Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Faith of Jesus

For the apostle Paul and the other New Testament (NT) writers, the Christian faith is synonymous with the faith of Jesus.

Jesus’ gospel, or "good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43), is the message that the historical Jesus believed. The NT Jesus embodied his faith as both messenger and message, persuading his disciples to believe what he believed about the kingdom of God and about himself as its anointed ruler ("Christ" being a transliteration into English of the Greek, Christos, meaning "Anointed One," that is, the one whom God anoints to rule God’s kingdom; its Hebrew equivalent is Messiah). Jesus’ faith in "the word"—in his having come, according to the Law and the Prophets, to fulfill God’s promise to bless all nations in Abraham’s messianic seed—led him to his death on the cross, from which God raised Jesus, whose death and resurrection completed the message that Paul identified with "the faith of Jesus."

Faith in or Faith of?
Several Pauline texts refer to the faith of Jesus but are typically, and unfortunately, rendered by English NT versions as "faith in" Jesus (Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16 [twice] and 20; 3:22; Phil. 3:9). The rendering "faith in" points to the faith of Christians as the instrument God uses to justify them. But the rendering "faith of" points to the faith of Christ, that is, what the historical Jesus believed about himself and the kingdom of God, and what his faith led him to do, as God’s instrument of justification. So, what Jesus believed and what his faith led him to do—to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God and, as a result of its rejection, to die on the cross and be resurrected by his God—became both the instrument God uses to justify believers and the content of the NT revelation ("the word"). As such, the faith of Jesus is the object of NT Christian faith.

That the rendering "faith of" is preferable to "faith in" in these key Pauline texts (i.e., Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:22; Phil. 3:9) can be confirmed by comparing them with Paul’s reference to "the faith of Abraham" (Rom. 4:16), in which precisely the same original-language construction is used: for example, pisteos Jesou (Rom. 3:26) and pisteos Abraau (Rom. 4:16). (Any NT interlinear translation can be used to make these comparisons.) The point of Paul’s paralleling the faiths of Jesus and Abraham is to identify Jesus as the true heir of the Abrahamic faith and, therefore, as the true recipient of God’s Abrahamic promise to bless all nations in Abraham’s "seed" (Gal. 3:16; see also Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18).

The rendering of Paul’s references to Jesus’ faith as "faith in" rather than "faith of" obscures Paul’s parallel between Jesus and Abraham. Abraham "did not waver in unbelief regarding the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God was able to do what he had promised" (Rom. 4:20-21). Just so, Jesus’ faith—his persuasion regarding God’s promise—that God would raise his Anointed One from the dead and exalt him to God’s right hand in God’s coming kingdom—according to Paul, "to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles [the nations] might glorify God for his mercy" (Rom. 15:8-9)—led Jesus to his death on the cross and, therefore, to his resurrection. This is Paul’s "gospel," which God "promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures . . ." (Rom. 1:2), just as "the Scripture, forseeing that God would justify the Gentiles [Greek, ethnos: the nations] by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’" (Gal. 3:8).

According to Paul, then, "the righteousness of God" (and, therefore, the hope of salvation) comes to Christians "through the faith of Jesus Christ [dia pisteos Jesou Christou] to all who believe" (Rom. 3:22). And so, Paul's words clarify that Jesus' faith is the instrument God uses, whenever the NT gospel is heard, to impart God's righteousness to believing hearts.

This means that Christians—that is, believers in the NT gospel—are saved not because of their own faith but because of the faith of Jesus, as it is revealed in the NT gospel: ". . . we believed in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified by the faith of Christ [ek pisteos Christou] and not by works of law [ek ergon nomou], because by works of law no flesh will be justified" (Gal. 2:16).

Two Approaches to Righteousness
Paul’s contrast is between two approaches to justification: "faith," on one hand, and "works," on the other. His contrast, however, is not between Christians whose "faith" involves trusting God for their righteousness, on one hand, and Christians, or Jews, who try to earn their righteousness through "works," on the other. Paul’s contrast is, instead, between "the faith of Christ" as God’s instrument of justification, on one hand, and "works of law" as the false instrument of justification into which the Mosaic law had been turned by first-century Pharisaic Judaism, on the other.

