The Suffering Servant

Conviction

Conviction born of an encounter with God is a word for expressing an uncommon change in a human being, a change that gives witness to a power able to make, any person a recipient of such an encounter, into an extraordinary soul. Such a person overcomes the world from within and faces it outwardly with immovable courage that is always motivated by love.

     The life of Paul portrays an uncommon power to live out a calling, in the face of rejection and suffering. Paul lives without ever-exhibiting uncertainty or doubt. In this sense Paul models a trait seen in Jesus. This trait is either unseen in the disciples or none of them lived it with the tenacity of this immovable convert named Paul; the violent, power seeking, religious zealot called to be an apostle.

    I think it is helpful to view Paul as more than a disciple, even as Jesus’ replacement. First, Paul’s Damascus revelation is compatible with the call and commission narratives of the prophets. Yet, it is also distinctly more comparable with Moses’ revelations at the bush and at Sinai.[1] The formative preparation of Paul’s life is noted in his educational studies, beyond this, he becomes an example of grace. His conversion and life thereafter reflect the power of Christ Jesus to change a human life. If the murdering, religiously political zealot Paul, can change, then anyone can. Paul viewed the grace given to him to be a pivotal moment in history (1st Cor. 9:17).

Listen to me, O coastlands,

pay attention, you peoples from far away!

The LORD called me before I was born,

while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow,

in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain,

I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the LORD,

and my reward with my God.”

(Isaiah 49:1-4)

    The suffering servant songs of Isaiah become particularly reflective of Jesus’ experience until they represent the Spirit of Christ, until a perceived messianic fulfillment is recognized in Jesus. Jesus ultimately becomes Israel by fulfilling the law and living out Israel’s call. This being said, Jesus’ experience with the disciples is continually marked by their failure to understand his words. The culminating moment is when they all scatter, marked off by Peter’s denial. Even after the resurrection some doubt. Their ambitions overwhelm them and they remain in Jerusalem after receiving the Spirit; contrary to Jesus words at his ascension.

    Jesus’ appearance and calling of Paul is an act of God’s constant freedom to work outside expected boundaries. The disciples, now apostles, have, if you will, competitors, outsiders to their circle. The appearance of Jesus to his brother James provides the disciples with a sensible leader. The martyrdom of Stephen sits in contrast to the disciples hiding during the time of Jesus’ suffering. Then along comes this enemy, this religious zealot, who claims an encounter with the resurrected Lord, an encounter of a revelatory nature that challenges the secured place and role of the disciples.

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

(Galatians 1:11)

    God works slowly in relation to our expectations; ultimately Paul’s formation occurs after his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus. In Arabia, Paul’s sudden revelation is melded into his intellect, into his being; he worked out his theology during this three year period in the company of the Spirit.[2] Paul has little need for the disciples and considers his calling to be of an eschatalogical nature. Paul disallows any need to even confer with the disciples whom he speaks of as being apostles before him. Paul is a man with a revelation.

Goads

 When we had all fallen to the ground,

I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,

‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’

(Acts 26:14)

       Our first picture of Saul is one of a powerful religious zealot in agreement with the killing of a blasphemer. Saul launches out after the martyrdom of Stephen to become a sanctioned defender of God’s ways by killing the blasphemy resident in an emerging sect of Judaism built upon faith in a leader who was also condemned for blasphemy.

   When the Lord appeared to Saul it is not a cordial event as with Moses who is drawn out of curiosity and invited to remove his shoes. Rather, like Abraham over Isaac with the knife, the Lord calls out Saul’s name twice. The difference between the two men is profound at this point. Abraham is, by example, the father of faith, a uniqueness that attests to his status as a monotheist. Saul, is not being tested, he is in conflict with the interests and salvific work of God.

   The metaphor of kicking against the goads is instructive. Saul is like a harnessed animal, ignorant and stubborn. Saul ignores the structures of life and he cannot win against the greater power of the Lord.  Saul has ignored the voice of God in creation, in the underlying structures of reality; he is outside the role of wisdom. Saul is guilty of not discerning the voice of the one in whom he believes, God. Within the metaphor is ‘why’ and this becomes an invitation to stop resisting. It also requires Paul to find God in the people and events that have occupied his efforts to persecute the persons involved in this emerging sect built around the person of Jesus.

    Saul had been present at the stoning of Stephen, he heard Stephen’s sermon.[3] He had heard Stephen’s prayer for God to forgive his murderers. In Stephen, Saul saw Jesus. I can think of no more profound event for Saul than to hear this Greek man proclaim Israel’s history fulfilled in Jesus and then display to the world a grace that defies the suffering of death by stoning.

   A revelation is an event, when a person is given, in their soul, understanding about reality that is not learned but gift. Yet, the ability to integrate a revelation into the life and intellect of a human being is dependent upon the human being. Even as we bring ourselves to the text as readers, we also arrive at a revelation event in all our limits as creatures. Saul’s education and experience are essential to the reception of the revelation given to him. He was chosen. Further, it is fitting that the grace of God to redeem be exhibited in the man who becomes Jesus’ replacement, who will be considered as the founder of Christianity because of his role in the early Missional works of the burgeoning Christian movement. The role of Paul in the canon of the NT also attests to his importance as an eschatalogical figure. Only one thing can explain Paul and that is his Damascus road experience; he met the risen Lord.

