Friday, December 23, 2011

The Fulfillment of Micah 5:1–5a in Jesus of Nazareth

One of the strongest proofs of the truth of Christianity is the fulfillment of prophecy. There are at least fifty specific prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, not to mention the many people or objects that function as prophetic parallels to Christ.

Micah 5:1–5a is a particularly good example. Micah is one of the eighth century prophets. He lived in Moresheth-Gath, a town in the south of Judah, about 35 km south-west of Jerusalem. The second half of the eighth century B.C. was a time when the Assyrian empire was exerting increasing pressure in the region. Israel was forced to pay tribute to the king of Assyria, and over time lost territory to the Assyrians until finally, in the year 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered, and its citizens deported.

Conducting his ministry in this context, Micah was prophesying at significant time in the history of the people of Israel. His basic message was that the military defeat of Israel was coming as a result of Israel’s rebellion against God. As part of the covenant that God had entered into with Israel at Mount Sinai, God had promised to bless Israel on condition of obedience; but if they didn’t obey, instead of receiving blessing, Israel would experiences the curses of the covenant, bad things like disease, drought, defeat, death, and expulsion from the Holy Land.

Some 700 years after the exodus, God had finally had enough. After 700 years of rebellion and repeated unfaithfulness on the part of Israel, God’s judgment was going to come down against Israel in a serious way. The northern kingdom of Israel would be defeated and deported by the Assyrians, and over a century later the southern kingdom of Judah would be destroyed by the Babylonians.

Micah 5:1 speaks of this judgment. Micah 5:1 goes with the preceding five verses (i.e., Mic 4:9–13). In these verses Micah predicts that Jerusalem, also called the daughter of Zion, will be attacked; Jerusalem’s king will perish; the city will writhe in agony; and her inhabitants will be forced off into exile in Babylon. This is why in Mic 5:1 Micah calls upon Jerusalem to marshal her troops, to get ready for war. Jerusalem would be besieged, and the people would defend the city, but their effort would end in failure.

This defeat is pictured in Mic 5:1 with the ruler of Israel being struck on the cheek with a rod. Israel’s ruler being struck on the cheek with a rod is a picture of the king of Jerusalem being captured and mistreated by his captors. As a result of the sin of God’s people, the king of Israel would suffer. This verse is not primarily a prophecy about Jesus; but it is significant that, when Jesus was arrested, the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus by making him wear a royal robe and a crown of thorns (Matt 27:28–29). They made him hold a rod as his royal scepter; then they knelt down and mockingly hailed him as the king of the Jews before snatching away the rod, and spitting on him, and striking him on the head with the rod many times (Matt 27:29–30). The treatment of the king of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians would foreshadow the treatment of Jesus at the hands of the Romans some 600 years later.

God’s judgment was coming down upon Israel because of her covenant rebellion. The curses of the covenant (including military defeat and exile) were going to be realized against her. But in the midst of judgment, Micah also proclaimed salvation. In fact the book of Micah itself alternates between sections of judgment and salvation. The book contains three cycles with every cycle beginning with oracles of judgment, followed by an oracle or oracles of salvation:

                                            cycle 1: judgment (1:2–2:11); salvation (2:12–13)
                                            cycle 2: judgment (3:1–12); salvation (4:1–5:15)
                                            cycle 3: judgment (6:1–16); salvation (7:1–20)

Micah preached the reality of judgment, but he also proclaimed that after the time of judgment God’s favor would return to Israel. Death and destruction would not be the end of the story for God’s people. Beyond the time of trouble, there would be a time of restoration. But what would this restoration look like, and how would it happen?

Micah 5:2–5a provides a few clues as to what the future restoration of God’s people would look like. It begins with Bethlehem, a small agricultural town, 9 km south of Jerusalem. Micah moves from his concern with Jerusalem to turn to address Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, small among the clans of Judah” (Mic 5:2a).

But why this sudden focus on Bethlehem? Micah 5:2b tells us the reason: “from you [i.e., Bethlehem] will come forth for me one who will be a ruler in Israel.” At the time of the restoration of God’s people, there would be a ruler who would come from Bethlehem, the home town of King David. Micah seems to be prophesying about a second King David who would arise in the future to rule God’s people. This interpretation is confirmed by the common Jewish interpretation of this verse, an example of which is found in Matt 2:6. When Herod wanted to know where the Messiah was supposed to be born, the Jewish chief priests and scribes quoted Mic 5:2 as biblical proof that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

So there was going to be a future ruler of Israel who would be born in Bethlehem, yet (quite amazingly) Micah prophesies that “his origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Mic 5:2c). How can this be? Who can be yet to come in the future, but at the same time someone who has been around for ages, since ancient times? Micah is talking about a second King David who would be at the very least thousands of years old by the time he became the ruler of Israel. How is this possible?

Christians point to Jesus as the only possible fulfillment of this prophecy. The historical record is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And after growing up, Jesus went around all of Israel, claiming to be the new Davidic king of Israel, who had existed even before Abraham: “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The early Christians believed that Jesus was the divine Word of God who had existed back in the beginning, back when the world was created, who took on human flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14). Micah 5:2c implies that the future ruler of Israel would be human (born in Bethlehem) yet divine (being of ancient origin).

Micah 5:3 confirms the idea that sees Jesus as being the fulfillment of Mic 5:2. Micah 5:3a states that (because this king was coming) God would give Israel over to their enemies “until she who is giving birth has given birth.” Israel would be under the power of her enemies until a birth had taken place. Linking Mic 5:2–3 together the implication is that Israel would be under the thumb of her enemies until this future ruler of Israel was born into the world by his mother in Bethlehem.

Once again Jesus makes sense of this prophecy. The Christian gospel proclaims that Jesus came to set God’s people free. Jesus’ birth into the world via Mary in Bethlehem marked the beginning of the end of Israel’s slavery. And Mic 5:3b seems to indicate the time when Israel would be fully free, when “the rest of his brothers return to be beside the sons of Israel.” The language here is intriguing. Who are these brothers of Israel who would join Israel? This could refer to the return of the Israelite exiles, but it could also be a prophecy about the conversion of the Gentiles. A similar ambiguity in the word brothers exists in Isa 66:20, a verse to which Paul seems to allude in Rom 15:16 when writing about his ministry to the Gentiles. If Mic 5:3b is a prophecy about the conversion of the Gentiles, then this is consistent with the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Rom 11 that the salvation of all Israel would not take place until the full number of the Gentiles had “entered in” (Rom 11:25–26).

This salvation of Israel from slavery to her enemies is associated in Mic 5:4 with this ruler of Israel standing to “shepherd his flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God.” The language of standing can have overtones of resurrection in the Old Testament (e.g., Dan 12:13), and the image of shepherding a flock is an image in the Old Testament language of exercising (ideally benevolent) rule over a people (see Ezek 34:1–10, 23–24; 37:24). After his standing up, this ruler of Israel would rule God’s people with the strength of God himself to the glory of God, the great I Am. This would result in the flock of God’s people dwelling securely, because “he [would] become great to the ends of the earth” (Mic 5:4b).

The idea of his greatness extending out to the ends of the earth is a picture of the Messiah’s rule being extended out from Israel to all the nations of the earth. Christians believe that this is what is happening as the gospel is preached throughout the world. As the message of the lordship of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to the nations, many people from all of the nations on earth are believing the message, and coming into submission to Jesus as Lord. In this way the rule of Christ is being extended throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth.

According to Mic 5:5a, “this is peace.” According to the Old Testament, the peace that this world needs is the peace that only Christ can bring. This is why Mic 5:5a identifies peace with “this” ruler. The masculine singular Hebrew pronoun זה this in Mic 5:5a [MT 5:4a] most likely refers back to the masculine singular subject in the final clause of the preceding verse, which refers back ultimately to one who will be ruler over Israel in Mic 5:2 [MT 5:1]. Hence, the translation: he is peace or he will be peace. This is consistent with the message proclaimed by the angels at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace to those upon whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The angels understood that this baby lying in a manger was the agent of true peace for God’s world.

Overall, Mic 5:1–5a prophesies that Israel would be under God’s judgment until this ancient ruler born in Bethlehem stood up to rule and bring security for the people of God, as his rule extended to the ends of the earth.

This is a very detailed prophecy that was given over 700 years before the birth of Jesus. If we compare this prophecy with what is known about Jesus in the New Testament, then it is hard to imagine who else could the fulfillment of this prophecy apart from Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Word of God, born to the virgin Mary in Bethlehem. An objective examination and comparison of the content of this prophecy with what is known about Jesus is rather convincing provided that the New Testament record about Jesus is accepted as being more or less historically accurate.

The Christian perspective holds that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. Micah prophesied of a ruler born of a woman in Bethlehem, yet whose origins go back into eternity, who would extend his rule throughout the world, to bring all of God’s people back to live securely in the presence of God, to experience peace. This is the truth about Jesus that Christians celebrate at Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Meaning of Soothsayers and Observers of Times in the King James Bible

I have been asked a question about the meaning of the expression soothsayers and observers of times in the KJV.

