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Archive for January, 2011

Jesus’ insistence that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28) is a perennial favorite of many Christians, and rightly so.  This saying gets swiftly to the essential thrust of Jesus’ identity and mission.  It explicitly connects the atonement with love and service.  It furnishes us with evidence that Jesus is worthy to be trusted, that he will not abuse the power and influence we have entrusted to him over our lives nor ever selfishly dominate us in any way that is finally contrary to our own welfare.  In a word, a passage like this vividly embodies why we love and follow Jesus.

Yet in its original historical context, this cozy utterance would have aroused considerable controversy and offense from Jesus’ target audience.Jesus’ words, properly construed, would not have created nearly as attractive and affable an impression as we tend to receive from them.  Why?  In large part because such a conception of the identity and mission of the “Son of Man” ran radically counter to the expectation that had been fostered among the people of God through the Old Testament Scriptures—particularly as to what this “Son of Man” would be and do on behalf of Israel.

Here we find one more sterling example of new wine not fitting into the old wineskins (Mark 2:21-22).  Jesus simply cannot be exhaustively contained within the categories and prospects of the Judaism of his day.  There is significant continuity with the OT hope, of course; yet there is massive discontinuity as well.  Jesus’ self-conception and sense of vocation burst and explode many of the traditional expectations.   Who the “Son of Man” will be and what he will do becomes the dissonant source of just such a conflict in Jesus’ ministry.

A little background is in order on the title “Son of Man,” given that it appears so frequently in the four Gospels.  It is probably accurate to say that this phrase has stirred up more debate in the past century of biblical scholarship than any other title or designation applied to Jesus in the writings of early Christianity.  There are at least three prominent reasons for this state of affairs:

First, though this overarching pattern is generally missed by contemporary readers of the Gospels, “Son of Man” is a title that appears only on Jesus’ own lips.  No one else ever ascribes this designation to him—not the demons, not the hostile religious leaders, not the crowds, not even his own disciples!  Terms such as Son of God, Messiah/Christ, Chosen One, Lord, Rabbi, Son of David, and Holy One of God are frequently bandied about by others in reference to Jesus, yet never “Son of Man” (*the one apparent exception to this, John 12:34, turns out to not actually be an exception—in the immediate context the crowds are merely parroting back to Jesus his own use of the phrase earlier, and they are not even sure who Jesus is referring to; cf. 12:23).  On the other hand, Jesus seems inhibited with respect to cashing in on the advantages of these other titles.  For instance, he does not refer to himself as “Christ” directly in his ministry (though of course he approves of others labeling him with this title, and at times draws sideways, implicit connections between it and his own divine calling).

This curious pattern has rightly won the attention of modern scholars.  What accounts for the favored status that “Son of Man” apparently possessed in Jesus’ own self-consciousness, and likewise what accounts for the almost total absence of the term in the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection (the only occurrences outside of the Gospels are in Acts 7:56 and Revelation1:13, 14:14)?  Whatever the meaning of “Son of Man” turns out to be, it was quite obviously at the heart of Jesus’ own self-conception.  To understand Jesus, we must understand how and why he bound up his own public identity with this phrase.

Second, while most scholars believe the background of “Son of Man” lay in the Old Testament, there is very little consensus at to what that background itself consists of.  Is it a generic designation for “human being” (cf. Psalm 8)?  If so, is “Son of Man” an allusion to Adam—and in what way?  Or should the phrase be connected to Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry, as “son of man” is repeatedly used for Ezekiel?  Or is Jesus’ use of “Son of Man” meant to implicitly connect his own mission with that of the mysterious figure found in Daniel 7, who is presented before the Ancient of Days and who restores the kingdom to Israel in triumph over their enemies?  While this last option is the most popular (and I agree with it), another possibility would be that the phrase even in Daniel 7 is already building on ancient convictions about the purposes and tasks of both Adam (humanity) and Israel (the new humanity).  But I cannot pursue this here; N. T. Wright’s works are a helpful place to begin such study.

Third, the fascinating observation has been made that the equivalent to “Son of Man” in Aramaic (the language Jesus primarily spoke) is bar enasha.  Interestingly, in Aramaic this phrase was a common idiom meaning (generically) “someone” or “that guy” or “I”.  Therefore a number of scholars have–wrongly, in my mind–argued that this Aramaic background completely accounts for Jesus’ use of the phrase in his historical ministry, and that any OT connections it now appears to have in certain scenes or sayings in the Gospels are fictitious creations of the early Christians, conjured up retrospectively in light of their newfound Easter faith.

My view, given without any defense here, is that Jesus himself most likely perceived the potential ambiguity the phrase “Son of Man” would convey to his audiences and, taking advantage of this fact, intentionally weaved it into the larger pattern we see in the Gospels: namely, into the hiddenness and mystery that Jesus weaves to shroud his messianic identity and vocation until his death and resurrection (Mark 9:9, 12).  “Son of Man” becomes a central ingredient in veiling his identity until Golgotha, thus curbing the damaging misinterpretations of Jesus that would surely result if more bold, explicit titles (like “Messiah”) gained too much steam in the public opinion prior to his suffering in Jerusalem.

I contended earlier that Jesus’ claim that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” would have been provocative and controversial.  Once Jesus’ subtle allusion to Daniel 7 in this familiar quote is recognized, it should not be difficult to see why such is the case.

