?

It should be noted that we not only have a narrated account of Jesus standing on this occasion in v. 55, but Stephen also gives a verbal report of this in v. 56: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” These words are actually the conclusion to Stephen’s speech which began all the way back in Acts 7:2. Furthermore, this conclusion follows immediately upon Stephen’s strongly worded accusation that old covenant Israel was a rebellious nation:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:51–53).

The immediate context for Jesus standing, therefore, is Stephen’s blatant accusation of covenant rebellion on the part of the ancient nation of Israel.

It is also significant that Stephen’s reporting of the vision of Jesus standing in heaven creates a parallel with Dan 7:13, where one like the son of man comes into the presence of the Ancient of Days, and is presented before him. It is most natural that this son of man would have been standing before God during his presentation. So the idea of Jesus standing as mentioned by Stephen seems to allude to Dan 7:13. This allusion functions as a bold presentation by Stephen of the Christian claim in the polemical context of the time. The claim was that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of Man in fulfillment of Dan 7. In addition, the conceptual parallel between the giving of the kingdom to this son of man in Dan 7:14 and the giving of the kingdom to “the saints of the Most High” in Dan 7:27 brings the courtroom scene of Dan 7:26 (where the power of the evil little horn is taken away) into the picture.

Altogether, therefore, Jesus standing in Acts 7:55 conveys his authority as the Son of Man, along with his power to judge the enemies of God’s people. Jesus standing particularly highlights his role as Judge: “the court shall sit in judgment” (Dan 7:26); “[the Father] has given [the Son] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27).

The fact that Stephen’s opponents “cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him” (Acts 7:57) as soon as he had spoken about Jesus standing at the right hand of God shows that they understood the christological import of Stephen’s description of Jesus. In sum, Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in Acts 7:55–56 conveys that Jesus is the Messiah (in fulfillment of Ps 110), and the Son of Man (in fulfillment of Dan 7), who has the authority to execute judgment on behalf of God and his people. Viewed in the context of Stephen's speech, it is as if Jesus is standing to confirm the veracity of the accusation that Stephen had brought against the nation of Israel, and to indicate that he is the Son of Man of Dan 7 who will judge those who persecute “the saints of the Most High” (Dan 7:27). Stephen's death, like that of the prophets and the Righteous One before him (Acts 7:52), would not be in vain.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Significance of the Divine Posture of Sitting and Standing Portrayed in the Bible

I have been asked to comment on the divine posture of standing and sitting that appears in the Bible. When we normally think of God, I guess we tend to think of him as being seated on a throne. My guess is that a king sitting particularly expresses the authority and majesty of the king in question, and that this applies to God as well. Yahweh sitting in 1 Kgs 22:19 goes together with the phrase on his throne. It speaks of Yahweh’s authority and sovereignty over all things, including (in the context) his authority over kings like Ahab. In Isa 6:1, Yahweh sitting definitely expresses his majesty. This is clear from the context: notice the connection of Yahweh sitting with the phrase high and lifted up. It is definitely emphasizing the majesty of God’s kingly authority. But sitting can also convey the idea of the exercise of authority in conducting war and executing justice against the enemies (Ps 110:1; Rev 19:11), as well as the idea of victory accomplished (see Rev 3:21). With victory accomplished, it’s a bit like the Messiah (who has been seated for a while) can finally relax and put his feet up ... on the enemies who have become his footstool!

But the Bible also describes instances of God standing. What is the significance of God standing rather than sitting? My initial thoughts are that standing up in public space is often a pragmatic posture connected with the purpose of being seen and heard clearly when speaking. Relating this to God, the idea behind God standing is that standing is the kind of posture that is appropriate for a judgment or proclamation of some kind (see Neh 9:3-4; 2 Chr 20:20; 24:20; Luke 5:1). This fits in with my suggestion regarding Ps 82:1, that the parallelism in this verse links God’s standing with his function as a judge (see “I Said You Are Gods”: The Meaning of Psalm 82).

God is actually recorded as standing a number of times in the Scriptures. He stood to give a special promise to Jacob (Gen 28:13-15); he stood to proclaim the meaning of his name to Moses (Exod 34:5); he stood to indict Aaron and Miriam for sin (Num 12:5-9); he stood to call Samuel and to deliver a word of judgment against the house of Eli (1 Sam 3:10-13); he stood (in a vision) to speak a word of judgment against Israel (Amos 7:7-9). But the key verse for understanding the significance of God standing is Isa 3:13-14:

“The Lord has taken his place to contend; he stands to judge peoples. The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people.”

Here the idea of the judge standing is seen to mimic the posture of the accuser in court. So God stands when he is acting as a judge, bringing accusations and delivering judgments.

