Grace during this difficult period (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

2 Corinthians gives insight into keeping vitality and flourishing in times of difficulty, when there’s much that’s not going the way we want. I know many people are going through such difficult times, certainly in Zambia, but also in America and beyond – from the pandemic and the various kinds of fallout from that, including its effects on our families. Many are also deeply concerned about the racial pain and divisiveness in the USA and beyond. Of course, you may have other factors causing concern.

2 Cor 12:7-10.  … So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, formy power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10 ESV)

Paul says he experiences a thorn in his flesh. Whatever it was, it was painful, it was humbling, and it was persistent. He says he prayed three times – which could be symbolic for praying a long period of time. And instead of removing the thorn, Christ spoke to Paul with the thorn still there, and said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Christ gave him what he needed not by taking away the festering pain but by strengthening him on the inside through grace. And I think Paul tells about the experience and does not say what the thorn was, because it wasn’t true just for him; it’s one of the ways God tends to work in our lives, no matter what the given thorn may be.

Difficulty, weakness, vulnerability, and wounds drive us to speak to our Father, the one 2 Corinthians calls the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. Wounds and difficulties become signposts pointing us to prayer that takes us to Jesus. And when we come to God, he releases grace to us. And so the weakness and difficulty we go through, and the wounds we receive that we naturally pray for God to remove, these things become open doors to his grace and power.

We Christians are not immune to really difficult things happening to us. Paul’s prayer that the thorn be removed helps us to know it’s okay to pray for a change in circumstances. We pray for change and rescue. And sometimes God’s answer is YES.

Yet Paul is also saying, the answer may be: God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that becomes our chance to we meet Jesus Christ in a deeper way in the midst of hardship, so that his power rests upon us. Because of our deep need, prayer takes us to God with open hands and open hearts, and we find the grace that’s sufficient, the power that becomes true vitality, perfected and completed not in the absence of weakness or problems, but in the midst of them.

It’s interesting to think about Paul’s thorn from God’s perspective: God may be more interested in filling our lives with grace, in having Christ’s power rest upon us, than in taking away our pain and difficulties. At least in the short run, filling us with grace may be more important than removing the obstacles that cause frustration or disappointment. Certainly, people who are filled with grace have deeper, better things to share with others.

I think the reason Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” is that in situations of weakness and difficulty, he taps into God’s grace that brings true strength, true completeness, true vitality from the presence of Christ himself. And that’s why Paul says he can be content in the midst of really hard things. He can be content because of Jesus Christ. His vitality comes from grace, from Christ’s own presence in his life. Not from having a thorn removed.

So, during this difficult period of life, let’s remember that Jesus gave Paul what he needed for his life of ministry not by taking away the festering pain but by empowering him through grace.

Let’s not give up. Let’s keep going to God with open hands and hearts. Let’s see if we can allow God to give us grace that does its work of renewing us on the inside.  Let’s allow the difficulties to take us deeper with Jesus Christ, so his power rests upon us. So we’re able to walk through difficult things, and keep on walking, let’s hear him saying, “My grace is sufficient for you.” 

Note: This is a somewhat similar but much shorter post than the audio I shared on April 27, 2020.

2 Corinthians 1:1-2 Of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ

Instead of introducing 2 Corinthians before looking at the letter itself, I’d like us to look at Paul’s own introductory words and allow those words to give a doorway into this letter.

2 Cor 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (NRSV) 

Here Paul begins 2 Corinthians, this letter in which he gives the most concentrated attention to the life of ministry. Paul, as he introduces himself and the receivers of this letter, does some important defining even in these first two verses as he describes who he is and who the Corinthians are — and I think who we are as well — before God and Jesus Christ.

On one hand, his first words are very similar to first words of some of his other letters. On the other hand, words always take meaning from their placement in a particular document, and we can begin to think about these two verses in light of what we know of the rest of 2 Corinthians.

Probably more than in any of his other letters, Paul in 2 Corinthians is going to take care to explain his way of going about life and ministry. He’s in a situation where his own approach to Christian life and ministry has been questioned, and he’s going to need to define where he stands — especially on the role of weakness and suffering in that life, since the Corinthians have concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life.

And here at the very beginning, Paul speaks of himself and his ministry as of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ.

