Friday, June 29, 2007

Imprecatory Prayer

I posted this last year. But I thought I'd dig it out and repost it.

I don't want to "get around" imprecatory prayers for sentimental reasons. I also reject C.S. Lewis’s idea that they exist in the Psalms as examples of the way we shouldn’t pray. I also don’t want to mitigate the problematic nature of these prayers merely by “spiritualizing” away the problem.

But it did strike me a while ago that I pray imprecatory prayers against myself all the time, and I welcome others to pray imprecatory prayers against me as well. In his small catechism, Luther talks about us drowning the old Adam in us daily, that a new man should daily emerge. What is this but a prayer of imprecation against the old Adam in us?

God kills the old man (Col 3.3, Ro 6.2,6, Gal 2.20, 6.14,). This is the only “me” that exists prior to baptism, and this is a real death, it is a death more real than physical death. After all, in physical death the spirit separates from the body; the death of the old man is the extinction of this self.

I pray imprecatory prayers against myself, and welcome others to do so as well: I pray that every remnant of the old man would be cut off from this world. I pray that every remembrance of the old man would be forgotten, I pray that every cent of the old Adam's wealth be taken away and given to the new man, I want the entire legacy of the old man to die with him. Indeed, I bless the name of the one who dashes my Old Adam's little ones against the rock – for the rock is Christ (Mt 21.44) and, like me, they are killed in baptism so that the new man may emerge.

But if I want all of that for myself, then how can I deny it to my enemy, whom I am commanded to love as myself? So I pray that God would kill them as well through baptism, that the new man may emerge.

More so, isn't the prayer, "God forgive them, they know not what they do," in principle, a prayer of imprecation? After all, isn't it a prayer for the destruction of sinful man?

To be sure, God may destroy without converting. But that's his business. We are to take as our example God's actions in sending rain on both the good and the evil (Mt 5.45). So I pray that God drown the old man daily. I pray it zealously for myself, for his church, and for the whole world. The prayer for grace and forgiveness is a prayer of imprecation against the old, evil man.

More generally, God and his people are engaged in a holy war against Satan and his people, and the tools of this holy war are the Word and sacraments, and sacrifice on behalf of the world. Ironically, of course, and it is a delicious irony, God kills the evil one's people by giving them life.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Elijah Imagery in Baptism?

One more thought.

We receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. So it is sort of funny, isn't it, that baptism is administered by water, and that fire is a theophany of the Holy Spirit. Since, after all, water puts out fire.

But there is precedence for this irony. In his contest with the prophets of Baal, Elijah has the people drench the sacrifice and the altar in water. Three times. "The water flowed around the altar and he also filled the trench with water" (1 Kings 18.33-35).

Despite the fact that the sacrifice is drenched with water, fire comes out of heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the altar, and all the water in the trenches (v. 38). It is a sign that God accepts the sacrifice (compare v. 39 with Lev 9.24).

So, in baptism, the pastor drenches us with water (three times as well), but fire comes out of heaven and still lights us afire with the Spirit.

Unlike Elijah's sacrifice, however, but like the burning bush that Moses saw, we are not consumed by this fire, but we become a dwelling of God in the Spirit. Like the area around the burning bush, we become holy ground.

Just like Elijah subverts the way of the world, by wetting the sacrifice only to have it burned up entirely by a heavenly fire, using water for baptism similarly subverts worldly expectations. The pastor wets us down with water, but God still lights us with his fire.

Human Altars

First, I think it's clear that Christians are temples, both individually (1 Co 3.16, 6.19) and corporately (2 Co 6.16, Eph 2.21-22), because the Holy Spirit indwells us. It always amazes me to consider that the theophanic glory-cloud that led Israel out of the wilderness and that indwellt Solomon's temple (2 Chr 5.13-14), also indwells the church and me. And it makes me wonder that the glory of God that was so intense that Moses and the priests could not enter the tabneracle or temple (Ex 40.34-35, 2 Chr 5.14) now indwells me.

The implications of this are absolutely stunning, not just for me personally (although that is plenty stunning), but understanding that every church and every Christian is a temple of this Spirit. What hope has the devil when the Spirit dwells in a billion, mobile temples throughout the world?

