Christ & His Preparation for Cosmic Life

Christ & His Preparation for Cosmic Life

Ralph Blair

When Paul wrote to Colossians, he began with a thankful prayer. He then inserted an early Christian hymn in celebration of Christ’s supremacy over all. Scholars say its insertion here “can be taken as a deft, preliminary counter-blow against a heretical demotion of Christ” (Robert Gundry), for as Richard Bauckham concludes: “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology.” All the evidence refutes the propaganda of today’s skeptics who push their notions that it took centuries to turn a peasant prophet into a “God.”

This earliest of Christian hymns affirms: “In him all things were created: things in heaven and things in earth, visible and invisible, thrones and powers, rulers and authorities. All things are through him and to him. He’s before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Christ “is the head of the body, the church; he’s the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col 1:15-20)

This is no endorsement of the trite talk of the Karen Armstrongs, Bart Ehrmans and John Shelby Spongs. If the earliest Christian reception of the risen Christ had been no more than the lifeless plots of these latecomers, neither they nor we would ever have heard of him.

This weekend, we’ll take a close look at this ancient Christ hymn in the wider context of Hebrew scripture and the New Testament.

We begin this morning by focusing on Christ and His Preparation for Cosmic Life. This afternoon we’ll look into Christ and His Propitiation for Cosmic Liberty. Tomorrow, we’ll consider Christ and His Purpose for Cosmic Love.

Explicitly and expansively, this hymn praises Christ as the manifestation of God himself. He’s over all creation since it all came into being through him and he holds it all together. And it’s all destined for him!

This credo was every bit as startling back then as it is today. What would or could it have meant or mattered to Colossians, so distracted by Gnostic dismissal of a material world? What can it mean or matter to us today, so distracted by a world of materialism? Well, God’s Truth is truth in all times, ancient, modern and postmodern. Yet his Truth is revealed within cultural contexts, whether there and then or here and now.

An IVPress book by Manfred Brauch is called Abusing Scripture: The Consequences of Misreading the Bible. This biblical theologian recognizes that, “Each generation, from Moses’ time to the present, has come to the sacred writings with the natural deposit of its own historical context.” He writes: “All bring to the ‘seeing’ of the biblical text the lenses of their own cultural conditioning, historical situation, faith traditions, existential needs and personal/group biases.” He notes: “It is this reality that makes the biblical admonitions to humility in our relationship with God as well as in our believing and thinking about the truths of God and responding to them, so critically important.” Wheaton College Old Testament scholar John Walton makes similar observations in his book, The Lost World of Genesis One, also from IVPress. Walton says: “Most people in Christian history have been trying to read Genesis in the context of relevance to their day. I want to talk about what is demanded by the text.” He explains that we must take seriously that the Bible, though it was written, “for us, is not written to us.”

These, along with other astute evangelical scholars, emphasize how crucial it is to recognize the incarnational nature of God’s written words just as we recognize this with God’s Word in flesh. Brauch cautions: “The entirety of Scripture is historically and culturally embedded and conditioned [and] our hearing, interpreting and application of Scripture must not take place without careful attention to the contextualization, this ‘human location’ of Scripture.”

So, we need to stretch from our time and place and cross many ages into strange lands, cultures and ways of seeing and saying things that aren’t our ways. How can we expect writers and readers from that “foreign country that is the past” to have been able to stretch into 21st century cultural assumptions, mindset, language and experience? We must do them – and ourselves – this courtesy of at least trying to stretch back from our end of this long timeline.

All of this should be Bible Interp 101, but sadly, even tragically, too many people pay little or no attention to these realities. So, they fail to guard themselves and others against reading into the text what’s not in the text.

Here, we are especially sensitive to such misreadings, aware of the damage done around what, supposedly, “the Bible says” on same-sex orientation and marriage. Yet, all through church history, similar damage has been done in all sorts of situations.

Now, having noted the necessity for a text’s being interpreted within the historical setting of writer and original readers, this Christ hymn can strike us as even more astonishingly revelatory than at our first glance. After all, those first 1st-century Christians who affirmed it, and their former persecutor who passed it on to former pagans, did so against religious traditions that, but for Jesus’ resurrection and the Spirit’s witness, would label as blasphemous a creed that identified a crucified Jew with Elohim YHWH. So, in effect, these basic rules of textual interpretation vouch for this creed’s credibility.

