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The God who wants to hear our story — and hear it again

This is a long post — a sermon I preached  on Nov 8, 2019, during a Justo Mwale University (Lusaka, Zambia) chapel communion service, based on 1 Kings 18:42 and 19:1-14.

I’m honored to share the word during this final service of the 2019 school year. We as a JMU community have made it to week 10 of Term 3. It’s not been an easy term, but the finish line is near.  

In 2019 we’ve been hearing messages focused on “Living a life worthy of the calling”. This morning I would like us to think about the question: What about when living a life worthy of the calling doesn’t seem to be going as well as we thought it would? …When we think we’re living the life God has called us to live, but our circumstances seem difficult, when the life of ministry or life as a student at Justo Mwale does not feel it is going as smoothly as we hoped it would go?

Let’s open our Bibles to 1 Kings, where we learn about the God who wants to hear what we’ve been going through, the God who wishes to hear the difficult stories from our lives, and then hear our stories again.

1 Kings 18:42;  but also 1 Kings 19:1-14. As we read, let’s be asking: What is Elijah going through? And, What’s being said through the story about who God is?

Old Testament characters are often thought to be role models. Sometimes they are. But, much more often, their stories are meant to speak to us about God as we take a close look at what they were going through.

When our story begins, there’s just been a mighty spiritual battle, a showdown between on one hand Yahweh and his prophet Elijah, and on the other, Baal and his prophets. Baal was the god of storms, rain, and fertility. On Mt Carmel, God has revealed himself powerfully by sending fire from heaven and burning up a sacrifice. Elijah in his zeal has just slain the prophets of Baal.

And so we come to 18:42… So Ahab (the king of Israel) went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.

What is happening with Elijah? What’s happening inside Elijah? He’s bent down to the ground; he’s got his face between his knees. He might be talking to God, but the Bible does not normally describe having our face between our knees as a gesture for prayer. With his face between his knees, Elijah looks disturbed. He looks down, afraid, maybe despondent, despairing.

On one hand, a battle has just been won. But on the other hand, maybe Elijah is having second thoughts. Did he go too far killing the prophets of Baal? And he realizes who Ahab the king is going to talk to when he gets home.

Jezebel – patroness of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel. It’s not a name we Christians think much about when it’s time to name our baby daughters.

Elijah is probably realizing that once Jezebel finds out what he’s done…  his ministry is over, he’s as good as finished. Because Jezebel is a swift killer.

And sure enough, our story tells us, Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” (1 Ki. 19:1-2)

How does Elijah respond to Jezebel’s message? The Bible says…

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… he… went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He …sat down under a bush and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.

Elijah fears and runs for his life. He knows God does not always prevent terrible things from happening to his servants. Jezebel has killed other prophets of Yahweh (18:13), and Elijah is Jezebel’s enemy #1.

He’s afraid. He’s also down, blue, and despairing. “I’ve had enough, LORD.” “Take my life. I’m no better now than my dead ancestors.” All he can do is lay down and sleep.

So we see that God does not prevent Elijah from experiencing depression. Elijah recognizes he’s in a bad situation, and he feels it like a huge weight upon his chest and shoulders.

This is what happens sometimes to God’s servants. This is what happens sometimes to men and women of God.

But let’s also notice: instead of blocking out or ignoring God, as some of us might do when we feel despair, Elijah speaks his despair to God: “LORD, I’ve had enough.”

I’m thankful for this honesty between Elijah and God; there’s something here for us. God allows Elijah, God allows us sometimes, to go through difficult, difficult things. But we also get to speak our pain to God. We get to name our pain to our good Father — even to say: “God. have you thought about how this might be a good time to finish me off?”

I love how the the Bible is an honest book about what real believers go through. And God is a God who allows us to be honest.

Let’s not miss who God is shown to be.  We read in v 5… All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (1 Ki. 19:5b-7)

God is sensitive to human needs. God knows we need to eat. An angel of God touches Elijah, repeats encouragement to him, and gives him food (v 5).

