One of the side-effects of reading leading OT and NT scholars is that the former rearranges your childish mental furniture which trivialized the Old Testament and the latter build on that for a much more expanded view of the goal of Jesus Christ’s ministry. The second side-effect is that they set you on a path of exploration for yourself that haunts you even in the shower, and today’s post is a result of one of those brain-on-thinking-spree-whiles-in-the-shower moments. And here was the question I was dealing with: why does Peter link forgiveness of sins with the gift of the Holy Spirit in Ac 2:38? Let’s see where my rearranged furniture lead me in that shower on Sunday morning.
The Failure and Hope Of Ancient Israel
Thanks to the above mentioned phenomenon, in recent times I’m beginning to see much better the key role that the Exodus and the Exile played in the history and faith of the people of Israel before Jesus’s arrival. No wonder Jesus used the Law and the Prophets to explain to his two bewildered and despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus why the Messiah had to die (Lk 24:13-33) .
You see the people of ancient Israel believed that Yahweh was their protector, and that so far as they remained faithful to him, his presence will continue to be with them and protect them (signified first by the tabernacle, then by his descent into the Temple during it’s dedication by Solomon). This state of God’s continuous goodwill towards the nation is what is described in Deuteronomy 28:1-12 as Yahweh’s “blessings”. Conversely if they acted unfaithfully, then he will abandon them to their enemies and he will have them exiled, described as the “curses” in Deut 28:15-64. Having been a people who boasted so much of Yahweh’s salvation in the form of him having saved them from slavery to Egypt to give them their own inheritance of the land of Canaan, obviously the worst punishment that Yahweh would give them was they losing that land and going back into slavery – which is exactly what is contained in the “curses part. Sadly in my previous life, I used to read these blessings and curses in the usual way that many Christians are taught to read the bible – individualistically looking for portions I could “claim” for myself. Whether I as an individual could experience exile as described here is another question, but I digress.
So when exile did eventually come and worst of all the temple – where Yahweh himself was taught to dwell – was destroyed, it was a day of great disaster, anguish and reflection. The only conclusion that they could come to was that 1) Israel had disobeyed Torah – the law, 2) as a result Yahweh had used first Assyria and then Babylon to punish them. Note that previous attempts had been made to conquer them before this, but by virtue of having leaders and kings like Gideon (Judges 7) and Hezekiah (2 Ki 18) who lead the nation in faithfulness to Yahweh, he protected them from these enemies.
But there was hope – Yahweh had already stated that when they disobey him and exile comes upon them, and yet they do return to seek him faithfully he will come back to them (Deut 30). The prophets picked up on this hope, and explained further ways in which Yahweh was going to act differently now when he returns, some of which were also mentioned in Deut 30.
Deut 30:1-8 When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you …, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes … The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. You will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today.
This hope is now expressed by the Jeremiah thus
Jer 31:31-34 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors … I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God … For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”
Jeremiah then is picking up the theme of God’s return to Israel in Deut 30, and showing that it will indeed be a new covenant in which God will himself enable the people to obey his laws – something which they failed to do which lead to “the curse” aka exile.
The exile is pictured by Ezekiel as the famous “valley of dry bones”, and at the end of it God promises the ff:
Ezek 37:12-14 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says … I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land”
The New Variable In The Equation
Aside God restoring their fortunes, giving them a new heart, circumcising it and putting the law in their heart, he has introduced something new in the equation via the prophets, especially Ezekiel above – he will put his own Spirit in them so they will live. There are a few things we need to note from the above then.
The exile was caused by sin – Israel’s failure to keep to their side of the covenant. Therefore if Yahweh will return to them, he will obviously have to forgive their unfaithfulness (i.e. their “sins”).
He will then have to either renew the old covenant he had with them, or vary the terms of the covenant or introduce a totally new one.
He himself desires that they be faithful to this new covenant he will give, so he himself will do a work that enables them to be faithful via introducing a new variable in the equation – his own Spirit.
The primary purpose of the Spirit is to make sure that Israel will be obedient to Yahweh’s new covenant he will launch.
Enter Jesus, and he goes about launching “the kingdom of God”. When asked what the most important command is, he says there are 2 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind”, and “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39), which NT scholar Scott McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. He even gives his disciples a new command – to “love one another as I’ve loved you” (Jn 13:34). And to be even more specific, Jesus himself says self-sacrifice for the other is the real gold standard of love (Jn 15:13).To crown it all when he’s leaving, he informs his disciples that the Spirit will come and be with them and give them power to be his witnesses – witnesses to the way of life he has shown them and the commands he has given them.
It is not surprising then that when Paul speaks of the spirit, he says the ff:
He refers to Deut 30 when he says the Spirit circumcises our hearts – so we can be a people who live in obedience to Jesus (Romans 2:28).
In the book of Romans he always compares slavery to sin or to the flesh with freedom in the Spirit – because sin is disobedience. Let’s not forget in Ro 1:5 he says his God given mission is to call men to obedience that comes from faith.
He is frustrated with the Corinthian church because instead of the presence of the Spirit leading them to be a people of love just as Jesus commanded, it has made them a people who use their gifts to abuse one another and destroy the unity of and love within the body of Christ. I’m saddened that in modern times, 1 Cor 13 has been reduced of all its power to a passage about love in marriage because it is constantly read during wedding ceremonies. In context it rather speaks of love that must exist in the body of Christ, and its constant association with weddings is blinding us to who the message is really for and what its about – the church.
He speaks of the fruit of the spirit as demonstrations of whether the Galatian church are a people who are actually being lead by the God’s own spirit or not (Gal 5:22-23).
All of this then makes me see why Peter associates the forgiveness of sins with the gift of the Spirit. Because the expected new covenant had been launched in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the primary means by which we can be faithfully obedient to that new covenant is by God himself giving us his Spirit – as he himself spoke of it in the OT.
It also leads me to ask questions of the churches and church traditions that make the most noise about the Holy Spirit. How has the abundance of “Holy Spiritism” lead to better obedience of Jesus? How has it lead to love for God and love for neighbour? Do you care if those watching from the outside hardly see your obedience, your love for one another, and the increasing absence of any of the fruits of the spirit? Has it occurred to you that you might be behaving like the Corinthian church, who loved signs and wonders, but lacked love and obedience? How much of your “prophetic meetings” is leading people towards forgiveness of one another, self-sacrifice and dyeing for your enemies, all these being Jesus’s own commands? Has it occurred to you that the reward for unfaithfulness to God’s commands is exile, and the God who punished Israel with exile is the same God we worship today? Are you sure you are not missing the point about why the Holy Spirit is given in the first place?
I’ll end with a quote from a friend.
“The mark of a person who is truly Spirit lead is that they always talk about Jesus and follow his example – because the Spirit is supposed to point us to Jesus” – Bruxy Cavey