When I first started studying theology, our set text for our New Testament Greek class was 1 Peter, the same text which is the focus of study of the Lambeth Conference meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world planned for this summer. It was a slightly odd text to choose for those starting out in their Greek learning, since its grammar is more challenging and vocabulary more unusual than other NT texts like the gospels of Mark and John or the letter of James. But it meant engaging with some important theological ideas—and learning from my American tutor phrases like ‘the whole ball wax’ and ‘a rock-ribbed Calvinist’!
But I was particularly struck by one unusual word, which I have continued to think about ever since. It comes in 1 Peter 1.17:
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…
The word translated ‘impartially’ is the adverb ἀπροσωπολήμπτως, aprosopolemptos, derived from the negative prefix a-, the noun prosopon meaning ‘face’, and the verb lambano meaning ‘to take’ or ‘to lift’. God is not a ‘taker [or lifter] of the face’. There is an obvious and slightly naive inference to be made from this: God is not one who judges according to appearances, as narrated in the story of David’s anointing as king by Samuel. Samuel is tempted to anoint Eliab, Jesse’s oldest and most impressive son, but God has a different perspective:
Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.7)
(This is a sufficiently important theological idea to have been made into a snappy chorus ‘Man looks on the outside, but God looks [clap, clap] on the heart’.)
Given that we live in a world which is more than happy to make judgements on the basis of the colour of someone’s skin, and where tall people exercise more influence and are paid more, this is a powerful idea. (Have you ever noticed how easy it is to spot whether a TV programme is a drama or a documentary? In a drama, all the characters are good looking; in a real-life documentary, well, people just look a little bit more odd! In our screen viewing, we seem to think that faces matter rather a lot.)
But the idea behind the word is actually much more specific, and specific to the Bible. The standard lexicon of the Greek NT, BDAG, includes this entry for the opposite verb ‘to show partiality or favouritism’:
προσωπολημπτέω (edd. also -ληπτέω; this word and the two words following, which are closely related, have so far been found only in Christian writers. They are based on the πρόσωπον λαμβάνειν of the LXX, which in turn is modeled on the Hebr. [s. πρόσωπον 1bα, end]. On the spelling with or without μ s. λαμβάνω, beg.) show partiality Js 2:9.—DELG s.v. πρόσωπον. M-M. TW.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, the idea of ‘lifting the face’ can simply mean ‘to look upon’ someone. But to have one’s face lifted meant to be favoured. The root of the metaphor is the situation of subjects who bow before their king, faces looking to the ground in humility and servitude; as the king comes to his favourite, his lifts the subject’s face so that he or she can look at the king and sense his pleasure and approval. (The idea of looking on the face as a sign of blessing and favour is found in the ‘high priestly’ prayer of blessing in Numbers 6.24–26; we pray that the king of creation will look on us with his favour.) We find the phrase in this sense in the description of Naaman the Syrian:
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded [lit: he was great before the face of his lord, and his face was lifted], because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. (2 Kings 5.1)
This idea finds two important expressions in the OT, and particularly in the Torah and Wisdom literature. The first is that God does not do this: God is impartial, and does not show favouritism, and this is a key aspect of his character.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. (Deut 10.17)
Is he not the One who says to kings, ‘You are worthless,’ and to nobles, ‘You are wicked,’ who shows no partiality to princes and does not favour the rich over the poor, for they are all the work of his hands? (Job 34.18–19)
It is worth noting where this idea comes from, and where it is going. It originates in the creation narratives, where God makes humanity, male and female, in his image and likeness (Gen 1.27). If all humanity, male and female, kings and commoners, slave and free, are alike made in the image of God and the work of his hands, then God cannot treat different people or different classes of people in different ways—and in fact the defining of these different classes is the result of human sinful differentiation, and not God’s creation intention. And we find one working out of this principle in the words of the Magnificat, on Mary’s lips, where it echoes the words of Job, as God ‘sets down the mighty in the imagination of their hearts’. The Magnificat is not so much celebrating the inversion of the hierarchy of humanity, as its abolition. Since God is impartial, then when his justice comes it is the great leveller.
