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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Galatians 2:16

The last post ended with the promise to take-up the notions of “works of the law” and of “faith somehow related to Jesus” as competing options by which to be justified.  Justification has often been understood as the rough equivalent of “to be declared sinless or pure.”  To understand Galatians, it is unfortunately necessary to “unlearn” what we have been taught in order to hear Paul authentically.  The reader is urged to see “justification” and “righteousness” (the words are close-kin to one another) as expressions of a covenant relationship.  And I have earlier posted on this blog a series of lessons that explain covenant relating.

God is righteous, by which we mean that God is wholesome and reliable in the way He relates to His covenant partners.  It is a solemn responsibility and an uncommon privilege to be selected as someone’s covenant partner—especially God’s!  One does not grant this kind of personal access to everyone met on the street.  It is reserved for people who accord the relationship with the highest honor.  So when God, the righteous God, admits covenant partners, He “justifies” them.  He declares them to be acceptable to join Him in covenant.

I’m thinking now of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.  A king sends out invitations, basically to anyone who will accept and respond.  When the first round of invitations doesn’t yield enough responses, the king sends out his servants again.  They are to carry the call of invitation not only to the thoroughfares and main roads, but down the alleys and side roads, with the goal of bringing-in anyone and everyone.  At the event, a fellow is spotted not wearing clothing appropriate to the occasion.  He is unceremoniously cast out.  The message is that the New Covenant relationship carries a wide invitation, but a narrow acceptance limited only to those appropriately attentive to the solemnity of relational responsibility.  Many are called, but few are chosen.

As Paul writes Galatians, the only people “justified” to be acknowledged as the people of God are Jews.  The rare exceptions in which Gentiles find acceptance is when they abandon their natural cultural and religious inclinations and bend in a Jewish direction.  They become “proselytes” who embrace Judaism and the God of Israel.  This understanding ensured that the Jewish “social map” was organized around the Torah, the covenant-law of Israel.  And for some time, for long centuries in fact, that social map was valid.  Jews were right to be exclusive, and to blur the lines of fellowship and justification would necessarily dishonor God.  The lesson here is not that exclusivity in the covenant was wrong, that people should be more accepting, or—in modern American perspective—should be more “multi-cultural.”

The careful marking of “one of us” from “one of them” was essential and appropriate, until Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected to newness of life.  That Person, that Event, changed everything.  It necessitated a re-drawing of the longstanding social map.  On the Cross, Jesus demonstrated most thoroughly and most dramatically and most meaningfully the “faith” or “faithfulness” that He embraced all through His life.  The word “faith” (or “belief”) carries several meanings.  We who are children of the “scientific age” tend to use it as in the question, “Do you believe in Bigfoot?  Or, in UFO’s?  Or, the Loch Ness monster?”  In this sense, belief in Jesus means that one accepts as historically true His existence, perhaps even His miraculous activities and rising from the dead.  But “faith” can mean more and different things:

--trust.  When a friend makes a promise and you trust the friend to keep it, you are showing faith.

--faithfulness.  When one partner responds to another in a way that honors him/her and that honors the relationship itself, they are being faithful to one another.  They are “keeping faith” or “being true” to one another.  Btw, when Jesus declared, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32), doesn’t it seem more likely that His meaning was not, “You will be set free when you realize these things are actually true.”  Instead, Jesus offered “freedom” to those who embrace the “truth” that one partner keeps for another partner.  The joys of faithful relationships unleash a freedom from a tortured inner spirit and psychology.

It is said that every potential meaning of the word “faith” is exhausted to the fullest by a martyr.  One who would accept death before dishonoring God and the relationship shared with Him demonstrates “faith(fulness).”  When Jesus took the Cross and martyrdom, He exhausted faith of its many meanings and ran each meaning to its fullest expression. 

In Ben-Hur, Charleton Heston is fastened by each hand to two teams of horses that pull in opposite directions.  Jesus faced similar stress when He held faithfully to God with one hand, and held faithfully to people with the other.  The demands and resulting stress were such that He would be forced to let go of one or the other, or find Himself destroyed and pulled apart.  Jesus might have been expected to continue a faithful grip on the Father God who had always been faithful to Him, while releasing His grip on sinful, faithless people.  Jesus would have been spared, and that would have been fair and just.  But, expressive of pure grace and breathtaking mercy, Jesus also refused to let go of us.  Those two obligations, met full-strength, forced Jesus through a trial in which not only His face, but His honor, was spat upon.  Refusing to let go then forced Jesus through whips and scourges, until His back was laid bare.  He might have quit, might have let go His grip, at any point.  But He held even when the resulting responsibility pulled His spirit from His body, killed Him, on the Cross.  That is “faith”, bearing meaning and carrying definitions that leave nothing short.

Let us return to Paul in Gal. 2:16.  “…yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”  The first option here (which Paul denies flatly), by which one might find justification, is “by the works of the Law.”

Even though this possibility meets an unequivocal denial from Paul, we have to be sympathetic to the concerns of those who demand it.  Jewish people faced a struggle to maintain their traditional identity, religion, and faith that forced many of them to die as martyrs.  When Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean region under the domination of Greece, the various sub-cultures now dominated were forced to accept Greek culture and religion.  This was called Hellenization, and it was compulsory.  Of course, the Jewish people resisted and clung stubbornly to God and His Law.  And, they suffered terribly for keeping their allegiance and faithfulness.

It was important to identify “one of us” from “one of them” in such situation.  To identify themselves as faithful Jews to one another, they used “works of the Law.”  These were acts of compliance to Torah, the Old Covenant Law and each worked as a “badge” of identification.  The “works of the Law” consisted essentially of three Law-keeping obediences:


--kosher-food diet.

--keeping Sabbath.

Think of the way Amish modes of dress and comportment serve to identify themselves with other Amish, and also distinguish them from others (“the English”).  The standard clothing styles are like uniforms, identifying their “soldiers” from enemies in the cultural and religious clash.  The “works of the Law” likewise enabled one to distinguish insiders from outsiders, the faithful from the corrupt.  And, as we have already said, these identifiers were meaningful and valid, until Jesus died in faith.

So, if not “works of the Law”, how might one be justified to be included among God’s people (and so find a seat at table)?  The phrase “by faith in (Jesus) Christ” can be translated from the Greek, and English Bibles traditionally and almost universally get it wrong.  The phrase can also be translated, “by the faith(fulness) of Jesus.”  In other words, justification comes not because we believe in Jesus, but because Jesus himself was faithful.  It is His faith, not ours, that brings justification.

Put another way, justification comes through the action of God rather than through the action of people.  God was acting “in Jesus”, even through His crucifixion, to bring a new way by which people might find acceptance.  This translation is finally being brought up in new Bible translations, like the CEV (Common English Version).  Accepting it means that we accept the startling conclusion that Paul, nowhere in Galatians, presents Jesus as the object of human faith.

Of course, our faith is still essential once we accept the “faith of Jesus.”  What is required is that when we consider “saving faith” or “the faith that saves”, we should allow ourselves (or force ourselves, contrary to what we probably have always been taught) to think first of the faith of Jesus!  In other words, to think first of the Cross.  It is here, and in Him, that we find the faith that is of such exhaustive quality that it saves us.  And then, after this consideration of Jesus, we might consider our own faith that is responsive to His.

