Why “Citizenship in Heaven” (Phil. 3:20) is not what you think it means

In this video I demonstrate that the ‘citizenship’ Paul is discussing in Phil. 3:20 is not about one’s Christian hope in the afterlife but rather about loyalties to a particular empire and its ruling savior/lord. Paul summons the Philippian Christians to place their citizenship with Jesus, the true savior and lord, who will descend out of heaven to consummate the empire (kingdom) of God.

Adam and Christ in 1 Cor. 15 (in dialogue with Wright’s new book on Paul)

Although N.T. Wright’s new book Paul and the Faithfulness of God was not his first exposition of 1 Cor. 8:4-6 (wherein he argues that Paul changes and splits the Shema by inserting Jesus into it), it is surely his most vigorous attempt. According to Wright (and others like Bauckham and Hays) 1 Cor. 8:6 is best understood as “for us there is One God, the Father…and one Lord (read as YHWH) Jesus Christ.” This amounts to nothing short of bi-theism and arguably 2 Gods. If the Father is YHWH and Jesus is YHWH, then that makes 2 YHWHs. Yet the Shema states that there is only 1 YHWH. Wright not only argues for the above reading of 1 Cor 8:6, but insists that Paul can make such a sweeping statement without any sort of clarification this would require on the part of his audience. 

I am struck at the other christological statements located in 1 Corinthians, all of which argue against Wright’s reading. For example, note carefully what Paul states in 1 Cor. 15:45-46

So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual.

One can gather many theological nuggets from this passage, but for our purposes we will focus on two of them. First of all, Jesus is the last Adam. Since ‘Adam’ in Hebrew means “human being,” then Paul is effectively saying that Jesus is a member of the human race. One thing is for certain, no first century Jew would say that YHWH, the Creator God, was a human being. 

Secondly, Paul talks about the chronology of these two ‘Adam’ figures. During this discussion, he states what was very obvious for him (but not so obvious for modern Christians today) that the Adam categorized as sarx was first in time while the second Adam (Jesus), categorized as pneuma, came afterwards. And just to make sure there is no confusion on the matter, Paul states clearly in 15:46 that the second Adam (Jesus) did not come chronologically first, rather the first Adam (from Genesis) came first. 

In short, clearer passages in 1 Corinthians argue that Jesus was a human being who did not preexist prior to the Adam of the Book of Genesis. These truths seem to stare at Wright’s argument concerning 1 Cor 8:6 and beckon for a different approach. 

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Just finished N.T. Wright’s “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”

Yep, all done. The 1700 page beast has been slain.

Since I am teaching courses on Romans and 1&2 Corinthians this semester, I will be frequently interacting with Wright’s PFG in some future posts.

In short, I found many of his exegetical arguments to be very persuasive, while others are far too much of a stretch. For one, Wright still thinks that Paul split the Shema in 1 Cor. 8:6, which is almost certainly wrong (James McGrath’s argument in “The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context” is far more persuasive). However, the attention to detail given to the significant passages in Paul deserve serious consideration, whether one chooses to agree or disagree with his conclusions. In hindsight, I perhaps should have chosen a shorter book to give me a break from dissertation editing.   

 

Book review – After You Believe by NT Wright – ch. 3

Wright continues to impress me, although I admittedly am finding difficulty putting my feeling aside when I see someone saying the very things that I believe and hold dear. Perhaps it is because Wright says it so much better, much more eloquently, and with more finesse.

Chapter three in After You Believe is all about how Christians are given the vocation to be priests and kings, not only in the age to come, but to be preparing for it even now. Wright starts making his case by looking at what ‘Human’ (Heb. adam) was originally purposed to do in the garden of Eden, which was to rule over God’s creation (Gen. 1:27-31). Wright also points out that Israel was given the task of being a kingdom of priests in Exodus 19:4-6. The entire nation, it seems, was “entrusted with the dual role of royalty and priesthood.”

I have taken passages like Rev. 5:10, where believers are said to be kings and priests who will one day reign over the earth, and have used them to teach that since we will one day be ruling over God’s renewed world, we should be living now in preparation to be kings. What I always left out was the fact that we are also called ‘priests.’ Therefore, our lives are to be sanctified and set apart for God’s service in the present as we anticipate God’s future. A priest typically in the Bible was a figure which stood at the interface between God and his creation:

bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker.

