At my church, since shortly after Easter, we've been doing a sermon series on the Book of Acts. Now, it's been a very big-picture review of the book, we're not really doing every verse or even every story, we're focusing largely on the major beats of the book and what it says about the nature, origin, and source of power for the church. Last week, the sermon covered basically the whole first missionary journey, and this coming Sunday I've been asked to preach on the second. Which I am in the process of preparing, there is a big lesson from the whole trip, that's all fine. One thing I will not have time to talk about in depth there, however, that I really feel a desire to talk about, is what happened between those two trips.
Most of Acts 15 is occupied with the Jerusalem Council, at which they addressed the question of the day: how Jewish do gentile converts need to become to be considered Christian? That is, as non-Jewish people were entering what was then a predominately Jewish movement, how much did they have to adopt Jewish practice to be welcomed as members? The short answer in that particular instance was very little. It was observed at the council that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on gentile converts, which seemed to indicate God's acceptance of them (us, let's be honest here), and that acceptance into the church had been established as being a function of grace and not keeping the Mosaic law. Therefore, it made no sense to demand that people make themselves as Jewish as they could before they could be considered Christian.
Which, as it happens, reminds me of something else going on. I've been trying to figure out a way to say some of this, but I think instead I'll let someone else present the general concept and then just show how it applies.
Shannon raises a number of concerns above, but the one that is most relevant here is that the default expectation of white Americans, and white American churches if I'm honest, is that black people need to prove they can be white before they can be considered Americans (or Christians, in the churches). Because of the nature of this blog, I'm going to zero in on the application specific to churches and Christians, using the same general concepts that Shannon uses to zero in on sports (his own area of expertise).
See, when countries like England and Spain and France were out conquering the world, they had this notion that having Christians in the culture made the culture Christian. When Spanish missions were popping up in the new world, for instance, they did not simply tell the native peoples around them about Christ and offer whatever gifts they had in service to the community. They demanded cultural conquest; in their minds, being Christian wasn't simply a matter of serving Christ as Lord and rejecting the authority and draw of sin. It wasn't simply being Catholic, as the missionaries were. It was living like the Spanish do, thinking like the Spanish do, speaking the Spanish language, eating Spanish food. Being Christian meant, for all intents and purposes, being thoroughly Spanish.
This notion carried over to the new world. People around the world recoil at the concept of missionaries because they, or their elders, have memories of people coming in and establishing an American lifestyle and an American style of worship and American values and calling it all the gospel. This is why my wife and I, as hopeful future missionaries, are targeting a sending agency that would put us under the authority of native-born church planters, to lend them our skills and gifts but let them decide how the actual work is carried out; we are refusing to establish little outposts of America and call them churches, even accidentally.
And this is happening at home. Consider the recoil against identity politics. I have heard some version of this at all kinds of levels, from major movements within denominations to individual elders at little local churches, that "well, we want to support people who are hurting, but we don't want to get wrapped up in identity politics." But what are identity politics? Basically, they're nothing more than people saying "because of this, or these, aspect(s) of who I am, I have these specific concerns and issues and goals." See, what we are saying when we talk about wanting to avoid that, is that we want to help people who are hurting, as long as they are hurting in ways we understand. As long as they are hurting in ways we hurt. That people who do not share our history, or our experiences, or our backgrounds, or our relationship to government authority, must nonetheless act like they do before we can view them as brothers and sisters with an equal share of Christ and an equal right to be supported as family. In fact, we sometimes treat it as an attack on the gospel itself to consider the possibility that people with a different ethnic background are facing different problems. As Shannon pointed out, we expect them to look at the flag and our nation's history through our lens rather than their own before we're willing to consider their concerns valid.
Because this is what we've convinced ourselves Christianity looks like. Being a Christian means viewing the world and one's nation and one's flag and history the way white Evangelical Republicans do. And the result is that my Facebook wall has dozens of posts from people saying they do not, and cannot, understand how certain forms of protest help advance the cause. Hear me on this: no one cares if you understand. Very little of it is aimed at making you understand (blocking traffic does tend to have the implicit "if you're this angry about being unable to advance for an hour, imagine how angry you would be if your entire culture was unable to advance for decades" statement, but not everything does). The question is, are you listening? And if you are listening, what are you going to do about it?
Protest march against police violence - Justice for George Floyd by Fibonacci Blue. Used under Creative Commons.
This basic issue was already addressed. At the Council of Jerusalem it was decided that people who are part of, or enter, the church do not have any requirements to adopt the mannerisms or rules or behaviors of the people who were already in the church. They needed to serve Christ, and while this will make some changes in their lives, the established church doesn't get to dictate full compliance with their own cultural norms before they are seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. No ethnic or cultural group gets to decide that Christianity naturally looks like their cultural norms. They didn't need to act like they had lived under the strict Pharisaical laws for generations before the Holy Spirit was poured out on them, they didn't need to get circumcised or adopt Jewish rituals before they could be considered Christians and given all the welcome and support that entails. Why now do we behave as though our black brothers and sisters have to act like they have our background, act like they have only our problems, act like us before we can extend the fullness of brotherhood to them? Why do we demand that they think like us, vote like us, walk like us, live fully like us, eat our food, speak our language, protest in a way we approve, before we can see any way to support them as family?