Daniel 7 is all about the incoming arrival of the kingdom of God.  Don’t let the vividly strange imagery fool you or misdirect your attention from this chief point.  The “beasts” (i.e. the pagan Gentile nations) are oppressing the saints of the Most High (i.e. Israel)—that is, things are not the way they are supposed to be in God’s good creation—and in the midst of this terrible conflict a figure with the appearance of a son of man comes to the Ancient of Days (God) and receives authority to bring in God’s kingdom, henceforth ruling over all the nations in righteousness on behalf of Israel.  A great reversal takes place, ushering in God’s reign over the earth through His chosen people.  The people of God are vindicated and the wicked are silenced.  Though disputed, I think it fairly clear that the son of man figure is the Davidic king, the messiah (anointed one) who represents Israel before the Lord (note how in 7:17 the nations/beasts are figuratively represented by their “kings” as well).  We learn later in the chapter (7:22, 26-27) that what is true of the son of man is also de facto true for Israel.  They share in the blessings of the reign of his kingdom.  Crucially, it is this whole scenario that would have been called to mind by Jesus’ saying for his Jewish audience.  The hopes of Israel were intimately bound up with the coming of the Son of Man.

The centerpiece of Daniel 7 is an apocalyptic vision in which the son of man figure formally receives global authority and the everlasting kingdom from the God of Israel.  It is here that Jesus’ words would have provoked disbelief or even anger.  Consider how Jesus echoes—yet willfully undermines—this long-expected pattern:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.  And to him was given authority and glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve himHis dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45; cf. Matthew 20:28)

Do you see it?  A fair summary of Daniel 7:13-14, indeed, would go something like this: “The Son of Man comes to be served.”  In Daniel, the coming of the Son of Man leads directly to all the nations of the world bowing down to serve this figure.  Absolutely nothing is said of his service to the “beasts”.  Yet when Jesus arrives on the scene, dropping hints left and right that he conceives of himself as this eagerly awaited Son of Man, he nevertheless goes on to insist that he has not come to be served, but rather to serve others by laying down his life for them.  This is not what anyone expected from the Son of Man!  On the surface of it, in fact, it might appear as if Jesus is flatly contradicting the OT Scriptures.

Yet the resolution to this apparent conundrum is not hard to locate, especially if we have been awakened to the reoccuring propensity Jesus has to flip upside-down the mainstream expectations of his day.  On the one hand, the Gospels and the rest of the NT leave no doubt that Jesus did come to be served, in the sense that all people are called to believe in him, follow him, and worship him (cf. Matthew 28:16-20, Romans 14:9, II Corinthians 5:15, etc.).  Yet on the other hand, there are a host of passages affirming that Jesus expresses his lordship precisely by serving others (Luke 12:35-40, Romans 15:8, etc.).  Perhaps nowhere are these two themes brought together more adeptly than in Philippians 2:5-11.

In this famous “Christ Hymn” Paul dramatically links Jesus’ service to others with their subsequent service to him.  It is because Jesus was obedient unto death—even death on a cross, for us—that God (note the crucial “therefore” in 2:9) highly exalted him, so that everything in creation might henceforth serve and love him.  The vision of Daniel 7 is coming true—the entire universe is destined to one day serve this glorious Son of Man—yet the manner in which it comes to pass is not what anyone was expecting.  Jesus wins the service of others precisely through his service on behalf of others—not through compulsion or military force or deceitful shrewdness or hostile threats.

Think of the nature of your own professed allegiance to Jesus Christ (if you have not yet bowed down to the Man of Sorrows, I plead with you to seriously consider whether he warrants your loyalty and affection more than whatever object you currently lavish them upon does).  Why is it that we Christians at some point in our lives decided to become followers of Jesus, and why is it that we follow him still?  I ask myself this question regularly: why do I still buy this?  What is so persuasive, so compelling about the gospel?  Why haven’t I walked away yet for something or someone else than Jesus (John 6:66-69)?  At the end of the day, my response is magnificently obvious.  How could I turn away from the One who laid down his life for me, who sacrificed everything he possessed for my sake?  In a word, my service of Jesus is singularly propelled by the meteroic impact of his service towards me.  I love him, because he first loved me.  I serve him, because he first served me.

Let me conclude with a final example of this remarkable dynamic.  In his exhilarating work The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark argues convincingly that much of the impetus behind the explosive growth and expansion of the church in the earliest centuries came from this servant attitude of Christ being displayed tangibly, even at considerable cost, in the lives of his followers.  Stark recounts that when the dreaded plague would erupt in towns in any outpost of the Roman Empire, mercilessly decimating the population, often it was only the Christians who would stay behind in significant numbers to care for the sick and dying.

Two things resulted from this.  First, innumerable Christians forfeited their lives and died in the plagues when they could have easily been spared by fleeing.  Second, a shockingly high percentage of those people who survived—and exponentially higher numbers outlasted the plagues on account of the Christians who stayed behind, given that factors as basic as fresh water or food or clean towels drastically increased the odds of survival—converted to Christianity.  The more Christians poured out their lives in committed service to the ultimate well-being of other human beings, the more the lordship of Jesus Christ was gladly recognized by those who benefited from such sacrificial, humble service.  It is no different today.  The call remains the same for all of Jesus’ followers.  The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve—and in so doing, he has won the loving obedience of millions throughout history who call upon his name with joy.  His rescued people are sent into the world with the same mission of sacrificial service.  The kingdom will come in no other way.

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I have been laboring to demonstrate in this series that Jesus specializes in turning all expectations about his own person and mission wildly upside down.  Jesus’ tendency to subversion is often bandied about—even crudely celebrated—in vague fashion by many would-be revolutionary Christian thinkers, but arguably this recurring theme in his ministry requires much more elaboration and particularity than it often receives.  In what way was Jesus allegedly so subversive in his teaching?  In previous posts, I have alluded to how Jesus and the NT writers consistently subvert the nature of triumph, of kingship, and of suffering.  Today I zero in on how Jesus turns the standard Jewish OT understanding of holy war—and the zealous expectation that the Messiah would represent its climactic embodiment (Acts 5:36-37 is one example)—on its head in dramatic form.

