Lecture 1 in the UNSW Campus Bible Study Easter Lecture Series 2015: “Jesus Christ and the Revolution of Identity”
Identity and destiny
Who are you? Where do you belong? Where is your world heading? Where is your life heading? How do you find your security? What is your calling?
These are all questions of identity. To belong to a community, to be rooted in an ethnicity, to be a brother or sister or mother or father or child or lover or friend, to follow a career path, to be an expert in a field of study, to hold on to a religion, and many more; together these all make up the wonderful and complex thing that is our identity.
Of course, our identities are never set in concrete. Who you are now is not exactly who you were a decade ago, nor is it necessarily who you will be in ten years’ time. Our identity is shaped through experiences, relationships, persuasion, argumentation, role models, loves, sufferings, passions, disappointments, deliberate choices. Indeed, to refuse to acknowledge that our identities can change and be transformed can be to lock ourselves, or others, into a fake and even oppressive past.
In this series of three lectures, we will be exploring the identity of an individual: an individual who lived and wrote almost 2,000 years ago, but whose writings still challenge and convict countless millions today. That individual is the apostle Paul, and his writings are in the pages of the Bible, in the New Testament. Paul was a member of the ancient people of Israel, and Paul’s identity was caught up strongly with his Jewish background. Yet Paul’s letters bear witness to the fact that his identity had been revolutionised by his encounter with an even more influential individual: that is, Jesus Christ. Now when Paul encountered Jesus Christ, he did not simply abandon his ethnicity, his kinship or his religious views. However, they did not remain the same either. These aspects of Paul’s identity, and more, were all radically transformed: revolutionised. It is this revolution in identity through Jesus Christ, as seen in Paul’s letters, which is the subject of this Easter lecture series.
Of course, our goal is not merely to scrutinise an interesting figure of past times. The reason that the apostle Paul is such an influential figure is that his letters have the power to persuade and to shape and influence our own identity. They have done this countless times down through the ages. I hope that hearing about the revolution in Paul’s identity will provoke some kind response in you as well. At the end of this lecture I will be suggesting ways you could respond to what you have heard.
Today, we will be focussing on one aspect of Paul’s identity: the revolution in Paul’s destiny. Destiny is about where the world is heading and where you fit in it. Where do you believe the world is heading? What is your own personal destiny in that world? Your destiny inspires your hopes, your dreams, your visions. It provides motivation for living; it equips you to look beyond your present circumstances, to raise your sights from the present to the future.
Paul’s destiny was given a specific shape by his intimate connection with the God-given Scriptures of his people, Israel. Here are the opening words of an important letter Paul wrote to the Christian believers in Rome.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures
To understand Paul’s destiny, then, we need to come to grips with these promises God made beforehand through the prophets in the holy Scriptures—here Paul is referring to the Old Testament in the Bible, written hundreds of years before Paul’s time. The Old Testament defined the identity of Paul’s people Israel. And when we look at the Old Testament, we see promises about the destiny of the world, the destiny of the particular nation of Israel; and the destiny of all the other nations in the world.
The destiny of the world
What did the Scriptures of Israel say about the destiny of the world? In short, they promised that the world will not go on forever the way it is now, with its suffering, its injustice, its pain, and death. The Scriptures promised that there will be a time, a day, when God will bring justice, right judgment, and peace in the world.
What did this mean for individuals? One very important aspect of the prophetic expecation involved the “resurrection of the dead”. The prophets declared that death is not the end for us—our lives matter now, and our lives will matter into the future, even after death. The prophets looked forward to a time when individuals would be raised from death to live for God:
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.
Daniel 12:1-3 says:
But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
This isn’t some vague hope of a ghostly floating existence beyond the grave, or life in the clouds playing endless harps. This is an eager expectation that God will actually give new, real, life, raising our bodies up to live with him forever in the new and perfected world he will bring. Our lives will not simply end in nothing. And that means our lives matter.
