Reflections of a Layman

Thoughts on Faith, Philosophy, and More

Divinity and Humanity: Reflections on the Incarnation

Each year Christmas rolls around, along with it comes the age old recurring posts about the true meaning of Christmas.For some, it is having to explain that contrary to some popular claims, Christmas is not a pagan holiday. Additionally, there are those who subtly remind us (as if in fact it were shocking news), that Jesus was not born on December 25th. Skeptics of the New Testament throw out the annual article reminding us why the infancy narratives are merely later developments of legendary flavour and have no bearing in history. And so on, and so on. It’s easy to get caught up in it all, and that’s not to deny the importance of these questions. However, we often forget, or at least, fail to focus our attention on a bigger story that the story of Christmas is telling. It is one of cosmic proportions. It is the story of Incarnation, “God becoming human”.

In the past year there has been plenty of room for doubt in the world and the events that have taken place. From our frame of human experience, the world can look as if it is buried beneath deep dark clouds of turmoil. But the story of the Incarnation is one that gives hope in the midst of despair. It reminds us that God has not left history to spiral into irreversible destruction.

This a reflection of the theme of divinity and incarnation, and what it means that God took on human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Here I say, what it means rather than merely what it meant, because the Incarnation’s cosmic significance is the centrepiece of God’s acting in the world. From the moment that God’s culminating act breaks loose into our space of human history, it can then no longer be a past event that withers away as something God merely did. It becomes a concrete reality. For the Incarnate one, is the Crucified one, and the Crucified One is the Exalted one.

Surprising and Yet Anticipated

Modern people have real trouble wrapping their minds around how God could become human. It is no wonder that philosophers and theologians debate over these profound questions. We tend to think that the ancients were different. But perhaps not so. No doubt this is what drove the earliest debates on Christology. Even pagan monotheists like the critic Celcus, struggled to understand what it is that Christians thought had happened in Jesus of Nazareth[1].

What is it that makes the Incarnation such an unbelievable feat? The key is in understanding God’s unsurpassable uniqueness. In second Temple Jewish thought, a way to depict God was to envisage him enthroned in the vast heights of heaven, spatially separated from mortals on earth[2]. The early Christian claim of Incarnation might come as surprise, but not merely as a surprise but a shock. One that was, in the words of Paul, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

The Incarnation is then, something surprising. But it may be that the seeds of Incarnation are already there, laying dormant only to flower into full bloom with the Son’s entry into the world. The incarnation is anticipated and consistent with God’s redemptive acting. Here’s how.

The early chapters of Genesis depict God planting a garden. This is not any ordinary garden which one simply keeps on your property, but it is Eden. For the ancient reader it stands out because it is a sacred space where God chooses to dwell. God doesn’t spend his time alone here. He invites humans that he has made, to dwell with him in this sacred abode, a place where heaven and earth are completely unified. In the ancient world, temples were not merely some places to worship deities, but they were where the gods dwelt. In Eden God comes to dwell with humans. Eden is a temple. It was always God’s plan to dwell with humanity.

Even after the things go sour and humans forfeit this chance, God pursues them even further. His plan is to dwell with them. Exodus tells the narrative of Yahweh redeeming Israel, and instructing them to build a sacred dwelling space so he can live among them. God instructs Solomon to build a temple so that God can dwell with humankind but time and time again, humans make a mess of things, and yet God’s goal remains the same. This motif of temple and divine dwelling anticipates the surprise of the Incarnation. It is in this light that John can say that, the “Word dwelt among us.” How? By becoming human and residing in our flesh and blood reality, fully partaking in it. The Word becomes flesh.

Not to Be Used for His Own Advantage

The sober truth of humanity is that we are ‘made from dust.’ This is a metaphorical way of speaking of our fragility and mortality. We are created and transient. Yet this aside, we are capable of immense feats and monumental accomplishments. From our place in the dirt we look to the stars to take our place among them. We grasp at power and status, but not for some noble cause. We grasp for exploitation and selfish gain.

In the ancient world, a common way to conceive of deities or heavenly beings was to understand them as celestial bodies. The sheer brilliance and heavenly luminescence of the sun, moon and stars is at least prima facie, one obvious reason to see deities in terms of celestial bodies. They are also seated high above in the heavens. The human pursuit however is not mere worship of those who reside in the heavens, but to take their place among them. It is no surprise then that humans throughout history seize at the chance to become gods. This manifests itself in ruler cults throughout the ancient world where kings or emperors were regarded as divine or the embodiment of a deity. Most common perhaps was in ancient Rome where an emperor might be declared a god at his death through deification or even declared a god in his lifetime. Being a god of course, meant that he ought to receive worship.This was on account of exalted status and immense power. The drive for self-divinity is one that arises and culminates from self-seeking desire and ambition. To dominate those below and in the words of Jesus “to lord it over them.” It is the Incarnation that critiques and brings down the human drive for self-deification. Not only this, but it also critiques these false forms of divinity that manifests in oppressive power and perpetuated violence.

One of the earliest Christian texts is preserved for us in Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This text is an early Christian hymn which captures for us the christology of the early Jesus movement[3]. It says that Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” Then it continues with a surprising twist, “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men…[4]”

Jesus, pre-existed holding equality with God, yet divinity did not constitute something to be exploited for selfish gain and accrual of power to dominate sinful humanity. Jesus acts in embodying his divine character by emptying himself taking on the form of humanity. True divinity is expressed in selfless love. It was in true divine character that Christ takes the form of a slave and takes his place among those in the dust, for the fragile, the mortal and the broken. It is here that we can understand the Isaianic language to describe the kenotic act of Christ “he poured out his life unto death” as the full expression of Incarnation and complete undoing of false divinity. 

