Communion & The Greatest Commandment

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI have a confession to make – I’ve developed a deeper appreciation and interest in the Old Testament, and it’s deepening my reading and understanding of the New, especially of the Gospels and of Paul’s letters. It has also radically re-aligned my understanding of one of the most important practices within Christianity since it’s foundation – the Communion or Eucharist. This is partly because I’ve been reading a lot of OT scholars of late, but also because of Richard Hays’ enlightening work in “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” about making use of metalepsis when reading OT quotations one finds in the NT. By metalepsis, Hays simply means that when one sees a verse of the OT quoted in the NT, do not just look for the corresponding verse in the OT and be satisfied, but rather read the whole OT chapter or chapters from which that one verse was obtained and quoted in the NT. Following that advise has wrecked my theology of Communion – but only for the better. So let me share with you how metalepsis has challenged my understanding of Communion.

The Greatest Commandment

The Gospels record a time when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah. Jesus responded by saying

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38 NIV)

Years ago I simply thought of this as an injunction to strengthen my personal relationship with God via much bible study, prayer, church activities and a zeal to be obedient to God’s laws as found in the Bible. Of course, having been brought up a Pentecostal, such an individualist interpretation of this passage is well within acceptable bounds and will be common to many readers of this post. But going back to read and reflect on Deuteronomy 6 where Jesus quotes this from yields a much more interesting interpretation than most will be used to.

The Shema, Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East

If one reads the above passage from any good bible, one might see a footnote that points to Deut 6:5 as the source of Jesus’s quotation in Mt 22:37-38. What many readers of the bible may not know however is that Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the foundation of a famous prayer called the Shema which was recited by Jews in Jesus’s day and is still recited by modern day practicing Jews as well. You can find out a bit more about it here. The fact that Jesus was quoting from the Shema is more obvious if you read Mark’s account of the interaction (Mk 12:29-34), which starts off with “Hear, O Israel…”, exactly as the opening line of the Shema.

Reading the whole of Deuteronomy 6 however, I found that the primary concern of Yahweh giving that commandment to love him so wholly was tied to something I’m discovering more and more all over both the OT and subsequently, seeing it’s footprints in the NT – Yahweh had a covenant relationship with Israel, who in their Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture were surrounded by many neighbouring nations who worshiped many other gods. Therefore this injunction to love Yahweh with their heart, soul and mind was a covenant reminder – a reminder not to go chasing after those other gods. Check out some subsequent verses in Deut 6.

It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you – for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God – lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.” (Deut 6:13-15 NIV)

Note that the consequence of following those other gods were not just personal. This injunction was about the fate of the nation Israel, not about an individual’s own punishment.

I also began to notice that many of the commandments in the Torah are prefixed or suffixed by a reminder that Yahweh was the one who delivered them from Egypt (or the one who created the world) and hence the only one they were to worship (Ex 20:1-3; Deut 5:6-7; Lev 26:13-14).

Many of us modern readers may miss the seriousness of this injunction because we tend to have separations between our religious convictions and our day to day interactions with people around us, but in the ANE world, everybody’s religious beliefs were part and parcel of their lives and all activities, including how they related to other neighbours. Having one’s “personal” or “family” gods in addition to national gods was the norm, not the exception amongst ancient Israel’s neighboring nations with whom they interacted regularly.

Hence what Jesus calls “the greatest commandment” was a commandment to Israel mainly to remind them to avoid unfaithfulness to Yahweh and switching their loyalty away from him to other gods. It was a covenant reminder. In a culture that was surrounded by many gods, an intentional effort was needed to remind them of the one Creator god with whom they had a special relationship as a nation. Hence the encouragement not just to love with all their minds, heart and soul, but additionally to “impress them on your children”, “tie them as symbols on your hands” etc etc. As with all outward showings of belief aka rituals, doing these things were not a guarantee of one’s love for Yahweh, but a means to remind oneself of who one was vis-a-vis one’s God. Unfortunately as with all outward expressions of inner belief, sometimes the rituals themselves gain a life of their own, leaving what it was supposed to remind us of itself behind. This is exactly the case by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, but in addition this has been the bane of all religions, Jewish, Christian, Islam, you name it. Too many of us find our comfort in our symbols rather than what they are supposed to represent.

