KERUX: A JOURNAL
Editor: James T. Dennison, Jr.
Assistant Editors: Richard A. Riesen and David L. Roth
KERUX is a publication of Kerux, Inc. and appears three times each year. Editorial offices are located at 1131Whispering Highlands Dr., Escondido, CA 92027-4961. Correspondence should be directed to the editor at this address. Subscription rates for one year are: $15.00 (U.S. and Canada); $20.00 (elsewhere). All remittances should be made payable in U S. Funds. KERUX is abstracted in Religious and Theological Abstracts, Myerstown, PA.
ISSN 0888-8513 Vol. 6, No. 3
In this final issue of our sixth year of publication, we offer the second of Geerhardus Vos's sermons originally published in Grace and Glory (1922). Additionally, we feature an article on New Testament eschatology by the late John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Read at the seventh annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (December 29-30, 1954), this essay does not appear in the four volume Collected Writings of Professor Murray published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
As we approach our "sabbatical" year of publishing Kerux, we pause to reflect on the goodness of the Lord which "hast brought us hitherto." We are supremely conscious of his grace and providence in continuing to make it possible to print our small journal. But we also thank God for every remembrance of our readers and subscribers. To each of you, our sincere Christian greetings. May it please God to conform you more and more to the image of the Eschatological Servant, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness
The Sermon on the Mount is rightly accorded a chief place in the teaching of our Lord. It carries a weight of authority, sets an ethical standard, and reveals heights and depths of the religious life nowhere surpassed in the gospels. The evangelists in recording it seem to have been aware of this. Matthew does not, as on other occasions, introduce the discourse with the conventional phrase "Jesus said," but with the quite solemn statement "And he opened his mouth"—thus giving us to understand that the utterance of these words was to Jesus' own mind an act to which he deliberately proceeded. And Luke conveys somewhat of the same impression by the introductory statement, "And he lifted up his eyes on the disciples and said." Jesus never spoke without a clear sense of the consequences with which his words were fraught. And blessed is the preacher of whom it can be truly said that ministering the Word of God is to him an holy task. But, while the
sense of this was always present with our Lord, it was heightened on this occasion. This was the first time that he set himself to teach his disciples. Here he assumes that peculiar ministry of breaking the bread of life for his own, which he has ever since unceasingly performed through the ages, and even now performs for us, as in these moments we gather round his feet to receive his teaching. In fact it is here for the first time that the term "disciples" occurs in Matthew's gospel. Hence also the statement that our Lord "sat down," and, having made the disciples draw near, so taught them. The sitting posture, with the hearers standing around, was characteristic of the relation between teacher and pupils, in distinction from the standing position, marking the prophet or gospel-herald.
The Epitome of Christianity?
To note these details of description is not of merely historical interest, but also of practical religious importance, because it may warn us at the outset against a view all too commonly prevailing concerning the purpose of this "Sermon on the Mount." The sermon is often represented as a succinct summary of Jesus' message. It passes for an epitome of Christianity, the teststone of what is essential to our religion. All that is not here, we are told, can without detriment be neglected. Every later type of Christian life and teaching is to be judged, not by the standard of Scripture as a whole, nor even by the authority of the words of Christ as a whole, but by the content of this one discourse. This deplorable error is due to more than one cause. The beauty and glory of truth concentrated here may easily beget a feeling that all else in the New Testament is in comparison of minor value.
A second motive coming into play is that many people in the matter of religious belief wholly abandon themselves to their ungoverned tastes and feelings. They scorn every hard and fast rule of faith and practice. Even submission to the indiscriminate teaching of Jesus they find distasteful. At the same time, unwilling to appear entirely emancipated from all historical bonds of faith, they fall back
upon some choice portion of the gospel, preferably the Sermon on the Mount, and cling to it as to the last remaining shreds of the garment of creed, barely sufficient to cover the nakedness of their subjectivity. It is thus that the Sermon on the Mount has become the creed of the creedless.
The Natural Man Flattered
But by far the most influential force driving people to such a view comes from the flattery it supplies to the natural man. It flatters him by taking for granted that he needs no more than the presentation of this high ideal, and that Jesus does him the honor of thinking him capable of realizing it by his own natural goodness. And, last of all, it is not so much what people find in the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves upon not finding there that renders them thus enamored of its excellence. It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of sin, of man's utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross—it is because of all this that they evince such eagerness to adopt as their exclusive creed a portion of the gospel from which in their opinion these offensive things are absent.
Salvation Before Discipleship
Now all such forget that both Jesus and the evangelist expressly relate the Sermon on the Mount to the disciples, and consequently place back of what is described in it the process of becoming a disciple, the whole rich relationship of saving approach and responsive faith, of calling and repentance and pardon and acceptance and the following of Jesus—all that makes the men and women of the gospel such disciples and Jesus such a Lord and Savior as this and other records of his teaching imply. It is therefore folly to insist that no specific doctrine of salvation is here. It is present as a living doctrine incarnate in the person of Jesus.
We are apt to forget that in the days of our Lord's flesh there was
no need for that explicit teaching about the Christ found in the epistles of the New Testament. At that time he, the real Christ, walked among men and exhibited in his intercourse with sinners more impressively than any abstract doctrine could have done the principles and the process of salvation. If we have but eyes to see, we shall find our Savior in the out-door scenes of the gospels no less than within the walls of the school of the epistle to the Romans. And we shall find him too in the Sermon on the Mount. For this discourse throughout presupposes that the disciples here instructed became associated with Jesus as sinners needing salvation, and that their whole life in continuance is lived on the basis of grace. At the beginning stand the beatitudes, engraven in golden script upon its portal, reminding us that we are not received by Jesus into a school of ethics but into a kingdom of redemption. It is blessedness that is promised here, and the word does not so much signify a state of mind, as that great realm of consummation and satisfaction which renders man's existence, once he has entered into it, serene and secure for evermore.
Dependence on Grace
And again, foremost among the beatitudes stand those that emphasize the emptiness, the absolute dependence of man upon divine grace. As at the dawn of the gospel, Mary sang: "He has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted them of low degree; the hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent empty away" (Lk. 1:52, 53), so here those pronounced blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and they that hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is in no wise to the self-satisfied mind that the Lord addresses himself. His call is not a call to exertion, not even to exertion in holiness. It were too little to say that it is an invitation to receive; it goes farther than that. It amounts to the declaration that the consciousness of having nothing, absolutely nothing, is the certain pledge of untold enrichment.
So much is salvation a matter of giving on God's part that its best subjects are those in whom his grace of giving can have this perfect
work. The poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek and the hungry, these are made to pass before our eyes as so many typical forms of its embodiment. And because this is so, they are here also introduced as having the promise of the infinite. To be a child of God and a disciple of Jesus means to hold in one's hand the treasures of eternity. Look for a moment at the second clauses of these beatitudes. Some of the things spoken of may, in a relative sense, be obtained in the present life. Comfort and mercy and the vision of God and sonship are bestowed during our pilgrimage on earth. As a matter of fact, however, these things are here held in prospect not in relative but in absolute measure. In the consummate life only can it become true that the meek inherit the earth, that the eyes of the pure behold the beatific vision of God, that the hungry and thirsty are satisfied with righteousness. This absolute character of the promise writes the principle of redemption large on the face of the Sermon on the Mount. To join together after this manner creature-emptiness and the riches of divine benediction is the prerogative of God the Savior. So long as this voice of the beatitudes is distinctly heard, it will not be possible to find any other religion here than that religion of salvation through the grace of God in Christ.
A Stress on Morals?
