Are we literally supposed to be able to move mountains by faith?

Q. Something Jesus said has always been a bit troubling to me. He told his disciples once that they hadn’t been able to cast out a demon “because you have so little faith.” Then he added, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” I have to say I certainly believe I have faith and strive for it, but I’ve never quite been able to make a mountain jump. That said, I have not noticed anyone else making mountains jump either. Are we to assume that no one currently on earth has the kind of faith needed, or was this a parable not to be taken literally?

I believe that Jesus’ comment about moving a mountain is the kind of hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration to make a point) that we also see him using elsewhere. (This was a favored device of rabbis at the time.) For example: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven”; “When you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”; “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”

This device was attention-grabbing, and I think one thing that made it memorable and effective was that listeners were indeed left wondering whether to take it literally, and if not, what it actually meant. I think the main point here is the contrast between small faith and a great mountain.

At this point in Matthew, Jesus has just come down from the Mountain of Transfiguration, so he may well be gesturing towards that mountain, which would be looming above him and his audience. But he made the same point on another occasion, apparently in a different location, by saying, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

So no one should feel that if they can’t imagine themselves literally making a mountain move, they must not have enough faith. Instead, I think we’re meant to apply the image metaphorically and ask, “What is the ‘mountain’ in my life that seems impossible to move? That must be possible for God, because even if I have the tiniest bit of faith, so long as it’s in an infinitely powerful God, this situation can be addressed.”

That last thought relates to the question of why Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t cast out the demon because of their little faith, when only the tiniest bit of faith is required. Did the disciples really not have even a minuscule amount of faith? No, I think we’re supposed to ponder this issue that the statement raises as well and realize that the question isn’t how much faith we have, but how much power God has, who is the object of our faith. We can then put our faith to work and trust God to address any situation where his great power is needed to advance his purposes.

Are the heavenly beings in conflict with one another?

This is the third and final post in a series in response to a multi-part question.

Part 3 of the question: It seems as if at one time the “sons of God” were united, but then there was some sort of strong disagreement between them. I wonder if this was because of something that happened. For instance, Genesis 6 mentions the sons of God sleeping with the daughters of men (which seems very odd).  Another event, mentioned in the book of Daniel, also shows a conflict. After Daniel prays, a radiant figure comes to him and says that his prayers were heard but the answer was delayed for twenty-one days because the prince of the kingdom of Persia was resisting. Is this also referring to the sons of God? What does all of this have to do with the talking snake in the garden of Eden? Is that somehow linked, is that part of the story, or is it just something unrelated?

The first and second posts in this series explain the ancient Near Eastern background to the idea of a “divine council” made up of “sons of God.” With that background, we now can appreciate that the image in the book of Revelation (which draws heavily on the heritage of Judaism for its symbolism) of a dragon whose tail “swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth” is indeed depicting conflict between heavenly beings. And since Revelation identifies this dragon as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan,” we see that there is indeed a connection between this and the talking snake in the garden of Eden.

We saw last time that Yahweh is acknowledged in the Bible as incomparable. No one, therefore, can successfully challenge his rulership over the divine council. But it appears that somehow, at some time, one of the heavenly beings tried to challenge it anyway. While this figure succeeded in enlisting many of the other “sons of God,” he was defeated and they all “lost their place in heaven,” as Revelation goes on to say.

The Bible doesn’t give us very many specifics about this, although we do get recurring hints about it in other places such as the one you mentioned about a radiant figure being able to come to Daniel only after being delayed by an opposing spirit being. One thing we are told is that the forces now in opposition to God are trying to recruit human beings to resist God with them. These forces have been trying to tempt and corrupt humanity ever since the beginning, in fact, and the devil even tried to tempt Jesus to disobey God and worship him instead. So we do need to recognize that we are living in the midst of a battlefield on which powerful spiritual forces are contenting. The Bible assures us that God will unquestionably  be victorious in the end. But in the meantime we must be careful all the time and remain scrupulously loyal to God.

