Spirituality

Wealth and Poverty in the Letter of James

Introduction

The letter of James is famed for its stirring ethical clarity. This is especially true of its teachings on wealth and poverty, which constitute one of the leading concerns of James’ missive. In this essay, I will argue that James provides a coherent ethical view of wealth and poverty for his audience,[1] which undergirds his specific exhortations on the matter. The essay itself will unfold in three (unequal) sections. First, I will exegetically survey the relevant passages in James, parsing his main lines of thought according to three, conceptual categories: the epistle’s notion of eschatological reversal; its prophetic critique of wealth and economic injustice; and its forceful moral entreaties. Second, I will “delve beneath” those initial results and argue that the ethics of the OT and of Jesus have decisively shaped James’ economic teachings. Finally, I shall outline the implications of the aforementioned, particularly in relation to James’ overall theological-ethical agenda. Indeed, it is within this overarching framework that James’ economic counsel must be placed, as he sets out his vision for a people renewed, living in a liminal age.

James’ Teachings

The five main passages on wealth and poverty in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) reflect a cohesive programme for how to approach these matters. I have grouped James’ teachings within three inter-related categories, linked by his theocentric outlook: the eschatological reversal of status; prophetic denunciations of the (unrighteous) wealthy; and exhortations towards proper treatment of the destitute. These categories represent different facets of the larger issue of wealth and poverty in James’ epistle, evincing a spirit of social and economic egalitarianism.[2] Moreover, because these threads are woven into James’ controlling narrative, I shall pick them up at the essay’s end.

James’ teachings on wealth and poverty often focus on the eschatological reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor.[3] Indeed, James signals his conviction that present struggles (cf. 1:2-4) – borne out of economic deprivation and/or the exploitation of the poor by the rich[4] – are transitory, subject to God’s ultimate (i.e. eschatological) verdict and purposes.[5] This lies behind his initial exhortations on the matter, in 1:9-11: the Christian in lowly circumstances (“brother”) should exult in his “high position,”[6] whilst the “one who is rich” should focus upon his “low position.”[7] For James, present status and hierarchies will be overturned – reversed – when God’s purposes are fully and finally revealed. Poor believers are to “take pride” in their impending vindication in God’s kingdom, and are encouraged to look beyond their current earthly status (v.9);[8] the rich, on the other hand, are to “boast” in nothing more than the fact that they have been accepted as servants within that same kingdom (v.10-11).[9]

James 1:9-11 effectively argues that God will erase present injustices.[10] Believers should therefore evaluate themselves by spiritual, not material, standards, and orient their lives around God’s final purposes, rather than the present.[11] James underscores the ephemeral nature of riches when he says that the affluent believer may pass away even as he goes about his business (v.11). Life’s impermanence, James implies, should caution against overreliance on material goods for one’s security; thoughts of self-sufficiency, owing to economic security, are anathema (cf. 4:13-16). Significantly, James speaks of one’s future eschatological position as simultaneously present – of a status that is already a reality, even if it awaits final consummation.[12] I will return to the larger issue of this tension at the essay’s end.

Eschatological reversal also surfaces in Jas 2:1-7. There, James castigates his audience for discriminating between people based upon their socio-economic status – an issue that seems to have been very real in the communities to which James wrote, given the space he devotes to the matter.[13] James partly bases his criticisms on the fact that such favouritism is wholly contrary to God’s own special concern for the lowly and downtrodden – demonstrated particularly in the fact that he has “chosen” the poor to inherit his kingdom (v.5).[14] Like 1:9-11, the ethical exhortations in 2:1-7 are partly rooted in God’s eschatological judgments. Because the Creator and Judge has deigned to exalt the poor, any kind of behaviour within the church that mirrors the stratified world around it is sinful. James 2:1-7 also contrasts earthly poverty with spiritual wealth (esp. v.5), implying that worldly status and divine worth do not necessarily coincide. James’ point is clear: not only is it wrong to treat poor brethren so disdainfully, as it is they to whom God directs his mercy; a believer’s present earthly position, whether she be poor or rich, in no way reflects social relationships within God’s kingdom.

James’ denunciations of the wealthy in 5:1-6 reflect similar concerns to 2:6b-7, and demonstrate the relationship between this polemical exposure and James’ belief in the eschatological erasure of status and hierarchy.[15] James 5:1-6 offers a trenchant critique of the rich, tinged with prophetic indignation.[16] His letter speaks not only about the future (though partly realized) upheavals of the present socio-economic order, where misery will befall the unrighteous rich (vv. 1-2, 5); the catalogue of sins listed in 5:1-6 reflects James’ warnings about the present dangers of “unrighteous Mammon”, cohering with passages elsewhere which evince a condemnatory attitude towards materialism and avarice (cf. 4:13-16).[17] Here, wealth’s transience gives way to the testimony of judgment (vv.2-3). Of course, James does not denounce the wealthy qua wealthy. He states precisely why they are liable to judgment: they have acted oppressively and exploited the poor (vv.4-6).[18] But he also criticises them for hoarding their wealth whilst others have suffered penury (v.3b). In any event, James writes convinced that the unrighteous rich will not be able to sin with impunity forever.[19]

As noted, these passages are joined together by an important theological point of orientation for James – the purposes and nature of God. James, for example, can say that the Lord hears the cries of the exploited (5:4c): in a world where they are defenceless, he is their guardian.[20] Rooted in God’s supreme compassion and mercy, Jas 1:27 and 2:14-17 exhort his audience to use wealth and resources righteously – upholding the vulnerable, and supporting those who are materially bereft. For him, the proper stance towards wealth and economic status is imitative of God. James 1:27 explicitly links care for the poor – exemplified via widows and orphans – to unsullied religion acceptable to God.[21] He condemns rapacity (4:2; 5:1ff), whilst commending generosity.[22] James calls the Lord “Father,” subtly suggesting that care for the fatherless recapitulates God’s own paternal largesse (1:27; cf. 1:17). So, too, 2:14-17, where authentic devotion, reflected in the language of “faith,” is expressed via deeds of mercy towards impoverished brethren.[23] Indeed, James’ illustrative choice is telling. One may also cite 2:1-7, which reflects James’ concern about honouring, godly attitudes towards poverty and the poor.

James’ Influences

Whether viewing economics through the lens of eschatology, or urging his audience to use what they have compassionately and justly, James grounds his teachings in God’s character and purposes. However, he did not create this perspective de novo; rather, his economic teachings reflect dependence upon a long and rich tradition, stemming from OT-Jewish thought regarding God’s just and merciful character, and the corresponding obligations placed upon his people.[24] James’ letter builds upon, and grows out of, this consistent biblical theme.

James’ reliance on OT prophetic and wisdom traditions has long been recognized, as has his use of categories of vulnerable people the OT frequently employs (Jas 1:27; cf. Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5).[25] Particularly influential for James’ teachings regarding wealth and poverty, however, is the law. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James condemns partiality in the redeemed communities. He roots his condemnation in an extended application of the law of neighbour love, found in Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Jas 2:8ff), and his teachings reflect a broad dependence on the law’s social concern.[26] An expression of God’s character and will, the law informs James’ economic teachings, especially at this crucial point (cf. 1:27, applying the command to follow the word). Partiality (or selfishness and apathy in the face of poverty) is contrary to the law – and, therefore, contrary to the fundamental image of God as compassionate Father who treats all image-bearers equally.

However, James doesn’t simply allude to OT-Jewish tradition; his letter also echoes the voice of Jesus. For James, God’s attitudes to poverty and wealth – as well as the corresponding obligations of God’s people – are particularized and fulfilled in Jesus (e.g. 2:1).[27] Scholars note the many verbal links between Jesus and James.[28] For our purposes, Jesus’ social and economic teachings are relevant. Contrasts between listening to, and obeying, the word (Jas 1:22/Matt 7:24ff); promises to the poor of a royal inheritance (Jas 2:5/Matt 5:3); denunciation of the wealthy (Jas 5:1-6/Lk 6:24-26); the basic importance of eschatological reversal (Jas 1:9-11/Matt 19:30; 20:16); and, most saliently, the significance of the Levitical law of neighbour love (Jas 2:8/Matt 22:34-40), all suggest Jesus’ overriding influence upon James’ thought. Reference to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8) nuances OT legal codes according to the law of the kingdom (v.5; cf. 1:25), embodied in Jesus.[29] For James, the law – which helps animate his teachings on wealth and poverty – is taken up into the ethics of Jesus, becoming the implanted word that “can save” (1:21).[30] James views the communities to which he writes as the Messianically-renewed people of God (cf. the language of 1:1b),[31] and writes in the light of that reality. Jesus, God’s agent in eschatological restoration, constitutes the defining voice behind James’ economic exhortations and admonitions, shaping them at a deep, structural level.[32]

James’ Controlling Narrative

For James, God’s past revelation and future purposes – effecting justice, denouncing economic oppression and commanding mercy – are drawn together in Jesus’ establishment of a redeemed community, embodying God’s kingly righteousness. This leads us to James’ controlling narrative, tellingly illuminated by 1:18 (with its overtones of new creation):[33] the church is the “first fruits” of God’s redemptive reign.[34] His teachings on wealth and poverty reflect reliance upon this fundamental salvation-historical story.[35] Consequently, James urges his audience to live according to the requirements and implications of the eschatological inauguration of God’s kingdom, anticipating its consummation via a just, compassionate – indeed, counter-cultural – approach to the harsh socio-economic milieu they inhabit.[36]

