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  • Writer's pictureNick McDonald

How to Read the Gospels Theologically

In Oliver O'Donovan's magisterial work, "Desire of the Nations", he carefully weaves for us a history of the idea that "Yhwh is King". He begins by arguing that the Old Testament sees no contradiction between the idea of God's kingship and human mediation:

"Those who argued against monarchy that where Yhwh was king there was no place for any other (1 Sam. 8:7, Judg. 8:23) did not, of course, challenge the idea of human mediation of divine kingship...
...Isaiah of Jerusalem knew that the rule of the king was accompanied by the rule of 'princes' (Isa. 32:1), who sat in the capital city and disgraced it with their conduct (1:21); it may be the same group that he calls 'judges' and 'counsellors' (1:26).

So God's rule, and a human mediator of that rule (or human mediators) are perfectly compatible. As the role of the mediators expands from judges to a king - "God's Son" - the role begins to clarify. To be God's "son" is a dual role:

The king was Yhwh's 'son' (Ps. 2:7). This was a role of double representation: he represented Yhwh's rule to the people, ensuring their obedience, and he represented the people to Yhwh, ensuring his constant favour."

However, God's people slowly abandon God's ruling representative, and begin to follow their own devices. This, eventually, leaves the role of the monarchy of Israel behind for something else: the lonely prophet, the lone representative of God's rule AND the lone "remnant" of those who can faithfully represent God's people. O'Donavon takes Jeremiah as his example:

Jeremiah's isolation is profound, but not in the least atomistic. He is isolated, paradoxically, because he is too much identified both with the people and with Yhwh in their conflict. Here the mediator's role is put in a startling new light. To speak for mankind to God and for God to mankind is to be thrust into perilous loneliness, emerging from the whole to which one belongs but not free of it, bearing vicariously the pain and responsibility of its fault but without being able to put it right...the prophet has, in effect, taken over the mediatorial role, a sign that the monarchy, which was to mediate Yhwh's rule to his people, has been set aside."

This dual need - for a faithful representation of God to Israel, and of Israel to God, become further crystallized by the title "Son of Man". Those familiar with Daniel, or Ezekiel's, prophetic visions will know of the "Two Thrones": the first is occupied by God Himself, but the second is the "throne of mankind", abandoned by Adam, but still one, in other words, is successfully representing mankind to God. Yet in the life of Jesus, O'Donovan points out, Jesus' seems to welcome both titles: "Son of God" and "Son of Man":

"The Son of Man" is, therefore, more than a 'title', which might in principle be interchanged with other titles that could be given to the same person. It is a role that had to be fulfilled; and in understanding himself to be cast in that role, Jesus was prepared to conform his expectations to its demands...On the other hand, Jesus laid claim to the legacy of Davidic expectation in his great entry into Jerusalem, a demonstration of popular support staged to evoke the memory of the king's coming in triumph to Zion in (Zechariah 9:9).

Drawing it all together, O'Donavon notes that we can see two distinct roles for Christ, both of them fulfilled by his life, death and resurrection:

There meet in Christ two roles with which we are already familiar. There is the mediator of God's rule, the role focused centrally upon the Davidide monarch, though also borne in lesser and partial ways by other authorities in Israel, priestly and administrative. And there is the representative individual, who in lonely faithfulness carries the traditions of the people, its fate and its promise, in his own destiny; this was the role of Jeremiah and of his exilic imitators, summing up the traditions of the isolated sufferers in Israel's liturgy. That these two roles could, and must, meet was the momentous discovery of Isaiah whose Servant of Yhwh, clothed in royal characteristics, bears the suffering incurred by the people's sin. In this meeting the mediator-representative bore at once the divine rule and faithful response to it; the outline of the Two Natures conception can already be discerned in these two functions...we must then speak of Christ as the decisive presence of God and the decisive presence of the people."

O'Donovan's reference to the "two natures" discussion suggests that the early church councils were doing more than making ontological distinctions: they were, in fact, clarifying the kingship of Christ. The gospel writers, he argues, are doing the same:

"All four evangelists mark the coming of the Christ by telling of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. As we read the story in St Mark, the event is focused upon the divine act of authorization. The voice of God hails Jesus in words that echo the royal servant-song of Isaiah 42: 'You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased', and the Spirit rests on him as the sign of his empowerment. In St. Matthew and St. Luke this thought is present still, but each gives additional weight to the point that Jesus represents not only God before mankind, but mankind before God. (Matthew 3:14)

Paul himself, then, expounds upon these dual roles of Jesus when his exposition of the incarnation:

As an example we take the 'Christ-hymn' of Philippians 2:5-11. Here the understanding of the Advent is dominated by the idea of condescension (kenosis): Christ was in the form of God and accepted the form of a slave. The double use of the word 'form' expresses the double representation performed by Christ: of God to mankind and of mankind to God. Why is the 'likeness of men' a servant-form? Because servitude would be our experience of God's sovereignty on that (entirely conceivable) alternative hypothesis that the mediator of God's rule had NOT taken it on himself to represent mankind."

So, O'Donovan, concludes: Christ fulfills the role of "Son of Man" by representing us to God, and God to us. But I will take it one step further: we could also, then, say that Christ represents God to God, and he represents us to ourselves. In that sense, we can read the gospels with a four-fold theological blueprint:

  1. Christ is representing God to us. He is fulfilling the call of the Davidic throne.

  2. Christ is representing us to God. He is fulfilling the call of Israel.

  3. Christ is representing God to God. He is 'The Beloved Son' in His baptism.

  4. Christ is representing us to ourselves. He is 'The New Adam'.

By reading the gospels with these four roles in mind, we can bring out most fully the theological nuances of the gospels. Practically speaking, it means we should ask four questions in our every study of the gospels:

  1. In this text, how does Jesus fulfill the role of God's representative King ("Son of God")?

  2. How, then, does Jesus reveal God's nature?

  3. In this text, how is Jesus fulfilling the role of faithful Israel ("Son of Man")?

  4. How, then, does Jesus show us a picture of our full humanity?

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