corinth

For the last post in this series, see here.

After all-too-brief forays into the Gospels and Galatians, I turn now to Paul’s two extant, canonical letters to the Corinthians to see what perspective they betray on the theological relationship between Israel and the Church.  My approach in this series is, I freely admit, quite open to the charge of being less than judicially fair in my choice of which passages to explore, so please suggest alternatives in the comments below if you find yourself disagreeing with my interpretations or possessed of the hunch that I am not faithfully capturing the whole story.  For now, I proceed to glance at a few passages in both 1 & 2 Corinthians and content myself with an observation (or two) about each text.

1.) I Corinthians 1:18-31: The message of the cross draws an absolute dividing line down the middle of the human race, but not along the lines of Jews and Gentiles–as might be predicted from a reading of the Old Testament.  Rather, the two classes into which the world is now broken up are “those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing”.  No one falls outside either group.  Jews and Gentiles are found equally in the former category, and Jews and Gentiles are distributed (by mercy alone) into the latter group as well.  Grace, not race, is what marks out God’s people and defines His election in Christ.  Henceforth, no flesh (Jew or Gentile!) has the right to boast in the presence of God.

2.) I Corinthians 5:1-13: Paul reacts fiercely to the heinous sin of an individual within the Corinthian community (a man seems to be involved in an adulterous affair with his own mother-in-law, and there is no repentance from either the unnamed individual nor the community at large as they reflect on the incident) by appealing to Old Testament “holiness codes” for Israel.  Like Israel, these believers are to be sexually pure and intentionally distance themselves from the corrupt ways manifested in the outside Gentile world.  While leaving judgment for the pagans to God alone, they are to judge those within the community who indulge in blatant, unblushing sin (again, like Israel).  After all, Christ their Passover lamb has been sacrificed on their behalf!  Finally, Paul concludes his rebuke with the command to “purge the evil person from among you,” alluding to the frequent refrain given to Israel when individuals within the community threatened the nation’s holiness before the Lord (see Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7, 12, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 22, 24, 24:7, Judges 20:13).  Frank Thielman, in this book, argues that the common NT appeals to Israel’s “holiness codes” are weighty evidence that the Church of Jesus intentionally self-identified as the newly restored Israel of God.

3.) I Corinthians 8:1-6: As Paul deals out instructions to the strong (those who can eat meat sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience, as they are well aware that no other “gods” exist in the universe in a metaphysical sense) and the weak (those who cannot), he “redefines” the Shema in 8:5-6 in light of the coming of Jesus.  The Shema (coming from the Hebrew verb “to hear” or “to obey”) refers to Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and was prayed multiple times daily by faithful Jews in the Greco-Roman world.  It was central to Jewish identity as God’s own chosen people.  Jesus himself alluded to it often in his ministry.  Arguably, the focus of the Shema is less on “ontological” monotheism than it is on “ethical” monotheism.  By this I mean that the utterance “God is one” alludes less to the conceptual non-entity of other divine beings in the cosmos (perhaps the interpretation of the strong in Corinth?) than it does to the exclusive claims of God upon Israel for their affection and loyalty–He alone they are to love and trust and follow, not the other gods of the surrounding nations.  Mark 12:32 seems to endorse this understanding by placing in apposition to “He is one” the qualifying phrase “and there is no other besides Him”, all with respect to the call to love.

N. T. Wright points out that in the contrast between 8:5 (there may well be other “gods” vying for the attention of those who are not Christians) and 8:6 (but for us there is only him!), Paul includes Jesus in the “new” Shema of 8:6This means, at the very least, that to confess who God is or what it means to be loyal to Him, Jesus must be front and center for any acceptable Christian response.  When Christians talk about God, they talk about Jesus.  When Christians talk about being faithful to God, they similarily talk about Jesus.  Of course, to identify those who know the one true God and are loyal to Him–that is, those who actually live out the confession of the Shema–is to identify the true Israel.  Wright puts it this way:

“In the middle of his argument v. 6 functions as a Christian redefinition of the Jewish confession of faith, the Shema…God and the people of God are both redefined through Jesus the Messiah.” (N. T. Wright, “Monotheism, Christology and Ethics: I Corinthians 8,” in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology).

