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Jesus into Paul

Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel

Chapter  6

The Gospel Embodied in Whole

Sections

 

The Shift of the Gospel

Strategic Shift

Tactical Shift

Functional Shift

Embodied in Whole

Extended Embodying of the Whole Gospel

Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Ch 8

Ch 9

Ch 10

Ch 11

Ch 12

Ch 13

Ch 14

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of contents

Scripture Index

Bibliography

 

Lord, say to my innermost, ‘I am your salvation’.

 

Psalm 35:3

 

 

Good news may be based on its composition. Good news for the human condition, however, can be based only on the depth of its significance to compose the fulfillment of the human condition.

The ancient poet made the above request of the LORD to utter. If the poet had been focused on his surrounding situations and circumstances, what he requested would have been a referential statement transmitting information merely about what God does—that is, deliver him from his negative situations and circumstances. Since his request was for the LORD to speak to his innermost (nepes, the qualitative of God distinguished in the human person), he wanted only relational words from God not referential. The relational response he wanted from God did not necessarily make his situations and circumstances unimportant but clearly secondary to the primacy of relationship together, therefore he was able to affirm God’s righteous involvement in their relationship in spite of his continued troubles (Ps 35:28).

This speaks to the significance of the whole gospel. What the ancient poet wants is the depth of God’s relational response from inner out, which a response just to his situations and circumstances would not satisfy. His feeling is the affect of eternity-substance in his heart (Ecc 3:11) pursuing God for more. Therefore, he impressed on God to communicate this relational message to his innermost, a message that would be insufficient as an “I am” statement in referential terms. Only the “I am” as relational words in relational language can communicate on the innermost level these vital relational messages which the poet wanted to receive: (1) who, what and how the whole of God is; (2) who and what God sees in our person and how he feels about us; and (3) what the relationship between us means to God and how the whole of God responds to us for our person and the relationship to be whole.

These relational messages integrally constitute the heart (innermost) of the whole gospel, the depth of which is necessary to respond to the breadth of the human condition. And the gospel unfolds from the beginning with nothing less and no substitutes; otherwise our gospel is not whole, not a gospel at all, as Paul declared (Gal 1:7). Our beliefs or notions about the gospel tend either to make major assumptions about it so as to render the good news merely to a headline composed with only a sidebar and obituary in the news, and consequently a gospel without full significance for the human condition. Or we take liberties with the gospel in autonomous efforts to shape the gospel for our (individual and collective) determination and justification so as to render the good news merely to another op-ed article in the newspaper, and, as a result, not really a gospel for the human condition. The former composition reduces the gospel and the latter renegotiates it, both of which perceive the gospel in referential terms through a myopic lens—the prevailing interpretive framework and perceptual lens.

In referential words and language—as noted in the news above—the gospel becomes an announcement that transmits information about what God did and what people can do because of it. Such a gospel in referential terms has been reduced to quantitative information describing God’s outer-in function (what God saves from) in fragmentary parts, though the results for human persons have spiritual nuances and implications which have been negotiated on human terms. In such a so-called gospel, the ontology and function of both God and the human person have been reduced and fragmentized by being defined and determined on the basis of what they do, and thus what they have: a referential gospel. This, however, misre-presents the whole gospel that emerged from the beginning in relational response to the human condition, which Jesus embodied to fulfill, and which Paul embodied to complete. We therefore need to challenge any of our assumptions and shaping of the gospel which are anything less and any substitute.

In relational words and language, the gospel is a relational dynamic beyond the proclamation of a static proposition; and it is simply irreducible to referential terms or else the significance of its relational response is fragmented and its wholeness is lost. When this happens, the distinguished Face does not turn and shine to bring new relationship in wholeness but becomes an ambiguous or elusive Face needing human shaping. Moreover, then, the whole gospel is a relational dynamic solely on God’s relational terms, which are nonnegotiable to human terms, or else its relational response is no longer to make whole the human condition but becomes determined by the human-shaping influence of the human condition. From the beginning, the gospel is the distinguished Face’s relational outworking and fulfillment of siym and shalom, nothing less and no substitutes (Num 6:24-26)—as the ancient poet wanted form God.

How did the relational dynamic of the gospel unfold and become embodied in whole? This involves the ongoing convergence and integral interaction of the dynamics of the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition.

 

The Shift of the Gospel

In the highlight of Israel’s history (liberation from Egypt), Moses affirmed that the LORD “has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2). In a low point in his personal history, the ancient poet wanted the distinguished Face to turn to his innermost to experience the same affirmation. Both of them expressed their feelings in the most qualitative form (and the earliest) of human communication: song and poetry. Referential words in referential language (a later development in human communication) were inadequate to express the depth not only of their hearts but the qualitative-relational depth of God’s salvation. Moses’ song was a prelude to the communication in their relationship together in which God spoke directly to Moses, Face to face (Num 12:6-8). Their direct relational involvement together was a precursor of what God saves to conjointly with saves from. These early experiences capture the initial relational significance, if not always the qualitative significance, of the dynamics of God’s thematic relational response signifying the gospel. The dynamic that unfolds from these experiences, along with others like Abraham’s, has even further and deeper qualitative-relational significance which distinguishes the gospel unmistakably in wholeness (the shalom of God’s definitive blessing) and thus inseparably from the whole, God’s relational whole. As we fast-forward, the distinguished Face’s relational outworking and fulfillment of siym and shalom intensify.

What the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel are was unclear until the incarnation. Yet, understanding both its qualitative significance and relational significance remained an issue throughout the incarnation and Paul’s time, and remains an issue for us today. This lack of understanding remains until a compatible shift occurs integrally with the gospel.

After the aborted effort to pursue eternal life by the rich young man, the disciples were somewhat shocked at Jesus’ account of the difficulty to enter the kingdom of God. Due to a lack of their own understanding, they raised the question: “Then who can be saved?” (Mt 19:25; Mk 10:26) Jesus’ short answer must not be reduced to referential terms about what is possible for God and impossible for human persons; his answer must be understood in the context of the account he just gave in relational terms. Whether for the rich young man or any other persons defined by what they have and do, these persons are engaged unavoidably in varied efforts of self-determination. Until such persons shift from these reduced terms of what defines and determines them, they are incompatible with the gospel to be saved to more—no matter how sincere, devoted and successful they are in the religious context, as demonstrated by the successful young man. The shift of the gospel is clearly both bad news for those who have not shifted from their self-definition and determination, as well as the good news for those who make a compatible shift (e.g. Levi, Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman, discussed previously).

The gospel unfolds in the incarnation with three major shifts: strategic, tactical and functional. As these shifts are enacted, the gospel Jesus embodied in whole is made conclusive for what God saves to.

Strategic Shift

Moses’ experience of God’s direct involvement with him in Face-to-face relationship was a precursor to the strategic shift of the gospel. This strategic shift clearly emerged with the Samaritan woman (see previous discussion, Jn 4:4-26). In the shift from a place (like the mountain, tabernacle, or Jerusalem), and from situations and circumstances, the whole of God becomes vulnerably and relationally accessible for ongoing involvement in direct relationship Face to face. This makes the transcendent God accessible to all peoples and persons regardless of their human distinctions from outer in, on the one hand, which certainly opened up a unique opportunity for this woman, viewed as a person of despicable race-ethnicity, debased gender and likely denigrated character. On the other hand, however, this was unique access only for the relationship-specific involvement from inner out in the primacy together of God’s family, for which this woman would have to shift from outer in to be compatible. This then makes the holy God accessible for relationship only to those who respond in the innermost of Jesus’ relational context and process—in other words, relationship only on God’s terms (cf. Jn 8:31-42). Was this good news or bad news for this woman?