The word sooth is an Old English word that means truth. In terms of English usage, a soothsayer is therefore a truth teller, i.e., someone who tells the truth about the future. The word soothsayer or soothsayers occurs seven times in the KJV.

There are four references to soothsayers in the Aramaic part of Daniel (Dan 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11). The relevant Aramaic word is a Peal participle of the root גזר. This root conveys the idea of cutting, dividing, hence determining. The soothsayers in Daniel were viewed, reflecting the Babylonian perspective, as being determiners or analysts of the future.

The remaining three references to soothsayers in the KJV involve the Poel (and possibly Qal) participle of ענן (Isa 2:6; Mic 5:12 [MT 5:11]) and the Qal participle of קסם (Josh 13:22). The underlying meaning of the root ענן is uncertain. Some have suggested that it originally indicated humming or something to do with appearing. The root קסם appears to convey the idea of dividing or assigning, from which has been derived, in cultic contexts, the meaning of divination, i.e., foretelling the future or what is unknown by means of signs or omens given by the gods.

The expression observer of times occurs in the KJV in Deut 18:10, and the plural equivalent in Deut 18:14. In both instances the Hebrew word is based on the Poel participle of the root ענן. The translation observer of times suggests that the translators took the root ענן here as conveying the idea of someone who sees the future. The LXX translation (based on κληδονίζω) simply indicates someone that tells omens.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Identity of the Weak and the Strong in Romans 14–15

In Rom 14:1–15:13 Paul distinguishes between the weak and the strong within the Christian community in Rome (Rom 14:1–2; 15:1). The identity of these two groups of people has long been debated.

Paul gives some clues in Rom 14:2 of the identity of these groups: “One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats [only] vegetables.” In Rom 14:5 the strong believe that all days are the same, whereas the weak believe that some days are more important than others. In 14:14 it is apparent that the issue distinguishing the strong and the weak from each other has to do with food and drink that is common and uncommon, or profane versus holy.

The practice of abstaining from certain foods, and keeping various days, in the context of a concern with things that are profane or holy fits in with what we know concerning Jewish religious practice defined by the law of Moses (see Acts 10:9–15). Therefore, the obvious conclusion concerning the issue that is in view in Rom 14:1–15:13 would be to link to the issue of the place of the Jewish food laws, and the Jewish practice of observing certain days as holy, within the Christian community in Rome.

But is this conclusion justified? When the wider context of Paul’s argument in Romans is taken into consideration, I believe that the evidence definitely supports the conclusion that the issue of the weak and the strong in Rom 14:1–15:13 revolves around the problem of Jewish and Gentile relations within the Christian community in Rome.

Historically at the time of the writing of the epistle to the Romans, Jewish exiles returning to Rome were bringing back into the Roman churches their traditional Jewish views of the necessity of keeping the law of Moses. The impact of this was to create division between Jews and non-Jews. The law of Moses was a body of laws and stipulations that were part of the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai after Israel had been rescued out of Egypt. This covenant was a covenant made exclusively with Israel (see “The Monoethnic Nature of the Mosaic Covenant”). As part of this covenant there were many laws that functioned to keep Israel separate from the other nations.

Certain foods (such as pork) were unclean to the Jews. But the Gentiles had no such restrictions. From the orthodox Jewish point of view, the law of Moses implied that the Gentiles were unclean; and this is why the Jews of Paul’s day traditionally could not eat or socialize together with Gentiles (see Acts 11:2–3). To do so would taint them with Gentile uncleanness. This was problematic for the early church. When a Jew and a Gentile believed Jesus, and came together as believers in church, what kind of fellowship could they have together if they could not eat or socialize with each other?

In order to deal with this problem some Jewish Christians were saying, “Look, force the Gentiles to become Jews. Circumcise them (if male), and make them keep the laws of Moses, to keep the Sabbath and to keep the food laws, etc. If they do that, there can be unity between us” (see Acts 15:1, 5). These Jewish Christians were called Judaizers because they wanted to make Gentiles Jewish.

The problem, however, with this “solution” is that it made salvation, righteousness, and church membership possible only for Jews! According to this view, Gentiles could not be members of God’s people, and share in the benefits of salvation, unless they gave up their Gentile citizenship, and became Jews. But Paul and the orthodox Christians in the early church refused to accept this Judaizing solution as biblical. Paul understood that the new covenant would bring salvation to the Gentiles as well as the Jews, but how could the new covenant bring salvation to the Gentiles if the Gentiles were forced to become Jews?

To argue his case for the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, and no longer on the basis of keeping the law of Moses, Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. After explaining God’s plan of salvation in Rom 1–11, Paul turns in Rom 14:1–15:13 to give advice about how Jews and Gentiles could live together in harmony. This is particularly evident from the way that Paul concludes his appeal in this section of his letter. His concern with the weak and the strong living together in harmony is due to the fact that he desires that “with one heart and one mouth you might glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6). Following straight on from this, Paul appeals to his readers: “Therefore, receive one another, just as Christ has received you to the glory of God” (Rom 15:7), which Paul then explicates in Rom 15:8–9 in terms of what Christ has done for “the circumcision” (i.e., Israelites) and for “the Gentiles.” Mention of “the circumcision” and “the Gentiles” here at the end of his integrated argument in Rom 14:1–15:13 shows that the issue between the weak and the strong was basically an issue involving the relationship of Jews and Gentiles within the Christian community. Paul’s quotations in Rom 15:9–12 from Ps 18:49; Deut 32:43; Ps 117:1; Isa 11:10, proving that the Gentiles would join together with Israel in singing praises to God in the new covenant age, also supports the idea that in Rom 14:1–15:13 Paul is primarily concerned with how Jews and Gentiles can live together harmoniously within the church.


The strong, therefore, were those who (like Paul) believed that in Christ Jesus “nothing is profane in itself” (Rom 14:14). That is to say, these people understood that, as a result of the coming of Jesus, the stipulations in the law of Moses that distinguished profane from holy, clean from unclean, no longer applied in the way that they once did. Those laws were simply illustrations until the time of the coming of the Messiah of the difference between holy and unholy, clean and unclean. They were illustrations that spoke of the need for God’s people to be free from the taint of sin, free from the taint of the “strange” customs of the people of the nations who did not know God. The strong, therefore, were those Christians who understood that the law of Moses no longer regulates the life of God’s people in the way that it during the old covenant age. The weak, on the other hand, were those Jewish Christians and Judaizing Gentiles who still kept the Mosaic food laws and the Mosaic religious calendar with its Sabbaths and regular feast days.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Participation of Gentiles in the New Covenant

I have been asked a question about how Gentiles can be viewed as participating in the new covenant given that Jer 31:31–33, the key new covenant prophecy in the Old Testament, only mentions God making this new covenant with Israel.

It is true that the members of the new covenant in Jer 31:31–33 are God and Israel, and that the Gentiles are not mentioned in these verses. But Jer 31:31–33 is not the only place in the Hebrew Bible that talks about the new covenant. Basically any prophecy in the Old Testament that talks about events belonging to the time of the eschatological restoration of God’s people is a prophecy of the new covenant.

Jeremiah 31:31–33 needs to be read in the light of the total picture of all of the other Old Testament prophecies that speak about the new covenant; and when we do that, we can see fairly clearly that the Hebrew prophets taught that Gentiles would participate on ultimately an equal footing with Israelites in what God was going to do as part of the future restoration of God’s people.

Some examples (by no means exhaustive):

In Deut 32:21 Moses prophecies that following the covenantal rebellion of Israel, God will make unfaithful Israel jealous “with those who are no people,” that Israel would be provoked to anger by “a foolish nation.” In other words, the calling of the Gentiles to be God’s people would play a part in making disobedient Israel realize what she had forfeited. The Apostle Paul notes this verse in Rom 11:11, arguing that the conversion of the Gentiles will lead in turn to the conversion of Israel.

In Isa 2:1–4 “all the nations” and “many peoples” will come to the exalted Zion to learn and do torah. The idea of Gentiles doing torah implies a change in torah such that it is doable by Gentiles as Gentiles, and not as proselytes to Judaism.

In Isa 11 “the root of Jesse” will be “a signal for the peoples” which will result in the ingathering of “the banished of Israel” and “the dispersed of Judah.”

In Isa 49:5–7 the Messiah will not only restore Israel but bring salvation to the Gentiles, resulting in the submission of Gentile rulers to the Messiah.

In Isa 49:22 Gentiles will bring Israel back to Yahweh. Thus, Gentiles would participate in the eschatological restoration of Israel.

In Isa 51:4–5 it is prophesied that God’s torah and righteousness will go out the the Gentiles.

In Isa 55:1–5 the Messiah calls upon “everyone who thirsts”—note the similarity with Jesus’ language in John 7:37—to come, in order to enter into an everlasting covenant that will function as a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. As part of this, the Messiah will be “a witness to the peoples” and “a leader and commander for the peoples,” which involves “a nation that you did not know … run[ning] to you.”

