We can see that Deut 6:4-6 is at the centre of Jewish identity and also at the centre of Paul’s gospel. That passage was recited by Jews many times every day. Paul prayed it as a Pharisee every morning when he awoke and then throughout the day: “Here O Israel. The Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength…” All Paul’s writings are about how the one God has fulfilled this prayer through the gospel. At first, Paul thought this prayer was to be taken in the sense of a struggle against heretics. Many people today still take their faith that way. But then Paul found in astonishment that God meant we love him by serving our enemies, as God did. Our “struggle”, or contention for the faith, is to keep ourselves in the love of God as seen in Christ. (Jude 3, 21)
Paul presents the gospel in creational terms. In 2 Cor chapters 3 – 5, the light of Christ shines on our hearts. This refers to his light dispelling darkness in the first creation. So the gospel of Christ dispels self-centeredness from our hearts and replaces it with living Torah (love: Deut 30:6). This happens through the Spirit, who was present in creation. The same God of creation comes to us through the same word, giving glory (shekinah) and forming us in his image to be his sons, ruling in grace over a new creation. In 2 Co 5:17, anyone in Christ is forming new creation: lit. “If any man be in Christ: new creation”, where the theme is reconciliation, bringing all creation under Christ. (See Eph 1:10, Psalm 110:1, 1 Cor 15:25-27, Heb 2:8-9) This is Hebrew creational faith, with Spirit, word, light and image all present in the gospel message, just as they were in Genesis 1. The purpose of Paul is not to present the gospel in Greek terms, of the gospel being merely for our inner man, or our spirit only.
That was the Greek error in the Corinthian church. Rather, it is a gospel that confronts the whole of creation and transforms it, including our material world and domestic cultures. But this subjection of Christ’s enemies happens through service – reconciliation – as the cross shows us.
Paul’s Hebrew creational gospel is seen throughout his letters. Take Ephesians, for example. In Eph 1:10, God’s purpose, in acting through the kingdom of Christ in our present gospel age, is to bring unity to all things in heaven and earth. He is bringing heaven and earth together, just as we see in Revelation 21-22. Another translation says he is gathering together all things in Christ. The clear purpose of this is the healing of creation, of our world. It’s a gospel about our creation, not just our individual spirits going to heaven. This calls us to a dynamic discipleship that is transformative in our lives so that we become community people. We know that Christ’s lordship calls us out of our own lives to act in the whole world, a world he is reconciling through his body. Lordship calls us to the Lord’s purpose.
The church is Christ’s body, “the fullness of him that fills all in all.” (Eph 1:23) This statement shows that God and Christ are one; that through Christ, God himself fills his whole body, and through his body as his temple in the world, God fills and renews his whole creation. This shows the purpose of the church in the world.
In Ephesians 2 we see Paul’s temple faith. God has returned to his creation through his ‘shekinah’ and is building a new temple composed of all who believe, both Jew and gentile. What does Paul mean by this? In Hebrew faith, the temple could mean only one thing: that God was once again present with his creation to transform it, to bring heaven and earth together through his own body among us. We often look at this chapter as meaning that we go to church and that is all. But, to Paul, it is much more than just about our church life together. Just as it was with Adam and with Israel, the purpose of the temple is to renew the life of the world. The temple is the place from which God acts to make all things new on earth. Such an idea went without saying in Paul’s Jewish world at the time of his writing.
In chapter three, Paul repeats the mysterious plan of God. He shows that God, the creator of all things, is now renewing his creation by uniting all people into one body of love. The purpose is to bring all people and all things under his covenantal, caring promises for transformation. Paul is declaring that Christ is now Lord and that he reigns over all nations, just as Daniel 7 said would happen. God is revealing his wisdom to the principalities and powers in high places. (Eph 3:10-11)
This applies to both rulers on earth and the spiritual powers, who both challenge Christ’s rule by dividing people. God overcomes them through his wisdom in the church: the wisdom by which Christ defeated them on the cross, overcoming our self-centred natures, to share and care for those different to ourselves. This cuts off the powers’ ability to wreak destruction by acting through our self-centredness. Paul is clearly announcing the Hebrew gospel of world renewal: the purpose of Christ’s coming.
An example of how the powers work, and how we create disharmony in our communities, is the way elections are conducted. The way to win an election is to divide public opinion, to present fears of a clear and present danger, and to offer yourself as the saviour. This whole process involves demonising and scapegoating others, which further erodes relationships, understanding, reconciliation and true hope in our societies and nations. It involves propaganda and mistruths about other people. Paul, in Ephesians, calls us to infiltrate worldly powers through Christ’s selfgiving, reconciling gospel and living. This is the Lordship of Christ in our lives and nations.
