The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

When Your Kids Disappoint You

When Your Kids Disappoint

I have written before about the book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Kara Powell and Chap Clark. This book has been a game-changer for me as a youth minister, and has greatly impacted many of the things that I do.

One of the (many) good chapters of the book is the last chapter, “The Ups and Downs of the Sticky Faith Journey.” The reality for parents of teenagers (or youth ministers, for that matter) is that as they observe spiritual development in their children, it is often a one-step-forward, two-steps-back experience. One day a teen might exhibit incredible spiritual insight or compassion toward someone in need, and then the very next day, that same teen might get caught cheating on a test, or being hateful toward a friend.

When these frustrating ups and downs occur, how should you as a parent (or a youth minister) respond? Powell and Clark offer some helpful words:

When your kids disappoint you (note I said when, not if), you may be tempted to distance yourself from them to teach them a lesson or maybe even to protect yourself. Everywhere they turn, your kids have grown up in a culture in which when they struggle or fail, people tend to walk away. Especially during their lowest times, your kids need to know that, above all else, you are there for them, regardless of what they are going through.

(Sticky Faith, 180)

This is good advice, and in a real sense, the idea is this: we should treat our kids the way God treats us. He is there for us regardless of what we do, loves us regardless of what we do, and is willing to forgive us and take us back regardless of what we do. As a youth minister, this is how I strive to act toward my students, and it is how I want to be as a parent as well.

When You Feel All Alone

Alone

Introduction

Some of the greatest drama in the Old Testament occurs in 1 Kings 18-19. And when I say drama, I don’t mean the word as it is used today by teenagers, where drama is what you get when two girls like the same guy or someone says something about someone else on Twitter or Facebook. That’s not really drama; that’s melodrama, and while there may be some of that in 1 Kings 18-19 as well, there is truly great drama: exciting narrative with heroes and villains, tension, plot twists, humor and excitement, and heartbreak. I won’t cover both of those chapters in detail here, but I would like to set the scene just a bit.

This is during the time of the Divided Kingdom, and our story’s setting is in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The wicked King Ahab sits on the throne and rules alongside his wife Jezebel, who if anything, is even worse than he is. The Kingdom of Israel was already in a bad place, because through the influence of Jeroboam, the first king of the divided Kingdom of Israel, the people had departed from the instructions for worship given to them by God. But under the influence of Ahab (and especially Jezebel), Israel goes even further and begins to worship the false god Baal.

And fighting against this royally-sanctioned wickedness you have Elijah, the prophet of God. Elijah predicts that there will be a drought in the land_no rain nor dew until he says otherwise—presumably because of the wickedness that is going on. This drought goes on for three years and was devastating to the entire country. Elijah becomes a fugitive for opposing the king, and Ahab sends men all over the place looking for him. Ultimately, Elijah sends word to Ahab, and sets up a great contest on Mt. Carmel between Yahweh and the false gods the people and been worshipping.

And the contest goes something like this: Elijah has an altar with a bull on it, and the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah have an altar with a bull on it. Elijah will call on the name of his God, and the other prophets are will call on the name of their god, and whichever god answers by sending fire upon the altar wins the contest and will be proven to be the true God.

So Elijah lets the other guys go first, and for hours they call out to Baal and there’s no answer. And Elijah mocks them, and says “Cry out louder! Maybe he can’t hear you! Maybe he’s taking a nap or going to the bathroom!” [Note: Elijah wouldn’t be very popular today; he wasn’t tolerant of other religious beliefs.] And the false prophets cry out and cut themselves to get the attention of Baal, and nothing happens.

Then it’s Elijah’s turn. And to make the event even more spectacular, he has his altar so completely soaked with water that it fills a trench surrounding it. Then he calls out to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and fire from the LORD consumes the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and the water that was in the trench.

Then all the people fall on their faces and say, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And the people seize the prophets of Baal and kill them. Then, through God’s power, Elijah ends the drought.

Elijah has had a great victory and everything is good, right?

Mountains and Valleys

Then we come to 1 Kings 19:

“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life…”

You might think that after the victory of God on Mt. Carmel and the death of all the prophets of Baal, Jezebel would consider changing her religious views, but she doesn’t, and instead, she determines to kill Elijah. And perhaps Elijah had expected that after the Mt. Carmel contest everything would be easy, and he’s surprised and frightened by Jezebel’s determination to kill him. And he runs away.

Eventually, he makes his way to a cave at Horeb (Sinai). Verse 9:

“And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.’”

Clearly, Elijah is discouraged here. Spiritually and psychologically, after the mountaintop experience on Carmel, he is now mired in a deep and dark valley. He’s upset about what is going on, and what’s worse, he feels like he’s all alone. He complains to God: I’m the only one left who is trying to serve you!

And Elijah feels the crushing weight of the world’s evil. There’s just too much evil, too much for him to handle. Even defeating the prophets of Baal in such spectacular fashion didn’t seem to make any difference! So Elijah is feeling pretty down about things.

Being Fair to Elijah

When you read this story, what do you think? How do you feel towards Elijah?

I know how I feel: “C’mon Elijah! How can you be so short-sighted? So easily discouraged? Don’t you remember the great things that God has (just) done? You just defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel!”

But to be fair, God is faithful to me as well. I’ve witnessed great blessings from him in my life and in the lives of others, and yet…I still grow discouraged; I still get down about things. And unlike Elijah, no one is even seeking to kill me!

But sometimes I feel down about things, I feel alone. Like I’m the only one who’s trying. Have you ever felt that way? Maybe at school, you feel like everyone around you does whatever they want and you’re the only one who’s concerned with what God wants? Or at work, maybe you have a lot of people around you who call themselves Christians, but you feel like you’re the only one who’s actually trying to live like a faithful Christian?

We can feel alone at times.

Or sometimes, like Elijah, I can get overwhelmed by just how much evil there is in the world. Sometimes it really seems like evil, like Satan, is winning. Just look at the world news, or the things happening in our own communities, the content of our popular movies, or the songs that play on the radio. Too often, these things are drenched with sin.

There’s just too much evil in the world. Too much for me to handle. That’s how I feel. Kinda like Elijah.

What Elijah Needed to Hear

Picking up where we left off in v.11:

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

There’s a lot of interesting elements in this text: there’s the strong wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, but God isn’t any of those; he comes to Elijah in the “sound of a gentle whisper”. And I think that reminds Elijah (and us) that although sometimes God reveals Himself in incredible ways, like He did on Mt. Carmel, other times He does it in the most mundane ways.

