Category Archives: 1&2 Corinthians

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.


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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Examining Ourselves

[Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34]

Paul’s Corinthian children were a challenge.  On the one hand, they were truly believers, confirmed in their faith by the more voluble gifts of the Spirit and zealous for the wonders of God in their midst.  On the other hand, they seemed to have missed the memo about “Love one another.”  So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to straighten out their many misconceptions about being the Body of Christ.

One of the targets of this corrective epistle is the Corinthians’ handling of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34).*  More than just a bread-and-juice remembrance ceremony, this was apparently a full meal shared together as a church—only the “sharing” in this case seemed to be the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy members of the congregation, who gobbled up the feast while their poorer brethren went hungry.  Paul gives them a remedial lesson in the origin of the Supper—“This is a celebration of the Lord’s death, not an opportunity to get sated and drunk!”—thus putting into theological perspective any wrongheaded approach to the meal.  “If you get this wrong, it is very, very serious,” Paul warns.  “In fact, your unworthy approach to this celebration is the reason some of you have become sick, and some of you have even died!”

The wrong that Paul names here is failure to “discern the body,” a phrase that has led to some strange interpretive developments over the centuries of Christian history.  Where the focus has been on the elements (bread and wine), theologians and church leaders have usually quarreled over what true believers should “discern” these to be:  are they physically transformed into the very body and blood of our Lord?  Or do they spiritually deliver the presence of Christ within the participant?  Much additional attention has been directed to Paul’s solution to the problem, namely that each one should “examine himself” and make sure he is partaking “in a worthy manner.”  Elaborate schemes for determining a person’s spiritual readiness to participate in the Supper have been proposed, including the adoption of a token system indicating that one has appropriately confessed one’s sins before eating.

Suffice it to say that, just like the Corinthians, these discussions also miss the memo about “Love one another.” Paul hasn’t actually veered from his central theme in this section, so neither should we.

In context, the fault of failing to “discern the body,” and the remedy of examining ourselves to make sure we are partaking of the Supper in a worthy manner, have everything to do with believers’ consideration of and care for their fellow celebrants.  Harking back to the congregational factionalism that he dealt with earlier in the letter, Paul defines what this behavior actually is, in the eyes of God:  he writes that those who proceed to feast without regard for family “despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.”  It is unlove that is the problem here, not an improper evaluation of the elements or a guilty conscience in need of confession.

So Paul proposes that each one should “examine himself . . . and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”  Our English verb examine may not be the most helpful translation here, since in our experience it’s possible to accomplish an “examination” merely by looking at the subject.  Imagine a repairman examining a broken hinge to see how badly damaged it is, or a cook examining an egg to see if the shell is cracked.  Maybe just a cursory glance at the state of our heart is enough?

The Greek verb dokimazō, meaning to test or try, pushes us past this limited idea and back towards an older use of the English verb, which is, after all, the root of our academic word “exam.” This dreaded culmination of all the learning that we have (supposedly) done for a course involves questions that we are responsible now to answer.  Our readiness to answer has nothing to do with a sudden change of heart in the moment, and everything to do with how we have lived our lives up to this time of examination.*

So I want to propose a series of questions that should get at the heart of what it means to “discern the body,” in Paul’s use of the phrase.  These suggestions should be taken as friendly reminders of our call to love one another, not as a blueprint for a new era of communion-token exams in the church.  Consider asking yourself these sorts of things long before the next Communion Sunday:

Do I know the names of many of the brothers and sisters communing with me?*

Do I know something about their story?

Am I interested and involved in the lives of others, especially those outside my immediate circles?

Do I treat everyone here with gentleness and respect?

Do I share what I have with those who have less?  Do I perceive needs around me?

Do I ever mock, dismiss, malign or gossip about any individual or any class of people?

Do people in this church generally feel safe with me?

Do people in this church trust me to take them seriously?  Am I a good listener?

Am I sensitive to the bigger-picture issues that may affect some of them more than these things affect me?  Am I compassionate towards those who grieve things that I cannot immediately identify with?