The Wine as a Covenant Reminder

Having been directed to the importance of covenant in understanding the death of Jesus Christ by Michael Gorman of which I wrote about here, my mind immediately saw the link between “The Greatest Commandment”, and the wine of communion. When Jesus picked up the wine to share with his disciples, he called it “the blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:28 NIV) and “new covenant in my blood”. In this process, Jesus was not only evoking the “blood of the covenant” in Ex 24:8, he also invoked Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31). Mulling this over, I came to the following conclusion.

Drinking of the communion wine is primarily an act reminding us that we the gathered people together are in a covenant relationship with God. It is a reminder to uphold the 1st great commandment – to not follow any other god but Yahweh, who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Bread as Community and Unity Reminder

Which brought me then to the subject of the bread. I’m yet to find any Old Testament linkage of Jesus’s use of the bread to signify his body. However, looking at Paul’s epistles and his statements about “the body of Christ”, it seems to be that the bread then stands for the unity of the participants gathered as one people of God. Paying better attention to the full context of Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 then, one sees Paul’s rebuke of disunity in the body of Christ at Corinth as manifesting itself in how they actually didn’t have “the Lord’s supper” , but rather were eating individual meals (v 20-21). And given that the whole NT is emphatic that love of God must lead to love of brother, I came to the second conclusion.

Eating the communion bread is primarily an act reminding us that we who are gathered are one in the body of Christ, accepted by grace and of equal worth before God. Just as the unleavened bread used in the Passover during Jesus’s last supper with the disciples, we are indeed holy and set apart for his purposes – that of being a royal priesthood and a holy nation for the benefit of the world. We are made up of Jews, Gentiles, slave, free, male, female, Ewe, Akan, Dagomba, Fante, American, Chinese, Yoruba, Igbo etc. Nothing must divide us, because nothing can separate us from the love of God which we already confess by taking the wine. It is a reminder of the second greatest commandment – love your neighbour as yourself.

Rethinking Christian Unity

Following from these 2 conclusions on Communion, it became more obvious to me the futility of building Christian unity without prioritizing what Jesus explicitly commanded we must do regularly – communion and its associated Christian fellowship. As I put on my Facebook wall recently, Jesus never said “when you meet, have bible discussions in remembrance of me”, but rather speaking of communion, he says “do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me”. As Scott McKnight pointed out recently whiles reviewing Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible” (a book I enjoyed myself and highly recommend), it is impossible to build unity around unity of biblical interpretations, and the abundance of divisions between many churches all claiming to obtain their authority from “Scripture only” is clear evidence to that fact. Unity built on “doctrine” and biblical interpretations is only possible among those who hold the same thoughts on these kinds of matters, which renders the concept of Christian unity quite unattainable.

Conclusion

So, I’ve come to some conclusions after such re-arrangement of my mental furniture regarding communion, Christian unity and the Great commandments. Whiles I continue to vigorously pursue improving my understanding of Jesus via the study of scripture, of theology and cultural/historical backgrounds of the biblical text, I’ve resolved that the pursuit of fellowship takes precedence over the pursuit of theological “rightness”. I’ve found myself having communion in some “unapproved” locations with some “unapproved” friends, and we’ve enjoyed doing so tremendously. This has not dulled my interest in learning one bit, but has rather led me to understand Jesus better – he was more interested in gaining a “negative” reputation for spending time eating and drinking with the “unacceptables” than he was pleasing the theological gatekeepers of his time. He didn’t have to compromise any of the truth he knew, but he knew that truth has a purpose – that in him (Jesus Christ) “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19)

Isn’t it genius of Jesus to use the one practice he commanded us to do regularly to also serve as a means to remind us of the 2 Greatest Commandments?

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Detecting the Old Testament in The Gospels With Richard B. Hays

Reading Backwards - Richard B. Hays
Reading Backwards – Richard B. Hays

I finished reading Richard B. Hays’ “Reading Backwards” last week, and on an ordinary day, this blog post should be a review of the book. But these are not ordinary days, and Richard Hays is no ordinary New Testament scholar. And so with him as a conversation partner (more like mentor), I’ll like to address a problem that I’ve encountered within the church when we talk of Jesus “fulfilling” prophecy, and for which I’ve written about indirectly on this blog before.