And God again asks Elijah the same question: What are you doing here? and Elijah again gives the same answer. And then God tells him two very important things:

First, God tells Elijah that he wasn’t alone. There were still 7,000 others in Israel who had remained faithful to God. Elijah really felt like he was all by himself, but it was just an illusion. There were others, like him, who were doing what they could to be faithful.

Secondly, God tells Elijah that he was in control—it wasn’t up to Elijah. Elijah was burnt out, tired from opposing Ahab and Jezebel. And God basically says, “That’s okay. This battle against evil isn’t up to you. I’m in control. I’ve got other people who will fight for Me.” And he tells Elijah to anoint Hazael to be king over Syria, Jehu to be king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor. God will use these men to defeat the evil brought about by Ahab and Jezebel.

What We Need to Hear

When we get down about things. When we feel like the evil in the world is overwhelming, when we feel like we’re all alone, that we’re the only ones who are doing our best to be faithful, God has the same important things to say to us:

1. We are not alone; there are others, just like us, who are doing all they can to be faithful.

2. God is in control. It isn’t up to us to solve all of the world’s problems.

That’s what the gospel is all about! That’s why Jesus came—to show us once and for all that we aren’t alone and that God is in control and that He’s willing to do great things in order to rescue us! In the cosmic battle that is being waged between good and evil, it’s not up to us to win it; it’s up to us to be on God’s side!

To me, that’s a message of great encouragement. In fact, it is the greatest possible encouragement! I am very aware that I am unable to win my own personal battles with sin on my own. I am similarly aware that I am incapable of opposing systemic evil on my own. The good news of the gospel, though, is that Jesus came to do that for us; our task is to simply join Him. If we join God’s side; “our” side will win—not because we’re on it, but because God is!

It Is Not The Lord’s Supper That You Eat: The Socio-Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.17-34

Not the Lord's Supper

Introduction

The Corinthian church of the first century has a notorious reputation as a dysfunctional group that was riddled with a wide variety of problems. That reputation stems from Paul’s correspondence with the young congregation in which he addresses and seeks to correct a host of Corinthian beliefs and practices including lawsuits within the church, sexual behavior, the consumption of meat that had been offered to idols, worship practices, and more. Although these issues cover a wide range of topics, they all can be explained to some degree by attitudes and practices of first century Greco-Roman culture. In other words, the Corinthian Christians were so influenced by their surrounding culture that they frequently imported cultural practices into the church, not realizing that such practices were inappropriate in the new way of life to which they had been converted.[1] When they did this, Paul attempted to correct the problem.

One area in which the Corinthians receive some of Paul’s most stinging rebuke is in regard to their practice of the Lord’s Supper, recorded in 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. This is a well-known passage, largely because it has been mined countless times throughout the centuries in order to extract Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. While such efforts may have some value, they tend to ignore the original context of the situation that Paul addresses and the fact that he was trying to correct a specific problem.[2]

This paper will pursue a different course by seeking to explain the abuses within the Corinthian church’s practice of Communion against the backdrop of common Greco-Roman banqueting customs. Also, we will consider Paul’s instructions for how these abuses should be corrected, and then conclude by briefly considering some of the implications of those instructions for the church today.

Banquets in the Greco-Roman World

The Corinthian church’s Lord’s Supper practices that Paul critiques in 1 Corinthians 11.17-34 make more sense when considered in light of the general dining customs of voluntary associations in Greco-Roman culture.

Voluntary associations were a widespread social phenomenon in the Greco-Roman world.[3] These associations were social clubs where members formed groups based on common interests, occupation, or devotion to a deity. Although these associations varied from one another in many ways, they shared several general features. Voluntary associations were formally organized, with rules for how one could become a member and regulations for how members were required to behave when they met together.[4] Also, they were typically local organizations, with only loose connections to a larger network,[5] and were fairly small in size, generally consisting of thirty to forty members.[6] Furthermore, even associations that were built upon a shared occupation were still essentially religious in nature, and would involve invocations and sacrifices to deities.[7] Finally, communal eating and drinking played a major part in the life of associations, and as time went on, the social dynamics of the groups increasingly came to supplant any religious emphasis.[8]

An ancient mosaic depicting Jesus and His disciples at the Last Supper, reclining at table.

An ancient mosaic depicting Jesus and His disciples at the Last Supper, reclining at table in accordance with common dining practices of the ancient Mediterranean world.

For the sake of this study, the communal eating and drinking practices of associations and indeed, Greco-Roman society in general, need to be considered more closely. On the whole, “the peoples of the Mediterranean world of the period circa 300 B.C.E. to circa 300 C.E. tended to share the same dining customs.”[9] At Greco-Roman banquets, diners typically reclined at table for a formal meal and drinking party. During the banquet, there would generally be time for conversation and also some sort of entertainment, including rhetorical performances or pantomimic dances.[10]

Food for banquets could be provided by the patron who was hosting the meal, or, in the popular eranos dinner, the cost for the meal was shared by those who took part in it.[11] The eranos was similar to a modern picnic or potluck dinner where everyone brings some food, but had a broader definition in that each participant could have consumed his or her own food, or the participants could pool their food on a common table and share it accordingly.[12]

Banquets would carefully reflect the established social hierarchy, as table seats were assigned by social rank, and also the quality and quantity of food that a diner received depended on his or her social status.[13] A wide array of ancient texts spanning hundreds of years reveal that although this sort of disparity was the common and generally-accepted practice, it was also criticized by some. Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial complains about the lack of fairness:

Since I am no longer invited to dinner at a price as formerly, why don’t I get the same dinner as you? You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine pool, I cut my mouth sucking a mussel. You have mushrooms, I take pig fungi. You set to with turbot, I with bream. A golden turtle dove fills you up with its outsize rump, I am served with a magpie that died in its cage. Why do I dine without you, Ponticus, when I’m dining with you? Let the disappearance of the dole count for something; let’s eat the same meal.[14]

In the late first and early second centuries, the Roman satirist Juvenal also criticizes the inequity in the quality and quantity of food, and furthermore, complains that the practice of giving inferior food to lower class individuals is not an attempt to save money, but instead, is a forceful intention to keep those of lower social status firmly in their places.[15]

Sometimes those of higher class also sought to reform these inequitable practices. Xenophon, a Greek historian and student of Socrates writing in the 4th century B.C., states:

Whenever some of the members of a dining club brought more appetizers than others, Socrates would tell the waiter either to put the small contribution into the common stock or to portion it out equally among the diners. So the high contributors felt obliged not only to take their share of the pool, but to pool their own supplies in return; and so they put their own supplies also into the common stock. And since they got no more that way than those who brought little with them, they gave up spending a lot on appetizers.[16]