It is curious that the phrase “faith(fulness) of Christ” occurs in Paul’s writings only seven times, and it usually is coupled with a clear reference to human faith.  His faith and ours are conjoined (which is what we should expect in a conversation regarding covenant relating).  The seven places are Romans 3:21, 26; Gal. 2:16 (twice), 20; 3:22, and Phil. 3:9.  In the following quotations of these Scriptures, the bold text will show human faith, and the other references will be re-translated to the faith(fulness) of Jesus:

--“But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through [the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ] unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction” (Romans 3:21-22, ASV).

--“yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through [the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ], even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified [by the faith(fulness) of Christ], and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal 2:16, ASV).

--“and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through [the faith(fulness) of Christ], the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil 3:9, ASV).

In each of these three references, Paul is speaking about the basis for our justification/righteousness.  And in each case, he conjoins the “faith of Jesus” with the faith of a Christian.  We will say more about this joining or “marriage” between His faith and ours later, but for now it is enough to see that for Paul there must be a re-drawing of the social map.  The necessity is obvious for anyone who understands the Cross.

The new social map will allow Gentiles to be accepted as “insiders.”  The old map did not.  And usually, that old map was drawn in the minds of Jewish people.  It became visible through who was, and who was not, allowed a seat at table.  And it also became visible in the Jerusalem Temple, where courts separated by boundary walls replicated the social map of Judaism.  The Gentiles (with surprising allowance of diversity) were allowed to enter the Temple grounds, but were restricted to their own area and were forbidden to enter the court reserved for Jewish men (Jewish women had their own court).  On the wall was a posting that declared just how serious the social map was regarded:  “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the barrier around the sanctuary.  Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”  Jews are insiders; Gentiles are outsiders, and the barrier between them is solid.

But the map was being redrawn.  Some insiders would now be regarded as outsiders, and some outsiders now found acceptance.  When the Cross is made the new organizing center (instead of the Torah), Gentiles find a place inside.  They are justified or declared righteous.  Paul described this erasing/redrawing by making explicit reference to the Temple barrier:

“Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:  and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh:  for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father.  So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:11-22, ASV)

You can bet that when Paul sees Jesus as the “chief corner stone” of this new fellowship, that bring both Jews and Gentiles inside the people of God, he see Jesus in such exalted and vital position by virtue of His “faith.”  This is the new, and now the only, means by which a person may be justified.





Saturday, December 14, 2013

Galatians Two (vs. 11-16)

In 2:11, we encounter the famous showdown between two apostles, Paul and Peter (Cephas).  And again, if even they conflict, who are we to think we are above it?  What is crucial is to carefully note the fundamental issue and not let go of it as the conflict moves toward resolution.  The issue is "table fellowship."  It is about who, on the basis of common Jewish scruples (based on Torah/the Law), is able (or not able) to eat with whom???

It is also significant where this argument is located.  Antioch is famous for two things.  By the way, there are two places named Antioch.  The one here is Syrian Antioch, the one closest to Israel.  It is famous for being the first place at which disciples of Jesus were called "Christians."  And, it is famous for being the location of the first church that blended into a single fellowship both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  Though we may scarcely raise our eyebrows at this, given our historical and cultural position, this was a monumental accomplishment!  It was so unprecedented that the "mother church" in Jerusalem sent an investigator to look-in and report-back.  His name was Barnabas, and he appreciated and approved of what he found at Antioch.  For whatever reason, he left here for Tarsus, the hometown of Saul (Paul), and brought him to Antioch.  Paul was a new Christian who, without a doubt, struggled to find a place inside the Christian fellowship that he had even recently persecuted.  In his official role in Judaism, Paul had imprisoned and even killed Christian Jews (like the martyr Stephen).  Now Paul and Barnabas are found at Antioch, and how interesting is it that they are joined by none other than the apostle Peter, who has the distinction of bringing the first "raw Gentile" (Cornelius) through a Christian conversion!

Paul confronts Peter with the charge of hypocrisy.  Previously, Peter would eat (share fellowship) with Gentile Christians.  In Acts, we recall that Peter's conversion of Cornelius came only after a three-times-repeated vision in which food animals notoriously outside of the "kosher" dietary limitations are set before Peter, and he is commanded:  "Kill and eat!"  Peter, like any good Jew, refuses, again and again.  But finally the message attending the vision is that he should, no longer, consider "unclean" what God has, now at last, pronounced to be "clean."  The message is two-fold.  The kosher food laws are now abrogated and taken off the books (recall that Jesus had settled this when he declared defilement to originate, not with what one might eat, but with whatever evil proceeded from the human heart.  Easing dietary restrictions was only part of the revelation; the other half of the message is that "unclean people" (again, unclean in reference to Jewish limitations) were now to be regarded as "clean".  That means that Gentiles are now fit to be "insiders" that take their place in fellowship with God's Jewish people! 

Peter understood all this, and the evidence is his conversion of Cornelius.  He preached the Gospel of Jesus to the Gentile household, and baptized them.  But, suddenly, Peter withdrew himself and would no longer eat with Gentiles who were insiders to the Christian fellowship.  Paul rightly perceived hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was taken-in by it!  What caused this reversal?  Certain men were sent from James in Jerusalem (just as Barnabas had been sent earlier).  These men were Christians, Jewish Christians, who still believed that the central organizing focus of God's people was the Torah, as it had been for centuries for the Jewish people in the theocratic nation of Israel, and as it now continued to be (they thought) for God's people in the church.  They were willing to admit Gentiles into the fellowship, but only insofar as they respectfully embraced Judaism.  Essentially, a Gentile could be accepted if he/she first became a Jew.

Paul takes careful aim with his first rebuke of Peter:  "But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Cephas before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest as do the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, how compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" (Gal. 2:14, ASV).  Here Peter had set aside Jewish scruples and gave a place at his table to Gentiles.  In Jewish perspective, this was "living like a Gentile".  But now, to refuse such dinner guests is not only a social rejection, it implicitly carries pressure.  If the Gentiles, who formerly shared table with Peter, want to ever again take a seat at the table then they must comply with Jewish restrictions.  They would have to "live like Jews." 

Vs. 15 presents the "social map" marked out when Torah is the organizing feature.  It was the map, indicating insiders and outsiders, as recognized by Law-observant Jews.  The Gentiles were located in the sphere marked-out for "sinners", and this would then locate Jews in some different sphere, marked perhaps by "holiness" or "cleanness" or "righteousness."  The conflict arises because Paul does no longer accept this social map.  He once did, but no longer.  Paul now has a new map.

The key topographical feature on the competing "maps" is "righteousness" or "justification" (both English words stem from the same, identical Greek root).  You may have to set aside what you have been taught about these words, and may have to learn to think of their meaning in a new way.  What Paul is communicating is the basis on which a given person (Gentile or Jew) may "rightfully" or "justifiably" take his place as an insider among God's people (this has implications for the place then taken at table).  By tradition accumulated over centuries of history, a Jewish person would "justify" only those people located as God's on the "social map."  And since that map was organized around the Law as its focus, that meant only "Torah-honoring Jews" could be justified.  If a Gentile should seek inclusion, they would have to become one of those.