Yet Elijah, even after being touched by an angel, is still so tired and blue he can hardly get up.

Then when Elijah rises, eats, and drinks, he begins a journey… all the way to Mt Horeb. That’s Mt Sinai, far to the south, where Moses had met with God. So we see this time of running for his life becomes a pilgrimage, a marathon run to meet with God on the holy mountain.

I wonder if we, like Elijah, can allow our fears and pains from a life of ministry to make us run like Elijah to Mt Horeb, to meet with God.

You see, fear and weakness and pain can be a precious gift. A feeling of inadequacy for ministry can be a friend. Because these feelings can call us to God and pull us to God and drive us to God, even as they took Elijah all the way to God’s presence on Mt Horeb. Negative feelings can prod us to run to God.  

And when Elijah gets to Horeb, the LORD speaks to him with a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s an invitation for Elijah to tell his story.

“I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve done all these things for you, and look at me now. Look at what your people are going to do to me now. I’m the only faithful one left, and I’m counting down my last hours.”

Reality is that the rest of the story tells us it’s not completely true that Elijah is the only faithful one left. But he feels isolated. And God does not argue.  God listens.

And God listens to us.

I like this Elijah story for us at Justo Mwale – for us as a community, and for us as individuals. For most of us, coming to Justo Mwale was a victory, a breakthrough. Perhaps a little like Elijah on Mt Carmel. We saw the Lord’s power for us as he brought us to Justo Mwale.

But as we’ve been here, we’ve also been through some difficult times. This academic term a lot of you have found the basics of life very difficult – difficult to cook, difficult to bathe, difficult to sleep, difficult to use the library, difficult to use a computer to write assignments.

Some of us have also walked through numerous other hard things – some have been stolen from, maybe some of you were expecting money to arrive, and it didn’t come. Maybe there’s someone you thought you could trust as a friend, and now you’re not sure. Some expected to be healthy, but you found yourself sick. Some of us have faced serious difficulties in our families.

Or maybe some of us are still hurting from things that have happened to us in life or in ministry from the past, and we thought the pain would disappear here at Justo Mwale, but we still feel wounded.

Now Elijah, we remember, has journeyed to Mt. Horeb. He’s run because of fear, but he’s also run to meet with God.

Verse 11 — The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:11-13)

God has listened, and God responds to Elijah and proves to be a God who makes himself known. But it’s not in the wind, or the earthquake, or fire but in the “sound of silence”, a faint whisper. God responds to us often not in the ways we might expect, often not on our terms, but on his terms. He responds. But he does it his way.

And notice when God makes himself known, he says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:13 NIV). Haven’t we heard that question before? God again invites Elijah to tell him his story. And Elijah repeats the same story again.

Why would God do that? Why would the Bible describe God as one who invites Elijah to tell his negative story two times in the same chapter?

 

Because that’s real relationship, that’s real relationship with someone who loves and cares. When we go through something hard, we need to tell someone our story, and we often need to tell it more than once. And we get to do that with God. Because he wants relationship with us. And he knows we need to tell him things. And that we may need to tell him some things again and again.

As with Elijah, God says to us, even today, “What are you doing here?” In light of Elijah’s response, I think God means, “What have you been going through that brings you to this place and time in your life, feeling what you’re feeling now?” And like Elijah, we get to tell God our story. “God, this is what I’ve been through. Coming to Justo Mwale was a great thing that happened to me. Thank you. But it hasn’t been easy. Some things have been difficult.”

We are honored by our call, we’re honored to be here. But that doesn’t make this calling or this time in our life something easy.  We get to tell God: This is what it seems you’ve allowed us to go through. And this is how we feel.

Once Elijah has been able to tell his story twice, in God’s presence, and God has listened, it’s now that Elijah is ready for God to give him something else to do. The experience of being in the presence of a listening God, a God who keeps asking questions and keeps listening, prepares Elijah to go forth and keep on being a prophet. He can get back to fulfilling the call.