So much of 2 Corinthians is about Paul defining his identity, his way of life, and his manner of ministry — with the ultimate goal of defining all of these things on behalf of believers and their lives. We will see that he does that while he, at the same time, is describing a standard for Christian leadership by what it means to live a God-centered life in deep unity with Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul wrote in Greek; every Greek noun has case, the trait which makes the biggest difference for how nouns come together with other words to make meaning. “The basic function of the genitive case is to describe or define” (Croy 1999:13). We see the genitive case when Paul says he’s an “apostle of Jesus Christ”. And he calls the church not just the church, but the church “of God”, or “God’s church”. Genitives frequently identify belonging. As an apostle, he belongs to Jesus Christ. And the church belongs to God. Moreover, Paul affirms that grace and peace come “from” God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Genitives can identify the source or origin of something. Paul uses the genitive case over and over in the first two verses – ten nouns in all.

It’s no accident that there are so many genitives in the first two verses, because there’s a lot of defining and identifying happening here, as Paul will do throughout this letter.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Paul’s particular phrases and expressions he uses to identify himself and the believers to whom he’s writing.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus”

An interesting thing about scholarship on 2 Corinthians is that commentators have often said that 2 Corinthians is about Paul’s apostleship and about Paul defending his apostleship. They see that Paul calls himself an apostle, and they see him being a little defensive in the pages that follow. But in this first big section of the letter, 2 Corinthians 1-9, Paul only mentions that he is an apostle once, here as he introduces himself in 1:1. Paul actually does not act very interested in making himself distinct from other Christians in his position and authority. We’ll notice that Paul will normally speak with the word “we”, not “I”, especially in the first nine chapters. He’ll tend to place himself with fellow Christians, not apart from them or different from them. From Paul’s own words, we will see that Paul seems to focus on life and ministry in union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that’s available to all the saints, not just to an apostle. I don’t think Paul speaks often enough about apostleship to be defending his apostleship; instead, he defends a manner of life and a manner of ministry that arises from deep union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that says yes to all that Jesus Christ is – his weakness, suffering, and death, as well as his power. And this way of life is for all who are in Christ.

Scholars have also said Paul is preoccupied with his authority in 2 Corinthians. Paul does mention his title and role from the very beginning. It states his authority. But only sort of. Paul is calling himself an apostle partly to demonstrate his authority. In this letter Paul is going to describe what Christian leadership looks like. Namely, it is shaped and conditioned by the one who authorizes, the one the apostle represents, Jesus Christ. An apostle is one sent by Christ. That involves authority, but we will also learn that it means service, servanthood, and sacrifice. Paul will tell the Corinthians, “Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (4:12). Paul not only proclaims Christ but takes on the traits of Christ – his meekness, his gentleness, and his suffering, as well as his power.

Paul expects Christian leaders to follow a path of ministry that embodies Jesus Christ. Paul lives in a state of fellowship with Christ but also a oneness with Jesus Christ that affects all aspects of life. Paul leads and preaches, Paul influences others, and he believes this cannot be separated from living in the manner of Jesus. For Paul, this is not at all optional. Those who preach Jesus Christ model a deep integration between the message they preach and the way of Jesus Christ. “For we do not preach ourselves but the Lord Jesus Christ, and ourselves as your servants because of Christ” (4:5). It’s a standard of Christian leadership that cannot allow anything but an integration between message (preaching Jesus Christ) and way of life (living out the manner of Jesus).

It is not exactly theology that turns Paul against some Christian teachers who oppose him; it’s the lack of integration between the gospel and the Christian life that Paul will attack in 2 Corinthians. To put it differently, we could say that Paul’s approach to Christian theology does not allow him to separate preaching Jesus Christ from living a life that arises from fellowship with Christ. Paul teaches a deep unity between Christ and Christian leaders, and between Christ and all believers.

This is part of what makes 2 Corinthians so powerful and penetrating as a letter. It has been among the least studied of Paul’s epistles. Yet if it had been kept more closely at hand, it could have helped Christianity to avoid some of its greatest mistakes. One thinks immediately of the fateful combination of political power with the Christian faith after the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century. And the sins committed during the crusades of the medieval period. And the entanglement of Christian mission with colonialism. The deep integration between Christian proclamation and Christian living demonstrated in 2 Corinthians could have helped the church avoid such epoch-making mistakes.

by (dia) the will of God

Anyone who reads Paul’s letters or the book of Acts can recognize that Paul was a man with a powerful will. Yet this phrase, “by the will of God“, is one of his favorites when introducing himself and his ministry (Guthrie 2015: 56). Paul’s life was not mainly about his will, but God’s, as part of his overall God-centered approach to life.