Paul used to think in these terms also, but since Jesus had been nailed to the Cross and resurrected, Paul could no longer do so.  What God did in Christ Jesus was so significant that, for anyone who understood it, it would mean a re-drawing of the social map.  The Cross had to become the new center, the new focal point, the new organizing feature that determined insiders and outsiders.  It was the new means of "justification."  Notice the contrast Paul offers:  "yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (Gal 2:16, ASV).

We may need to change our thinking and change the definition of words that we have accepted.  Since the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's, "works" have often been understood as "works of merit" or "human accomplishments" that might be held up to God to earn one's salvation.  After all, this was the way Catholics in the days of Martin Luther used the word "works."  And ever since then, the common assumption is that Paul faced exactly the same "legalism" or attempts at "self-righteousness" that Luther faced in medieval Catholicism.  He did not.

Studies of the Judaism that existed in the times of Jesus and Paul (the era of "Second Temple Judaism") simply was not legalistic, in these terms.  Jews did not try to accumulate deeds that were moral or religious to "justify" themselves to God.  If you are thinking that this is what Paul argued against, you will not read Galatians.  You will mis-read Galatians, and never understand what Paul was saying.  By the way, the studies of Judaism that are now changing our thinking on these matters is called "the new perspective on Paul" and was touched-off by a scholar named E. P. Sanders.

What Paul meant by "works of the Law" and by its opposite "faith somehow referenced to Jesus" will be the subject of the next post.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Galatians Two (vs. 1-10)

Galatians Two (part one)

Paul is in the middle of telling his personal history, which demonstrates the impossibility of receiving his apostolic gospel message from any human source, especially from the apostles or other leaders (together viewed as “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church.  There is a conflict raging, and the issue may pit Paul against Jerusalem.  That would put Paul at a disadvantage, first, because Paul was not one of the Twelve apostles who walked with Jesus during the incredible three years of His messianic ministry.  Paul will deny this inferiority on the grounds that his gospel, no less than that preached by any of the Twelve, was sourced directly from the Lord by means of revelation.  A second disadvantage might come against Paul if any can successfully demonstrate that Paul gets his message or his authority from Jerusalem.  In such case, Paul would be obligated, if there is some discrepancy, to go back to Jerusalem and to concede to them.  As we enter Chapter Two, Paul has demonstrated that his time in Jerusalem totals 15 days over 17 years, that he met only with Peter (Cephas) and James (the brother of Jesus), and that he had been working his gospel message in active ministry before any of this.

Now, 14 years after the first visit, Paul makes a second to Jerusalem.  He takes with him Barnabas and a Gentile (uncircumcised) Christian named Titus.  Barnabas is important because he had been an emissary from Jerusalem to Antioch, where he was sent to investigate the mixing of Gentiles and Jews in Christian fellowship.  And, it was Barnabas who sought-out Paul and brought him to Antioch.  Titus is even more important.  As an uncircumcised Gentile Christian, he is a living example of the result one might expect after Paul’s gospel message is preached.  He is “Exhibit A” for the case that Paul wants to present at a meeting with the top-tier authority in the church established by Jesus.

Paul attends this meeting in response to a revelation.  This would seem to be the episodic sort of direction that Paul sometimes received, and not the revelation (mentioned in 1:12) that first brought to Paul the message that he was to preach.  It is important to note that, in this meeting, Jerusalem is not dictating to Paul and looking to see how he measures up.  He is the one presenting to “those who were of reputation.”  The authority of the Jerusalem leaders was recognized within the church, but Paul is positioning himself to discount that authority if it should deny the validity of his gospel.  Paul knows its source, and thus its validity.  Any discrediting of his gospel thus implies a fault in the critic(s), even if they possess uncontested authority from people.  Still, Paul is worried at the possibility, past or present, of “running in vain.”  This should not be understood as if Paul were toying with the possibility, after all, that his gospel message might have been flawed.  Rather, Paul understands that those who are potential opponents in this conflict are his brothers.  They belong to the same team.  And should a rift between them be indicated, it would mean the team members were working against rather than working with each other.  This would have meant “running in vain.”

The outcome of the meeting is that Titus leaves just as he arrived—uncircumcised Christian.  The Jerusalem leadership did not compel him to go under the knife to keep his status as an insider to the Christian community.  He was accepted, as is!  This, in itself, is a demonstration that Paul’s gospel has been validated, not faulted, by the top authority in Jerusalem.  However, a third group attended this meeting.  Besides Paul’s company and the Jerusalem leaders, there is a group of “false brothers” who were brought in to “spy out the freedom to be had in Christ Jesus.”  It looks suspiciously as though the meeting has been sabotaged, that someone has set Paul up for a confrontation.  My guess is that the instigator here was James.  He is identified in 2:12 as the one who sent a delegation to Antioch, and Paul would have also considered them to be false Christians.  In fact, they seem to be the ones targeted by the curse attached to preaching a “different gospel” in 1:6-9.  They are Jewish Christians who, since they believe the Law/Torah is still the identifying center for the true people of God, believe that compliance with the “old covenant” is binding upon Christians, even if they happen to be Gentiles.  And compliance was bound up primarily in three “works of the Law”:  circumcision, kosher food requirements, and keeping Sabbath. 

Paul resisted their pressure and saw it as a threat to the truth of the gospel.  It is important to attend to the issues of “slavery” and “freedom/liberty” that first surface here, for they begin a theme that flows through the letter.  Having just emerged with Titus intact, Paul refuses to credit Jerusalem with making any improvements on what Paul brought to the table.  The quality of his gospel was there without their help.  In fact, their esteem and prestige (in the eyes of people) offered nothing to Paul; nor to God!  Literally, Paul says that “God does not receive a man’s face.”  Recall in 1:22 that Paul declared himself to be “unknown by face” to the Judean churches.  And watch in 2:11, where Paul will oppose Peter “to his face.”  These face references are an interesting window to the culture in which this conflict takes place.

In spite of the interference of the false Christians, who would impose Jewish law on non-Jews, there is no rift between Paul’s side and the Jerusalem side.  However, they jointly agree to divide their labors in ministry into separate spheres of responsibility.  Paul will attend to Gentiles (the uncircumcised); Peter will focus on evangelizing Jews (the circumcised).  Both ministry endeavors advanced the purpose of the same Lord.  The team was intact, and working cooperatively for shared goals.  The cap on the validation of Paul’s gospel came when, as the meeting concluded, Paul and Barnabas were extended “the right hand of fellowship” from Jerusalem.  The only additional burden placed on Paul (and it involved not the slightest tweaking of his gospel) was that he attend to the poor.  Paul complied gladly, and his fundraising within his Gentile churches would bring famine relief back to Jerusalem.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Galatians One

Galatians One

1:1-5  Paul works hard, from the first words through 2:10, to establish that his gospel is independent of any and every human source or authority.  His gospel depends on none but the Lord. 

When we face conflict, there is ever the need to second-guess potential stabs that our opponents may make against us.  Paul must present himself in full independence, lest any opponent should try to claim Jerusalem as the pinnacle and highest office of Christian authority, and then attempt to show that Paul is not on the same page with that authority.  That would pin upon Paul the responsibility to own the fault and to make the correction.  Contrary to this (and even before it is said, though Paul probably heard this attack before), Paul insists that his message and his apostleship derive from the highest authority, an authority at the very least equal to that of Jerusalem and her apostles.  Thus, Paul will claim a backing that cannot be surpassed even by those who impressively may claim as credential the experience of walking with Jesus during His Messianic ministry.

