Jesus the Faithful Israelite- Thursday Holy Week Meditations

Golgotha
Golgotha, the rock upon which history turns.  

Today we have come to Golgotha, a small and insignificant hill in Jerusalem where criminals of the state are executed. We come to it a day early so that tomorrow we might say little and simply pray and weep at the body of our Lord who hangs upon the tree.

Yesterday, Wednesday of Holy Week, we looked at how it was going to take someone that was more than flesh to overcome the curse of the law because Torah had proved that every person was trapped in his and her flesh and all of its bondages to sin.

“Adam’s sin established a regime of spreading death that led to sin….Israel herself was overtaken by flesh and came under a curse” (203). Because Israel is itself entrapped in flesh, Torah, the law that was given to her in order that she might bless the nations, has become her prosecutor that she too, is entrapped in the flesh and under the curse of sin. Leithart says, “The curse is not exclusively because Israel became proud of her possession of Torah or because individual Israelites were proud of their meritorious law-keeping, though both of those attitudes are examples of how flesh perverts Torah. Paul’s point [in Galatians] is far more straightforward: the curse rests on Israel because she has failed to obey the law (Gal 3:10) [199, original emphasis]. And so Paul says that the chosen people of God have been liberated through the work of the Jesus and his death on the cross:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14 NRSV).

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsThis is why Paul is so incredulous toward the Galatians. How could those who received the Spirit and been freed from the curse through their belief in the faithfulness of Christ, return to the old stoicheia, to the very law which pronounced the curse upon them? It is only through understanding Jesus as Son of David, as the faithful Israelite, that the mechanism of the atonement comes into full view. It is here that we come to the heart of the mystery of Easter week and are able to have a clue to answering the question that centers Leithart’s book: “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Hanging on the tree, he is a cursed one, and by bearing the curse he breaks through the curse….Jesus is condemned as a rebellious son, though he is not. He is condemned as a rebellious son by the rebellious son, Israel in the flesh. In that precise sense, Jesus suffers the curse of Israel. Because Jesus the faithful Israelite bears the curse, he delivers/redeems Israel from the curse. He takes the place of Israel that should be cursed in order to remove the cursing. And so the flow of blessing, the flow of the Spirit, begins (200).

By jumping straight to the universalizing of sin, that Jesus died for all, we miss precisely how redemption from the curse works. Paul is speaking to his fellow Israelites when he says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law….” Are the rest of us Gentiles rescued as well because of the death of Christ, well yes, but one misses the glory of the story of Scripture and the workings of the plan of God if one skips over why Jesus must have been from the line of David. That’s why Paul in his greatest letter describes the gospel as being “promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…” (Romans 1:2-3).

As Leithart says, “God’s promise is universal, to ‘justify the Gentiles by faith,’ but that universal promise is realized only in the fulfillment of the particular promise that the blessing will come through Abraham’s seed” (201).

Through the faithfulness of Jesus the true Israelite, Israel has fulfilled its mission to bless the world. The same Spirit that hovered over the waters and moved to create, now descends upon the nations.

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Heading Toward Golgotha- Wednesday of Holy Week

While we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. Galatians 4:3-5

Yesterday we saw how it is flesh and all its bondage to sin and death that keeps us from having a relationship with God. We saw how God called Abraham to be the father of a people that would reverse the separation of humanity from God and how God established a sign of that promise by the cutting away of flesh as both symbolically and literally enacting the removal and the defeat of flesh. That was the beginning of the rescue of humanity, but the fullness of time had not come yet, Paul tells us in Galatians 4. It was only with the birth of God’s son that the fullness of time arrived. Only then had the climax of the rescue operation begun.

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsWhen Paul refers to those under the law in the verses above, he is, of course, talking about the Jewish people, the children of Abraham. How did Paul know that the Jewish people were themselves trapped under the stoicheia, the elements of the world? He knew through what the Jewish law had revealed. The law was given to the Jews in order to purify them so that God might tabernacle in their midst. But the law, originally meant as a code of living that would enable the Jews to take YHWH to all the nations, over time became a way of separating themselves from the world that they were called to redeem. The law, meant to bring life and restoration with God, eventually became a curse and divided humanity into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. As Leithart says, “But God promised his blessing to a single “seed,” and that means that the divided state of Israel and the Gentiles cannot be the final condition of humanity” (205). The law, meant as a way to kill flesh in order to draw near to God became a means of enforcing the prevailing stoicheia—those sinful divisions at the heart of all wars and violence—became the very means by which Israel showed itself also as a slave to flesh, unable to complete the task of rescue. Meant to become a source of life, the law became a curse and revealed the extent to which all of humanity, even God’s covenant people, were trapped by the powers of the flesh. But if the law meant to bring life only showed how those called to rescue were now under the power of curse and they themselves needed rescuing, what was to be done?

Because the law proved that everyone born of flesh is held captive by the power of sin, no mere human could enact God’s rescue plan. We are all human, all too human, as Nietzsche himself found out when even his powerful mind failed him in his last years. If what Paul says is true, that in the fullness of time God’s son was born of a woman, that is, born of flesh, and born under the law and yet was still able, somehow, to redeem those under the law, we are able to immediately deduce a couple of things. One, God’s son, even though he was born of flesh, had to have been somehow, more than flesh, if he was able to redeem those under the law and not himself be cursed by the law. If he was only flesh, he too would have fallen under the curse of the law, because if there is one thing that the law had proven, it was that anyone who was fully flesh fell under the curse of disobedience of the law. Secondly, we know then that God’s Son must have, somehow, fully obeyed or fulfilled what the law required in order to escape the curse of the law that prosecuted the rest of God’s people—more than human because able to redeem from the curse. And so Paul tells his fellow Jews in the verses above that they are no longer enslaved but instead have been adopted as God’s own children!

Could it be that God’s son, Yeshua, or Jesus as his name has come down to us, did not fall under the curse of the law because he was somehow able to sweep the law away, cause it to disappear or abrogate it? That is a position that has tempted many believers throughout the ages but we know that cannot be the case from Jesus’ own words. “Do not think that I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets’ I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 6:17-18). It’s a funny thing that you say so Jesus because that’s exactly what everyone was thinking: that you had come to abolish the law. Your actions led us to believe that you didn’t care about the law, treating Sabbath so flippantly and talking to the religious leaders the way that you did. How could your life possibly be a fulfillment of the law? It’s here where I find Leithart’s book to be brilliant and helpful: Jesus fulfilled the law in the only way that it could be fulfilled, living through the Spirit and not through the flesh. “While in the flesh, Jesus kept Torah in the fullness of the Spirit, something no other human had done before” (151). The reason that it looked like Jesus was breaking every little stroke of the law is because we were looking at it through the eyes of the flesh. We weren’t asking the right questions: What would Torah-keeping look like if it were carried out by Spirit rather than by flesh? What would Torah-keeping look like if there was no more need for circumcision’s gesture of separation from separation? (137). Well apparently, it would look like how God Himself would keep Torah if he were embodied. That is, it would exactly like Jesus‘ life.

The question remains however: aren’t the covenant people still under the curse that the law has shackled her with. Even if the law has now been perfectly fulfilled by one man, what of the curse that hovers over everyone else? It’s here where are journey toward Golgotha this Holy Week finds its direct path. Now, we see the cross.