Paul continues in Ephesians 3 and 4, calling us to unity in the depths of love, not forcing uniformity. Christ descended into the grave and then ascended to heaven, “that he might fill all things”; that he might destroy the power of sin and death and unite heaven and earth together in his new healing creation. Our growth in knowledge, love and unity thwarts the powers that lie in wait to deceive and divide. (Eph 3:18-19, 4:1-6, 10, 11-16)
Disunity between denominations serves the enemy by testifying against the love and lordship of Christ in the world. When we side with nations, political groups, or with any group, against others, even against sinners, we give allegiance to these powers that seek to divide and conquer Christ’s gathering rule and healing of the world. These powers hotly contest the reconciling/transforming purpose of the church. We are to stand against them, not giving place to the devil (the opposer) in our flesh and relationships. (Eph 5-6) We aren’t to confront worldly powers with worldly strength, but we are to witness to them through the community love of the gospel, which is even shown towards our enemies, laying down our lives rather than taking life. This is how God’s wisdom is revealed and how it transforms his creation. It renews by heavenly wisdom, revealed to us in Christ.
- God is bringing all things in his creation together in Christ to heal and to fill. (1:10)
- He has broken the wall of hostility between groups of people within the world. (Eph 2)
- He is building his temple to heal the nations. (Eph 2)
- He is revealing the wisdom of the cross, as opposed to the worldly wisdom of hostility and division, to the worldly powers that divide us, through the church. (Eph 3:10)
- He is uniting his whole body in the world, with diversity. (Eph 4:1-7)
- He has ascended to renew the world, to fill his whole creation. (Eph 4:10)
- He is calling us to a unity of love, rather than to be divided by the powers who deceive us for their own ends. (Eph 4:13-15)
- He has called us to transform the powers through submission and service, rather than through hostility and fundamentalism. (Eph 5)
- He is calling us to withstand the powers of darkness that divide us, who rule the world by hostility and scapegoating, to instead rule as sons of God as peacemakers. (Eph 6)
Instead of the “gospel” that seeks to put up walls and barriers to the world, in hostility, bringing division and destruction to our enemies, we see a gospel that demonstrates reconciliation, bridge building and healing through a Christlike church that takes up its cross to serve. A very different way of reading Paul.
Paul speaks of this wisdom in Corinthians. This links in with our Eph 3:10 reference, where God’s wisdom is manifested to renew the world powers. God’s wisdom is at first foolishness to the world, which trusts in self-strength. But it is by God’s wisdom, as shown on the cross, that God is bringing to nought (infiltrating and transforming from within, through the service – light – of the church) the ruling powers of the world. (1 Cor 1:18-31) The powers come under the influence of new image-ofGod people, remoulding them inwardly by grace.
Again, in 1 Corinthians we see Paul’s new creation gospel. The Hebrew theme of wisdom takes centre stage. (1 Cor 1:21-30) God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world, as it transforms creation. This is the wisdom in Proverbs 8. Opposite to the world, that sees riches in power and wealth, wisdom sees true riches as caring community; not in caring for self, but for others. It is upon the pillars of selfless community that creation and new creation are securely established in peace and justice. The pillars that spring from God’s wisdom in Torah, and are revealed through Christ’s love, set God’s new creation in order. (1 Sam 2:8, Luke 1:46-55) The self-centred powers in the world are being displaced by Christ through his church. The world is being transformed by the church, which bears witness through its weakness and suffering. This suffering translates into resurrection power through God’s just vindication. By our non-retaliatory suffering, and by, instead, rejoicing and showing care for those who persecute us, the Spirit bears witness to the world of Christ’s new community and selfgiving rule. This is what changed the Roman Empire from within: transforming the greatest world power of the day.
In Corinthians, Paul highlights the nature of these worldly powers that Christ is bringing to nought. He shows that the powers of the world have their seat and operation within the hearts of men. Chapter by chapter, Paul highlights them within the church, so they may be brought to nought in us first. This is the church’s modus operandi for changing the world: allowing the Spirit to change us, rather than us accusing the world. The dominion God gives to Adam and to his church in Christ, isn’t dominion over others, but dominion within our own character and nature. God gives us dominion over our own desires and temper: self-control, the fruits of the Spirit. Dominion within our own natures changes us into servants. This is dominion over the serpent in the Garden, who took away our rule by turning us to our self. This dominion over our self translates into justice and peace, which gives us rule over darkness in our societies. Worldly forms of dominion bring destruction and misery.
