Saturday, February 27, 2016



As of this writing, we’re closely approaching the annual celebration of the most significant date in human history: The day an outspoken, First Century Jewish man from Nazareth, who had been brutally murdered only 72 hours prior, stepped out of his own grave alive as ever and, save a few puncture holes, none the worse for wear. The importance of this event to the Christian faith—to all of humanity that ever lived or ever will live, to the entire cosmos—cannot be overemphasized. The Apostle Paul plainly states that if this man Jesus has not risen then those of us who follow him “are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15). Jesus himself hung all of his claims of being the promised Messiah who would usher in and reign over God’s eternal kingdom, “the resurrection and the life,” the mediator between God and humanity, with the divine authority to forgive sins, on his unique ability to pull off his own physical resurrection. He claimed it would be the authentication of his authority and therefore the complete vindication of all of his otherwise outlandish claims. Given the unmatched importance of this event, it’s unfortunate that there is often such a hazy understanding among contemporary Christ-followers of what actually transpired and how it changes everything.
The physicality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection must not be overlooked. The facts surrounding these events reiterate how God views the physical world, which he once called “good,” and the humans he created to inhabit it. The implications of the resurrection, in particular, are also pivotal to understanding his endgame. Immediately following his resurrection, Jesus repeatedly authenticated the physical reality of what had happened by inviting his hesitant disciples to feel the marks in his hands and side and by sharing unusually lively postmortem meals with them. Make no mistake; the resurrected Christ was/is flesh and bone, a human as we were meant to be, and the first fruits and divine source of many more to come.
The hope of bodily resurrection has been long whispered by the ancients but only realized in the person of Jesus. The prior sparse examples of God raising the dead should not be confused with Jesus’ unprecedented resurrection. You may have noticed that Lazarus, whose soul was famously reunited with his once-dead mortal body, is no longer with us. He too must await the resurrection that is yet to come. Perhaps Job described our future hope of resurrection most clearly: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).
Many of Jesus’ contemporaries scoffed at the suggestion of physical resurrection. Even Jewish culture was torn, with the Sadducees outright rejecting notions of supernatural intervention such as angels, miraculous healing, and—of course—resurrection. When Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Athens, we read how resurrection was the hardest part of the Gospel for a First Century Greek audience to swallow. Eventually, with the influx of Gentile believers, many Gnostic interpretations of core events started creeping into the early Church. Some of these misunderstandings were addressed by the remaining Apostles. John, for example, spoke against those in his day who were denying the authentic humanity of Jesus, going so far as to label them “antichrist.” Other heretical ideas stemming from Gnosticism were also vehemently refuted by Paul before his martyrdom.
Gnostics believe the physical world is inherently evil and of no value, while the unseen spiritual realm is good and therefore of infinite value. As a result, Gnostic-thinking Christians seek release or rescue from the physical world. At first glance, Scripture seems to reinforce the tenants of Gnosticism. Jesus said that his followers should disregard their basic physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), for example, and even “hate” their own lives in this world in favor of passionately pursuing an unseen Father and otherworldly kingdom. James said that anyone who loves the world makes himself an enemy of God. Paul expressed his deep desire to leave his corrupted body so that he could be present with the Lord. Old and New Covenant saints alike are described as exiles in a foreign land, eagerly awaiting a better country, a heavenly country. All of this sounds like music to a Gnostic’s ears.
Prevailing Gnostic interpretations of Scripture are too numerous and complex to exhaustively address here. The “world,” however, can refer to the corrupted kingdom of men, humanity in general, the physical planet, the cosmos, and so on. God can then simultaneously love the “world,” his divinely crafted creation, and hate the “world,” the evil systems of sinful humans that oppress and enslave. The Bible teaches that the Spirit of God breathed life into the physical world. So the spiritual is the source and the sustainer of the physical but never, as the Gnostics would have it, the supplanter.
Modern Gnostics are often exclusively concerned with “saving souls.” Not much thought, if any, is given to the Gospel's implications on the body and the world of matter. Environmental conservation efforts, for example, are sometimes seen as a “waste of time,” given that “God will be making a new heaven and earth anyway.” For the same reasons, caring for one’s physical body with proper diet and exercise may also seem pointless to a Gnostic-minded Christian.