The Problem

It is standard teaching within every church I have ever attended in my short lifetime that Jesus’s life fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, and if the people of Israel had been paying attention, they would have accepted Jesus as Messiah. This is one of the “defenses” that is employed by many people eager to defend Jesus and the Bible from criticism. But many have pointed out – and any serious unbiased study shows – that the ways that the writers of the Gospels make use of the Old Testament to paint a picture of Jesus’s can sometimes seem as if these Evangelists (i.e. writers of the Gospels) are misquoting scripture to support their point. Unfortunately, many people – especially those unfamiliar with history and context of 1st century Judaism – are unwilling to consider this criticism because of its implications to their Christian faith. Some friends I have spoken to have indeed expressed this disquiet to me, but others simply ignore this dissonance in favor of a dogmatic defense of the Evangelists’ usage of the Old Testament. After all Paul says that the events of Jesus’s life happened “according to Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3), and the matter is ended by simplistically pointing out proof-texts that the Evangelists quote from the Old Testament.

But what if there actually is a way to acknowledge these difficulties, whiles still making sense of this usage pattern of the Evangelists? Along comes Richard Hays and his adoption of the method of figural reading of the Old Testament. In this book, he applies it to focus on Christology (Jesus’s divinity), and the results are stunning!! He traces far more passages than many standard proof-texts used to defend Jesus’s divinity, and so we’ll look at a few of them to see whether we can understand how and why the Evangelists (and Jesus) used the Old Testament the way they did.

Reading Backwards vs “Prophetic Predictions”

Hays sets the tone with the following statement, explaining how figural reading (aka reading backwards) is different from prediction.

There is consequently a significant difference between prediction and pre-figuration. Figural readings need not assume that the OT authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective” (pp 2, my emphasis).

By this statement, Hays is pointing out an important fact – that the Gospels were written as a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus AFTER the actual events (in fact many decades after the actual events). The Gospel writers, especially Mark, do not hide the fact that Jesus’s life and ministry actually confused his own disciples, much more ordinary people who heard him. This is primarily because Jesus didn’t stay in character as just a messiah. He claimed to be these as well:

  1. The embodiment of Israel itself. Jesus’s usage of language regarding being “the vine” and his disciples being the “branches” in John 5 is language that the Old Testament uses to speak of the nation Israel e.g Isaiah 5:1-7.

  2. The embodiment of Yahweh. In Mt 12:6, whiles defending his “abuse” of the Sabbath, Jesus states that “something greater than the temple is here”. To make life easier, I quote Hays.

We are not told precisely what the “something greater” might be, but the inference lies readily at hand that it must be Jesus himself. What could be greater than the temple other than the one to whom it is dedicated, the one who is worshiped in it?” (pp 45)

  1. The replacement of the Temple. In 1st century Judea, the only legitimate place that one could go to receive forgiveness of one’s sins was the temple with it’s high priests and its sacrifices, and yet Jesus goes about telling people “your sins are forgiven”. Not only does Jesus become a “mobile temple”, he further calls down judgement upon the existing one in his act of scattering the tables of the money changers and driving away the merchants there, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah (who prophesied the destruction of the 1st temple) to boot.

These and other angles were way beyond the simple category and prophetic expectations of a Messiah and only made sense after Jesus’s resurrection (a resurrection after which he still needed to spend much time explaining to his disciples like those he met on the Emmaus road in Lk 24). Speaking of these Emmaus road disciples, Hays says

The disciples on their way to Emmaus had already heard it reported that Jesus was live, but because they did not know how to locate this report within Israel’s story, it seemed a curious and meaningless claim” (pp 16).

Therefore the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were no longer reading the Old Testament with a simple one-to-one correspondence between what the OT said and what Jesus did – they were wearing a multifaceted lens to discover patterns of a multifaceted person that an ordinary Jew of Jesus’s day largely WILL NOT have understood. The Evangelists were “reading backwards” from the event of Jesus i.e. they were doing a figural reading. In fact, the Gospel of John makes this very explicit.

John tells us, [that] the disciples’ understanding came only later, only as they read backwards to interpret Jesus’s actions and words in light of the paradigm shattering events of his resurrection. That is the point emphatically made in Jn 2:22: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. They they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22). Even more explicitly than the other Gospel writers, then, John champions reading backwards as an essential strategy for illuminating Jesus’s identity … Only by reading backwards, in light of the resurrection under the guidance of the Spirit, can we understand both Israel’s Scripture and Jesus’s words” (pp 85)

So let’s look at some examples of how figural readings explain some ways in which Jesus didn’t “fulfill prophecy”, but actually DID fulfill prophecy. Are you confused yet?

