The Apostle Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel

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If you’ve been following the lectionary text with care, you are aware that considerable time has been spent over the past couple of weeks thinking about the kings of Israel, the shepherds of Israel and the Davidic line. Would there be a king to follow in David’s lineage who would finally deliver Israel? Reading the text this morning the story of David and Bathsheba can have you wondering how it was that David was seen to be such an ideal king. But over time he was imagined to be that figure. In that tradition we find hopeful signs again and again in Israel’s history that such a king will arrive. You see from the text that was just read from John Chapter 6 that that hope was expressed at the feeding of the 5000. When they come to want, and want to make Jesus King. You can imagine that that hope, that aim, is very much following along with the tradition of David being the ideal king.

In this series of lessons on apocalyptic literature or the Apocalypse Den as the series is called, I’m interested in featuring the apostles Paul’s apocalyptic outlook and trying to give insight into how Paul understands David as a king within his apocalyptic frame. You may have noticed that Romans 1:1-7 was read a bit ago outside of the lectionary text for this week. I had this text in the reading because this text is the only place in the undisputed letters of Paul where Paul mentions Jesus as a son of David and emphasizes that he was in David’s lineage, according to the flesh. I want to flag two other items in the introduction to this sermon, that come from this opening text and then I want to see where this leads us in the study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He says that this is the good news concerning Gods son, “Who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” I want to flag, that this is the good news for Paul and it has to do with a kind of power Jesus had due to the resurrection.

Very often when we focus on the death of Christ we focus on the cross itself and not on the larger event of his death and resurrection. Paul places considerable weight on the resurrection and there is a good reason for that. It is hard to be able to place Jesus in a Davidic line if he simply goes to Jerusalem and dies at the hands of the Romans, it hard to imagine how that fulfills the hope of Israel; to have a short ministry and to be killed on a cross. Paul’s experience of Jesus was not as a disciple who followed in his footsteps but is one who had a vision of the risen Christ. And that vision of the risen Christ brought Paul face to face with Jesus as one whom God had raised. That allowed Paul to transfer his Davidic hopes on Jesus, from a Jesus who conquers the Romans in Israel to a Jesus who is involved in a much larger cosmic drama, in an apocalyptic frame. Another way of putting this is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are not the last act. They’re not the last act, they are part of a drama that fits in a larger apocalyptic frame.  Now I’m going to stray briefly out of the letter to the Romans to read a text from First Corinthians that lays out this larger frame real quickly and then I’ll be back in Romans to illustrate it. This text I’m about to read comes from First Corinthians 15:20 and following, “But now has Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

Again, often when we think of the gospel or the good news, we think of Jesus dying for the sins of the people, as an atoning sacrifice. I’m suggesting to you that Paul has a much larger drama in mind, where Christ resurrection is a resurrection with power, which is the beginning of a conquest to overcome Adams’s fall. The only other place where this Adam and Christ contrast is taken up by Paul is in the letter to the Romans. In Chapter 5 of the letter to the Romans Paul uses this Adam-Christ contrast as a means of thinking about how the death and resurrection of Christ means that the dominion of Christ has broken into the realm of Adam so that sin is able to be challenged as well as death. And as you will recall from the First Corinthians text the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Understanding this larger frame allows us to recognize why the righteousness of God, in Romans, is such a big issue for Paul. For Paul, God has great responsibility for this creation; great responsibility. And the fulfillment of this larger drama that I’ve just described is a fulfillment whose weight rests, for Paul, on God. And whether or not that is fulfilled is a judgment on God’s own righteousness. This is the theme that is strongly emphasized to the letter to the Romans but one that many modern readers have missed because we have associated the righteousness of God so closely with atonement out of the Protestant tradition and the Reformation.

Highlighting a couple of important texts out of Romans, let me draw your attention to Romans 1: 16 and 17, two verses that have been thought to be the theme of the letter to the Romans since Martin Luther’s time. Paul writes, “ For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is righteous shall live by faith.” You see the phrase here “in the good news, or in the gospel, the righteousness of god is reviled.” This is a text in which there is considerable amount of debate about translation. The word faith, in Greek pistis, is used here a few times. It is becoming much more common among scholars of the Apostle Paul’s letters to translate this as faithfulness rather than faith. So that that verse reads, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faithfulness, Christ faithfulness, for faithfulness, human faithfulness; “As it is written the one who is righteousness will live by faithfulness” This sense that Gods righteousness is being fulfilled in the coming of Christ with the result that humans are faithful, places more weight on human responsibility than was typical out of reformation theology.

Listen to that text in relation to this next one, Romans 3: 21-26” But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” And now again this emphasis on the righteousness of God is based on this larger drama where God is to be righteous in fulfilling the redemption of the larger creation. You can see that larger picture in Romans, especially in Romans 8:18 and following. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” for Paul while we are still caught between Adam and Christ, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The striking thing about this text in a document, the letter to the Romans where Paul is laying out this larger drama, salvation for him is not simply the atonement of the sin of individuals it is god reclaiming creation from the dominion of sin dominion of death. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, which is why redemption of our bodies is featured here in the way it is. This looks backs to the Adam story in Genesis of the fall where you see here, where it says “The creation itself was subjected to futility”. Are you thinking of a text in Genesis 3, “Cursed be the ground because of you.” So that not only are human beings sinful but the creation itself was subjected to futility as it groans and labor pains looking to share in the redemption of human beings, For Paul the creation itself became a less hospitable place for the good, and a more hospitable place for evil.

Hence for the resurrection of Christ, Christ leads a campaign according to First Corinthians 15:20 and following in which he puts all the enemies under his feet and the last enemy to be destroyed is death. And in Paul’s apocalyptic outlook, death is not the cessation of someone breathing, it is a cosmic power. In the same way that sin for Paul in the letter to the Romans is not this individual misdeed of a person, but is a cosmic power that exercises dominion and leads ultimately to death.

So where is the good news in this? Well, you saw the last text I read ended with this note that we have hope.  Because the redemption of our own bodies is tied up with the redemption of the creation and God’s own righteousness is at stake in fulfilling it. For Paul there is reason for great hope in that. That comes out most clearly in the next paragraph of Romans 8 “We know that all things worked together for god for those who love God who are called according to its purpose.” I don’t think that all things work together for good every minute of every day, but that this future projection that God has staked God’s own righteousness on, is something that we are a part of and can depend on. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son In order that he might be the first born within a large family and those whom he predestined he also called and those whom he call he also justified and those whom he justified he also glorified. “

If I might break in and argue with Paul, “But Paul it has been a long time. It was a long time for Israel, this period of time where all the shepherds failed Israel. Recounted in first and second Kings with such brutal frankness has simply been time continuing. Paul, how do you keep confidence?” He writes, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He is going to give a little list of possible terrestrial things that might separate us, “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Now he is going to start listing some cosmic threats, tapping that apocalyptic tradition again, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” This is the good news according to Paul, Paul’s Davidic message, Paul’s son of David, is the one who makes this happen. Thanks be to God.


~Dr. James Christopher Walters

Associate Professor of New Testament,

Boston University


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