The Incarnation shatters all false forms of divinity that acclaim status and oppressive power, and reveals the nature of true divinity. For it was God who moved towards humanity showing their hopes for self-deification for what they truly were. But to those who received him “he gave the right to become children of God[5].”

God Made Visible

One of the most perplexing realities of the human story is perhaps the seeming absence of God. No doubt this is one of the most common objections to Christian theism. While not only mounted as a reason to be skeptical that God exists, many Christians I suspect deeply struggle with this. It is this fact that often puts one in the position of a painful epistemic angst. Why is God so distant? Why is God so absent amidst the pain and suffering of real life? You shudder at the thought.. Perhaps it is because he is not there.

It is easy to affirm propositions in the midst of doubt and deep isolation, but it is another to know them. It is another to believe them. It can seem as if, at the end of the day, that we are truly left to the limits of our material existence. Caught in the shadows of our doubt, we may think we are no more than cosmic orphans left to the blind forces of the universe. 

There are plenty of myths in which Gods take on human form and appear to humans. Rarely however do these claim to have any historical bearing. They are stories, and nothing more than that.

The Incarnation tears the curtain open so to speak, for the Incarnation means God visible. God lays claim to time and space in a flesh and blood history. He does not merely take on the appearance of humans, but unites himself to human nature, body and soul.  And so Athanasius can say “he entered into the world in a new way, stooping to our level in his love and self-revealing to us[6].” Jesus, the Son crosses through the dark shadow of our alienation and comes to have visible fellowship with us. The author of 1 John describes the reality of the Incarnation as that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched[7].” God with us, is God visible. The crucifixion of Jesus then is by no means at odds with God taking on human flesh. It is a full and direct expression of God visible, for he plunges down the depths of human predicament. He hangs in solidarity with broken humanity. His suffering and death is the visible demonstration of the depths of God’s love for humanity. 

Becoming Human Through the Incarnate God

We often like to think that the greatest problem that exists our enemy, our flesh and blood foe. This is true, but not in the immediate sense. Self deceived, we rarely wish to admit that deep within us, our nature is at its root, corrupted . The enemy is within us. As mentioned in the previous section, our desires are self seeking and gravitate towards exploiting others for our own gain. 

Sometimes people make awful decisions and yet we are able to extend some sympathy by saying “they’re just human!” And yet when we read a story of someone who has committed some heinous and grisly crime we see it as utterly dehumanizing and sub-human. Within all of us we know what it is to be truly human, but the condition we find ourselves in is one that has, we might say, been dehumanized.

The darkness runs deep within us. It may be tempting in face of the full recognition of such reality to recoil in horror and believe that the only redemption to such creatures would be abandonment

In the Incarnation God moves toward humanity and through taking on human nature it is the very act of the remaking of humanity. It is through taking on human nature, that Christ completely renews human nature by expressing the full and true capacity of human nature. God shows us what it is to be truly human in the Incarnation. Instead of self-deception, greed, unfaithfulness, malicious anger, cowardice, coercion and violence, Christ demonstrates his full humanity through generosity, fidelity, compassion, self-control, culminating in unsurpassed selfless love. Where death and sin have ruined human nature and birthed twisted acts, the Son of God heals the wounded and maimed. He extends compassion to the outcast leper. He drives out the demons of those enslaved by evil. It is the remaking of humanity in the face of the tyranny of evil. Often we isolate redemption merely to the death of Jesus, implying that gospel stories are just filler for a more interesting narrative. But the life of the Son of God is the heart beat of his renewal of humanity. And if to be truly human is to perfectly love God and neighbour, then self sacrificial death is to be truly human, undivided from his life. It is the recreation of the Image. 

But why through the Incarnation? Saint Athanasius here contends that: 

“Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreated man made after the Image[8].” 

For Athanasius we are renewed by Christ “the Image of the Invisible God[9],” to be transformed into his Image, from death to life. This was enacted and fully realized through the historical reality of the Incarnation. For Paul, it is through participation in Christ, the Incarnate One that our nature is renewed. Through participation in faith, we begin to reflect bit by bit the Image. Through Jesus, we become a new humanity.

More Than a Theology

What is taken into consideration throughout these four interconnected themes is the orthodox understanding of the person of Jesus. It shows that this foundational tenet of Christianity celebrated by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox is not something merely to be left to dusty academic libraries or the ivory towers of theologians and philosophers. It is something that changes the history of the world. 

The Incarnation is a reality that gives hope. It is one that has waited in the narratives woven together in the Old Testament. It is one that reveals to us the true nature of God, who expresses true power in weakness. It is one, that when we are left to shadows of doubt, declares the visible God in Jesus. It is one that says God has taken on human nature to renew and remake it.
If you are reading this, perhaps you may find yourself in the shadows, wondering if the world will be left in darkness. Perhaps you wonder if God has left the world. Perhaps the ‘gods of this age’ will triumph. But in what can seem like a vast darkness, there is a flicker of light. For in the Incarnation “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and the ones who sit in the land and shadow of death, a light has dawned on them[10].” The story of the Incarnation is the story of Emmanuel. It is the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, one who seemed as though an insignificant prophet in the back roads of a vast empire. He was a king, who had taken the form of a servant, not in spite of being a king but because he was a true king. He was truly God who had taken on flesh. He is the Incarnate one, and therefore the Crucified One. It is because of this, that he is also the Exalted One[10]. The story of the Incarnation is one of glory clothed in humility, and triumph through servanthood.