We should see the promised new heavens and new earth in the same sense in which believers in Jesus become “new creations.” We wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—think to say that “because I am being made new, the current me (along with my thoughts and behavior) is of no importance.” That I will be eradicated to make room for a new version of me who will in fact not be me is a concept that is at odds with the biblical narrative. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, does an excellent job of describing how the process of dying to self and allowing Jesus to live through us in fact produces the opposite of what we might expect: It is only through this process of self denial that we discover who we were always meant to be in Christ—our true selves.
When a Christian speaks of going to “live with God in heaven forever” after they die (if their meaning of “heaven” is something like an ethereal spiritual realm), they are once again out of step with the story that the Bible is telling. That understanding of God’s endgame for humanity, the universe, and so forth is far more Gnostic than Christian.
The Bible refers to heaven as the place where God reigns in unveiled glory. We’re given awe-inspiring pictures of a throne room, unapproachable light, numerous angelic attendants, and endless worship. Throughout Scripture, this place is often poetically associated with the upper atmosphere or even a geographic location like “Mount Zion” or Jerusalem’s temple. In truth, heaven is better understood as a person than a place. The ancient Jews didn’t think their God literally lived in the sky or on some distant planet. They understood he was everywhere and that heaven was always just around the corner, so to speak, and could even peak through on occasion (Genesis 28:17, Ezekiel 1:1, 2 Kings 6:17). Genesis describes a time long ago when heaven and earth occupied the same space (N.T. Wright, in Simply Christian, discusses this concept of heaven and earth “interlocking” far better than I could hope to here). God never left. But our ability to perceive him, to experience his perfect reign and unveiled glory, was tragically inhibited by sin—a death of the worst kind.
Jesus, through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, brings heaven crashing back into earth like a tidal wave. The restorative work of Christ allows each of his followers, and the Church collective, to function as containers, or temples, of God, a place of sorts in which heaven and earth occupy the same space once again. This renewed connection to God through Jesus is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3), and the phenomenon of heaven incrementally intersecting with earth through Jesus is called the “kingdom of God.” His endgame then seems to involve the spiritual realm perfectly and completely coexisting with a cured physical universe as it was in the beginning. After all, he commands us to regularly pray for this very thing (Matthew 6:9-10).
Just as he left in flesh, Jesus promised that he will return to our world “in the same way” (Acts 1:11). His kingdom will come in fullness, the seamless reunification of heaven and earth, when the King is physically present. Evil will be permanently eradicated from his universe, and only what is good and pure, what is of him, will remain. At his command, human souls that have been transformed into his likeness by the finished work of Christ will be reunited with their resurrected, now-immortal, incorruptible bodies. He will dwell “with us” and we will see his face (Revelation 21:3, 22:4). God's endgame then is not so much to bring us to heaven as it is to bring heaven back to earth.
Those who persistently love their treason more than their Creator will—in accordance with their own unyielding wishes—experience a complete inability to perceive the ever-present and infinitely good God. Having rejected the Tree of Life, and now cast out of a universe that, even in its broken state, still echoed the Creator's goodness, they will tragically endure an eternal torment of such intensity that it is likened to being burned in a lake aflame, cast into deepest darkness and bone-grinding bitterness—beyond dead. “Depart from me” will be the last thing they hear. Tragically, the horrors of this existence cannot be overstated, yet it is a fate that all of humanity has justly earned.
Eternal life begins today when we trust in the finished work of Jesus and give ourselves over to his transformative work in our lives. It is immeasurably good to participate in his kingdom now and become conduits of heaven on earth as he reigns in our hearts and hands. Even better, though, is when our mortal body gives out and our soul is swept up into his presence where we experience his unveiled glory and perfect reign in heaven. But the best is yet to come—the hope of resurrection—when he brings heaven to a restored earth, reunites our soul and body (as humans were meant to exist), and once again walks with us in the garden.
Christ’s bodily resurrection is central to the Gospel. As is the future hope of our own bodily resurrection and that of the cosmos. The story that the Bible is telling is of a once-“good” physical world that has been tragically marred by sin and death but that is presently being restored through the work of Jesus. The physical world has been mortally wounded by corrupted flesh, so the cure must come from the spiritual realm, more specifically from heaven. The spiritual—the eternal Word of God—takes on flesh in order to restore flesh and, by extension, the rest of the physical world. Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of his cosmic restoration project. He is making “all things new.” No doubt we'll all be surprised when he is finished. Happy Easter!
Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?'” (John 11:25-26)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Imago Dei


