We’ve come a long way. We began with God’s good creation and saw it cursed. We’ve seen God work through his people Israel eventually bringing about the True Israelite, indeed the True Human Being, Jesus of Nazareth. He is the perfect reflection of the image of God. He is fit to rule God’s creation just as God intended and he goes about to do just that. Where ever he finds things which are not like they are supposed to be he puts them right. But “patch up” work will not suffice. Jesus moves to strike sin and death at the root. He submits himself to death and by doing so he quite mysteriously exhausts the power of sin and death bringing forgiveness and life to all under his rule. Christ himself being freed from death in his resurrection now offers that life to all who are his. But if Jesus conquered the powers of sin and death then why do people still sin and why do people still die? This article will discuss this question and give us a picture of what it means for us to bear the image of God in God’s good (but fallen) world.
First, insofar as Jesus is to be seen as the fulfillment of all that God promised (Acts 13:32), we would do well to get a sense of what God promised. A quick look at just a few scriptures will give us a sense of what the people expected God to do when he put things right.
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 25:6-8)
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind … The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isa. 65:17-25)
These two passages, and many others could be named, picture the state of things when God puts things right. All of “the former things” which are associated with the curse “shall not be remembered or come to mind.” In fact, death itself will be destroyed and “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” This time, when God puts all things right, is variously described as “the day of the LORD,” “the latter days,” or vaguely “a coming day.”
The picture we are left with is one “day” or “age” or “time” which is ruled by sin, death, injustice, and oppression and another day in which those things are done away with and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven, a time in which what God wants done is done. And the picture of the prophets is that this happens quite abruptly. All at once we pass from one age to the next.
Second, now that we know what was expected we know what we can look for Jesus to do. As was shown in the previous article Jesus does what was expected. So often whenever he sees things which are not as they should be he puts things right. This the way the “kingdom of God” looks when it arrives (cf. Mat. 12:28). Jesus fights and wins the ultimate victory against the powers of sin and death by his crucifixion. He then is resurrected in a physical body which is never to die again (Acts 13:34). His body is untouched by the curse. His body is a little “bit” of that “age to come” in which death is destroyed. But this is where the mystery appears. The “age to come” did not arrive all at once. We are in a sort of in between period, what theologians often call the now-and-not-yet.
For example, just before Jesus makes his finally entry into Jerusalem he goes to the house of a dear friend, Lazarus, who has just passed away. Before Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ house his sister runs to meet Jesus. Martha says to Jesus that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died. In response Jesus makes his intentions quite clear. He will resurrect Lazarus. He says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). As explicit as Jesus might be the idea of someone rising from the dead in the middle of time was absurd. That was an event reserved for “the age to come” or “the last day.” In that day, when God’s kingdom comes an earth as it is in heaven, when death was overthrown all at once, then Lazarus would be resurrected. Martha says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24). But Jesus is making a surprising claim. That future world has rushed backwards to meet Lazarus in the present. The kingdom of God, and indeed the resurrection, is present right there in Jesus Christ. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.'” (11:25). This helps to explain the mystery of the now-and-not-yet. Whereas the expectation was to leap immediately and all at once from “this age” to “the age to come,” the reality in Jesus is that those two ages actually overlap. Yes the age to come has in fact arrived in Jesus but not in its totality. That is still reserved for the future. But the last days have begun. We are living in them now. And any who are attached to Jesus by faith and baptism have been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred … into the kingdom” of Jesus (Col. 1:13). This leads us to my final point.
Finally, we live in the overlapping of the ages. This explains why people still die and people (even Christians) still sin. We are still waiting for the fullness of our redemption. But, that redemption has begun. And that has serious consequences for the way that we ought to live in the world.
If God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth then all those who belong to him recognize that we are under new management. And that means we must start acting like it. After Jesus resurrection he gathered his apostles and said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). One teacher put it like this: what Jesus was for Israel they (and we) are to be to the world. Just as Jesus went about “putting things right” so we are to do the same.
But we are not to repeat the sin of our first parents. We cannot attempt to run the world however we see fit. We are to do it under the sovereignty of God and we are helped along the way by the Holy Spirit. “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (20:22). Whenever a person is placed into Christ by faith and baptism he receives the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38) which is else where described as “the pledge of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:14). The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is a pledge or a promise. It is a promise that the work which God has begun in us he will bring to its full and final fulfillment. But again this implies that the work has already begun. The image of God in us is being renewed “according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). As we walk in step with the Spirit he brings forth the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). It is by the Spirit that we build for God’s new world in the midst of this world. And we are promised that our work “is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). The good we do will not be forgotten. Indeed it will have a part in God’s New Heavens and New Earth.
This is our duty. This is what it means to be simply human. Wherever we see death, we fight against it to bring life. Wherever we find oppression we bring freedom. When we see crookedness we bring justice. Where ever we find division we bring unity. Where ever we find war we bring peace. When we find indifference we bring love. Where ever we find anger we bring forgiveness. God is making the world new in Jesus Christ. It has already begun. Our privilege is to partner with God. We can be a “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). We can build for that new world. So join me. Partner with God. Be simply human. Because you were born to.
©M. Benfield 2016