We might wonder how a heavenly being could dare to challenge God, or even have the capacity to do that. It appears that the “sons of God” are endowed with freedom to make moral choices, just as people are. This freedom allows them to serve God not out of compulsion but out of love, as God would have it. But it necessarily also allows them to make unfortunate bad choices, and that is what we may conclude has happened.

As for the episode in which the “sons of God” marry the “daughters of men,” I invite you to read this post, in which I discuss that episode in detail.

Finally, let me return to Psalm 82, the passage you began by asking about, and suggest that there might be some connection between it and the place in Deuteronomy where Moses talks about how God “divided mankind” and “fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” The elohim or “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82 are being judged for some kind of failure in their duty. They have “judged unjustly and shown partiality to the wicked,” rather than maintaining justice and rescuing the weak and needy. If these figures are indeed supernatural beings in the spiritual realm, rather than human judges on earth, then one possible occasion for this failure could be in connection with their role overseeing particular groups of people on earth. If, instead of maintaining justice as they were entrusted to do, they tried to aggrandize their own power and get people to worship them, and in the process they led entire societies and cultures to be distorted by the quest for power so that the weak and vulnerable were oppressed, then the punishment of losing their immortality seems to be one that fits the crime. They were “sons of God,” created spirit beings, but they were made “like mere mortals” when they tried to be worshiped as if they were self-existent gods themselves.

I admit that this is very speculative. In each of these posts I have cautioned about going beyond the little that the Bible actually tells us about these things. Perhaps we really have no idea what specific occasion Psalm 82 is addressing; perhaps we simply need to take its general teaching to heart and resolve to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute; rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” That would be something excellent for all of us to pursue. But in the process, we do need to remember, as I’ve just said, that we are on a spiritual battlefield, and so we need to call upon all the resources of faith and spiritual power as we work towards this worthy goal.

Peiter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”

Who are the “sons of God” who take part in the divine council?

This is the second in a series of posts in response to a multi-part question.

Part 2 of the question: Who are the “sons of God” who take part in God’s divine council? We hear in the book of Job that they meet and Yahweh delegates tasks to them. Later in the book it mentions that they were there at creation of the universe. In Psalm 82 the council members are called “sons of the Most High.” Moses says in Deuteronomy, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance . . . he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord‘s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.”  This sounds as if Yahweh took particular care of Israel but assigned the other nations to different “sons of God” at this time. This would make sense to me if they were part of the divine council. But who were they, exactly?

I think the best way to begin addressing this part of your question is to return the article by Dr. Michael Heiser that I discussed in my first post,  “So What Exactly is an Elohim?” There it is explained that the authors of the Hebrew Bible shared the ancient Near Eastern viewpoint that the heavenly beings met in a council to decide the affairs of the universe. However, the biblical authors transformed this viewpoint in significant ways.

Most importantly, while they called all of the participants in the council elohim because of their “plane of existence”—that is, these elohim were all inhabitants of the spiritual realm—they saw an essential difference in “attributes of being” between Yahweh and the others. The others were not self-existent; they were creatures. Yahweh, by contrast, had always existed, and as a matter of fact he had created all the others. This gave Yahweh infinitely greater power and glory, and so he was the uncontested ruler over the divine council. This was a second important difference between the biblical view and that of the surrounding cultures, which envisioned a perpetual struggle for supremacy within the council between various gods of roughly equal power.

Many passages in the Hebrew Bible are actually apologetics for this transformed understanding that Yahweh is unique among the elohim (heavenly beings), and therefore their unquestioned ruler, because of his self-existence and infinitely great power. For example, Psalm 89 says,

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
also your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who is like the Lord among the sons of God?
God is revered in the council of the holy ones.
He is to be feared more than all who surround him.

These elohim were often represented by the stars in the sky, and so we hear Yahweh ask similarly in Isaiah,

“To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

Yahweh offers a similar challenge to Job towards the end of the book that bears his name, in one of the passages that you mentioned. He asks,

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
    and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

Here we see Yahweh depicted as the sole Creator, establishing the realm of human habitation (the one relevant to Job) by setting the boundaries of sea and land. The “sons of God,” created some time prior and described as the “morning stars” in a poetic parallel, are looking on and rejoicing. They are subordinate and supportive.

