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One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is that they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus said that Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex which gave Gentiles a place to worship in the Temple. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told that “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to preach the gospel, as did Peter in Acts 10. If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul plans to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. On the island of Crete he approaches a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and in Lystra and Iconium he tries to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy?

In his role as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul is sometimes described as trying to bridge the gap between Judaism and the pagan world. His sermon at Athens in Acts 17 is often used as a model for “how to do ministry” today. In order to reach the world, we have to present the Gospel in ways which appeal to the world. In some cases this is involves using art and philosophy to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, but more commonly this methodology is used defend worship styles or it quickly devolves into using movie and TV clips as sermon illustrations.

To determine how Paul reached out to pagans. I want to look at a passage earlier in Paul’s career, from his so-called first missionary journey. When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet. This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different! In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God! When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success. The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.

Image result for gods of lystra

There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd. This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience. Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.

Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power. This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.

But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all in this sermon. He begins with God’s creation and provision. He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).

But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things. This is even more powerful when you realize the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas. Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.” The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!

This dismissal of idols is also found one of Paul’s earlier letters. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul contrasts idols and the “living and true God.” The implication is clear: the idols are neither living nor true. In fact, this clear attack on idols is at the foundation of Romans. In Romans 1:21-23, humans reject the clear revelation of God in creation, become fools, and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (ESV).

This does not sound very hipster and emergent to me! How can the brief sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contemporary evangelism? Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?

Paul claims to be called to be an apostle in each of the undisputed letters (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1) as well as several other letters (Eph 1:1, Col 1:1, 1-2 Tim, Titus). In addition to the headings of these letters, Paul refers to his apostleship in several other contexts. In Rom 11:13 he calls himself the “apostle to the Gentiles” and in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul defends his status as an apostle on a par with Peter or Barnabas. But Paul never claims to be one of the Twelve. With the exception of Matthias, the replacement for Judas, this group were chosen by Jesus before the crucifixion.

In fact, in Galatians 1 Paul emphasizes his commission as an apostle but distinct from the Twelve.  An “apostle” is someone who is sent as a representative of another, usually some kind of a group.  Most lexicons suggests the English “ambassador, delegate, messenger” for the Greek concept of an apostle.  Most scholars now associate the Greek apostolos (ἀπόστολος) with the Hebrew shaliach. A person who was sent as a representative or agent acts on the same authority of the sending group.

For example, when the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, it is possible he was send as a shaliach or apostle of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22).  He would have acted as their representative on the scene should questions arise. Paul is not an apostle sent by the church of Antioch to the churches of Galatia, nor is he an agent sent out by the Jerusalem church. He never claims to be one of the Twelve Apostles, in fact Galatians 1-2 make it clear he is not part of that particular group. Paul’s claim in Galatians is that is an apostle of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

In 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul alludes to his status as an apostle in his discussion of the resurrection. Paul was not a follower of Jesus until his encounter in Acts 9. As is well known, he was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul claims in in 1 Cor 15 to be an eye-witness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

This experience was like an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” or that he has some spiritual deficiency disqualifying him from being considered a “real apostle.” Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the apostles. But again, he does not claim to be one of the Twelve; like James, the Lord’s Brother, he is commissioned by the resurrected Jesus to be an apostle, but NOT one of the Twelve.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul sarcastically refers to his opponents in Corinth as “super-apostles.” But since this rare word can mean superior, it is possible the opponents considered themselves to be superior to Paul and described themselves as his superiors to the members of the Corinthian church. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title (like added “so-called” to something to question its authority). More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church.

By way of summary, there was a group called the Twelve who were apostles, and a few other people who were commissioned by Jesus after the resurrection (James and Paul) and were therefore also considered apostles. There were others who claimed to be apostles, like the super apostles mentioned in 2 Corinthians who claimed authority as apostles but were not commissioned by the resurrected Jesus.

What is Paul claiming when he calls himself an Apostle?  What does it mean for a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where he does not use the title but then says he could have made demands as an apostle of Christ?

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is that they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus said that Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex which gave Gentiles a place to worship in the Temple. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told that “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to preach the gospel, as did Peter in Acts 10. If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul plans to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. On the island of Crete he approaches a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and in Lystra and Iconium he tries to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy?

Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.

First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”

Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countless times and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!

Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).

What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times!  Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.

In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.

Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.

