Category Archives: Biblical Genres

It Figures (Take One)

Figurative Language in 2 Corinthians

When we try to list examples of figurative language in the Bible, what comes to mind first is probably the poetry and striking analogies of the Psalms and the Prophets.  Among the New Testament writers, James stands out with his mirrors, figs, springs, ships, and forest fires.  I don’t think most of us would peg Paul as being particularly poetic in his epistles, but here and there even he comes through with a memorable metaphor.  These next three posts will highlight what seems to me an unusual concentration of figurative language in one of his letters, 2 Corinthians.  Hopefully a close look at these rhetorical decorations will enhance our understanding of his message to his friends in Corinth.

First, a general note about this letter:  the text of 2 Corinthians is almost entirely concerned with the shared and separate histories of Paul and the people of the church at Corinth, towards whom Paul felt strong fatherly affection.  Very little of the letter, relatively speaking, offers either theological instruction or practical marching orders.  Perhaps this unusual emphasis on recent and current events, as opposed to the background spiritual realities and responsibilities of the Christian faith, put Paul in a mood for crafting new figures of speech.  I can’t say for sure; I just note that both the subject matter and the rhetorical devices are of a different category and degree than those of most of his epistles.

What follows is a collection of some of the figures of speech found in 2 Corinthians (more to follow in the next post).  I’ve quoted just the most relevant phrases of the passages involved, but I’ve provided links to the context of those quotes (ESV) in case you don’t have your Bible handy.  These notes will be most fruitful for you in the context of studying the letter itself, which I encourage you to do!

  1. Triumphal Procession & Fragrance/Aroma (see 2 Cor. 2:12-171)

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God…

Paul’s first figures in the letter come entwined together in chapter 2.  They may or may not be directly related to one another; they both are historically bound enough to merit a little effort on our part to uncover just what he is referring to.  Your study Bible may provide one suggested referent, but a commentary on the letter will let you know that there are several possibilities here for Paul’s meaning, and really we’re just not sure which is the right one.  Here’s the relevant history and the general sense of the metaphor, at any rate:

In Paul’s day, a “triumphal procession” would be recognized as the pomp and circumstance surrounding the victory of a Roman general.  Everybody from captives taken in battle to soldiers to the general himself would parade into Rome, so there would be no mistaking the leader’s credentials.  Bible scholars disagree about where Christians should see ourselves in this picture:  are we the humiliated captives, or the soldiers?2 In any case, with this metaphor Paul means to convey victory in Jesus, despite desperate outward circumstances (some of which he has described in the verses just prior).

Along these Roman parade routes, incense would be burned in celebration, possibly corresponding with the “fragrance” that Paul mentions here.  There’s also a strong suggestion of Jewish sacrificial practices in the word “aroma.”3 Paul’s metaphor involves three different olfactory audiences:  God himself, who finds his Christians to be a pleasing aroma; the spiritually lost, who think we stink; and other Jesus people, who recognize and rejoice in the scent of salvation.4 The aroma doesn’t change—but its perceived meaning does.

  1. Letters (see 2 Cor. 3:1-3)

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all…You are a letter from Christ

In keeping with his need to justify and defend the authority of the apostolic ministry, Paul affectionately jokes that his Corinthian friends are collectively a sufficient “letter of reference” for the apostles’ integrity.  In the ancient world, a person could make his way best in circles of success if an influential person wrote a letter of introduction that opened doors.  This is what Christ has done for Paul, through the conversion of these Corinthians—for the changes wrought in them by the Savior can be “known and read by all.”  The invisible work of the Spirit is evident in the lives of individuals and (perhaps most powerfully) in the communal life of the church as a whole.

  1. Veils (see 2 Cor. 3:7-18; note the metaphorical veil in 14-16, 18 & literal veil in v.13)

With another metaphor about perception, Paul continues to comment on the ability of people either in Christ or without Christ to see reality clearly.  The “veil” idea comes from the story in Exodus 34, when Moses returning from his mountain meeting with the Lord has such a glowing face that his people are afraid to approach.  He dons a literal veil to block their view of the shining.5  Here, Paul turns that literal veil into a figurative one that blocks a person’s view of the knowledge of God in Christ.  The difference between a believer and an unbeliever, then, is that Christ takes away that veil and gives the new convert access to truth and reality.  Note that Paul is especially concerned with the difference between the reading of the Pentateuch with and without the veil:  thus Christian converts, both Jewish and Gentile, have a perceptual advantage over Paul’s kinsmen who read the same words of Moses without spiritual understanding.

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1If you’re studying the whole letter, you may have noticed that Paul produces this verbal picture right at a cliffhanger in his autobiographical account:  “I couldn’t find Titus in Macedonia!”  It’s not until our chapter 7 that he picks up that thread again, explaining how he finally was reunited with Titus.  This metaphor, then, marks the beginning of what commentators identify as the “long digression” in this letter.

2Personally, I think the victorious context supports the latter interpretation, and that those who equate us with the destitute prisoners in the parade are adopting an unnecessarily pious reading.

3See, for example, Leviticus 2:12.  And yes, there are two different Greek words used for “fragrance” and “aroma.”

