There is a very public aspect to relationships. For example, in most cultures, the idea of a public wedding ceremony is kind of a big deal. Those entering into a marriage covenant do so before a crowd of witnesses, usually made up of their family, community and friends. By calling upon the testimony of these people, the couple making their vows acknowledges that, as intimate and exclusive as their relationship is, it is not private in the sense that their marriage has no relationship to the community. The community is responsible to hold the couple accountable for to keep their vows. The vows are made both before humans and before God – and when one swears an agreement before God, there are consequences to breaking that agreement. While it’s grand when two people commit to enter into a monogamous relationship, if there is no one to witness the covenant, there is something lacking.
Even dating relationships are in some ways public. If a couple is seriously dating, it isn’t enough for them to just spend time with one another – they usually want to be recognized publicly as a couple. Each wants to be able to say, “This is my boyfriend, Tom,” or, “This is my fiance, Susan.” In our web-centered culture, the first thing most people do when they start dating is make a proclamation on their Facebook profile. And when a couple is engaged, they usually buy a ring to signify the event, to make it public that marriage is their intent and the ring is a symbol of their commitment to one another.
I listened to a sermon on the New Perspective on Paul yesterday and parts of it made me think about this idea of relationships being a public affair. Part of the NPP entails a fresh look at the character of Judaism(s) in Paul’s day. Contrary to the reading Martin Luther gave Paul (the interpretation that is prevalent in Protestant churches today), Judaism in Paul’s day was not a legalistic religion like the corrupted Roman Catholicism of Luther’s day. What Luther saw in Paul was an emphasis on God’s grace through faith and this stood in sharp contrast to the Catholic church that was selling indulgences and telling people they could avoid judgement in Purgatory by giving money or doing meritorious works.
What Luther failed to see was that Paul was 1) all about the law in its proper context and 2) the Jew’s of Paul’s day did not think of their relationship with God in terms of a merit-based system. No Jew in Paul’s day would have insisted that he could earn God’s favor by keeping the law. Read the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read Maccabees. The Jews believed that their hope of resurrection and justification was the grace of God.
What, then, was the role of works of the law? The law functioned as a kind of badge that set the Jews apart as the people of God. Male circumcision in the Old Testament was one of the requirements that signified the covenant that God had made with His people. It was to be a sign to the Gentile nations that the Jews were, in fact, the people of God, set apart by Him and for Him. It was their public declaration, “This our God, YHWH,” and also God’s public declaration, “This is My people, Israel.”
Also bound up in Jewish ideas of eschatology (see NT Wright’s podcast on the Historical Jesus at http://www.ntwrightpage.com for more on this) was the idea that the future of the whole world was somehow bound up in the future of Israel; the story of the world was somehow bound up in Israel’s story. It was not as if Israel had an exclusive relationship with God that was not intended to extend outward to the nations. Rather, when God first made the covenant with Abraham (the father of the Jewish nation), one of the promises was that through his descendents, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
If you’ve read the OT, though, you know that Israel failed to be a blessing and light to the Gentile nations. They ended up, instead, becoming like the pagan nations and whoring after other gods. Israel broke the covenant and God filed for a public divorce. In order to fix the problem of human rebellion and to reverse the effects of the Curse, it was necessary for a messiah to come whose ‘badge,’ whose identity, was wholly bound up in the God of Israel. Jesus had to come as the “New Israel.” Jesus’ identity was in his relationship to his Father. Jesus could say, “This YHWH God is my Father, and we are one.” Jesus wears the badge, the mark of the covenant, and he lives up to it. And through Jesus, all the nations of the earth are blessed through his death and resurrection. Jesus is the descendent who ushered in a whole new world order; the Israelite through whom the Gentiles could also inherit salvation.
I suppose I’ve strayed somewhat from the original topic, but that’s part of what I was thinking about yesterday and today. I’m not sure how my logic faired towards the end. Please comment if that didn’t make sense, or if you disagree (or just if you have something to add).