Sola Scriptura: Romans 16:25; Hebrews 1:1-2

Sola Scriptura

In our studies thus far, we have seen how the Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) continued to be authoritative for early Christians, but only in a secondary (and supplemental) sense. The primary source of authority was what we may broadly call the Apostolic Tradition. This may seem to contradict the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura; however, to make such an unqualified conclusion would be quite misleading. In point of fact, the Apostolic Tradition was the basis for the development of the inspired writings of the New Testament—and the greater revelation that was contained in those writings, ultimately to be regarded as sacred Scripture by every Christian.

With the passing of the first generation (or two) of apostles, by the end of the 1st century (and into the 2nd), the authoritative Apostolic Tradition had come to be preserved in written form (i.e., the New Testament Scriptures), gradually taking the place of the communication of that Tradition in the person of the apostles themselves (and their representatives). It seems clear, for example, that the publication of the Gospel of John was stimulated by the death of the ‘Beloved Disciple’, the leading apostolic figure of the Johannine Community (Jn 21:20-24). The authority of the apostles was based on their personal connection to Jesus himself.

The very word a)po/stolo$ (apostolos) derives its significance from the fundamental meaning of the verb a)poste/llw (“set [out] from, send forth”). An apostle is someone “sent forth from” Jesus, as his representative, an idea rooted in the early Gospel tradition and the ministry-work of Jesus in Galilee (Mark 3:14-15ff par; 6:7-13 par; Luke 10:1ff). Commissioned and sent out by Jesus, they were given (and possessed) his own divine (and inspired) authority, to preach (the Gospel) and work healing miracles. This formed the pattern for the broader apostolic mission of early Christians (Acts 1:8, 21-22, etc). The earliest congregations were founded by missionary work that was an extension of this apostolic mission, and thus the principal source of religious authority for these 1st-century congregations was the authority of the Apostolic Tradition.

The Apostolic Tradition has three fundamental components:

    1. The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel
    2. The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—along with his example (of what he said and did), preserved and transmitted by the apostles to the early congregations (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4)
    3. The authoritative teaching by the apostles

A study will be devoted to each of these components; we begin with the first of these.

1. The Proclamation (Kerygma) of the Gospel

The “good message” (or “good news”), the eu)agge/lion, or Gospel, has its origins in the preaching of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15 par, et al), being carried on, even during his lifetime, by his disciples, acting as his representatives (i.e., as apostles) (Luke 9:6, etc). However, following the resurrection (and ascension) of Jesus, the “good message” gradually came to take on a distinctive form—as a thumbnail narrative of Jesus’ life and work. The sermon-speeches in Acts preserve examples of this early Gospel proclamation (kerygma). In these speeches, the Gospel narrative is extremely simple, focusing on the death and resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus, and only slowly incorporating certain details or aspects of his earthly ministry. Noteworthy examples, representative of the earliest preaching, are: Acts 2:22-24, 29ff, 36; 3:13-15; 4:27ff; 5:30-32; 10:37-42; 13:26-32. It is easy to see how these simple narrative statements, over time (c. 35-60 A.D.), would develop into the larger narratives of the Gospels.

It must be emphasized that, from the very beginning, this Gospel proclamation held primary authority for early Christians, taking precedence over the Old Testament Scriptures. This can be seen already in the way that the Scriptures supplement (and support) the kerygma in the sermon-speeches (on this, cf. the earlier study, and throughout the series “The Speeches of Acts”). The revelation of the inspired Old Testament Scriptures (i.e., of the old covenant) are thus subordinate to the Gospel; they continue to hold authority for Christians, primarily, insofar as they point the way to the greater revelation of Christ (in the new covenant).

There are a number of New Testament passages, many of which were written when the composition and development of Gospels was still in its very early stages, which indicate that the proclamation of the Gospel (with its seminal narrative) was being compared with the Scriptures—being on a par with them, and even altogether surpassing them in many important ways. I wish to examine a couple of these passages briefly.

Romans 16:25-26

“And to Him having the power to set you firm(ly), according to my good message [eu)agge/lion] and the proclamation [kh/rugma] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, according to the uncovering of (the) secret [musth/rion] having been kept silent in (the) times (of) ages (past), but now (hav)ing been made to shine (forth) even through (the) writings of (the) Foretellers, according to (the) arrangement of (the) God of the Ages, unto hearing under trust, unto all the nations, having been made known…”

The authenticity of the doxology in Rom 16:25-27 continues to be debated, with many commentators convinced that it was neither originally part of Romans, nor written by Paul. Even if this were granted, the wording reflects genuine Pauline thought (and style), as well as the thought-world of Christians in the mid-to-late 1st century. Three key nouns are used which are largely synonymous in context: (1) eu)agge/lion (“good message,” i.e., Gospel), (2) kh/rugma (“proclamation,” transliterated as a technical term, kerygma), and (3) musth/rion (“secret,” i.e., mystery). All three are important early Christian terms, and they all refer to the seminal message (and narrative) of the Gospel. The expressions and phrases that contain these words are also closely related:

    • “my good message” —i.e., the good news of Christ that is preached by apostles like Paul
    • “the proclamation of Yeshua (the) Anointed” —the genitive can be understood in either a subjective sense (Jesus’ preaching) or objective sense (preaching about Jesus), or both.
    • “the uncovering of the secret kept silent…” —the noun a)poka/luyi$ (“removal of the cover from, uncovering”) emphasizes that the Gospel is a divine (and inspired) revelation, akin to the prophetic revelations (by God) during the time of the old covenant (cf. below).

The use of the term musth/rion (“secret”) in this respect is authentically Pauline (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; cf. also 2 Thess 2:7), though it is perhaps more prominent in the disputed letters of Colossians (1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3) and Ephesians (1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; 6:19). For more on the meaning, background, and use of the term, see my earlier word study. Indeed, of the three terms, musth/rion has the greatest theological significance. Here, it relates to a distinction between the two ages or dispensations—the old and new covenants, respectively—that is fundamental to early Christian thought:

    • Old Covenant (periods of time/ages past): the Gospel-secret has been “kept silent/hidden” (verb siga/w)
    • New Covenant (“now”): it has been “made to shine forth” (vb fanero/w), i.e., has been made manifest, revealed, and has at last “been made known” (vb gnwri/zw).

The Gospel proclamation is expounded out of the Old Testament Scriptures (“writings of the Prophets”), which is fully in accord with the earliest Christian preaching and teaching, even going back to the teaching of Jesus himself. The Scriptures (especially the Psalms and the books of the Prophets) contained, in a secret and hidden way, the seeds of the Gospel (e.g., Gal 3:8); but it required the new inspired revelation of the apostles in order to “uncover” and make known this secret. On this basis alone, the Gospel represents a superior kind of revelation, however it is rooted in the Scriptures and supported by them. Indeed, without the New Covenant revelation, people remain blind to the true meaning of the Scriptures (2 Cor 3:14-16, etc).

Hebrews 1:1-2

“(In) many parts and many ways (in times) of old, God (was) speaking to the Fathers by the Foretellers, (but) upon (the) end of these days He spoke to us by a Son, whom He set (as one) to receive the lot of all (thing)s, through whom also He made the Ages…”

The same dispensational contrast—between the old and new covenants—serves as a key theme that runs throughout Hebrews, and it is established at the very beginning of the introduction (exordium, 1:1-4). It marks the current time—i.e., of the first generation(s) of believers—as a turning point, marking the beginning of a New Age (= new covenant), and presenting  a clear dividing line between the time now and all that has gone before:

    • Old Covenant: “(in times) of old [pa/lai]” —God spoke through the Prophets
    • New Covenant: “at the end [e)p’ e)sxa/tou] of these days,” that is, in the eschatological present time—God has spoken through His Son

There is a clear contrastive parallel here between the Prophets and Jesus (the Son of God), as the source of divine-inspired revelation (communicating the word of God) in each dispensation (and covenant), respectively. The superiority of the revelation in the person of Jesus is obvious, and the author develops the point systematically throughout his work. Here, this superiority is expressed by contrasting the singular revelation in Jesus with the multifaceted way that God spoke through the many different Prophets. For Jews and Christians in the first-century, of course, the revelation through the Prophets (in the old covenant) was known only through its preservation in the Scriptures (the Prophetic writings, including the Psalms). The Torah (Pentateuch) doubtless would also be included, but emphasis is given on the Prophetic oracles as the vehicle for God’s revelation.

The comparison between Jesus and the Prophets, as well as the idea of God speaking (vb lale/w), might suggest that it is the words of Jesus that are primarily in view here. The preserved words and teachings of Jesus are certainly a key component of the authoritative Apostolic Tradition (cf. above), and will be discussed in the next study; however, I believe that a much more comprehensive and holistic view of the Tradition is being expressed here. This can be affirmed by what follows in vv. 2-4, beginning with the statement that God “set” (vb ti/qhmi) Jesus (His Son) to be the “heir of all things”. This phrase reflects the fundamental Gospel tenet of the exaltation of Jesus (to the right hand of God in heaven) following his resurrection (Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56 [cf. Mk 14:62 par]; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1, etc). The earliest Christology was unquestionably an exaltation-Christology, focusing almost entirely on Jesus’ deity, and identity as the Son of God, in terms of his resurrection (and exaltation) by God the Father. However, by the time Hebrews was written (c. 70 A.D.?), early Christians had begun to evince a pre-existence-Christology as well, and Hebrews combines both of these Christologies (e.g., the ‘Christ-hymn’ in vv. 2-4, on which cf. my earlier study; cp. also the study on Philippians 2:6-11.

