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godThis will be my best attempt at making a difficult subject easy to understand.  As noted in the previous post on Romans, a basic hermeneutical issue related to the book as a whole centers around the letters theme.  Again, most agree that somewhere in Romans 1:16-17 the main theme emerges. 

NIV

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[a] just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

NASB

For I am not (A)ashamed of the gospel, for (B)it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the (C)Jew first and also to (D)the Greek.  17For in it (E)the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “(F)BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

As was indicated previously, a decision is made on the part of the translators in translating dikaisyne theou.  Should it be “a righteousness from God” or “the righteousness of God.”  Let me first begin by saying that both are true and both are taught in Romans.  The Bible teaches that we are declared righteous by God.  The Bible also teaches that God is righteous.  So the issue is not one of heresy vs. orthodoxy, but one of exegesis.  We simply are trying to find out what Paul said in this particular verse.  Having said that, let me move forward by presenting why I believe “the righteousness of God” has the greater probability of being correct.  (I would also quickly note that it is not altogether unlikely for Paul to have both in mind as he pens this.  In fact, it might not be an either/or but a both/and, especially when it is understood that any discussion of God’s righteousness implicitly involves his setting things straight, including humans.  Thus, within this frame of reference it becomes more a question of which is primary and which is secondary). 

  1. Paul had at his disposal precise words which could be used to indicate the righteousness that comes from God.  In Phil. 3:9 Paul wrote, “and may be found in Him, not having (A)a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, (B)the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”  Paul uses a different set of Greek words here that unequivocally indicate a righteousness from God.  He uses he ek theou dikaiosyne.  Ek is the key word, meaning out of or from.
  2. The vast majority of the discussions of the righteousness of God in the Old Testament (and the Apocrypha and secondary literature for that matter) center around God’s faithfulness to His promises. 

Moving forward from this, I can elaborate a little bit on the second point.  First, the word “righteousness” is a classic example of a word that owes more to it’s Hebrew background than to it’s Greek.  In the Greek worldview, “righteousness” denoted a standard or ideal against which something or someone could be measured.  Something very much akin to this can be detected in the Bible.  However, in the Hebrew worldview, “righteousness” is much more of a relational term which emphasizes the meeting of obligations that are laid upon someone because of the relationship of which he/she is a part (1 Sam. 24:17).  This explains quite nicely why every time God’s promises seem to be in jeopardy, His people appeal to His righteousness as the solution to the problem.  In this reading, “the righteousness of God” could quite accurately be read as “God’s covenant faithfulness.”  Some further thoughts will bear out the likelihood of this frame of reference.

N.T. Wright does us a favor by highlighting the various strands of thought that were associated with God’s righteousness in Paul’s day and time.  He breaks them down quite nicely into the themes of Covenant, Law court and Apocalyptic.

Covenantal Themes

Wright notes that:

 “The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ (dikaiosyne theou) summed up sharply and conveniently, for a first-century Jew such as Paul, the expectation that the God of Israel, often referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures by the name YHWH, would be faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs.  Many Jews of Paul’s day saw Israel’s story, including the biblical story but bringing it up to their own day, as a story still in search of a conclusion—a conclusion to be determined by the faithfulness of their God.  As long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, the great promises made by this God to the patriarchs, and through the prophets, had still not been fulfilled” (Wright, Romans, 398).

Again, repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is appealed to as the source of salvation and vindication.  The passages are too numerous to list, but a reading of Isaiah 40-55 would substantiate the point.  Another aspect of this which Wright clues us into is the belief common among Paul and his contemporaries that they were in some sense still in Exile.  This is one of the main thesis of his massive work The New Testament and the People of God.  This belief is thoroughly documented there.  Within this framework, God’s righteousness is very much related to God’s fulfillment of His promises to Israel, including the forgiveness of sins, release from exile and the defeat of paganism.

A quote from the Dead Sea Scrolls will reinforce this common way of appealing to God’s righteousness:

  “As for me, if I stumble, the mercies of God shall be my eternal salvation.  If I stagger because of the sin of the flesh, my justification shall be by the righteousness of God which endures for ever…He will draw me near by his grace, and by his mercy will he bring my justification.  He will judge me in the righteousness of his truth and in the greatness of his goodness he will pardon all my sins.  Through his righteousness he will cleanse me of all the uncleanness of man and of the sins of the children of men.” (1QS 11:11-15)

Law court themes

Bound up very closely to the themes of the covenant God made with Abraham are the images from the law court.  In a Jewish legal case, “righteousness” is the status of the successful party.  “Vindicated” is probably a better term here (Gen. 38:26).  The term not only applied to the accuser or the defendant, but to the judge as well.  Thus, the righteousness of the judge on the one hand, and the righteousness of the parties involved, are clearly distinct.  Yet, they remain closely related.  Within the law court imagery, God’s  righteousness/justice conjures up the notion of God fixing things or setting things right (including, again, humans).  Of all the Psalms, 143 most vividly portrays the desire for God to act purely by grace to vindicate/justify the oppressed by defeating the enemy.  Again, the appeal is directly related to God’s righteousness (or read “God’s faithfulness to His promises”).  I quote in toto for the full force.

