February 5: 2 Cor 4:3-4, etc

In the previous note, on 1 Cor 15:1-2, as well as the earlier note on Rom 1:1, 16, etc, I discussed how Paul, in his letters, only rarely expounds the theological aspects of the term eu)agge/lion. Most prominently this is done throughout the main body of Romans (the probatio, 1:18-11:36). There are, however, a few other passages where it is touched on—notably, in 1 Cor 15:1-2, and 2 Cor 4:3-4, which we will examine below.

It may be worth recalled the background of the eu)aggel– word group (and the corresponding root rcb in Hebrew/Aramaic). It was often used in the context of (good) news involving the outcome of a battle, or other public action (by the ruler/government) related to public welfare and protection; however, the military aspect—victory in battle, deliverance from danger—was prominent. Interestingly, there is little indication that this context (or connotation) was primary for the earliest Christians in their use of the word group. The main influence, as I discussed, was from the use of the verb rc^B*/eu)aggeli/zw in several key passages of (Deutero-)Isaiah, most notably 40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and, especially, 61:1. In these oracles, the idea of “good news” is tied to the future/end-time restoration of God’s people (the faithful remnant of Israel). The passages came to have a marked eschatological and Messianic sense—especially Isa 40:3ff and 61:1ff as they appear in the Gospel tradition, and as used by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. This eschatological/Messianic dimension appears to have shaped the earliest Christian usage of eu)agge/lion and the verb eu)aggeli/zomai; in this regard, the “good message” may be summarized as follows:

  • Jesus is the Anointed One sent by God, whose appearance was promised/prophesied in the Scriptures
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has exalted him to the divine/heavenly status and position as Son of God; at the same time the exalted Christ is also identified with the “Son of Man” savior-figure who will appear at the end-time
  • The faithful ones—identified as those trusting in Jesus—will be saved/rescued from the end-time Judgment that is about to come upon humankind

For the earliest Christians, salvation was fundamentally eschatological—being saved from the end-time Judgment. Paul very much followed this emphasis, as we can see from the opening of the probatio (1:18ff); that is to say, he begins his exposition of the Gospel with a warning of the anger (o)rgh/) of God that is about to be revealed upon all sin and wickedness in the world. This is the end-time Judgment that Paul declares so succinctly in the Athens speech of Acts 17: “…He established a day in which He is about to judge the inhabited (world) in (His) justice” (v. 31).

However, Paul’s understanding of salvation was certainly not limited to this eschatological aspect. More than any other New Testament author (or speaker), it is Paul who also defines salvation fundamentally in terms of deliverance from the power of sin. Interestingly, though, this understanding is presented in detail only in a few passages. By far, the most prominent and clearest presentation occurs in chapters 5-8 of Romans. After the eschatological warning of 1:18-32, Paul, in chapters 2-4 of the letter, argues vigorously for the proposition that all human beings—Jew and non-Jew alike—are justified (“made right”) in God’s eyes, and thus are saved, only (and entirely) through trust in the “good message” of Jesus Christ. The old covenant and observance of the Torah does not lead to salvation in any sense; quite the opposite, in Paul’s view (his view on the Torah is discussed in detail in the series “The Law and the New Testament”, soon to be posted here). But what, exactly, does this salvation entail? From Paul’s standpoint there are two principal, related aspects for the believer, which follow, as a necessary consequence, from the eschatological aspect:

  • Believers in Christ are saved from the coming Judgment
    however, since the Judgment is due to sin and wickedness, it is first necessary that human beings be freed from sin, for which there is a dual aspect:
    • (1) We are cleansed from sin, and
    • (2) We are freed from the power of sin

The first aspect is central to the very earliest preaching, going back to John the Baptist, Jesus, and the first apostles (Mark 1:4-5, 15 par; Matt 3:2; Acts 2:38; 3:26, etc). It is tied to the ritual of baptism, and is associated with the role (and presence) of the Holy Spirit. The second aspect, on the other hand, is more distinctly Pauline, informing the soteriology expressed by Paul in his letters. And he expresses the idea of the power of sin in various ways. In Romans 5ff, for example, sin is personified as tyrant, a conqueror who enslaves the population. All of humankind is in bondage to the ruling power of Sin. However, the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of Jesus perfectly and totally reverses this situation, freeing from bondage (to sin) all who trust in him.