In any case, the point is that the declaration in v. 2b is a key component of the Gospel kerygma; thus, the contrast between the Prophets and Jesus can also be understood as a contrast between the Prophets and the Gospel. And, from the standpoint of our study, it is important to note that the written record of the Gospel (taking shape during the years c. 35-90 A.D.) forms a close parallel to the written record of the Prophets (in the Old Testament Scriptures).

Statements such as those in Rom 16:25-26 and Heb 1:2 thus are seminal (and foundational) for establishing the authority of the New Testament Scriptures. And, the authority of these new Scriptures (of the new covenant), while being on a par with the old Scriptures—in terms of their divine/prophetic inspiration and revelatory content—far surpasses that of the old. This is a vital principle that must be maintained—for believers, the new covenant in Christ (manifest through the presence of the Spirit) has entirely eclipsed the authority of the old covenant (cf. 2 Corinthians 3).

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Exodus 24:8

Exodus 24:8

One of the most important Old Testament passages that shaped the Gospel Tradition, especially as it relates to the death of Jesus, is the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. I have discussed this passage at length in an article in the series “The People of God”, and the current study makes extensive use of that earlier article. You may wish to consult Parts 1 and 2, in which were examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, scenes that are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (Heb. tyr!B=, literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament.

When considering the context of Exodus 24:1-11, it is important to realize that this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement (covenant) between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called the “account of the agreement” (tyr!b=h^ rp#s@ s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb hj*v*) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (tyr!B=) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

The ancient Near Eastern covenant was often accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (hl*u), ±ôlâ) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew <l#v# (šelem, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. eaten by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun jb^z#, verb jb^z`), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the binding (agreement) which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9) —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10) —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb hz`j* in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). A study of the remainder of the book of Exodus demonstrates how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Instruction, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition.

The Last Supper Tradition:
Mark 14:22-25 / Matt 26:26-29 / Luke 22:17-20

Exodus 24:8 was most influential in relation to the important early Christian tradition of the institution of the “Lord’s Supper”, as is narrated in Mark 14:22-25 (par Matt 26:26-29; Luke 22:17-20). Here will be helpful to observe the basic tradition as it is preserved by Mark (and Matthew). The outline is very simple:

    • Action by Jesus (the bread):
      “taking bread (and) giving a good account [i.e. blessing] (to God), he broke (it) and gave (it) to them” (v. 22a)
      • Words of Jesus:
        “Take (it)—this is my body” (v. 22b)
    • Action by Jesus (the cup/wine):
      “taking (the) drinking-cup (and) giving good words of (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it” (v. 23)
      • Words of Jesus:
        “This is my blood of the diaqh/kh [i.e. ‘covenant’] th(at) is poured out over many” (v. 24)

An additional saying/declaration by Jesus (v. 25) concludes the solemn moment:

“Amen, I say to you that, no—I will not drink yet (again) out of the produce of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

This saying, with its “Amen, I say to you” (a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n) formula (a well-attested mark of Jesus’ own style), is parallel to the declaration in v. 18.

It is clear that the “Last Supper” was identified as a Passover meal in the early Gospel tradition; this is certainly the case in the Synoptics (Mk 14:1, 12-16 par), though less definite in John’s Gospel. Luke brings out most prominently the Passover connection, all the more so, it would seem, if one adopts the longer, majority text of vv. 17-20 (which includes vv. 19b-20). It has been argued that Luke preserved more of the original setting of the Passover meal, such as it would have been practiced in the 1st century A.D.; the outline of the meal in Lk 22:17-20 (longer text) would be:

    • The Cup (vv. 17-18)—a single cup, to be shared, it would seem, among all the disciples together. It is it perhaps to be identified with the initial cup of blessing (qiddûš), drunk prior to the serving of the meal. Possibly it may also represent the second cup of wine following the Passover liturgy (hagg¹d¹h).
    • The Bread (v. 19)—the “unleavened bread” (maƒƒôt) served and eaten together with the Passover lamb.
    • The Cup (v. 20)—the second cup of blessing (trad. kôš šel b§r¹k¹h), following the meal.

If Luke thus preserves more of the original historical setting, then the Synoptic version in Mark-Matthew (Mk 14:22-25/Matt 26:26-29) would have to be viewed as a simplification or abridgment of the scene. Central to the scene, and of the Gospel tradition that developed around it, are the words of institution by Jesus. There are two basic forms preserved—(1) that in Mark/Matthew, and (2) that in Luke and 1 Corinthians. In addition to the Synoptic Gospels, the tradition is preserved by Paul in 1 Cor 11:22-26, part of his instruction regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (vv. 17-34, cf. also 10:16-21). Paul introduces the tradition in v. 23:

“For I took/received along from the Lord th(at) which I also gave along to you—that the Lord Yeshua, on the night in which he was given along [i.e. betrayed], took bread…”

The first phrase does not necessarily mean that Paul received this information as a special revelation by Jesus; it may simply indicate that the tradition goes back to the words and actions of Jesus himself. As in the Gospels, Paul recorded words spoken by Jesus over the bread and the cup/wine, in turn. It is the words over the cup that allude to the covenant scene in Exodus 24:1-11 (discussed above).

Jesus’ action and words associated with the cup are clearly parallel to those associated with the bread. First, the action:

    • Mark 14:23-24: “and taking [labw\n] (the) drinking-cup (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them…”
    • Matt 26:27: “and taking (the) drinking-cup and giving (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them saying, ‘Drink out of it all (of) you’
      [Matthew is identical to Mark, except that the reference to drinking has been made part of Jesus’ directive]
    • Luke 22:20: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
    • 1 Cor 11:25: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
      [Luke and Paul have virtually the same version, with slightly different word order]

And the words of Jesus:

    • Mark 14:24: “This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] set through [diaqh/kh] (by God), th(at) is poured out over many”
    • Matt 26:27: “This is my blood of the agreement set through (by God), th(at) is poured out around many unto [i.e. for] the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins
      [Differences between Matthew and Mark are indicated by italics]
    • Luke 22:20: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood, th(at is) being poured out over you”
    • 1 Cor 11:25: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood—do this, as often as you should drink it, unto my remembrance”

Again, the common tradition inherited by Luke and Paul is clear. Their version differs significantly from that of Mark/Matthew in one respect:

    • In Luke/Paul, the cup is identified as the “new covenant”
    • In Mark/Matthew, the blood (wine) itself is identified with the “covenant”

The reference in Mark/Matthew is more obviously to the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24:8; in the Greek LXX the declaration reads:

“See, the blood of the agreement which the Lord set through toward you around/about all these words”
In Hebrew (cf. above):
“See, the blood of the agreement which YHWH cut with you upon all these words”

The use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is clearly drawn upon by Jesus, echoing the declaration in v. 8:

“This is my blood of the covenant [diaqh/kh] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34). Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8).

If the blood in the Sinai covenant scene established (ratified) the first covenant between God and His people (Israel), the blood shed by Jesus establishes the new covenant. This concept of a “new covenant” goes back to the Prophets of the exilic and post-exilic period, who described the restoration of Israel (in the New Age) in terms of a new covenant between YHWH and His people. The most prominent reference is Jer 31:31-34, a passage of tremendous importance for early Christian identity, much as it also had been for the Qumran community (CD 6:19; 1QpHab 2:4ff, etc). Early Christians certainly adopted the idea of the new covenant and applied it their own identity as believers in Christ—that is, believers as the people of God in the New Age. If we accept the historicity of the Last Supper tradition, then it would seem that this early Christian adaptation of the New Covenant concept goes back to the words and teaching of Jesus himself.

March 21: Isaiah 61:3-7

Isaiah 61:3c-7

Today’s note brings to a conclusion our supplemental study on Isa 61:1-3, in connection with the article in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Verses 3c-7 comprise the second part of the poem in vv. 1-7. The first part (vv. 1-3ab) describes the mission of the Spirit-anointed herald, while the second gives us what may be described as the substance of the herald’s message. It is a message of the future glory and blessing that will come to God’s people in the New Age. The focus, of course, in the context of the post-exilic period, is on Judah and the city of Jerusalem.

The message (in vv. 3c-7) itself can be divided into three parts, as follows:

    • Vv. 3c-4 (“They”)—Blessing for the People: Restoration of the Land
    • Vv. 5-6 (“You”)—The Nations will serve the People
    • V. 7 (“They”)—Blessing for the People: Inheritance in the Land

As indicated in the outline, the address shifts from the 3rd person plural to the 2nd, and then back to the 3rd.

Verses 3c-4

“And it will be called (out) to them ‘strong (oak)s of justice’,
(the) planting of YHWH for making (Himself) beautiful;
and they will build (the) dry (place)s of (the) distant (past),
and will make stand (the) destroyed (place)s of (times) before,
and will make new (the) cities of dry (dust),
(the) destroyed (citie)s (from) cycle to cycle.”

The message begins with a promise that the people—those poor and oppressed (vv. 1-3)—will have their fortunes change: they will be turned into strong and sturdy trees (<yl!ya@). YHWH calls out this identity for them (the divine passive ar*q), “it will be called”), and then will make it come about in reality, by “planting” (vb uf^n`) them in the Land. This imagery goes back to the ancient covenant promise regarding Israel’s inheritance of the (promised) Land (cf. Exod 15:17; Num 24:6; 2 Sam 7:10, etc).

In verse 4, the motif shifts from planting trees to building cities—both lines of imagery being related to the idea of the restoration of Israel/Judah in the New Age. The repeated emphasis (in four lines) on the rebuilding of ruins clearly indicates a post-exilic setting, and presumably a good number of years since the conquest and destruction had occurred. A setting in the mid-5th century B.C., prior to the building work of Nehemiah, seems likely. It has been long enough that only dried out ruins are left; the destruction took place in the “distant (past)” (<l*ou), and generations have come and gone since (rodw` roD, “cycle and cycle”, i.e., generation to generation).

