Thursday, December 30, 2010

Israel, Son of God

Several places in the Old Testament the nation of Israel is referred to as God's "son": "Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son'" (Exod. 4:22; cf. Deut. 8:5; Jer. 31:9, 20; Hos. 11:1). But what implication does this have for how we are to understand Jesus as the Son of God?

The gospel at its core says that Jesus has come to fulfill all that was pointed toward in Israel's history and Scriptures, namely, the promise of blessing to Abraham's descendants and to all the world through them. (See Scot McKnight's explanation of this here.) In what is perhaps the most succinct description of the apostolic gospel, Paul writes to the Corinthians that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve" (1 Cor. 15:1-8). Paul and the apostles before him saw all this happening "according to the Scriptures," that is, the "Christ-event" (Barth) was something anticipated in the Old Testament and in the history of Israel (see Rom. 1:1-4). Even Jesus had this view of himself (see, e.g., Matt. 5:17 and Luke 24:25-27).

While there are many ways this can be seen in the NT, it is perhaps most evident in the Gospel of Matthew. When Herod hears of a rival king's birth, the holy family flees to Egypt and seeks refuge until Herod's death. Matthew elucidates the meaning of this event: "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son'" (2:15; quoting Hosea 11:1). In Hosea it is Israel who is God's son, and the reference is to their rescue and calling in the exodus (cf. Deut. 8:5). But here the title is applied to Jesus. Stepping back, we can see numerous other parallels to Israel's history in the life of Jesus. For example, the flight to Egypt parallels not only Pharaoh's murder of Hebrew babies and Moses' rescue to become Israel's leader (Exod. 1-2); echoes can also be seen of the incipient family of Israel (Jacob) fleeing for their lives to Egypt (Gen. 42-43).

Additionally, just as Israel was "baptized" in their exodus-passage through the Red Sea (Exod. 14; 1 Cor. 10:4), so Jesus also underwent baptism (Matt. 3:13-17). After the exodus, Israel wandered in the wilderness, undergoing temptation and grumbling against the Lord for forty years. After his baptism, Jesus likewise spent forty days in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). Israel was tempted by hunger and thirst in order to humble them, to expose their hearts, and to teach them that "man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:2-5). But ultimately their discontented hearts were set on idols, and they failed the test (1 Cor. 10:5-10). Yet where Israel failed, Jesus held fast, even wielding Deuteronomy 8:3 against the devil's devices. Whereas God was not pleased with Israel (1 Cor. 10:5), in his baptism and temptation Jesus is marked out as the beloved Son well-pleasing to God his Father (Matt. 3:17).

There are many other places as well in which Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling (that is, filling up, bringing to a climax, or displaying the true meaning of) Israel's history and hopes. (If you want to know more, e-mail me or read Peter Leithart's essay, Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthew's Gospel.) Not least among these is that Jesus is the true seed of Abraham who serves as the representative head of God's people and bears upon himself the curse due to Israel for their disobedience to the Law, releasing to God's people (now both Jew and Gentile) the fullness of God's eschatological blessings, received by faith (Gal. 3:10-14, 21-29).

So in calling Jesus the Son of God, Matthew and other NT writers are really saying that Jesus is the true Israel, the one whose story culminates and transforms Israel's. He re-enacts and undergoes all that Israel went through in her travails to bring God's glory and blessing to a fallen world. Only where she failed, he succeeded. He is the true obedient servant of God, who truly understands and lives out the law's demands for trusting love to her Creator-King (Matt. 5:17; Heb. 10:5-10). The implications of this are that all of God's blessings are now no longer seated upon the Jews' obedience to the Law, but upon Jesus the Son's obedience and curse-bearing. As was always promised even to Abraham, covenant righteousness before God--and therefore the covenant promises of abundant life, an eternal home, and dwelling with God--now comes through faith in his Son Jesus.

David, Son of God

"Jesus is the Messiah, [that is,] the Son of God" (John 20:31). As I argued in my previous post, Son of God and Messiah were somewhat interchangeable titles; or at least they were understood to be synonymous for the person God would send to be King over Israel and the whole world and bring Israel's final glory.