“By the will of God” is a good translation, but the word behind “by”, dia in Greek, gives the idea of a means by which something is done over time, a process that may take a long time. The phrase διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ, most literally, “through the will of God”, suggests the “circumstances by which something is accomplished” (Guthrie 56, BDAG 224). Paul uses that same word dia when he says, “we walk by faith (διὰ πίστεως), not by sight (διὰ εἴδους)” (5:7). Paul’s word dia fits walking, a process, a journey. It’s not just that Paul got to be an apostle by the will of God. God did not just get it started, then leave it up to Paul. The long journey of it, from start to finish and everywhere in between, is through the will of God.

For Paul, it’s crucial in his ministry that God’s agency is primary; Paul acts in response to God and in cooperation with God. God makes the first moves and keeps making the first moves. No matter how active we are as Christians, we are people who receive our ministry, who respond to God. We are not firstly people who act, who make decisions, who make things happen. Behind and before any desire or action on our part, there’s God’s will, God’s desiring (see also 1 Cor 9:16; Gal 1:15-16).

The life of ministry is God centered. It’s not mainly about our will, but God’s.

“and Timothy the brother” – 2 Corinthians is a letter in which Paul is going to say a whole lot about himself. And yet he is very collaborative, always involving someone else (Thiselton 2019:20). He names Timothy from the beginning. Paul knows that to get anywhere far or reach any big goals, he needs persons at his side. He acts in light of the reality that the work is far bigger than himself.

Calling Timothy “the brother” at the start of 2 Corinthians, I think Paul sees Timothy as “Exhibit A” for what Paul hopes to see in the Corinthian congregation itself. Paul holds up Timothy as representing what Paul is about as he ministers. He will call the Corinthians “brethren” in 1:8 and occasionally in the letter (8:1; 13:11). Yet he tends to use the term to refer to those who minister with him (9:3, 5). Timothy is the kind of person he hopes the Corinthians themselves will become.

Paul mentioned Timothy twice in 1 Corinthians. Immediately after Paul says the Corinthians are his children in the Lord and invites them imitate himself, he speaks of Timothy as his “beloved son, faithful in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor 4:17). Timothy was the kind of trusted friend and assistant who could deliver Paul’s letter and then stand in Paul’s place while visiting a congregation when he couldn’t be there himself. “He does the work of the Lord as I do” (1 Cor 16:10). Timothy was also bi-cultural, half Jew and half Greek, and perhaps naturally able to cross boundaries with the gospel as Paul did.

I find it interesting that the Bible first mentions Timothy in Acts when Paul visits Lystra, Timothy’s hometown (Acts 16:1; see also 2 Tim 3:11), where Paul was dragged and stoned, left lying on the ground, and thought to be dead (Acts 14:19). Timothy either witnessed this event or at least was intimately acquainted with this suffering of Paul in his hometown. Timothy knows Paul’s suffering, and yet stands close to him as a trusted partner and friend.

We’ll see that the Corinthians are in a position where they know Paul’s difficulties, and they’re deciding whether or not to stick with Paul. They’re asking, can an apostle, can a model Christian, be someone who suffers? Can someone whose personal presence is weak, and his speech appalling, be a model of Christian maturity for people in an up-and-coming city like Corinth (2 Cor 10:10)? That’s a big reason why Paul writes this letter. Due mainly to concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life, Paul needs to defend his manner of life and ministry, and build trust. Timothy is there as one who knows Paul’s sufferings, and yet stands with Paul. Can the Corinthians become like Timothy? Will they be able to walk with their teacher who has gone through terrible hardship, and continue receiving his teaching, instead of turning their back on that leader or stigmatizing him? Will they be able to stay close to Paul, and see that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, that he represents Jesus Christ, even amidst the hardship he has faced?

Like Paul, we all need persons at our side, persons we develop and trust, who continue the work of the Lord as we do, who teach the Christian way of life as we do. The Christian life is collaborative. It gets lived out in heartfelt partnership and friendship.

“to the church of God which is in Corinth” – Here Paul first names the Corinthians, whom he calls “God’s church”. They’re a called people, the ἐκκλησίᾳ who’ve been “called out” (the literal meaning of the word) and gathered by God. Here the genitive “of God” seems to indicate ownership. This group of people belongs to God.