In relational language, Jesus vulnerably engaged her to reveal that the old (prevailing religious tradition and way to see things) was going to be changed (Jn 4:21-22), and that the new “is now here” (4:23-24). The strategic shift in the holy and transcendent God’s presence was embodied vulnerably with her in a highly improbable encounter—improbable both in God’s action and in human thinking. As Jesus disclosed the qualitative and relational significance of his whole person in his pivotal “I am” relational message to her (v.26), the whole of God’s ontology and function became vulnerably accessible for ongoing involvement in direct relationship Face to face. The same relational dynamic was also extended improbably to Paul on the Damascus road, which raised similar issues for Paul in his religious tradition, as for the woman in hers, but with further implications and consequences. This shift to the new relational context and process, however, necessitated (and still necessitates) terms significant for compatibility in order to distinguish relationship together from prevailing human terms, self-definition and determination. In the strategic shift of the gospel, there is no relational progression with the wholly accessible God without these ongoing relational terms: “in spirit and truth” (4:23-24).

These familiar terms cannot be limited to worship in traditional terms because Jesus takes worship beyond its traditional context (v.21). Worship is not location-specific but relationship-specific in its primacy. While the latter was always intended by God to constitute the worship signified in the tabernacle or temple, the location had become the primacy to constitute worship which only secondarily signified in relationship with God. The relational distance or lack of relational involvement with God emerges unmistakably in worship when perceived from inner out (cf. Mk 7:6-8). This practice engaged in relationship without the heart, the innermost of the person that Jesus made definitive in relational language by the term “spirit,” (cf. the poet’s nepes, Ps 35:3).

In the strategic shift of the gospel, throughout the incarnation the distinguished presence of Jesus’ whole person vulnerably disclosed the transcendent “God is spirit” (as in v.24)—that is, the innermost of the whole of who, what and how God is. The good news for the Samaritan woman was that Jesus wasn’t engaging her in a theological task to merely inform her for further doctrine about which she could be dogmatic. The strategic shift of the gospel’s relational dynamic reveals the innermost of the whole of God completely for the primacy of whole relationship together, even for a Samaritan woman with a history of failed marriages and cohabitation without matrimony. The innermost of God’s ontology and function necessitates by its nature (dei, v.24)—not the personal obligation or moral compulsion of opheilo—the innermost of human ontology and function for relationship together to be compatible. A reduced ontology and function defined and determined from outer in is incompatible for relationship with the whole ontology and function of God. In addition, the innermost of God’s ontology and function is the truth of who, what and how God is because God is relationally righteous and faithfully involved with nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God, as vulnerably embodied by Jesus throughout the incarnation. The improbable unfolded before her in order to be with her. Therefore, along with the innermost of human ontology and function is the inseparable need for the truth of who, what and how the person is, that is, being vulnerably open and honest with one’s whole person—weaknesses, failures, sins and all, nothing less and no substitutes (demonstrated by this woman, 4:17)—in order for compatible relationship together to be reciprocal and whole. These are the indispensible relational terms to involve our whole person in the depth of face to Face.

“In spirit and truth” are the compatible qualitative relational terms which shift human persons to converge with the strategic shift of the gospel; and the gospel’s relational dynamic in distinguished relational progression redefines their persons from outer in to inner out, transforms them from reductionism, and makes them whole in the primacy of relationship together in God’s family. Our theological reflections on the ontology and function of both God and the human person deepen as we understand the pivotal significance of the Samaritan woman’s experience with the improbable. The need to account for the whole person, God’s and ours, is critical to the relational dynamic of the gospel and its relational outcome in the primacy of intimate relationships together Face to face necessary to hold together God’s family in the innermost.

The relational terms Jesus made definitive are neither optional nor idealized terms, and certainly cannot be understood as referential terms. Jesus’ relational terms embody the whole of God’s thematic relational response in the gospel and constitute the only terms by what and how God does relationships. Understanding the qualitative significance and relational significance of the gospel, however, does not stop with the strategic relational shift. Further shifts unfold in the relational dynamic of the gospel distinguished by the relational progression to deepen our understanding and to fulfill our experience for its relational outcome.

Tactical Shift

The strategic shift opened direct access to Face-to-face relationship with the whole of God. The relational dynamic of the gospel also embodies the relational progression of relationship together to its complete relational outcome. This relational progression unfolds in the gospel with the tactical shift, the further and deeper shift of the gospel integrated with the strategic relational shift.

Any news about Messiah would be good news, especially for those who experience discrimination and dispossession. It is not clear whether the Samaritan woman, and those following her, believed in Jesus merely as the expected prophet (Jn 4:28-29, 39-42, cf. Deut 18:15-19), or also responded from their innermost to Jesus as the whole of God’s very self-disclosure for relationship together. While the former outcome was expected and probable, or at least hoped for, the latter would be an improbable expectation, a paradoxical wish at best. This suggests the difficulty not only of explaining the holy and transcendent God’s presence and involvement but also understanding the significance of God’s strategic relational shift—a difficulty compounded if approached from thinking in referential terms.

Psalm 8 reflects on the involvement of the transcendent God and Creator with the human person and raises the question (paraphrase of v.4): What is the human person that this God is involved, how can this be? This question provides a transition from the strategic shift of God’s thematic relational action to God’s tactical shift within the incarnation.

A partial theological answer to the question perhaps could be that the human person is not only God’s creation but created in God’s image as the epitome of God in all creation; thus in support of imago Dei, God maintains this involvement and caring (cf. God’s providence). Yet, as discussed previously, this is really the wrong question to be asking because it does not focus on the primary. Attempting to explain God’s action on the basis of what defines the human person is to conclude that human persons merit or warrant God’s action—which is essentially the underlying dynamic for identity maintenance in Judaism with its identity markers. Such an explanation cannot be justified as the basis for moving the transcendent God to action. The primary question then to ask focuses on the innermost of God: Who and what are you that this is how you are—present and involved?

While OT narrative and theology define no deistic God who is detached or distant, there is deeper understanding needed for the holy and transcendent God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement. Even the strength of covenant expectations of God’s action prevailing in the intertestimental period (Second Temple Judaism) cannot adequately account for the relational significance of God’s strategic relational shift. The only answer to this question that can be offered for the improbable is not a referential narrowed-down explanation (e.g. grace as a default explanation) but emerges from the qualitative-relational understanding of God’s innermost: the relational nature of the heart of God’s ontology and function vulnerably enacting the whole of God’s relational response of grace.

As the whole of God’s relational work of grace made a strategic shift with the incarnation, Jesus’ relational work of grace makes a tactical shift for further engagement in the relational progression. With this shift Jesus makes evident the gospel further in the improbable.

The improbable is not only about the relational presence of the transcendent God but also about the vulnerable involvement of the holy God, who must by nature be separate and distinguished from what is common (cf. qados and hol, holy and common, respectively, Lev 10:10; 11:45). In the mystery of the holy God’s direct relational involvement, Jesus’ whole person demonstrated no relational separation from the common’s context (from micro level to macro) in his ongoing vulnerable involvement. Yet Jesus’ relational involvement illuminated the qualitative innermost distinguishing his relational work of grace from the common’s function. What distinguished the holy God from pervasive common function underlies both the tactical shift for the relational progression as well as the functional significance of the gospel.

Jesus emerged in the midst of a religious context pervasive with messianic and covenant expectations, with the surrounding context prevailing in cultural, economic and political stratification. He also encountered the interacting effects of these contextual pressures in his public ministry, yet these effects neither defined nor determined what emerges in the tactical shift of the gospel. The presence of these and other contextual influences, pressures and related problems, however, have importance in the life of Jesus, and accordingly for his followers, and are valuable in our understanding of the gospel, for the following purpose: (1) they help define the pervasive common function from which Jesus’ function was distinguished; and (2) they help identify the prevailing common function from which persons needed to be redeemed. This purpose is realized with the tactical shift. The relational dynamic enacted by Jesus in the tactical shift conjointly distinguished his relational involvement in progression with persons, and distinguished those persons in their relational response in relational progression.

