A Covenant & Christmas

Since the first day of Christmas I have wanted to write a Christmas reflection, and here it is day four and nothing. I finally decided that my heart and mind are pulling in a different direction, and that I should write out of that which I am currently preoccupied. Fortunately, the pull of my heart and mind is related to the story of Christmas.

I have been reading through N.T. Wright’s book, Justification, which was written in part as a response to John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: a Response to N.T. Wright. And so, Wright’s book is a response to a response, which expresses the controversial nature of Wright’s concept of justification. Perhaps the depth of this controversy can be seen in the metaphor that Wright uses to begin his book, a metaphor that equates his understanding of justification with a kind of intellectual Copernican revolution.

Essentially, Wright is saying that the doctrine of justification does not arise out of the question “How can a sinner stand before a righteous and holy God?” but rather out of the question “How will God be faithful to his covenant with Abraham, by which all the nations of the world will be blessed.” The point for Wright is that justification is not about the existential crises of the individual, but rather about God’s actions to restore the entire cosmos and all of humanity to their original integrity and beauty.

In constructing his understanding of justification one of the key issues Wright addresses is a mischaracterization of Judaism as a religion based upon works righteousness. Wright asserts that much of the historical documents of Paul’s era make it clear that the Jews understood themselves to be God’s people on the basis of grace, a grace most particularly seen in the covenant established with their forefather Abraham. Within this covenant, the Law was commonly understood to be a means of maintaining faithful membership, as well as a means by which Israel was distinguished and separated from the rest of the gentile nations.  Thus the Law was not held to be the means by which a faithful Jew sought to make his or herself righteous before God.

Another critical issue Wright addresses is the idea of exile as it was understood during Paul’s time. According to Wright many Jews believed they were in a state of partial exile, insofar as they had returned to their homeland, but they continued to be under foreign domination. Along with this, it was commonly believed that a complete end to their exile would not happen until the Messiah came to usher in God’s Kingdom by which God’s people would be delivered from and vindicated before all the nations. It is from this idea of vindication, particularly with its eschatological connotations, that Wright develops his understanding of justification.

Paul, according to Wright, had come to see that what Israel had expected for herself at the end of the age: vindication, had happened in the person of Jesus the Messiah, and that this vindication was particularly seen in Jesus’ resurrection. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus signified the coming of the end, the coming of the Kingdom in which the restoration of creation and the justification of God’s people is now available in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. The implication of Jesus’ resurrection also necessitated for Paul the need to redraw the lines of covenant membership. Instead of this line being drawn along the ethnic markers of Judaism, it was now to be drawn along the lines of all those who confess that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. And so, justification, according to Paul, according to Wright, is about inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham, a covenant that was established prior to the giving of the Law, and a covenant that Abraham entered into by faith, and who thereby became the father of all who believe.

Please take note that my presentation of the essentials of Wright’s book does not due justice to the cogency with which he develops and supports his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Moreover, I have not touched upon the ways his book has been a blessing to me, and the ways I find myself resisting him on some points. In short, this book merits much more than I have given it in this post, and for this reason I plan on returning to it in future posts. For now, however, in light of the Christmas season, I will just say the following.

One result of reading this book is that I have never, in my life, ever felt so connected to the history of Israel. I now see myself as one who has, to use Paul’s term, been grafted into the story of God’s passionate love for his people Israel. I feel much more connected to the lives of the patriarchs and prophets, and the significance of proclaiming that Israel’s God is God indeed. Most importantly it has become very meaningful for me to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the living embodiment of God’s righteousness, the living embodiment of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with our father Abraham, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed.

In thinking about God’s covenant with Abraham as the context for understanding the significance of the birth of Mary’s baby, I am reminded of the words of an old man named Simeon. When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple, in accordance with the custom of the Law, Simeon, prompted by the Holy Spirit, took the baby into his arms and praised God by saying:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

4 Responses to “A Covenant & Christmas”

  1. Roger Green  

    Very insightful. It requires further response upon reflection.

    I am interested in the “Jewish question” in particular, because it seems that some Christians just dismiss their “Judaism” because they have the new covenant, convenient because I for one don’t feel like explaining some of the rules laid out in Leviticus. But if not them – and some of them AREN’T “crazy” – then what of the 10 Commandments, e.g.?

    Sorry, just rambling. Hope to be back.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – It seems to me that continuity and discontinuity is one of the central tensions of the Christian faith. Taking this issue and expressing it in the form of a question, I would ask, “To what degree and in what fashion is Xianity a continuation of Judaism and to what degree does it represent a break from Judaism?”

    For me, it has been instructive to know that the earliest Jewish Christians were considered to be a sect within the larger umbrella of Judaism, and that after time the Jewish authorities sought to have the believers in Jesus expelled from participation in the synagogues and temples. This act emphasized the discontinuity between Judaism and Xianity, a discontinuity that was further emphasized by Paul’s missionary work among gentile cultures, which raised questions regarding what was essential to become a follower of Jesus.

    In reading Wright’s work, however, what seemed to be lost historically, as Xianity went out into the world and developed in response to the new cultures it encountered, was the basic Jewish framework by which the full significance of Jesus life was unpacked. Certainly Paul had a strong universalizing emphasis in his theological articulations, however, as one of my theology professor’s once said, “many people stumble upon the scandal of particularity.” By this he meant that what is universal in the Xian faith is predicated on what is particular. In other words, though God is the God of all humanity, he has chosen to make himself known through his relationship with Israel, a relationship that Xians believe culminated in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Xianity is a universal religion because all are welcome into the story of God’s relationship with Israel, all are welcome to acknowledge that Israel’s God is God and that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. Moreover, according to Wright, the significance of Israel is that they were from the beginning meant to be God’s people for the world. Their very existence was about God’s plan to redeem the entire creation.

    In summing this all up, the coming of Jesus the Messiah, what can be referred to as the Christ event, can be seen as both the inauguration of a new covenant, as well as the fulfillment of one of the most ancient covenants between God and humanity, and both of these covenants, the Abrahamic and Messianic, are united in their common purpose: the redemption and blessing of all people.

  3. K.L.B.  

    “How will God be faithful to his covenant with Abraham, by which all the nations of the world will be blessed.”

    8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. – Ephesians 2

    God’s covenant is by faith. Always has been, always will be. Even with the Blessed Virgin, her response to the Almighty’s servant-messenger, the angel Gabriel, was “be it unto me according to thy word.”

    It was a acceptance based upon faith.

    And who can forget Hebrews chapter 11 – the so-called “heroes of faith” chapter?

  4. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – Amen!!