The error of Pharisaic Judaism was to misconstrue the Mosaic law as a foundational and, therefore, permanent, element in God’s purpose for Israel and the nations. This error led to the first-century Jewish belief that God would fulfill his Abrahamic promise to bless all nations through the imposition of the Mosaic law on the nations by a restored Davidic dynasty, whose Messiah would lead the Jewish nation in conquest over the Romans and then the rest of the world. This could only occur, it was believed, when the Jewish nation was sufficiently observant of the Mosaic law. Thus, the first-century "tradition of the elders" (Matt. 15:2) was designed to enforce a kind of observance of the "letter" of the law that, in its earnest attempt at self-justification, repressed the "spirit" of the law (which had always been faith in God’s Abrahamic promise). God’s purpose, then (so it was believed), was to use the Mosaic law to fulfill his Abrahamic promise, the fulfillment, therefore, being the just reward for his people’s "works of law." The Jewish nation’s observance, therefore, of the religious tradition into which the Mosaic law had been turned by Pharisaic Judaism—Paul’s phrase for this observance being "works of law"—was believed to be God’s instrument for justifying his people.

Paul’s correction of this error consisted in pointing out that the Mosaic law, rather than being a foundational and permanent element in God’s purpose, was instead structural and temporary.

The Mosaic law was structural in that it was built on the foundation of God’s Abrahamic promise, which preceded the giving of the law by "430 years" (Gal. 3:17). For what purpose? "It was added"—being a structural addition to the foundation of the Abrahamic promise—"because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19a). The Mosaic law was given—in fulfillment of God’s promise to make of Abraham a great nation—to impart to Israel, through the nation’s "transgressions" of the ten commandments, an understanding of its alienation from its God: "For by works of law shall no flesh be justified before him, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20; see also Rom. 7:7-25). The "knowledge of sin" came to faithful Israelites in light of the nation’s habitual failure to obey the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exo. 20:3; Deut. 5:7), its idolatry resulting in its inability to faithfully obey the other commandments.

And the Mosaic law was temporary in that it "was added . . . until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal. 3:19b), namely, Jesus.

From Old Covenant to New Covenant
According to Paul, then, the Mosaic law lasted from Moses to Messiah, the true Abrahamic "seed," in and through whom all of Abraham’s descendents, both Jews and Gentiles, would enjoy the promised blessing to all nations.

God fulfilled his Abrahamic promise according to his own timetable—"when the fullness of time had come" (Gal. 4:4)—by sending his Anointed One to display a perfect faith in God’s Abrahamic promise. In so doing, God transformed the old covenant between God and one nation (Israel) into a new covenant between God and all nations (both Jews and Gentiles). The transition between the old and new covenants was the transition not only from a national to an international covenant between God and humanity but also from a legal to a spiritual covenant.

The Mosaic law was "the letter" (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6), which could only condemn God’s people because it formed, by definition as a legal system, a record of their transgressions. As the writer of Hebrews says, "under law . . . without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22), because no legal system can forgive (in that forgiveness, by definition, is freely extended: the cancellation of an unpaid debt). God’s forgiveness could only be ceremonially, and therefore imperfectly, experienced under law, and this required that the ongoing and unending condemnation of the law be mitigated by "the shedding of blood." The animal sacrifices of the Mosaic law served the purpose of conveying to Israel a limited, ceremonial awareness of God’s forgiveness while the nation was acquiring "the knowledge of sin" through its transgressions of the ten commandments.

The function of the ongoing sacrifices required by the Mosaic law was not to "perfect those who draw near" (Heb. 10:1) with an assurance of God’s forgiveness but, instead, to serve as "a reminder of sin every year" (Heb. 10:3). While it is the nature of love (and, therefore, of God) to freely forgive, God’s people could not experience the assurance of God’s forgiveness until the Mosaic law, as the instrument through which God governed his old-covenant people, came to an end. (Though the Mosaic law no longer governs God’s people, it continues, along with "the Prophets," to "bear witness to" God’s righteousness [Rom. 3:21] by telling the story of God’s faithfulness to his Abrahamic promise.)

Jesus’ faith in God’s promise led him to the cross, which brought the old covenant of "the letter" to an end (see Gal. 3:13-14; Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:13-14). What the blood of animals could do only imperfectly and temporarily—offer to believing hearts the experience of God’s forgiveness—the blood of Jesus has done both perfectly and permanently. And having brought to an end the rule of "the letter" at the cross, God raised Jesus from the dead, entering into a new covenant of "the spirit" with all of all nations who believe the NT gospel and, thereby, identify themselves with the faith of Jesus.

Jesus’ faith in "the word" of promise instilled on his mind and in his heart the love of his God, making him the embodiment of the new covenant: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Heb. 8:10; Jer. 31:33). The new-covenant law of God would no longer be "letter" but now "spirit," no longer a matter of the coercive power of a legal system but now the persuasive power of a spiritual (i.e., God-breathed) message: the NT gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Through the faith of Jesus, then, God’s Spirit (Greek, pneuma, literally, breath, the metaphorical extension of God’s presence and power from heaven to earth in the literal form of the faith of Jesus) would write God’s law of love on believing hearts, empowering God’s people to love God and to love others as God has loved one and all, according to the NT faith of Jesus.

