Missional Hermeneutics – Paul

If Acts is the third act of the salvation play, then in the letters of Paul, we have a good set of director’s notes. Paul recognizes that he is not the author of the story. Yet, he understands his job to be continually helping believers to understand how they play their role. Through the letters of Paul, we gain understanding of the early church’s involvement in the mission of God. This study will not be exhaustive. However, looking particularly at two of the “undisputed letters” of Paul, Romans and 1 Corinthians, provides us a sound basis for understanding Paul’s missiological perspective (Barram 54).

Before looking specifically at the content of the letters, we will look at the life of Paul as we know it through Luke’s record in Acts and through his letters. First, tracking the missionary travels of Paul provides a testimony to the wideness of God’s grace. Luke, in fact, ends abruptly without giving us an idea of how far the gospel would stretch through Paul’s faithfulness. Paul envisioned his duty “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). While the grounding for this vision is unclear, Paul believes that his role is to perform the priestly duty of mediating between God and the Gentiles. In doing so, Paul takes the role of Israel and, perhaps, encourages other believers to do the same (The Mission of God 525).

Paul’s fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ also shapes his mission. He will not allow an unnecessary hindrance to the gospel. Paul’s practice of tent making rather than accepting money from every church evidenced his fidelity to the gospel. Instead of entering into relationships built on market reciprocity, Paul made tents and sold them in the market (Malina 95). Paul spells out the phenomenon to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 9). Paul states that he does not want to compromise his motivation for spreading the gospel by entering into a patron-client relationship. He wants to ensure that the gospel is “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). Joel N. Lohr ties this to Christology as well. He argues that 1 Cor. 9 can be linked with Paul’s statement, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Lohr compares Paul’s humility of performing a simple task and struggling to survive with the incarnation of Jesus (187).

Paul’s correspondences contain a wide variety of issues. However, as we look particularly at Romans, the content can be categorized in two ways. The letter to the church in Rome is the fullest theological treatise that we have from Paul. Aimed as a defense of the gospel and a fuller explanation for theological questions, the first 11 chapters lay out the fullness of the righteousness of God and the accomplishments of God through Christ. These are the apologetic chapters. A switch occurs in chapter 12, however. The verb tenses move from indicative to imperative (Hill 250). Rather than instructing the Roman church about the role of Christ in human history, Paul begins to instruct the Romans on the role of Christ in their lives.

To say that there were significant problems in the early church would be an understatement. However, some areas appear to have been more problematic than others. The church in Corinth was a problem child. The church experienced division over leadership (1:10-17; 3:1-2), had difficulty during the central act of worship (11:2-14:40), and behaved no differently than the surrounding culture (5:1-20). While Paul’s response to these issues were based in righteousness and justice, it appears that the mission of God was more than a secondary consideration. The gospel was to be spread by the faithful witness of believers. When the actions and attitudes of the believers were not faithful, the mission was at risk. Darrell Guder suggests that Paul’s ethics are often mission focused. “The love that the Christian community practices toward each other enables the demonstration and explication of that love as good news to their neighbors, those next to them, those to whom they are sent” (“Lecture 1” 10).

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Missional Hermeneutics – Acts of the Apostles

The record of the Acts of the Apostles can be understood as the final unfolding of Jesus’ mission for universal inclusion. Perhaps, though, Luke saw his account as reaching further back, fulfilling the vision of inclusion that Isaiah had espoused. Looking at the mission of God as a play performed in three acts may help us to see from Luke’s perspective. In the first act, Israel made covenant with Yahweh but failed to recognize its “true vocation.” In the second act, Jesus takes the role of redemptor that Israel was to play with his followers becoming the “restored Israel.” The Acts of the Apostles represents the third act, bringing “light and salvation to the nations” (Mallen 112-113).