But is it not true, you are perhaps inclined to ask, that at least from the words of our text the opposite view receives a measure of support? "Righteousness"—in this word certainly the stress seems to be laid on ethical conduct without any particular admixture of the redemptive element. Men are willing to admit that, so far as the specifically religious qualities are concerned, our attitude must be a receptive one, leaving all the energizing to God. When, however, the sphere of the moral life is reached, the principle seems no longer to apply, this being the field of cooperation between the divine and the human. That people are rash to draw such a conclusion is partly due to the modish social coloring which the term "righteousness" receives at the present day. But we may not determine its meaning for our text in the light of this modern association. The important question to
answer is what meaning the word carried to the mind of Jesus. As soon as this is done, we shall soon discover that no greater mistake could be made from Jesus' point of view than to assume that in the matter of righteousness the divine is less and the human more than in other relations.
Jesus and Paul
It would be crude, to be sure, straightway to inject into our text the doctrine of Paul according to which righteousness is something wrought out in Christ and transferred to us by imputation. And yet, it would be a far more serious mistake to suppose that our Lord's idea of righteousness and that of Paul differed in principle and did not grow from the same root. There need be no difficulty in showing that Jesus, and in fact all preceding revelation, carefully laid the basis for this crowning structure of apostolic revelation.
Righteousness in Scripture
In order to do this let us note in the first place that righteousness is in Scripture an idea saturated with the thought of God. Throughout the Old Testament this is so. It is a commonplace of its teaching, especially in the prophets, that there can be no true obedience of heart and life without the constant presence to the mind of man of the thought of Jehovah. Not only is ethics without religion a fragmentary thing; even more important is the principle that in such a case it lacks the true quality of right, the inner essence of what renders it conformable to its very idea. Righteousness is the opposite of sin, and as the reference to God is inseparable from the conception of sin, so the reference to God is in precisely the same manner inherent in the idea of righteousness. To put it very plainly: If there were no God to see and judge and punish, one might perhaps still continue to speak of good and evil, meaning thereby what is beneficial or injurious, subject to the approval or disapproval of men, but it would be meaningless to speak of sin on such a supposition. And so, by equal reasoning, while what is commonly called good might without the existence of God be
conceivable in the world, yet it could not properly bear the name of righteousness for the simple reason that, in order to deserve this name, according to the Biblical way of thinking, it needs first to be placed in the light of the divine nature, the divine will, the divine judgment.
At the very birth of the people of God this principle was embedded deep in their life, when God said to Abraham: "I am El-Shaddai, walk thou before me, then shalt thou be blameless" (Gen. 17:1). To walk before God means so to walk as to have the thought of God's presence and supervision constantly in mind, and to shape one's conduct accordingly. Our Lord's whole teaching on the subject of righteousness is but one emphatic reaffirmation and further development of the same principle. Although the religious atmosphere in his day was surcharged with the notions of law-keeping and merit and retribution, there was lacking the vivid consciousness of God as a perpetual witness and interested participant in every moral transaction. The automaton of the law had taken the place of the living God. Well might our Lord quote the words of the prophet Isaiah: "This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Mt. 15:8; Is. 29:13).
Alas, this fault with which Jesus had to contend is not so exclusively peculiar to the spirit of that age as we might perhaps be inclined to assume. A Jew lives in you and me and in every human heart by nature. If we ever were tempted to think ourselves able to fulfill the law of God, was it not perhaps for this reason—that the sense of God's absolute claim upon us and knowledge of us had become dim to our conscience? Since, then, this fault reappears in every sinner, the Preacher of the Mount repeats his sermon in the ears of each generation. He stands to plead the right of God, no matter what substitutes for him we may have put up in our lives, nay not even though it were, as in the case of Judaism, a counterfeit of God's own law. And, great physician that he is, he directs his probe straight to the root of the disease. Christ drives us back into the inner chambers of our consciousness, where God and we are alone, and good and evil
assume a proportion and significance never dreamt of before. The law in the hands of Jesus becomes alive with God's own personality. Majestic and authoritative, he is present in every commandment, so absolute in his demands, so observant of our conduct, so intent upon the outcome, that the thought of giving him less than heart and soul and mind and strength in the product of our moral life ceases to be tolerable to ourselves.
Law and the Sermon on the Mount
Much has been preached and written about the internal character of the law-observance which the Sermon on the Mount requires. Truly, it does teach with powerful emphasis that the righteousness is in the intent and disposition, not first in the outward act, just as the sin is not committed first when the hand reaches out to strike, but when anger surges up in the heart. But we do not, I am afraid, realize with sufficient clearness what is the ultimate reason for this internalizing emphasis. Why are evil and good with such insistency pushed back into the region of the heart? The reason is none other than that in the heart man confronts God. In the recesses of the inner man, where deep calls unto deep, where the Lawgiver and the creature are face to face, there and there alone the issue of righteousness and of sin can be decided. Nor does this merely mean that the conscience is brought under the direct gaze and control of the will of God. It is the divine nature lying back of the divine will in the light of which the creature is led to place itself. The inner man enters, if we may so speak, into the inner forum of the Most High. There God, besides requiring obedience to his will, is heard to ask conformity to his moral nature. The law is perceived to coincide with what he is. The majesty, the inevitableness, the self-evidencing and self-enforcing power of the eternal are put into it. To fulfill the law becomes but an other form of the imperative—to be like unto God. It is God's inalienable right as God to impress his character upon us, to make and keep us reflectors of his infinite glory. But in a state of sin this can only intensify a thousand times the consciousness of man's utter inability even to begin to realize what nevertheless is the very core of his end in life,
the sole ultimate reason for his existence.
Thus apprehend, the range and scope of the moral circle drawn around our being become enormous, so much so indeed that they would almost seem to exceed the possibilities of frail human nature. So long as man's moral life is not illumined by this central glory of the nature of God, it may remain possible for the illusion to spring up that the sinner can at least aspire towards fulfillment of the law. He then imagines that the command is relaxed and lowered to the limitations of his abnormal state. The limitless perspective, all that makes for the eternal seriousness and solemnity of the values of righteousness and sin, are forgotten. "To be righteous" acquires the restricted meaning of being law-like, instead of God-like. Sin also loses its absolute character of disharmony with the divine nature. It appears a mere shortness in one's account, easily rectifiable by future extra-payments. To all this delusion Jesus puts an end by the simple word: "Ye shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48) and: "Thus shall ye pray: Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth" (Mt. 6:9,10).
And, still further, the purpose of this demand of God-likeness is not to be primarily sought in the desirability for man of patterning himself after the highest example; it has its deeper ground in the right of God to possess and use us as instruments for the revelation of his supreme glory. If God desires to mirror himself in us, can it behoove man to offer him less than a perfect reflection? Shall we say that he must overlook the little blemishes, the minor sins, the mixed aspirations, the half-hearted efforts, must take the will for the deed, and an imperfect will at that? Or shall we confess with the speaker in Job that the heavens are not clean in his sight (Job 15:15)? Once this point of view is adopted, our whole estimate of sin and righteousness undergoes a radical change. We then begin to measure and appraise them in their bearing on God and their value for him. Obedience becomes sacrifice; the light that is in us no longer shines for our own
delectation, but in order that through the perception of our good works by men, glory may come to our Father in heaven. Here lies also the reason why, notwithstanding all the emphasis placed on the secretness and inwardness of righteousness, our Lord nonetheless insists upon the necessity of works as essential to the issue of the moral process. Because it does not exist for itself, therefore the right must leap to the light of day. Jesus, no more than Paul, would have assented to the view that in sanctification the good will or intention is the sole thing required. The tree of righteousness is planted in us by God for his own sake, and consequently he delights in its blossoms and desires to eat of its fruit.
