New Covenant: new law, new priest, new sacrifice

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It’s been nine months since my last confession. I apologize for the absence.

I’d like to pass along some reflections regarding the NT letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews has been the grounds for a certain argument in favor of a substitutionary understanding of Christ’s death about which I’ve found myself recently in conversation.

How are we to read Hebrews?

If you’ve been an evangelical very long (as I have), you were probably raised on a substitutionary (perhaps penal-substitutionary) understanding of the Cross, and Hebrews was Exhibit A in defense of such a view. Hebrews, according to this reading, was a systematic interpretation of a Levitical understanding of the Cross, a reading of the Cross in the values and terms and logic of Israel’s sacrificial economy. Christ was this system’s final and perfect instantiation of this economy of sacrifice, its success, because it finally brought its logic to bear upon the right offering. Thus Israel’s sacrificial economy, established by God, finally ended because in Christ it finally succeeded. It was a fairly simple matter of mapping Jesus’ death onto Israel’s sacrificial system, particularly its logic of exchange, to arrive at an understanding of how the Cross is able to bring God and humanity together. See in this light, Jesus is the perfection of the kind of sacrificial exchange which is the OT/Aaronic sacrificial system established by Mosaic law.

This is no longer how I read Hebrews. Contrary to the substitutionary view, let me suggest (with others, I’m not inventing this) that the Cross is not Israel’s sacrificial system finally working because it finally gets a sacrifice (Jesus) that makes it work, confirming its design and logic of exchange. On the contrary, the Cross is where and how that system finally failed and where it is rejected by God.

How then do we read Hebrews as a repudiation of the standard substitutionary view? And if Christ’s death is such a repudiation, how are we to understand his death and our need for it?

The relevant material is Chs. 7-10. Note the following:

1. The Contrasts. A substitutionary view of Christ’s death understands Hebrews to be interpreting his death in light of a fundamental comparison between the OT sacrificial system and Christ. That is, by virtue of the fundamental similarity between the two, Jesus is viewed as that system’s chief instantiation, the perfection and fulfillment to its logic of exchange (forgiveness and acceptance for suffering and death).

But when read carefully, I suggest, we see that the author’s apologetic proceeds not upon a comparison between Jesus and the OT sacrificial system, but upon fundamental contrasts, not upon on a similarity that binds them together and which understands Christ’s death as an instantiation of the Levitical kind, but upon a dissimilarity that makes it impossible to interpret Jesus’ death according to the values, logic, and terms of Israel’s sacrificial economy. It is in the essential contrasts which Hebrews makes where we see the contradiction between the values and logic of each.

sac31.a Contrast of Origins. The logic of the OT sacrificial system requires (7.12) that priests be of the tribe of Levi. Hebrews contrasts Jesus with this, for Jesus is of the tribe of Judah (7.11-14), not Levi. Note the dissimilarity. Jesus does not even qualify for priestly service (7.5, 11) according to the Mosaic law which maintains the integrity of Israel’s sacrificial system.

1.b Contrast of Priestly Order. It was Ch. 7 that first suggested to me a real disjunct (contrast) at the heart of the relationship between OT sacrificial economy and how we are to understand Christ’s death. Not only is Jesus not born of the tribe of Judah (7.14), but his priesthood (his service to God and humanity) is after the order of Melchizedek (Ch. 7). He performs an altogether different service. Jesus is not a member of Israel’s priestly cast, and his death not a species of “Levitical sacrifice.” He is its contradiction.

As ‘high priest’ (in identification with and representation of us) Jesus is not doing the same thing Israel’s high priests do but doing it perfectly, efficaciously. As a priest after the order of Melchizedek (7.11-28), Jesus is doing something entirely different, something not located within Israel’s Levitical logic. His is a new priesthood of a different order.

1.c Contrast in Legal/Covenantal Grounds. The “law” (7.12) defines the terms of relation and exchange, consequence, forgiveness (9.22), a way of relating to God. For “when there is a change of the priesthood there has to be a change of the law” (7.12). Jesus’s priestly act (via his life, death, resurrection, and present intercession) is thus not exemplary of the established Levitical regulation. He embodies an entirely different approach to God enacted within an altogether different law. In contrast to an Aaronic mediation of death and blood, Christ’s ‘Melchizedekian’ service mediates “on the basis of an indestructible life” (7.16). That is its logic, its law. Jesus’ death does not confirm Israel’s sacrificial logic/law (7.12). He is where that logic finally fails, and a new and living way, a new priesthood (mode of representation) established upon a “new law” (terms of relation, exchange, consequence, forgiveness, etc.) is revealed. Christ is thus where and how “the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless” (7.18) and “a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God.”

How much clearer could the fundamental contrast be? The crucifixion is what the Mosaic/Aaronic sacrificial systems does to the new covenant’s “new and living way.” The Cross is where two diametrically opposed orders of sacrifice meet. Israel’s entire economy of sacrifice (its priesthood, its legal/contractual grounds, its terms and logic) is “useless” (v. 18), not useless until it finds in Christ a kind of victim whose blood will make it useful. Rather, he once and for all exposes Israel’s economy of sacrifice to be inherently useless. “If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (8.7). This is not the sort of language one employs if one wishes to say that Jesus’ death is the embodied perfection of the logic that defines Israel’s sacrificial economy.

1.d Contrast in Kind/Mode of Sacrifice (i.e., ‘Blood’). Why should Jesus’ death/blood be necessary at all if it was not a sacrifice of the Aaronic order of relations? Doesn’t blood (i.e., death) as such entail something like a penal-substitution? Why else would Jesus’ life of loving surrender to God culminate in so violent a sacrifice of his life? Two answers come to mind:

1.d.1 First, the contrasts thus far establish the need for Christ’s violent death. This is not to somehow condone the logic of Israel’s sacrificial order. Nor does it contradict the fact that Christ’s priestly service is based on the power of an “indestructible life” (7.16). Rather, the contrasts, which are real, must be revealed. The first covenant, with its sacrificial logic (“weak and useless” as it was, 7.18) required explicit defeat of its terms, and defeat of its terms meant defeat in its terms. Thus, Israel’s weak and useless system must exhaust itself in its own ideal terms and circumstances. It must scapegoat and offer to God a truly (infinitely) innocent victim, on behalf of the very survival of the nation (Jn. 11.51), thus operating at its best, under ideal conditions, and according to its quintessential logic. Only in such an event could its failure be made plain and the whole system “set aside” (10.9). This is precisely what we find in the Cross (Col 2.13-15).

Christ’s resurrection is thus to be viewed the same way, as God’s verdict upon a Levitical understanding of Christ’s death. How so? Because Israel’s offering is rejected. God gives back to the world its sacrifice. He rejects the blood that Israel’s sacrificial economy required. To be sure, a sacrifice acceptable to God is made by Jesus, but it is a sacrifice of an entirely different order, the loving surrender to God of his whole life, sharing our humanity and our experience of death. What Israel does on the Cross is thus not what God is doing there – as the Resurrection reveals. The Cross is what Israel’s sacrificial economy does to the (loving/peaceful) sacrifice Jesus makes of his whole life to God in identifying with our condition. Identification, not substitution, is the logic of atonement.