I once went to a presbytery gathering, a gathering of ministers and leaders from a number of congregations meeting at one local church. One of the ministers asked, “Who’s the owner of this church?” Then the pastor of that congregation was identified as the owner of that congregation. Maybe I misunderstood something. I hope I did. But what I heard shocked me. Only God owns the church.

And this church, this group of people who’ve been called out by God, reside in Corinth. Place is not the same as belonging. Paul says they belong to God, but they live out this belonging in the city of Corinth.

We could say many things about the city of Corinth. Bustling, prosperous. But what’s especially relevant about Corinth for understanding 2 Corinthians is that the people of this city tended to care deeply about competition, success, appearance, status, and reputation. It was a city of opportunity, a place where people migrated for the chance to pursue an upwardly mobile life.

These realities arose from the city’s location on a little piece of land between the Aegean and Adriatic seas. Shipping brought the city a seemingly endless supply of goods and money and people. Corinth controlled this shipping and profited from it. Rome had destroyed Corinth two hundred years before Paul arrived there, but in 44 BC Rome re-founded and allowed the city to repopulate. But since it had gone so long without a population, it had no established aristocracy. So unlike most ancient cities, people who had never enjoyed high status could enter and gradually move into the elite class, if they competed well. So the people were concerned with having the kind of success and appearance and mannerisms that led to high status.

Though the members of the Corinthian church had become followers of Jesus Christ, “some competitiveness, self-achievement, self-promotion, self-congratulation, and self-sufficiency remained” (Thiselton 2019:7). And the church came to wonder if Paul met their standards of what someone who led them ought to look like and sound like. Some were saying, “his bodily appearance is weak, and his speech despicable” (2 Cor. 10:10).

Yet Paul loved the Corinthians and didn’t give up on them. He had spent some eighteen months in Corinth during his initial visit (Acts 18:11), and as far as we know, he wrote more to this church than to any other. His challenges in Corinth were enormous, but he saw himself as a father; he saw them as his children (1 Cor 4:15). He also must have seen the worth of having a church and center for the gospel at such a crucial crossroads in the Mediterranean world. Such strategic ministry was worth personal sacrifice.

“with all the saints in all Achaia”

Paul calls these believers saints even though he will reveal that, in some ways, the Corinthians themselves have wounded him. What a history they have, in light of 1 Corinthians. Yet he dignifies them with the name “saints”, people set apart by God and for God. Both the term “saints” and the previous term “God’s church” signal that these people belong to God and God’s purposes. Sometimes we’re tempted to give up on God’s people, but Paul did not give up on the Corinthians, and will say to them in 2 Cor 1:6 “Our hope for you is firm.”  

The believers who are in Corinth are part of a larger body of Christians in that broad southern region of ancient Greece called Achaia, which also included Athens. It might seem that some of what Paul says is so specific that surely it pertains only to a small group of people in Corinth.  So it is interesting that Paul addresses this letter to all the believers throughout Achaia, a broad area, well beyond the city of Corinth (see also 11:10). In ancient times, Chrysostom took this to mean that the believers dispersed in this broad area were all involved with the same problem, and thus needed the same solution. I’m sure there’s truth to that, as the believers from this area must have dealt with similar issues and likely composed a fairly tight network of Christian fellowship with one another.

On the other hand, I think it likely that some of the believers living well beyond the confines of Corinth would hear the reading of this letter, and they would not understand some details of issues mentioned by Paul. For instance, they might not understand why Paul’s reputation seems to be at stake.  And yet Paul meant the letter to be shared broadly. This bears early witness to Paul’s confidence that the letter could speak beyond its immediate circumstances. Paul must have seen that his situation with the Corinthians fit a pattern of events that could easily occur elsewhere, or at least that the realities he spoke of in response to the problem fit a pattern that could speak beyond one context. Paul’s reputation has been attacked, but Paul has a message which will benefit not just himself or the congregation in Corinth, but the church as a whole.

So, either the problems spread beyond Corinth throughout Achaia, or Paul implies that the lessons speak beyond the particular context of Corinth – and the latter might even say something about Paul’s confidence that it could speak to us, today, as well. Paul wanted the letter shared. He had confidence that the truth we have and speak in Christ is translatable truth. It needs to go public. It can leap over boundaries, beyond the original circumstances. And God can speak to us today through these words of 2 Corinthians even if we don’t know the whole story of what’s behind Paul’s words or there’s something here or there we don’t fully understand.