But back to the new thought (at least new to me): I wonder if we can push a little further and conclude that believers are altars as well. Here's why I'm wonder this.

First, in Exodus 24, Moses takes the basin of blood and sprinkles both the altar (v. 6) and the people (v. 8). Further, God tells Moses that altars need to be made of earth (Ex 20.24), which of course is what God made people out of as well (Gn 2.7). So, too, a comment on CPA's website suggested that the application of the blood to the priests in Lev 8 (vv. 23 in particular, but see also v. 30) was an application of blood parallel to that placed on the "horns of the altar" (Lev 4.18), but I think I'd be more willing to take it merely as a way of sprinkling "around" the altar, as possibly suggested in Ex 29.20. Whichever it is, the upshot would be that the priests here are being consecrated as "altars."

In the New Testament, we of course offer sacrifices (Heb 12.15-16, what the confessions call "eucharistic" sacrificies, since only Jesus' sacrifice is propitiatory). These sacrifices are "a fragrant aroma" (Phil 4.18, cf., Eph 5.2), which echoes God's response to some of the OT sacrifices (Lev 1.9, 13 & etc.).

But more than that, it seems as though we don't just make offerings to God, we are the offering as well, of God to God. As the sacrifices of old, the Word cuts us apart (Heb 4.12, cf., Acts 5.33, 7.54, 2.37), and the fire burns us up (Lk 24.32, Acts 2.3, 1 Co 3.13 (maybe), cf., Lev 1.9 & etc.). We die, but are resurrected, as Luther discusses in the context of baptism in the Small Catechism.

I'm entirely comfortable with the temple stuff. I'm not so sure about the altar stuff, but I thought it might be worth mentioning.

The Grace of the OT Purity Laws

Maybe this is a "the-glass-is-half-full" type of comment, but it seems to me that the OT purity laws signaled the manifestation of grace to Israel.

The critical question is -- what do we use as the baseline to determine if the purity laws are good news or bad news.

It seems to me that many Christians read the OT using our current NT experience as the baseline. In that case, yes, OT Israel had highly restricted access to God. And so that's bad news.

But I'd argue it's not proper to evaluate the purity laws by using the NT experience as the baseline (or at least, not as the only baseline). Rather, I'd argue that the proper baseline is the experience of the OT Gentiles, all of whom were unclean before God as a result of sin.

Compared to that baseline, OT Israel had an amazing amount of access to God, "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?" (Dt 4.7).

Israel floated as an island of life and light in the midst of an otherwise entirely dead world. God showed grace to OT Israel, and through OT Israel showed grace to the OT world. That Israel's light appears dim in comparison to the brilliant sunlight of Israel's messiah should not invite us to conclude that, on balance, OT Israel's experience with God was a bad thing for her and the world rather than a good thing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The LCMS on "The Election of Grace"

The selection below is from "A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod" on "the election of grace" adopted in 1932:

"To be sure, it is necessary to observe the Scriptural distinction between the election of grace and the universal will of grace. This universal gracious will of God embraces all men; the election of grace, however, does not embrace all, but only a definite number, whom "God hath from the beginning chosen to salvation," 2 Thess. 2:13, the "remnant," the "seed" which "the Lord left," Rom. 9:27- 29, the "election," Rom. 11:7; and while the universal will of grace is frustrated in the case of most men, Matt. 22:14; Luke 7:30, the election of grace attains its end with all whom it embraces, Rom. 8:28-30. Scripture, however, while distinguishing between the universal will of grace and the election of grace, does not place the two in opposition to each other. On the contrary, it teaches that the grace dealing with those who are lost is altogether earnest and fully efficacious for conversion. Blind reason indeed declares these two truths to be contradictory; but we impose silence on our reason. The seeming disharmony will disappear in the light of heaven, 1 Cor. 13:12.

"Furthermore, by election of grace, Scripture does not mean that one part of God's counsel of salvation according to which He will receive into heaven those who persevere in faith unto the end, but, on the contrary, Scripture means this, that God, before the foundation of the world, from pure grace, because of the redemption of Christ, has chosen for His own a definite number of persons out of the corrupt mass and has determined to bring them through Word and Sacrament, to faith and salvation."