But the New Testament suggests that God can also stand in order to give encouragement. In Acts 23:11 God appeared standing in a vision in which he encouraged the Apostle Paul to be bold in his testimony to the gospel. This idea also seems to be confirmed by Paul’s words in 2 Tim 4:17:

“But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth.”

The Lord can stand in order to stand alongside of his people, to give them encouragement and strength.

What then is the significance of Stephen’s observing Jesus standing at the right hand of God in Acts 7:55? I will explore that in my next post.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"I Said You Are Gods": John 10:34–36 and the Divinity of Jesus

How should we understand Jesus’ quote of Ps 82:6 in John 10:34? I have argued previously that the term gods is used in Ps 82 of the rulers of Israel who are viewed as being members of the divine council (see “‘I Said You Are Gods’: The Meaning of Psalm 82”). As VIPs in God’s presence, they can legitimately be called gods or sons of God. They are gods not in terms of their inherent nature or being, but only in the sense that they have been invited by God to be members of the divine assembly. God effectively has his own “pantheon,” an assembly of VIPs who have been given the privilege of listening to his wise counsel and legal judgments, and who (on the basis of this) are supposed to judge and rule God’s people justly.

Picking up on this idea, in John 10:34 Jesus points out to his Jewish opponents that their law (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) records God calling the rulers of Israel gods. Jesus’ explanation of the significance of this verse is given in John 10:35–36:
“If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”
Jesus’ statement in v. 35 that God “called them gods to whom the word of God came” confirms the suggestion that the VIPs in God’s presence had the privilege of hearing God’s wise counsel and legal judgments. These VIPs heard the word of God, and could legitimately be called gods, Jesus implies, as Ps 82 shows.

In v. 36 Jesus then compares himself with these gods. A number of scholars have noted that Jesus employs in v. 36 a qal wahomer (i.e., an a fortiori) argument. A qal wahomer argument follows the logic of if A is a true, then how much more is B true. If the rulers of Israel who had the privilege of hearing God’s word could legitimately be called gods, how much more appropriate is it that he “whom the Father consecrated and sent into the word” be called the Son of God!

In the context, Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is not merely an assertion of his Messianic status. To confess that Jesus is the Son of God can simply mean that Jesus is the Messiah, who is viewed as being human (e.g., John 1:34, 49). The idea of a human messiah is quite acceptable in Jewish circles. But John’s Gospel broadens the meaning of the concept of the Son of God. Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as being a divine messiah. According to John’s Gospel, true faith confesses that Jesus is a divine Messiah, the true bread from heaven, who is one with the Father.

Jesus is clearly asserting the idea that he is a divine Messiah in John 10:30–38. He inserted himself into the Shema, claiming “I and the Father are one” (v. 30). He spoke of how he had been sent into the world by the Father (v. 36), which implies his heavenly pre-existence. He goes on to say that “the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (v. 38), and his opponents react once again by seeking to seize him (v. 39).

The qal wahomer form of Jesus’ argument also means that it is not right to argue on the basis of John 10:34 that Jesus is the most exalted god among many. The a fortiori nature of the argument means that Jesus cannot be said to be a god in the same way that the rulers or any of God’s people can. The god-like VIPs of Ps 82 were recipients of divine revelation (John 10:35), but Jesus is the supreme vehicle of divine revelation (John 1:14, 18). The VIPs heard the word of God, but Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1, 14). The VIPs are of the world, but Jesus was sent into the world (John 10:36). Being the self-revelation of the Father in human form, Jesus is God. God the Father is invisible and unknowable (John 1:18; Col 1:15; 1 Tim 6:16). He expresses himself, and makes himself visible and knowable, through the Son. Because the Son is the expression of the Father, the Son is God, because he is the form in which the Father has chosen to reveal himself to us.
“No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (John 1:18).”
If we human beings of faith who are made from the dust of the earth are privileged to be raised up to be seated in the heights of heaven as members of the divine assembly and given the exalted title of gods, how much more should the One who is the self-expression of the Father in physical form be called God in the fullest sense of the word!

YHWH said that we are gods, and he also says that Jesus is God.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"I Said You Are Gods": The Meaning of Psalm 82

Psalm 82 begins with God standing in the divine assembly (Ps 82:1). The posture of standing suggests that God is making a royal/legal pronouncement. The parallelism in v. 1 confirms this: God standing is linked with his function as a judge.