And after God listens to us, and listens to us again, he says something similar to us:  I’ve got something I want you to do. Don’t give up. I’m not finished with you.

When we’ve gone through difficulty, it’s being in the presence of a listening God, the God who wants to hear our story again, that prepares us to get back to living a life worthy of the calling.

Perhaps some of us can relate to Elijah. Maybe we feel we’ve been faithful, even zealous, but some things have not gone the way we thought they would go.  The Christian life can be like that. The life of ministry can feel like that.

Elijah goes through fear. He’s troubled. He gets so tired. He feels despondent. He feels isolated. And maybe some of us feel some of the same things.

But through Elijah’s story we see.. Our God is listening to us… giving us what we need along the way. He may not always do things the way we want, but he’s involved, he speaks, and he gives us good work to do.

And what speaks to me is that we can be honest with God. He’s attentive, welcoming our honesty.

If we think about what the Lord’s Supper is, it’s communion with God through Jesus. It’s an invitation to closer relationship. When we take holy communion, we respond to God’s invitation to come into his presence just as we are. No need to pretend.

 

As God asks us, “What are you doing here?”, what do we need to tell him? What would we say as a JMU community? What would we say as individuals? Maybe like Elijah we need to tell God a difficult story. And then, in God’s presence, we need to tell God the same story again. That’s real relationship.

That’s what happens in a relationship that empowers us to live a life lived worthy of the calling. We cannot live the life worthy of the calling unless we first have that real, honest relationship with the God who wants to listen.

Let’s close our eyes and take moments of silence, and ask ourselves: What do I need to tell God about what I’ve been through? And you’re invited to start telling him now, silently, or think of a time when you’re going to be alone with God and tell him the story that you need to tell. He’ll listen. And when you’re ready to tell it again, he’ll listen again. Let’s pray silently…

(silence)

We thank you, God, that the Bible is honest about Elijah’s inner suffering and despair. You asked him questions. You listened to him. You were there for him. And we thank you that you are here for us as well, for us as individuals, for us as a community. Help us to tell you the story we need to tell, and then to tell it again. We need that kind of relationship with you to be able to live a life worthy of our calling. Amen.

 

Student Researchers

One of the parts of my work which I feel mostly strongly about is mentoring masters students and fourth-year bachelors students as they carry out research and writing projects (and possibly Ph.D. students in the future). The African church has many serious matters to think through, and all of my students are sorting through challenges facing their churches as they do their academic work. Let me share a little about my current research students and the significance of their areas of focus.

Rev. Bannet Muwowo is a Zambian Presbyterian pastor writing a master’s thesis that seeks to describe what the process of mature biblical interpretation should be like and what it should accomplish in Zambia today. Rev. Muwowo believes people’s poverty tends to take control of what they are able to see in the Bible; poverty drives interpretation. Rev. Muwowo suspects that believers’ self-interest might be playing a bigger role in interpretation than the Bible itself. The temptations of self-interest and self-deception need to be faced. Mature interpretation gives priority to God’s will and whatever God wishes to say to readers.

Miss Naele Mawere is dealing with how pastors in the Reformed Church of Zambia (in which she’s preparing for ordination as a fourth-year bachelors student) are being tempted to act like the pastors on Africa’s TVs and billboards, who seem constantly to tout their ability to perform miracles of healing and financial breakthroughs. She is focusing on the purpose of healing miracles in the Gospel of John. It turns out that miracles in John are all signs of Jesus’ identity that inspire faith in him. This understanding can become a way for testing whether or not miracles and ministries are genuine: are people being directed to Jesus, or toward a particular minister’s glory and wealth?

Rev. Agness Nyondo-Nyirenda, a Malawian Presbyterian pastor and fourth-year bachelors student, is writing a research paper on the meaning of “abundant life” (one of African Christianity’s most prominent phrases) in the Gospel of John. She’s thinking through the issue – controversial here – of whether preachers in her denomination should define “abundant life” according to how people in their communities define it, or if they should give first priority to what the context of John’s Gospel itself says about what “life” is. Who gets to define abundant life: African culture, the Bible, or some combination of the two?