Notes

[1] Bird, Michael. The Eternal Son 61. Eerdmans

[2] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and The God of Israel164. Eerdmans

[3] Hurtado, Larry. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? 82-85. Eerdmans

[4] Philippians 2:5-6

[5] John 1:12

[6] Athanasius. On the Incarnation 21.

[7] 1 John 1:1

[8] Athanasius. On the Incarnation 29.

[9] Colossians 1:15

[10] Isaiah 9:1; Matthew 4:16

[11] Philippians 2:9-11

And Some Doubted

At the end of the Gospel according to Matthew we find this line, almost somewhat as an afterthought: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted (28:17).” And some doubted. If you’re trying to make your hero look good, this is isn’t usually the kind of thing you include.

These eleven disciples had been called by Jesus, and experienced his life changing and divine power. They watched him cast out demons, heal the disfigured and diseased, command the powers of nature and even some witnessed his awesome transfiguration. After all this, they abandoned him when the authorities came to arrest him. Not long after, they watched as he was shamefully executed by the Roman state. And yet three days later they hear news too good to be true, Jesus of Nazareth was alive, raised from the dead! And yet we are told that some worshipped… and some doubted.

Doubt is painful, precisely because it is the feeling of being uncertain. Feelings are deeply tied to our emotions. We hope something is true, and yet cannot be certain of it; this causes immense tension and anxiety. To be clear, doubting a blind faith may be a good thing. But this type of doubt is one that arises amongst reasons for one’s belief, in fact strong reasons for one’s beliefs. And you would expect for men who had seen the things they saw Jesus do, that they would have no doubts. And yet they did. The fact that the author of Matthew includes this, gives us good reason to think that he wasn’t just making stuff up. And as we claim God is the divine author, it’s safe to say he didn’t make a mistake by including that verse, he intended it. He also didn’t want robots, he wanted flesh and blood disciples who wrestled with doubts so that they would come to a deeper relational trust in their king. The gospel is an astoundingly divine story of God rescuing his world, it is also a deeply human story.

Jesus does not tell them, “Sorry you’re unqualified, you need to fix your doubt problem first.” No. He commands them go and be his witnesses, to make disciples and teach the very things he taught them. He has entrusted to them the mission, and it has just begun. Not only that but he says “And surely, I am with you always until the very end of the age.”

You may doubt, you may be uncertain, but Jesus invites you into his mission. The incarnate God welcomes you to his table. If he ate with sinners, he will surely eat with those who doubt. Even those who doubt are called to be a part of a community of disciples. This is the nature of discipleship. Doubt is not ideal; but it is the reality of wrestling with the tension of belief and experience. You may waver between worship and doubt, but you are called by the crucified and resurrected king Jesus to follow him. Follow him in the midst of doubt. The goal is Jesus and nothing less. You must pursue him, until you like Thomas come to encounter the scars of the living God. And until that day, you are called to be a witness and ambassador, proclaiming the victory of God in Christ, a shameful death which has blossomed into an emblem of victory. And even there in the midst of your doubt, he is there with you until the end of age.

Destruction or Transformation? Scripture and the Regeneration of Creation

If you think of the end of the world, what do you think of? Perhaps you envision mass apocalyptic destruction. Perhaps you have images of God destroying his creation through fire. Doomsday, the day of reckoning. These sorts of images are surely not uncommon for the evangelical North American mind. And whether we like to admit or not, these images have had deep influence on our beliefs about the current world. Perhaps our abuse of resources or apathy to how we relate to the natural world. “It’s all going burn up anyways.” When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter what I do, because God will destroy this world anyway! He will start over with a new creation. This has often been the sentiment of how many Christians think. In the first installment, my goal was to re-frame the biblical story (at least in part), not as one which holds some Platonic picture of heaven as a final goal, but a physical embodied hope of new creation and resurrection. Here I intend to go even further and address some well-known passages that speak of the end of all things; or perhaps rather, their regeneration.

As Christians, we ought to be in pursuit of truth. With a better understanding of a holistic salvation, we can ask the question as follows: if God in Christ reconciling heaven and earth, is there complete discontinuity between “this world” and the new creation? Doesn’t Jesus say heaven and earth will pass away? Second Peter seems to say that God will burn up the material universe, does it not? Or is there continuity along with radical transformation of the old? And if so, what does this mean for how we live today? Before we dive into to these questions, we ought to remember that we are not given an extensive profile or description of the eschaton. What we have are images given to us by sacred Scripture. We try to make the best sense of what those images are pointing to. In this post we will cover a few primary texts that may give us a clearer understanding of continuity and discontinuity between the first creation and new creation. Buckle up, your about to take a ride to the end of the world.

Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away

Jesus himself, spoke of the passing away of heaven and earth. We find these very words in Matthew 5:18; 24:35 and Mark 13:31. Matthew 5:18 is spoken during Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, where as 24:35 and Mark 13:31 are spoken during the Olivet Discourse, when Christ foretells the destruction of the temple and the end of the age. Matthew 5:18 reads, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” And likewise, in the Olivet discourse he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

We ought to bring our attention to context of each of these sayings. As we zoom out to see the larger conversation, we see the primary point of Jesus’ words is to demonstrate the outlasting permanency and significance of his words. However, we still ought to ask what Jesus means by “heaven and earth passing away.” Some have argued that “heaven and earth” are symbolic for the temple1. This seems to be plausible, especially given that Matthew 24:35 and Mark 13:31 is situated in the context of the Olivet discourse. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have been seen as cataclysmic, the end of the world as they knew it. But let’s consider some other options. Scholar and commentator R.T. France argues, contrary to the language of heaven and earth passing away, it is rather a way of a rhetorical way of saying “The law, down to it’s smallest details is as permanent as heaven and earth, and will never lose it’s significance; on the contrary, all it points forward to will become reality2.” However convincing one finds such interpretations; we might say that perhaps Jesus’ words simply do refer the passing away of “heaven and earth.” What then does he mean by this? Is he saying the material world as know it is going to be wiped out or discarded? In order to answer this question, we ought to consider several other key passages, and consider these ‘images’ together.

Following the conversation between Christ and the rich young ruler a discussion between Christ and his disciples ensues. Peter asks Jesus “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? (Matt 19:27)” Jesus begins his answer by saying “Truly, I say to you, in the new world…” The term here translated for “new world” or “new age,” scholars point out is quite literally “regeneration3” or “the rebirth.4” The only other time this word occurs, it refers to “regeneration of the Spirit (Titus 3:5).” Likewise, in Peter’s message which he preaches on Solomon’s Portico he says this “… and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago (Acts 3:21).” In contrast to Greek thinkers who believed the history of the universe was cyclical, that it would be destroyed and be reborn, the Jewish hope was that God would restore his people. Not only would he restore his people, but he would bring restoration and renewal to the world5. Peter calls his Jewish hearers to repentance, in order that they may participate in God’s renewed world. Furthermore, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 describes the contrast of the nature of a believer whose identity is now remade in Christ, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, new has come (2 Thessalonians 5:17).” For Paul this extends to a cosmic scale because “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” What happens to individual is an image of what God is doing on a cosmic scale.

When the Heavens Burn

Imagine for a moment a church where its leaders had become so corrupt, where they lived for their own pleasure and abused their power to sleep around with women. Even worse, they used the teachings of Paul to defend that they were free to do so! Such is the context that the letter of second Peter is found in. Peter points out that despite those who mock the idea that God will judge them, God has in fact judged human evil in the past and will do so again. The reason for the delay is God’s patience. God would rather that these corrupt leaders come to repentance, since he is not willing that any should perish!

Both examples he gives are from the Old Testament, namely judgment of the rebellious Sons of God (Gen 6), and Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18). He the reminds his readers and his objectors, that God destroyed human evil through the flood. It is here where we find his apocalyptic language for the future day of the Lord:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

At first glance it may seem as though Peter is speaking of complete cosmic dissolution, but let’s take a few minutes and thoughtfully examine the passage. We will begin in verse 10, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

The image of the thief is one of suddenness and unexpectedness, also used firstly by Jesus and then also by Paul. The language of the heavens “passing away” is reminiscent of the words of Jesus which we had examined above6. The phrase roar has often been interpreted to be an image for the crackling of the flames as they destroy the ‘firmament.’ However, there maybe something even more substantial being alluded to in this language. This imagery is noted to be characteristic of divine theophanies in the Old Testament, where lightning and thunder accompany Yahweh’s appearance and his return as the divine warrior7. These are scattered throughout the Old Testament in poetry and prophecies. Psalm 18 is just one of a number of passages which illustrates this:

The Lord thundered from heaven;

    the voice of the Most High resounded.

He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,

    with great bolts of lightning, he routed them.

The valleys of the sea were exposed

    and the foundations of the earth laid bare

at your rebuke, Lord,

    at the blast of breath from your nostrils(13-15).

We are told this psalm is in fact a poetic and symbolic description of when Yahweh delivered David from the hands of his enemies and his predecessor King Saul.

In what follows Peter than says, “and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved…” The phrase “heavenly bodies” (stoicheia) is also translated as “elements.” There are basically three possible ways of understanding this phrase. It can refer either to, 1) the physical elements that compose the material universe, 2) the heavenly or celestial bodies or 3) angelic or celestial beings8. If the first option is correct, then it would mean that Peter has the destruction of the material universe in mind. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham says, although the first option is the usual meaning of the word “stoicheia” it is probably not what Peter intends, since, this passage is an allusion or quotation of Isaiah 34:4 which speaks of “the host of heaven.9” The host heaven is a way of referring to sun, moon and the stars, not elements which make up the physical universe. The third option cannot be ruled out, given the word does refer to hostile spiritual powers in Paul’s letters (Gal 4:3, Col 2:8,20) and that stars and heavenly bodies were associated with spiritual beings10. We should not read the third option as an alternative to the second, but possibly in addition to it.

It is what follows where the language becomes a bit fuzzy, partly because translations render it differently. These results are not minimal, rather they can have drastically different implications. For instance, the ESV translates it, “the works that are done on it will be exposed” whereas the NIV renders it “everything done in it will be laid bare,” whereas other translations render it “burned up (NASB, KJV).” The first two are quite similar in the implications they evoke, but the latter has drastically different results. Bauckham is of help here again, and says that “will be found” is “undoubtedly” the best reading11. The reasons he lays out are quite technical which I will by no means claim to fully understand and cannot be expanded upon here (it is rather lengthy and there are quite a number of variant readings). Additionally, this option makes much better sense given the language of divine theophany, the function of the judgment and Peter’s own words in Acts. This allows us to focus our vision and get a clear image of what Peter intends to communicate.

