Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God— Part Ninety Two

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‘God was reconciling the world to himself…’ What exactly did this mean? Tom (p. 1490) takes Col. 1.23 to indicate that Paul thought that in some sense the Gospel had already been proclaimed to the whole cosmos. More likely, this is a reference to what 1 Pet. 3 also speaks of Christ’s on his ascension proclaims his victory over the principalities and powers, certainly a subject in view in Col. 1. If Paul really thought the Gospel had already been proclaimed to the whole human world on planet earth, he might have been able to take a vacation. As it was, he was a man on a mission all over the Empire. True enough Paul did not see as his mission “simply snatching souls out of the world’s wreck in order to populate a Platonic heaven” (p. 1490). No indeed. Nor does Paul believe in the myth of moral progress, that ‘everyday in every way, things are getting better and better’ now that Messiah has come, died, and risen. No, but it is true that he sees the renewal of humans as not merely a foreshadowing of the renewal of all creation, but a foretaste of it. The first installment.

Finally on p. 1491, Tom admits that the earliest Christians, despite lack of priests, temples, and sacrifices, were practicing a new kind of religion. They believed in their worship heaven and earth came together, and they had begun a new sort of liturgy including involving the Lord’s Supper. And that very praxis like Christian baptism, shows just how different they were from early Jewish communities who did not do these things. So Tom stresses “These communities were…on the way to becoming a new kind of polis, a social and cultural community cutting across normal boundaries and barriers, obedient to a different kyrios, modeling a new way of being human and a new kind of power.” (p. 1492). Tom suggests we should see these as at once philosophical, religious, and political communities. He saw the church as a microcosm of the new creation, designed to function like a lighthouse. Interestingly he adds that while the job of evangelists like himself was to evangelize, “there is surprisingly little evidence that he wanted his communities to be energetically outgoing in their own propagation of the faith, Enough for the moment, it seemed, that they should be…united, holy” (p. 1492).

Tom then suggests that Paul saw as his aim to build and maintain these new communities, seeing them as the new temple. Thus evangelism was not just about soul-winning and mission not just about advancing Christian understanding. It was about community building. The individual is not the goal, individual Christians are but signs pointing to a larger community, and an even larger reality of new creation. The whole community, holy and united was to be the example, depiction of this new creation reality. One may suggest then that this is why even in a very factious situation in Corinth, or in a more serene one in Philippi, Paul’s rhetoric is all about unity, concord, in short deliberative rhetoric. The Collection he took to Jerusalem was furthering this same aim, of unifying the church, unifying Jews and Gentiles in Christ (see p. 1496).

One of the keys to unifying these diverse groups was a term Paul uses regularly— koinonia, which means a sharing or participating in something with someone else. It does not mean fellowship. Sharing is intentional, it involves action, for example like the sharing in common of the Lord’s Supper. I agree with Tom (p. 1497) that Paul did not envision the Collection and its delivery as a means of hastening the parousia, or ramping up the possibility of the conversion of Jews. As Tom says, had Paul been that short-sighted (and wrong) he would never have spoken to the Roman Christians about visiting then with a further planned mission to Spain. What then does he mean by having no more room in the east for missionary work (Rom. 15.23)? Did Paul really see it as his job to evangelize the whole Roman world, or at least its major Gentile centers? He does say clearly in Rom. 15.21 that his job is to boldly go where no Christian missionary has gone before and share the Good News. He doesn’t want to build on other people’s foundations, which may explain why he is not really planning to evangelize the Romans he is writing too, apparently. Somebody else got there before him, or in this case probably many somebodies, including Priscilla and Aquila. I see no evidence at all in Romans that Paul thinks Peter was the one who got there before him, or that Peter founded the church there. Probably not. He was busy in Asia according to 1 Peter.

Tom is right however that a hard line division of labor between he and Peter could hardly be maintained. Paul went to synagogues, and Peter converted some Corneliuses. For Paul this would not work since he believed there was an obligation to share the Good News with the Jew first, whoever was doing the sharing (see Rom. 1). Paul’s message might be mainly for Gentiles, but it was a Jewish message at heart, and it is not a surprise that he started with Jews, and kept going back to the synagogue, as the mention of the many floggings makes clear — 2 Cor. 11.24.

There is a fair bit of interesting speculation as to why go to Spain? See pp. 1499ff. Was it just because it was viewed as the ends of the earth, and Paul was following the Isaiah program (see Isaiah 11.11-12; 24.15; 41.1,5; 42.4,10,12; 49.1;51.5;59.18; 60.9; 66.19). Tom actually suggests (p. 1503) that one of Paul’s aims was to “establish messianic communities in the very places where Caesar’s power was strongest.” (p. 1502). I don’t really think this suggestion will entirely work not least because as Tom admits there were major places like Alexandria that Paul never mentions thinking about going, but also because of some of the places he did go which were not Roman colony cities, and so far as we know did not have Emperor cult temples during his day. I am thinking for example of Lystra and Derbe, or Beroea, or other locales as well. Better to suggest he had a rather urban missionary strategy and simply wanted to plant communities in places where they were likely to spread in the Empire. He was not all about “in your face Emperor’ Jesus is Lord, and so we are going to cities where you claim to be lord in your own temples, and we will plant the flag of the real Lord there”. Here I think the recent book by McKnight and others takes a more sober approach to the assessment of Paul and the Emperor cult.

Tom also suggests that perhaps Dan. 7 shaped Paul’s mental map and his aims, suggesting that Paul saw Rome as the 4th kingdom. If he did, what he says in Rom. 13 is odd, and furthermore he associates the Son of Man’s return or parousia with the judging of the evil Empire (see 1 Thess. 4-5; 2 Thess. 2), which is to say he interprets the future return of Christ, not his past incarnation as being alluded to in Dan. 7. Thus while I agree that the ministry of reconciliation is not just about reconciling individuals to God or just about the creating of communities of such people, it is not clear to me that the implicit rebuttal to the Emperor cult is in the forefront of Paul’s aims.

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