Verses 5-6

“And (those who) turn aside [i.e. strangers] will stand and pasture your herds,
and sons of a foreigner (will be) your diggers and vine-workers;
but you will be called ‘priests of YHWH,’
and ‘(people) serving our Mighty (One)’ it will be said to you;
you shall eat the strength [i.e. riches/wealth] of (the) nations,
and you shall show yourselves in their weight [i.e. worth/glory/splendor].”

The shift from 3rd person plural to 2nd gives a more personal focus to the message. One may also explain the shift because of the mention of other peoples—i.e., from the surrounding nations (<y]oG), foreign (rk*n@) people, and strangers who “turn aside” (rWz) to reside among God’s people. Addressing Israel/Judah as “you” highlights the distinction with the other people (“they”). In the New Age, it is these other people who will do the manual work and labor in the Land—viz., herding, digging/farming, vine-working, etc. This frees up the people of Israel/Judah to serve as priests of YHWH, devoting themselves exclusively to religious service. Again, this line of imagery draws upon early traditions regarding the covenant role of Israel as God’s chosen people (Exod 19:6, etc).

Admittedly, this theme of the servile submission of the nations may not be particularly appealing to us as Christians today, but it is well-rooted in the ancient Near Eastern worldview. It also represents an important aspect of God’s judgment against the nations. The judgment against Israel and Judah has already been fulfilled (through the conquest and exile), and now, in these Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems, the focus of judgment shifts to the surrounding nations. Their punishment involves a reversal—in the exile (and its aftermath), Israel/Judah served the nations, but now, in the New Age, it is the nations who will serve God’s people.

Not only do the nations serve God’s people, but they also bring homage and tribute from their lands; as a result, the wealth of the nations flows into Jerusalem. This is a particularly prominent theme in chapters 56-66 (cf. especially the prior chapter 60). The motif is hinted at here in the last two lines as well: the people will “eat” the riches (lit. strength, ly]j^) of the nations, and will exult in their “weight” (dobK*, i.e., worth, honor, glory, splendor). The precise meaning and derivation of the Hithpael form WrM*y~t=T! is uncertain. Some would derive it from the root rWm (“change, exchange”), others from the common verb rm^a* (“show, say”), or from a separate root rma (II) that specifically means “boast, pride oneself”. That posited second rma root is questionable, and is largely based on this one reference here. For the sake of simplicity, I have translated the form above as a reflexive (Hithpael) of the common verb rm^a*, in its fundamental meaning of “make visible, show”. The people will “show (off) themselves” in the wealth and splendor of the nations. This plays on the garment-motif in v. 3ab, which, it seems, continues in verse 7a.

Verse 7

“Under [i.e. in place of] your shame, a two-fold (blessing),
and (instead of) disgrace, they will cry (for joy in) their portion;
for so (it is that) in their land they will possess two-fold,
and there will be joy (into the) distant (future) for them.”

The two aspects of the restoration emphasized in vv. 3c-6—(1) a renewed strength and splendor for the people, and (2) a renewal of the richness of the land—are combined here in the final verse. This renewal/restoration will be double, or two-fold (hn#v=m!), likely corresponding to the idea that Israel/Judah suffered a double punishment in the conquest and exile (as mentioned in the Deutero-Isaian poems, e.g., 40:2; 51:19). At the same time, the concept of a double-reward for the losses suffered is traditional, and is reflected, for example, in the conclusion to the story of Job (42:10). The term <l*ou (“distant [past/future]”) emphasizes the New Age for Israel/Judah. In verse 4, it was used in reference to the distant past (and the destruction of the land); here, it refers to the distant future, and the glorious New Age in the restored Land. It also alludes to the new covenant (lit. binding agreement, tyr!B=) that YHWH will make with His people (v. 8; cf. also 59:21, etc): it will be an everlasting covenant—that is to say, it will last into the far distant future (<l*ou). This “new covenant” theme—which can be found in other Prophet writings of the exilic and post-exilic period—is one of many Isaian motifs (drawn from these Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems) that early Christians adopted as part of their eschatological and Messianic worldview, and which became an expression of their (and our) religious identity as believers in Christ.

SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:57-66

In this episode is narrated the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in Lk 1:57-66. Following the Visitation scene in vv. 39-56 (discussed in the prior study), in which the John and Jesus halves of the Infancy narrative come together, the scene shifts back to John’s side, picking up from verse 25. Clearly this episode functions as a fulfillment of the annunciation scene in vv. 8-22, and is given much more attention than the corresponding circumcision/naming of Jesus.

From a source-critical standpoint, this episode stands together with the annunciation scene. Commentators who consider vv. 5-25 to be derived from a “Baptist source”, have much the same view regarding the scene here in vv. 57-66. Other scholars prefer to regard both narratives as free compositions by the Gospel writer (trad. Luke), based upon a rudimentary set of historical information. The use of a written “Baptist” source is questionable, and it seems more likely that the author is dealing with a looser collection of historical tradition, which he has shaped into a distinctive narrative. Much of this literary development involves allusions to the Old Testament, including narrative patterns and phrasing from the Scriptures, as well as thematic points of emphasis that are characteristic of the Gospel as a whole. There are three such points that I wish to examine in this study:

    1. The importance of the Circumcision
    2. The significance of the Naming, and
    3. The Response to these events among the surrounding People

It is important to remember that this episode is primarily a story of John’s birth, which is narrated simply in verse 57:

“And the time for her to produce (a child) was fulfilled for Elisheba, and she caused to be (born) [i.e. gave birth to] a son”.

The verses which follow narrate the circumcision and naming of the child.

1. The Circumcision

In considering the historical background of the passage, the reader may well ask why the author has made a point of mentioning the circumcision of the child John, even has he does for Jesus in the corresponding, parallel episode (2:21ff). This is more than a mundane historical detail. Rather, it reflects the wider theme of the continuity between the Old and New Covenant, that is central to the message of Luke-Acts, and is expressed in a number of ways here in the Infancy narrative.

Circumcision was a customary cultural practice throughout much of the ancient world, and in traditional societies even today. It was scarcely unique or original to Israel; however, there was special significance to the practice for Israelites—it was an essential mark of religious identity, going back to the tradition of its introduction for Abraham (Gen 17:10-14). Indeed, it is called the “sign of the covenant”, an indication that the person belongs to God’s chosen people, and is thus obligated to observe the terms of the agreement (covenant) established by God—namely, the Torah (or Law) as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers & Deuteronomy). The central importance of circumcision is stated or otherwise indicated numerous times in Scripture (Gen 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44ff; Lev 12:3; Deut 10:16; Josh 5:2-8; Jer 4:4; John 7:22-23; Phil 3:5, etc). Its significance in terms of religious identity made it a controversial issue for early Christians, as dramatically illustrated in the book of Acts (10:45ff; 15:1-16:3; 21:21) and the letters of Paul. By ancient tradition, circumcision was to take place on the eighth day, as narrated here in v. 59, and also (for Jesus) in 2:21.

As noted above, this is not merely an incidental detail in the birth narratives, but is of the utmost importance for the author, as it relates to the key theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and forms from the Old Testament and Israelite religion—the New Covenant that fulfills and completes the Old Covenant. This is the primary reason for emphasizing details which show that John and his parents, as well as Jesus and his parents, were devout in religious matters, faithfully observing the commands and precepts of the Torah. As they usher in the new Covenant, John and Jesus also fulfill the old Covenant between God and Israel by being circumcised (cf. Romans 15:8).

2. The Naming

The significance of names and naming in ancient Near Eastern tradition is reflected in the Gospel Infancy narratives, where they play a key role. We saw this already in the prior study on Matthew 1:18-25, and I discuss the entire subject at length in my earlier Christmas series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

The narrative context suggests that the naming of the child took place at the circumcision. Such a practice is known from later Jewish tradition, but is otherwise unattested in this early period (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). Based on the pattern indicated in the Old Testament, we might expect the naming to occur at the time of birth, rather than eight days later (Gen 4:1; 21:3; 25:25-26, etc). It is possible that the author has taken dramatic license and moved the naming ‘ahead’ to coincide with the circumcision, given the importance of that event to the narrative (cf. above). Apparently, some of the neighbors and relatives were expecting that the child would be named after his father, Zechariah (v. 59b); or, on the assumption that the naming was delayed until the time of circumcision, in lieu of a name, they may have been referring to the child e.g., as “little Zechariah” (Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). At this time it was perhaps more common to name a child after his grandfather, rather than his father. In any case, the name spoken by Elizabeth—Yohanan (Greek Iœánn¢s, John)—was, it seems, not one common among the child’s immediate relatives (v. 61).

The meaning of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (“Yah[weh] has shown favor”) was discussed in an  earlier note on vv. 13-17. An old Yahweh-name, dating back to the Kingdom period, it is not especially common in the Old Testament, but is known in priestly circles (Neh 12:13, 42; 1 Macc 2:1f), so it is perhaps not unusual that a priestly family such as Zechariah and Elizabeth might adopt it. As I noted previously, the name can be understood or interpreted three ways:

    • God has shown favor to Zechariah and Elizabeth by giving them a child
    • God has shown them favor due to the special role the child will play in the deliverance of His people
    • God shows favor to His people in the person of Jesus, and the child John will play a key role in “preparing the way” for him

All three aspects are present in the narrative, but especially the latter two, which will be emphasized more clearly in the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus) that follows in vv. 67-79.