And this gets at the essential meaning of the phrase you are asking about. These heavenly beings or elohim are not actually “gods,” but “sons of God,” that is, they are his creatures. The phrase (sometimes found in equivalent forms such as “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82) is being used in a different sense from the way that Jesus is described as the “Son of God” who shares God’s very essence—his “attributes of being,” if you will. It’s also different from the way that believers in Jesus become “sons of God” by adoption. It means that these are created but supernatural beings who are supposed to assist God in the administration of the universe.

You noted, for example, that the book of Job portrays them reporting  regularly to God about their assigned tasks. As you also noted, Deuteronomy suggests that various “sons of God” were made responsible for the different nations at one point. But I don’t think this means that God wanted those nations to worship these beings. I noted last time that this whole matter of the divine council is an area about which the Bible gives us very little information, and so we need to be careful not to speculate. However, it seems possible that the “sons of God” who were made responsible for nations accepted and perhaps even demanded their worship, and that this had destructive consequences for which they were judged. This may be the judgment described in Psalm 82.

I’ll address that issue in my last post in this series. But in the meantime, I think we can conclude to this point that in some way that the Bible doesn’t tell us very much about, there are created supernatural beings who assist God. The ones we hear the most about are angels (whom the Bible may  describe as elohim at at least one point). However, I wouldn’t want to develop an elaborate theology about this or try to figure out exactly what’s going on in the spiritual realm. I would recommend instead that we find encouragement in the idea that there may be many more forces at work to further God’s interests than we often realize, and so contribute to that work ourselves with renewed confidence and energy.

William Blake, “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” (detail).

What is the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” described in the Bible?

This post is the first in a series in response to a multi-part question.

Part 1 of the question: What is the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” that is described in the Bible? Psalm 82 says that “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (And what is this judgment that is referred to?) Some kind of council also seems to be described in 1 Kings, where Micaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him.” There God poses a problem to those around him and various ones make suggestions until a solution is identified. What is really happening in the spiritual realm that seems to be affecting our world?

There is at least one more apparent reference in the Bible to a divine council. Psalm 89 asks, “Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared.”

These references indeed lead us to ask, “What’s going on here?” We ask this not only in the sense that you have—inquiring into the workings of the spiritual realm—but also because we are perplexed. Isn’t there supposed to be only one God? What is the Bible doing talking about other gods who aren’t just imaginary figures associated with idols but actual beings in heaven? Does the Bible really teach polytheism, rather than monotheism?

The place to start in addressing these issues is Psalm 82. Researching the answer to your question has led me to discover the brilliant and provocative work that Dr. Michael S. Heiser has done in recent years to explain that psalm and to address the entire issue of a “divine council.” I personally find his interpretations satisfying and persuasive. More about them shortly.

Out of a concern to preserve monotheism, many biblical interpreters and translators have taken the term “gods” in Psalm 82 to be ironic or mocking (they put the term in quotation marks or say “so-called gods”), or they have understood these “gods” to be human “judges” or “magistrates.”  Correspondingly, they have taken the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” to be the “great assembly” or the “great meeting of His people,” that is, the whole congregation of the people of Israel.

Interpreters say that these understandings find support in an appeal that Jesus makes to the opening of Psalm 89 when he is accused of blasphemy. This is recorded in the Gospel of John. At the Feast of Dedication, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” For that, his opponents want to stone him because, they say, “you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus responds, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”

Interpreters feel that they have a clue here to the identity of the “gods” in Psalm 89: They are those “to whom the word of God came.” Some conclude that this means they are the whole nation of Israel, which received the law at Mount Sinai; others say they are the judges appointed under the law, who received wisdom and guidance from God to decide cases. Either way, there would be no polytheism in Psalm 89; those who are being addressed, for whatever reason, as “gods” are actually mortal.

However, in his article “Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34,” Dr. Heiser points out a fatal flaw with these interpretations: They undermine Jesus’ claim of divinity. If Jesus is telling his opponents, “It’s all right for me to claim to be God, because in the Scriptures all those who received the law are called gods,” or, “those who received guidance to judge cases are called gods,” then Jesus is appealing to his membership in the nation of Israel or to his ethical teaching as the basis on which he, a mere man, can call himself God. That’s actually not what’s going on here in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” and his opponents know it: After this response, they try again to seize him, but he manages to escape.

