Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

Richard B. Hays and the fire of texts

… Despite all the careful hedges that we plant around texts, meaning has a way of leaping over, like sparks. Texts are not inert; they burn and throw fragments of flame on their rising heat. Often we succeed in containing the energy, but sometimes the sparks escape and kindle new blazes, reprises of the original fire.

That is a way of saying that texts can generate readings that transcend both the conscious intention of the author and all the hermeneutical strictures that we promulgate. Poets and preachers know this secret; biblical critics have sought to suppress it for heuristic purposes. At times, the texts speak through us in ways that could not have been predicted, ways that can be comprehended only by others who hear the voice of the text through us—or, if by ourselves, only retrospectively.

Such phenomena occur repeatedly in all significant discourse: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts.” The texts that envelope us speak through us; resonant speech discovers typologies that interpret present experience through the language of predecessors. But these typologies come to us unbidden, impose themselves upon us in ways that we understand through a glass darkly. Anyone who has ever acted in a play knows the experience of discovering that lines from the play come unexpectedly to mind in real-life situations different from the original dramatic context. The aptness of the quoted line does not depend on exact literal correspondence between the original meaning and the new application. Indeed, the wit and pleasure of such quotations lie partly in the turning of the words to a new sense. In such cases, the act of quotation becomes an act of figuration, establishing a metaphorical resonance between drama and life. Paul’s uses of Scripture often have a similar character: Scripture is for him the text of the word-play in which he performs and from which familiar lines repeatedly spring to life in new situations.

To limit our interpretation of Paul’s scriptural echoes to what he intended by them is to impose a severe and arbitrary hermeneutical restriction. In the first place, what he intended is a matter of historical speculation; in the second place, his intertextual echoes are acts of figuration. Consequently, later readers will rightly grasp meanings of the figures that may have been veiled from Paul himself. Scripture generates through Paul new figurations; The Righteousness from Faith finds in Paul a new voice.

Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Richard B. Hays. Yale University Press: London, 1989. Print. 33.


Ephesians 5:1, 2 — Children and Priests of God

December 31, 2011 1 comment

Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.

Our passage will be Ephesians 5:1-2, which is quoted above in the New King James translation. My goal in this exposition is to show you what the identity of a true believer in Christ is. I encourage you to have your Bible open as we progress.

This passage points to two identities that every true believer in Christ has. Before we go further, however, I am going to qualify what I mean by a true believer in Christ and why that believer is a true one rather than false, who is otherwise known as a lost person. A true believer is one who holds to the core beliefs of historical Christianity, the primary beliefs of which are the dual deity and humanity of Christ; the sinless life and actual death and resurrection of Christ; the Trinity; the nature and punishment for sin, which is death; and the only way for man to be reconciled to God, which is through faith in Christ. Somebody who professes faith in Christ and whose life reflects this profession is a true believer in Christ. In short, a true believer knows that Christ is his only hope for life, and therefore  this person has repented of his sin and his hatred toward God and now lives a life by faith for the glory of God.

Back to the text, we see two identities of every believer to which Paul alludes:  that of being a child of God and that of being a priest of God.

The first word of this passage is one of the most important, however–“therefore.” We must see why Paul calls the church–the local community of believers–at Ephesus to be imitators of God as dear children and to walk in love as Christ also did. Immediately preceding this passage, Paul explains to the Ephesians, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore…” (Ephesians 4:32-5:1, emphasis added). Because Christ has forgiven them, the believers are called to be imitators of God as dear children and to walk in love as Christ did.

Why is it necessary that Christ forgives them? We know that doing righteous acts outside of Christ are to no effect; that nobody may be redeemed through good works is a theme heralded throughout the Scriptures,

“But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities.” Isaiah 64:6, 7

Isaiah understood, before Christ arrived and fulfilled the Law, that we have not sought God and that, in fact, nobody seeks God. Even our clean acts done in the Law, as Isaiah explains, “are like filthy rags,” and our sins “have taken us away” from the God who sustains us.

Paul explains the significance of the Law, as fulfilled in the New Testament,

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” Romans 7:7-12

Paul explains that it is through the Law that people are made aware of their sin. The Law does not create sin, however. It highlights it. He explains that sin was “revived,” not created, when the Law came, and sin took the opportunity provided by the commandment to enact itself. It could not do this if the Law created sin.