We’ve seen that in the first verse, Paul marks his identity as an apostle, one sent by Christ Jesus through the will of God, and he addresses a group of people he calls saints and “God’s church”. Paul recognizes himself first as who he is in relation to Jesus Christ and God. That will always come first. Not that he’s Jewish, not that he’s educated, not that he’s a citizen of Rome, but that he’s sent by Jesus Christ. And he is who he is by the will of God. We are what we are, and we are who we are, through the will of God. We can be tempted to put other identities first, and maybe without realizing it. The verse first verse presents us the opportunity to ask if we are allowing ourselves to be defined by God and Christ.  

1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRSV)

On one hand, Paul greets the Corinthians in a way modelled after a traditional Greek letter greeting (Thiselton 2019: 21), including a slight adjustment of the word χαίρειν “greetings” (see James 1:1) to become “grace to you” χάρις ὑμῖν. This is normal for Paul’s letters, along with the word “peace” (εἰρήνη) which indicates holistic well-being, based on the Hebrew concept of shalom.

Even in Paul’s greeting, he expresses deep ministry-shaping convictions: Grace, which as we will see in 2 Corinthians is what enables vitality and ministry during any difficulty, comes from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 12:8-10). Moreover, peace – wellbeing, flourishing – comes from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (see Guthrie 2015:59).

Paul identifies a key direction of movement that lays the basis of our life as Christians: Grace and peace come “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul will repeatedly identify this pattern throughout the letter. In the Christian life and the life of ministry, we have what we have from God and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the source and sustainer of all grace and every blessing.

We will find a triple use of “father” in verses 2 and 3. For Paul, in this context, God as Father means source, and the language highlights the personal and relational nature of God. Paul uses the personal language available to him, and Paul will help his readers see what kind of Father God is – he is the Father of mercies (2 Cor 1:3). And in Paul’s thinking, gifts come from God in, and by means of, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5; 8:6). We will also see much more of “Lord” after this first mention by Paul. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). The Lord Jesus is the one Paul seeks to honor and please (2 Cor 8:19, 21).

As we have seen through verses 1-2 God and Christ make Paul and the saints who they are. Paul knew who he was. His identity, calling, and way of life are rooted and centered in God and Jesus Christ. Through God and through the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul knew who he was and affirmed who he was with strong conviction, and he was able to affirm certain realities about his audience with the same strong conviction.

Let’s remember that God and Christ make us who we are. We’ll learn in 2 Corinthians that Paul’s circumstances also made him who he was, and that God used circumstances to make him who he was. We’ll explore that later. But behind and in our circumstances, God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ make us who we are as God’s church, as saints, and as those who minister. Paul’s initial words invite us to see ourselves as defined by and belonging to not ourselves or our own will but to God, God’s will, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Each one of us has a life and identity shaped by many factors. But most primary and determinative of all, is that we are of, from, and through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We receive our identity, our life, and our ministry from God and through Jesus Christ

Questions for reflection, conversation, and prayer

  1. From what do we take our sense of identity and purpose? What’s primary – our history, our education, privileges we enjoy, our belonging to a particular group of people? Do we define ourselves in and through God and Jesus Christ, or do other voices prevail?
  2. In light of Paul’s words and your own convictions, what do God and the Lord Jesus Christ enable you to affirm about yourself?

 

Works Cited

Croy, Clayton. 1999. A Primer of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Guthrie, George H. 2015. 2 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. 2015. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids.

Thiselton, Anthony C. 2019. 2 Corinthians: A Short Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Cascade Books: Eugene, Oregon.

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

This is a long post — a whole sermon — which I preached during the last Justo Mwale University (Lusaka, Zambia) chapel service of 2019:

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.

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.

It’s inspiring to see a seasoned New Testament scholar focusing her attention on something at the heart of the Christian life.  Below is an abstract of an article by Cambridge scholar Morna Hooker. It’s in the current issue of Theology — January/February 2013, 116 (1).   

Conformity to Christ

Abstract

Following Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, his life was drastically changed. Although he continued to maintain his loyalty to Israel’s God and the Scriptures, he now believed himself to be commissioned to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. At the heart of his theology lay his relationship with Christ – summed up in the phrase ‘in Christ’ – a relationship shared by all Christians, who must be ‘shaped’ by the gospel – conformed to the pattern of self-giving, death and resurrection seen in Christ – not simply in baptism but in their daily lives. Paul’s hope for the future envisages its final fulfilment.

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