Turning to Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the usual English for the Hebrew text: B’reishit bara Elohim.

But, a thousand years ago, the rabbi known as “Rashi,” pointed out that in every other biblical instance, b’reishit means not merely “in the beginning” but “in the beginning of” this or that. Here, however, the “this” is God and it makes no sense to read “in the beginning of God.” But it can make sense as: “In the beginning of the beginning,” or, as another rabbi says, “The Torah begins by telling us that it does not exist in time the way other stories do. It exists in a suspended moment that cannot be pinpointed on a timeline. … [It] tells a story that exists outside of time and within all time.” (Jeff Goldwasser)

God arranges a cosmos as he intends it for his purpose and for our good. According to Proverbs 8, it’s all done with eternal Wisdom personified. So, as the rabbis of the Targum paraphrased Genesis: “With Wisdom God created the heavens and the earth.”

In his first words, John recalls Genesis’ first words, and Proverbs 8, when he identifies Wisdom or the Logos, the Word, with Christ. (John 1:1) And so does Paul. (I Cor 1:24) John presents Christ as, forever, one with God and states that, in that very beginning of all beginnings, “the Word already was and the Word was with God and what God was, the Word was.” Says John: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being.” (John 1:ff)

The writer to Hebrews speaks within the same ancient scenario, saying that it was through Christ that God put the whole universe together. (Heb 1:2)

Paul challenges Colossians, disturbed by Gnostic notions about the material world’s being inferior, even evil, for which escape was via secret knowledge. Paul defies this mindset with his witness that, this human being, Jesus, was the very image of the invisible God and that in him everything came into being, whether material or invisible such as that array of powers that Gnostics mistook to be powers in their own right. All were brought into being through the Christ. He controls them, and all are destined to him. There’s nothing left outside this cosmic panorama that’s by and under subjugation to Christ Jesus.

With Genesis 1 in mind, Paul declares to Corinthians: “The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Cor 4:6)

Are we beginning to see that these ancient texts say that, somehow, beyond our fullest comprehension, Christ who walked the dusty roads of Palestine and, in order to redeem us, laid down his life on the cross outside Jerusalem’s walls on one historic day, is Creator, Sustainer and the Goal of the cosmos?

Carl Sagan was wrong. The cosmos is not, in his famous phrase, “all that is or was or ever will be.” He and his viewers should have paid closer attention to his humbler remarks: “Our feeblest contem­plations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Well, we are approaching a great cosmic mystery, yet the far greater Mystery behind it has already approached us. He’s revealed Himself to us as our Lord, our Savior and our Friend.

David, looked up into the night skies some 3,000 years ago and, unaided by telescopes, felt more than a mere “tingling in the spine” and heard more than NASA sound probes find. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God and their expanse is declaring His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night, reveals knowledge. Yet, there’s no speech, no words. Their voice isn’t heard. Still, their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. And in the heavens, God pitched a tent.” (Ps 19:1ff)

In the heavens, God pitched a tent? Yes, though the reading of that Psalm usually stops just short of that statement. In the Hebrew, God pitched this tent as a tabernacle, a Temple in the sun. The sun is not a god as pagans said it was, but the sun serves God. A Puritan commentator wrote back in the 17th-century: “All the glory to be seen in the sun belongeth unto the Lord, for He made it and set it in its place, as in a tabernacle, for a time, so long as he hath use and service for it.” (David Dickson) Wise exposition!

Now, as you know, Hebrew script begins on the right side, not on the left, as in English. The first letter of that first Hebrew line of Genesis 1 is bet, the beginning of B’reishit or “beginning.” The shape of bet is like a 3-line square, without a line on the left. There’s a tiny dot in the middle of the bet to indicate the sound is “b” rather than “v.”

So, here’s a metaphor that you might say walks on all fours, but it can speak for itself. With a bit of imagination, the look of a bet is a fit symbol for the cosmos, as we know it today. The right side of the bet blocks the view of what precedes the cosmos while the left side is open for the whole cosmos to proceed.