And so we come full circle, returning to the fruits of our exegetical survey. James’ broader eschatological concerns and context,[37] within which he situates his teachings on wealth and poverty, are clear. Aside from the already-surveyed confluence between eschatology and economics,[38] James’ whole letter brims with eschatological conviction: he consistently invokes divine judgment to motivate right living (2:12; 4:12; 5:7-9), whilst picturing the Christian life as a trajectory moving towards its final goal (1:2-4). Moreover, James’ partly realized (i.e. inaugurated) eschatology suggests that he thinks of his audience as living in a liminal phase – the first of a burgeoning, divinely-ordained future (1:18; cf. 2:5). His audience, having been “birthed” through God’s saving word (v.18), operate as his redemptive vanguard. Through his instructions on wealth and poverty, James implies that the values of the kingdom should be practiced proleptically – offering an “advance model” of what God’s just reign will look like.[39]

Paired with this view is James’ sustained, thematic call to “wholeness,” “completeness” or “perfection.”[40] The audience’s obligation to approach wealth and poverty in the way(s) he urges are part of a complex of behaviours by which believers, both individually and communally,[41] demonstrate their devotion towards God and each other. James seeks to encourage economic behaviour that is oriented towards God’s present injunctions and his future rule. His letter is replete with terms that reflect this constellation of thought,[42] and it carries concern for ethical completeness (and within that, a godly approach to economics) in a number of ways: commendation of “pure religion” (1:27); a “whole” faith, manifested in good deeds; endurance towards one’s spiritual telos or goal (1:2-4); criticism of the “double-minded” (1:7-8); and, in a crucial passage, the excoriation of spiritual “adulterers” and encouragement towards purity (4:1-10). James urges unity within Christian assemblies (cf. 2:1-7), which coheres with the complete devotion and spiritual wholeness to which he enjoins individuals.[43] He repeatedly envisages eschatological “wholeness” as a present requirement; by calling them to live in an “undivided” manner – to which acting righteously in regards to wealth and poverty provides powerful attestation[44] – James instructs his audience to anticipate the ultimate perfection that a just and compassionate God will bring (cf. 2:5).

Conclusion

The foregoing analysis has attempted to provide a summation of the main facets of James’ teachings on wealth and poverty. His letter features several, related concerns that are especially prominent: the eschatological reversal of socio-economic status/hierarchy; the prophetic exposure of economic unrighteousness and oppression; and the corresponding regard for those who are impoverished and/or vulnerable. James evinces basic sympathy towards the victims of present injustices, grounding it in God’s nature and purposes, and the corresponding ethical implications for his people. James relies upon the consistent witness of the OT regarding treatment of the poor, evidenced in his use of the law to condemn practices contrary to God’s fundamental character. That character is, for James, exhibited in Jesus, the decisive voice in the letter’s economic-ethical teachings. These findings suggest that James’ instructions on wealth and poverty are situated within a controlling narrative, one which sees Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s (partly realized) eschatological kingdom. James writes to his audience as the “first fruits” of that inauguration, urging them to embody God’s perfect rule through economic justice and generous stewardship.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

————————-. “Eschatology.” Pages 333-339 in New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition). Edited by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer & D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Beale, Greg K. “Eschatology”. Pages 330-345 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. Volume Two: New Testament Survey. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Carson, D.A. “James,” Pages 997-1013 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1 vol.; Anchor Bible 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.

————————. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

————————. Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Lemcio, E.E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988): 3-17.

McCartney, Dan G. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Waco: Word, 1988.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

Moo, Douglas. James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ross, Allan P. Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Wachob, Wesley Hiram. The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (Studies in the New Testament Series 106. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Wall, Robert. “James, Letter of.” Pages 545-561 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert Lee. “Piety and Poverty in James.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall, 1987): 37-55.

Winbery, Carlton L. “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James.” Theological Educator 34 (Fall, 1986): 26-34.

Witherington III, Ben. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009.

[1] See Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22-24; Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. New Testament Introduction and Survey, Volume 2 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 390, for similar reconstructions of the identity of James’ audience.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1 vol.; AB 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995), 82.

[3] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco: Word, 1988), 25-26; Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70-71.

[4] Moo, James, 65. On the socio-economic conditions of the first century, see Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 12-23.

[5] On eschatology and the later NT (and James esp.), see Greg K. Beale, “Eschatology,” DLNTD, 330-333, 335; Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” NBD, 333-334.

[6] Carlton L. Winbery, “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James,” TE 34 (Fall, 1986): 28.

[7] Moo, James, 68, argues that the rich person is a Christian; cf. Martin, James, 25-26. I agree with Moo that the term “brother” (v.9) governs both individuals.

[8] Robert Lee Williams, “Piety and Poverty in James,” WTJ 22 (Fall, 1987): 43.

[9] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 29; Moo, James, 66.

[10] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 28.

[11] McCartney, James, 98.

[12] Martin, James, 25, 28; Johnson, The Letter of James, 185; Moo, James, 30.

[13] Moo, James, 98.

[14] Moo, James, 35.

[15] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 31-32.

[16] Moo, James, 211.

[17] McCartney, James, 232.

[18] Moo, James, 210.

[19] Johnson, The Letter of James, 309.

[20] Moo, James, 216.

[21] Martin, James, 52.

[22] Johnson, Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92.

[23] Martin, James, 52.

[24] See Moo, James, 35-36 for a discussion of this general theological-ethical trend; cf. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42.

[25] See D.A. Carson, “James” CNTOT, 997-1013. On the influence of wisdom and prophecy, see Johnson, The Letter of James, 32-34.

[26] See Johnson, The Letter of James, 30-32; Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127-135; Carson, “James,” 999-1000. On Leviticus 19, see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351-365.

[27] The consequential relationship between faith in Jesus and rejection of partiality is clear. See Wesley Hiram Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (SNTS 106; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 77.

[28] See esp. Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009), 298; Wachob, The Social Rhetoric, 138.  

[29] Moo, James, 98, 112; Carson, “James,” 1000.

[30] McCartney, James, 110.

[31] The language suggests that James sees his audience as the renewed “Israel” of God. See Davids, Commentary, 63.

[32] Bauckham, James (NTR; London: Routledge, 1999), 147.

[33] McCartney, James, 111.

[34] Moo, James, 24, 80.

[35] On the unifying story of the NT, see E.E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988), 6.

[36] On the narrative cast of James’ letter, see Robert Wall, “James, Letter of,” DLNTD, 556-557; Bauckham, James, 100; Winbery, “The Attitude,” 33; Johnson, The Letter, 85-88.

[37] McCartney, James, 70-71.

[38] Cf. Moo, James, 36-37.

[39] Bauckham, James, 173; Moo, James, 24.

[40] See Bauckham, James, 165, 173-179, for an extended treatment; Martin, James, lxxix.

[41] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[42] See esp. Martin, James, lxxix.

[43] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[44] Moo, James, 97-98.

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The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

Ephesians 2 and the “Problem” of the Law

I was in a Bible study group a number of weeks ago, delving in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. The group camped at Ephesians 2:11-22 for a little while, discussing Paul’s reflections on how Christ’s death has accomplished unity between Jew and Gentile. As Paul himself puts it, the death of Christ “is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v.14). He goes on to declare that the law was “abolish[ed]” in Christ’s flesh, with the creation of “one new man” the result (v.15). I think everyone agreed that this was something to be cherished.

What struck the group as strange, however, was Paul’s blunt statement about Christ “abolishing…the law with its commandments and regulations” (Eph. 2:15a). As one member seemed to suggest, a de-contextualised reading might imply that Jesus’ death had simply done away with the law. Apart from appearing to be inconsistent with what Jesus himself said (cf. Matt. 5:17-20), this particular group member further suggested that it could lead to overly liberal interpretations regarding the ethical demands placed upon Christians – a salient point, particularly in a society that seems to hold traditional Christian sexual ethics in some disregard.

No firm conclusions were reached, and there was some confusion over what, precisely, Paul meant. What was his main point? Was he saying, point-blank, that the law had truly been abolished? Was it completely obsolete? Was Paul offering justification for some kind of antinomianism? Here, I hope to provide some (general) pointers for interpreting the great Apostle, looking at what he meant in speaking of the law as he did, before sketching out the wider implications of the main thrust of the passage.

Firstly, it should be noted that to read Ephesians 2:15 in isolation is to fail to “read” it at all. That is, one has indeed de-contextualised the verse, neutering its true significance. Shorn of all context, and wrenched from its literary environment, a verse of Scripture can be harnessed by anyone, to substantiate all kinds of agendas. This verse is no different. It’s important, then, that one takes account of the passage in its entirety, which means reaching back to Ephesians 2:11.

After waxing lyrical about the manifold blessings that God has prepared for believers, and proclaiming the gift of divine salvation in the midst of transgression and death, Paul focuses his analysis upon the Gentile congregants and their union with Christ. He speaks of their past – denied citizenship in Israel, far from God, and lacking knowledge of either his law or his truth. “But now,” Paul says, the Gentile believers have been “brought near” through Christ. Prompted by the import of this divinely-wrought act, Paul spends some verses speaking about its implications. However, he is also alert to the pressures encountered by the church in Ephesus (to which vv.11-18 seem to allude), and his letter is, at this point, motivated by those issues. Paul briefly refers to Jews, who were sometimes called (and called themselves) “the circumcision” (v.11). In some churches, demands were made that Gentile Christians undergo the rites and obey the laws of Judaism. Their derision of these individuals as “uncircumcised” had the effect of creating two “classes” of Christian within the body of Christ. Whether that was happening in the Ephesian church is less clear – one certainly doesn’t encounter the “live” issue of Jew-Gentile relations here as in Galatians. At any rate, Paul is making a general, expansive point about the new unity that exists between Jew and Gentile as a result of what Christ has achieved.