We had our first exposure to Jesus’ tactical shift when he called Levi to be redefined, transformed and made whole (see previous discussion, Mt 9:9-13). Reviewing Levi’s story (discussed in chap. 3), it was nothing less than the embodying of the gospel—that is, the gospel which is contingent on no substitutes for a complete Christology and a full soteriology. In calling Levi, Jesus demonstrated the new perceptual-interpretive framework distinguished from what prevailed in common function. As both Jesus’ whole person and Levi’s crossed social, cultural and religious boundaries, they connected in relationship together Face to face. In this highly unlikely relationship (given Levi’s status), Jesus made evident his tactical shift for involvement in the relational progression. This was initially demonstrated by the significance of their table fellowship together. Levi was not only redeemed from the old but freed to relationship together in the new—that is, the primacy of whole relationship together in the relational progression involving friendship, intimacy and belonging to God’s family. Jesus’ tactical shift enacts the relational dynamic in the relational progression for persons like Levi to go from a disciple (and servant) of Jesus to his intimate friend (Jn 15:15), and then to be whole together as family (Jn 14:23; 17:21).

The relational progression is further distinguished with Zacchaeus. What unfolds from Levi to Zacchaeus is certainly more improbable in contextual terms. Yet the significance of this was the design of Jesus’ tactical shift, which further illuminated his qualitative innermost distinguished from common function.

Reviewing Zacchaeus’ story (Lk 19:1-10), he certainly was not lacking economically, though he lacked by any other measurement. Most importantly, he lacked the wholeness of belonging to the whole of God. This was the only issue Jesus paid attention to, demonstrating his perceptual-interpretive framework. By this qualitative lens, he didn’t see a short rich sinner up in a tree but Zacchaeus’ whole person needing to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Zacchaeus also becomes a metaphor for all such persons, whom Jesus must (dei) unavoidably pursue in their innermost by the nature of God’s thematic relational action; this was how Jesus also pursued the rich young man in his innermost, without the same relational outcome as Zacchaeus. This metaphor for such persons, whom Jesus must “dwell with” (meno, 19:5) by intimate relational involvement together as family, also signifies the qualitative and relational significance necessary for the gospel. With the tactical shift of the gospel, the whole gospel’s qualitative and relational significance are composed.

The reality of this new creation of God’s family is revealed conclusively in the experiential truth of the relational progression, which God’s thematic relational work of grace initiates, Jesus’ relational work of grace constitutes and the Spirit’s completes, also in reciprocal relationship with Paul. This new relational condition was neither a response warranted by Zacchaeus nor an experience he could construct by self-determination. While Zacchaeus declared (in the Greek present tense) that he was already making restitution and helping to restore equity for consequences of his old relational condition (19:8), this could also indicate an intention he assumed already as a foregone reality. Thus it would be an error to conclude that this was the basis for Jesus’ responsive declaration: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (v.9). This was not the result of what Zacchaeus did, however honorable an act or repentant Zacchaeus. This was only the relational outcome of Jesus’ relational work of grace: “For [gar, because] the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v.10). The tactical shift Jesus enacted as expressed in this verse determined the outcome in the previous verse.

What are we saved to and the primacy of relationship together with the whole of God necessary to make us whole only emerge in Jesus’ tactical shift for distinguished involvement in the relational progression. Levi and Zacchaeus had similar experiences of Jesus vulnerably pursuing them in their relational condition “to be apart” from the whole; and both directly experienced his intimate relational involvement for the purpose to be made whole. Yet each of these narratives emphasizes a different aspect of the relational progression; integrating their experiences with Jesus into one relational process provides us a full view of the relational progression.

Their relationship together went further than the friendship of table fellowship, and their relational involvement went deeper into the relational progression. Though Zacchaeus’ salvation was not “because” of ancestry with Abraham, there was essentially relational connection as “a son of Abraham,” as Jesus declared (Lk 19:9)—pointing to connection with Abraham’s wholeness in faith, as Paul’s will emerge. That is, “to the degree that” (kathoti) Zacchaeus’ whole person from inner out—the shift Zacchaeus also made to be compatible with Jesus—was intimately involved with Jesus on the basis of God’s relational response of grace, Jesus redeemed him from the outer in of the old (of the common’s function) and transformed him in the innermost to the new as a son belonging in the family of God represented by Abraham. Therefore in their intimate involvement together Face to face, Zacchaeus was constituted in Jesus’ very own relational context, the whole of God’s relational context of family. In other words, the Son’s Father would also become Zacchaeus’ Father and they would effectively be brothers, as Jesus indicated after the resurrection (Jn 20:17, cf. Mt 12:50). This was what Zacchaeus was saved to, and this was the relationship necessary by nature to make him whole in the innermost together in God’s whole—the relational progression to the whole of God, the Trinity qua family.

Both Zacchaeus and Levi received and responded to the three vital relational messages which the ancient poet asked to experience as his salvation. While the poet’s experience of what he was saved to was limited, he did receive these relational messages sufficiently to understand that God “delights in the shalom of his servant” (Ps 35:27). Shalom is the definitive relational outcome of siym (Num 6:26), the distinguished Face’s relational work to bring change for new relationship together in wholeness that Jesus fulfilled.

There is one further shift that consummates this relational progression distinguishing the gospel.

Functional Shift

In God’s strategic and tactical shifts, the whole of God’s thematic relational action integrally converges within Jesus’ relational work of grace in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This coherence of relational action is completely fulfilled by Jesus’ whole person with his vulnerable relational involvement in distinguished love—the love that is further distinguished by this process of family love, of which Zacchaeus and Levi were initial recipients. With the qualitative significance and relational function of family love, Jesus embodied in whole the gospel’s functional shift for the innermost involvement in the relational progression in order to bring it (and his followers) to relational consummation (not yet to full conclusion). What is this family love specific to the trinitarian relational process?

During their last table fellowship, Jesus intimately shared with his disciples-friends “I will not leave you orphaned” (Jn 14:18). While Jesus’ physical presence was soon to conclude, his intimate relational involvement with them would continue—namely through his relational replacement, the Spirit (14:16-17). This ongoing intimate relational involvement is clearly the dynamic function of the trinitarian relational process of family love, which directly involves all the trinitarian persons (Jn 14:16-18,23). Yet, the full qualitative significance (in relational terms not referential) of this dynamic of family love is not understood until we have whole understanding (synesis) of the relational significance of Jesus’ use of the term “orphan” and his related concern.

In their ancient social context orphans were powerless and had little or no recourse to provide for themselves, which was the reason God made specific provisions for them in the OT (Dt 14:29, Isa 1:17,23, cf. Jam 1:27). This might suggest that Jesus was simply assuring his disciples that they would be taken care of. This would address the contextual-situational condition of orphans but not likely the most important and primary issue: their relational condition. It is critical to understand that Jesus’ sole concern here is for the relational condition of all his followers, a concern that Jesus ongoingly pursued during the incarnation (e.g. Lk 10:41-42; Jn 14:9; 19:26-27), after the resurrection (e.g. Lk 24:25; Jn 21:15-22), and in post-ascension (e.g. Rev 2:4; 3:20). Moreover, to understand the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel is to have whole understanding of the gospel’s relational dynamic unfolding the depth of God’s relational response to the breadth of the relational condition of all humanity.