As Paul indicates in this chapter, if we take the time to evaluate ourselves, we will avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of our Father God bringing our unloving behavior to our (and to others’!) attention.  Let’s examine ourselves, then, to make sure we are seeing our family of faith with clarity and compassion.


*Although some verses have been paraphrased, all direct biblical quotations used above come from the ESV.

*Those pastors in earlier times who quizzed their congregants about their beliefs and behavior prior to communion were also examining their people in this way; but they did not ask the kinds of questions about “discerning the body” that I am proposing here.  They were looking for evidence of catechesis and personal purity.

*Re. each of these questions, be realistic about how much you can know about the people in your congregation.  Not even the pastors can hope to know everybody well, especially after the population of a church reaches a certain number.  But do you know a reasonable amount about a reasonable number of people outside your circles of close friends and family?

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Applying the Scriptures, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Jesus, Paul

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!


Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology



Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT


Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)


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 is Longer


Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt


Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names


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)


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)


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)


Examining Ourselves


A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit


Military Mnemonics


Providing Perspective


The Mouse that Roared



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


Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.


*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

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Military Mnemonics

[Text: Ephesians, with a riff on 6:10-18]

Like the famous “Love Chapter” in 1 Corinthians, Paul’s “Armor of God” passage in his letter to the Ephesians stands out and often stands apart from the rest of the epistle in our minds.  But what if Paul is strategically summarizing in these spots, rather than offering something stand-alone and new?  We would need to read these familiar words with a conscious concentration on their contexts, if so.

I’ve written already on the way 1 Corinthians 13 revisits the themes from that whole letter.  What if Ephesians 6:10-18 is similarly situated to recall to the readers’ minds the things Paul has been saying all along?  If that’s the case, then we should consider this outstanding passage, too, to be related to the whole letter as a mnemonic device, much like one of Jesus’ parables in its compact structure and concrete imagery.  Big ideas will be remembered best if packaged small:  think bumper stickers, sound-bytes, and proverbs!

Here, then, is an attempt to sketch Paul’s intention for these “Military Mnemonics,” which I suggest represents a strategic rhetorical decision that captures his letter’s major themes for the reader or listener to mull over later.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.

               I pray that you will know what is the immeasurable power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might! …And I pray that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.  …God is able to do abundantly more than we ask or imagine, according to the power at work within us.

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

               You used to follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.  …Give no opportunity to the devil.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

               Christ has been seated above all rule and authority and power and dominion.  …Through the church the manifold wisdom of God is now made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.  …At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

               Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. …The Lord has given leaders to the church to help equip the saints for ministry, so that together we will grow into mature manhood, to the measure of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Stand, therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth…

               In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, believed in him. …I pray that God would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened. …This grace was given me, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.  …May you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. …Then we won’t be deceived, but speaking the truth in love, will grow up into Christ. …You were taught the truth that is in Jesus, so don’t go back to walking like the Gentiles. …Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor. …For the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.

…and having put on the breastplate of righteousness…

               We were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. …For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. …I therefore urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received. …Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. …Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. …Do the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.

…and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.

               For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. …And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. …Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power…to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. ….Pray also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you  an extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one…

               When you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit .…I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus!  …For by grace you have been saved through faith. …We have boldness and confident access to the Father in Christ Jesus, through our faith in him.  So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. …May God strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

…and take the helmet of salvation…

               God the Father has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. …In love he predestined us for adoption as sons, and in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness. …The Spirit was given to us as a seal, promising our inheritance!  …You have been saved by grace, and raised up, and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.  …You are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God.

…and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…

[Rather than citing specific verses, here I would point to Paul’s authority as an apostle to deliver God’s thoughts to the believers.  In Ephesians, this is expressed in his frequent assertions of the divine revelation given to him that clarified the profound mysteries of God’s plan for redemption.  Like the “belt of truth” and the “shield of faith,” then, the “sword of the Spirit” mainly comprises the revealed content that Christians are instructed to believe.]

…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

               I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers…For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power…Be filled with the Spirit, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. …Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me.