The chorus of Avicii’s 2015 hit song “The nights” begins this way: “One day you’ll leave this world behind. So live a life you will remember.” The song is tapping in to something we want to believe, isn’t it: life matters! Now I don’t know what was going through Avicii’s mind when he wrote those lyrics. “One day you’ll leave this world behind. So live a life you will remember.” But if you think about it for a moment: how will you be able to remember your life? You’re only going to remember this life if you live beyond this life. If death is the end, if death is merely a descent into nothingness, then you won’t remember anything!
The Bible claims that our bodies will be raised from the dead, into a new world which God will one day bring about. This resurrection of the dead means that our life matters. It matters now, and it matters forever.
The destiny of the King
But the promises of Israel’s Scriptures are actually more specific than that. Not only will God bring justice and true judgment and make the world right, there’s more. The prophetic promise was that there would be a particular person at the centre of all God’s actions: a leader; a great leader. This person would be the king of Israel, a descendant of Israel’s king David. At times, God even calls this king his “Son”. This king is called the Son of God because the king would rule God’s people and renew God’s world and achieve God’s purposes for justice and right judgment.
Let’s look again at the prophet Isaiah, to see what the Scriptures of Israel promised. You might know some of these words from Handel’s famous oratorio, Messiah.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
Or Isaiah 11:2-4
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
This is a promise of a Messiah; that is, a king of Israel, a descendent of David, a Son of God. And according to the prophets, this Messiah would be at the centre of God’s plans to make the world right. He wouldn’t make the world right by sheer power or force, nor by brutality and oppression, nor by Machiavellian manipulation. Rather, he would make the world right by justice and right judgments, and by speaking right words—through the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips.
This is the kind of ruler we all need, isn’t it? There is something deeply ingrained in us that makes us long for a leader to take charge and rescue us from the mess we’re in. Yet too often our great hopes turn out to be a profound disappointment, don’t they? Whether it’s a Prime Minister who redefines his promises, a fine-sounding president who cannot live up to his rhetoric, a school principal who fail to keep abuse in check, a bishop or priest who turns out to be in it for himself and not for his flock, a spouse or parent who runs away from responsibility or commits abuse aginst the ones they are supposed to love; so often our hopes keep being dashed. Yet the prophets looked forward to this king who would not disappoint, ever. A Messiah who would set the world to rights.
These prophetic expectations were were alive and well in Paul’s time. Many of Paul’s fellow Israelites were looking for a hero, a leader, a wise and just Messiah. Here is a Jewish writing in Greek from the mid-1st century BC called the Psalms of Solomon, which picks up these ideas from Isaiah and runs with.
Psalms of Solomon 17 (mid 1st century BC):
4 It was you, O Lord, who chose David as king over Israel, and you promised him that his descendants would continue forever …
21 Look, O Lord, and raise up for them their king … a son of David … to rule over your servant Israel …
32 and their king will be the Lord Messiah [Greek = Christos] …
37 And he will not weaken during his reign, relying upon his God, because God will make him powerful by a holy spirit
Paul was an Israelite. And Paul would have identified deeply with these prophetic themes. He would have known about the Messiah, descended from David, who would come to set the world to rights. So when Paul writes his letter to the Romans, we can see him echoing these expectations. Paul says to the Romans that he has been set apart for a gospel that is all about this long-awaited Messiah:
[The gospel of God] … concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
Paul’s own destiny, his hopes and dreams and visions, are caught up with this Messiah. And he identifies the Messiah. It is Jesus Christ. The word “Christ” is a Greek word that means “Messiah”. And here Paul applies this title, “Christ”, “Messiah” to a particular man. A human being. Jesus Christ. Jesus, Messiah.
And do you see here what Paul is saying about this Jesus Christ? Look closely! This Christ, this Messiah, was once dead, but has now been resurrected from the dead!
This is something revolutionary. Paul’s claim, which is the claim of the early Christians and of Christians down through the ages, is that Jesus is God’s Messiah who was dead, but has been made alive. He’s been seen by witnesses, and he’s alive. And that means that the destiny of the world is caught up with the destiny of this man.