Frank Thielman has argued in his New Testament Theology that two poles or emphases need to be constantly held together in tension concerning the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament.  On the one hand, in an exhaustive sense Jesus is presented to us in the Gospels (and later NT writings) as fulfilling the entire trajectory and all the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures (a fact conservative scholars love to point out).  On the other hand, the manner in which Jesus fulfills these ancient expectations is radically surprising, even shocking, and seems to have no precursory parallels in ancient Judaism (a fact liberal scholars love to point out).  The kingdom comes—but it comes in weakness. Jesus is enthroned as the archetypal Davidic king—at his crucifixion, when all power is taken away from him.  He promises the glory of reigning with him in a new world to his followers—if they will take up their crosses and follow his example of suffering, if they will become last and least, if they will become as little children.  He will conquer the Gentile nations and bring them into submission to Israel’s Yahweh—through laying down his life in service to them, not through compulsion.  The framework of the OT expectations holds firm on point after point, but the content within it is massively revised and re-imagined in ways that not even his closest disciples seem to be able to handle or accept.  The significance of this motif both for how we read our Bible and for how we live the “normal” Christian life are countless.

Consider now the way in which Jesus cleverly redeploys the frequent OT theme of holy war throughout his ministry.  Immediately this makes us nervous, of course.  Holy war conjures up images in our minds of crusading, murdering Christian soldiers in the Middle Ages or Muslim fundamentalists crashing planes into skyscrapers.  Yet to fully grasp Jesus’ subversion of the idea, we need to have such extreme, repugnant examples before our eyes.  In Matthew 11:12, Jesus says that “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  A similar utterance is recorded in Luke 16:16: “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.” There has been, admittedly, much controversy and debate over these sayings, with a correspondingly ridiculous number of varying interpretations proposed by scholars.  In the end, though, most interpretations can be broken down into two basic categories.  Are the “violent” people mentioned by Jesus unbelievers hostile to his coming and kingdom, maliciously seeking to oppose it with deadly force?  Or are the “violent” ones a metaphorical depiction of the attitude he expects his own disciples to embody in their pursuit of and devotion to the kingdom of God?  Following in the eminent footsteps of Flannery O’Connor, I am persuaded of the latter rendering, for at least two reasons.

First, it doesn’t make much sense why Jesus would ascribe hostile, violent opposition to God’s purposes as dawning initially with his own ministry.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus consistently depicts the unbelieving rejection of his ministry by the contemporary religious leaders as eerily similar to—even the final culmination of—the long-standing tradition of rejection towards God’s messengers found in the OT (just check out the parable of the vineyard for one sterling example).  Second—and much more crucially—Jesus frequently pictures the ideal human response to his claims and presence with violent imagery.

In Matthew 5:27-30, 18:7-9 and Mark 9:43-47, Jesus famously urges prospective tagalongs to be willing even to gouge out their own eyes or slice off their own hands if these disloyal body parts keep them from joyfully surrendering to the incoming arrival of the kingdom in Jesus.  Entrance into this kingdom—which did begin after the Law and the Prophets which lasted until John!—is so vital and valuable that the costly sacrifice we must be ready at a moment’s notice to make in response to its comprehensive demands can be justly portrayed as violent.  In Luke 12:49-53, Jesus speaks of a baptism of fire that he comes to bring (like Elijah on his enemies?; cf. Luke 9:54, which seems to indicate that this is indeed how Jesus’ disciples wrongly perceived his intended meaning).  He also strangely denies that his mission is one of peace—instead, he brings a sword, and his presence means division and acrimony even among the closest members of a family (cf. also Matthew 10:34-39).  Peter too seems to have missed the point of this speech (Matthew 26:51-52, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:49-51).  At other times Jesus speaks of hate as the emotion he hopes to stir up among his followers—hate even of their own loved ones (Luke 14:26).  Finally, in Luke 13:24 Jesus urges the disciples to “strive to enter the narrow door.  For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”  The word translated as “strive” here (agonizomai) is the Greek word from which we have derived “agony” in English, and in John 18:36, I Timothy 6:12 and II Timothy 4:7 it surely bears violent overtones of fighting and grappling and conflict.

“The Kingdom demands a response so radical that it may be described in terms of violence and force…All of this metaphorical language [of violence and warfare] describes the radical character of the decision demanded by the Kingdom of God.  The modern man is usually quite casual about his religion.  He will often undertake radical measures in the pursuit of wealth, success, power; but he is unwilling to become deeply moved about the concerns of his soul.  Jesus says that such a man cannot know the life of the Kingdom.  It demands a response, a radical decision, an enthusiastic reception.  Nominalism is the curse of modern western Christianity.  Jesus’ disciples must be radicals in their unqualified enthusiasm for the life of God’s Kingdom.” (George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 99-100)

In an upcoming issue of the Ichthus it sounds as if several contributions will examine the holy wars of the Old Testament.  Whatever else we make of the moral status of God’s commands to Israel to take up military arms and destroy the godless pagan nations surrounding them (a pressing apologetic issue in our pluralistic society if ever there was one!), this much must be said by Christians.  Whereas virtually all Jews in Jesus’ day took these historical massacres at face value and fully expected the approaching Messiah to be a conquering militaristic figure from the line of King David (who could not build a house for God because he was a man of bloodshed), and who would proceed to trample upon and expel the Romans in force and restore the kingdom and the land to Israel by means of holy war, Jesus flatly contradicted such a desire.