Jews (and even many Jewish Christians) put great stock in their ethno-national identity as Jews: God’s chosen people, members of Israel and participants in the covenants. The Jewish people had long used circumcision, along with such strictures as food laws and Sabbath-keeping, as particularly obvious identity markers to guarantee the integrity and purity of the religious community. And although many Jews, along with Gentiles, had been saved into the newly forged household of God, they were still intent on cleaving to those symbols of covenantal uniqueness. The law was viewed as an indispensable identity marker of God’s people. But Paul wants to focus upon the epochal work of Jesus Christ, whose death has, in fact, assured non-Jews of salvation.

Thus, it is not the case that verse 15, where Paul speaks of Christ abolishing the law in his flesh, is meant to be interpreted in some kind of abstract, de-historicised fashion. Paul is not suggesting that the law, as a general moral code, is no longer relevant. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:10, which is situated just before the passage in question, the Apostle speaks of believers as God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (italics mine). Paul is no antinomian, committed as he is elsewhere to a high standard of (Christ-centred) ethics (see, for example, Rom. 12:9-21; 13:8-14).

Clearly, then, Paul was not embarking on a way of life bereft of moral behaviour, and his words regarding the status of the law should not be construed as such. The problem was not with the law per se. Rather, Paul speaks of the abrogation of the law, narrowly defined as the means of establishing membership of the people of God. For it was not the law, in its role as the substantiating force behind a particular ethno-religious identity, that was to be the foundation of one’s status as God’s elect. Paul is quite emphatic: it is Christ Jesus, who provides the final guarantee of one’s entry into God’s house by abolishing the divisive role to which the law (or at least elements of it) had been put. In him (i.e. Christ), Paul says, has a new people been created – forged out of the patchwork of sinful humanity, and drawn together under the unifying auspices of Jesus himself.

This is the main thrust of Paul’s proclamation in 2:13-18. He acknowledges that at one stage, Gentiles were far from God. However, he goes on to declare that peace has come through Christ and his sacrifice, reconciling Gentile sinners to God – not through the law, but through him in whom sin was condemned, once-and-for-all (cf. Rom. 8:3). Paul is not thinking of an inner tranquillity when he speaks of peace. Instead, he refers to the objective peace between God and the reconciled sinner, having been brought about by the death of the Messiah. He becomes the basis for one’s status as a member of God’s house; it is upon faith in Christ, and not the law, that a person is declared to be saved. In Christ, we find the fulfilment of the law, whose life and death satisfied the requirements of the law on behalf of those who trust in him. As such, there was no need for the Gentile believers at Ephesus to become culturally (if not ethnically) Jewish, for whatever merit circumcision had (not to mention other such markers), it could no longer operate as the determining factor in laying down the boundaries of the redeemed community. The law, to the extent that it was relevant, could not be used to prop up the unique privilege of being counted as member of the divine family.

Moreover, it is precisely because of Christ’s death that Jew and Gentile can come together in newly fashioned unity. Since the law cannot act as the “backbone” of covenantal identity, it cannot be said to divide. Christ has come to tear down that “dividing wall of hostility” – in other words, to bring to an end the law’s use as boundary marker between Jews and Gentiles – so that “one new man” may be fashioned out of the old (vv.14-15). At this point, we should be alert to the evocative use of that image, “dividing wall of hostility,” which likely refers to the structures of the Jerusalem temple that prevented non-Jews from going beyond a certain point. Those structures have been torn down; Jesus is the final, consummating basis for entry into, and ongoing membership in, God’s kingdom. As Paul explicitly says, this was his (i.e. God’s) express “purpose”; God intended it from the beginning, such that all racial, ethnic and national differences – even those conceived within the context of a religious-covenantal identity – would be utterly transcended.

As such, the vertical peace that exists between God and sinners as a consequence of the death of Jesus is matched by the horizontal peace that exists between Jews and non-Jews (cf. v.16). According to Paul, a kind of triadic unity has been created: not simply the reconciliation of ethnic groups; nor merely the end of enmity between God and individual sinners; but a comprehensive reunion between these three “parties” via the cross. Ethno-religious identity has ceased to be relevant, for the One to whom the law points has superseded it. This is no new theme, or theological novelty, that Paul has introduced. Elsewhere, in making much the same point, he declares that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, because an overarching oneness has been achieved in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

Thus, we see that for Paul, the death of Jesus has erased division, boasting, religious chauvinism – indeed, that sense of spiritual and covenantal superiority – which existed to hamper the Gentiles as they sought to receive the mercy of God. Gentiles qua Gentiles can access that mercy, having been brought near by the same Christ who saves Jews, too. This is also an important point, for Paul is careful to say that not only has Christ’s death granted non-Jews access to God; Jews need to appropriate the benefits of Calvary as well. In verse 14, he states that Christ “is our peace,” thereby including Jews. In verse 16, he writes that both Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God “through the cross,” strongly implying that both groups – contrary to what some may have thought – needed just that.  And in verse 18, he explicitly says that “we both have access to the Father by the one Sprit.” Christ’s death has made a way, and it is by God’s Spirit that one acknowledges, receives and responds effectively to that salvific work. Paul could not have been plainer in subverting the seemingly insurmountable power of the law as the guarantor of covenantal identity. Nor could he have been clearer in challenging the “false confidence of the Jews, who…boasted that they were the holy people, and chosen inheritance, of God,” (Calvin). If one is to boast, it can only be in what Christ has done.

***

From what we have seen in this (admittedly) wide-ranging survey, it is not the case that Paul sought to tear down the law-as-ethical-statement in order to replace it, say, with some version of antinomianism. Far from it; Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:11-22 is quite different, and it is a point worth celebrating. Paul demonstrates the double triumph of Jesus’ death: having the effect, not only of bringing individual sinners into relationship with God, but of drawing those same sinners – divided, perhaps, by a raft of ethnic and cultural differences – into relationship with one other. Due to the epoch-making work of Christ, the law’s role as the basis for one’s covenantal status has been rescinded. Paul did not seek to abrogate the law in some kind of abstract, ethical sense. To be sure, we are not called upon to obey the law in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same goal in mind, as the ancient Israelites. It is still deeply relevant, but only in so far as its teachings and strictures are taken up into Christ’s own, and only to the extent that they can be passed through a Christological prism – (re)interpreted in the light of Jesus’ life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrrection. In any case, Paul was thinking of the law in a very specific way when he spoke of Jesus’ death “abolishing” it.

Moreover, it is precisely Paul’s statements on this matter – found in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere – that should give us pause. Nothing can possibly supersede the achievement of Christ; his death and resurrection, and the Spirit-impelled trust one puts in them, is all that is required for someone to be counted a member of God’s household (cf. Eph. 2:19b). However, it is equally true that many who have, across the ages, declared this to be so have also added to that exclusive truth the accoutrements of their own culture, undermining the kind of radical, Christo-centric unity eulogised by Ephesians 2:11ff. Colonial expansion may have brought the gospel, but its proclamation was distorted by, amongst other things, the demand that Christianisation entail Westernisation. More recently, it could be said of many churches – even those that echo the Reformation cry of justification by faith (in Jesus) – unconsciously try and fuse the radically liberating message of Christ with the time-bound norms of post-war, middle class culture. Even today, we who would say “yes and Amen” to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 may be guilty of offering up a new set of identity markers that take their place alongside the inimitable accomplishments of Christ. All such practices have the effect of diminishing those accomplishments – of saying, in effect, that they were not enough. Similarly, they frustrate the universal scope of the gospel, which is meant to encompass people from every tribe and language and nation and tongue under the unifying grace of the triune God. The result is division within the company of Christ, something that is completely at odds with the basic thrust of Paul’s Ephesian missive.

Many, of course, would baulk at such suggestion; their doctrine, they might argue, is robust and pure, whilst they are deeply committed to the transcendent and reconciling power of the Gospel. But it is imperative, if our doctrine is to remain an embodied reality, that we all resist the temptation mask the universality of God’s grace with the particularities of our own cultures.

Woman and Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 31:10-31

Here is another essay that I wrote for my Old Testament class earlier this year. It concerns the literary relationship between Proverbs 31:10-31 and the rest of the book of Proverbs. Enjoy!

Introduction

The relationship between Proverbs 31:10-31 and the rest of the book has long been a vexatious question for commentators. Despite perennial uncertainty, there exists a certain literary kinship, at once subtle and multifarious. Characterised by recurring verbal and metaphorical motifs, Prov. 31:10-31 fittingly concludes Proverbs – linked to both the compendium of ethical maxims for which the book is most famous, and its deeper, structural worldview. The ways in which the passage brings closure to Proverbs will be unfurled in the following analysis. After a brief exegetical survey, this essay will explicate the passage’s concluding role under three, broad rubrics. First, it will show that the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 is valorised as an exemplar of the wise and virtuous living commended by the book’s main section. Second, it will consider how the passage offers an embodied picture of Wisdom, tapping into the feminine imagery that pervades the book. Third, it will suggest that Prov. 31:10-31 – particularly when seen in light of the book’s intended audience – consummates the entire vision of Proverbs with an epitome of Wisdom’s loving embrace.

