Saturday, November 3, 2018

God’s Covenant People: A Response to Objections (Part One)

I think it’s safe to say that, for any doctrinal position to which one could hold, there will invariably be some verses and passages of scripture which, at first glance at least, will appear inconsistent with it (and which those who oppose and reject the doctrine will insist are, in fact, inconsistent with it). When I first came to believe in the truth of the salvation of all, for example, there were certain passages that, at the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with (and the 20+ years I’d already spent in the institutional church certainly didn’t help, what with all the erroneous doctrinal baggage I’d accumulated over the years!). Even though I’d come to understand what certain passages couldn’t mean (without contradicting what I knew to be true), I was unsure as to what, exactly, they did mean, and how, exactly, they were to be understood in relation to the rest of scripture. Much study and investigation remained to be done in order to tie up certain “loose ends.”

The doctrinal position defended in ”God’s covenant people” is no exception to everything said above. It’s certainly not without its share of opponents who are convinced (or inclined to believe) that it’s contradicted by at least some verses or passages of scripture. What I want to do in this series of articles, then, is “tie up some loose ends” by responding to the most common scripture-based objections I’ve seen to the position defended in my study. Throughout this series of articles, I will be presupposing that those reading have already read my previous study, and will be familiar with the conclusions at which I arrived.  

Objection: Those constituting the body of Christ should be understood as comprising “spiritual Israel” because of what we read in Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6-8.

Some believe that Paul was broadening the meaning of the terms “Jew” and “Israel” in Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6-8 to include Gentiles. However, Paul was narrowing the meaning of these terms, making them more exclusive. The category of Jews/Israelites who can be understood as constituting true Israel (i.e., the “Israel” referred to in Rom. 9:6 that is comprised of “the children of God,” and which Paul referred to in Gal. 6:16 as “the Israel of God”) is a subcategory of “Israel according to the flesh.” When, in Rom. 9:8, Paul distinguished between “the children of the flesh” and “the children of the promise,” the distinction is not between ethnic Israelites and Gentiles, but rather between (1) descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are fleshly descendents only and (2) descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are also chosen and called by God.

Similarly, when Paul referred to “the Jew” in Rom. 2:28, he was referring to a descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob whose circumcision is not just of the flesh but - more importantly - of the heart. In the larger context of Romans 2:28-29, Paul had in view the different categories of people who will be present during “the day of indignation and revelation of the just judgment of God,” when God “will be paying each one in accord with this acts” (Rom. 2:5-6). That Paul did not have in view those in the body of Christ here is evident from the fact that the justification and eonian life of those he had in view is based on “endurance in good acts,” being a “worker of good” and being “doers of the law” (vv. 7-10, 13). The justification and eonian life of those in the body of Christ, on the other hand, is most assuredly not based on “endurance in good acts,” on being “workers of good” or on being “doers of the law.”

Now, in verses 17-29, Paul begins addressing an imaginary Jew: “Lo! You are being denominated a Jew, and are resting on the law, and are boasting in God, and know the will, and are testing what things are of consequence, being instructed out of the law. Besides, you have confidence in yourself to be a guide of the blind, a light of those in darkness, a discipliner of the imprudent, a teacher of minors, having the form of knowledge and the truth in the law.

It’s clear from the above that Paul had in mind a Jew who thinks rather highly of himself, and who thinks he’s the “ideal Jew” (as Paul understood himself to be before his conversion). However, in the next few verses, Paul points out the hypocrisy of the representative Jew he’s addressing, and goes on to explain how circumcision is of no benefit to those who aren’t “maintaining the just requirements of the law.” According to Paul, the uncircumcision of Gentiles who are discharging the law’s demands will be “reckoned for circumcision” (v. 26). And the righteous, law-keeping Gentile will be judging the Jew who “through letter and circumcision” is “a transgressor of the law” (v. 27). Judging them when? What time period did Paul have in view here? Answer: during “the day of indignation and revelation of the just judgment of God,” when God “will be paying each one in accord with this acts” (Rom. 2:5-6).

Finally, we come to the verses under consideration: “For not that which is apparent is the Jew, nor yet that which is apparent in flesh is circumcision; but that which is hidden is the Jew, and circumcision is of the heart, in spirit, not in letter, whose applause is not of men, but of God.” The “circumcision” that makes someone a true Jew (and thus a member of the “Israel of God”) is that which “is of the heart.” This is the sort of “circumcision” that enables people to be “maintaining the just requirements of the law,” and is what God had long ago said that his covenant people needed in order to be pleasing to him (Deut. 10:12-16). What Paul wrote earlier, in v. 13, should be kept in mind when reading verses 28-29: For not the listeners of the law are just with God, but the doers of law shall be justified.” The “circumcision of the heart” that Paul had in mind is that which enables both the physically circumcised (ethnic Jews) and the physically uncircumcised (Gentiles) to be “doers of law.” It is these “doers of law” who “are maintaining the just requirements of the law” who will be justified and receive eonian life on the day when God “will be paying each one in accord with this acts.” 

