Developing a Biblical View of Life (14)
Unity and diversity
Ok, let’s do some thinking! In the New Testament, there is both unity and diversity in its theology.
What I mean is that the New Testament presents one, key redemptive event accomplished by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, there are also a variety of non-conflicting interpretations of this one, key redemptive event by the various New Testament authors.
For example, the synoptic gospels written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke view the redemptive work of Jesus Christ from a Kingdom perspective. Here salvation is the result of God exercising His powerful rule and authority in and through Jesus who defeats sin, death, and Satan and brings His disciples into the realm of kingdom blessing.
On the other hand, you have probably noticed that the gospel of John is quite a bit different from these first three gospels. In this fourth gospel, Christ’s redemption is presented in terms of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. The incarnate Christ is the One who offers us the gift of eternal life if we believe. This adds a fresh, new dimension to our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and work on our behalf.
Now if we move on to Paul’s epistles, we have yet another interpretation of what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf. The Apostle — great theologian that he was — understands the significance of Jesus through the lenses of justification and life in the Holy Spirit. On the basis of Christ’s merits and through faith in Him, believers are declared righteous in God’s sight and received the precious gift of the Spirit of God who indwells them.
So from this thumbnail sketch, we see that the unity of New Testament theology is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ who breaks into human history and accomplishes redemption on behalf of humanity and the world itself. At the same time, there are several diverse, yet complementary, interpretations of this one historical redemptive event in the synoptic gospels, in John’s writings, in Paul’s letters, not to mention the rest of the New Testament.
Our goal in this lesson, therefore, is to focus on the meaning of Christ’s life and work from John and Paul’s point of view.
Redemption in the gospel of John
The Kingdom of God is on display in the synoptic gospels, but the Word of God takes center stage in John. This is abundantly clear in the prologue or introduction to this gospel. In John 1:1-5, we have an amazing statement about the divine identity of the Word and a declaration about His work of creation. It sounds like an echo of the first chapter in the book of Genesis, where God creates the universe by His word (also see Psalm 33:6):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
Next comes a brief account about John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Word (John 1:6-8), and a comment about those who reject and accept Jesus Christ (John 1:9-13). Then we move on to one of the most important theological statements in John’s gospel about the incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh and His redemptive role in the world:
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'" For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
The primary point that John is making is this: that the very same Word of God who created the world in the very beginning is now on the scene again, this time in human flesh, imparting grace and truth, making God known, and redeeming the world He Himself once made. As the Word was the agent of the original creation, so He is now the agent of new creation. He made all things, and now He remakes all things. The Word is at work again, not in creating things but in redeeming them! This is the theme that runs through this entire gospel!
At the heart of John’s presentation of the Word as the agent of new creation is the concept of life, indeed, eternal life (3:15-16, 36; 4:14; 5:21, 26, 39-40; 6:27, 33, 40, 47-48, 51, 54, 63; 8:12: 10:10, 28; 11:25; 14:6; 17:2-3; 20:31). John’s message of life is derived from the Old Testament notion that God who is Life is now imparting that Life to believers through the incarnation of His eternal Word. In Him was life and His life was the light of all men and women (John 1:4). Now this divine life that was in Jesus was also the life of the age to come, that divine life that God was to impart to the world eschatologically at the end of time. But in John, Jesus teaches that this life was already available to those who believe in Him, even now! John’s perspective is properly called “realized eschatology,” that is, what was coming in the future is happening already! Notice the words in italics in this passage.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live.” (emphasis added).
Indeed, the present availability of life in Jesus Christ now is the drumbeat of this gospel! As John 3:36 says, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life!” In John 10:10 Jesus states the primary reason for His coming: “that they [believers] might have life, and might have it abundantly.” John also wrote his entire gospel for this same purpose, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Of course, this present blessing of life does not eliminate the future aspect of God’s blessings for believers in Christ (see John 5:28-29; 6:39-40, 44, 54, 57; 12:48). This gospel is one of the best examples of both realized and future eschatology in the New Testament! We have life now and life to look forward to!
At this point, John and the synoptic gospels unite theologically. Eternal life is first mentioned in John in connection with the kingdom of God (John 3:3-5, 15-16), and the Kingdom of God is connected with eternal life in the synoptics (Matt. 19:16-26). Jesus’ offer of eternal life to believers in John is nothing other than the eternal life of the Kingdom of God which Jesus offers to disciples in the synoptics. In both John and the synoptics, this eternal life is the life of the age to come that has become present in Christ. In the synoptics, that life has already arrived in the Kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28; Luke 17:21). In John, that life has already arrived in the incarnate Word of God! For both John and the synoptics, that Kingdom with its eternal life and that eternal life with its Kingdom is now present. It will also have future manifestations as well. Kingdom life is both present and future in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and in John!