Properly understood, the title Messiah (Christ) means "anointed one." To anoint someone with oil in Hebrew culture was to ceremonially set him apart for a special role. While there were many occassions for anointing someone with oil, in the OT there were three particular roles into which someone was baptized by an anointing rite: prophet (Isa. 61:1), priest (Exod. 28:41; 30:30; Lev. 16:32), and king (1 Sam. 9:16; 15:1; 2 Sam. 2:4; 1 Kings 1:34). The majority of OT references to an anointed person, though, refer to King David and his successors on the throne of Israel (or Judah, during the divided kingdom). Thus when the nations hate God's law and rage against his "anointed one," God derides them and proclaims the truth: "I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill" (Ps. 2:1-6). This king is referred to as God's "son," and upon the day of his coronation, God becomes his "father" (2:7, 12). (Some translations of Psalm 2:12 say that God has "begotten" the king.) In John 5:19-30, Jesus is even explicitly revealed as the Son entrusted by the Father with all judgment, wielding his Father's scepter. There is an intimate connection between divine sonship and regency.

This motif is echoed elsewhere in the Psalms. Psalm 89, which implores God on that basis of his covenant made to David (see 2 Sam. 7), records God as saying, "I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him . . . He will call out to me, 'You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.' I will also appoint him [as] my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth" (vv. 20, 26-27). It is through the just and righteous reign of God's anointed "son" that God rules his people Israel and subdues the nations (vv. 22-29; cf. 2:8-12; 72; 110; Gen. 49:10). Yet when Israel backslid into the spiritual adultery of idolatry and apostasy and was carried into exile by godless foreign nations, it was made clear that no such exalted king had yet come. The truly righteous King of the house of David awaited a future era for the people of God (see Jer. 23:1-8).

So by saying that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible is saying that Jesus is the definitive answer to Israel's hope for a king who would save them through his wise and just reign. He ist the ruler who would usher in an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity for God's people--and destruction for those outside of God's kingdom. In Jesus, the promised shepherd-deliverer had come (Ezek. 34). This is good news for those who will gladly and willingly submit to him, but terror for those who refuse him in this life. "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not have eternal life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:36; see the parallels with Psalm 2).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jesus, Son of God

If you have read John's Gospel or his letters (1-3 John), you will notice pretty quickly that his preoccupation is that Jesus is the "Son of God." In fact, this was so central to John's view of Jesus that he wrote entirely so that "you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). But what exactly does this title mean? To most evangelicals it means that Jesus is fully divine, that he is God incarnate. And the prologue to the Fourth Gospel validates this: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God" (1:1-2). This Word (Greek logos) is perhaps best seen as the ultimate, cohesive, self-expression of who God is in his very essence. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [lit. "tabernacled," as did the shekinah cloud of God's glory] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (1:14, 18). In the Word the eternal, hidden God is revealing who he is and what he is like. (In his book The Challenge of Jesus, N. T. Wright points out that Jesus as the Son embodies God in five primary modes of God's action in the world and particularly through and for Israel: Word, Wisdom, Spirit, Temple, and Torah. Jesus is being and doing in the world what only God can do.) Elsewhere in John's Gospel, Jesus the Son of God is revealed as the one who knows the Father intimately and lives entirely in concert with his desires (3:35; 5:16-28).

But perhaps this declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, while not divorced at all from his deity, has as much--or even more--to do with his role as the human king who fulfills, rewrites, and redeems the history of Israel and, through her, the whole world. You see, John uses the title Son of God interchangeably with the title Messiah (Christ): "Jesus is the Messiah, [that is,] the Son of God" (20:31). The apostles also understood the Son of God as synonymous with the Messiah: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:10). I have heard the name Jesus Christ explained this way: "Jesus" refers to his humanity as the virgin-born man (Matt. 1:21), while "Christ" refers to his divinity as the virgin-born man. While this is not entirely wrong, are we missing something? I believe we may be, and I hope in the next few posts to flesh out (pun intended) three ways Jesus-as-God's-Son goes beyond "mere" deity and encompasses also his humanity as the true Adam, Israel, and David.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Glory Days

