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A Theological & Functional Study of the Whole
Christology Studyprinter-friendly pdf version
Soteriology in Full
Context and Process
The Ultimate Salvific Discourse
The Enhanced Shape of Soteriology
Its Questions and Approach
Its Whole and Reductionism
The Old and the New
The Problem with Kingly Rule
Its Qualitative Relational Nature and Function
Clarification and Summary Issues
We must always be aware of unintentionally placing Jesus in a vacuum, as if to sanitize his life of its humanity and his function in the social world. This would not define his sanctified identity. In addition, we need to be circumspect in the formulation of doctrine related to Jesus, so as neither to disembody the doctrine from the whole of Jesus nor to reduce the doctrine from the whole of God’s thematic relational action. This absence would define doctrine in fragments without coherence, as if doctrines do not need to fully cohere to the whole of God’s thematic relational work of grace; this characterizes many systematic theologies.
This has been the case for soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) down through church history, despite its major shift to grace established by the Reformation. This has been also true for ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), which, in much of its history since Constantine, consistently has not fully grasped the whole, whether involving Jesus or the Trinity. Thus, there has been a need for ecclesiology’s reformation also, which the magisterial Reformers never really attended to. This chapter will initially address soteriology and the emergence of the kingdom of God, while ecclesiology more specifically will be discussed in chapter eight.
The incarnation positioned Jesus, theologically and functionally, in a specific context, apart from which is only an assumed Jesus, not the embodied Jesus. This specific context was the surrounding context of the world, in which his minority identity emerged. The ontology of this embodied Jesus, the Word in the flesh, constituted the whole of Jesus in a quantitatively further and deeper qualitative context: the relational context of the Trinity.
In this trinitarian relational context, Jesus’ whole person is defined, belongs and functions, thus signifying his full identity. This relational context conjointly involves a relational process, the trinitarian relational process, by which the embodied Jesus was vulnerably involved relationally in the surrounding context specific to the world, signifying his minority identity. This is the functional significance of God’s relational work of grace. Therefore, this relational context and process of Jesus are inseparable as well as irreducible—in other words, nothing less and no substitutes. They involve the ongoing relational dynamic of interaction between his full identity and his minority identity that constitutes his sanctified identity, as discussed in the last chapter.
Moreover, Jesus’ relational context and process are also inseparable and irreducible from the Trinity’s thematic action since creation in response to the human condition “to be apart” from the whole of God. As the Word (Logos) who became flesh (Jn 1:1-2,14) and the Creator who lived in our context (Jn 1:3,10,14), Jesus vulnerably disclosed, extended and fulfilled the Trinity’s thematic relational action of grace (Jn 1:10-13,16-18). The course of salvation history is a relational course of the Trinity’s thematic action, the ongoing context and process of which Jesus intimately functioned in as “the One and Only” (monogenes). Whatever was previously understood and experienced of deliverance/salvation is made definitive by the whole of Jesus, whose context and process are nonnegotiable. John’s Gospel provides this view of the big picture of God’s eschatological plan.
From his trinitarian relational context and by his trinitarian relational process, Jesus vulnerably engaged the surrounding context to make functional not only the significance of God’s grace but also of agape involvement (cf. “the covenant of love,” Dt 7:9,12). His ongoing relational involvement of grace and agape functioned in what can be defined as intrusive action, even invasive action. Contrary to a static doctrine of grace and a politically correct posture of agape, such relational intrusion is the nature of Jesus’ minority identity; this is the kind of action most Christians tend to deflect to certain situations or special circumstances—consequently, not really pay attention to or merely ignore. Yet, intrusive action is definitive for the dynamic nature of God’s grace and agape involvement, which we often functionally redefine with diminished vulnerability and relational involvement—for example, with servant models and sacrifice modes. Nevertheless, this is “where” (from Jn 12:26) we find Jesus’ whole person in the biblical narratives; and this is where his followers, by the nature of discipleship, must be involved to be with him.
This involvement with Jesus, however, is less about what he did and more about how his whole person functioned ongoingly as who and what he was. How he lived in the world has been the focus of Christian/biblical ethics and missions (discussed in the next chapter). Yet, I suggest, this has been essentially a limited discussion because these fields have focused primarily on what Jesus did, not how his person functioned. This framework has reduced the context and process of the whole of Jesus’ sanctified life and practice, and thus has fragmented Christian life and practice without the coherence of the whole of God—that is, in the incarnation and/or the Trinity’s thematic action in salvation history. This reduction certainly has consequences for soteriology, the most notable of which is the relational consequence not only for the future but also for the present.
We need to extend the significance of this discussion by taking Jesus’ context and process in the world further and deeper, not only beyond reductionism but also beyond ethics and missions as conventionally perceived. This necessitates examining soteriology and our working doctrine of salvation. No Christology is complete without a full soteriology. And a full soteriology involves the vulnerable relational context and process of Jesus, who conjointly saved us from and saved us to.
A full soteriology is the relational outcome of the relational progression in the Trinity’s thematic action, notably in “the covenant of love” (Dt 7:9,12, 1 Ki 8:23, Ne 1:5, Da 9:4), which was fulfilled in Jesus’ relational work of grace. Salvific expectations prevailing at the time of Jesus appeared to have stalled in this progression to become fixated on the kingship of God and on the current situations and circumstances of God’s people (or kingdom), namely the nation of Israel. They diverged from the primacy of the relationship in the covenant and reduced its significance, thus not affirming the following relational reality: In the relational progression of God’s thematic action and the covenant relationship, the whole of God is the only portion for the people (Ps 119:57, Jer 10:16; 51:19, La 3:24), and, in relational reciprocity, God’s people are the whole of God’s portion in the relationship (Dt 32:9, cf. Ex 34:9, Dt 9:29).
Their divergence suggests a renegotiation of the covenant relationship, plus a reinterpretation of God’s words (promises and desires defining the terms of relationship). These alternative terms represented the quantitative shift of reductionism, which either did not pay attention to or just ignored the qualitative relational significance of the covenant and God’s salvation. The consequence is totally relational, and understanding this relational consequence helps us grasp the heart of soteriology.
There is an ongoing dynamic that is the lowest common denominator in God’s story:
At the heart of the whole of God’s ontology is relationship, inter-person relationship, as constituted in the Trinity and by the relational involvement of the trinitarian persons within the Godhead. At the heart of creation is this relationship, and God made human ontology in the Trinity’s image. Thus, at the heart of human ontology is inter-person relationship, the function of which constitutes human persons in the relationships necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. In response to human dysfunction (initially due to volition, not imperfection) “to be apart” from the whole, the ongoing heart underlying all of God’s thematic action is restored relationship together. Thus, the heart of the incarnation is the convergence of the divine and human ontology of relationship; and God’s self-revelation and truth are only for this relationship. The heart of the gospel, therefore, is clearly the good news of relationship together, the relational outcome of which is salvation effected by the embodied heart of the ontology of God.
This makes evident that at the heart of soteriology is relationship together, the relationship of the whole of God, the Trinity, the full context and process of which Jesus saves us to.
This ongoing dynamic of relationship must by nature also become the function of our perceptual-interpretive framework, or we can quite easily be found diverging in our own practice—namely by reinterpreting the intention of God’s words and renegotiating the terms for our relationship with God. As we continue to pursue God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, our deeper understanding of God and God’s action emerges only from a distinct interpretive process. This process (1) engages God in self-disclosure as an act of communication, and (2) engages God’s communication in its full context, both in the social context of the world and in the relational context of the Trinity, as narrated in the biblical texts. This relational dynamic involves us in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit. This is a crucial relational involvement because only the Spirit transforms our perceptual-interpretive framework to have the eyes to “see” the whole of God “face-to-face” (in the distinction of qualitative relational involvement), and to have the ears to “hear” and “Listen to my Son” in his whole person (in the relational process of intimate involvement, Jn 14:26; 16:13-15, cf. Mt 13:15-17).
In God’s communicative action, Jesus embodied the Word as God’s thematic relational action, and thus he disclosed the vulnerable relational work of God’s grace in response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s whole. The language Jesus used (both verbal content and nonverbal relational messages) in self-disclosure of God and God’s action needs to be understood in the whole of God’s relational context and, in that relational nature, must be engaged (both received and responded to) as relational language for its full meaning.
That is to say, the person Jesus presented in the incarnation and the intent of his communication were only to engage relationship—nothing less. It is this relational process, initiated by God’s grace, which necessitates a reciprocal depth of relational involvement (with no substitutes) to know and to experience the whole of Jesus (cf. Lk 10:21). Otherwise, any attempt at relational connection would be incompatible, which would create a relational barrier to understanding (cf. Mt 13:17). In this incompatible relational position, Jesus’ discourses can seem unreasonable or can lack coherence, thus be disjointed into essentially unrelated words without the functional significance of the whole—namely the whole of God’s thematic action in salvation history. For example, how the Sermon on the Mount tends to be perceived and interpreted is a prime illustration of this relational position; this discourse will be addressed further in the next chapter.
Two other discourses of Jesus in particular evidence this difficulty of engaging his relational language. They appear consecutively toward the beginning of the Gospel of John for the evangelist’s purpose to identify Jesus with the Jews and the nation of Israel, yet to also distinguish him from them for God’s eschatological big picture.
The first discourse occurred at the Temple of Jerusalem (Jn 2:13-22). The temple was central to Jewish religious life in all its variations; more importantly, the temple was the heart of their faith, where God’s presence dwelled to signify ongoing involvement (2 Ch 5:14, cf. Ex 40:34). Jesus observed their faith-practice by involvement in the temple, but he neither accepted their aspect of religious life reducing their practice to a purification code nor tolerated the inequitable system this code generated for its adherence. Thus, he drove out those who exploited the less resourceful for profit and who created barriers to access “my Father’s house” (oikos, dwelling, v.16). That is, the temple was no mere center of religious activity (cf. church today) but only the context where his Father dwelled for communion together for all peoples (cf. Mk11:17). Jesus’ words and action communicated relational language making definitive the relational context of God.
Moreover, when his honor was challenged to demonstrate the basis for his action, Jesus only responded with the words: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (v.19). His challengers were only focused on the quantitative aspect of the temple, thus could not understand his relational language. Yet, Jesus was not playing word-games with them. He was disclosing the strategic shift in God’s thematic action. In this strategic shift, he was constituting the transition of the contextual location of the temple from a place of God’s dwelling directly to the persons of the Trinity (cf. Jn4:21,23), who will now be present in direct relationship and be ongoingly involved intimately together in the full relational context of family and relational process of family love.
The transition of the temple to the full relational context and process of the Trinity progresses to its eschatological conclusion:
As Jesus disclosed, “The Spirit of truth…you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn 14:17); “My Father will love [you]; and we will come to [you] and make our home with [you]” (Jn 14:23a); this is, by nature of the ontology of the Trinity, the relational outcome for both individual persons and those persons by necessity together in likeness of the Trinity, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us…. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me…and have loved them even as you have loved me…that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (Jn 17:21-23,26); in Pauline accounts of the church, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); “in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22); to the Johannine account of the eschatological conclusion in the New Jerusalem, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22).
And Jesus was constituting this relational progression throughout the incarnation, not only on the cross.
Jesus’ disclosure of God’s strategic shift vulnerably evidences that the heart of the ontology of the whole of God is relationship, the full context and process of which continues to develop in John’s Gospel. Jesus took this transition further and deeper in his next discourse, a communication which essentially jolted the status quo of the prevailing perception, interpretation and expectation of salvation.
Jesus’ next critical disclosure occurred vulnerably with Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21, whether or not it was supplemented by the evangelist’s reflections after v.15). In order to establish this interaction’s larger context, it seems reasonable to assume some matters about Nicodemus. He came to Jesus that night for answers to questions which were framed by his Jewish identity, by his involvement as a ruling member (Sanhedrin) in Israel (v.1) and as one of her teachers (v.10); thus he came with the expectations associated with their Scripture, which were shaped likely by an interpretive framework from Second Temple Judaism and no doubt by a perceptual framework sociopolitically sensitized to Roman rule. While Nicodemus came to Jesus as an individual person, his query was as the collective identity of Israel and the corporate life and practice of a Pharisee’s (of whatever variation) Judaism.
Apparently stimulated by Jesus’ actions and perhaps stirred by the presence of “a teacher who has come from God” (v.2), he engaged Jesus. Yet, he likely engaged Jesus while in the category that Jesus described elsewhere as “the wise and learned” (Lk 10:21, discussed previously in the Introduction). This would be crucial for Nicodemus. Though his position represented the educated elite of Israel, his own posture was about to be changed.