Names (and the idea of a name) were understood in the ancient world much differently than in our society today. The name was thought to represent and embody the essential nature and character of a person—to know a person’s name was effectively the same as knowing the person. When applied in a religious setting or context, names which include a theophoric element (i.e., a shortened form of a deity’s name), often had a very special significance, usually as a phrase- or sentence-name. It may indicate praise to God for his care, power, etc., in bringing the child into the world and blessing the parents. At the same time, such a name could be invoked over the child as a blessing or prophecy over his/her future life and destiny. This aspect of the name Yôµ¹n¹n is included as part of the Angel’s annunciation, in vv. 15-17, when the name is first declared (by Gabriel) to Zechariah. It is emphasized again here through the detail of Zechariah’s mute silence, and the circumcision and naming of John as marking the moment when his silence ends.

This is important for the structure of the overall narrative and the parallelism between the scenes; note:

    • Annunciation of John’s coming birth to Zechariah (vv. 8-25)
      —with the sign: Zechariah will be mute until it comes to pass
    • Annunciation of Jesus’ coming birth to Mary (vv. 26-38)
      —with the sign: the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving & giving birth

      • The fulfillment: Mary sees Elizabeth’s pregnancy (vv. 39-56)
      • The fulfillment: Zechariah speaks following John’s birth (vv. 57-66)

The order of scenes is inverted when dealing with the fulfillment of the sign given by the Angel, but otherwise the parallel is precise, covering all four scenes in vv. 8-66ff. Interestingly, Zechariah is not yet able to speak at John’s birth, but only after the child’s circumcision and naming takes place. Indeed, it is only when Zechariah himself confirms the name of John (Yohanan), writing it down, that his speech returns.

3. The Response

The return of Zechariah’s speech is narrated as follows: “and his mouth opened up along (that very) moment, and (also) his tongue, and he spoke, giving good account (of) [i.e. blessing/praising] God”. This leads to the reaction by the people narrated in vv. 65-66, which spreads, with the news of the wondrous sign, all throughout the region. Even as Zechariah speaks (laléœ) again, so word and news of this event is spoken throughout (dialaléœ).

Actually, the response of the surrounding people is used as a narrative device to frame the entire episode:

“And the (one)s housing round about [i.e. neighbors], and the (one)s together (with) her [i.e. her relatives], heard that the Lord did (a) great (act of) his mercy with her, and they took delight (in it) together with her.” (v. 58)

“And fear came to be upon all the (one) housing round about them, and in the whole mountain-region of Yehudah {Judea} all these utterances were spoken throughout; and all the (one)s hearing (this) set it in their heart saying, ‘What then will this (little) child be?'” (vv. 65-66)

The first reaction by the people is a response to the miraculous nature of the birth (i.e. to Elizabeth, who was elderly and barren), the second is to the wondrous sign of Zechariah suddenly speaking again. In between is the moment of circumcision and naming. The birth and circumcision of Jesus is also the occasion for the good news to spread throughout to the people in the region (2:15-20, 25ff, 38). This narrative pattern foreshadows the idea of the Gospel (lit. good message) being proclaimed throughout to the people, by the Apostles and other early believers—a thematic emphasis that is clearly central to the work of Luke-Acts as a whole.

With regard to the response of the people in this particular episode, we should mention the two significant notices that close the scene. The first is a question which represents the thoughts of the people: “What then will this child be?” It is a question at the very heart of the child’s identity, as indicated by his name, and the marvelous events surrounding it (and his birth).

The second, final statement is made by the author, almost as though in response to the people’s question: “For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him“. The idiom “hand of the Lord (YHWH)” is familiar from the Old Testament (Exod 9:3; 15:6; 16:3; Num 11:23; Deut 2:15; Josh 4:24; 22:31, etc). It is an anthropomorphic image that primarily refers to God’s power, either to bring judgment on people, or protection and deliverance for his chosen ones. Both aspects will be manifest in the preaching and mission-work of John, as we see depicted in the Gospels (Lk 3:3-20 par).

References above marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981).

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 5)

Exodus 32-34 (continued)

In our discussion in Part 4 of this article, on chapters 32-34 in the book of Exodus, three primary themes, or motifs, were identified in chap. 32:

    • The role of Moses as leader and representative of the people before YHWH
    • The identity of Israel as the people of YHWH, and
    • The violation and invalidation of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people

These same themes are developed in the narrative in chapters 33-34. The historical traditions, however they were incorporated into the original narrative, serve this purpose in the book as it has come down to us. As a result, certain details and peculiarities in the text, which might be analyzed variously from the standpoint of historical and source criticism (see again the discussion in Part 4), finally take on a distinctive narrative (and theological) coloring which must be examined carefully. This exegetical survey is intended to point the way toward such a study.

With the dissolution of the covenant agreement, as narrated in chap. 32, a new situation maintains, which is indicated at the beginning of chap. 33 (verses 1-6). This may be summarized as follows:

    • Israel was God’s people
    • With the invalidation of the covenant, they are no longer treated as His people; indeed, it is God’s intention to establish a new covenant, with Moses (32:10) and his descendants
    • Through Moses’ intercession there is a partial restoration (vv. 11-14)

At the start of chapter 33, Israel is still not regarded as God’s people. Note the language YHWH uses in speaking to Moses in verse 1:

“Go, go up from this (place), you and the people which you brought up from the land of Egypt…”

It is Moses, not YHWH, who “brought up” the people from Egypt. This almost certainly reflects the violation of the covenant, as echoed in the wording of 32:1. In place of Moses, the people seek for a different sort of tangible indication of God’s presence—namely, the Golden calf:

“Stand (up and) make for us God(s) which will go before us; for, see, this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has come to be for him [i.e. what has happened to him]!”

This wording is repeated in the exclamation at the creation of the Golden Calf: “These are your Gods, (O) Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (v. 4). Even so, there has been a partial restoration of the covenant; certainly, YHWH will honor the agreement established with Abraham, regarding the promised Land (33:1-3a, see Gen 15) and the protection which He is obligated to provide for Abraham’s descendants on their journey to the Land. However, He will not travel or reside in the midst of the people (vv. 3b, 5), a detail which would otherwise be fundamental to the identity of Israel as His people (and He as their God). In vivid description, this announcement leads to mourning on the part of the people (vv. 4, 6). It also establishes the setting for verses 12ff, which are preceded by the (historical) tradition included here at vv. 7-11. It is important to examine briefly the way this tradition is utilized within the narrative.

A detail often neglected by commentators is that the Tent described in vv. 7-11 is set up outside the camp. While it is possible that, originally, this was a neutral indication of the tent’s location (note the wording in v. 7), in the context of the narrative, it can only mean that YHWH is forced to meet with Moses away from the people, since he can no longer reside among them due to their violation of the covenant. This serves to deepen Moses’ role as the people’s representative before God. The encounter on Sinai, which took place in the general vicinity of the people at large, now becomes an entirely private event. The same dark cloud, which indicated the presence of YHWH at the top of Mt. Sinai, now descends, in less dramatic form, to appear at the entrance of the Tent, where God would meet/speak with Moses. Even though the people could still see the tent, and the cloud, they were cut off from the event (this is true even of Joshua, though he was within the tent itself, v. 11).

In verses 12-23, following the setting established by the tradition in vv. 7-11, Moses intercedes again for the people (vv. 12-13). YHWH agrees to lead the camp in its travels, which partially mitigates his earlier refusal to dwell among the people. At the same time, the people are brought closer to God from a different direction—through Moses’ request in verse 13 that he more completely reflect the presence of YHWH for the people: “Let me know your way(s) and know You…”. This is expressed again, in even more daring form, in verse 18: “Let me see your weight [db)K*]!” The Hebrew word db)K* (k¹»œd), which I have rendered literally as “weight” (i.e. “worth, value”), is often used in the more abstract, figurative sense of “honor”, especially the honor one ought to show to God. When used of God, the term can also refer to His manifest Presence; it is customarily translated “glory” in most English versions. An example of such a Theophany is the vision accorded Moses and the elders/leaders of Israel in 24:9-11 (“they saw the God of Israel…”, v. 10). As previous discussed, this was related to the initial establishment of the covenant, just as with its re-establishment here. Moses is apparently asking for an even more direct and personal revelation by YHWH. This Presence had otherwise been covered by the dark cloud during Moses’ previous encounters. What is most significant, in context, is that YHWH does not appear to the people this time, but only to Moses—the theophany is given to him alone.

At this point in the narrative, there is also a theological transformation (and deepening) of the ancient Theophany motif (i.e. the storm cloud). YHWH promises to Moses a vision of His Presence which is not direct—i.e., not the face (hn#P* [plur. <yn]P*])—but which reveals it from behind (roja*, that which follows or comes after). This entirely unique mode of revelation is characterized by four components or attributes, which really can be distilled into two aspects of a single dynamic:

    • God speaking/calling to Moses with the Name [YHWH]
    • God revealing “all (his) good(ness) [bof]”
      • Showing (all of his) favor
      • Displaying (all of his) compassion

While this is referred to in terms of a vision, when the moment comes in the narrative it is described in terms of the spoken word. There can be no doubt, however, that the declaration in 34:6-7 is to be understood as the fundamental revelation of YHWH’s presence from within the dark cloud (v. 5). Even more important, from the standpoint of the narrative, is that this theological message is central to the idea of the restoration of the covenant in chapters 34ff. The Presence of God becomes transferred and accessible to the people through the ministry of Moses.