The third act begins with a covenant of sorts. While Acts 1:8 does not fit a typical covenantal pattern, the inclusion of a promise from God with a hope concerning the world harkens back to the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12). The promise in Acts 1:8 is that the disciples would be empowered by the Holy Spirit (ἁγίου πνεύματος). In this covenant, Jesus is clear about the expectations. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples are to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This commissioning covenant becomes a framework for Luke’s entire story of the early church. Using Acts 1:8, we will look at specific emphases in mission found in Acts, including empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the practical application of being “witnesses,” and the increasingly inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit is ubiquitous in Acts. Forms of the root (πνεῦμα) occur 70 times in Acts. First Corinthians contains the next highest number of occurrences of πνεῦμα with 40. To explain the importance of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the church, Stephen Bevans refers to the Spirit’s role in all of creation. “The Spirit creates the church, calls the church into being through mission” (10). Like the blessings of Abraham, the gift of the Holy Spirit was not for God’s people to hold for themselves. Instead, it was to be used to tell and show the world the power of Jesus Christ.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Commissioning through the Holy Spirit is an important discussion in Acts as well. Luke seems to suggest that there was either no time or no reason to set up definitive orders of ministry. In fact, it appears that the empowerment of the Holy Spirit was available to all. An early passage, in particular, gives insight to the issue of commissioning. After Peter and John witness before and are released by the court of the High Priest (Acts 4), they bring a report to the church. Upon hearing Peter and John’s report, the church, led by no one in particular, began to pray for boldness of speech (4:24-30). When they had finished praying, the earth shook, “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31, emphasis mine). The commissioning appears to be upon all believers in the Messiah (Mallen 192). A second passage that demands a great deal of study on this subject is the ministry of the seven chosen to “wait on tables” (Acts 6-8). Joel B. Green argues that Luke is not telling the story to explain how to “delegate” authority. Rather, Luke tells the story to lampoon human pigeonholing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (“New Testament Introduction”). The seven had already been gifted with the Holy Spirit (6:3). What further commissioning could be necessary? Yet, Peter commissions them to “wait on tables,” caring for the poor among the Hellenists. While Stephen certainly does the work of service on behalf of others, the reason that he is eventually martyred is his proclamation, for “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (6:10). Believers, endowed with the Holy Spirit, are all commissioned to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.

The Holy Spirit controls more than the commissioning of the witnesses. He also controls the medium of the witness. So, the gospel message is appropriated in many different ways through believers. Peter preaches to bear witness at Pentecost (2:14-36). Peter and John heal the beggar at the Beautiful Gate (3:1-10). Stephen performs “great signs and wonders” and wins the favor of many (6:8-15). Philip shares personally that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy (8:26-40). Ananaias offers hospitality to Saul (9:1-22). To some extent, the Holy Spirit enabled these examples to occur, and in each instance, the disciples bore witness to Jesus Christ. One of the mistakes made by missiologists, including David Bosch, has been to define “witness” narrowly as vocal proclamation of the gospel (116). Luke appears to define “witness” (μαρτυρέω) more broadly. It is giving an account, as Lesslie Newbigin says, “in word and deed and common life” to the justice and mercy of Jesus Christ (129). Or, as Evvy Hill Campbell says, “all three are needed: words to clarify deeds, deeds to verify the meaning of words, and power to announce the source of all good deeds” (43).

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit creates the mission and oversees the means of appropriating the gospel. The Holy Spirit also directs the location of the witness. We have established that Luke continues to unfold the inclusive vision of blessing for all nations. It is important to realize that this increasingly inclusive and universal blessing continues to be grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ is the basis of the vision in Acts, Luke clearly believes that it is rooted in God’s promises all the way back to Abraham. Therefore, a witness to Jesus Christ points all the way back to God’s initial purposes.

