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.

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The Prosperity Gospel and the Use of Context when Interpreting the Bible*

Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?

Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV).  They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).

However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering; this letter teaches that we experience and administer God’s power and presence in the midst of hardship. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee success to believers.

If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. As preachers, we need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. We need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.

Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.

* A version of this was published earlier in this blog and also in In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective, ed. Hermen Kroesbergen (Wellington, Republic of South Africa: Christian Literature Publishers, 2013; Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

“So that we might become the righteousness and justice of God”

This is an essay topic I’m exploring … It reconsiders 2 Cor 5:21 and reflects on the gospel’s implications for social witness.

The church’s witness and contribution to the world both suffer when believers misconstrue the gospel. I would like to build upon interpretations of 2 Cor 5:21 which read Paul as saying that Christ died so we who believe may become genuinely righteous in our way of life (not only deemed as righteous by God). However, I will interpret dikaiosunē as indicating not righteousness solely, but also justice. This explanation of 2 Cor 5:21, interpreted in the context of 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 as a whole, and in light of conceptions of dikaiosunē as including justice in the Septuagint, clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation is also the basis of our holistic transformation for justice. We become an embodiment of God’s active righteousness in service for justice. A fuller knowledge of the gospel, which explains Christians’ relationship to God’s righteousness and justice, helps to repair the church’s role in society. This perspective supports seamless invitations to faith in Jesus Christ and to become a force for justice in the world. The proposal may be especially apropos to contexts where a form of the gospel has spread with rapidity but where righteousness and justice have perhaps lagged behind. The paper reflects on this reading of 2 Cor 5:21 for such issues in Zambia and Southern Africa as Christians’ involvement in financial corruption and in violence against women and girls.

A Very Short Guide for Interpreting a Whole Book in the New Testament

We used this guide as fifteen students (from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) and I have studied Hebrews through Jude in six weeks. I led class the first three weeks, and they took turns leading class the last three weeks. It’s been rich.

Read the following guide and then read through the whole biblical book with these questions in the back of your mind, taking notes as you go.
1. What stands out the most to you as you read this book?
2. What clues do you find regarding the audience’s situation to which the author is speaking?
3. What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, what does it seem the author was seeking to accomplish by writing the book? Where and how does the writing express these aims?
4. What strategies does the author use to carry out these aims? (Examples: Can you detect a structure of an argument? Is there repetition of key words and concepts? Do quotations of the OT seem significant? Are certain phrases or ideas important at the beginning and re-appear at the end? Does making an outline of the book help you see the strategies better?)
5. What are the main themes of this document? How are they described?
6. Try to describe, in depth, how this book portrays the Christian life. What contributions do you think this book makes for understanding the Christian life?
7. What situation(s) in your own life, or in the life of your congregation, does this book remind you of? If you wrote your spiritual autobiography with this letter in front of you, how might you use it to tell your story? And are there ways this letter helps you to understand things you have witnessed or experienced in your congregation?
8. How does this book speak to your life? How might it speak to the life of a congregation you are serving or have served? How might it speak to the church as a whole in your home country?
9. If you were to prepare a series of sermons (and/or teachings) based on this book, how would you do that in a way that is true to what the book is saying and also on target for the lives of the people you are ministering to? What passages would you choose? What would the main focus be for each of the messages you would share? Take notes for possible sermon outlines.

The gospel is the message of salvation, but it also shapes our lives

I’m exploring an area of the apostle Paul’s thought that was right at the heart of his vision for Christian life, leadership, and mission. The basic idea is this: We’re called to be people of the gospel – to share it with our words but also to embody the gospel with our lives. The gospel is the message of the cross, forgiveness, and salvation. But the gospel is not just the message of salvation; it also shapes the direction of our lives. I’m thinking about the basis of this idea of embodying the gospel.  Believing the gospel brings us into union with Christ, and union with his death and resurrection, and that union transforms us into people who manifest Jesus and represent him and his life with our lives. Our bond with Christ and the gospel transforms us, with the result that, individually and corporately, we believers can become a picture of what God is offering to the world.

The main way Paul taught this approach to the gospel was through his personal example. Paul talked a lot about himself. This tends to turn off and turn away some readers today. We too often conclude that if someone is talking about himself, he must be narcissistic and there must be nothing of value for us. But Paul’s frequent talk about himself was not really about him (I believe), but about the life of embodying the gospel. When Paul spoke of himself, in his mind, there was something far larger involved than himself. Paul has been scathingly criticized for being self-focused and egotistical and for pressuring sameness in the Christian community, among other things. At least mostly, these criticisms miss what Paul was about. Instead of emphasizing sameness with himself or the erasure of distinct personalities, when Paul invites people to follow his example, he is offering his readers a general pattern of life based on the model of Christ’s death for others. Paul crafts his example to teach the vocation of embodying the gospel, the calling which arises from union with Christ.

