New Dimensions in the Old Story

Lake and SkyChapter 12 of Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters finally turns to the New Testament, and the story many of us have wanted to dig into from the beginning. He has laid the foundation with a careful look at the Old Testament answer to 10 central questions. But what the Old Testament says matters to Christians because this story is our story. Christian faith is built on the old story. We can’t get the New Testament right if we don’t understand the Old Testament story. Matthew 5, 21, 26; Luke 24; 2 Tim 3; Hebrews 12 all point us in this direction, and many more references could be given.

According to the New Testament authors, it is in the Old Testament that the Christian will find the older and larger part of the great Story in which she is still caught up, telling her of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds the one who is still “running the same race” (p. 310)

This chapter is worth more than one post and we will cover it in two, or possibly three. Provan’s first three questions centered on creation: who is God?, what is the world? and who are we?, that is, who are man and woman?. These will be the subject of today’s post.

Who is God? Consistent with the Old Testament, the New Testament asserts that God is one, the only creator and Lord. Christians are to shun idols and focus only on the living God. Meat offered to idols is to be avoided, but not because the idols are anything more than man-made objects. As Paul said “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:6) God is the Creator. God is good, and this goodness is expressed in blessing, love, faithfulness, deliverance, and holiness. Provan also sees this goodness expressed in God’s anger and His patience.

As it is in the Old Testament, God’s anger in the New Testament is still “anger for a reason” (righteous anger), which involves both jealousy and vengeance (1 Corinthians 10:22; Romans 12:19). It is nevertheless anger that is slow, because God is “patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Here, we learn also that God’s anger relents when people respond to him in the right way and turn toward the good. This underlines a final point of continuity with the Old Testament: that, in New Testament faith, “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy,” delivering people “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (James 5:11; Titus 3:5). (p. 313)

Justice, judgment, and the covenant faithfulness of God are all part of the New Testament story as they are part of the Old Testament story.

There is an important difference however. In the New Testament we have Father and Son. God remains one and God remains good, but Jesus himself is the incarnation of this God, not a creature of God. Provan turns to John 8 to make his case. When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” This was too much for some of the Jewish leaders, Pharisees, in his audience and their challenge began an exchange that ended with Jesus making a claim concerning himself as more than prophet and teacher. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

The early Christians believed that God is one, but they also believed that God is three. They felt that they were pressed to this paradoxical conclusion by the events in which they had been recently caught up, which allowed for no other explanation. How exactly to say that God is one and yet three, without making mistakes—without falling back into polytheism, for example, or into a “simple” oneness in God that did not make room for Jesus’ full divinity—then became a matter of considerable discussion in the early postapostolic church. It led ultimately to the formulation of various “creeds” (official statements of belief in the church) that tried to speak well about the “one-in-three” reality (the Trinity) and to guide Christians in how not to speak about it (or believe it). (p. 314)

The one-in-three reality of the nature of God is a new revelation of New Testament faith. The Old Testament vision was not wrong, but it was incomplete. It did not have knowledge of the Son.

What is the world? Creation was declared good in Genesis 1 and it remains good in the New Testament. The understanding of the world as the creation of God remains unchanged, but this is now interpreted in the light of Jesus. John 1 and Colossians 1 are important creation texts.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

God is sovereign over creation. When Jesus calms the sea in Matthew 8 the story is associated directly with God-like sovereignty over creation. “What kind of man is this?” his disciples wondered, “Even the winds and the waves obey him!” The psalmist Ethan the Ezrahite (Ps 89) writes “Who is like you, Lord God Almighty? … You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.”

mediterranean seaWho are we? Humanity is the image of God in his creation. This remains the same, but is now interpreted in the light of Jesus. In particular divisions and differences between people are abolished. Those who are “in Christ” a new unified humanity. 1 Cor. 12:13 “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” This passage describes the different parts of the body with different purposes, but gifts that are to be used for the good of the whole. Galatians 3:26-28 is another important passage

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Image bearers of God who are having their image restored in Christ are on equal terms with each other. They possess an “equality that has both spiritual and social dimensions.” They are not to behave in any manner toward each other that belies this fact, whether in denying others equality or in failing to contribute properly to the community of equals. (p. 319)

James tells his readers to display an impartial attitude toward wealth. Rich and poor are equal before God. Paul makes it clear that Jews have no advantage over Gentiles and Gentiles need not become Jews and follow the law to follow Christ. Paul expects that Philemon will treat Onesimus as “a dear brother.”

We are man and woman equal before God.

In line with the truth that there is “neither male nor female” in Christ, we discover that women are regarded as “sisters” within the New Testament church, just as slaves are “brothers” (e.g., Romans 16:1). This reflects Jesus’ own democratic affirmation of women in general, as he ministered to the needs of all, as well as his acceptance of them in particular as disciples who were, like the men, capable of instruction. Women held positions of authority in the early church: in Paul’s letter to the Romans, Phoebe is noted as a deacon of the church in Cenchrea, and Junia as an apostle (Romans 16:1, 7). Women also actively participated in church meetings, both praying and preaching (“prophesying”), just like the men (1 Corinthians 11:5). (p. 320)

In an endnote Provan notes that women in Athens, for example, had a “kurios, (guardian), who was either her closest male birth relative or her husband. … Her kurios controlled everything about her life. What happens to a person’s sense of self, then, when she enters the community of brothers and sisters in which Jesus is kurios?” (p. 446) Every Christian, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, has one and only one kurios – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Phoebe was a deacon and Junia an apostle. And as far as active participation goes, another endnote provides some details:

As Anthony C. Thiselton says, “Part of the observed traditions [NIV’s “teachings” in 1 Corinthians 11:2] probably included the Christian practice of women leading a congregation in the Godward ministry of prayer, and leading in preaching a pastorally applied message or discourse from God.” The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 828. On “prophesying,” Thiselton says further that the term “allows for short utterances or, in accordance with Paul’s own wishes, for longer stretches of speech to which the nearest modern parallel is probably that of an informed pastoral sermon which proclaims grace and judgment, or requires change of life, but which also remains open to question and correction by others” (1094). (p. 446)

The answers to the three questions who is God? what is the world? and who are man and woman? maintain continuity with the Old Testament but now include an important element of reinterpretation in the light of the person of Jesus Christ. Although God is one, this is not a simple oneness. Knowledge of the Son forces a renewed and more sophisticated understanding of the nature of God. God is creator of heaven and earth, creation is reinterpreted in light of the Son. The world was created in him and through him. Finally we are all image-bearers united in equality before God. Divisions between people on all the usual grounds (gender, wealth, prestige, power, ethnicity) are done away with. We are all equal in Christ. He alone is Lord of all.

How is our understanding of God shaped by the life of Jesus? How does this change an understanding developed from the Old Testament alone?

Does the New Testament teach that all are equal in Christ? If so, what does this mean?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see New Dimensions in the Old Story at Jesus Creed.

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