Exegesis

Prov. 31:10-31 opens with a rhetorical exclamation of the high value of the ideal woman (v.10);[1] what follows is a paean to this individual. The question of whether she is specifically identified as a wife (or merely a woman who happens to be married) is, at this point, immaterial. That she is a woman is, as we shall see, of deep, structural importance. In any case, she is presented as a blessing to all who fall within her beneficent orbit. Her husband is completely enriched by her, and consequently, is able to flourish (vv.11-12, 23).[2] Subsequent verses offer a digest of the ennobling heights this woman reaches: she faithfully cares for her family (vv.15, 27), and works with vigour and industry (vv.14, 17-19); her labours span both the domestic and public spheres of life (vv.15-16, 18); and her actions and speech are characterised by integrity (vv.25-26). More than a maelstrom of activity, the woman plans ahead, and with considered judgment makes a profit on her work (v.16). Changing circumstances do not disturb her, for she uses foresight to respond to them (v.21). The ideal woman “laugh(s) at the days to come,” harnessing wisdom in the pursuit of successful living (v.25b). It is not just her family that is blessed (cf. vv. 27-28): this woman is generous to the poor (v.20), and her servants are cared for (v.15). Her circle of concern thus extends beyond her kin, and for that she can be seen as just and righteous. Punctuating the poem is a number of verbs evoking a sense of controlled energy.[3] Together, they construct a picture of someone who is engaged in constant, though profitable, activity (v.27b).

However, the universal wisdom this woman uses is not merely secular or profane. The poem’s climax praises her as one “who fears the Lord” (v.30).[4] Echoing what has been dubbed the motto of the entire book (1:7; cf. 10:27), the author extols the wisdom that flows from, and is oriented towards, an acknowledgement of God. Remaining within the sphere of godly devotion informs the woman’s acts towards others.[5] It channels, drapes and shepherds true understanding about one’s position in God’s creational and moral order.[6] This is but one (important) linkage between Prov. 31:10-31 and the rest of Proverbs, reflecting its role as an appropriate conclusion to the book.

Prov. 31:10-31 – an Exemplar

Most obviously, Prov. 31:10-31 showcases a woman who practices the wise advice commended in the pages of Proverbs. Specifically, it poetically describes many of the qualities the book repeatedly exhorts, whilst also offering subtle evidence against the folly that is consistently denunciated. A short review reveals the many connections between Prov. 31:10-31 and book’s main body (10:1-29:33). The kind of foresight the woman displays is frequently upheld (30:25). So, too, is her industry (10:4; 12:11). Verses encouraging justice for, and generosity towards, the poor, find expression in the woman’s openness to the needy (18:5; 19:17). King Lemuel’s wise sayings, immediately preceding Prov. 31:10-31, encourage its audience to “…defend the rights of the poor” (30:9b). We may also cite those passages that speak well of wise speech (10:19-21; 15:2), not to mention commendation – both implicit and explicit – of marriage to a wise woman (14:1; 12:4; see esp. 18:22). This last category of wisdom sayings is particularly pertinent, for, as will be shown, the eulogizing of the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 is quite deliberate when viewed in terms of the book’s intended readership.

Space prevents a more thoroughgoing analysis. However, it is clear that, far from being merely an epilogue, separated from Proverbs’ main collection of adages, Prov. 31:10-31 weaves those adages together into an artfully constructed literary individual. Like the tributaries of a great river, the seemingly disparate sayings of Proverbs eventually merge into a unified picture of enlivening sagacity. The ideal woman is offered as an exemplar, a paragon, of wise living;[7] a dramatic figure who, in her work and character, reflects the virtues repeatedly commended in the book’s main body.[8]

Proverbs 31:10-31 – an Embodiment

Probing deeper, the ode of Prov. 31:10-31 taps into Proverbs’ foundational structuring of wisdom and wise living, which find extended expression in the book’s first nine chapters. In so doing, it helps to frame Proverbs with the substantive reflections of Chapters 1-9. This is made clear, firstly, by the aforementioned inclusio pertaining to “fear of the Lord” (31:30; cf. 1:7).[9] That alone suggests that Prov. 31:10-31 should be read as one part of a literary frame, orienting Proverbs theologically. Other linkages imply that the woman of the passage in question is to be seen as more than a pristine exponent of wise living. Indeed, the linguistic inclusio reflects the reality of a broader metaphorical framework, tying the beginning and end of Proverbs together.[10]

Most germane are specific echoes, found in Prov. 31:10-31, of wisdom’s personification in the book’s longer sapiential reflections. Through periodic interludes, Proverbs 1-9 presents wisdom in decidedly feminine terms. Lady Wisdom constantly beckons her audience to a life of wisdom (e.g. 1:20-33; 3:14-17; 8:1-36), offering herself up as a dazzling distillation behind such an existence. She is wisdom’s guardian and an attribute of God, submitting the resume of cosmic creation as evidence of her claims (8:22-31).[11] There are several, allusive connections between the ideal woman and Lady Wisdom: both see wisdom and fear of the Lord intermingling within the female persona (1:29; 31:30);[12] like Lady Wisdom, the ideal woman is compared with precious jewels (3:14-15; 31:10);[13] and the ideal woman is to be “found”, just like Lady Wisdom (3:14; 31:10; cf. 18:22). More subtly, both figures bestow riches upon those who are near, building homes and supplying feasts (8:18; 9:1-2; the entire tenor of Prov. 31:10-31).[14] These verbal cues are held together by the overarching use of feminine imagery, which suggests the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 functions as an embodiment of Wisdom herself.[15]

To be sure, the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 is not to be equated with Lady Wisdom, as if they were one and the same persona under different guises. Whilst Lady Wisdom is presented almost prophetically[16] – publicly beckoning all people to accept her teaching – the ideal woman is more interested in wise activity; she is not seen primarily as a teacher.[17] Conversely, although Prov. 31:10-31 depicts its subject as a mother, Lady Wisdom is never imagined in these terms. Caveats notwithstanding, the implications of the forgoing analysis are profound. The presentation of the ideal woman in Prov. 31:10-31 allows the passage to hook itself into the sapiential substructure of the book. Having been described in feminine terms, Wisdom now “re-appears,” – this time, incarnated as a woman. Though historicized and literal, the ideal woman is such that the boundaries between her and Lady Wisdom blur.[18] The power of cosmic creation has become embedded in the labours of an individual.[19]

Wisdom personified directs her readers to the anthology of Prov. 10:1-31:9, which then find concrete expression in a woman par excellence[20]she of Prov. 31:10-31. The passage climactically fulfils the book’s honouring of Wisdom: manifesting, not only the disparate pieces of sapiential truth already surveyed, but also the underlying unitary wisdom personified in (for example) 8:1-36.[21] As if to underscore the ideal woman’s status as such an embodiment, Wisdom’s antithesis is also given voice: Dame Folly (see 9:13-18, for e.g.), and her historicized counterpart, the female stranger (5:1-6; 7:1-27).[22] Chapters 1-9 present the intended audience of Proverbs with a choice between wisdom and folly, life and death. If Lady Wisdom promises the former, then Dame Folly, with her alluring (yet deceptive) words, reflects and offers the latter.[23] They consistently encourage the pursuit of Lady Wisdom; Prov. 31:10-31 completes the lesson – offering a subtle rebuke to the siren song of Dame Folly – with a dramatic portrait of Wisdom-in-action.

Proverbs 31:10-31 – an Epitome

To say that the ideal woman is an embodiment of Wisdom brings us to the book’s two-fold vision, and the consummating contribution that Prov. 31:10-31 makes to it. It is consistently upheld in the foundational chapters of Proverbs, and brought into sharp focus with the book’s final poem.

The subject of Prov. 31:10-31 acts as the literary capstone for the idea that wisdom, far from being an unattainable force, has condescended to the realm of ordinary human experience (cf. 8:31). As a contingent embodiment of Lady Wisdom, the ideal woman allows the book of Proverbs to unveil a most remarkable claim: that the cosmic wisdom of the Lord – the divine summons with which creation is suffused, and by which it was brought into being – is to be reflected and applied, even in the quotidian events of life.[24] The lofty apologia of Lady Wisdom, so beautifully unfurled in Chapter 8, is precisely the same power by which the ideal woman of Prov. 31:10-31 lives. Thus, she is more than the concretization of a metaphor; she is idealized evidence that the seemingly mundane aspects of human existence are to be governed and shaped by that which God used to establish the created order.[25] Although it is foreshadowed in Prov. 9:1-2, the totality of wisdom’s reach – even into domestic life – comes to complete expression in the book’s final poem.[26]

Simultaneously, it is precisely the domestic arena that links the ideal woman to the other part of the two-winged vision of Proverbs. That Prov. 31:10-31 centres upon kin and domicile suggests it is playing on the motif of domestic instruction Proverbs establishes in its early chapters.[27] Here, the intended male readership becomes particularly noteworthy. This audience, set within such an environment, is consistently implied (1:8; 10; 15; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1),[28] and the teaching of young men on the cusp of adulthood drives, in part, the goal of Proverbs.[29] Moreover, the book’s foundational chapters exhort their readers to pursue wisdom and reject folly[30] (see the programmatic statement, 1:1-6) – whilst also implying that wisdom (or Wisdom) is “wooing” them. Indeed, Proverbs envisions a kind of union, even “marriage,” between the book’s intended readership and the wisdom that has reached down to delight in humanity.[31] Wisdom is commended to it (male) readers with intimate language (4:5b-8);[32] she “loves” those who “love” her (8:17); and there are constant warnings against adultery, matched by a moving account of marital fidelity (5:15-20).[33] Marriage, then, is to be seen as kind of metaphor for Wisdom’s embrace, and the young men of Proverbs are called upon to reciprocate like a husband with his beloved.[34] Prov. 31:10-31 fits snugly into this goal, which ultimately explains her (and Lady Wisdom’s) femininity. Functioning on a plurality of levels, the ideal woman epitomises more than just the union between humanity and Wisdom; acting as a historicized surrogate for the object of the wise man’s pursuit, she is also presented as the epitome of the ideal marriage partner in this divinely-mandated project (cf. 14:1; 18:22).[35] Together, the wise man and the ideal woman are to be seen as reverently channelling the cosmic wisdom of God into the seemingly jejune (even secular) sphere of domestic life. Prov. 31:10-31 closes that vision by demonstrating the enduring fruits of such an aspiration.[36]

Conclusion

Despite the apparent disjunction between Prov. 31:10-31 and the rest of the book, the passage is actually a deeply integrated part of the message of Proverbs. More than that, it provides fitting closure to literature that repeatedly extols and commends the pursuit of divine wisdom. The window of literary inclusio allows us to discern the links between the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 and all that precedes her. Through her life, she functions as a paragon of the wise advice laid out in the main section of Proverbs. More deeply, we find a figure who climactically embodies the unifying power of Lady Wisdom, so beautifully personified in the book’s foundational chapters. These strands are woven together into an enlivening portrait of womanly wisdom-in-action for the lasting benefit of the implied audience of Proverbs – young men, who are urged to unite themselves with wisdom as a man expresses fidelity to the woman he loves. Thus, Prov. 31:10-31 showcases an individual who draws on the cosmic wisdom of creation to successfully fulfil her daily obligations, whilst also capping off the book’s entire, manifold vision with alluring evidence of Wisdom’s life-giving charms.


[1] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10-31: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 891. Throughout this essay, the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 will be called the “ideal woman.” Despite various translations (e.g. the woman/wife of noble character), uniformity is most prudent.

[2] John A, Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 712.

[3] A sampling: “brings,” “selects,” “provides,” “considers,” “grasps,” “opens,” “makes.”

[4] Derek Kidner, Proverbs: an Introduction and Commentary (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 15.

[5] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs – Chapters 15-31 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 535. See also Frank E. Eakin, “Wisdom, Creation and Covenant,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 4, 3 (Fall, 1977), 231.

[6] Ronald E. Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104, 1 (March, 1985), 7. See also Kitchen, Proverbs, 34; James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom – An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 10.

[7] Bruce Francis Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22 – Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99, 2 (June, 1980), 213.

[8] Kidner, Proverbs, 25.

[9] Leo Purdue, Wisdom and Creation: the Theology of Wisdom Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 79. See also Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 63.

[10] Murphy, Proverbs, 249. See also Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22,” 215.

[11] Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” 10.

[12] Ibid, 255. See also Tom R. Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character in Proverbs 31:10-31,” Bibliotheca Sacra 153, 609 (Jan-Mar, 1996), 16-17, for a list of similarities between the ideal woman and Lady Wisdom.

[13] Vawter, “Proverbs,” 216. See also Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life – An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1990), 27.

[14] Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes – An Introduction to the Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985), 23. See also Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), 189.

[15] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 15.

[16] Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 80.

[17] Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 908. However, see Prov. 31:26.

[18] Vawter, “Proverbs,” 205.

[19] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 18-19.

[20] Murphy, Proverbs, 11. See also Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22,” 205.

[21] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 293, 356. See also Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 15.

[22] Murphy, Proverbs, 246. See also Waltke, The Book of Proverbs – Chapters 15-31, 519.

[23] Ibid, 282.

[24] Kathleen M. O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, (Message of Biblical Spirituality; Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), 16.

[25] Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 86.

[26] O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 17.

[27] Murphy suggests a village setting. See Murphy, Proverbs, 49.

[28] Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 24.

[29] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 13. See also Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 889.

[30] Ibid, 22. See also Murphy, Proverbs, 52; Murphy, The Tree of Life, 18.

[31] Murphy, The Tree of Life, 18. See also O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 61.

[32] O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 76.

[33] Kidner, Proverbs, 69. See also Fox, Proverbs 1-9, 207; Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, 100.

[34] Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 82. See also Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, 22. Of course, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that wisdom was not for women also. Everything said about the ideal woman of Prov. 31:10-31 – including her very inclusion within the book of Proverbs – should be enough to disabuse one of that notion.

[35] Kidner, Proverbs, 69. See also Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 912. See also Murphy, The Tree of Life, 17; O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 79; Kitchen, Proverbs, 723.

[36] Ibid; see also Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, 101.

Salvation and Kingdom

I was reading the Gospel of Luke the other day. Specifically, I was reflecting on the prophetic utterance of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, which can be found in Chapter 1. It was, I found, rather revealing. Zechariah spends the first few verse extolling the love and faithfulness of God in raising up a servant from the house of David to rescue his people, Israel (1:67-70). This is seen as the fulfilment of prophecy given long ago, when it was said that a royal figure – a Messiah, no less – would come from the line of David to redeem his people. Of course, at this point, the aged priest was likely referring to Jesus, whose herald and forerunner was John, Zechariah’s son. Zechariah knew that God had at last come to redeem his people, as he said he would. At the time, Israel was occupied by the Romans. They lived in their own land, to be sure, but they were far from free. Oppressed, they longed for freedom. In the advent of Jesus the Messiah, God had initiated the climax of his redemptive plan. Words such as “redeemed” (v.68), “salvation” (v.69) and “rescue” (v.74) populate Zechariah’s prophetic words, which clearly reflect the belief that Yahweh was at long last fulfilling his covenant by coming to Israel’s aid – as he had when he brought them out of Egypt, or when the exilic community returned during the time of the Nehemiah. This in itself is an important point, for the present act of salvation was to be seen through the lens of those earlier, redemptive acts. They served as paradigms, both for the longings of the people, and for the activity of the God whom they served.

Most interesting, however, is what Zechariah says in verses 74-75. After spending those earlier verses speaking of Yahweh’s mercy in salvation, he goes on to link that salvation with service before him. Indeed, it seems that Zechariah recognized that God was going to save his people in order that they might serve him freely. As it was, they couldn’t; their activity was regulated (and sometimes hindered) by their Roman overlords. But we should take note – God was not coming simply so his people could enjoy the joys of freedom from oppression (though that was, and is, undoubtedly true). As Zechariah’s words in 1:74-75 suggest, God was rescuing Israel so that they might devote themselves to him – not Rome. The same idea is present within the book of Exodus. We often remember the great and mighty acts associated with the exodus itself – up to, and including, Israel’s migration through the waters of the Sea of Reeds, as Yahweh liberated his firstborn son from Egyptian bondage. Less remembered is one of the chief reasons for their rescue: that they might worship Yahweh, and be the righteous and holy people he had elected them to be. Zechariah, in his prayer, understood this truth.

The point should resonate with us. We are Christians, not simply because we have been saved by Christ, but because we have yielded our lives to him in the process. We have been transferred, like the ancient Israelites, from one “kingdom” to another. The moment of salvation is not an end in itself; rather, it forms the crucible of a life that is progressively drawn – sometimes violently – from the tyrannical regime of sin. Individually, this ought to be seen as an exhortation to true, even costly, discipleship. We are not merely liberated; we are instead rescued out of one domain – that of sin and death – and placed into another. That redemption brings with it a new set of allegiances. Paul, for example, hinted at this fact when he spoke of  Christians being “set free from sin [in order that they might] become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). Elsewhere, he speaks of believers being “…rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son…” (Colossians 1:13). The Apostle was quite clear in his exhortations and proclamations: believers do not exist in a libertarian paradise, but in the realm of divine righteousness. Again, salvation does not exist as an end in itself. In fact, to merely think of salvation in terms of rescue from sin, bondage, judgment, and so on, is to toy with a desiccated concept.

Zechariah saw clearly what many Christians fail to see today: that redemption and obedience, salvation and kingdom, are intimately intertwined; that those who are in Christ are saved, not so that they can live as they please, but as he commands; and that God is in the business of saving, not atomistic individuals, but a community of redeemed people who dwell under his just and sovereign rule. Zechariah’s exclamation that the Lord was coming so that his people might serve him fearlessly grates against much contemporary religion which goes by the name “Christian”. It challenges the anthropocentric (and egocentric) notion that salvation is primarily about us, rather than God’s grace in enabling humans to escape the darkening effects of sin to live as he has called them to live. It subverts so much within modern, Western Christianity, which struggles with the idea that salvation could mean anything more than the putting-back-together of poor, broken individuals. This is gloriously true, and we ought to labour to make it a reality. But that process of renewal entails the sometimes-difficult road of obedience within the kingdom of the Son, Jesus Christ. We not only cry out for rescue, for relief and for rest. We are also called to yield our lives before the true king, even when the voice of sin beckons us, and the allure of Egypt clouds our thinking. Even those theologies that have helped us to again see the incisive political implications of the Gospel (and here, I am thinking of liberation theology in particular) only tell half the story. For all their venerable emphasis on the political-public dimensions of Christianity, they appear to relegate the importance of transference into God’s kingdom. Deliverance, yes – from individual sin, from political oppression, from structural injustice, from spiritual bondage. However, that act of deliverance doesn’t end with mere rescue; nor is it a “mere” political or social programme. Rather, it climaxes with the complete reformation of the entire person within the dominion of God, something which is being worked out in the present in believers devoted to him and willed on by his Spirit.

