The New Testament letters all share a core conviction that shapes how the apostles taught followers of Jesus to live in the first century. Listen in as Tim and Jon discuss the focus of the New Testament letters and how they help us live wisely today.
If the thesis statement is “Jesus is Lord,” this makes so much sense of why the Gospels are all revolving around the theme of Jesus announcing or bringing God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It makes sense of why the resurrection of Jesus is portrayed as the royal enthronement. It also makes sense of why, in the letters, a key foundation point shared by all the apostles is this conviction that Jesus is exalted as the King of the universe. It just keeps coming up.
In part one (0:00–28:45), Tim and Jon begin by recapping the material from the two-part live conversation that happened in Dallas, Texas. The New Testament letters make up a small percentage of our Bible, but they are often given the most weight. These pages constitute real letters, not just abstract theological essays.
Jon shares his struggle with this idea. If these letters are so important, then why is the other half of the conversation lost to history? Why would God choose to communicate in this way?
Tim says that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel accounts make up one central thesis statement—they point us to Jesus as the exalted Lord of heaven and earth. The apostles wrote the letters to church leaders to help them apply that core thesis statement to their context.
Tim and Jon discuss this tension. The New Testament letters seem to fall short of a full theological textbook, yet letters like Ephesians and Romans were clearly meant to circulate and inform many churches, not just one. The way Paul applies the core thesis statement of Scripture to his context should be an example for us today.
Although we don’t have all of the apostles’ writings, we do have the foundation that informed it. Jon admits that he viewed this the opposite way—that the Gospel accounts and the Hebrew Bible provide a lot of narrative backdrop, and the letters tell us what it all really means.
So do we need the New Testament letters? Tim says that we do. We have the same foundation as the apostles—the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel accounts. But the Gospel accounts end with Jesus commissioning his disciples into the world, and Luke provides the narrative backdrop for the New Testament letters in the book of Acts. The letters are both the product and the fuel of the missionary movement of Jesus going out to all nations.
In part two (8:45–38:00), Tim recaps the four kinds of context to consider when reading the letters.
We should apply biblical, cultural, and literary context to other books of the Bible. The letters are different from poetry and narratives because they’re written in a relational, situational context. The letters prepare followers of Jesus for a day when they will also encounter new cultures and issues, so that they can navigate them with the wisdom and help of the Holy Spirit.
Tim highlights how God works through human partners to bring about his Kingdom. All followers of Jesus have to live out the principles of God’s Kingdom in their own day. Tim calls this “Spirit-guided improvisation” based on the close study of the biblical story.
In part three (38:00–47:30), Tim and Jon discuss how the New Testament letters consistently point back to Jesus as Lord.
And after he had said these things, he was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received him out of their sight.
Jesus fulfills the vision of Daniel 7. This language of an exalted human is then saturated into the rest of the New Testament writings. Paul echoes this at the beginning of 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, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ.
Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
This language of Christ as the King permeates the apostles’ letters, and it gets them into trouble more than once. This Kingdom is the great equalizer in a worldly kingdom where everything is about status, rank, and class.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
In part four (47:30–end), Tim and Jon connect again on Paul’s description of Jesus as the descendent of David and the fulfillment of the garden of Eden vision. Now followers of Jesus are united, connected, and empowered by Jesus to fulfill the original calling to rule with God as the body of Jesus, the true image of God.
Jon shares that many of these cosmic themes were missing from his upbringing in the church. Tim says that our assumptions about the letters shape how we read them. If we misunderstand the purpose of a letter, we will misunderstand the letter. In the letters, we’re watching the apostles teach followers of Jesus in the first century how to live like Jesus is Lord.
Scot McKnight, Reading Romans Backwards
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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