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1.d.2 Second, 9:16-28 relates the necessity of blood (9.16) in the enforcing of a “will.” Notice that talk of ‘wills’ places us within the domain of civil, not criminal, law. That is, blood here is not the satisfying of any punitive demands of the law. On the contrary, it has in view only the terms in which humanity can be effectually comprehended within the promises of God – promises that extend unending life to those embraced by its terms. That comprehension must involve Christ’s death, his blood, but not the blood which Israel’s sacrificial system requires. Rather, it is the death which is our “shared humanity,” in order to “become an effectual high priest” of a new and living way. Death as such must be negotiated to ratify the new covenant ‘will’ in the mortal experience of those governed by that new will. Mortality and death are the terms in which Christ must introduce the ‘new law’ of a ‘new covenant’ that grants us indestructible life. Ch. 2.14-15 makes this clear: “He shares their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The blood Jesus must shed to establish our destiny under the new covenant is thus not the blood which Israel’s economy of sacrifice demands. Rather, it is the blood that represents humanity’s futility, its mortality, death itself, the “fear of which enslaves” human beings (2.15). Notice there is nothing peculiar in 2.14 about tabernacle, altar, or sin offerings per se. In 2.14-17a Christ is to free us from our fear of death, and of course ultimately death itself. He does this by (2.9) by “tasting death for everyone” (that is, by dying). When 2.17b introduces “making atonement for the sins of the people,” this atoning work follows, and is followed by, no mention of tabernacle or altar. Rather, atonement appears within the whole scope of Jesus’ incarnate career. He atones (here in Ch. 2) by being made like us, by being tempted like us, and by suffering like us. Suffering what precisely? Here it is not the crucifixion, but rather “being tempted,” i.e., suffering the conditions of a mortal human existence, including death. The “because” linking v. 17 and 18 is interesting: “…that he might make atonement for the sins of the people…because he himself suffered when he was tempted….” Wouldn’t we expect “because he suffered when he was crucified” as a description of suffering that atones and reconciles? How does Jesus suffering the common lot of human temptation define the “atoning” work of Christ as high priest (17b)? And consider, high priests are not ‘substitutes’, they are ‘representatives by virtue of a shared nature.’ Christ’s lived sufferings (which of course extends to the end of his life in a violent death), under the conditions of (“because” of) our shared humanity – these all together constitute the ‘blood’ (viz., the life of Jesus in its total surrender under the violent conditions of the world he came to reconcile) of Ch 9.16-28, the blood of the new covenant, united by Christ to God himself (the heavenly realities of 9.23-24). It is the blood of the “new covenant” after all. The blood of penal-substitution is precisely not this, but is instead the same blood of the old (weak/useless) covenant.

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2. Use of OT Prophetic Critique. Note the use of key OT passages critical of blood sacrifice. This critique is widespread in the Prophets, including a repeated emphasis that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are his concern. Several passages make this clear:

  • Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”
  • Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
  • Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial system had its origin in divine command at all (7.21-22): “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Emphasis mine)

One could go on. Take Heb 10.8:

  • “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ though they were offered in accordance with the law.”

Notice the tension here. Burnt offerings and sin offerings were offered “in accordance with the law.” Thus, Mosaic legislation establishes the integrity of the sacrificial system. Presumably God wanted and ordained blood sacrifice. This would need to be the case if Christ’s death is to be understood as the perfection of that system’s sacrificial logic. On the other hand, we’re told God “did not desire” this system and “was not pleased” with its offerings. Note Jeremiah’s stunning declaration (Jer. 7.21-22) that God never in fact commanded or instructed Israel to institute blood sacrifice. It wasn’t his idea.

What sense are we to make of this? Did God or did God not institute blood sacrifice to ‘set the stage’ for the greatest blood sacrifice of all? My answer will not please everybody. I suggest that God worked with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require such sacrifice. Consider Israel’s demand for a king, which God took to be a rejection of him. God went with it, even incorporated Israel’s monarchy into their prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. At best, God tolerated it.

Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never wanted or endorsed this (Mt 19.8). God only tolerated it because of Israel’s hard heartedness. We mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggestive of his endorsement of those positions.

sac5I suggest we view Israel’s entire system of blood sacrifice this same way – as something Israel insisted upon but which God tolerated. It’s difficult to imagine God commanding Israel’s blood sacrifice as such when you consider that blood sacrifice is older than Israel and was the common mode of worship for all Israel’s pagan neighbors. We should view OT regulation of blood sacrifice as God managing for the best what Israel was intent upon but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for providing us terms of similarity upon which to map our understanding of Christ’s death.

Back to Heb 10. Consider vv. 5-6:

  • “Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me’….”

The mention of “a body you have prepared for me” might suggest that Jesus is being identified as a sacrifice of the Levitical order. But this is impossible. It asks us to imagine God not being pleased with sacrifice and offering but being pleased with making Christ just such a sacrifice. Where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary, it is to demonstrate the lengths to which God must go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to him. See 1.d.1 above. How can God get it across to Israel that he is not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer: By submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to that sacrificial economy – antithetical to him in every way – letting it exhaust all its resources upon him, and then rising from its death as a rejection of it, exposing once and for all its failure and impotence.

Space won’t allow me to explore at length Israel’s Second Temple mystical apocalyptic tradition of a heavenly court as a possible context for Heb 9, where spiritual realities and transactions are mirrored in earthly rituals. One should examine how this argument functions. All the instruments of the earthly tabernacle have heavenly counterparts where Jesus presented his blood in God’s presence. I can see how the language of ‘shadow/substance’ and ‘heavenly copies’ lends itself to seeing the relationship between the two in strongly similar terms, so the challenge is to read this language as mapping essential differences, for however one takes the language, it cannot contradict the contrasts which the letter makes in explicit terms.

It’s not as though there are zero similarities though. The author is after all bringing Jesus’ death into conversation with Israel’s law and priesthood, not with the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities. There has to be some shared context, some genealogical connection. But this is not difficult to see, given Christ’s place within Israel’s history. Also, the relevant terms obtain on both sides: ‘priesthood’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘law’. And both attempt to bring worshippers near to God. And yet priesthood, sacrifice, and law are not the same in each, hence the irreconcilable contrasts.

I hope we have enough here to disenchant those who view Christ’s death as the perfection of the sacrificial logic operative in Israel’s sacrificial economy and reason enough for them to leave the substitutionary reading behind.

The Cross and the transformation of evil

sac2I’ve been enjoying recent conversations about the Cross. These have centered on Rene Girard’s critique of sacrifice and the work of Girard’s close friend, Swiss Jesuit Raymund Schwager whose appropriation of Girard’s work to biblical studies and theology is most clearly worked out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, from which is taken the passage below.

The question concerns the nature of the Cross as sacrifice when read against the background of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice and from which economy we cannot extract the Cross. The letter to the Hebrews figures in hugely here for it so obviously compares and contrasts Christ’s death against this OT background. How are we to understand the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make? Is the Cross even an instance of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice, or does it subvert and expose that economy? We unequivocally condemn the evil of Christ’s crucifixion, and yet the language of ‘sacrifice’ has been embedded in Christian worship and ascetic practice throughout its entire history.