Have we forgotten that we are saved into a new mode of being, a new way of living, which can jar – sometimes horribly – with what we may have previously cherished? Do we not realize that the Gospel does not merely overthrow corrupt political regimes, but the foundational regime of sin? Are we too comfortable to admit that Christ beckons use to obey him as Lord, and not merely trust him as Saviour? Whether we live for Christ or not, we serve something. Better that we serve him to whom we owe proper worship. As we do so, we embody and proclaim the reign of the true king, who has entered into the chaotic existence of his creatures to enable them to “serve him without fear”.

The author makes no claims to adhere perfectly to the call of God’s Kingdom. He is a humble pilgrim, walking this earth, wrestling with his sin, and attempting to follow Christ with Spirit-filled obedience. 

Ethics and the Birth of Jesus

It is a truism to suggest that Jesus’ life and teachings are inescapably ethical. Even a cursory glance at, say, the Sermon on the Mount reveals the moral hue of much of what Jesus’ claimed, did and taught. Less obvious is the way in which events that happened to Christ bear the unmistakeable traces of ethical significance. It is one thing to argue that the life of Jesus, to the extent that he exercised authorship over its shape and trajectory, was a moral one; quite another to suggest the same of moments in his life over which he (ostensibly) had no control. Still, we must not forget that the New Testament presents Jesus’ earthly sojourn – all of it, from beginning to end – as an epochal event, pristinely reflecting the eternal will and nature of God. Birth was no different. It was something Christ chose; it was not foisted upon him, and nor was he the unwilling subject of divine fiat. No: he decided, in concert with the Father and the Spirit; he acted, in complete accord with the other members of the godhead; he sacrificed, the ground of which was the loving union of the Triune God. It is the very beginning of Christ’s life, when he entered the flow of creation and time, upon which I want to meditate; the moment at which sovereign divinity deigned to inhabit the fetters of mortal humanity. Clothed in the fine garment of infanthood, the Word incarnate demonstrated the full character of the godhead. Moreover, in doing so, he left an ethical model for followers past and present – one which remained consistent, and constant, until the very end of his life.

All this is very well; but even if we agree that Jesus’ birth was the result of God’s decree (whose identity, of course, cannot be separated from Jesus’ own), in what way does it constitute an ethical act? In what way does it function as a pattern to be imitated by Christians? I submit that it does so in three ways, by way of movement hierarchical, metaphysical and social. The first act of movement rests upon Jesus’ voluntary decision to lay aside his innate glory and live amongst his own image-bearers. The second act rests upon the singular, inimitable nature of his birth, by which he bridged the metaphysical [1] chasm between deity and humanity. And the third act rests upon his identification with the poor and disenfranchised. In reality, the various threads are deeply intertwined – the metaphysical “gap” that exists between the Creator and the creation is also a hierarchical one, whilst the social identification of Christ is an extension, or specification, of his entry into the realm of humanity. That said, for the purposes of this essay, I shall parse them out to make clearer my reflections – and, in the second part of this piece, the ethical implications thereof.

Let us begin with the hierarchical or vertical axis of the Son’s great migration. In becoming man, Jesus moved from the unshielded glory of God’s presence, as well as the acknowledged and unfettered glory of his own nature, to the “soft envelope” (to borrow Tozer’s phrase) of finite human existence. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses well this aspect of Christ’s birth. In a few short verses, the Apostle deliberately establishes a contrast between the innate equality Jesus had with God prior to his advent, and the fact of his humble entry into the created world (2:6-7). In speaking of that great event, Paul uses language that conveys deliberation, control and voluntary self-abnegation – qualities that one might argue are necessary (though not sufficient) for any act to be considered ethical. Indeed, he declares that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; he humbled himself”, and so on (Philippians 2:7-8; italics mine). Paul is emphatic, in declaring that Jesus made himself “nothing” (v.7). We might think that he is simply talking about Jesus entering this world as a powerless, impoverished individual – the son of parents who lived in penury and want. That is true, so far as it goes (I shall return to this theme below). However, what Paul means by “nothing” is humanity itself. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, influential or marginal, humans are comparatively “nothing” when placed next to the infinite glory of God.

In a previous essay, I spoke about the incomparable nature of the Deity, whose awful majesty swallows up the grandiose notions of his subjects. Whereas humans are bound, God is boundless; whereas we are finite, he is infinite; and whereas we are subject to corruption and decay (physical, moral and spiritual), God – being uncreated – is utterly untouched by these forces, governing them with complete freedom. His resplendence is “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1), which is a way of proclaiming his complete sovereignty over all there is. Time and again, the Psalms wax lyrical about Yahweh’s kingship. It is an apt metaphor that describes the hierarchical distinction between the Creator and his creation. Remarkably, however, he left what was his by nature, “emptying” himself to make possible the redemption of his creatures. Paul’s careful language preserves the paradoxical distinction between the first two persons of the godhead. Christ is at once the One who intrinsically possesses the essence of God and the One who can still relate to the Father, being as he is “with” him (Phil. 2:6). God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, and it was the latter that was fully expounded in the humble person of Christ, whose self-oblation upon earth quietly began at the moment of his birth.

The NT elsewhere picks up on this theme of the king’s voluntary pauperism. Take Luke’s birth narrative, for example. He deliberately sets his account against the backdrop of national and international history. To set the scene of the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth – he who would herald the arrival of the Messiah – Luke mentions the reign of (the non-Jewish) Herod over Judea (the name given to Judah at that time) (1:5). As context for his account of the birth of Christ, Luke refers to the reign of Augustus Caesar over the Levant (2:1). Quite clearly, he wants his readers to note the jarring contrasts. On the one hand, God’s people were ruled by a petty tyrant, a vassal of Rome who was not even Jewish (cf. Matthew 2:6); on the other, they lived under the domination of a foreign overlord, whose pomp and power were unmatched. But with delicious irony, Luke subtly suggests to us the identity of the true king of Israel, and therefore, the world. Jesus, the One to whom the Baptist was to point (Luke 3:4-6), did not reside in a palace in Judea, or a royal house in Rome. Rather, he came as an infant, shed of all the overt trappings of deity in order to consummate the Father’s redemptive plan. For all their worldly claims to rulership, the men into whose realms Jesus was going to enter were mere parodies of the true king. The point here, however, is that the true king humbled himself deeply, adopting the limitations of his creatures and entrusting himself to their imperfect care. Once more, we see the willing self-abnegation of Christ demonstrated, as he bore the lowly circumstances of those made in his image.

In laying aside his heavenly glory – something which he did not have to grasp, as it belonged to him by eternal right – Jesus also traversed the metaphysical edges of heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. This particular aspect of Christ’s birth closely follows the already-discussed overtones of hierarchical movement, whereupon he added created existence to his pre-existent nature. One might say, then, that it was the crystallization of that impossible union. In his own, writhing body, the infant Jesus personified the union between God and man; between two, apparently irreconcilable natures. Moreover, his birth was the first concrete sign that heaven and earth – the spiritual and the material – were being drawn together in loving harmony by the Creator. His life was a microcosm of that union, and a foretaste of what will be the case universally. The Gospel of John, to which I often turn, marks out the transcendent nature of God’s wisdom. Jesus, the pre-existent Word, was God and was with God “in the beginning” (Jn. 1:1). This language, much like Paul’s ode in the Philippian Letter, preserves the paradoxical nature of the Deity: combining simultaneous affirmations of the Word’s eternal identity with God and his distinctiveness. That is important, for the supervening agent in creation, who proceeds eternally from the depths of the Father, in time became one of us. John declares that “the Word became flesh” (v.14; cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). Here, “flesh” stands for mortal, created existence, in contrast with the utterly uncreated existence of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 31:3a). How could these two states – these two metaphysical worlds – be bridged? More to the point, how was it possible that in one being, these two natures, so seemingly irreconcilable, could be united harmoniously? How could the eternal One take on the substance of those he created without ceasing to be what he always had been?

These questions are largely imponderable, and the metaphors that abound can only offer a dimly lit path towards the truth. One, for instance, likens the coming of Jesus to a person who adopts dual citizenship. The person is fully a member of two nations, of two political groups, by virtue of legal reality. Going further, one could use the example of someone with multi-ethnic parentage as a metaphor for the manifold identity the Son adopted at birth. Like an individual who is, say, Spanish and Fijian (to select two ethnic groups that are largely unalike), Jesus combined in his own person two natures, two identities – two “streams”, unified in one person. Even this image, however, is limited, for it cannot adequately repeat the utter dissimilarity between humanity and divinity. Unlike a dual citizen, or a bi-racial individual, divinity and humanity do not occupy the same ontological territory; there is no space – save for Jesus himself – where they mingle. It required an act of God to create this new reality, when he “came upon” a virgin by his Spirit, and poured his life into her womb (Luke 1:35).