Following on from the new covenant of the Messiah spoken of in Isa 55, Isa 56:3, 6 clearly speaks of foreigners who will “join” themselves to Yahweh. They are assured that they will not be separated from “his people,” and they are described as holding fast to God’s covenant. As Gentiles join Israel, the temple will become “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7). For the temple to be a house of prayer for all peoples, this implies that Gentiles would not lose their status as Gentiles as they became members of Israel.

In Isa 66:18–23 “all nations and tongues” will be gathered to see the glory of Yahweh, and from the Messianic sign people will go out declaring the glory of Yahweh such that “all your brothers from all the nations” will be brought as an offering to Yahweh in Jerusalem. The expression all your brothers from all the nations seems to include Gentiles and not just Israelites within its purview. The preaching of the glory of God in the gospel of the Messiah will bring exiled Israel and the nations back to the Lord. At this time of the new heavens and the new earth, “all flesh” will come to worship Yahweh.

In Zech 8 it is prophesied that at the time of the eschatological restoration of Israel  “many peoples and strong nations will come to seek Yahweh of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of Yahweh … In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (vv. 23–24). It is evident from this that Gentiles would join together with Jews in going up to worship God in Jerusalem as part of the new covenant restoration.

Therefore, when Jer 31:31–33 is read in the light of prophecies such as those listed above, it is clear that the Hebrew prophets understood that Gentiles would participate together with Israelites in the blessings of the new covenant.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Problem of Bad Language among Young Christians

One of the problems that is currently impacting on younger Christians is the kind of language that these young believers use when talking with their friends. This is particularly evident in the kind of language that appears on social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Young believers can sometimes be found imitating the language of their peers, using language such as OMG, WTF, faarken, fkng, f***, and other unsavoury kinds of derivatives and abbreviations.

Language does change with time, and the prevalence and tolerance of swear words in popular culture is much greater than it used to be, but just because this is the kind of language used by their peers is not a good enough reason for Christians to speak the same way.

The Apostle Paul says the following in Eph 5:3–4:
Do not let any kind of sexual immorality and impurity or greed even be spoken of among you, just as is proper for saints, or that which is shameful, or foolish talk, or coarse jokes, which are not fitting, but rather thanksgiving.
By writing as he does in v. 3 that sexual immorality, impurity, and greed are not even to “be spoken of among you,” Paul is probably not just forbidding the practice of these particular sins. Instead of taking v. 3 as an oblique way of saying “these sins should not exist among you,” it seems that Paul is saying in v. 3 that it is not fitting for Christians to be talking about ungodly deeds as if they were an appropriate topic of conversation, let alone something that should ever happen within the Christian community. I would argue that Paul seems to have speech acts particularly in mind in vv. 3–4, because the verb νομαζέσθω let it be named is implied in v. 4, where three out of the four nouns listed are clearly speech acts.

Misusing God’s name (whether in abbreviated form or not), or using coarse words referring to the act of sex (whose historical origin lies in taking the act of sex, which in the context of love is a special gift from God, and turning it into a form of abuse), is simply inappropriate for those who are called to be “saints” (i.e., holy ones) in Christ.

According to the Apostle Paul, the process of sanctification involves us putting to death the earthly things (Col 3:5), and this includes getting rid of “blasphemy” and “foul language from your mouths” (Col 3:8).

Apart from the disrespect to God that is shown in mindlessly abusing his name, along with the disrespect that is shown to God as the one who has given us sex as a special gift whenever we use in an unnecessary way coarse words that refer to sex, there is the problem of the use of such language leading to an impaired witness for Christ. Whilesoever there are people in the community who regard this kind of language as crude or rude, the presence of such language of the lips of Christians brings disrepute to the name of Christ. It can also be a source of discouragement to other Christians, and a barrier to fellowship among Christians who find such language unacceptable.

Christ has saved us to be clean and pure, and he desires that our language be clean and pure as well.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Monoethnic Nature of the Mosaic Covenant

One of the “problems” with the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai (i.e., the old covenant) is its monoethnicity. We need to be clear about this: the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants were made with one nation, the nation of Israel.

The monoethnic nature of the Sinaitic covenant can be seen in the following verses in particular:
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5–6);
“You shall be holy to me; for I, Yahweh, am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev 20:26).
The Deuteronomic covenant, being an expanded renewal of the Sinaitic covenant, was also exclusively made with Israel:
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as Yahweh our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut 4:7–8);
“For you are a people holy to Yahweh your God. Yahweh your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut 7:6);
“you are a people holy to Yahweh your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, Yahweh has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Deut 14:2);
These are the terms of the covenant Yahweh commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb. Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: “... You shall keep the terms of this covenant, and do them, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today before Yahweh your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water—in order to enter into the covenant of Yahweh your God and his oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and it is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and this oath, but with those who are standing here with us today before Yahweh our God, and also with those who are not here with you today” (Deut 29:1–2, 9–15).
Understanding the ethnic particularity of the Mosaic covenant helps us to understand the need in God’s plan of salvation for a new covenant. The Mosaic covenant is “problematic” from the perspective that God’s plan involved bringing blessing to the nations as part of a covenant relationship (Gen 12:3). This is something that the Apostle Paul came to realize. Comparing the monoethnic nature of the Mosaic covenant to the Abrahamic promise in Gen 12:3 led Paul to understand that there had to be, in the purposes of God, a new covenant which would open up the door of righteousness and salvation to the Gentiles, and which would fulfill, subsume, and thereby supercede, the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants that God had made previously with Israel.

Thus Paul contrasted the Abrahamic promise with the Mosaic covenant:
The law [of Moses], introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise (Gal 3:17–18).
Paul also understood that it was through Jesus Christ, as proclaimed in the Christian gospel, that the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations had been realized:
Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gal 3:8);
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26–29).
Or as Paul has written in Eph 2:11–16, 19, concerning how the dividing wall of the law of Moses was “destroyed” through the death of Christ on the cross, thereby allowing Gentiles to be members of God’s covenant people:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision”—which is done in the body by human hands—that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law [of Moses] with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.
Being limited to one nation, the Mosaic covenant cannot by definition bring salvation to the nations. Only one covenant can: the multiethnic, new covenant in Christ Jesus.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Central Concern of the Old Testament

The central concern of the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) is God’s relationship with Israel. The fact that the most frequent nouns in the Hebrew Bible are יהוה Yahweh (6,828 times), אלהים God (2,601 times), and ישראל Israel (2,514 times), attests to this.

The Pentateuch is primarily concerned with the historical background to, and the establishment of, the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants, which functioned to define and regulate Yahweh’s exclusive relationship with Israel.

Following on the from the Law, the Prophets (i.e., the Former and Latter Prophets) are primarily concerned to trace the historical failure of the covenant relationship between God and Israel, and God’s response to this relational breakdown.

All in all, the Old Testament is a case study in the failure of a nation to keep covenant with God. It is a case study in what happens to human beings and human society when God’s word is ignored, a record of one nation’s reversion to darkness, chaos, and death.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rise of the Monarchy in Israel Viewed in the Light of the Concept of Kingship in the Old Testament

The rise of the monarchy in Israel needs to be viewed in the light of the broader concept of kingship presented in the Old Testament. The primary theological point relating to the issue of monarchy in Israel is the consistent teaching of the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges that kingship is first and foremost an attribute of God. God is presented in the Pentateuch as being the King of creation. God appears in Gen 1 as the King whose word of command established the boundaries and content of created reality (compare Ps 148:5–6). Even though God’s kingship is not frequently mentioned in an explicit way in the Pentateuch or in Joshua and Judges, God’s rule over creation is the presupposition upon which the content of these books rests. What is presupposed and implicit for the most part in the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges becomes more explicit in the biblical books from 1 Samuel onwards. The royal psalms in particular link God’s work of creation and his subsequent work of providence for creation with his “honor and majesty” and “glory” (e.g., Ps 19:1; 95:3–5; 104:1–32). Such psalms make explicit the theology of kingship that is implicit in the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges. The Old Testament teaches that one of the reasons that God created the world was so that his universal kingship might be acknowledged by all his creatures (Ps 96:1–10; 99:1–3; 145:10–13; 148:1–13; 150:1–6).

Even though kingship is supremely an attribute of God, Gen 1–3 indicates that God created human beings in his royal image. The significance of being created in God’s image is linked in Gen 1:26–28 with humanity having “dominion … over all the earth” and over all the creatures of the earth. By giving humanity dominion, God established humanity as having authority as kings over creation. Humanity was given the task of filling and subduing the earth. In other words, God engaged humanity in the work of helping to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Once the whole of the earth had been brought inside the boundaries of the garden of Eden, then humanity’s work would be finished, and the kingdom of God complete. To be successful in this task, however, it was necessary for human beings not only to work after the pattern of God himself (hence, the significance of the Sabbath commandment in Exod 20:8–11) but also to submit to God by keeping his commandments. The Pentateuch makes it very clear in a number of ways that humanity’s royal authority was to be exercised under the higher authority of God himself. The fact that Adam was placed under divine command shows that Adam and his descendants were to submit themselves in obedience to God (Gen 2:16–17). The subsequent episodes of God’s judgment of Adam and Eve, the judgment of Cain, the destruction of the flood at the time of Noah, and the judgment of the builders of the tower of Babel all serve to show God’s authority over humanity and/or the whole of creation.

