Honor and Shame as (New) Covenant Language
The removal of shame is a new covenant reality. When God (re)makes his covenant, he removes the shame of his people. This covenantal context, I believe, is crucial to properly understanding the nature of biblical shame, and, thus, salvation as a whole.
In the OT, when God renews the covenant, when he brings his people back from exile, when he remakes his creation … then his people will receive his spirit, overcome evil powers, and be freed from shame. This concepts are all tied together in new covenant salvation.
And so, the language of shame (and honor) in the early Christian writings points to covenant. The fact that we no longer have shame indicates that God has fulfilled his covenant with his people. New Testament references to the absence of shame and the bestowal of glory should be read as new covenant language.
Many biblical interpreters read the biblical language of shame in light of psychology and anthropology. But honor and shame is, foremost, covenantal language. In my opinion, this realization properly frames honor-shame language in the NT. Let’s trace the idea through Scripture.
The Deuteronomic covenant outlines the (patron-client) relationship with God and Israel. The “blessings and curses” of Deuteronomy 28 explain the ways God will honor and shame his people. Promises of honor bookend the list of blessings in vv. 1–14—“If you will only obey … the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (v. 1) and “The Lord will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom, if you obey…” (v. 14). If Israel remains faithful to honoring God via obedience, they will be honored and exalted before other nations, in the form of land, health, and wealth.
Conversely, the nation of Israel faces shameful curses if it breaks covenant with God. Israel will, among many other things, be defeated by enemies (v. 25), oppressed and robbed continually (v. 29), cuckolded as others take their wives (v. 30), become a horror and byword among all peoples (v. 37), and made lower and lower (v. 43). Its status and reputation will fall, even to the point of their becoming unwanted slaves (v. 68). When Israel does not respect the glorious and awesome name of Yahweh (v. 58), its own name becomes an object of derision and scorn.
Keeping the covenant confers honor, while breaking the covenant brings shame. This suggests the restoration of the covenant (i.e., a “new covenant”) would involve the removal of shame and the restoration of honor.
The Prophetic Vision of Isaiah
To comfort and admonish God’s people, the prophets of Israel proclaimed the future day of God’s salvation. When God delivers his people, the covenant curses and shame of exile would be removed. Ancient Israelites experienced exile as shame (cf. Lam 1:1, 2:1, 5:1; Neh 1:3, 2:17). Thus, they awaited the day when they would no longer face that disgrace (cf. Joel 2:26–28; Zeph 3:19–20). In other words, they hoped for the renewal of covenant and the re-gifting of covenant blessings (cf. Duet 28:1–14). This divine intervention would reverse the status of all—the lowly brought high and the proud made humble. Isaiah, in particular, speaks of this eschatological “escape from shame.” These verses are issued as promises to Israel regarding its new exodus.
- Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. (Isa 61:7)
- I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor (Isa 45:3)
- All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace together. But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting. (Isa 45:16–17)
- I will make with you an everlasting covenant,… and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. (Isa 55:3–5)
These promises of salvation are not abstract soteriological declarations but, rather, relational actions that evoke the renewal of covenant. Ancient Israelites would interpret these prophetic words in the context of their covenant with Yahweh, as described in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The removal of shame was not merely a psychological insight or timeless pastoral admonition, but an act of covenantal faithfulness and restoration. This idea continues into the NT.
Isaiah, Romans, 1 Peter
As an example, we examine how the apostles used one particular verse from Isaiah. On three occasions, NT authors cite Isaiah 28:16 (LXX)—“See, I will lay for the foundations of Sion a precious, choice stone, a highly valued cornerstone for its foundations, and the one who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
…as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33)
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:10-13)
For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe… (1 Peter 2:6-7)
Several things to note about these passages.
One, each instance is a direct citation from Scripture, not merely an echo. “As it is written…”, “For the Scripture says…”, “For it stands in Scripture…”. The authors deliberately and explicitly evoke Old Testament writings to interpret salvation in Christ. They are locating their story within the story of Israel, which involves God’s covenant with Israel.