I’m especially thinking about this topic of embodying the gospel in 1 and 2 Corinthians. In the case of 2 Corinthians, there’s also this big issue: What about weakness and vulnerability? How can difficulty and weakness coincide with representing Jesus and the gospel, being a leader, and doing ministry? This is an issue in the Corinthian church and in Paul’s relationship with them all the way through the Corinthian letters, but especially in 2 Corinthians.  Paul answers that weakness and hardship in us and around us, instead of things to shrink from or be ashamed of, are openings for God. Weakness and difficulty are a means for going deeper in our union with Christ, and when that happens, we are changed and transformed to be more like Christ.

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.

Transformation for Mission: A Presentation for the GOCN (Gospel and Our Culture Network) Forum on Missional Hermeneutics

The GOCN is having a forum on “The Corinthian Correspondence and Missional Praxis” at the Annual Meeting of the Society  of Biblical Literature in November of 2013, in Baltimore. The following is a description of the paper I’ll be presenting.

“Corinthian Transformation for Mission: Re-Interpreting 2 Corinthians 4” 

New Testament scholars writing on 2 Corinthians 4 have observed that the chapter includes some of Paul’s deepest reflections on his apostolic life and vocation. The same scholars discussing the same chapter, however, have been reluctant to speak substantially about the missional life and vocation of the church. At the foundation of this essay is the claim that, contrary to many readings of 2 Corinthians, Paul deals not only with his own vocation, or that of himself and his apostolic partners. This study marshals evidence that Paul seeks to inculcate essentially the same missional vocation in the Corinthians themselves. In fact, Paul interprets his own calling through the vocation of all who are in Christ. On this foundation, the presentation will interpret Paul’s statements about his “we” as indicative of what is true of the church’s transformation for mission.

The presentation will begin with a condensed argument that Paul is not writing solely about his own vocation or that of his apostolic team. We will observe the following evidence: The Corinthians will naturally read 2 Corinthians 4 in light of what precedes. Through his prior correspondence with them, Paul has trained the Corinthians to treat his extended self-descriptions as exemplary of their vocation (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1). Moreover, in 2 Cor 1:3-7, where Paul affirms that not only he but also the Corinthians share in Christ’s sufferings, the letter’s introduction guides how the congregation should read what he is about to say. Moreover, in 3:18, “we all” are being transformed. In 4:11, “we who are alive” (hoi zōntes) – all who are alive in Christ – are being handed over, “so that the life of Jesus may be manifest”. Paul also affirms that Christ died for all, and all have died, that “those who are alive (hoi zōntes) might no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised “(5:14-15).

The main substance of the presentation will be to sketch Paul’s vision for believers’ transformation for mission, as described in 2 Corinthians 4, though with insights from the wider context of 2 Corinthians 1-7. God’s light shines into the hearts of believers (4:6), granting a vision of Christ which leads them to be transformed from one degree of glory to another (3:18). The fruit of this transformation is that believers become illuminators as people experience through them “the illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6). Believers preach Christ Jesus as Lord (4:5), but their whole embodied existence (sōma and sarx in 4:10-11) also expresses the life of Jesus. Believers are clay jars containing the treasure of the gospel for others (4:7). Believers suffer in their bodies, but doing so is a means toward a greater end: they are transformed to become revelators of Christ and his life (4:10-11). In the midst of hardship, believers experience renewal of the inner person as they gaze on what is eternal and unseen, walking courageously by faith (4:16-18; 5:7-8). Christ’s death and love propel them to live not for themselves, but for Christ (5:14-15). Moreover, God has placed the message of reconciliation “in us” (5:19) – in the body of believers. Finally, read in light of what precedes, when Paul says that Christ was made sin “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”, this describes God’s project of transforming the church to be the image of what God desires for all humanity.

It is not sufficient to say with most scholars that the purpose of Paul’s self-references is to explain his apostolic office and defend himself. Instead, the paper argues that Paul is deliberately and tactically using his self-references to exemplify a broader missional vocation for believers: one arising from a transformative union with Christ. What preoccupies Paul is not so much his own apostolic standing as his relationship with the Corinthians, and their union with Christ and with the gospel. Through this union, the Christian life becomes a picture of Christ for others. Believers live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus, for this leads to thanksgiving and glory for God (4:15).