Jesus understood Nicodemus’ query and anticipated his questions certainly related to God’s promises for Israel’s deliverance (salvation), the Messiah and God’s kingship in the Mediterranean world. Therefore, Jesus immediately focused on “the kingdom of God” (v.3), the OT eschatological hope, about which Nicodemus was probably more concerned in the present than the future. Yet, the whole of God’s kingship and sovereign rule is integral to the OT, and thus a primary focus of Nicodemus’ query, however provincial. And he was concerned about it strongly enough (and maybe inwardly conflicted) to make himself vulnerable to initiate this interaction with Jesus; his query appeared genuine and for more than information or didactic reasons.
The discourse that followed evidences a purpose in John’s Gospel to clearly distinguish and make definitive the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace in response to the human condition—first, in continuation to Israel and, then, to the nations—that is, the history of God’s salvation. Yet, the language communicated in this discourse became an issue, and this proved to be revealing not only for Nicodemus but for all he represented—as well as for all who would follow, even through this postmodern period.
The notion of membership and participation in the kingdom of God being contingent on a concept “born again” was taken incredulously by this “wise and learned” leader, whose sophisticated reason was unable to process and explain (v.4); and then to be told “you [pl] must by its nature” (dei, v.7), not out of obligation or compulsion, as if to address all Jews, was beyond the grasp of his reason. Even after Jesus made definitive (“I tell you the truth”) gennao anothen as “born from above,” that is “born of the Spirit” (ek, indicating the primary, direct source, vv.5,8), Nicodemus was still unable to process it (v.9). Why? This brings us back to the position of “the wise and the learned.” He was unable to grasp Jesus’ language because the words were heard from an insufficient perceptual-interpretive framework.
Jesus exposed this as the discourse continues: “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?” (v.10). How are these connected since “born again” (or from above) is not in the OT? With this rhetorical question, Jesus implied that from a valid OT perspective (namely “the covenant of love,” Dt 7:7-9) the thematic action of God’s covenant relationship would be understood. Jesus was vulnerably extending this covenant relationship of love directly to Nicodemus (and, by implication, to all Jews) by communicating openly what he, himself, knew intimately by witnessing as a participant (martyreo, not merely by observation, v.11) in the life of God (v.13, cf. Jn 1:18). His communication was not with ethereal (epouranios) language but discourse (lego) in the human context (epigeios, v.12), yet with relational language. It was the qualitative nature of relational language that Nicodemus was unable to grasp with his perceptual-interpretive framework. Something was incompatible for connection.
The movement of God’s thematic action in the covenant relationship of love had been consistently reduced to quantitative situations and circumstances throughout Israel’s history—despite the fact that “the Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you” on a quantitative basis (Dt 7:7). In functional similarity, Nicodemus paid attention to the quantitative limits of human biology while ignoring the qualitative issue of human ontology, thus he demonstrated the framework focused on the quantitative situations and circumstances of the covenant. Jesus focused on the ontology of the whole person and the qualitative relationship signifying the covenant of love. The establishment of nation and national identity formation were the prevailing quantitative expectations of any messianic hope in the kingdom, with which, most certainly, Nicodemus came to Jesus in that night. Jesus focused on the whole persons necessary in covenant relationship to constitute the kingdom—nothing less and no substitutes.
Their perceptual-interpretive framework made some critical assumptions about the kingdom besides the quantitative situations and circumstances. The two most critical assumptions were:
In this latter discourse, would-be followers came to a similar conclusion as Nicodemus: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) and “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60), compared with Nicodemus’ “How can this be?” (v.9)—all of which reflected these assumptions.
What Nicodemus and the others were predisposed to by their perceptual-interpretive framework, and also were embedded in as their practice and expectation, was essentially a salvation of the old—a quantitative outcome of reductionism. What Jesus vulnerably engaged them in and with was salvation of the new—the qualitative relational outcome of the whole of God. God’s thematic relational work of grace embodied in Jesus for covenant relationship of love was constituting deeply the new covenant, the relationship of which was now directly and intimately involved together with the Trinity to be the whole of God’s family (kingdom of those born of the Spirit, of the Father, of the Son). This is the gospel vulnerably disclosed by Jesus in relational language which jolted the status quo of the old represented in Nicodemus that night.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as “the wise and learned” in the old. He was now humbled by Jesus’ interjection of “born again or from above” and by the necessary transition from old to new Jesus made definitive in its relational language. Though the term itself is not in the OT, it is clearly evident that “a new heart” and the Spirit’s work for “a new covenant” and Israel’s kingdom (Eze 36:26-27, Jer 31:31-34) would not be unfamiliar to Nicodemus as Israel’s teacher. The meaning of Jesus’ relational message to Nicodemus (and the status quo) defined the needed transformation of human ontology for the covenant relationship of love, which for Nicodemus functionally involved the transition from “the wise and learned of the old” to the qualitative framework and function of “the little children of the new” (cf. Mt 18:3-4)—undoubtedly a jolt to Nicodemus and the status quo. Yet, apparently, Nicodemus humbly transitioned to “a little child of the new”: first, to receive the whole of God’s self-revelation embodied in Jesus with a new perceptual-interpretive framework (Lk 10:21, cf. his vulnerability in Jn 7:50-52), then to relationally respond to God in qualitative involvement (Lk 18:17, cf. his involvement in Jn 19:39-42).
John’s Gospel evidences the relational process of salvation from old to new in Nicodemus. In this relational context, the evangelist almost seems to give a metaphorical sense to Nicodemus. Certainly, for all who follow, it is the relational context and process, necessary by the nature of salvation, to which to respond and by which to be involved in order to belong to the whole of God’s family. Unfortunately, we never hear if Nicodemus became one of the teachers of the old covenant and new, who relationally experienced following Jesus in the relational progression to the family (kingdom) of God, as Jesus defined in Mt 13:52. Nevertheless, the transition of God’s thematic relational work of grace emerges further and deeper in this discourse. The strategic shift to the qualitative relational significance of the new was present and vulnerably disclosed; this would be
disclosed further and deeper not only as present but also as vulnerably involved, as he did in his discourse with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-30, discussed previously).
Salvation in the OT always involved deliverance by God, which involved situations and circumstances but was always about the covenant relationship together (Ex 15:2, Is 12:2; 43:3,11, Hos 2:19,20,23) in the covenant of love (Dt 7:9). God’s liberation (redeeming the chosen people) from Egypt epitomized the covenant of love enacted by the whole of God (not just by his strength) for this reciprocal relationship of love, even though land was involved (Dt 4:35-38; 7:7-9). In the covenant relationship, God always intended to be the people’s portion (Jer 51:19, La 3:24, Ps 119:57) and, conversely, God’s people were expected to be God’s portion in reciprocal relationship (Dt 32:9); “portion” (heleq) was always about persons and building covenant relationship, not about land and building nation-state. Salvation of the old might have included the covenant relationship but was always foremost about the situations and circumstances. “To save” (yasa) in the OT connoted initially the aspects of physical deliverance (cf. Nu 10:9, Jdg 2:18) and later denoted its broader and deeper theological significance (cf. Is 45:20-22)—which the Psalmist failed to find (Ps 119:123), that is, in situations and circumstances but pursued in relationship, as this Psalm seems to describe.
In his discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus evidenced the primacy of the relationship over situations and circumstances by referencing Moses making a bronze snake to save the people for complaining against God about their situation and circumstance (Jn 3:14, Nu 21:4-9). Their complaint was taken by God as only relational, the consequence of which was sin, just as they eventually understood and confessed (Nu 21:7) In addition, Jesus used the snake as an analogy (kathos) to his pending death on the cross to save persons from the relational consequences of sin. Equally important, however, was that Jesus also pointed to what he saved persons to (v.15). “Born again or from above” involves the relational process of the new covenant constituting the new creation—born of the Father (Jn 1:13), born of the Spirit (Jn 3:5,8), born of the Son (Jn 1:12; 3:15), that is, by the relational work of grace “of” (ek, indicating source) the Trinity, whose relational involvement together constitute the whole of God and the whole of God’s family (kingdom).
“To save” (sozo) in the NT denotes also to make whole, which necessitates not only being saved from but also saved to what is necessary to be whole. “To be apart” from this whole is the human condition, to which God’s thematic relational action has been responding since the original creation (Gen 2:18). This is the dynamic relational nature of salvation history and the ongoing relational involvement of the Trinity’s creative activity (ultimately disclosed in Jesus’ resurrection) for covenant relationship together. After the original creation, this notably emerged with the faithful of Israel as “the people of God” chosen by the triune God’s grace. Then it extends to all the nations as “the kingdom of God,” and thus born from above by the Trinity’s relational work of grace as “the children of God”: those redeemed by the Son and transformed by the Spirit from old to new, and adopted by the Father as “the family of God”—in the new covenant relationship together necessary to be whole in the ontological image and the functional likeness of the whole of God.
In Jesus’ discourse, sozo was directly conjoined to eternal life (Jn 3:14-17). Just as with “born again,” eternal life must be understood also as relational language, or else it gets reduced to quantitative aspects about the future—as pervades much Christian practice today. That is, the relational outcome of “born again or from above” is eternal life, thus eternal life must remain in the same relational context and process to grasp its significance. More importantly, both born again and eternal life must by nature function in this relational context and process in order to have significance—relational significance to God and experiential significance for God’s family.
The notion of eternal life points to a Jewish view of the life of the age or world to come. John’s Gospel seems to give “eternal life” the prominence that the Synoptic Gospels hold for “the kingdom of God.” This would be understandable since John’s Gospel narrates further and deeper God’s thematic action in the big picture. Yet, this narrative is integrated by relational language, which communicates the integrating motif of relationship together in the new covenant. For the evangelist, eternal life points to more than the life to come (and overcoming death), and it involves going deeper than the traditional parameters of the kingdom of God.
As the relational outcome of being born of God in a new creation, eternal life is not about the quantitative aspects of life signified in a Greek term for life, bios (from which biography is derived). Nor is eternal life about the longevity of life denoted by a Greek term for time, chronos. Chronos and bios cannot constitute eternal life but are prevailing notions of it signifying its reduction. This is the consequence of removing eternal life from, or ignoring, its relational context and process.
Rather than aspects of bios, eternal life is only about the qualitative whole of life, the element of life in the spirit denoted by another term for life, zoe. The element of zoe is the very life that God has. Thus, eternal life constitutes engaging this zoe life, that is to say, participating in the very zoe of God. Engage how, participate how? This is not about metaphysics but about relationship and the primacy of intimate relationship constituting the relational ontology of the Trinity. This involves, therefore, the irreducible and nonnegotiable response necessary by its nature (dei), to engage the relational context and to participate in the relational process vulnerably disclosed by Jesus, who embodied the relational ontology of the whole of God only for this relationship together. So, for example, when the rich young ruler approached Jesus for information to inherit eternal life, Jesus made it imperative to him to “follow me” (Mk 10:17-21)—thus, pointing him to the involvement in relationship together in the relational context and process of Jesus’ whole person.
Jesus made eternal life definitive in his formative family prayer (insufficiently called his high priestly prayer). “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). “To know” (ginosko) seems to point to a cognitive dimension of salvation (cf. Jer 31:34). Yet, this should not be reduced to gaining information and knowing things about God (cf. Jn 5:39). Ginosko in this context points to a deeper epistemology (Jn 17:6,25-26, cf. 1:18). Eternal life is a function of relationship and thus involves the relational epistemic process (cf. Jn 5:39-40). God’s self-disclosure embodied in Jesus vulnerably engaged persons only for this relationship (Jn 17:7-8). Ginosko also means “to experience,” which necessitates reciprocal intimate involvement (both sharing and receiving) to have this relational outcome (cf. Jesus’ frustration and its previous discussion, Jn 14:9). This reciprocal intimate involvement signifies the zoe of the Trinity, which all his followers participate in not only to relationally know the Trinity but also to intimately experience together in the relationships necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity, just as Jesus continued to pray (Jn 17:20-26). His prayer was formative of the new covenant family that he saved his followers to—the family of the new creation (born anew) constituted by the Trinity, for both “now” and “not yet.”
Thus, salvation can be characterized as the relational response to the revelation that one receives (cf. Jer 31:33, Jn 1:10-12) with the relational trust exercised (as “little children”) in the reciprocity of covenant relationship together—covenant signifying only on God’s terms and together signifying only intimate involvement. This relational process of salvation involves the “adoption” of “little children” into the whole and holy God’s very own family—that is to say, those with the functional posture of “little children” (see the progression in Lk 10:21, Mt 18:3, Lk 18:17, Jn 1:12-13). “The right [exousia, authority] to become children of God” (Jn 1:12) points to the adoption process (which Paul later defined, Gal 4:4-7, Ro 8:15-17) initiated by the Trinity’s relational work of grace. As a theological construct, adoption is the formative relational process of God’s family which signifies two necessary actions in the relational process to family: first, redemption from the old, for example, from any enslavement (cf. Levi, prostitute), or release from previous family liability (cf. Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus), and, secondly, transformation to the new, that is, reconstituting the person’s ontology, redefining their identity and transferring membership/establishing belonging in the whole of God’s family. Redemption is never merely about liberating the person for Christian freedom but only for this relational process necessary to constitute relationship together as family.