Even though God is the King of the entire world, it is also important from the perspective of the Old Testament to recognize that God chose to realize his kingship over the world through the nation of Israel. Thus, God is seen in the Old Testament to be the King of Israel in particular. The covenant of circumcision established the idea that God would be the God of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:7). Abraham’s descendants for their part had the responsibility to “keep [God’s] covenant” (Gen 17:9; 18:19). God promised Abraham that there would be “kings” among his descendants (Gen 17:6). Jacob prophesied that royal authority would be exercised by Judah on a worldwide scale (Gen 49:10). God considered Israel to be “[his] people” (e.g., Exod 3:7; 5:1; 15:16). God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt further established God’s claim of possession over Israel (Exod 15:13, 16; 20:2). This was also symbolized through the rite of the consecration of the firstborn (Exod 13:1–2, 11–16). After the exodus, the relationship between God and Israel was formalized in a covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–24:11). This was an exclusive relationship which demanded Israel’s faithfulness or loyalty to God. Even though “all the earth is [God’s],” the other nations were excluded from this special relationship with God (Exod 19:5–6). Israel willingly submitted to the covenant that that God offered to them at this time (Exod 19:8; 24:3,7). This covenant, also known as the old covenant (as per 2 Cor 3:14), formally established God’s kingly rule over Israel. The condition for Israel to benefit from this special relationship was covenant obedience, i.e., a commitment to serving God through keeping the law of Moses (e.g., Deut 6:1–3).

It is significant that one of the benefits of Israel keeping covenant with God was that Israel would be constituted as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Given that the word kingdom in the phrase a kingdom of priests parallels the word nation in the phrase holy nation, the expression a kingdom of priests and a holy nation speaks of Israel as a nation consecrated to the service of God. In other words, Israel would only be a kingdom before God to the extent that the nation submitted itself to the rule of God. What submitting to the rule of God involved for Israel was subsequently spelled out in great detail in the Mosaic law. Even though the context suggests that the kingdom in view in Exod 19:6 is Israel as a divine monarchy rather than Israel as a human monarchy, the books of Samuel and Kings in particular show that the divine and human aspects of the monarchy in Israel were intertwined in God’s plan, with the success of the institution of human monarchy within Israel dependent upon how well the institution of divine monarchy was respected. Israel submitting to the rule of God would mean the restoration of the kingdom ideal that existed in the garden of Eden but which was lost after Adam’s rebellion.

God’s intention for Israel, therefore, involved the development of human rule under the ultimate rule of God. This human rule would also be focused in a particular human being who would also be called the king of Israel. That God’s theocratic rule over Israel would incorporate a human king is indicated in Deut 17:14–20. This passage sets out the divine laws regulating human kingship within Israel. Even though Deut 17:14 is effectively a prophecy that Israel’s motivation for asking for a human king would not be proper (in that it would be motivated out of a desire to imitate the kind of government found in the surrounding nations), the fact that the law of Moses made provision for a human king indicates that human kingship was an integral part of God’s plan for Israel from the beginning. Israel would have a human king, but the one appointed as king had to be the one “whom Yahweh [their] God [would] choose” (Deut 17:15). The king was to be an Israelite, and should not acquire many horses, or wives, or excessive silver and gold (Deut 17:15–17). He was obligated to have his own copy of the Mosaic law to study in order to “keep … all the words of [God’s] law” (Deut 17:18–19). Thus, Mosaic law clearly placed the human king of Israel under the authority of God and his law. Indeed the length of the king’s dynasty is connected in Deut 17:20 with how well the king would follow “the commandment,” i.e., the law viewed as a whole. The idea of human kingship in Israel was, therefore, built into the Mosaic law. The law made provision for a human king but proscribed the authority of this king. The human king was to be subject to the authority of God, the King of kings.

Given what has been observed above, we have to conclude that there was nothing wrong with the concept of human kingship per se operating in Israel. In fact, the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that human kingship was one of the purposes that God had had in mind for humanity and Israel from the very beginning. God has given humanity the privilege of dominion over the earth. For this dominion to be legitimate, however, it must be exercised in submission to the greater authority of God, for God is King over all.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Old Testament Concept of Wisdom

The concept of wisdom in Old Testament is torah-centric. Wisdom in the Old Testament has frequently been defined as being “practical knowledge of the laws of life and the world, based on experience” (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology [New York: Harper & Row, 1962], 1:418), or else understood in terms of the human endeavor to understand and live in harmony with the divine order that has been built into the cosmos. But when applied to wisdom as it appears in the Old Testament, these definitions are inadequate.

From the biblical perspective, wisdom is supremely the possession of God (Job 12:13; 38:36–37; Ps 104:24; Prov 3:19–20; Isa 28:29; Dan 2:20; Rev 7:12). Wisdom is basically whatever God thinks and says and does. Because God is the source of all wisdom, he is the one who grants wisdom to people, and he does this by means of his Spirit (Exod 31:3; 1 Kgs 4:29; 10:24; Prov 2:6; Eccl 2:26; Dan 2:21–23; Jas 1:5). Because God is wise, God’s word or law is a source of wisdom (Ps 19:7; 119:98, 104, 130; Jer 8:8–9). Jesus’ definition of wisdom in Matt 7:24 is consistent with, and hence a neat summary of, the Old Testament definition of human wisdom: being wise means hearing and doing the word of God. In the context of the Old Testament, this word of God, or law of wisdom, typically equates to the law of Moses, which was viewed as being the source of Israel’s wisdom before the nations (Deut 4:6, 8; see also Rom 2:17–20). According to the Old Testament, wisdom also involves an attitude of fearing Yahweh such that one is concerned to live out every aspect of one’s human existence in accordance with God’s law (Ps 119:100; Prov 28:7; 31:26). Thus, the wise person, i.e., the person with understanding, is supremely viewed in the Old Testament as being the person who obeys the law of Yahweh from the heart (Ps 119:34).

wisdom = hearing + doing torah

Friday, October 28, 2011

An Interpretation of Sin Coming Alive in Romans 7:9

Romans 7 has often been interpreted by Protestants as if it is talking about our inability as Christians to keep God’s law. I have argued elsewhere (see “The Significance of the Law in Romans 7”) that this is a wrong interpretation for three main reasons:

(1) the law that is being talked about in Rom 7 is the law of Moses, not the law of God in general;

(2) in Paul’s thinking, God’s people in the new covenant age are no longer under the law, but have been set free from the law (Rom 7:4, 6; see also 6:14);

(3) Paul’s concern in Rom 7 is to argue that the historical function of the law of Moses was to bring about the death of carnal Israel (Rom 7:14) as a way of compounding the death of humanity in Adam (Rom 7:8-11, 13; 5:20) in a manner consistent with the Old Testament prophets’ view of the primary historical function of the Mosaic covenant in salvation history.

The idea that the law in Rom 7 is specifically the law of Moses is confirmed by a small but intriguing detail in Rom 7:9. This verse is translated in the NIV as follows: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” The ESV has the following: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”

There are a couple of interpretive issues to be resolved in relation to this verse. Firstly, what does it mean that Paul was once alive apart from the law? Secondly, what does Paul mean when he says that the commandment came? And thirdly, what does he mean when he says that sin came alive?

Resolving these interpretive issues centers on our understanding of the small and intriguing detail which is the Greek word ἀνέζησεν. This word is a third person, aorist active indicative form of the verb ἀναζάω. The verb ἀναζάω basically means to return to life or to live again. Used in connection with sin, it implies that sin was once alive and then died, before coming to life again when the commandment came.

Sin was alive, then dead, then alive again. How is this pattern to be explained? The common psychological interpretation of Rom 7 as being Paul struggling with sin as a Christian does not fit neatly with this pattern. Perhaps the best that we can say (following this interpretation) is that Paul was dead in sin as a non-Christian, then liberated from sin at his conversion, but then his struggle with God’s law led to sin coming to life again in the sense that its power to control him reasserted itself. But this explanation is rather strained.

The explanation that makes better sense of ἀνέζησεν understands the sin alive, dead, alive pattern as fitting in with the flow of salvation history as summarized by Paul previously in Rom 5:12–21, especially vv. 12–14. In Rom 5:12–14 Paul speaks about how sin came into the world through the sin of Adam, and how death reigned over humanity from the time of Adam until the time of Moses even though that was a time during which sin was not reckoned. During this period of time, “sin was in the world; but sin was not reckoned, because the law was not present” (Rom 5:13). In other words, the time from Adam’s sin to the giving of the law at Sinai was a time during which sin was effectively dead. Sin was around; but because the law of Moses had not yet been promulgated, there was no explicit legal structure that regulated God’s standards of morality in a formal way.

Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:12–14 helps us understand, therefore, how it is that sin could come alive again for carnal Israel. Sin, which had formally speaking lain dormant from the time of the expulsion of Adam until Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai, came alive with the giving of the law of Moses. The old covenant mediated by Moses set up a legal structure through which the sin of God’s people would result in death in a formal and legally-binding way as a result of covenant rebellion.