And so, Heiser argues, we should understand those “to whom the word of God came” to be the participants in the “divine council” described in Psalm 82, and that “word of God” itself to be what they are told in that psalm: “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High. But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” In other words, Heiser insists, there actually are supernatural beings who participate in a council with God. (However, they are clearly subordinate to God, since he “presides” over the council—the meaning of “takes his place” or “takes his stand.”)

The particular beings described in Psalm 82 are being punished with the loss of immortality for some reason. (More about that in my third post in response to your question.) But they must be supernatural beings in order for Jesus to make his argument: If Scripture, which must be upheld, calls these supernatural beings “gods,” then certainly the one “whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world,” not being a “mere man,” can use language (“I and the Father are one”) that suggests he is God.

Jesus, in other words, is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. And I think there may be a further dimension to this argument than I have yet found in Heiser’s writings (although it may be in some of them that I haven’t seen yet). I believe Jesus is saying, “If Scripture called these beings ‘gods’ even as God was decommissioning them, then certainly the whom God consecrated and sent into the world can be called God.” So it is not just Jesus’ greater status as the Son of God, but also his obedient mission in contrast with these beings’ disobedient failure, that entitles him to the name if they are allowed to have it.

I’ll say more about status and mission, and about the divine council itself, in my second and third posts in this series. But let me conclude this post by addressing a concern that is likely still outstanding: Isn’t this polytheism? Actually, no.

As Heiser explains in another article, “So What Exactly is an Elohim?” the term translated “gods” in Psalm 82 is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for a variety of supernatural beings, including the “demons” that Moses says the Israelites sacrificed to in the wilderness, possibly the “angels” that Jacob saw when he was fleeing from Esau, and the “spirit” of Samuel that appears to Saul. According to Heiser, elohim refers a being’s “plane of existence,” not to its “attributes.” When we hear the word “god,” we tend to think at least of a self-existent being, and probably one with unlimited powers. But when the Hebrews said or heard elohim, they were thinking only of a being that existed in the immaterial, spiritual realm. Whether it was created or self-existent, and what powers it might have had, were matters to be specified separately.

We’ll see in our next post that the beings in view in Psalm 82 actually are created and have limited powers. But we can conclude, at least for now, that God does seem to involve some other supernatural beings in the administration of the universe. We get only the vaguest hints of this in the Bible, and we certainly shouldn’t develop any elaborate theories about it. My personal feeling is that if we were supposed to know more about this, the Bible would have told us more. Instead, it seems as if we are being told, as Jesus said to one of his disciples who wanted to know more about the future than he needed to know, “What is that to you?” Jesus added, “Follow me,” and I think that’s the best resolution for anyone who is his committed follower. Let’s not speculate about things that are beyond us, which we don’t need to know about; instead, let’s understand what present obedience to Jesus would look like, and see if we can’t live that out.

Many Christian traditions see the patriarchs and saints as something of a “council” that surrounds God’s throne with intercession and praise. But the ideas we are discussing here go beyond that. Stay tuned!

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.

How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul? (Part 3)

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 post in response to this question, I suggested that Jesus’ teaching represented a “transformed dualism.” His Jewish contemporaries envisioned a world in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was the possession of a particular ethnic group, that was based on law-keeping, and that was expected in the future. Jesus replaced that vision with one in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth, that was based on faith, and that was already present, in addition to being expected in the future. In my second post, I showed how the apostles came to share and confirm the understanding of the “kingdom” that Jesus had presented.

In this post I’d like to show that the teaching of Paul constitutes the transformation of a different dualism, but that it ends up articulating the very same vision of what God is doing in the world with the coming of Jesus.