My four-year-old daughter has a little toy rake that she enthusiastically runs and fetches whenever I set out to rid the yard of leaves. She loves “helping” daddy do the yard work. It's a terrifically inefficient process. She haphazardly moves leaves here and there in a way that only makes sense to her. I do my best to steer her in the right direction, get her pushing the leaves the same way I'm headed. Our collaboration is definitely a work in progress. When we've finally wrangled all the leaves into one big pile, she often likes to jump right in the middle and thrash around like she's making a snow angel. This inevitably adds more raking for me. But I love every second of it, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Likewise, it brings God great joy to include His children in His work—not because we are particularly useful or handy, but because we are His.

The creation story tells us how God affectionately crafted humanity in His own image. In the ancient world, the Roman emperors would erect marble sculptures of themselves throughout their empire in order to let their subjects know who was boss. In contrast to the Caesars' static symbols of power, God created living monuments to His greatness, conduits of His mercy and justice, and placed them in the world as His administrators. He instructed them to spread out, multiply, and exercise dominion over all creation. As His image bearers, humanity was empowered and commissioned by God to continue His creative work in the world by harnessing its raw potential. But what happens when the monuments refuse to reflect their glorious Creator? What happens when God's human administrators shirk their calling and rebelliously seek their own way? All of creation is currently living out the tragic answer to this not-so-hypothetical question. Instead of stewarding God's good creation, humanity exploits and oppresses all that God has entrusted to us. We were meant to be a blessing to the cosmos, yet by our own folly we became creation's curse.

Fortunately God is not swayed by humanity's consistent moral incompetence. He is as committed to His original plan to rule His creation through human administrators as ever. And so He became a human, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth, to set our wayward species back on track, to give us the costly reboot we so desperately needed. We can't help but note the counterintuitive way in which God reclaims His world. Suffering and dying as a frail human being is not the counter-move you would expect from an omnipotent being. It speaks volumes, however, about the way in which God views and wields power. Jesus claims that “His yoke is easy” and “His burden is light.” And while His disciples originally jockeyed for power over each other in typical human fashion, Jesus spoke of another way. He said that whoever aspired to be great in His kingdom would need to become the servant of all, and then went on to demonstrate this concept in both small and monumental ways. It seems His sovereignty is best displayed through His comfort with outsourcing His work to human agents. In His kingdom we are not only recipients of His restorative work in the world but we are also made into active participants—ambassadors, ministers of reconciliation, partners in the family business. It's the serpent who would have us believe that God is a megalomaniac, holding out on us, keeping us from our highest potential. C.S. Lewis uses his allegorical tale of Narnia to paint a compelling picture of God's role for humans. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the noble Aslan restores peace to Narnia by sacrificially redeeming the treasonous Edmund, defeating the White Witch, and enthroning the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve as his royal administrators over the mythical land. God would have us be kings and queens over His creation, while the lies of the serpent have reduced us to shackled slaves.