Yet to merely say that Jesus simply did not meet the expectations of the Jewish milieu and the OT prophetic tradition would be woefully insufficient, even inaccurate if stated in isolation.  Jesus absolutely did fulfill what the motif of holy war in the OT represented—just as he summed up in himself the OT hope of kingship, kingdom, triumph, and redemption.  Yet like all those others, in fulfillment he also simultaneously subverted it.  The concept is still there, but the content within has been morphed with a vengeance.  We are Jesus’ soldiers and conscripts in the marauding army of the Lamb.  We engage in fierce battle every moment of our lives; we fight the good fight of faith, and we must finish it (II Timothy 4:7).  Yet this battle is not against Rome, and we do not fight as the righteous against sinners.  The church of Jesus Christ does not advance the gospel with the sword, or come against external evil with physical violence:

“I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!—I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh.  For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” (II Corinthians 10:1-6)

Two main enemies are opposed to the people of God in this age: Satan and sin.  Against both we are to engage in violent struggle even unto death.  We return each Sunday to gather together in fellowship and to worship the crucified, risen Jesus with our shields or on them.  Against Satan and his diabolical forces, consider Ephesians 6:10-20.  Against sin, consider John Owen’s sobering exhortation in Mortification of Sin in Believers: Be killing your sin, or your sin will be killing you.  If you have to, if it is the only alternative left to you prior to treason and defection—then poke out your wandering eyes and cut off your disobedient hands.  Better a maimed soldier returning to the victor’s crown than a traitor preserved whole but now opposed to Jesus our King (Hebrews 6:4-8).

Jesus’ holy war–his unfamiliar jihad–is to be directed without mercy chiefly toward ourselves, toward our own fallen adulterous hearts.  For even Satan’s influence is ultimately indirect–he can harm us only insofar as he convinces us to sin of our own willing volition.  Therefore, sin is worse than both suffering and Satan.  Which of us thinks that way?  Which of us actually lives as if that were true?  So we must fight daily to be satisfied in Jesus alone, and to destroy every conflicting affection which remains in the old man.  It is the most profoundly consequential struggle currently underway in this groaning creation.  It is a fight that will last until we breathe our last, or Christ comes again in glory–or until we surrender, laying down our arms and losing our souls.  How then can we not pray unceasingly like this?

O great God of highest heav’n

Occupy my lowly heart

Own it all and reign supreme

Conquer every rebel pow’r

Let no vice or sin remain

That resists your holy war

You have loved and purchased me

Make me Yours forever more

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“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 99)

On the face of it, Colossians 1:24 strikes me as potentially the most heretical statement in the entire New Testament.  Here Paul not only states that he is rejoicing in what he suffers on behalf of these early Christians (strange enough), but even goes so far as to claim that by means of such a Spirit-filled encounter he is actually filling up what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for his body, the church!  Is the sacrifice of the fully human and fully divine Jesus not enough to bring sinners back to God?  In his commentary, Peter O’Brien predictably points out that “this verse has been an exegetical crux since earliest times…” (Colossians, p. 75).  What are the possibilities for interpretation with regards to this bizarre passage?

One thing is irrefutably clear and, fortunately enough, enjoys unanimous consent among biblical theologians today.  Paul did not intend to communicate that the atoning, vicarious sufferings of Jesus on the cross were incomplete, inadequate or insufficient in any way with respect to wiping out the sins of his people.  A brief scan through the relevant passages on the crucifixion in Paul’s letters—including the rest of Colossians itself (1:14, 19-23, 2:13-15—establishes this point with abundant clarity.

Three rival interpretations would seem to be the primary contenders in ascertaining the significance of Colossians 1:24.  The first can be labeled the typological view.  On this reading, Paul is saying that his sufferings are profoundly similar to (even connected with) Jesus’ own sufferings, and that Jesus’ afflictions were a type or prefigurement of what his followers would be called upon to endure later on after his ascension into heaven.  This understanding is orthodox as far as it goes, but it fails to make much sense of the context here.  To say that Christians now participate in the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10) is accurate, but by no means suffices to explain either how Christ’s afflictions could be “lacking” or how Paul’s own non-atoning suffering could “fill up” or remedy this mysterious lack.

The second perspective—and the most popular in the contemporary literature—is the eschatological interpretation.  A host of modern New Testament scholars have helpfully pointed out that an important background for Paul’s overall understanding of Christian suffering in this “already/not yet” age is found in the widespread Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish idea of the “messianic woes.”  Simply put, this conceptual scheme consisted of the foreboding conviction that with the appearing of the Messiah, the world—and, in particular, the people of the Messiah—would be subjected to vast, unprecedented tribulation as the present evil age came to a halting, catastrophic close (Daniel 12:1, etc.).  The metaphor of birth pangs was often employed to draw out this nuance—new life was dawning, but only through great pain and agony (Matthew 24:8, John 16:20-22, Romans 8:18-23, Galatians 4:19, Revelation 12:2).  As Michael Bird notes, “The messianic woes mark the death throes of an old world ending and the birth pangs of a new world beginning.” (Colossians and Philemon, p. 65).

Furthermore, often associated with this motif was the idea of a divinely set limit or quota on the amount of suffering to be endured by God’s people before the end came (cf. Mark 13:17-20, Revelation 6:11).  When this prescribed measure of affliction was “filled up” or completed, the new creation or kingdom of God would be consummated in all its satisfying luster.  On this reading, then, Paul seeks to complete in his own ministry part of the sum total of tribulation that God’s people are destined to experience, in the hope that the final redemption might be ushered in and (perhaps) that other believers would be spared such suffering themselves (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-11).  On the whole, I believe this interpretation is correct and makes enormous sense of the immediate context.  It also fits in nicely with Paul’s larger theological vision of participation in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that it succeeds in capturing the entire range of all that drives Paul existentially in his ministry.