Rev. Feston Chilumpha, who has served as a pastor in a mainly Muslim area of Malawi, is my one researcher in missiology (mission and evangelism) instead of New Testament. He is asking the question: What are the best practices for reaching Malawian Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ? He is thinking through how Christians can themselves become an inviting and loving message of good news to the Muslims around them. He hopes his research will lead to new directions for his synod’s mission outreach and that, upon finishing his degree, he can return to minister more effectively in an area with many Muslims.

I have two newer masters students who are still thinking through possible research areas…

Rev. Faresy Sakala, a Presbyterian pastor in Zimbabwe and current masters student, may write her master’s thesis on the theme of submission in 1 Peter. How should Zimbabwean Christian women receive the emphasis on submission in 1 Peter as they deal with the common reality of violence from their husbands and rampant alcoholism in the home? What does the call to submission mean for such women?

Rev. Clever Chifombo is a masters student and Reformed Church of Zimbabwe pastor who may work through the problem of why so many Christians’ marriages in his country are being torn apart by adultery, and with how many Christians act like they are enslaved to sin, even though Scripture says they have died to sin. He may study Romans 6 to understand the idea of becoming slaves to God’s righteousness instead of slaves to sin, and how this may be contextualized in Zimbabwe.

As you can see, our students are thinking seriously through what a faithful Christian life and message should be on the African continent. I’m grateful that Presbyterian World Mission and Justo Mwale University give me the opportunity to be a part of students’ growth and learning.

I look forward to receiving more students who are eager to learn and grow, and to serve the church with their knowledge and skills.

Expanding Africa’s Model of Biblical Interpretation: Toward More Promise and Less Peril from Contextual Hermeneutics

This is a summary of a piece I’m writing…

This paper seeks to introduce the concepts of inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of passages of Scripture to those who teach and practice African contextual hermeneutics. The essay engages my experience teaching biblical interpretation in Zambia (2010-2017), the observations of Justo Mwale University (JMU) student researchers, and literature from scholars of biblical hermeneutics in Africa, Europe, and the United States. The paper argues that in order to preserve the promise of contextual hermeneutics and to avoid its pitfalls, those who teach Scripture and theology in Africa need to expand contextual hermeneutics, so that it integrates inductive Bible study and attention to the literary context of biblical passages.

 

Contextual Hermeneutics: Promise and Perils for Africa

Contextual hermeneutics, as an approach to interpreting the Bible, elevates the question, “What does the Scripture mean to us and our community?” above other questions.[1] Contextual hermeneutics is highly valued in Africa for multiple reasons. It takes readers and the needs and experiences of their communities seriously. It goes further than traditional Western approaches in acknowledging the importance of what readers themselves bring to the interpretive process. It is highly practical — focusing not on the biblical past but on the Bible’s current impact. It also accords honor to ordinary readers, instead of privileging the readings of experts. By valuing the process of African readers in producing interpretations for their own communities, this method also encourages the individuation of the African church as it comes out from under colonial powers. For many reasons, contextual biblical hermeneutics is a natural fit for Africa’s approach to the Bible.

However, contextual hermeneutics also has shortcomings: Despite the reality that numerous African ways of seeing bear resemblance to biblical ways of seeing, the Bible presents human interpretation as prone to error and in need of direction from beyond itself. Contextual hermeneutics places too much confidence in human judgments; it fails to recognize that readers need guidance and limits. It too readily allows interpretations to mirror the aspirations and values of readers, so that the Bible becomes overly affirming of culture. It does little to encourage finding content which calls preconceptions into question. It also gives implicit permission to overlook or relegate to what is irrelevant the parts of Scripture which do not seem to speak to African values of healing, material well-being, and protection against enemies. In short, contextual hermeneutics tends to prioritize the culture and perspectives of readers somewhat above what is actually written in Scripture, so that the Bible means (mostly) what the readers’ community wants it to mean. Despite its key advantages for the African church, contextual hermeneutics is also perilous for God’s people in Africa because it turns the experience of readers and their community into a canon beyond the canon of Scripture.