The powers God is bringing to nought are those in our own character and our own behaviour. This is where the powers are seated and from where they work. Paul lists these powers in Corinthians.
Starting from 1 Corinthians 1 and continuing through to chapter 14, Paul describes the powers one by one, which operated within the carnal natures of the Corinthian people. These were a divided party spirit, disunity, immorality, greed in taking others to court rather than suffer wrong, neglecting the poor, showing spiritual superiority, not accommodating the traditions and views of others; basically, anything against the kingdom of love. Overcoming these within ourselves is what enables new-Adamic reign in renewing the earth. “See, a King will reign in righteousness and rulers (sons) will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” (Isaiah 32:1-2)
God overcomes the powers in the world, by overcoming them in our hearts by the work of his Spirit. This is how God brings peace and justice to the world through his church. We spread it to others in grace, once we have it established within us.
All these powers are self-centred, community-destroying powers. When communities are destroyed, then individuals suffer. God, through his new reign in our hearts, is opposed to this suffering. God does not overcome these powers violently, but through our renewed hearts. If God overcame with violence and not with mercy, we also would be destroyed. These are the powers God is bringing down through his church, as he renews our own lives (those within the church) towards each other, and then sends the church, as a new body, to be witnesses into the world. God is implanting us with his reconciling powers of the fruit of the Spirit.
The message of Paul that we see in 1 Corinthians is one where God’s wisdom comes to us through the Spirit of Christ, by the creative word of the gospel. “Christ is made unto us wisdom”, which is the light and word of God forming creation. (1 Cor 1:30) These are the same themes we see in Genesis 1 in the first creation. These bring about love in our lives, the fulfilment of Torah, forming us into the image of his “mature sons.” (1 Cor 13) Paul’s gospel is that God is bringing about new creation through his church. This new creation starts within our own lives and community and from there spreads to renew the powers of the world, bringing their self-centred cultures to nought. This is world renewal.
In Colossians, Paul places sonship within creational themes to proclaim a new world. Christ is the exact imago Dei, image of God. (Col 1:15) Traditionally, we may think that means Christ is divinity, or that Christ shows the nature of God perfectly, from whom we draw all our knowledge of the Father. That is true, but this is a creational passage: God brings us out of darkness into light, and gives us an inheritance of sonship (Genesis 1 themes). (Col 1:12-13)
When Paul says Christ is the exact imago Dei, he is declaring new creation. He means that God is present in Christ to form a new world in his likeness. That is what “image of God” meant in Adam. Adam was to rule over God’s creation, by reflecting God’s image into the world. Christ has come from heaven to be given rule over God’s renewed earth.
This is a main theme in the book of Hebrews also. The author says God has put all things under the feet of Christ. (Heb 2:8-9) We don’t yet see all things under him, but we see Christ has been exalted to God’s right hand, in fulfilment of Daniel 7. In Daniel 7 his exaltation is for the purpose of ruling over the nations, to subdue all things under him, as also in the Psalms. (Psalms 110:1) Hebrews continues, by saying that he makes intercession at the Father’s right hand. This means that not only did Christ die to carry the curse of the law, but he continues as a man to represent Israel’s covenant of world renewal from heaven, until it is fully accomplished through the church. Then he hands the complete kingdom, with all enemies reconciled, to the Father, so that God may “be all in all.” Once again, this is Hebrew monotheism. (Eph 4:10, 1 Cor 15:28)
Back to Colossians, Christ is called the “firstborn” over all creation. (Col 1:15) “Firstborn” means he is the heir, from men, who inherits the earth, in fulfilment of Daniel 7. In this way, the world is brought under God’s sovereign grace and put right. Paul, here, is declaring the Hebrew gospel of new creation. Christ is heir of creation, because God has a plan to heal creation through himself. Moreover, “firstborn” has a double meaning in Hebrew text. It relates to Proverbs 8, where poetically, wisdom is the firstborn over God’s creation, to supervise his creation work. Wisdom, in Hebrew tradition, was the presence of God in and over his creative acts. So, as firstborn, meaning the wisdom of God, Christ is not only heir of creation, but also the creator himself come in the flesh.
This is Paul’s Hebrew incarnational view. Simply said, God put on flesh in Christ, just as he came in his wisdom at creation. As God’s wisdom, Paul says that by him all things were created and he is before, or head over, all things, and through him all things exist.
