Jesus, The First Born of Creation: An Offer of Peace to a Hostile World

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The Son is the image of the invisible God,
        the one who is first over all creation,

Because all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.

He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him.

He is the head [i.e. source of life] of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
        the one who is firstborn from among the dead
        so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Identity

The story of our relationship with Jesus does not begin in a manger. In Colossians we learn that the story of the Incarnation in relation to us goes back further than one might have first thought—to creation. Our access to God and life has always come through Christ, Jesus and we were in fact, created by, for and through him.

Regarding the latter, an interesting way to understand in what way we were created through the Son is to consider that something “other” than God can exist because there is distinction within the Trinity. Creation and humanity can exist on the basis of the Son’s free self-distinction from the Father (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol 2, 30). Further, our existence as image bearers has always been based in the natural image of the invisible God—Jesus—and of course that gets into some very odd, yet highly plausible understandings of time.

*Exiting the Dr. Who universe now.

That said, we have always had access to God in Christ. Our very identities as image bearers are premised off of his identity and ultimate unity with us by nature. We were called to represent God in this world of whom Jesus is the perfect representation.

In the beginning we were created to be like priests or divine images set up in God’s temple, the earth (Genesis uses Near Eastern temple language to describe creation such as for example the 7 days/time periods among other things) . We were told to rule the earth together and to see one another as counterparts (i.e. the correspondence language all over Genesis).

And yet, we rejected God’s vision for us. We rejected our calling.

Rebellion

Our ancestors and the rest of us when we pattern ourselves after them, choose “wisdom” apart from God. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not an “evil” or bad tree, but we were told to depend on God and not partake of it at the time. We thought we could live well apart from the source of all life and wisdom. We decided to rebel against the God we were supposed to represent, the one whom all rule and authority was created for and as a result we sought to dominate one another, avoid responsibility, exploit and even murder.

The earth itself suffered. And continues to. Romans describes creation itself as groaning.

God sent us many messengers and envoys and made many accommodations to our warped understandings of power (i.e. Israel insists on a King and God finally relents). Yet we killed his messengers and refused to follow his ways again and again. And we all suffered. And most of our suffering comes from other humans.

Finally, the true and perfect “image of the invisible God” was sent to offer us peace and help us pattern ourselves after him. We killed him.

But what hate destroys, love resurrects.

God Shows Us How To Be Human

The birth , life, death and resurrection of Jesus stand concretely as a declaration of God’s power and love and hope for our future. While we were “estranged and hostile in mind” to God’s purposes, he reconciled with us with his own body. He showed us a new life orientation, one that surrenders zero-sum understandings of power, grandiosity and self-love at the expense of others.

Our egos and desperate efforts to have pride of place at the table were met by the true owner of the table who took the last place and welcomed those we looked down upon to it. He dared to side with the marginalized in front of us. He found those people we exploited and labeled as undesirable “sinners” and not only welcomed them but told "telling” stories in front of us all where they were set as the heroes, true sons, or valued and we were cast as the “sinners” or in rebellion against God (i.e. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, The Two Sons, The King and Debtors…etc). He named our sins in front of everyone. He outsmarted us as we tried to trap him into saying something to get himself killed. It didn’t work and so we made stuff up and found him guilty in secret so no one could call us out for our evil.

He not only valued and raised up the marginalized, he became the marginalized. And he knew he would. He knew what kind of people we were when he came. He knew how tightly we held onto power and our false gods, ourselves. He kept living, modeling how we were called to act and would not stop. He did say that in order to truly live one must be willing to be brutally killed for living the way we were supposed to live—pure allegiance and devotion to our true calling.

In the end, we had to crucify him. We had to humiliate him, distort who he was and get rid of him so that we could continue what we were doing. People liked him too much and they started to think in ways that were not so beneficial for us. And really, he did say he was willing to pay this price. But nor our evil narratives nor the crushing power of Rome would have the final say.