We now see that the irony then begins to set in. Those who thought they could persist in evil and get away with it, will suddenly encounter the divine warrior in his awesome and terrifying appearance. At his ‘sudden appearance’ as he rips open the “firmament” so to speak and exposes the human scene of injustice and evil. Peter H. Davids puts it this way: “The sudden judgment, when it comes, will mean the removal of heaven (the firmament that is between where God is and the earth) and the heavenly bodies (the “elements”-as the term is used in a number of ancient texts—that hang in or from the firmament and thus will be destroyed with it). This will leave the earth “laid bare” (not destroyed) so all is open to the divine eye and easily judged.12

Just as the function of judgment at prior times was the utter removal of wickedness, in similar light, the purpose for the author of second Peter is the removal of evil and those who are found to participate in it, when all the deeds of humankind “are exposed.” The fire stored up for the present heavens and earth he says are “kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:6).” A similar image is given in Malachi’s prophecy of the Day of the Lord, where it is “burning like a furnace” and it will consume all those who are characterized by evil (Malachi 4:1). The implications for the author is his exhortation for readers to live holy lives, and to live for a “new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells.” Evil and all who continue to participate in it will perish when they are exposed at the sudden appearance of the divine Judge. In contrast to his warning, he assures them that those who are in Christ Jesus, will inherit a world where righteousness dwells. Paul says something rather quite similar in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3).” The context here is also the Day of the Lord, and Paul like Peter exhorts his readers to remain in the Christ because they are children of the light and not of darkness. Since they belong to the King, they will have nothing to fear.

The imagery evoked by Peter is not speaking of the complete destruction of the material universe or world, but rather a day when God will judge and purify his world of all the evil that has torn apart his creation. It is especially important to remember that the primary function of the flood for Peter is the destruction of the ungodly. Regardless of whether this language is metaphorical or literal, there is certainly element of cataclysmic destruction, but its function is to expose the human scene of wickedness. It is for the removal of evil and all those who persist in it. Given that Peter had formerly preached that Christ would return when all things were to be renewed and restored, it would odd for Peter to now switch gears and speak of the complete discarding of the material universe. In the simplest terms, we may see this fire particularly as purification of God’s world. Paul similarly, speaks of the Day of Lord testing each one’s work by fire, and if it is built on the foundation that is Christ, it will stand the test (1 Cor 3:13). Matthew Bates illustrates it well, “God is a consuming fire able to melt the present order and remove the dross, so that what results is so radically pure and new, that it is appropriate to call it a “new creation.13” Having a clearer picture of what Second Peter 3 is saying and what it is not saying, this allows to take a look finally at the Revelation 21 and how it contributes to the topic at hand.

Making All Things New

For a world that has been torn apart by death, by war, by suffering, by human sin, one can only hope that one day the world will be set to right. In the Revelation or “Apocalypse” of John we are given a beautiful vision of God’s future world.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

We should begin with caution, given that this Apocalyptic writing riddled with figurative language. A first observation to be made here is that first heaven and earth have passed away. Several clues, immediate to the text may alert us to the fact that this represents the former age. Firstly, we see there is no longer any sea. The sea was an ancient symbol of chaos and cosmic evil which threatened to destroy order14. Secondly, we are given in verse 4 a moving image of God wiping away “every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Right here, we are given a clue that the passing away of the first heaven and first earth is previous age or order of things, a world that was characterized by suffering, by death, by decay and by violence. There will no longer be any of these things in God’s new creation, nor will the possibility even arise. There is an element of radical discontinuity. Yet, Gregory Beale notes that “a renewal or renovation is in mind is evident from 21:515” in which the Lamb says “behold, I make all things new.” Additionally, the word for new (kainos) here, according to Beale “refers predominantly to a change in quality or essence rather, than something new that has never previously been in existence.16” These elements can also then inform us in regards to the words of Christ “until heaven and earth pass away” in a canonical sense.

These textual evidences give us strong reason to believe that there is continuity, redemption, and transformation, despite the radical discontinuity between the first creation and the second. Max Lee highlights several additional and vital aspects which gives us several additional reasons new creation as renewal and transformation of the old. He writes:

Creation is renewed not by destroying the old and starting over but by transforming the old into something different, better, and transcendent (21:15; cf. Isa. 65:27). Creation’s renewal is modeled after the transformation and resurrection of believers (1 Cor. 15:35–53). In the same way that sinners become a “new creation” because the old “has passed away” (NIV “has gone”) and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17), the first heaven and first earth “have passed away”(the Greek verb parelthon (“passed away”] in 2 Cor. 5:17 is virtually identical to the term apēlthon [“passed away”] used in Rev. 21:1)— that is, they have discontinued in their current condition because God is restructuring the old created order into a new state of glory (cf. Rom. 8:19–22; Gal. 6:15; Col. 1:15-18).Creation changes without losing its former identity and becomes “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). God has not abandoned this world, and neither should we. Because God plans on transforming the old created order, the church should be faithful stewards of the planet and not exploit its resources.17

Significance for Us Today

Well, we’ve made it! All the images are now before us. I think one thing is clear, that despite the radical discontinuity of the old creation, there is in fact continuity. God is creator, he is redeemer and he will rescue his creation. He is the God who resurrects the dead, and gives new life. He is the God who transforms that which is marked by decay, into something new and beautiful. He is the God who redeems that which is fallen and marred by sin. It is wholly within the character of God to renew, to resurrect and transform his creation into new creation rather than completely eradicate it and start all over. But nevertheless, he will purify his fallen world and transform into something radically new. As Paul writes, “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” The present order must be radically reworked in order for God’s new world to be birthed. The whole of creation awaits its liberation (Rom 8:19-21). God has not given up on creation, he will bring it from death to life.