    To claim a revelation can only be confirmed by living a life that affirms said claim. Paul’s conviction is firm and immovable, he encountered the divine beyond the parameters of our known reality. It is so that Paul ‘despaired of life’ at one point, not with doubt about the resurrected Lord, but over survival. Some have referred to Paul as an obstinate personality and it is easy to make such a statement if one does not consider the profundity of being a person with a revelation and charged with a task. Perhaps only Abraham, Moses, and Paul display the life and actions of a person with a revelation.

    Jesus of course displays a life built upon a revelation, even though, at an unidentifiable or particular moment. Jesus’ personal growth to recognize himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah’s songs, as the Israel God longed for embodied in a human being, is set apart from Abraham, Moses and Paul. Although I believe that in Jesus, God became a human being without exception, it is correct to say that the life of Jesus was watched over by God in a way that enabled Jesus, in his task, to reveal God in a human being.

Abraham the First Monotheist

Confirming a Revelation

   The importance of the concept of revelation is essential for claiming that God reveals God’s self over against ideas that insist God is the progressive creation of human need. Without the concept of revelation religion is human invention. That the concept of revelation is not a part of the basic instruction for seminarians involved in critical thinking and exposed to the realties that formed scripture and history is tragic. This one failure results in the poverty of soul that results in atheism. 

   The monotheism of Abraham is established through his story in a variety of ways. Abrahams’ call acknowledges the God who speaks to him is not confined to a particular land or people. Further the God of Abraham will create his own people through an old man whose wife is beyond the years of childbearing. That Abraham’s God is without a people is instructive for understanding that Abrahams’ God is unknown to humanity. Further, Abraham’s God is not limited by human capability to reproduce nor is he subject to time. Meaning he is the creator of life and not subject to the powers of death. For this reason God can make promises that reach beyond the life of Abraham and into the drama of human history.

   Abraham is a model of ‘conviction’. He never doubts the existence of this God who speaks to him. He does ask for personal certainty concerning God’s promise that he would have an heir. The covenant ceremony in Genesis 15 through the act of splitting animals into in a wadi and God symbolically passing down the center of their carcasses indicates that God is incapable of breeching a promise. The God of Abraham is both omnipotent to perform his promises and good in the sense that the ceremony teaches us God would prefer annihilation to fail on his promise. Not that God could be dismembered nor cease to exist, but the ceremony exposes the heart or ‘holiness’ of God.

   In light of these thoughts on Abraham and monotheism, understanding the Aqedah (the binding) in a manner consistent with the writer of Hebrews and the thought of Kierkegaard is in my thinking, imperative.[4] Abraham’s God is not like any other, this Abraham knows, for he is the recipient of a revelation that produced his life as a model for monotheistic faith.

     The Aqedah is an unmatched test worthy solely for the father of faith, recipient of a revelation. It functions as a test only if Abraham believes in a good God who has promised him seed through Isaac. 

    Abraham is not beginning his faith journey in Genesis 22. Rather, it is the culmination of his faith story. Afterwards Sarah dies and Abraham simply fades into history a happy Sheikh whose wealth and power provides him with the company of beautiful women and lots of children.

   I am convinced it is correct to say, when LORD spoke to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 he received a revelation of God that is demonstrated throughout his life to be monotheistic belief.

 

[1] It is absurd to think that the purposeful theological structuring of the Luke’s second work would place ‘so called’ conflicting accounts of Paul’s ‘Damascus Revelation’ without purposeful intent. The meaning behind each account set alongside one another offers the reader an opportunity to reflect on the understanding given to Paul that set his soul on a new course. It is apparent those with him gained neither understanding, nor revelation. Further, to think all that was spoken to Saul need be reported in any lived event is simply unrealistic. Luke’s writing expects such awareness from literate persons.

[2] At the interrogation of Paul by Festus, Paul is interrupted during his theological/historical defense and Festus claims that Paul’s learning is driving him insane. This statement reveals the passion and intellect of Paul; he has no place for doubt. Festus’ only defense against Paul’s argument is to appeal to the fact resident in all religious belief which is that in spite of perfectly reasoned argument the faith component suspends proof and holds it captive.

[3] Whether the sermon is an accurate account is irrelevant to the theological reading of scripture. Scripture was written and inspired for the purpose of establishing theological instruction. Luke is more than a historian and his mind more complex than mere reporting.

[4] The writer of Hebrews understood that Abraham’s belief in God’s power to keep his promise in spite of the death of Isaac represented the necessity of resurrection.  In affect God and Abraham are in a contest where Abraham’s faith matches God’s power. However, the sacrifice of Isaac was never God’s intent. The Aqedah should be called the Nasa; meaning the test. In this sense the testing of Abraham is a polemic against child sacrifice. Kierkegaard explains Abraham’s actions as a relational reality in which there is a teleological suspension of the ethical.