Adoption, as the formative relational process of God’s family, makes evident therefore the trinitarian shape of soteriology, constituted by the Trinity in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love. The whole of this relational work of grace constitutes Jesus’ followers in the relational progression to the whole of God, functionally restoring them: in the image of the relational ontology of the Trinity; in the relationships necessary to signify the ecclesiology of the whole in likeness of the Trinity; and in the congruent relational dynamic to signify their function in compatible missiology to extend family love to the world to build the whole of God’s family as the new creation—the eschatological plan of God’s thematic relational action of grace.
The eschaton will bring the new creation family to its relational conclusion, yet its relational outcome is in the present to experience, however incomplete. When Jesus was harassed for healing (hygies, well, whole, i.e., to make whole) on the Sabbath (Jn 5:6,14,16), he responded by distinguishing his ongoing trinitarian relational work of grace (v.17ff). The implication is: The qualitative distinction of his work for relationship with those apart from the whole cannot be constrained by the quantitative religious practices, which effectively keep persons in the condition “to be apart” from the whole of God (v.21). For those who relationally respond to his trinitarian work of grace, Jesus made definitive that person “has eternal life” (in Gk present tense, v.24). That is, this person “has crossed over from death to life” (metabeino, denotes to go from one state to another, v.24). Metabeino is also in the Greek perfect tense, which accentuates the fact of an existing condition and stresses the prevailing effects of an action. In other words, the future brings the relational conclusion of complete overcoming of death (separation from God) to life (endless communion with God); through the same ongoing trinitarian relational work of grace, the present also brings relational outcomes in the intimate involvement of relationship together. These relational outcomes in the present are ongoing experiences of transformation (metabeino) from the relational condition “to be apart” from the whole to further participation and deeper involvement in the zoe of the Trinity (the fact of a new existing condition); and the Trinity’s past and present relational work is already and ongoingly constituting in those of reciprocal relationship the new creation family of the whole of God (the prevailing effects of the Trinity’s salvific action).
Any notions which relegate salvation and eternal life merely to the future emerge from reductionism and not fully receiving God’s communicative action disclosed in the biblical texts, namely embodied in the whole of the Word. The theological and functional implication is not listening to the Son in his trinitarian relational context and process, thus essentially ignoring the ongoing relational presence and intimate involvement of the Trinity. Whatever future experience salvation and eternal life ultimately bring, their present reality is only a function of relationship together, the nature of which has to be theologically congruent and functionally compatible with the relational ontology of the Trinity. The Trinity not only gives shape to soteriology but makes definitive the relational nature of salvific life and practice in the new creation. This necessitates by its nature, not out of obligation or compulsion, our ongoing reciprocal relational work for further and deeper intimate communion together. Moreover, this involves our life and practice in relationship with others in the daily ethics congruent with the relational work of Jesus’ whole person, who embodied the relational ontology of the Trinity for all relationships to be restored to the qualitative whole of God—both for the distant future and also for the immediate present.
Before our discussion focuses on salvific life and practice in the new creation, we need to grasp the experiential truth of this relationship which historically converged in Jesus’ ultimate discourse.
The whole of soteriology’s relational context and process cohered in Jesus’ ultimate discourse on the cross, which intimately communicated and vulnerably consummated God’s thematic relational action of grace. This discourse is understood as his seven statements conjoined with his actions on the cross, though each of the Gospel narratives provides a different part of the discourse, with Mark and Matthew including only the most important fourth statement to formulate a structure somewhat analogous to an OT chiasm (two halves framing the key point placed between them). Taken together they evidence the thematic relational message of God, and this composite message’s theological interpretation constitutes it as the ultimate salvific discourse consummating the whole of God’s thematic action for the new covenant relationship together as family. Thus, no aspect of this discourse can be fully understood separated from the context of the whole, nor can any aspect be reduced and still constitute its relational significance in the whole of God’s thematic action.
This was Jesus’ discourse on the cross, in which the language of his words and actions communicated with the ultimate relational clarity and significance.
First Statement: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
In his initial words, Jesus clearly established his full relational context with the Father, thus pointing to the source of salvation. His initial action also disclosed the full relational process of grace necessary for salvation: forgiveness (aphiemi, to remit sin, dismiss indebtedness toward God, cf. Mt 26:28, also its function in Lk’s emphasis on salvation, Lk 5:20-26; 7:47-50; 24:46-47). How Jesus engaged aphiemi was less about the situation and full of relational significance, which was constituted only by God’s grace.
As they killed Jesus, this destruction was the paradoxical relational process necessary for new relationship with the whole of God (cf. Lk 22:20). That is, it is ironic that aphiemi denotes, on the one hand, the forgiveness for their sin and broken relationship with the triune God, which in this moment led to the necessary cost for redemption fulfilled by his death on the cross (cf. Mk 10:45). On the other hand, aphiemi signifies the transformation to the new covenant relationship together constituted by the Spirit, who is Jesus’ relational replacement so he would “not leave [aphiemi] you as orphans” (Jn 14:18). In other words, Jesus enacted aphiemi for relationship together and completely fulfilled the whole of its relational significance by his relational work of grace.
Jesus’ discourse was interjected with challenges to his salvific claim (Mt 27:40, Mk 15:29-30), as well as with mocking of his salvific authority and power as the Messiah King (Mt 27:42, Mk 15:31-32, Lk 23:35). Another detractor was one of the criminals executed with Jesus, who demonstrated a prevailing messianic expectation of salvation in existing quantitative situations and circumstances (Lk 23:39). His derision was about deliverance from his circumstances, not about relationship together; thus, he represented a majority position of those with a reductionist reaction to Jesus.
The other criminal looked beyond their own circumstances and made a qualitative shift to see Jesus’ person (though also as King) and to pursue him in his relational context, despite Jesus’ situation (Lk 23:40-42). Thus, he represented those with the qualitative relational response necessary to receive the vulnerable self-disclosure of God in Jesus for salvation. He received the following relational response from Jesus.
Second Statement: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).
In the relational clarity of his family love, Jesus clearly made definitive the relational outcome and conclusion for anyone and all who relationally respond to his vulnerable relational work of grace for new covenant relationship together. This relational response necessitates reciprocal vulnerability in engaging Jesus in his relational context and by intimate involvement with him in his relational process, as signified by the second criminal’s relational response of trust in Jesus.
The relational conclusion of being “with me in paradise” should not be reduced. Paradise, despite images and notions, is not about a place, that is, about aspects of bios; Jesus’ statement here should be compared to his statements with the churches in Ephesus and Laodicea (Rev 2:7; 3:21). Rather, paradise is about sharing together intimately in the ultimate relational context of God, and thus complete involvement in the ultimate relational process of participating in the zoe of the Trinity. “With me” is only about relationship together at its ultimate (“paradise”)—to which Jesus could have added “nothing less and no substitutes,” yet was absolutely definitive in prefacing his statement with “I tell you the truth.”
In the next part of his discourse, Jesus points to what he saves us to, which the first criminal was predisposed to ignore by reducing salvation merely to being saved from bad situations and circumstances.
Third Statement: To his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (Jn 19:26-27).
With the relational significance of his family love communicated in this statement, Jesus gives us a partial entrance into what he saved us to by opening the functional door to salvific life and practice.
There are many aspects for us to reflect on here: circumstances, culture, family, Jesus’ promise to his disciples (viz. Mk 10:29-30). All of these factor into this extraordinary interaction, the outcome of which suggests the experiential roots of what he saved us to and the functional roots for the development of his church as family. Building with the persons who truly constituted his family (see Mt 12:47-50), Jesus demonstrated the functional significance of being his family in what should be understood as a defining interaction, yet is often underemphasized or overlooked.
Apparently, Mary had been a widow for a while. In the Mediterranean world of biblical times, a widow was in a precarious position (like orphans), and so it was for Mary, particularly when her eldest and thus primary son (culturally speaking) was about to die. Their culture called for the eldest son to make provision for parents when they could no longer provide for themselves. The kinship family (by blood and law) had this responsibility. Though a widow, in Mary’s case she still had other sons and daughters to care for her (Mk 6:3). Why, then, did Jesus delegate this responsibility to someone outside their immediate family?
Though circumstances, culture and family converge on this scene, they do not each exert the same amount of influence. We cannot let contextual considerations limit our understanding of this defining point in the relational progression of his followers. I suggest that Jesus wasn’t fulfilling his duty as the eldest son, nor bound by the circumstances. As he had consistently demonstrated throughout the incarnation, Jesus was taking his followers beyond culture and circumstances, even beyond family as we commonly view it. As the embodied whole of God, his sanctified life and practice constituted function beyond reductionism, which he expected also of his followers in order to participate in his new covenant family (Mt 5:20).
Jesus’ full trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love was made evident in his painful condition yet sensitive relational involvement with Mary and John, which should not be reduced by the drama of the moment or the obligation of the situation. Though Jesus was in anguish and those closest to him were deeply distressed, this unimaginable interaction took place because Jesus functionally embodied the family love of the whole of God. In the most touching moment on the cross, Jesus teaches us what being his family means: how to see each other, how to be involved with each other and how the individual is affirmed in submitting to him for it.
For Jesus, family involvement was based on agape involvement, so being his family cannot be understood from our conventional perceptions of family involvement or by our conditioned feelings of obligation. Despite his circumstances, Jesus focused on Mary and John with the deepest agape involvement and affection (phileo, cf. Jn 5:20, Dt 7:7): “Here is your son,” “Here is your mother.” How was he telling them to see each other? How was he saying to be involved with each other? How was the individual affirmed in submitting to him?
Jesus gave his followers new eyes with which to see other—beyond circumstances, culture, blood and legal ties, social status. He redefined his family to be relationship-specific to his Father (Mt 12:47-50). This is how he wants us to see each other, and how he saw Mary. It seems certain that Mary was not merely Jesus’ earthly mother but increasingly his follower. She was not at odds with Jesus (though she certainly must have had mixed feelings) during his earthly ministry, as were his brothers. She was always there for him in her role as mother but more importantly she was now there with him as one who did the Father’s will—thus, as follower, daughter, sister. This was the Mary at the crucifixion.
Just as Jesus didn’t merely see Mary as his earthly mother, a widow, a female, he didn’t merely see John as a disciple, a special friend. They were his Father’s daughter and son, his sister and brother (cf. Heb 2:11), his family together in the relational progression. And that is how he wants us to be involved with each other, not stopping short at any point on this progression—no matter how well we have been servants together, nor how much we have shared as friends. This deeply touching interaction was Jesus’ involvement with and response to his family. It was the beautiful outworking of family love in the reciprocal relational process together of being family and building it. Nothing less and no substitutes, just as Jesus lived and went to the cross. This is the function of salvific life and practice in the present.
For this definite reason and unequivocal purpose, Jesus’ action was just as much for John’s benefit as it was for Mary—both in provision and opportunity. In response to Jesus, John acted beyond being merely a disciple, even a friend, and took Mary into “his own” (idios, one’s own, denotes special relationship, v.27). He didn’t just take her into his house; he embraced Mary as his own mother (or kinship sister). She must have embraced him also as her son (or kinship brother). In response to what each of them let go of in order to follow Jesus, he promised them an even greater family (Mk 10:29-30). True to his words as ever, he partially fulfilled his promise to them. This is the relational outcome in the present for each individual who submits to him to participate in his family. No greater satisfaction of being accepted, no fulfillment of the individual’s self-worth, no certainty of one’s place and belonging can be experienced by the individual person without the relational significance of the whole of his new covenant family.
As the functional key, Jesus’ action here demonstrated the relationships of love necessary to be the whole of God’s new covenant family with family love (both agape and phileo), and this initial experience constituted the roots of his church as family. Moreover, this experiential reality signified the ongoing fulfillment of his covenant promise to his followers (i.e., Mk 10:29-30, which becomes functional in the present as his church family), and thus established the experiential truth of the gospel for all to experience (cf. Jn 17:21-23).
And as the hermeneutical key, Jesus not only used relational language but also his family language to constitute his words as the whole of the Word of God embodied vulnerably for this new covenant relationship together. This scenario statement, therefore, must be understood in the whole of his salvific discourse and made definitive for the function of his church in its ongoing life and practice.