Biblical quotations are taken from the ESV, though I have paraphrased some of these verses. This is also a quiz for students of Ephesians: do you recognize where in the letter these ideas are located?  If you don’t know Ephesians that well or you’re too busy to figure it out, here is the cheat sheet.

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Bible Journal Recap (1)

Here’s what I’ve been writing about, this spring and summer — this is a topical index for those of you who’d like to read something you missed from my earlier posts, or something related to whatever you are studying.  I’ll pause to create lists like this one every few months to remind you what’s here.

If you’re interested in guides for your own personal Bible study, you’ll find some suggestions on the “Short Takes” shelf.

****Bible Journal Posts on the Epistles:

Mutual Autobiography1 Cor., Gal., Phil., Thess. (5.18.2015)

Invitational ImperativesVarious Epistles (5.27.2015)

Pickup Theology1 Cor. (6.3.2015)

Fortune Cookies1 Cor. 10:31 (6.18.2015)

Riff on 1 Cor. 13 (6.8.2015)

Theo-logic1&2 Cor. (6.25.2015)

Christ Jesus our LordSurvey of Epistles (7.4.2015)

The Metaphysical SituationRom. 6 (7.13.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on the Gospels:

Prophetic Puzzle PiecesSynoptic Gospels (3.30.2015)

Mapping the ParablesSynoptic Gospels (3.16.2015)

Samaritan StoriesMatt., Luke, John (3.23.2015)

“Follow, Fast!”Matt., Luke (2.23.2015)

Eyewitnesses to a TransfigurationMatt., Mark, Luke (2.17.2015)

On the Unforgivable SinMatt., Mark, Luke (2.15.2015)

Mark is LongerMark in comparison (4.29.2015)

“Shhh! Don’t Tell!”Mark (3.1.2015)

Prompted ParablesLuke (3.9.2015)

Death Meets Life at the Gates of NainLuke 7  (2.18.2015)

The Cost of SaltLuke 14 (5.12.2015)

Curious QuestionsJohn 4 (4.7.2015)

Naming NamesJohn 12 (4.22.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on Acts:

Prison Diary: A Brief Play in Three ActsActs 16 (5.5.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on Bible Study:

Genre Judgment Calls (4.13.2015)

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The Metaphysical Situation

[Texts:  1-2 Corinthians, Romans, Romans 6]

I wrote earlier about how Paul used his shared history with the Corinthians to frame the theological content in his letters to that church.  As readers, we should keep in mind that the “Pickup Theology” we see in 1 and 2 Corinthians is thus tightly tied to their physical situation, and so the very meaning of those famous verses that we memorize hangs on that history.  But when Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, he reverses his strategy:  here the ongoing history of these believers is tightly tied to the theological realities that Paul reveals to them.  That is, in order to correctly comprehend their physical lives, they (and we*) need to understand their metaphysical situation.

We don’t typically toss around the word “metaphysical” in ordinary speech, so some translation would probably be helpful here: you can think of this idea as “What’s really going on in the universe,”   and the revelation of “metaphysical realities” as being like a backstage tour with the different biblical writers as our guide.  Paul does not know the congregation in Rome personally, so mutual autobiography can’t serve his instructional purposes; but he does know details of what God is up to, and he can explain the significance of these things for their lives on Planet Earth.

Our Romans 6 is probably the best chapter of the letter to showcase what I mean.  Having moved in chapters 1-3 through a thorough survey of why the gospel is necessary, and in chapters 4 and 5 through a description of what the gospel is and how it is received by faith, Paul then turns to the practical implications of belief in the gospel of Jesus.  What’s really going on in the universe (and in the Christian believer), and what does all of this theology actually mean in real time?

Paul writes this section as if in response to a rhetorical question, presumably one that he has heard or that he can imagine someone asking, whether naively or scornfully:  “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”  In other words, since grace is such a good thing, and since it covers many sins, won’t more sin increase the grace?  Such unrighteous means to a godly end, says Paul, ought to be the farthest thing from the mind of a believer – and he goes on to explain why:  It’s just utterly incompatible with the Christian’s metaphysical situation.