Here, Xenophon describes Socrates’ efforts to bring fairness to an eranos dinner where wealthier diners were bringing more food and not sharing it with others. Writing in the first century AD but reflecting a similar attitude, Pliny the Younger recounts his experience at a banquet where he and a few others received the best dishes while everyone else received cheap scraps of food. The host had even divided the wine into three flasks of varying quality to reflect the different social levels of the diners:

My neighbour at table noticed this and asked me if I approved. I said I did not. “So what do you do?” he asked. “I serve the same to everyone, for when I invite guests it is for a meal, not to make class distinctions; I have brought them as equals to the same table, so I give them the same treatment in everything.” “Even the freedmen?” “Of course, for then they are my fellow-diners, not freedmen.” “That must cost you a lot.” “On the contrary.” “How is that?” “Because my freedmen do not drink the sort of wine I do, but I drink theirs.”[17]

Greco-Roman associations and their banquets were also criticized because they were notorious for drunkenness and gluttony.[18] Philo strongly rebukes this behavior:

In the city there are clubs with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor and drunkenness and sottish carousing and their offspring, wantonness.[19]

These drunken excesses were common, but unlike the practice of differentiating between different social classes at banquets, were not considered to be proper table behavior.[20]

All of this information is vital for understanding the context of 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. As a Roman colony in the middle of Greece, first century Corinth was firmly planted in Greco-Roman society. The church at Corinth was largely made up of Gentile converts, and it is unthinkable that their Greco-Roman backgrounds would not have influenced their behavior, even after conversion. Furthermore, in light of the widespread voluntary association participation in Greco-Roman culture, many pagans and some Christians as well likely would have seen Christian worship gatherings as some sort of association, and as a result, would have felt very comfortable importing Greco-Roman dining customs into their Christian fellowship meals.[21] In fact, it seems that this practice directly led to the abuses that Paul criticizes so sharply.[22]

Paul’s Critique of the Corinthian Situation

In 1 Corinthians 11.17-22, Paul sternly rebukes the Corinthians for the way they have been practicing the Lord’s Supper. Paul introduces his thoughts in this section by telling the Christians at Corinth that he cannot commend them because “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (v. 17).”[23] Their practice of the Lord’s Supper was so riddled with abuse that it would have been better if they had not observed it at all. In fact, Paul is so appalled by their behavior that he can hardly believe what he has been told about them (v. 18b).[24]

First, Paul criticizes the Corinthian Christians because of the divisions that characterize their assembly (v. 18). Factionalism and infighting are problems that Paul discusses in various contexts throughout 1 Corinthians, but here, instead of referencing the rival parties of 1 Corinthians 1.10, he is addressing the divide between the rich and the poor.[25] His further comment that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (v. 19) is probably best understood as irony; Paul is displeased with the divisions, but they do make clear which of the Corinthians are pleasing God with their behavior and which are not.[26] The consequences of these divisions are significant: the Corinthians’ practice of Communion is so antithetical to its purpose that, regardless of their intentions, it is fundamentally impossible for the ritual in which they take part to truly be the Lord’s Supper (v. 20).[27]

Second, Paul criticizes their self-centered eating practices where “each one goes ahead with his own meal” with the result that “one goes hungry” while “another gets drunk” (v. 21).[28] Paul then proceeds with a series of rhetorical questions which indicate that the selfish behavior of the wealthy is inappropriate in the church assembly and is humiliating those who have nothing (v. 22). For this, he will not commend them.[29]

To better understand these criticisms, it is necessary that we attempt to reconstruct what the Corinthians were doing in their observance of the Eucharist.

First, there is widespread agreement among scholars that the Corinthians observed the Eucharist in the context of a fellowship (agapē) meal.[30] Indeed, Jesus instituted the ritual in the context of a meal, and the indication of 1 Corinthians 11.20 is that the Corinthians retained the meal context.[31] The specific relationship of the agapē meal and the Lord’s Supper is less clear, and it is possible that the blessing of the bread and cup surrounded the meal or that the meal occurred first and was followed by the Lord’s Supper.[32] In later practice, the agapē meal was separated from the Lord’s Supper,[33] and that practice has continued up until the present day for the vast majority of Christians.[34] However, Paul does not oppose the community meal and the Lord’s Supper occurring in the same context; rather, he rejects a selfish, individualistic meal that runs counter to everything the Lord’s Supper stands for.[35]

When we allow that the Corinthians were observing a full meal in the context of the Lord’s Supper, in light of Greco-Roman dining customs described above, it is not at all surprising that they were dividing themselves according to social class with the wealthy receiving better treatment than the poor.[36] The church at Corinth was made up of a variety of social classes, and the church would have met in the homes of the wealthier members.[37] Based on 1 Corinthians 11.21-22, it is clear that some were overindulging in the meal while others got nothing, but it is less clear exactly how this came about. The host likely would have provided the bread and wine for Communion, while the rest of the food would have been brought by the other Christians, in an eranos style.[38] The wealthier Christians would have been able to bring superior food and more of it than their poorer brothers and sisters (who may not have been able to bring anything at all), and this food was apparently not distributed equally.

Some scholars argue for a temporal reconstruction of the situation based on the verb prolambanei in 1 Corinthians 11.21, which can mean “to do something before the usual time, anticipate something.”[39] In this view, wealthier Christians were arriving first and consuming the food they brought themselves without waiting for others. Poorer Christians, who may have been slaves with no control over their personal schedules or tradesmen had to work late, would not be able to join the Christian assembly until later. By this time, the food of the agapē meal had already been consumed and these have-nots were left with nothing to eat.[40] This view is also reinforced by translating the verb ekdexesthe (v. 33) in a temporal sense: in response to some going ahead and eating before everyone arrives, Paul tells them to “wait for one another.”[41]

Other scholars argue instead that the problem is not that wealthy Christians are showing bad manners by not waiting for the have-nots, but rather that they are eating their own food in the presence of those who have nothing without sharing. Bruce D. Winter argues forcefully that the verbs prolambanei and ekdesxesthe do not require a temporal translation, and that instead Paul describes those who “devour” their own dinner in the presence of the have-nots (v. 21), and in response to this reprehensible practice, urges them to “receive” or “welcome” one another instead (v. 33), with the implication that this will involve the sharing of their food.[42]

ritual-feast-05

Rendering of a typical Greco-Roman triclinium.

Compatible with either the temporal or non-temporal perspectives, J. Murphy-O’Connor also argues that there was a spatial element to the division and inequality that was being practiced in the Corinthian Eucharist. Based on the names of Corinthian Christians listed in Paul’s letters and extrapolations for unnamed spouses, children, slaves, and others who are not mentioned, Murphy-O’Connor estimates a Corinthian church of at least fifty persons in size.[43] Combining that figure with archaeological research that indicates that a Corinthian triclinium (dining room) could only accommodate nine people, he concludes that only a few Corinthian Christians would be able to recline in the triclinium to eat while the rest would have to squeeze into the atrium. Against the widely-accepted practice of social stratification in Greco-Roman society, it would only have been natural for the wealthier Corinthian Christians to get the better seats and a correspondingly better meal, while the majority was physically divided from them.[44]

It is difficult to make a clear decision based on the limited data that Paul provides,[45] but ultimately, an exact reconstruction of the situation at Corinth is immaterial. Whether the wealthy in Corinth were callously indifferent to the schedules of the poorer in their midst and ate before their arrival, or whether they devoured their own food in the presence of those who had nothing, or whether they ate better food in the triclinium while others were left outside, the same result was achieved: the have-nots were left physically hungry and socially humiliated, and the church was divided.

Paul’s Response to the Corinthian Situation

Having thoroughly rebuked the Corinthians for the manner in which they were observing the Lord’s Supper, Paul now seeks to correct their perspective and practice. He begins by recounting the Words of Institution, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper where he shares the bread and the cup with his disciples and gives this act special meaning (vv. 23-25).[46] Paul says he received these words from the Lord and then delivered them to the Corinthians (v. 23).[47] This means that this was not the first time that Paul taught the Corinthian Christians about the Lord’s Supper, and emphasizes that in this passage he is seeking to correct their practice rather than examine the theology of Communion in detail. Paul goes on to say that when the Supper is observed, the Lord’s death is proclaimed until he comes (v. 26), and this commentary, combined with his reminder of Jesus’ practice at the Last Supper serve as a corrective for the Corinthians. Jesus shared the bread and the cup with his disciples to represent his sacrificial death on the cross, and it is that sacrificial love that Christians are to exhibit. Paul’s point is that it is impossible for the Corinthians to proclaim the death of Christ and the sacrificial love it represents in a Communion practice where the rich humiliate the poor.[48]

In the next section, Paul teaches that improper observance of the Lord’s Supper leads to judgment from God (vv. 27-32). These verses have been scrutinized for centuries, but again, it is important to keep them in context of the abuses of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth. Paul speaks of those who partake of Communion in an “unworthy manner” (v. 27), urges the Corinthians to examine themselves when they partake (v. 28), and says that those who eat and drink “without discerning the body” bring judgment upon themselves (v. 29). Interpreting these admonitions depends greatly upon what “body” in 1 Corinthians 11.29 refers to, but given the context of the passage, Paul must be referring to both Christ himself and the church, which is his corporate body.[49] In other words, the Lord’s Supper has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. The Corinthians need to reflect on the body of Jesus which was offered on the cross on their behalf (vertical), but the implications of that sacrificial death should lead them to treat one another–the body of Christ–in loving ways (horizontal). When either of these dimensions is ignored, the Lord’s Supper is taken in an unworthy manner, and judgment is the result.[50] In fact, judgment was already apparent in the Christian community in Corinth, as some were “weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).[51]

Paul then goes on to give some practical advice to resolve the problems of inequitable dining that he addressed earlier. First, he tells them to “wait for one another” when they gather together to eat in order to avoid condemnation (v. 33). The verb used here is ekdesxesthe, and as discussed above, can mean “wait”, but does not have to have a temporal sense and can also mean “receive” or “welcome”.[52] Either way, whether Paul is telling the Corinthians to wait for one another before they begin to eat or to welcome and show hospitality to one another, the idea is that they must share their food with each other.[53]

Next, Paul says that “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” in order that their assembly will not be in judgment (v. 34a). Paul is not saying here that the Lord’s Supper must be separated from the agapē meal; on the contrary, in the previous verse he advocates that they share a meal together and the entire passage takes this combined setting for granted. As argued above, Paul does not oppose the community meal and the Lord’s Supper occurring in the same context; he merely seeks to correct the abuses in the Corinthians’ practice of it.[54] Instead, Paul is speaking here to those who are indifferent to others and are only concerned about themselves. If they care only about indulging their appetites rather than fellowshipping with their Christian brothers and sisters, then it would be better for them to stay at home (v. 17).[55] Paul then concludes by saying he will give more instructions when he arrives in Corinth in person (v. 34b).

Conclusion

Many of the problems Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians stem from the fact that the Christians at Corinth continued to be greatly influenced by the values and practices of their surrounding culture. This lingering influence is clearly seen in their practice of the Lord’s Supper, which they apparently observed in the context of a full meal that was governed by Greco-Roman dining practices: class distinctions were upheld with the wealthier Christians receiving better treatment than the poor, who are left hungry and humiliated.

Paul is outraged by this behavior, and responds to it by calling their attention to the attitude and actions of Jesus Christ, who in his initiation of the Lord’s Supper and his death on the cross showed a sacrificial love for others that the Corinthians are failing to imitate. They need to be more mindful of the connection between the Eucharist and the death of Christ, and of the implications for the way they treat one another lest they come under judgment. Practically, this means that they need to show hospitality toward one another by sharing their food with each other.

The study of 1 Cor. 11:17-24 in its original context yields at least two important implications for modern Christian practice. First, the removal of the Lord’s Supper from a meal context is a historical development that Scripture does not require and, perhaps, does not endorse.[56] Especially for those of a Restorationist perspective who desire to imitate the practice of the first century church, this realization should prompt serious reflection.

Second, this passage reminds us that the Lord’s Supper contains both vertical and horizontal dimensions. We cannot be in proper fellowship with the Father if our actions destroy fellowship with our Christian brothers and sisters. We must be careful to examine ourselves and properly address both dimensions, or we run the risk of partaking in something that is “not the Lord’s Supper.”


[1]Panayotis Coutsoumpos, Paul and the Lord’s Supper: A Socio-Historical Investigation (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 110, “Often the Corinthian Christians simply continued being a part of the Graeco-Roman society to which they belonged before their conversion.” See also Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 147.

[2]J. Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 194.

[3]S. G. Wilson, S. G. “Voluntary Associations: An Overview,” in Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World, ed. John S. Kloppenborg and S. G. Wilson (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1-15; Ferguson, 142-47.

[4]Wilson, 9.

[5]Ibid., 3.

[6]Wayne O. McCready, Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 1996), 61, gives the range cited above and says that membership rarely exceeded one hundred. Ferguson, 143, reports a similar range.