Paul continues, “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.” Our nature is sinful outside of Christ; that simply means that we will do everything we can to glorify ourselves, lift ourselves up, and otherwise draw attention to ourselves, when the reality is that God who sustains all of creation deserves the glory.

Even without the written Law found in the Pentateuch, there is still the moral law written on every man’s heart so that nobody is without excuse. Such violations of this law include murder, adultery, theft, and other universally acknowledged wrongs. Everything we do that is contrary to the nature of God and does not glorify God is sin. And this sin nature, which dwells in every man, condemns him to hell, unless his sin can be forgiven.

God, however, is a just God and cannot simply forgive the sins of people without a proper sacrifice. If a man were found at the scene of a murder with blood on his hands, were to confess to the police that he killed the victim, and were tried before a judge, we would cry “Injustice!” if the judge were to tell him, “I see what you have done. You are sorry. I forgive you.” We know that this is unjust. And that is not how God forgives our sins.

Through Christ, having lived a perfect, sinless life and being both human and deity, we are made into sons of God, having our sins forgiven. When Christ was on the cross, he knew that his purpose (to make God just for having passed over sins previously committed and to redeem the sons of God [cf. Romans 3:23-26]) was about to be fulfilled,

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” Now a vessel of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” John 19:28-30

Christ knew that the redemption of the children of God was now complete. Through Christ’s crucifixion, the children of God could be forgiven and their sins atoned. More than that, they were given a new nature in Christ. Because of our redemption and Christ’s covering our sins, we are called dear children of God and priests of God. Paul affirms this in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19,

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (Emphasis added.)

Through Christ, we are made into new beings, literally new creatures. One of the characteristics of this new creature-ship is being a child of God. In Ephesians 5:1, Paul tells this church, “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.” An improper reading of this would be, “Therefore be imitators of God as though you were dear children.” What I want to make clear to you is that we are actual, true, literal children of God. This is not a metaphor or figure of speech that Paul uses to make the believers feel good about themselves or have something to which they should aim. He tells them, “Because Christ has forgiven you and has thus made you into dear, beloved children of God, be imitators of God, your Father.”

This is not the only place in Scripture that believers are called children of God, and that is why I take such confidence in this assertion. Paul elsewhere affirms our sonship in Christ,

“Therefore, brethren, we are debtors–not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” Romans 8:12-17

Note the language that Paul uses; it is rich with legal and binding terms:  debtor, adoption, bearing witness, heirs and joint heirs. An actual transaction has taken place; God has bought your soul through Christ’s sacrifice, and nothing can take you away from this reality. We have received the Spirit of adoption, and, if this Spirit were merely metaphoric, it would not be true in what Paul claims that it can accomplish. We would be wholly unable to cry to God, ‘Abba, Father!’ if our adoption as sons of God were merely metaphoric. We would be wholly unable to cry to God if Christ were not our firstborn brother and now interceding on our behalf (cf. Hebrews 7:25-28, Colossians 1:13-18).

Only God can accomplish the qualifications in Romans 8 for being a child of God. Indeed, Paul makes it clear that it is those “led by the Spirit of God” that are sons of God and those who “by the Spirit . . . put to death the deeds of the body” who live. If the Spirit of God leads you, you are a child of God. But you must be wary that it is not a false spirit that is leading you.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God:  Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” 1 John 4:1-3

If you are being led into further and further love of holiness and of God and hatred of sin and of your former life and of all the things that are not of God, then it is the true Spirit. Remember, we can only know and love God through Christ, so anything that lessens God and Christ is not of God. And, if this Spirit leads us into holiness and closer relationship to God in Christ, then the Spirit does and will “bear witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” And all the children of God are heirs of God, meaning that God is our inheritance, our treasure, our joy, our only hope upon death or his second coming.

As well, Peter affirms our relationship to God as dear children.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

The depth and richness of this passage is mind-blowing, but I do not have the time or space to deal with it specifically now. I will save that for a later post. I want to focus on the phrase that speaks to the process of our salvation, “Who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . .” God, because of his abundant and exceeding mercy, has chosen to beget us again to salvation through Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

We have been born again (cf. John 3:1-21). We say this all the time without considering its implications. It makes no sense, as Nicodemus realized, for a man to choose to be born again and to reënter through his mother’s womb. It would be foolish to propose this. In the same way, it is foolish to propose that man accomplishes his salvation. We have been begotten. God begets us. This is the same action from another perspective, that of the actor rather than the acted-upon. God begets us, he gives us new life, he makes us into new creatures. We are literally born again because of the abundant mercy of God, and we are born again as children of God. Peter points to the resurrection of Christ and to faith that relies on this resurrection as the means by which God’s power is enacted, as does Paul. The result is the same:  a new identity and a new hope.