In accordance with and fully supportive of this foundational eschatological understanding is what I will call the missiological interpretation of Colossians 1:24.  While true that Paul’s thinking is deeply colored with apocalyptic hues, I think more is needed to apprehend the full orb of Paul’s thrust here.  Frequently overlooked is that the two words “fill up” (anapleroō; the preposition anti is added to the verb in Col. 1:24) and “lacking” (husterema) are found elsewhere together in the New Testament only in Philippians 2:30.  In this intriguing parallel passage Paul sets forth his beloved co-laborer in ministry, Epaphroditus, as a Christ-like example for the Philippians to imitate.  It is clear from the broader correspondence that Epaphroditus has previously acted as the messenger between the Philippians and Paul.  Of particular significance is that he has personally carried and delivered the Philippians’ financial contribution for Paul’s ministry back to the apostle himself (Philippians 4:10-19).  What becomes plain as Paul’s warm letter unfolds is that what was “lacking” in regards to the Philippians was not the willingness or the ability to support Paul financially, but rather the opportunity to actually deliver it personally to Paul in his distant imprisonment.  This “lack” Epaphroditus has “filled up” by bringing the monetary gift to Paul in the flesh.  Marvin Vincent summarizes aptly:

“The gift to Paul was a gift to the church as a body.  It was a sacrificial offering of love.  What was lacking, and what would have been grateful to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this offering in person.  This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous ministry.” (Philippians and Philemon, p. 78)

Similarly, in Colossians 1:24 Paul’s point is not that the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in atoning power or sacrificial merit, but rather that they are unknown personally and experientially to those who have never encountered Jesus in the flesh.  The manner in which Paul “fills up” what is “lacking” in Jesus’ sufferings has to do not with propitiation, but rather with presentation (in the insightful language of Sam Storms).  Through his voluntary sufferings on behalf of those he brings the gospel to, Paul communicates in an unmatchable way the actual living content of that gospel concerning the crucified Jesus.  Could this be part of the dramatic function of Galatians 3:1—namely, that through Paul’s suffering apostolic presence and proclamation of the gospel (cf. 4:11-19), Jesus has been publicly and vividly portrayed as crucified to these ex-pagan Gentiles who were absent at Golgotha?  Regardless, John Piper draws out the importance of this missiological emphasis for Colossians 1:24:

“Paul’s sufferings complete Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save.  What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not that they are deficient in worth, as though they could not sufficiently cover the sins of all who believe.  What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world.  These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples.  And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations.  So the afflictions of Christ are ‘lacking’ in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations.  They must be carried by the ministers of the Word.  And those ministers of the Word ‘complete’ what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.” (Desiring God, p. 268)

In 2 Timothy 2:10 we see this cruciform commitment on unambiguous display.  Paul writes that he “endures everything for the sake of the elect, in order that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”  As we have been witnessing time and again in this series, this theme is pervasive and unavoidable in the New Testament writings.  We are called to imitate Jesus precisely in his weakness and suffering, and by so doing God continues to extend His redeeming presence to the world through His Christ-like, afflicted people:

“Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win.  In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings.  Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people.  God really means for the body of Christ, the church, to experience some of the suffering he experienced so that when we proclaim the cross as the way to life, people will see the marks of the cross in us and feel the love of the cross from us.  Our calling is to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in bringing them the message of salvation.  Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering.” (John Piper, Desiring God)

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Throughout the gospel of Matthew there exists a steadily mounting anticipation of Jesus’ coming enthronement as the king of Israel, in fulfillment of the prophetic Old Testament messianic hope.  Such an emphasis is obvious, of course, in the central place the “kingdom of God” occupies in Jesus’ teaching and life (and the preeminent role he himself plays in the kingdom) throughout the narrative.  But the motif is similarly plain in a number of other ways, as well.  In 2:2, King Herod’s horrible infanticide is motivated by fear stemming from rumors of a soon to be born “King of the Jews.”  Jesus, as depicted by Matthew, is the proverbial man born to be king.  During Jesus’ 40 days of temptation, the third and climatic temptation (4:8-10) revolves around the nature of how Jesus might seize the messianic throne with all its glory and power.  Satan offers to deliver all the kingdoms of the world to Christ through a thoroughly worldly agenda of disobedience, selfishness and idolatry—which, of course, Jesus refuses.  Such is not the pathway to power for this One.

5:34-35 makes the seemingly offhand comment that Jerusalem is the city of the great king—but its thrust becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses and Jesus heads for precisely that location.  In 13:41, Jesus predicts a day when the Son of Man will cast out all the wicked from his kingdom—exactly what one would expect from the fiery, violent OT depictions of the coming of the kingdom.  In 16:13-23, Peter makes the good confession on which the Church is built—that Jesus is not, as so many in the crowds are convinced, just a prophet.  Instead, he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One—the true Davidic King who arrives to usher in the final and full manifestation of God’s rule over the Gentile nations through Israel.  Of course, Peter immediately reveals that he misunderstands the counter-intuitive nature of Jesus’ kingship by rebuking his Lord for predicting suffering for himself, rather than glory.  Amazingly, Jesus’ response echoes his earlier reply: “Get behind me, Satan” in 16:23 is an exact replica of 4:10.  Like Satan, Peter “tempts” Jesus with an easy crown without a terrible cross, with wordly glory apart from atoning suffering.  Such foibles notwithstanding, Jesus promises his closest followers that such radical political and social upheaval will come soon.  According to 16:28, it is within their very own lifetimes that they will see Jesus enthroned as King and all false rivals usurped.  Seemingly they are on the very cusp of revolution; what all the prophets foretold was soon to come to pass.