Test Case 1

Matthew is the most “problematic” when it comes to statements about Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are about 15 statements in which this Evangelist explicitly points out that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy by a certain action. Hays points out that this has somehow blinded many readers to the more than 100 allusions to OT prophetic fulfillment simply because he didn’t put the words that say those actions of Jesus fulfilled prophecy.

Our first test case will be Jesus’s childhood escape to Egypt in Mt 2:13-18. In this test case, Herod has heard about the baby Jesus, and intends to send out his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill all children under two years of age. An angel appears to Joseph, and instructs them to escape to Egypt. And out of the blue, Matthew the Evangelist says

And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Mt 2:15)

Here my NIV bible has a footnote pointing me to Hosea 11:1, which reads

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that Hosea is not talking about a singular person, but about the nation Israel being rescued through the exodus by Yahweh. If you dispute it, just read the rest of Hosea 11. So on the plain surface of the reading, good old Uncle Matthew has certainly “proof-texted” scripture to “prove” his case, just as many Christians do today, sadly. And the frightening thing is that this is no mere Christian. This is in sacred scripture we call the Gospel of Matthew.

But wait? What did I say about a multi-faceted Jesus who refused to stay in one mold? Jesus’s ministry involved him claiming to be the embodiment of Israel. Therefore if one takes Jesus’s claims about himself to be true (and that’s what after the resurrection, the disciples did), then it is a legitimate usage of scripture to quote a text about Israel and apply it to the person of Jesus, not so?

Test Case 2

We take a look at a second test case, this time on how Jesus appropriated scripture in a way not consistent with expectations of the Messiah, but fully consistent with the portraits of himself he sought to reveal to his disciples as the embodiment of Yahweh, or the new temple etc etc. Here we look at a story recorded by John in John 1:35-50.

John the Baptist had already been preaching to everyone about the coming kingdom, the need for repentance and the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Therefore when he meets Jesus, he points him out as “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) to everyone, including his disciples. As a result, some of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and Andrew, Peter’s brother, goes to tell him that “We have found the Messiah”. This is simply in repetition of what John had already told them.

Jesus proceeds to call Philip and Nathanael, and in conversation with Jesus, Nathanael again declares Jesus to be “the son of God; you are the king of Israel” (again, in line with John the Baptist’s broadcast message and expectation of the Jews). Jesus’s response is totally unorthodox, and not the kind of response that a simple Messiah will give.

Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (Jn 1:50)

Here, Jesus is quoting Gen 28:12, where Jacob had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and angels climbing up and down that ladder. What did Jacob do when he woke up? He surmised that “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Gen 28:17), and so builds an alter and sacrifices to Yahweh on it, calling the place Bethel aka. house of God.

What has such a weird response got to do with being a Messiah? Not much, unless Jesus is trying to say that he is more than just a Messiah – the he is the actual temple of God walking about on this earth. It is not surprising then that in the chapter immediately following this conversation (Jn 2), Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers and calls down judgement upon the temple of Jerusalem – because he Jesus was now the temple. It is not surprising also that it had to take his resurrection before the disciples made sense of this link (Jn 2:22, quoted above). At worst a Messiah may call for cleansing and re-dedication of the temple like Solomon did in 1 Ki 7 or like Judas Maccabeus did a few centuries before Jesus. But no right thinking Messiah would call for the destruction of the temple and claim they were the replacement of it. That is political suicide, as it turned out to be.

Observations

The above test cases point out some important things that modern readers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels need to pay attention to.

  1. The centuries old accusation that the 1st century Jews should have all believed Jesus’s message if they were actually minded to just because Jesus “fulfilled Old Testament prophecy” is a very simplistic accusation that we need to lay to rest sooner than later. Jesus fulfilled prophecy in his own way because he had a mission that stretched beyond simply being a political Messiah and saviour of the world. If we are quick to judge the Jews, maybe its because we ourselves are busy wearing the same unifocal spectacles that 1st century Jews wore when reading scripture – perhaps ours being the spectacles of dogmatism.