Keep in mind that his first three statements happened while he was dying a physically painful death. Thus, having clearly and vulnerably communicated God’s thematic relational action of grace in the first half of his discourse, Jesus continued in the second half to intimately consummate his salvific work for the new covenant relationship together of God’s family. The cost for redemption to complete this salvation to the new creation was immeasurable. In unsettling contrast to his previous statement as the most touching moment on the cross, his next statement is the most heartbreaking—while also the most important statement disclosing the relational significance on which the whole of God’s salvific action hinged.
Fourth Statement: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34).
Familiarity with these words must not predispose us to minimalize Jesus’ relational language, and thus to diminish the depth of relational significance involved here. Such reductionism can only have a relational consequence of promoting relational distance (however unintentional) from God or of reinforcing the relational condition “to be apart” (however inadvertent) from the whole of God. Moreover, I suggest, nothing will help us understand the distinction between the qualitative (e.g., element of zoe) and the quantitative (e.g., aspects of bios) than this pivotal relational statement by Jesus.
Beyond the prolonged physical pain (nearly in its sixth hour), Jesus’ words vulnerably exposed his relational pain—which was initially experienced in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:37-38) in anticipation of this ultimate relational pain. The Son’s relationally painful scream not only further expressed his honesty and vulnerableness with his Father, but now even more significantly demonstrated the relational wholeness by which their life together is constituted (Jn 10:38; 14:10,11,20; 17:21). Therefore, we are exposed intimately to what is most fundamental to the zoe of God: the whole of the relationship of God.
Since God is the Trinity, the whole of the triune God is constitutive of the Trinity’s relationships, while the Trinity’s relationships together constitute the whole of God—apart from which the zoe of God does not function. It was the zoe of the Trinity, the whole of the relationship of God, which was the issue in Jesus’ statement (relational scream).
While Jesus’ physical death was necessary for salvation, that quantitative death of bios was not his ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate was his loss of the qualitative relationship of the whole of God. As a consequence of absorbing our sin, in that inexplicable moment the Son was no longer in the Father nor the Father in him. In this nothing-less-and-no-substitutes action of grace by the whole and holy God, the mystery of the “brokenness” of the relational ontology of the Trinity in effect happened. We can have only some sense of understanding this condition by focusing on the relational reality in distress, not the ontological. With this qualitative focus on Jesus’ pain, we become vulnerable participants both (1) in the painful relational consequence involving any degree of the relational condition “to be apart” from the whole of God, and (2) in the fullness of God’s ultimate response to redeem us from this condition as well as to reconcile us to the whole of the relationship of God, the zoe of the Trinity.
For this wholeness with God to be experienced, however, the relational barriers “to be apart” have to be removed. When the Son screamed out in relational pain, all those barriers had converged on him to evoke the Father’s separation. I suggest, it was also the moment the Father cried, and the Spirit grieved. This was their relational work of grace; and nothing less and no substitutes could have consummated this relational consequence, which was necessary by its nature to overcome the relational consequence of sin. Furthermore, nothing less and no substitutes can constitute the family love involved in the relational process and relational conclusion of salvation. Therefore, though in a figurative sense the whole of God was broken, nevertheless the relational significance of this paradoxical moment was functionally specific to wholeness, that is, in order that we (necessarily both individually and corporately) will be whole in new relationship together.
This is how the whole of God indeed “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” Nicodemus apparently would grasp this more deeply from this ultimate salvific discourse than he understood from Jesus’ first discourse with him about salvation (see him after Jesus’ death, Jn 19:38-39).
If we grasp the relational significance of the Son’s relational pain from being forsaken by the Father, this goes beyond relational rejection to the deeper relational condition of being apart from the whole of God. In this sense, what is taken away from the wholeness of the Trinity affects the wholeness of each trinitarian person. Not only are they no longer in each other but they are not one—whole. To be forsaken or to forsake is to be separated from this fundamental whole. Certainly the mystery of this pivotal moment has no ontological understanding; God never stopped being God. And there is also the paradoxical aspect of the Son declaring he will not forsake us as orphans apart from the whole of God’s family (Jn 14:18), who is now himself separated from this whole. Yet, the relational significance of this both signifies the fundamental whole of the Trinity as well as establishes the means for relationship necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. This is the whole of the relationship of God that Jesus not only prayed for his followers to have (Jn 17:20-23), but also paid the cost for the redemptive change necessary to truly have it, and further provided his Spirit to help us authentically experience it and ongoingly function in it together.
As the whole of God’s salvific action nears fulfillment, Jesus’ qualitative relational involvement remained fully embodied in the historical context of the cross. What transpired necessarily involved his whole person, just as indicated in Hebrew Scripture (Jn 19:24,28,36,37). After the heartbreaking interaction, Jesus made this evident in his next statement.
Fifth Statement: “I am thirsty” (Jn 19:28).
John’s Gospel began with the eternal state of Jesus the Christ as the Word who was always God (Jn 1:1-2, contrary to Arianism). When the whole of the Word became flesh also, Jesus the Christ became fully human while still fully divine to constitute his whole person (Jn 1:14, contrary to Apollinarianism). In this expanded Christology (beyond the Synoptic Gospels) the evangelist’s narrative included this part of Jesus’ salvific discourse. With the words in this statement, we are reminded that Jesus’ person was also human. Yet, this brings us face to face with his full humanity and the human toll involved in his action necessary for salvation. This “I am” is the counterpart to the other “I am” statements the evangelist developed in this Gospel for a more complete Christology (see Jn 6:35,51; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). In conjoint function, these “I am” statements are his relational work of grace fulfilling God’s thematic action for new relationship together.
Jesus’ thirst was not merely the dehydration from physical exertion and trauma, but more importantly points to the depletion of his full humanity completely extended in intense vulnerable involvement. This thirst signified that his relational work of grace was both the divine action of his deity disclosing the whole of God and also the relational involvement of his full humanity; and this conjoint function cannot be diminished in either function without reducing Jesus’ whole person for an incomplete Christology. Any reduction of Jesus’ whole person has theological and functional implications for soteriology, resulting in reductionism of what Jesus saved us from or saved us to, or both, thus a truncated soteriology. Such reductionism is always consequential for relationships, whether it is relationship together with God or within Christ’s church as family, or both.
In these fourth and fifth statements of his discourse, we are openly exposed to (even confronted by) this functional picture of Jesus’ whole divine-human person: He who was vulnerably present, intimately involved and completely fulfilling the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace only for new covenant relationship together.
Thus, “when he had received the drink, Jesus said….”
Sixth Statement: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).
“Finished” (teleo, complete, not merely ending it but fulfilling it to its intended conclusion), that is, his relational work for redemption to free us from the old and its relational significance “to be apart” from the whole of God (ultimate death). With these words, his ultimate salvation discourse was being brought to a close. Essentially all had been said and done, except for the concluding chapter in the history of salvation by the whole of God’s thematic relational action responding to the human relation condition.
As Jesus completed his redemptive work for the original covenant (cf. Ex 24:8 and Mk 14:24), the transition to the new conjointly begins. In Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist is concerned about a gospel accessible to all, thus he narrated the temple being redefined for the new covenant (Lk 23:44-45). Mark’s Gospel and Matthew’s also included the temple curtain event (Mk 15:38, Mt 27:51), yet they appeared to include this only as part of the narrative detail of events during the crucifixion without pointing to its relational significance (cf. Ex 26:31-33, Heb 10:19-20). Luke apparently changed the order of this event to precede and thus directly connect with this closing statement in Jesus’ salvific discourse—no doubt in further emphasis of Luke’s concern for an accessible gospel for all, which the relational significance of the torn temple curtain constitutes and Jesus’ next and last words both point to and will consummate.
Seventh Statement: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
With his final words in this ultimate salvific discourse, Jesus engaged the furthest and deepest in the trinitarian relational context and process. This relational cry to his Father contrasted with his earlier scream from relational pain (fourth statement), yet these cries for relationship were also conjoined in the mystery of the relational dynamic enacting the Trinity’s salvific work of grace.
Jesus said, “I commit” (paratithemi, to entrust, i.e., to relationally entrust) “my spirit” (pneuma, signifying the very core of his person), yet his relational language did not constitute a dualism here implying he did not entrust his body; rather, he entrusted his whole person. His last words evidenced the submission of his whole person for relationship together in the transitional journey to complete the redemptive work of the old and to raise up the new. By his intimate involvement in this vulnerably present and ongoingly involved relational context and process of the Trinity, Jesus was fully constituted in the final salvific action necessary for this ultimate relational conclusion: the resurrection and the birth of the new creation in the new covenant relationship together as family constituted in and by the Trinity, which the Spirit ongoingly transforms from the old to the new and brings to eschatological completion.
Immediately after Jesus’ discourse, various responses from those who witnessed his death were recorded (Mk 15:39-40, Mt 27:54-55, Lk 23:47-49). By the nature of his ultimate salvific discourse, however, compatible relational response back to the whole of Jesus is necessary (dei) for the experiential truth and relational reality of this new covenant relationship together. This nothing-less-and-no-substitutes relational response is thus irreducible and nonnegotiable, just as Jesus vulnerably embodied and intimately involved his whole person only for this relationship together.
These were the words and actions Jesus communicated on the cross with the ultimate relational clarity and relational significance—which the Father makes imperative not only to “listen to my Son,” but also to relationally respond to the whole of the Word embodied for relationship together as family.
When Simeon, who was guided by the Spirit, saw the child Jesus in the temple, he praised God for seeing the Christ before he died (Lk 2:25-32). His praise expressed the deep satisfaction of having “seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight [prosopon, face] of all peoples, a light for revelation” (vv.30-32), stressing Luke’s concern for a gospel accessible to all. Though Jesus embodied vulnerably the gospel relationally accessible to any and all persons, Simeon’s praise also points to an ongoing issue with Jesus’ self-disclosure in general, and salvation in particular, which Simeon alluded to later (vv.34-35). This ongoing issue, even to this day, involves what we pay attention to (or ignore) in “face-to-face” examination of Jesus and his salvific work.
What Simeon saw: was not merely a baby but a person, was not merely a person but the whole person, was not merely the whole person but the whole person in his relational context and process, which involved the conjoint function of his full identity as the whole of God with his minority identity in the surrounding context of the world. Simeon grasped essentially the whole of God’s relational work of salvation, which he received in relational reciprocity with the Spirit. Yet, Simeon’s part in this process was also crucial because what he saw directly involved his perceptual-interpretive framework. That is, Simeon was not predisposed to see the Christ in the baby Jesus (especially in prevailing messianic expectations), but rather Simeon’s person (“my eyes” indicate a link to his heart signifying his person, cf. Mt 6:22) was open to the person presented to him, thus who and what Jesus’ person was. And who and what Simeon saw was critical to constitute a compatible relational response to the whole of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus for salvation and relationship together.
As we come “face to face” with the incarnation of Jesus’ person in the narrative texts, we are accountable for what we see, just as Simeon was. Who and what we see in Jesus’ person is critical to how we see Jesus function, and, conversely, how we see Jesus function is critical to the whole of who and what we see of Jesus’ person. This view certainly involves the lens of our perceptual-interpretive framework and its importance in this epistemic process and theological task. Yet, there is a deeper issue underlying our framework which antecedes its importance: the influence of reductionism. This may appear somewhat like a chicken-and-egg issue due to the reflexive dynamic between them, in which, at one point, what we pay attention to (due to our perceptual-interpretive framework) results in reductionist conclusions, while, at another point, the influence of reductionism determines what we pay attention to or ignore. (For example, did a Jewish perceptual-interpretive framework result in the prevailing messianic expectations in Jesus’ time, or did those prevailing messianic expectations determine their framework?)
Nevertheless, we need to keep in focus that reductionism is always positioned against the whole, countering its presence, and thus engaged in counter-relational work. Our perceptual-interpretive framework, for which we are responsible, emerges from either the whole or reductionism, never from a combination of both; yet, it can function at different times on the basis of one or the other.
With this in mind, I suggest that the major issue we face about Jesus, and thus soteriology, is: The whole of the Word became flesh and dwelled vulnerably among us, but we have disembodied the Word, fragmented the whole of the Word and selectively received the Word on our terms. There are two implications or consequences from this which are of major importance:
(And what gets lost in this epistemic process and theological task is pneumatology, that is, neglecting the presence and relational work of the Spirit, which would disconcert Simeon but more importantly relationally grieves the Spirit, discussed further in chapter nine).