Lastly, I come to the socially significant nature of Christ’s birth. Whereas the hierarchical and metaphysical facets of this movement lay behind material reality, the social and economic environment into which Jesus was born reflects more visibly the extent of his identification with the created order. Even allowing for the Son’s act of “emptying”, by which he condescended to humanity in the flesh, it was yet still possible for him to be born into, say, a royal family – or at least a family of some influence. Why should he, the radiance of the Father, not have taken his place amongst earthly powers? Of course, the possibility was always present, but in an act of sheer grace, he chose to identify with the lowliest of his image-bearers; to inhabit this world as a person of poverty; to enter the flow of creation and time as an occupant of social and economic weakness. Nowhere is that truth plainer than at the time of his birth. One small example will suffice. We read in Luke 2:24 that Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice of two doves when they presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. A seemingly innocuous detail, perhaps – but the presentation of doves was a legal stipulation for people who were unable to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Quite clearly, then, Jesus’ earthly parents were poor. They could not afford the normal offering, and were compelled to offer a sacrifice out of their poverty. Thus, Jesus went beyond mere identification with humanity in some vague and ill-defined manner. He did not appear in power and glory, taking for himself worldly riches. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite. Through his birth (not to mention his life), Christ identified deeply with the poor, the outcasts and the marginal.

We ought to remember that Jesus’ life was an unfurling of the nascent qualities glimpsed at the Nativity. It certainly does not stand in splendid isolation. However, far from simply marking the beginning of the Word’s incarnation, Jesus’ birth was an intrinsically ethical act. Indeed, it continues to possess moral significance in its own right. I trust that others reading this will be able to discern some of the ethical consequences of this act for those who claim to follow Jesus. In the second part of this piece, I shall sketch out some ideas in an effort to demonstrate the implications for Christians’ lives as they attempt to pattern them on the birth (not to mention the life) of Christ.

[1] By “metaphysical”, I am referring roughly to the substance, essence or nature of things.

The God Beyond Compare

Perhaps I am a little slow, but this essay could be “old hat”, so to speak, for some readers. Still, it reflects my recent, meandering meditations upon a rather grandiose subject: God. One might even say they constitute a revelation, or at least a crystallization of latent thoughts. My conception of God has, I think, drawn closer (ever so slightly, of course) to the reality of who he is. It has taken a while for this truth to dawn; but, like the day’s first streaks of sunlight upon a dusty landscape, it has illuminated something that was previously shrouded in darkness and shadow. Of course, pure speculation cannot bring a person much closer to the truth of God. Still less can one possibly apprehend God in his totality, even given enough time. If that were true, then the object of one’s reflections could not possibly be called God. Indeed, if he can be likened to an ocean, then my recent revelations would nary fill one glass. We stare into the abyss of the divine, and our minds can only offer us a small lamp’s worth of illumination.

The above should be considered a caveat, for I will nevertheless attempt to share the meagre fruits of my reflections. When ruminating upon God, it is appropriate to begin with his being, or ontology. What is he in his nature? Clearly, he is quite unlike the material beings that populate this world. In fact, it is quite wrong-headed to think of him as a being at all – as if he were confined within the cosmic framework of the universe, just as his creatures are. It’s not simply that he is different in degree, or even in kind; much the same could be said when comparing humans and microbes. They are both created; God, on the other hand, is being uncreated and self-existent. He is not confined to any cosmic framework for the very simple reason that he is that framework (and more). To suggest otherwise would inadvertently constrain and domesticate him. If God is God, then he is so infinitely, absolutely, exclusively. If he can be called “a being”, sitting alongside other beings (only far more powerful, wise or good), then he is implicitly reduced to the level of finitude and contingency. Instead, the God of whom I speak is the transcendent One, beyond the constraints of time, space and all but the most blurred and opaque of human categories. He is wholly necessary, for there was never a time when he was not, just as there could never be an occasion in which he could not be. Between God’s ontology and that of his creation, there lies an unbridgeable chasm.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser, puts it very well:

“…God…is not ‘a god’ among others, precisely because He isn’t an instance of any kind in the first place, not even a unique instance. He is beyond any genus. He is not ‘a being’ alongside other beings and doesn’t merely ‘have’ or participate in existence alongside all the other things that do. Rather, He just is ‘ipsum esse subsistens’, or Subsistent Being Itself”.

God, then, is not a mere being; he is, rather, absolute being (note the absence of any kind of preposition before “absolute”) in his own essence – the ground of all existence, the foundation of original and ongoing life. His existence is not like ours’ at all. He is simply existence itself. He does not participate in this phenomenon, for he is the self-existent One who simply is (cf. Ex. 3:14); and, of course, there was never a time when he acquired this attribute. He does not even “possess” it, in the way that we conventionally understand that term. Humans have life, but it remains a quality in need of constant support by the hospitality of propitious circumstances. When it comes to the affairs of men, all existence is qualified, contingent, finite. It requires something more foundational in order to be actual. Otherwise, non-existence reigns. God’s existence operates according to a different scheme entirely. We might say that his essence is existence (just as his essence is everything else that can truly be said of God. I shall return to this theme later). In like manner, it is a mistake to talk of God as being “real”, if by such a remark we inadvertently imply that it is conceivable for God to not be real. Better the idea that God is not simply real, but constitutes the overarching “structure” within which reality pulsates and emerges.

With this in mind, we ought not to think of God as somehow “sitting” above his creation, or even sitting outside it – as if cosmic geography somehow determined his relationship with his creation. Neither should we think of God as possessing the kinds of attributes that humans have, only more so. It is not simply the case that the divine qualities resemble human characteristics, but without limit. All conceptions of God that lean this way – without going any further – are desperately incomplete, for they have a propensity towards excessive anthropomorphism. That is, they take human instances of existence, or will, or intellect, or power, or morality (or whatever), and, treating those instances as the foundation for developing an understanding of God, simply multiply them in order to approximate the notion of divinity. Thus, God possesses power, only much more so than any other being; thus, he is wise like the greatest sage, only much more so. This could be recapitulated time and again. The point is that human examples of these qualities are taken as definitive. They are then tweaked in order to try and accommodate the vastly greater dimensions of God – all in an effort to clear a metaphysical gap that can only be bridged from one side.

In saying this, I am not arguing that employing anthropomorphisms is intrinsically wrong. It is quite clear, for example, that the biblical authors used everyday language and images as a way of trying to express the ultimately ineffable nature of God. Our finitude makes such concessions necessary. And, their legitimacy turns on the fact that, at some level, we can suggest a vague and imperfect likeness between humans and their Maker (think Genesis 1-2, for example). The problem lies in taking these images as either literal or exclusive depictions of God’s character – concretizing, and therefore limiting, his boundless qualities. The essence of his nature means that whatever quality we care to mention is, like the divine life I mentioned earlier, simply him. In other words, God does not merely possess his attributes in far greater quantities than his creatures; he simply is those qualities, in unbounded, unalloyed form. They constitute essential “elements” (an imperfect, though unavoidable, term) of his perfect being.

Let us take love as an example. “God is love”, as the Beloved wrote (1 Jn. 4:8).  It’s not simply the case that God loves or is loving. Those statements are true, so far as they go. However, the One whom Christians worship cannot be separated from the infinite love that characterizes him. His love is inseparable from who he is. He is the very definition of love, allowing for the reality of each contingent instance of compassion and good will we experience or exhibit. Unlike humans, who may acquire a loving disposition, or lose it, or allow it to grow cold – or even fail to develop one in the first place – God does not acquire or lose his attributes. They do not deepen over time, much less recede with the passing of the ages. Their breadth, just as much as their depth, stretch beyond both the confines of finite human thought and the limitless expanse of eternity itself. Whatever attributes we possess are faint shadows, muted echoes, of what is eternally intrinsic to the Godhead.

What humans have can only be the case because of what God is in himself. His bequests to us occur because those qualities have been, and are, eternally actual in the divine being. Moreover, each of us is a composition of parts, both natural and spiritual, having been formed by our Creator and further shaped by our environments. We develop, change and regress over time. The undulating nature of our lives is an inescapable part of who we are as finite beings, and our attributes find their source in divine artifice. By contrast, God’s infinitude, and his utter simplicity (meaning that he is not, unlike his creation, “composed” of anything) means that he and his attributes are eternally bound; there is no distinction, for he is one in himself. Whether love, or wisdom, or goodness, or strength – all these exist in perfect harmony with each other within the Godhead, for the unitary nature of his being makes any kind of distinction (other than for merely conceptual means) muddle-headed.

Let me delve into Scripture a little more in order to flesh out what I am trying to say. A moment ago, I alluded to Exodus 3:14. Anyone familiar with that portion of Scripture will remember that it concerns Moses’ first encounter with Yahweh, who met with the great man in order to call him to the office of Israel’s law-giver and liberator. When Moses asked God what he should say if the Israelites demanded to know who sent him, God simply replied, “I AM WHO I AM”. Later versions of this self-appellation simply render it, “I AM”. To say, “I am” without appendage is to declare with simple brevity complete and utter self-existence. God’s statement to Moses revealed his existential simplicity, and therefore, the stark contrast between the Creator and his creation. Unveiled was Yahweh’s eternal nature, sui generis. Neither made, nor composed, God simply is, completely untouched by the vissicitudes of time and circumstance, and yet in magisterial control of both. He has no origin and he has no cause, for he is the ultimate origin and cause of all that is. Whereas the existence of everything depends on him for the gift of actuality (for what else is it, but a gift?), God’s uncreated actuality is an eternal truth within which all other truths must sit.