  2. Modern Christians need to shed their pious posture of thinking that they would have fared much better than 1st century Jews in terms of believing in Jesus. If Jesus’ own disciples needed the resurrection AND the Holy Spirit before it clicked what Jesus was about, maybe we need to be a bit more humble and acknowledge that many in our day will not recognize Jesus when he shows up as he did in the 1st century Judea. Incidentally, Jackson Wu just blogged last week on developing empathy so we can understand the failures of others and not repeat them, and he expresses my feeling on this issue much better than I could have put it here.

  3. Peter’s accusation that the Jews killed Jesus (Ac 2:23) is a legitimate accusation, but should not be used to prevent us from digging into the history and understanding the complexity of events surrounding Jesus’s ministry and the “fulfillment of prophecy”. Such language is normal throughout the New Testament and is a form “corporate solidarity” (thank you to Bruxy Cavey for this one). A simple example is a President or King deciding to go to war. It doesn’t matter if we participated in it ourselves, but we as citizens of that nation headed by the king/President are deemed guilty of whatever excesses happened during the war. I’ve been around enough Germans to know how this guilt works in regards to Hitler’s atrocities in World War 2, especially amongst the generation during and immediately after that war.

  4. If we are going to be a people who understand Jesus’s behaviour in the Gospels properly, as well as the Evangelist’s usage of Old Testament, or Paul’s statements of “according to Scriptures”, we need to do better than simply quoting proof-texts from the Old Testament. Here are two warnings from Richard Hays on this matter.

    What would it mean to undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the Evangelists? First of all, it would mean cultivating a deep knowledge of the OT texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones” (pp 103).

    Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings containing important laws or ideas or images; rather it traced out a coherent line that stretched out from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world … One implication of this is that a Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to the large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, proof texts, or halakhic regulations” (pp 105).

Conclusion

In conclusion, there’s a reason why I can’t wait for the release of Hays latest work “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”, (coming out in a few days from now) where he applies “figural reading”  beyond just the divinity of Jesus, but widens it to other major themes that the Evangelists were trying to communicate about him. The amount of lessons to be learnt in this small, 108 page “Reading Backwards” is belied by its size. Thank God for the likes of Richard B. Hays, and may his tribe increase. I pray that knowledge like his spread into the church and teaches modern Christians a little bit more humility, empathy and “appropriate” love for the Old Testament as we read the bible and see the Jesus who is prefigured in all of it, not just in places quoted by the Evangelists and other NT writers as “fulfilling prophecy”.

Healing the Divide II – Grace and Works

Grace

This is the 2nd in my series “Healing The Divide”. Find Pt 1 here

As a young, impressionable Pentecostal, one of the things that was drummed into my head about Jesus and his fractious relationship to certain people groups recorded in the Gospels – Pharisees and 1st century Jews in general – was that these people groups tried to gain their salvation through “works”, whiles Jesus came to bring us salvation through “grace”. As I grew up, I realized that this wasn’t just the teaching of the church I grew up in, but rather the standard teaching in myriads of Ghanaian churches, and indeed in the wider body of Protestant churches worldwide. The cardinal proof-text for this has been Eph 2:8-9.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph 2:-9

And yet over the last century or more, there has been quite a change among scholars about the relationship between grace and works, especially with regards to how 1st century Jews at the time of Jesus understood them. It began with 3 friends, C.H Dodd, David Daube and W.D. Davies. It was taken up further by Krister Stendahl, a Swedish scholar, but was set out in full swing by E.P. Sanders, a student of W. D. Davies. And it focused simply on applying a rule that any intelligent, honest person who wants to know the truth about any other people group or religion can universally agree with.

When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. (Rule 1 of Krister Stendahl’s 3 Rules of Religious Understanding)

In simple terms, if you want to learn the most about Islam, you should ask a Muslim, not a Buddhist or Christian. Applying this maxim to Judaism i.e. studying Jewish sources to understand what “grace” and “works” meant to them and not what Christians (who can be considered “enemies” in this case) thought they meant, they found out an astonishing truth – that many Christians, especially since the Protestant Reformation, may have misunderstood Paul when he spoke about the relationship between “grace” and works. Today of course, many others like James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright , Scott McKnight (belonging to a school of scholars collectively referred to as “New Perspective(s) on Paul”) have taken up that challenge and have done further research to improve our understanding of 1st century Judaism and therefore these matters of salvation, grace, works etc. But it seems it will take a few light years before this knowledge trickles down to our churches, as many still talk in the same old ways about grace and works. So here’s my attempt to help the process along by bringing them together in the whole that they need to be held in.