Often the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is misunderstood. The resurrection is not supposed to be a party trick. It’s not a simple medical resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus is not a zombie or just some guy who had a near-death experience. No, the point that Paul had grasped is this: Jesus is the person in whom the destiny of the world is fulfilled. The prophets were pointing forward to that time when a Messiah would come, and set the world to rights with a true and right and just judgment. The prophets were pointing forward to that time when bodies would be raised from the dead to live without any more death or pain, or injustice, in that new world.
And this is the thing: Jesus is that Messiah, that Christ. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. And that means, says Paul, if you want to understand and grasp the future of our world, and your own individual future, you need to look to Jesus Christ.
When Paul grasped this, it revolutionised his understanding of the world’s destiny, and it revolutionised his own destiny. Why was it so revolutionary? Because, frankly, Jesus is not your typical Messiah, is he? He’s a humble Jewish guy who died a seemingly ignominious death at the hands of some Roman soliders. But when you look at it in the light of his resurrection, Jesus’ death is not just an accident. Jesus’ death was intended by God. And as Pual goes on to show in his letter to the Romans, Jesus’ death was intended deal with the corruption and injustice in our world—including and especially the corruption and injustice in the lives of individuals like you and me. Jesus’ death and resurrection shows that he is God’s king, the one who has dealt with the injustice in our world and in our own lives, and who will one day bring that great task to completion when the world is finally set to rights, and our own bodies will be raised from the dead.
Paul was an Israelite. He continued to be an Israelite. But when Paul came to know Jesus as the Messiah, raised from the dead, it revolutionised his understanding of Israel’s destiny, and of the destiny of all the nations in the world.
The destiny of Israel
How does Jesus Christ revolutionise Israel’s destiny?
According to the prophets, Israel had a special place in God’s promises. When God and his Messiah would bring about that promised new world and judge the world justly, Israel would have a unique and privileged role in the plan. One concept that the prophets used to describe this special role is “priesthood”. Israel, according to the Old Testament, was meant to be a nation of God’s priests to the world. In Isaiah chapters 60-61, for example, there is a vision of the nation of Israel, living in a holy temple in their capital Jerusalem, enjoying great honour and praise and privilege among the nations of the world becauses they are God’s priests to the world, distributing God’s blessings to the world:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the LORD;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
Israel will be priests, which means they will bring God’s blessings to the world. They will be given the light of God’s word, they will be rescued from all their troubles and their sins. And that light in Israel will shine out to the world. Israel will enjoy great privileges and great honour. All the nations round about will want what Israel’s got; they will stream in to Jerusalem, they will bring their money to Israel, to Jerusalem, as offerings for the temple, and to build up that priesthood.
At first glance, this might seem to be a highly political vision, mightn’t it? Many of Paul’s contemporaries did indeed read this as a political religious vision. That first century BC Jewish writing I referred to earlier, the Psalms of Solomon, certainly had politics in mind when it spoke about the Messiah as a political ruler who would fight off Israel’s enemies, who would make Jerusalem clean and holy and a temple for the nations to bring their offerings and gifts. For many Israelites, this was their vision, their hope, the dream, their destiny. To be great in the world. To be famous. To be the channel of God’s security and blessing to the world. And so to have everyone in the world love them, to respond to them in gratefulness and awe, to give them wealth and prestige and power.
Can you relate to that vision of destiny? Do you want to be famous? Do you feel you are destined for great things? Do you long for the approval and applause of the world?
Many Israelites certainly did. And Paul was an Israelite. He would have known of Israel’s destiny, of the fame and privilege his fellow Israelites expected to enjoy as they became a light to the nations, God’s priests to the world.
And in fact, as we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see that Paul did see himself as part of Israel’s priesthood. In the opening verse of Romans, Paul briefly mentions this priestly idea using the word “set apart”.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
That term “set apart” is all about special priestly-style consecration. It means that Paul has a special divine role. That role relates closely to a message, “the gospel of God”.
Paul doesn’t spell out this priestly role any further here. But later, in the closing section of his letter to the Romans, he does spell it out.
In Romans 15:16, Paul speaks about:
the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the nations in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the nations may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
There’s a lot in this short sentence. Paul is picking up the prophetic vision of Israel as priests to the world and claiming that he has such a priestly role.