The Widness of God’s Mercy

As the vision unfolds, the Holy Spirit guides believers to extend the blessings of God in concentric circles (Bevans 9). The door was first opened to “devout Jews from every nation” on Pentecost (2:5). Then, the door was opened to the half-Jews of Samaria (8:14-17). Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, a “wannabe Jew” (in Bevans’ words), further widens the circle (8:26-40). Finally, the conversion of Cornelius’ household (10:1ff.) and the establishment of the church in Antioch (11:19-30) fulfill God’s desire from Gen. 12. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the people of God were extending blessing to all nations.

The Apostle Paul is historically understood as the single individual who is most responsible for the extension of the gospel. While Acts tells us of much of his journeys, his very own letters may give an even deeper insight to his understanding of the missio Dei. Next, we will search the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Missional Hermeneutics – The Life of Jesus

In December 2008, I was teaching a seminar in Dumila, Tanzania for pastors from the Tanzania Assemblies of God. My subject was Ephesians 4 and Paul’s ministry paradigm of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher. As I dug into biblical examples of apostolic ministry, a ministry that extends the grace of God to new frontiers, I asked the pastors for examples from the life of Jesus. The first pastor to speak up said, “When he came to earth.” It was a simple observation, but one that had escaped me. In the very incarnation, Jesus was missional. The young pastor in Dumila, who at most was educated at a high school level, pointed out the glory of God’s mission in Jesus. As N.T. Wright says, “What God intended to do to and through Israel, to make Israel his people for the world, God has now achieved and accomplished through Jesus Christ” (54).

As we speak about the life of Jesus, we draw our information from the gospel writers. It is important to note that the very act of writing the stories of the life of Jesus was in fact missional. These writers were telling a story so that particular communities would recognize the blessing of God’s reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Luke says that his purpose in writing was so that the community would “know the truth” (Luke 1:4). Like a good narrative preacher, John unfolds the story of Jesus, including resurrection, before explaining in a climactic way that, “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). However, the gospel writers intended their work for use beyond the original community as well. It appears clear, for example, that Matthew’s gospel was written so that the communities could “proclaim and teach it to all nations,” equipping these new believers for furthering the mission of God (Ulrich 83).

While the missional focus of the life of Jesus is consistent among all of the gospel writers, we will pay particular attention to Luke’s gospel for three reasons. First, in the Gospel of Luke before Jesus begins his ministry, he tells how to frame his actions. Secondly, Luke gives us opportunity to study a consistent thread as our discussion moves toward the early church in the Book of Acts. Finally, focusing on the Gospel of Luke will pare down the examples and allow for a more precise discussion.

The first public words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel were harmless enough. He attended his home synagogue, pulled the scroll of Isaiah from its holder, and began to read from 61:1-2 saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The reading itself was not offensive. Indeed, the actions of Jesus were common on the Sabbath. He simply stood to read from the scriptures. The problems arose, however, when he began to teach.

The expectation was that Jesus would teach on the Scripture in accordance to the tradition of the synagogue. He did teach. However, the content was unexpected. Jesus tied the prophetic testimony of Isaiah to stories of Elijah and Elisha, where the prophets extended the justice and grace of God to outsiders. Elijah went to a widow in Sidon. Through the work of Elisha, a Syrian named Naaman was cleansed. As stated earlier, God desires that the entire world experience his justice and grace. However, in the history of Israel found in 1 Kings and 2 Kings, these stories of mercy for non-Israelites are surprising. One expects healing for Israel. Yet, it is a Syrian general who is cleansed, intruding “into that settled world with an unexpected counter-reality that explodes the settlement and offers news of a counter-reality” (2 Kings 5 263).

It appears that because Jesus has been teaching in synagogues, some had already begun to identify him as a prophet. With these teachings in Nazareth, he identifies himself as a prophet sent to a broader audience than Israel. His veiled inclusion of other nations infuriates the synagogue crowd. This prophet “is not acceptable in his own country because his mission extends beyond his own country” (Johnson 82).