4”We” in this metaphor probably refers to all Christians; but Paul may have a secondary message running along here regarding  his own credentials as an apostle:  he knows that God approves of him, and true believers recognize his authority; it’s just the false brothers who, like other unbelievers, consider him an insignificant charlatan.

5You will sometimes hear the explanation that Moses was veiling his face because the glory on it was fading away – but this is a misreading of Paul’s phrases in 2 Cor. 3.  From Paul’s enlightened point of view, the Old Covenant was indeed fading away; but there is nothing in the Exodus 34 passage to indicate that Moses was protecting the people’s eyes from anything other than a dangerous (and scary) holy shine.  Paul’s explanation in 2 Cor 3 tells us about the state of the Old Covenant, not the motivation behind Moses’ act of veiling his face.

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New Talk: “Seeing a Tree and Remembering the Forest”

It took a while to hammer this one out, but I’m excited to finally share this 26-minute talk on Bible study strategies with you.  Originally commissioned for a Bible study conference in October of 2016, this is my whimsical way of getting people up to speed on the difference between “doing our devotions” and studying a passage of Scripture.  I walk through Isaiah 61 to demonstrate different detailed and big-picture study strategies, illustrating everything with lots of gorgeous shots of TREES (mainly thanks to our local photographer extraordinaire, Missy Herr!).

If you’re a Bible teacher working with teens or others who are new to a “studied” reading of Scripture, or if you would like to brush up on your own Bible reading practices, or if you are my good friend and you want to make my day, please listen along and share this!  (The video slides just supplement the audio, but they aren’t important if you just want to listen to it.)

The page of Paige’s Quirky Symbols mentioned in this talk can be found here.

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A Topical Concordance of James

[Text: The Epistle of James]

The Book of James may be small, but it packs a lot of thematic muscle.  In an effort to accelerate my relearning of this letter before a last-minute Bible teaching assignment this fall, I set myself the task of collecting James’ statements on a number of subjects into a comprehensive topical list.  Listing things, by the way, is an effective strategy for getting to know the details of a passage or biblical book.  A topical concordance happens when an over-the-top list-maker publishes her lists so that others can use them as reference resources.  I highly recommend that you make your own lists while studying, because that’s a great way to train your brain to know what’s there; but if you would like to lean on a prepared collection of James’s themes, here you go:

Prominent Themes in the Book of James (pdf)

Here’s a brief sketch of the subject matter that James is working with in this letter, according to the categories that stood out for me as I read.  (I’ve listed these here from most prominent to least, though I have arranged them in random order in my document according to what fit neatly onto a sheet of paper for printing!)

Speech & Communication

From beginning to end, James shows his concern for how God’s people use their words.  How we speak to God or about God matters; how we speak to our brothers matters; how we speak to visitors matters.  Even what we say to ourselves matters (e.g., “God is tempting me!” or “Let’s go to such and such a place and make some money!”).  According to James, you can’t overestimate the power of the tongue.

Christian Conduct and Experience

This list overlaps with some of the others, as it’s a general catch-all for anything related to the behavior of believers.  James is big on “shoulds,” and in his brief letter I think he manages to communicate just about everything that is expected of a follower of the Way.  This collection of imperatives (mostly direct, though some are implied) would make a great overview of the life of faith for a class of new believers.

Theology

This densely-packed letter also manages to convey a significant amount of information about God and his work of redemption.  We are left with an impression of his majestic power and fierce compassion:  he gives generously, cannot be tempted, tempts no one, never changes, saves and destroys, gives grace to the humble, and listens to the cries of the oppressed.  Metaphysical realities are here too, hinting at what’s going on in the universe beyond what our eyes can see:  demons and the devil are active in the affairs of men; God chooses “the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” giving us new life by implanting in us the word of truth. James also conveys a strong message about future judgment, laying great stress on the consequences of the self-indulgent injustices practiced by the rich.

Don’t Be Like This

As a corollary to the collection of imperatives mentioned above, here is a list of warnings about behaviors and attitudes believers should avoid.  James’ whole letter may be seen as a series of corrections, aimed both at wrong thinking and wrong action.  Our assumptions about God, ourselves, and what is permissible in our treatment of others get a thorough housecleaning in this epistle.

Figurative Language/Nature & Agriculture

More than any other New Testament letter, the book of James offers a colorful glimpse into agrarian life in the first century.  From nautical metaphors (waves of the sea driven and tossed by the wind; the rudder of a ship) to agricultural figures (a flower of the grass; forest fires; the domestication of animals; fig trees and grape vines) James reinforces his teaching with the same sensitivity to his audience’s context that we see in Jesus’ parables.

Biblical Echoes

James’s use of Old Testament phrases and stories is a similarly rich strategy for underscoring his message to these new converts to the faith.  As his audience was likely made up of Jewish Christians, these references to familiar texts and figures would have caught their attention and convinced them the more strongly of his points.  Readers today will notice echoes of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians in James’s use of the words “justification” and “works” – but we should take notice of the fact that because James’s letter was written well before Paul’s, in this letter the terms retain an ordinary rather than a theologically specific meaning.  (See Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings for more on the difference between James and Paul.)