Two, the benefit of “not being put to shamed” (οὐ μὴ καταισχυνθῇ) accrues to “the one who believes/trusts unto him” (ὁ πιστεύων ἐπ’ αὐτῷ). We escape shame by having faith. And, just like “shame,” the word “faith” is covenantal. Nijay Gupta states, “Faith language points to covenant.” The Greek word “faith” was a political/military term for mutual and harmonious relationships. The Jewish historian Josephus uses the plural form of “faith” (i.e., pledges of loyalty) as a substitute for the word “covenant.” Faith is not simply cognitive ascent, but trust and allegiance. The word “faith” evokes a covenantal context for understanding the benefit of “not being put to shame.” Faith implies pledging our allegiance and placing our hope in the true King who can save people from disgrace—a particularly covenantal idea. Here is my paraphrase that accounts for the covenantal assumptions of Isa 28:16, et al.: “Peoples who are faithful to God by trusting him … will not be excluded from the blessings and promises of honor, which God has made to his people.” As you can see, this differs from contemporary interpretations of “faith” and “shame,” which lead to a different reading: “Any individual who acknowledges Jesus as personal Savior will not deal with low self-esteem and personal rejection.” I believe this latter statement is theological true and important, but not the main focus of NT citations of Isaiah 28:6.
Three, Paul and Peter cite Isaiah 28:6 to explain the new covenant community. “Who” are the people of God? In Romans 9-11, Paul clarifies the Jew and Gentile relationship and, specifically, which group of people obtains “the adoption, the glory, the covenant” (9:4). In Romans 10, the logical reason why believers won’t be shamed is, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile” (cf. Rom 3:22-23). God has opened the covenant beyond ethnic Israel so that people from all groups can experience the covenant blessing of shame removal. “Whoever believes has no shame” is a way of saying “All people, including Gentiles, can be full covenant members.”
The concept of “covenantal people of God” is also explicit in 1 Peter 2:4–10. Verses 9 and 10, in particular, use several exodus-related titles of Israel to redefine the new community of God. Just as God long ago rescued Israel from shame, formed a covenant with them, and made them a special people, he has done so again through Jesus. “No shame” is, and always has been, a gift/benefit of God’s covenant people.
Four, the idea of “not being put to shame” is synonymous with “salvation.” The verses following Romans 9:33 and 10:11 both use “save” language. Shame is not a psychological emotion, but a theological reality from which we are divinely saved. God, as the true king, rescues his people from public disgrace and condemnation. Such a salvation occurred at the exodus/Mosaic covenant, and then was anticipated in the return-from-exile/New Covenant, which has happened in Christ.
Going one step further, honor and shame could be explored as a potential center of Paul’s theology. As a covenant concept, I foresee ways in which honor and shame might contextualize and integrate other proposed centers of Pauline theology into a complementary mosaic (e.g., justification, salvation-history, apocalypticism, and union with Christ). But that is for another conversation.
New Covenant Community
With this in mind, we can better understand honoring and shaming within the Church. The body of Christ, as the new covenant community, embodies God’s new rubric of human worth declared at the crucifixion and resurrection. Just as Jesus’ physical body established new standards for human value (honor and shame) at the cross, so, too, does the spiritual body of Christ reflect those new standards in our social relationships. We “do church” in a way that affirms Jesus’ shaming of shame and his vindication from death. Honor and shame look different in God’s social economy, which we replicate as the church. We are called to honor (and shame) people in a new covenant manner. This is Paul’s approach to community formation, most evident in 1 Corinthians.
The Deuteronomistic covenant contained stipulations for properly including/excluding (i.e., honor/shaming) people, based on ritual and moral purity. Israel, God’s “holy people,” functioned as the covenant community by maintaining Mosaic distinctions of purity and sacredness. The community reflected divine standards of honor and shame.
Likewise, the community of the new covenant enacts the evaluations of God. We extend honor (and shame) based on the value system of God. Christians are to welcome, accept, and esteem all people, regardless of social distinctions, just as God has done. But also, the Christian community prophetically acts out the eschatological shaming judgment of God in the present age. God’s people enforce covenant standards among themselves. Those who refuse to honor God are shamed, with the intent that temporary social shame will lead to their restoration (cf. 2 Thess 3:14–15). In this way, such people can escape the ultimate shame of external separation.
In the Bible, honor and shame are foremost covenant values, not social-science terms. Thus, the NT language of honor and shame evokes the new covenant. This moves us toward a more biblical understanding of salvation, shame, and honor.