The Desire for Righteousness
We have now explored a little of the length and breadth and height and depth of what the Sermon on the Mount proclaims as the whole duty of man. The task of fulfilling this is so stupendous that a sinless being might almost contemplate it with misgiving. Where, then, shall the ungodly and sinner appear? Can our Lord have meant that it is even remotely possible for the disciple by his own strength to attain unto this? Our text implies the very opposite. No, not the possession of such a righteousness is characteristic of the members of the kingdom, but that they hunger and thirst after it. Notice sharply the implications of the striking figure employed. It implies, of course, in the first place that the disciple has not in himself, and is conscious of not having, the thing described. That, however, is only the negative side; to the absence there corresponds the desire for its presence. And a very specific kind of desire is referred to. Its strength is emphasized, and that not merely in general, but in the very particular sense of its being an elemental desire, a life-craving in which the deepest instincts of the disciple assert themselves. To hunger and thirst after a thing means the recognition that without that thing there can be no life. It involves that in this one desire and its satisfaction the whole meaning of life is centered, that the whole energy of life is directed towards it, that the goal of life is identified with it. To the sense of this fundamental spiritual craving all other things are obliterated. As to
the hungry and thirsty, gold and silver become worthless, so to the disciple in whom this desire has awakened, the wealth of the universe, were he offered it, would have no attraction.
And let us remember that this intensified desire has for its object the righteousness of God as previously described. What renders this thing desirable is the vision of it as associated with God. In its ultimate analysis, it is the passion for God himself. Here is the cry of the Psalmist: "Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee" (Ps. 73:25), translated into terms of ethics. Still further, the form of hunger and thirst which the desire assumes presupposes the clearest conceivable perception of the nature of its object. As there is no more vivid picture of the nourishing and refreshing power of food and drink than that which stands before the imagination of a hungry and thirsty person, so there is no truer, no more adequate reproduction of God's own idea of righteousness than that which exists in the mind that hungers and thirsts after the manner here portrayed. Herein lies one of the chief glories of the work of redemption—that it produces in the heart and mind of the sinner such a profound, ineffaceable impression of the realities in God. Nothing will lay so bare the foundations of our relationship to him as the experience of salvation.
The thing spoken of in the text appears nowhere else in such an intense form as it does through its connection with sin. The beginning of hungering and thirsting after righteousness lies in the birth of conviction of sin. In fact the presence of this element in it is what distinguishes true, deep repentance from every kind of superficial regret for the secondary consequences of sin. True repentance strips sin of all that is accidental. It resembles an inner chamber where no one and nothing else is admitted except God and the sinner and his sin. Into that chamber all the great penitents like David and Paul and Augustine and Luther have entered, and each one in the bitter anguish of his soul has borrowed the words of the Psalmist: "Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou
judgest" (Ps. 51:4).
A repentant sinner acquits God and condemns himself. And for the very reason that his consciousness of sin is God-centered, he is also alive to its inward seriousness. He learns to trace it in the recesses and abysses of his inmost life, where even the eye of self-scrutiny would otherwise scarcely penetrate, but in which the eyes of God are at home, where all our iniquities stand naked before him and our secret sins in the light of his countenance. If it is characteristic of sin to excuse itself, it is no less characteristic of repentance to scorn all subterfuge and to judge of itself, as it were, with the very veracity of God. Herein indeed is shown the first grace of God to an awakened sinner that he lets in upon the soul this cleansing flood of moral truth. It is a painful experience, but even through the pain the penitent feels that his relation towards God has been in principle rectified, that the sorrow of repentance is a sorrow after God himself. Without that much of faith there is no repentance, by that much of faith gracious repentance differs from the remorse of the hopelessly lost. And from such saving penitence there is but one more step to the recognition that the claims of the divine righteousness in their widest extent must be satisfied. To a mind thus disposed the thought of atonement is no longer an offense or foolishness, but something commending itself by its inherent justice. The doctrine of satisfaction ages before it was elaborated by religious thinkers had vindicated itself, as it still continues to do, to thousands of hearts in the bitter theology of repentance. The fact of sin, while as such irrevocably accomplished, yet so far as the guilt is concerned must be undone, if God is to remain the God of sinners. Here the truth taught by Jesus leads directly to Paul's doctrine of atonement and justification. To the heart that has had the Sermon on the Mount interpreted to itself by the Holy Spirit, there is no other solution and refuge than the cross underneath which Paul found shelter. To such as hunger and thirst after righteousness the flesh of the Son of Man is meat and his blood is drink, indeed.
The Desire for a Sanctified Life
But the principle expressed in our text reaches still farther out. The hungering and thirsting most assuredly also include a desire to exhibit the righteousness of discipleship in a sanctified life. And this Christian pursuit of holiness likewise is centered in God. It is not as if in justification the divine grace, and in sanctification human endeavor, were the sole factor to be reckoned with. Much rather in sanctification itself the old alternative again presents itself, whether in all its parts, in the acting upon by God and in the being moved to responsive action of the believer, the divine glory or human merit shall be the principal concern. There is a striving after moral excellence in which the selfish sinful nature most vigorously reasserts itself, involving merely a transition from the gross and carnal to the more refined and elusive type of sin. The true disciple does not seek to be made better for his own glory, but in the interest and for the glory of God. He feels with Paul that he must apprehend because he was apprehended for that very purpose. The image of God restored in the soul cannot help turning back towards its original. The new man is created after God in righteousness and holiness of truth. The believer, therefore, sanctifies himself, that God's purpose may not be frustrated in him, but find glorious fruition. Only he does so in constant reliance on divine grace. It were a mistake to confine the province of faith to justification. All progress in holiness depends on it. It is the element, the atmosphere in which the Christian lives, that which imparts to his works their sacrificial character and makes them pleasing to God. And, because, thanks to God, it is deeper in him than his deepest sin, even when he fails and falls, he does not despair, nor is utterly forsaken. God's witness remains in him; he can say with Peter: "Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee" (Jn. 21:17)!
Assurance of Satisfaction
Finally, the Lord here assures the hungry and thirsty ones that they shall be satisfied. Every instinctive desire, when normal, carries in itself the knowledge that there is that which can satisfy it. The great
gifts of God and the great desires of life have been created for each other and call for each other. If this be true in the natural world, it is equally true in the spiritual world, in the sphere of redemption. The craving described in our text is a prophecy. It tells of a law in the kingdom of God, a sure creative appointment, out of which, twin-children of the divine grace, the hunger after righteousness and the righteousness itself are born. It is God, and God alone, who can produce in the deepest heart of man a thing so instinctive as what is here spoken of. No sinner can give this to himself. If we feel it at all, to however slight a degree, it is from no other cause than that the love of God has found us, and the breath of the Spirit Creator has blown upon us, quickening us into newness of life. If this were a desire artificially awakened or stimulated by man, there could be no assurance of either the existence or the satisfying character of its object.
Even in the case of our noblest and most elevating desires after the creature, we too often make sad experience of the failure of our ideals to meet the expectation. The reason is that in our dreams we ourselves are the creators of the excellence we crave, and because we cannot also create the satisfaction, we hunger in vain. But it is different here. He that gave the thirst likewise provides the water, and the one exactly meets the other. It is not the will of our heavenly Father that any longing in our hearts, prompted by himself, and therefore sincerely seeking him, shall perish unsatisfied. A satisfying righteousness therefore must be provided for the people of God. And it must be provided outside of us. To eat means to be nourished from without. Since the sinner is devoid of all righteousness, it is self-evident that the source of his supply must be sought beyond the confines of his own evil and empty nature. For it to be otherwise would mean that hunger could be stilled with hunger.
The Coming Kingdom
Our Lord's meaning obviously is that the coming order of things, the new kingdom of God, brings with itself, chief of all blessings, a
perfect righteousness, as truly and absolutely the gift of God to man as is the entire kingdom. What is true of the kingdom—that no human merit can deserve, no human effort call it into being—applies with equal force to the righteousness that forms its center. It is God's creation, not man's. The prophet recognized it as such when, despairing of sinful Israel, he promised that in the future, in the new covenant, God would remember the sin no more, and would write his law upon the tablets of the heart. Our Lord here simply declares that what prophets and psalmists saw from afar is on the point of becoming real. The acceptable year of Jehovah is about to begin. His beatitudes are the evangel, giving answer across the ages to the prophesies of old. It means that with comfort and riches and mercy and sonship and the vision of God, righteousness will be given in abundance to a destitute people. True, Jesus does not enter here upon any description of the method by which this is to be accomplished. As little as he specifies what will bring comfort in the place of mourning, does he tell how righteousness will banish sin. But does not the very fact of his foregoing to tell this afford a presumption that he is conscious of carrying the source and substance of all these things in his own person? The same Jesus who immediately afterwards in interpreting the law puts side by side with the commandment of God his sovereign, "I say unto you," the same Jesus here takes into his hands all the riches of prophecy, as only the God of prophecy can take them and disposes of them as his own sovereign gift: "Theirs is the kingdom," and "They shall be filled."