So understanding what’s really going on in the universe should enable the believer to make informed decisions about his or her behavior.  With characteristic thoroughness, Paul lays out the backstage details of the new life:

  • You died with Christ when you believed and were baptized!
  • You were buried with him!
  • You were raised with him!
  • Your old self was crucified with Christ!
  • You are no longer slaves to sin!
  • You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus!
  • You have been brought from death to life!
  • Sin will have no dominion over you!
  • You are not under law but under grace!
  • You have become slaves of righteousness!
  • You once were on a pathway to death –
  • — but now you are on the road to life!

All of these things are invisible, intangible realities; we couldn’t figure them out just on our own.  And we probably don’t FEEL like most of them are true most of the time, so our subjective experience might lead us to think that not much has changed when we took the plunge into this life of faith – doubly so if it’s been a while, and our initial awareness of a transition into an entirely different worldview has faded.

But Paul, our tour guide, assures us with the authority of his apostleship that this is the metaphysical situation of the believer.  These things are objectively true, independent of our feelings.  And since they are true, we need to grapple with their implications.  To sin, or not to sin?  The one repeated imperative in this chapter answers the question:

“Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions…present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness…So now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”

The theological (and very practical) point is that if you are a believer in Christ, you can offer yourself for good and not for ill, precisely because your metaphysical situation has changed.  You can choose not to sin.  It may not seem so, as you may feel overwhelmingly drawn to the sinful impulses that filled your past and still fill the surrounding world, your will, and your muscle memory; but this is your metaphysical reality.  Go ahead and learn to walk in it confidently!

The revelation of this metaphysical situation, what’s really going on in the universe and in our souls, offers us the objective context we need to press on despite the subjective sense that nothing in us has changed.  Like the Roman Christians, we can receive these words of Paul as a refreshing perspective on our own physical situation, as we keep on striving for holiness.


*Note that Paul’s immediate dive into the theological in Romans means that we, reading as believers today, may immediately identify with the things he is saying.  Because he doesn’t know his audience very well, his purpose is to speak generally about the metaphysical situation of believers – and so we, too, can directly relate his words to our situation without first taking the precaution of considering what those words meant “back then” to the original readers in their particular historical context.

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Christ Jesus Our Lord

[Texts:  The New Testament Epistles]

You probably already realize that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name.  You may even be aware that it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” naming that Davidic, anointed-king figure who was eagerly expected to come one day and set the whole world to rights again. But you may not have ever sorted out for yourself the multiple uses and appearances of this title in the New Testament, both in combination with Jesus’ name and alone, or noticed the significance of each variation for the NT writers’ purposes.  In this forest of occurrences of “Christ” (480+!), it’s easy to assume there’s only one kind of tree.

Here’s the fruit of some research that I’ve been doing in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving this fall. I don’t want to steal my own thunder, so these are some details that will mostly not be included in that little lecture on the Christ.  They’re just the results of a basic tallying of the frequency of the different uses of the word “Christ” – but I find them fascinating, and maybe you will, too.  I’ve included some further notes at the end for those of you who are interested in knowing the research steps I followed to these intriguing observations.*

Just considering the Epistles, it turns out that there are three main uses of the Greek title Christos with reference to Jesus, with a couple other rare ones making a cameo now and then.  Each conveys a different aspect of Jesus’ identity, corresponding to the writer’s purposes in a passage.  The different letter writers show individual preferences for particular uses of “Christ,” with Paul taking the lead for variety and also uniqueness in his usage of the word.  My findings are sketched for you below.