But again, did you notice: Paul’s destiny as an Israelite in the world has been revolutionised by Jesus Christ. For Paul, the priestly destiny was not about power, wealth, or fame. Paul’s priestly service does not involve staying put in a glorious temple and receiving the approval and wealth of the nations. Rather, Paul’s priestly service involves speaking, announcing, making known the gospel of God. This is what brings God’s blessing to the world.
What is the gospel of God? It’s the message we saw at the start of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The message about this man Jesus. The gospel is the message that this man Jesus is in fact, God’s king, God’s Messiah. The message that this man was born, and lived, and died, but has been made alive. The gospel is message that the destiny of the world is caught up with the destiny of this man. It’s the message that Jesus’ death was not an accident, but rather that his death was the way that God dealt with the corruption of the world. Through Jesus’ death, God dealt with corruption—including the corruption in our own hearts, by having Jesus take it upon himself and die to destroy its penalty and power. Through Jesus Christ, the world will be set to rights and our bodies raised from the dead.
This is the gospel message. And For Paul, speaking this message was his priestly role in the world. It was not a role that brought him prestige, power, honour, glory, fame or gratification. In fact, it was the opposite. That is because Paul’s life reflected his message; he spoke about Jesus Christ, and his life was like that of Jesus Christ. He was, like Jesus Christ, a suffering servant of God. Paul was driven by a deep love for those he encountered. Paul was in fact often rejected, labouring, at times driven close to despair, yet looking forward to that future joy and glory that will come in the final resurrection of the dead; a resurrection that has been secured the resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus Christ suffered and died to take on himself the corruption of the world and the corruption in our hearts. This is how he fulfilled his role as King, Messiah, Son of God. Not through might or military conquest, but through suffering and death. And so Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And Paul’s priestly role was to bring the light of Jesus Christ to the nations—speaking God’s words through loving service and suffering and even rejection.
Paul’s view of the destiny of the world, and Paul’s own destiny as an Israelite, had been revolutionised by his encounter with Jesus Christ.
The destiny of the nations
But even more, Paul saw that Jesus Christ has revolutionised the destiny of the nations themselves.
According to the Bible, the problem with our world goes far deeper than corporate injustice or corruption. The problem is that each one of us has rejected God himself. The problem is not just mistakes or lack of knowledge. It is deep disobedience. We have decided to live lives for ourselves rather than for God. And it because we have rejected God that we have corruption, injustice, pain and even death in our world.
But Israel’s Scriptures, the Old Testament of the Bible, looked forward to a time when the nations of the world would stop their disobedience against God. Not just Israel, but people from many other nations too, would give up rebelling against God, and instead live for God and obey him. This expectation was alive and well in Paul’s day amongst his fellow Israelites. There are many Jewish texts from around about this time that look forward to the time when large numbers of people from the nations around about would recognize the glory of the Lord, submit to God, submit to a Messiah, honour Israel, bring gifts to the temple, worship God, recognize and study God’s Law, and benefit in some way from God or his Messiah.
The “obedience of the nations”; that’s what the prophets expected. The nations would come to be obedient to God and Israel; the nations would all come under submission to the will of God.
Here are some examples from Old Testament scriptural writings that envisage the obedience of the nations in the future world that God will make.
And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey him.
Here is King David’s description of his reign, which was seen as a pattern for future Messiah; Psalm 18:43-44:
You delivered me from strife with the people;
you made me the head of the nations;
people whom I had not known served me.
As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me;
foreigners came cringing to me.
Here is Isaiah again speaking of the future of Israel; Isaiah 60:12 and 14:
For the nations and the kings which will not serve you shall perish, and those nations shall be utterly desolated … The sons of those who humiliated you and provoked you shall come to you in fear, and you shall be called the city of the Lord, Zion, of the Holy One of Israel.
These expectations seem quite political, don’t they? They seem to be about military conquest and political subservience.
But notice now how Paul picks up this theme of the “obedience of the nations” at the beginning and end of his letter to the Romans:
we [i.e. Paul and the apostles] have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the nations to obedience—by word and deed,
Here, Paul claims that his own ministry, proclaiming the gospel, brings about the obedience of the nations, that he is fulfilling the destiny of the nations.