We may take that tiny dot in the midst of the bet as the unimaginably tiny, infinitely hot and infinitely dense beginning of the Big Bang. And, we can see, from the open left side of the bet, even the standard diagram of the Big Bang’s cosmic expansion of space-time.

Our home in the cosmos is inside the bet.  Bet is Hebrew for “house,” as in, Bethel, “House of El,” “God’s House,” Bethlehem, “House of Bread” and Bethesda, “House of Mercy,” as Whitefield called his orphanage. Bethesda Well is just outside. And, very few New Yorkers at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain realize that that angel is the one that stirred the water in John 5:4.

Literarily then, Genesis 1 implies that the Lord is with us in our home in the cosmos, where his Temple is – that tent or tabernacle David said the Lord set up in the sun. The cosmos is a royal residence for Elohim, YHWH. He is here, encamped with us – even when we’re stubbornly blind to his presence.

And, with a bit more imagination, (Do you have a bit more imagination?) we can see in the shape of the bet, the bell of a horn, if you will, open wide to sound forth the ever clearer ring of truth that the Lord has to reveal to us.

Now, of course, these are metaphors for what’s beyond our grasp. But, God graciously reveals what we can grasp in a procession of revelation, moving forward with “yet more light” of which the Puritans spoke: increasing clarity in the written word, the Word incarnate, the growing understanding by the Spirit’s guidance and, through the Common Grace of God’s gifts of science and culture, further insight for our time and place.

It’s to be expected that Genesis 1 more resembles other ancient Near East origins stories than, say, a 21st-century report from Mt. Wilson Observatory. Genesis is of its time and its place, not ours. This fact is resisted by some folk. Do they prefer that God should have spoken in ways that none of the ancients could have understood? Or, do they prefer that we fail to appreciate all he’s given through science and culture? What doesn’t make sense about God’s communicating in language, thought structures and cultural categories intelligible to the recipients in their time and place?

At the same time, the Genesis story is clearly an emphatic rival to religious perspectives in the origins stories of Israel’s neighbors.

In Genesis 1, El, or, in the magnified plural, Elohim, is the One and only God Almighty. With Wisdom identified as Christ, the Word, the Logos, by New Testament writers, this One and only God Almighty, spoke all things into existence, including humanity, creation’s crown, bearing God’s image.

God declared all he’d done to be good.” (Gen 1:31) His appraisal was present even in that first word, B’resheet, “beginning.” The word also points to “firstborn” and “best.” The link to “best” is familiar to us in “first fruits” and “firstborn.” The first of the harvest or the firstborn is special. It’s in this unique sense that Christ is “firstborn over all creation.”

Long before light was seen to be the interaction of electric and magnetic fields, Genesis revealed that, when “God said ‘Let there be light’, there was light!” To the ancients, the light was the sun that rose each morning and retired each evening. The ancients could not have grasped what scientists have suggested only this year: That, billions of years after the Big Bang, the specific process that led to our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago “brewed for 30 million years before the birth of the Sun.” And, according to these scientists, this long process was
far more complex than they’d ever realized.

The more we learn of the cosmos, the more in awe we are. As the ancients looked up into the sky, what they imagined was but a tiny fraction of what we now think of as up, or out, there. And yet they were in awe. And we, too, are aware of only a tiny fraction of all that’s out there, “stretching for hundreds of billions of light-years and containing close to a trillion galaxies at minimum.” (Ethan Siegel) Some scientists speak of the cosmos as being even “infinite.”

I said that we’re particularly sensitive to the damage that’s been done by reading into the Bible, the homosexuality we know today. And, that very damage has, thereby, done damage to the cause of Christ. Last night, with the Increase Mather autograph, we recalled that it was 322 years ago that a treatise of his, in effect, ended Salem’s Witch Trials – ordeals that sprang from another misreading of scripture that then meant the cruel execution of innocent women and men. And still today, those egregious events at Salem remain an oft-repeated dark blot on the cause of Christ.