I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”

So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?

 

Galatians 1:11–12 (ESV) For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of Galatians, Paul offers his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God. Although he does not recount the story as we know it from Acts 9, Paul is describing his initial encounter with God as an apocalyptic experience. By this I mean God dramatically broke into history and revealed something to Paul which altered his understanding of God had what God is doing in the world through Jesus.

First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. Although there is a case to be made for Paul having heard the preaching of Jesus before the crucifixion, based on his persecution of the early Christ-followers it is clear he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah before meeting him on the road to Damascus. Although Stanley Porter has recently argued Paul did know Jesus, there is no hint in either Acts or the letters that he heard Jesus teach or was he present at the execution.

In fact, Acts describes Paul as a bitter opponent of the gospel. Paul makes a similar statement in Galatians 1:13. Paul likely began to oppose the preaching of Stephen in the Greek-speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:1-8:1). As a Hellenistic Jew from the Diaspora Paul have fellowshipped at this synagogue, but as a Pharisee he would have been shocked and offended by Stephen’s claim Jesus was the messiah, God had raised him from the dead, and he was going to return soon to render judgment. (Although we do not have Stephen’s speeches before his final one prior to being stoned, it seems likely he would say the same sorts of things Peter and John did in Acts 2-3.)

Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not submit to a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the Gospel nor did he associate himself with the Apostles in Jerusalem. In Galatians Paul claims not encounter the Apostles until after he was given a revelation from Jesus.

This, the origin of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is a revelation from Jesus (Galatians 1:12). The noun ἀποκάλυψις appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul claims that he received this Law-free gospel for the Gentiles through revelation in Ephesians 3:1-6 as well. What Paul experienced on the Road to Damascus was like the prophetic calling of Isaiah or Ezekiel. In fact, Paul is the “light to the Gentiles,” a possible allusion to the suffering servant Isaiah 49:6 and he quotes Isaiah 6 when he arrives in Rome as fulfilled in his mission.

This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus. In Galatians 1-2, Paul will offer evidence for the claim that his gospel does not come from humans, but from God.

This fierce claim of independence from the Twelve in Jerusalem and the original followers of Jesus is disturbing to some readers. Although Paul claims to be an outsider from the first followers of Christ, he says his authority comes from the highest level: God called him through a dramatic unveiling of Jesus, the Son of God. What are the ramifications of this claim for reading Paul’s letters? Does his claim of independence affect the way we understand his relationship with the other Christ followers in Jerusalem?

For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) is the classic story of the conversion of the chief of sinners. Jesus himself appears to Rabbi Saul and confronts him with the truth of the resurrection and completely turns him around. For many preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. His conversion is therefore an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.

Yet there is a great deal about Paul’s experience which is open for discussion. Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road in Acts 9 (TTP 31). First, the terminology use to describe Paul’s experience varies within Acts and even within the Letters of Paul. Did Paul experience a vision in Acts 9? How is that vision related to his 2 Corinthians 12?

A second problem is the chronological relationship between Paul’s “conversion” and his “mission.” Perhaps it is inappropriate to describe Paul as converting from Judaism to Christianity in the modern sense of the word. Did Paul experience a conversion experience similar to a person who attends a modern evangelistic meeting, raises their hand and walks forward to “accept Jesus”? Or was his experience more of a calling to a particular mode of ministry, the mission to the Gentiles?

The relationship between conversion and mission raises a third problem for Longenecker and Still, how should Acts be used to unpack what happened to Paul? For some scholars, Luke’s story of the early church is suspect: he is a later writer trying to emphasize the unity of the church and (perhaps) promote Paul as a more significant leader than he really was. For other more conservative interpreters of Acts, Luke tells his story with a theological agenda but he does not create events out of nothing. He tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times in order to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.

Yet it seems clear Paul had some kind of experience that really did cause him to rethink everything, even if he did not reject all aspects of Judaism in favor of Christianity. By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is and what he claimed to be.

Over the next few posts I will take up these topics and examine a few of the texts in which Paul describes his own calling to ministry. Perhaps this is a discussion that ought to stay in the academy, but I wonder if it is surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do? If Paul did not experience a “conversion,” does this change the way we think about his mission? Or to put it another way, if he was converted from Judaism to Christianity,  what should we do with the many Jewish elements of Paul’s theology and practice?