Socioeconomic Status

Much of James’s corrective teaching regarding the treatment of others has to do with economic status and power.  Wealth brings with it the temptation of self-indulgence at the expense of the poor, or of favoritism within the congregational gathering.  James also calls out the inconsistency of the church’s flattering a potential wealthy patron while undergoing legal persecution by that same class of people.  Apparently the allure of riches had not been dulled by conversion in James’s day any more than it is in our own.

Judicial Language

James does not hesitate to set all of his warnings in the context of the ultimate Day of Judgment.  The vocabulary of the courtroom is also in play as he describes the lawsuits pursued against these believers by wealthy persecutors and the right or wrong way of following the “perfect law, the law of liberty.”  In his argument that partiality is a flagrant offense against “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” James uses the analogy of the Mosaic law, which, if broken in any part, designated the transgressor as a breaker of the whole.

Bad Influences

James cites our own passions, the oppressive and blasphemous rich, the world, and hell itself as the influential powers that believers must resist.

Historical/Cultural Context

Finally, there’s a bit of incidental learning to be gleaned from this letter about the life experiences of James’s intended recipients.  They were apparently Jewish Christians, scattered throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire; they were being harassed and oppressed by people of influence and wealth in their communities; it was likely that there would be economic disparities among the members of their congregations; and they engaged in trade, travel, and agricultural pursuits with enough regularity that James could lean on these topics as handy illustrations.

As thorough as my list seems, I am sure that I have not exhausted all the possibilities of this brief but dense epistle.  Dig in yourself sometime and see what I’ve missed!

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All biblical quotations come from the Book of James, ESV.

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Take-Aways From Philippi

[Text:  Acts 16:16-40]

One of the reasons we pay attention to the different biblical genres that we’re reading is to avoid the error of taking history for marching orders.  A great deal of the Bible comes to us as narrative, and it’s meant more to teach us about God and his world than to teach us to do anything.  But this doesn’t mean we can’t go away from a narrative text with something to chew on that might just guide our steps in the future.  Acts 16, a literary window into an eventful little stretch of time in the Roman colony of Philippi, gives us a few such take-aways.

You remember the story, how it starts with a persistent demon-possessed slave girl who seems to have a bead on exactly what Paul and company are up to – “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”  True enough, this, but not such welcome advertising when it happens day after day.  Her tenacity eventually annoys even the patient Apostle, leading him to cast out the soothsaying demon.  This act in turn causes an economic crisis for the girl’s owners, an imprisonment for Paul and Silas, and a post-seismic salvation opportunity for a desperate jailer.

It’s a dramatic, entertaining, and even moving tale in itself, and as historical instruction it’s sufficiently satisfying.  But we need not stop just with learning about the people, place, and time involved.  Because we’re dealing with God’s plans and actions, and because we have Luke’s inspired behind-the-scenes perspective, we can carry away from this narrative some things to keep in mind for our role today in Christ’s ongoing story.  Here are a few examples of what I mean:

We learn that the spirit world is real, and apparently it knows about the Spirit’s work.

While encounters with prescient demons are probably not going to be the norm for Christians in a first-world context, missionaries in non-Western settings often report spirit activity that resembles the accounts we have from the Gospels and Acts.  This is a reminder to remember the reality of the spirit world, and Christ’s dominion over both its faithful and its malevolent inhabitants.

We learn that some of God’s people will be called on to pray, sing, and preach while suffering.

Again, something that is not the typical experience of North American believers; but it’s always a possibility, so it should not surprise us if it happens to happen.  We can remember, too, that somewhere in the world many brothers and sisters are presently suffering imprisonment as a result of their faithful words and actions for Jesus.

We learn that sometimes it’s appropriate to let mistaken justice run its course, while at other times it’s right to demand due process and public exoneration.

(See especially Acts 16:35-39 for this part.) There are examples of both tactics in this narrative, and I use the word “tactics” deliberately – I believe that Paul chose to submit to unjust imprisonment at first, perhaps to see what God was up to with this new development; but when the evangelistic opportunity had been accomplished in this case, he then chose to call attention to the lack of due process and public apology that should have been afforded to Roman citizens.*  Instinct, flexibility, humility, and strategy were all at play in his choices, giving us a model for our own potential interactions with hostile authorities, if not a precise playbook.

We learn that the privileges of the world’s systems of power (e.g., Roman citizenship) may be used in the service of the gospel, including for the protection of the messengers of the gospel.

In other words, if you have rights guaranteed by the law of the land you’re living in, it’s okay to appeal to them in order to protect yourself and your Kingdom work.  Remember Paul’s model above, though, and realize that this is not necessarily the path we can or should always take; it’s just fair to do so.

We learn that conversion happens through words.  Events may precipitate a crisis, though, which conversion resolves.

The earthquake didn’t convert the jailer, nor did his fear of his superiors’ reprisal for his failure to secure the prisoners from escape. He was still ignorant of the plan of salvation when he fell on his knees before Paul and Silas.  What changed the man was not the crisis, but the explanation given to him.  Our faith is word-based, so thinking hard about how to arrange those words for particular audiences is a faithful and fruitful exercise for every believer.