This is illustrated in various narrative accounts of Jesus’ salvific work, in which he made these consequences evident. When his salvific work (part of which involved healing to make whole, sozo, cf. Lk 17:19) was condemned for being engaged on the Sabbath, Jesus responded with a discourse on who, what and how he was, thus why he was engaged, in his salvific work (Jn 5:16-47, Jn’s Gospel emphasizes the big picture of the whole of God). Rather than redefine the importance of the Sabbath, in this discourse Jesus challenged those who identified with the Jewish Scriptures but in effect “disembodied” them of their relational significance (vv.37-38,46-47). How so? After disclosing his relational ontology with the Father, he defined their position: “nor does [the Father’s] word dwell in you” because you don’t receive the embodied whole of the Word vulnerably disclosing the Father’s communicative action for salvation (v.38), whose word was partially communicated to you earlier (v.46). In other words, they had the written (or oral) words of Scripture apart from the One who communicated those words, thus words without their relational context and process. How, then, did they relate to the Scriptures?
When the Word of God is disembodied apart from its relational
context and process, it becomes a near entity by itself shaped by
the reader-user without the author’s intention. Jesus described
their approach: “You imperatively study [eraunao, search,
look into, Gk imperative mood] the (disembodied) Scriptures because
you think that in [en, remain in place, viz. as an end in
itself] them you possess eternal life”
This process is demonstrated further in another interaction about salvation. A lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life (Lk 10:25-27, previously discussed in chapter four). Jesus pointed him to the words of the Law and asked him how (or in what way, pos) he read them (v.26). The lawyer responded with the two summary commandments of love (Dt 6:5, Lev 19:18), which Jesus also defined as those giving the basic Scriptures their relational significance (Mt 22:40, cf. Dt 7:9,12). Yet, though the lawyer repeated the same words, they did not have the same significance to him as they did for Jesus. Jesus focused on the relational involvement of love, not a code to follow; and if he involved himself in those relationships, it signified the life made whole (Lk 10:28).
In many Jewish practices, the law had been reduced to become a mere code of behavior—whether for national identity, self-justification or simply tradition—without any deeper significance. This is what the lawyer’s approach to those vital words appeared to be, since he asked for more specific details for its practice “to justify himself” (v.29). Jesus responded with the story of the compassionate Samaritan, which was not about what to do with “my neighbor”; rather this was about how to be agape involved in relationship with others in congruence with God’s agape involvement for relationship with him.
The first (and greatest) commandment to love (agape) the whole of God with our whole person embodied the Law as God’s personal desires and establishes its relational context and process only for the purpose to be relationally involved with God. The second (of importance) commandment embodies the Law as God’s personal desires for this relationship together to be extended in relationship with others. These are not the main parts of a code to follow for correct behavior. These are the Author’s intention for these words, which, as relational language, were communicated only for the purpose of covenant relationship together (covenant signifying on God’s terms). Moreover, these are the words which the embodied Word ultimately communicated for new covenant relationship together (together now signifying new direct intimate involvement). By disembodying the whole of the Word and the words of God from their relational context and process, the lawyer effectively was shaping his own salvation—as were those earlier who studied the Scriptures. Their approach to the Scriptures is like the reader (listener) of any story who changes what the author intended in order to meet one’s own desires, agenda or needs. Yet, they must be contrasted with the approach of a scribe in a similar interaction, who, Jesus said, was “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:32-34).
Somewhat analogous to “enhanced reality” created by the effects of modern electronic technology for a virtual sense, human shaping of salvation has the effect of creating “enhanced soteriology.” The “enhanced” shape of soteriology--unlike in Jesus’ discourse at the temple, with Nicodemus and others during his salvific work--is not basically about misunderstanding Jesus’ language about raising the temple, or about born again and eternal life. Rather the issue is about reducing his language apart from this full context and process, thus diminishing or eliminating its relational significance and, therefore, losing its relational function for the experience of relationship together. This process further involves reducing Jesus’ words with the consequence of disregarding, discounting or negating God’s communicative action in Jesus, thus rendering the biblical text voiceless of God’s self-disclosure. Apart from the full relational context and process of God, the door is open to rely on one’s own reasoning independent of the text (or “in front of the text” or “behind the text”) to presume about God and God’s action. With the latitude to substitute one’s own independent interpretation and terms for God’s authorial intentions, salvation essentially becomes an “enhanced” version, constructed by one’s own effort—whether emerging from one’s reason directly, or through the assumptions (notably from the Enlightenment) of natural theology, historical criticism or scientific theories.
The enhanced shape of soteriology (whatever its variation) is a human construct from reductionism, which by its nature cannot be whole or involve the process to make whole; moreover, this construct can neither engage nor constitute the relationships necessary to be whole. More specifically, to construct God’s kingdom or family on the basis of human means is incompatible, and at best it can only produce an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion (cf. the tower of Babel, Gen 11:1-9). Human effort is contrary to the kingdom’s nature, and thus such construction would be functionally divided against itself and will fail. This was clearly made evident by Jesus in another discourse involving his salvific work (see Lk 11:14-32).
When Jesus was challenged about the nature of his power to drive out demons (to make whole) and labeled to the contrary (“by Beelzebub,” vv.15-16), he disclosed the whole that is of God and God’s thematic action for the human condition to be whole. He made definitive that his power was the function of and congruent with the ontology of God’s action (v.20). By framing the issue in a kingdom and household (oikos, v.17), he equated his actions of making persons whole with God’s thematic relational action responding to the human condition apart from the whole. Thus, his power and action to make whole were salvific power and salvific action (cf. his healing and sozo, Lk 17:15-19). Anything less than this power and action would not be able to make whole; likewise, any substitute for this power and action would not be whole, and thus could never make whole. Anything less and any substitute would be reductionism, which by its nature can never be whole. Anything less and any substitute for kingdom or family building will fail because reductionism’s counter-relational work always prevents the involvement in relationships necessary to be whole. This is the intent of Satan’s work, who generates reductionism and subsidizes counter-relational work.
Jesus made this explicit about his salvific work with the analogy for a kingdom and family to be whole. Reductionism and the whole are functionally incongruent and relationally incompatible. He clearly made this further evident in a key statement in this discourse: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters” (v.23). The prepositions are important in Jesus’ words. Meta (“with me,” in the genitive) denotes in the midst of a close association, relationship, implying companionship, fellowship together (i.e. on his terms), though not as intimate as the preposition syn. Kata (“against me,” also in the genitive) indicates a motion downward and against, which suggests to reduce an object (in this case a person). Jesus’ person embodied the whole of the Word and disclosed the whole of God for relationship together. The alternative to relationship together meta the whole of Jesus is the opposing relational dynamic reducing (kata) the whole of Jesus, which is the definitive counter-relational work of reductionism. Jesus clearly made the alternatives either-or, the whole or reductionism, with no neutral position. And this opposing relational dynamic can function in effect even with those who have a relationship with Jesus, yet function in the relationship on their terms, thus reducing Jesus’ person and terms for relationship.
The tension between the whole and reductionism (considering its source) is ongoing, and it will continue until the eschaton. The whole is necessary both to expose and to negate reductionism. Yet, the individual person alone is not sufficient to constitute the whole. His statement goes deeper with the words “gather with me” (synago meta). Syn implies a closer relational connection than meta and also means “including”; combined with ago (to lead, bring), synago means to lead, bring together, gather together, assemble together inclusively. Synago is the root for synagoge (synagogue), which is the counterpart to ekklesia (church). Yet, to lead, bring, gather and assemble together is neither about collective activity together nor about collectively occupying the same space together. Synago meta Jesus is a function of relationship—the relationships necessary to be whole together. This involves the trinitarian relational process of family love to reach out, lead, bring and gather together to include all in the whole of God’s family—making definitive the function of the church as whole family in likeness of the Trinity. Thus, synago is salvific work to make whole those in the human condition apart from the whole of God (cf. its salvific process of family love in Mt 25:35c).
The alternative, and thus the opposing relational dynamic, to synago is from persons who “scatter,” which Jesus further made clearly an either-or alternative. Skorpizo (to scatter, disperse) juxtaposed and in tension with synago points to the tension between reductionism and the whole. That is to say, therefore, skorpizo further involves reducing the whole by fragmenting both the whole of persons and relationships together. Any reduction of the person and relationships reinforces the human condition “to be apart” from the whole; and this can be accomplished (1) when the ontology is diminished, for example, by defining the person based on what one does or has, and (2) when relationships are minimalized, for example, by functioning without intimacy. This reduction, then, can and does operate even within a church (cf. churches in Rev 2 & 3). The operation of reductionism in churches today suggests a crisis because the whole is necessary to expose it and then to negate it.
The plenary either-or language Jesus used for these alternatives should not be considered hyperbole. There is no state or condition between that which is whole and less than whole, thus no functional alternative in-between them. This makes the two metaphors he used in this discourse to frame his key statement, as well as extend the issue of his household family (oikos), vital for the salvific work to make whole the church as family. The first metaphor is about a strong man fully capable of guarding his house and possession, who is later overpowered and stripped of his security and possession (vv.21-22). This points to the salvific work of the whole of God prevailing over Satan. At the same time, this metaphor was first introduced in a Markan intercalation (so-called “Markan sandwich”), in which the definitive whole of the kingdom, household family of God, was framed (sandwiched) between an issue with his biological family and what Jesus made definitive as his family (Mk 3:20-35). Mark’s narrative style not only further distinguishes God’s family (kingdom) but also makes evident the ongoing tension with the whole that Jesus’ biological family represented—that is, reducing the whole of Jesus and his salvific work, and thus his kingdom-family. While his biological family and the scribes were certainly acting with different intentions, they both still had the effect of reductionism.
Neither Luke nor Matthew followed Mark’s narrative style for this discourse, though Matthew included the portion of Jesus with his family (Mt 12:46-50). In Luke’s narrative, the first metaphor still points to the prevailing salvific work of God over Satan. Yet, with Luke’s concern for salvation for all nations (God’s kingdom for all peoples), it seems reasonable to consider a further purpose for Luke’s narrative structure for this discourse and the placement of these two metaphors. With this in mind, and given this discourse’s theme of the tension between reductionism and the whole, I suggest that this metaphor also conversely represents a call from Jesus for his church family not to make assumptions about its life and to be focused: on being whole and what reductionism will do to the whole if allowed to operate—an assumption many from Israel made about its life with such consequences.
The second metaphor is of an evil spirit which comes out of a house only to return to it later to find it cleaned and freed (from its previous condition), and thus more inviting to occupy again, making the condition of the house even worse than the first time (vv.24-26). This points to a relational consequence for a current generation of Jews (see Mt’s context for this metaphor, Mt 12:39-45). Yet, this metaphor in Luke’s narrative, while extending the emphasis of the first metaphor, also suggests an even deeper call from Jesus to his church family for the experiential truth of salvation: That it is not sufficient merely to be saved from (cleaned and redeemed from sin) for the whole, but also necessary to be saved to in order to be whole—the whole both necessary and sufficient to negate reductionism. This relational outcome is necessary to preclude the relational consequence pointed to.
Both of these metaphors functionally pivot on Jesus’ key statement (v.23) in this discourse. This is crucial to grasp for church function. The church as the household (oikos) of God “will fall” (pipto, to fall down, v.17), that is, essentially be reduced in its qualitative significance by operating with means and practices incongruent with family—for example, as an institutional system, by business organization models, or simply as a voluntary association. The church as family is only a function of relationships, intimate interdependent relationships together, and thus is incompatible with practices operating without the primacy of these relationships together. If church gatherings, activities and programs are allowed to operate with such incompatible practices, it “will fall”—be reduced in its relational significance both to God and to each other, even while operating very productively (cf. church at Ephesus, Rev 2:2-4) or very successfully (cf. church at Sardis, Rev 3:1-2).
The whole of this discourse in Luke’s Gospel speaks to the wholeness of God’s salvific action (partially overviewed in vv.29-32), which Jesus embodied as “the finger of God” in the relational work of grace necessary to constitute the experiential truth that “the kingdom of God has come to you” (v.20). His functional juxtaposition of kingdom and household supports their congruence. That is, the whole of God’s salvific action fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus was solely for the new covenant relationship together as God’s very own family. Therefore, his above statement constitutes the ultimate of God’s thematic action and can be rendered: “Since I embody the whole of the relational ontology of God, the whole of the family of God has come to you in the whole of who, what and how I am”—the nature of which is irreducible and nonnegotiable. Apart from his trinitarian relational context of family and trinitarian relational process of family love, there is no salvation; and any human effort to shape its own will fall—no matter how enhanced.
In a parenthetical statement in this discourse, Jesus responded to a reductionist comment praising a human shaping of his ontology and identity (discussed previously). Instead, he blessed those who listen to the embodied whole of the Word of God and relationally respond on his terms (vv.27-28). This is the only conclusion of relational significance for this discourse, indeed for any and all of Jesus’ discourses.