David Bentley Hart urges us not to view the Cross as “a” sacrifice but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice,” that the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make are these two opposed orders of sacrifice, that “[t]he crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event.” (emphasis mine) Here are two “currents of stress,” notes Hart, within Israel’s faith, and they are imposed upon us by the clear presence in the Old Testament of two contrary perspectives on sacrifice, one which affirms and celebrates (and portrays God as affirming and celebrating) Israel’s blood rituals, and another which unambiguously condemns and subverts that economy as such. These are not easy currents to separate, or even always to identify. But surely worship and ascetic practice are finally free of the “stress” Hart notes so that we may celebrate the sacrifice Christ makes without affirming the sacrifice those who crucify him make. To that end, let’s consider some of what Schwager has to say on the subject.

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On the question of the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament there is another issue to consider, which makes things ever more complex. We are faced here not only with a cultic institution which is hard to interpret, but also an equally strong criticism of sacrifice, especially by the prophets. The great crisis in Israel which manifested itself at first in the destruction of the northern kingdom (721 B.C.) and then led to the long-drawn agony which lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (587 B.C.), stirred up faith in Yahweh in its inmost depths and called forth the great messages of the prophets. Faced with the threat, the prophets expected no help from God through the sacrificial cult, rather they saw in it an expression of that falsehood and mendacity which was responsible for the fatal crisis. In the name of Yahweh they proclaimed: “I hate your festivals, I loathe them and cannot smell your solemn assemblies. Even though you present burnt offerings to me, I take no pleasure in your gifts and I will not look at your fat peace offerings” (Amos 5:21-22). Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial cult went back to a command of God: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people” (Jer. 7:21-23; 6:20; Amos 5:25). The prophets called for true knowledge of god, justice and love, not in addition to the sacrifices but in opposition to them: “I want steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Isa. 1:10-17; Ps. 40:7ff)…

…The unsolved problem of the Old Testament sacrificial cult would seem to make it impossible to develop a systematic interpretation of the death of Christ from that starting point. Certainly, the letter to the Hebrews sees the cross explicitly against the background of the cult, and it describes Christ as the high priest who offered a sacrifice. But the letter to the Hebrews can make these statements only because, by the use of numerous antitheses, it totally alters the concepts of both priest and sacrifice. First of all it separates Christ from the great, broad tradition of the Aaronic and Levite priesthood and links him with the priest king Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-24), who is a marginal figure in the Old Testament and is mentioned there only briefly on two occasions (Gen. 14:18; Ps 110:4) As high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:1-13; 9:15), and to him belongs also a quite new priestly order. He does not have to offer sacrifices day after day for himself and the people (Heb. 7:25-28), nor does he enter an earthy sanctuary in order to sprinkle it with the blood of he-goats and bulls. Rather, he brought about a redemption once for all, and entered into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-10:18). From the viewpoint of this new sacrifice it can be seen that the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament brought about atonement only in the sense that people because “purified in the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). The letter to the Hebrews, then, expressly restricts the effectiveness of the earlier sacrifices to the realm of external cultic purity, whose purpose was to remind people of their sins, without being able to bring about any inner healing: “But through these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot possible take away sins” (Heb. 10:3ff). The verdict on the sacrificial cult is unambiguous: it was unable to bring about any actual purification from sins. This is why the letter to the Hebrews, despite its explicit relationship to the tradition of sacrifice, is able to take a critical line of thought on sacrifice and to note the paradoxical fact that Psalm 40:7-9 talks of God not demanding sacrifices and talking no pleasure in them, even though “these are offered according to the law” (Heb. 10:8). The letter to the Hebrews resolves the contradictory evidence of the Old Testament by relating the criticism of sacrifice directly to Christ, who with these words abolished the existing order and set up over against it obedience. The continuity of content between the Old and New Testament runs not through the cultic line, but through the line of criticism of the cult, which emphasizes obedience.

Rene Schwager

Schwager (left) and Girard (right)

The letter to the Hebrews is able, through a massive hermeneutical reinterpretation, to take up on the one hand the whole metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the cult, but on the other hand to express something which is completely new in content. Through the confrontation of the cultic tradition with the tradition critical of sacrifice, it succeeds in creating, out of a problematic at the heart of the Old Testament, a complex symbol for the divine action and the divine will: God by the law commanded something which he himself did not specifically want, but which – in awakening consciousness of sin – was temporarily needed for humankind. This command to offer sacrifices was promulgated by the law because of its pedagogic and linguist function and not because of its atoning effect. The new teaching is tied in which the cult only as an illustration, whereas the criticism of sacrifice is spelled out as Christ’s own worlds (Heb. 10:18ff.). What was a tradition competing with the cult in the Old Testament becomes in the letter to the Hebrews an authoritative pronouncement about this whole past practice of sacrifice.

There is, it is true, one point where the question arises as to whether the letter to the Hebrews might, after all, recognize a certain continuity of content between the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Christ. The cult operated through blood (Heb. 9:7, 18-22), and Christ too offered himself as a sacrifice through his blood (Heb. 9:14). The Aaronic and Levite priests sprinkled with others’ blood (that of he-goats and bulls), whereas Christ entered the sanctuary with his own (Heb. 9:12; 10:19; 12:24). But does this difference (others’ or one’s own blood) abolish the continuity between the cult and Christ’s death, or is there a certain common basis in the shedding of blood?

The issue of the shedding of blood, so important for the letter to the Hebrews, points first to the need to examine and interrogate from a Christian perspective those theories of sacrifice arising from the study of religion which also emphasize the shedding of blood (the act of killing). The explicit statement that Christ offered a sacrifice with his own blood shows, moreover, that the problematic with which we began our reflections on sacrifice is in fact central. At the beginning of this section we asked how self-sacrifice is to be understood. If Christ identified himself not with the evil will of his opponents, but with their concrete actions (crucifixion), did he not therefore fully agree to his being killed? Can one not also take the statement that Christ sacrificed himself as high priest “with his own blood” as an indication of the indirect killing of himself? In considering the fate of Jesus we have often come across the them of God’s nonviolence. But now the more subtle question arises, whether we have to understand this concept in such a way that Christ, although he shunned all violence against others, finally turned that violence against himself – in self-sacrifice. Seeing things this way, could one not very easily link up the great Old Testament themes of judgment and God’s vengeance, the tradition of cultic killing, and also many New Testament utterances about judgment, with the message of nonviolence (toward others)? The cross would then be a sacrifice in the sense that the priest (Christ) did in fact kill something, namely, himself…Is there consequently a self-aggression in the service of the higher good? Because of this question we must once more go into the problematic of judgment at a new and deeper level. If the thesis that God in his anger directly struck and destroyed his Son by means of sinners (K. Barth) did not stand up to scrutiny, the more subtle problematic still remains, namely, whether he led the crucified one through obedience to self-aggression and thereby judged him. Christ would then have taken on himself the self-judgment of sinners in the sense that he did in full consciousness and freedom what sinners do in their blindness: judge and destroy themselves.

This question is not easy to answer, since we would need to feel our way into the inner attitude of Jesus and the New Testament utterances make use of words which come up in different contexts and can therefore be interpreted in different ways. However the question one with very great consequences. If the outcome is affirmative, then everything which we have worked out so far has to be looked at again in a completely fresh light, with considerable consequences for Christian spirituality and the practice of the faith.