In 19:23-30, Jesus’ disciples ask—quite uninhibitedly—what they will personally get out of following him during his ministry, having given up everything for his sake.  Jesus’ reply is stunningly bold.  His followers will reign with him in his kingdom after he is enthroned, ruling over the new creation with him.  They will, in a word, share in the power of his newly established government.  Soon thereafter (20:20-28), the mother of James and John takes the hint and asks for even more.  Can her two sons not only reign with Jesus, but even sit at his right and left hand (the most influential positions under a ruler in the ancient world) when he becomes king?  Jesus’ response is telling, when interpreted in the light of later events—“you do not know what you are asking for.”  Yet it is not so much that the request is wrongheaded, per se.  Rather, they presently have no idea what reigning with Jesus entails.  Next, in 21:1-11, Jesus enters the so-called city of the great king to absolute madness and stirring fanfare.  The crowds know their king has come—riding on a donkey, no less, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9.  That this same multitude will soon chant “Crucify him! Crucify him!” demonstrates their profound disappointment and failure to grasp what kind of king Jesus rides into the city as.  Apparently, the donkey wasn’t an obvious enough clue.  Finally, in 25:34, 40 Jesus once again looks to the future and not only reserves the starring role in the coming eschatological drama (the final judgment) for himself, but even refers to himself as “the king” twice.

Modern readers of the gospels are often not well attuned to the subtle narrative developments of these documents—we tend to be far more comfortable with Paul’s straightforwardly didactic letters or the inspiring poetry of the Psalms.  Yet with all this background now in mind, a surprising fact confronts us.  When does Jesus ever become king? Where is his glorious coronation, with the attendant judgment of evil and the salvation of his people?  Even more perplexing is that in the closing crescendo of the story (28:16-20), Jesus would seem to act as if he were now king.  When he claims that all authority in heaven and earth has now been given to him, and that now his followers should go to all the nations and teach them to obey him, what is that except a call to establish and extend his rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  Moreover, in light of earlier prohibitions to not go outside of Israel (10:6, 15:24), it is clear that at the beginning of the gospel narrative all dominion was not yet given to Jesus.  Which is to say—he was not yet king when Matthew first put pen to paper (or papyri?).  When, then, did Jesus become king and gain such authority along the way?

Matthew 27:27-44 holds the key.  With the profoundest irony imaginable, Matthew depicts Jesus’ crucifixion as his actual enthronement as king—for those who have eyes to see, at least.  For the rest (such as the crowds and rulers and soldiers; cf. I Corinthians 2:6-8), their eyes are veiled and Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom is hidden (2 Corinthians 4:4-6).  Listen afresh as the grim scene plays out:

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him.  And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.  And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.”

Matthew’s fantastic intention is crystal clear–if along the way we have been taking careful note of Jesus’ repeated tendency to frustrate the popular expectations of what his kingship will entail.  What the soldiers do here in mock homage is, from the perspective of humble faith, exactly what is happening behind the scenes in God’s redemptive scheme.  They treat Jesus scornfully as if this were his anticipated coronation—purple robe, crown, scepter for his right hand, and the prostration of his servants before him.  Of course, in their minds they are merely adding insult to injury.  For Matthew’s audience, however, they enact truth without knowing it–for this is Jesus’ coronation.  Here is the enthronement of the man of sorrows, the glory of the suffering servant of the Lord who will be exalted for his sacrifice (Isaiah 52:13 tellingly precedes 52:14-53:12).  In John’s gospel, of course, this is even clearer—there Jesus explicitly announces the cross as his glorification, his exaltation, his “lifting up” from the earth (3:14, 7:39, 8:28, 12:16, 12:23-36, 13:31-32).

As we see so often in the New Testament, Jesus’ kingdom and sovereign rule is associated not with worldly patterns of wisdom and power and dominance, but rather with foolishness and weakness and suffering.  The strange triumph of the Lamb comes not in spite of his public execution, humiliation and failure—but precisely through them.  Our king reigns from a cross, Christians.  The world, to be sure, can never acknowledge this—this coronation is veiled to the eyes of unbelievers.  Like the soldiers, those who are of the flesh can only mock at the weakness and defeat of this would-be pretender king.  But to us who are called—both Jews and Gentiles—this crucified Jesus is both the wisdom of God and the power of God.

One final word must be spoken.  It is not enough, I am convinced, to merely assert that Jesus’ kingdom was ushered in through his own weakness, suffering and death.  The cross is not merely his way to the crown—as if we had the prospect of another more pleasant way open before us as we follow him, seeking to extend his kingdom to all the nations.  The way the kingdom advances is exactly the same as the way the kingdom first arrived.

Recall the question of the mother of James and John in Matthew 20—she wanted her beloved sons to reign with Jesus when he became king.  In light of 19:28, such a request cannot be judged wrongheaded in and of itself.  Even Jesus’ response to the mother in 20:22 shows this—he does not rebuke her directly or flat out refuse her desire.  Rather, he foreshadows what is to come by alluding to the dark cup and blazing baptism that he must soon undergo as part and parcel of his coronation.  And he goes on to ask whether they are able to share in them with him.

Return then with me to Matthew 27:27-44.  Three things in this gruesomely ironic scene echo back to the request to reign with Jesus in his kingdom in Matthew 20.  First, Jesus becomes king precisely here—and it is when Jesus comes into his kingdom that James and John are to reign with Jesus.  Second, the only time in the gospel that the phrase “one at the right hand and one at the left hand” appears is here (cf. Mark 10:40 with 15:27, where this intratextual play is also made).  In 27:38—immediately after Jesus’ veiled coronation—two godless revolutionaries are “seated” with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left–in the eyes of the soldiers, “reigning” with the “King of the Jews” (27:11, 29, 37, 42).  Not enough for you?  Note then this third connection.  The only other time in the entire New Testament that the mother of the sons of Zebedee is mentioned comes directly after this scene, in 27:55-56.  Matthew mentions that some women who followed Jesus were also watching this hidden enthronement—and among them stood the mother of James and John.  Why mention her, except to recall for his audience the only other time she has made an appearance?  What in the world must she have been thinking at this moment, in light of her earlier glory-seeking request?  In Matthew’s narrative world, the answer seems unavoidable.  Jesus has become king, and two men are indeed seated at his right and his left–precisely the coveted spots she wanted her sons to occupy.  “You do not know what you are asking” (20:22) now comes home to Matthew’s audience with fresh, bitter meaning.  This is what it means to reign with Jesus in his kingdom.  Take up your cross and follow him.  There is no other way with this King.

