Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Day the Revolution Began, by NT Wright #6

WrightI am continuing reading through, for my New Testament devotions and study, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion, by N. T. Wright. This post discusses two chapters which focus in on the meaning of Christ’s death and the atonement in Paul’s letter to the Romans. I am posting from my reading in New Testament theologies and devotionals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

Chapter 12, The Death of Jesus in Paul's Letter to the Romans: The New Exodus, begins two chapters in the book that deal with Jesus death as it is seen in the Book of Romans. In Chapter 12 Paul focuses on Romans 5-8 and describes Jesus death in terms of the Passover, as a “new Exodus,” but this time the exodus is not from exile in Egypt or Babylon. This time the Exodus is a freedom from sin and death and the powers that that rule because of them. Romans 5-8 is written from the background of Israel's history as prophesied in Deuteronomy 26-32. Israel, and Adam sinned, which brings exile, death and submission to the "evil powers," but all this is according to the plan of God which allows "Sin" and its effects to increase so it can be gathered together, punished and destroyed in the death of Jesus Christ. With the defeat of "Sin," the vocation of humanity as the image of God is restored, creation is made whole again, and heaven and earth are brought back together.

The primary human problem that Paul notes in Romans 1:18 is not “sin,” but “ungodliness.” It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows), but of worship. 268

Paul is hinting that the often dark and sad history of Israel, the long descent into the “curse” of Deuteronomy, was not itself outside the divine purpose. That descent under the law was to be the means by which redemption would come. Even the exile itself, the long sojourn under the law’s curse, was part of the eventual saving purpose. 275

The Messiah’s new life, risen from the dead, is indeed the inauguration of the “age to come,” bursting in upon the “present evil age.” Those who belong to him are to believe and to live by the belief that they died and rose again with him, so that they are no longer under any slavish obligation to obey the old master. 279

Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus...The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not. 287

The work of the cross is not designed to rescue humans from creation, but to rescue them for creation. 290 

Chapter 13, The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Passover and Atonement, is the longest and most dense chapter in the book. It discusses what is considered by many to be the definitive passage on atonement and the meaning of Jesus' death: Romans 3.21-26. The first half of the chapter discusses the context of the passage in Romans 1-4. Wright insists, correctly I think, that this passage must be interpreted in the covenantal context of Israel's mission and promises from God. God's "righteousness" is seen in his commitment to keep His promise to save the world through Israel in the Messiah, despite their idolatrous failure, and to redeem all creation. This does not contradict the traditional reading of Romans 3, but instead places it in a richer context of the mission of Israel and the church, new exodus and the kingdom of God. It places a stronger emphasis on inclusion in the "family of God" rather than individual status.

Human skill and ingenuity were designed to work for God’s purposes in the world, not to generate alternate gods for people to worship instead. “Sin,” then, is not simply the breaking of God’s rules. It is the outflowing of idolatry. That is the primary problem of Romans 1. 308

When you leave out Israel, your shortened story will easily tip over into a non-Jewish way of thinking, into, as we have seen, a platonic view of the ultimate goal (“heaven”), a moralistic view of the human vocation (“good behavior”), and a downright pagan view of salvation (an innocent death placating an angry deity). 311-312

All this means a vital shift from the usual reading of Romans to a truly Pauline one. Paul is not saying, “God will justify sinners by faith so that they can go to heaven, and Abraham is an advance example of this.” He is saying, “God covenanted with Abraham to give him a worldwide family of forgiven sinners turned faithful worshippers, and the death of Jesus is the means by which this happens.” 314

And with that verdict, announced in Jesus’s resurrection, God also declared the same verdict over those who would be “in the Messiah”: “They are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus” (3:24). Justification takes place “in the Messiah.” What God said of Jesus in his resurrection God says of all who are “in him.”  323

In the second half of chapter 13, Wright zeroes in on the exegesis of Romans 3.21-26. He insists on placing the passage within the OT context of the Passover and Day of Atonement with the idea of the hilasterion, "mercy seat," primarily meaning the place where atonement was made to bring together heaven and earth, God and His people. Punishment was not made in the sense of God being angry at the sacrificial victim, but it consisted of the sacrificial victim bearing the consequences of the sin, so that the worshipper was forgiven and restored to fellowship. Thus, the powers of evil, sin and death are broken and the believer is declared to be "justified" now and assured of being in God's eternal kingdom.

At the heart of that we find not an arbitrary and abstract “punishment” meted out upon an innocent victim, but the living God himself coming incognito (“To whom has the arm of YHWH been revealed?”—in other words, “Who would have thought that he was YHWH in person, in power?”), coming to take upon himself the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, sin, and exile, which itself brought into focus the idolatry, sin, and exile of the whole human race. 337

In this event (the cross), all the early Christians tell us, the living God was revealed in human form, in utter self-giving love, to be the focus of grateful worship, worship that would replace the idols and would therefore generate a new, truly human existence in which the deadly grip of sin had been broken forever. 346 

Paul is not simply offering a roundabout way of saying, “We sinned; God punished Jesus; we are forgiven.” He is saying, “We all committed idolatry, and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery.” 347

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