In the Old Testament, with the exception of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, violent death was understood to imply only judgment and curse, while the New Testament sees the cross of Christ as positive. How is this difference to be understood? Since the Old Testament cult also attributes a positive atoning effect to the sacrificial death of animals, we must look into the question already addressed earlier in this investigation, namely, whether the formal element in atonement resides in the act of killing. The difference between the old and new order would consist in this, that in the former animals were killed daily, whereas in the latter Christ sacrificed and (indirectly) killed himself once for all.

Since the letter to the Hebrews understands Melchizedek as king of peace (Heb. 7:1ff.), such a view immediately causes problems But peace could be understood as a paradoxical result of “aggressivity turned in upon itself.” A useful indication is given by the letter to the Hebrews where it takes up the Old Testament’s critical line against sacrifice and, putting words into Christ’s mouth, also makes him say that he comes in order to do the divine will. Subsequently, the letter goes on: “And by that will we have been sanctified once and for all by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (dia tes prosphoras tou somatos Iesou Christou, Heb. 10:10). The sanctification was brought about fundamentally through the will of God, fulfilled by Christ. The agreement of wills was decisive. But what is meant by the addition ‘through the offering of the body”? Could it be that God wanted not the concrete burnt offering for sin but instead that element in this sacrifice, the killing, which pointed to the self-sacrifice of Christ? Even the apparently unambiguous text about the abolition of cultic sacrifice and about sanctification through the divine will can consequently be read in two different, even opposed directions.

Another passage in the letter to the Hebrews runs:

For by a single sacrifice he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their heart and write them on their minds”; then he adds, “I will remember their sins and transgressions no more.” Where sins are forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Heb. 10:14-18)

The New Testament letter makes a direct connection in this passage between the unique sacrifice of Christ and the saying of the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant. The will of Christ in his surrender is hereby formally identified with the new law which God inscribes on our innermost hearts. But self-aggression could not have a place under this new, inner, law, for otherwise disturbing consequences would follow for our understanding of God’s kingdom and of the life of completeness with God.

sac1A further text finally gives us a pointer to the answer we have been seeking: “For if the blood of goats…sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the power of the eternal Spirit offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, purify our conscience from dead words so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on our hearts; it came about also ‘by the power of the eternal Spirit.” The nature of this Spirit we have already seen fully in the second part of this work. It is the Spirit of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), of love (1 Cor. 13), of joy, of peace, of forbearance, and of gentleness (Gal. 5:22ff.). It does not make us into slaves (torturing ourselves), but into sons of God, and calls out from with us “Abba” (Rom. 8:15). A will to self-destruction is totally at odds with the working of the Spirit. If Christ surrendered himself in this Spirit, then his sacrifice cannot in any way be seen as (indirect) self-destruction. The working of the Spirit after Easter throws the decisive light on the innermost mystery of Christ’s will in his passion. The Spirit is never a spirit of aggression or self-aggression; it works rather from within the victims of violence; it stands by the persecuted in their need and protects them from inner subjection to their adversaries (Mark 13:11 and parallels).

For the true understanding of Christ’s sacrifice we must consequently look for a different solution from that of self-destruction. The persistent question is this: how was the crucified one able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents (condemnation and crucifixion) if he did not wish (indirectly) to destroy himself? Ethnology and the study of sacrificial cults in the different religions point not only to the act of killing but also to the important theme of transformation from the profane to the sacred…

…The ”conversion” and transformation of evil began with Jesus including his opponents in his being killed, and thus consciously living through on their behalf that dimension in their action which enable us to say that the act of crucifying him was in fact something suffered. But he had not yet achieved the decisive act, for suffering would only have had a positive sense if we had to assume that God directly will such suffering as a punishment, which, however, we have already excluded. The crucial point was the transformation of passivity through his surrender. Because of his unreserved acceptance of the suffering which came to him, it was already more than something merely undergone. Suffering which is affirmed becomes a new form of activity.

All the synoptic Gospels on the one hand emphasize the suffering of the crucified on and on the other they clearly describe his dying as an activity. We find in Mark: “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out the Spirit…(mark 15:37; Matt. 27:50). The loud cry was an expression of the most extreme desolation, and with the breathing out of his Spirit he indicated at the same time a revelatory event Mark 1:11; 9:7) which went out from Jesus as bearer of the Spirit. The breathing out of the Spirit is made even clearer in Luke: “And Jesus cried loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit’” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrender and handing over the Spirit to the Father. Since Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as the long awaited bearer of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), the return of the Spirit to the Father means at the same time the fulfillment of the mission. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father consequently come together in the one event described by the letter to the Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.

Whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another person renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other, to whom he thereby entrusts himself without reserve in love. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life has its limits, arising at the least from the demands of one’s own life and one’s own identity. At the moment of dying, these limits can be broken down. But since in death all of a person’s strengths fail, death in itself is extremely ambiguous. Is it merely the passive undergoing of an inexorable limit, or can there be a surrender which goes beyond all previous limits? From the viewpoint of ordinary human experience, no clear answer is possible. However, Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14) and, dying, entrusted his Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46)…

Whoever no longer determines himself by his own spirit, but entrusts this to the heavenly Father in order to allow himself to be totally determined by him, achieves a sort of openness and availability which go beyond our earthly experience….

(Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption)

Famous last words

commit1On the Cross, Jesus dies. But how does he die? The Psalms he read throughout his life are in his head, informing his interpretation of his own suffering, shaping his experience, ‘opening a new and living way through his flesh’ (Heb 10.19-20). That new and living way is here, on the Cross. Christ opens it. His experience of suffering is that way ‘open’ to us – hence our call to participate in its sufferings (pace Moltmann who insists Christ died alone and that our crosses are not a participation in his). We’ve explored Ps 22 (My God, My God, why?), Ps 42, and now Ps 31. From Ps 31.5 Jesus lifts “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Verse 14 (“I trust in your, Lord, I say ‘You are my God’) is interesting in light of some (including Cyril of Alexandria) who suppose Christ’s use of “My God” instead of “My Father” indicated a loss in him of a sense of the latter and a reduction of his faith to the former, i.e., God had become Christ’s “God” and not his “Father.” But this is nonsense. Even in the Psalms “God” articulates faith and trust. It’s not what one calls God because one is without the belief that God is also Father (cf. Jn 20.17, “I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”).

I present Ps 31 here in its entirety because from it Christ takes his last words (“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” v. 5). We know this psalm, along with Ps 22 and Ps 42, are where Christ went in his darkest hour to define himself. The contexts explain why Christ came here to die – and there is nothing of the despairing modern pathology that understands the Cross as divine withdrawal or abandonment.

Psalm 31 (NRSV)

1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the LORD.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD,
for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled
that speak insolently against the righteous
with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the LORD,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm,
“I am driven far from your sight.”
But you heard my supplications
when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all you his saints.
The LORD preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the LORD.

Editing yourself

edit1

I’ve posted a lot about the Cry of Dereliction, where Jesus, on the Cross, cries out (Ps 22’s opening line): “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve often expressed why we ought to reject the view (of Moltmann and others) that the Father in fact abandoned Jesus, the understanding that what gives the Cross its power to save is not Jesus’ enduring our abandonment of him but the Father’s own abandonment of him, not what we did to Jesus but what God did to him, and thus Jesus’ loss of identity and assurance of filial affection. In focusing on Ps 22, however, I never noticed Ps 42. Dwayne brought Ps 42 to my attention this morning, and I’m shocked.