Objection: Based on what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 1:10-13 and 1 Cor. 3:21-23, we can conclude that Peter was in the body of Christ (and that those who deny this fact are guilty of “dividing Christ”).

In 1 Cor. 1:10-13 we read the following: “Now I am entreating you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all may be saying the same thing, and there may be no schisms among you, but you may be attuned to the same mind and to the same opinion. For it was made evident to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe, that there are strifes among you. Now I am saying this, that each of you is saying, ‘I, indeed, am of Paul,’ yet ‘I of Apollos,’ yet ‘I of Cephas,’ yet ‘I of Christ.’ Christ is parted! Not Paul was crucified for your sakes! Or into the name of Paul are you baptized?”

Some see this passage as evidence for their position that Peter was a member of the body of Christ, and that those who deny Peter’s membership in the body of Christ are guilty of “parting” (or “dividing”) Christ. In contrast with this view, I believe that everything Paul wrote in these verses is perfectly consistent with the position I defended in “God’s covenant people.”

First, it must be emphasized that Paul didn’t say that either an affirmation or a denial of Peter’s membership in the body of Christ is what led to Christ’s being “parted” (or potentially “parted”). What led to Paul’s rebuke in the above passage was the existence of rival factions within the ecclesia in Corinth (one of which apparently involved a preference for, and sectarian loyalty to, the apostle Peter over against Paul and Apollos). The root of the problem to which Paul was responding was not “merely” doctrinal in nature (even if the doctrinal understanding of those involved may have played a part); rather, the root of the problem was a divisive, contrarian and dissentious attitude. The primary problem was, in other words, “of the heart” rather than of the understanding. This means that if (as I believe) those who were claiming to be “of Cephas” were mistaken for believing that Peter was just as much of an apostolic authority within the body of Christ as was Paul or Apollos, it would not have helped the situation for Paul to have attempted to correct their mistaken belief. Pointing out their error in this doctrinal area would’ve been beside the point (and, for Paul, a waste of ink and parchment space – his first letter to the Corinthians is long enough as it is!).

Moreover, it should be noted that Paul didn’t actually say that Peter (Cephas) was, in fact, a member of the body of Christ. Those who think this passage supports the view that Peter was in the body of Christ are making an inference based on what some of the saints in Corinth were saying (i.e., “I of Cephas”). The assumption is that, even if those who were saying “I of Cephas” were wrong for claiming sectarian allegiance to Peter, they weren’t mistaken for thinking that Peter was an apostolic authority within the body of Christ. But what reason do we have for believing that those saying “I of Cephas” were even justified in believing what they did concerning Peter’s apostolic status in relation to those in the body of Christ? If - as argued in “God’s covenant people” – we have good reason to believe that Peter wasn’t a member of the body of Christ, then we can dismiss the position of those who were saying “I  of Cephas” as being based on a mistaken belief.

Based on what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 3:1-9, it would seem that the main two rival factions in the ecclesia in Corinth involved Paul and Apollos.[1] That the two main factions would’ve involved Paul and Apollos shouldn’t really be surprising given the important roles that these men played in establishing this ecclesia (see 1 Cor. 3:6 and :10). However, in contrast with what we know about Paul and Apollos, we have no reason to believe that the apostle Peter had ever been to Corinth, or that he played any role whatsoever in the establishment of the ecclesia there. But if that’s the case, then how do we account for the presence of an actual “Cephas faction” in Corinth?

Given Peter’s lack of direct influence on the saints in Corinth, a “Cephas faction” can, I believe, best be accounted for as having been the result of the influence of Judaizers (who would’ve undoubtedly viewed Peter - rather than Paul or Apollos - as their highest apostolic authority). We know that there was a Judaizing presence and influence in Galatia (see Gal. 1:7; 5:7-12), and it can be inferred from parts of Paul’s first and second letter to the Corinthians that there was one in Corinth as well. In 1 Cor. 9:1-7, Paul was compelled to write in defense of his apostleship, and part of his defense involved the claim that he had the same apostolic rights as “the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (v. 5). The fact that Paul would single out Cephas here suggests that those against whom Paul was defending his apostleship were partial to Cephas (which would further suggest that those calling into question his apostleship were, in fact, Judaizers).[2]

This seems further evident from Paul’s defense of the validity of his apostleship in 2 Corinthians (which, among other things, was being challenged on the basis that he had no “commendatory letters” - likely from Jerusalem - as others did, and that he was not a qualified or powerful speaker).[3] Consider especially Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 11:22-28, where there can be little doubt that those who had been leveling charges against the validity of his apostleship (and to whom he had been responding) were, in fact, Judaizers. But irrespective of why a member of the ecclesia in Corinth may have been saying, “I of Cephas,” what needs to be emphasized for the purpose of this response is that the mention of Cephas in 1 Cor. 1:12 is no proof whatsoever that Paul himself believed that Peter was an apostolic member of the body of Christ.