If you, a believer in Christ, still struggle with realizing your identity as a child of God, let us turn to the words of Jesus himself.

‘Then He said, “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”” Luke 15:11-19

There are a few things in this passage that I want to draw to your attention. This son was the son of a wealthy man, who had two sons. The younger is the subject of our focus. As we have seen in the story of Isaac and Esau, the older son is the one who is given the birthright. This tradition is still common in contemporary culture. However, here, the younger son asks his father for his inheritance, and upon receiving it he flees from his father and wastes his inheritance in vain living. After he has squandered his money and is now living as an indentured servant (15:15), he realizes the vanity and foolishness of his life. He has come face to face with the disaster that his life has become when he realizes that his father’s servants are filled with enough food that they can spare some, while he desires the pods that the pigs eat.

As a result of this realization, we see the heart that every single believer in Christ must have:  a repentant heart. He tells himself, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'” After he has realized his wretched state, he simply desires to return to his father. He knows that he has sinned against his father; he has wholly wasted his inheritance and spurned the love of his father. He simply desires to return, even as a servant. But his father accepts him, and he does not let his son become a hired servant.

‘”And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”‘ Luke 15:20-24

Before our subject can even ask his father to make him into a hired servant, his father interjects and tell his servants to clothe him with the finest robes and jewelry and to create a grand feast. This is what our Father in heaven does for us. When we turn to him in repentance and brokenness, he accepts us and claims us as his children. But it is only through a repentant heart that this is done. Again, we are his literal, true, begotten children through faith and repentance.

The second identity alluded to in Ephesians 5:1, 2 is that of being a priest of God. Paul calls the church at Ephesus to “walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” We have the same sort of phrase here as in 5:1:  “as dear children” and “as Christ also . . .” Therefore, we can reasonably expect the same sort of reality concerning condition in 5:2 as in 5:1, being an actual child of God and being an actual priest of God.

In the second half of Ephesians 5:2, Paul explains the manner in which Christ gave himself, “[A]n offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” This is an allusion to the sacrifices made in the Old Testament, of which the believers here would have been aware. Specifically, the sort of offerings and sacrifices made here appeal to the incense used in the Temple, which offerings and sacrifices were sweet-smelling both to God in the Holy of Holies and to the High Priest.

We see in the Old Testament that only the priests were allowed to offer the sacrifices and the incense to God. Exodus 30 sets forth the regulations for the Altar of Incense as well as the incense itself.

“You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood. . . . And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you. Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it. And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.” Exodus 30:1, 6-10

We see that this altar is placed in front of the Ark, wherein God dwelt with his people in the Old Testament. Interestingly, the altar of incense is also where the atonement sacrifice was made, and we know that Christ offered atonement once for all for all the children of God, which was forgiveness of sins through his crucifixion. But, I digress. Every morning and each night, the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies and burn the incense. This incense is “most holy to the Lord,” and, again, only prepared by the priestly line for the Lord,

“But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the Lord. Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people” (Exodus 30:37, 38).

We can see in 2 Chronicles that only the priests offer incense or any sacrifice to God. King Uzziah was a great king who feared the Lord, and, as a result, the Lord blessed him in his battles. But, King Uzziah grew prideful. He dared to enter into the Temple and into the Holy of Holies, to burn incense to the Lord,

“But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. So Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him were eight priests of the Lord–valiant men. And they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.'” 2 Chronicles 26:16-18

Uzziah has stood against what the Lord has established. He has gone beyond his boundaries. Christ is our King:  this is true. But he is also our Great High Priest, and therefore he is able to enter into the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God, and intercedes for us on our behalf (Hebrews 4:14-16; Romans 8:34).  For that reason, he is able to offer his life as an offering and a sacrifice to God without fear of what befell Uzziah,

“Then Uzziah became furious; and he had a censer in his hand to burn incense. And while he was angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the house of the Lord, beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and there, on his forehead, he was leprous; so they thrust him out of that place. Indeed he also hurried to get out, because the Lord had struck him. King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord.” 2 Chronicles 26:19-21

Do we see how serious it is for somebody–a King, even!–to enter into the Holy of Holies without proper justification to do so? A God-honoring King, who was simply filled with pride, was struck with leprosy for entering into the Holy of Holies to do that which God commanded the priests to accomplish.