Psalm 42 (NRSV)

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help [6] and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

Like Ps 22, this is the heart-cry of an innocent person victimized by the crowd. You can hear the crowd hurling insults, asking “Where is your God?” Even the psalmist asks God, “Why have you forgotten me?” Ps 22 all over again. But this can hardly mean the author believes God to have turned his back on him.

On the contrary, everything about the psalm presumes the author’s conviction of God’s presence. Indeed, no one who believes God has forsaken him takes the time to complain to God, for to lament or complain to God is to address him in the belief that he hears. The language of the heart in its outcry offers the pain it has, but this is not to despair in believing oneself abandoned by God.

The psalmist addresses himself, speaks to his soul, even edits his own complaint. “By day God commands his love and at night his song is with me” (v. 8) is followed immediately (v. 9) by “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” only to conclude “Why are you downcast O my soul? Hope in God!” Thus the author occupies a place, a perspective, that has not itself fallen under the spell of the lie of godforsakenness, a perspective from which he addresses himself, “Why are you downcast? Why do you feel forsaken?” What must we be to be able thus to address ourselves in such a manner? This is the person as a window open upon and within the transcendent, given by God, not constructed by us from resources provided by anything in this world. This is our givenness as such, and the Cross reveals it authoritatively, finally. Jesus on the Cross could have as easily quoted from Ps 42 as from Ps 22. They are identical frames of reference, both written from the Void.

Even if we must suffer our way through a thousand false avenues and dead ends to discover it for ourselves, ‘Abba, Father’ remains our deepest and truest identity, that which speaks us into being, even in the dark night of the soul. There is no conceivable way God can forsake that, for to exist – to be at all – is to be given, to be spoken into being by God, to be his very speech, and that places us in the most intimate immediacy with and in God. The Cross, then, is a narrative of presence, not of absence, even if it is presence within absence.

Face to face, even as I am known

mirror

1Cor 13.12 (DBH translation): “For as yet we see by way of a mirror, in an enigma, but then face to face; as yet I know partially, but then I shall know fully, just as I am fully known.”

I’ve lately been pondering just what Paul proposes as the object of our knowledge here. I grew up thinking something like this – ‘I know God partially (not fully) now, and someday I’ll know God just as completely as he knows me’. I took the ‘just as’ to measure the completeness or depth of the knowledge and God as the object known. And since God’s knowledge of me is utterly exhaustive, I looked forward to the day when I’d know him ‘just as’ he knows me.

I’m thinking now this is probably not what Paul had in mind. I suspect that it was his own self which he confessed to knowing partially and so his own self he looked forward to knowing completely, as God knows him. The fact that he compares this knowledge to that which we gain ‘by way of a mirror’ suggests as much. It is ourselves, not others, we behold in mirrors. We should also pause here to appreciate that mirrors then did not yield the near perfect, high-resolution reflections we enjoy today. They were cloudy and imperfect. In antiquity there was no way a person could see him/herself with anything like the clarity and exactitude with which people beheld others. How different ‘self-perception’ and even our very relationships have been affected by the modern advancement of quality mirrors and photography. Today you don’t need others in order to gain an appreciation of your own image; you can look into a mirror or take a selfie and have a perfect image instantly.

What I’m wondering is:

(1) Do you agree that what we know partially now (and completely later) is in fact ourselves?

(2) Depending on what we understand the object of knowledge here to be, what’s the larger point? If ‘self-knowledge’ is in view, how’s that impact Paul’s point in the chapter?

The fact that the main point has to do with ‘love’ makes interpreting this as ‘self-knowledge’ a bit odd. I’d expect the knowledge to be outward, knowledge of others. But I can’t construe it as our coming to know God as completely as God knows us. And if the ‘face to face’ knowledge which will also be ‘knowing as we are known’ is our ‘knowing ourselves as God knows us’, that does change how the passage is understood.

If the ‘depth’ of knowledge is not the point of comparison, however, perhaps it’s the ‘mode’ of knowledge that’s in view, i.e., ‘face to face’ (unmediated presence/knowledge) as opposed to ‘by way of a mirror’ (partial, mediated knowledge). But this seems strange too, for ‘face to face’ describes a mode of relation/knowledge that is other than ‘by means of a mirror’, and if self-knowledge is what’s in view, what’s the switch from ‘by means of a mirror’ to ‘face to face’ even suggest? Self-knowledge is already by definition a kind of unmediated knowledge in which ‘face to face’ and ‘in a mirror’ are essentially the same.

That said, the real (risky) point I want to make is this. I suspect that as we are known is not particularly a reference to God’s knowledge of us at all, but to the immediate (unmediated) mode in which others know us. This whole context (mentioning prophecy, gifts of knowledge, etc. which transpire between believers) is about human-human knowing and relations. If we can’t imagine knowing anything as completely, fully, and exhaustively as God knows that thing (including ourselves), then perhaps the point here is that someday our knowledge of each other will be free of the limitations and ambiguities that constrain us now (hence our need for prophecy and other gifts). But someday such limitations (and the gifts they occasion) will be eclipsed by a more direct face to face knowing (immediate presence) of one another.

Ideas?

Children of wrath

Children of wrathRandom observation. I work with a Bible Society dedicated to publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. It’s wonderful work. Love it. I recently tripped over the phrase “children of wrath” in Eph 2.3. Nearly every translation I looked at understands this phrase to describe human beings as born under or deserving of divine wrath. As a rule I’m extremely reluctant to disagree with unanimity when it comes to long-standing translations. But it does rarely happen that the unanimity one faces may not be that of free minds but rather that of a majority assuming that what’s gone before is right.

“Children of wrath” in Eph 2.3 does not, I submit, mean ‘deserving of wrath’ or ‘subject to wrath’ or ‘born under wrath’ but rather ‘characterized by wrath’, that is, a wrathful or angry disposition or temperament. The wrath is ours here, not God’s. I’m not suggesting the phrase “wrath of God” describes a fiction as if God in fact does not will that there be painful consequences for actions. Divine wrath is a realty, but it is not what Paul has in mind here.

There are several ways to take the genitive “children [tekna] of….” Used figuratively (as it is here), one may be a “child of _______” (fill in the blank) to the extent one is characterized by that quality or property described. Consider some examples:

(1) “children of Zion” (Joel 2.23) meaning those who inhabit Jerusalem,
(2) “sons of thunder” (Mk 3.17) of James and John’s angry, violent temperament,
(3) “children of wisdom” (Lk 7.35) describing those who are wise,
(4) “children of disobedience (Eph 2.2; 1Pt 1.14) meaning those who are disobedient,
(5) “children of the light” (Eph 5.8) describing those who love and live in the light,
(6) “children of cursing” (2Pt 2.14) describing people who curse others (not those “cursed by God”),
(7) “children of the flesh/promise” (Rom 9.8) describing characteristic behavior of those living “according to” the flesh or spirit.

