Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jesus and the Paradox of the Law (II)

In the first post of this series, we looked at a paradox created by the fact that Jesus was both man and God. As a man, he was subject to Jewish law, which forbade blasphemy, or claiming that one was in any way divine. But as the Son of God, he was bound to answer truthfully to the high priest's question: "Are you the Son of God?" -- and thus, in the high priest's eyes, to have committed blasphemy.

Because the Jewish leaders did not recognize Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, they held him liable to the death penalty for speaking what they could only regard as blasphemy. But in so doing, they ensured Jesus' penitential sacrifice could fulfill the law, and provide salvation for the whole world.

This is what I am calling "the paradox of the law." In this second post, I want to explore more of the consequences which its recognition may have for both Jews and Christians. In particular, I wish to employ the paradox to pry into the knotty issue of supersessionism, or (in some eyes) "replacement theology."

In general terms, both versions of the doctrine focus upon the role left to (or, in the stronger versions, imposed upon) the Jews after Jesus accomplished his salvific sacrifice for the sake of all sinners. For some, Jesus fulfilled the multiple promises of the Tanakh. Thus, he was the Jews' Messiah, and they will not get another one. By failing to acknowledge him as their Savior, these people claim, the Jews will suffer the same fate as other unbelievers, unless they end up repenting and accepting Jesus as the Savior of the world -- including (but not limited to) Jews.

Under this version of the doctrine, Jesus' sacrifice abrogated the previous covenants between God and the Jewish people -- hence Christianity is said to "supersede," or replace, Old Testament covenant theology. The Jewish religion has no reason, under this doctrine, any longer to exist, or be practiced.

In milder versions of this same doctrine, the Second Coming will demonstrate beyond all doubt to the Jews that Jesus is their Messiah, and they will thereupon be grafted upon the New Testament's mission of salvation to all the world in the name of Jesus Christ.

And there are all kinds of variations in between these poles -- as befits man's ingenuity.

So what does what I have termed "the paradox of the law" have to do with the doctrine of supersessionism -- however interpreted?

Consider this: if, as I have noted in the first post, the Jews were bound to misunderstand Jesus so that his sacrifice for all could take place while he walked the earth as a man who was the Son of God, then God made the Jews his instruments in bringing about (albeit unknowingly) the means of salvation for all -- much in the same way that he turned the crime of Joseph's brothers into a means of providing relief from famine for the entire Jewish nation.

So God, in having the Jewish leaders of the first century reject His Messiah, was able to make them work towards his larger purpose. But where did that leave the Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah? By allowing them to apply the law they had received from Him against His own Son, God did not abrogate that law, but left it intact. Jews still recognize its validity (to varying degrees) today.

Here I think the supersessionist answer fails to acknowledge the two opposing truths that are at the bottom of what I call "the paradox of the law." Just as the Jews thought they were right in applying the law of blasphemy to Jesus -- as handed down to them by God through Moses -- so the supersessionists assert that Jesus as the Son of God introduced a new (and better) law which made that of the Jews obsolete.  Yet without the Jewish law, Christianity as such could never have begun.

How can anybody, therefore, hold Jews responsible for a rejection by their forebears which made Christianity itself possible? Had the Sanhedrin decided to accept Jesus for who he was, the entire history of Christianity would have gone out the window, and we today would be dealing, no doubt, with various sects of Judaism who differ in their interpretation of Jesus' role as Messiah.

No, the Jews were almost bound by their traditions to reject Jesus as their Messiah -- despite the many passages of the Tanakh that predicted his coming, there were others which spoke of a great military king who would deliver the Jews from oppression (e.g., Ps. 2; Mic. 5:1-3; for a passage much closer to the first century, see Ps. Sol. 17:21-45). Jesus did not fit into any such role, and could convince believers only through his signs and wonders. But does the first-century Jews' rejection of Jesus imply that God thereupon must have abandoned his earlier Covenants with them?

Such an outcome is simply not a logical consequence of the Old Testament covenants. The Jewish Messiah was a promise foretold by the prophets, but the Messiah as such formed no part of any covenant. And although God keeps His promises, he also does not break any of His covenants.

God's covenants with Noah, Abraham and Moses therefore still have to hold, as between God and the descendants of Abraham who have not accepted Christianity, but who adhere to the tenets of the Jewish faith. For there to be a "supersession" of those covenants implies a breach of those covenants -- by God himself, which is an impossibility. "For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29).