One of the most important starting points for the study of Paul is the simple recognition that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora, yet received training in Jerusalem from the prominent teacher Gamaliel.  While this seems to be a rather obvious observation, scholarship has drifted between two poles, Paul the Greek and Paul the Jew. By describing Paul as a “Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora,” I hope to avoid either extreme.

Paul’s claim in Philippians 3:4-6 is that he is a proper Jew: circumcised on the eighth day indicates that he comes from a family that is keeping the Jewish traditions despite living in Tarsus. It is possible there were Diaspora Jews who did not keep this tradition or even did not circumcise their sons. The reference to being a member of Israel connects Paul to the covenant as a member of Abraham’s family. Paul was not a Jew pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.

Paul also boasts about his heritage as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. This is significant since not every Jew in the first century could claim to know they were from a particular tribe. Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, Gamaliel, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.

The phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3:4-6 can be taken in several ways. This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home. If there is an increasing specificity in the list of descriptions, then Paul is claiming to have come from a conservative Jewish family who maintained their Jewish distinctives even though they lived in Tarsus, far from Jerusalem.

As J. B. Lightfoot once observed, Paul is making a progressive argument. A convert to Judaism may be circumcised. A few proselytes might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew! Paul is clear this heritage is of no value now that he is “in Christ,” but it seems obvious Paul’s Jewish heritage is one of the major factors behind his successful evangelism.

Pamela Eisenbaum provocatively titled here 2009 book Paul was not a Christian (Harper One, 2009). She argues Paul is best understood in a Jewish context. As her book argues, Paul’s letters are only Christian because Christians chose to canonize them. According to Eisenbaum, there are not many distinctly “Christian” elements in the books, he is a Jew concerned with how other Jews understand a particular messianic claim (namely, that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah). On the one hand, I am not at all persuaded by the book (obviously Paul was a Christian!), but she does make the point well that Paul is not a Christian in the sense that a post-Reformation follower of Jesus is a Christian. I doubt Paul would fit in at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society or the Southern Baptist Convention.

But Paul is certainly cannot be described as a traditional Jewish teacher following in the footsteps of his mentor Gamaliel. By following Jesus, Paul in some sense departs from Second Temple Judaism as we know it. Ye how far does Paul depart from his heritage? In some ways his theology is certainly radical, but perhaps not as radical as often assumed.

Peter describes Jesus as a “living stone” that was rejected by men (2:4). What is a “living stone”? Some take this as an uncut rock. Altars in the Old Testament were to be built from unhewn rock, not dressed stone.  Water that is used in a Jewish mikveh was called “living water” since it had to come from a “living source” (rain or a spring).  On the other hand, the stone may have been cut, carved and prepared for use as the Temple cornerstone.

Jesus is the “rejected stone” that becomes the chief stone in a New Temple (2:6-8) Peter draws several verses from the Hebrew Bible together in this paragraph. He first quotes Isa 28:16, where the Lord says he is “laying a stone in Zion.” In the original context, this saying referred to the establishment of a stable dynasty in Jerusalem, despite threats against it from the Assyrians.

Herodian StonesThe first line is fairly clear, but the expansion of stone into a “chosen cornerstone” needs to be unpacked.  The Greek word (ἀκρογωνιαιος) refers to a “capstone,” an ornate stone that would be the final stone added to a building. But a “cornerstone” refers to a stone laid as a foundation. Unlike modern “cornerstones” that are largely ceremonial, the cornerstone for a large building was critical for the building up of the rest of the building.

The second verse Peter quotes is from Psalm 118:22-23. The idea of a chief stone connects the Psalm to Isa 28:16. Jesus called himself the “stone that the builders rejected” after the Parable of the Vineyard in Mark 12:9-11. In Mark 12, Jesus calls the rejected stone the “head corner stone” (κεφαλή and γωνία, corner), although “head” can mean “chief” here. The context of the psalm is a restoration of Israel at the end of the exile, and it appears that the text was considered messianic based on the similarity of the word stone (eben) and son (ben) in Hebrew. David was the son who was rejected, yet he was the chose king who laid the foundation of the line of kings that would result in the coming of the Messiah.

In the Gospels, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 as a conclusion to the parable of the Vineyard, which concludes with the son of the vineyard’s owner being taken out of the vineyard and killed. This is a thinly veiled prediction of what will happen to Jesus in just a few days and is a clear statement from Jesus that his death will be in some ways a fulfillment of Psalm 118, the rejected son (ben) becomes the chief stone (eben) in the building.