The wisdom reference has another meaning, however. This other meaning was known by Paul and all Jews of his time. It was a normal theme in most Jewish literature of Paul’s day. It is what Jews expected the Messiah to do when he came. He would bring all things on earth under his power. The Jews took this in a nationalist way. They expected to have political rule over all gentiles. They didn’t expect Jesus to reconcile their enemies and join them in one new body. In Proverbs 8, wisdom is the way in which benevolent rule succeeds over the earth. It brings justice, righteousness and peace, and restores the pillars of creation, bringing order to the world. The role of wisdom, which Paul is speaking of in Colossians, is that of new creation, whereby “he reconciles all things to himself.” (Col 1:20)
In Proverbs 8, wisdom cries out in the streets. Through the gospel, Christ, the wisdom of God, now renews our hearts. Wisdom not only forms creation, but also fills our hearts to love our neighbour. Wisdom leads us to order our communities on goodness, just as, by it, God ordered his creation. This was also the purpose of Torah. It was God’s wisdom, given to Israel to bless their land. Paul’s reference to wisdom shows he is speaking of the gospel in Hebrew terms: wisdom that fashions our current world and communities the way God intended before the fall. Paul says that Christ gives wisdom in the heart by his Spirit. (Col 1:9)
Looking through Colossians 1, we see all the same terms John used in his Gospel. Paul speaks of Christ coming as Spirit, light and wisdom. He created all things in the first creation, but, in the gospel, he returns to reconcile his entire creation. All things in heaven and in earth that he created, he has also reconciled. (Col 1:20) This isn’t speaking of universal salvation, but it’s showing that, in the cross, God united heaven and earth with the purpose of bringing the whole of his creation under this covenantal blessing and renewal.
But this isn’t just a nice piece of theology. The point is about our calling. Paul is describing the nature of our call to the church at Colossae. God has called us to partner with him in his new creation, to display the values of his new kingdom now in our lives and fellowship, even in this present, dark-age. Just as he called Adam to partner with him in his rule over the first creation, he calls us to partner with him in the spread of resurrection life in his new creation. This is clearly Paul’s point. We are receiving a commission, just as Adam did in the Garden.
Our call is to live prophetically, showing the nature of God’s coming eternal kingdom, when death sin, hatred, competition, violence and cheating are all gone. The church is the herald of this new world by showing it now. It is the window for the world to see into God’s new kingdom. By the Spirit’s power, the world sees this new coming kingdom already begun in us. It has dawned by the resurrection of Christ both bodily and in our hearts. We live this new love in fellowship and amongst our enemies in a celebration of joy today, while we await its full revelation in the final resurrection at Christ’s coming. Our renewed lives and new communities of love are prophetic of his final reign over all things and a renewed world.
However, Colossians had yet another impact upon the church in Paul’s time. In declaring the sonship of Christ, Paul is also refuting the sonship of Caesar. Caesar claimed to be ruler of the world. Rome also used terms like “gospel” and “faith”, and passages like Daniel 7, to speak of the Caesars’ heavenly call to build a new world community, to renew the earth in a different way – by its Roman force and its false justice. Rome passed a law in the senate claiming that Emperor Claudius was the divine Son of Man who ascended to heaven to rule the nations. Here, Paul is refuting such claims.
Paul’s letters are subversive. Subversive means his gospel transforms our corrupt powers. In showing Christ’s self-giving, redeeming act, he subverts the self-interested nature inherent within our hearts and cultures. In showing Christ as the builder of a new creation, Paul subverts our lack of concern for this world, for other people within it and for our enemies. In showing Christ as the true Caesar of the new world, Paul subverts the claims of human empire which lead to oppression and prejudice against other people. Since Christ is Lord, he calls us not to rebel against government, but to fulfil it by loving and respecting all people. This is what Paul goes on to describe in the rest of his letter to the Colossians.
Just as with Ephesians, Colossians tells us that God’s fullness, the fullness of his deity, dwells in Christ, and this fullness dwells by Christ in his body, the church. The purpose here is the same as in Ephesians: that God may fill and renew his creation by the gospel. (Col 1:19, 2:9-10)
Paul’s letters reveal the hope of Israel in the Old Testament, fulfilled in the Messiah: the hope of righteousness. In Galatians 5:5 Paul said we, by the Spirit, wait for the hope of righteousness. What was this Jewish hope, which Paul, as a Jewish fulfilled believer, was speaking about? We will start with Hannah, and show that the creation/justice-on-earth (righteousness) themes Hannah expressed are the basis of the gospel of Jesus and Paul.
