I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the seventh of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7: Eschatology and Ethics
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 11, Sections 1 – 6.3
I. Introducing Eschatology
To talk about God’s future for God’s world (eschatology) is to speak of hope. “Many ancient Jews clung on to a hope which had specific content and shape. Rooted in scripture, this was a hope not just for an individual future after death, but for a restoration and renewal of the whole nation, and perhaps even for the entire created order.” (1043) For Paul, eschatology is connected to both election and monotheism. Eschatological hope was never an individual hope, but the hope of one people of God, who, as the one true and living God, has a plan for his good world.
II. Eschatology and Hope
“This is not simply a hope beyond the world. It is a hope for the world.” (1044) Paul’s hope was a Jewish hope rethought around Jesus the Messiah, that is, the return of Yahweh to Zion. This hope has begun (Christ has come), but it is not complete (Christ will come again). The present time is in between “the already” and the “not yet” of the day of the Lord. During this time we experience the transformation of character, becoming people fit for the age to come. Jewish hope was built around the return of Yahweh to Zion where he would rule and sort out everything that had gone wrong. This is what is meant by “judgment.”
“What Yahweh does in the tabernacle or temple is a sign and foretaste of what he intends to do in and for the whole creation…to fill the whole earth with his glory and to set up his kingdom of justice, peace and prosperity.” (1053) This rule through the coming of Messiah would show God’s faithfulness to his covenant (i.e. his righteousness) and therefore enable his people to “bless the families of the earth” and “inherit the world.” This coming rule, the age to come, has broken into this world ruled by sin and death. We who are in the body of Messiah have received eternal life, that is, the life of the age to come.
A. Hope redefined by Jesus
The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah marked a definite breaking in of the age to come into this present evil age. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The presence of the age to come with the resurrection is kingdom-language. The age to come has been escorted in with the kingdom of God. “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26 ESV). We are not waiting for Jesus to rule then, Paul makes it clear: Jesus is “already ruling the world.” (1063)
Jesus is the world’s true Lord and King. His rule, has begun, but it is not complete. The rule of King Jesus is undoubtedly political in nature. “When Paul said that Jesus was now in charge, he meant something much more dangerous and subversive. he meant, in some sense or other, that Caesar was not the world’s ultimate ruler.” (1065) Calling Jesus “King” and “Lord” implies the kingdom has come to overthrow the current structures of political authority, which was the very hope of Jewish eschatology. As we change our allegiance, we are freed from the present evil age. Paul writes: Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4 ESV). “The ‘evil of the present age, in Jewish thought, consists not in the present world being a dark, wicked pace from which we should try to escape, but in the intrusion into, and infection of, God’s good creation with the power of evil.” (1069)
We have been delivered from the present evil age as the new exodus people of God. We were slaves to sin and subject to death, but now we have received the life of the age to come! This new exodus fits squarely with Jewish expectations, although rethought through the cross and resurrection of Messiah. Shockingly Jesus, the new-Moses, brought about our liberation by his death at the hands of the very authorities he was overthrowing. Any talk of the atonement (i.e. the meaning and implications of the death of Jesus) needs to consider the historical context of the death of Messiah. “The cross, then, is not simply part of the definition of God or the key fulcrum around which the purpose of God in election is accomplished. It is also at the heart of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology.” (1071) By “inaugurated eschatology,” he means the launching of God’s future new creation project. As previously stated, the death of Jesus, as the means by which the new age breaks into the old, demonstrates God’s righteousness, that is, his covenant faithfulness and justice.
B. Hope redefined by the Spirit
We who are in Messiah are the new temple where the Spirit dwells. The Spirit accomplishes the work of heart-transformation, the circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:28-29), and exists as a sign that Yahweh has returned to his people. We await with all creation for the grand reworking and renewal of all things but the Spirit has been given to us as a deposit “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14 ESV). Paul’s vision of the future is a “Spirit-driven inaugurated eschatology.” (1078) New creation has begun in us as a sign of what is to come.
III. The Day of the LORD
The day of Yahweh has become the day of our Lord Jesus. That day has come and is coming. Paul writes: “…who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8). (See also 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:2) This day will be a time of judgement, not simply condemnation. On that day, the creator God will sort things out and make right everything that is out of order. This day will mark the appearing (Greek word: parousia) of Jesus. It is not that he will “come back” as if he has been far away. Rather he will make his presence known.
The day of the Lord will be an unveiling of the wrath (judgment) of God, judgment for people with hard, unrepentant hearts who have been storing up judgment for themselves (Romans 2:5). God will ultimately rid the world of evil and renew and restore all creation. The creator God, the one God of Israel, appearing in the person of the Messiah, made a world fit for himself and so he shall restore it and fill it with his presence and justice.