Our Creator regularly goes out of His way to utilize human beings to accomplish His purposes in the world. He shouts “let my people go!” through stuttering human voices and pours out His heart through human pens. He works His wonders through staffs and slings wielded by human hands. How beautiful are the feet that bring His good news. This is not by necessity or coincidence. It is in accordance with His good pleasure and express design. Right after the resurrected Jesus announced that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him He immediately distributed His authority to His disciples so that they could carry out the Great Commission. In Acts chapter 10 we read about a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is ready to hear the Gospel. God sends an angel to him, not to tell him about what Jesus had accomplished, but merely to tell him that he needs to go find a man named Peter. Then God sends Peter a vision and tells him to get ready for Cornelius' visit. God goes to great lengths to arrange a meeting between these two men, reserving the best part—the Gospel proclamation—for Peter. How hard it must have been for the angel to hold his tongue as God gleefully disregarded expediency in favor of His precious child's clumsy involvement.

I think prayer is often of this same sort. At the end of Job's intense ordeal, God reprimands his inconsiderate “friends” by saying, “I am angry with you...because you have not spoken the truth about me.” He then goes on to instruct the men to ask Job to pray for them and promises that He will accept Job's prayer on their behalf and forgive them. This round about way of forgiving Job's friends may seem puzzling at first. Why doesn't God just forgive these guys if that's what He has already planned to do? It seems that He is honoring Job by making room in the process for his humble involvement. He tells us to keep asking Him, nagging Him even, for His kingdom to come, for His will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven—an outcome that He Himself is passionately committed to achieving whether we were to ask or not. And yet He says to ask just the same. Our ability to affect real change in the world through our request is His gift to us, and the time spent participating with our Father at work is a gift we share. Our “contribution” to God's work, as Mr. Lewis points out, can only be seen as a child borrowing money from her father to buy him a birthday gift. Though the father is pleased with the arrangement, he is in the end “none the richer.”

If my four-year-old sets out to rake the leaves on her own, it will undoubtedly end in failure. Jesus warns His followers, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Like a once-shattered mirror miraculously restored, God's image bearers are only set right through the work of His Christ. It is Jesus who qualifies us to “reign with him” as we were always meant to (Revelation 20:6). He is pleased to enable and assign us a place in His good work. He doesn't need little human helpers. He is more than capable of governing the cosmos—raking the leaves, so to speak—on His own. We will constantly be confounded by His behavior, however, if we try to understand a hyper-relational, triune God in terms of mere efficiency. He has a plan and purpose for the human race, and He is going to great lengths to see it through to its glorious conclusion. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Taste and See...

Jesus identified the command to love our Maker with all that we are as the “greatest” of all God's commandments. In truth, I find it to be the most tragic of all His commandments. Only because there was a time when this commandment—and by extension, all other commandments—would be as unnecessary as an edict requiring humans to acknowledge that fire is hot and water is wet or that life is to be chosen over death. The first humans were crafted with the capacity to be captivated by His beauty. It seems they loved Him like they loved their next breath—like they loved life itself. We have since lost our taste for Him, the Tree of Life. Stumbling in the darkness, we have tasted of another tree, and in our broken state all we crave is ash and death. Frequently returning to the alternate tree, we gorge ourselves on “that which is not food” and are left in perpetual famine and want (Isaiah 55:2). Central to the Father's redemptive work in the world through Jesus then is the Spirit's restoration of our scorched palate. He renews our desire to feast on Him.

When God spoke the world into existence, He created a beautiful garden in which the first humans were meant to thrive. As image-bearers, we were made to be an extension of Him to the universe, a mirror radiating His goodness and glory and administering and celebrating His justice and virtue throughout His good world. At the center of the garden He placed two trees unlike the others. And so humanity was presented with a monumental choice from the beginning: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Duet 30:19). God makes His desire for His creation abundantly clear, and yet, by His own sovereign will, He does not completely bypass human volition. The fruit of the first tree offered eternal life while the fruit of the other would forever infuse the eater with the forbidden knowledge of good and evil. As you probably already know, they foolishly forfeited their claim to the Tree of Life and instead grasped for the authority to define good and evil for themselves, a task for which they were—and we still are—hopelessly ill-equipped.