The connection between lack of partiality, having no favourites, and the exercise of justice is made clear by a dictionary of antonyms: fairness, justice, equity, objectivity and even-handedness are qualities that are repeatedly associated with God throughout the OT. And as a result, these qualities are to mark Israel in all her dealings.
Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to the poor in a lawsuit. (Ex 23.2)
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Lev 19.15)
Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God. (Deut 1.17)
Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. (Deut 16.19)
It sounds rather odd to us, but this is often behind the practice of ‘casting lots’ when making decisions in the Old Testament, and into the New; it bypasses human partiality, and hands the decision over to the will of God in his impartiality (see 1 Chron 24.5, Jonah 1.7 and Acts 1.26).
But this idea does not just have an impact on Israel’s ethic and moral life; it is also to be the basis of their theological understanding. God has not chosen Israel because the nation has somehow merited God’s favour, but has simply happened out of God’s sovereign choice.
The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7.7–8)
Despite some apparently ethno-centric aspects of the OT narrative, it is the impartiality of God which leads to the surprising welcome that is given at key points in the narrative to outsiders and foreigners, but also to the judgement of Israel when they defy God’s call and command. Their ethnic status is no protection to them from God’s judgement—since God is one who ‘judges impartially’! As the Authorised Version renders 1 Peter 1.17, ‘God is no respecter of persons’!
God’s quality of impartiality becomes a theological turning point in the proclamation of the gospel in the New Testament. Luke sows the seeds of this idea in his portrayal of Jesus, albeit in the words of his adversaries:
‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth’ (Luke 20.21)
Curiously, in seeking to communicate to an audience including Gentiles, Luke goes back to the root of the metaphor and notes that Jesus ‘does not lift the face’ but teaches truth. Then, in Acts when Peter sees that God has blessed Cornelius and the other Gentiles with him, this idea comes home to roost:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10.34–35).
For Luke, the ‘every nation’ Jews who have witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost now open out to become the ‘every nation’ Jew and Gentile, who will receive the good news of the message of Jesus. The same principle is at work for Paul, where the carefully structured binary focus of the opening chapters of his Letter to the Romans, balancing the reality before God for both Jew and Gentile, hinge on this idea of impartiality.
There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism. (Rom 2.9–11).
Again, this theological principle works itself out in practical ethics, from the earliest to the latest of the NT letters. James is emphatic that the early community of followers of Jesus cannot treat different people in different ways according to outward appearance (James 2.1, 9). Paul treats both allies and enemies in the same way in his disputes (Gal 2.6), and he is clear that the human distinction between slave and master cannot stand up to scrutiny under the searching spotlight of God’s lack of favouritism (Eph 6.9). And Paul’s protege Timothy is to both guard gospel teaching and appoint gospel ministers without a hint of partiality (1 Tim 5.21).
One implication of all this relates to judgement. The place where all this started, in 1 Peter 1.17–18, explicitly links judgement with the impartiality of God, and connects this quite explicitly with judgement ‘according to deeds’. I think it is sometimes easy to get the idea, listening to some Christian talk about salvation, that final judgment will run according to the T-shirt slogan: ‘God loves you, but I am his favourite’. God loves all people, but Christians are his favourite! That kind of exceptionalism is the opposite to every way in which the NT describes judgement. This is particularly clear in the Book of Revelation (you knew, dear reader, that I would come to this text eventually!) where the growing focus on judgement in the later chapters is framed by a repeated emphasis on the justice of God. Even in the final visions of the New Jerusalem there is a (to us) awkward tension between the severe language of judgement and exclusion from the Holy City, and words of radical welcome and invitation—all held together by the theological idea of God’s impartiality. God’s free offer of life is open to all who will accept it.
God’s impartiality is rooted in the theology of creation, with all made in his image. It is expressed in the conviction of the nature of the fall and redemption: all have sinned, and all are invited to accept the offer of reconciliation and life in Jesus. It underpins the ‘election’ of Israel, and because of that also underpins the overflow of grace to the Gentiles. It shapes the practice and composition of the community of the redeemed, which must be ethnically and social diverse. And it is reflected in the final judgement of God. It is therefore at the heart of the gospel in ways that we do not always recognise.
(The picture at the top is from a meme about favouritism, and perhaps only really makes sense with the accompanying text.)
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