How then does this have implications for us today? I believe not only does this confront long and deep-seated misunderstandings about what Scripture teaches, but infuses our current lives with deep meaning and hope. If God is reconciling the world in Christ, and will resurrect and renew his creation torn apart by pain, by misery, by sin and by death, then how we relate to God’s world today matters. The story of God’s redemption invites us into participation. What we do is not in vain, but in some way, God will take our “labour” and use it in his new creation that is free from the clutches of evil and sin. Paul himself concludes his discussion on the resurrection in First Corinthians 15, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).” Those parts of our world which reflect the good, whether it be culture, or relationships, or the sweeping vistas of nature, or what we have done in our bodies, or what has even been born out of suffering and pain. God will use these. He will somehow incorporate and transform them into his unimaginably good and new creation. What we do here matters. How we relate to our fellow image bearers matters. How we rule God’s creation today, still matters. Yes, all those elements which have been out workings of sin, and evil will be purified through the holy fire of God’s justice and love, but he will resurrect all that is good, all that is beautiful and reflects his glorious nature; and transform it in his new creation.

Sources

  1. See discussion on 22. France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT) 185. Eerdmans
  2. France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT) 186,743 Eerdmans
  3. Keener, Craig S. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The New Testament) 98. IVP
  4. France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT) 742-743. Eerdmans
  5. Keener, Craig S. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The New Testament) 332. IVP; Pao, David W. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) Matthew, 1174. Baker Books
  6. Bauckham, Dr. Richard. Jude-2 Peter, Volume 50 (Word Biblical Commentary) 315. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid, 315,316
  9. Ibid, 315
  10. For an extensive study see Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible Lexham Press.
  11. Bauckham, Dr. Richard. Jude-2 Peter, Volume 50 (Word Biblical Commentary) 303,316. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
  12. Davids, Peter H. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) 2 Peter 1556. Baker Books
  13. Bates, Matthew W. (Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking, Faith Works and the Gospel of Jesus the King) 133. Baker Academic
  14. Lee, Max J. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) Revelation, 1625. Baker Books; Beale, G.K. The Gospel of Revelation (NIGNT) 1041-1043. Eerdmans
  15. Beale, G.K. The Gospel of Revelation (NIGNT) 1040. Eerdmans
  16. Ibid
  17. Lee, Max J. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) Revelation, 1625. Baker Books

The Cruciform God

Have you ever wondered what makes Christian God different? What sets the God of Christian Theism apart from all other conceptions of God?  Perhaps you think, well it’s because he’s loving. Or perhaps you think, it is because he is infinite as opposed to the gods of ancient pantheons. Then you think a little harder and you say, well maybe it’s his Trinitarian nature? Maybe it’s because of his grace? Maybe it is because he is wholly independent from his creation and yet personal, unlike the pantheistic conceptions of God. The list may go on and on. But what if I told you that the truly definitive way in which the God of Christian Theism is different, is this: God has scars.

In this simple statement is bound up the very truth of infinite and divine Love. The God of the Bible is the same God, who in Christ, entered into flesh and blood history and died. There are many conceptions of God in the world, but none as scandalous as the one Christians claim to worship. The famous poem of Edward Schillito captures the heart of this claim. He wrote this poem in the wake of destruction brought on by the horrors of the first world war. Someone like Schillito could only wonder how on earth one could still believe in God, let alone a God of love, after suffering the carnage and death of the first world war. Yet in his poem, Jesus of the Scars, he writes:

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are; have no fear;
Show us Thy Scars; we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

In Jesus of Nazareth, we see the scandal of the Incarnate God, who allows the very creatures which he formed and made, to put him death. Immanuel, God with us, allows the very hands which he delicately formed in their mother’s wombs to drive spikes through his body and crucify him on a Roman cross. It is a scandal to the Muslim and a joke to the atheist. It is an offense to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek. And yet it is in the blood that is poured out in his death, that he bears the world’s sin. He dies for them. In the horror of the crucifixion, he takes upon himself the suffering and pain of the world. He experiences ultimate god-forsakenness. Humans would never come to him. They hated him. They betrayed him. Yet he did not abandon them. He came to find them. They put to death the one who loved them. And yet in this, the heart of God is set on full display. His infinite and holy love bleeds through the shameful death on a tree. He bears the scars given to him by ones whom he made in his own image. This my friends, is why the God of Christianity is different. He is cruciform. He is not indifferent to human history; he has entered into a world torn apart by sin and enslaved by death. He would endure death to know the ones he made and give them life abundantly. Though our sin has fractured his world and destroyed our fellow image bearers. He would die for us. He would take our death. He would suffer for us. He would suffer with us. “And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.” This is cruciform love of God.

Getting the Story Right: Reclaiming Heaven and Earth

They shall not hurt or destroy

in all my holy mountain;

for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea.

“Come my Lord, no longer tarry, take my ransomed soul away; Send Thine angels now to carry, me to realms of endless days…” These words come from the ever-popular hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Is this serene image one that truly reflects the ultimate Christian hope? For the Christian, the belief of the gospel and life hereafter has often gone something like this: my sins are too great, but by trusting in Jesus who has died for my sins, I am promised eternal life with God in heaven after I die.