But what about 1 Cor. 3:21-23? In these verses we read, “So that, let no one be boasting in men, for all is yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or the present, or that which is impending – all is yours, yet you are Christ’s, yet Christ is God’s.” Everything Paul wrote in these verses is perfectly consistent with the view that the apostle Peter belonged to a company of believers distinct from the body of Christ. We can learn and benefit from what Peter wrote in his two letters just as we can learn and benefit from what John wrote in Revelation, or from what Moses wrote in the Pentateuch, or from what the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel wrote in their respective works. But that doesn’t mean that what Peter wrote (or any other inspired author) is just as relevant and applicable to the saints in the body of Christ as what Paul wrote in his thirteen letters.

It may be objected that Paul specified Peter (Cephas) as being ours right after referring to himself and Apollos. However, Paul went on to include “the world,” “life,” “death,” “the present,” and “that which is impending” as part of the same “all” that is ours. Clearly it wasn’t Paul’s intent in this passage to convey the idea that each of these people or things is “ours” in the same exact sense. And given that this is obviously the case, this passage is useless as a “proof-text” for the position that Peter is an apostle of the body of Christ, or that his letters are just as equally to and for those in the body of Christ as Paul’s thirteen letters.

Objection: Based on what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 11:23-26, we should understand those in the body of Christ as being beneficiaries of the new covenant.

As demonstrated in “God’s covenant people,” the eonian allotment of those in the body of Christ is as distinct from that belonging to the beneficiaries of the new covenant as heaven is distinct from earth. But if those in the body of Christ are not going to be beneficiaries of the new covenant, what, then, are we to make of Paul’s reference to the words Christ spoke on the night that he was betrayed? Paul wrote that he’d accepted certain facts “from the Lord” (i.e., from Christ in his glorified, post-ascended state) which pertained to what took place on this night (1 Cor. 11:23).[4] Now, based on what Christ himself declared on this night (and which Paul quotes him as saying), all that the twelve disciples would’ve understood - or would’ve eventually come to understand - concerning Jesus’ death was that it was by means of this that the new covenant between God and Israel was ratified, or confirmed. This was the extent of the meaning that Jesus’ words and actions on that night would’ve had for them. But by the time Paul began heralding his evangel among the nations, he knew something about Christ’s death that the twelve apostles didn’t understand at that time, and which gave the observance of the Lord’s dinner by the body of Christ a whole new meaning and significance. 

Concerning the Lord’s dinner, Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing which we are blessing, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we are breaking, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, who are many, are one bread, one body, for we are all partaking of the one bread.

The “one body” to which Paul was referring here is, of course, a reference to that company of saints that Paul elsewhere called “the body of Christ” and “the ecclesia which is [Christ’s] body.” Paul went on to refer to the means by which those to whom he wrote had become members of this “one body” of Christ as a spiritual baptism:

“For in one spirit also we all are baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and all are made to imbibe one spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

In Romans 6:3-10, Paul further described the status of those spiritually baptized into the body of Christ as follows:

Or are you ignorant that whoever are baptized into Christ Jesus, are baptized into His death? We, then, were entombed together with Him through baptism into death, that, even as Christ was roused from among the dead through the glory of the Father, thus we also should be walking in newness of life. For if we have become planted together in the likeness of His death, nevertheless we shall be of the resurrection also, knowing this, that our old humanity was crucified together with Him, that the body of Sin may be nullified, for us by no means to be still slaving for Sin, for one who dies has been justified from Sin. Now if we died together with Christ, we believe that we shall be living together with Him also, having perceived that Christ, being roused from among the dead, is no longer dying. Death is lording it over Him no longer, for in that He died, He died to Sin once for all time, yet in that He is living, He is living to God.

Here we find that, by virtue of our spiritual union with Christ, Christ’s justified status before God (as manifested in his resurrection and present deathless state) is, and will be, ours as well, and everyone in the body of Christ is thus certain to “be living together with [Christ] also.”

Whether circumcised or uncircumcised, every member of the body of Christ has been reconciled “in one body to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:13-18). We are “now justified in [Christ’s] blood,” “conciliated to God through the death of His Son,” and “shall be saved from indignation, through Him” (Rom. 5:6-11). Because of our spiritual union with the One who “gave himself for our sins,” we who are members of Christ’s body will be extricated “out of this present wicked eon” and thus rescued by Christ “out of the coming indignation” so that “we should be living at the same time together with Him” (Gal. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9-10).