It makes much better sense of our passage, given Paul’s description of the actual behavior of the Ephesians (including “sons of disobedience” in preceding verse v. 2), to take “children of wrath” as describing their formerly angry-violent disposition (roughly equivalent to the more descriptive “sons of thunder”) and not their previously being by nature “subject to divine wrath.” Wrath/anger does not always refer to divine wrath. But observe Paul’s instruction in this same letter (4.31) that we “get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger…” (cf. Col 3.8; 1Tm 2.8; Jm 1.19f). Paul describes what Rene Girard called the escalation of mimetic violence characteristic of human social behavior, the natural tendency to default to angry, wrathful, and violent modes of discourse and relating.

Vampires and Crosses

Cross 2019I recently started following Ethan and Wes’s Youtube channel ‘Mysterion’. They’ve just had Fr. Silviu Bunta (from Romania – hence “Vampires,” otherwise I would’ve never figured the title out).

I’m pondering how my own understanding of the Cross has radically changed the past decade or so. I haven’t run into anyone who publicly expressed things as well as Fr. Bunta. I hope you enjoy his comments (video below). If you grew up Evangelical, as did I, you’ll recognize how very different this view of the Cross is from anything you heard on Sunday growing up.

Being Holy Week, every pulpit in America is devoting its voice to proclaim the mystery of Cross but not all are sharing the same Cross. Not even close. Some will exalt this perspective:

…the Father had imputed to [Jesus] every sin of every one of his people…the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse… It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you,” because that’s what it meant to be cursed and under the anathema of the Father… [and] every person who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God. (R. C. Sproul)

I faintly remember believing such things. Jesus’ view of his own cross began to redefine it for me. On the eve of his crucifixion:

Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (Jn 16.31-33)

Interesting, no? Jesus wants his disciples to understand from how he suffers how they shall possess his peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is thus how God is with us in our suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view Jesus’ as experiencing utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

Again, on the evening of his betrayal (Jn 14.30-31), he lets his disciples know that:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

Of course, some prefer to suppose Jesus was mistaken, that he in fact encountered on the Cross a horror he did not expect, namely, the realization that the Father had abandoned him, that the Father was not “with him” as he anticipated (Jn 16.31-33 above). Such a view has to assume Jesus is being described (after the fact, by John and others who believed in the resurrection) as having fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his own passion.

Jesus also makes the curious statement in v. 27:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

When is this true? Where is it true? How is it true? It’s true on the night of his betrayal when he utters these words, but will it be true for Jesus a few hours later as he hangs on the Cross? Here, I proposed, is an assurance Jesus leaves his disciples on the eve of his lynching, an interpretation on the Cross which we fail to connect to the Cross, or if we do make a connection it’s only to point out that the Cross is the one place where this assurance fails to define for Jesus the truth of his existence. We think this because we believe its failing to be true for him is the cost he must endure so it can be true for us.

Please take a fresh look this week. Approach the Cross this week from Jesus’ own perspective. Consider: What he promises on the eve of his crucifixion, his Cross actually demonstrates; that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he himself actually possesses and embodies as he is murdered, and that only if his own assurances are true for him then and there can they be true for us here and now.

You will leave me, but he won’t.
You feel abandoned, but I don’t.
You’ve heard it said “Cursed is he
who judged by us hangs on a tree.”
“Father, forgive!” is what I said.
You expect despair instead.
But the gospel there was writ by me
in the language of Our unity.
“But,” you ask, “What sort of diction
would utter cries of dereliction?”
“He hangs abandoned!” you surmise.
But I was ne’er alone — surprise!
Come closer then and take a look,
I got those words from your own Book!
I suffered what drives you insane,
drank it down, all the pain,
from inside it all to say,
“I am my Father’s anyway!”
Did you really think that Hell
would God’s defeat know how to spell?
Not in all eternity could conceivability
conjure up a way to severe
Son from Father. No, not ever.

A relevant post of my own that touches on this is The Cross: Substitution and Participation.

The matter of the crux: postscript

suff6

After discussing the immediately preceding post with my friend Dwayne, I realized I should have been more explicit about how those (like the author of Ps 44) who came along generations after Deut 28 would have re-evaluated the terms of the covenant expressed in Deut 28 and thus re-negotiate faith’s appropriation of such promises. That is, I wonder if Deut 28 represents an immature Israel convinced that their covenant represented iron-clad guarantees for obedience and the 1,000 year itch for law-breakers. That’s the sort of world a nation whose identity is newly constituted by its special relationship to God might wish for. As Israel matures, however, and as blessing doesn’t always follow obedience, the faithful have to think through life again, and that’s what Ps 44.22 represents. I see passages like Ps 44 as offering a fundamental reassessment of what it means to be Israel, and that clear-cut demarcation in the promises of Deut 28 between blessings that always nearly follow the righteous and misery that always invariably plagues the faithless, does not describes the terms in which a faith can survive.

Perhaps we should remember that that Deut 28 very likely takes its final shape in exile among those reflecting on their suffering and the disobedience that landed them in Babylon. But you still get the same ‘clean lines’ (“Had we kept the rules, we’d be back in Israel eating fruit from our own trees. But we sinned, so we’re here in exile, because that’s how things work). Well, not entirely – as Ps 44 points out. This is why I’m tempted to think Ps 44 reflects a post-exilic perspective, when a faithful remnant remains under the heel of misfortune, occupation and suffering. What does faith then mean? We were exiled for our sins, fine. But it’s not the case now that we broke covenant, and yet we suffer. Why? The answer now (an answer that could not have been the case during exile): “For your sake, O God, we face death all day long.” As I said, what an amazing thing to say at any time before Christ. No wonder Paul calls Ps 44 to the stand in Rom 8.35-37.

The matter of the crux

suff1I’ve been captivated by Ps 44 for years, not because of any complexity of its language or historical riddles in its text. What captivates me is the maturity of its perspective on suffering. I remember the shock I felt when I first stumbled over the turn at v. 9 and contemplated the author’s interpretation of his suffering at v. 22. I’m still amazed by these.

The opening (vv. 1-8) is a standard rehearsal of the great things God did in the past, feats our grandparents recall from ‘back in the day’ (vv. 1-3). But it’s another thing to have your own stories to tell about God’s presence in your life, and the author has that too (vv. 4-8). It’s an entirely different thing, however, for your story to be the story that begins in v. 9. There’s nothing in vv. 1-8 that prepares you for what starts in v. 9.

9 But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
10 You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.
13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15 I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
17 All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
18 Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
19 But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22 Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

It’s not easy to decide where in history to locate this psalm. Being “scattered among the nations” (v. 11) and having become “a byword among the nations” (v. 14) suggest a post-exilic setting. But the description of standing armies (v. 10) suggests a pre-exilic date. One could suppose (as some do) that the psalm was a work in progress spanning both periods. I’m not sure it matters. It’s the fact that such a perspective on suffering arose at all that is so amazing.

suff4Consider – the covenant-making God committed himself to an agenda of all-embracing prosperity and blessing for Israel (Deut 28). If Israel obeys God, she will be blessed in the city, in the country, coming in and going out, her barns will be full, her livestock will be healthy and multiply, her enemies will flee in fear. You get the point. Hence the bewilderment of the author(s) of Ps 44, who were faithful covenant partners (vv. 17-18), and yet defeat and suffering overwhelmed them. Had they forsaken the covenant (vv. 20-21), the author acknowledges, their shame would be justified. But that isn’t their story. Their story is: We’re faithful to God and life sucks. We loved and worshiped God and got trampled underfoot.