We can now explain the three interpretive issues identified above. Paul, as a representative of carnal Israel, was once alive apart from the law in the sense that Israel experienced life prior to the coming of the commandment, which equates to the giving of the law at Sinai. Prior to the giving of the law at Sinai, Israel’s relationship with God was loosely regulated through the Abrahamic covenant and ad-hoc laws. There was no strict promulgation and regulation of covenant stipulations. There was no formally regulated sense of the possibility of the covenant curse of death coming down upon God’s people. But with the giving of the law at Sinai, this changed. A strict accounting of covenant response in relation to covenant law would now begin, and the prospects of success were not great from the beginning (as the incident of the sin of the golden calf serves to highlight). The giving of the law at Sinai opened up the possibility—or the reality in God’s plan in salvation history—of Israel sinning “according to likeness of the trespass of Adam” (as per Rom 5:14), i.e., of Israel rebelling against God’s formally promulgated law in like manner to Adam.

The point of Rom 7:9 is to help Paul’s Jewish opponents and Christian audience understand that the giving of the Mosaic covenant served in God’s purposes in salvation history to intensify the problem of human sin. Far from liberating Israel from sin and death, the law (in God’s plan) actually made things worse! The primary historical function of the Mosaic covenant was to render Israel guilty before God (Rom 3:19), and to bring the curse of covenant death down against the nation (Rom 7:10), in order to intensify the trespass of humanity in Adam, as a backdrop for the salvation of Jew and Gentile through the super-abounding grace of God in the new covenant of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:20).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Two Ways to Live in Romans 6

The objection of Paul’s Jewish opponents, that Christianity was lawless or anomian (Rom 6:1, 15), failed to understand that Christianity maintained the two way ethical system of the Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible (i.e, the Old Testament) clearly teaches that there are two possible ways of living.

Two Ways to Live

One is the way of life; the other is the way of death. The righteous walk on the road of life, whereas the wicked walk on the road of death. This two way theology is particularly prominent in Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 1 describes the righteous as abstaining from walking in “the way of sinners” (Ps 1:1). It concludes by saying that “Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps 1:6). The way of life is pursued by the righteous, who walk in “the paths of justice” and “the way of [Yahweh's] saints” (Prov 2:8), who “walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Prov 2:20). The way of life is “the way of wisdom” (Prov 4:11). Contrasting with the way of life is the way of death, which is the pathway that the wicked follow, to their detriment: “the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble” (Prov 4:19).

Paul’s Jewish opponents, common to the orthodox Jews of the day, understood (following the teaching of the Hebrew Bible) that the way of life was the way of obedience to torah. As Prov 6:23 says: “the commandment (מצוה) is a lamp, and the teaching (תורה) a light; and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.” The author of Ps 119 also describes the way of life in terms of following torah. Thus, the way is described as being “the way of [Yahweh’s] testimonies” (Ps 119:14), “the way of [Yahweh’s] precepts” (Ps 119:27), “the way of [Yahweh’s] commandments” (Ps 119:32), “the way of [Yahweh’s] statutes” (Ps 119:33), or more simply “the way of faith (אמונה)” (Ps 119:30). The Old Testament way of faith was the way of obedience to Mosaic torah.

But in teaching that people could be righteous before God through faith in Christ rather than the torah faith of Moses, Paul’s Jewish opponents believed that orthodox Christianity had effectively destroyed the “two way” theology taught in the Hebrew Bible. Hence their insinuation that Christianity was a license to sin (Rom 6:1, 15).

But the Christianity of Paul and the early Christians did not abandon the “two way” ethical structure of the Old Testament. In asserting a greater lawgiver who proclaimed a greater law than the law of Moses, the early Christians redefined the “two way” theology of the Old Testament. They still believed that there was only one way of life and one contrary way of death, but the way of life in the new covenant age was no longer considered to be the way of Mosaic torah but the way of Messianic torah. Hence Jesus’ statement—controversial in a Jewish context—that he himself is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6); and Paul’s teaching (as per Rom 6) that one can either be a slave of God, through obedience to the gospel (Rom 6:17), which results in life (Rom 6:22); or a slave of sin, which leads to death (Rom 6:21). Paul’s gospel retained the “two way” theology of the Old Testament, but redefined “the way” in terms of Jesus Christ.

The Two States of Servitude in Rom 6

Thus, in the crossover from the old to the new, the way of Moses has become the way of Christ.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Christ Came to Enable Obedience

Paul’s Jewish opponents did not really understand the nature of the Christian gospel. They heard Paul preaching grace instead of the law, but they concluded on the basis of this that Christianity was lawless or anomian, that it was anti-torah (Rom 6:1, 15). But this was to fail to understand the way in which the early Christians firmly saw the gospel as being the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the new covenant, at the heart of which was the idea that God would enable the covenant obedience of his people as part of the new covenant.

By way of example:
“And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you might live” (Deut 30:6);
“But the word will be very near you. It will be in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:14);
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33);
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:26–27).
Hence, Paul’s teaching in Rom 6 that union with Christ involves the believer becoming a slave to righteousness. In other words, Christ enables the obedience of God’s people. Paul understood that the law of Moses was given historically in order to bind Israel under sin, intensifying the consequences of the trespass of Adam; “but where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20). And with this increase of grace, Christians “have been set free from sin, and have become slaves to God”; and the end result of the sanctification that comes with such obedience is eternal life (Rom 6:22).


Christ came not only to make full atonement for sin, but also to enable the covenant obedience of God’s people. Far from being a license to sin, grace in Christ includes the Spirit-enabled obedience of God’s people.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Baptism of Jesus in Water and the Spirit in Luke 3:21–22

The story of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist frequently raises questions for some Christians. Many have asked the question: if the baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (as per Luke 3:3), then why would Jesus be baptised by John if he was, as Christians believe, totally without sin?

It is true that the baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but it is also true that Jesus didn’t have any sins that he needed to repent of. What then is going on here?

The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but the deeper significance of John’s baptism was that it marked a formal commitment to obedience. In other words, John’s baptism was also a sign of offering oneself in proper service to God, a sign of one’s commitment to walk in obedience to God’s commands.

And this was the significance of Jesus’ baptism in water by John. Jesus was baptised as a sign of his commitment to walk in the way of obedience to his Father’s commands. Jesus was baptised as a sign that he had come not to do his own will but the will of his Father in heaven. And this will required that Jesus would suffer and serve as the promised Messiah. This is indicated by fact that after Jesus was baptised, a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). Jesus was the beloved Son of God. In Jewish thinking, the title the Son of God (following Ps 2) designated the Messiah. This heavenly voice was God the Father identifying Jesus as the promised Savior King. And according to God’s words here, Jesus was fully obedient to his Father. Jesus fully pleased his Father.

The presence of the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism helps us to see that Jesus’ baptism marked the point in his life when his Messianic ministry officially began. We are told in Luke 3:23 that Jesus was “about 30 years of age” when he began his ministry. It is clear from this statement that Luke viewed Jesus’ baptism as marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in his official capacity as the Christ, the Son of God.

But Jesus’ baptism not only marked the official commencement of his ministry. It is also evident that his baptism in water by John corresponded to the point in time when when God baptised Jesus with the Holy Spirit: “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:21–22a).

But what does it mean that the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus like this? Christians sometimes wonder about the idea of Jesus being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Does that imply that Jesus didn’t have the Spirit prior to his baptism? The answer is “no and yes.” Prior to his baptism Jesus was filled with the Spirit. He had God’s word written on his heart, and he lived an obedient life. Jesus had the Spirit present in his heart, but he hadn’t yet received the new covenant outpouring of the Spirit. He hadn’t yet received the outpouring of the Spirit that was associated with the Messianic age, which was the outpouring of the Spirit that would also equip him in his offical role as the Messiah. So the outpouring of the Spirit at the time of Jesus’ baptism was in reality the beginning of the end-time outpouring of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets had prophesied about.

In order to understand the significance of Jesus being baptised with the Holy Spirit, we need to understand what the role of the Holy Spirit is according to the Bible. The Holy Spirit has many functions. One of the key functions of the Holy Spirit is his function as being the invisible presence of God throughout the universe. Being the invisible presence of God, the Holy Spirit is God. Christians traditionally talk about him as being the third person of the Trinity. But being the invisible presence of God, the Holy Spirit is also described in the Scriptures as being an agent of God’s power. Indeed, one of the key functions of the Holy Spirit is his function of providing power.

The Holy Spirit can be thought of as being like an electric current that empowers everything in the universe. On a general level, God’s Spirit empowers all living things. This is clear, for example, from Ps 104:27–30. The psalmist praying to God says: “all [the animals] look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Psalm 104:30 teaches that it is God’s Spirit who gives life to the animals, and who renews the surface of the earth by making plants and trees grow upon the ground. The flowers that grow in a person’s garden only do so because of the energy of God’s Spirit that gives them the power to live and grow.

