How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul? (Part 4)

Q. I’m teaching a Bible overview course on the Old and New Testaments. Please help me understand the progression of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles to Paul. How do they complement each other, and how do they differ? Thank you.

In my first two posts in answer to this question, I suggested that Jesus, and the apostles after him, transformed the dualistic idea of the “kingdom”—you were either in or out—to mean a community that was open to everyone, that was based on faith, and that was a present as well as a future reality. In my third post, I suggested that Paul similarly transformed another dualism. He redefined “flesh” and “spirit” as ways of life rather than parts of the human person; he taught that the human body did not have to drag down the spirit but could become an instrument of “spiritual worship”; and he cautioned that life in the Spirit was not entirely a present reality and so people should continue to respect propriety in their bodies. In this final post, I’d like to show how three New Testament books that seem to come from divergent theological streams—the Gospel of John and the books of Hebrews and Revelation—actually express a vision that’s harmonious with the one Jesus and Paul convey by transforming these two different dualisms.

The Gospel of John, even though it’s a life of Jesus, actually transforms the same spirit-matter dualism that Paul does in his letters, rather than the dualism based on being in or out of the kingdom of God that Jesus transforms in his teaching as presented in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus, as portrayed by John, repeatedly contrasts what is heavenly, spiritual, and from “above” with what is earthly, material, and here “below.”

This dynamic is seen most clearly in the repeated instances where something Jesus says is misunderstood as a reference to what is “below” and he has to explain that he’s actually describing what is “above.” Perhaps the best-known example is when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again.” Nicodemus responds, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus has to clarify that he is speaking of a spiritual rebirth. (The phrase “born again” uses a resonant term that can actually mean both “again” and “from above.” Nicodemus takes it the first way and Jesus explains that he should have understood it the second way.)

Interestingly, Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus is the one place in the Gospel of John where the phrase “kingdom of God” appears. But as Xavier Léon-Dufour observes in To Act According to the Gospel, “In this passage, the term signifies not the ‘reign [that is] coming,’ but the ‘kingdom’ into which one enters, that is, ‘eternal life'” (brackets original). Dufour therefore asks, “What, then, is the Johannine equivalent of basilea tou theou in the sense of the ‘reign of God’?” He notes that some have seen the concepts of “life” and “light” as the equivalents, but he suggests that “while the coming of the reign of God constitutes the central message of the Synoptics, the Johannine text is organized around the idea of the ‘one sent from the Father'” (p. 31). So the equivalent of the kingdom of God breaking into the present is the Son of God coming from above to here below.

This represents a transformation of how the above/below dualism was conceived by others at the time, particularly those in the stream of thought that would coalesce into Gnosticism. An epigram attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a foundational figure within that stream, says, “As it is above, so it is below.” What this means may be illustrated by a saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (which certainly displays proto-Gnostic influences): “I am the light that is over all. I am the All. The All came forth out of me, and to me the All has come. Split a piece of wood—I am there. Lift the stone, and you will find me there.” In other words, there’s actually no distinction between the “above” and the “below”; if we could just see through physical objects, we would recognize that the spiritual is immanent in them.

From this perspective, it would actually be impossible for someone to come from above to below, since the above is already in the below. But the Gospel of John transforms this perspective to the point where Jesus can say, in a key thematic statement, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” In other places Jesus equates this “will” with the “work” his Father has given him to finish. There would be no place for the language of coming to “finish a work,” either, in the other perspective, because no real change can be effected in a world where the spiritual dwells eternally within the material. But the idea in John that Jesus came to accomplish a “work” connects with the idea in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus came to inaugurate a “kingdom.”

As for the book of Hebrews, it too presents an above/below dualism, but from the perspective of Platonic thought rather than from that of nascent Gnosticism. This perspective is seen most clearly in places such as those where the author says that the Jewish priests on earth “serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” The implication, in keeping with Platonic thought, is that true or ideal entities exist in a spiritual realm, while anything physical on earth is only a copy or expression of such an ideal. Throughout the book, many other aspects of the old covenant are said to have true or ideal counterparts in spiritual realities. For example, we’re told that when Joshua led the people into the land of Canaan, that wasn’t really the fulfillment of God’s promise to give them “rest.” That promise is still open to anyone who will “rest from their works just as God did from his.” (And God did that outside of the just-finished creation.)

However, this dualism between the true heavenly ideal and the earthly copy or shadow is transformed in much the same way that the Gospel of John transforms the above/below distinction—except that the motion is in the opposite direction. Hebrews emphasizes how Jesus went from below to above: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” And because Christ has gone before us to show the way, we can aspire to follow after him. The author says that the heroes of the faith were “longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” So once again it becomes possible, as a result of the transformation, to move in actuality between the “below” and the “above,” not just in philosophical contemplation or esoteric learning.

Interestingly, the heavenly city of Hebrews is both present and future, both here and there. On the one hand, the author says, “Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” On the other hand, the author says, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” This captures the “already” and “not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God as Jesus proclaimed it.

The book of Revelation shares much of this same perspective. It envisions God’s temple as ultimately a heavenly reality (for example, “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant”). However, once again reversing the direction, Revelation anticipates that “the Holy City, Jerusalem,” will “come down out of heaven from God”  after “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah.” The conception here, therefore, is also of an already/not yet kingdom. In some passages in Revelation (like this one), the kingdom is expected as a future reality, while in others believers are said to be already living in the kingdom. For example, early in the book John describes himself to the recipients as their “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.”

An important difference between Revelation and Hebrews is that in Revelation, the opposite of “true” is “false” rather than “copy.” At the beginning and end of the book, Jesus is identified as “Faithful and True.” By contrast, we hear in between about false apostles and a false prophet who deceive people who aren’t faithful to Jesus, and before we glimpse the heavenly city of Jerusalem, we see a grotesque vision of the earthly city of Babylon, which “led all the nations astray by her magic spells.” The challenge for readers of Revelation is not to distinguish earthly copies from heavenly originals, but to distinguish false influences and illegitimate rulers from true ones here on earth.

This actually brings us full circle, back to the Johannine writings, and specifically to the letters of John. In the first letter, the reality (and even possibility) of Jesus coming to earth—from above to below—becomes the test of true belief as opposed to false. This is expressed in the vivid terminology of “realized eschatology” (that is, the “already” aspect of the kingdom): “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”

I hope these reflections have been helpful to you. I recognize that they are not comprehensive or systematic, but I hope they may nevertheless point you in some directions that will be fruitful for your own thinking and teaching. Thanks again for your question.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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