The prevalence of the prosperity gospel in Africa supplies evidence that the aspirations of readers tend to trump the actual content of biblical texts. For example, a JMU student researcher, also a Malawian pastor, is writing on the meaning of the phrase “abundant life” (John 10:10) — one of African Christianity’s most prominent phrases. She is thinking through whether preachers in her synod should define “abundant life” according to how people in their communities define it, or if they should give first priority to how the context of John’s Gospel itself speaks to the theme. In surveying her fellow pastors, 75% say priority should go to how people in the communities define their need for prosperity in all areas of life. Scripture should be of high priority, but the needs of the community should come first in determining the message to be proclaimed. Other examples could be shared.

 

The Promise of Inductive Bible Study and Literary Context for Contextual Hermeneutics

Who gets to define the message that the African church proclaims? African culture? The Bible? Or some fruitful combination of the two? Proponents of African contextual hermeneutics usually prefer the third option over the first, and expressly concern themselves with reading for the sake of transformation. Yet how much transformation occurs if we go to Scripture looking to affirm our culture and do not get hold of content which challenges how we think and what we value? Contextual hermeneutics needs intentional and structured ways to help readers grasp more of the transforming content of Scripture. If those who teach Scripture and theology in Africa expand contextual hermeneutics, so that it also integrates inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of biblical passages, this can empower people to discover biblical truth for themselves. Scripture reading is most transformative when readers are given skills to see what is present in Scripture and also space to let dialogue happen between text and context.

Inductive Bible study, as an evidential approach, focuses on developing readers’ skills to attend carefully to the words, phrases, and thoughts of Scripture. Inductive Bible study seeks to foster a “radical openness”[2] to what will be found in the words of Scripture. As readers discover what is in Scripture, this leads to a “critical interaction between their pre-understandings … and the witness of the biblical text”.[3] In other words, inductive Bible study leads to critical contextualization.

To attend to the “literary context,” we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages. We interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part”.[4] When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what is really in the text. We deal with a verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track.

 

How We Might Combine These Methods

Inductive Bible study, like contextual hermeneutics, fosters skills in ordinary readers and opens dialogue with readers’ context. These aspects ease the way for it to be combined with contextual hermeneutics. However, contextual hermeneutics tends to start with questions and conversation about the needs and realities of the readers’ context instead of starting with the text itself. This is an issue I am still sorting through. However, in my own teaching, I have found that the methods may be combined by training students to ask questions which open the text of Scripture and questions which open their context in conversation with the text. My experience is that while the latter occurs naturally, the former is more difficult and requires patience and practice. The eyes of most students need to be trained to follow the line of thought of something they read, and to attend patiently to the literary context of a passage. I am developing a biblical interpretation course which trains students to work at skills of inductive Bible study and attention to literary context, in which we spend each class period in the practice of asking open questions of passages from a variety of genres of biblical literature. The midterm and final assignments/exams are used for students to describe how the students would go about teaching these same methods in their own congregations.

 

Conclusion

What defines the message that the African church proclaims? African culture? The Bible? Some fruitful combination of the two? Scholarship on African biblical hermeneutics usually says that the answer is found in the third option; but in actual practice, the needs, expectations, and values of readers and their communities tend to dominate. Contextual hermeneutics, all too often, identifies messages from Scripture which affirm the pre-understandings of local culture. Although we should embrace contextual hermeneutics, we should also incorporate inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of Scripture. By doing so, believers will learn to recognize where Scripture speaks words that are different from the values and beliefs of local culture. Training believers in inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of passages could give contextual hermeneutics what is needed to be truly transformative, and thereby make a substantial contribution to the practice of biblical interpretation in Africa. By taking in more available evidence from the world within the biblical text, readers position themselves to hold genuine transformative dialogue between their own world and the world which Scripture describes.