Back in 2005 I remember being amazed to see pictures of the surface of Planet Mars that had been taken by the Mars Rover. Those pictures helped draw attention to the stark difference between Earth and Mars. Earth is green and blue, so full of life; but Mars is red and dry, beautiful in its way, but barren and devoid of life.

But why are these two planets so different? The scientists have their theories, and some want to think that maybe once upon a time there was life on Mars; but the Bible’s more theological answer is a little different yet quite simple. Why are Mars and Earth different? Because God has focused the life-giving power of his Spirit on Planet Earth. Out of all of the planets in the solar system, God’s focus is Planet Earth, and this planet is where his Spirit is most active. Life currently exists on Planet Earth, but not on Mars, because ultimately God’s Spirit is focused on Planet Earth, providing the power necessary for life on the planet that we inhabit.

This life is the life-force evident in every human being. Each of us commenced life as a tiny embryo in our mother’s womb. We began as a little speck, growing bigger and bigger until the day when we were born into the world; and after that, we’ve gradually grown up and matured. We—indeed all people, all living things, the cats and dogs and goldfish—we all have life thanks to God’s Spirit who gives us the necessary life-force. All living things experience the physical life that God’s Spirit gives to all living things generally.

But the Holy Spirit not only gives physical life; he also gives spiritual life. What theologians call the special operations of the Holy Spirit (in distinction from the common operations of the Holy Spirit) involves God’s Spirit empowering specific individuals whom God will use in some way in his plan of salvation, either in a specific way or else in a general way. The Old Testament, for example, identifies particular individuals who were empowered by the Holy Spirit for particular tasks. The Spirit came upon Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, and the prophets, empowering them to lead God’s people, to teach them, even to deliver them. And more generally, the Holy Spirit was also active in a special way during the Old Testament age, writing God’s word on the hearts of a faithful remnant, leading them in the way of righteousness.

Whether specific or general, the special operations of the Holy Spirit have in common the providence of power, a special power which can be called new life power. The climax of this new life power is seen in Jesus’ resurrection. The power that was evident on Easter Sunday, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, this is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit: resurrection power.

This power can be distinguished from the general life-force experienced by all living things. The general life-force that we currently experience in this world fades over time as we get older and weaker, and it eventually disappears when we die. The power of death is actually greater than the power of life in this world, but the power of death is no match for the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this. New life power or resurrection power is the power of the kingdom of God. The special power of God’s Spirit is not the power of this world, but the power of the world to come. It’s a power that doesn’t grow weaker with time, but which continues at great strength forever. In fact, the full extent of that power has not yet been revealed, although we have seen a small glimpse of it in the resurrection of Jesus.

When Jesus was baptised, he was energised with this special power. Having been baptised with the Spirit, God’s Spirit would now direct Jesus’ every step in his ministry. The Spirit would strengthen Jesus, and enable him to teach and prophesy, and to perform miracles.

But did you notice how the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus? Was it with blinking neon lights or with a blaring horn? No, the Spirit descended “in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:22)! This seems a little strange perhaps. Why the form of a dove? The form of an elephant would have been a little easier to notice, if potentially a little dangerous; but why the dove?

Normally when people today think of a dove, they think of peace. The dove is particularly common as a symbol in anti-war demonstrations. It’s common at such demonstrations to see banners with a white dove holding a small olive branch in its beak. Some may not realise, but this image is taken from the Bible, from Genesis in the story of Noah and the flood. After Noah had been in the ark for ten months, he released a dove which eventually flew back to the ark with an olive branch in its beak (Gen 8:11).

So does the dove with the olive branch symbolise peace in this story? Yes, but it’s more than simply the idea of peace thought of as being the absence of war. This dove and the olive branch actually symbolise peace in the sense of new life returning to the world after a period of God’s judgment. The dove and the olive branch symbolise more than anything else … new life. The green olive branch in the dove’s beak meant that life had returned to Planet Earth after the devastation of the flood. The dove, therefore, is a symbol of new life after death.

In the light of this, the significance of the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the form of a dove is clear. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in this way in order for us to understand the significance of that event by understanding the significance of the symbolism of the dove. There on the day of Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit was himself proclaiming: This man is the new ark of salvation; this is the man who will bring new life to God’s world through the power of God’s Spirit. This is completely consistent with the Old Testament teaching that the Holy Spirit is the Giver of life in general, but especially the Giver of new life in the context of death.

It was this Holy Spirit who would empower Jesus in a ministry whose purpose was to bring new life into a world dominated by death. With the Holy Spirit coming down upon him in the form of a dove, Jesus was in effect being presented as being a new Noah’s ark. Just like the ark, Jesus would pass through the stormy seas of God’s judgment against sin. And just like the ark, Jesus would be the vehicle through whom life would be preserved in the world.

Being filled with the Spirit, Jesus was able to do the work of his ministry of bringing new life to the world. Luke records in ch. 4:1 that it was the Spirit that led Jesus from the Jordan River into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. Afterwards we read that Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14). These two details show that Jesus’ whole ministry was conducted under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is thanks to the Holy Spirit that Jesus was able to complete his mission of bringing new life to the world. Christians celebrate this victory of Jesus over sin and death, the victory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-operating to bring peace to our world.

Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus provides a wonderful picture of the Trinity co-operating. Here is the Trinity working together so that Jesus might fulfill his ministry of salvation. God the Father sends God the Spirit to empower God the Son. And because the Trinity was a unity in the ministry of Jesus, Christians can experience the power of new life even in the midst of the decadence of the world around us by participating in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But to participate in the power of the Holy Spirit, we, like Jesus, need to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. In fact, one of the questions that everyone living on this planet needs to ask is: How can I be baptised with such power? How can I have the power of eternal life running through my veins?

In answer to this question, Christianity proclaims that Jesus is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit, and that he freely baptises those who come to him acknowledging that he is the Christ, the promised Savior King. Because Jesus has been filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, he is able to baptise us with the Spirit. As John the Baptist proclaimed: “I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming … he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16).

This baptism in the Holy Spirit is the baptism that Christians receive at conversion. Christians have various opinions on this issue, but I take it that the normative situation for Christians generally is the same as that which was taught by the Apostle Peter in his famous Pentecost sermon. Peter called upon the people moved by his preaching, saying: “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The normative situation in the early church regarding baptism in the Spirit saw the official reception of the Spirit by a believer as being closely tied in with water baptism. In fact, the very reason why water is used in baptism is because water (the free-flowing source of life) is a wonderful symbol of the Holy Spirit.

In this way, Jesus’ baptism follows the standard model. Jesus’ baptism is recorded in Scripture, not only because it helps us to understand more about Jesus’ identity as the Spirit-filled Son of God, but also because it functions as a model for what typically happens at the baptism of a Christian. Jesus’ baptism was a baptism of water and the Spirit. There was a conjunction of water and Spirit for Jesus, and it is similar for Christians today. The water which surrounds the body of the baptisand is a symbol of how God’s Spirit is poured upon believers in an official and formal way as we submit to Jesus as Lord.

This is why Christian baptism is significant. It marks our formal union with Christ, and the official beginning of our participation in the life-giving power of the Spirit. It links us to Jesus, and to the new covenant outpouring of the Spirit that commenced with the baptism of Jesus, the obedient Son of God.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

John the Baptist’s Teaching concerning Baptism and Fruitfulness in Luke 3:7–17

I don’t know what you normally think of when you think about baptism; but baptism is a rather strange custom. When we think of baptism, we think of contact with water. Depending on the mode of baptism employed, this contact can either be like jumping into a swimming pool, or jumping in and out of the shower after a couple of seconds. But why does Christianity have this rite?

Baptism is a part of Christianity because Jesus taught it that way. In the Great Commission, Jesus spoke about how disciples are made, and he linked that with baptism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Baptism is the first step to becoming in an official sense a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Through baptism, we officially become disciples of the Lord Jesus. Through baptism, as we confess our faith in Jesus as Lord, we officially become united to Christ, and officially begin to share in the eternal life which has been his since the time of his resurrection.

Baptism is a sign that we officially belong to Jesus, that we are officially one of his disciples. This means that baptism is a privilege. It is a wonderful privilege to be baptized, and to belong to Christ; but, like anything in life, with wonderful privilege also comes important responsibilities. And this is where John the Baptist’s teaching in Luke 3 comes in. John’s warnings function to remind us of some of the responsibilities that go together with baptism.

John the Baptist was called by God to go and preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sons.” John did his job well. Crowds flocked to hear his preaching, and they responded by submitting themselves to baptism in the Jordan River. This is something which is recorded not only in the Bible, but the famous Jewish historian called Josephus, who wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century A.D., wrote about John, saying: “many people came like a crowd surrounding John, because when they heard his preaching, they were greatly moved.” Being moved by his preaching, the people responded by being baptized.

This is a pattern that we see in the early church. The apostles went out telling people about Jesus, and those who responded were baptized. For example, the Apostle Peter at the time of the Feast of Pentecost preached to a large crowd of Jews in Jerusalem. We read in Acts 2 how his message also cut people to the heart, and Peter called on them to “repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Baptism is a sign of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.

