Jesus as Faithful

Jesus as Faithful December 10, 2013

For more than three decades NT specialists have debated whether “faith of Christ” (I translate pistis christou literally) means (1) faith in Christ — believers believing in Jesus — or (2) the faith of Christ — Jesus himself being faithful before God in the mission of God to redeem the world through Israel. For some reason some think #2 undoes the whole of redemption, or they talk like it is that important, while others think it is so obvious that Jesus was faithful that it’s not worthy of much comment. At the heart of this whole proposal is a perception of the mission of God in this world through Israel.

How do you translate “pistis christou”? Faith in Christ or faithfulness of Christ?

Enter N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and how Romans 3–4 work. Tom Wright think Romans 3:2 is one of the more neglected verses here, so I will quote it:

Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

So NT Wright unfolds his argument that the whole point is about the faithfulness of the Messiah, and it gets complex but he needs to speak for himself since many would prefer to speak for him and so not represent what he is saying well:

They were entrusted, says Paul, with the oracles of the one God. Some commentators have walked right up to the point, glanced in its direction and then passed by on the other side. Others have never come near it in the first place. The word ‘entrusted’ is always used by Paul in the same sense that it bears in secular Greek: to entrust someone with something is to give them something which they must take care of and pass on to the appropriate person. Paul was ‘entrusted’ with a commission, according to 1 Corinthians 9.17; with the gospel to the uncircumcised, in Galatians 2.7; with the gospel, according to 1 Thessalonians 2.4. In no case did this commission or this gospel relate ultimately to Paul himself; it was given to Paul in order that it be given through Paul to the people for whom it was intended.  This, indeed, may be why Paul speaks, uniquely for him, of ‘the oracles’. God’s purpose, he believed, was that through Israel the Gentile world might hear what, to them, would appear to be ‘divine oracles’, even though Israel would have known they were more than that.188 The whole sentence, and the whole drift of the passage ever since 2.17, is not primarily about ‘Israel’s guilt’, but about God’s purpose, through Israel, for the world (837-838)…. 

And when he speaks of ‘their unfaithfulness’ in the second half of verse 3, this sense is still required: does their failure to do what their Abrahamic and Isaianic vocation demanded mean that somehow God himself is now going to prove unfaithful? (838)….

The faithfulness of God at the end of verse 3 is then, still, the determina- tion of the covenant God to do what he has promised, even if the people through whom the promised blessings were to be delivered seem to have let him down through their own ‘faithlessness’ (838).

So to put this together in a new way:

With that, Paul has dealt in a preliminary way with the problem of 2.17– 20: yes, Israel really was chosen in order to be the means of blessing for the world, and yes, despite Israel’s failure to be faithful to that commission, the covenant God will be faithful to that promise, to bless the world through Israel. But what he has not yet done is to say how this God will do that. Paul has, however, set up the problem in such a way that we can see, in principle, what is now required: if the covenant God is going to bless the world through Israel, he needs a faithful Israelite. In 3.21–26 Paul argues that this is exactly what has now been provided (839).

In summary again:

Once we understand Christos as the Messiah, Israel’s representative, Israel-in-person if you will, the logic works out immaculately. (a) The covenant God promises to rescue and bless the world through Israel. (b) Israel as it stands is faithless to this commission. (c) The covenant God, however, is faithful, and will provide a faithful Israelite, the ‘faithful Israelite’, the Messiah. It is the tight coherence of this train of thought, rather than any verbal arguments about subjects and objects, prepositions and case-endings on the one hand, or preferential theological positions on the other, that persuaded me many years ago that Romans 3.22 speaks of the Messiah’s faithfulness. It persuades me still (839).

Everyone points to Romans 3:21-31 as the center, but the older systematic approach leaves unanswered questions:

The reason Romans 3.21–31 is so dense is that Paul is, quite properly, answering these two questions together. And the answer to both is the same: the Messiah, the faithful Israelite, has been faithful to death, and through him the faithful justice of the covenant God is now displayed for all, Jew and Gentile alike (841).

Which leads immediately to the meaning of “the righteousness of God”:

It is clearly necessary, before reading 3.21–31, to reach a preliminary conclusion about the meaning ofdikaiosynē theou, often translated ‘the righteousness of God’.194 I suggest that we are bound, in the light of all that has gone before, in the light of all the biblical texts which Paul is implicitly evoking (which I explored in chapter 2 above), and in the light of the climax and conclusion of Paul’s present argument (4.1–25), to understand dikaio- synē theou (a) as God’s own ‘righteousness’ (rather than a status of ‘right- eousness’ granted, imputed or otherwise given to humans); (b) as God’s own ‘righteousness’ with the focus, very specifically, of his covenant faithful- ness in the sense of ‘doing what he promised to Abraham, in Deuteronomy, in the Psalms, and through Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel’; (c) as God’s own ‘righteousness’ in the sense of his faithfulness to the covenant promise to bless the nations through Israel. Out beyond this again – though without skipping stages, still less cancelling them out! – there is the sense (d) that the divine faithfulness to the covenant is the appointed means of the divine faithfulness to the creation (841).

So Tom’s translation of Romans 3:21-22:

21But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s faithful covenant justice has been displayed.22God’s faithful covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith.

Hence, the “faithfulness of the Messiah” is every bit what “obedience” means in Romans 5:12-21.

How does this relate then to Romans 3:21-26, the classic Protestant atonement and soteriological-system passage?

So, to put the question again: how does this complex of Exodus motifs and sacrificial ideas stack up as a statement of the Messiah’s Israel-repre- senting faithfulness? The answer seems to lie in Paul’s retrieval of certain themes available at the time in which the sacrificial overtones already there in the fourth Servant Song were being reused in connection with martyrs whose deaths were thought to be in some sense redemptive.209Paul’s lan- guage does not directly echo any of those sources at this point, but his thought seems to run like this: (a) the saving plan for the world which the prophets had seen as Israel’s vocation would always involve Israel (or right- eous martyrs within Israel) becoming a kind of sacrifice through which not only Israel itself but also the whole world would be rescued from its sinful, rebellious state; (b) this was the sacrifice offered by Jesus, precisely in his capacity as Israel’s representative Messiah. This was what it meant, in other words, for him to be ‘faithful’ to the gracious divine plan, the single plan that lay behind, and was expressed in, the promises to Abraham (845-846).

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