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther"

This volume, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, publishes seven papers by Finnish scholars on the argument that Luther's teachings on the Christian's union with Christ dovetails nicely with the Orthodox notion of "deification."

First, I think that the topic of "union with Christ" is a great topic. In my own life, receiving what the Scriptures teach regarding our union with Christ in baptism and the Supper, have been integral to my understanding of who I am in Christ. I can scarcely fail to be overwhelmed with a deep sense of appreciation and of my own unworthiness (and of Christ's worthiness) when I meditate on these passages and what they mean.

In that sense, I appreciated the opportunity through the papers published in this book to consider some of Luther's meditations on this vital topic.

But the book's focus is much more pointed than a general consideration of Luther's view on our union with Jesus Christ. As Carl Braaten pointedly wrote, "In case of fundamental disagreement between Luther's theology and the Lutheran Confessions on an issue so crucial as justification, which is normative?" (p. 72)

So there's the rub. The thrust of the Finnish scholarship is that there are passages in Luther's (mainly early) theological work that could be taken to understand union with Christ as an aspect of justification itself rather than a result or implication of justification. Without putting too fine a point on it, and noting that I could be wrong, it seems to me that the upshot of the Finnish argument is that early Luther recognized justification as including something like an infusion of righteousness. And that, of course, is the problem, since Lutheran confessions pointedly distinguish justification from any infusion of righteousness or (as best I can tell) any ontological change in the believer. All of that follows justfication, but is not justification.

So, a couple of thoughts.

First, it seems to me worth noting that what motivates the Finnish scholars to make this argument isn't, as it were, an independent discovery of the theme in the writings of early Luther. Instead, the discovery was made in reflection of ecumenical discussions between Lutherans and the Orthodox. These scholars acknowledge their interest in this question results from their interest in, and desire to promote, ecumenism between Lutherans and the Orthodox.

I am, of course, not quite so naive to believe that theological discoveries are never birthed but by scholars seeking only to provide their best take on the internal coherence of a text. Very often, "outside events" force us to come to texts with a new set of questions or puzzles, and thereby illuminate or highlight different parts of a text or argument.

That being said, I also know that texts can be sifted with an eye not to explicating an author's thoughts or a text, but in order to bolster an extrinsic agenda no matter the fit of these selected texts with the broader text.

I do not know that the latter approach produced this book rather than the former. The authors and editors, however, are refreshingly honest about the agenda that prompted their interest in making this discovery in Luther's work.

Nonetheless, I would need a much more systematic argument (and evidence) regarding the centrality of this idea in Luther's work. Further, I'd also like to see evidence why these texts are located mainly in Luther's "early" works. Did Luther move to a more forensic notion of justification as his theology matured and he continued to reflect on Scripture and justification?

Finally, I would really hate to see "union with Christ" turned into some sort of suspect code words in Lutheran circles as a result of the Finnish agenda and their argument. The concept is too important, and the implications too profound, to have to waive them off. Indeed, I'd be quite happy with the impact of the book if it spurred confessional Lutherans to an intensified recognition of what union with Christ means for us in everyday life, and if it spurred us and our imaginations toward a greater recognition of how baptism and the Supper are the continuing grounds for the life that we receive from Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

End of the First "New Man" Prison Class

Last night ended what, Lord willing, will have been only the first "New Man" prison class. I started the "class" around four months ago. It was hard to see most of the 20-odd men for what will likely be the last time.

It's a little less painful at this unit relative to the other unit I visit, because this is a transition unit -- most of the men are within six months of exiting the system (although almost all continue on parole when released). So even if I taught an open-ended class, almost all of the men would be gone within a month or two anyway. Still, I will miss seeing the guys on Monday nights.

More than just missing them on Monday nights, though, is that the guys will be getting out. This is a time of joy -- they've completed their prison sentences -- but it is also daunting. Recidivism statistics are horribly high. These men will leave a church situation that is vibrant and supportive, and be faced with the loss of their support system just at the point that they need it most. Many outside churches are not hospitable toward ex-offenders. Some of this fear is understandable -- many of these men are in prison for intensely wicked behavior. Nonetheless, it places huge demands on the spiritual maturity of the ex-offender to lose his church at just the point that he faces about as much stress as life can throw at a person -- finding a job, a place to live, a new social environment, reuniting with his family, all at the same time he loses the known, if not comfortable, pattern of daily life on the inside.