The third text Peter quotes is Isa. 8:14. In response to the rejection of the stone, judgment will come. In the original context of Isaiah 8, God has given the sign of Immanuel (a son, ben) to king Ahaz, and now Isaiah is warned to honor only the Lord as holy and to only fear the Lord (rather than the king). The Lord will be a sanctuary (a holy place, the word mikdash is used for the tent of meeting and the Temple) for those who honor him, but for those who have rejected the Lord as their God, he will be a “stone of stumbling.”

StonesIt is easy enough to connect sanctuary with temple (although the LXX has ἁγίασμα), but the image of what kind of stone Jesus is changes here – he is no longer an honored stone at the highest point in the Temple; rather he is a stone on the ground that trips people up and causes them to stumble. Sometimes this “stumbling-block” is described as a mostly-buried rock that someone does not really see until they trip over it and are injured.

Those who honor Jesus will be honored, those who do not will be shamed. This refers to eschatological judgment. When Jesus returns, there will be a separation of those who honored the stone as precious, or tripped over him and stumbled. Paul used these same verses in a very similar way in Romans 9:33, 10:11. In the present age, Peter says, there are some will believe in the cornerstone, and be honored ‘in that day,” while those who reject the stone will be shamed.

In summary, Peter describes Jesus in this passage as the most important stone in a Temple. If Jesus is the cornerstone or capstone, then the people of God are stones building on that foundation. What is Peter’s main point in this metaphor? Is it just a scriptural argument for Jesus as Messiah, or there are pastoral emphasis as well? Within the metaphor of a Temple, what is the relationship between the living stones of the church and Jesus?

Having described our salvation as secure by its very nature, Peter goes on to describe our salvation as “has been kept in heaven” and guarded by the power of God.  A second reason our great salvation is secure is that we are not guarding it, God the Father himself is keeping it for us.

1 PeterThe Greek syntax is important here, the verb is a perfect passive participle (φρουρουμένους, from φρουρέω). Our inheritance has already been kept (the perfect) and it is not kept by us, but for us (the passive). The believer is not responsible for keep their salvation, or maintaining their salvation. It is an expectation that will be realized at some point in the future.

Ultimately that salvation will not be fully revealed until the “last time.” While we might here “when we get to heaven” in this statement, Peter has in mind the return of Jesus, the ultimate vindication of Jesus as the Lord of this world.  We tend to think something like, “since Jesus died for me, I get to go to heaven,” which of course is true. But Peter’s Jewish theology and world view emphasized the return of Jesus to render justice and establish his kingdom more completely.  As we will see in the rest of this letter, Peter believes that Jesus is going to return very soon and that believers live in the gap between the first and second coming of the Messiah.

Taken along with 1 Peter 1:4, we can be certain our salvation is secure because it is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, by its very nature it cannot decay, and it is being kept by God himself in heaven.

If this is the case, what should Christians think about their “present suffering”? Peter argues that since our salvation is so certain, the trials of this life are occasions for praise (vv. 6-7).  The believer can rejoice in their “fiery trials” because they know that their inheritance is secured.  The belief that Jesus is Lord and that he is returning to render judgment on the world in the future runs counter to the prevailing belief that Rome is all-powerful and renders justice and that Caesar himself is the ultimate Lord.

In the territories mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1, Rome was venerated in imperial religious activity that could not be separated from civic life. If one was going be successful in the Roman world of the late first century, then Rome must be recognized as sovereign over this world.  This world view would naturally bring Christians into conflict with local authorities.  Why do Christians avoid participating in civic events that are dedicated to gods, or even to Rome itself?

It is difficult for contemporary (American) Christians to fully understand this because America attempts to completely separate “church and state.” What we do in church has nothing to do with our loyalty as Americans, and we do not really see our loyalty to America as something that conflicts with our faith in Jesus Christ. But that was just not the case in first century Rome, nor is it the case in many countries today.

Is it possible to be a loyal Christian and participate fully in civic life in China? Or the Middle East? Or many countries in Africa? How can Peter’s assertion that our inheritance is kept for us in Heaven encourage Christians wo are indeed suffering greatly for their faith?

 

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Christian Theology

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