Another Jesus?
Perhaps the major problem with the rendering "faith in" rather than "faith of" is that it suggests that the Christian’s faith in Jesus was Paul’s central concern rather than what Jesus himself believed and, therefore, called his disciples to believe about the kingdom of God, that is, about God’s original and international purpose, and about Jesus as the one whom God anointed to fulfill his purpose and promise. For Paul, the critical question was whether the faith of the Christians to whom he wrote continued to correspond to the faith of the "Christ" Paul had proclaimed to them.

Paul warned his readers about "someone [who] proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed," which would lead them to "receive a different spirit from the one you received [and] accept a different gospel from the one you accepted" (2 Cor. 11:4). For Paul, "Jesus" and "spirit" and "gospel" were equivalent terms, each being synonymous with the faith of the historical Jesus, which Paul believed himself to have proclaimed and his readers to have believed when he had been in their presence.

What if Christians have been led to place their faith in a "Jesus" other than the risen Jesus whose "spirit" revealed his "gospel" to Paul? What if the "Christ" of ecclesiastical Christianity, the "Christ" whom it reinvented as "God the Son" in the Church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, the "Christ" who rules "the Church" through its clergy and reveals "Himself" to its members through its rituals is "another Jesus than the one [Paul] proclaimed"?

Unlike Paul, the evangelical branch of ecclesiastical Christianity has nothing to say about the "faith of" its Jesus because as "God the Son" he had no need for faith when he was in the flesh. All that the evangelical Christ proclaimed is presumed to have come not from his faith in "the word" God revealed to him through the Hebrew scriptures and through "the Spirit" but from the memory of his "preexistent" presence in "eternity past" as "God the Son" with God the Father. (This is a gnostic concept that has been read into John’s Gospel and, thereby, puts John’s testimony about a supposedly "divine" Jesus in conflict with the testimony of the three synoptic Gospels, each of which present—as, in truth, does John’s Gospel—a fully human Jesus.) The question is whether the apostolic "Son of God" is equivalent to the post-apostolic "God the Son"; if not, the churches of ecclesiastical Christianity have been led to worship "another Jesus."

Jesus believed what all the biblical messengers of God who preceded him believed: God’s Abrahamic promise. God promised Abraham to give him a son, through whom God promised to make of him a great nation, through which God promised to bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18). Of course, like all his fellow Jews, Jesus believed that God had already fulfilled the promise of the son, in the form of Isaac, and the promise of the nation, in the form of Israel (which is the story the OT writers tell). But Jesus also believed what the majority of his fellow Jews refused to believe—that he himself had come to set in motion the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of international blessing by means of his proclamation of the kingdom of God, which led to his crucifixion for sins, resurrection from the dead, and exaltation to the right hand of God in God’s eschatological kingdom.

The Faith of Jesus and Christian Faith
Jesus revealed his faith, then, to his disciples, and to the multitudes, through his proclamation of the kingdom of God, that the kingdom was "at hand," on the horizon, coming to bring the righteousness of faith to Israel and the rest of the nations. His faith was his understanding and persuasion (i.e., his trust in God’s promise) regarding his having come to fulfill the Abrahamic promise of international blessing, which would begin with the restoration of Israel to covenant faithfulness, in the form of his band of Jewish disciples and, eventually, in the form of the Jewish and Gentile Christian community (see Romans 11). And of this faith Jesus sought to persuade his fellow Jews, whom he called to believe his "good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43).

Jesus’ faith—his proclamation of the kingdom of God—constituted his service to the Jewish people, and through them to all nations: "For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles [that is, the nations] might glorify God for his mercy" (Rom. 15:8-9). As Jesus himself put it, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). And so, Jesus, "the pioneer and perfector of faith . . . for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2). Which is to say that Jesus died because of his faith, that is, because he was persuaded that God would raise his Anointed One from the dead in keeping with his Abrahamic promise to bless all nations with everlasting life in the kingdom of God on a renewed earth.

The NT faith of Jesus, then, encompasses his proclamation of the kingdom of God, his crucifixion for sins, his resurrection from the dead, and his exaltation to the right hand of God in the coming kingdom, all of which identify Jesus as God’s Anointed One. Accordingly, the NT gospel is the call to believe what Jesus believed, and so, to live in hope of resurrection to everlasting life in the coming kingdom of God and in love for oneself and others, just as God demonstrates his love for one and all in the sacrificial death to which Jesus was led by his faith in the promise of God.