Therefore, we should have great fear if God through Paul commands us to do what Christ did, while we are not priests. We should fear even praying to the Lord, for David calls his prayers in Psalm 141 incense pleasing to the Lord. But David understood the reality:  the Law could never accomplish righteousness; the regulations could never save; they could only bring to light the sin that dwelt so deeply and wretchedly within us. So he went to God in great faith and love and adoration, begging him to accept his prayers as incense as he lived his life for righteousness. David is not the only one who alludes to our prayers being offered as incense:  at least twice in Revelation, the same comparison is made.

“Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 5:8

“When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” Revelation 8:1-4

What beautiful, striking imagery. Our prayers are in the incense, the smoke of the incense; and this incense is pleasing to the Lord our God. But this could not be so unless we were literally made into priests of God. If we were only figuratively made into priests of God, then our prayers would only figuratively go to God; for, if they truly did go to God in this state as incense, we would be in a dire state.

We must keep in mind who offers the offering and the sacrifice in Ephesians 5:2, which person is Christ. Christ, according to Hebrews 5, is the great High Priest.

“So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you.’ As He also says in another place:  ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’; who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest, ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’. . .” Hebrews 5:5-10

Christ has become that great High Priest who is able to save us, fully and wholly, from our sin. With that identity, Christ is able to offer the sacrifice to God on our behalf, namely his life.

Paul encourages us to emulate Christ, “to walk in love as Christ also has loved us and given himself for us.” The only reasonable explanation for us to emulate Christ is that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us, and therefore his identity as a priest of God has been imputed to us as well. This shared identity is in no way to suggest that we are equal with Christ; this is a blasphemous notion. Paul explains,

“And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” Colossians 1:18

Christ is the firstborn from the dead; He is given all the rights and treasures of the family of God. He is the head of the Church, and he is given preeminence in all things, including our own lives. However, we are called to live in the same way as Christ did (cf. Philippians 2). Because Christ is our firstborn brother from the dead, we must emulate his life and look to him for our direction.

So, if we are called to emulate Christ in all of his responsibilities, we must also be priests in the same way that Christ was a priest, that is, not in a metaphorical or mythical sense, but in a real and literal sense. Again, if we have only been figuratively given these responsibilities, then we cannot offer the sacrifices of our lips to God without fear of punishment for daring to approach him as an unclean, dirty person.

In the same way that we are literally made into children of God, we are actually transformed into priests of God. All of the talk concerning transformation and change in the bodies of believers make more sense when we understand that an actual identity-shift has occurred. We have truly gone from death to life, and our life is found in Christ because we have been made into children of God and priests of God through the resurrection of Christ from the dead and our kinship with Him.

One important thing to drive home, though, is that God requires much more of us than simply prayers. The New Testament affirms this throughout. James affirms that faith without works is dead (James 1:22-27); Paul encourages us to perform the works that God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10); and Peter calls us to live a life worthy of God and our calling (1 Peter 2:9-12). Returning to the Old Testament, we see throughout the history of the Israelites that all of the sacrifices of God, when done in holiness and justice and righteousness and faith, were pleasing and delightful to the Lord. Applying this truth to the New Testament, we see that it is much more than our prayers of incense that our pleasing to, and required by, the Lord. He requires our whole lives to be utterly and unreservedly sold out to his glory. So, in Romans 12:1, Paul encourages the believers in Rome to do just this,

“I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

We present our bodies, and our whole lives, to God as living sacrifices. If we were not priests of God, this would be an adventure into death. We would have zero authority to offer anything, much less our bodies, to God as sacrifices unless we were priests. So, we see that our authority to even do the commands in Ephesians 5, which I have hardly touched on, is dependent on our identities that our granted to us through Christ.

We have been granted new identities as children and priests of God. This is a complete identity-shift:  from death to life, we have been found by God and made into new beings. Completely new beings, with new authorities and responsibilities and also blessings, these identities change us to the very core of our beings, our souls. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been given new life where death abounded and grace where condemnation was just. Embrace these identities, and live in such a way as to honor God with your lives:  seeking to glorify God and relying on him for full strength and wisdom.

Be blessed.

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