What gives him the right to speak thus, not merely in the sphere of power, but also in the sphere of righteousness? As God he could change sickness into health and mourning into joy, but even as God he cannot change sin and guilt into righteousness by a mere fiat of his will. When, nevertheless, he here declares that this will be done, the reason is that in his own life, his life of a servant, this greatest of all tasks is being accomplished. In one sense the Sermon on the Mount was a sermon preached out of his own personal experience. The righteousness he described was not a distant ideal, it was an incarnate reality himself. He alone of all mankind fulfilled the law in its deepest
purport and widest extent. His keeping of it proceeded from that sanctuary of his inner life where he and the Father always beheld each other's face. He made it his meat and drink to do the will of God. His human nature was an altar from which the incense of perfect consecration rose ceaselessly day and night. He submitted to the cross and endured the shame, not merely on our behalf, but first of all in order that not one jot or one tittle of the divine justice should fall to the ground. He not only hungered and thirsted but was satisfied with the travail of his soul. And now you and I can come and take of the bread and water of life freely. Through justification we are even in this life filled with the fullness of his merit, and appear to God as spotless and blameless as though sin had never touched us. Through sanctification his holy character is impressed upon our souls, so that, notwithstanding our imperfections, God takes a true delight in us, seeing that the inner man is changed from day to day after the likeness of Christ. And the full meaning of our Lord's promise we shall know in the last day, when he shall satisfy himself in us by presenting us to God perfect in body, soul and Spirit. Then shall come to pass the word that is written: "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more" (Rev. 7:16). For we shall behold God's face in righteousness and be satisfied, when we awake with his image.
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey
Structural Strands in New Testament Eschatology
There are three distinct strands in the structure of New Testament eschatology: (1) the strand represented by "the last days"; (2) the strand expressed in the contrast between "this age" and "the age to come"; and (3) the strand intimated in such expressions as "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20) and "we have been raised up together and made to sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6; cf. Col. 3:1-3). We might speak of these three strands respectively as anticipated eschatology, prospective eschatology and projective eschatology. It might appear that there is incoherence or incompatibility here. If eschatology is anticipated or realized, how can it be prospective; and if it is projective and we are now conceived of as projected into the realm of the heavenly, how can there be any place for hope—in other words, for the prospective? "Hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for?" (Rom. 8:24). That the New Testament is not conscious of any incompatibility is quite apparent from the fact that in the Pauline teaching, for
example, where the prospective and the projective are conspicuously in evidence, both are uttered in the same breath. Paul says "our citizenship is in heaven"—that is the projective. But he immediately adds "from which also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ"—that is definitely prospective. The one did not displace the other nor did the one make the other superfluous. Again, after having referred to Christ's location at the right hand of God, he says, "Your life is hid with Christ in God" but adds immediately, "When Christ, our life, will be manifested, then we also shall be made manifest with him in glory" (Col. 3:4). It is superficial understanding, to say the least, that cannot perceive the congruity of these two perspectives. It is an impoverished faith indeed that does not contain them both.
The structure represented by "the last days" is to the effect that "the last days" are now running their course and began to run their course with the first advent of Christ, at least not later than his public ministry. There is good reason to believe that New Testament believers recognized in the messianic advent the fulfillment of the glory, blessing and peace associated with the last days in Old Testament prophecy. There is then a distinctively retrospective factor in this concept—it is the fact of Christ's past advent that gives warrant for this perspective and for the conviction that the last days have begun to run their course. In other words, it is the eschatological significance of the past advent that gives to these days the eschatological character that belongs to them as the last days. This segment of history is "the consummation of the ages" (Heb. 9:26) and "the ends of the ages" (1 Cor. 10:11) because Christ has appeared to put away sin, to accomplish redemption.
But while there is this distinctly retrospective aspect to this concept, there is also a prospective. In the very concept, there is the intimation of terminus—it would hardly be feasible to regard the last days as continuing for ever and identify them with the age to come. It is the idea of segment that is conveyed and therefore a period of time
with not only a beginning but also an end; it is the last segment of the days. Hence the eschatological terminus is intimated as well as the eschatological inception. "The last days" are charged, therefore, with eschatological realization by reason of the eschatological significance of that event from which they take their inception and they are charged with eschatological expectation because they announce the eschatological terminus. History has begun to wind up its lines, but it has not yet wound them up. The eschatological drama has begun, but it has not been consummated. The fact that it has begun plus the fact that it will be consummated charges the present with eschatological imminence. These days are looking for and hastening the advent of the Lord in glory. They fill the present with hope for believers and warning for unbelievers.
While this prospective significance of the last days must be fully appreciated, yet, by way of distinctiveness, it is the retrospective that is most in evidence. The concept attaches itself very largely to the first coming of Christ and to the eschatological significance of that event. These are the last days because Christ has come in the flesh. This retrospective emphasis is complementary to the realized eschatology which it intimates.
The second strand in the structure of New Testament eschatology is the antithetic—the contrast between this age and the age to come. It can hardly be questioned but it is the prospective, the hope of the future, that is most prominent in this perspective—in a word, the expectation of the age to come. It is quite consonant with this perspective that the present age has a distinctly depreciatory complexion—it is an evil age and Satan is the God of this age (Gal. 1:4; 2 Cor. 4:4). Because it is evil, the rulers of this age did not know the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2:6-8). This depreciation of the present age arises to a considerable extent from the contrast with the age to come. The age to come is the age of consummation, of consummated righteousness and bliss and therefore bears a distinctly favorable
complexion. So much is this the case that it can be equated with the reward of the righteous and therefore represented as unqualifiedly good (Lk. 20:35). The forces of the kingdom of God, the powers operative in the dispensation of the gospel, powers which have broken into this world's history for the salvation of men, are the powers of the age to come (Heb. 6:5). It is the age associated with and introduced by the appearing of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ. For this reason it is no wonder that it should not only be coordinated with but practically identified with the eschatological hope.
These two strands of New Testament eschatology are on the horizontal line of vision. Because this is the case they have to be related to each other on the horizontal line of history. It is not difficult to make this correlation. We cannot indeed equate this age with the last days. In the Old Testament perspective, the last days were future; in the New Testament, they are present. From the standpoint of the New Testament writers, they must have recently begun to run their course. And we can say with good reason that they were conceived to have begun to run their course with the first advent of Christ. We cannot say this of the present age. We have no evidence by which to relate its inception to the advent of Christ. And the presumption is that the present age was conceived of as the whole of temporal history up to the second advent of the Lord. All we can say, therefore, is that the present age comprises the last days and the latter is the final segment of the present age. These two are therefore coincident to this extent—that the last days are the last lap of this present age. This explains a common characteristic of both. This age is evil, the last days are characterized by many evils. In them scoffers abound and perilous times come.
The third strand of the structure is the projective. How is it related to the other two strands? There is a marked difference of perspective. The perspective of the last days and of the two ages is
horizontal. The last days has a retrospective perspective as well as a prospective. The contrast of the two ages has a markedly prospective perspective. The third strand has a vertical perspective—it looks to the heavenlies in Christ Jesus and to the life hid with Christ in God.