This would precipitate a review of God’s covenant-keeping abilities, one would think. Perhaps Israel should find herself another God. But while the author asks the question ‘Why do you sleep?’ (v. 23), he does so assuming the truth of God’s ‘unfailing love’ (v. 26), just as our scapegoated victim is confident of final vindication. To trust God’s unfailing love, then, does not mean one never wonders why and never complains to God. To lament is to ask and wonder, and to ask at all is in some measure to trust.

Faith’s perspective appears in v. 22:

Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

Now that is a truly amazing thing to say. Let it sink it; life did not look like it was being administered by God in terms of the covenant conditions he established. So why not accuse God of wrongdoing? If we are faithful to the conditions of covenant but suffer like those judged for disobedience, why not at least assume something is wrong with God or the terms of the covenant? We’ve been faithful to God and life is crushing us. The covenant terms were fairly explicit in outlining the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. What’s to be concluded? More importantly, how is the author of this psalm able to relate himself and his suffering to God outside the explicit terms of Deuteronomy? If Deuteronomy defines the scope and limits of the Covenant, where does the author get the idea that those who are faithful to the Covenant might “for you sake face death all day long”? One has to appreciate how stunning is the perspective that produces v. 22.

It should be noted that there was an awareness within Israel that even a covenant-keeping God tests people to determine or to expose what is hidden in the heart. Hezekiah comes to mind. We’re told that with respect to Hezekiah entertaining envoys from Babylon that “God left Hezekiah alone only to test him, to know all that was in his heart” (2Chron 32.31). God “left him alone.” But our psalmist doesn’t go there. He doesn’t assume God is testing Israel. That’s not in view in v. 22. To say “for your sake, God, we face death all day long” is not to say “We get it God, you’re putting us to the test.”

It is finally St. Paul who brings Ps 44 into the light of day in Rom 8.35-37:

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

suff2This is not an instance of ‘divine testing’. Yes, all suffering and trials put faith to the test (Jam 1), but that’s not to say all trails are devised by God to test us. Rather, identifying with God in a fallen world exposes us to the world’s rejection of God, its hatred for God (in addition to suffering that is the common lot of all people in a fallen world), and thus we suffer “for your sake.” This is why Paul interprets the Christian’s suffering in light of Ps 44, as a species of the same thing. In arguing that Christ is where and how God’s covenant-love for humanity is fulfilled, Paul does not suppose its fulfillment in this life to be inconsistent with our experiencing “trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword.” If God’s covenant love is ours to enjoy, it is ours to enjoy within suffering, not just when we’re rescued from suffering.

Paul views his suffering as “filling up in [his] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body” (Col 1.24), and he describes our suffering as “carrying around in our body the death of Jesus” (2Cor 4.10). He also wants to “participate in Christ’s sufferings becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3.10). Thus, Christ’s Cross represents suffering we are called to participate in, which makes perfect sense of why he calls upon Ps 44.

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This brings me to my real point, to wit, that we mistake the Cross when we define it as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there God’s judgment we deserve and from which we are freed. When we read his suffering this way (as penal substitution) we place the Cross out of the reach of participation, for a Cross which is divine judgment poured out is not a Cross we can carry – but we are called to carry it. I’m not sure Paul could be any more explicit; the Cross isn’t Christ dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ may expresses a perspective on what’s happening), it is Christ dying ahead of us. Christ showing us how to die, not how to avoid it; how to know God’s love in the midst of the world’s rejection of you, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation (as Paul also understood his suffering). Rather than being a place of godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement (which are the vast majority of Evangelical readings of the Cross), are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we must conform.

Returning to Ps 44 then. The amazing thing about the author’s perspective is that he does not reason from his suffering, based on the promises of Deut 28, that something is wrong with God or wrong with the covenant. He views his sufferings as a participation in God’s rejection by the world. And as I say, that is an amazing perspective to have given the author’s location in the progression of Israel’s faith and worldview. He sees that it is for God’s sake that he suffers, and Paul sees that the psalmist perceives this. So what Israel experiences in Ps 44 constitutes a prequel, a prophetic anticipation, of the Cross and our continued participation in it. They are the same species of scapegoat suffering. Christ could as easily have quoted from Ps 44 as from Ps 22 as he hung on the Cross then. Hence he warned that “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15.20) and that we “will be hated by everyone on my account” (Mt 10.22). And so it is “on your account” or “for you sake,” O God, that we face death all day long.

God on Antiques Roadshow

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For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3.14-21)

My wife and I enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow on TV. The show moves around from city to city, and at each public gathering people are invited to bring in items they think are valuable. People bring in all sorts of items—furniture, old paintings, pottery, jewelry, old posters, civil war trinkets, and much more. Experts in the relevant fields do the appraising. Some bring in things they’re sure must be valuable and are disappointed when they find out their item is a worthless fake. Others bring in things they’ve had in their family for generations, things stuffed in boxes in the attic, or items picked up unsuspectingly at a garage sale, only to discover that what they thought was of little or no value is worth a small fortune. There’s always that moment when the owners are told the true value of what they possess. The reactions are priceless.

I’ve included one of my favorites for you to enjoy:

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Some of us are in possession of treasures we don’t appreciate
because we don’t perceive their value. Others of us are holding onto
things we think are valuable but which in fact are worthless.

There is a crisis of faith within the Church today, and it’s a crisis of value perception. I’m not talking about the failure of some Christians to enlist in the culture wars over ‘traditional values’, like getting prayer back in schools, legislating the traditional understandings of gender and marriage, reversing Roe-v-Wade on abortion, or protecting the Church’s tax-exempt status. No, I’m talking about committed Christians who live their faith without the transforming experience Paul describes here in his prayer, a vision of the true value of things – the infinite value of God at the heart of all things, and then the immeasurable value to God of all creatures.

If there’s an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ moment in the NT, it’s the short letter to the Ephesians. In this letter (and let’s assume Paul is the author for now), Paul is like the expert appraiser pointing out the rare gifts that define our faith, as if saying “Notice this about your salvation,” “Now check this out,” or “Look at what’s over here” in an attempt to open our eyes to the treasures we possess in Christ, to the treasures that we are in Christ.

Let me suggest that part of the importance of Paul’s prayer is its location in the center of this short letter. Part of what the prayer means, part of the key to the experience of God that it describes, has to do with its place between Chs 1-3 and 4-6.

Roughly speaking:

  • Chs 1-3 are about ‘believing’
  • Chs 4-6 are about the ‘doing’
  • Chs 1-3 describe the truths that form the heart of Christian faith and belief
  • Chs 4-6 are about living that faith

Where are we in Chs 1-3? We’re “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” (2.6):

  • we’re freely chosen by God in love to be his (1.5)
  • we’re saved by grace through faith (2.8f)
  • we’re one body in Christ who is the head of all things (1.22)

Where are we in Chs 4-6? Our feet are firmly planted on the ground:

  • we’re urged to walk worthy of our calling (4.1)
  • to bear with one another in love (4.2)
  • to ‘make every effort’ to maintain unity (4.3)
  • to ‘put on’ the new self (4.24)

Chs 1-3 describe what is true about you in Christ:

  • whether you realize it or not
  • whether your faith is hanging by a thread or you’re doing better than you ever imagined you could

Chs 4-6 on the other hand describe what ought to become true about you, what it looks like to choose to live out the truths of Chs 1-3.