What is it going to take for us to listen? How many people are going to die before we decide to work with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep, to stand as agents of the Author of Life against forces that are bringing death and destruction? How badly must the world break around us before we realize that our own brokenness is feeding into it? How much more will we burden our brothers and sisters, people in our churches and serving the same Christ, not only with the trials they already face, but with our silence and judgment in the face of it?
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."
While there is some dispute about the value of it, there is no argument against the claim that the church, as it exists today, is stamped with the theology of Paul of Tarsus. Regardless of denomination, there is a certain degree to which every church is an imitator of Paul, even when we disagree heavily about what that means. But if we are imitating Paul as he is imitating Christ, the question that must be asked is who he believed Christ to be.
There is a surprising lack of material on Paul's understanding of Christ, considering this is the very foundation upon which everything else we have of him is built. In seeking resources for this, I found only two books that spilled any ink on Paul's understanding of Christ, and one was citing the other. If there are journal articles that handle this matter in any detail, they were lost in hundreds of pages of results that seemed to exclusively contain more doctrinal arguments than anything. Paul urges strangers to encounter Christ, he tells his readers to look to Christ in all they do, he strives to live a life that can be rightly said to be Christ living through him. If we treat Paul as a theologian writing doctrine in a vacuum, we will get a lot of very good theology, but we will miss the point of what Paul was trying to communicate. In all things, Paul is writing about Christ.
“Pauline Christianity forms the heritage of western Christianity to this day, and therefore it is all the more important to understand as fully as possible Paul’s conception of Jesus Christ.”
Also, while I identified a host of passages about the work of Christ and His current status in regards to the present age, this post will focus entirely on the actual nature of Christ, whether eternal or incarnational. I am hoping to cover the other passages over the course of summer break, and now that I think about it I'd like to do a similar study as this with other Bible authors. May God grant me time on this Earth to write everything I want to write about this.
Christ as Lord
The fact is, Paul almost never says the name of Jesus without appending a title, either Lord or Christ in our translations. This is the most fundamental truth of who Jesus is as far as Paul is concerned: he is God, and every mention of Him is apparently lacking if it does not in some way acknowledge that fact. This is, in fact, the first thing he learns about Jesus during his conversion; in Acts 9:5, Paul recognizes that whoever is speaking to him is certainly the Lord, but asks for further identification. When he receives the answer that this Lord is none other than Jesus, he immediately obeys Him. This fact will inform everything else Paul ever says or does concerning Jesus. Clarifying what it means for Jesus to be Lord, then, will tell us a great deal about everything else.
“What is perhaps even more noteworthy, however, is that there are a number of passages where Paul appears to apply Old Testament passages referring to the Lord to the figure of Jesus Christ.”
Image of the Invisible God
The claim that this God has fully revealed Himself, in the accessible form of a human being no less, was a revolutionary claim. This is not like Zeus, stepping down from a mountain to sleep with some randomly noticed maiden. That God, who cannot be known except at a great distance, who cannot be approached without extensive ritual and shedding of blood, should take on our mortal flesh and walk on our dusty roads is insane. The depth of what this would have meant for the first Christians may be lost on us, who have always known of Jesus in this way.
Character of God
“In that sense images of Christ are for Paul also in some ways images of God.”
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Son of God
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
This is no light language, either. A lot of the terminology Paul uses for Jesus play into positions of authority across the full spectrum of time. Whether this is about preeminence or calling Him firstborn or heir of God (Romans 8:16-17, 29; Colossians 1:18; etc.), describing Him as the head/husband of the church and all things (Ephesians 1:19-23, 4:15; Romans 12:4-5; etc.), or the supreme judge and ruler at the end of the age (2 Thessalonians 2:8; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8; etc.), Paul regularly views Christ as bearing the full authority of God.
But the work the Father had for the Son was not to take place entirely on a throne in Heaven.
Jesus was the fulfillment of a great number of promises, and two of them relate to His ancestry. The first is that He was to be a descendant of Abraham, which Paul identifies as true of Him (Romans 9:3-5, Galatians 3:16). The other is that He was the son of David that would sit forever on the throne (Acts 13:22-23, Romans 1:3-4, 2 Timothy 2:8). His specific family is noted in Galatians 1:19, where He is stated as the brother of James.
The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
“In summarizing this passage, we can see that several of the Pauline christological images are maintained. He uses the composite name, Christ Jesus, to describe both earthly and exalted status and events, with the figure moving between them. Although he is seen to be in the appearance of God, and equal with him in some way, Jesus Christ also is subordinate to him, being obedient to the point of death and consequently being exalted by him to a position of preeminence in the universe.”
The other two sermons will also be uploaded after they are delivered over the span of the next week or so. And in the meantime, keep an eye out for my final project in New Testament II, a survey of Paul's description of Christ!
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus