Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Power in Weakness: A Paradox
The New Testament may be summed up in two words: paradox and eschatology. If one were to read through from Matthew to Revelation, it would not be long before the unexpected paradoxes and counter-cultural messages became obvious. And though there are many accounts of God’s mysterious work in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul best summarizes the work that God has done in Christ when he states that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor. 12:9). This fundamental paradox of the New Testament is in many aspects the core of the Christian Gospel. However, the theme of God’s power in weakness must be coupled with the eschatology of the resurrection, for it is here that this paradox receives its significance. Without the eschatological implications of Christ’s resurrection, the paradox would be meaningless. Paul understood this, as did the authors of the Gospels, Hebrews, and Revelation. It is Christ’s death that provides the paradox, and Christ’s resurrection that produces our eschatological hope. Upon these two concepts Paul makes “power made perfect in weakness” a dominant theme for the New Testament.
The four Gospels are themselves the crux of the divine paradox. They are filled with numerous examples of how God chose to work in a way unexpected by all. That God would become human in the form of a baby (Matt. 1:18), come from the poor town of Nazareth (Mk 1:9), heal Gentiles and women (Matt. 8:5, Mk 5:28), serve others (Mk 10:45), ride a donkey in triumphal entry (Luke 19:35), and prophesy his own death (Matt. 16:21) illustrates the paradoxical nature of God’s plan. However, each gospel’s account of the Messiah’s death is certainly the most befuddling occurrence in the entire New Testament. Not only did first century Jews expect an all-powerful Messiah to vindicate the oppressed Israelites, but even the disciples were disappointed and confused that Jesus had died (Luke 24:21). However, as the Gospels testify, Jesus’ death was not the final word. Each gospel recounts the resurrection of Jesus as God’s vindication of the suffering Son of Man. Thus, it is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that God’s paradox of power in weakness is realized in its most explicit form.
Though the four Gospels share many things in common, they too each have distinct characteristics that illustrate the above said paradox. For example, Luke’s account includes a lengthy birth narrative including a focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Specifically, Mary’s Magnificat emphasizes how God has lifted up the lowly in a paradoxical manner (1:46-55). Luke also includes the broader themes of Jesus as a different kind of king and a different kind of prophet. In one case Jesus is a humble king, unlike the kind that was to be expected (19:35). In another case, Jesus is a rejected prophet that was not anticipated of the Messiah (4:24). It is especially Jesus’ role as a prophet that enables his eschatological claims to be trusted.
Matthew includes in his gospel examples of Jesus interacting with various scandalous people groups. Nothing could have seemed more puzzling to first century men and women than Jesus’ invitation to Gentiles to enter the family of God (Matt. 12:18-21). In addition to this, Matthew includes the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus turns the Law on its head (Matt 5-7). More specifically, Jesus lists the most unexpected recipients of God’s blessings, including those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (Matt. 5:3-11). It is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ relation to outsiders that further reinforces God’s paradoxical work.
John’s gospel also displays the mystery of power in weakness. Though the scene is not unique to this gospel, the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 becomes particularly revealing of the Messiah’s servant nature as John records the conversation between Peter and Jesus in John 13:8. Furthermore, in Johannine fashion, a lengthy dialogue between Pilate and Jesus is presented in John 18 and 19. During this dialogue the topic of power arises and it is here that John tethers his claim for power in weakness to the cross. This dialogue is significant in illustrating Jesus’ condemnation on the worldly understanding of power in contrast to God’s power that is perfected in weakness.
Matthew, Luke, and John are all capable of recounting the paradoxical nature of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is Mark’s gospel that perhaps does it the best. Mark’s emphasis on Jesus as the suffering Son of Man exemplifies how God’s power does not manifest itself in ways that we would expect. Though Jesus is displayed as the powerful Son of God in chapters 1-8, chapters 9-16 become the focal point of this gospel. Over a third of Mark’s narrative recounts the last days of Jesus’ life. What Mark is largely emphasizing is the cost of discipleship – the call to serve and suffer. Perhaps one reason for this focus on Jesus’ suffering is that Mark wrote his narrative during a time of fierce tension in the first century. It is probable that many Christians during Mark’s day were walking the line between non-violent martyrdom and violent zealotry.
Still, historical context aside, the call to suffering in Mark’s gospel is clear. Jesus’ invitation to die for God’s Kingdom is a powerful indication of what it means to be perfected in weakness (8:34, 10:37-39). In the same manner, Jesus makes an explicit claim concerning his own purpose as a suffering servant (10:45). However, despite Mark’s focus on Jesus’ suffering, death does not have the final word. Like the other gospels, Mark includes the resurrection of Jesus and recounts God’s victory over sin (16:6). After his rejection, suffering, and death, God vindicates Jesus and fulfills the promise of true power made perfect in weakness. Therefore, it is in the resurrection that Christ becomes the eschatological “first fruits” that Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 15:23. And, it is upon Christ’s death and resurrection that Paul bases the theme of power in weakness seen so clearly in his Epistles.