So we conclude this discussion by pointing out that though the emphasis is different in the synoptics and in John, the basic underlying theological structure is the same. As one theologian puts it, “Here we have the equation, ‘Kingdom of God’ = ‘Eternal Life.’ So in the Synoptics, ‘to inherit eternal life’ and ‘to enter into the Kingdom of God’ seem to be interchangeable terms. But whereas the Kingdom is the favourite expression in the Synoptics, Eternal Life is the constantly recurring phrase in John.” Indeed, it is as this passage from John’s first epistle indicates (1 John 5:11-13):
And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.
But how does Paul’s theology connect to the kingdom and to eternal life, and into this framework of realized and future eschatology? To this question we now turn.
Redemption in Paul’s letters
Like the synoptics and John, Paul’s theology is grounded in an eschatological perspective. The content of Paul’s epistles is best understood as an explanation of the eschatological time of salvation inaugurated by Christ’s advent, ministry, death and resurrection. For him, Jesus was the seed of the woman (Gal. 4:4) and of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). He was also the son of David (Rom. 1:3), and the one who filled the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:23-26). The covenant hope of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ!
Paul, too, recognized that the Kingdom of God and the life of that Kingdom had already come into the world as a mystery in fulfillment of the Old Testament hope. The future Kingdom had become present and the age to come had arrived already. This great, dynamic event is the eschatological framework within which all the great doctrines of Paul’s epistles are rightly understood and by which they are brought together into a unity. Here is how one theologian summarizes the matter.
Scholars are more and more finding the point of departure . . . in the redemptive-historical, eschatological character of Paul's proclamation. The governing motif of Paul's preaching is the saving activity of God in the advent of the work, particularly in the death and resurrection, of Christ. This activity is on the one hand the fulfillment of the work of God in the history of the nation Israel, the fulfillment therefore also of the Scriptures; on the other hand it reaches out to the ultimate consummation of the parousia [return] of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is this great redemptive-historical framework within which the whole of Paul's preaching must be understood and all of its subordinate parts receive their place and organically cohere.
Consequently, we must grasp all Pauline doctrines as eschatological blessings of the Kingdom already present here and now. Let’s look at all this more closely.
The fulness of the times and the revelation of the mystery. Jesus clearly announced that the Old Testament hope of redemption was fulfilled in Him. As He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). In Mark 1:15, our Savior said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” In Luke 4:21, after reading from Isaiah in a Sabbath synagogue service, Jesus also made this important point: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Later on in that same gospel, Jesus reported to His disciples that everything written about Him “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” in Him (Luke 24:44). For Jesus, that grand moment of all moments anticipated in the Old Testament had finally arrived in Him.
Now Paul is in perfect agreement with our Lord on this theme of fulfillment. In one classic passage, he states that “when the fulness of time came, God sent for His Son, born of woman, born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). The Apostle also notes that in Christ the Old Testament hope of redemption had come at last. He alerted his Corinthian readers to this fact by saying, “Behold, now is the ‘acceptable time,’ now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2). Those who responded in faith to this great day of salvation are none other that the redeemed of God “upon whom the ends of the ages have [already] come” (1 Cor. 10:11). For Paul, therefore, that time for which Israel had waited finally made its appearance on the stage of history. The Old Testament hope of salvation had arrived.
Paul’s teaching parallels that of Jesus in another significant way. Jesus clearly taught that the Kingdom rule of God came into the world as a mystery, in an unexpected redemptive form through His own person and work as the Suffering Servant in advance of its thunderous apocalyptic manifestation at the end of time (Matt. 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10).
Similarly, Paul asserts that God’s mysterious way of achieving redemption, which He had kept secret for ages, had been revealed in history through Christ in fulfillment of the Old Testament. Now, Christ’s redemptive work is being trumpeted abroad and bringing salvation to the nations. In essence, this mystery is the message of the entire book of Romans, as Paul explains in the last three verses of this magisterial epistle (Rom. 16:25-27):
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.
For Paul, God’s mystery is multifaceted. First and foremost, it is the person and work of Christ Himself, the One in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge (Col. 2:2-3). This mystery also entails the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). In Colossians 1:26-27, he describes this aspect of the mystery in these terms.
Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (emphasis added).
By grace, this mystery of God’s redemptive work has been made known to all believers, both how it will be worked out in the present and in the future. The people of God have been blessed with “a view suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth” (Eph. 1:9-10). Paul, of course, was called by God to be the messenger of these divine mysteries. His purpose in life was to preach the immeasurable riches of Christ, and “to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” (Eph. 3:8-9). What a grand calling to proclaim this mystery to the world!
Two examples from Paul’s teaching help us to understand more about its specific content as it has been revealed in Christ.
Justification and life in the Spirit. At the heart of Paul’s understanding of this mystery of God’s salvation were the doctrines of justification and life in the Holy Spirit. According to typical Jewish understanding, both of these blessings were associated with the end times. People would not be acquitted before God until the final judgment. The Spirit would not be poured out in fullness until the Day of the Lord had come. But just like the Kingdom in the synoptics and eternal life in John, so justification and life in God’s Spirit are blessings that already belong to believers in the present age. They are aspects of the fulfillment of the mystery of redemption. Believers are already justified (Rom. 5:9), and enjoy life in the Spirit of God now (Rom. 8:5-17; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:14)! George Ladd offers two helpful comments that put these matters in perspective. On justification, he writes:
Justification that belongs to the age to come and issues in the future salvation has become a present reality. . . . An essential element in the salvation of the future age is the acquittal and pronouncement of righteousness; this acquittal, [or] justification, which consists of the divine absolution of sin, has already been effected by the death of Christ and may be received by faith here and now. The future judgment has thus become essentially a present experience. God in Christ has acquitted the believer; therefore he is certain of deliverance from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9), and he no longer stands under condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
This same author clarifies our understanding of the gift of the Holy Spirit which is also a future blessing made present by the revelation of the mystery in Christ.
Paul recognizes that the gift of the Spirit is an eschatological gift and that the life imparted by the indwelling Spirit is essentially the life of the age to come. This is attested by two Pauline metaphors. The indwelling Spirit is an arrabon [seal, downpayment, first installment] and an aparche [firstfruits]. . . . the present gift of the Spirit brings a partial but real experience of the life of the age to come (II Cor. 1:22). . . . Christian experience is the life of the Spirit, which is an initial installment of the fulness of the future life, the same in kind although limited in degree. . . . it is the reality of the life of the age to come which makes possible a partial experience of that life in the present age.
Other Pauline doctrines — reconciliation, new creation, resurrection, etc. — are also of the same eschatological character, and yet realized in the present through Christ’s redemptive work. Of course, our present experience of all of these blessing is now in part. They will be experienced fully and completely when Christ returns and redemption is completed.
There is a future aspect to Paul’s theology that must be maintained as well. For Paul, knowledge is a good example of this. Now we know in part; we shall know fully when Christ returns. Paul reminds us of these facts in this famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 where he emphasizes that of all God’s gifts, the greatest gift is love (vv. 9-13):
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
OK, we have done some pretty deep thinking in this lesson! There really is a unity and diversity to New Testament theology. Jesus’ one act of redemption is interpreted in several helpful ways by the authors of the New Testament. In the synoptic gospels, it is the Kingdom of God who conquers death, sin, and Satan. In John it is the Word of God who brings eternal life. In Paul, it is the time of fulfillment that brings in the mystery of Christ and the eschatological of justification and life in the Spirit. One event, several significant meanings. How rich is our understanding of what Jesus did for us through the inspired writings of the New Testament!
Coming up next: Eschatology!
Questions for Study or Discussion
- What does Dr. Naugle mean by saying there is “unity and diversity” in the theology of the New Testament? Of what does the unity consist? The diversity?
- How can you see that the New Testament regarded the work of Christ as the fulfillment of the promised Old Testament salvation? What does this mean for how we should read the Old Testament?
- In what sense can we say that the Kingdom of God has “already” come? How does that appear?
- But in what sense is the Kingdom yet to come? How will that appear?
- What does it mean for us as believers to be living in the “here and now” and the “not yet” at the same time? How should that affect our sense of what our lives should be all about?
For more insight to this topic, get the book, Stewards in the Kingdom, by R. Scott Rodin, from our online store. Or read the article, “Power Present and Coming,” by T. M. Moore.
 George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 41.
 Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, p. 76.
 W. F. Howard, Christianity According to St. John, Duckworth’s Theology Series (London: Duckworth, 1943), p.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1975), p. 39.
 Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, pp. 95.
 Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, pp. 101-02.