[7]Markus Öhler, “Cultic Meals in Associations and the Early Christian Eucharist,” Early Christianity 5, no. 4 (2014): 477; Wilson, 7.

[8]Wilson, 12; Ferguson, 143. Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 87: “In virtually every case where we have documented records of club activities, we find that the banquet emerges as one of their primary reasons for gathering.”

[9]Smith, 14. This is not to suggest that there were no differences in dining customs during this timespan. Coutsoumpos, 39-55, offers a helpful overview of the Greek Deipnon Symposium meal, the Roman Cena or Convivium, and the Greco-Roman Eranos meal.

[10]Smith, 124.

[11]Coutsoumpos, 46.

[12]Ibid., 46; Peter Lampe, “The Eucharist: Identifying with Christ on the Cross,” Interpretation 48, no. 1 (January 1994): 38.

[13]Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 158; Smith, 124; Coutsoumpos, 48.

[14]Martial, Epigram 3.60.

[15]Juvenal, Satire 5.

[16]Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.14.

[17]Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.6.

[18]Coutsoumpos, 46.

[19]Philo, Against Flaccus 17.136.

[20]Coutsoumpos, 46

[21]Ben Witherington, “‘Making a Meal of It’: The Lord’s Supper in Its First-Century Social Setting,” in The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives, ed. Dale R. Stoffer (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997), 97; Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 243; Ferguson, 147. Öhler, 497, goes too far in saying, “It is quite justified to say that early Christian meals were nothing else than association meals,” but certainly the abuses in the practice of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth had significantly blurred any distinction between the two.

[22]Richard E. Oster, 1 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 276, “As the ancient literary and archaeological record makes abundantly clear, the very abuses which the apostle Paul addressed and censured in this section were widespread in Greco-Roman culture and practice.”

[23]The text of 1 Cor. 11:17-34 which is cited in this paper comes from the English Standard Version.

[24]Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2001), 159-63, is bothered by the notion that Paul only partly believes the report about divisions in the church at Corinth after so vigorously rejecting the factions in the church earlier in the letter. Because of this, Winter translates the last part of 1 Cor. 11:18 as, “And I believe a certain report.” Winter’s argument seems unconvincing to me, and also unnecessary. Just like we say, “I can’t believe it!” about things that we do actually believe but that surprise or disappoint us, Paul is using mock disbelief here. See Witherington, Conflict and Community, 247; Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 195.

[25]Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 228. Among commentators, there is widespread support for the view that the divisions here are distinct from those mentioned in 1 Cor. 1:10, and that the problem instead is the divide between rich and poor. See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 537; Robin Dowling, “The Lord’s Supper: An Exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Evangel 12 (Autumn 1994): 69. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 261, also suggests that Jewish Christians may have separated themselves from the Gentiles because of their insistence on kosher food, but this suggestion seems foreign to the context of 1 Cor. 11:17-34.

[26]Oster, 277; Blomberg, 228; Marion L. Soards, 1 Corinthians, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 233. Commentators agree that 1 Corinthians 11:19 is a difficult verse. Some degree of irony or sarcasm seems necessary in Paul’s statement here, as it would be difficult to take it at face value since he speaks against division so frequently in 1 Corinthians. Others, such as Fee, 358-59; Dowling, 69; Barrett, 262, argue that this is a reference to eschatological divisions, where God will separate true believers from those who are unfaithful. Murphy-O’Connor, 218-221, argues that this verse is actually a Corinthian slogan that Paul rejects. Alastair R. Campbell, “Does Paul Acquiesce In Divisions at the Lord’s Supper?” Novum Testamentum 33, no. 1 (January 1991): 61-70, may be correct in arguing that in this verse Paul is making a further charge against the divisive spirit of some of the Corinthians, and that the verse should actually be translated, “For there actually has to be discrimination in your meetings, so that if you please the elite may stand out from the rest.” In other words, the wealthy elite enforced divisions in their meetings in order to stand out from lower class Christians. Others such as George May, “The Lord’s Supper: Ritual or Relationship? Making a Meal of it in Corinth Part 2: Meals at Corinth,” The Reformed Theological Review 61, no. 1 (April 2002): 4; Rachel M. McRae, “Eating with Honor: The Corinthian Lord’s Supper in Light of Voluntary Association Meal Practices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1 (2011): 178-79, agree with Campbell’s perspective.

[27]Hays, 195; Victor Paul Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 79; Nathan Mitchell, “Paul’s Eucharistic Theology,” Worship 83, no. 3 (May 2009): 260. Hans Conzelman, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 194, states that the Corinthians destroyed the character of the Lord’s Supper by their conduct.

[28]Although Fee, 531, n. 4, is correct that the drunken behavior of some of the Corinthians is not the primary focus of Paul’s criticisms, considering Paul’s condemnation of drunkards in 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:10 and the common association of drunkenness with Greco-Roman banquets, Paul would have viewed drunkenness in the meetings of the church at Corinth to be absolutely unacceptable.

[29]James C. Walters, “Paul and the Politics of Meals in Roman Corinth,” in Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society, ed. Steven J. Friesen, Daniel N. Schowalter, and James C. Walters (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 343-64, argues that Paul writes to correct Corinthian practice primarily to limit the power that his rivals could exert through community meals. This to me seems to be reading too much of the situation of 2 Corinthians back into 1 Corinthians.

[30]See Witherington, Conflict & Community, 241; Hays, 193; Dowling, 69; Barrett, 262; James Custer, “When is Communion Communion?” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (September 1985): 403; Donald Farner, “The Lord’s Supper Until He Comes,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (September 1985): 395; Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 261.

[31]Edward J. Kilmartin, “The Eucharistic Cup in the Primitive Liturgy,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24, no. 1 (January 1962): 33, n. 10, “This fact does not prove that the Eucharist was always and everywhere associated with a meal in the primitive Church, but there is no clear evidence for the separation of the Eucharist from the agape at this time.”

[32]For those claiming that the community meal came first and was followed by the Lord’s Supper, see Coutsoumpos, 104; Kilmartin, 34; J. Timothy Coyle, “The Agape/Eucharist Relationship in 1 Corinthians 11,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (September 1985): 415.

For those who argue that the fellowship meal was bracketed by the blessing of the bread and the cup, see Lampe, 37; G. C. Nicholson, “Houses for Hospitality: 1 Cor 11:17-34,” Colloquium 19, no. 1 (October 1986): 4; Theissen, 151-52.