[1] Justin Ukpong states: “Methodological priority is given to the context of the readers”. See “Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African approach to biblical interpretation”, in Dietrich and Luz (eds.), The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 28.

 

[2] Bauer and Traina, Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 18

[3] Ibid, 1.

[4] Jeannine Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 213. In contextual hermeneutics, words take meaning from the community of readers. I take both of these to be true, but the community needs the literary context of biblical passages to guide the interpretive process.

My Missionalia article came out today

So that We Might Become the Righteousness and Justice of God: Re-examining the Gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 for the Church’s Contribution to a Better World

http://missionalia.journals.ac.za/pub

http://missionalia.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/137/pdf

So that We Might Become the Righteousness and Justice of God: Re-examining the Gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 for the Church’s Contribution to a Better World

Here’s the abstract and introduction of my article coming out before long in Missionalia (Southern African Journal of Missiology).

ABSTRACT

This article interprets Paul’s summary of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 as saying that Christ died so that believers might be transformed into God’s righteousness (not only deemed as righteous by God). The article explains the powerfully generative nature of God’s righteousness and then demonstrates that dikaiosunē also means justice. The interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21 clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation also transforms them to embody God’s righteousness and justice. This enlarged angle on Paul’s view of the gospel serves as a basis for teaching a seamless continuity between believing in Jesus Christ and becoming a force for justice in the world.

 

INTRODUCTION

This article explores the nature of the Christian gospel in an effort to understand what the gospel may contribute toward establishing righteousness and justice in the world. Sometimes the gospel we Christians proclaim promotes escaping the reality that this world is neither righteous nor just, whether through focusing on questionable promises of health and wealth in this life (see Ellington 2014:327-342; Gbote & Kgatla 2014:1-10), concentrating on promises of the life to come (however true to the witness of Scripture), or appreciating almost exclusively the individual and personal benefits of salvation. A motivating concern for this article is that Christians may be failing to contribute as much as we could toward a better world, because we fail to recognize the resources for human transformation toward righteousness and justice which reside within the gospel. This investigation turns to Scripture for a description of the gospel that responds to the need for transformation toward both personal righteousness and social justice, for the sake of the church’s contribution to Africa and beyond.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give extended attention to the relationship between the gospel and the formation of a Christian way of living in the world. This essay will focus on one of Paul’s key summaries of the gospel. The apostle states in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (God) made him who did not know sin to be sin for our sake, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[1] This essay concentrates mainly on the final portion of 2 Cor 5:21. Margaret Thrall states: “The traditional understanding of ‘becoming God’s righteousness’ is that it means ‘being justified by God’” (1994:442). I affirm that Paul’s gospel includes the change in status from guilty to justified, but this does not do justice to the statement of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21. While we might expect Paul to say, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, in order that we might be justified”, Paul actually says, “that we might become God’s righteousness”.[2] Paul’s assertion that we become God’s righteousness is not the same as saying that we are justified, or pronounced righteous.[3] This essay does not downplay justification or soteriology; it would be more accurate to say that it takes soteriology more expansively, as including the establishment of a transformed and world-restoring community through the gospel and through our union with Christ.[4]

When we interpret 2 Cor 5:21 in the literary context of 2 Corinthians, we can find insight into the relationship between God’s righteousness and justice and believers’ own righteousness and justice.[5] This insight includes discovering that the gospel itself is a basis of human transformation. The article argues that, when 2 Cor 5:21 is interpreted properly, the gospel paves the way for believers’ transformation toward embodying, and becoming agents of, God’s righteousness and justice in this world.

[1]  All translations are the author’s own unless stated otherwise.

