Jesus as Israel’s Story of God Freshly Revealed

Jesus as Israel’s Story of God Freshly Revealed November 7, 2013

The essence of Tom Wright’s project is to show that Paul’s theology is both thoroughly Jewish and at the same time a reframing of the central elements of that Judaism around God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Wright sees three main elements in Judaism that Paul “reworked”: monotheism, election, and eschatology. All this in his magisterial new two-volume study, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. (As an aside, Doug Moo’s review at TGC’s blog is balanced, which is good for TGC when it comes to Wright, but too focused on the soteriological questions and not enough on Wright’s important worldview-to-theology approach to understanding Paul’s theology. TGC probably needs a lengthy “description” of what Wright is saying since far too many will not read the book/s.)

After Tuesday’s post giving the big picture, today I look briefly at the texts Wright focuses on in showing the story of Israel’s God finding its revelation in the story of Jesus. Hence, the story is the promise that God will return to Zion to rule as king, and Jesus is how Paul tells that story coming to fulfillment.

Hence, Wright examines these passages:

Galatians 4:1-11,
Romans 8:1-4,
1 Corinthians 8–10, especially the shema text of 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (see below),
the creation and wisdom themes of Colossians 1,
those pertinent passages in 2 Corinthians 3–4,
and then especially Philippians 2:6-11.

The big ideas are these: God is creator, God is one (creational monotheism); God has chosen Israel (election) in Jesus; and eschatology (God has returned to Zion, has come to rule in Jesus). The way Paul describes all of this is through Exodus imagery. Hence, the reworking of Jewish themes around Jesus yet maintaining continuity with Judaism. God has returned to Zion and that return is like the Exodus, a redemptive act.

It would take a post too long to summarize each and every point he makes along the way through these passages, so I will provide his own summary:

My argument so far is that the Jewish-style monotheism of ‘divine identity’ which Paul so emphatically reaffirmed had also emphatically been redrawn around Jesus. In particular, I have argued that in several key passages we can detect the overtones of that Exodus-based narrative which formed the basis for the hope that YHWH, having long since abandoned Jerusalem to its fate, would one day return to save his people and to establish his glorious presence in the temple. As we have seen, there is excellent evidence that this was what Paul intended to convey, in one way and another, in one kind of argument or another. For him, Jesus was to be identified within the second-temple Jewish belief in who the one God was –and would be. This is the full expression of the eschatological dimension of monotheism, carrying within itself also the creational and cultic dimensions. In him, that is to say, Israel’s God had indeed returned, and to him therefore could be transferred all that had been said about ‘wisdom’ as the mode of his presence, the ‘wisdom’ through which the worlds were made. He was therefore to be discovered in biblical texts which spoke of the kyrios, translating the adonai which devout Jews said in preference for the sacred name YHWH; and, as such, was to be worshipped, and invoked in prayer. The relationship his followers enjoyed with him was to be understood, and could be spoken of, in the way that devout Israelites from ancient times had spoken of their relationship with YHWH himself. So far, so good.

But is this enough to enable us to understand why not only Paul, but apparently all his Christian predecessors and contemporaries, came to this belief? I think not. We have demonstrated that Paul (and presumably his predecessors and contemporaries) thought of Jesus in categories belonging to Israel’s God, and particularly within the narrative which spoke of long-awaited return of this God to Zion. We have not quite explained why they would think this way. This brings us to the second major hypothesis of the present chapter (689-690).

Because some get caught in a web of wondering if this way of seeing Paul might be supersessionism, I want to cite 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 to show that for Paul the classic Jewish creed — the shema — gets captured by Paul but in so doing he enters Jesus into the very heart of divine identity. Jesus is the Lord of the shema.

1Cor. 8:4    So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),

6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live;

and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

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  • NateW

    Thanks Scot. I have been on a classic literature kick for awhile now and haven’t had time for much theological reading so I appreciate these little snippets.

    Would you say that Wright is saying that Paul views Christ in terms of Israel’s story because that’s the story he identifies with, or because Israel is the only proper lens through which to view Christ?

    In practical terms, would a person today need to first learn all about the exodus, the sacrificial system, the law, the kings, etc, before they could understand Christ, or could we instead point out the parts of each persons own cultural/personal background that illustrate the same fundamental truths about gods relationship to men?

    In other words, did Paul actually believe in being all things to all people, or did he only pretend to be all things in order to get people to eventually see the world from an ancient Hebrew worldview?

  • Phil Miller

    In other words, did Paul actually believe in being all things to all
    people, or did he only pretend to be all things in order to get people
    to eventually see the world from an ancient Hebrew worldview?

    I’ll preface my comment with the fact that I haven’t gotten the new book yet (mine arrives tomorrow!), but from reading Wright’s other stuff, my gut reaction is that he would say that Paul wouldn’t necessarily make the differentiation. Israel’s story is the world’s story, essentially. So it’s not necessarily trying to get listeners to think like a Jewish person. It’s telling the story of Israel and relating to the universal human experience.

  • Norman

    I think the Jewish OT writers answers your question to a large extent and also the NT Hebrew writer picks upon that concept as well. I believe that the writers of Genesis specifically laid out a period of time before Judaism and Moses and even before Abraham to demonstrate the continuity of a one faith system (monotheism) that predates Israel. I think that is the importance of the story of the Patriarchs to demonstrate the One God continuity that they believed was foundational to their understanding. The authors of Genesis attentively inserted this concept early on in Gen 4:26. …(At that time people began to call upon the name of YHWH) To illustrate what they considered an ancient truth about God being revealed to their archaic faith forebears.

    Now turning to Hebrews 11 we see that it is presented that these ancients (patriarchs) all had the common concept of God (as revealed in Christ).

    Heb 11: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it THE PEOPLE OF OLD RECEIVED THEIR COMMENDATION. …13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but HAVING SEEN THEM AND GREETED THEM FROM AFAR… 39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, THAT APART FROM US THEY SHOULD NOT BE MADE PERFECT.

    Heb 11 is not saying the ancients were left out in the cold even though they never encountered the risen Messiah. Therefore now through Christ; faith to their ancient concept of God justifies them along with these early Christians. So we can perhaps draw conclusions from the author’s concept of these ancient faiths inclusion. The progeny of Christ is historically through faith would be my take away and not biological. Which Paul details in Rom 9:6-8.

    If you have seen Christ you have seen the Father and apparently the converse is true as well.

  • NateW

    Yeah, that’s the way I’m beginning to see it. Christ is every person and every people group’s story because he is the background truth in which all of creation “lives and moves and has it’s being.”

    I guess that’s the whole point—just as Christ was incarnated into the midst of Israel’s story, so are we to be the place of His incarnation into our neighbor’s story. Perhaps being a Christian is essentially to be a moment by moment “second coming” of Christ as we are “born again” into each new moment’s context.

  • Robert

    Thoroughly Jewish but also different? Wow… That is original.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I like this way of putting it Nate. It’s becoming more and more apparent that we must never lose sight of the dynamic nature of the whole thing – be it salvation, sanctification, creation, relationship, history – and more. And this dynamism fits perfectly with the way science is increasingly seeing the world. We too often want fixity, certainty and a been there done that kind of world. But creation will not cooperate, cannot cooperate, with such thinking. It’s actually invigorating to embrace this. “In him we live, and MOVE and have our being.”