The Book of Hebrews, ch. 7, states that in Jesus, God has given His people a "new [and better] covenant." And in ch. 8, the author points out that in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (click on note "g" to read), God stated His intention to give Israel that new covenant at some future time, because "they did not continue in my [old] covenant." This implies that it will be the people of Israel who break the old covenant, and not God. Whether and when God may consider them to have broken it is nothing for Christians to decide. (The passage speaks of God giving his new covenant to Israel, and not to the Gentiles.) But the passage from Jeremiah indicates that until that time, God's old covenant remains in effect.

In Romans 10:1-4, Paul (speaking to Roman gentiles) gives vent to his exasperation with his fellow Jews who "have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge," since they reject out of ignorance the new offer that God has made them:
Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

But in ch. 11, Paul is emphatic that God has not rejected his people -- he has only hardened their hearts, while extending by grace (and not by merits) His salvation to a chosen remnant of them:
God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened . . . . (Romans 11:2-7 ESV)
He goes on to express his firm conviction that their hearts will later be turned to accept Jesus as their Savior.

In Paul's view, then, Christ's new covenant based on faith does supersede God's covenant based upon the law, but only for those Jews who come to Christ. (Gentiles who do so have no covenant to be superseded.) Meanwhile, "God has not rejected his people" -- it is instead for them to reject him (by breaking their covenant with him). According to Romans 11:23-27, the Jews' hardness of heart will continue only until "the fullness of the Gentiles has come in," at which point God will "graft them back into their own native olive tree."

What Paul calls "the fullness of the Gentiles" has yet to come in to the body of Christ, and so the time for the Jews to make their final choice evidently has not yet arrived. Until that time, therefore, they must (if they do not accept Christ) continue in their old covenant -- which God will not abrogate on his own.

Here, then, is my main point: unless God's earlier covenants remained fully in place, there would have been no basis, under Jewish law, for condemning Christ to death. For if the Jews were expected, at one and the same time to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and to perceive that he set aside, or superseded, the ancient covenants of God with Israel, then more was demanded of them than of any other peoples alive at the time of Christ.

No one -- not Jesus, nor Paul, nor any of the disciples -- has ever given the slightest indication that God laid such a burden upon the Jews, to require them to decide on the spot, and on pain of eternal damnation, whether Jesus was who he said he was. No, God's laws given to Moses dictated the punishment which a man making the claims of Jesus must be given. The Jews in punishing him were faithful to God's law as they then understood it applied -- and thereby gave birth to Christianity.

How, then, are we to deal with the situation where Christians who accept Jesus as the crucified Son of God live in a world side-by-side with Jews who deny Christ's sonship, and who insist that their promised Messiah has not yet come? Let Paul have the last word (Rom. 11:28-36):
As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.


  1. An akin paradox may extend to us who bear Christ’s image. Jewish law condemned the Jewish Messiah, yet in a larger scale man’s universal laws (reason) may be used to condemn those who follow the Messiah.

    Man’s dilemma is that his reason must, but cannot, overcome his own self-destruction. We are trapped in a corner and never more clearly than in the last century. Therefore, universal law is now preeminent in mens’ minds with a desperation for the hope of world peace. Man must unify himself or destroy himself.

    Without God’s Spirit the yearning words for Babel in John Lennon’s popular song “Imagine” is quite reasonable when knowing “We’re on the Eve of Destruction” according to Barry McGuire’s hit song a couple of years prior.

    To those wanting God to unify mankind in an Islamic caliphate, “convert or die” makes sense to them when unity is a purpose of man from God.

    Suggestions by climate change extremists recently for punishment and even the death penalty for “deniers” makes sense to them if we are to survive on the planet. To not respect our eco-system could be seen as a breach of even the Golden Rule.

    So, claiming that we are sent to be different, that we are for a different unity, a different peace, a different hope and a different end will be forbidden under an increasingly inviolable, universal law. And when we are asked, “who do you think you are”, we also will answer with a blasphemy ... against mankind.

    1. Mike Anderson, the paradox you mention does not and will not exist. If "Truth cannot be reached by reason alone! [Maurice Blondel]", and if Truth never changes and a unity 'of man' has never at any time in human history come close to fruition, then individuals capably of acting rationally and who seek or claim to seek such unity also have an awareness of factors that do exist and relate to their seeking such unity (or to their claim of seeking such unity) as well as the nonexistence at any time on this plane of a unity of man.

  2. Some haunting words go with me everywhere, from the old BCP, a phrase that states ".....the Peace which passeth all understanding.." and it certainly speaks to the Cosmos, and matters beyond our comprehension....even bigger than HAL, the computer on board the spaceship heading for Jupiter in 2001 A Space Odyssey.