The teaching of Jesus helps us to understand how he recognized his own ministry within Isaiah 61. However, there are a couple of key points that need further analysis. First, let us look at the place from which the ministry flows. In quoting Isaiah, Jesus says that the Spirit of the Lord has “anointed” (ἔχρισέν) him to preach good news to the poor. While the specific translation of ἔχρισέν points to a past action of placing oil on one’s head, the word also implies a consecration for a particular religious work. The understanding of Isaiah 61 in Hebrew would have carried this implication as well. The Servant is speaking and giving an account of his “investiture and mission” (Isaiah 56-66 221). Therefore, Jesus says that he has been given the Spirit of the Lord and that he has been sent.

To whom has Jesus been sent? It was in answering this question that Jesus got himself in trouble. Today’s understanding of the word “poor” lacks texture. When we speak of the poor, we are speaking of those who do not have resources, especially those who do not have money. The first century understanding of poor (πτωχοῖς) includes much more contour, according to Joel B. Green. The poor included those who had little social status as well. The Gerasene Demoniac (8:26-35) had no clothes, showing his illness and his lack of status in community. Zacchaeus (19:1-10) may have had money, but his status as a tax collector excluded him from the wider community. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers (17:11-19), he did more than take away their sickness. He told them to show the priests in order to be restored to the community. Jesus shows throughout Luke that his purpose was to redeem and restore those who had been left out (Jesus of Nazareth 69).
While the proclamation of his intention came early, the ministry of Jesus did not immediately embody the full extension of God’s justice and mercy. John Michael Penney argues that the work of Jesus in the early chapters of the third gospel is a consistent reference to the prophetic ministry. In the acts of raising the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-16), multiplying food (Luke 9:12ff.), controlling nature (Luke 8:22ff), and healing leprosy (Luke 5:21ff), Jesus was consistently aligning himself and allowing other to align him with a prophetic lineage, particularly Elijah and Elisha (44). According to Penney, these miraculous acts were first about demonstrating prophetic anointing. A secondary accomplishment of these miraculous signs was a foretaste, fulfilling “his servant ministry to inaugurate Israel’s redemption (Luke 24:19) and Gentile incorporation into Israel” (46).

Harold Dollar agrees that Luke presents a gradual movement from “particularism to universalism.” Luke was likely familiar with the Markan account of the gospel. Therefore, any narrative differences should clue us in to Luke’s intention. Dollar cites that Luke omits two of Mark’s references to the gospel being shared to all the nations (Mark 13:10; 14:9). Luke also omits a Markan passage that says that make Jewish food laws obsolete (Mark 7). Instead of the abruptness of Mark’s Jesus who breaks in and immediately reorients the world, Luke chooses to use both of his volumes (Luke and Acts) to unfold the blessing of Yahweh for all nations (22-23).

Perhaps, we do best to understand Luke’s account of Jesus with Green, Dollar, and Penney (pretty funny, huh?) in mind. The Father sent Jesus as a fulfillment of the greater goal. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus prophetically proclaimed a new world and shared good news that included the outcast. This inclusion was based on the promise of God to Abraham and was heralded by Isaiah. Further, Jesus directed his ministry toward any who were “poor,” whether Jew or Gentile. State of need, rather than state of ethnicity, determined the orientation of Jesus in the third gospel.

Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham birthed the dream of God’s people being a blessing to all nations. Prophets from Israel’s kingdom period, Elijah and Elisha, gave glimpses of the future hope. The story of Jonah tells of a God who will use all of his creation to bring blessing. No matter how you break down the authorship of Isaiah, the writer(s) makes universal hope apparent. While the fullness of the universal hope was not realized until after the resurrection of Jesus, his ministry embodied that vision. Through linking his actions to Elijah and Elisha, through reference to Isaiah, and through sending his disciples to a despised people, Jesus showed the values of his kingdom. After Jesus’ ascension, God uses an unlikely and crude group of followers to make universal hope a reality. That unlikely and crude group of followers will be the focus of our next discussion