Paul thus credentials himself and also provides the briefest summary of the gospel he preaches, regarding  “our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father: to whom be the glory for ever and ever.  Amen” (1:3-5).  This bare skeleton of a sermon-outline will be fleshed out in the remainder of the epistle and it reminds us of the similar opening to Romans and its gospel summary:  “the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name's sake” (Romans 1:1-6).

1:6-9  Typical format for letters and epistles would call for a “thanksgiving” section to follow the brief “to” and “from” of the introduction.  A reader would anticipate it, expecting the writer to express personal appreciation, perhaps including a prayer for his/her blessing.  Such expressions allow the writer and the reader to bond together before sharing the message to follow.  The reader of Galatians would be jolted not only by the omission of this intimate expression, but by the harsh expression that follows.  Paul is quite deliberately communicating that the situation that prompts him to write is an emergency containing a great threat.

Paul warns of a “different gospel” and pronounces a dire curse on anyone behind it.  He denies anyone the possibility of claiming a simple miscommunication by insisting that the gospel which he (and his associates) had “preached” is identical to the one which the Galatians “heard.”  Paul spoke plainly and they heard clearly.  There was not more than a single message between them, as though one could claim that some “different gospel” was one of the possible interpretations of Paul’s message.  The curse applied even if the messenger were an angel (the words “preacher, apostle, and angel” all basically mean “a messenger”).  Curiously, Paul recalls being initially received in Galatia as though he himself were an angel (4:14). 

The curse is the Greek word “anathema” which is the word applied in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to describe items placed “under the ban.”  When Israel’s armies were victorious, God directed the disposition of the spoils and booty taken in battle.  This might include physical wealth (gold and silver), livestock, or human captives.  Sometimes this could be kept for the benefit and enjoyment of the Israelites.  Other times, some (or all) of the take would be placed “under the ban”, under anathema.  In such cases, anything and everything “under the ban” had to be utterly destroyed.  It was forbidden for God’s people to touch or to keep it, and at times those who fell to the temptation by keeping “banned” items were destroyed themselves.  When Paul pronounces a curse, it portends destruction from God.

We are not yet told what the “different gospel” might be, only that its acceptance marks a turning from grace.  This so-called gospel will be pieced together from the various objects against which Paul argues in the rest of the letter.  Suffice it to say that the issue surfaces in the refusal of Jewish Christians to socially eat with their Gentile brothers and sisters.  This should be our starting point, and I hasten to add that nothing in Galatians suggests the traditional “Lutheran” striving of grace against legalistic self-righteousness.  That was Luther’s issue; not Paul’s.  And all of us who have fallen under Luther’s long shadow must resist and replace that theology with the one that Paul presents.  They are not the same.  Even so, the Lutheran angle has become the dominant understanding in Protestant churches generally, and even within churches of Christ.  Once accepted, it is difficult to shake, yet the effort is worth it because the real concerns are more meaningful.

1:10-24  Paul returns to claims for the independence of his gospel.  He has made the assertion in the opening lines, and now he will substantiate his claims with evidence.  What follows is a sketch of Paul’s personal history over about two decades.  He speaks of where he went and of whom he met, but the telling is truly meant to showcase where he did not go and with whom he did not meet.  Specifically, over 17 years Paul made only one visit to Jerusalem, in which he spent just 15 days with Peter (in Galatians, he is referred to by his Hebrew name, Cephas) and also with James.  You might say, in response to those who would try to anchor Paul and his message as offshoots from “Jerusalem University”, that Paul made only one visit that was much shorter than a single semester.  It would be ludicrous to think that Paul received his apostolic education at this time, and so it must derive from some other source.

This James is not the apostle who bore that name (one of the “sons of thunder”), but the physical brother of Jesus, another son of Mary and (probably also) of Joseph.  James and another brother, Jude, have epistles in the NT.  James rose to leadership prominence in the Jerusalem church.  And he was regarded as an “apostle” (= messenger), which is not to say he was regarded as one of the Twelve.  We might wonder how contemporaries might have viewed the comparative authority of James against Paul?  Paul would source his message to a “revelation”, probably his Damascus Road encounter that led to his conversion from Saul the Pharisee to Paul the Apostle.  We can only wonder what James might have claimed to substantiate his own authority.  Did Jesus give him a personal commission?  We simply do not know.  Whatever the case, James was esteemed as a leader by the Jewish Christians who shared fellowship with him in the original Christian church:  Jerusalem.

Paul begins his history with his pre-Christian past, when he was a persecutor of the church.  He never hesitates to identify himself with what had to be his most embarrassing life experience, using it to ground his own humility and to embrace his acceptance by Jesus as a true experience of grace.  Curiously, he traces his apostolic back before this even to pre-birth.  It is almost as if God sent Paul through the rigors of Judaism (and Paul advanced and excelled beyond many of his peers) and through events of persecution, like the martyrdom of Stephen, and God used all of this to shape the man who would be best-qualified as His apostle to the Gentiles.  In retrospection, Paul could virtually say, “I was born to be an apostle!”

Not only did Paul not visit Jerusalem until three years had passed, even before this visit he was preaching the gospel that he had received by revelation.  In this time he went to Damascus (toward which he was traveling when Jesus confronted and converted him) and also to Arabia.  Some identify Arabia with an area north of Israel, but the only other mention of Arabia by Paul is in Gal. 4:25, the site of Mount Sinai.  N. T. Wright suggested in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature that Paul went to Sinai as Elijah had, under duress from difficult ministry and seeking a revelation from God, but this is largely conjecture.  We know little of Paul’s life during this time.

Then after the brief Jerusalem visit, Paul goes to Syria and Cilicia.  Cilicia is the region in which we find Paul’s hometown, Tarsus.  In Acts, this is where Paul is when Barnabas seeks him out and brings him to the church in Antioch, Syria (there is another place called Antioch in Pisidia).  The church in Antioch is famous not only as the place where Christians were first called “Christians”, but also as the first church to combine Jewish and Gentile Christians in a common fellowship.  Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem authorities to investigate and send a report on this unusual and (to some) potentially threatening situation.  Fortunately, the “son of encouragement” was thrilled by what he saw, and he eagerly sought out “Saul” to join him there.  We can well imagine the way Antioch offered a properly formative experience for one who would come to be known as “the apostle to the Gentiles” and who fought strong opposition to make sure history generated only one church rather than two (one Gentile and the other Christian).

Far from being an accepted alumni of Jerusalem, Paul ends this portion of his history by noting his facial anonymity among the churches of Judea (=Israel).  Literally, he was “unknown by face” (we will note in Ch. 2 that Paul makes repeated remarks around the word “face”).