At this point, we must have a word about metaphor. You may recall how Jesus created quite a stir among His First Century followers when He claimed to be the “bread of life” come down from Heaven to be consumed by whosoever willed. The thought of cannibalizing their beloved leader was understandably grotesque. Most of His disciples walked away in disgust. Christ's meaning is debated still. Jesus' comparison of His body and blood to bread and wine was undoubtedly meant to be jarring. As we follow His metaphor, though, we will note that bread is a necessary and external source of life to the eater. It literally becomes a part of us as we digest it, empowering us and changing us from the inside. The bread is also unavoidably destroyed in the process. Jesus effectively described something otherworldly that we couldn't otherwise understand by using something that we do understand. His death, burial, and resurrection are objectively real, historical events with boundless implications. The symbolic explanation in no way obscures or robs the events of their meaning. It is Jesus' stories, in fact, that actually convey the true meaning of what He accomplished, which would otherwise be missed. Many fundamentalists see virtue in dogmatically adhering to a hyper-literal interpretation of all sacred scriptures. They may see an appeal to metaphor as the voice of the serpent who cunningly asked, “did God truly say...?” When in truth, it is the hyper-literalist who tragically misses Jesus' actual message in this instance.

I'm not suggesting that the book of Genesis should be exclusively understood as metaphor. While there are scriptural authors who the Spirit moved to consistently write in very poetic and hyperbolas styles, Genesis, like the gospels, is primarily written as a straight-forward, historical narrative (objectively chronicling real people, places, and events). Furthermore, recognizing Adam as a real human being who actually lived is arguably pivotal to understanding the necessity for the “new Adam.” Interestingly, though, Jesus frequently relies on metaphor when He is explaining the nature and function of the kingdom of God (He uses a lot of similes in particular: “the kingdom of God is like” such and such). In His revelation to the seven churches, He describes the full reunification of Heaven and Earth in a very symbolic way. He likens His people to a city and a beautiful bride. He presents Himself as a bridegroom, a lion, and a lamb and so on. Could it be that this early period of human history described in the first few chapters of Genesis, in which Heaven and Earth peacefully co-existed, is so foreign to us post-Eden folks that we can only now be told of it through metaphor? When I muse that Jesus was/is the Tree of Life, the fulness of God made incarnate and accessible to humans, spoken of in the Creation story, I'm not suggesting that He existed as an inanimate tree with magic fruit any more than I would suggest that Satan, a supernatural being, in the story is meant to be understood as a literal reptile. Satan is often likened to an ancient sea serpent, a dragon, a deceiver, and an angel of light elsewhere in the pages of holy scripture, and so we have little trouble identifying him in the story. I would argue that there are other passages that reveal Jesus as the Tree of Life, to whom our first parents lost access and instantly “died” as a result. In Jesus' depiction of paradise restored, complete with ample references to Eden, He claims, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). In this passage, access to the “tree of life” and entrance into “the city” are inseparably linked. And if this weren't enough, Jesus claims the tree's leaves are for the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Jesus is truly Light, Life, the Door, the Rock, the Lion, the Lamb, the Word, the Alpha and the Omega, the Vine, the Truth, the Bread of Life, but He is not literally these things.

Whether the Tree of Life is a supernatural fruit tree which grants the eater physical immortality, or it is a metaphor for something, or someone, far greater which we could not otherwise understand, the central message of the fall must not be overlooked: The first humans tragically rejected God—their true source of sustenance—in favor of an existence apart from Him. “My people have committed two sins,” says the Lord, “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). We have all believed the lie that we can define and manage good and evil for ourselves and in so doing have chosen death over abundant Life. Still, He humbly beckons us back, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:1-2). In His mercy, God has graciously brought the once-rejected Tree of Life to us. Through the work of His Spirit He has renewed our taste for its fruit. He invites us to feast, to delight in Him. If there is anything truly good, anything of pure joy, anything worthwhile in this broken world, it is merely a faint echo of Him. For He is the source of all goodness, creativity, justice, and beauty—LIFE itself.

“Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8a).