Paul’s example warned the jailer about what discipleship might involve, and yet the man was still interested.  We learn from this that the evidence of bearing up under hardship is in itself a testimony to our conviction that our words about Jesus are true.

Think of this when you are faced with your own heartaches and hard times.  The grace that carries you through them is teaching others about the sincerity of your faith, even when you’re not aware of it.  Your willingness to submit to the Valleys as coming from God’s hand, while still contained within His love, also models for them the heart-orientation that they will need if they venture down the same path themselves.

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*Note the plural, by the way.  This means that Silas was able to claim citizenship, too.

Biblical quotation from the ESV.

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What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!

**GENERAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLKIT**

Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

 

** OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT

**GENERAL NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)

**GOSPELS**

General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”

Mark

Mark is Longer

Luke

Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt

John

Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names

**ACTS**

Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)

 **PAUL’S EPISTLES**

Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)

Romans

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)

Theo-logic

Examining Ourselves

 Galatians

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit

Ephesians

Military Mnemonics

Philippians

Providing Perspective

Philemon

The Mouse that Roared

**NON-PAULINE EPISTLES**

James

Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith

**REVELATION**

Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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A Tale of Two Jerusalems

[Text: Galatians, especially ch. 4]

Paul’s impassioned letter to the Galatians can be a tricky one to track with.  Our vast cultural and historical distance from the peculiar concerns of the newborn Church leaves us baffled in the dense theological sections, and probably lets us off too easily as we sail through the “more relevant” practical parts.  In this post I want to offer some guidance through the mountainous terrain of Galatians 4, where biblical history and allegory collide; in a future post I hope to take a second look at the way we’ve always read Paul’s instructions in Galatians about “keeping in step with the Spirit.”

If you’ve read as far as Galatians 4, you’ve probably already figured out Paul’s chief concern:  these Gentile believers, who originally received the gospel message and the Holy Spirit with no strings attached, have come under the influence of some Jewish believers who insist that Hebrew law-keeping is a necessary component of everybody’s conversion.  Specifically, circumcision is being proclaimed as an imperative for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

Paul’s letter hits them in the middle of these deliberations.  He urges the Galatian Gentiles to reconsider the theological reality of their already-accomplished salvation, and to turn aside from the temptation to upgrade their status by way of religious requirements like circumcision.

Since circumcision is a representative example of following Jewish law, you’d think that Paul would have a lot to say about that law, and how its specific life-ordering rules had been rendered obsolete by the coming of the Messiah Jesus.  And you’d be right – in fact, that’s the gist of our Galatians 3.  In chapter 4, though, Paul does some fancy rabbinical-rhetorical footwork, playing with the flexible word “law” (Greek nomos, Hebrew torah) and making our heads spin.

Just before launching in on that difficult bit about Hagar and Sarah, he writes:

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons…”

Pause here, before we hit the two Jerusalems that are these sons’ mothers, and consider how Paul is playing with the word “law.”  Maybe these Gentiles (and maybe many of us reading today!) would typically define “law” in the Bible as all of those Jewish regulations and statutes and rituals.  But the Hebrew Torah, the big-L Law, is actually a collection of five books that includes both law (in a legal sense) and story.  And it’s the Story part of the Law that holds the key to unlocking the chains of the (legal) law that threatens the Galatians’ freedom.

Paul proceeds to identify the five dramatis personae in the part of the Story that he’s talking about:  Abraham, the slave woman and the free woman, and each woman’s firstborn son.  It must have been a familiar narrative by now even to the Galatians, who had, after all, hosted the great storyteller Paul himself on more than one occasion.  Here Paul is claiming that this Patriarch and his family history have repercussions even for former pagan Gentiles in Asia Minor:  through the continuity of the promise, even those outside Abraham’s bloodline are included now in God’s people.

So that’s the first curve ball in Galatians:  “Law” includes “story,” and it’s Story that matters in this wrestling match between faith and law-keeping.

The second curve ball involves another bit of rhetoric condoned by rabbinical scholars:  the allegorical use of real historical figures to convey a point.  Hagar and Sarah are convenient place-holders for the “law-keeping” and “promise-believing” contingents; and the respective locales, Sinai/earthly-Jerusalem and heavenly-Jerusalem, reinforce the contrast.

What ought to take the reader by surprise (but probably doesn’t, in our case) is that the Hagar/slave-woman/earthly-Jerusalem figure is the one associated with Mount Sinai, and therefore Jewish law-keeping.  There is NO WAY that this would be a comfortable allegory for a pious first-century Jew (or Jewish Christian).  Of the two women, Hagar is exactly the wrong figure to associate with all that defines Jewish identity, religion, and obligation.

And this discomfort is precisely Paul’s reason for structuring the allegory in this way.  Hagar and her son are cast off in the story, made strangers to the covenant that God had sworn to Abraham.  In the same way, God through Jesus has “cast off” Jewish law-keeping.  You don’t want to be associated with lost and abandoned Hagar, Paul insists.  And you always were associated with the other one, the Sarah/free-woman/heavenly-Jerusalem figure, because when you came into the family of faith you did it in a Sarah-way, by believing!