Jesus Christ:  Whether combined with “our Lord” or alone, this straightforward title has the most formal feel to it, emphasizing Jesus’ Lordly authority; so I’ll call it the Kingly Title.  This is especially apparent in Paul’s usage, where we find it most often in the formal opening and closing sections of his letters.  It almost never appears in the Gospels, except at the very start of Matthew, Mark, and John – the points at which the author is most transparently present in his text, explaining Who it’s going to be about.  The Kingly Title is preferred by Peter, John, and Jude, who use it almost exclusively.  Atypically for Paul, he refers to Jesus almost solely by this title in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

Christ:  In our English translations, Jesus is simply called “Christ” 220 times in the Epistles (compared to about 112 for “Jesus Christ” and 78 for “Christ Jesus”).* Paul, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews are most likely to adopt this usage.  In Paul’s case especially, the single word “Christ” tends to occur in the thick of his most energetic communication, leading me to call it the Shorthand Name-Title.  Where it occurs without the article (see second note below), it is most clearly being used as another name for Jesus, not so much as a formal title – as we might call our minister “Pastor,” intending only to refer to the man, not his job, even though the name could only result from his having that position.  (But put “the” in front of “Pastor” or “Christ,” and the emphasis changes!  See it?)

Christ Jesus:  This is really my favorite discovery.  You think it’s just “Jesus Christ” backwards, right, thrown in here and there to add a little variety?  That might be the case if everybody occasionally used it, but in fact this one is exclusive to Paul.  The one occurrence outside Paul’s letters is when Luke tells what Paul was up to in Caesarea: “After some days Felix came . . . and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus,” Acts 24:24 – which is exactly how Felix would have heard it come out of Paul’s mouth.  There is a tenderness to Paul’s choice of name-title here, as if he were speaking of someone very precious to him:  not only the lofty King of kings, not only the God-man who fulfilled the Jewish Messiah’s role, but also Paul’s own personal Friend and Savior.  And it’s when Paul is feeling especially tender towards his readers, when he urgently wants them to know the heart of God for them, that this name for his Friend and Savior spills out of him.  Though it occurs in almost all of his letters, it comes especially thick and fast when he writes to Timothy, as if he especially wants to pass on knowledge of the gracious Lord, Christ Jesus, to his dearest child in the faith.  Pay special attention to this one when it occurs in Paul’s writing, recalling that Christ Jesus is our tender Shepherd, too.



*My research steps to discovering the use of “Christ” in the NT went like this (so far):

  • I did a word search for the use of “Christ” in the ESV through, turning up 534 results.
  • I created a table to record the reference & the text of the verses, copying and pasting the texts from the search results (dismissing those that were counted because “Christ” was mentioned in the heading!).
  • I color-coded (using highlighter & font color) to show the different usages.
  • I double-checked the Greek text wherever “Christ” appeared in the ESV without the article (“the”), discovering that sometimes the word “Christ” was not in the original text at all (the editors just thought we needed it, I guess!), and sometimes the word actually DID have an article attached in the Greek. (See second note, below.)
  • I tallied usage according to the different arrangements of the title, keeping separate tallies of the preferences of different NT authors & Paul’s usage by book.

*Our English translations hide a couple details, though.  For one, as I mentioned already, sometimes the translators add “Christ” to make sure we know who the writer is talking about (where the Greek just says “he” and leaves the identity ambiguous).  Also, there is sometimes a subtle distinction between “the Christ” and just plain “Christ.”  Although it’s not uncommon in Greek to add a definite article (the) before a proper noun (“the Jesus,” “the John,” etc.) without affecting the meaning, in the case of “the Christ” one of two things may be happening:  either the writer is merely referring to the Savior Jesus by name-title, or he is referring to – or especially  emphasizing Jesus’ fulfillment of – the specific Jewish Messiah figure.  Evidently the translators voted in favor of the first option more often than the second in the Epistles (83 times vs. 7 times!).  But I think quite a few occurrences of “the Christ” in Greek, translated merely as “Christ,” could arguably have possessed that specific Messianic emphasis in the original.  Maybe I’ll write you a paper on this someday.

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[Texts: 1 & 2 Corinthians; Aristotle’s Rhetoric]

When Paul protests to the Corinthians that he did not come to them “proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom,” we shouldn’t imagine that he left his education on the doorstep of the synagogue (or the house of Titius Justus!).  Nor should we think that he had anything against elegant phrasing and argumentation, even though he insists he didn’t preach the gospel with “words of eloquent wisdom.”  Frankly, his own writing gives the lie to the assumption that his approach to sharing the gospel was somehow ingenuously lacking in strategic, deliberate verbal tactics.