What emerges from salvation and being born again (from above), and is synonymous with eternal life and the eschatological hope, is the kingdom of God (or heaven, used by Mt to be indirect in reverence for God for Jewish readers). The primary questions involved in the issue of the kingdom are: (1) what is the kingdom that has come? and (2) when does the kingdom emerge? As much as the imminence of the kingdom has been debated, I suggest this cannot be adequately answered until the kingdom itself is sufficiently defined and understood. When this is grasped, I further suggest the question of its imminence becomes secondary—not unimportant, only less significant in the eschatological plan of God’s thematic action. The following brief initial discussion hopefully will make this clear and be the basis for related discussion in following chapters.
In his hermeneutical discourse defending his salvific work, Jesus exposed a false eschatological hope of those Jews incorrectly embedded in the Scriptures (Jn 5:39-40, discussed earlier). This eschatological hope was the life to come, or the kingdom of God’s kingship and sovereign rule, which John’s Gospel correctly embodied in the full relational context and process of the whole of God. Keeping this hermeneutic in mind, we shift to Luke’s Gospel, who was concerned for a kingdom for all peoples.
The term “kingdom of God” is not found in the OT, yet the reality and expectation of God’s kingship and sovereign rule are embedded in the OT. The issue then and now is how the Scriptures are approached, thus how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to.
When some Pharisees questioned Jesus about the coming of the kingdom of God, he could have replied as he did in the above discourse and with Nicodemus: “You study and teach the Scriptures but do you not understand this?” Yet, the implication of such a reply was there in the response he did give to this query: “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).
The focus of Jesus’ response tends to be on “is within you.” Before, however, this can be understood, we need to address the issue Jesus raised about “your careful observation,” which includes the implication his reply involves. “Careful observation” (parateresis) characterized the rigorous practice of Pharisees observing their covenant code of behavior, which, more importantly, reflected the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework operating in their approach to the Scriptures and their eschatological hope. Jesus implied (as with those in Jn 5:39) that their careful observations through the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework only focused on the quantitative aspects of the kingdom—which was a process somewhat analogous to the Enlightenment’s scientific method.
Thus, the issue Jesus addressed about the kingdom “within you” (en) is less about any measured-temporal sense of the kingdom: that is, “among you collectively,” and thus is present (already, realized eschatology), or only “within you,” thus merely an inward (spiritual) nature pointing to the future (not yet, future eschatology). More significantly, I suggest, Jesus addressed the issue between reductionism of the kingdom merely to quantitative terms as opposed to the qualitative integrity of the whole of the kingdom’s relational significance. This is the major issue of the kingdom in its past, present and future—in Israel’s past, in Jesus’ present, in the whole of God’s thematic action in relational progression to the future—which directly involves how the Scriptures are approached, how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to.
The kingdom of God cannot be reduced to quantitative factors, though it certainly involves them in secondary ways. Nevertheless, the kingdom can only be defined in whole by qualitative terms, which vulnerably involves the whole person (signified by the heart) though the whole of the kingdom is not contained in the individual person; and conjointly, the kingdom can only be determined in function by qualitative relational terms directly involving the relationships together necessary to be whole, the whole of God in likeness of the Trinity.
This was the qualitative significance that the whole of the Word embodied to disclose vulnerably the whole of God for covenant relationship together in “the kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20). Luke’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ salvific discourses and work with the emphasis of the kingdom of God for all peoples. A Jewish bias, particularly in a reductionist hermeneutic of their Scriptures, would reduce the whole of the kingdom and preclude access by all. Thus, it is important in Luke’s narrative accounts to interrelate Jesus’ discourses about approaching the Scriptures with grasping the relational significance of the kingdom of God.
This necessitates revisiting Jesus’ demonstrative joy with the Spirit in praising the Father for “your righteous intent” (eudokia) of “disclosing the whole of God and God’s thematic action to little children,” not to “the wise and learned” (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 embedded in the Scriptures. The whole of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus involves his relational context and process, in which “little children” relationally respond compatibly for the connection 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 (10:23-24).
“The wise and learned” (in Lk 10:21) were directly associated with “your careful observation” (in Lk 17:20). This evidenced both their reductionist interpretive framework imposed on the Scriptures (and God’s self-disclosure in the Word embodied), and their reductionist perceptual framework delimiting the kingdom of God to quantitative parameters without the qualitative relational significance of the whole accessible to all “little children.” This was earlier 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).
In Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the Messiah, he came to fulfill God’s covenant promise and the eschatological hope of Israel as God’s people, not as nation-state. Thus, Jesus’ kingdom of heaven had continuity from the OT (Mt 3:1-3; 4:12-17, cf. 25:34). Yet, there was also a clear qualitative distinction about this kingdom (Mt 5:3,10,20; 7:21; 12:48-50; 18:3; 19:14). While the kingdom of heaven was an extension of the old covenant and the fulfillment of its covenant promise, there arrived also directly with Immanuel—the vulnerably present and intimately involved “God with us”—a new and deeper covenant relationship together he constituted in the kingdom of heaven. In other words, Jesus fulfilled both the quantitative terms of the old covenant and its qualitative relational significance, which was vulnerably embodied in Jesus for the direct experience of this covenant relationship together in its new and deeper relational process. And Jesus appeared to further associate this with his church (ekklesia, gathered body, Mt 16:18-19), which involved building (oikodomeo, to build a house, v.18, whose root is oikos) his household family (oikos and kingdom together in Mt 12:25) “with me” in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love to “gather together with me” (synago, Mt 12:30, the root for synagogue, the counterpart to ekklesia) the family of God, both signifying and constituting “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).
Thus, after Jesus disclosed to his disciples “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (mysterion, hidden, hard to understand because undivulged, Mt 13:11-51), he made this definitive for every teacher of the covenant relationship who has been made a functioning disciple (matheteuo) in the kingdom of heaven: as persons belonging to the household family of God, they openly share the qualitative relational significance of the new covenant relationship together as well as the fulfillment of the old (Mt 13:52). This involves the full soteriology of both what Jesus saved from and what he saved to—the conjoint function of his relational work of grace only for new covenant relationship together.
Yet, the mysterion of the kingdom can remain hidden even though they were vulnerably disclosed by Jesus and made directly accessible even to “little children.” This happens for two important reasons, which Jesus identified at the beginning of the above discourse with his disciples (with the parables of the kingdom directed to the crowds, Mt 13:13). First, Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven were disclosed only for covenant relationship together, not for the quantitative aspects and functional implications of his kingly rule. The latter become the focus determined by a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework, which Jesus identified as an ongoing issue in Israel’s history (vv.13-14). Predisposed by reductionism, what they paid attention to and ignored precluded their understanding (syniemi, denotes putting the pieces together into a whole) and prevented them from perceiving deeply (horao, not merely to see but means to pay attention to an object to recognize its significance, encounter its true nature and to experience it). Furthermore, their whole person had been reduced (signified by their “heart has become calloused”) to function without qualitative relational significance, thus biasing what they paid attention to and ignored; this had a direct relational consequence “to be apart” from the whole of God, to which God’s thematic relational work of grace in Jesus would respond if they opened their heart (v.15).
This points to the second important reason the kingdom remains hidden despite Jesus’ vulnerable disclosure and intimate accessibility. Jesus began this discourse saying “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them” (v.11). This was not a selective bias by Jesus showing preferential treatment to some while denying access to others, which he appeared to embed in a system of inequitable distribution (v.12). This was about relationship and its reciprocity. Jesus was pointing to the terms necessary for the nature of the relational process he was defining, and to the relational outcome (or consequence) of its ongoing experience (or lack thereof). “The knowledge” (ginosko, to know, experience) was not the mere information of propositional truths to quantify in a belief (or theological) system. This was experiential truth which “has been given” (didomi in Gk perfect tense, passive voice), thus accentuating the fact of Jesus’ relational communication of this kingdom knowledge “to you” and stressing his ongoing relational process for his disciples to respond back to and be involved with him in for their experience of the truth of new covenant relationship together. This reciprocal relational involvement in his relational process is the nothing-less-and-no-substitute terms necessary to grasp the kingdom of heaven—the terms Jesus pointed to, which he affirmed the disciples engaged (however imperfectly) while the others did not (vv.16-17).
These terms for relationship are the terms for adherence Jesus defined for his disciples (mathetai). These terms for adherence to Jesus are inherent in matheteuo, not only for teachers of the covenant relationship (in his above definitive statement, 13:52) but for all his followers to be functional in the kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel takes matheteuo very seriously, given the evangelist’s emphasis on discipleship. Moreover, Matthew is the only Gospel to record a specific imperative in Jesus’ Great Commission, which is “make disciples (matheteusate, imperative of matheteuo) of all nations” (Mt 28:19).
These are the terms for relationship together with the whole of God. Without the function of relationship together in Jesus’ relational context and process, there is no experiential truth of the kingdom of God, regardless of whether the kingdom is already (present) and/or not yet (future).
The ongoing discussion, and pervading difficulty, to define the what of the kingdom and the when appears to suffer from a similar hermeneutical issue keeping the kingdom hidden from Jesus’ contemporaries. I suggest that the prevailing working definition of the kingdom focused on God’s kingly rule becomes an epistemic problem when approached with a similar perceptual-interpretive framework illustrated by those in the above discourse. A primarily quantitative tendency has difficulty understanding the depth of “God reigns” and the qualitative relational significance involved, thus tends to reduce it merely to the function of sovereign (kingly) rule. This delimits the relational ontology of the whole of God and essentially puts constraints on how God functions in that ontology, notably in the incarnation. For example, if the angel’s words to Mary about the child she will birth (Lk 1:30-33) are interpreted apart from the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ whole person and his relational context and process, Jesus can only be a king who rules. This constrains the whole of Jesus and God’s thematic action in a “quantitative box” without any further and deeper significance. This certainly has relational consequences receiving the whole of Jesus and responding to “the kingdom of God has come to you.”
Moreover, the focus on God’s kingly rule implies a predisposition to see God’s rule only on certain terms, even tending toward our terms (e.g., see Jn 6:14-15). This predisposition is seen in Israel’s history. God’s thematic action was epitomized in their redemption from Egypt (Dt 4:32-34). Yet, God’s self-disclosure in this redemptive experience was not about showing God’s power and rule, rather about perceiving (ra’ah) the whole of God (“his Presence [paneh, face] and his great strength”) and God’s ongoing action for relationship together in the covenant of love (4:35-37,cf. 7:8-9). If God’s people only focused on a reduced God, that is, on the quantitative aspects of what God did (power and rule), then their focus would always be essentially about “What have you done for me lately?,” not on God’s whole “person” (being) and relationship together in the covenant of love. This predisposition characterized their wilderness experience and pervaded their eschatological hope.
The tendency to see God’s rule only on such terms is a reductionist consequence from an imbalanced focus on God’s kingly rule. Yet, God already sovereignly rules; from the reflection in Psalm 93, as Creator the Lord already and always reigns—that is a given. God does not have to prove it, though at times does demonstrate it. Even when the disciples asked on the sea of Galilee, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him” (Mk 4:41), this was not about Jesus proving he reigns, nor a great display of power for the Creator. God simply reigns—a fact which was insufficient to deeply impact those disciples and change their lives in the days ahead with Jesus (which Mark’s Gospel critically portrays of the disciples).
It is also insufficient to make God’s kingly rule the purpose of the kingdom and of Jesus’ salvific work. God’s thematic action since creation is not about ruling, and the incarnation of the Word (the one and only Son) was not to establish a king to rule. This was a discussion Jesus had with Pilate about being a king and his kingdom, which Jesus qualified by his purpose “to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:36-37). John’s Gospel provides the overarching picture, that Jesus testified (martyreo, witness as a participant, not mere observer) as of the transcendent and thus of the transcendent God (Jn 3:31-36), intimately making vulnerable the whole of God (exegeomai, Jn 1:18). His truth was for redemption to be in relationship together as family (Jn 8:31-36). As the Truth to the Father (Jn 14:6), Jesus embodied the truth only for this relationship (Jn 1:14, then 12); at that time of his farewell discourse, the disciples still had difficulty grasping the whole of Jesus because they were predisposed by their lingering quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework (Jn 14:4-9, discussed previously).
Thus, Jesus’ salvific work and the kingdom must be understood in this further and deeper relational context and process. The whole of God and God’s action are only about relationship, relationship together, covenant relationship together, which certainly then is only on God’s terms. And God’s terms for relationship may be interpreted only as kingly rule, but this would reduce the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ relational work of grace in agape involvement. Relationship, by the nature of the relational ontology of the whole of God, cannot be decreed, legislated, otherwise imposed, nor can it be unilateral.