In Exod 34:1-9, there is a new Theophany on Sinai, but with several important differences from the previous encounter. This time Moses is to ascend entirely alone—there should be no one on or near the mountain at all (vv. 1-3). Moreover, special emphasis is given to the new set of stone tablets which were carved out by Moses (vv. 1, 4). In obedience, Moses follows this directive and encounters YHWH (vv. 4-9). The promised revelation, as noted above, is described as a spoken declaration, centered on the utterance of the Divine Name YHWH (hwhy), vv. 6-7. The encounter reaches its climax with Moses’ request that YHWH take the people again as His own. And, indeed, in verses 10-26, God responds by establishing the covenant again with Israel, after which they are once again regarded as His people (compare with v. 10). There are, however, some important points of difference with this second covenant, as expressed through details often overlooked by commentators.

    • First, it is a covenant with Israel and with Moses (v. 27, Moses’ name is given first). This indicates the enhanced role of Moses in ministering the covenant, and in communicating God’s word and presence to the people.
    • Second, the same basic idea is indicated by the difference in the character of the stone tablets which provide the written basis of the agreement. The first covenant was written on the tablets by the finger of God (31:18; 32:16); by contrast, the second is said specifically to be written by Moses (34:27-28). Some commentators are inclined to gloss over this apparent difference, or to attribute it simply to differences in the underlying traditions. While the latter is certainly possible, in my view it does not change the meaning of the difference in the overall narrative as we have it.

The remainder of chapter 34 further emphasizes, in vivid and dramatic fashion, the mediatorial role of Moses. The Divine Presence is marked and reflected on Moses’ own person (rays of light from his face), visibly and symbolically, as he descends from Mt. Sinai (vv. 29-30). In this glorified condition he communicates God’s instruction (Torah) to the people (vv. 31-33), a process which is repeated at regular points, at least until the Torah is complete and the communal Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) is built. Indeed, within the narrative structure and setting, this Torah (35:1-3) leads into specific instruction regarding the building of the Tent, through which the people would come to encounter YHWH. This is unquestionably meant as a parallel to the Tent “outside the camp” which only Moses would enter (34:34-35). After the great new Tent is established, God’s Presence fills it (40:34), effectively taking Moses’ place as the one who communicated the Presence to the people (v. 35). Here the Presence of YHWH would reside with Israel through all of the people’s travels (vv. 36-38).

Paul recognizes the significance of Moses’ role as mediator of the Sinai covenant, and how the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel was experienced (by the people) only through the presence of God reflected in the person of Moses. He draws upon this very point in a most powerful way in 2 Corinthians 3, using the ancient tradition to establish a contrast between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant (of the Spirit) for believers in Christ. The contrast was fundamental to the early Christian understanding of the identity of believers as the people of God. Which is not to say that there were not serious disputes regarding the role of the Torah (and the old covenant) in this new religious identity, as Paul’s own letters testify. I have discussed the subject at great length in the series The Law and the New Testament (cf. especially the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”), and will do so again later on in this current series.

July 20: Hebrews 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29

Hebrews 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29

When we turn to the letter to the Hebrews, we find a number of references to the Spirit. For the most part, however, these are traditional in nature (cf. the notice in 3:7 on the Spirit-inspired character of the Scriptures), and not nearly as prominent or significant as one might expect in a theological writing of this sort. The lack of emphasis on the Spirit may simply be a reflection of the overwhelmingly Christological thrust of the letter; even so, if Paul (for example) had authored a similar work, the Spirit surely would have featured much more prominently. In particular, there is little or no mention of the idea, so frequent elsewhere in the New Testament, of believers being “in the Spirit” —that is, united with Christ (and God the Father) through the presence of the Spirit. The closest such reference in Hebrews is in 6:4, where believers are described as those

“…(hav)ing been (en)lightened, (hav)ing (both) tasted the heavenly gift and (hav)ing coming to be holders with (one another) of (the) holy Spirit”

The idiom of believers holding the Spirit together with one another certainly captures the essential idea of being united in the Spirit. The emphasis is on the initial experience of salvation (conversion), which entails acceptance of the Gospel, trust in Jesus, confirmation in the baptism ritual, and the presence of the Spirit. The author does not develop the idea any further. However, earlier in the letter (2:4), mention is made of the activity of the Spirit among believers, through miraculous and powerful “signs and wonders”, referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of things (i.e. ‘gifts’) distributed (merismoi/) among individual believers and congregations (cp. Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 12-14).

The four remaining references to the Spirit are contained within the “New Covenant” exposition in chapters 9-10. The bulk of Hebrews (3:1-10:25) expounds the central theme that believers in Christ are living under a new covenant, and that all the forms of the old covenant are replaced (and fulfilled) in the person of Christ. The author of Hebrews declares, even more forcefully than Paul does in his letters, that the old covenant has completely passed away, and is no longer in effect for believers. This is very much part of the early Christian eschatological worldview—that this “New Covenant” marks the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the new. For more on this aspect, cf. the article on Hebrews in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

In particular, Hebrews focus on the ritual dimension of the old covenant, as embodied in the Temple cultus—that is, the sacrificial offerings, and the priesthood that administered them. Interestingly, Hebrews never refers directly to the Temple itself (referring instead to the older tent [skhnh/] shrine or ‘Tabernacle’), nor does it make use of the early Christian tendency to interpret the Temple in terms of Jesus’ own person/body. Instead, the author utilizes the simpler contrast between the physical Temple on earth and the (spiritual) dwelling of God in heaven. Christ is identified, not with the Temple, but with the priesthood (spec. the High Priest) that offers sacrifice in the Temple sanctuary. The two main sections which describe Jesus as a (High) Priest are Hebrews 4:14-5:10 and 6:20/7:1-10:18; cf. the earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Hebrews follows a well-established line of tradition in understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrificial offering. The author draws upon two principal types of sacrifice: (1) the offering which took place at the ratification of the covenant (Exodus 24:3-8), and (2) the sin offering at the ‘day of atonement’, when the High Priest would also enter the innermost part of the shrine (Leviticus 16). According to the Last Supper account, Jesus himself alluded to these same two sacrificial traditions, associating them with his own death (his “blood”). Thus, the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that marks the beginning of a “new covenant” is rooted in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:22-25 par). The author of Hebrews does not contribute anything new in this regard; rather, he develops and expounds a set of ideas and associations that were already well-established in early Christian belief.

The references to the Spirit in chapters 9-10 are interesting in the way that they punctuate the exposition, following two parallel lines of thought; this may be summarized as follows:

    • The Spirit’s declaration of the new covenant (9:8; 10:15)
      • The role of the Spirit in establishing the new covenant (9:14; 10:29)

The first line of thought draws upon the traditional association of the Spirit with prophetic inspiration. This association came to be applied, in Jewish thought, specifically to the inspiration of the Scriptures—the Torah (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Psalms (cf. the earlier note on Nehemiah 9:20, 30, etc). The New Testament authors generally assume the Spirit-inspired character of the Old Testament Scriptures, referring to it a number of times, in passing, without any real need to comment on the matter further or to develop the theological basis for the idea. There is a clear example of this in Heb 3:7 (cf. above), and another allusion here at 9:8:

“…the holy Spirit making clear by this (that) the way (into) the (holy) of holies had not yet been made to shine forth, (while) the first tent was yet holding (its) standing [i.e. while it still was standing]”

The “this” (tou=to, in italics above) refers to the Torah regulations related to the sanctuary of the earthly Tent (Tabernacle) and Temple, summarized in vv. 1-7 as part of the “first (covenant)”. This idea expressed in v. 8 is that, through the inspired account of the Tabernacle/Temple ritual in the Scriptures—including the inspired source/nature of the building plan itself (Exod 25-31)—the Spirit has revealed the limitations of the old covenant, which are to be fulfilled in the new. This is part of the wider exposition in the section, whereby Christ’s sacrifice both completes, and takes the place of, the sacrificial offerings made in the Tabernacle/Temple complex.

More than this, the wording of verse 8 implies that the Spirit also reveals, at the same time, the perfection of the new covenant. The Spirit makes known to believers the truth that Jesus’ sacrificial death opens the way (o(do/$) for us into the holiest place—the innermost shrine where God himself dwells. This is but a step removed from the idea expressed in Ephesians 2:18 (discussed in a prior note), that in the Spirit we, as believers, hold the way leading toward God the Father (cp. John 14:6).

Moving ahead to 9:14, the author refers to the role the Spirit played in the sacrifice of Christ, which both brought cleansing from sin (for believers) and established the new covenant. Acting as High Priest, Jesus made the sacrifice (in his own blood) “through (the) Spirit of (the) Age(s)” (dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou). The expression “Spirit of the Age(s)” was unusual enough that it prompted scribes to alter it to the more familiar “holy Spirit” (with a(gi/ou instead of ai)wni/ou); however, the reading with ai)wni/ou is almost certainly original. The adjective, difficult to translate literally in English, is often rendered as “eternal”, which tends to capture the general idea, if not especially accurate as a translation. The ai)wn– concept in the New Testament relates fundamentally to the Jewish and early Christian eschatological worldview, with the distinction between the current Age and the new Age to come. It also corresponds to the term <l*ou in Hebrew, which typically signifies either the distant past or the distant future, with the presence and power of God encompassing both (i.e. ‘eternal, eternity’). In the context of the exposition here in Hebrews, the distinction is between the earthly sanctuary, which is temporal in nature, and the heavenly sanctuary, which is eternal. The Spirit, of course, belongs to the heavenly sanctuary, where God himself has his dwelling.

The further associations of the Spirit with cleansing (vb kaqari/zw) and life for the dead, are well-established in Christian thought and tradition, as we have seen these notes.

At 10:15, the Spirit again declares the New Covenant (cf. above on 9:8), this time citing the famous prophecy of Jeremiah 31:33-34 (vv. 16-17). The declaration effectively brings the long exposition (of chaps. 3-10) to a close, concluding with a blunt restatement of the fundamental argument—namely, that the old covenant (with its sacrificial ritual) has come to an end for believers in Christ (v. 18). The sacrifice of Christ did away with the need for any further sacrificial ritual.