Though I love the hymn, it among many others paints a picture of the ultimate Christian hope that is rather unlike what is found in Scripture. An outsider might rightly conclude that this looks an awful lot more like Greek Platonism or Ancient Gnosticism. The problem with this image we have just sketched, is that it is a truncated gospel and a distorted vision of the biblical future hope. In the minds of many laypeople (especially Christian laypeople) the gospel has become something like this: I live on earth, one day I will die and will go to heaven. Because of my sin I deserve punishment and therefore destined to hell, but if I believe in Jesus, I will receive eternal life and go to heaven. There are at least several problems with this. Firstly, it is centered around me. Secondly, it has reduced the gospel to having your sins forgiven. Thirdly, the narrative frame is built around heaven and hell, instead of the biblical story of the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Fourth, it regards creation as inferior. Fifth, following the truncation of the gospel, it sidelines the resurrection into a mere footnote and renders it almost meaningless.

It is my goal, to re-frame these images according meta-narrative of inspired and sacred Scripture. We may sum it up like this: Jesus the resurrected and enthroned King, is reconciling heaven and earth, and promises resurrected embodied hope into a new creation for all who are “in Him.” This will be discussed in three points, 1) Jesus the resurrected and enthroned King, 2) The reconciliation of heaven and earth, 3) the future hope of bodily resurrection into new creation.

Jesus: The Resurrected and Enthroned King

The declaration that God had raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, is central to early Christian thought and gospel which they proclaimed1. We see this clearly in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:1 “Now I want to make it clear to you brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you…” He continues by highlighting the key aspects this good news, “that Christ died for our sins,” “that he was buried,” and “that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:4-6).” Notice what follows is his stress on the bodily appearance of Jesus to his disciples. It makes up over half of the creedal statement!2 The resurrection of Jesus is a big deal to Paul, and this succinctly highlighted when he says, “if Christ is not raised then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.” The significance of resurrection for Paul are monumental and the Christian hope hinges upon it.

Following this, the resurrection is front and center for Peter in his message on Pentecost, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” The language emphasizes the reversal of death itself, and the verdict that was placed on Jesus. God has declared creation to be good by entering into it in the Incarnation. Through the death and resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God, the power of death is crushed, and its effects reversed (Heb 2:14-15). 

The story does not stop there. There is more to it. Jesus is not only resurrected to immortality, but enthroned as king of heaven and earth. Often, we think of the ascension as Jesus floating into heaven, but it is first and foremost his ascension to the throne as King. Peter in his Pentecost sermon goes on to say “know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).” Notice Jesus’ own words “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matt 28:18).” Wait, you might say, wasn’t Jesus always lord and king? Think of David, he was anointed king but was not enthroned as king until after tragic suicide of his predecessor king Saul. Or to borrow from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it is much like Aragorn, who is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. Yet it is only after the final confrontation, the battle of the black gate, that he is enthroned as Gondor’s true king. Much like these two figures, the resurrected Jesus -the Incarnate Son of God- is enthroned not only as the King of Israel but as Lord of the cosmos, the Ruler of heaven and earth. The gospel then is the declaration that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was resurrected and enthroned as Lord. It is the story of Jesus becoming king. He reclaims his creation from exile by his own blood. This has cosmic implications for the present and the future. As we look back to our introduction, we see clearly what the gospel is: Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate and Crucified Son of God has been resurrected from dead, and has been enthroned as Lord of heaven and earth. The right response to this gospel is by turning giving allegiance to the self sacrificial King and finding forgiveness of sins in Him.

The Reconciliation of Heaven and Earth

You might at this point be asking, well what about heaven and hell? Does Jesus being Lord mean I will have eternal life in heaven when I die? It would do the reader well, to do a word search on Bible Gateway of the following “heaven” and “hell.” The results will return as follows: “Sorry, we didn’t find any results for your search.” These questions are informed unfortunately, by our contemporary Christian beliefs rather than by Scripture. Now try this, do a word search for “heaven” and “earth.” Earth is the counterpart of heaven, not hell. Our common beliefs about heaven, hell and the afterlife look a lot more like Greek Platonism or ancient Gnosticism. It is time to re-adjust our lenses, for it is only when we re-frame the story of heaven and earth, that sub plot of hell can make sense (though for the purposes of this essay, it will be covered in a subsequent post). As for most stories, it is best to return to the beginning.

The story of scripture opens with God, creating the heavens and the earth. For the author this is a way of saying: everything you can see, all that’s up there and all that’s down here3. He uses the language of experience to describe the whole of creation. The heavens (or skies) also represent the place where God and his heavenly council lived. Not only are we told that God creates this beautiful world, but he declares it good, in fact, very good. Following the sweeping account in Genesis 1, Genesis 2 tells us that God comes to dwell and commune with humanity (Adam and Eve). The tragedy of course, is that they chose to seize wisdom for themselves, rather than seek wisdom of God. Adam and Eve are exiled, and heaven and earth are ripped apart. The harmony of creation is undone by the rebellion of those who were called to represent God’s rule over it. Throughout the Old Testament narrative, we see glimpses of the hope of restoration, this especially peaks in Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 65 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…” What follows is a vision of restoration, of peace, and of reconciliation brought to a world (although immediately to Judah) that has been torn apart by war, by famine, by sin, and by death. The hope of God returning to his people and dwelling among his creation is fully realized in a completely unexpected way in the Incarnation. The mission of Jesus was to announce the kingdom returning at last as it was always intended. We see this in the words of Jesus when he teaches his disciples to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10).” Paul sums it in his beautiful poem in Colossians 1:15-20: “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Paul likewise speaks in Romans 8 of creation waiting “in eager expectation” and as “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” in it’s hope of liberation (Rom 8:18-23).

