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Monday, April 2, 2012

Apocalypse in both Jesus and Paul

The attempt to separate Jesus from Paul is a commonplace among both heirs of the so-called 18th century "enlightenment" on the one hand, whether secular liberal, nationalist, socialist, or anarchist, and the apologists of Islam on the other--tribes who are otherwise completely antithetical. Hence Muhammad's Isa (Jesus) is a turgid, purely human desert prophet; that of Jefferson a homespun philosopher; that of Gogarten and Grundemann a Teutonic warrior and anti-Semite; that of Carmichael a mid-20th century political radical. Clearly Jesus is an important figure to enlist on one's own side, regardless of how much one hates Jesus' church and the people who confess him as Lord. But it is also clear that people following this path must pare and peel Jesus to shape him to their own expectations. They have turned him into an "undefined banner" (to use Francis Schaeffer's phrase) into which any meaning may be poured.

One of the challenges which Albert Schweitzer offered to early 20th century academic biblical scholarship was his identification of Jesus as an apocalypticist who announced the imminent end of the world as we know it. The picture of a humanitarian reformer prominent from Ernest Renan onwards was no longer tenable to Schweitzer as he focused on Jesus' "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Further, efforts of non-scholars such as Jefferson to turn Jesus into a mere "wise teacher" are also challenged by the importance of coming judgment and renewal of all things found in Jesus' teachings. Schweitzer's century-old observation thus reminds the reader of the New Testament that he is entering a "strange world" where the categories insisted upon by 18th and 19th century philosophers, historians, and exegetes had not been established, and may well face challenges.

Indeed, the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24-25, in which Jesus announces at least the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem (if not of the whole created order) is as important a dominical discourse as the Sermon on the Mount. Its context is the final week in Jerusalem, which occupies roughly a third of the Gospel narratives. It and the Upper Room Discourse appear as the last long discourses of Jesus, underscoring its importance.

Further, no other New Testament figure speaks as much about judgment as Jesus. Even the humanitarian interpreter's favorite passages in the Sermon on the Mount clearly speak of a coming judgment which men must face, especially concerning such issues as murder, anger, sexuality, swearing and oaths, and retribution (throughout Matthew 5). Jesus' model prayer in Mt. 6:9-15 petitions for forgiveness from judgment. The standard of behavior enjoined is one that must seek to please God, who sees in secret, rather than men.

How do Jesus' teachings about eschatology compare with those of Paul?

Again, Paul is another "apocalypticist". In the Thessalonian letters, he teaches a second advent of the Messiah, in which salvation will be consummated in the resurrection of the just and those saints alive at Jesus' coming meeting him in the air. The Man of Sin who exalts himself against God will be destroyed, and Christians will even be with their Lord. Nothing in this contradicts Jesus' teaching.

In First Corinthians 15, Paul also announces that the Gospel he preaches proclaims the Lordship of Christ, and the "beginning of the end". The resurrection of Jesus shows Jesus to be the promised Messiah, and constitutes a promise that in the end, we, too, shall share in the resurrection, when death, the last enemy, is finally defeated. Paul, like Jesus, accepted that the end of the world involves the resurrection of the dead and their judgment.

But understanding this judgment cannot be understood apart from how both Jesus and Paul understood the person of Jesus Christ and his work. Did Jesus indeed preach a religion of merit against Paul's message of grace? This will be our next topic.

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