I should note that in his letters preserved in the New Testament, Paul, since he was Jewish himself, actually did address many of the same issues that Jesus did. He insists, for example, that righteousness (understood as right standing with God, more relational than legal) cannot be based on keeping the law; it must be based on faith (implicit trust in God). He says in Romans, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law . . . but now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known . . . This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” This assertion leads Paul directly to affirm another key teaching of Jesus, that the kingdom of God is not exclusively hereditary, but rather open to anyone, Jew or Gentile: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”

However, because Paul also moved in Greek circles—he was uniquely equipped to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” because he was trained in Greek language, culture, and philosophy in addition to being educated as a rabbi—he expanded the discussion to address a further dualism. Greeks thought in terms of a distinction between spirit and matter. They envisioned people as spirits that had trapped in physical bodies. These spirits would ultimately be released at the time of death, but in the meantime people needed to do everything they could to overcome being dragged down from the heights of spiritual experience by their bodies. For example, they might attempt, through ascetic practices, to mortify their bodies to weaken their influence, or they might try to empower their minds and spirits through knowledge and philosophy or through visionary experiences.

Paul offers a different perspective on the dualism between “spirit” and “flesh.” He conceives and explains both of those things not as parts of the human being but as ways of living. The “flesh” is a way of life that is self-assertive, self-indulgent, and rebellious against God. The “spirit” is a way of life that is completely submitted to God’s influence and direction. (Accordingly some versions of the Bible say “Spirit” in various places, meaning the Holy Spirit. Translators and interpreters of the Bible have a difficult time knowing whether, in any given place, Paul is referring to a person’s spirit or to God’s Spirit influencing that person.)

Paul’s teaching that the “flesh” and the “Spirit” are two ways of life, while dependent on Greek conceptions, actually enabled him to answer a question that arose from the discussion within Judaism about faith and the law: If people are not required to keep the law, but simply to have faith, what’s to keep them from running wild? Paul explains, once again in Romans, that the “righteous requirement of the law” can be “fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God,” he says; “it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” But “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires,” and so they spontaneously do what the law requires—not just avoiding what it says to avoid, but doing positively the good things it is designed to promote.

Just as Jesus transformed the understanding of the kingdom by explaining that it was something that was in one sense already present, not something that would arrive exclusively in the future, so Paul transformed the understanding of living in the realm of the “Spirit” by explaining that it was something that was not entirely present yet, but whose ultimate realization was still in the future. Paul devoted much attention in letters such as 1 Corinthians to correcting misinformed practices that were based on a belief that people can already live in the realm of the Spirit to such an extent that what they do in our bodies doesn’t matter—indeed, that they should flaunt their freedom from their bodies’ downward drag by engaging in all sorts of activities that would otherwise be immoral or idolatrous. In theological terms, this was “over-realized eschatology.” That is, it was too much “already” and not enough “not yet.” Paul corrects this presumption of an already-realized kingdom by saying ironically to the Corinthians, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!”

But Paul also had to correct others, in letters such as Colossians, who were still trying to mortify their bodies through ascetic practices. “Since you have been raised with Christ,” he told the Colossians, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” In this case it was too much “not yet” and not enough “already.”

Either way, however, Paul made clear that the way of life that he called “the Spirit” had begun with the coming of Jesus. “When the set time had fully come,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” In this sense, the “flesh” and the “Spirit” are also two periods of time. The “flesh,” the time of rebellion against God, began with humanity’s first disobedience. The “Spirit,” the time of return to living under God’s authority and guiding influence, began with Jesus’ incarnation. When God’s purposes are fulfilled, ultimately life in the Spirit will completely displace life in the flesh. Gordon Fee brilliantly captures how these two ways of life can also be periods of time in a statement he makes about followers of Jesus: “Marked by Christ’s death and resurrection and identified as God’s people by the gift of the Spirit, they live the life of the future in the present.”

So Paul engaged a dualism between spirit and matter that believed both were parts of the human being; that saw freeing the spirit from the body as the means of salvation; and that believed this deliverance could be accomplished comprehensively in the present. Paul transformed this dualism by teaching a new understanding of the “spirit” and the “flesh” as two different ways of life; by holding that “spiritual worship” consisted of offering one’s body to God as a “living sacrifice” (this must have made some Greeks’ heads spin); and by cautioning that the life of the Spirit had not yet fully arrived: “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

In my final post in this series, I’ll discuss how the gospel and letters of John and the books of Hebrews and Revelation, though they seem to reflect divergent theological streams, nevertheless contribute to a harmonious New Testament understanding of these issues.