God Unveils His Future

The physical body of Jesus was brought back to life but in such a way that transcended even a prefall state. God had sent us an offer of peace in human form and we more than rejected it. Jesus’ resurrection not only vindicated his message (he was not cursed by God), stood as God’s answer to injustice, but renewed the offer for peace. He lived the life we could not live as God’s representative and paid the ultimate price for it uniting the human with the divine and opened up the doors for us to also live as he did and except the offer of peace with God by the Holy Spirit. His resurrected body is also the first of many. His resurrection is a sign pointing out our own future and what it could be and look like, a reversal of the damage and transformation into something godly.

Our next move?

To be with Christ: The Intermediate State and Phil. 1:21-24

In many theological circles, the doctrine of the intermediate state is often a key theological locus. For many or most evangelical Christians, the intermediate state is a comfort, drawn upon inferences from key Scriptural texts. It is not my interest to dissuade Christians from affirming this doctrine, or taking solace in it. Rather, my twofold goal is to challenge Christians to stay true to the text, and to show why I think Philippians 1:21-24 is insufficient as support for the doctrine of the intermediate state.

To lay my cards out on the table, I do not presently believe in such an intermediate state. My view of the human person does not require an intermediate state, and my view of the resurrection of the body does not either. There is of course debate about this doctrine, and I will not solve it at all in one blog post. But allow me to address a specific text in Paul that is often utilized to support the idea.

The text reads as follows:

Phil. 1:21-24: ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος. 22 εἰ δὲ τὸ ζῆν ἐν σαρκί, τοῦτό μοι καρπὸς ἔργου— καὶ τί αἱρήσομαι οὐ γνωρίζω· 23 συνέχομαι δὲ ἐκ τῶν δύο, τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν ἔχων εἰς τὸ ἀναλῦσαι καὶ σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι, πολλῷ γὰρ μᾶλλον κρεῖσσον, 24 τὸ δὲ ἐπιμένειν ⸀ ἐν τῇ σαρκὶ ἀναγκαιότερον δι᾽ ὑμᾶς.

My translation: “For me, to live—Christ; and to die—profit. But if to live in the body, this to me is fruitful work, and what I choose to take up I do not know. I am confined by the two, having the desire to die and be with Christ, for rather this is nobler. And to stay in the body is more important for you.”

I tried to be a bit wooden with my translation, but that is never entirely doable. But I hope the passage makes sense the way I rendered it.

As representative of the dualist perspective, I will engage with John Piper’s website, as I am too tired to grab Wayne Grudem off the shelf. The article on Desiring God was written by Matt Perman and may be accessed here (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-do-you-believe-about-the-intermediate-state). John Piper is a prominent neo-fundamentalist pastor, and I suspect his website is influential for those interested in this topic. However, since Matt Perman is the actual author of this piece, I will be referring to him in my response.

Perman writes:

First, Paul spoke of having the desire "to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better" (Philippians 1:23). Notice first of all that Paul speaks of death as a departure (from the body) not into temporary nothingness or unconsciousness but to be with Christ. If we are with Christ once we have died, then we continue existing.

I think Perman makes several leaps in logic here. First of all, the infinitive ἀναλῦσαι (“to depart”) here just means, “to die.” It’s a metaphor meaning ‘death.’ Paul is likely writing from prison here, and the threat of death immanent. He has death on the mind, so to speak. For Perman to assert, “If we are with Christ once we have died, then we continue existing” seems to go beyond the text. There are questions Paul does not answer that Perman seems to presume an answer for. For instance:

  • Does Paul believe in an immortal soul that can survive bodily death? Unlikely.
  • Does Paul believe in the resurrection of the body? Yes. Cf. 1 Cor. 15. Why then the need for an intermediate state?

To be with Christ is a relational term, and Christ is already raised in Paul’s mind. In other texts, Paul talks about the immediacy of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-52), but this begs a question: perspectivally, did Paul believe he would be literally raised in an instant? Unlikely. More likely, he would remain dead until resurrection (that’s why it is called resurrection), but for him, time is but a “twinkling of an eye.” To die with Christ, then is both relational and soteriological.