Orphans essentially lived relationally apart; that is, they were distant or separated from the relationships necessary to belong to the whole of family—further preventing them from being whole. Even orphans absorbed into their extended kinship network were not assured of the relational function of belonging in its qualitative relational significance. The relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole and to not experience the relational function of belonging to the whole of God’s family would be intrinsic to orphans. This relational condition, which is also innermost to the human condition, defines the relational significance of Jesus’ concern for his disciples not to be relational orphans but to relationally belong. What addresses an orphan’s relational condition is the process of adoption. Without adoption, distinguished in the primacy of whole relationship together as family, this relational condition remains unresolved, Therefore, Jesus’ relational work of grace by the trinitarian relational process of family love enacted the process of adoption, together with the Spirit, to consummate the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition (Jn 1:12-13, cf. Mt 12:48-50; Mk 10:29-30). Paul later provided the theological and functional clarity for God’s relational process of family love and its relational outcome of adoption into God’s family (Eph 1:4-5, 13-14; 5:1; Rom 8:15-16, Gal 4:4-7).

In referential terms, adoption either becomes doctrinal information about a salvific transaction God made, which we can have more-or-less certainty about. Or adoption could be merely a metaphor that may have spiritual value but no relational significance. Both views continue to lack understanding of the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel and further misre-present the gospel’s relational outcome in the innermost. The qualitative relational outcome from Jesus’ intimate involvement of family love constitutes his followers in relationship together with the whole of God as family, so that Jesus’ Father becomes their Father (Jn 14:23) and they become “siblings” (adelphoi, Jn 20:17, cf. Is 63:16; Rom 8:29). If the functional significance of adoption is diminished by or minimalized to referential terms—or simply by reductionism and its counter-relational work—the relational consequence for our life and practice is to function in effect as ‘relational orphans’. In the absence of his physical presence, Jesus’ only concern was for his followers to experience the ongoing intimate relational involvement of the whole of God in the primacy of whole relationship together as family—which the functional shift of his relational work of grace made permanent by adoption. This relational action established them conclusively in the relational progression as family together, never to be “let go from the Trinity as orphans” (aphiemi, as Jesus said).

Functional and relational orphans suffer in the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s relational whole, consequently they lack belonging in the innermost to be whole. While this is a pandemic relational condition, it can also become an undetected endemic functional condition among his followers and in church practice—even with strong association with Christ and extended identification with the church. It is an undetected condition when it is masked by the presence of ontological simulations and epistemological illusions from reductionist substitutes—for example, performing roles, fulfilling service, participation in church activities (most notably in the Eucharist) and membership (including baptism), yet without the qualitative function from inner out of the whole person and without the relational involvement together vulnerably in family love. When Christian life and practice is without this qualitative-relational significance, it lacks wholeness because it effectively functions in the relational condition of orphans, functional and relational orphans. This then suggests the likelihood that many churches today (particularly in the global North) function more like orphanages than family—that is, gatherings of members having organizational cohesion and a secondary identity belonging to an institution but without the primary relationship together distinguished only in the innermost of family. This exposes the need to be redeemed further from the influence of reductionism in the human relational condition, most notably signified by the human shaping of relationships together, which the relational function of family love directly and ongoingly addresses for relationship together as family in likeness of the Trinity.

In its most innermost function, the trinitarian relational process of family love can be described as the following communicative and creative action by the whole of God:

The Father sent out his Son, followed by the Spirit, to pursue those who suffered being apart from God’s relational whole, reaching out to them with the relational involvement of distinguished love, thereby making provision for their release from any constraints or for payments to redeem them from any enslavement; then in relational progression of this relational connection, taking these persons back home to the Father, not to be mere house guests or to become household servants, even to be just friends, but to be adopted by the Father and therefore permanently belong in his family as his very own daughters and sons.

This is the innermost depth of the Trinity’s family love, which vulnerably discloses both the relational significance of God’s relational work of grace and the qualitative significance clearly distinguishing Jesus’ relational involvement from common function, even as may prevail in church and academy.

By the relational nature of the Trinity, the trinitarian relational process of family love is a function always for relationship, the relationship of God’s family. These are the relationships functionally necessary to be whole in the innermost that constitutes God’s family. That is, distinguished family love is always constituting and maturing God’s family; therefore, family love always pursues the whole person, acts to redeem persons from outer in and to transform from inner out, and addresses the involvement necessary in the primacy of relationships to be whole as family together in likeness of the Trinity. In only relational terms, family love functionally acts on and with the importance of the whole person to be vulnerably involved in the primacy of intimate relationships together of those belonging in God’s family. When the trinitarian relational process of family love is applied to the church and becomes functional in church practice, any church functioning as an orphanage can be redeemed from counter-relational work to function whole as God’s family together. Then its members will not only occupy a position within God’s family but also engage from inner out and experience the relational function necessarily involved in belonging in the innermost of God’s family that integrally holds them together.

In this functional shift enacted for the gospel, Jesus’ relational function of family love vulnerably engaged his followers for the innermost involvement in the relational progression to the whole of God’s family. This integrally involved the following relational dynamic: being redefined (and redeemed) from outer in to inner out and being transformed (and reconciled) from reductionism and its counter-relational work, in order to be made whole together in the innermost as family in likeness of the Trinity. Theologically, redemption and reconciliation are inseparable; and the integral function of redemptive reconciliation is the relational outcome of being saved to the whole of God’s family with the veil removed to eliminate any relational separation or distance. The irreducible and nonnegotiable nature of this integral relational dynamic of family love must (dei) then by its nature be an experiential truth having qualitative-relational significance for this wholeness to be a reality of consummated belonging to God’s family. This was further illuminated by Jesus when his family love exposed the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of family, along with its counter-relational work—exposed by his relational action centered on a familiar theme composed with relational words in relational language, not referential: “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-47).

Jesus made clearly unmistakable that the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole is pandemic (and enslaving to sin as reductionism, 8:34), thus critically endemic to those who labor in ontological simulations and epistemological illusions of God’s family (8:35,39,42). What Jesus distinguished with his relational words in relational language was both in contrast and conflict with what prevailed in human contexts (8:43)—the influence of which permeates even gatherings of God’s people. To be distinguished necessitates meeting the contingencies of Jesus’ familiar words above. His familiar words are an integral relational message first contingent on his inseparable relational words connected to them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” In spite of this context, these familiar words are usually separated from their contingency on this integral structure of Jesus’ relational message. The contingency of discipleship, however, is not met by merely following his disembodied words or teaching; it can only be fulfilled by following Jesus’ whole person, which Jesus made paradigmatic for discipleship (Jn 12:26) and the Father made relationally imperative (Mt 17:5). To “know the truth” is not a referential fragmentary truth but the whole of the embodied Truth in the primacy of relationship. Therefore, “make you free” further involves a contextual contingency communicated in Jesus’ complete relational message. In other words, there is no relational progression to belong in God’s family without redemption, and there is no redemption to be reconciled together as family without receiving and relationally responding to Jesus’ family love in his functional shift (Jn 8:35-36).

The relational progression does not and cannot stop at just being a disciple, or end with liberation as it did for many in Israel. The prevailing influences from the surrounding contexts—most notably present in the human relational condition shaping relationships together, yet existing even in gatherings of God’s people—either prevent further movement in the relational progression or diminish deeper involvement in its primacy of relationship. God’s salvific act of liberation is never an end in itself but an integral part of God’s creative action for new relationship together in wholeness—the distinguished Face’s relational work of siym and shalom. The embodied Truth in the trinitarian relational process of family love is the fulfillment of the whole of God’s thematic relational response, nothing less than the strategic shift of God’s relational work of grace. And God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement distinguished within the Truth are solely for the primacy of this relational outcome. From the beginning, liberation (redemption, peduyim, pedut, pedyom, Ps 111:9) was initially enacted by God for the Israelites in contingency with the Abrahamic covenant’s primacy of relationship together (the relational outcome of shakan, “dwell,” Ex 29:46). To be redeemed was never merely to be set free but freed to be involved in the relational progression together. Moreover, redemption is conclusively relationship-specific to the whole of God’s family together on just God’s relational terms, which are the relational context and process the Truth embodied. Jesus’ relational words must be understood in the whole context of God’s thematic relational action as well as in their immediate context. By the strategic, tactical and functional shifts of God’s relational work of grace, Jesus fulfilled God’s relational response to the human condition, thereby also defining the contextual contingency of the familiar words of his relational message. Jesus’ relational language is unequivocal: the embodied Truth is the only relational means available for his followers to be liberated from their enslavements to reductionism (or freed from a counter-relational condition, Jn 8:33-34), for the innermost relational purpose and outcome, so that they can be adopted as the Father’s own daughters and sons and, therefore, be distinguished as intimately belonging to his family permanently (meno, 8:34-36; cf. shakan above).