There is one fact that may be noted in respect of historical relationship, namely, that it is in the period of the last days and of the present age that believers living upon this earth entertain this upward-looking perspective. It could not have relevance except as they live in this world. There will be no need for the projective when they are taken to be with the Lord, either at death or at his advent. The projective faith is, therefore, coincident with the last days and this age. But obviously there is a marked difference in perspective. It is the difference between the backward and forward, on the one hand, and the upward, on the other.
When we examine this question more closely, we find that this upward perspective is indispensable to the retrospective and the prospective and that the retrospective and the prospective are indispensable to the projective. The upward perspective is a necessary element of faith because of the position which Christ occupies during the interadventual period. Christ is in the heavenlies at the right hand of God and he as the exalted Redeemer and Lord is the center of the believer's faith. Believers indeed have faith in Christ's first advent and in the eschatological drama of temporal history which that advent inaugurated. They have faith and hope in the second advent and in the age of consummated righteousness and bliss which the second advent will inaugurate. Believing interest is focused upon past and future and upon past and future as epitomized in the first and second advents of the Lord. But they are also interested in the present and, because so, they are supremely interested in the risen and ascended Lord. Faith of the present is focused in the risen Lord. Faith is concerned not only with a Christ who came and with a Christ who will come again, but with the Christ who now is and now is as the one exalted far above all principality and power and might and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but in the one to come. Hence the upward
perspective that binds past, present and future together within the compass of faith, because it is the present position, office and function of the Redeemer that unite the past of our Lord's revelation and the future of his manifestation in relevant relationship.
We have not, however, given a proper account of the projective strand if we construe it simply in terms of the upward look or vertical perspective. It is not, strictly speaking, an upward look. The essence of this projective aspect is that believers, redeemed by the first advent and waiting for the consummation of redemption in the adoption of the second, are conceived of as raised up together and made to sit together with Christ in the heavenlies. Their life is projected into the heavenlies—it is projection into the supernal and heavenly realm and not merely the upward look of faith to him who is exalted as Lord in the heavenlies. Hence they may be conceived of as viewing the history of the past and the consummative events of the future from the vantage point of the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. As we think of this projective aspect and relate it to the other two strands, we are almost constrained to say, what an impossible combination of perspectives! And we might well be tempted to think that it is impossible to fuse these perspectives and regard them as coexisting in the faith of New Testament believers.
If our thinking is conditioned by the New Testament frame of thought, we do not have to go far to find the reason for this apparently unrealistic perspective and for its coexistence with the other perspectives. It is the great truth of union and communion with Christ. Christ is not only the object of faith and his glorious appearing the pole star of hope, but he is also united to believers now in the bonds of mystic union. And they are united to him. Because Christ is united to believers, he is in them in the life they now live upon earth—he is formed in them the hope of glory. And because believers are now united with Christ, they are in him in the glory of his exalted state—their life is hid with Christ in God. Christ is with them where they are; they are with him where he is. A great mystery, beyond doubt. But this is what is true of Christ and his church.
There is, however, a concreteness to this projective aspect of the believer's life which preserves it from the dangers and distortions of sentimental mysticism. The projective must be attached to the historical perspectives of the last days and the two ages. For the projective has no meaning or relevance except in the realism and concreteness of experience within the interadventual period. And the Christ who is the dwelling place of the projective is the Christ whose identity is defined by historical manifestation in the past and manifestation again in the future at the end of history. It is not etherealized mysticism we have here, but mysticism whose orbit is defined by the historical accomplishment of the past, the exaltation of Christ in the present, and the certainty of the appearing of his glory in the future. The projective never divorces the communion in which it consists from the particularities which identify the Savior into whose fellowship the believer is projected. The projective is thus seen not as an adjustment or accommodation necessitated by the disappointment of the early church at delay in the appearing of Christ's glory. It is not something injected into New Testament faith to fill the vacuum created by disappointed expectation. The projective is an indispensable element of faith arising from the exaltation of Christ.
We have, therefore, a synthesis which shows not only the compatibility of these perspectives, but their indispensability if all the facts which come within the compass of faith are duly assessed and properly related to one another—the facts of the first advent, the exaltation, the second advent and the union of the believer with Christ—union with him in the redemptive accomplishments of the first advent, in the power of Christ's exaltation and in the hope of his consummated glory. Believers have communion with him at all stages in the progressive realization of the redemptive purpose. This redemptive plan had its inception in election in Christ before the foundation of the world, and it moves to its finale in the liberty of the glory of the children of God. It is impoverished insight, to say the least, that does not appreciate the congruity with all that has been, is and will be true on the plane of world history of that projective perspective signalized by Paul's word that our life is hid with Christ in
God. And it is an impoverished faith that would regard the fellowship thereby intimated as in any respect dispensable or superfluous. It is into the fellowship of Christ we are called, and it must even now be a fellowship that has an upreach no lower than the heavenlies where Christ sits.
David L. Roth
The Old Man
There you are. I was just thinking about you. I was reading in Genesis and I could see you standing there naked in the garden of Eden. Yes, I know, you had on your fig-leaf camouflage. But you knew you were still naked, didn't you?
Of course, you weren't alone in your nakedness. Everyone else was there too: Greeks, Jews, barbarians, Scythians, slaves and freemen. And maybe you didn't notice—I hope you didn't notice—I was there too (and, it seemed to me, more naked than any of you). We were all there as I read; blush-warmed faces, hunched shoulders and senses straining at the dread approach of God.
I wondered as I read, how we ever expected to live down that moment. You know, the chagrin. The shame. Our lips still moist from the fruit of ill-gotten wisdom. And there we stood, using for cover the very trees we should have hung from. I wondered too at that voice that
now seemed so different: "Who told you that you were naked?"
Indeed, if not from God, then where did our wisdom come from? Could it have been from outside of the garden? After all, we were supposed to have been on our guard against something or someone. Come to think of it, when we were sent from the garden, the cherubim were given what was once our guard duty. And we actually became part of what they were guarding the garden against! What had we done—Adam, you and I?
Do you remember how we knelt in the dust east of Eden? How we raised handfuls of that cursed soil prayer-like to the sky? And how we let the dust pour down between our fingers? And how those dust clouds became the very substance of our dreams? Remember the great towers, the fortified cities and the name we would make for ourselves? Those were some dreams alright. Dreams of what we would bring forth from out of the dust. A new garden perhaps? Or maybe even heaven itself! (How little notice we gave the legless beast—was it smirking?—as it watched us there on its belly in the dust. Was it proud of us or did it just know something that we didn't?).
You remember how we poured ourselves into that dust, don't you? How we tried to bring life out of the dust as God had once done? But no matter where we cast the seed of our heart, in the end, all we harvested were more handfuls of dust. What happened, anyway? Had not the imago Dei become Homo sapiens? What then did we have to show for all of our "god-like" understanding?
Tell me. What have we ever been able to add to our existence that God had not already given us? Arrogance? Okay, arrogance. Lies? Well, yes, and lies. And I guess there's gossip, and hollowed-out hearts of spent lovers, and a native language of four-lettered words, and impotent consciences, and crushed spirits, and jealousy, and rage, and vindictiveness, and brutality, and . . . shall I go on?
No. You remember, don't you? We had come to know evil as a husband "knows" his wife. We wore evil until it became our skin. There was now something so very familiar about it as it looked back at
us in the mirror. We who would be wise, did we not now know both good and evil? But were we really "wise like God" as the serpent promised? You know better now, don't you? The more we knew evil the less we really knew good—the less we knew God. And professing to be wise we became fools.
We were all as one man then. And since. No, I'm not forgetting Babel. It's just that however divided we became among ourselves, we still stood as one man in our heart against the heart of God. We stood there naked of righteousness before the Holy One. And we knew it. And it galled us to no end. There just had to be a way around God to life.
Together we were the legacy which is the "old man". "Old" because he is from the dust of the earth. "Old" because, like the dust, he is perishable, dishonored, weak and natural. And "old" because this man belongs to the age which is passing away. This man "shall surely die."