Paul will continue his personal history in the next chapter, but all of this is brewing up to a conflict that will rope in Paul, with Peter, with James.  Perhaps we should release the naïve altruism that expects church to be a conflict-free zone (and, to benefit some, I must add that this is not a call to ratchet up the conflict for conflict’s sake).  Jesus (the Prince of Peace) could not escape conflict; nor could His apostles, nor could the early church, nor—for that matter—has any church in history.  All meaningful relationships conflict, and the result is often benefit even if achieved after considerable pain.  It is curious that the conflict showcased in Galatians authors who together are responsible for writing 16 (Paul has 13; Peter 2, and James just one) of the 27 NT books!  For those occasions on which conflict cannot be responsibly avoided, perhaps we can learn from Galatians how to conflict as spiritual people.

Paul's Letter to the Galatians


Galatians (like Romans) keeps calling me back for a fresh reading.  Many times I’ve read, thinking to have understood Paul correctly.  This is more true for the broad sweep of the message; less so for the troubling bits along the way.  However, I occasionally have had experiences in which some new discovery, some new connection of meaning within the text, tell me that my previous confidence at interpretation was actually misplaced.  For example, long ago I was taken by a very "Lutheran" understanding of faith vs. works.  That understanding has now been replaced. 

And so, I read again.

And with fresh insights, my wounded confidence returns, healed and filled with renewed optimism and fresh vigor.  I love Galatians because, as a message created in the heat of strife and conflict, it stirs up what truly must have been center-most and upper-most in the mind of Paul.  And what a mind!  God chose His penman with exquisite skill, and Paul’s writings are well worthy to be designated as “Scripture.”  When Paul speaks, we hear God and what is center-most and upper-most.

I haven’t blogged here for some time.  Mainly I’ve been busy publishing a book, which will soon come out on, which is titled, Filling The Temple:  Finding a Place For The Holy Spirit.  And I’ve been enriched by reading books, like N. T. Wrights Justification and The Faith of Jesus Christ by Richard B. Hayes.  The latter title carries the subtitle, The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11, which obviously “hits the spot” in a search for what Paul truly said in Galatians.  And with justification and righteousness occupying such a key domain in both Galatians and Romans, Wright has also been very helpful.

Above all, I appreciate Galatians for the way it is able both to “center” me and to “raise” me, by calling out what in Scripture is center-most and upper-most.  Although conflict is the catalyst that has bubbled these crucial topics and issues to the surface, I am also grateful for the insights Paul brings in Galatians to the proper conduct of Christians in conflict situations.  Here, on the one hand, is the apostle who sets for the beatific “fruits of the Spirit” and urges us to restore trespassers in a spirit (Spirit?) of gentleness and to bear one another’s burdens.  And on the other hand, the same apostle calls down a curse on preachers who oppose his own gospel, calls his readers “foolish” and “bewitched”, and urges those compelling circumcision to castrate themselves!  As with the other enigmas presented by Galatians, I would suggest that we have not understood Paul when we embrace either of the seemingly oxymoronic approaches that he takes to conflict.  We understand Paul only when we can work both into a meaningful philosophy of conflict and adapt conflict-styles that embrace the whole in ways that are appropriate.

Most of all, I appreciate the way Galatians delivers meaningful insight into God’s two greatest gifts:  His Son and His Spirit.  And I love the way Galatians sews up so nicely to make a fabric with not only Paul’s other writings (including those that some actually think that were not written by Paul, like Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians), but also makes a fabric with the whole of Scripture.  What follows is my latest and truest commentary on Galatians.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why I Left SBL

That's it, I'm done with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).  My involvement began in the late 1980's, when I visited the Dallas seminar.  I am grateful to my Greek professor, Dr. Paul Pollard of Harding University, for my introduction.  I have continued as a member over the years, lapsing only when career disruptions made even the membership fees prohibitive.  Two lectures from this first seminar still stand-out in my memory. 

First, there was Georg Strecker.  Speaking with a thick German accent, he declared, "Through my research I have determined that some of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are authentic to Jesus."  To an undergraduate student who had always (and does always still) accept "red letter" text in the NT as the very words of Jesus, this was a somewhat shockingly unnecessary remark.  [I have come to see that the beginnings and ends of "red letter" quotations in the Fourth Gospel have not always been carefully delineated.  For example, is John 3:16 spoken by Jesus, or is it a declaration by the author of the Gospel?).  Strecker spoke at a time when the Jesus Seminar was first attracting notoriety.  He died just a few years later.

The second lecture was by Robert Sloan, who was lecturing on Paul and Romans, and was sorely taking James D. G. Dunn to task (I already knew Dunn from his book "Baptism in the Holy Spirit", which I did not find at all helpful).  I vividly remember the verve of his presentation, as he cajoled a room full of Pauline scholars, boasting cockily that his approach to Paul would render Dunn's then hot-off-the-press commentary on Romans useful for nothing more than a marker in the history of interpretation.  He was only half-joking.  His lecture featured Paul's discussion of the "στοιχεϊα" (rudiments, elementary principles, elemental spirits).

In one of these early years in Dallas, I encountered Bernard Brandon Scott, who first enlightened me on the significance of the presence of the women in Matthew's genealogy (this led me to purchase his excellent book on the parables of Jesus).  I was, however, disappointingly stunned when he declared that trouble untying some particular knot of interpretation drove him to a glass of scotch.

Over the years, I had many vivid and fond memories.  I remember in New England lectureships the keynote, presidential address by Katheryn Pfisterer Darr.  I tried to introduce fellow Christians with scholarly aptitude to the Society, and once had the pleasure of taking my wife, Becky.  On this occasion, she addressed Ezekiel, his use of crudely sexual language to express the apostasy of Israel against God, and the fatal notion of impending judgment.  At a critical moment in the lecture, this angelically beautiful woman and scholar declared:  "At this point I must say "No!" to the prophet and "No!" to his message."  There followed a rant of a particularly feminist flavor.  She had begun her lecture with discussion of her approach to teaching young, undergraduate Bible students, carefully separating an "academic approach" from a "faith approach" to the texts.  Being from quite a fundamentalist perspective that never makes such distinctions, my young friend-attendee shot his hand in the air when questions were solicited:  "Do you believe that Exekiel was inspired?"  She patiently walked back through the academic vs. faith dichotomy, but he unwilling to walk that walk, again shot back, "Do you believer Ezekiel was inspired?"  It was a classic moment that I shall never forget.

I came to greatly appreciate the scholarship of my favorite lecturer, Jerome Neyrey.  Once, after I expressed my appreciation for his lecture and my hope to find something in print on the subject, he sent me home with his lecture notes.  I returned them along with some devotional writings and poetry on the Cross of Jesus, and he responded to me with his appreciation and with a few offerings of his own.  I prefaced my gift with my trepidation that such devotional offerings might have been offered to a scholar who had no faith-response to the Bible.  He assured me, to the contrary, that as a Jesuit he took a passage in Ephesians as the motto for his own ministry.  I remember meeting him on the streets in Boston enroute to a seminar, where he encountered another Pauline scholar and entered and impromptu discussion of the social location of Paul and ancient Greco-Roman society.  Neyrey's work has benefitted me over and over, and I discovered him at SBL.