Heaven and earth were destined for reconciliation. Sin had ripped apart our communion with God, death had crawled in and devoured its prey. Yet God did abandon his creation, but through the crucifixion of the Incarnate Son of God (in whom meets the very realities of heaven and earth) heaven and earth are reconciled. In his resurrection and ascension to the throne, he becomes creation’s King once again. Joshua Ryan Butler puts it well, “In Christ, God’s purpose is to reunite which sin has torn asunder, to thread the ripped fabric of creation back together again.4

We are brought then to the final pages of Scripture and the vision of future hope.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-2).”

The movement is not those on the earth flying or being transported up to heaven, as if that was really what it was all about, rather it is heaven (God’s perfect rule and presence) coming down to earth and being merged into perfect unity. God will reconcile heaven and earth at last, and dwell among his people in his new creation. We see then story of Scripture is not about leaving earth one day, for heaven or hell, but it is rather that heaven and earth as God’s creation are reconciled through his Son into perfect union.

The Hope of the Resurrection

We have now developed two closely interlocking themes. The first is that Jesus has been resurrected and enthroned as king of heaven and earth. Second, that heaven and earth are destined for reconciliation through God in Christ, by his shameful execution, his resurrection and enthronement as it’s true Lord. We will now focus on the sweeping implications, the bodily resurrection of the dead.

For the Jewish people, there had been the hope that when God set things to right at the end of the age. He would not abandon his creatures but he would resurrect the dead5. In the resurrection of Jesus, God had done in the middle of history what he promised to do for all at the end of the age. God’s intention was not to abandon his creation that had been corrupted by sin, but rather to rescue it, restore it and transform it. We return then to Paul’s discussion about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he says “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised (1 Cor 15:13).” Paul’s point here is that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ’s resurrection is not simply annulled, but it has not happened. Or notice Paul’s words to Festus “that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:23).” Similarly, N.T. Wright highlights an often-neglected passage which speaks strongly of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for believers, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8:9-11).6” These are only a handful passages, for they are too numerous to cover here. Our hope is not then ultimately, to go to heaven when we die, because this creation is inferior. Rather our hope is that though our mortal bodies will die, Christ will resurrect our bodies into new creation, precisely because his creation is good. This is then, the consequence (in a good sense) because he has been resurrected and is rescuing his creation by reconciling heaven and earth. We are resurrected into new creation and transformed into his image, to rule in his redeemed creation as we were meant to be from the beginning.

The resurrection means, that death in fact is not the end. Through his death the Incarnate Son of God has been resurrected and enthroned, breaking its power. And it is by this his power that heaven and earth will be reconciled and transformed. It is by his resurrection from the dead that we will have embodied immortal life in his renewed and good earth (new creation!). The resurrection brings immense meaning into our present lives as we participate in what God is doing. As Michael Bird puts it well “Our labor in the Lord in this life plants a seed that will sprout forth in the future world, so that what work we do in this age will flower in the coming age of new creation.7

To quote Wright, instead of thinking of life after death, the Christian hope is rather “Life After Life After Death.” Our goal is not, going off to heaven when die, but rather our hope is in the future resurrection of the dead through the power our resurrected and enthroned Lord, who is reconciling heaven and earth.

Final Thoughts

I hope that my writing has clearly demonstrated, what the Christian hope and the meta-narrative of Scripture is not about, and what it is about. I have demonstrated 1) Jesus the resurrected and enthroned King, 2) The reconciliation of heaven and earth, 3) the future hope of bodily resurrection into new creation. It is not about dying and going to heaven because this creation is inferior but rather that God in Christ, who he has resurrected and enthroned as Lord, has rescued his creation and will raise our mortal bodies to embodied immortal life. This is not to deny that there is something to be said about what happens to the believer upon death; that they are with the Lord until the resurrection of the dead and the complete inauguration of new creation. But the focus remains: He does not abandon; he is the Creator who rescues his creation. The application for our lives and what it means for Christians today is immense. We have work to do. We are to be agents of reconciliation, announcing the good news that Christ has been resurrected and enthroned as Lord, and is reclaiming his creation. What do we today, truly matters. We have been invited into the mission of God in his reclamation and renewal of his world. We are called then to be participants God’s new creation that has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus. It is in this objective truth that one will receive forgiveness of sins, when one turns and gives allegiance to the true King of heaven and earth.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Sources

  1. See Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper One,2008) 3. Early Christian Hope in It’s Setting, 4. The Strange Story of Easter
  2. Many New Testament Scholars agree this statement by Paul as pre-Pauline tradition that came into existence within years of Jesus’ crucifixion. See https://beliefmap.org/bible/1-corinthians/15-creed/date
  3. For an accessible but excellent short summary on this see Creation Through the Lens of Ancient Cosmology https://bibleproject.com/blog/creation-through-the-lens-of-ancient-cosmology/
  4. Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War (Thomas Nelson 2014) 14
  5. Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, 10. The Redemption of Our Bodies (Harper One 2008)
  6. See Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper One, 2008) 158
  7. Bird, Michael. What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles Creed (Zondervan, 2016) 158

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