1Hear my prayer, O LORD,
         (A)Give ear to my supplications!
         Answer me in Your (B)faithfulness, in Your (C)righteousness!
    2And (D)do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
         For in Your sight (E)no man living is righteous.
    3For the enemy has persecuted my soul;
         He has crushed my life (F)to the ground;
         He (G)has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead.
    4Therefore (H)my spirit is overwhelmed within me;
         My heart is [a](I)appalled within me.
    5I (J)remember the days of old;
         I (K)meditate on all Your doings;
         I (L)muse on the work of Your hands.
    6I (M)stretch out my hands to You;
         My (N)soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.
    7(O)Answer me quickly, O LORD, my (P)spirit fails;
         (Q)Do not hide Your face from me,
         Or I will become like (R)those who go down to the pit.
    8Let me hear Your (S)lovingkindness (T)in the morning;
         For I trust (U)in You;
         Teach me the (V)way in which I should walk;
         For to You I (W)lift up my soul.
    9(X)Deliver me, O LORD, from my enemies;
         I take refuge in You.
    10(Y)Teach me to do Your will,
         For You are my God;
         Let (Z)Your good Spirit (AA)lead me on level ground.
    11(AB)For the sake of Your name, O LORD, (AC)revive me
         (AD)In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
    12And in Your lovingkindness, (AE)cut off my enemies
         And (AF)destroy all those who afflict my soul,
         For (AG)I am Your servant.

Israel would identify quite nicely with the sentiments of the psalmist.  A basic longing for an Israelite was to be vindicated by God in the presence of the enemy.  However, a second level problem emerges at this point.  Israel was called to be part of the solution to the problem of wickedness.  Does their subsequent unbelief somehow call into question God’s righteousness and put in jeopardy his covenant faithfulness to them?  This is a major theme of the book of 4 Ezra, written after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.  So at the turn of the millennium various factions of Jews were clamoring for God to act to vindicate them as the covenant-faithful Jews (for example, the Essenes).

APOCALYPTIC THEMES

This desire for God to act in His righteousness was classically expressed in apocalyptic terms.  Some hear the word “apocalyptic” and automatically think of the end of the space-time universe.  However, apocalyptic imagery among the Jews served a different purpose.  Wright defines it as not “so much a state of mind or a set of beliefs about the future, but a way of writing that uses highly charged and coded metaphors to invest space-time reality with its cosmic or theological significance” (Romans, 401).  Thus “God’s righteousness will be revealed” was a coded way of saying that God would at last act in history to vindicate Israel.  It is no surprise then that apokalyptetai is used in Romans 1:17.

With all these themes in mind, hopefully you can begin to sense a much deeper and richer reading of Paul’s thematic statement that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness.  Is Paul concerned with how a person “gets saved?”  Sure.  But he has much more in mind than that alone.  Paul wants to show that in the events of the cross God has finally acted within history to demonstrate and reveal His righteousness/faithfulness for all to see.  Paul sees God’s future as brought into the present in the event of the cross.  Herein God displays his faithfulness to His covenant promises He made with Abraham.  Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles only makes sense within this eschatalogical framework; i.e., God’s purposes for Israel have been fulfilled, now it is time for the Gentiles to come in.

In this reading, “justification by faith” is important, but not the main theme.  God seems to be the theme more than me.  In fact, statistically the word “God” appears more frequently in this letter than in any other of Paul’s writings (once every 46 words).  Paul is showing the Romans what God has been up to and where they belong on the map of these purposes (Wright, 404).  I’m undone.

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Israel was always cognizant of the special presence of God among them.  God dwelt among them when they travelled in the wilderness and God took up residence in the Tabernacle.  This was by God’s design and at least in my mind indicates the primary way in which God wants to dwell; i.e., he wants to go with His people wherever they go.  However, Israel chooses to localize God and put Him in a box by constructing a temple.  God plays their game and grants their wish.  He had gone from being the God who went with them everywhere, to the God who must be gone to.  But the point is the same, that God chooses to dwell with His people.  Isaiah is the prophet who most forcefully expresses this dwelling in terms of the Holy Spirit.

10 Yet they rebelled
       and grieved his Holy Spirit.
       So he turned and became their enemy
       and he himself fought against them.

 11 Then his people recalled [a] the days of old,
       the days of Moses and his people—
       where is he who brought them through the sea,
       with the shepherd of his flock?
       Where is he who set
       his Holy Spirit among them
,

 12 who sent his glorious arm of power
       to be at Moses’ right hand,
       who divided the waters before them,
       to gain for himself everlasting renown,

 13 who led them through the depths?
       Like a horse in open country,
       they did not stumble;

 14 like cattle that go down to the plain,
       they were given rest by the Spirit of the LORD.
      
This is how you guided your people
       to make for yourself a glorious name
.”
(Isaiah 63:10-14)

Though Israel was blessed with this presence (and consequently abused it), they were also made to experience it’s loss.  Ezekiel 10 vividly portrays the departure of God’s glory from the temple.  Subsequent passages within Ezekiel’s work will reassure Israel that God’s presence will return to the people.  Ezekiel intentionally links this return of God’s presence with the bestowal of His Spirit (see all the Ezekiel passages referenced thus far in this short series).  He says in 37:27, “I will dwell among them and they shall be my people.”