Do we confess such a blatantly upside-down, expectation-crushing gospel today in the West?   Matthew was not the only early Christian writer to promulgate it: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs with God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17).  Therefore, “let us go to him outside the camp [i.e. where Jesus was crucified in shame outside the walls of Jerusalem] and bear the reproach he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14).

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The earliest Christians who followed Jesus’ teachings and confessed him as Lord (over all!) were thoroughgoing imperialists.  All signs point unanimously to this attitude originating with the historical Jesus himself.  Centuries earlier the Old Testament prophetic witness, so crucially formative in Jesus’ own messianic self-consciousness, had itself breathlessly anticipated a future epoch when the God of Israel would extend His sovereign rule to “the ends of the earth.”

This is, admittedly, a radically unpopular line of thinking for those of a more liberal bent in our society, but any historical-critical method that is even remotely objective (that is, that seeks to see what is there rather than what we prefer was there, no matter the personal cost or level of existential discomfort) must acknowledge it.  The evidence is simply overwhelming that the earliest Christian self-understanding included at its epicenter a world-wide mission calling all the nations to repentance and obedience in the kingdom of God as announced and enacted by Jesus Christ.  In the Christian vision of reality, the risen Jesus will one day be king over all the (new) earth, and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father and to the everlasting joy of the redeemed .  This state of affairs is at the heart of the Christian hope, for the “good news” of the gospel proclamation is intimately bound up with the dawning of the reestablishment of the reign of God over His rebellious, fallen creation (cf. Isaiah 52:7-10, Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 4:43, Acts 8:12).

However, if the imperialistic nature and aims of orthodox Christianity rub our secular, pluralistic intuitions (so deeply ingrained as they are) the wrong way, it is equally true that the manner in which the coming of the kingdom occurs is profoundly foreign to and radically at odds with many of the more conservative, religious sentiments of our culture.  The dominion of God did not arrive in Jesus, nor will it continuously advance and be extended in and through his followers, by means of politics or power or wisdom as construed in merely human categories (Zechariah 4:6).  That would leave intact the possibility of human beings boasting in God’s presence.  In keeping rather with God’s designs, this kingdom was once for all planted and even now continues to blossom through suffering.  Resurrection comes through death; the cross precedes the crown.  Despite the gigantic conspiracy theory currently at work in the American church to obscure this reality, it nevertheless remains the case that suffering is not merely the way God saves us through Jesus (though it is always that first), but is also the path upon which he leads all of His children in Jesus and the manner by which He causes the kingdom to grow up to its fullness.  Tertullian spoke well when he pointed out that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  If we find ourselves surprised or taken aback by (or just completely missing) this ubiquitous pattern in the New Testament, we have not been tuning our ears to the logic of the gospel.

One of the most remarkable passages in which this ironic fusion of wildly conflicting values happens—imperialism with humility, power with weakness, victory with defeat, authority with service—is in 2 Corinthians 2:12-16.  Throughout this remarkable and complex pastoral letter, Paul is at pains to defend his God-given apostolic ministry to the Corinthians in the face of fierce accusations from a group of false teachers who are masquerading as super-apostles in Corinth.  In particular, the chief point of their contention seems to have revolved around Paul’s suffering.  From the perspective of these angelic servants of Satan (11:12-15), Paul’s gruesome and persistent suffering in his ministry is Exhibit A in the public legal case against his authenticity and authority.  Significantly, Paul is not content to downplay or deny his suffering, nor even to merely state that there is nothing about such suffering that would disqualify him outright from being an apostle.  Paul’s strategy throughout the letter is far more counter-intuitive: he boldly contends that it is actually his suffering itself, endured in the service of Christ and borne for the sake of the gospel, which most peculiarly qualifies him to be God’s ambassador in furthering the kingdom (cf. 1:3-11, 4:7-12, 6:3-10, 11:16-33, 12:1-10, 13:3-4).

In 2:12-13, Paul mentions off-hand what would seem to be one of the more insignificant burdens he is maligned with: his anxiety over Titus’ well-being.  No doubt his opponents harped even upon this as one more proof of Paul’s lack of favor with God and of the absence of the Spirit’s power in his ministry.  Yet unexpectedly Paul shifts gears (without resolution on Titus forthcoming), turning to praise the God who leads him in triumphal procession in Christ.  By means of this victory parade in which Paul participates, the fragrance of Jesus is being distributed among those observing with interest from the sidelines.  Paul’s life is, in fact, the aroma of Christ both to those who are perishing (to them, Paul reeks of the rancor of death) and to those who are being saved (to them, Paul carries the scent of life).  At first glance, this sounds triumphalistic—and many have often understood it in this fashion, hurriedly applying its “promise” to themselves for the perceived personal benefit.  Yet not only does such an interpretation contradict the overall thrust of Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians, but it also ignores the critical historical background to which Paul alludes.

