Friday, October 20, 2006

"Resurrection" as Spiritual as well as Physical

NT Wright emphasizes throughout his books that "resurrection" in Jesus' day had only to do with a new physical existence and never applies to non-bodily revivification. For example, in What St. Paul Really Said, he writes:

"First-century Jews held a variety of beliefs about what God would do with, or to, his people after their death. But 'resurrection' was never a term covering lots of different options on that score. It had to do, specifically,with reembodiment, with a new physical existence. When Paul talks about a 'spiritual body' (1 Corinthians 15:44), he doen't mean 'spiritual' in the Platonic sense, i.e. non-material. He means a body (physical, in some sense) which is constituted by 'spirit.'"

I agree about Wright's reading of 1 Co 15. I also affirm without equivocation our bodily (physical) resurrection to a new (physical) creation. But Wright doesn't have it right regarding the common meaning of "resurrection," at least if we allow Jesus words to reflect a commonly accepted meaning in his time.

Consider, for example, Mt 22.31-32: "'But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob"? God is not the God of the dead but of the living.' And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at his teaching."

Now Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob died in body. How then does the OT passage that Jesus quotes establish the reality of resurrection, as against the Sadducees? Well, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob live in spirit before God -- God "is" their God instead of "was" their God -- and therefore they are resurrected.

I don't think this should surprise us (or first-century Jews) all that much given the pattern of the first death. God told Adam, "but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die" (Gn 2.17).

Adam (and Eve) did not die physically on the day that they ate of the tree. Nonetheless, God's word to Adam was true: they died spiritually -- which is truly and really a death -- being separated from God from the moment they ate from the tree. This, incidentally, is the death most to be feared; not physical death (Mt 10.28). (Our eyes deceive us if we think that mere physical life is true life.)

Resurrection is the movement from death to life. We are dead spiritually, and we are resurrected to a new spiritual life in Christ. If we are dead physically, yet alive to God in the spirit, then we shall be resurrected in body as well.

This shouldn't surprised us, as Rev 20 teaches of two resurrections, as does Jesus in John 5.25-26, 28-29:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself . . . Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good, to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment."

The first resurrection is now -- the resurrection of those who were once dead but are now born again in the spirit. The second resurrection is still in the future, when all who are in "tombs" -- both the righteous and the unrighteous -- who will be resurrected on the last day.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Politics of the Gospel

I don't know if that's still true, since NU and OU are now in different Big-12 divisions, but the NU football team traditionally considered the OU football team to be its big rival. The only problem was, OU considered their rival to be UT, not NU. NU fans were always a bit insulted that OU did not quite reciprocate their feelings of rivalry.

The lesson that rivalry can be asymmetrical seems overlooked to me in current discussions about the “politics of the Gospel.” The affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” is a political affirmation, the thought seems to go, because Rome thought Jesus was claiming a designation that belonged only to Caesar.

N.T Wright, for example, writes: “Once we grasp the historical setting of Paul’s gospel, therefore, we discover something for which the abstract categories of traditional history-of-religions research has not prepared us. The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel,’ the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the imperial cult . . . The all-embracing royal claims of Caesar . . . were directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s God. To announce that YHWH was king was to announce that Caesar is not” (emphasis in the original).

Or this: “We have studied Paul’s ‘gospel,’ and have seen that underneath his regular formulae (‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ and so on) there is a carefully worked out sequence of thought, an implicit story-line, which when properly understood reveals that he both remained totally rooted in his Jewish world and was aiming his message directly at the principalities and powers of the Roman world, from Caesar downwards” (emphasis added).

I’m not convinced.

Like NU’s attitude toward OU, just because Rome thought of Lord Jesus as its rival, does not mean that Jesus (or his followers) thought of Rome as their rival. The Christian affirmation “Jesus is Lord” does not aim to challenge Caesar’s worldly rule, rather it is a confession that challenges the all-embracing pretensions of Jesus’ real rival, the devil.

Now, sure, “Gospel” was a term of art used around Jesus’ day to describe a big military victory, or the birth or accession of a new emperor to the throne. I accept that. It does not change its meaning in the least to apply it to Jesus’ end-of-the ages victory over Satan, and Jesus’ ascension to the throne at God’s right hand. It’s just that Jesus’ victory pertains to a much more significant arena than the trifling temporal domain of the Caesars.

Jesus did not reciprocate the Roman rivalry. And I don’t think that the early Christians did either.

Jesus’ focus in the Gospels is the domain of the devil, not the domain of Rome. Consider Jesus’ dismissal of Roman authority in the person of Pilate: Pilate says, “You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you, and I have authority to crucify you?” Jesus responds, “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been give you from above; for this reason he who delivered me up to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19.11). (And, of course, it was Satan who entered Judas to commit this crime, Lk 22.3.) Jesus is telling Pilate, “you’re not even on the radar screen of rivalry.”

In contrast, the Gospels often report Jesus’ fights against Satan’s dominion, Lk 10.18, 11.20, Jn 8.31-47, see also Acts 10.38.

And Rome? Jesus says, “If you’re forced to go one mile for Rome, go two miles” (Mt 5.41). It’s hard to think of a more dismissive attitude toward an ostensible rival. Or this, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul” (Mt 10.28). Talk about dimissing a rival!

But there are, after all, “many lords and many gods” (1 Co 8.3). Caesar lived among this pantheon of gods. Caesar was about as much a rival to Jesus as a local tree god.

So, too, as Christ goes, so goes his church. Jesus liberated us, not from the dominion of Rome, but from the dominion of the devil (Col 1.13). Our struggle is not against temporal authority, but against “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.12).

So, no, I don’t think that Paul (or Jesus) aimed “his message directly at the principalities and powers of the Roman world, from Caesar downwards,” as Wright would have it. The message was aimed upwards – at the Prince of the Power of the air; at the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

To be sure, I don’t want to imply that the ancients had clean cut distinctions between “politics” and “religion.” Nor do I want to affirm the modern conceit that “secular politics” has nothing to do with religion (and can be an idol). Nonetheless, I do want to affirm that Jesus did not consider temporal authorities to be his real rival, no matter how much any of them may have considered Jesus their rival.

So, sure, the Gospel is political inasmuch as it relates to the struggle between Jesus and Satan for power over this world (a power struggle that Jesus completely subverts through sacrifice). But that is its reference. There may be implications of this affirmation for temporal politics. But I don’t accept that Christians were acting politically vis-à-vis Rome in confessing that “Jesus is Lord.” They were confessing that regarding his, our, and the world’s true enemy – Satan.