The longing.  The hope.  The painful awareness that things are not as they should be.  Israel was a people desperate for God’s gracious action; his glorious new age; his awaited Messiah.  Ah how they longed for God’s future.  Oh that God might end the drought, that he might bless all people (though this hope was not readily embraced), that he might renew his covenant and restore his presence.  What a beautiful foundation for the message of the cross.  And the most shocking thing to me–the foundational role of the Holy Spirit in all that was to transpire.  A Person whom I have heard so little about. 

Next we will quickly note the obvious ways in which the New Testament picks up on these themes.

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new-covenant1

 

 

In addition to the pouring out of God’s Spirit on a dry and thirsty land and the radical inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God, Israel expected a renewal of the the covenant that God had made with them. 

 

 

 

Hear Jeremiah:

31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
       “when I will make a new covenant
       with the house of Israel
       and with the house of Judah.

 32 It will not be like the covenant
       I made with their forefathers
       when I took them by the hand
       to lead them out of Egypt,
       because they broke my covenant,
       though I was a husband to them, ”
       declares the LORD.

 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
       after that time,” declares the LORD.
       “I will put my law in their minds
       and write it on their hearts.
       I will be their God,
       and they will be my people.

 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
       or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’
       because they will all know me,
       from the least of them to the greatest,”
       declares the LORD.
       “For I will forgive their wickedness
       and will remember their sins no more.”
(Jer. 31:31-34)

The prophet clearly indicates that the reason for the new covenant had nothing to do with some inherent deficiency with the first, but rather with the deficiency of the people.  Consequently, the new covenant will be one in which the people are moved by God to keep his laws–laws which are written on the heart.  Though Jeremiah does not mention the Spirit explicitly, Ezekiel emphasizes His role dramatically. 

26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.(Ezek. 36:26-27)

The drought of the Spirit.  The inclusion of Gentiles.  The renewed covenant.  Most of you are already thinking of New Testament passages.  But before we move forward, we must consider one more foundational hope–God’s restored presence among the people.

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       “And afterward, brotherhood1
       I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
       Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
       your old men will dream dreams,
       your young men will see visions.

       Even on my servants, both men and women,
       I will pour out my Spirit in those days
(Joel 2:28-29).

Jews who were well versed in the Old Testament were consciously aware that God had great things in store for the Gentiles.  Indeed, Abraham had been told that blessings would flow through him to all people (Jews and Gentiles).  So again, to follow the present line of thinking in Jewish eschatology, whenever the Spirit was poured out upon all people, a Jew would be able to affirm that God’s new age had indeed arrived.  This may be the world’s shortest post, but I simply highlight this brief point to show yet another aspect of Israel’s hope.  Next we will consider the third basic foundation for their eschatology; namely, the renewal of God’s covenant.

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droughtTHE DROUGHT OF THE SPIRIT

Many Jews at the time of Jesus believed themselves to be living through a drought of God’s Spirit.  The common belief was that the prophetic Spirit had been removed from Israel.  A note from history will suffice to substantiate this claim.  After Judas Maccabeus reconsecrated the Temple after the Maccabean revolt, they did not know what to do with the stones from their desecrated altar (upon which unclean animals had been offered).  Their response was to put them “in a convenient place on the temple hill UNTIL A PROPHET SHOULD COME to tell them what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46).  Now, I do not claim to know whether or not and to what extent God was still exercising His influence through prophets.  It appears to me, in agreement with the basic Jewish claim, that God had refrained from doing so on the same scale as He had in the past.  Whether or not this is absolute, I cannot say.  Josephus, for example, speaks of prophetic activity among the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls also speak of the experience of the Spirit among the Qumran community.  What I do know is that there was eager expectation that God would bring an end to this drought by pouring out His Spirit upon His people.

Consider a few examples from the Old Testament:

  • God says to His people in exile, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezek. 36:25-27).
  • The famous “Valley of Dry Bones” in Ezekiel portrays the end of the drought dramatically.  “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”  4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath [a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.  9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “
  • 14 The fortress will be abandoned,  the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever,  the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks, 15 till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field,  and the fertile field seems like a forest. 16 Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. 17 The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. 18 My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. 19 Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, 20 how blessed you will be, sowing your seed by every stream, 
    and letting your cattle and donkeys range free
    ” (Is. 32:14-20).
  • See also especially Ezek. 39:29; Is. 44:3-4; Joel 2:28

The major interpretive dilemma here is that many of these promises seem to look forward to Israel’s reconstitution as a people in their homeland–a feat which God was to accomplish very soon (a total of 70 years to be exact).  I must confess my own inadequacies on some of these questions, but at the same time believe I can point to some clues that will go a long way toward solving some of them (again, only some of them).  But I’m running ahead of myself.  For now I simply want to trace the expectation and hope at the time of Christ as rooted in Israel’s scriptures, especially in relation to the role of God’s Spirit.  Next we will consider the radical notion of Gentile acceptability as part of the new age expectation.

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