Ultimately, there is not enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion on the relative sequence of the agapē meal and the Lord’s Supper, Nigel Watson, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2nd rev. ed., Epworth Commentaries (London: Epworth, 2005), 115; Jeffrey A. Gibbs, “An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion: 1 Corinthians 10:4-22; 11:17-34,” Concordia Journal 21, no. 2 (April 1995): 156, n. 20.

[33]L. Michael White, “Regulating Fellowship in the Communal Meal: Early Jewish and Christian Evidence,” in Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World, ed. Inge Nielsen and Hanne Nielsen (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1998), 178-81; Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1999), 126-32; Ferguson, The Church of Christ, 261, all discuss the separation of the agapē meal from the Lord’s Supper over time.

[34]A. Andrew Das, “1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Revisited,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 62, no. 3 (July 1998): 188, “The very idea of a congregational or fellowship meal in the midst of the service may seem novel to most. Yet to the Corinthian congregation, the idea of a Sacrament without a community meal might have seemed equally strange.”

[35]See Oster, 279; Dowling, 69; Fee, 541; Sharon H. Ringe, “Hospitality, Justice, and Community: Paul’s Teaching on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Prism 1, no. 2 (September 1986): 62.

Alan Dan Orme, “The Agape Feast and 1 Corinthians 11,” Evangelical Theological Society papers, ETS-1025 (Portland, OR: Theological Research Exchange Network, 1987), microfiche, 3, disagrees with the scholarly consensus, arguing that Paul forever “prohibits the combination of the agape…with the communion.”

[36]Oster, 276.

[37]Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983), 31, discusses an emerging consensus among scholars that the social status of early Christians was higher than had previously been thought. Referring to 1 Cor. 1:26, Ringe, 60, points out that some of the Corinthians were apparently of the social elite, and these would have been the ones with large enough houses to host church gatherings. Coutsoumpos, 67: “The Corinthian church was not homogenous, but included a fairly wealthy and high-class minority in its membership.”

Most likely, there were multiple house churches in Corinth that met together regularly and then all combined less often, perhaps to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. After all, Paul seems to make a distinction in his terminology between “the church in the home of ___” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15) and the “whole church” (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 14:23). See Murphy O’Connor, 183-84; McRae, 178.

[38]The wealthier members of the Corinthian church likely would have thought that they were behaving charitably toward the poorer members by providing both the house and the bread and wine for the Communion observance. See Coutsoumpos, 51; Ringe, 62.

[39]Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd rev. ed., ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 872.

[40]Lampe, 37-41, suggests that the Corinthians were closely following the Greco-Roman dinner party custom of “First Tables” and “Second Tables”, which were separated by a break. In Lampe’s reconstruction, the richer Corinthians were showing up at “First Tables” to consume a meal, and then the rest would arrive during the break. “Second Tables” would consist of the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine, with those who had arrived late remaining hungry because they had missed the main meal. For other scholars who hold to a temporal interpretation, see Coutsoumpos, 40-41, 113; Thiessen, 153; Murphy O’Connor, 186;

[41]BDAG, 300.

[42]Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 142-52; Winter, “The Lord’s Supper at Corinth: An Alternative Reconstruction,” The Reformed Theological Review 37, no. 3 (September 1978), 73-82. Winter and Bradley B. Blue, “The House Church at Corinth and the Lord’s Supper: Famine, Food Supply, and the Present Distress,” Criswell Theological Review 5 (1991): 221-39, argue that this problem of the wealthy devouring their food in the presence of the have-nots was particularly relevant because Corinth was experiencing a famine at the time. For other scholars who reject the temporal reconstruction of the situation at Corinth, see David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 540-43; Hays, 197; Nicholson, 3-5; Das, 192, argues that the linguistic data is indecisive but that the temporal view makes no sense in the context: “Verse 20 is explicit that this is all happening not while the Corinthians were apart but when they were ‘coming together.’”

[43]Murphy-O’Connor, 183.

[44]Ibid., 182-86. Murphy-O’Connor’s views are widely accepted by other scholars, but David G. Horrell, “Domestic Space and Christian Meetings at Corinth: Imagining New Contexts and the Buildings East of the Theatre,” New Testament Studies 50, no. 3 (July 2004): 349-69, critiques them as implausible, stating that Murphy-O’Connor over-generalizes his findings and glosses over the difficulties of identifying which room functioned as a triclinium in a given archaeological site. Based on other archaeological finds, Horrell instead suggests the possibility that the Corinthian church met in large upper rooms, but acknowledges that this does not neatly explain the problems of 1 Cor. 11.

[45]Fee, 542, “In this case the lack of further description by Paul makes a clear-cut decision impossible.”

[46]The issue of the different versions and traditions of the Words of Institution which are found here and in the various gospels is beyond the scope of this paper. See Fee, 546; Witherington, Conflict & Community, 250; Watson, 120; Calvin L. Porter, “An Interpretation of Paul’s Lord’s Supper Texts: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and 11:17-34,” Encounter 50, no. 1 (Winter 1989): 31-32.

[47]Scholars debate what Paul means when he says that he received this tradition “from the Lord.” Most likely, Paul simply means that the practice of the Lord’s Supper originated with Jesus himself. See Witherington, Making a Meal of It, 99; Hays, 197; Garland, 545; Fee 548; Coutsoumpos, 117-19; Blomberg, 229. Others claim that Paul is saying he received the tradition from the Christian community. See Murphy-O’Connor, 207-08; Conzelmann, 196; Ringe, 67, n. 7; William R. Farmer, “Peter and Paul, and the Tradition Concerning ‘The Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Cor 11:23-26,” Criswell Theological Review 2 (September 1987): 119-40. Finally, some argue that Paul received this tradition directly from Jesus through specific revelation, perhaps similar to his Damascus road experience. See Hyam Maccoby, “Paul and the Eucharist,” New Testament 37, no. 2 (April 1991): 247-69; Coyle, 416.

[48]Lampe, 45, “In the Eucharist, Christ’s death is also proclaimed and made present by means of our giving ourselves up to others. Our love for others represents Christ’s death to other human beings.” See also Winter, 154; May, 8.

[49]May, 10, provides a survey of different views of “discerning the body” in 1 Cor. 11:29. Views that Paul is talking about (1) distinguishing between bread and wine that had been set aside for the Lord’s Supper and common food, or (2) recognizing the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine seem foreign to the context. Others suggest that Paul talks about (3) reflecting on the Lord’s death, (4) refers to the Body of Christ, those who have assembled as the church. Several commentators take the route I have, arguing that Paul emphasizes both of the latter perspectives. See Furnish, 84-86; Watson, 122-23; Porter, 39-40: “Eating and drinking without making the connection between the death of the Lord and the church is to eat and drink judgment on oneself.”