From everything said above, it is evident that the death of Christ has a far greater significance for those in the body of Christ than was made known by Christ during his earthly ministry, and as heralded by the twelve apostles after the events of Pentecost. When, by taking part in the Lord’s Dinner, we are “announcing the Lord’s death until his coming,” it is not merely Christ’s death as the fulfillment of prophecy or as the ratification of the new covenant that we’re announcing. Rather, it is Christ’s death as the basis on which we who’ve been called through Paul’s gospel have been justified and reconciled to God “in one body,” and have been given an expectation that is completely distinct from Israel’s covenant-based expectation (i.e., eonian life “in the heavens” and “among the celestials”). And the “coming” of the Lord that Paul had in mind is not Christ’s return to the earth to establish his kingdom (i.e., when he descends upon the Mount of Olives), but rather his manifestation to the body of Christ in the air, at the time of the “snatching away” (as referred to in 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Phil. 3:21 and Col. 3:4).  

But what is the Lord’s dinner, as referred to by Paul? It was (and is), I believe, simply this: a shared meal between members of the body of Christ when we come together “in the same place” to fellowship with one another. Whenever this occurs - and there is an endeavor to “keep the unity of the spirit” (Eph. 4:2-4) - our eating and drinking together is the Lord’s dinner (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17). Through the sharing of a meal in a way that displays this unity, those who’ve been justified in Christ’s blood and reconciled “in one body to God through the cross” are “announcing the Lord’s death until He should be coming” (1 Cor. 11:26). However, to the extent that disunity characterizes the gathering together of the saints in the body of Christ - and the ecclesia of God is “despised” through selfish, unloving behavior (vv. 21-22) - the Lord’s dinner is not being eaten.[5]

[1] Some commentators have suggested that those who were creating divisions among the saints in Corinth had ranged themselves under these two names only, and that Paul’s inclusion of “Cephas” and “Christ” was only a rhetorical device. According to this view, Paul’s inclusion of Cephas and Christ as individuals around whom some were forming factions would’ve served to vary Paul’s illustration and drive home his point more forcefully by making the absurdity of the sort of “strife” that was present among the saints even more apparent. Although I don’t hold to this view, I do see it as a possibility.

[2] Concerning 1 Cor. 9:3, the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges notes as follows: “The Judaizers of whom we hear in the Epistle to the Galatians and in Acts 15, are now heard of here also, and this Epistle seems to have stirred them up to a still stronger antagonism, for St Paul is obliged to travel over the same ground in his second Epistle, and with much greater fullness. St Paul, therefore, though he ‘transferred in a figure to himself and Apollos’ what he had said with reference to the Corinthian teachers, had nevertheless in view also some who disparaged his authority. It is worthy of note that the terms answer and examine in the original are the usual legal expressions (Olshausen), as though the Apostle conceived himself to be on his trial.”

[3] See 2 Corinthians 3:1-3 and 10:10-12 (cf. 10:1-3 and 11:5-6).

[4] Although some have claimed that the Lord’s dinner was the Passover feast, there are several considerations that show this position to be mistaken. We know, for example, that there were uncircumcised Gentiles in the Corinthian ecclesia, and that some of the Gentile saints (perhaps most) were even former idol-worshiping pagans (as has been argued in a previous section). However, we know from Exodus 12:43-48 that uncircumcised Gentiles were not allowed to participate in Israel’s Passover feast. In addition to this, it is implied that the meal which Paul had in view was not an annual event (as was Israel’s Passover feast); it was, rather, something that occurred (or, at least, was suppose to occur) whenever they came together to eat (1 Cor. 11:33-34). Not only does the Lord’s dinner not refer to the Passover, but the meal of which Christ and his twelve disciples partook on the last night of his arrest was not the Passover, either. The so-called “last supper” occurred on the night before the Passover (John 13:1, 29; 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42). Although certain preparations were made for the Passover feast by Christ's disciples, Christ knew his intense yearning to celebrate it with his disciples before his suffering would not be fulfilled (Luke 22:15), and that he would not be eating of the Passover meal with his disciples until after the coming of the kingdom of God (v. 16).

[5] But what about the judgments that fell upon those who were eating and drinking “unworthily?” At this time in Paul’s ministry, the “signs and wonders” that Paul mentions in Rom. 15:18-19 (as being part of his apostolic ministry “for the obedience of the nations”) were still being manifested. This was never meant to have a permanent place in the secret administration that began with Paul’s calling; rather, these signs and wonders simply served to authenticate his apostleship and apostolic authority. Such signs and wonders (including miraculous healings, the infliction of judgments and the power to speak in foreign languages) do not indicate a different administration, for they were never meant to be a permanent part of the administration which began with Paul’s calling. 

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