So it's a tough time. Statistically I understand that within just a few years, most of the men I see before me -- joyful, solid Christians -- will be back in prison, unable successfully to have negotiated the free world without returning to old patterns of violence and/or addiction.

Please, Lord, let none of these men return. Hear my prayer!

In any event, I'm planning to take a break through the summer. With young kids at home it's difficult to spend two nights a week, every week, away from the family. It's a bit too much. So, Lord willing, I'll continue on Tuesday nights until the ends of the current class, then start another "New Man" class in September.

I'm not knocking off entirely after mid-summer, however. Starting in July I'm scheduled to begin helping the chaplain with his office work in the unit where I lead the "New Man" class. Aside from the fact that he needs help with paperwork, I would like to get a better sense of what the institutional environment that the guys face in prison, and see if I can get a better sense of the administrative dynamics in the prison system. I hope that working in the chaplain's office will give me a richer understanding of the everyday life of the men, of the institution, and of the larger prison bureaucracy. I'm hoping that what I learn will allow me to understand the guys' situtions inside the prison a little better, and so help me better to understand where they're coming from when, Lord willing, I start the new "New Man" class in the fall.

Wright's "The Resurrection of the Son of God"

This is volume 3 in Wright's series on "Christian Origins and the Question of God." I blogged a bit on it below. Overall, I didn't find it as thought provoking as the first two books in the series. That might be because I'm not exactly the book's target audience.

The big thing for Wright is arguing that Jesus was, and his followers will be, resurrected with physical bodies. He aims his argument at a two-fold target -- at both liberals and at a large strain of popular orthodoxy.

Different types of liberals and modernists have tried to minimize the foolishness of the resurrection by spiritualizing and internalizing "resurrection." Wright argues in detailed length (the book is over 700 pages long) that the Scriptures invoked for this purpose instead affirm the orthodox position that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave, and the Christian hope is bodily resurrection as well.

Against popular orthodoxy, Wright inveighs against the popular idea that the Christians' ultimate hope is "going to heaven" for eternity. The Christian hope is not to spend eternity as disembodied spirits in heaven, but rather it is to live eternally in God's presence as embodied creatures in the new creation. Indeed, the one place that Christians apparently will not be eternally is in heaven. John reports that the new Jerusalem where the resurrected will live comes "down out of heaven" to the new earth (Rev 21.10).

To be sure, I wouldn't want to literalize the locational picture here, nonetheless, it is telling that conservative Christians widely affirm an eternal location in heaven when the Scriptures expressly tell us our eternal city comes out of heaven back to earth. It would seem that heaven is a temporary abode that we will leave at the Resurrection of the last day.

All of this is just fine, but none of it is something I struggle with. (For years now I've been reminding my classes that the "resurrection of the body" in the Creed refers to our bodies, not to Jesus' body. And that our eternal hope is the new creation, not an eternally disembodied existence in heaven.)

And then there's the distinctive element of Wright's argument -- that "resurrection" means only physical resurrection. As I remarked below, while I appreciate that this greatly simplifies the lines of Wright's argument, I don't see that the Scriptures take this as the only resurrection and all the others as "metaphors." (Indeed, Wright at one point or another blinks as well.)

Not least as a problem for Wright is the reference in Rev 20 to the "first resurrection." While Wright, implausibly to my mind, seeks to limit this reference to those beheaded because of their witness for Christ (v. 4), the verse also lists those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the image on their forehead or hand. In light of v.6, I take this "first" resurrection to be the entire set of Christians, of whom martyrs receive the right of first mention. The "second" resurrection then is the bodily resurrection. This language seems to me to be entirely consistent -- and more consistent than Wright's -- with Jesus' unembarrassed teaching in John 5.25-29 that there are two resurrections.

To be sure, I don't think this quibble is a huge thing, but I think it's valuable to preserve resurrection language in application to our resurrection in baptism, as we once again come to life before God through Christ.

And in a sense, if I may be so cheeky, that "my" reading here seems more in line with one of Wright's emphases in the previous two volumes in this series: That the new age has already broken into the old creation means that we are now resurrected, not just metaphorically, but really. That we look forward to the ratification of this resurrection in the resurrection of the body and the revelation of the new creation does not diminish the reality that our resurrected life has already begun. By pushing the "real" resurrection into the future, I think Wright gives away a little too much.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Hemorrhaging Woman, Jairus’s Dead Daughter & the OT Purity Laws

All three synoptic Gospels tell the story of Jesus resurrecting Jairus’s daughter, and healing the woman with the twelve-year hemorrhage on the way (Mt 9, Mk 5, Lk 8). The stories are well known.

These are, of course, impressive miracles in their own right. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think that they are to be read with the backdrop of the OT purity laws in mind, thereby underscoring that Jesus has overturned the old order and has introduced the new.

Under the OT system, a person would become unclean if they touched a dead body, or if they entered a house in which there was a dead body (Nm 19.13-14). So, too, a woman with a bloody discharge is unclean, and anyone whom she touches becomes unclean as well (Lev 15.19).

In these this passage, however, instead of Jesus contracting uncleanness from his interaction with unclean people, which is the mode of contagion in the OT, the unclean people become clean as a result of their interaction with Jesus. That is a complete reversal of the OT pattern.

Keeping it brief, I’d argue that the OT cleanliness statutes relate to the curse of death. That’s obvious to see in the case of a dead body. But what about the hemorrhaging woman?

I think Jesus teaches us the OT principle in a passage in which he expressly teaches about the OT cleanliness code:

“And he was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (M 7.20-23).

Without laying out all the evidence for the argument here, I’d suggest that the OT cleanliness laws deal with things coming out of people – more strikingly, relate to things coming out of us that have to do with life or the generation of life (blood, birth, seminal emissions) – or that reveal the inner man (the “leprosy” diseases that open the skin and thereby expose the “flesh”). These make people unclean because they expose the inner man, the place where death and uncleanness dwell.

Because death cannot dwell with life, unclean people were excluded from the presence of God (Nm 19.13, 20, Lev 15.31) until they were cleansed.

So catch the overall OT picture: The entire creation fell in Adam. Through Moses, God has made a down payment on the promise he made to Abraham, and in Israel reclaims a domain of life in which he dwells with his people in peace.

But this little enclave of life is always being threatened with being overcome by death. And the spreaders of the contagion are the very people whom God has brought close to dwell with him. In spite of what God has done through Moses, death remains the principle of the old creation; life remains the contingency. In the Old Testament, death is always overcoming life. Indeed, death and uncleanness flow out of the people of God. Israel cannot overcome the sin of Adam, because Adam’s problem is their problem.

This is the picture that Jesus enters. Except that Jesus reverses the whole tendency of the old creation. Jesus is the man out of whom life flows instead of death. Rather than becoming unclean when the woman with the hemorrhage touches him, the woman is instead healed. As a result, she will be no longer excluded from God’s tabernacle because of her uncleanness. (Since her hemorrhage had lasted twelve years, she had been excluded for that long.)

So, too, under the OT system, anyone entering Jarius’s house would contract uncleanness because of the dead body in it. But instead of the normal OT pattern of death overcoming life, Jesus overcomes death with life. And if the girl is only asleep, then there is no death contagion to spread at all.

So it doesn’t seem to me that these miracles are “just” miracles. Rather, these miracles very specifically reveal Jesus’ special vocation as the world’s savior and the inaugurator of a new creation. They also show how Jesus supersedes the Old Testament. It’s not at all that what Moses provided wasn’t good – it was very good in the context of the OT. But it couldn’t change the old-creation nature of those who participated in it. Death remained the principle, and life the contingency. Death continually threatened to overwhelm life.

All of this is reversed in Jesus. Life is now the principle, and death is the contingency. Life now overwhelms death. Further, life now flows out of God’s people rather than death:

“He who believes in me, as the Scripture says, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7.38).

This is great news. Jesus gives us a new nature. We are now a people in whom life abodes rather than death. And as we move through the world, it is life that flows out of us into the world instead of death.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Luke 10-- Maybe here are the other apostles

In light of the post below, it dawned on me that we do have Jesus expressly sending out others who are not the Twelve. (Remember that "apostle" means "sent one.") In Luke Jesus sends out the 72, just as he sent out the twelve in Luke 9.