[50]It is only natural that such people would be judged, since they are “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). Thus, Fee, 561, “To ‘profane’ the meal as they are doing is to place themselves under the same liability as those responsible for that death in the first place.”

[51]The divisive actions of some in the observance of the Lord’s Supper apparently affect the whole community. See Hays, 201; Fee, 565.

[52]For scholars who argue for temporal and non-temporal translations, see n. 41 and n. 43 above.

[53]After all, it would make no sense for the wealthier Christians to wait for those arriving later if that waiting did not have the result of involving the latecomers in the communal meal. May, 12, “The Corinthians are to show normal Christian hospitality towards one another, either by waiting until all are assembled before they begin their meal or by sharing what they have each brought, so that none go hungry and their unity in Christ is demonstrated.

[54]Dowling, 72; Coutsoumpos, 51; Barrett 277. This same reasoning would also apply to Christians who oppose the practice of eating in a church building. Not only is the practice of having “church buildings” completely foreign to the context of 1 Corinthians 11, but Paul believes the church should eat when they come together, as long as they do it in a way that shows love and hospitality toward one another.

[55]Garland, 555.

[56]Witherington, Making a Meal of It, 173.

When God Shows Up: The Delightful Surprise of Job

When God Shows Up

The Book of Job is one of my favorites in the Bible, and Elihu is one of my favorite characters within the book. I have written on Elihu at length, but here, I just want to focus on Elihu’s role in what I like to think of as the “delightful surprise” of Job.

For a little bit of context to those who are not intimately familiar with the structure of Job, it goes something like this:

  • Prologue (Job 1-2): We are introduced to Job, learn of the wager between God and Satan, and watch as Job is dealt one devastating blow after another.
  • Dialogue Between Job and Friends (Job 3-28): Job laments his condition and three of his friends offer their thoughts, ultimately making things worse.*
  • Job’s Closing Monologue (Job 29-31): Job presents his summary defense and, maintaining his innocence, longs for an audience with God.
  • Elihu’s Speeches (Job 32-37): Young Elihu enters the scene, corrects Job’s friends, and foreshadows the appearance of God.
  • God’s Speeches (Job 38-42.8): God appears and addresses Job (with Job’s brief responses).
  • Epilogue (Job 42.9-17): The story of Job is resolved and his fortunes are restored.

I have argued that the primary purpose that Elihu serves is that he seeks to take Job’s focus off of his own troubles and turn his thinking to God instead. He concludes his speeches in Job 37 with repeated reference to the majesty of God, as illustrated by the power seen in thunder, storms, lightning, and other aspects of God’s creation. Elihu concludes his thoughts on God’s majesty and indeed, his speeches, by basically telling Job (cf. Job 37.23): “God is beyond us. We cannot understand Him and He owes us no explanation…don’t expect Him to show up!” From a literary perspective, this is part of the masterpiece of Job and the deep irony of Elihu: simultaneously, his talk of God’s majesty prepare us for a God who appears out of a whirlwind while his concluding statement tells us not to expect any appearance at all!

Elihu disappears from the scene and then, the surprising and incredible thing happens. Contrary to Elihu’s expectations, and Job’s expectations, and the reader’s expectations, the God of majesty who shows His power in the wonder of creation, the God who is beyond us…shows up! 

When He does, he doesn’t give Job what he wants—He doesn’t give an explanation for why Job has suffered and why so many terrible things have happened to him. In this way, God’s response confirms what Elihu was saying: God is beyond Job, and doesn’t owe him an explanation for everything. But even better than God’s explanation is His presence! He appears before Job, and that response of presence is better than any explanation. It is enough for Job to continue on in faith, despite what he has experienced.

Reading Scripture from a Christological perspective, I think this appearance of God foreshadows His ultimate appearance in the incarnation: Jesus comes and lives as a man, dies a cruel death, and is then raised from the dead. Ultimately, Jesus does all of this not to answer all of our questions, but to show that He is truly with us. 

Better than God’s explanation is His presence:

  • In the incarnation, He is present with us in our very nature.
  • In the crucifixion, He is present with us in the experience of suffering.
  • In the resurrection, He gifts us the hope of His eternal presence.

And rather than explanation, it is God’s presence, seen through Jesus Christ, that gives us comfort even when life deals us inexplicable hardship and suffering!

*Many scholars would break this down further and some would remove Job 28 as a separate poem to wisdom. That level of specificity is beyond my purposes here.

Image Credit: Sean Heavey

Neglecting the Old Testament

Neglect OT

Introduction

I am still a fairly young guy (despite what my youth group thinks!), and I do not claim to be the most experienced minister in the world. Having said that, I have been a minister long enough to witness a distressing number of Christians display ignorance, misunderstanding, and in some cases, outright disdain for both the Old Testament and the covenant between God and Israel which the Old Testament explains and portrays.

This is trend is unfortunate, and I think it stems from two separate, but related, problems:

  1. Christians tend to confuse the “Old Testament” with the “Old Covenant”
  2. Christians tend to not understand the fundamental nature of the “Old Covenant” very well.

Honestly, this topic probably deserves an entire series of posts, but I have decided instead to list some common statements that I have heard that reflect the problems I mentioned above, and then briefly respond to them.

The Old Testament vs. the Old Covenant

 A lot of times people will use these terms synonymously, but that is unfortunate, because they are not synonyms.[1]

You’ll hear people say things like:

“Why should we study the Old Testament? Wasn’t the Old Covenant nailed to the cross?”

or

“I am a New Testament Christian.”

Most likely, some of my readers are wondering right now what could possibly be wrong with the quotations I have listed above. I have no doubt that they are made with good intentions, and depending on what the speaker means, I might actually agree with the idea that is being presented. But both statements make the mistake of confusing the terms testament and covenant.

Simply put, when discussing the Bible and the theology revealed therein, testamentcovenant. The word testament refers to a body of literature within the canon of Scripture. The Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures) comprises 39 of the 66 books of the Bible, while the New Testament accounts for 27 books.

On the other hand, the word covenant refers to a dynamic relationship established by God in His grace with a group of people. The Old Covenant refers to the relationship established between Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and His people Israel. The New Covenant refers to the relationship between Christ and His Church. These covenants are certainly related to the portions of Scripture described above: the Old Testament does detail the covenant relationship between God and Israel, while the New Testament discusses and reveals the covenant between Christ and His Church. Still, testamentcovenant.

With that in mind, the problem with the statements quoted above is that they confuse covenant and testament.