There is irony upon irony here, if we have eyes to see it:  the law, the pride of Judaism, linked allegorically to a despised slave woman; the law-keepers, now cut off from the covenant; non-Jewish believers in Jesus, identified with the ultra-Jewish heroine Sarah; and the despised Gentiles, now heirs of the promise.

Paul wraps up this rhetorical excursion to the two Jerusalems with these firm words:

“So, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”

Interesting that he includes himself in this statement:  the former Pharisee here implicitly distances himself from Jewish law-keeping, at least as it relates to salvation (i.e., being counted among the people of God).* Through the allegory of the two Jerusalems, each identified with one of the women in the story of the promise, Paul has mapped out for the Galatians the alternatives presented to them by the true and the false gospels they have heard.  He prays that they will realize once and for all that they already belong to Sarah’s side of the family.

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*Though Paul internalized the implications of the gospel so radically that he could behave as a Gentile among Gentiles, it was often deemed prudent (by Paul and by other Church leaders) for him to maintain Jewish practices when among Jews.

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Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings

[Texts:  James, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians]

As you may have noticed, James’s letter is not easy to reconcile with Paul’s teaching on faith apart from works.  On the face of it, James seems to be saying that we do good works in order to be saved, which scrambles our brains if we also know Paul’s firm lines about nobody being able to boast about their efforts toward salvation.  Why does James seem to promote opportunities for boasting?  Is there any way to reconcile these two writers?

Here are three thoughts to pack along as you read James’s little letter with Paul leaning over your shoulder.  One thought has to do with time, and the other two focus on a couple key vocabulary words.

First, about timing:  although James’s letter follows the epistles of Paul in our New Testaments, it was actually written much earlier.* This James was not one of the Twelve (that James was murdered by Herod early on; see Acts 12), but he was a significant figure among the leaders in the Jerusalem church, which was kind of the Command Central of the Jesus movement at the outset.

As events transpired in those early days and as news of conversions began rolling in from unexpected corners of the Empire, James mediated a theological conference/strategic planning meeting in Jerusalem to figure out how to accommodate the many new Gentile believers.  Just about everybody at the start of this Messianic movement was steeped in Jewish categories of thought, which logically led many of them to assume the continuing and universal necessity of Jewish works of the law (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath-keeping).

The ministry to the Gentiles challenged these assumptions, though, as it became unavoidably apparent that the Holy Spirit was already at work in these converts entirely apart from Jewish law-keeping.  At the James-led Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the Jewish church leaders officially conceded the point.  Paul would later expound on the theological significance of it all, especially in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Ephesians.  But prior to both the Council and Paul’s theological explanations came the epistle of James to the scattered Jewish believers in Jesus.

So this is the historical and theological context of James’s message that “faith without works is dead.”  Knowing this order of events helps us keep James’s thoughts, and even his vocabulary, in proper perspective.  Specifically, two words that both James and Paul use, justification and works, aptly illustrate the difference between their respective contexts.

When James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he seems to be contradicting Paul’s unequivocal statement in Romans that “by works of the law no man will be justified.”  But when James wrote his letter, he (and the Jewish church) had not yet wrestled formally with the reality and implications of Gentiles entering into the people of God sans Jewish particulars.  His words describe the vindication or verifying of faith by compassionate deeds,  for in this way one’s faith is justified—that is, confirmed—by one’s actions.

On Paul’s part, in his (post-Council) letters to the Romans and Galatians, both of which are theological exposés of wrong assumptions about Jewish priorities, the word justification evokes a courtroom scene in which judicial action acquits or condemns the accused.  In such a setting, Paul says, those all-important Jewish “works of the law” do not amount to guaranteed favor with the Judge.

In sum, Paul’s concern is different from James’s, and so he uses these two terms differently.  For Paul, justification has to do with acquittal before the Judge (rather than confirmation of the reality of one’s faith, as in James), and works are narrowly considered as the special obligations placed on Jews under the law (rather than merely compassionate actions).  To put it even more simply, for Paul the words have a specialized, religious significance, while James intends them to convey everyday realities.

Making this chronological and theological distinction between James’s and Paul’s use of these two terms may help put some contemporary Christian teaching into perspective as well.  If you have ever been baffled by the characteristic Reformed portrayal of Christians erring by “trying to earn God’s favor” through their deeds, recall that the Reformers who rediscovered Justification By Faith in the sixteenth century were writing and thinking in the midst of a Roman Catholic context.  In close imitation of Jewish law, Roman Catholic religion was full of do’s and don’t’s and specific demands that a truly religious person must fulfill to obtain (and maintain!) God’s favor.

In a Protestant context today, this ritualistic error feels remote, and thus this refrain about the danger of trying to “earn God’s favor” seems out of place when the “works” in view are deeds of compassion.  But perhaps the critique comes home more personally whenever we notice that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” about religious practices, whereby our Christian rituals (prayers, communion, liturgy – or listening to Christian radio, or having our daily Quiet Time) have gained a good-luck-charm status.  (“If I do this just right – or enough times – then I’ll get my wish!”)

We should not, however, confuse the warning against vain effort in religious “works” with a caution against exerting ourselves in the just and compassionate deeds we’ve been called to do.*  As James insists, living faith actually requires some work to show it is alive.