The New Man
But "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!" God was known in the first place because he chose to be known. Indeed, he created us to know him. Our rebellion, therefore, could not hide God. For he had chosen before all time to make himself known to us through his Son.
Knowing this, I could hardly just stop reading there. Reading about the "old" man, I mean. There had to be more. And, in fact, there was. As I continued reading I could make out another garden—Gethsemane this time. A garden of the "old" man. But I did not see us there. Not at first, anyway. Instead, I saw the Son of Man. This "last Adam" was not cowering beneath the trees of this garden when God came to him, as had the first Adam. No, this Adam stood face to face with God—without blush and without shame.
Further on, I could see this very same Son of Man, now as naked
as we could make him with our sins and driven from the garden of man. Still, I did not see him hiding behind a tree. On the contrary he was hanging from it! Hanging for all to see. Hanging for God to see. "For it was the Father's good pleasure for all fullness to dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross.... And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet he has now reconciled you in his fleshly body through death, in order to present you before [the Father] holy and blameless and beyond reproach" (Col. 1:19-22).
Through baptism we were buried with this Jesus. And so for us—for you and for me—the "old" man died as he surely must. Because God does not set aside his own righteousness in order to embrace us in his love. Instead, he raised us with Jesus in his own righteousness so that we would be "wise like God"—not to know evil, for it has no place in the Holy One, but to know good. And in knowing good—knowing it as a husband "knows" his wife—we would be knowing God. We would be knowing him as he created us to know him.
Jesus is the "head of the body" and "the first-born from the dead," says Paul. He is the "new man". "New" because he is not from the earth but from heaven. "New" because he is imperishable, glorious and strong. And "new" because this man is of the Spirit. This man shall surely live—as God lives. And by his indestructible life we live too; we who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved.
Another Time, Another Place
With this, I found myself in Colossians 3 and paused there a while. No, "pause" isn't the right word. I think "linger" is more what I did. Yes. I lingered there as Paul explained something of what our being bound to Christ by the love of God means.
Paul got my attention there by doing something I hadn't really expected. I'm used to people appealing to future consequences as a
reason for doing the right thing. You know, like Peter does in 2 Peter 3. There Peter warns us that the Lord will come someday, unexpectedly. So we ought to watch how we act and always be ready for that great and terrible day, because you just never know....
As I said, though, Paul doesn't do this. Oh, he certainly doesn't ignore the future character of heaven and all that that means. But, instead of using this kind of temporal language, Paul begins here with spatial language. It's not the "when-it-comes" of heaven that concerns him so much as the "where-it-is."
You see, by being bound to Christ we have been taken to the place where he is—"above". We are "above," says Paul, "above where Christ is seated ...." And since heaven is in this sense "here" for us, we ought to expend our energies on the things that are here before us—"the things above". "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth" (v. 2). Heaven is "here" for those who are bound to Christ by the love of God. We should, therefore, remember our place. And it should make a difference in our lives. Of course heaven is not yet fully realized. For the time being we still live in earthen vessels. You know the verses on that. We live by faith, not by sight. I suppose we could think of this situation as the "here/not-here" of heaven. (Which compliments the somewhat familiar temporal language, "now/not-yet"). Heaven is "here" to us even while we breathe the stale, sulphurous air of this present age.
It's certainly true that this age is tethered to the patience of God. And he will certainly come someday (the not-yet) and will bring heaven with him (the not-here). That's our hope. But it is primarily the "here" and "now" aspects of heaven—the things of faith that Paul just discussed—that provide the foundation for his exhortation in this particular passage.
Here and Now
I guess I found Paul's approach so striking because we stand in the milieu of backlash against being "so heavenly minded that we're of no
earthly good." Here in his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that it's actually better to set our minds exclusively on heavenly things than on earthly things at all! Surely you can see why he got my attention, can't you?
You see, until this sank in, I had been taking it for granted that heaven was largely future and pretty much remote from my present life. It's hard not to treat heaven as something to be somehow balanced with this present life. After all, too much attention to heavenly things gets in the way of earthly things, doesn't it? Even though I had never questioned the "higher" quality of heavenly things, I do, after all, have to live here on earth (till Christ comes again or I die, anyway). Right?
Thinking about the things of heaven seemed rather like sticking my head in the clouds. Entertaining, perhaps, but not too practical; what with all there is to do here in the real world and all. But then there are feelings of guilt if at least some time isn't spent on religious things—"the things above".
"Okay," I thought, "what will it be like in heaven then? What will we do? What will we feel like?" No, I was wrong. This is not at all what Paul is getting at. He is not encouraging speculation about the world to come. Besides, that sort of thinking usually overlooks the fact that our present bodies are ill-suited for life in heaven. When we get to thinking about it, heaven seems a little alien or weird to us. Maybe we even become a bit anxious over whether we will really fit in there and be happy. But in these earthly bodies heaven should feel that way. We will have bodies suited to heaven when the time comes. And then we will be able to "see", "touch", "hear", "taste" and "smell" heaven. I mean that the Lord will give us appropriate "senses" for heaven. He will surely make us able to experience and know the place he is preparing for us. And the Lord will certainly fill-up those "senses" with himself. And then we will no longer have to struggle to unify our experience with God's revelation of himself. We won't feel so torn between two worlds. We will be suited to heaven and will "glorify God and enjoy him forever." We will feel at home in heaven. After all, we
Be that when it may though, the point is that Paul has in mind the "here" and "now" of heaven. He is not referring to a someday, somewhere of the pearly gates, halos and harps idea of heaven either. There is a difference between being heavenly minded and being merely interested in things of heaven. The one requires all of the resources of heart, mind and strength under Spirit-sway. The other, merely an inclination toward speculation.
I came to see that the heavenly things Paul has in mind are the things that result from the presence of heaven. The things which come from our being bound by God's love to Christ, who is himself in heaven now. Pearly gates, harps and angel's wings? No. Telling the truth (v. 9). Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (v. 12). Bearing with one another and forgiveness (v. 13). And, above all, love (v. 14). These are "the things above" that Paul has in mind. These are the things we should "keep seeking."
We are seeking heaven, not in the manner of the old man, but in the new. Heaven is not just a ritual or noble act away. We are not merely biding our time here on earth until we 'stand before St. Peter' someday. For the new man already lives in heavenly places by virtue of what being loved by God in Christ means. You know what I mean, don't you? Compassion does not exist because of human beings. Kindness and patience are not expressions of anything we grew outside the garden so long ago. Neither is love something we came to know by eating of that forbidden knowledge tree. These things are not of the earth, but of heaven. These are "the things above".
Knowing evil had made all of these things (love, kindness, humility . . .), knowing evil had made them all seem rather elusive and fleeting in our experience. But now knowing God, or rather, being known by God, has made these heavenly things seem like our very own belongings. This is "the true knowledge" that we have as fruit of our being bound to Christ by the love of God. And so, walking in the Spirit—doing these kinds of spiritual things—is walking in heavenly
Paul says, "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth" (v. 2). Verses 5-9 explain what the earthly things are that he has in mind. Then there is a transition in verses 9-10. The "old man" that belongs to the earth is replaced by the "new man" that belongs to heaven. And finally, in verse 12 through, say 16, he tells us what the heavenly things are too.
Paul's contrast, then, is not between angelic choirs, pearly gates and harps on the one hand and caulking the tub and making brownies on the other. He is talking about compassion, kindness and love on the one hand and filthy language, malice and greed on the other. "The things that are on the earth" (v. 2) are "immorality, impurity . . . and greed" (v. 5). They are "anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech" (v. 8). Oh yes, and lying (v. 9). These are the very things that are baiting the wrath of God.
So, must I really know good and evil to be "wise like God"? Must I "get it" when someone tells a dirty joke, in order to be wise? Must I look at sexually suggestive material to find the inside track—to be wise? Does understanding "the way it is" require me to lie to the Internal Revenue Service? Is going along with slanderous comments about others the way to wisdom? Should I honk the horn or gesture my anger at thoughtless drivers? Is this how to prove that I am aware of reality? Is this being "wise like God"?