The divine assembly is called in v. 1 the assembly of the gods. In other ANE cultures, the divine assembly typically consisted of a plurality of gods. But the divine assembly in Ps 82 seems to be a little different. The three main exegetical options that have been mentioned in the scholarly literature explain these gods as being either human judges, the angels, or the people of Israel. The conceptual similarities between the language of Ps 82:2–4 and passages such as Deut 1:17; 24:17; Jer 22:15–16 suggests that the “gods” that are in view here are the judges/rulers of Israel. The idea seems to be that as the supreme god in the ANE pantheon was surrounded by his divine peers and counselors, in a similar way the God of Israel has his own “pantheon,” an assembly of VIPs, people who have been given the privilege of listening to his wise counsel and legal judgments, and who (supposedly on the basis of this) were to judge and rule God’s people. So Ps 82:2–4 seems to be saying that the rulers of Israel had become corrupt and had not exercised true justice in Israel. The result was a lack of understanding, and the presence of spiritual darkness in Israel (Ps 82:5).

In the light of vv. 1–5, the statement I said, “You are gods,” in v. 6 seems to be a divine acknowledgment of the important status of the rulers of Israel as members of the divine assembly. They occupied the position of the gods. But is Ps 82:6 simply talking about the rulers of Israel, or all of Israel as well? The addition of the word all in the second half of Ps 82:6—“and sons of the Most High, all of you”—seems to have been the exegetical justification for this verse being taken in some Jewish circles as applying to all Israel.

And there is some justification for this interpretation when we examine the concept of the sons of God in Scripture. The original sons of God, i.e., those who were members of the heavenly council from the beginning of the creation of the universe, are the angels (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). In Ps 89 the angels are described as being “the assembly of the holy ones” (Ps 89:5; see also Job 15:15), “the sons of God” (Ps 89:6).

But God’s plan is actually for human beings to be lifted up higher than the angels (Heb 1:4; 2:5–9). This means that the rulers of God’s people (see Exod 24:9–11), and indeed (in the end) all of God’s people, will take their place in the divine assembly (Heb 2:11–12). For this reason, Israel is also spoken of as being “the sons of God” (Ps 29:1). They are also described as holy ones or saints (Deut 33:2). The exodus redemption was an exaltation from the pit of slavery to the heights of heaven, a movement from slavery and death to life lived in the presence of God as members of the divine assembly.

It is interesting in this regard that Jesus viewed resurrection as being the means by which God’s people become the sons of God. He taught that by means of resurrection his people are made “equal to the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). Through resurrection the human race is lifted up to be equal to (in fact, higher than) the angels, occupying the position of the sons of God.

So it is possible to speak of Israel as being the sons of God, but in Ps 82 the rulers of Israel are the ones primarily in focus. Nevertheless, taking the broader approach, it is fair enough to say that Ps 82:7 has the death of Israel and her leaders in view. The people of Israel and her leaders had been saved by God to live as honored VIPs (i.e., “gods”) in his presence. But they rebelled. As a result, Israel would die “like Adam,” and fall like one of the [angel?] princes” (Ps 82:7). Through their covenant rebellion, Israel and her leaders forfeited the privilege of living in God’s presence as the sons of God.

We need to keep in mind the content of Ps 82 when seeking to explain Jesus’ words in John 10:34–36. See “‘I Said You Are Gods’: John 10:34–36 and the Divinity of Jesus” for a discussion on this point.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"I Said You Are Gods": John 10:34 Must Be Understood in the Context of John 10:30

I’ve been asked how I would respond to a Jehovah’s Witness interpreting John 10:34-36 as evidence that the term god can be used to refer to human beings. Of course, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim this passage as confirming their belief that Jesus is not God, but the most exalted of the sons of God (who can also legitimately be called gods).

Suggesting that John 10:34–36 supports the view that Jesus is not God does not fit with the evidence of John 10:30. I have argued in a previous post that in John 10:30 Jesus inserts himself into the Jewish Shema on a level equal with God the Father (see “Is Jesus God? The Significance of the Shema of Jesus in John 10:30”). Jesus’ opponents obviously understood that he was claiming to be equal with God, because they picked up stones to stone him (John 10:31) for the sin of blasphemy: “We are not stoning you for any good work, but for blasphemy, and because you, a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33). In the context, the word theon in v. 33 should be translated as God rather than as a god. The sin of blasphemy is considered in Judaism as being a sin against the name of YHWH. Jesus’ Jewish opponents wanted to stone him, because he had blasphemed the divine name by inserting his own name into the Shema, as if he were YHWH himself. This is exactly what Jesus was claiming. By inserting his name into the Shema, he was claiming to be YHWH himself. Therefore, Jesus’ Jewish opponents understood correctly that he was claiming to be equal with the Father, hence their desire to stone him.

In response to their desire to put him to death, Jesus quoted Ps 82:6: “I said, ‘You are gods’” (John 10:34), and argued as follows:

“If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:35–36).

In order to understand Jesus’ argument, we need to understand Ps 82. This will be the subject of my next post. But however John 10:34–36 is to be understood, it must be consistent with the unequivocal evidence of John 10:30.