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*Notice, by the way, that this means that the NT letters are arranged in groups by author—i.e., Paul, followed by Not-Paul—and then by size and order within these groups.  You have to do a little more digging before you figure out their historical chronology.

*Granted, “deeds of compassion” can sometimes become our religious good-luck charms, too.  But I think the analogy of manipulating God’s favor through our ritualistic spiritual exercises fits Paul’s meaning most closely.

References to “boasting,” “justification,” and “works/works of the law” come from Ephesians 2, Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and James 2.

Approximate dates of relevant events: Epistle of James, early 40s AD  —   Jerusalem Council, c.49 AD  —  Epistle to the Galatians, early 50s  —  Epistle to the Romans, c.57AD.  Think about how different the theological and church context is in each case, despite the proximity of these dates!

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Paul on Jesus: Part Two

[Texts:  Paul’s letters and speeches]

In a previous post I shared some of the fruit of a year-long study with friends in which we read the NT books in chronological order.  As I went along in my perusal of the Epistles, I gathered answers to the question, “Who is Jesus in this letter?”  This resulted in a chart of Paul’s collective teachings on Jesus, which can be accessed here.  Earlier I surveyed who Jesus is across time; now I’ll take a look at some of Paul’s major themes as he teaches about the Savior.

What does Paul spend the most verses talking about, across all of his letters and his speeches in Acts?  Any guesses?  Three categories stand out to me as the fullest sections on my chart:  Redemptive History, Forensics, and words about the Commander-in-Chief and His Troops.  So, speaking broadly, Paul was apparently most concerned to communicate Jesus’ historical significance, the judicial aspects of our salvation in Christ, and the duties and experiences of the soldiers of this Kingdom.  Let me dive a little more deeply into the details of each of these subjects.

Paul conceives of Redemptive History in its full sweep, from past through present to future, and emphasizes always the accompanying revelation that makes sense of it all.  Jesus is the Long-Expected One, and Paul seems to delight in connecting the dots in Scripture and in human history to show that this is so.  Much of his apologetic speech to Jews in Acts is concerned with how Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy, especially regarding the identity of the anticipated Christos.  Though his letters to the churches no longer have this evangelistic purpose, Paul cannot seem to help mentioning Jesus’ historical connections; to him, they are part and parcel of Jesus’ identity and role as Savior.

Among the many details of Redemptive History, two receive special emphasis when Paul speaks or writes about his Lord.  First there are all the ways that Jesus fulfills prophecies and promises, types and signs that have appeared throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  He emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David’s line and Abraham’s family, showing how he fulfills “the promises to the patriarchs”; regarding Moses and the Law, Paul makes much of Jesus’ substantial embodiment of past “shadows” and hints, from the Passover lamb to the identity-marker of circumcision to the special Jewish holidays.

The second detail of Redemptive History that receives the most attention is the anticipation of Jesus’ return from heaven—a future event that has bearing on Paul’s (and our) present.  Again and again, Paul casts the behavior and hope of the church in terms of, and in light of, the expected reappearance of the Savior.  His “coming,” as Paul typically puts it, is as certain an event as his entrance into human history in the first place, and as certain as the suffering, death, and resurrection that form the foundation of our confession.  In his desire to persuade Christians to suffer faithfully, Paul continually returns to this certainty.  It is notable, by the way, that with one exception* he does not mention the Second Coming in his speeches in Acts: it seems that this information is most relevant to Christians who need reasons and reminders to persevere, but not yet to potential converts.

Forensics, or the judicial aspects of our salvation, comprises another major category of thought in Paul’s writings and speeches.  This theological topic is probably what usually comes to mind first when we think of what Paul had to say to the church, and with good reason.  Although not any more prevalent than the other two subject areas discussed here, Paul’s reasoning and teaching on forgiveness, judgment, law and faith, sin, salvation, and justification (to name just a few prominent terms!) certainly stand out as deeply important to him.

While there has historically been much debate over the exact meaning of some of Paul’s terms (especially justification), there is no question that he sees salvation in Christ Jesus as intricately bound to questions of sin and righteousness, wrath and favor.  The news in Christ is always good for those who have accepted him:  there is true and ultimate rescue in this Savior, a gift of innocence in place of guilt.  There are also wrong ways to go about solving the problem of our standing before the Judge of all—errors that have persisted since ancient times, and that still threaten to undermine the message of Paul’s gospel.

Finally, we could probably say that the relationship between a living and powerful Commander-in-Chief and His Troops is the topic at the forefront of Paul’s thoughts in his letters.  His own experience and that of his friends give Paul real-time illustrations of what it means to serve the Lord, and his explanations and exhortations provide a verbal framework for the embodiment of life as “good soldiers of Christ Jesus.”  Courage, perseverance, kindness, responsibility, generosity, and faithfulness to the delivered message of the Kingdom are qualities constantly reinforced in Paul’s epistles.  If you read through this section of the chart I created, I think you’ll get a sense of the nobility of our calling in Christ—something lovely to reach for, something worthy to strive after.  Paul’s many words still urge us on towards the finish line, so many centuries later.