[2]  Morna Hooker (2008:369) observes that most interpreters have tended to interpret dikaiosunē (righteousness) in 2 Cor 5:21 as a genitive of origin (“righteousness from God”) with the ultimate meaning of dikaiōthentes (“having been justified”), as though Paul meant that we are given the verdict that we are righteous. While this interpretation is conceivable, in light of the literary context of 2 Corinthians as a whole, it is not persuasive. Moreover, Paul chose the noun dikaiosunē, not the participle dikaiōthentes, even as he does in 2 Cor 3:9; 6:7, 14; 9:9-10; and 11:15. In 2 Corinthians, Paul does not use the participle related to dikaioō, though he frequently utilizes it in Romans and Galatians. We should not assume the same line of thought in 2 Corinthians as in Romans and Galatians.

[3]  Richard Hays (1996:24) states: Paul “does not say … ‘that we might receive the righteousness of God.’ Instead, the church is to become the righteousness of God”. This contrasts with the positions of Harris (2005:455) and Collins (2013:126), who interpret dikaiosunē in 2 Cor 5:21 as essentially meaning “justification”. Thrall (1994:444) speaks mainly of a “change in status”, though affirms that Paul has in mind more than simple imputation, on account of our being united with Christ. Thrall rightly states: “In the first half of the verse Paul has described the first element of a dual process of identification and exchange” (1994:442). I take Thrall’s assertion as less than correct when she says 5:21 relates reconciliation to justification. The accent of 5:21 is upon exchange that brings transformation, which is more than justification. I commend Stegman (2011) for demonstrating that Paul’s language related to dikaiosunē, in 2 Corinthians and beyond, is not only juridical but also deeply concerned with transformation.

[4]  This view accords with the New Perspective on Paul in recognizing the apostle’s central interests in participation in Christ and ecclesiology.

[5]  The focus of this essay does not allow us to deal with righteousness and justice in relation to all the varied expressions of the gospel in the New Testament, including the literature of the synoptic gospels. Moreover, the article deals with many interpretive questions related to 2 Cor 5:21, but it does not attempt to cover them all.

The Impulse toward the Disadvantaged in the Gospel Preached by Paul

The journal Scriptura, based at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, recently published my article by the above title. Here’s the link: http://scriptura.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/1177/1117

Or read the intro below…

Christians have long recognized a strong concern for the vulnerable in certain parts of the New Testament, such as the teachings of Jesus (e.g., Luke 4:16-30) and the letter of James (e.g., James 2:1-6). Yet, what about the writings of the apostle Paul? This apostle’s letters have been vital in originating what Christians believe. Since the Reformation almost five hundred years ago, Protestants have relied particularly on Paul for the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, by means of his death on the cross. Yet Paul’s letters, with their emphasis on the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection, are sometimes thought to overlook social concerns, and even to disregard the poor. In this essay, I will argue that Paul had an impulse toward the disadvantaged and that he experienced this impulse arising from the same gospel he preached for people’s salvation. Paul’s convictions about the gospel of Jesus’ death on the cross shaped his concern for justice and for the disadvantaged.

I will concentrate on 1 Corinthians, a letter which, along with 2 Corinthians, provides the most in-depth portrayal of Paul’s interaction with a particular congregation. 1 Corinthians also affords the opportunity to see how the apostle handles congregational issues which have a clear socio-economic component. After a brief bird’s-eye view of the situation in Corinth and its fledgling congregation of believers, we will examine two major sections, 1 Cor. 1:10-4:21 and 8:1-11:1. 3 As two of the largest segments of 1 Corinthians, they offer substantial material for a clarifying analysis. However critically important Christ crucified is for the gospel Paul preached for believers’ salvation, we will discover that in these broad sections of 1 Corinthians, Paul focuses on the gospel of Christ crucified in order to re-align relationships among believers. The gospel becomes Paul’s resource for working toward relations which are just and unified, especially for the sake of the church’s less advantaged members. Our analysis will trace the gospel’s role in Paul’s tendency towards elevating the disadvantaged.

Windows into the cultural (especially philosophical) context of the New Testament

 

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ikings/index.php?id=409&start=20

I’m enjoying these podcasts from King’s College London on the history of philosophy. I’m listening to podcasts numbered in the 50s to 80s because of the focus on Hellenistic philosophy and especially Stoicism.