The misreading of Genesis also has left a wreck in its wake. And, again, the damage has been done to the cause of Christ. Kids who’re reared in Fundamentalism soon learn that the universe is more than 6,000 years old. In this crisis of fact and its subsequent crisis of faith, many give up on the Bible instead of dumping the dirty bathwater of preachers’ bibliolatry and bigotry and relying on the solid truth they’d been singing since childhood: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

This summer, the Right-wing World magazine attacked singer-songwriter Michael Gungor for, “drifting” from what it called, “Biblical Orthodoxy.” He’d simply expressed what evangelical biblical scholars have said, that Adam in Hebrew does not have to mean an historical man named “Adam.”  When the attack went viral, several churches cancelled Gungor’s concerts.

He’s a preacher’s kid, reared in Pentecostalism and he was a student at Oral Roberts University. He says, “it was terrifying” to find out that what he’d been taught about Genesis 1 and 2 did not square with science. But now, having resolved that, he remains a serious believer in Christ – albeit with fewer concerts in Fundamentalist venues. He’s not bitter. In a recent blog, he says his Christian critics and he are on “the same team,” and notes that, “while this whole Genesis interpretation thing was boiling … on social media, other Christians were being slaughtered in Iraq.” He says that, together, “our mission is to bring the life and hope of Jesus to the world.” Tonight, we’ll watch “Let There Be,” his new concert DVD on Creation, Redemption and Re-Creation.

Well, way back in the formative eras of Christian theology, the church fathers pushed back against ill-informed readings of scripture, aware of the damage that’s done by an irrational positioning of scripture over against reason and experience.

Give or take a year or two, it was 1,600 years ago that Augustine, great Church Father, called attention to such scandal. In his wise treatise, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he argued: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. And this knowledge, he holds as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, but talking nonsense on these topics. We should take all means to prevent such embarrassing situations, in which people expose the vast ignorance of a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people who are outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions. To the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him holding forth foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think that those pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. Then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, though they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

Augustine then cites Paul: “They want to be teachers of the Law but they don’t know what they’re talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (I Tim 1:7) In his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll writes: “To limit oneself only to the Scriptures in such instances, says Augustine, is to misread the Bible.”

Augustine’s and Paul’s reprimands could have been aimed against the very same “mischievous false opinions” that ignoramuses still preach. Yet, Augustine lived half way between the writing of Genesis and our day and Paul’s words are, of course, even earlier. But we still need their wisdom on this.

A young Reformed pastor, Kevin DeYoung, follows his 10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam with his new book, Taking God at His Word. But, instead of taking God at his word, he makes an idol of a 25th-century BC literary genre and forces that onto his 21st-century readers as though the style of the written Word is more significant than its substance. Calvin, himself, presumably a hero of DeYoung’s, was clear that we must not read God’s Word so woodenly. Calvin asked: “Who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God … lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children?” The Creator stoops to accommodate us, for anything more complicated than that would be more than creatures could comprehend.

But, oblivious to this historic insight, DeYoung insists: “Every word in the Bible is there because God wanted it there.” And that’s supposed to mean – what? His succinct assertion may seem to be hermetically sealed, but it’s far from hermeneutically sound.

A fisherman knew better. Peter wrote: “No prophecy ever came by human instigation alone, but men spoke as they were moved by God’s Spirit.” (II Peter 1:21) God graciously condescended, collaborating with us, employing our culturally limited language and experience to express what’s way beyond our ability to express or comprehend on our own and by ourselves.

World magazine’s Marv Olasky warns that, “a slip-sliding-away from the first three chapters of Genesis has led to abandonment of the rest of the Bible.” So it’s not surprising he approves of DeYoung’s approach with this non sequitur: “When we deny the complete trust­worthiness of the Scriptures [i.e., when others don’t misread as we do?], we are forced to accept one of two conclusions: either Scripture is not all from God, or God is not always dependable.” With this fallacy of false alternatives, he turns to his attack on N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture.

Olasky resents Wright’s case for God’s calling a first human pair, i.e., “Adam and Eve,” from among hominids in the evolutionary trek. Olasky objects to what he smirks is Wright’s “ingenuity” in following “deistic evolutionists [who] propound a view of the creation of Adam and Eve very different from what the Bible teaches.” Well, Wright’s plugging “Adam and Eve” into evolution does fail to respect the fact that, as an evangelical Old Testament scholar points out, the scientific and the biblical accounts “each speak a different language.” (Peter Enns) Therefore, both Olasky and Wright are left with big problems that their very different, even opposing solutions, don’t really address.