Well, until now, I might have been inclined to refer to a future time of reckoning. You know, "Someday I'll have to answer for how I live my life here on earth. So I'd better try not to do those kinds of things." While true, that is not Paul's point. And anyway, there was always the feeling that I was somehow wiser than the "goody-two-shoes," straight-laced kind of person. Knowing good and evil did seem to make me "wise" (though, of course, "wise" is probably not the word I would have used; but the idea is the same).
In light of this Colossians passage, though, I am more inclined to ask myself: "Where am I right now? On earth biding my time until I
get to heaven someday? Or am I at Christ's side in heavenly places right now?" Indeed, maybe I should ask, "Is it practical and wise to stand right in front of God and taunt Him with the things I say and do?"
Our ethics are not merely a reaction to some sort of system of rewards and punishments. Yes, there are rewards and punishments. But our ethics and morals are expressions of the life of Christ in us. For it is not out of Christ's life that we draw selfishness, rudeness, lies, pigheadedness or anything like that. But we do draw from his life love, kindness, gentleness, self-control and truth. They are evidence of our being in heaven, because these things are of heaven and not the earth.
You see, there is no way we can rely on a supposed remoteness of heaven (either in time or place), to soften the guilt of doing evil here and now. For we are not, in fact, remote from heaven and the presence of God. And this is Paul's point. The issue isn't what you have to do to cope with this life while waiting for the next one to come. It has more to do with just where your life is right now and what that life means here and now. And, again, Paul's point is that having our life hid in Christ, being a new man, being in heavenly places, this all means that the things of heaven must replace the things of earth. The new man must replace the old man. Love and kindness, truth and gentleness must replace greed and selfishness, lies and malice.
Our life is not in the food we eat, the house we call home, the friends we keep, the children, our vacations, our accomplishments, nor in the daily routines and ruts we find ourselves in. If you take from me my wife, my kids, my home, my food, my vacations, my accomplishments, my routines and my self-esteem, I will still be alive. Even if you try to take the life that is in my blood, I will still flourish with life. I live because the fountain of my life—the fountain of your life too—is in our Lord and Savior. Our life is in Christ.
Now, I said earlier that in this passage, Paul doesn't appeal to the someday of heaven. Well, that's not entirely true. He does, in fact,
bring together the presence of heaven with the future revealing of Christ (vv. 3, 4). At that future time we will see what we now only believe. We will see then where our life has been all along. And we will see this reality no longer as through a glass dimly. We will "see" just as the servant of Elisha suddenly saw that he was already in the presence of a heavenly host. For when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, we will be revealed too.
It is in this context that Paul says, "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus ...." This is not a reference to eloquence in our words or craftsmanship in our deeds. Indeed, this is not a proof text on "excellence" at all. Paul is not so much concerned here with earthly performance of tasks as he is with our seeking the things above. The point is not the quality of the "whatsoever we do," it is the motive, the internal principle that animates the "whatsoever we do" that concerns Paul here.
It is as an expression of our conscious presence before God, in Christ, that wives ought to be subject to their husbands; that husbands ought to love their wives; that children ought to be obedient to their parents; and so on (vv. 18f.). These things arise out of our plan to glorify God, our "seeking the things above." These things arise out of an attitude bent on Christ. And so things like this are heavenly.
In so conducting ourselves we are walking in heavenly places. These are the heavenly things that we are supposed to be devoted to. Not as acts belonging to an ivory tower or idle speculations on another world. They are practical, here and now kinds of things. They are the practical response to reality. And they are things done in thankfulness to God rather than as ways of coping with a remote deity or an active conscience. We are to be so heavenly minded that we actually end up being of great earthly good! This is being "wise like God."
Now and Then
From Paul I moved on in my reading. I came to a river of life
flowing from the throne of God. I saw there the tree of life and there were no cherubim keeping us from it anymore. Indeed, there was no longer even a curse at all. I even took heart at the voice of my Lord calling for me instead of looking for a place to hide. You and I could now freely eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God. And I saw us there—clothed this time! Clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, our Lord. And we no longer knew evil, only good. Our faith had melted into sight, our hope into rejoicing and our selfishness into thankfulness to God. "For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes the things sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations" (Is. 61:11). Even so, Lord come.
Paul, Philemon, Onesimus
New Creation in Christ Jesus
Epistle to Philemon
James T. Dennison, Jr.
How do we approach this letter to Philemon—the shortest epistle in the Pauline corpus? Perhaps we could begin with William Lloyd Garrison, radical Northern abolitionist, editor of the newspaper the Liberator from 1831, joint founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. "No man can love God who enslaves another," said Garrison. The corollary is that any Christian holding slaves in America in 1830 was to be barred from the Lord's Supper and expelled from the church. Now as I read Paul's letter to Philemon, I did not notice remarks from this inspired apostle which would support Mr. Garrison's sentiments.
Well then, suppose we turn to Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Southern Calvinist, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans during the Civil War. In his Fast Day sermon of 1861, Palmer stated that the African system of slavery was a "divine trust" which the South was duty bound to "preserve and perpetuate" to the point of taking up arms against the Union. Again, not the flavor of the inspired apostle's comments to Philemon.
It was Charles Hodge who would point out in the pages of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Theological Review that the shift in Southern opinion from a Biblical permission to hold slaves to a Biblical mandate to perpetuate slavery was a move beyond the Biblical data. In an analytical tour de force, Hodge argued convincingly, in my opinion, that slavery was an institution destined to die of attrition.
The recent superb and poignant Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series on the Civil War raises Hodge's salient point anew: would an archaic institution (slavery), once isolated and restrained from metastasizing like a malignant cancer, would such an institution have died naturally—dribbling out by the end of the 19th century as social consciousness was raised and Christian principles prevailed?
But secession was rebellion. And rebellion had to be quelled—that is what he said; that is what Abraham Lincoln said!
The tone of the apostle in his letter to Philemon is not virulent invective against slaveholders with the demand for excommunication. Nor is his tone a bill of infallibility for slavery as an institution to be perpetually extended by secession and rebellion. The apostle is neither a crusading abolitionist, nor a defender of slavery in perpetuity. The epistle to Philemon raises issues in our native consciousness; and in raising them, invites us to reflect upon and learn from these issues once more; yea "with malice toward none, with charity for all."
Structure of the Epistle
Perhaps we should approach Philemon by first analyzing its structure. You will observe that the first three verses include the
names of five persons: Paul, Timothy, Philemon, Apphia, Archippus. You will further observe that the last three verses (vv. 23-25) conclude with the names of five persons: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke. Now observe also that the pattern of verses 1-3 is five names plus the phrase "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." This is precisely mirrored in verses 23-25: five names plus the phrase "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." The greeting or salutation of the epistle ends with the Lord Jesus Christ. The closing or conclusion of the epistle ends with the Lord Jesus Christ. A perfectly balanced inclusio structurally envelops the tender plea of the apostle on behalf of Onesimus. Paul, Timothy, Philemon, Apphia, Archippus—members of the church; Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke—members of the church. Within the church, something new is occurring!
Again, perhaps we should approach this letter by considering its epistolary structure. The Pauline epistles have been found to follow a marked rhetorical pattern: Salutation, Thanksgiving, Body of the Letter, Close. In our case, verses 1-3 have been suggested as the Salutation; verses 4-7 as the Thanksgiving; verses 8-22 as the Body; and verses 23-25 as the Close.