Wright also points out that the Temple was a microcosm of what God would eventually do, which was  to one day fill the whole world with his glory. Note Hab. 2:14 –

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (NASB)

The temple was to be an advanced sign of what God intended to do with and for his creation. Filling the temple with his glory and presence only foreshadowed the reality that would one day be present in all of the renewed creation. This gives the passages in the New Testament which speak of Christian believers as the new Temple of God (1 Cor. 3; 6; 1 Peter 2; various hints within the Gospels, etc.). I never really gave much significance or thought to this temple-motif until Wright made the connection for me. I need to ponder and meditate on this more.

This is how I see the story of ‘Human’ within the narrative of the Scriptures. Adam and Eve were created to rule the world on behalf of God. They sinned and thereby failed at their God-given vocation. Israel was called to be the true people through whom God was to work through his creation (just like Adam was). Yet they also failed in their vocation because they were, as Paul argues, ‘in Adam.’ Jesus comes along, embodying the roles of both Adam and Israel, and succeeds at his vocation. Because of his death and resurrection, believers of all races and social classes can now join in with what ‘Human’ was destined to do. Through water baptism, we can embody the role of priest and king in this world now as we await the day when we will exercise this role in the kingdom of God. Wright puts it so well:

[Jesus] summoned people to follow him and share that story, that community, and that vocation.

Very few Christians at all seem to understand what the Bible sets out as their vocation. The lack of understanding of the kingdom of God and how it integrates into our roles as being ‘Human’ in the way God originally intended only adds to this confusion. It is high time that Christians take seriously their roles as the world’s future rulers and priest and get to living out this vocation in the power of the Spirit.

Chapter four is entitled ‘The Kingdom Coming and the People Prepared.’ Sounds like a good one!

After You Believe – chapter two review

NT Wright’s second chapter of his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters is a gold mine of words and ideas meant to bring purpose to our lives which lie between the cross on one hand and the return of Jesus on the other. This chapter, entitled ‘The Transformation of Character,’ digs deeper than the first to help readers understand what character from a Christian perspective is and how it is to be obtained.

Wright points out that character is not something which initially comes natural. It is something which has to be worked at, developed, nurtured, and expanded. Speaking another language never is easy after the first lesson or class. Neither will someone proficiently play an instrument after only one week’s worth of instruction. The same is true, Wright argues, with Christian character (or virtue as he likes to call it). When I read this and started to reflect on it, it really hit me how much I don’t typically think this way. If there is an area of my Christian life which is not ‘up to par’ per se, then I usually make an excuse that “it is only for the elite,” or I simply tell myself that I will “work on that” (which generally never happens). I find encouragement in what Wright says about the effort and practice needed to develop mature Christian virtue. I do think that this needs to occur within the Christian community, not as an individual effort done in one’s private life.

I enjoyed one of the examples of how ‘practicing’ can actually look like something extremely difficult just came to pass. Wright tells of a South African golf player who responded to a critic who labeled him as “lucky.” His response was, “I’ve noticed that the harder I practice the luckier I get.” What Wright means here is that the more we place into developing our Christian virtues, the more natural it will look and seem (not that our goal is to “impress” others).

One of Wright’s goals with this book is to get believers to think longer and harder about virtues, especially within the correct theological framework of the kingdom of God. I like how he words it here:

Romantic ethics, or the existentialism which insists on authenticity or (in that sense) freedom as the only real mark of genuine humanness, or the popular version of all this I have alluded to above, tries to get in advance, and without paying the true price, what virtue offers further down the road, and at the cost of genuine moral thought, decision, and effort… we urgently need to recapture the New Testament’s vision of a genuinely “good” human life as a life of character formed by God’s promised future, as a life with that future-shaped character lived within the ongoing story of God’s people, and with that, a freshly worked notion of virtue.

Wright criticizes some of the greatest Christian thinkers for their failure to inquire of the New Testament as to its position on what virtue and character should look like. Both Augustine and Aquinas are called out in this endeavor. Since both held to theologies which ignored the future kingdom of God upon the earth, I would think that this criticism is fairly placed.