How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul? (Part 2)

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 post in response to this question, I suggested that Jesus’ teaching represented a “transformed dualism.” He redefined the “kingdom” as something that included people of all backgrounds, that was based on faith rather than law-keeping, and that was a present reality as well as a future one.

In this post I’d like to show that the apostles are portrayed in the book of Acts as affirming the understanding that Jesus taught of the “kingdom.” I will include Paul among the apostles here, since Acts shows how he worked alongside the ones whom Jesus chose and appointed during his earthly ministry. But I’ll discuss Paul’s writings separately, in my next post, and show how he transformed a further dualism. At the end of this post I’ll also look briefly at the general epistles and show how the letters of some of the other apostles confirm the impression we get from the book of Acts. (I’ll treat the letters of John, however, in my discussion of the Gospel of John in my final post.)

Acts suggests that even after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples were still expecting a kingdom that would belong to the Jewish people. They asked him just before he ascended to heaven, “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responded that it wasn’t for them to know such dates or times, but that instead they should be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Already that discouraged a Jewish-only understanding of the kingdom. And as the disciples fanned out to be witnesses as Jesus commanded, they found that first Greek-speaking Jews, and then Samaritans, and then even Gentiles were receptive to the faith they were proclaiming. Peter, to whom Jesus had given a leading position among the apostles, expressed the discovery this way: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

But even after the apostles and the whole Christian community accepted that non-Jews could be part of the “kingdom,” many still thought that everyone’s participation needed to be based on the law. This issue created such a controversy that a great meeting was ultimately held in Jerusalem to settle the matter. At this meeting there was much debate, in which many argued that the Gentiles did need to keep the law. But Peter finally stood up and insisted, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

By the time of this meeting, Paul, who had previously opposed the church violently, had been converted and sent out to bring the good news to the Gentiles. He came with his co-worker Barnabas, and the whole meeting listened in rapt attention as they told about “the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” Finally James, the brother of Jesus and a respected elder of the church in Jerusalem, suggested that the Gentiles be welcomed into the community on the basis of faith, but that they also be asked to observe a few specific provisions of the law. His reason was that “the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In other words, the Gentiles were being asked this in order not to scandalize people who knew about the law and would have expected followers of Jesus, who was still seen then as a Jewish teacher, not to do things like eating blood or eating food that had been offered to idols.

So the apostles ultimately upheld the ideas of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth and that was based on faith. They also proclaimed the kingdom as a present reality, not just a future one. For example, at the end of his first missionary journey (into the Roman province of Asia), after nearly being killed himself by a hostile mob, Paul told the new believers in Jesus, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul didn’t mean they had to suffer hardships now in order to enter the kingdom in the future; he meant that they were entering the kingdom now, and suffering for it.

We see this same understanding of a present kingdom in the general epistles, even though they also envision a future kingdom. James, for example, says that the commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a “royal law.” That is, it’s the law of a kingdom, or a law made by a king, or perhaps even the law on which this kingdom is based. So life in this present community is actually life in a kingdom—and it’s a kingdom of mutual love, not one governed by a code of laws that must be meticulously observed.

For his part, when Peter writes his first letter to believers throughout the western part of the Roman Empire, he tells them that they are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” This is language that was applied specifically to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Here Peter applies it to a community that consists of both Jews and Gentiles, and like James he invokes the “kingdom” concept inherent in the term “royal.” But Peter also tells these same believers, in his second letter, “Make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So the kingdom is future as well as present.

The apostles, therefore, came to share and proclaim Jesus’ own transformed vision of the kingdom. As I said in my first post, your question deserves a much more extensive treatment; I’ve offered only a very brief sketch here. But I hope I’m tracing out an outline for you, and that you’ll be able to see where you can plug in your own insights and those of others.

In my next post I’ll show how Paul transformed a further dualism to arrive at an identical vision of what God was doing in the world.