Certainly Colossians 2.13-19 conveys the idea that Christians are not required to keep the civil, ceremonial, and religious commandments of ancient Israel:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

(Colossians 2.13-19)

In other words, we are now under a different covenant. Under the New Covenant, Jesus is our sacrifice, and the debt of sin that we owe has been “nailed to the cross.”[2]

That doesn’t mean however, that the body of literature known as the Old Testament has somehow been nailed to the cross as well and is now irrelevant for Christians. Indeed, this is a preposterous idea for several reasons:

  • New Testament authors quoted from the Old Testament all the time! Gospel writers (especially Matthew) use it frequently, and Paul, the most prolific writer in the New Testament, repeatedly quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures and uses them to inform his theology and instruction to the churches to whom he writes.
  • Jesus significantly reaffirmed ethical teachings from the Old Testament in His Sermon on the Mount. When He repeatedly uses the formula, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you” He is not disagreeing with the words of Moses in the Old Testament; on the contrary, He is affirming the words of Moses, and disagreeing with traditions and (mis)interpretations of the Pharisees and religious leaders who had systematically disregarded the words of Moses in order to do whatever they wanted!
  • The Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures was the Bible of the early church! The church was established in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost following the death of Jesus in approximately AD 30, and over the next three decades, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Timothy, and others worked to spread the good news of Jesus and plant churches throughout the Greco-Roman world. With the earliest New Testament books likely written in the late 40s or early 50s, that means that for the first twenty years or so of the existence of the church, the only written scriptures they possessed was the Old Testament! Even later, until the entire New Testament canon was completed and compiled, churches would only have had access to incomplete portions of New Testament writings. This is not to say that early Christians had no access to teachings about Jesus (they certainly did in oral form, and might have had access to other written documents that we no longer possess), but it does emphasize that the Old Testament was the primary scriptural source of the first century church!

Related to that is my discomfort for the second statement. If “I am a New Testament Christian” means that I am saved under the covenant relationship between Christ and His Church, the terms of which are described in the pages of the New Testament, then I have no problem with it. But to the degree that that statement implies that it is only the New Testament that I read and use to inform my faith and practice, I am uncomfortable with it. I am certainly a New Covenant Christian, but I am a Two Testament Christian.[3]

Misunderstanding the Old Covenant

Having (hopefully) dispensed with the problem of mixing up the words covenant and testament, we turn to the Old Covenant itself. The problem here is that I fear that many Christians fundamentally misunderstand the nature of God’s covenant with Israel.

You’ll hear people says things like this:

“The Old Covenant was a covenant of law rather than grace.”

or

“Under the Old Covenant, God only cared about the external, not the internal.”

Both of these statements present the same general idea: the Old Covenant was all about the external actions of following rules rather than a heart relationship with God. Extreme versions even present the Old Covenant as a covenant of works, while the New Covenant is a covenant of grace.

There are major problems with this.

First off, the Old Covenant, like the New Covenant, was a covenant of grace. In His grace, God called to Abraham and promised to bless him and his descendants so they could be a blessing to others. Abraham had done nothing to earn or merit God’s blessings; God’s choice of and provision for Abraham was all based on grace. Later, God would deliver His Law to Abraham’s descendants—the Israelites—through Moses, but even then, it was an act of grace: before God gave the Israelites the Law of Moses, He had already, in His grace, rescued them from bondage to Egypt.

Now certainly, as part of the covenant, the Israelite people were expected to obey God’s commandments and do His will, but they were able to enter that covenant because of God’s gracious disposition toward them.[4] In other words, the Old Covenant certainly included God’s Law, but it was absolutely established on God’s grace!

It is also incorrect to caricature the Old Covenant as being only about rigidly following external requirements and procedures and that the heart didn’t matter. On the contrary, God has always cared about the heart!

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is called the Shema and is one of the theologically richest passages of Scripture:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

(Deuteronomy 6.4-9)

In the context of Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites have just been told how important it is that they keep all of the statues and commandments of God. Moses then goes on to ground this practice of obedience in love: the Israelites should do what God says because they love Him, and that’s what love does (cf. John 14.15)![5]

This idea is completely in keeping with what the New Testament teaches:

“The New Testament itself requires no more than this total self-surrender of man’s being to his maker (Matt.22.37). The Gospel differs from the Law not so much in replacing an external and carnal service of God by an inward and spiritual one, as in supplying new motives and peculiar assistances for the attainment of that Divine love which was from the first and all along enjoined as “the first and great commandment.”[6]

As the Book of Hebrews teaches, we are certainly in a better position under the New Covenant, as we have a superior sacrifice and a superior high priest, but the distinction between the two covenants is not a distinction between works and grace or between the external and the internal. Under the New Covenant, we are fortunate to have the revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ, and His example and the guidance of the indwelling Spirit of God gives us the “new motives and peculiar assistances” mentioned above, but the essential nature of the covenant remains the same: God wants us to obey Him because we love Him!

Conclusion

So where does all of this leave us? I have spilt a lot of digital ink in this post, but practically speaking, what am I advocating?

First, in an effort to be accurate and precise when we talk about important things (I think the Bible is important, and if you’re still reading, you probably do too!), let’s try to keep the terms covenant and testament straight: covenant refers to the dynamic relationship between God and a group of people; testament refers to a portion of Scripture.

Second, let’s not mischaracterize the Old Covenant: God has always been a God of grace. It’s not like He used to require that people earn their salvation and then one day changed His mind. Furthermore, God has always cared about the hearts of His people. He has never been pleased by lifeless, loveless obedience that follows a checklist of rules but cares nothing for the Rule-Giver.


[1] Much of my thoughts here are greatly informed by John D. Fortner, “A New Covenant/Two-Testament Christianity,” December 28, 2011, https://fortnersthinkshop.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/a-new-covenant-two-testament-christianity/ (accessed March 9, 2016). I highly recommend reading this article for fuller discussion of these concepts.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This idea, that we enter into covenant with God because of His grace and stay in the covenant by trying to do God’s will and obey His commandments, is called “covenantal nomism” and it is the same basis for the New Covenant as well. You can read more at http://lukedockery.com/2015/08/06/grace-law-and-salvation-what-legalism-does-not-mean/

[5] Bruce Oberst, Deuteronomy, Bible Study Textbook Series (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1968), 108: “Surely this passage will show that God’s word was to dominate and pervade their lives….It also show how, even in the Old Testament, God desired that his laws be kept out of a heart of love for him” [emphasis added].

[6] F.C. Cook, ed., Exodus—Ruth, The Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967), 283.

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