“The bow of the mighty is now broken, and those who stumbled are now strong. Those who were well fed are now starving, and those who were starving are now full. The childless woman now has seven children, and the woman with many children wastes away… He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honour. For all the earth is the Lord’s, and he has set the world in order.” (1 Sam 2:4-8)
God sets his world in order! This was Hanna’s prayer of thanksgiving when the Lord gave her a child, Samuel. Samuel would judge Israel and bring order to an unjust land. Hannah’s situation mirrors the miraculous conception of Mary. It is from this prayer that Mary’s Magnificat is taken. Jesus would bring salvation to the oppressed and turn the world upside down, reversing injustice and bringing mercy.
“But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth.” (Job 5:15-16) God sets the world in order. “The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands… For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.” (Psalm 9:15-18) God sets the word in order.
In Psalm 74:8, Christ will reign from sea to sea, and to the ends of the earth. He sets the world in order. What does this worldly order look like? What is the Jewish hope of righteousness? It’s a new earth. “He will rescue the poor when they cry to him; he will help the oppressed, who have no one to defend them. He feels pity for the weak and the needy, and he will rescue them. He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious to him.” (Psalm 74:12-14)
“Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head.” (Isaiah 59:7-9, 15- 17) God will come to set the world in order.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53) Jesus comes to set the world in order.
The Magnificat shows what God is like. It shows what happens to the world when God comes. It shows his care for the downtrodden and the oppressed. It says when his kingdom comes he will fix this, and bring judgement (meaning justice, righteousness and mercy) to the world. Mary said the birth of Christ was to fulfil this promise to Israel.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-20)
Jesus proclaims his kingdom. It is for the poor and for those in captivity in this world. It is the kingdom he announced in the Beatitudes: his kingdom is for those who are persecuted, the poor and oppressed. Jesus has come to turn things around; to bring justice and judgment into the world, to set it in order, to bring the world into righteousness. He said “This day is this promise fulfilled in your hearing.” This justice of God began that day in the synagogue in Nazareth.
Paul speaks of this hope in Romans 8:18-30, as he compares suffering today with the suffering of Israel in Egypt. Israel’s journey through Rom 6-8 becomes the world’s journey, liberated in Christ. The hope in Romans 8 is creation put in order, the righteousness and justice of the sons of God healing communities, nature and the world. (Isaiah 32:1-2) For this we have the Spirit, who helps us, leading us to this goal. The day is coming, in the resurrection, when all things in heaven and earth shall be made righteous, but now the church is already walking to that tune, showing mercy and care to those who have no justice, to the downtrodden.
“For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” (Gal 5:5) The hope of righteousness! One of our pastors said, “We have passed through centuries of biblical interpretation where everything is individualised.” He was speaking about African community culture, as seen in the church in Acts 4:32. We have also individualised Galatians 5:5, in fact the whole message of Paul in Galatians and Romans. Our Western cultures have done this since the Reformation. So we read Gal 5:5 as if Paul is talking about going to heaven. We see our hope of righteousness as our personal, individual salvation in heaven.
This is our gnostic gospel. Gnosticism was a Greek form of religion, in which everything was spiritualized, so people could ignore the suffering in the world. The gospel is about God coming to do something about this suffering. The hope of righteousness, Paul referred to in Gal 5:5, is this hope. He is talking about God’s promises to renew the world. The hope of righteousness is the hope of a new world in which righteousness is done. (2 Pet 3:13) This is not the hope of individualistic salvation, but the salvation of our world, our future hope, which we live out today in our sharing with one another.
“We by the Spirit eagerly await this hope of righteousness.” That is, the Spirit enlivens our heart and our community, to love and serve one another, transforming our own lives and the lives of those around us. This is the gospel and this is what began in the synagogue of Nazareth 2,000 years ago. God has come to bring righteousness and justice to the world, to put things in order, through the lives of his transformed people, who show mercy and care to the suffering, reversing the effects of the Pharaonic systems of selfishness in our world. This is what Hannah and Mary sang about: the work of the Spirit of God in our hearts and the transformative power in our fallen world. All Jesus’ teachings were about this new caring-for-neighbour community. This is the community in Acts.
In all Paul’s letters, whether the title he used for Jesus is word, spirit, light, image, firstborn, wisdom or Messiah, each title points to the fulfilment of the Jewish hope and the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel: God has returned to his new temple in the gospel, to fill his earth and whole creation with his glory. All the titles of the Lord Jesus Christ are new creation titles. They all point to the creator and covenant keeping God come in the flesh to take his creation into an eternal union with his perfect love and righteousness.