And that brings us to the all-important question: How do we move from Chs 1-3 to Chs 4-6? How do we go from ‘knowing these amazing truths’ to ‘living in the freedom they describe’? Paul’s prayer in 3.14-21 answers this question.

Before I comment on Paul’s prayer, I want to point out that many of us try to bridge the gap between ‘believing the right things’ and ‘living the right way’ without experiencing what Paul’s prayer describes. As a result we know only constant frustration and failure. Only by passing through the experience described in this prayer, an experience of immeasurable and unconditional love, are we empowered to ‘live’ exceptionally.

AR4How many Christians today are attempting to live their spiritual lives as ‘law’? How many believe (if only unconsciously) they’re loved and favored by God when they perform well but not when they screw up? Or that they’re loved more the better they perform? We turn the gospel into another “law,” a way to recommend ourselves to God.

I totally get why we do this. Think about how we grow up. For the vast majority, there was nothing but conditional love around us 24/7. We are socialized into it, so it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time noticing or trusting unconditional love when it shows up. This is the importance of this prayer’s place here in Ch 3 prior to the commands and obligations that come in Chs 4-6.

Rest in this prayer. Park your weary soul right here. Memorize it, pray it, explore it—run up and down its length, try to stretch your arms around its width, climb its heights, dig underneath its depths – all the dimensions of love this prayer talks about. But do it before you take one step toward attempting to live out the commands of Chs 4-6. The order is crucial, because the order is what opens to us that moment each of us must have within the deepest narratives of our heart, where God awakens us to what he is worth, what we are worth in him, and what the worth and beauty of life really are. And like the girl in the Antiques Roadshow episode who couldn’t believe the value of what she had in her possession all time, this encounter Paul refers to will have profound transforming effects. “You’re kidding! I’m worth that to you, God? I’m accepted that unconditionally? You went through that to make me yours?” We feel differently and relate differently to things based on what we believe their worth or value is. When the true value of things presents itself to us in Christ, our hearts embrace it and we reconstruct or reorganize our whole life. The motivation and strength to live come not from rules and regulations, not law-keeping, nor from threat of punishment, but directly from the experience of oneself as unconditionally loved by God, when the value of the treasures presented in Chs 1-3 are realized not just in us, but as us.

The love that created you
The love that chose you
The love that values you
The love that wants you
The love that adopted you
The love that charted the course of the whole universe to find its fulfillment in Christ through you

I am specifically not talking about holding the proposition “Christ loves me” to be true, but rather an experience of being loved beyond the propositional. To ‘know the love of Christ’ is to ‘experience myself as loved and accepted unconditionally by Christ’, where who and what “I” am just is that act in which he gives and I receive. It’s simple to say. It’s not a complicated equation. But it is profound beyond all imagination, for being loved this way means standing transparent in my fallenness, in all my sorry history, in all my brokenness, in all the conditions that I think disqualify me, and—with all of that present—hearing Christ address me to say “I love you more than you realize and I accept you in spite of all that you think disqualifies you,” and (here’s the kicker) in that moment agreeing with Christ that what he says about me is true, because it’s only when I embrace my truest identity as unconditionally loved and accepted by Christ that the fundamental exchange takes place. That’s where life is born. That’s where the commands of the gospel become joy and love instead of burdensome duties.

AR3We have a difficult time with this. It’s our fundamental struggle. Some are so shamed into believing they’re unlovable no matter what they do, they give up. Others of us are so drunk on the consolations of law-keeping—the high we get from achieving a sense of acceptance because we’ve ‘done well’—that when we hear we’re loved by God regardless of what we do, we actually become angry at the idea. It boggles our mind that God does not pay his love out as a wage for our doing right.

Let me share a second thought about this prayer. It may seem to present several requests, but there’s really just one thing Paul prays for. All that Paul describes builds together to one and the same experience. Three descriptions combine in a single prayer:

  • First, that Christ may dwell in your hearts (or ‘inner being’) through faith
  • Second, that you know the love of Christ that transcends knowledge
  • Lastly, that you be filled with all the fullness of God

Knowing the love of Christ that transcends knowing is not a different reality than being filled with the fullness of God. Each description offers us a different perspective. The first (‘that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith’) describes how we enter (through faith in Christ) and where this treasure is possessed (in our ‘heart’ or ‘inner being’). The second phrase (‘that you know the love of Christ’) describes the nature or content of that experience. It’s an experience of value-affirmation, which is what love is and what it does. With the third phrase (‘that you be filled with all the fullness of God’) Paul has reached the summit of his reach. God ‘all in all’. God’s fullness in us is our experience of the immeasurable love of Christ.

Paul adds something amazing. He says that though we know the love of Christ, that love transcends knowledge. It is beyond knowledge. We know that which exceeds knowing? How can we actually know what is beyond knowing? And if we truly know it, what’s the point of mentioning that it’s beyond our knowing? Let me suggest an answer: the love of Christ is never reducible to our experience of it. No experience of ours can exhaust the love of God in the human heart. There will always be more to Christ’s love for you to experience than any particular experience of yours can contain, no matter how deep and indescribable your experience may be.

pearlA final question. Is this possible? Do we really believe that it’s possible to experience ourselves, our truest self, as the free gift of unconditional love and that this love can define the social identity of human beings in increasingly transformative ways? To be so defined by Christ’s presence that it becomes impossible even to imagine ourselves as anything other than infinitely loved by God? I think Paul suspected that some of his readers would think he was describing something that was impossible or that he had lost his mind, and that this is why he concludes: “Now to him who is able to do….” To do what? “…to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory….” In other words, “to him who is able to do what I’ve been praying for and describing.” This isn’t just a comparative statement about how much muscle God can flex in comparison to us. The point is that God’s actually doing ‘more than we can ask or imagine’ happens through our ‘imagining it’.

I worked for several years in the Recovery community. I love this community because people in recovery don’t pretend they’re not broken and desperate. There’s a prevailing and honest shared awareness of brokeness and hope that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in any church on Sundays. As it happened in our Recovery gatherings, I focused on the importance of perception and self-talk, the need to ‘re-imagine ourselves’ in terms of the truth about us per the gospel, because if you don’t see it, you can’t become it. Seeing that version of yourself is the first step to becoming that version of yourself. A vision of myself healed, loved, healthy, connected, free—that vision has to appear on the horizon of what I see for myself. Otherwise I’ll never move toward it. And if you’re to have a hope and identity which nothing in this world can define away, it will have to come from someone or something not of this world. That’s what Paul is praying.

The immeasurable nature of Christ’s love that this prayer talks about isn’t rhetorical excess. It is metaphysical excess. It presents metaphysics of an infinitely adventurous love, of ‘ever-moving rest’. Our end in Christ is to forever experience the novelty and adventure of God’s love where there will always be something to look forward to, always something surprising just around the corner and where we will always be perfectly at rest with what we have and who we are. That’s how we’re filled with the fullness of God. God doesn’t get crammed into us, we keep on expanding into him.

So yes, God can do more than we can imagine. That will always be true. But what’s equally true is that what God actually does in us he does through our imagining/envisioning it. He will give us more to imagine as we grow into what we can see, but the first reason we’re not who we could be is that we don’t imagine who we could be.