The phrase “leads in triumphal procession” is a single word in Greek: thriambeuo.  It only occurs once elsewhere in the NT.  The term itself, however, was in widespread use in the ancient Greco-Roman world:

“…the verb often rendered ‘lead in triumph’ (thriambeuo) is actually a technical term that refers to the Roman institution of the triumphal procession.  This portrayal of God’s leading Paul in such a procession is the key to the meaning of 2:14 and therefore to what follows.  The triumphal procession was a lavish parade conducted in Rome to celebrate great victories in significant military campaigns.  Like a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago, these were major cultural and civic events.  Everybody in the Roman Empire knew about these parades, which were represented on Roman arches, reliefs, coins, statues, medallions, paintings, and cameos, not to mention the approximately 350 triumphs that are recorded in ancient literature.  They were ostentatious celebrations, filled with valiant soldiers, the spoils of war, and the most theatrical pomp and circumstances Rome could muster.  Moreover, the triumphal procession demonstrated Rome’s prowess as the victor not only by parading the spoils of war, but also by leading in triumph the most important leaders and intimidating warriors of the enemy, now presented as conquered slaves.  The highest honor any Roman Caesar or general could receive would be to lead one of these parades.  Conversely, to be led as a prisoner in such a triumphal procession signaled one’s utter defeat.” (Scott Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, p. 107)

In other words, Rome had a devious proclivity for showing off its splendor, especially whenever it conquered another foreign territory.  The “triumphal procession” allowed the empire to indulge in frequent self-glorification by parading recently humiliated and defeated warriors through the city streets as captives.  As Hafemann goes on to write, “the role of those led in triumph was to reveal the glory of the one who had conquered them, ultimately through their public execution and death.” (p. 109).  This background, to be sure, makes perfect sense of the only other occurrence of thriambeuo in Colossians 2:15.  Here Paul depicts the cross as the instrument by which God has publicly paraded in Christ the hostile rulers and arrogant authorities in a triumphal procession, manifesting His glory through utterly defeating and destroying His enemies.  Their defeat shows forth His victory, their dishonor highlights His glory, and their weakness magnifies His strength–just as the Roman custom was intended to also do.  It is an apt metaphor here.

What is absolutely shocking, however, is that in 2 Corinthians 2:14 it is Paul and those who minister with him who occupy the same shameful position that the defeated enemies of God do in Colossians 2:15.  Both Paul and the defeated enemies of God are the direct objects of thriambeuo in these two texts, just as in both cases God is the subject and “in Christ” is the unexpected context.  [Importantly, the verb thriambeuo is in the past tense in the Colossians text, but in 2 Corinthians it is in the present tense, signifying an ongoing action that continues to take place in Paul’s ministry.]  Thwarting our expectations, Paul turns out not to be leading the victory parade, nor is he even in the chariot with Christ gloating over others.  Rather, Paul himself is revealed to be the figure who is led in triumphal procession (the humiliating position of the conquered) by God (the mighty conqueror) in Christ (the sphere in which this death march takes place):

“This fact is so startling because in 2:14 Paul is the direct object of the verb, not its subject.  Paul is not the one leading the triumphal procession; he is the one being led in it like a prisoner of war!…By using this well-known cultural event to describe his own life as an apostle, Paul’s point is that, as the one ‘being led in triumph,’ God is leading Paul to his death…As the enemy of God’s people, God had conquered Paul at his conversion call on the road to Damascus and was now leading him, as a ‘slave of Christ’ (his favorite term for himself as an apostle), to death in Christ, in order that Paul might display or reveal the majesty, power, and glory of God, his conqueror…In all these passages [i.e. about Paul’s suffering as an apostle in 2 Corinthians], as in 2:14, Paul’s suffering, as the corollary to and embodiment of his message of the cross, is the very thing God uses to make himself known…Far from calling his apostleship into question, Paul’s point in 2:14 is that his suffering, here portrayed in terms of being led to death in the Roman triumphal procession, is the means through which God is revealing himself…In other words, God continually leads Paul to death in a triumphal procession and in this way everywhere reveals the knowledge of him.” (Scott Hafemann, pp. 108-10)

Recall again that this “triumphal procession” is precisely the way in which God spreads the aroma of Christ to the world through Paul’s life.  Now it begins to make sense.  How could it be any otherwise?  Imagine, for example, if Paul routinely showed up in Ephesus or Thessalonica clothed in fancy, expensive garments and enjoying the most luxurious living arrangements.  Imagine if the message being preached came forth from an alternative Paul who possessed a remarkably clean bill of health across the board, who was inflicted with no painful worries due to valued relationships and no really marked disappointments or bitter heartbreaks in life, and who had subsequently gained enormous popularity in the eyes of a glowing fan club that remains ever loyal to him, with no dissenters or mockers.  Ponder now the impression such a man would leave behind.  How could all that prosperity and blessing and sunshine ever smell of Him?  How would those enviable experiences be transformed into the aroma of the crucified Jesus–the man of sorrows–in the nostrils of those who listen to his proclamation?

Such a pattern of life will communicate something.  But it will not communicate Him.  You cannot have every worldly desire perpetually fulfilled and a spiritualized form of the American dream coming to regular fruition in your life and—at the same time—hope to communicate anything accurate about Jesus Christ through your life to the watching world.  But if we dare to (joyfully) endure suffering with our Savior by faith and daily choose the path of self-denial for the sake of others–if, like him, we intentionally set our faces like flint to go to Jerusalem, voluntarily placing ourselves in the path of suffering for the sake of others–then a massive correspondence will erupt between our message and our ministry, between our lips and our lives, between the place of the cross in the gospel and the place of the cross in our experience.  Then the presence of Jesus will be manifested with power through the Spirit in our lives and mediated to others in supernatural ways.  Then we will share in His triumph, realizing afresh that the victory of God is extended through us in precisely the same way it was inaugurated in Jesus: through voluntary suffering in service to God and others.  “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (I Peter 2:21).

And who, you might reasonably ask, is sufficient for these things?

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