The contrast Paul draws here in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 is not between untrained but sincere speech (on the one hand) and the use of rhetorical strategies for persuasion (on the other).  On the contrary, he specifically distances himself only from the deceptive “wisdom” and “eloquence” of the sophists of his day, who would persuade people to believe falsehoods by way of flattery and impressively complex reasoning.  It’s the moral compass behind the verbal stratagems that’s in view here, not rhetorical skill per se.  Accordingly, in both letters to the Corinthians the evidence of Paul’s persuasive skills abounds as he seeks to rebuke, correct, and steer them towards a fuller understanding of the gospel.

I’ve named and written about one of Paul’s rhetorical approaches previously, offering “Mutual Autobiography” as a collective term for a biblical writer’s sincere but planful references to history shared with the recipients of a letter.  Appeals to past and current relational realities have the effect of linking the writer’s content with the readers’ feelings, a powerfully persuasive tactic when those feelings are positive; as Aristotle once observed of a speaker’s audience, “Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.”  So in several of his letters, Paul clearly takes advantage of the positive associations his readers have with his person and his past actions, demonstrating his shrewd assessment of their emotional responsiveness to his appeals.

Here’s another rhetorical strategy to add to our list of Paul’s methods, this one employing reason and logic to persuade.  What I’ve dubbed “Theo-logic” occurs when a biblical writer traces an “If-Then” construction, showing how an established situation in the history of God’s dealings logically leads to a further, and even more significant, conclusion. It’s an appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions, its power lying in its irresistible reasonableness.  A couple of examples:

From 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul both lays out the true situation and pursues the logical extension of some false instruction that has infiltrated the church:
IF we preach Christ raised from the dead,
THEN this other version of events (“No resurrection!”) just doesn’t make sense!
IF they are right about “No resurrection!”,
THEN not even Jesus was raised.
IF not even Jesus was raised,
THEN your faith is futile and you are still in your sins, and our dead friends are lost forever.
IF not even Jesus was raised,
THEN what’s the point of our preaching, and all this suffering for the gospel?  We’re of all people most to be pitied for believing a lie!
…Let’s move on to the true situation (which I’ve supported previously with references to hundreds of eyewitnesses, some of whom are still alive):  in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!
IF Christ has been raised,
THEN all shall be made alive, as promised!
IF the dead are raised,
THEN all my suffering for the gospel (and for you Corinthians) makes perfect sense!

From 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul alternates between noting what was true in the past under the Old Covenant, and asserting what is presently true for believers in Christ:
IF the ministry of death, that Law written on stone tablets, came with Moses’ face glowing with glory that faded,
THEN won’t the Spirit’s ministry have even more glory?
IF there was glory in the ministry of condemnation,
THEN the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.
IF what was being brought to an end had glory,
THEN won’t the permanent ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
Conclusion:  yes, indeed – and because we’ve tapped into this permanent glory, we are willing to bear anything for the sake of this good news!

Keep alert in your studies of the Epistles, especially, for passages like these that read a bit like geometric proofs – IF you find them, THEN you can acknowledge the writer’s effective use of Theo-logic!


Further notes for the curious:  Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric (c.340 B.C.) was in circulation in the intellectual world that Paul inhabited, and it’s possible that he encountered it, read it, and benefited by it.  Luke reports that Paul quoted Greek poets and playwrights in his travels around Achaia, so it’s not inconceivable that he’d have dipped into the famous philosopher’s works as well.  On the other hand, Paul’s excellent education at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel would have provided plenty of rhetorical training.  The rabbis didn’t need to appeal to the Greeks for persuasive strategies — and they even developed a few of their own that related specifically to the handling of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The book of Hebrews contains many examples of these rabbinical verbal tactics.

Whether he studied Aristotle’s ideas or not, here’s a passage from The Rhetoric that at least accurately describes Paul’s rhetorical intelligence:

“There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion.  The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand emotions — that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.”  (Aristotle, The Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts.  NY: Random House (1984), 25.)


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