Besides the stripped-of-faith approach to the Scriptures that led quite a few scholars to (what seemed to me) to what appeared to be dishonoring readings of God's holy Word, there were other troubles.  Many of the lectureships featured different sections, primarily OT and NT.  I used to force myself to attend sections that were outside of my main preference in order to round-out my knowledge.  I was fairly offended and dismayed to see the Society offered sections to gay/lesbian perspectives (I never attended these).  I was not so averse to feminist sections, because I was/am sensitive to gender issues.  I also remember a bizarre lecture by Stephen D. Moore on postmodern readings of the Gospels.  His theory of literary deconstruction, when followed through, led to the destruction of any meaning in the text.
I learned a great deal that has enhanced my Bible understanding so as to benefit my personal spirituality and ministry.  I found my personal boundaries challenged.  Usually they stayed in place, but occasionally I was forced to admit having misplaced them and then re-setting them to a more God-honoring place.  SBL helped me to think critically, and to listen to careful scholars, some of whom enhanced my existing framework and others of whom presented an assault upon it.  I have always insisted that my faith should be able to engage such encounters, and that integrity demands that I hold only to what will truly stand scrutiny.  As such, I always understood and shared with those whom I brought to lectureships:
  • you will hear much with which you will disagree
  • you will hear much that you will not understand
  • but you will always be able to put in your pocket a few nuggets of pure gold
All that I've said of the lectureships applies as well to the generally very high quality of the offerings in the Society's quarterly, Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL).  Over the years I have often emailed authors of quality articles to thank and encourage them.  These articles were often gateways to other writings that deepened my Christianity.

Another trouble spot with SBL is the left-lean of its political perspective.  For example, when the Society arranges seminar accommodations with a hotel that is having a labor dispute, the Society always sides with labor.  I have no idea which side "justice" was on in these disputes, and my sense is that the Society did not either.  They chose sides only "to the left."  Similarly, Yale professor John J. Collins, in a 2002 presidential address at Toronto, used the "zeal of Phinehas" as a launching pad for leftist vitriol against Christianity and conservative politics.  When taking this tack, the Society was marching away from many of its members, such as myself.

The final straw that broke my involvement with SBL came with the
not believe what I was reading; I had thought that I belonged to a society of "Biblical" literature!  This announcement was followed by a troubling remark by the new General Editor, Adele Reinhartz, on October 12 of last year:

Scope. JBL has the reputation as a very high-quality vehicle for historical-critical and philological studies of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and certainly it is that. The consequence is that many scholars in our field whose research concerns materials outside of the Jewish or Christian canons (broadly defined) or who make use of approaches other than historical criticism and philology do not consider JBL when thinking about where to submit their best work. A closer look at the JBL table of contents, however, shows that articles on noncanonical literatures and topics, as well as those that use other kinds of methods, are in fact being published. The growing diversity of articles, in terms of subject matter and approach, is in my view to be encouraged, for as the “flagship journal” of the Society of Biblical Literature, JBL should reflect the range of sources (textual and material), perspectives, and methodologies that are in use in the field of biblical studies at our own moment in time, and it should continue to change along with the field itself. I would strongly encourage you to think about JBL as a journal to which to submit your best work in the broad and varied field of biblical studies, even if you might have thought that its subject matter and approach place it outside the journal’s usual purview. 
Reading between the lines, am I wrong to see that the welcome of  "materials outside of the Jewish or Christian canons (broadly defined)" essentially means that the "Society of Biblical Literature" was now to be infiltrated by Islamic perspectives?  My initial complaint received no response from the Society.

I let my membership lapse, and after two form-responses urging me to renew, I received a kind offer from Executive Director, John F. Kutsko, to hear any concerns that were perhaps hindering my renewal of membership.  When I shared the concerns in the terms stated above, he responded:

Thank you for your honest response. I am sorry you feel this way about the Qur’an initiative. I would remind you only this: that this initiative is not being funded by SBL, but by a grant to the SBL from the Luce Foundation. SBL will launch this independent organization, whose scholarship involves biblical traditions as a practice of reception history, an area our own members increasingly practice. The work of JBL, too, is not knew [sic]. It is trying to support, in addition to its current scope, work that our members do in reception history and history of interpretation.

Well, the response seems to me an attempt to justify the "prostitution" of the Society for the rather paltry amount of money offered by the Luce Foundation.  In this arrangement, this Foundation is positioned rather as a "pimp" that makes the Society available to Islam.  As I wrote to Mr. Kutsko, "I was very troubled by the decision of SBL to engage studies of non-Biblical literature from Islam.  I would see this as no more within the scope of our organization’s traditional intentions than would be a study of the literature of Mormon religion."  

I recognize the value of "reception history", of course.  But the value of noting the meanings of Biblical texts as they were apprehended by various recipients diminishes in value as the distance of reception is increased in time and in ideological deviation.  Thus, since both Islam and Mormonism have deviated from the Bible in both centuries of time and in additional textual base (e.g. the Koran, on the one hand, and the Book of Mormon, on the other), their perspectives have diminished in value for ever determining the original meanings of any Biblical text.  This is quite different than following the "history of interpretation" beginning with the earliest Christians in church history.  There may be some residual value even among somewhat later heretical groups, such as the Gnostics, but the value is negligible or even quite suspect when it winds through the very distant trails blazed by Islam and Mormon perspectives.  At this point, we seem to be on territory more appropriately occupied by AAR (American Academy of  Religion)--from which, as I understand it, the Society has recently broken longstanding ties.  SBL and AAR had traditionally coordinated seminars together.

So, it seems to me the Society of Biblical Literature has abandoned its traditional scope to embrace Islam.  This itself strikes me as another impulse in a leftist political agenda.  This severs our ties.  Rather than quitting, I have a real sense that the Society has abandoned me for a few dollars from the Henry Luce Foundation.  That's it; I am done.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Gates of Hades

The “Gates of Hades”

Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Who do men say that the Son of man is?  And they said, Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  He saith unto them, But who say ye that I am?  And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Then charged he the disciples that they should tell no man that he was the Christ.  (Matt. 16:13-20)[1]


Let it be suggested that when He used the expression “gates of Hades” in Matt. 16:18, Jesus was referring metaphorically to Jerusalem.  The passage is often understood more literally to refer to the gated realm of the dead, and to this realm as a power that comes against the church offensively but is ultimately unable to prevail against it. 

The literal sense of this expression, found only here in the Gospels, is found in Job 17:16; 38:17; Ps. 9:13, 107:18; Is. 38:10 and in noncanonical sources, Wis. Sol. 16:13; 3 Macc. 5:51; Pss. Sol. 16:2 and is also found in pagan literature such as Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripedes.[2]  In this sense, as Carson notes, “gates of Hades” seems to connote meanings of death and dying.  Jesus will build His church of mortal people, yet [their] deaths and dying will not prevail against the church so as to destroy it.  Again, “gates of Hades” is often taken as an offensive force that comes against the church bent on destruction.  However, even with the more literal meaning and sense, one could also understand the “gates” as a defensive barricade that “will not prevail” against the militant evangelistic mission of the church.  And it does seem much more natural to see “gates” with a defensive function, rather than with an offensive one.  When have gates ever attacked anyone or anything?

The interpretation adopted here favors a defensive understanding of the “gates” and understands Jesus to mean that He will build His church, and Jerusalem will be unable to prevail against its advance against its fortifications.

Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel

The identification by Peter, of Jesus as Messiah, is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Curiously, to answer the question, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” only Matthew mentions Jeremiah.  And, in the NT, the prophet Jeremiah is mentioned only four times, and three of these are by Matthew (the other is in Hebrews).  Matthew places the Jeremiah quotations at the beginning and end of his Gospel, and the one in 16:18 between them.

In 2:17, Matthew refers to Jeremiah’s description of “Rachel, weeping for her children” in the story of the “slaughter of the innocents.”  The reference is drawn from Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” (chs. 30-31).  In 1 Sam. 10:2f., Ramah is said to be the site of Rachel’s tomb.  John Bright[3] writes, “Jeremiah imagines the spirit of the mother of Joseph’s tribes (Ephraim) haunting her tomb, weeping for her children who had been deported by the Assyrians one hundred years earlier (721).”  Frederick Bruner[4] understands Matthew’s reference from Jeremiah, not so much as predicting Herod’s murder of innocent children in his attempt to kill Jesus, but rather as yet another episode, so sadly oft-repeated in history, that prompts the mourning of the community of God’s people.  These too are Rachel’s children, however distant in the future, precious but fragile human treasure callously destroyed by satanically-driven political forces.  Herod (Jewish only as a political expedient) gets the intelligence data from both pagan and Jewish practitioners to determine which babies to kill to eliminate a rival king, and Rachel weeps.  The encounter occurs in Jerusalem between Herod and both the Magi and the Jewish religious intelligentsia.

In 27:9, Judas pays 30 pieces of silver as the blood-money to condemn Jesus.  Matthew adds, “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.”  The villain in the slaughter of the innocents had been Herod; the villain in the slaughter of the Innocent is now Judas.  Like the babies of Bethlehem, Jesus becomes the helpless victim of ruthless political forces that stand obstinately and formidably against the purposes of God.  As in the earlier Jeremiah reference, political forces co-opt religious forces in an attempt to kill Jesus.  The treachery of Judas succeeds where that of Herod had failed.  This act of treachery also occurs in Jerusalem. 

Let it be suggested that Matthew’s middle mention of Jeremiah (in 16:14) also enters the same conceptual battle between God and anti-God political forces.  In the climactic moment of the disclosure of Jesus’ truest identity, the prophet Jeremiah is set forth as one possible option some have suggested as this identity (again, no other Gospel includes this possibility besides Matthew).  Peter gives the better answer regarding Jesus’ identity as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) and Jesus validates this as a revelation from Heaven.  After the famous commendation of Peter as “the Rock”, Jesus then discloses the future building of His church and insists that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” 

A political/governmental meaning is subtly suggested not only contextually, by the outer mentions of Jeremiah in the First Gospel, but also suggested intertextually, by meanings lodged within the book of Jeremiah.    

The “gates of Jerusalem” in Jeremiah

Jeremiah prophesies through the waning days of the Davidic dynasty, through the destruction of Jerusalem, and into the Exile—and these calamities eventuate as the wrathful judgment of God falls against and upon His chosen people, who have broken and forsaken the covenant.  He is presented, through his self-effacing lack of self-esteem that prohibits his willing acceptance of God’s commission, to be a prophet like Moses.  In Jeremiah’s inaugural vision in 1:15, Jeremiah sees a boiling cauldron facing from the North.  Evil is to be poured upon Israel from all of the northern enemies, who will set their thrones “at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, and against all the walls thereof round about, and against all the cities of Judah.”  Jeremiah is to stand strong in this message against them, as God brings judgment for the way they have forsaken Him and engaged false worship.  If they honor Yahweh in Sabbath, they will have a Davidic king (22:4).  Jeremiah is assured, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail (Heb. “yakōl”; LXX “dunwntai”) against thee: for I am with thee, saith Jehovah, to deliver thee”  (1:19).

In 17:19-27, the “gates” are the focal point of Sabbath observance, as people truck their wares for commerce.  God declares, “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden and enter in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (17:27). 

What is interesting here is that wicked Pagan political foes are sent in the employ of Yahweh against His own people for the purpose of executing His judgment against them.  The pagans set their “thrones” at the gates of Jerusalem (which Jesus referred to as “the city of the great King”, the very footstool for the throne of God in Heaven, Matt. 5:35), but the gates are no safeguard against the wrath of God that will soon be unleashed.  Jeremiah is not to back down as he gives voice to this terrible message, and he will be sorely resisted and opposed.  And God assures him, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee: for I am with thee, saith Jehovah, to deliver thee” (Jer. 1:19).  The gates are the barrier outside of which Jerusalem’s foes are ensconced upon their thrones, and as Jeremiah dares tell of it, his foes will not prevail against him any more than will their gates prevail against the onslaught by the enemies from the North (Babylon).

Jesus made these pronouncements at Caesarea Philippi, which was a complex of paganism[5].  Interestingly, the topographical features of this location are said to include a cave known as the “gates of Hades” and a mountain called “the Rock.”     

Jerusalem’s vulnerability to Jesus’ approach

As Jesus sets forth plans for His church, the same gates will not “prevail” against it as those that fell before Babylonian destroyers of Jerusalem’s temple.  He ominously or derisively calls the gates of Jerusalem the “gates of Hades.”  As no other Gospel mentions Jeremiah, the same goes for the word “church.”  It falls in Matthew both here and in the discussion of “church discipline/disfellowship” in ch. 18.  With Carson[6], it seems best not to understand “church” in the later sense developed in the NT, which would be rather anachronistic.  Instead, the word translated “church” in the Greek NT is also found in the Greek OT (the Septuagint), and here it translates the Hebrew word “qāhāl”, which means “assembly”.  This came to stand for the people of God as a community.  Thus, Jesus is speaking of the community of people He will establish (“build”) in His role as Messiah.  He and they may be spoken of together, as one.  Thus, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, so (proleptically) do they.  He/they, one community of God’s Messianic people, will in eventual development constitute the “church” through the agency of the apostles and of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost.  When Jesus enters, Jerusalem will not prevail against the church, the people among which He stands now as representative.

Immediately following, Jesus makes the first prediction of His passion (16:21ff.) in these words:  “From that time began Jesus to show unto his disciples, that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.”  When Peter (so soon after his triumphant answer to the “multiple choice” question of Jesus’ true identity) challenges this as a non-acceptable possibility, the same disciple who had just been praised as having received revelation from the Father, revelation upon which the church would be built, this same disciple is now castigated as “Satan.”  The reason that Jesus one minute calls Peter “the Rock” and the next minute calls him “Satan”?  In Jesus’ perception:  “for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:23).  We might recall the final wilderness temptation, in which Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world and their glory, if only Jesus will worship Him.  Instead, Jesus will go to Jerusalem and offer Himself (through the criminal justice system) to the political powers. 