Here we need to be clear what repentance is. What does it mean to repent? In the Bible to repent basically means to change direction. It means to turn away from our sinful way of life in order to follow God. It means to turn away from following the way of the world to start follow God’s way, to start living the way he would have us live. Baptism is important as a sign of repentance, but it’s only the beginning of a life which is to be lived out in the spirit of repentance.

This is something about which John the Baptist strongly warned the crowds who were coming to him to be baptized. John was not one of your touchy-feely types. Seeing the crowds who were coming to him to baptized, he could have praised God for the wonderful response to his ministry. I’m sure that he was praising God for the effectiveness of his ministry, but at the same time he was aware that baptism was only the beginning. Seeing the crowds coming out to be baptized, John warned them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance!” (Luke 3:7–8). Baptism is a wonderful privilege, but it is only a beginning. When we are baptized, it is like being planted as a fruit tree in God’s orchard. It is great being a fruit tree in God’s orchard, but our job as fruit trees is to bear fruit for God.

John understood that some of the people coming out to him to be baptized had probably not fully understood the significance of baptism as being a sign of repentance. Those being baptized were primarily, if not exclusively, Jewish. So John warned them, saying: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Being a physical descendant of Abraham was not enough for a person to be right with God. Belonging to Israel was not enough to a person to be right with God. Being right with God demands true repentance.

John was warning his audience that baptism in and of itself was not enough to make a person right with God. To put it in another way, if baptism is a sign of repentance, then we all have need of a constant attitude of repentance throughout our lives. Martin Luther, the famous Reformer of the church, once said: “Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us is to be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and perish with all sins and evil lusts; and that the new man should daily come forth again and rise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

To what extent have we been seeking to do that lately? Have you been seeking to put to death the old self with its selfish desires, and to please God instead, in everything that you do? Having been baptized, our whole life is meant to be characterized by repentance.

In fact, if our lives are not characterized by repentance, if we’re not seeking to live lives that please God, then there are serious consequences. In v. 9, John warned his audience by giving an illustration of fruit trees about to be cut down and destroyed: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).

A fruitless fruit tree is basically a waste of space, and will eventually be removed and destroyed. In a similar way, an unrepentant baptized person, an unrepentant Christian, someone who is not bearing fruit for God’s kingdom will eventually be removed from God’s kingdom and destroyed. Such is the great responsibility of those who have been baptized: to honor the meaning of their baptism in their daily lives.

Baptism is somewhat like a marriage. During the wedding ceremony the man and the woman become husband and wife. The wedding ceremony is a special occasion, but it is only a beginning. What significance would the wedding have if after the wedding the husband or the wife went on living as if they weren’t married. Being married, you’re married! You can’t go on acting as if you’re not! If fact, the significance of the wedding and the marriage vows would effectively be lost if the husband or the wife did not commit themselves to the exclusive faithfulness that the marriage relationship demands.

Baptism is similar to a marriage. When a person is baptized, it is a special occasion, somewhat like a wedding. In the rite of baptism, we formally come under the lordship of Christ, and promise our exclusive faithfulness to Christ. It is a wonderful occasion, but like with a wedding it only marks the beginning of a life that is meant to be lived in an exclusive relationship of love with someone else. Baptism marks the beginning of the Christian life, not its end. Not to take the responsibilities associated with baptism seriously is to seriously devalue the meaning of our baptism.

Sadly the responsibilities of baptism are something that many people in the West have lost sight of. How many Westerners have been baptized? The figure seems to be dropping over time, but in some countries it is still quite high. In Australia, for example, the figure might be around 60% of the population. But how many of that 60% are genuinely seeking to live lives that honor God by being actively involved in Christ’s church? Probably not many. 20%? Even 20% seems a bit too generous. This means that there is a large proportion of Westerners who, having been baptized, need to be reminded of their responsibility before God to bear fruit for him. They need to understand the significance of baptism. Baptism is a wonderful picture of the gospel. It speaks to us about how our sins can be washed away through the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus. But the divine promise of cleansing needs to be met with us taking the promise of faithful submission to the lordship of Jesus seriously.

As John the Baptist warns us, if our lives are not characterized by repentance, then the baptism that we submitted to will not save us from the wrath of God which is going to come. This is something that all baptized people need to be told about. If baptism is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then have we been living out the meaning of our baptism? Have we been producing the fruit of repentance in our lives?

But what is this fruit that we are meant to produce? Basically, we can say that a repentant person will seek to trust in God’s strength to live a life that pleases God more and more as time goes on. We will seek to be more active in doing good. We will love our neighbor as ourself more, and we’ll have a different attitude to possessions and money that what we see around us today.

When John was warning the people whom he was baptizing, the people in the crowd asked: “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10). John replied: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Producing the fruits of repentance means sharing what with have with those who are in need. Producing the fruits of repentance means loving our neighbor.

Tax collectors were also baptized by John, and they asked him the same question: “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:12). And John answered: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13). Tax collectors back in those days had to tender to get the job, and collecting more tax than was due meant greater profits for the tax collector.

Soldiers also came to John, asking the same question: “And we, what shall we do?” “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).

Overall, then, to summarize John’s teaching on this issue, the fruits of repentance involve us having a new attitude to our possessions, money, and power. Repentance means sharing with the needy, and being honest in all our dealings. It means making money honestly instead of dishonestly. It means not abusing the authority of our position.

To what extent have our lives been producing these kinds of fruits lately? In what ways have you been helping those less fortunate than yourself? Have you been honoring God in how you make your money? One of the areas where we can be tempted today is in relation to taxation. Perhaps not many of us work for the government taxation office. We may not be employed as tax collectors, but most of us are taxpayers in some form or other. Even here honesty is needed. No one really likes paying taxes; but as Christians, we need to see paying tax as an opportunity to serve God. By paying our taxes, we serve God by contributing to the betterment of our society, and by helping our governments help those who are most needy in our community and in communities overseas; or at least that is the ideal.

Honesty and generosity are some of the fruits of repentance that God wants us to produce in our lives. If we haven’t been seeking to live this way, then we need to confess this to God, and ask for his strength and guidance to do better in the future, to be more productive as fruit trees in his orchard.

In pointing people to the coming Messiah, John the Baptist also warned them that the Christ would bring judgment as he came. According to John the Baptist, the Christ would come with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). Fire here is a symbol of judgment. “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

The useless chaff and the useless tree will be dealt with in the day of wrath, in the coming day of judgment. This day is even closer now than when John warned his audience previously. There will be a day of judgment when every person who has ever lived on this earth will have to give an account before God of how they have lived. We need to be very clear about this. When we take our turn in God’s court on judgment day, will God see good works in your life as proof that you have taken your covenant responsibilities towards God seriously? On the day of judgment, will God find evidence in your life of the work of his Spirit?

In calling for the fruit of repentance to be evident in our lives, we need to understand that John is not speaking here of perfection. The perfect righteousness that all of us need in order to live in the presence of God can only come through Christ, but at the same time there needs to be a genuine positive response to God’s grace to us in Christ. John is talking on the level of covenantal responsibilities. Everyone who has been baptized needs to be true disciple of the Lord Jesus, following in his footsteps, walking in his way of life. This genuine positive response is what John calls repentance. Repentance is an ongoing commitment to walking in the way of the Lord, and the Bible speaks of it as being a condition for salvation.

In the fourth century there was a famous Christian called John Chrysostom. Chrysostom became the Archbishop of Constantinople, which was the second most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome at the time. His surname Chrysostom means golden-mouth, because he was famous as an eloquent and powerful speaker. Chrysostom once said: “even supposing you receive baptism, yet if you are not minded to be led by the Spirit afterwards, you lose the dignity bestowed upon you and the pre-eminence of your adoption.”

In sum: having started the journey, we need to finish the journey. And we finish the journey by persevering in the way of repentance, one step after the other, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the benefits of your baptism! To paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: without the fruits of repentance you will have no part in the kingdom of God.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Justin Martyr: Old Covenant versus New Covenant

Justin Martyr (103–165) is a famous early Christian apologist. His understanding of the relationship between the law of Moses and the new law of Christ is very instructive. Justin argues that Jesus is the new law, eternal and final, who has replaced the old law of Moses. Approaching God in the new covenant age requires, therefore, that a person repent from idolatry and other sins, persevere in one’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and maintain piety.