Wright asks, rhetorically, what the Christian goal is. He draws out a three pronged answer which I believe 99% of Christians today would agree with…and then Wright knocks it down as the wrong way of thinking:

  1. The goal is the final bliss of heaven, away from this life of space, time and matter.
  2. This goal is achieved for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we cling to by faith.
  3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating the disembodied, “eternal” state through the practice of a detached spirituality and the avoidance of “worldly” contamination.

He then offers his counterproposal, which I 100% agree with and would add a hearty “Amen” to:

  1. The goal is the new haven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed rulers and priests.
  2. This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
  3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope, and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world.

Wright concluded by saying that the goal we have is not an escapist to heaven but rather God’s kingdom of restorative justice and healing joy, coming upon the whole creation. The next chapter is entitled ‘Priests and Rulers.’ Stay tuned for an update.

Book Review: After You Believe by NT Wright – chapter one

I apologize for not posting anything in awhile. I have been pretty busy these last few days working on lots of projects, both for grad school and a few personal ones. Not to mentioned being distracted by Jess (“Hi” if you are reading). Nevertheless, I am free (for now) and have decided to blog on N.T. Wright’s newest book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Wright does something very well which nobody (to my knowledge) can do, and that is to wear the hat of the New Testament scholar as well as the engaging Christian pastor. Believe me, I have tried doing both and it is near impossible to do both well at the same time. Both of these skills are evident in this book. Today I will discuss my feelings on the first chapter.

Wright starts the book of saying something which I have grown to believe and cherish: ‘the final hope of Christians is not simply “going to heaven,” but resurrection into God’s new creation, the “new heaven and the new earth.” Although him and I differ on the nature of the intermediate state (Wright thinks it will be conscious while I see the it as an unconscious ‘sleep’) we both agree that the final inheritance for believers will be on a renewed earth with no suffering, war, hunger, pain, or death. As my friend Victor always says, “Everything wrong with the world will one day be made right.” Once this is settled, then our lives, which live between the cross on one hand and the future return of Jesus on the other, beg the interim question, “What am I here for?” This is the title of Wright’s first chapter.

A few examples are given of real-life conversations and situations that many modern day Christians find themselves in. Different thoughts, questions, and confusions arise from their interaction with this world and those who live within it. Wright, correctly in my opinion, points out that most believers really are struggling with one question:

What is the point of being a Christian—other than to go to heaven one day, and perhaps to persuade a few others to go with you? Is there any reason for doing anything much, after you believe, except to keep your nose reasonable clean until the time comes to die and go to be with Jesus forever?…If we are already saved, why does what we do matter?

Wright correctly suggests that there is, as he puts it, another bridge which has been ignored but will carry the weight and join both river banks in fine style. What he means, although he has yet to unpack it, is that this line of thinking is misguided and misses the grand perspective of the Bible which is God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.

The rest of the chapter goes on to develop the themes of ‘character’ and ‘virtue.’ Stories are given of good and bad examples of these traits. His point is well made: “virtue, to put it bluntly, is a revolutionary idea in today’s world—and today’s church. But the revolution is one we badly need.” I absolutely agree with this, although Wright words it much better than I ever could. His examples of the pilot who successfully landed the plane in the New York Bay after an engine failure and the father who dove into a river after his three year old sinking daughter prove what virtue is. During those moments of climax, where a make or break set of choices need to be made, those who have practices the disciplines to the point where it becomes ‘second nature’ at those that will find success. This same mentality, Wright argues, should be carried over into the Christian lifestyle after one becomes a believer.

I did appreciate what he had to say about the type of virtue and how it is labeled. Some will look at Christian ethics as a list of things ‘to do’ and to ‘not do.’ Wright points out that since Christians are “the new humanity,” then the ‘Christian’ label, as distinct from other religions, does not go far enough. He then goes on to answer the question which has been hanging since the beginning of the chapter:

What we are “here for” is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by “following Jesus.”

I look forward to the rest of the book. The next chapter is entitled ‘The Transformation of Character.’