The reference to the Spirit in 10:29 properly belongs to the exhortation section that follows (10:26-12:13), but one which builds upon the New Covenant exposition of chaps. 9-10. After all, if there had been serious consequences for transgressing or rejecting the old covenant, how much more so is it now in the case of the new. This is the thrust of the warning in vv. 26-31, stated clearly enough in verse 29. In the old covenant, the person who sinned willfully and deliberately was “cut off”, and could not be restored to God (as part of his holy Community) through sin offering. So it is also in the new covenant, according to the author of Hebrews. A person who continues in blatantly sinful behavior, after coming to faith in Christ, will face the same Judgment as the wicked. They are said to be “trampling the Son of God under (foot)” and “bringing (it about)” that the “blood of the covenant” is treated as something “common” (i.e. profane), and not holy.

Moreover, the person who so violates the New Covenant is said to “bring injury (up)on the Spirit of (God’s) favor”. It is a rejection, not only of Jesus Christ (the Son of God), but one which brings insult and injury (vb e)nubri/zw) to God’s own Spirit. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ famous (and much-debated) saying on the “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Mk 3:28-29 par); on which, cf. my most recent discussion. The expression “the Spirit of favor” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ xa/rito$) is unusual (and unique in the New Testament), but clearly the term xa/ri$ (“favor”) refers to God’s favor—that is, the favor he shows to his people (believers). This means, primarily, the favor he shows in bestowing his Spirit upon us. The gift of God’s Spirit, of course, cannot be separated from the work of Jesus Christ and our trust in him, as is apparent from the strong Christological context of these references in Hebrews. Even though the author never develops this sense of the role of the Spirit in and among believers, he clearly accepts (and assumes) it as part of the early Christian worldview.

 

 

July 15: 1 Peter 1:2, 11-12; 2:2-5

1 Peter 1:2, 11-12; 2:2-5

In the recent daily notes this summer we have been exploring the early Christian view of the Spirit, and the way that it developed, over the course of time, from the Old Testament, Jewish, and Gospel traditions. It remains to examine the references to the Spirit in the New Testament Writings not yet studied, such as the letters of 1 Peter and Jude, which contain key passages. These will be presented in a survey format, rather than with a detailed exegesis of each passage. The evidence from the Pauline letters, in particular, will be used as a point of reference (and comparison).

1 Peter 1:2

In the opening greeting, the author of the letter (Peter) refers to believers (his audience) as “the (one)s gathered out” (i.e. elect/chosen ones), and that this choosing by God took place “in (the) holiness of (the) Spirit”. The noun a(giasmo/$ more properly signifies something being made holy (vb a(gia/zw); though less accurate syntactically, we might translate the phrase as “in the Spirit making (you) holy”. Clearly this is a reference to baptism (cf. 3:21-22), as the parallel motif of “sprinkling” (r(antismo/$) would confirm. The Spirit played a central role in the early Christian baptism ritual, as we have discussed at various points throughout these notes. The association involved the fundamental idea of cleansing (from sin/impurity), which is certainly present here, as well as the following ideas that are more uniquely Christian in orientation:

    • The presence of the Spirit marks a new Age, and a new covenant with God, for believers in Christ. While this draws upon earlier Prophetic traditions, the Christocentric focus among early believers represented a radical new development, quite apart from Messianic traditions in Judaism at the time.
    • The ritual came to symbolize the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the believer’s participation in it. This goes quite beyond the earlier association of baptism with cleansing from sin, etc, being in some ways closer to certain rituals in contemporary mystery religions. Paul was most influential in developing this idea, drawing out the deeper theological and christological meaning.

The phrase “(the) sprinkling of (the) blood of Yeshua (the) Anointed” encompasses both of the aspects highlighted above. It alludes to the covenant ritual in Exodus 24:4-8, understood as a new covenant in terms of Jesus’ sacrificial death (Mark 14:24 par; cp. 1 Pet 1:19). Baptism thus symbolizes believers’ cleansing by the Spirit of God, as well their new  covenant identity as God’s people through union with Christ (including participation in his death and resurrection). The simple way that these ideas are combined in v. 2 suggests that they were well-established and ingrained in Christian thought at the time.

1 Peter 1:11-12

The references to the Spirit in verses 11-12 merely express the widespread early Christian belief, inherited from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, that the Prophets of old were uniquely inspired by the Spirit of God, and spoke/wrote under its influence. The wording here, however, also evinces several uniquely Christian points of emphasis. Most importantly, we note how the expression “(the) Spirit of (the) Anointed” (pneu=ma Xristou=) is used in v. 11, being essentially synonymous with “(the) holy Spirit” in v. 12. Admittedly, the expression “Spirit of Christ” is rare in the New Testament, but we have seen how, for Paul at least, it was interchangeable with “Spirit of God” —indicating that the (Holy) Spirit was both the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God.

The use of “Spirit of (the) Anointed” in verse 11 was likely influenced by the idea that the Old Testament prophecies foretold “the (thing)s (related) to (the) Anointed” —i.e., Messianic prophecies, of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even so, the fact that “Spirit of Christ” could be used so readily as a substitute for the “Spirit (of God)”, without any need for further comment, shows how well-established the identification of the Spirit with both God the Father and Jesus Christ was among early Christians at the time. Moreover, it is likely that, in the case of 1 Peter, this also reflects a belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus (cf. 1:20), rather than—or in addition to—the earlier exaltation Christology that associated his divine Sonship primarily with his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. Such pre-existence Christology,  even in a rudimentary form, would make it easier to envision how the Spirit of Christ could be inspiring the Old Testament Prophets. The Spirit was the active Spirit of both God the Father and Christ the Son, even prior to Jesus’ life on earth. If 1 Peter was genuinely written by the apostle Peter, then it probably dates from the early 60’s A.D., making it one of the earliest documents expressing this belief in Jesus’ pre-existence (cp. Phil 2:6ff).

1 Peter 2:5

As part of the exhortation and ethical instruction in 2:1-12, the letter makes use of the same motif we saw in Ephesians 2:18-22 (cf. the earlier note)—of believers, collectively, as a house (that is, the “house of God”, or Temple sanctuary). The Pauline character of the Ephesians passage tends to be confirmed by use of similar house/Temple metaphors elsewhere in the undisputed letters (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 5:1; 6:16), but the same sort of imagery here in 1 Peter indicates that it was even more widespread. This is rather to be expected, given the importance of the Temple, and the practical need for Christians to reinterpret (and ‘spiritualize’) its significance, turning it into a symbol of believers—individually and collectively—as the dwelling place for God. In particular, it is the place where God’s Spirit dwells.

Ephesians takes this a step further, emphasizing the Spirit as that which unites believers together, with the further implication that the ‘house’ itself is spiritual, built of/by the Spirit. Much the same is indicated in 1 Pet 2:5:

“and (also you your)selves, as living stones, are built as a house of the Spirit [i.e. spiritual house]”

This imagery is expounded through an application of several different Scripture passages (Isa 28:16; Psalm 118:26; Isa 8:4), identifying Jesus as the “foundation stone” (or cornerstone) of the Temple. This identification goes back to early Gospel tradition (Mark 12:10-11 par) and Jesus’ own teaching/sayings regarding the Temple. As Jesus Christ is the “living stone” (v. 4), so also believers, through union with him, are also made into “living stones”. As we have seen, to be “in Christ” is the same as being “in the Spirit”, a point that doubtless 1 Peter would affirm along with Paul, as indicated by the wording here in vv. 4-5.

Verses 5ff continue the spiritual reinterpretation of the Temple and its ritual (i.e. the priesthood and sacrificial offerings), identifying believers as representing the holy sacred office (priesthood), but one which now brings near to God sacrificial offerings “of the Spirit” (i.e. that are spiritual, pneumatiko/$). The old material offerings of slaughtered animals (qusi/ai), etc, have passed away completely for the people of God in the new covenant (vv. 9-10).

The remaining passages in 1 Peter and Jude will be discussed in the next daily note.

 

June 24: Galatians 5:16-25

Galatians 5:16-25

Paul’s view of the Old Testament Law (Torah)—as expressed in Galatians and Romans—was striking and controversial enough that many Jewish Christians at the time opposed it vehemently. Even today, thoughtful and devout believers can find it difficult to accept. This is partly due to the apparent contradiction with the inspired character of the Torah, but of even greater (practical) concern is that freedom from the Law would seem to allow license for immorality. For this reason, many Christians would maintain that the moral/ethical regulations of the Torah (the Ten Commandments, etc) continue to be binding, even as other ritual/ceremonial requirements have fallen away. This, however, does not seem to be what the New Testament teaches, and I certainly do not find evidence in Paul’s letters that he taught anything of the sort.

The problem lies in confusing the specific regulations of the Torah with the existence of effective moral and religious standards for Christians. While stating that believers in Christ are free from the Law, Paul clearly expresses the view that believers are still expected to live in a pure and upright manner. But how is such a moral way of life to be maintained without the regulations of the Law to guide believers? The answer lies in the very nature of the new covenant, where the inner presence of God’s own Spirit takes the place of the external regulations of the Torah.

Given his unique teaching on freedom from the Law, it is somewhat surprising the Paul does not touch upon this matter more often in his letters. There must have been Christians at the time who were concerned about how one should maintain moral and religious rectitude without the Law. However, he does address the question clearly enough in the parenetic/exhortation (exhortatio) section of Galatians (5:1-6:10), especially the portion beginning with verse 13:

“For you were called upon freedom, brothers—only th(is) freedom (must) not (lead) to a rushing (out) from the flesh, but through love you must be a slave to each other.”