The excerpt below is taken from ch. 11 of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (adapted from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.xi.html). Trypho was a Jew who was interested in philosophy.
“There will be no other God, O Trypho, nor was there from eternity any other existing … but He who made and disposed all this universe. Nor do we think that there is one God for us, another for you, but that He alone is God who led your fathers out from Egypt with a strong hand and a high arm. Nor have we trusted in any other (for there is no other), but in Him in whom you also have trusted, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. But we do not trust through Moses or through the law; for then we would do the same as yourselves. But now (for I have read that there shall be a final law, and a covenant, the chiefest of all, which it is now incumbent on all men to observe, as many as are seeking after the inheritance of God. For the law promulgated on Horeb is now old, and belongs to yourselves alone; but this is for all universally). Now, law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law—namely, Christ—has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy, after which there shall be no law, no commandment, no ordinance. Have you not read this which Isaiah says: ‘Hearken unto Me, hearken unto Me, my people; and, ye kings, give ear unto Me: for a law shall go forth from Me, and My judgment shall be for a light to the nations. My righteousness approaches swiftly, and My salvation shall go forth, and nations shall trust in Mine arm?’ [Isa 51:4–5]. And by Jeremiah, concerning this same new covenant, He thus speaks: ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt’ [Jer 31:31–32]. If, therefore, God proclaimed a new covenant which was to be instituted, and this for a light of the nations, we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other unrighteousness, through the name of Him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and abide by their confession even unto death, and maintain piety. Moreover, by the works and by the attendant miracles, it is possible for all to understand that He is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

Not under Law But under Grace: An Exposition of Romans 6:15–23

“Christians are under grace, not law!” This is a slogan that Christians, following the Apostle Paul, have frequently parroted. The problem is: have we understood what Paul meant by this slogan? Protestants typically interpret law in the phrase for you are not under the law but under grace to mean law in general, but this is to take Paul’s teaching out of its historical context, and to apply it in an illegitimate way.

The law that Paul was talking about in Rom 6:14 was specifically the law of Moses, not law in general whether divine or human. On the surface, the noun νόμος (law) in the phrase ὑπὸ νόμον under law looks indefinite, but it needs to be kept in mind that in New Testament Greek the definite article is frequently not used after prepositions. In the end, context needs to determine whether ὑπὸ νόμον means under law (in general) or under the law (of Moses). The big issue in the early church was whether or not Gentiles could be saved by faith in Jesus Christ apart from following the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1, 5). The orthodox Christians said “yes,” whereas the Judaizers said “no.” This is the particular historical context that argues for ὑπὸ νόμον to mean specifically under the law (of Moses). This is consistent with the rest of Paul’s argument in the epistle to the Romans, which is concerned with Jews versus Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation as foretold in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament). This Judaizing issue was being replayed in Rome after Nero’s accession to the imperial throne led to increasing numbers of Jews returning to Rome following the cessation of Claudius’s edict of expulsion. 

In Paul’s day, there were people who objected to Christianity on the basis that it was anomian or law-less. In the historical context of Paul’s day, this was a specifically Jewish objection. Paul’s Jewish opponents viewed that Christian teaching which proclaimed that being right with God was a matter of belief in (i.e., submission to) Jesus Christ rather than a matter of obedience to the law of Moses as constituting a rejection of Moses and Mosaic law, rebellion against the covenant, and disobedience to God.

In Rom 6:15 Paul picks up the objection of his Judaizing opponents to the Christian teaching that God’s people are under grace rather than law in the new covenant age. His opponents’ objection was: “Following your teaching, Paul, we should all sin, because we are not under the law but under grace.” This objection appears as a direct response to Paul’s final statement in Rom 6:14. From Paul’s opponents’ perspective, being under grace rather than law was to reject God’s standards of righteousness as defined in the law of Moses. They thought that Christianity was a license to sin, but Paul strongly strongly rejected this implication (Rom 6:15).

Consistent with Old Testament teaching, Paul understood that there are only two ways of living in the world. On the one hand, there is the way of life that leads to God; and on the other, the way of death that leads away from God. Paul captures this in Rom 6:16 by talking about two states of slavery: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves as slaves for obedience, you are slaves to whom you obey, either of sin which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” According to Paul, there are only two masters whom we can serve: sin or obedience. Serving sin is the way of death, whereas pursuing obedience is the way of righteousness and life. These two possibilities applied in the old covenant age, and Paul understood that they apply just as equally in the new covenant age. The coming of grace in Jesus does not render invalid the basic framework of the dual halakhic (i.e., the two ways of living) ethical system of the Old Testament. Paul’s opponents were wrong to think that this is what Christianity advocated.

Paul understood that Christian conversion involved a heart transformation that brought converts into slavery to righteousness (Rom 6:17–18). Paul was thankful to God that the Christians in Rome had undergone this transformation. Before conversion they had been “slaves of sin,” but since their conversion “you have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching that you received” (Rom 6:17). The phrase from the heart is a deliberate echo of the new covenant prophecies of Deut 30:6: “And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live”; and Jer 31:33: “ For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Paul understood that the Old Testament prophecies about the restored (i.e., new covenant) obedience of the people of God are fulfilled through conversion to Christianity. It is also significant that the law written in the heart is equated by Paul with the standard of teaching that you received. The model of teaching received by the Roman Christians was Christian teaching. It was the Christian gospel. The gospel is the received tradition of the Christian community, passed down from Christ to his apostles, and from them to subsequent Christian teachers. Receiving this teaching into the heart is the key to freedom. The Christian gospel, the new covenant word of God, has the power to set people free from slavery to sin; but this is freedom for the sake of obedience to righteousness (Rom 6:18). There is no morally neutral territory. From the beginning of time, there has only ever been two ways of living: one a way of life, and the other a way of death.

Paul’s imagery of slavery to one of two masters was an accommodation to the weakness of the understanding of his readers (Rom 6:19). He used this illustration for the purpose of encouraging his Christian readers to pursue Christian sanctification: “just as you have presented your members [i.e., the parts of your body] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19). Divine grace is not a license to sin. The Jewish accusation that Christianity was ἀνομία lawlessness was far from the truth. Being part of the new covenant is about walking in righteousness with the law of God written in our hearts. Being a Christian is about being holy, as the gospel of Christ brings holistic transformation. It is true that Christians are under grace, not law; but this is not the same as saying that Christianity is law-less, that Christians are not bound to any law, that they are free to live without any sense of morality. If law in the phrase under law is taken as denoting all possible forms of law, then Christianity is truly anomian. But if Paul, in the light of the historical context of his day, is specifically talking about the law of Moses as the law which we are not under, then a place is left for understanding that the gospel is new covenant law, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (such as Deut 30:11–14; Isa 2:1–4; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26–27) that speak of the vivifying function of eschatological torah in the heart of God’s new covenant people. Paul was objecting to old covenant law. He was not denying that Christians are under new covenant law, which is the gospel, “the standard of teaching that [we] have received.”

As Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). When Paul’s readers were “slaves of sin,” they were “free of righteousness” (Rom 6:20). Slavery to sin is incompatible with slavery to righteousness. Paul also reminds his readers of the consequences of their former way of living. “What fruit did you get then from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Rom 6:21). Serving sin leads to shame and death. It is a dead end and totally fruitless. This fruitlessness of slavery to sin contrasts markedly with the consequences of slavery to righteousness. “But now, having been set free from sin, and having become enslaved to God”—that is, after Christian conversion—“you have the fruit of sanctification, and its end eternal life” (Rom 6:22). Slavery to righteousness is equated by Paul in Rom 6:22 as being slavery to God. The two masters that we must serve in life are either sin or God. Serving sin is useless. It leads to death. But serving God, as the Old Testament consistently teaches, has great benefit. Serving God means bearing and enjoying the fruits of holiness. Furthermore, the end destination of this way of living is eternal life. It is significant here that Paul views eternal life as residing at the end of a lifelong process of sanctification. Eternal life in the presence of God is the goal of Christian halakhah.

Paul concludes his teaching concerning righteousness in Rom 6 by summing up the consequences of the two possible ways of living in the world. He shifts from the image of fruit to that of wages: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The concept of wages is used as a metaphor for what God “pays back” to people. There are consequences for how we live our life in the world. If we indulge in following sin, then the end result of that is God’s payback of death. “But the gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” is not like the consequences of sin: “the gracious gift of God … is eternal life” (Rom 6:23). This verse is often quoted by Christians out of context, as if to say that God’s gracious gift of eternal life in Christ has no connection with the need for personal righteousness on the part of the believer. God’s gracious gift in Christ Jesus is eternal life, but this cannot be divorced from the process of sanctification that leads to eternal life. In effect, the phrase eternal life in Rom 6:23 is basically a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is used to refer to the whole. Eternal life lies at the end of a process of sanctification. The whole of this process is the gracious gift of God.

To continue in sin, therefore, because we are not under law but grace is to fail to understand the meaning of God’s new covenant grace. God’s new covenant grace not only involves God graciously sending Jesus to make full atonement for our sins, but also God graciously writing his law in our hearts, so that we might be able to obey him, and to live as a consequence of walking in the way of personal righteousness in the context of atoning grace. To say (as some have said to me in the past) that the idea that personal righteousness is necessary for salvation is inconsistent with grace is ironically to fail to understand the nature of God’s grace. People who say that have, in effect, narrowed God’s grace down to simply the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received. It is definitely true that Christ’s righteousness stands at the heart of God’s grace, but God’s grace to us Christians is more than simply the reception of an alien righteousness. God’s grace involves both the reception of an alien righteousness and its personalization in a holistic way within the believer. The extrinsic righteousness of Christ truly applied will see itself reflected in the Spirit-induced intrinsic righteousness of the believer. The extrinsic without the intrinsic is inefficacious. Being under grace instead of law, therefore, does not make us lawless.