Several years before his death the Swiss theologian Karl Barth came to the United States for a series of lectures. At one of these, after a very impressive lecture, a student asked a typically American question. He said, ‘Dr. Barth, what is the greatest thought that has ever passed through your mind?’ The aging professor paused for a long time as he obviously thought about his answer. Then he said with great simplicity:‘Jesus loves me! This I know. For the Bible tells me so’ (Foundations of the Christian Faith [Downers Grove/London: IVP, 1986] 331).Whether or not Barth actually said this — most assert he said this during his famous 1962 Chicago lectures, but the Q&A doesn't appear on the tapes from those sessions, and no one can reliably produce a chapter-and-verse for it — the sentiment is surely one consistent with his thought. More importantly, it is a sentiment any theologian worth his or her salt should be able to say without hesitation.
I am no Karl Barth, of course, even if I am a somewhat controversial figure within certain certain circles in Lancaster, PA. Nevertheless, as a theologian I have often been offended by the commonly articulated sentiment that theology is "boring" and "irrelevant." Eau contraire! For what is theology if not an exploration and exposition of who the true God is in light of his supreme and climactic revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus for me? My earliest recollection of Christian teaching is my love for the great children's hymn, "Jesus Loves Me," which we sang every day in Kindergarten 50 years ago at Grace Chapel in Havertown, PA. This is still a song I think of on most days, especially when I have to remind myself, a person entirely undeserving of being loved, of this most personal and foundational of Christian teachings.
Saturday my wife and I "celebrated" our 33rd wedding anniversary (if one can say that working a 12-hour factory shift is a "celebration"). This is hard for me to believe, not simply because of the mere chronology involved, but more importantly because my wife still loves me, often undeservedly, after all these years. Indeed, it is love — more specifically, the knowledge of being loved — that often serves as the impetus to carry on in the face of life's inevitable vicissitudes.
My wife, however, like I, is a sinner, and the love we share for each other developed mutually rather than in a cause/effect fashion as a result of unilateral, self-giving action. This is where Jesus' love stands apart from ordinary human love. At the end of the first century, John the Revelator provides us with the earliest extant example of a doxology directed to the crucified and risen Jesus:
To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:5b-6, NET Bible)The crucified Christ rose triumphantly from the grave. As a result, his past (note the aorist participle lysanti) sacrificial death (an allusion here to Isaiah 40:2?) and appointment of us to share in his regal and priestly offices (clear allusion to Exodus 19:6) are portrayed as demonstrating his present (agapōnti) love for us, and hence as justification to be accorded praise and adoration.
No one lived with more continual, conscious awareness of Jesus' undeserved and unmotivated love for him than did the Apostle Paul, the erstwhile Pharisaic scholar and persecutor of the church whose life was changed in an instant by God's sovereign, recreative "call" on the road to Damascus. More than two decades later, Paul still claimed he was "not worthy to be called an apostle" (1 Cor 15:9), indeed, the "worst" of the sinners Christ came to save (1 Tim 1:15). And this was not mere rhetorical flourish. The existential wonder he still felt decades later at Christ's love for him is palpable in one of the most powerful segments of his most emotional letter:
For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20, NET Bible)Paul the former Pharisee was in the theological fight of his life. He was writing in response to teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia and "agitated" the believers there — uncircumcised Gentiles by background — with the teaching that they would have to undergo circumcision and adopt the Jewish Torah if they wanted to be counted as genuine "sons of Abraham." Because Paul proclaimed his revolutionary law-free gospel, his opponents judged him to make Christ "the servant of sin" (Gal 2:17). After denying the accusation emphatically ("Certainly not!"), he provides his rationale in verses 19-21, presenting his own experience as a paradigm for all Christians. His demolition of the distinction between Jew and Gentile, codified in the Torah, didn't thereby make Christ the promoter of "sin" for one basic reason: "through the law" Paul (and, by implication, all Christians) "died to the law." This cryptic statement has baffled commentators for centuries, but I suggest that its intent becomes clear when it is understood in conjunction with the following statement: "I have been crucified with Christ." This statement anticipates his later assertion in Galatians 3:13 that in his crucifixion Christ redeemed Jewish Christians from the curse of the Torah. The point is this: Paul's demolition of the law's programmatic distinction between Jews and Gentiles was not due to an arbitrary decision on his part to separate from Judaism. It was rather a consequence of the law's own role in placing its curse on the crucified Christ. Since Christ thus died "through the law," all those who died with him can be said to have died "through the law" as well. And it is precisely this "death to the law" that enabled him to "live for God."
In verse 20 the apostle explains this new state of affairs with a strategic exaggeration. Paul's co-crucifixion with Christ introduced a definitive, continuing state of affairs (note the perfect tense synestaurōmai). His previous life of Torah-based service to God and, as he now saw it, murderous persecution of God's new covenant people, was nailed to the cross with the Messiah. His new life henceforth was entirely empowered by the indwelling Christ and characterized — just as was the case with his initial acceptance before God — by faith in Christ.
It is at this point that Paul's continuing sense of wonder and gratitude bubbles to the surface, as he personalizes his theology and identifies Christ as the one "who loved me and gave himself for me." It is probable that his language here reflects Isaiah 53:6, 12 (LXX) and thus sets up the contrast between Christ the accused "servant of sin" (Gal 2:17) and Christ the representative Isaianic Servant of YHWH who, by being "handed over" for the people's sins, "justified" many (Isa 53:11-12). The love of Christ for Paul, and for me as well, was sui generis in that it was unilateral love demonstrated by the ultimate self-sacrifice for people who were utterly unworthy, and indeed worthy of nothing but God's wrath. Such love brought Paul to his knees and compelled his proclamation of Christ's representative and substitutionary death (2 Cor 5:14). Paul felt the wonder. Do we as well, for whom Christ died?
Soli Deo Gloria.