So perhaps these are the other apostles whom Paul refers to. Or, at least, perhaps these 72 are included among the other apostles.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Twelve Apostles, the Other Apostles, and Paul as the Last Apostle (with Implications)

I guess I thought there were only twelve apostles -- the original eleven, plus Matthias, and then Paul as the sort of New Testament “half-tribe” apostle. The numbering didn’t bother me much. After all, there were twelve tribes in the OT, plus Manasseh, which sometimes counted as one of the twelve (Rev 7.6).

I was somewhat taken aback, however, when I noticed the words in 1 Co 15.5-9 that I italicized below:

“[Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time . . . then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles . . .”

So we have, in chronological sequence, the twelve apostles, then James, then “all” the apostles, and last of all, to Paul.

Perhaps everyone already knows this, but I was surprised to learn that it seems there were a bunch of other apostles besides the Twelve. I’ll go through some passages, then discuss some implications (including the implication that Paul says that he is the last apostle that Jesus made). I think the argument also sheds light on a couple of puzzles.

First, a regular apostle had to have seen Jesus. This seems to be the upshot of Paul’s argument in 1 Co 9.1 “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” This is also the implication of 1 Co 15.8 (and of the "those who heard" in Heb 2.3). I don’t think Paul here is just talking about catching a glimpse of Jesus, but means someone who has been in Jesus’ presence and has been taught by him.

Paul recognizes the tenuousness of his claim – he recognizes that he is “as it were, one untimely born” vis-à-vis seeing Christ (1 Co 15.9) – and that his apostleship is therefore controversial (1 Co 9.2).

But in 1 Co 15.9, when he says that he is “the least of the apostles,” he’s not saying that he’s the least of the twelve, he’s saying that he’s the least of this larger group of ordinary apostles.

So what about the Twelve? This was an “office” (Acts 1.20) with additional requirements:

“It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us – beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that he was taken up from us – one of these should become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1.21-22).

So to be one of the Twelve meant that you had to have accompanied Jesus from his baptism by John to his ascension.

So, first, we should note that there seemed to be a number of men who qualified on this score. Of the group, two were put forward to join the twelve (Acts 1.23).

Secondly, no matter how much Paul interacted with Jesus, he was not with him from the beginning of his earthly ministry to its end, so Paul could not be appointed one of the Twelve. When he claims to be an apostle, he’s not claiming to be one of the Twelve (or claiming that he should be counted as one of the twelve). Rather, he’s claiming to be one of this larger group of “ordinary” apostles.

What does this help with?

First, it makes a lot of sense of Paul’s struggle by way of comparison with “eminent apostles” at Corinth (2 Co 11.5, 13, 22-23, 12.11-12). I always had a hard time thinking that Paul was suggesting that one or more of the Twelve were “false” apostles (2 Co 11.13, 22-23). But if there’s a larger group than the Twelve, it’s entirely possible that some may have been jealous of Paul, or that the Corinthians felt that they hadn’t been discipled by a “real” apostle, since Paul did not hang out with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

Secondly, it helps to understand things like this rule in the Didache:

“Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet” (11.3-6).

I always thought that passage was a bit weird. If there were only twelve apostles, you’d think that they’d be easily recognizable, and that they’d have more of a claim than allowed in the Didache. But if there were a whole bunch of apostles, then, first, it might be hard to tell a real one from a false one (after all, they only had to claim that they had seen the Lord). Further, it’s possible that some of even the real apostles might try to stretch their claims. (If even Peter, one of the Twelve, had to be rebuked for public sin at Galatia, then it’s possible that some of the ordinary, non-Twelve apostles might have sinned by trying to trade on Christ.)

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Paul’s statement in 1 Co 15 implies that he is the last apostle.

“. . . and last of all . . . he appeared to me” 1 Co 15.8.

Paul provides a chronological sequence of Jesus’ appearing, to Peter, to the Twelve, to more than 500, to James, to “all” of the apostles, and “last of all,” to Paul. Paul lists those to whom Jesus appeared – including “all” of the apostles – and then states that Jesus appeared to him “last of all.”