Much of this same basic idea may be found in Paul’s declaration regarding the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 which I will now discuss briefly.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4

In this passage, Paul personifies sin and evil in a different way, using the expression “the god of this Age” (o( qeo\$ tou= ai)w=no$ tou/tou). Like many Jews and Christians of the time, Paul held the fundamental worldview that the current Age was thoroughly wicked, dominated by sin and evil. This was related to a dualistic mode of thinking common to the eschatology of the period—i.e., a contrast between “This Age” and “the Coming Age”, which will be ushered in by God at the Judgment. The current Age (and world-order, ko/smo$) was seen as sinful/evil and opposed to God; Paul expresses this dualism just as forcefully as the Johannine writings, if not through such distinctive use of the word ko/smo$. Rather, Paul tends to use the word ai)w/n (“life[time], period of time, age”); it occurs, in a negative (and contrastive) sense, in 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6ff; 3:18; Rom 12:2; Gal 1:4; also Eph 2:2. The word ko/smo$ (“world[-order]”) is used in a similar way in Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20; 1 Cor 3:19, etc. In Gal 1:4, he uses the expression “the evil Age (that) has been set in (place)”. In referring to the “god” (qeo/$) of this Age, Paul presumably has in mind the Satan (or ‘Devil’) and various unclean/evil (“demon”) powers which God has allowed to exercise influence and control over the world (cf. 1 Cor 15:24; Gal 4:8-9; Col 2:8-10; 2 Thess 2:9; Eph 2:2, etc).

Here in 2 Cor 4:3-4, the power of sin, wielded/controlled by “the god of this Age”, is described in terms of a darkness which blinds the eyes of human beings (cf. 2 Thess 2:9-12). This, of course, is another way of referring to humanity as being in bondage to sin (note the play on bondage/blindness in Isa 61:1 MT/LXX, discussed in the earlier note). The dualism of Light vs. Darkness is natural and was widespread in the ancient world; Paul makes use of it, though not so thoroughly as the Johannine writings and discourses of Jesus do. The entire section of 3:7-4:6 develops the theme of seeing and revelation (vb. a)pokalu/ptw, literally “take the cover [away] from”, “uncover”). Believers in Christ are able, through trust, and through the Spirit, to see the glory/splendor (do/ca) of God in a way that was impossible (even for Moses) under the Old Covenant. Here in 4:3-4, the implication is that it is the very Gospel message (eu)agge/lion) that illumines believers and allows us to see the glory of God in the person of Jesus.

Salvation—freeing believers from the power of sin—is thus described in terms of (1) dispelling the darkness and (2) restoring sight to the blind. In the Gospel tradition, the association of the Gospel with recovery of sight (by way of Isa 61:1 LXX), was taken literally, being fulfilled in the healing miracles of Jesus (cf. the note on Lk 7:22 par). Paul, however, understands this symbolically, in a spiritual sense—the “good message” of Christ does away with the blinding power of sin (for a similar development, or interpretation, see John 9). There is then an absolute contrast between believer and non-believer in this regard:

“But if our good message is covered (up), it is covered (up) among the (one)s going away to ruin, (among) the (one)s whom the god of this Age (has) blinded the minds, the (one)s without trust, unto (there being) [i.e. so there would be] no shining forth of the good message of the splendor of the Anointed (One), who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:3-4)

Note the conceptual structure, which may be outlined as a chiasm:

  • the good message
    • is covered up
      • the ones going away to ruin (i.e. lost, perishing)
        • the message is covered up/over for them
          • the Age of sin and evil (“god of this Age”)
        • their minds are blinded
      • the ones without trust (in Jesus)
    • it does not shine forth
  • the good message

This structure helps to demonstrate how and why many do not respond to the Gospel—it involves a complex dynamic between the reigning power of sin and the person’s ability/willingness to trust in the Gospel. Paul details a similar sort of dynamic in Romans 7. It is also worth noting the significance of the double use of eu)agge/lion that brackets this passage:

    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] that is proclaimed by Paul and his fellow ministers (v. 3a)
    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] characterized as being that which reveals (“shines forth”) the splendor of the Anointed (do/ca tou= Xristou=), the Messiah Jesus being further described as “the image of God” (ei)kw\n tou= qeou=) (v. 4b)

Thus the common/traditional (early Christian) usage of the term eu)agge/lion is transformed into a powerful Christological statement, about who Jesus is in relation to God the Father. Through this, Paul effectively explains his earlier declaration in Rom 1:16, that the good message is “the power of God unto salvation”. It is just this Christological statement in 2 Cor 4:3-4, which, in turn, frees believers from “the power of sin.”