Or take the prophet Isaiah. In 55:8, he speaks on behalf of God:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts // neither are your ways my ways…” // “As the heavens are higher than the earth, // so are my ways higher than your ways…”

Isaiah’s words reveal the utter transcendence of the mind of God. If one thinks of the heavens in relation to the earth, one knows that the latter can never reach the former. And so it is with the wisdom and will and ways of God. He is, by definition, “above” his creation, in that he has never been, and can never be, tamed or confined by it. In fact, the truth is the complete reverse. There exists a fundamental gap between God’s wisdom and our own – an infinite disjunction that we can never hope to cross, precisely because of the absolute uniqueness of the Godhead. It is a gap that has been complicated by the baleful effects of sin, no doubt. But our noetic limitations in relation to the divine are, fundamentally, metaphysical. This is not a comparison between two beings of differing levels of insight or intelligence. Divine knowledge and understanding exist and function upon their own, self-caused plane of reality.

What are the implications for believers? Can the average Christian draw anything useful from these apparently irrelevant musings – which appear to have little to do with the quotidian challenges of normal life? Firstly, and at the very least, one’s imagination should be irresistibly expanded. I’m not referring to one’s fictive powers, but rather the mind’s sanctified ability to receive a “picture” of the divine. Whilst so much of contemporary Christianity shamelessly downgrades the idea of God, I trust that the above conception can engender a certain loftiness in one’s thinking about matters divine and eternal. The church is only as good as its conception of God. Rather than the celestial magician, or the “big guy upstairs,” or even the implicitly carnal depictions of God as one’s lover [1], we ought to cleave to the awful majesty of the Godhead; the limitless, unbounded magnitude of the uncreated Creator; the unfathomable depths of the divine being, whose existence is the one necessary fact upon which all other facts (including that of our own existence) humbly rely. Even those who rightly eschew the simplistic character of the aforementioned images may themselves fall into the trap of excessive dependence on created categories to define the One who defies them all. If the understanding of God I have been trying to elucidate – transcendent, holy, wrapped in unapproachable light – fails to evoke within us silent awe, then I don’t know what could. Given that Christians formally acknowledge their utter dependency on him, a return to a true apprehension of God can only quicken and enrich that confession.

It behoves us, then, to exhibit a deep humility before the demonstration of such resplendence. Everything that humans have comes from God. For all our advancements, we are simply mimics; talented artisans who use what we have been given to harness and re-arrange the pre-existing elements of the created order. Even the most powerful of us are nothing but an ephemeral vapour, sourced in the mind of the Almighty. The relationship demands and entails complete dependence on the part of God’s creatures. That dependence, however, is well-rewarded. Whereas people are given over to corruption, apathy, or moral fatigue, God is not. He is the changeless One, whose moral perfections infinitely surpass the qualities of his creatures. Looking to the divine Sovereign for help and sustenance is the surest thing a person can do. Indeed, it is the surest thing a Christian can do, even as we live in a world that offers the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is true, then, that we rely entirely upon God’s nature for our survival and actuality, irrespective of a person’s acknowledgement of that truth. A.W. Tozer’s words are worth quoting at this point. In The Knowledge of the Holy, he said of man’s existence in relation to God:

“Man for all his genius is but an echo of the original voice, a reflection of the uncreated light. As a sunbeam perishes when cut off from the sun, so man apart from God would pass back into the void of nothingness from which he first leaped at the creative call. Not only man, but everything that exists came out of, and are dependent upon, the continuing creative impulse”.

This is surely a check on anthropocentric hubris. It is also an encouragement to those who, on bended knee, have decided to cleave to God as both the source and goal of life’s riches.

If humanity depends entirely on God, then it is equally true that God, being completely self-sufficient and self-existent, does not need humanity. My reflections thus far naturally entail a concession to the absolute otherness, the utter holiness, of the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Since God is the foundation of all reality – including all created reality – then attempting to define him apart from his gracious self-disclosure is an exercise fraught with risk. God’s being represents a deep challenge to the idolatrous notions that abound within the minds of men. Part of the folly of idolatry is that it attempts, either implicitly or by design, to reduce God to a possession of the material realm. Of course, it is possible to grasp at least something of the divine nature. But our metaphysical and harmatological [2] limitations make a pure apprehension of God impossible. At this point, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is instructive. Romans 1:21-25 details, in mytho-poetic terms, the futility of humans attempting to worship “created things rather than the Creator” (v.25), for the very reason that the objects of worship are, in the same way as those who worship them, mere artefacts of the divine will. Divine transcendence means that God can never be defined, much less bound, by the limits of material objects. How can one possibly grasp the untamed God, whose very existence frustrates our efforts to understand him by our own lights?

Of course, God’s absolute transcendence does not preclude his personhood, even if it does preclude overly personalistic accounts of his nature. For starters, God is not simply the cause, at one moment in time, of all that exists. He has not created this world in order to remain irrevocably distant from it. Rather, via his providential work, God continues to uphold all things. Not only “in the beginning”, but at every moment since, the Creator has been at work to sustain what he has made. As Paul put it, “he is” not only “before all things”, but “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). That in itself suggests a deep involvement, a richly textured engagement, with the created order.

However, one can be far more specific when celebrating the sovereign God’s simultaneous immanence. Immediately after speaking of the transcendence of the Lord’s thoughts and ways (see above), the prophet Isaiah proclaims:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven // and do not return to it without watering the earth…” // “…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: // It will not return to me empty // but will accomplish what I desire // and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s word, or wisdom (the two concepts are normally synonymous in the Old Testament), should always be seen as an indelible manifestation of his character. Proverbs 8:22-36 personifies this eternally begotten attribute of the Godhead (Pr. 8:22-25). Thus, it is above and before creation in precisely the same way that God is. And yet, Isaiah could speak of God’s word proceeding forth from the eternal abyss to bring life to his world – wending its way through the created order, like a river sluicing a path through a desert, bringing life in its train. The transcendence of the divine nature is, at exactly the same time, the intimate word/wisdom that sustains, heals, enlivens and illuminates the material existence in which we dwell.

Old Testament seers and sages are not the only biblical figures that speak of the sovereign God’s immanence within creation. The New Testament also celebrates the bridge he has forged between his own, transcendent reality, and the comparatively lowly reality of the creation. The various manifestations of God’s wisdom – the means by which the world was fashioned; the law, given to Yahweh’s chosen people, meant to lead them in righteousness; and the healing, redemptive word offered up to a wayward nation by the Lord’s chosen agents – culminated in the radical and astonishing rupture of all expectations pertaining to divine-human relationships. John the Beloved speaks of it in terms that can only be called sublime:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-2, 14).

With prose that reaches beyond the veil of the material world, John grasps at the eternal Word, or wisdom, of God. His reference to the Word’s intimate identity with God “in the beginning” is an allusive nod to the Genesis creation narrative (Gen. 1:1). The Word was indeed God’s supervening agent as he fashioned his world. The poetics of Proverbs 8 wax lyrical about this epochal event. But the Beloved goes further, insisting that God’s Word/wisdom is not simply a principal or force; he is personal in the same way, and to the same (infinite) degree, that God is. More than that, the evangelist announces the advent of another epochal event. It is the glorious fact of the Word’s incarnation – his deep identity with the created world, such that he became a part of it.

The transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence found complete expression in the embodiment of his Word: Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, the bridge between divinity and humanity, whose very person brought into existence the reconciliation between those two natures. He “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Hebrews 1:3). But the reflection of that divine resplendence was “made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7), inhabiting mortal existence in the most intimate of ways. Paradoxically, the God who could never – and can never – be constrained by his creation, made the decision (the genesis of which occurred in eternity past) to immerse himself in its flow. Equally paradoxical is the unbounded power of the divine nature, whose gracious incarnation defies every category humans have to make sense of this world. I have spoken much about God’s fundamental difference from his creation; his absolute otherness, and the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that separates him from his creatures – even his image-bearers. Nevertheless, as Karl Barth wrote, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes his humanity” (emphasis original). God is largely incomprehensible on his own terms, to be sure. Whatever we can grasp of the divine apart from his own unveiling is a thin mist that barely covers our own ignorance. Still, God has performed the impossible in adopting our nature. He has drawn out the pure idea of humanness from within his own depths, and entered the contingency of the material world as the glorious ideal to which man, by the enabling power of the Creator, may aspire.

[1] Of course, I am not suggesting that God is not our lover in some sense. But his love is of an altogether greater variety than the love that exists between humans (this even applies to husbands and wives, although that love – more than any other kind – is best placed to provide an analogy). In addition, the statement to which this footnote is linked refers more to contemporary images of God as one’s “boyfriend”, “mate” or even the risible “homie”. These may be rather extreme examples, but their presence within the church means that somewhere along the way, we have lost that sense of God’s awesome power and limitless, inexhaustible magnitude. More to the point, they are only the most crude manifestations of a spiritual infestation that has corrupted the church’s previously high view of God.

[2] “Harmatological” basically means “pertaining to sin”.