The preposition σύν (“with”) occurs in conjunction with Christ elsewhere in Paul (Rom. 6:8 and in Col. 2:20 and 3:3-4). In Rom. 6:8, it refers to the death of the person with Christ (soteriology) and her resurrection. The death of the believer means she has participated in Christ’s life, and her resurrection is secured because of his resurrection. In Col. 2:20, ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ (“dying with Christ”) is also a relational term, as in being bound to Christ in death as opposed to the “elements of the world.” In 3:3-4, the life of the believer is “hidden” (κέκρυπται) with Christ and in God (σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐν τῷ θεῷ). Col. 3:4 sums this up quite powerfully:

Col. 3:4: ὅταν ὁ Χριστὸς φανερωθῇ, ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν, τότε καὶ ὑμεῖς σὺν αὐτῷ φανερωθήσεσθε ἐν δόξῃ.

My translation: “whenever Christ [the Messiah] may be manifest in our lives, then also you will be manifested in glory with him.”

Paul’s basic premise is sound: to die with Christ is to participate in his life and example, in imitating the dying Messiah so that we may have eternal life in his name. For Perman to make it about continuing to exist seems to contradict the witness of Paul elsewhere, and here especially.

He writes:

Second, notice that Paul speaks of this state as "very much better" than the present state. It would be hard to say such a thing of a state of complete unconsciousness.”

This seems tenuous. Eternal life, in resurrection, is surely preferable to death. The intimacy of Christ, the fullness of his life, and the vindication of Paul’s witness remain forlorn and forsaken without resurrection. To remain dead in light of his own life and sufferings, Paul undoubtedly thought resurrection with Christ was better! To be raised is vindication (cf. Dan. 12:2-3), not abandonment.

Particularly when we consider that Paul's passion was to know Christ, it would seem that the reason the state beyond death is better than this present life is because we are with Christ and know it. If we were suddenly unconscious at death until the resurrection, wouldn't it be better to remain in this life because at least then we would have conscious fellowship with Christ?

He writes:

…notice again that [Paul] speaks of this state as his preference, which indicates (as in Philippians 1:23) that we not only continue existing between death and the resurrection, but that we are aware of our existence.

Nowhere in Paul do we have any language about “existing” between death and resurrection. As has been shown already, this looks to be a fallacious line of argumentation. Of course, resurrection is Paul’s preference! He lived and suffering and ultimately died for Christ. “Awareness” seems more like a modernistic ideal than a New Testament reality.

In essence, Paul in Philippians 1:21-24 is speaking relationally, with an eye toward future resurrection (c.f. 3:10-11). The language about being “in the body” is likely an idiomatic phrase about being alive. For instance, Rom. 8:3 uses a similar syntactical phrase κατέκρινε τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐν τῇ σαρκί (“condemned sin in the body”), that is, Jesus’ living mortal body being crucified and killed, and thus condemning sin. Elsewhere, 2 Cor. 4:11b reads as follows:

2 Cor. 4:11: ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φανερωθῇ ἐν τῇ θνητῇ σαρκὶ ἡμῶν

My translation: “so that also the life of Jesus should be manifested in our mortal bodies.”

The idea of “in the flesh/body” is not to promote a dualistic and tripartite view of the human person (that we are composed of body, soul and/or spirit). Rather, the relational idiom denotes the idea of being alive (or formerly alive). “In the body” is an idiomatic way of simply stating the obvious: you are alive, in the most basic sense of the phrase.

Paul’s language here is about participation in God’s mission in the world, not about a conscious intermediate state. If one desires to argue for such a concept, one is on far better ground in the realm of philosophy and theology rather than this text. I am mildly open to the concept of an intermediate state on philosophical grounds (although I do find it to be unnecessary and not in harmony with the witness of the New Testament), but I cannot endorse such an idea from this chief proof text.

NQ