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Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus - Divine Messiah Part 3

This is part 3 of a paper on Jesus as divine Messiah. See part 1 and part 2.

Possibly the clearest passage on the topic from the undisputed Pauline epistles comes in 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:7. We will focus on several key verses, starting with the climax in 4:4-6:

4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (NRSV).

Here, Paul describes Jesus in terms of light, glory, and the image of God. In other words, he is the supreme revelation of God. Here Paul is combining two strands of his Christology. Jesus is acting as the second Adam, being the perfect image, but he is far surpassing anything that Adam was ever capable of. He embodies God’s wisdom, herself, and is the prototype of the new humanity, the new creation.[1] That glory is available to us in the story of Jesus the risen, Messianic Lord. When our eyes are opened to accept and submit to that proclamation, we receive that glory for ourselves.[2]

When we tie this back to some of the earlier verses, we get a clearer picture of how Paul viewed Jesus. The statements about a greater glory than the Torah being revealed in Jesus in 3:7-11 are directly interacting with Sir. 24:19-21. Perhaps this, along with Jesus’ own actions, is what enabled Christians to move past strict Torah observance. Jesus was the ultimate revelation of God’s glory and the greatest source of God’s wisdom, both in terms of guidance but especially salvation. This superiority made following Torah unnecessary.[3]

Hebrews too shows dependence upon Wisdom Christology, though this may not be independent of the influence of Paul.[4] The letter’s introduction is a compact statement of Jesus’ divinity a la wisdom.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4 NRSV).

Several matters require brief comment. First, this passage is about Jesus’ status. He has the highest status that one can get. Second he is also the definitive source of revelation of God.[5] Third, we again have a tie of both creational and soteriological functions. As Johnson notes, “the protological function of the Son points to his eschatological victory.”[6] That could be another piece of the puzzle that explains why early Christians seized on Wisdom Christology.

While it may be going too far to say, that the resurrection is viewed as an enthronement, “…by which he entered fully into the life and rule of God as ‘Lord.’”[7] Clearly the resurrection was the cause of attributions of divinity to Jesus. His status as resurrected Lord in heaven allowed the early Christians to see Jesus as a pre-existent heavenly being.[8]

Are these connections in Paul and Hebrews enough to posit a Wisdom Christology? With Fee, I want to urge some caution.[9] While the conceptual ties are there, nowhere is Jesus called wisdom in the sense of personified wisdom.[10] He is the full revelation of God and the agent and sustainer of creation, as was wisdom, so wisdom traditions must stand somewhere in the background and add depth to the early church’s proclamation of Jesus. But without clearer statements it is hard to make the assertion that we have a Wisdom Christology in Paul, even if it might fit in Hebrews. It seems as if wisdom language is being used in both cases to clarify or expand on things believed about Jesus on other grounds. In particular, the contrast with language surrounding kingship is stunning. Even in Hebrews, one gets the sense that Wisdom Christology isn’t at the epicenter. Jesus enthronement at his resurrection is. The language of kingship, lordship, and messianic status are shot through all of the New Testament. Perhaps we need to revisit messianic beliefs in early Judaism to see if we can find the root of some of the early Christian beliefs about Jesus.

It is interesting that it is not only texts with ties to Wisdom that suggest pre-existence on the part of Jesus. We also find it in a much more straight forwardly messianic text like Philippians 2:5-11. Pre-existence is clearly predicated of him in 2:6, where the state of Jesus prior to the incarnation is described. His existence was in heaven. This much we can say without much controversy.[11] The Messianic import of the text is also clear from the exultation he receives in verses 10-11, as is clearly seen when cross referencing it with Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 14.[12] Thus, I would argue that Wisdom Christology is a secondary development, and that we see divinity in some sense (heavenly pre-existence, if not more than that) predicated of the Messiah Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. This, then, pushes us back to look for other Jewish sources that allow us to make sense of all of the data.

[1] See the excellent exegesis of Thrall 1994, ad loc. for a fuller discussion. Also see Matera 2003 for a discussion of possible texts lying behind the OT allusion in vs. 6.
[2] See Thrall 1994, pp. 318-20 for a fuller exploration of the “Christophany” of 4:4, 6.
[3] I will note that this line of argument is my own and not reflected in the major commentaries on 2 Cor. that I consulted.
[4] Hebrews 13:23 mentions connection to Timothy.
[5] Koester 2001, ad loc.
[6] Johnson 2006, p. 67.
[7] Ibid, p. 72.
[8] Hamerton-Kelly 1973, p. 123.
[9] Fee 2007, pp. 317-25. Fee exceeds caution in outright disparagement, which I think goes too far.
[10] Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to see it in 1 Cor. 1:24. I think the reading of Thiselton 2000, ad loc. is sound, calling Jesus an actualization of God’s wisdom.
[11] See, e.g., O’Brien 1991 ad loc., Fee 1995 ad loc., and Bockmuehl 1998 ad loc.
[12] See the concise argument ad loc. in Bockmuehl 1998. 


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