But there is one word here—one very important word—that shows how Paul’s view of the destiny of the nations has been revolutionised. The obedience of the nations is not simply a matter of political subservience. It is something different, something far more interesting and profound and revolutionary. That word is “faith”. “The obedience faith”.
“Faith” is a word that is often misunderstood. Often faith is described simply as a “leap in the dark”, an act of irrationality that defies reality or evidence. This is not what the Bible means by the term “faith”. Rather, faith is about trust; having faith means trusting, relying or depending on a person, because that person has proved trustworthy, reliable or dependable. It’s actually an everyday word. You have exercised faith countless times today. If you drove here, you exercised faith in the car manufacturer; if you took the bus, you had faith in the bus driver; if you walked and crossed the road you exercised faith that the drivers of cars would stop and wouldn’t hit you; if you turned up to work or to class you had faith in your colleagues or teachers that they would turn up too and your day wouldn’t be futile. Faith—or its equivalent verb “believe”—means trusting someone.
In the Bible, “faith” is caught up with the person of Jesus Christ, who is now alive with God. Faith means trusting that Jesus Christ is indeed alive; that he is the Messiah who is risen from the dead and that he will make the world right.
“Faith” also means trusting in the message about Jesus’ death. When Paul speaks elsewhere about faith and obedience, he refers again to the prophet Isaiah.
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”
Here is more of the quotation from the prophet Isaiah.
Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
This part of Isaiah had clearly made a profound impact on Paul, and indeed on the early Christians. They saw it as a description of Jesus Christ. It describes a suffering servant of God; a man who was rejected by everyone; who suffered and was crushed and was pierced. But that suffering, that crushing, that piercing, was not an accident. It was for us. It was an act of love. We have rejected God, and we deserve death. But Jesus died instead, for us, in our place. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; … with his wounds we are healed”
Faith means trusting in this message. It means trusting that Jesus’ suffering was in fact for our sake; and it means that we can escape the judgment of God for our disobedience. It means that when God does finally make the world right through his Messiah Jesus, and brings about that right judgment, we will not be on the wrong side of that judgment, but that we will be free and whole and saved.
This, according to Paul, is the destiny of the nations. Paul’s vision is not one of military conquest. He does not see the nations coming cringing towards the political nation of Israel after being humiliated. This is not their obedience. Rather, their obedience is the “obedience of faith”; joyfully accepting and responding to what Jesus Christ has achieved in his death and resurrection, and so receiving and living a life that matters, now and forever.
Is this your destiny?
For the prophets, these promises were all in the future. The prophets were looking forward to that day when God would make everything right through his Messiah; raising people from the dead, and rightly judging those who do evil.
For Paul, however, something revolutionary had happened. Paul said that these promises are already being fulfilled. Jesus Christ has come into the world; he has died to take on himself the corruption and rebellion and judgment of human beings; he has been raised from the dead, and so the destiny of the world, and of us as individuals, is caught up in him.
And now Paul, along with others, is acting as an Israelite priest—but in a revolutionary way. He is not taking the world’s wealth, but giving the world a message. This message is a message involving faith in the suffering Messiah who died and rose from the dead. And Paul is now bringing about the “obedience of the nations”. This obedience is not political submission, not servile cringing acquiescence. It is the “obedience of faith”. It is the joyful acceptance of Jesus Christ and what he has done. Paul is calling on the nations to trust him and to live with him as king. And to know that when this world is indeed made right, their bodies will be raised from the dead.
So I ask: is this your destiny?
Or to ask it another way: Is this is a message that could revolutionise your destiny?
You see, if it is true, if Jesus Christ has indeed risen from the dead, then it should make a huge impact on your hopes, your fears, your dreams, your visions, your destiny, shouldn’t it?
It will mean trusting him, turning to him, wanting to live with him as your king. For without him, you will still face God’s judgment as a rebel, won’t you?
Or at the very least—you might want to find out more about this person Jesus Christ.
In the next two lectures we will explore other aspects of Paul’s identity, and see the way in which Jesus Christ brings a revolution of security, and a revolution of calling.
This lecture was based on material from my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans.