A Subversive Easter Message

Sunday, April 04, 2010

I've been spending a lot of time lately looking at the way the Old Testament is quoted in the New, and I've found something pretty surprising: 9 times out of 10 the New Testament citation completely flips the original meaning of the Old Testament passage on its head! Take for example Paul's Easter message in 1 Cor 15 where he writes that "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor 15:26). Paul then quotes the familiar line "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" and declares that "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:55-57). As Paul is using the phrase, Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? is addressing a defeated death: where is your sting now, O death? For you have been defeated by Christ! But take a look at the original passage in Hosea that Paul is quoting from:

"Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes." (Hos 13:14 NRSV)

The sense here is the opposite of what Paul is saying. It is about inviting death to come and destroy Israel in punishment. The NET translation makes this difference quite clear:

"Will I deliver them from the power of Sheol? No, I will not!
Will I redeem them from death? No, I will not!
O Death, bring on your plagues! O Sheol, bring on your destruction!
My eyes will not show any compassion! (Hos 13:14 NET)


Now in both Hebrew and Greek there are no question marks (or any punctuation at all), so you can't really tell whether it says "Shall I redeem them from Death?" (a question) or "I Shall redeem them from Death" (a promise), but it is pretty significant that most English translations (NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, TEV, CEV, NLT, NET) read this as a rhetorical question that implies a negative answer "Do you seriously think I will rescue you from death!?" The only exceptions to this reading are the NIV and KJV. Similarly, most English versions translate the part quoted by Paul to mean "What's keeping you death? Come!" meaning Hosea is not mocking death, but calling for death. Now how do we know that this is what Hosea meant? Context. Look at the last line: "Compassion is hidden from my eyes" and then read the whole chapter too and you'll see it ends by saying,

"They will fall by the sword;
their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
their pregnant women ripped open."
(Hos 13:16 NIV)

This was not good news when Hosea said it, but Paul has turned it around. He has taken a passage which in its original context was about death being poured out on people and made it about humanity being liberated from death because of the Resurrection where Christ overcame death. Again, if you look at how the NT quotes the OT you will find that most of the time it is reversing the original context, subverting it, redeeming it. It takes the original context which says "I hate my enemies and want to destroy them" and makes it about redemption, forgiveness, and making things new again. I love that.

I could go on for pages and pages with other examples of this. If you want to see for yourself, just pick any passage from the NT that is quoting from the OT and then read the whole OT chapter to see what the original context was. You'll see that over and over the NT turns the original meaning around. If you ever wondered why it was that the disciples were so shocked that Jesus had to die on the cross, it's because this was a complete reversal of everything they had learned about the messiah from the prophets. They had learned from reading the OT prophets to expect the messiah to come as a warrior and kill all the bad people. The NT takes all of these messianic prophesies that are about violence and destruction and reverses their meaning. Instead of being about an oppressed people getting revenge, it makes it into a story where all of us need mercy and grace.

Now this kind of crazy exegesis that takes the meaning of a passage and turns it on its head is also exactly how we need to read life. The very heart of the gospel is that God has turned everything around at Easter. The one condemned to die is shown to be victorious. Jesus in his death has conquered death. So while we might look at our lives and see darkness, while we might see pain and hurt, while we might be hopeless screw-ups, God says to us through the resurrection, "behold I make all things new!" God takes what we see around us and flips it right-side up.

Christ entered into our hurt and helplessness and overcame it. That's why the early church could have hope in the middle of horrible persecution, that why people who are suffering can find hope in the middle of that blackness, that's why those who are wracked with guilt and feel helpless to change get so overwhelmed by grace. So my prayer for you this Easter is that you could find a way to see yourself the way God sees you, that we all would learn to see grace in the middle of our messed up lives, to have eyes that see hope in a dark world. It can be really hard to see that sometimes. But that is the truth of the Resurrection. Love has and will overcome hate and hurt. Because of that, nothing you have done, nothing that has been done to you needs to define who you are. In Christ we can be re-defined by grace.

Happy subversive Easter. Christ is risen!

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7 Comments:

At 3:08 PM, Blogger dave said...

Excellent and very helpful post, will be quoting it!

 
At 7:39 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Dave, I see you are a fellow Asbury alum :)

 
At 8:08 PM, Blogger Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yup, that's for sure how the OT has to be read: in the Light of Christ, the Light of the World.

 
At 9:46 AM, Anonymous roland west said...

I have heard people say before that there is no punctuation in Greek, but in my experience (having first learnt NT Greek 20 years ago) Greek does have punctuation and they used the semi-colon (;) in the same way we use a question mark to indicate a question at the end of it. On what basis do you say that they had none?

 
At 6:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Roland,

The punctuation you see in critical Greek manuscripts like the NA27 has been added by modern scholars. The original Greek manuscripts have no punctuation at all, and in fact they have no spaces between the worlds either! Ask any Greek teacher and they will tell you the same.

 
At 2:21 PM, OpenID metacogniscient said...

This blog entirely reminds me of a quote from Athanasius from his On The Incarnation:

"For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as "human" He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God."

 
At 7:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great quote!

 

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