Additionally in contrast, the immediate context of Jesus’ relational words further defines a reduced servant (doulos) as one who is not free to experience God as Father and participate (meno, dwell) in his family as his own child (as Paul clarified theologically and functionally, Rom 8:15-16; Gal 4:6-7). Any mere servant, or mere disciple stalled in the relational progression, must be redeemed first, then must be adopted to belong in its innermost relational significance. This integrated context makes clear the contextual contingency in Jesus’ relational message declaring adoption as irreplaceable. Anything less and any substitutes for God’s people are reduced in function to ontological simulations and epistemological illusions. Whatever forms these simulations and illusions from reductionism may have in church practice today (including as an orphanage), these persons have no position of significance nor belong in the innermost with relational function in God’s family as long as the adoption process is not complete. Without the relational reality of adoption, a church functions in a reductionist substitute, at most, and engages in counter-relational work, at least (the implications of 8:43-44 among God’s people). And without experiencing redemptive reconciliation in the primacy of intimate relationship with the embodied Truth who “will make you free” (v.32), there is no other relational means for the outcome of adoption.

In the functional shift of Jesus’ relational work of grace, his family love wholly constitutes his followers in their innermost—by the relational progression to the whole of God—in the relationships necessary to be whole together as the triune God’s very own family. This is the only relational outcome that is congruent with God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition, that Jesus’ whole person vulnerably fulfilled with his strategic, tactical and functional shifts in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love. And anything less and any substitutes of Jesus’ ontology and function render him in an incomplete Christology. This is the only qualitative and relational significance the whole gospel of Jesus the Christ has—nothing less and no substitutes. And without this qualitative-relational significance, the gospel is reduced to a truncated soteriology about only what we are saved from and to a fragmented soteriology without the whole (God’s relational whole) that holds us together in our innermost.

 

Any salvation that does not also save to, and make whole in, the relational outcome of the relational progression—that Jesus enacted in the strategic, tactical and functional shifts of the gospel—simply misrepresents the gospel. Any gospel that does not consummate in the innermost belonging in God’s family sadly misrepresents the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. Such misre-presentations are crucial to understand and are necessary to challenge both in church and the academy. Belonging to God’s family, for example, may not be congruent with belonging to a church. The church signifies God’s family but a church may not compose God’s family in the primacy of whole relationships together. Any church life and function that is not constituted in the primacy of whole relationships together critically misrepresents God’s family, the new creation. The interrelated dynamic above is both inseparable and unavoidable, which Paul will clearly expose and make definitive as this study unfolds.

Many issues thought to be supplemental to the gospel—for example, righteousness, sanctification, discipleship, church structure and composition—are primary to what the gospel is. Many issues thought to be primary for the gospel—for example, doctrinal certainty and purity, referential acts both missional and social—are secondary to what the gospel is. That is to say, when the gospel is reduced to fragmentary terms without the whole, there is misinformed definition of what the gospel is and misguided determining of how the gospel is, even though who the gospel represents may be referentially correct. What is primary or secondary involves the underlying issue of the whole gospel distinguished from a referential fragmentary gospel.

The shift of the gospel is indeed both good news and bad news, either good news for wholeness or bad news for reductionism.

 

Embodied in Whole

The gospel is indeed bad news for those who continue to be defined and determined by reductionism, even if they want more, as demonstrated by the rich young man. Of further critical importance to understand about the gospel, it is also bad news for any religious status quo. Jesus clearly illuminated this as he pursued the relational condition of his main disciples to constitute the gospel’s embodiment in whole, including for the last things to come (eschatology). The gospel keeps unfolding in the midst of—yet in contrast and conflict with—their messianic hopes and expectations.

When Jesus’ relational message identified the embodied Truth in his familiar but relational words (noted above), he anticipated fulfilling the complete relational response of God’s communicative and creative action. This included the good news of the kingdom of God. During the week of passion and days distinguished by equalization leading to the cross, Jesus made intimate disclosures to his disciples in a relational message with words even more familiar to us which communicate his most integral “I am” message: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” (Jn 14:1-9). Jesus embodied the dynamic of the relational progression to the Father and thereby enacted the keys necessary for involvement to this relational outcome:

  1. the functional key for the relational way from inner out;
  2. the theological and epistemological keys for the experiential truth in the innermost;
  3. the hermeneutic key for the whole life in qualitative and relational significance.

The implication of this integral message is clearly defined in relational terms by Jesus: To know Jesus, and thus the Father, is to experience what Jesus embodied as the relational way, the experiential truth and the whole life in the relational progression to life together in God’s family (or kingdom). Good news—unless one’s interpretive framework has difficulty understanding the way (v.5), one’s perceptual lens is unable to recognize the Father (v.8), and one’s relational condition can claim only a referential level of knowledge about Jesus (v.9). What Jesus embodied in whole eluded his main disciples, even after three intensive years together; and their relational condition could not continue in this status quo if the gospel was indeed to be the good news they were to claim and proclaim.

When Jesus responded to Thomas for a deeper epistemology by disclosing that he embodied Truth, his theological key opened further the relational way to the whole of God, yet not merely for the disciples to observe as embodied Object but, with his epistemological key, made God as Subject vulnerably present to be relationally involved in order to know the experiential Truth in the innermost. And his hermeneutic key further opened the whole life constituting the relational progression integrally to God’s whole ontology and function and whole relationship together as family. The life Jesus vulnerably embodied is whole in ontology and function, in which qualitative zoe is primary and quantitative bios is secondary, as in the relational significance of eternal life. The primacy of the whole life holds together the person and persons in relationship in their innermost. Apart from the whole life Jesus embodied in the relational way as the experiential Truth, both persons and relationships become fragmented—notably preoccupied with the secondary, as demonstrated by the disciples here and Martha earlier. This is the integral relational message Jesus communicated only in relational language. The relational dynamic that Jesus enacted in this critical interaction was initiated by his further intimate involvement with his disciples’ troubled hearts, indicating their relational condition (Jn 14:1). In this vulnerable moment precipitating Thomas’ question, he disclosed where he was going and that they knew the way, in spite of their apparent confused state of messianic hope. That is, they would know the relational way only if they knew the experiential Truth in the whole life, which they clearly demonstrated they did not deeply know in relational terms by the relational epistemic process (14:9).

In his startling claim to his disciples that they know the way to where he was going, and that they know the Father and have seen him (14:4,7), Jesus illuminated the critical distinction between an incomplete or fragmentary process of gaining knowledge and the whole epistemic process of knowing. This difference can be simply stated as between referential knowledge (information) and relational knowing.[1] In terms of the former, Thomas was correct in his epistemological logic to reply: “Lord, we have no knowledge, except some ambiguous information, of where you are going so how can we have knowledge of the way?” (14:5). Yet, Jesus was also correct in his epistemological premise for knowing him, and thereby knowing the Father and the way (14:7). In other words, based on his vulnerable disclosure to them and ongoing intimate involvement with them, Jesus correctly claimed “You know the relational process for relationship together with me that involves with the Father, to whom I’m returning to further be involved with together.” Jesus makes clear that this knowing is the relational outcome from the relational epistemic process of relationship together—the relational way to the experiential Truth for the whole life that Jesus embodied. Despite the disciples’ difficulty with being involved in this qualitative relational process with Jesus, they have been experientially exposed to it by him; and they were discovering the primacy of knowing him in relationship together over mere referential knowledge about him and its inadequacy to know the whole of God and God’s relational whole as family. Thus the status quo of their relational condition would not remain, and could not remain for the good news they would claim and proclaim.