A distinctive teaching among early Christians, found throughout the New Testament, is that the regulations of the Torah have effectively been supplanted by a single command, or principle—that of love (a)ga/ph). It is a principle that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching (Mk 12:30-33 par; Matt 5:43ff par; John 13:34-35), and Paul clearly expresses the idea that the “love command” represents a fulfillment of the entire Torah (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10, etc; cp. James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23-24). The main point Paul makes here is that, instead of our freedom leading to a fulfillment of fleshly impulses, our choices should be guided by our love for each other. All that remains for believers from the Torah is this love-principle.

While the love-principle is authoritative and guiding, it is ultimately derived, not from any specific command or regulation, but by the presence of God’s Spirit. This is the essence of the New Covenant, and Paul expresses, in Gal 5:16-25, something of the manner in which the Spirit takes the place of the Torah for believers. Note the regulatory aspect of verse 16:

“I relate to you: you must walk about in the Spirit, and (then) you shall not complete (the) impulse [e)piqumi/a] of the flesh.”

To walk about (vb peripate/w) “in the Spirit” (pneu/mati) means to be guided by the Spirit in all that a person does. We saw this idiom expressed previously in the narratives of Luke-Acts, with the emphasis on being “in the Spirit” and guided/led by the Spirit (cf. the note on Luke 4:1, 14ff). The force of Paul’s exhortation implies that this does not happen automatically for believers, simply as a result of the Spirit’s presence; rather, it requires a willingness and attentiveness to accept and allow this guidance to occur (a point emphasized again by Paul at the close of v. 25). Even though Christians are freed from the power of sin, there remains a conflict with the “flesh” (v. 17), and the impulse (qumo/$) toward sin. Paul here uses the noun e)piqumi/a, which means something like an “impulse (to act) upon (something)”; in English idiom we might say “set one’s mind/heart upon” it. For the believer, it is possible to ignore, neglect, or even extinguish (i.e. quench, cf. 1 Thess 5:19) the influence and guidance of the Spirit.

While an impulse toward sin remains in our “flesh”, we are no longer enslaved by it, and we have the ability not to act upon it—to complete it, as Paul indicates here by the verb tele/w. Acting upon such an impulse results in “works of the flesh” (ta\ e&rga th=$ sarko/$); a representative list of these “works” is given in vv. 19-21, following the traditional “vice list” pattern in ethical instruction of the time. Thus, the kind of immorality which was prohibited and regulated by the Torah will be avoided by believers, simply by following the internal guidance of the Spirit, without any external legal standard being required. Not only will immorality be avoided, but there will be additional “fruit” that comes from the Spirit’s active guidance (vv. 22-23). It is most significant that this “fruit” does not consist in good deeds—not even acts of Christian ministry—but of fundamental attributes of a person’s character, which reflect the very attributes of God present in His Spirit.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that this moral standard comes through the internal influence of the Spirit, and not by observance of the Torah nor any other external command. Paul makes this clear by two statements which punctuate the instruction in vv. 16-25:

    • “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under (the) Law” (v. 18)
    • “…against such (thing)s [i.e. the fruit of the Spirit] there is no Law” (v. 23b)

In other words, the New Covenant of the Spirit has nothing whatever to do with the Law. This is a uniquely Pauline development of the early Christian belief regarding the presence of the Spirit among believers. The new covenant motif was part of the application of the earlier Prophetic tradition (regarding the restoration of Israel in the New Age), interpreting the presence and activity of the Spirit among early believers as its fulfillment. Paul has sharpened the contrast between old and new covenant, emphasizing, more than any other Christian minister of the time, that the Spirit in the new covenant takes the place of the Torah in the old.

One point that has not been discussed yet, in the context of Paul’s treatment of the Spirit, is how the presence and activity of God’s Spirit relates to the personal presence of Jesus Christ himself, in and among believers. This will be examined in the next daily note, with a comparison of several key passages in Galatians and Romans.

For more on the question of Paul’s view of the Law, cf. my extensive articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament”, including those on Galatians (spec. on 5:1-6:10), along with the separate article on “antiomianism”.

June 23: Galatians 3:2-5, 14

Galatians 3:2-5, 14

Paul’s references to the Spirit in Galatians follow those in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 (discussed in the last two notes), in the context of his pointed contrast between the old and new covenants. This is to be expected, given that the central theme of Galatians involves the relation of believers to the Law (Torah). I have discussed the subject at length in the series “The Law and the New Testament” —cf. especially the articles on Galatians in “Paul’s View of the Law”. The very point and reason for his writing to the Galatians is to assure (and convince) them that it is not necessary for them, or any other believers, to observe the regulations of the Torah (such as circumcision or the dietary laws). Even though the question relates specifically to non-Jewish (Gentile) believers, the arguments Paul uses would apply equally well (and even more so) to Jewish Christians.

Chapters 3-4 make up the heart of the letter—the probatio, in which arguments are presented in support of the main proposition (propositio, 2:15-21). The first argument (3:1-5) is based on the Galatians’ own experience as believers—the fact that they received the Spirit. Paul treats this as self-evident proof, in light of his fundamental contrast between the Spirit (pneu=ma) and the flesh (sa/rc). The logic of the argument runs as follows:

    • as believers, they received the Spirit
      • the flesh is opposed to the Spirit
        • => they should not wish to be involved with things of the flesh

Paul is more caustic and biting in his presentation of this argument, as we can see in verse 3:

“Are you thus without a (sound) mind? (Hav)ing begun in (the) Spirit, you are now (to be) made complete (relying) upon (the) flesh?”

The implication here, of course, is that observance of the Torah regulations is part of the “flesh”, in the sense that it involves work and effort (i.e., Paul’s frequent expression “works [e&rga] of the Law”). More than this, however, in Galatians (as subsequently in Romans) Paul connects the Torah with the bondage experienced by humankind (to the power of sin) in the current Age. This association with sin helps to explain how Paul can characterize the Torah as “the flesh”. The entire created order is in bondage to the power of sin, and the Torah is part of that old order of things that passes away in the New Age—i.e., the new arrangement of things (diaqh/kh, “covenant”).

Paul deprecates the Torah observance for believers by contrasting it with their experience of receiving the Spirit at the beginning—i.e., at the time of baptism, after they first came to trust in Jesus:

“This only do I wish to learn from you: (was it) out of works of (the) Law (that) you received the Spirit, or out of (the) hearing of trust?” (v. 2)

The point is clear: they received the Spirit through trust in Jesus (in response to the proclamation of the Gospel), and not by observing the Torah. The Torah is part of the old covenant, and has nothing whatever to do with the new, and believers are under no obligation to observe its various regulations. Thus the barb in verse 3 is stinging indeed: having begun with the Spirit (the new covenant), would you now go away from this (back to the old covenant)? His wording in verse 4 suggests how misguided and confused this is: “Did you suffer so many (thing)s with(out any) purpose [ei)kh=, i.e. rashly, randomly]?” The further suggestion in verse 5 is that this turning toward the old covenant (Torah) is contrary to the will and purpose of God Himself (and His Spirit):

“(So) then, the (One) leading the Spirit upon you, and working powerful (deed)s among you, (is it) out of works of (the) Law or out of (the) hearing of trust?”

The second argument (3:6-14) of the probatio draws upon the example of Abraham from Scripture—a line of argument that Paul would repeat in Romans 4. His use of Abraham is interesting in the way that it takes the argument back to a time before the establishment of the Sinai covenant (and the Torah); indeed, this fact is central to Paul’s point. Not only does the new covenant of the Spirit supersede that of Moses and the Torah, it is actually the fulfillment of the original blessing promised to Abraham, the father of the Israelite people. The argument here develops the basis for this claim, stating it clearly enough in the concluding verse:

“(It was so) that unto the nations the (words of) good account [eu)logi/a, i.e. blessing] of Abraham might come to be, in (the) Anointed Yeshua, (and so) that we might receive (the fulfillment of) th(is) message about the Spirit, through the trust (in Yeshua).” (v. 14)

For more detail on the Abraham argument, see the earlier articles on Gal 3:6-14 and Romans 4 in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”.

Paul turns again to the Abraham traditions in the midrashic argument in 4:21-31, expounding the flesh/Spirit contrast in terms of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. This follows the same old vs. new covenant dualism (v. 24), but with a stronger association of the old covenant with slavery and bondage (Hagar being a slave). A particular interpretation of the tradition—i.e. that Ishmael ‘persecuted’ Isaac—also leads Paul to emphasize how the old covenant (of the flesh) persecutes the new covenant (of the Spirit):

“But just as then [i.e. at that time] the (one) coming to be (born) according to (the) flesh pursued the (one born) according to (the) Spirit, so also now.” (v. 29)

This relates to Jewish persecution of the early Christians, well-documented in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters, but also to the issue at hand in Galatians—of Jewish Christians pressuring Gentile believers to observe the Torah regulations (circumcision, dietary laws, etc). Paul’s words against these proponents of the need for Torah-observance are extremely harsh (1:7-8; 2:4; 3:10; 4:17; 5:10-12; 6:12-13).

Thus, if we are to summarize how Paul’s line of argument in Galatians relates to a development in the early Christian understanding of the Spirit, it rests in his sharp contrast between the old and new covenant. The old covenant is part of the old order of things (in the current Age), while the new covenant marks the beginning of a new Age. The people of God (Israelites and Jews) in the old covenant were governed by the regulations of the Torah (which represented the terms of the covenant); by contrast, in the new covenant, the people of God (believers in Christ, both Jewish and non-Jewish) are governed by the indwelling presence of God’s own Spirit. For believers in Christ, the old covenant has passed away, and they/we are free from its binding terms (i.e. the Torah).