Grace and Salvation in the OT

I begin by examining the relationship between grace and salvation from the New Testament’s own historical context – the context of 1st century Israel. And what better place to learn about salvation than the events of the exodus?

The first recorded use of the word “salvation” or “redemption” is used by Moses in his song written to commemorate God’s work of saving Israel from Egypt in Exodus 15.

The Lord is my strength and my defense, he has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2).

After saving them, Yahweh then enacts a covenant with them, and in that process, explains why he saved them.

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut :7-8)

In other words, God’s salvation of Israel was also by grace – they didn’t earn it. They didn’t work for it. God chose them because of his special promise made to their fathers. The only “problem” is that they didn’t use the word “grace” to describe their salvation in the Old Testament, but if “grace” means unmerited favour like we Christians trumpet everyday, then this fits perfectly with what happened between Yahweh and ancient Israel. For them, works was a means of showing faithfulness to the covenant the God had entered to with Israel, not a means to get saved. As Michael Gorman points out in his book on atonement (which is now my favourite on the subject), the whole point of Jesus’s death as well as God’s previous engagement with the people of Israel was about covenant relationship, which covenant always required both partners to keep the terms of the covenant, whether with Israel or with the church.

This debunks one of the greatest caricatures that many Christians make of Judaism i.e. Pharisees and Jews in general were trying to get “saved” by works. Nothing could be further from the truth, as modern scholarship is discovering.

Having broken this covenant and received God’s punishment for doing so in the form of exile to Babylon, the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were now waiting for Yahweh to re-enact a new covenant with them, by first forgiving them of their previous unfaithfulness or “sins”, as captured by Jer 31:31-34. And this Jesus enacted through the shedding of his blood, though this time he opens the floodgates for others who are not Jews to also be part-takers of God’s new covenant. This was expected to be another work of “salvation”, as expressed by the prophets. The return of Yahweh to enact this new covenant and to “save” them is what Isaiah describes in chapter 52 as “good news”.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns! Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.” (Is 52:7-8)

Grace and Salvation in the NT

In Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, Paul realized that God’s promise to enact a new covenant and to also include the Gentiles in that covenant had been fulfilled. He therefore dedicated his life to letting the world know this, especially the Gentile world. But some Jews were still under the impression that even if Gentiles were now part of the new covenant, they needed to show their faithfulness to Yahweh in the old way – by keeping Torah just as they did. These Jews expected the Gentiles to at least observe the key commands which usually set Jews apart from others – circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, observance of the holy days and eating “kosher” i.e. observance of food laws (Col 2:16). These, scholars point out, are what Paul describes as “works of the law”. This became a point of disagreement between Paul and these people he called “Judaizers”.

Paul argued in his letters, especially in Romans and in Galatians, that the Gentiles do not need to show their faithfulness to Jesus by observing Torah (the Law), but simply by faith in Jesus and faithfulness to Jesus alone. Part of the problem was that Torah itself was meant to separate Jews from Gentiles, therefore keeping it would break the new union between the two that Jesus now provided. Paul was at pains to show then that in Jesus, the Law was no longer in effect, and this he did with his letters.

This is why the same Eph 2, expounds what “saved” means – “saved” means being made eligible to be part of God’s covenant people.

Therefore, [picking up from arguing that salvation is by faith, not works] remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done by human hands) – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11-13)

In effect, just as God rescued Israel by “grace” based on his love for their father Abraham – the faithful one, in the same way God is now rescuing the whole world based on his love for Jesus – the faithful one.

So What About Works Then?

So if keeping Torah was bound to bring back the divisions again, does that mean the people of the new covenant do not have any law to guide them? Far from that, I say. In the same Eph 2, Paul makes a very profound statement, stating the REASON why we are saved.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10)

A 1st century Jew reading this would not have been surprised at all, because as in the old covenant, covenant membership MUST always lead to covenant obedience. The salvation of the people of Israel from Egypt was for a purpose – that by obedience to Yahweh, they may show the world his design for human existence. Hence the expansion of that salvation to cover the Gentiles is still meant to achieve the same thing – that they may do “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.