The most critical hermeneutical issue for understanding God’s Word is how the embodied Word is perceived and approached. What Jesus embodied in whole and emerges from the gospel, and is synonymous with eternal life and eschatological hope, is the kingdom of God (or heaven, used by Mt to be indirect in reverence of God for Jewish readers). Integrally enacted in what Jesus embodied in whole is the kingdom of God (Lk 11:20). In his hermeneutical discourse defending his salvific work, Jesus exposed a false eschatological hope of those Jews incorrectly immersed in the Scriptures with a narrowed referential interpretive framework (Jn 5:39-42). Later, when some Pharisees questioned Jesus about the coming of the kingdom of God, his response addressed the same kind of interpretive framework and perceptual lens as those above: “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20-21, NIV). The primary issue that Jesus addressed (or exposed) involved “careful observation” (parateresis, to watch closely). This kind of attentiveness characterized the rigorous practice of Pharisees observing their covenant code of behavior (as Paul testified of himself, Acts 26:5; Phil 3:6); more importantly, this revealed the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework operating in their approach to the Scriptures and their eschatological hope. Just as he exposed the approach of those who search the Scriptures to have eternal life (Jn 5:39), Jesus exposed their careful observations made through a lens that only focused on the quantitative aspects of the kingdom. These approaches to Scripture and the kingdom involved a process analogous to the modern scientific method that emerged from the Enlightenment, all of which are shaped by the bias of “the wise and the intelligent” critiqued by Jesus (Lk 10:21).

This necessitates revisiting Jesus’ demonstrative joy with the Spirit in praising the Father for “your gracious will” (eudokia) of “disclosing the whole of God and God’s thematic relational action to little children,” not to “the wise and the intelligent” (Lk 10:21). Those who represent “little children” are persons vulnerably engaged in qualitative relational involvement with the whole of Jesus—neither distant relationally by engaging a disembodied Word, nor detached relationally by analytically observing the secondary details of the Word and God’s action, as “the wise and learned” were incorrectly immersed in the Scriptures. The whole of God’s self-disclosure that Jesus embodied in whole involves his relational context and process—which are critically distinguished from what pervades and prevails in human contexts—in which “little children” relationally respond compatibly for the qualitative connection from inner out necessary for the relational flow of communication, as Jesus made definitive (Lk 10:22). This has been a hermeneutical issue through Israel’s history in search of the eschatological hope to have eternal life (10:23-24); and it continues today as a hermeneutical impasse for the religious status quo, even in church and academy.

“The wise and intelligent” (in Lk 10:21) were directly associated with “your careful observation” (in Lk 17:20), and they need to be placed in juxtaposition. This clarifies both their reductionist interpretive framework imposed on the Scriptures (and God’s self-disclosure in the Word embodied in whole), and their reductionist perceptual lens confining the kingdom of God to quantitative parameters without the qualitative relational significance of the whole accessible to all “little children”—the persons Jesus made definitive as those who compose the kingdom (Mt 18:3; 19:14). This narrowed-down referential process was clearly summarized in John’s Gospel (emphasizing the big picture) with Jesus’ disarming words in his hermeneutical discourse of his salvific work: “You diligently study the Scriptures but you depend on your own perceptual interpretation to signify your eternal life, your membership in the kingdom” (Jn 5:39).

What these approaches involved is fragmenting the whole of God’s communicative Word into a referential Word, which included disembodying the whole Word vulnerably embodied and relationally involved from God. The relational consequence is not understanding the qualitative and relational significance of the Word embodied in whole, whose strategic, tactical and functional shifts disclose the relational way, the experiential Truth and the whole life. By fragmenting the whole of Jesus embodied into referential parts in order to narrow down the epistemic field for better observation, analysis and explanation, the religious status quo (even in church and academy) ignore or make secondary (1) the qualitative innermost of God’s whole ontology and function, (2) the human person’s ontology and function created in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God, and (3) the primacy of whole relationship together as family constituted by the whole of God’s thematic relational response to the human relational condition. And the consequence of anything less and any substitutes is a referential gospel for eternal life, the kingdom or eschatological hope without the qualitative and relational significance to fulfill any relational condition in the innermost.

This is the issue of the gospel embodied in whole with which Jesus pursued the relational condition of his main disciples. As the experiential Truth by the relational way, Jesus only disclosed the Father to them for the whole life of relationship together as his family. In these vulnerable moments on the eve of the cross, Jesus intimately responded to their troubled hearts by providing them the basis to be able ongoingly to relationally trust God and him, to count on him in his absence (14:1); moreover, as Jesus made definitive earlier, “the kingdom of God is embodied whole within you from inner out” (Lk 17:21), and, as he makes conclusive now, your relational condition “will not leave you orphaned” (Jn 14:18) since the whole of God “makes our home with you” (Jn 14:23). Certainly, the disciples were highly concerned about what was going to happen to them as a group and their messianic hopes for Israel (Acts 1:6). The interaction that unfolds in these critical moments helps us understand the quantitative lens used by the disciples limiting their focus and the qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework necessary for clarity of the last things ahead. What unfolds is the essential difference between reductionism and wholeness, and what is necessary to distinguish the gospel Jesus embodied in whole.

The basis to trust him that Jesus provided for them began initially by disclosing a metaphor of his Father’s house (oikia, from oikos, a family dwelling) with many rooms (mone, a habitation, from meno), where Jesus is going to prepare a place (i.e. a relational belonging) for them in the not yet—that is simply an extension of mone in the already of God’s family and the kingdom embodied in whole (Jn 14:23). Then Jesus addresses any uncertainty about their future status by asserting definitively that “if I go and prepare a relational belonging for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:2-3; cf. in the already, Jn 12:26). Where Jesus is going is confusing in referential terms since the focus is on a place and its location. In relational terms, however, Jesus is not going to where but who and what, that is, the whole of who God is and the whole of what the Father and the Son (along with the Spirit) are in intimate relationship together as family. Jesus is going only to his who and what to compose the relational conclusion to the relational progression. The deep relational message, therefore, that his disciples needed to receive in their troubled hearts is vital for their relational condition: This Jesus in post-ascension is not only a person in the past tense but even more importantly is also actively involved in the present for the relational progression of the primacy of his family (kingdom). This was not to inform them about events to come but to continue building (using a cognate of oikos) their relationship together as family in relational likeness of the whole of God, of which the not yet will be the relational conclusion—not a mere dwelling place (Rev 21:22).

After disclosing this initial basis to trust him for the last things to come, he implied that this should not be such a mystery and relationally ambiguous to them because they know the way to where he’s going (14:4). What Thomas and Philip said in response to Jesus (14:5,8) exposed where the disciples were focused: knowledge of the place where Jesus was going and visual verification of the Father. This quantitative lens—which, on the one hand, is somewhat reasonable, while, on the other, overly depended on referential knowledge and observation, consequently obscuring the qualitative—limited their perception of Jesus’ person and their interpretation of his qualitative relational significance, consequently fragmenting the whole he embodied. The whole of Jesus embodied the experiential Truth in the relational way to disclose the whole of God only for the whole life of relationship together distinguished in the Trinity qua family. Therefore, the experiential Truth vulnerably discloses the whole of God only in the relational way’s context and process, and the experiential Truth of the Word intimately communicated the whole life of God only with relational language. That is, what Jesus, the embodied Truth and Word, discloses—in the significance of his person presented, with the quality of his communication, and by the depth of relationship he engaged—must be understood as relational words and speech in his relational context and process, which are distinguished from human contextualization and its shaping. And as the experiential Truth, everything Jesus said about the last things to come is only relational language. Eschatology is the relational language of the experiential Truth embodied in whole, who becomes for eschatology both its qualitative agent in the innermost and its relational action from inner out; this is the perceptual-interpretive framework necessary for eschatological clarity. In other words, with Jesus’ agency of the last things, eschatology must be perceived, received and responded to by “listeners” (readers) in his relational language defining his relational context and process, God’s qualitative relational terms for his family.

