Chiastic Confession

Peter Leithart wrote about the chiastic structure laying on top of Luke’s account of the crucifixion, in Luke 23:

A– Jewish rulers mock (v 35)
B– Roman soldiers mock (vv 36-37)
C– One of the criminals mocks (v 39)

C’– Criminal confesses Christ (vv 40-43)
B’– Roman soldier confesses (v 47)
A’– Jewish ruler confesses (vv 50-53)

A few things to note here. At first glance, this structure seems unfaithful to the text because it ignores the central event of Luke 23, namely, the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. But in Luke, as in all the gospels, witness is key. The concept of witness does not stop at the facts of what has happened; it demands that the one witnessing the events recorded responds to the message. There’s certainly room for reflection there.

Also note the progression. At first Jesus descends. The ruling class scoffs, then the soldiers rail, then the one of the criminals mock. He’s being rejected by socials classes from top to bottom. And then, as is the nature with chiasmus, the process is reversed. A criminal confesses him. A soldier declares him innocent. A ruler buries him in a new tomb. Just as Jesus was rejected by all the world, so he will be confessed by all peoples.

Last, look at the difference between the two sets. A group of Jewish rulers mock Jesus. It is a group of Roman soldiers who rail at him. Even though it is a singular criminal who denounces him, the language is significant: “one of the criminals” (plural). As we’ve seen before in the gospels, it is crowds who reject Jesus. They like to listen to his teaching, they’re attracted by his miracles, they love it when he feeds them– but crowds do not place their faith in Christ. Individuals do. That’s why the next set is made up of individuals from each of the three classes. A criminal, a centurion, and a ruler.

The good news of the death of Christ will go out into all the world, but it does so in a certain way. It is individuals who are to witness to Christ, and it is individuals who are commanded to do something with the witness they receive. Beginning with the low, the poor, the criminal, and the outcast, this word of the gospel must be proclaimed to every creature under heaven. Not only so, but the crucifixion of Jesus is a watershed for all who hear– we will either respond in railing and denunciation, or in fullness of faith. Witness calls for a response, and nothing other than a confession of faith will do.

Out of the Cloud

There are plenty of places in the Old Testament where language is used which suggests the undoing of creation. This de-creation imagery is mostly in reference to God’s judgement on sinful people or nations. Look at Jeremiah 4:23-26, for example:

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

Some of the prime elements of this de-creation language are the shaking of the earth, the failure of the heavenly bodies to give light, and death (See also Isaiah 13:10, 13; Ezekiel 32:2, 6-8). In many cases, the language is figurative rather than literal– in Jeremiah 4:23-26, Jeremiah describes the defeat of Judah by Babylon in these terms, where we have no biblical record of earthquakes or darkness. The thrust of this de-creation language is to say that the cataclysm of judgement the Lord is bringing is earth-shattering, world-ending. It’s terrifying to read now; I cannot imagine the impact this kind of language would have had on the people to whom it was originally written.

Psalm 18, seen in this way, is pretty amazing. In this Psalm, David cries out to the Lord for help because he is once again in trouble: “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help” (verse 6). The Lord hears David, and what follows is de-creation language. “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry” (verse 7). God is described as rending heaven and earth to come to Psalmist’s aid. He bows the heavens, riding on thick darkness; he sends forth hail and fire; he lays the foundations of the earth bare– all to rescue David, “because he delighted in me” (verse 19). I think the force of all this imagery is to communicate the lengths to which God will go to rescue the one he loves. God loved David so much he tore creation down to save him.

While most de-creation language is figurative in terms of the sky being covered in darkness and the earth shaking, there is one place where these phenomena are seen quite literally.

“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour… and the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:45, 51). To save his people in whom he delights, God rent the heavens and came down. The earth shook at his coming, and the stars withheld their light. When Jesus died, the world came to an end.

And three days later, he walked in a garden, not in the cool of the day, but in the dawn of a new day, a new creation.

A Redemptive-Historical Waltz

Last week I wrote about the apostolic conviction that everything written in the Old Testament was written about Christ and for the church. I believe this conviction can serve as a powerful corrective to a watered-down moralistic hermeneutic which we’ve all heard or used at some point.

We have all heard (or preached) that moralistic sermon, right? The one where the preacher (who is still a good man, by the way; it’s not easy to present God’s Word to God’s people every week) asks us to turn to Joshua 1:9 and spends twenty-five minutes exhorting us all to “be strong and courageous” because Joshua was so. Or the one where we are exhorted to show generosity in hardship like Elisha’s widowed supporter. These are the kind of expository maneuvers which can be performed on any story where the flow of the narrative ends with the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. We may profit just as much from a homily which takes as its text “Old Mother Hubbard,” and which admonishes us to be diligent and hardworking, to lay up for lean times.

The point is, these moralistic sermons and teachings, rather than applying the sacred text in the way it was intended, obscure the true message of the text and in the end are powerless to bring about the true ethical change which is their aim. Try as you might to exhort me to courage in the face of fear and challenge, I am no Joshua, and when the obstacle before me seems too large for what I thought I could handle, your sermon last Sunday loses its ability to strengthen and hold me up. There is no true link between the modern hearer and the ancient hero.

This is where the apostolic conviction comes in. It claims that all of Scripture, rather than being a cipher from which I may glean moral directive if I can, is a story. The apostles held that Scripture, with all its facets and in all its genres, is a single story about a single offspring who is the object of saving faith. Every faithful son and daughter looks like that Son. Every enemy is his enemy, and every victory is a prelude to his final victory.

A method for reading Scripture emerges from this conviction. It holds that events in the Old Testament really did happen, and do need to be understood fully in their context before being used as starting blocks. Having understood the story or passage in question, the next step is to see Christ where he may be seen as fulfilling what is promised. By the way, this isn’t like that game you played as a child where you lay down on the grass and stared up at the sky, willing elephants and battleships to emerge from the shapeless clouds. Rather, it is  much more like an Easter egg hunt–no matter how difficult it is to find the egg, you can be assured that it is there because hey, it’s Easter.

It is only after we see Christ for who he is as he has revealed himself in the Word that we see ourselves in him as his redeemed people. When we see that Joshua, the strong and fearless commander of the Lord’s army, is a shadow, a picture, a type of the greater Joshua who defeats the enemies of God and provides his people with an eternal inheritance, then whom have we to fear? What might can stand against the divine and risen Christ who works on our behalf? Courage is a foregone conclusion at that point. There is a moral imperative here, but it can only exist in its connection to the redemptive fiat standing over our lives as those who are in Christ.

The moralistic method of interpreting Scripture is a crab-walk, a graceless two-step from the figures of the Old Testament to you and I. The apostolic method is a beautiful dance, a three-step waltz between the Old and New in which Christ is glorified and his people redeemed.