Covenant relationship together necessitates reciprocal relational response and involvement, the function of which needs to be compatible with the whole and holy God. This was the significance of the relational process Jesus both initiated in the incarnation with the strategic shift of God’s thematic action and made his whole person vulnerable for with the tactical shift of his salvific work. Not only had the kingdom of God come, most significantly the transcendent, immanent, whole and holy God was present and involved for relationship together. Conjointly, this necessary relational response and involvement are reciprocated only on the basis of the agape involvement of family love experienced first from the whole of God’s relational work of grace in the functional shift, which constitutes both the whole person and those persons together in the relationships necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. There is no other relational context and process involving the Trinity’s thematic action, and only this relational context and process constitutes what is the kingdom of God. That is, the kingdom (already or not yet) cannot be separated from the embodied whole of Jesus’ trinitarian relational context and process; the whole of Jesus’ person and action (in word and deed) constituted the whole of “the kingdom of God has come to you.”
Until we grasp this qualitative relational nature and function of the kingdom, we cannot adequately address the present-future issue of the kingdom; nor can we fully interpret Jesus’ words “has come” (ephthasen, Lk 11:20) and “has come near” (engiken, Mk 1:15). After John was put in prison, Jesus began “proclaiming the good news of the God… ‘The kingdom of God has come near. [Respond to] the good news’” (Mk 1:14-15). “Proclaim” (kerysso) is also rendered “preach”—conventionally perceived in a role of preaching. We can either disembody Jesus’ words about the kingdom to merely words (preached), which is the pervasive practice preaching has come to signify. Or, we can interpret those words of the kingdom as the embodied whole of the Word in relational language.
Engiken and ephthasen have an abstract sense (a reduced sense) if what has come near, or has come, involves merely words (even if it includes deeds) about the kingdom; mere words would not likely constitute good news to evoke your response, especially if you expect more than words (even if they speak truth and hope). On the other hand, engiken and ephthasen have a distinct whole sense when what is who has come near, and has come, to embody the very kingdom of God itself. Who becomes good news indeed, which persons can receive (not merely hear words) and relationally respond back to (“Repent and trust the good news”). Words by themselves are not good news (or bad); embodied words become the gospel to relationally respond back to, or the threat from “bad” news to relationally react against—both of which are played out in the Gospels’ narratives. The hermeneutical issue, then, for engiken and ephthasen becomes if Jesus’ relational context and process embodying the kingdom has relational significance for the present or only the future.
Furthermore, the epistemic problem of the kingdom involves not only disembodying Jesus’ words but also reducing his person merely to his deeds. Jesus’ deeds (or his ministry) were certainly quantified in history, and this historical aspect is valid and necessary. Ladd aligned the two to render ephthasen as a fulfillment of the kingdom of God in history (i.e. in Jesus’ ministry) as well as the kingdom’s full consummation at the end of history (Jesus’ second coming, parousia). This makes the kingdom of God both present and future, which is certainly good news. Yet, this emerges from a reduction of Jesus’ person to his deeds, thus becomes too quantitative and conceptual for the kingdom of God. This is insufficient to grasp the significance of Jesus’ words, which was relational language, and his actions, which were salvific as God’s thematic relational action—the function of which constitutes the kingdom of God. Disembodying Jesus’ words and reducing his person to his deeds both create an epistemic problem to grasp the relational significance of the whole of Jesus’ salvific action, and thus the experiential truth of what Jesus saved us to: that is, to experience the kingdom of God’s present relational outcome embodied with Jesus in new relationship together, the relational progression of which comes to completion in the relational conclusion at the eschaton.
The shape of the kingdom of God cannot emerge from reductionism. Reductionism always counters the relationships of the whole, separating or distancing persons in the relationships to be whole—for example, by stratifying relationships in a system of inequality, which Jesus found operating in the temple and throughout the surrounding context. Revisiting the disciples’ dispute about which of them was greatest, Jesus redefined the significance of ruling in relationship together in his kingdom by constituting their relationships in unstratified intimate involvement together (Lk 22:24-30), which pointed them back to the function of “little children” and the need for redemptive change for the new relationship together in God’s kingdom (Mt 18:1-4). This was the kingdom Jesus embodied and conferred on his followers, which was incompatible with reductionism.
Yet, reductionism reshapes the kingdom of God into ontological simulations, and even distorts its shape with epistemological illusions. Consequently, we need to grasp Jesus’ relational context and process for the whole of his kingdom to expose the presence and influence of reductionism. The only shape constituting the kingdom of God emerges from the whole of Jesus embodied for new relationship together fulfilling God’s thematic action in response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from the whole, God’s whole.
The kingdom of God had come near even before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the good news; Luke’s Gospel provides its biographical roots. Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song pointed to him in their summation of God’s thematic action of grace fulfilling the covenant promise of salvation (Lk 1:46-55; 67-79). As Simeon received the child Jesus into his arms, he confirmed that God’s salvation and kingdom for all had come near (Lk 2:28-32), which the prophetess Anna also affirmed upon meeting the child (Lk 2:38). Then, at age twelve, Jesus took action to initiate the function for the kingdom of God that had come near (Lk 2:49).
As Jesus began to proclaim the good news with the whole of his person and action, the kingdom of God had come nearer. As he functioned in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love, and his salvific work relationally progressed, Jesus increasingly gave shape to the kingdom of God until it had come—wholly embodied for new relationship together. This qualitative relational shape is the experiential truth of the kingdom of God accessible to all for compatible relational response to the good news of the embodied whole and holy, transcendent God vulnerably present and intimately involved for this covenant relationship together.
Indeed, “The kingdom of God has come to you. Relationally respond to the good news.”
There are some matters to clarify about the qualitative relational shape of the kingdom and some summary issues to address about its significance.
The kingdom of God still signifies God’s sovereign rule, though as a dynamic rule without involving a geographical realm, as well as signifies God’s eschatological rule with the new realm. In the previous salvific discourse, Jesus clearly identified driving out demons with the kingdom of God (Mt 12:28, Lk 11:20). This was certainly about the Christ’s authority and kingly rule. Yet, driving out demons, along with his other healing (cf. Lk 7:20-23), was also the deeper part of his salvific relational work to sozo, that is, to make whole those apart from the whole. Thus, the function of God’s reign with this action was not in relation to those made whole but God’s reign over Satan in general, and over Satan’s counter-relational work of reductionism in particular. Even though reductionism’s struggle with God’s whole is ongoing, God’s rule prevails—that is a given, which even the demons understood (cf. Mk 1:24, Mt 8:29-31). To give primary focus for the kingdom to God’s reign is to reduce the relational significance of those made whole for relationship together as the kingdom of God (cf. the inclusive table fellowship of those made whole in the kingdom of God, Lk 13:29-30).
When the appointed seventy-two followers returned to Jesus joyfully to report that the demons were subjugated to them in his name, Jesus clearly put his authority and rule into this further and deeper perspective: “I have given you authority to rule (exousia)…over the enemy; nothing will harm (adikeo) you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk 10:17-20). Jesus shifted them from the quantitative focus of his kingly rule to the qualitative focus on relationship together, with future relational implications. This was the purpose of the whole of God’s thematic action and the significance of God’s strategic shift. Salvation and the kingdom of God are not about the primacy of God’s rule but about the primacy of belonging to God’s kingdom in relationship together in the covenant of love. Adikeo essentially involves violating, and thus reducing, the whole of covenant relationship together, against which Jesus’ reign over Satan will always prevail.
I suggest, therefore, that God’s present dynamic reign is relationship-specific to Satan, to rule ongoingly over him and his counter-relational work of reductionism; as such, God’s rule is not the primary functional focus of the kingdom with those in covenant relationship together. Though by prevailing over Satan’s struggle against God’s whole, God’s reign is certainly relationally significant ongoingly for those in the kingdom (cf. Mt 16:18). Furthermore, God’s present rule continues until God’s eschatological rule will conclude Satan’s ultimate defeat and the new realm (new heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem) for God’s people will commence. This, I suggest, is the significance of God’s reign and its function in the kingdom, both present and future.
With this focus for the kingdom, we can grasp its deeper shape, which foremost involves defining Jesus’ person and the whole of God by a deeper significance than merely what they do, namely kingly rule. This helps us understand the direct interrelation between the kingdom and the ontology of the whole of Jesus. Jesus’ whole person constitutes his relational involvement in the incarnation to make whole the human condition in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love; his embodied function signified the relational ontology of the whole of God, the Trinity qua family. Therefore, the kingdom of God is the direct relational outcome (experienced in the relational progression of the present) and relational conclusion (completed in the future) of the whole of Jesus’ salvific relational presence and involvement, nothing less and no substitutes. This means that the functional significance of the kingdom of God must (dei) by this nature conjointly be about being God’s whole and also involve the relationships together necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. The kingdom, then, in this specific relational context and process can only be on God’s terms, never human, consequently irreducible and nonnegotiable in the new covenant relationship together.
When Jesus initiated the Lord’s supper for the ultimate table fellowship, the cup was “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk 22:20). The disciples had not yet grasped the significance of the new covenant for relationship together in the kingdom, since immediately after the supper was their dispute about which of them was the greatest (Lk 22:24-30, cf. 13:29-30). While Jesus exposed their reductionism and constituted their relationships in the relational whole of his kingdom, the disciples evidenced their need to be changed (cf. Mt 18:1-4)—that is, the process of redemptive change in which the old dies so the new rises. Earlier Jesus pointed to the significance of the new with the parable of new wine (Lk 5:33-39). This tends to be used incorrectly to emphasize new forms and practices, but the new is about changed persons experiencing new relationship together (the focus in vv.34-35). Perhaps, at that stage, the disciples only practiced ontological simulation of the new by following only Jesus’ example without relational involvement with his whole person. Yet, redemptive change was soon available for them when Jesus fulfilled his salvific work, as the Lord’s supper pointed to.
The process to the new is what Jesus’ salvific work saved us to: the kingdom of God, or its equivalence in John’s Gospel, eternal life. John’s Gospel replaces “kingdom” language with eternal life, possibly in part to avoid any conflicts such language could create with Gentiles, yet more importantly to provide the further and deeper significance of the kingdom in the relational context and process of the whole of Jesus. The kingdom that had come came embodied in Jesus, the whole of the Word. As he told Nicodemus, the qualitative relational shape of the whole of God’s kingdom was “born from above,” not by human shaping: born new by the Spirit as the new creation in the image of the relational ontology of the whole of God, thus made whole in new relationship together in likeness of the Trinity—just as Jesus asked the Father in his formative family prayer (Jn 17). Therefore, the kingdom of God indeed signifies more than God’s kingly rule; and Jesus embodied that significance and constituted the kingdom in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love for this new covenant relationship together—functioning beyond the quantitative limits of the old to intimate relationship together in the relational ontology (zoe) of the Trinity.
Matthew’s Gospel clearly focused on the kingdom of heaven in continuity with the OT, yet also affirmed its relational process to the new. After Jesus disclosed the significance of the parables of the kingdom to his disciples, only Matthew recorded Jesus’ analogy for them as leaders which made necessary the experiential truth of the new of the kingdom (Mt 13:52). The new of the kingdom, however, has its strongest identity in Luke’s Gospel (and developed in his second volume, Acts), whose concern for the Gentiles was an accessible gospel signifying the kingdom of God for all. While there is no shortage of kingdom language to maintain continuity with the OT, Luke conjoined the kingdom with a feast constituted by all people groups to ensure the new (Lk 13:29-30). Thus, it is helpful to connect various accounts of table fellowship in Luke to further grasp the qualitative relational significance of the kingdom and its process to the new.
We can start with Jesus’ surprising statement to Zacchaeus that he must (dei) by the nature of his salvific work have table fellowship at Zacchaeus’ house, and thus the relational outcome of that experience (Lk 19:5,9-10). Next, Jesus was anointed by a prostitute during table fellowship at a Pharisee’s house to disclose both the agape involvement of his salvific work and the reciprocal relational response by a person made whole (sozo) having received him (Lk 7:36-50). These narrative accounts evidence the table fellowship of the new wine involving changed persons experiencing new relationship together, persons who were not stuck in, constrained by or satisfied with the old but had embraced the New (Lk 5:34-39, cf. table fellowship with Martha and Mary, Lk 10:38-42). Thus, the new wine table fellowship is a function of the new creation, the relational reality of which was constituted by the experiential truth of the blood of the new covenant initiating in the present the ultimate table fellowship (Lk 22:20). And this all has the relational conclusion at the eternal ultimate table fellowship of the kingdom of God for all in new covenant relationship together as God’s whole without reductionism (Lk 13:29-30).
Each of the canonical Gospels provides the evangelist’s unique portrait of Jesus and his shaping of the kingdom of God. Yet, none of them alone is definitive of the whole of Jesus or of the kingdom. Together, however, the whole of God in Jesus wholly emerges and the kingdom becomes definitive in the whole of God’s thematic action embodied by Jesus for this new relationship together. Grasping this in Jesus is receiving the qualitative presence of the whole of God and the relational involvement of the whole of God as Trinity, the experiential truth of which suggests that artificial and false distinctions are made about “the kingdom of God has come to you.” These distinctions have no functional significance to God’s intentions in response to the human condition, or to God’s desires for relationship together.
An ongoing issue about the kingdom of God is the tension between “already” and “not yet” (whether present or future), yet this conversation has been about a quantitative tension, not a qualitative matter. This tension involves the temporal focus of chronos: the quantitative perception of time denoting a period measured by the successive passing of moments (or events). Despite various references Jesus made to temporal aspects of the kingdom, he was not focused on chronos (cf. his Olivet discourse on end times, Mt 24:36). Having been asked when the kingdom of God would come, he made definitive that it cannot be determined by a quantitative focus (Lk 17:20). Why? Because by its nature, as he embodied, “the kingdom of God is within (or among) you” (Lk 17:21). That is to say, not that the kingdom is spiritual (in the sense of being only subjective and esoteric), but rather the ontology of the kingdom is qualitative; “the kingdom is” (eimi, verb of existence, also a copula) conjoined “within you (pl)” as qualitative whole persons and “among you” in qualitative relational significance.
The ontology of the kingdom of God is suggested further in Jesus’ statement making definitive the kingdom as “little children” in relationship together (Lk 18:16). This cannot be measured in reductionist terms like chronos and determined by a quantitative focus, even on the Word. Jesus embodied the kingdom and gave it its qualitative relational shape in kairos (qualitative time, season, characterized by the critical importance and decisive influence of something, see Lk 12:56). Though this certainly happened in the history of chronos, that is secondary to the primacy of the kingdom’s qualitative relational significance in kairos—the experiential truth of which is only for new relationship together with those “little children” who relationally respond back in qualitative compatibility (cf. Lk 10:21, Mt 18:3).
Thus, the functional reality of relationship together, I suggest, makes the already-not yet issue rather insignificant and an artificial distinction for the kingdom of God; and such notions serve to diminish the whole of Jesus and “the kingdom of God that has come to you.”
Moreover, the whole of God’s strategic shift in the mystery of the incarnation constituted God’s dwelling from a quantitative sanctuary (mountain, tabernacle, temple, cf. Jn 4:21) directly to the qualitative sanctuary both “within you” and “among you” as whole persons in the relationships necessary to be whole together with God. This was the purpose Jesus vulnerably disclosed to the Samaritan woman that the whole of God seeks new relationship together with persons only “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:21-24, discussed previously). It is an artificial distinction to separate the kingdom as God’s kingly rule and realm to the future from the present reality of the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God for new relationship together as God’s family.
Likewise, it is a false distinction to separate out any notion of the kingdom in the present from the present reality of God’s life and action within and among God’s people. This fragments God into kingly rule and agape involvement as family, which includes the affectionate expression of phileo. In addition, this reduces the relational ontology of the whole of God and constrains God and God’s action to the quantitative aspects of bios, as opposed to the qualitative element of zoe. This then shapes the kingdom differently from the qualitative relational “kingdom of God that has come to you”; furthermore, in that same discourse Jesus made clear his position against reductionism, indicating that the kingdom and family were equivalent (Lk 11:17-26).
What Jesus embodied cannot be limited to bios. The life Jesus embodied, and in which he constituted his followers, only has significance in zoe—that is, the qualitative life of the whole of God, the zoe of the Trinity. The whole of Jesus is the qualitative nature of those together born by the Spirit as the new creation. The whole of Jesus’ action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love is the qualitative relational shape and significance of the new creation. Jesus functioned only for relationship together as his family and ongoingly constituted his followers as God’s family, even while on the cross. His kingdom cannot be distinguished from his family without reductionism. This signifies “the kingdom of God that has come” not merely as kingly rule but, more importantly, as the function of new relationship together as family. This new relational function is relationship-specific to the whole of relationships Jesus constitutes his followers both in and for: his family, his family in the present as the church, thus the church as God’s family in which the whole of God ongoingly dwells in family love (Jn 14:23; 17:26, cf. Eph 2:19-22).
Therefore, it is a false distinction to say that the kingdom of God is God’s kingly rule and the church is the fellowship of those who have experienced God’s rule, and to maintain the church is not the kingdom. There is no basis to separate them other than reductionism. The kingdom of God is quite humbly this family of “little children” vulnerably enacted to us in love by the whole of Jesus, through whom we become God’s very own family in new covenant relationship together—however incomplete in the present, nevertheless in the relational progression with the Son by the Spirit to the Father for the complete whole of God in ultimate communion together. This is the new creation, which in function is the church as family today and the presence of God’s kingdom in the world—however imperfect, yet in the reciprocal relational process with the whole of God for redemptive change to perfection.
Understandably, a purpose to separate out the kingdom from the church is to not associate it with imperfection. Yet, while this may have human purpose, it has no basis in terms of the whole and holy God. The original creation was made whole in the image and likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity, yet created with human will and thus the volition “to be apart” from the whole of relationships together—consequently, the human condition. God’s grace responded to restore the whole of relationship together. In the new creation, human volition remains necessary by the reciprocal nature of relationships together as family by family love, which cannot be decreed, legislated, or otherwise imposed. Thus, the choice to be whole or “to be apart” is present and will presently remain in tension with reductionism, notably susceptible to its ontological simulations and epistemological illusions in the life and practice of the church.
At the same time, the new creation has been redeemed to belong to the whole of God’s family, thus never to be orphaned but in ongoing reciprocal intimate relational involvement with the Spirit, who will complete the relational process to the perfection of the whole as family in new relationship together with the whole and holy God. In other words, even in the present function the new creation goes qualitatively well beyond original creation, human volition notwithstanding; and God’s grace in the function of reciprocal relationship indeed is sufficient basis to ongoingly meet its relational needs. It is this qualitative relational shape and significance of the new creation (and the kingdom of God) which will always meet the need in the human condition for wholeness, and thus will emerge as the light in whatever situation and circumstance “to be apart” it may find itself or may encounter in the world.
A closing summary issue is made in summation. The theological implication of the above discussion is that our understanding of the kingdom of God must by nature cohere with the whole of Jesus and his salvific action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love. The functional implication is that without this coherence, we have no experiential truth of the kingdom of God on which to base in function our relational belonging to God’s whole (not merely as a belief), or even the eschatological hope of belonging. This tends to leave Christians in the emotional condition (often unknowingly) of relational orphans, of which many Christians experience the relational distance, especially as members of churches.
All doctrine must be functional dynamically to be of qualitative significance. If doctrine properly functions dynamically in qualitative significance, it functions in the trinitarian relational context and with the trinitarian relational process. This is vital, notably for the doctrine of salvation, soteriology.
A well-known hymn points to an existing problem about the function of soteriology. The hymn is “Jesus Saves,” which tends to be a rally cry for missions. Some of the words are noted below:
We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land...; Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
The question becomes: What exactly have we heard that constitutes it as good news so compelling it has to be communicated to everyone?
Today, in a prevailing Christian culture, we use a language to talk about Jesus which essentially communicates what I would call “gospelspeak” and “salvationspeak.” The dedicated repetition of this language, essentially constructed with partial and even misleading truths, has become increasingly a new form of orthodoxy used pervasively in Christian culture to define, determine as well as confirm Christian life and practice. Yet, this language is not the relational language with which Jesus communicated—even though the words may be equivalent to Jesus’ words, for example, as the lawyer with the right words (Lk 10:25-28). The words of this language are enhanced versions of the gospel and of salvation (including eternal life and the kingdom of God), which are constituted by disembodied words apart from the relational context and process of the whole of Jesus and God’s thematic relational action of grace. And though disembodied, they also tend to be overly christocentric.
“Born again,” for example, in gospelspeak and salvationspeak language tends to be reduced to a conventional function of what an individual does (starting with a decision), not focused so much on what God enacts in the relational process of “born from above” with a definitive relational outcome. Born again has become a notion somewhat analogous to a purification code of behavior, the practice of which results in spiritual status and kingdom identity. In Jesus’ relational language, born again (gennao anothen) is definitive of the relational process and outcome of our response and ongoing involvement in reciprocal relationship together (necessarily, both individually and corporately). In other words, born again is only what God creates in relationship together as family—not individual relationships, nor relationships on our terms. The function of those born from above in this new creation is only in new covenant relationship together—only on God’s terms in the relational context and process of the Trinity, which must (dei) by its nature function in the relational progression now, not suspended until the future.
As the song continues:
Tell to sinners far and wide: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
…Shout salvation full and free…, Jesus saves1 Jesus saves!
“Jesus saves” needs to be told also to all resident sinners in every church (Western, Eastern, global North, global South), so that we can grasp a full soteriology and the ongoing function of grace (“full and free”).
By His death and endless life, Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
…Sing in triumph o’er the tomb, Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
…This our song of victory, Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Everything in this language about Jesus and salvation speaks about the future and life after death. Yet, even this song implies by the words “Sing it softly through the gloom, when the heart for mercy craves,” that there are deep needs in the present which need to be made whole (sozo). What happens to them?
With the language of gospel- and salvationspeak, we tend to labor or live virtually in a truncated soteriology (only what Jesus saved us from). The words “Jesus saves from” has high frequency as the major vocabulary in gospelspeak and salvationspeak, yet communicates little experiential truth of the whole of Jesus. Until we return to the trinitarian shape of soteriology and relationally receive the whole of God which Jesus saved us to (the full significance of the popularly used Jn 1:12-14), we will not experience the Truth who embodied the Way to the whole of God’s relational Life, just as the disciples in John 14 had yet to experience despite their extensive knowledge of and intensive training with Jesus.
This suggests we need to deconstruct this language (and related linguistic forms of evangelism and missions) and honestly examine how we “listen to my Son,” then return to God’s communicative action in his words. When disclosing the secrets of the kingdom of God to the Twelve, Jesus made it clear: “Therefore, watch how you listen. Whoever has relationally received me will grasp even more of my communication; whoever disembodies my words, even what they assess (dokeo) of those words will become insignificant, even exposed as an epistemological illusion of reductionism” (Lk 8:18, cf. this context with Jesus’ warning to them of reductionism’s ontological simulation, Lk 12:1-3).
The presence of ontological simulation and epistemological illusion in church life and practice evidences the influence of reductionism. Furthermore, our willingness to settle for far less than the full qualitative relational significance of the whole of Jesus’ salvific action positions Christian life and practice somewhat analogous in function to the first criminal on the cross. The first criminal illustrates the situations and circumstances of sin we tend merely to want to be saved from (Lk 23:39), while suspending or transposing all other aspects of salvation to the heavenly future. This is the reduction of Jesus and salvation, no matter how normative this practice is for Christian culture. Such reductionist practices (as well as others) are not cultural imperatives which can legitimately define us—that is, who, what and how we are in Jesus the Christ. We need to understand and address reductionism as sin. Thus, the sin of reductionism is what Jesus saves us from, and, most urgently, is what we need forgiveness for in order to transition to what Jesus saves us to. This would open up a major domain of Christian-church life and practice which needs to be deconstructed and made whole. And without this process, churches will be in crisis because the whole is necessary to expose and negate reductionism.
What current life and practices, or lack thereof, suggest is that we don’t take salvation seriously. That is to say, in actual function we don’t take salvation in the present seriously for life and practice, which then should also question the extent of our seriousness about salvation future. Any lack of seriousness implies our life and practice is shaped by reductionism, and thus functions with its ontological simulations and epistemological illusions. Consequently, I would further suggest that the dominant practice which pervades churches today centers on not taking salvation seriously, that is, as it affects conjointly not only the future but also the present. For church practice to be congruent with Jesus’ salvific work means the church needs to take seriously and to be accountable to function in new covenant relationship together as family in likeness of the Trinity.
As Jesus did with Nicodemus, we need to be jolted from the status quo of our prevailing perception, interpretation and expectation of salvation. The experiential truth of John 3:16 only has significance in the whole of Jesus’ salvific discourse, not in the words of gospelspeak and salvationspeak. We need to turn from reductionism and return to nothing less and no substitutes of the incarnation of the whole of Jesus, the Word, and his salvific action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This is the irreducible and nonnegotiable shape of soteriology in full context and process, as well as its qualitative relational significance of the kingdom of God.
Jesus saves indeed, that is, when we “Listen, and relationally respond, to the whole of the Word—the kingdom of God has come to you.”
 While some early manuscripts do not include this statement, it is important to include this to establish the relational flow of the discourse.
 For a description of intercalation in Mark, see Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday: New York, 1997), 130-131.
 In his study of the term mathetes (disciple), Michael J. Wilkins makes a case for calling Matthew’s Gospel a manual on discipleship in Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 126-172.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 54-78.
 For a discussion of this notion, see Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 103-117.
 Written by Priscilla J. Owens (1829-1907) and arranged by William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921).
©2008 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.