Essay / Theology

The New Testament: Final Answers to Rhetorical Questions

One of the most arresting things the New Testament does is give real answers to what the Old Testament had put forth as rhetorical questions. Have you ever noticed this? Rhetorical questions, which are not meant to be answered, are put in question form in order to make a point. Proverbs 30 is a good example:

I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?

That’s a rhetorical question —it’s not meant to be answered, it carries in itself the implied answer, “Nobody! Nobody went to heaven and came back down and told us what he saw there.” Who’s done that?

Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
Surely you know!

That is a great, Proverbs, Wisdom Literature rhetorical question. “Tell me all about God, and by the way, tell me his son’s name.” The New Testament comes along and says, “Oh, I think I know his Son’s name. I think that that which was from the beginning we have seen and touched and talked to, I think we have beheld his glory, glory as the only-begotten of the Father.”

Again look at Isaiah, who asks, “Who has believed our good news? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” That makes a powerful point in the mouth of a prophet, but in the mouth of an apostle, the question can be answered: I’ll tell you who has believed the good news: believers in the Messiah. And I’ll tell you who has had the arm, the mighty saving power, of the Lord shown to them: those who are followers of the incarnate Son.

Then in First Corinthians 2: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” Good point, Isaiah. God’s thoughts are above our thoughts. But Paul poses that question again only to connect with an unthinkable fulfillment: We have the mind of Christ. The eternal Son of God is the one who knows the mind of the Lord, and we are his, and he is God’s.

And he makes the point again in First Corinthians 2:12:

So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.

God has given us all kinds of good things, and if you want to understand the full spiritual blessing that God’s given us in Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3), you need the Spirit of God.

That’s pretty cheeky. If the Old Testament expects stunned silence, and instead you raise your answer and say “Oh, I’ve got the answer. His name is Yahweh and his Son is Jesus.” That’s a good way to spoil a lesson, unless you’ve really got some inside information. And that’s the point here of the New Testament: what has come forth in Jesus Christ is inside information about the mind of God, the deep things of God.

“The deep things of God.” That’s New Testament language, from First Corinthians 2. In First Corinthians, Paul is dealing with a troubled church, and while he has to deal with some very specific fights that they’re having —first Corinthians goes into the most detail of a congregation’s dirty laundry— he also drops back to absolute fundamental truths that apply immediately to every church focused on the gospel. Listen to this brief chapter, as Paul explains in this letter what he was trying to do in the church at Corinth, and you’ll hear the universal truths:

2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen,
nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

Did you hear the revolutionary new quality of Paul’s gospel preaching? He is imparting (vs.7) a knowledge from God which is secret and hidden. No eye has seen it, no ear has heard it, no heart has imagined it (vs. 9), but God has revealed it, past tense, vs. 10, through the Spirit. Paul’s got some kind of secret which stays secret even after it’s made known.

Paul’s got a gospel that stays new even after it’s been around a long time. It had already been around a long time when Paul wrote this letter, and it has certainly been around a long time now when we’re reading it. But it’s new.

In Ephesians and in Romans, Paul talks about a “mystery,” but it’s always a mystery which in previous times which was not made known, but now is made known. Decades roll by and he keeps calling it a “mystery.” It’s one thing to call something a mystery and then reveal it. Everybody could then thank you for telling them, and it would no longer be a mystery. But Paul’s gospel retains its character of mystery even after it has been made known. Paul describes the contents of the mystery very clearly, it’s about the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, under the gospel. Nobody had guessed; prophets spoke about it but didn’t understand it; angels have longed to look into it, and now here it is with us in the middle of it. It was made known, and the next day Paul still called it a mystery; years went by and he called it a mystery, decades later he still called it a mystery, and today it is still a mystery.

But it’s a kind of open secret. It’s not as if we tell you the basic information when you become a Christian, and then if you qualify we let you in on the advanced secret society information. There’s no such thing here, this is the gospel truth that all Christians have made known to them through the Spirit.

What is it that makes Paul so excited about the newness of the gospel? The gospel is good news precisely because it’s final, it’s saving, and it’s from God’s own heart. (If you’re into three point outlines for sermons, there it was: final, saving, and from God’s own heart.)

Let’s start with final. The fancy word for this is “eschatological.” Write that down and you can feel like you’re getting an education. It just means final, but it refers to final in the biblical sense of the end of the world, the last judgment, the resurrection of the dead, heaven and hell. Really final. The End.

Paul, and all of the apostles, preached what Jesus had taught them and shown them: that in Jesus Christ, the end of the world had walked right into the middle of history. Jesus was God’s final word, and he brought the final thing in with his ministry.

What’s final and eschatological about the ministry of Jesus Christ? Well, in the big picture, what was on the Old Testament list of final things that the faithful could look for? Well, the Messiah was going to come, that’s an eschatological thing. The Spirit was going to be poured out, “In those last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, says the Lord”(Joel 2). The dead will rise (Ezekiel 37). Judgment day would happen and the wrath of God would be poured out on the day of the Lord (Amos, etc.)

As the New Testament looks back on the ministry of Christ, it draws out the implications of the obvious conclusion: The Messiah showed up and brought the Spirit with him. On the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes that Joel 2 prophecy, and declares it fulfilled. The dead did rise — well, at least one of them, as a kind of down-payment on a general resurrection of which he is the first. And the wrath of God was poured out in a mysterious act of divine judgment at the cross. The wrath of God was so fully enacted and applied that when the other judgment day comes, the one that is still outstanding in the future of the world’s history, the main question will be, whose sin has already dealt with on the cross in the middle of history. The New Testament authors are looking back on those events, saying “Wow, the final things have happened in the middle of history.”

When Paul talks this way —”we have learned the secret things of God because he gave us his own Spirit and the mind of Christ” — It’s not just because the next chapter of a progressive revelation has happened; it’s because Christ brought the last chapter; he’s not Alpha and Beta and some other interesting letters, but Alpha and Omega, A to Z. Not the beginning and the next, but the beginning and the END.

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