Monday, September 9, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus Part 4

This is the fourth and final part of a paper on the identity of Jesus. Here are parts one, two, and three.

Luke expands upon Jesus salvific role more fully in his announcement story. Fitzmyer is very perceptive in this regard, subsuming soteriology under Christology.[1] Jesus is the controlling category and his salvific action flows out of his personal identity. In the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56 there is the repeated theme of mercy. God is showing his mercy to Israel through Jesus. It is by God’s merciful act through Jesus that God would fulfill the promises to Israel.[2] Jesus was the coming redeemer. This is fully consonant with the Jewish messianic expectations described above. This was his role, from conception.[3] Verses 52-53 give the clearest explanation of Jesus program: ‘52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (NRSV). Jesus was going to bring divine victory, but its primary goal was to right the wrongs that evil had brought on the earth. This is what salvation for Israel would look like. It was not going to be a time where they assumed the dominant position and were the super powers of the world.[4] God wasn't solely judging Rome and other Gentile powers. He was judging evil oppressors of every stripe. The tables were to be turned and the poor and the weak were to be favored by God. This is the new life brought by Jesus. It may be tempting to read a text like John 1 and treat evil abstractly as “darkness,” but Luke allows no such thing. Evil reigns wherever there is poverty and oppression. Jesus acts like the good king, stepping in and saying no, stopping the perpetrators of evil, and giving his people a new opportunity for life. “This is not to obliterate the powerful so that the lowly can achieve the positions of honor and privilege to which they previously had no access. Rather, God is at work in individual lives (like Mary) and in the social order as a whole in order to subvert the very structure of society that supports and perpetuates such distinctions.”[5] Jesus was going to be the king of a new society where injustice had no place and everyone was accepted, both Jew and Gentile.[6] The Gentiles were finally being grafted into God’s people, into Israel, through Jesus.[7]

And this is where it all comes together. Who was and is Jesus? He was the first century Jewish Messiah, primarily of the kingly, but also of the prophetic mold. However, while there are many touch points with Jewish expectation, he avoided some of the key ones. In particular, some Jews were expecting the Messiah to lead a violent revolution against Rome.[8] The gospel writers portray him as leading a different kind of revolution. Political, but in a different sense. The exile was ending, as many Jews were hoping, but it wasn't the result of an overthrow of Rome by God.[9] A bigger enemy was out there and it had ensnared people, Jewish and Gentile alike. The enemy was Satan, evil incarnate.[10] Jew and Gentile alike needed to be saved from the effects of their sins. A massive work of liberation needed to be done. And Jesus the messiah did it, through his life, death, and resurrection. He was leading the battle, defeating evil in whatever guise it came. Like the prophets of old, he exposed injustice and would perform many signs which proclaimed the rule of God and the end of the rule of Satan. And, as we've hinted, he would need to be a teacher, like Moses. Kingdom building isn't easy and old habits die hard. The people need to know how to live in this new found victory. They would need to know how to live as one people, one family, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Peace is coming. The promise to Abraham is being fulfilled. Jesus will be on the throne until all of this is accomplished in its fullness. Then, the keys to the kingdom will be handed over to the Father and the new age will arrive.

What has proceeded is just a sketch, providing many avenues for further exploration. A brief overview was needed to help provide a fuller picture to fit all of the individual pieces into. Before we start working through individual themes in detail we have to deal with one other major issue. The confession of the church in later centuries has differed in both emphasis and content from the conclusions of our study. Why has the church made Jesus seem less Jewish and focused so strongly on divinity? We will examine some of the major creeds and theologians from throughout the millennia exploring how much warrant they can claim for their portraits of Jesus.

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[1] Fitzmyer 1970 pp. 219-27.

[2] See esp. 1:56.

[3] Green 1997 p. 100. The rest of what follows builds on his excellent analysis of this passage.

[4] There may be an explicit contrast here with the (Pharisaic?) ideology of Ps. of Sol. See further Bock 1994 p.146 n. 10 and his references. 

[5] Green 1997, p. 105.

[6] I think that’s the clear point of the reference to the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. 

[7] We must remember the Jewish shape of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. See esp. Romans 9-11. Wright 1991 pp. 231-57 is a good starting place for further reading.

[8] While this may not be completely obvious from second temple Jewish writings, it is from history.

[9] This was almost universally hoped for even if some did not advocate violent revolution.

[10] For more on this theme and what follows, Wright 1996, pp. 446-67 is critical.

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