At first I took this merely to say that Jesus appeared to Paul as the latest in a sequence of appearances; appearances that need not “necessarily” have ended.

But that makes no sense. What can one do with Paul’s statement in the same verse that Jesus appeared to him as “one untimely born.” The whole thrust of Paul’s argument is that he is the exception. It was inappropriate that Paul be an apostle because Paul did not see or learn from Jesus during his earthly ministry. The whole upshot is that that is what it takes to be an apostle, and Paul completely understands the uniqueness of his position.

So when Paul says that Jesus appeared to him “last of all, as it were to one untimely born,” it means that Jesus appeared to Paul last of all. There will be no more. Paul is the unique exception to the rule that you had to see (or learn from) Jesus during his earthly ministry in order to be an apostle.

So after the apostles who saw Jesus die, and after Paul dies, there cannot be any more apostles. Paul said he was the last that Jesus would appear to.

This then helps to understand what's going on in passages like this in the Didache: “

“Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for they are your honored men, along with the prophets and teachers” (15.1-2).

Recall that, earlier, the Didache treated apostles as a subset of prophet. Here we see the Didache seeming to recognize the end of the era of the prophet; the ministry of the prophets (and, presumably, apostles) being superseded by the ministry of pastors and deacons. This is necessarily so, at least with respect to the apostle-prophets, because no more would be made; all would be gone after the death of the original generation of apostles. Pastors and deacons carry on their ministry (and carry on the prophetic ministry more generally, by delivering to us God's word). It's the same purpose -- delivering God's word -- but delivered without the need for the prophet's charism. (This also accounts for the admonition not to despise pastors and deacons, men whose gifts must have appeared a bit fumpy and boring next to the exciting charism of the prophet.)

Secondly, however, is that, if there are no more apostles, then there are no longer men who perform the miraculous signs of an apostle.

Paul writes in 2 Co 12.12 that “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.”

Without saying that all “signs and wonders and miracles” have necessarily ceased, I think that we nonetheless must grant that with the cessation of apostles the signs of a true apostles must also have ceased. So there is some set of “signs and wonders and miracles” that were the “signs of a true apostle” that necessarily ended with the death of the last apostle – the last individual to have seen and learned from Jesus during his earthly ministry (or with the death of Paul, if he outlived all of the other apostles).

This, too, is suggested in Heb 2.3-4:

“[H]ow shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to his will.”

Note, first, that Jesus’ word was “confirmed to us by those who heard.” The author’s argument here seems to me to be that Jesus’ word was confirmed to the author’s “us” by “those” apostles who heard it directly from the Lord (v. 3). God then bore witness with “them” by “signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (v.4).

Note the past tense and the third-party reference in vv. 3-4. Further, the passage almost exactly echoes Paul’s list of the “signs of a true apostle” in 2 Co 12.12.

The diverse lines of argument seem to join. The set of apostles is finite, limited to the life span of the last living man who learned it directly from Jesus. Therefore, the set of individuals who perform the “signs of a true apostle” is also finite, limited to the life span of the last living man who learned directly from Jesus.

The author of Hebrews seems to recognize that, referring to “those who heard” the gospel directly from Jesus, and noting that God bore witness with “them” (not with “us”) with miraculous signs.

Again, please note that the upshot of this argument is that apostolic miracles, signs, and gifts have ceased. Nonetheless, it seems to me to be an unavoidable implication, if we grant that no new apostles were made after Paul.

Finally, I might note that the note that there cannot be any continuation of the Twelve after the passing of those alive during Jesus' life. First, the Twelve of course had to qualify has ordinary apostles who saw and heard Jesus. But the criteria to be a member of the Twelve was that you were with Jesus from his baptism through his ascension. Not even Paul qualified for that. So once all the men died who accompanied Jesus from baptism through ascension, then the Twelve must also necessarily come to an end (even if there were still ordinary apostles still living, who had seen and heard Christ, but had not been with him through his entire ministry).

There may be other implications as well. Nonetheless, the big surprise for me is the original implication from 1 Co 15.5-9, that “the Twelve” are not the whole set of apostles, and the upshot for understanding Paul’s interaction with other apostles, as well as understanding the transition period from apostles (and prophets?) to pastors and deacons.