A few weeks ago our pastor Erik announced that, due to rapidly outgrowing our current worship space, we would be moving to a new site just a few blocks away. I immediately felt the cringe of nostalgia. Even though City Church is only four years old, we have always met in the same small, beautiful church building. I will be a little sad to leave. But Erik quickly reminded those of us who long for the "glory days" that for any church, our true glory days lie ahead in the new heavens and the new earth, when Jesus reigns completely and all things are renewed. What a challenging truth! It made me think: Is nostalgia really some sort of misplaced hope, as if we ever lived in some sort of heaven-on-earth? The apostle Peter warns us that we do not yet live in our true homeland "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13); a later prophet chided nostalgia as "a desire for something which has never actually appeared in our experience" (C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory").

A few nights ago I was singing to myself Martin Luther's old Christmas hymn, "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come," in which an angelic host proclaim the good news of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. In the fourth stanza they bear this news:

He will on you the gifts bestow
Prepared by God for all below,
That in His kingdom, bright and fair,
You may with us His glory share.

"That . . . you may with us His glory share"--that is the gospel! The good news of the redemption Christ has won for us means that we would not only see beauty--the fiery glow of a sunset, the piercing radiance of noonday sun reflecting from a fresh snowfall, the calm drops of dew glistening suspended from a spider's web, the warmth of a loving family gathered around the hearth, the resounding voices of the chorus inside St. Peter's Basilica, the graceful movements of a ballet dancer, the arms of Mother Teresa around a discarded, sickly orphan, the trade of wrinkled smiles between a long-married couple--but that we would become beautiful and glorious ourselves. Only our glory and beauty will far surpass that of any temporal thing of this earth: we will share the very glory of Jesus the eternal Son ourselves.

The good news of the gospel is that through Jesus Christ, God himself and his saving righteousness have been unveiled (Rom. 1:17; 2 Cor. 4:4, 6). And the result--or, perhaps rather, the goal--is that we share in his glory ourselves. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18). And one day, we will share the very same glory of body, soul, and spirit as the risen and glorified Son himself, full of the Spirit of Life: "For those whom he [God] foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Rom. 8:28-30*; see also Heb. 2:5-10; 1 John 3:1-2).

I think this is something even the best of us evangelicals can miss as we hold forth the cross. We focus so heavily on forgiveness and justification by faith--the open door into the kingdom and into union with Christ--that we lose sight of the end goal, of God's ultimate purpose for us in this life and the next: participating in Christ's glory and so exercising our true humanity. As we set our lives before God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2) and come to a deeper knowledge of God's excellent promises, we "become partakers of the divine nature" and become freed from corrupting desires (2 Pet. 1:3-4). Our life's goal, both now and in the age to come, is to be so clothed with Christ and filled by the Holy Spirit that we take on, participate in, and share the very glory of our Head and King himself. Eastern theologians say that while we do not share God's essence or nature as Diety, we do share God's "energies," his ways of acting and being in the world (known as theosis). We are meant to become, as it were, little Christs, little sons of God, brothers along with the Firstborn who shares his Father's image (Gen. 1:26, 27; Rom. 8:17-18, 28-30; Col. 3:10; Heb. 2:5-17). Not that we ourselves become deified, but that we become flawless mirrors reflecting the light of God's glory and so shine all the more brightly ourselves with goodness and love and joy and beauty. We will become fully illuminated, luminous as the brightest stars in the heavens (Dan. 12:2-3).

*Paul employs the past tense to announce that both in God's eternal purposes set before creation and also in the cross and empty tomb in A.D. 29, all of salvation has already been accomplished--even if it is being applied and brought to fruition across time by the Holy Spirit as he unites people to Christ.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Old Advent Posts

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Apparently this maxim applies to my blogging, too. Maybe I just haven't had the time to think though Adventy stuff. Either way, you can check out my previous posts here, since I don't get around to posting much new material anymore. (However, I have spent a long time figuring out how Jesus as the Son of God means he fulfills the roles of David and Israel, and why this is good news. But apparently I can't copy-and-paste text from Word into Blogger.)