Jesus’ relational purpose for his disclosures of eschatology as truth is not about mere referential information, and thereby merely for doctrinal certainty. His primary focus and concern with his relational language for eschatology is to communicate only this integral relational message: the relational progression to be God’s whole family embodied in relationship together both in the already and the not yet, and, conjointly, to live and make whole in the remaining days to this relational conclusion of the last things—the relational conclusion of which the experiential Truth is guarantor as its qualitative agent in the innermost and its relational action from inner out. Therefore, his metaphor about the Father’s house with many rooms is clearly not about a referential place (“we do not know where”); and his assertion that they have seen the Father is not about another embodied person (“show us the Father”). The relational dynamic from outside the universe that Jesus embodied in whole is reflexively extended as Jesus is returning back to the Father in their intimate dwelling whole together as family (cf. Jn 17:5), in which his innermost followers will also participate intimately dwelling whole together as family, both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ so that the breadth of the human relational condition may know and believe the depth of the gospel embodied in whole—just as Jesus prayed to the Father in his formative family prayer (Jn. 17:21-23).

 

Extended Embodying of the Whole Gospel

As one entrenched in a religious statue quo, Paul certainly did not perceive the gospel to be good news. His persecution of the Way left no doubt that for Paul the gospel was bad news needing to be eradicated. It is all the more significant that his confrontation by and subsequent experience with the relational way embodied by “I am” had the relational outcome of Paul’s whole person redefined from outer in to inner out, transformed from his reductionism and made whole in relationship together in the innermost of God’s family. The whole of Paul who emerged and the whole in Paul that unfolded extended the theological and hermeneutic embodying of the whole gospel. Therefore, Paul’s function is critical for the relational progression of the gospel and is irreplaceable for the gospel’s relational outcome of what we are saved to in the primacy of whole relationship together as God’s family, the church—or the kingdom ‘already’, though Paul did not discuss the kingdom as Jesus did.

What was Paul’s role and function to develop this new faith ‘in Christ’? Did he serve to develop Christianity beyond its roots in Judaism and transform it from a Jewish messianic renewal movement into essentially a new religion that influenced the Greco-Roman world and beyond? Did Paul engage in effect in the reification (human authorship and enterprise seen as objectified fact) of Christianity and the church, thus promoting a belief system and institution of his own construction; or was he in fact responding in many of his letters to the reification of Christianity and the church by false or reductionist practices of many associated with the church, in order to clearly distinguish their human constructs from the whole of God’s thematic relational action and creative involvement making whole from above? What indeed was the significance of Paul’s gospel and how did his gospel differ from Jesus’ gospel?

The gospel unfolded for Paul in its relational dynamic when Jesus’ strategic, tactical and functional shifts converged in Paul from inner out starting with the Damascus road. Jesus communicated to Paul the relational messages which integrally composed the heart of the gospel: (1) who, what and how the whole of God is beyond Paul’s monotheism; (2) who and what God saw in Paul and how he felt about Paul; and (3) what their relationship meant to God and how the whole of God responded to Paul for him and their relationship to be whole. This qualitative and relational significance of the gospel that Jesus embodied in whole to Paul was the gospel that emerged from Paul to make whole God’s family. Based on this experiential truth, Paul’s relational dynamic of the gospel was unequivocally compatible with the whole of Jesus in relational terms—though arguable in referential terms—and integrally congruent with the gospel Jesus embodied in whole. Moreover, this gospel emerged from Paul in whole because he would experience—along with tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction—the contingencies in the relational progression made definitive by Jesus (notably for the religious status quo like Paul, Jn 8:31-47) to distinguish Paul conclusively in the whole of God’s family (cf. 2 Cor 3:12-18). The redemptive reconciliation of his own relational condition was the experiential truth constituting the integral basis for his gospel—the truth in relational terms embodied in whole by the experiential Truth for relationship together.

The development of Paul’s thought emerged from the deeper epistemology from the relational epistemic process in relationship with the whole of God, which was the theological basis for the experiential truth of his gospel. His thought functionally overlapped with his gospel in integral interaction such that to understand his gospel necessitated more deeply understanding his thought; and conversely, to understand his thought involved further understanding his gospel. As Paul addressed in his letters various situations and conditions involving tension, distress, fragmented relationships and a lack of harmony in the church, he emphasized certain themes which were vital to his thought and gospel (noted previously). Paul began each of his letters with a simple address (with the likely exception of Ephesians whose title was apparently added later): “grace and peace” (both letters to Timothy add “mercy”). Furthermore, he closed most of his letters with a greeting containing these terms. It would be an error to read this as a mere formulaic greeting. The significance of his address is critical to Paul’s thought and basic to his gospel, which his closing greeting pointed to or summarized.

Paul consistently combined “grace and peace,” which indicates they are inseparable. They are not joined as mere concepts but converge in function as interdependent relational action and outcome directly from God the Father and Christ—whom Paul identified as “the God of peace” and “the Lord of peace” (1Thes 5:23; 2 Thes 3:16; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:33; 16:20; Phil 4:9). Paul began his letters with peace in conjoint function with grace and ended his letters with peace contingent on grace in order to illuminate the functional and relational significance of the gospel (2 Cor 13:11,14; Gal 6:16,18; Eph 6:23-24; 2 Thes 3:16,18); furthermore, this composition points to Paul’s theology of wholeness (to be discussed in chap. 7).

Grace was not some mere notion of favor or a spiritual gift (commodity) dispensed by God for human possession (or consumption). Grace only signified God’s relational response to the human condition on the basis of God’s terms, without contingency to human terms. The definitive relational outcome of God’s relational response of grace is the peace of God (cf. Phil 4:7), the peace of Christ (cf. Col 3:15), from the God of peace, the Lord of peace—whose distinguished Face turned and shined on Paul for siym and shalom (Num 6:24-26). This was the integrating theme of Paul’s thought throughout his letters, which pointed first to Paul’s own experiential truth of this peace with Jesus on the Damascus road. Though Paul had been in conflict with Christ and Christians (the Way), God’s relational response of grace extended peace to Paul; yet this peace was not a mere “olive branch” to address their disharmony. Jesus did not pursue Paul just for the absence of conflict from outer in. Such a conventional peace signified human construction (the ancient Greek notion of peace), which does not address the human relational condition in its innermost, as Jesus distinguished from his relational response of inner out (Jn 14:27). Jesus relationally responded in family love to reconcile Paul to his family to make Paul whole from inner out, which by its nature must be distinguished from his former relational condition determined by outer in. This relational outcome of wholeness is the qualitative depth of the peace of Christ (thus the peace of God) that Paul directly experienced from the Lord of peace (thus the God of peace). Therefore, this is the wholeness that composed shalom further and deeper than Israel and Judaism had experienced in the innermost of their relational condition.