It is here that Jesus’ life and commands in the Gospels take their place of pride. The “good works” are not a vague term that we can define for ourselves (as I often hear some preachers do). Peter explains exactly what “good works” means by referring to none other than the life of Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good …” (Act 10:37-38)

This is also why I really appreciate the Epistle of James – because he makes the linkage very clear – faith without works is dead. Being a Jew, he know that faith without works is what led to the Babylonian exile, and Paul like James, knows that our works will be judged in the end for faithfulness.

their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light” (1 Cor 3:13)

In fact I thank God everyday that Martin Luther’s attempt to have the Epistle of James and the book of Hebrews removed from the Protestant canon failed (because it somehow advocated “works” according to his definition of it). It would have been a great disservice to the church.

Reflections

The God of the Bible has shown himself to be a God of covenants. Christian understandings of salvation, grace and works must be primarily taught of as a means for us to enter into and stay faithful in God’s covenant relationship with his nation – which in the Old Testament was Israel, but which in the New Testament is Israel expanded to include Gentiles.

However, this way of understanding salvation, grace and works is not the typical way it is taught in churches today, because it is at variance with the way Protestant Christianity has first and foremost misunderstood ancient Judaism as a “works-righteousness” religion, and thence constructed itself as a “grace-only” religion. Some in this Christian tradition have taken this “grace-only” language to such extremes even beyond the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, and any hint that Martin Luther or John Calvin et al may have been mistaken in their understanding of Judaism (which should be normal, since they didn’t have access to the knowledge we have today) is met with accusations of heresy. But for me, an understanding of the New Testament based on a proper, contextual understanding of the Old Testament is vital and yields the following benefits.

  1. The current modes of speaking of “grace” and “salvation” lend themselves to individualism. Salvation is a call to each individual to participate in God’s covenant purposes he has already established before the foundation of the earth. Thinking in this mode expands our vision of God’s purposes beyond “me, myself and I” to “what has God done and is doing with me, and with these brethren of mine”.

  2. Current teaching in Protestant circles tends to not know exactly what to do with the church. We quote the terms “body of Christ” with very little effect, because our gospel and our understanding of salvation is very individualistic, we don’t see the covenant, corporate nature of this people we gather together every Sunday are meant to achieve a goal that no other group on this earth can achieve.

  3. An understanding of “grace” as God’s means of reconciling all forms of ethnic, racial and socially diverse people into one united body through the death of Jesus would have empowered the church to stand against 400 years of slavery in Europe and America (heavily engaged in by “Christian” nations), colonialism and its abuses (same here) , apartheid in South Africa (openly supported by the Dutch reformed church, whose members were the political leaders), anti-semitism and Christian participation in the killing of 6 million Jews in Germany (again, whose political leaders where either Catholic or Lutheran), and participation in countless wars with fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. Instead, the church would have behaved like Andre Trocme and his church in Le Chambon in France, who harbored Jews at the peril of their lives during World War 2 (when confronted by the authorities about habouring Jews his response was “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings”). I was indeed surprised when I got to know that during the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther unfortunately supported the killing of Jews. Reflecting on it, I realized that if his understanding of “grace” didn’t involve God’s reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, but was focused on how people got a ticket to heaven, then it was bound to happen.

  4. Because of the denigration of “works”, Christians have tended not to pay attention to Jesus’s own life and examples – preferring to see them as “too hard” and meant for heaven, or reading them as nice Sunday school stories from which moral platitudes may be obtained. Any attempt by Christians to take Jesus seriously is met with the charge of “trying to gain salvation by works”.

  5. Talk of the Holy Spirit is again, individualized. Instead of the Spirit being the means by which the church is guided to reach its goal, it is spoken of largely in terms of how a particular person can have the Spirit as a genie in the bottle – rub it the right way and say all your wishes, and it will be done.

Conclusion

These days, even the New Perspective on Paul is becoming old news, as others are building on that work to further expand our understanding of Jesus. Certainly, salvation must lead to works. God accepts us by looking at the sacrifice made by Jesus – but he always had a goal – to co-rule this world with his covenant people. This is what Adam and Eve failed at – without dependence on God (in a covenant of obedience), they were bound to follow their own way of claiming to “know good and evil”. In the same way, without faithfulness to God in covenant relationship as modeled by Jesus, the church will go wrong, and do all that it was rather supposed to stand against.

Grace and works cannot be separated. The former must lead to participation in the latter. Thank God for the New Perspective(s) on Paul, and may others take what they’ve done and open further insights in faithfulness to Yahweh, just as the Protestant Reformation did 500 years ago.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has Conquered, Let us Follow Him.