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*The one exception is a mention in Acts 17 (in the Areopagus at Athens) of a resurrected man who will one day judge the world on God’s behalf.

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Paul on Jesus: Part One

[Text:  Paul’s Sermons & Letters]

After joining some friends in 2015 to “ride a fast horse” through the NT books in chronological order, I’ve ended the year’s race with four small notebooks full of observations and many a likely topic to Journal about.* I’m a Notebook Person (because I can’t remember anything I read unless I write it down), and I approach any kind of study with research questions to keep me focused.  This year I kept three queries in mind as we approached the Epistles:

What’s on [the writer’s] mind?

Who is Jesus?

What is faith?

The first kept me alert to the main ideas of the letter, the second to the letter’s presentation of the Savior, and the third to the multifaceted nature of biblical belief.

In this post I’d like to at least begin to organize the data I collected on Paul’s teachings about Jesus.* Whenever we read works of “systematic theology,” we’re looking at collections of information on different theological topics (Father, Son, Spirit, human beings, the church, etc.), really the results of research efforts that the theologian has made over time in his reading of the Scriptures (and of other theologians).  Each scholar presents the data in a different way, having decided what’s most important to communicate and how to arrange the material.  My own [very small-scale] theological overview will offer the ideas Paul communicates about Jesus, ordered from most often to least frequently mentioned.*

I’ve written elsewhere about Paul’s unusual and very personal use of Christ Jesus as a designation for his Lord, probably my favorite discovery out of the year’s study.  Of course he also makes use of the Kingly title, Jesus Christ, and continually resorts to the shorthand name-title, Christ, when he really gets going in his theological explanations.  He calls Jesus the Son of God (though, unlike the author of Hebrews, only once does he call him simply the Son) and also our Lord, usually in company with Jesus’ name.* So what does he have to say about this Jesus?

The first thing I noticed from my survey of Paul is that there is a LOT to tell about the Savior.  I found it helpful to group the Jesus-details that I found in Paul’s writings into thirteen subcategories, which are listed at the end of this post.  What I’ll highlight here is the fascinating way the Lord Jesus inhabits and owns all of Time—Past, Present, and Future.  This is what I discovered (and if you just read these Bible verses through in order, you’ll get a big-picture sense of Christ’s involvement in history!):

  • Paul teaches that the Son existed in Eternity Past and was active in Creation:

He was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God something to be grasped.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

For [by means of] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

  • He surveys Redemptive History, showing Christ’s relationship to it and fulfillment of it:

To [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever.

…which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…

All the promises of God find their Yes in him.

  • He names what has been accomplished by Father and Son in the Near Past:

He was manifested in the flesh.

God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

Christ Jesus . . . in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.

He was crucified in weakness.

Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.

God has highly exalted him!

  • …and celebrates what our Lord is doing in the Present:

Christ Jesus . . . is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Christ nourishes and cherishes the church.

  • Finally, Paul holds out the promise of Christ’s activity in the Future:

We await a Savior from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. . .

. . .on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of man by Christ Jesus.

For as in Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive.

Paul has much more to say, of course, about the theological meaning of these events, about the relationship between the Commander and his Soldiers, and about the blessings that are ours even during our earthly lifetimes because of our spiritual location “in Christ”; and I’ll bring out those themes in future posts.  For now, just savor the above statements about the Savior as a summary of his movement through time and his intersection with human history—exciting things accomplished and anticipated, and thoroughly true.

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*If my Bible Journal entries have seemed haphazard to you, this is why.  It was a very fast horse.

*I’m also including material from Luke’s account of Paul’s sermons in Acts, because I’m curious to understand Paul’s whole picture of Jesus.

*Obviously, the discipline of systematic theology holds particular appeal for tidy minds like mine.  But don’t think of the product as being just a dry recitation of propositions fitted neatly into pigeonholes!  The best theology should lead to the praises of doxology. A good systematician will fill in the bigger picture for you, since you might see only individual details when you read the Bible in your occasional devotions and classes.

*On the other hand, when Paul refers to the Lord, it can be tricky to decide whether he’s speaking of the Father or his Son.

(Quoted verses are from the ESV:  Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:17, 16; Rom. 9:5; 1:2,3; 2 Cor. 1:20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 2:17; 1 Tim. 6:13; 2 Cor. 13:4; Rom. 6:3; Phil. 2:9; Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Eph. 5:29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 4:14; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 15:22)

I decided that Paul’s details about Jesus fall into the following categories:
Ontological Essence (what sort of Being is he?)
Place in Redemptive History
Near-Past Historical Events
Present Activity
Substitutionary Death (he died “for you”)
Forensics (the legal meaning of his death)
Resurrection, Ascension & Exaltation
Commander in Chief & His Troops
Example to Imitate
Subject of Preaching
Benefits to Believers
Reality of Believers (what is life like because of the Savior?)
Subject of Misunderstandings & Unbelief

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“Hang on, ’cause Jesus wins.”