Some have even compared the Pauline epistles to contemporary Graeco-Roman letters and have attempted to assign patterns of rhetorical similarity, especially in the deliberative section of his epistles—in our case, Philemon 4-22. The so-called Exordium secures the goodwill of the reader (vv. 4-7): "I thank my God always," "I hear of your love," "I have come to have much joy." The main body or so-called Proof of the letter urges the main argument of the writer through appeals to honor and reasonable motivation—even strong feelings (vv. 8-16): "I appeal to you," "without your consent I did not want to do anything." Finally, the so-called Peroration sums up the argument of the letter by restating the appeal, gaining the reader's favor, enlarging the argument and moving the reader to a favorable emotional frame of mind (vv. 17-22): "If he has wronged you . . . charge that to my account;" "I know that you will do even more than what I say."
Narrative Pattern of the Epistle
More important than these formal structural patterns, even though they contain theological overtones, is the narrative pattern of the epistle. Yes, surprisingly, there is a story here—a story with a cast of players, drama, pathos, anticipation.
Our drama opens in v. 19. Philemon owes Paul a debt. It is his own conversion—a transformation which precedes that of Onesimus. Philemon had heard the gospel from Paul and had received the Holy Spirit through the apostle's word—possibly at Colossae (ancient patristic commentators thought it was at Colossae). But scene two is in the prison at Rome. At Rome, Paul is bound in chains for the sake of the gospel. Around him are gathered those named in vv. 23-24 plus Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Onesimus had run away—perhaps after stealing something, as was supposed by the aforementioned patristic commentators. Onesimus was in debt to Philemon. In the providence of God, Onesimus reached Paul. He too heard the gospel from the apostle and received the Holy Spirit through the apostle's word. Having heard of Philemon's love and faith, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master. Onesimus himself undoubtedly carries the letter asking Philemon to receive him as "more than a slave, yea a beloved brother." The final scenes are left to our imagination. Onesimus arrives at the home of Philemon with Paul's letter. Philemon reads the letter and responds, we trust, affirmatively. Paul then visits Philemon to follow up his letter (an event which may never have occurred).
We have two stories here—two narratives. One story is about Philemon, his old nature, his useless slave. The other story is about Onesimus, his new nature, the fact that he is now a useful beloved brother. The father of both is Paul—to the one, begotten in freedom; to the other, begotten in bonds. This narrative therefore focuses on relationships: Paul and Philemon; Paul and Onesimus; Philemon and Onesimus.
The Drama of Relationships
As we examine the vocabulary of the epistle, we begin to notice that the drama of relationship is supported by the language of relationship. The terms "brother" and "sister" occur five times; "beloved," a term of Christian affection, occurs five times; cf. "fellow worker," "my very own heart." These terms of horizontal relationship are touchingly spread through the apostle's appeal. Onesimus is Paul's "child"; Onesimus, while Philemon's "slave," has become by God's grace, Paul's "brother." Onesimus is a "debtor" to Paul, even as Philemon is a "debtor" to the apostle. "Fellow prisoner," "fellow soldier" of the "old man," the elder statesman of the gospel. This wonderfully personal epistle is full of expression of loving and tender relationship.
Yet the relationship pivotal to the epistle is the relationship between master and slave. Paul's appeal is an appeal on behalf of a fugitive slave. It is an appeal which seeks more than emancipation—it seeks reconciliation of slave to master. It would be simple enough to reduce this epistle to a treatise on social ethics—whether abolitionist, pro-slavery or something in between. It would be easy to reduce this letter to the horizontal dimension of superiors and inferiors with all their political overtones. It would be easy to reduce the epistle to Philemon to our allegedly enlightened social consciousness.
The Drama of the Lord Jesus Christ
But that is not really what this letter is all about. It is not about abolition or emancipation, human subjugation or bondage. This letter is not really about Philemon and Onesimus. Like all of Scripture, this epistle is about Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is the focus of this letter. This radical concept—for it is radical in today's church to expect pastors to focus on Christ rather than on some topical or practical or applicatory agenda—this radical concept is even found in the structure of the epistle.
The salutation begins with Christ Jesus (v. 1) and ends with Jesus
Christ (v. 3). The thanksgiving and body of the letter begin and end with Lord (Kyriou), while the sequence of Christological names comes to a focus in the pregnant Pauline expression en Christo (v. 8). That eschatological phrase "in Christ" will also reappear at the end of the letter (vv. 20, 23). Finally the conclusion (vv. 23-25) will close with the names of our Savior in the very same Christological sequence as they occurred in the greeting (vv. 1-3): Christ-Jesus-Lord-Jesus-Christ. A remarkable pattern of Christological focus, the chiasm is a literary bonus!
The New Creation in Christ
But to what end? What is the point? It is the eschatological relationship present "in Christ" who is "Lord and Master" of Paul, Philemon, Onesimus and the church. Paul has a Lord and Master—in Christ, he has been set free through the eschatological invasion of history by the Son of God. This Paul, bond slave and prisoner to the beggarly elements of this present evil age, has been emancipated in the "fullness of the times" by the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. "In Christ" Paul is no longer a slave to the powers of this present evil age; "in Christ," Paul has been raised up to become a son, an heir, a child of the heavenly, glorified Lord. In the glory of the risen Jesus, Paul is no longer in bondage—no longer a prisoner—no longer a debtor.
And so this new age—this eschatological era—this age of Christ and "in Christ"—breaks in upon Philemon and Onesimus. In Christ, they too are made members of the Lord of glory—risen, ascended, seated in heavenly places in him. They are members of the church above—heirs of light—the sons and daughters of the great king of glory. Slave, Onesimus, is "in Christ," raised up even now to the glory not yet fully revealed. Master, Philemon, is "in Christ," lifted up to the heavenly arena and seated with the slaves of King Jesus even now in glory.
The relationships of this epistle have been transformed. They have been transformed by the eschatological new thing which God has done
in Christ Jesus our Lord through his church. Philemon has been purchased from bondage and marvelously brought into Christ. Onesimus has been emancipated from servitude and wonderfully ushered into Christ. Together, through the eschatological transformation of the ages, they are sons, children, heirs together of God and joint-heirs of Jesus Christ.
Slavery is not the issue. Christ is the issue and where men and women are in Christ, transformed by the eschatological death and resurrection of their Lord, made new by the divine and heavenly light which has translated them out of darkness into the marvellous glory of the kingdom of Christ—where such men and women have been possessed of the eschatological Christ, then "in Christ" they receive one another as "no longer slaves, but more than slaves—as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ." In such an eschatological arena, in such an eschatological setting, in such an eschatological fellowship—can slavery—I ask you, brothers and sisters—can slavery long endure? Surely not—in such a kingdom—in the eschatological kingdom of Christ where there is no more bond or free—slavery must wither and die. It, like this present evil age of which it is a part, it too must pass away. It must pass away—so that men and women may possess the dignity of the sons and daughters of Christ. En Christo, in Christ who became a slave that he might emancipate those who are subject to bitter bondage. En Christo, in Christ who made himself a bondservant to sin and death, that he might manumit us through his very own emancipation—his eschatological death and resurrection.
William Lloyd Garrison was wrong. His abolitionist methods were those of the flesh. Benjamin Morgan Palmer was wrong. His pro-slavery sentiments failed to weigh the eschatological transformation of those in Christ.
But Philemon and Onesimus knew. In Christ, in the new relationship in Christ Jesus—they understood. No longer a slave, but a beloved brother. No longer a master, but a beloved brother. The grace
of the Lord Jesus Christ had set them both free. Eschatologically free—free at last. Free in Christ both now and forevermore.
Suggestions for Further Reading
F. Forrester Church, "Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul's Letter to Philemon." Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978): 17-33.
Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World(Fortress Press, 1985).
J. H. Roberts, "Pauline Transitions to the Letter Body," in L'Apotre Paul: Personalite, Style et Conception du Ministere, ed. by A. Vanhoye (Leuven, 1986), pp. 93-99.
Wolfgang Schenk, "Der Brief des Paulus an Philemon in der neueren Forschung (1945-1987)," in Principat 25, 4: Religion, ed. by W. Haase (1987), pp. 3439-95.