This is a uniquely Christian development of the Prophetic tradition regarding the role of the Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration. As we have discussed in earlier notes, the sixth-century prophets—particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel—express the promise of a coming time when the people of Israel and Judah, upon their return to the Land, would be given a “new heart” and the “new spirit” so that they will be able to remain faithful to YHWH. This inward transformation of the heart/spirit is achieved by the action of God’s own Spirit being “poured out” upon them (cf. the notes on Isa 44:3 and Joel 2:28-29). The key passages on this in Ezekiel are 11:19ff; 18:31; 36:26-27, and 37:14 (cf. notes). The great “new covenant” prophecy, of course, is Jeremiah 31:31-34, in which God promises to write His Law (hr*oT, Torah) upon the hearts of the people (v. 33). Though the Spirit is not directly mentioned in this passage, it is to be inferred as the means of writing (on the writing of the Torah, and the general equivalence between the “finger of God” and the Spirit of God, cf. the prior note).

The main difference between Paul and this Prophetic line of tradition is that the Prophets clearly assume the continued binding authority of the Torah, while Paul states repeatedly (and unequivocally) that this is no longer so for believers, who are freed from the old covenant. For the Prophets, the writing of the Torah on the heart simply means that the people will be willing and able to observe it faithfully. Paul understands this idea quite differently, though, in his own way, he upholds a comparable premise—that believers effectively fulfill the Law, even without being bound to observe its specific regulations. The Law is similarly written on the hearts of believers, through the presence of the Spirit. This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

June 22: 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 (continued)

2 Corinthians 3:1-18, continued

Having established the contrast between the written word (gra/mma) and the Spirit (pneu=ma) in verse 6 (cf. the previous note), along with the motif of the Law (Torah) being written by the finger of God (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10), in the remainder of chapters 3 (vv. 7-18) Paul embarks on an exposition of the difference between the old and new covenants (diaqh=kai). He draws upon the Moses narratives and traditions in the book of Exodus; in particular, Paul takes a midrashic interpretive approach to Exodus 34:29-35, which describes Moses’ return from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets of the Covenant.

This contrast between the old and new covenants is centered on the idea of “glory” (do/ca). In Greek, the word do/ca has the basic meaning of “what one thinks” about something, how it is considered or regarded, often in the (positive) sense of “reputation, renown, honor, esteem, dignity”, etc. It can also carry the more objective meaning “appearance”, including various visual phenomena, especially involving light, brightness, and so forth. It can be applied to God in both primary senses—(1) as the esteem and honor which is (to be) accorded to him, and (2) the brightness and visual phenomena which is manifested by his presence. Do/ca is frequently used to render dobK* (lit. “weight”, i.e. worth, value) in Hebrew, a word which has a similar semantic range, especially when associated with YHWH.

In 2 Cor 3:7-11, Paul makes use of a series of qal wa-homer arguments—a traditional (Jewish) principle of interpretation, which argues from the lesser to the greater: if something is true in this (lesser) case, then how much more is it to be so regarded in the (greater) case. According to this mode of argument (a fortiori), Paul is working from the basic assumption that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant which God established with Israel at Sinai. The first two arguments (in vv. 7-9) involve the diakoni/a (“service, ministry”), that is, the administration of the covenant—in the case of the old covenant this began with Moses (and Aaron) and continued through the established priesthood and ritual apparatus (Temple, sacrificial offerings, purity regulations, etc), as well as through teaching and tradition. Note the contrast:

    • Vv. 7-8: service/ministry of death [h( diakoni/a tou= qana/tou]
      • service/ministry of the Spirit [h( diakoni/a tou= pneu/mato$]
    • Vers. 9: service/ministry of judgment against [h( diakoni/a th=$ katakri/sew$]
      • service/ministry of justice/righteousness [h( diakoni/a th=$ dikaiosu/nh$]

The characterization of the old covenant as “the ministry of death” is striking; for the uniquely Pauline view on the relationship between the Law, sin and death, read carefully Romans 5-7 (cf. the articles on 5:12-21 and 7:7-25 in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”), and note also in Gal 3:10-14, 19-22; 1 Cor 15:56. In vv. 7-8 here, the qal wa-homer argument is:

“If the ministry of death came to be in (such) esteem [do/ca]… how will the ministry of the Spirit not (even) more be in esteem?”

The old covenant came to have glory/esteem (perf. of the verb doca/zw), but now it has come to have no glory/esteem (again, with the perfect of doca/zw). It is hard to imagine a more antinomian statement by Paul—the old covenant, with its written Law, now has no glory. However, he makes clear that this is true only in one respect: because the glory of the new covenant goes so far beyond it (the verb u(perba/llw means to throw or cast something over/beyond, i.e. past a particular distance or measure). This is an important principle for understanding Paul’s apparently negative statements regarding the Law—its binding force has come to an end because of Christ. To neglect or ignore this overwhelming Christocentric emphasis leaves the commentator with no hope of properly understanding Paul’s thought.

If there was any doubt that, in his mind, the old covenant has come to an end, he makes this clear in verse 11, using the verb katarge/w—literally to “make (something) cease working”, i.e. render inactive, ineffective, often in the technical (legal) sense of “nullify, invalidate, make void”, etc. This word appears already at the end of verse 7 (and will be used again in vv. 13-14); for its use by Paul elsewhere (with regard to the Law), see Rom 3:31; 4:14; 7:2, 6; Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11; and also Eph 2:15. The second verb is me/nw, “remain (in place), abide”. The contrast is clear enough: the old covenant ceases to be in effect, the new covenant remains and lasts; one is temporary, the other permanent.

The new covenant (kainh\ diaqh/kh) is governed by the Spirit (vv. 6-8), and not by the Torah; indeed, the Spirit takes the place of the Torah, a principle which many Christians have been, and still are, unable (or unwilling) to accept, in spite of the clear teaching on the subject by Paul (and elsewhere in the New Testament). We will examine the point further in the next daily note (on his references to the Spirit in Galatians). However, the emphasis in 2 Cor 3:1-18 is on Paul and his fellow missionaries as ministers of this new covenant. In this light, in verses 12-18, he continues his contrast of old vs. new covenant, utilizing the motif of the covering (ka/lumma) that Moses kept over his face (cf. Exod 34:29-35) when he met with the people after speaking to God.

In the initial period of the old covenant, the people were wholly dependent on Moses as the prophet or spokesperson (ayb!n`) who communicated the word and will of God to them. Apostles and missionaries such as Paul served a similar role in the new covenant, but with a major difference: the communication of the Gospel of Christ took place without any covering, the ‘veil’ having been removed. The implication of this is that the people (i.e. believers) now are able to experience the presence and glory of God directly, without any intermediary. This is due to the fact that, with the communication (and acceptance) of the Gospel, believers receive the very Spirit of God. Paul’s wording in verse 16 is striking (and rather controversial) in this regard:

“But whenever (one) would turn about toward the Lord, the covering is taken (up from) around (him).”

This removal of the covering (symbolized by the veil of Moses) has two aspects in its meaning:

    • people are able to experience the full revelation of God, and
    • it signifies that the old covenant (of Moses and the Torah) has come to an end (cf. Rom 10:4)

The latter aspect means that believers in Christ are freed from the old covenant and its Torah, and this freedom (e)leuqeri/a) is due to our contact with the Spirit of God:

“And the Lord is the Spirit, and that which (is) of the Spirit of (the) Lord, (is) freedom [e)leuqeri/a].” (v. 17)

Insofar as we turn to God’s Spirit, we have complete freedom—meaning, in this context, primarily, freedom from the Law (Torah). Use of the title “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) in such passages can be somewhat ambiguous, as a result of the dual-use by early Christians, where the title can refer to God the Father (YHWH) or to Jesus Christ, interchangeably. Here the expression “Spirit of the Lord” presumably means the Spirit of God, though Paul does, on occasion, also use the expression “Spirit of Christ“. Among first-century Christians the dual point of reference regarding the Spirit—whether of God the Father or Jesus (the Son)—reflected a complex theological understanding which was still in the process of development. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes. There can be no doubt, however, that the idea of turning to the Spirit of the Lord entails acceptance of the Gospel, and of conforming our lives to the presence of Christ dwelling in us.

This latter point is emphasized especially in the famous concluding words to this section (v. 18). Given the overall focus of the passage, one might expect Paul to end with another reference to the role of apostles—persons called to represent Christ and preach the Gospel—and yet, following the association of the Spirit and freedom in verse 17, he moves in an entirely different direction: “but we all…” The glory of the old covenant was associated with a special person—Moses—who was set apart to represent God for the people; only he spoke directly with God, and the glory shone only from his face. How different is the new covenant, where every believer in Christ beholds the glory of the Lord, and is transformed, in a permanent manner, far greater than the transfiguration that Moses experienced. The true apostle and missionary does not emphasize his (or her) own abilities and accomplishments—ultimately the new covenant is administered and shared by all believers together.

In prior notes, we discussed the idea of the “democratization” of the Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration, in which God’s Spirit (and the prophetic spirit) would come upon all people, the nation as a whole, rather than upon specific chosen/gifted individuals. This was reflected most notably, for early Christians, by the citation of Joel 2:28-29 in Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2:17-18). The reference to Moses, here in our passage, brings to mind the tradition in Numbers 11:16-30 (discussed in an earlier note), in which seventy elders were allowed to share in the prophetic spirit—the Spirit of YHWH—that had been upon Moses exclusively. For believers in Christ, the inclusivity extends even further—to all of God’s people, essentially fulfilling the very wish, expressed by Moses himself:

“…who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+ [i.e. prophets], (and) that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!” (Num 11:29)