Jesus again predicts His passion in 17:22f. and 20:17ff. (the theme also appears in 17:12; 26:2, and 26:12).  The middle prediction is the least specific regarding who will inflict suffering and death, indicating only “human hands”.  More to the point are the first and last predictions, which implicate Jewish religious leadership (elders, chief priests, scribes).  But the final prediction also includes a handing-over to the Gentiles.  This foreshadows the complicity of Jewish religious authority with Roman political authority that fulfills Psalm 2:

“Why do the nations rage,

And the peoples meditate a vain thing?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

And the rulers take counsel together,

Against Jehovah, and against his anointed…”

A lexical glitch

As Jeremiah stood strong before the gates of Jerusalem, so will the church against the “gates of Hades”.  This interpretation would be a lock if Matthew had used the same Greek word for “prevail” as is found in the Greek translation of Jeremiah 1:19.  However, Jeremiah in the Septuagint has “dunwntai” (PresActSubj 3Sng) and Matthew has “katisxusousin” (FutActInd 3Plur).  Since Matthew usually worked from the LXX, it is hard to account for the difference.  Perhaps Matthew is working from either Hebrew or Aramaic.  The Hebrew for Jer. 1:19 is “yakōl”, (BDB 3201; cognate to Aram. 3202) meaning, “be able, have power, prevail, endure”, thus “to be able to do a thing, whether the ability be physical, moral, constitutional, or dependent on external authority.”[7]  Although the LXX employs the word “katisxuw” about 80 times, the Septuagint does not appear to ever use this word to translate the Hebrew word “yakōl” that Jeremiah uses in 1:19.  It may be worth noting that the Hebrew translation of the Greek NT[8] for Matt. 16:18 instead uses “gābar” (BDB 1396), meaning “be strong, mighty; compel, force; prevail over.”[9]

Although different lemmas are used between Matthew and the LXX version of Jeremiah, both forms are translated as “prevail” or “overcome” in most English translations.  There appears to be enough semantic overlap in the meanings of all of the Hebrew and Greek words involved in the various texts to see them synonymously.  It certainly would have been nice to find complete lexical correspondence, but the difference is not sufficient to counter the force of the contextual and intertextual evidence for the interpretation offered here.

The coming judgment upon Jerusalem

After the disclosure of His status as Messianic Son of God, Jesus not only grows more intense with predictions of His coming passion.  Once Jesus arrives in the Holy City, beginning with the temple cleansing (21:12ff.), He also sharpens rhetoric of scathing judgment against Jerusalem.  Many of the parables could be read through rather thin veils as targets of the same barbs.

The judgment theme in Matthew began at the genealogy[10], and by implication targets Jerusalem.  The second line of “14” features Davidic kings of Judah that ruled from the capital of Jerusalem (the time-frame covered here would include Jeremiah’s prophetic career).  The line leads to the final kings of the 400-year-old Davidic dynasty (the sons of Josiah) and ends with a crash in the “deportation to Babylon.”  The major catastrophe against Jerusalem (and Temple) was so devastating that it does not have to be mentioned.  It is apparent, by these and with other clear indications planted by Matthew within the genealogy, that the theme of this “second line” is the descent into judgment. 

History is about to repeat itself.  The condemning of Jerusalem by Jesus crescendos in chs. 23 and 24.  Jesus lashes out in the twin emotions of sadness and anger (both suggest a reaction to fear that Jesus feels deeply) that are enunciated simply as, “Woe!” or “Alas!”  The strongest denunciation of the city is against its historical maltreatment of the prophets sent by God, a practice that continues unabated: 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her!  how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.  For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.  (23:37-39)

The Temple will be left dismantled totally.  Chapter 24, though its pronouncements are cryptic and require the greatest effort in interpretation, speaks largely of the Roman destruction that will wait only a few decades.  This will be God’s doing, no less than the Babylonian devastation had been.

Who finally “prevails”?

Jesus enters Jerusalem and His predictions are fulfilled.  The King of Israel is mocked, and tortured, and nailed to the Cross to death.  Have the Hosanna-cheering crowds whose adoration approached worship been switched to bloodthirsty cries of “Crucify!”?  And what of that smallest circle of disciples who were so slow to “get it” during the few years that Jesus taught, and chided, and role-modeled, and demonstrated among them an other-realm Presence?  One had already turned on Him for 30 silvers; would Jesus’ work and mission end with their disillusionment and His death?  Had the combined authorities of religion and politics overpowered Jesus?

Resurrection.  Resurrection appearances.  A reception of outpoured Spirit.  Messages preached.  Scriptures written.  Converts baptized.  In so short a time, like flame on dry tinder, the Jesus movement transformed itself from a band of Jewish disciple-followers into church.  The fellowship of Jesus crossed barriers of religion and ethnicity, growing continually.  It had entered the Gates of Hades and the gates were unable to prevail against it.  The terrible powers arrayed against Jesus threw their worst against Him, but it was not enough.  The baby that Herod the Great tried to kill survived and advanced a mission that proved unstoppable, even after Herod’s descendant, Herod Antipas, colluded with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to drain Jesus’ life on the Cross.  The church that resulted had been built upon Rock.

And what of Jerusalem, with the whole political complex from Temple officials to Roman governor?  For those confidently hopeful that the judgment-threats issued by Jesus were empty, hope was dashed when Jesus gained resurrection-life after three days in the tomb.  The resulting brushfires of enthusiastic belief among His disciples and their converts could not be quenched or eliminated.  A few decades would pass, and tension grew between the Roman overlords and Jewish agitators who refused to turn the other cheek.  The resulting Jewish War (from 66 to 73 AD) brought the crushing Roman military power against the Jewish people, who suffered terribly, and against the Jerusalem Temple, which was destroyed in 70 AD.  The Judgment predicted by Jesus had fallen, and for those with eyes to see, Jesus had returned in fulfillment of Matt. 24:29-35.[11]

The tale carries terrible irony.  Jesus came to Jerusalem without military/political force.  He was a man without army, riding a donkey.  And He submitted himself to the military/political powers seated in the Holy City.  And they did to Him what such powers tend to do.  Such brutal encounters almost always make the powers the survivors, and make give their enemies a criminal status that brings to a forgotten end anything they had started.  Jesus entered the realm of the dead, but it was Jerusalem that became the true Hades.  Her glorious Temple of stone toppled with the “power” it represented.  It could not prevail against the Rock church.

[1] All Scripture citations are from the ASV of 1901.
[2] References found in D. A. Carson, Matthew, Chapters 12 through 28, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 1995), p. 370. 
[3] John Bright, Jeremiah in The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1965), p. 282.
[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary, Volume 1:  The Christbook, rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2004), p. 70.  Bruner suggests that as there were three “exiles” (Egyptian, Babylonian, and Roman) in the Bible, so there are three “slaughters” in Matthew (the innocents, John the Baptist, and Jesus).
[5] Matthew’s interest in pagans in the unfolding Messianic working of God begins with the mention of four Gentile women in his genealogy which is soon followed by the visit to the baby Jesus by Gentile Magi.
[6] D. A. Carson, Matthew, p. 369. 
[7] The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Genesius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1979), pp. 407-08.
[8] hXdx t yrb, United Bible Societies (1976), p. 46.
[9] The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Genesius Hebrew and English Lexicon, p.149.
[10] For an excellent exposition, see Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary, Volume 1:  The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, rev. and exp. ed., (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 7-22.
[11] This “coming” refers to Jesus’ return in power in judgment in AD 70.  This judgment marks the end of a covenant relationship between Israel and Yahweh.  This “coming” is not a reference to the “Second Coming”, the apocalyptic return of Jesus at the end of history when the final Judgment convenes (Jesus spoke to that event in chapter 24 beginning in v. 36).