IV. Eschatology and Ethics
“The new world beckons” (1096), the world of new creation made known within us by the Spirit calls to us and invites us to live a certain way. Protestant Christianity has a tendency to push ethics to the background and pull salvation to the foreground. This shifting of emphasis is out of fear of equating ethics with “work.” The danger seen by those with a strong Reformed impulse is we will attempt to earn our salvation by works if ethics is too close to the center of Paul’s theology. “Once we understand how Paul’s eschatology works, and how moral behaviour and indeed moral effort (a major theme in Paul, screened out altogether within some interpretative traditions) is reconceived within that world, any such imagined danger disappears.” (1097)
A. Ethics in light of the “already” in the new age
Ethics for Paul is tied to his eschatology. We have the responsibility of cooperating with the creator God in his new creation project and so he is developing within us the kind of character necessary to be up for the task. Paul did not work out a sophisticated theology out of Jewish story and symbols and then merely add a few moral commands. Paul’s ethics go hand-in-hand with his theological vision of the arrival of new creation, as if he is saying: “the kingdom has come, Yahweh has returned to make everything new and put everything back into order. This is big news! This changes everything! We cannot live the way we used to live!”
In the body of Messiah we are a new humanity living in a Spirit-breathed, Spirit-formed new creation. So it is not merely that we are imitating Jesus, rather we are living out of a new identity. We are cooperating with the Spirit. “Part of the mystery of the spirit’s work, at least as Paul understands its work, is that that work does not cancel out human moral effort, including thought, will, decision and action. Rather, it makes them all possible. It opens up a new kind of freedom…” (1106-1107) As Jesus the Messiah has fulfilled the Torah, so those who are in Messiah, who walk by the Spirit, fulfill Torah as well.
B. Ethics in light of the “not yet” of the new age
Those in the body of Messiah have received the life of the age to come and are already participating in that age, but the new age is not yet here in its fullness. It has officially been launched but it is not complete. “Chasing towards the line: one of Paul’s various athletic metaphors, indicating that the ‘not yet’ of eschatology does not mean hanging around with nothing to do.” (1113) We are pressing toward the goal (chasing towards the finish line) to become fully mature, fully transformed into Christ-likeness, even though we have not yet arrived. Paul writes: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:5-8). Those who live in the darkness of the present evil age will not inherit the kingdom of God, so don’t become partners with them. They are living in the not yet. You are living in the light of the age to come. “Paul envisions a renewed humanity in terms of new creation, a new world in which the creator’s original intention would at last be fulfilled; and this new world is to be seen in advance in the Messiah’s people….Sexual immorality destroys the vision of new creation in which the purpose begun in Genesis 1 and 2 can at last find fulfillment.” (117)
They way we live in the present evil age anticipating the age to come is the way of love. “Love, then, is obviously and uncontroversially central to Paul’s vision of the Christian moral life, in a way not true in either Judaism or the greco-roman world.” (1119) Love flows from a transformed character and a renewed mind. Christians who belong to Messiah develop and maintain Christian patterns of thinking. For Paul, the human mind is able to grasp key truths about the creator God, which guides behavior. The mind and heart are not divided in Paul’s theology.
V. The Question of Israel
“If Jesus really was Israel’s Messiah, as (the first Christians) believed the resurrection had demonstrated him to be, then in some sense or other the narrative and identity of Israel had not been ‘replaced’ but fulfilled — fulfilled by him in person, and therefore fulfilled in and for all his people.” (1129) In Galatians, Paul describes the people of God as once enslaved by sin to the Torah, but now “no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). He chooses Hagar and Sarah as examples of two different ways to be the people of God. Hagar the mother of Ishmael is from Mount Sinai representing the giving of the law to Moses. Sarah is the mother of Isaac representing the promise and covenant with Abraham. By faith (and not by the Torah) we are children of the promise. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). The issue is not Judaism versus Christianity. The issue is not whether or not an individual is “saved.” The issue is this: How does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shape how we are to be the people of God in the age to come? Paul writes: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:5-6 ESV).
The question of Israel is the question of being the people of God. In the Messiah, being the people of God has been redefined from slavery under the Torah to freedom by faith and love. Jewish ethnicity and adherence to the Torah are no longer the markers of the people of God. Now what identifies people as God’s people is faith and love. Paul sums up his thoughts at the end of his letter to the Galatians: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:15-16). By “Israel” Paul means the people of God both Jews (Judeans) and Gentiles.
VI. Final Thoughts
The new world has broken into the old world, flooding the darkness of this present evil age with light. Live as people of the light.