Though Paul deals with a multitude of issues in his ministry, his letters to the church in Corinth provide many examples of the theme at hand. From the outset of 1 Corinthians Paul makes clear that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor. 1:18). Interestingly, this statement is preceded by Paul’s defense of his lack of eloquence in preaching the gospel “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power, (1 Cor. 1:17). Because Paul is largely writing in regard to his own ministry, he makes his own weakness an example of how God uses weakness to display power. Paul continues in his letter to condemn the worldly standards of power and to promote the paradoxical mysteries of God’s work (1 Cor. 2:8, 3:19, 4:1).
Following a lengthy section dealing with specific issues in the Corinthian church, Paul returns to the theme of God’s power in weakness in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. It is in this powerful chapter that Paul emphasizes the eschatological reality of the resurrection and encourages the Corinthian church to remain steadfast to the way of the cross. By beginning and ending his letter with these themes Paul undoubtedly makes the connection between the folly of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.
2 Corinthians is a revealing letter into the nature of Paul’s ministry and it provides us with interesting historical details about his relationship with the Corinthian church as well as his opponents. Still, however, the paradox of the cross remains Paul’s maxim here as well. This can be seen especially in Paul’s use of the metaphor of the Roman procession in 2:14-17. This metaphor is used to indicate Christ’s victory over death and, in a more forthright manner, to vindicate Paul’s suffering. By identifying himself as a captive being lead by God in triumph, Paul makes clear that suffering and humiliation are not merely necessary costs of ministry but the very means by which the gospel is spread. Because Paul’s credibility was being challenged, he makes plain his weaknesses and identifies them as proof of God’s grace and God’s power (11:6, 12:9). What is fundamentally clear in his letters to the Corinthians is that Paul was never attempting to defend his own abilities, but rather always used his own weaknesses as evidence of God’s power.
Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians are profound theological treatises that deserve much hermeneutical care. However, within the complex theology are the same elements of the paradox that are found throughout the New Testament. Especially significant in these two letters are Paul’s repetitious affirmations of the new reality “in Christ,” (Romans 3:24,26; 6:11; 8:39; 12:5; 15:17; Gal. 2:4, 3:14,26). This emphasis on our connection to Christ makes personal the paradox of the cross. Paul writes specifically on the nature of suffering and encourages Roman Christians to endure in Romans 5:3-5. And, as in Corinthians, Paul writes extensively on the eschatological implications of the resurrection in Romans 8:18-39. Particularly powerful are Paul’s words on suffering in the present in comparison to the glory to come (8:18). Yet still more writing on the topic of suffering can be found in the book of Hebrews.
The recipients of the letter Hebrews were Christians who encountered persecution and were falling away from the gospel. Therefore, the topics of suffering, perseverance, and hope are central to this book. The overarching message of Hebrews is to endure suffering in the same way as Jesus. The author even goes as far to claim that Jesus was made “perfect through suffering,” a phrase that is definitely compatible with Paul’s paradox (Heb. 2:10). By pointing to Jesus as the perfect example of suffering, the author makes the bold assertion that even God suffers (2:9,10,18; 5:8,9). However, like the previously discussed books, the author of Hebrews understands that Jesus’ suffering was not the final word but instead the resurrection and vindication of God’s work in Christ. Looking to Jesus as the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” the author encourages Christians to look ahead toward the eschatology of God’s glory (12:1-4, 13:13-16).
Though the book of Revelation is not easily understood, it too proclaims a message of power in weakness based on the hope of the one “who is, and who was and who is to come,” (1:8). John writes these letters to seven different churches who are struggling with a variety of problems, including pagan worship, persecution, and complacency. Specifically, John encourages suffering Christians in Philadelphia to patiently endure their persecution and to hold fast to their crown (3:10-11). And to suffering Christians in Smyrna John proclaims the paradox of riches in poverty through suffering (2:9-10). In addition to addressing these problems through his esoteric symbolism, John also provides a great deal of hopeful eschatology not unlike that which may be found in Paul’s writings. In the final chapters of his letter John proclaims the victory of God (19-22). It is precisely upon this victory that John, like Paul, makes his claim for the paradox through the endurance of the saints (13:10, 14:12).
Although not every book of the New Testament has been discussed here, the claim for Paul’s theme of “power made perfect in weakness” is most certainly evident. As seen in the Gospels, Epistles, Hebrews and Revelation, God’s power is made perfect in the weakness of suffering. However, not only may it be discovered that God is a God of mysterious paradox, but it must also be understood that God has defeated death and sin through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in this fact that the mysterious paradox of God’s power is given eternal significance and allows all who suffer in the name of God to hope in the realized eschatology of the Risen Christ.