And if the final revelation of the one true God includes a God who lays aside His own rights to put the welfare of His people ahead of His own (Philippians 2:5-11), then it follows that to be faithful to the one true God means imitating Jesus in humility and sacrificing our rights to place the interests of others ahead of our own (11:1 is the rightful conclusion to the entire flow of thought of I Corinthians 8-10).

4.) I Corinthians 10:1-22: This passage begins in v. 1 with gar (“for”), which means that it grounds or explains Paul’s musings in 9:24-27–where he defends the extraordinary effort with which he strives in his ministry, lest he be disqualified at the end of the race the Lord has assigned to him.  To support this mindset, Paul appeals to the history of Israel in the rest of this passage, pointing out that the Israel of old enjoyed the same exact spiritual privileges as the Corinthians (i.e. spiritual food & drink and baptism, corresponding to the two sacraments; see 10:1-5), and that nonetheless they were still judged by God in the end because of their flagrant disobedience and callousness.  So, too, will the Corinthians not be spared from divine judgment simply by virtue of partaking of the Lord’s Supper and being baptized in water, if they do not obey by faith as they live each day coram Deo.  Continuity with Israel is assumed here for the sake of the overall argument being made.  Further, note that in 10:1 Paul refers to “our fathers” (a clear reference to the Jewish people in the OT).  It is absolutely stunning that Paul could include Gentiles in this crucial identifying phrase, yet it is appropriate because they are the spiritual descendants of Israel.  Thus, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are our fathers as Christians, though genetically we Gentiles share nothing in common with them.  Lastly, in 10:18 Paul exhorts them to “consider Israel kata sarka“–that is, “Israel according to the flesh”, ethnic Israel in the OT.  Most English translations unfortunately opt to exclude the phrase “according to the flesh”–thus begging the question of why Paul felt the need to add this qualifier and not simply write “consider Israel”, if there is only one legitimate perspective on “Israel” that exists.  But if Paul is employing kata sarka according to his typical usage it seems fair to ask who Israel kata pneuma (“according to the Spirit”) might be.  10:1 and everything else in this passage is crystal clear on the appropriate response–the Christians in Corinth belong to that spiritual Israel, and are to conduct themselves accordingly.

5.) II Corinthians 1:20: All the promises of God find their yes in Jesus.  I take this to mean that every promise God has ever made to His people–and remember, the only promises the Corinthians would know were those written down in the Old Testament!–find their fulfillment in Jesus and those who belong to him.  Promises about a new temple, the return to the land, the final forgiveness of sins, seeing the face of God and dwelling in His presence forever, and a new creation (all promises made to ethnic Jews in the OT) are all fulfilled in Jesus.  We belong to Jesus, and thus those promises are ours.  There is no thought here of a “spiritual” attainment by the Church of promises made originally to Israel, while a “literal” fulfillment will yet come to pass (ala classic dispensationalism).  It is not a question of reading the Scriptures “literally” or “spiritually” for Paul.  It is a matter of reading them with a Christ-centered hermeneutic, self-consciously understanding them as all pointing to Jesus–or not.  Paul sees Jesus everywhere when he opens the Hebrew Scriptures.  Do we?

6.) II Corinthians 3:1-4:6:  Paul sees his own ministry in continuity with the ministry of Moses in the Old Covenant–only more glorious and more effective in bringing about the transformation of the heart of God’s people as predicted by the prophets (such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel).  This new covenant is currently enjoyed by the Christians in Corinth as God pours out His Spirit upon them.  From the perspective of the Old Testament, who was the coming new covenant intended for?  Israel (see Ezekiel 36-37 and Jeremiah 31, especially).

7.) II Corinthians 6:14-7:1:  See #2 for the relevant explanation!  It applies in the same way to this text on holiness and separation from the “Gentiles” outside the new covenant community.

Next Up: Philippians

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