Tag Archives: Paul

Scripture on Sunday – 2 Corinthians 5:14

In the opening chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul is defending himself against some at Corinth who are questioning his motives and ministry, and perhaps accusing him to others in the church, evidently seeking to ingratiate themselves to the Corinthians in Paul’s place. Paul’s previous visit to the Corinthians had been a painful affair, and his last letter to them—almost certainly not 1 Corinthians but another letter (2:3, 9)—had been an endeavour to sort through the difficulties experienced in the visit; it does not appear to have worked.

One issue surfacing several times in these chapters is a concern that Paul is “commending himself” to the Corinthians (see 3:1 – Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?; 5:12 – We are not again commending ourselves to you…; cf. 4:5 – For we do not preach ourselves). Paul insists that he needs no “letters of commendation” for the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of commendation,” the work of the Spirit as the fruit of his ministry (3:2-3). Yet Paul does want to commend himself to the Corinthians’ consciences (4:2; 5:11). He wants to give the Corinthians an opportunity to be proud of him and his associates, and to have answers that they can give to those who might question them about Paul, or accuse him to them (5:12).

Part of the issue, clear from 1 Corinthians 1-4, is the manner of Paul’s ministry in the way of the cross. There is nothing “impressive” about Paul in terms of his personal bearing, rhetorical ability, and so on. He doesn’t even have anyone to commend him! His opponents on the other hand, seem to be very impressive in their ministries, to have such commendations, and argue that they are superior to Paul and therefore worthy of the Corinthians’ allegiance. Paul, however, suggests that they take “pride in appearance and not in heart” (5:12).

Paul’s entire argument in these opening chapters of the letter is a sustained response to these kinds of concerns and accusations. Something particularly notable are the theological underpinnings of his argument. Paul lives and ministers as he does as an application of theological convictions concerning the distinctiveness of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit in contrast to the “ministry of condemnation”—his characterisation of Moses’ ministry of the law, and of those in his own day who would seek to follow Moses rather than Christ. The old covenant was a “ministry of death,” a “letter that kills,” whereas Paul’s ministry is a “ministry of righteousness,” “of the Spirit” in place of the letter, a ministry of life, liberation, and transformation in Christ and by the Spirit (ch. 3).

Further, his ministry takes place in the way of the cross—a way of ministry conformed to the way of Jesus Christ in the world, a cruciform life in which his “weakness” and suffering, his afflictions and brokenness are the means by which the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines in his “earthen vessel.” In spite of all these afflictions, however, he is sustained in his ministry so that although the “death of Jesus” is evident in his life, the life of Jesus is manifested in and for the Corinthians (ch. 4).

Paul is sustained in the cruciform life by the eschatological hope with which he is possessed. His sufferings now are “working” an eternal weight of glory for him. He is convinced that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so believers have awaiting them, a new body in the heavens. Paul is no Platonist; he is not seeking to be “unburdened” of the body (although he does “groan” due to its present affliction), but to be “clothed” anew with the new body of the resurrection. Given this living hope he endures all things for the Corinthians, and for their faith (4:15).

Is Paul mad? If they think so, then he is mad due to his faith in and obedience to God. Is he of “sound mind”? Then the Corinthians should know and recognise that all that he does and suffers is for them (5:13). Note that one can only think of Paul as being of “sound mind” if one accepts the theological presuppositions that he sets forth: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God by which salvation for all has become a reality.

This is a gospel-shaped vision, a gospel-shaped life, and a gospel-shaped way of ministry.

“For the love of Christ controls us…” Here we hit the bedrock of Paul’s ministry ethos, and that which distinguishes him from those that question or accuse him. Ministry, for Paul, is a participation in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, a cruciform life in his steps, one taken captive by him and following in his train (2:14-18). Just as Jesus Christ gave himself for us and for all, just as Jesus Christ offered himself to God for us and for all, and just as Jesus Christ went to his death so that others might live, so Paul would give himself even unto death so that others might hear and know the message of Christ. His life and ministry would become an echo of the love of the Christ who gave himself for us. Paul would do this—could do this—because of the living hope of the resurrection from the dead. As he shares the sufferings of Christ, so he will share in the glory of his resurrection.

Paul’s ministry motive is the love of Christ. Therefore he will not “peddle” the word of God, nor use manipulation or deception, nor harbour hidden agendas or impure motives, nor seek his own advantage, prominence, or fame. He ministers not for his own benefit but for the glory of God and for the sake of those who would hear. He will proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as their servant. He will aim to make the truth of God plain, and commend himself to their consciences.

Paul’s own life has become part of the message: the way of Christ and the love of Christ are embodied in him, visible in him, and so congruent with the message that he proclaims.

“The love of Christ controls us . . . And we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God, and not of ourselves.”

The 2019 Annual Vose Lecture

On August 2, 2019 Ben Witherington III delivered the Annual Vose Lecture on the theme, “A Singular Jesus in a Pluralistic Culture.” In essence, the lecture was an applied New Testament apologetics within a Wesleyan Evangelical framework of thought. Witherington explored Jesus’ self-understanding as reported in the gospels, assessing the historical worth of this portrayal, and arguing that an incarnational understanding of Jesus is a necessary deduction from the New Testament data, and the foundation of Christian witness in a pluralistic context.

Witherington began by identifying two well-known key phrases in the ministry of the historical Jesus: his use of the title “Son of Man,” and his use of the imagery and language of “the kingdom of God.” He argued that these two concepts appear together in only one Old Testament text: Daniel 7:13-14, with the additional note that in vv. 25-27 the kingdom is given to the saints. Witherington argued that Jesus believed that he was both divine and human, and that he used the Son of Man title to indicate this. The title encompasses the fullness of Jesus’ person. As many other scholars have also argued, Jesus selected this relatively obscure title to set himself forth on his own terms, and in so doing, avoided other terms loaded with contemporary pre-conceptions and significance which were antithetical to the message he sought to communicate.

Turning to the issue of pluralism, Witherington insists that the Christian claim of Jesus’ uniqueness and supremacy is not about the wisdom or value of other cultures or their beliefs, but about the central question and reality of salvation. Jesus’ claim was unique, as was his death and resurrection, and his relationship with the Father. He was also sinless although Witherington, applying his Wesleyan framework to Christology, argues that Jesus could have sinned but did not. Jesus’ incarnation was a genuine embrace of a fully human life with all its limitations and possibilities. He was certainly tempted to use his divine powers (e.g. to turn stones into bread) but did not, for he did not access the inherent divinity of his person. His life was one of divine self-limitation without any aspect of loss of the divine being.

This was much more a popular than an academic lecture and much appreciated, especially by the ordinary church-goers who made up a sizable chunk of the audience. Witherington presented a thoroughly Evangelical account of apologetics grounded in substantial New Testament theology. The lecture both supported and called for a robust confidence in the gospel on the part of everyday believers as they encounter the challenge to faith in Jesus Christ in a culture that espouses the equivalence of just about any and all worldviews, spiritualities, and perspectives.

On Saturday morning following the public lecture, Ben Witherington addressed a second more academic lecture to another audience on the theme of “Paul, Covenantal Theology, and the Law.” In this thoughtful and thought-provoking lecture Witherington insisted that the Law must be understood within its Old Testament / Ancient Near Eastern context, that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of both grace and law—and indeed all the biblical covenants had this feature. The New Covenant was not a renewal of the Old Covenant, i.e. as one covenant with diverse administrations, but was an entirely new covenant.

Witherington explored in some detail key New Testament texts such as 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 4:1-8, Philippians 3: 4-8, before turning his attention especially to Romans (something we asked him to do). There he explored Paul’s thought in Romans 10; 7:7-25; and 8:1-4. He argues that Paul considered that the Law was a temporary arrangement for Israel (the paidagōgos or “child-minder”) until they should come “to maturity.” The believer has been set free from sin and death, and so also from the Law. Thus they are not under the Law of Moses, but under the Law of Christ.

Both lectures were followed by a lively Question & Answer session, and by ongoing conversation after the formalities were concluded. It was a privilege to have such an accomplished New Testament exegete and commentator visit Vose Seminary and bring the wealth of his learning to our community. Further, Ben Witherington’s Wesleyan commitments also brought a fresh flavour to the lectures; it is not that often that this perspective has been so competently and enthusiastically presented and defended (in my experience at least) in Perth in recent years. Despite his great learning, massive literary output, and global stature, Ben wore his learning lightly. I am sure that those who attended the lectures were certainly enriched by what he presented. This was the third Annual Vose Lecture, and a very fine addition to this growing heritage.

Matthew and Paul on “Righteousness”

This morning I preached an overview message on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. In my preparation for the sermon I came across the following comparison in F. Dale Bruner’s wonderful commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

I suggest that in this use here [i.e. Matt 5:6] of the word “righteousness,” the key word also in Paul’s anti-Judaistic letters (Romans and Galatians), Matthew and Paul shake hands. It is true that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “righteousness” is primarily a moral term; this meaning is present in Paul, too, but it is secondary. Paul’s “righteousness” is supremely the righteousness of God given to believers in Jesus Christ. Matthew’s “righteousness” is predominantly a moral righteousness in disciples (and the plural “disciples” here and the plural nouns and verbs in all the Beatitudes are important and social). …

Any righteousness claimed before God that did not show itself in human righteousness or social justice toward people brought down prophetic wrath (see especially Amos). Matthew’s Jesus will unforgettably hammer away at this prophetic requirement of personal and social righteousness in text after text. In Matthew’s Gospel only the truly godly and humane get into the kingdom. But in Paul’s gospel, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

It is just here, however, in his different understanding of righteousness that I think Matthew’s Jesus most closely approaches Paul. For as we have seen in all the Poor Beatitudes, particularly in Matthew’s moral construal (“poor in spirit,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness”), it is the consciously unright or unrighted who are righted, it is the out who are brought in, and now it is those who want a righteousness they do not have who are promised they will have it. To say this is not to Paulinize Matthew; it is to see Paul and Matthew meeting at center: God is the giver of the kingdom and of the kingdom’s righteousness as well. This kingdom is still largely future, but, as we have seen, the future kingdom that Jesus preaches is already breaking in. All four Need Beatitudes say this; all four Beatitudes—and now I audaciously Paulinize—preach justification by faith; all four give God to those who are unable to get God by themselves.

But it would be fair to Matthew to stress that the righteousness longed for in his Gospel is not only heaven-sent (Paul’s great contribution) but also and distinctively earth-centered (Matthew’s great contribution). Paul colors righteousness sky blue, dignifying its source; Matthew colors it earth brown, honouring its goal. Paul the doctor of divine grace and Matthew the doctor of human mercy meet at center: in their deep appreciation for the gift of God. But one teaches in an unparalleled way that gifts’ source (who is God), the other that gift’s aim (which is people); both are needed, both canonical, both Christian (Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary Volume 1: The Christbook, 170-171).

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 2:12

Phil 2-12Philippians 2:12
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul has just written or included the magnificent “Christ-hymn” of vv. 6-11 which speaks of Christ’s self-emptying, his humiliation, obedience and subsequent exaltation, which he also prefaced with the exhortation to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). Therefore, in view of the graphic example of Jesus’ commitment and obedience to the will of the Father, Paul now exhorts the Philippians also to “work out” their own salvation.

As already indicated, the first thing to remember with respect to Paul’s admonition here is to set it in its own historical and literary context. It is possible to treat this text as a piece of general Christian advice separated from its context so that to “work out one’s salvation” can be filled with just about any kind of content. Further, it can be treated in such an individualistic way that working out one’s own salvation is something one does and achieves on one’s own, apart from and without the community of God’s people. Finally, the text can be approached as a theological battle ground where the issues of salvation by faith apart from works, or the relation between God’s work and human work are discussed in an abstract manner as though there were no context at all, and as though we need to carefully explain what Paul really meant, because Paul was not quite careful enough in what he has written here. So the major question for us is: What did Paul mean when he wrote this phrase?

The context for this verse probably goes all the way back to Paul’s exhortation in 1:27 which also includes a reference to Paul’s presence and absence:

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Paul, imprisoned in Rome and so very far away from his beloved Philippians, writes to encourage them to stand firm in the gospel in the face of persecution and suffering (vv. 28-30), disunity (2:1-4), and the crooked and depraved age in which they live (2:14-16). Whether he is present or absent he wants them to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” So, too, in 2:12 he writes that he wishes them to obey his commands “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.”

The particular command Paul now wants them to observe is that they “work out their own salvation” (tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe). It should go without saying that Paul is not here saying that we save ourselves by our own works, as is perhaps suggested by Zerwick & Grosvenor: “do your best to bring about your own salvation in fear and trembling…” (596). Elsewhere Paul insists that believers are saved, not on the basis of their own works, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 3:21-26; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). Even in Philippians Paul refuses to seek any righteousness of his own, but only that which comes from God alone through faith in Jesus Christ (3:9).

To say this, however, is not to say that the believer is passive, that no response or action is required. Just the opposite! Having been “found in Christ” and having received the gift of righteousness that “comes through faith in Christ,” believers

Must apply to its fullest consequences what is already given by God in principle. The believer is called to self-activity, to active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realisation of the virtues of the Christian life, and to a personal application of salvation. He must “work out” what God in His grace has “worked in” (Müller, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians [NICNT (1955)], 91).

Even Müller’s good counsel, however, is too abstracted from the immediate context. Within the flow of Paul’s argument, to work out one’s salvation means adopting the way of Christ in humility and service to others, in costly obedience to the will of God, pursuing a unity of love and purpose amongst the people of God, offering steadfast witness to the world as we live as the children of God, holding fast to Christ as our only righteousness, and looking forward to his coming as our only hope. To work out one’s salvation entails shouldering our share of the mission, and resisting all attempts to dilute our faith, and all threats to the unity and work of the church.

One of the wonderful features of the letter to the Philippians is the catalogue of vibrant examples presented for the church to emulate; Jesus, Timothy, Epaphroditus and Paul himself, are all set forth as exemplary examples of Christian dedication and service, and all show what it means to work out our salvation. The Christian is called to live the Jesus way today and tomorrow, looking for opportunities to humbly serve others for their benefit, and the gospel for God’s glory, as they long for and await the Lord’s return.

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 1:21

To Die is GainFor to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

I could never have written such words; I hardly dare to write them now. Their claim is too bald, too bold. From the pen of the apostle, however, they have the ring of truth. Paul was not just saying these words; he lived them. That, perhaps, is the reason he could say them and I cannot. Paul is imprisoned awaiting trial and very possibly death. Yet his letter to the Philippians is known as an epistle of joy. He rejoices despite his circumstances and he calls the Philippians likewise to rejoice despite theirs.

For to me, to live is Christ. This is an outrageous claim, that one could be so consumed with the vision of Jesus Christ, with such devotion to his mission, such conformity to his life, and such delight in his will. It was also Paul who could say elsewhere: It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). In chapter three he will go on to say:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:7-9).

Paul’s entire life was devoted to the presence, mission and message of Christ. Christ was his centre, Christ his motive and goal, Christ his source and power.

Nor was this merely an idealistic, romantic or other-worldly spirituality. For to me, to live is Christ: Not as mysticism but as concrete witness and proclamation that Jesus Christ might be magnified: this is what it meant for Paul to say these words. It is not uncommon to hear Christians speak of seeking an “intimate” relationship with God, to seek mystical union or experiences of grace. Such desires are not illegitimate, for truly we need a touch of the mystic, a touch of the Spirit’s presence and power, experiences of grace. Yes, indeed, but not as a goal.

A great danger with some forms of contemporary spirituality is the temptation to separate the grace of Christ from the mission of Christ. Paul did not seek some kind of personalised, individualised and interior experience that had no living connection with the mission of Christ, the work of the gospel or the need of the world. He sought concrete union with Christ “in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10). Even though confronted with trial and possible death, even in the midst of imprisonment and suffering, he still cried:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (1:20-21). 

“That Christ will be magnified in my body…” that is, in the public sphere of his existence, in the concrete witness of his very life and death, in his proclamation and ministry, his service and suffering. For it is only as Christ is preached (1:18) that Christ is magnified.

And so we pray with Paul:

That our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. Lord, you have begun a good work in us; carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:9-11, 6).

And also with St Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Scripture on Sunday – Galatians 5:13-14

LoveYourNeighborasYourselfGalatians 5:13-14
For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The Christian life is a great paradox. On the one hand, Paul has just announced in clarion tones, “For freedom Christ has set us free!” (Galatians 5:1). On the other hand, he also calls us voluntarily to lay down our freedom and become servants of one another. No one, perhaps, has stated this paradox more succinctly than Luther in his great little treatise The Freedom of the Christian (1520):

The Christian is the most free lord of all, subject to none;          
The Christian is most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In the argument of Galatians, the believer is freed from the law, having died to the law in Christ. To be freed from the law, however, does not now mean that one is lawless; the Christian is not free from the righteousness of the law, but from keeping the law as an attempt to obtain that righteousness.

For too many Christians, however, Paul’s call to freedom has been understood in terms of a western concept of libertarian freedom, the freedom of the isolated and autonomous individual, the one who is freed from all other claims and restraints, free to be and do whatsoever one may wish. Nothing could be further from Paul’s mind in this passage. Here, Paul envisages a people who are so free, they are free even from themselves and their own freedom. They are so free, they are free to become servants (slaves!) of another. It is, of course, one thing to become a servant of God, but another and far more drastic thing to become a servant of my brother and sister.

Thus, the freedom of the Christian is not merely freedom from, but also and more importantly, freedom for. It is not so much freedom to do as we would, but freedom to do as we might and as we should. Not freedom that grants total autonomy and self-sufficiency, and thus isolation and the self as the centre of all value, but freedom even from the rule of the self so that we are free to give ourselves to others and to God. Not a freedom, that is, which makes us a prisoner of ourselves and of our own lust for power and control, and thus a false freedom in which we become slaves to the hidden power of the flesh. Instead, the believer is called to be truly free and fully human through self-giving love that pours itself into relationship and community.

Paul’s vision, then, is of a strange and paradoxical freedom. The Christian is freed from the pressure to earn and merit God’s favour and acceptance. Thus she is also freed from the demand for religious performance, as though by her great and costly religious sacrifice she could impress God and find inclusion amongst his people. Already she is a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Already she is accepted. Already God has sent the Spirit of his Son into her heart that she might cry out, “Abba! Father!” Already she is loved and accepted and valued as a precious daughter of the Father. She is freed to follow the way Paul has already set forth earlier in Galatians:

The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (2:20).

Through faith in Jesus Christ the believer is set free from having to establish their own righteousness before God, and so also set free from the need to achieve, succeed and impress in order to establish their own worth and value. No longer need they engage in forms of manipulation that builds on fear of exclusion. No longer need they use people to bolster their own sense of esteem or worth. Being freed from the need to use people, the Christian is freed to love them instead, to give themselves for them, and to serve them as Christ did and does.

But why would and should one love others? The Christian is united to Christ and nourished in his love by the Spirit, so that his love begins to take shape in their lives—by the Spirit. The Spirit shapes them into Christlikeness, bringing forth his fruit in their lives, with the result that they shall love. This is the new creation that religious performance can never produce. This is faith coming to expression in love (Galatians 5:5-6, 22). Being set free from the performance anxiety that makes him a slave to fear and causes him to control and manipulate others, the believer is freed to love.

And who should one love? One’s neighbour, for in loving one’s neighbour the whole law is fulfilled. The believer is called to love neighbours near and distant. In a sense, all who inhabit the global village are in some sense one’s neighbour. But it is particularly the person one encounters in their daily life, and the person who is in close proximity whether one would usually encounter or avoid them—remember Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan. And especially, those in the household of faith. All these we are called to love—not just in some theoretical way, but by offering concrete service to them.

Paul’s vision of freedom encapsulates a profound vision of what it means to be truly human, as well as a profound spirituality of faith and love, of faith coming to expression in love.