“Understanding how the letters fit in has immense potential for the followers of Jesus today—because this isn’t just about theology and ethics, this is about a cosmic story. It’s about getting people to elevate their allegiance to Jesus over their socio-economic, national, ethnic, gender boundary lines. I cannot imagine a more important message. And we lose all of that when we don’t honor the original context.”
In part one (0:00–39:30), Tim and Jon continue a live conversation on how to read New Testament letters. In this episode, Tim and Jon dive into how the letters fit into the overarching storyline of the Bible.
The opening pages of the Bible highlight how God created and appointed humans to rule alongside him. Humanity chooses their own desires over God’s, and this results in exile and death. In response, God chooses the family of Abraham to carry his blessing to all nations.
Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
When God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, it further drives this promise that out of Abraham will come a multitude of nations.
Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him,
“I am God Almighty;
Walk before me, and be blameless.
I will establish my covenant between me and you,
And I will multiply you exceedingly.”
Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying,
“As for me, behold, my covenant is with you,
And you will be the father of a multitude of nations.
No longer shall your name be called Abram,
But your name shall be Abraham;
For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you….”
At Mount Sinai, God further clarifies this hope by calling Israel to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19). As the story continues, God chooses the family line of David and promises to raise up a “seed” who will reign forever (2 Samuel 7). But David and the kings after him all fail to be the promised seed, resulting in exile. As the prophets and poets reflect on this reality, they look toward the future for hope.
Isaiah 66 explains this mission to the nations further, promising that some will go out from Jerusalem to gather in people from many nations and bring them back as an “offering to the Lord.” These rescued nations will be given the status of priests and Levites.
“For I know their works and their thoughts; the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard my fame nor seen my glory. And they will declare my glory among the nations. Then they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as a grain offering to the Lord…. I will also take some of them for priests and for Levites,” says the Lord.
Peter picks up on this theme in Isaiah by talking about how a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles can be “built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) and call them “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9).
The promise for God to bless the nations narrows down to the promised seed of David at the end of the Hebrew Bible, and from there it expands to include all the nations through Jesus. The apostles saw themselves as living out the promise of Isaiah 66 and bringing in the nations. This is the realization of God’s promise to Abraham.
Another example of this can be seen in Paul’s writing, when he defines the Gospel at the start of his letter to the Romans.
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord. And through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake….
Paul understood Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to David, and ultimately to Abraham, to bless all nations. Later in the letter, as Paul addresses the mixed Jewish and Gentile house churches, he encourages them to live as a united family and offering to God.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
Paul saw his ministry in line with Isaiah 66, as one who would bring the offering of the nations to God.
But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
All of the letters in the New Testament were written in the context of the expanding Jesus movement across ethnic and cultural lines. The apostles saw their mission as a fulfillment of God’s promise to draw in all nations, so that humanity could become a new kingdom of priests. The letters tackle cultural and ethnic conflicts because their focus is reintegrating the true family of Abraham into one family. More than theology and ethics, the letters are about how the new family of God can elevate their allegiance to Jesus above every other dividing line in culture.
In part two (39:30–end), Tim and Jon respond to more audience questions.
For ancient Gentiles and modern readers who are not immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, how do we notice and see the themes of the Hebrew Scriptures woven through the New Testament?
Tim shares the example of listening to classical music. He can appreciate the music, but another friend may more fully understand the genius at work. Neither are wrong, but it takes time to cultivate an awareness. In the same way, Paul doesn’t let his audience’s biblical illiteracy determine how he talks. His listeners can still appreciate the image, but there’s a greater depth there too.
How much do you think the authors of the New Testament letters assumed their letters would be read in posterity?
Whether Paul thought his letters would be read for thousands of years or not, he clearly understood that the story of Israel was now expanding to reach all nations at all times. Tim points to the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) as an example. Jesus commands his followers to go, baptize, and teach to expand the family of Abraham.
Tim quotes from 1 Thessalonians 2:13 and 5:27 and 2 Peter 3:1-2 and 15-16 to show that the apostles are aware they are representing Jesus’ authority.
Did the New Testament letters ever influence the Gospel accounts? And do the letters contain hyperlinks to each other?
The passage from 2 Peter mentioned above makes mention of Paul’s letters. Tim references a scholar named David Trobisch, who has done a lot of work in trying to piece together the relationship between New Testament books and authors.
Tim shares that the New Testament is interlinked in a different way than the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the writings were all circulating within a few decades of each other, but they were later selected and organized into the New Testament we have today. The main issues in the New Testament letters are the cultural conflicts of the day. However, the Gospel accounts (written later than many letters) don’t highlight these differences. The Gospel accounts seem to be truly preserving the initial context of Jesus’ life and teaching.
In Colossians 4:15, Paul references a church that meets in someone’s home. So what was a New Testament house church like?
Tim mentions a historical fiction novel called The Lost Letters of Pergamum that takes a lot of historical information into account and imagines what a 1st century church might have been like. An early house church would have broken down social and cultural barriers by inviting everyone to come together to sing hymns, learn, and eat at the same table.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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