We simply cannot saddle the ancients with 21st-century concepts that even we don’t yet grasp well. Still, we can try to relate to what we’ve learned of their perspectives – and in this particular instance, about the so-called six days of God’s work at creation and the Sabbath day of His rest. And on this, we go back to Professor Walton at Wheaton for his very well informed insight.

He says: “One thing that we don’t pick up at all when we read the text, but that any ancient reader, Israelite or otherwise, would have understood, is that if it talks about God resting, it’s talking about a temple, because that’s where God rests and where the gods rest. That’s why temples were built. Therefore, [in Genesis 1] we are automatically thrown into a temple context.” And isn’t that what the Psalmist said: Into the cosmos, God pitched his tent or Temple?

Walton argues that, the six “days” plus the Sabbath “day” of rest, is the story of God’s giving function and organization to his cosmos; it’s not, as we tend to think of it from our perspective, essentially a creation story very strictly speaking. For example, what we would assume to be natural forces – the sun, the moon and stars – Israel’s surrounding peoples took to be deities. But Genesis 1 presents these so-called “deities” as totally controlled by Elohim, God Almighty! He is prior to all and he controls all by the ancient strategy of naming all and he orders all by assigning functions for his cosmic temple of residence. He, alone, is sovereign over the entire cosmos.

Today’s distracting curiosities and questions of science are historically and literarily irrelevant to the ancient text, whether posed by scientists or spun by atheists or Creationists. What matters to Genesis, is not the matter of the cosmos but the meaning; not the how, but the why.

Now, lest there be any doubt that Walton’s approach to the reading of Genesis 1 is truly sound and rigorous evangelical exegesis – even though it’s not necessary for evangelicals to adopt each of his points – here are a few of the indisputably sound evangelical scholars who’ve endorsed this book from IVPress.

From N. T. Wright: “Walton’s expertise in the Ancient Near Eastern sources enables him to shed a flood of new and unexpected light on the deeper meaning of Genesis 1. … The implications of this resonate right through the rest of the Bible. This is not just a book to invite ‘creationists’ to think differently; it is a book to help all Bible students read the whole of Scripture with fresh eyes.” Says Westmont College biblical scholar Tremper Longman III: “Walton offers a compelling and persuasive interpretation of Genesis, one that challenges those who take it as an account of material origins. His excellent book is must-reading for all who are interested in the origins debate.” Bruce Waltke, Old Testament scholar at Knox Seminary (founded by D. James Kennedy), and formerly at Dallas, Reformed, and Westminster Seminaries as well as Canada’s Regent College, writes: “Walton’s cosmic temple inauguration view of Genesis 1 is a landmark study in the interpretation of that controversial chapter. On the basis of ancient Near Eastern literatures, a rigorous study of the Hebrew word bara’ (‘create’), and a cogent and sustained argument, Walton has gifted the church with a fresh interpretation of Genesis 1. His view that the seven days refers to the inauguration of the cosmos as a functioning temple where God takes up his residence as his headquarters from which he runs the world merits reflection by all who love the God of Abraham.”

And here’s Calvin College geologist Davis Young, son of the late and venerable Old Testament professor at Westminster Seminary. As a Christian and earth scientist who’s been wrung through the ringer far too many times by Fundamentalists, Davis Young says, with a good humored enthusiasm: “Every theologian, every pastor, every Christian in the natural sciences, indeed, every Christian who loves the Bible must put aside all other reading material this minute and immediately begin to absorb the contents of John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.” Says Young: “He has blown away all the futile attempts to elicit modern science from the first chapter of the Bible.” Young’s reaction comes, not only from the pain he himself has endured from abusers of Genesis, but from what he’s seen of their abuse of students over the years and, again, what that abuse has done to harm the cause of Christ.

But, thankfully, the truth of Genesis never did rest in the cultural forms of expressions of any age – ancient, modern or postmodern. The real truth of Genesis 1 rests where it always has and always will: In the One who is The Truth, himself, the eternal Christ, who was worshipped in that early 1st-century hymn that Paul shared with the Colossians. He’s the One in whom, by whom, through whom and for whom this finely tuned cosmos exists for our earthly life and to God’s eternal glory.

 

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