Moreover, while Paul addressed the various situations lacking peace, Paul’s emphatic theme of peace went well beyond peace as the absence of conflict. In Paul’s thought, peace was rooted in the Hebrew understanding, which ‘in Christ’ had become the irreducible well-being constituted only by the wholeness of God and the relationships together necessary to be whole, God’s relational whole on God’s qualitative relational terms. In God’s definitive blessing, shalom is contingent on siym (to bring change for a new relationship), which is the relational work Jesus embodied in whole for relationship together in wholeness. This is further understood in Paul’s letters by another ongoing theme interrelated to “grace and peace”: “blameless and holy” or a variation (1Thes 3:13; 5:23; 1 Cor 1:8; Col 1:22; Eph 1:4; 5:27; Phil 2:15; 1 Tim 6:14). Responding to the church at Thessalonica’s eschatological concerns, Paul did not emphasize “blameless and holy” merely for the sake of purity when Christ returns. Paul builds on “blameless” (amemptos) from the covenant relationship in the OT and God’s relational terms to Abraham to be tamiym (“blameless,” Gen 17:1-2). As discussed earlier, tamiym is clearly about persons being whole in relationship together with God, the holy God, and therefore composing relationship only on God’s terms.

In Paul’s thought, “holy and blameless” converged with “grace and peace” to signify being whole in relationship together (peace and blameless) only on the ongoing basis of God’s relational response and terms for the relationship (grace and holy). Furthermore, Paul’s own experience and thought made clear that this relational outcome is not about relationship together only in the future but necessarily ‘already’ in the present, just as Jesus relationally embodied in the incarnation and ‘already’ constituted for his followers—the experiential truth and whole of the gospel.

For Paul, his gospel was clearly the experiential truth of “the gospel of peace” from the Lord of peace (Eph 6:15). It is this wholeness ‘in Christ’ (both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’) which Paul unequivocally made nonnegotiable to human terms and irreducible to human shaping and construction in order to clearly distinguish: (1) the qualitative significance of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), just as Jesus made whole from above (Jn 3:3-7); and (2) the relational significance of new covenant relationship together in the ecclesiology of the whole (2 Cor 5:18; 13:11; Eph 2:14-15; Col 3:15; Rom 8:6), that is, in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity as Jesus prayed in his formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26). Nothing less than and no substitutes for this peace integrated Paul’s journey, practice, thought and theology. And nothing less than and no substitutes for the relational response of God’s grace composed the basis and ongoing base for the whole of Paul. Therefore, for Paul, this relational outcome of wholeness (peace contingent on grace) is “the distinguishing purpose [semeion] in every letter of mine” (2 Thes 3:17), which Paul’s readers need to understand qualitatively as critical to his thought and need to further understand relationally as basic to his gospel. This is the qualitative and relational significance integral to his gospel, that is, the whole gospel.

From his experience with Jesus on the Damascus road and his subsequent involvement in relationship together, Paul’s gospel emerged directly from the gospel relationally embodied in whole by Jesus. As a result, Paul’s thought is better understood as a qualitative extension of the incarnation, even though in quantitative terms he rarely quoted from Jesus’ teaching. Paul’s relational involvement with the whole of the embodied Word speaks directly to his limited reproduction of Jesus’ words and teachings. Paul understood that the embodied Truth was only for relationship in the relational way of the new life, and that his witness was to the experiential Truth of Jesus’ whole person—neither reduced to his teachings nor fragmented by his deeds but only for the whole life of relationship together as God’s family. If Paul’s readers listen to his words in relational language and not depend on our sight focused on referential words, we will understand Paul’s Christology as not being incomplete, and thus overly christocentric, but as the Word embodying the whole of God to fulfill God’s relational response to the human condition, foremost Paul’s relational condition. Moreover, from his previous practice in Judaism and tamiym’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction, Paul understood that anything less than and any substitutes for this gospel of peace are incompatible and in conflict with the truth of the whole gospel relationally embodied by Jesus. In other words, Paul clearly understood that reductionism is always positioned against the wholeness ‘in Christ’, seeking to formulate alternatives (“a different gospel,” Gal 1:6-9) by human terms, shaping and construction.

Human terms, shaping or construction occur when the gospel is contextualized within the primary influence of human contexts. Jesus takes his followers further and deeper than this, as he did Paul. Paul declared unequivocally that the origin of his gospel cannot be explained by human contextualization and the influence of surrounding contexts (Gal 1:11-12), which also includes by Paul’s own shaping or construction. To the contrary, his gospel was contextualized only in Jesus’ whole relational context and thereby can be understood only by Jesus’ whole relational process, which for Paul was first his direct experience with Jesus to be transformed and made whole in the experiential truth of the whole gospel relationally embodied by Jesus. As a person vitally concerned about this whole gospel, Paul turned only to the gospel of peace he experienced directly from the Lord of peace to make definitive the theological basis for his gospel. Paul did not engage in reification, that is, essentially construct his own gospel and belief system to support an institutional order of his shaping, in which he lived as if this were the nature of God’s truth and the reality of peace ‘in Christ’.[2] He did, however, expose those who did.

Given the deeper context defining and determining the whole of Paul and the wholeness ‘in Christ’ integrating his thought throughout his corpus, there emerged two distinguishing actions in the depths of Paul’s development. On the one hand, there was his compassionate, sensitive and loving relational involvement with God’s family for the purpose of being God’s whole and living whole on God’s terms, thereby making unmistakable the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel. On the other hand, there was his passionate, rigorous and uncompromising response to anything less and any substitutes among those related to God’s family for the purpose of exposing and confronting reductionism to make them whole, thereby making irreducible and nonnegotiable the experiential truth of the whole gospel. In these ongoing depths of action Paul made his own person vulnerable to any relational outcomes or consequences resulting from those he addressed. It would be inaccurate to perceive Paul’s passion as a mere expression of his personality transferred from his previous passion to persecute the church (cf. Acts 26:11). His previous passion came from an outer-in ontology and his new passion emerged from the depths of an inner-out ontology made whole. This process of transformation to wholeness was the gospel of peace Paul felt so strongly about in his innermost. And the only alternative to this whole gospel was one reduced by human terms, shaping or construction. Such alternative for Paul, experientially, epistemologically and ontologically, had no basis and qualitative-relational significance beyond human design to be defined as a gospel (Gal 1:6-7).

What this delineates about Paul was his strength of position on the ongoing issue of the gospel. The issue is ongoing because reductionism is always positioned against the whole of the gospel, and the gospel of wholeness, always seeking to redefine it with something less or some substitute. The strength of Paul’s position was clearly expressed in his polemic about the issue, which is always twofold: It is an inseparable fight for the truth of the whole gospel and against reductionism. In Paul’s conjoint fight for the gospel and against reductionism, his primary effort was not for doctrinal certainty of the truth but for the whole ontology and function of both God and God’s family. Paul’s family relational responsibility (his oikonomia, Col 1:25) centered on the integral concern for the innermost relational condition of the church, and to make whole the church as God’s family by making whole (pleroo) God’s relational words on the basis of pleroma Christology, soteriology, pneumatology and ecclesiology—the synesis of the qualitative and relational significance of the whole gospel.

For Paul, the whole of God unmistakably distinguished to Whom Paul witnessed, by Whom Paul was whole, with Whom Paul lived whole, and for Whom Paul made whole as apostle to all of humanity. As the whole of Paul and in Paul emerges in reciprocal relationship together with the whole of God (including notably the Spirit, 1 Cor 2:10-13; Rom 9:1), the theological and hermeneutic embodying of the whole gospel is extended in the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul—fully compatible and wholly congruent with Jesus in the innermost. The gospel was irreducibly and nonnegotiably embodied in whole, and anything less and any substitutes are no gospel according to the whole ontology and function of both Jesus and Paul.


 

 


[1] As noted previously, McGilchrist identifies this distinction as associated with the brain’s left hemisphere and right hemisphere, respectively. The Master and his Emissary, 94-96.

[2] For a helpful discussion of the dynamic of reification and its implications in human life, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: the History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 177-20.

 

 

©2012 T. Dave Matsuo

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