[Text: The Book of Revelation]

Here’s a modest New Year’s Resolution for you:  why not read (or reread) the Book of Revelation?  What’s that you say?  You’ve got reasons?  I think I may know them –

…If you’ve ever read (or tried to read) the Revelation of John, you know that though it begins in a relatively straightforward way that anyone can follow, it soon transitions into descriptions of events and creatures that surpass comprehension, if not imagination.  And while you might be aware of the different approaches that have historically influenced the Church’s reading of this book, the sheer number of interpretive options has likely overwhelmed you.  In this you are certainly not alone!

…And then if you’ve never read the Book of Revelation – perhaps because its reputation has preceded it – you probably aren’t even aware that its beginning, at least, is actually pretty accessible.

What I’d like to offer, both to those who have tried it and those who haven’t, is sort of a lifeline to hold onto as you make your way through the bulk of the book.  There are words and ideas in here that keep recurring, even in the midst of the wildly changing scenery, and watching for them will remind us that once upon a time this strange book was read by real people who needed encouragement to “hang on, ‘cause Jesus wins.”  It’s a timely message that you can catch hold of for yourself as you enter into a new year full of events that will be possibly as difficult to understand as some of the craziest passages in this book.

First off, a general outline of what you will encounter in John’s Revelation:

Chapters 1-3 establish the context and characters and directly address Christians on planet earth in seven different local churches.  This is the easy part.

Chapters 4-20 contain John’s description of dramatic visions involving heavenly beings, monstrous creatures, judgments, the saints at worship, wars and conquerors.  This is the confusing part.

Chapters 21-22 wrap it all up with John’s word-picture portraying the New Heavens and New Earth, where sorrow and sighing have no place and every tear is wiped away.  This is the beautiful part.

So in those first three chapters, we are introduced to the idea that John has been granted a heaven-sent vision while in exile on the island of Patmos.  His first responsibility (for of him to whom much is given, much will be expected) is to relay directly the personal messages that King Jesus dictates for seven specific churches in Asia Minor (that’s Turkey today).  Literally, John becomes the scribe who takes down letters to be delivered to these churches – so this part of the book is really a collection of mini-epistles.

And like any of the epistles that we encounter in the NT, these seven transcriptions are easy to follow in their outlines, if a bit mysterious in their details.  We learn that the churches vary in their faithfulness and their present challenges, and that Jesus holds them to high standards, commending those who have remained true to their high callings and warning those who are wavering or who have lost their way.  We don’t really have to know exactly who the “Nicolaitans” are, or the identity of the woman “Jezebel,” to get the idea that God’s people in these churches are beset with doctrinal and moral challenges and need to stay the course bravely.

Each little letter follows a pattern, with Jesus first introducing himself in a majestic way, then commenting on their present faithfulness (or not) and exhorting them to do what is right (or keep doing it, as in the case of Smyrna!).  And each letter ends with a promise made to “the one who conquers” (or in some translations, “the one who overcomes”):  fruit from the tree of life, escape from the “second death,” a white stone with a secret name, etc.  Some of these promised rewards are mysterious, but at least we can tell that they are marvelous, worth holding out for in a season of persecution and temptation.

Then as chapter four begins, John abruptly changes what he’s doing with his words.  Rather than taking dictation, now he is trying to describe a drama that is playing out before his eyes, beginning in God’s heavenly throne room and then eventually involving the stage of the whole earth and the created universe.  This is where we are most likely to lose our footing, as we scramble to understand the things he is reporting; and this is the part of the book that has lent itself to the most varied interpretations over the centuries of the Church.  Are the scrolls, bowls, trumpets, plagues, Beasts, and wars real things that will happen (or have happened) in real human and heavenly history, or do they merely stand for real (or spiritual) things?  How you answer will influence your interpretation of John’s words in these busy chapters!

But rather than struggling to answer those interpretive questions this time through, I suggest that you read the Revelation alert for the way that the direct address of the little epistles continues to run like a silver thread through the tapestry of the visionary drama.  Even though John seems to have done a genre-shift at chapter four, moving from epistle to vision, his purpose remains to communicate with the saints on earth something about their mission, the expectations their glorious Captain has for them, and the rewards that await them as they hold fast to their loyalty to their Lord.  His opening words in the first chapter capture his ongoing goal for his readers, that they keep the command to endure:

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”

So as you read, watch for phrases that echo the promises at the ends of the mini-epistles of chapters two and three.  Look for further statements about those who “conquer” (or “overcome”), and for descriptions of saints who, like the believers in Smyrna, suffer faithfully even unto death and ultimately receive a heavenly welcome and reward.  Be reminded that those who first read the dictated letters to the churches continued to read the confusing part that followed, and that the whole thing was meant as an encouragement to endure, all the way home.  “Hold on,” Jesus continues to say through John, “because after even the worst of it, I win!”

Though I am not a prophet or the daughter of a prophet, I can say confidently that there will be events in this new year that will be as incomprehensible to us as some parts of John’s vision.  It’s inevitable that we will grieve and ache and worry and fear and wonder as we move through our next days in this fallen world.  But the gift of the Revelation is the persistent message of heavenly hope and reward that runs like a lifeline through the confusion and pain.  Hold on, believers, ‘cause Jesus wins.

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Quotations are taken from the ESV.  (ESV uses “conquer,” NIV & NKJV “overcome.”)

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