Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Alastair Roberts, a favorite blogger of mine, has just finished a 10-part series on the Transfiguration. It’s really interesting, and I highly recommend it for any of you who can fathom 10 blog posts covering just the Transfiguration. Reading this series has given me two thoughts I feel are worth sharing, one more directly from the series and less directly.

The first point of note is the dramatic role of the Transfiguration in the history of Israel and their God. From time to time in Israel’s history, God was seen, but never fully. Moses saw God’s back, the 70 elders saw His feet, Isaiah saw His robe and throne, but His face was not ever mentioned or described. It is something like in a TV show where you never see an important background character, only having name-drops, instructions, references, and maybe even an occasional glimpse of part of their body. Yahweh’s face remained a mystery, one too glorious for human viewing.

Yet there are references linking the Transfiguration to these events, and it is portrayed as essentially the same thing: a theophany. In the Transfiguration, the glory of God is revealed on a mountain like so many times before. But this time that glory shines from a face. The face hidden throughout the Old Testament is revealed, and it is no other face than that of Jesus Christ. Yahweh is no other God than the God whose fullness dwells bodily in Christ, of whose glory the Son is the radiance and exact expression. The face of the main character of the Old Testament finally comes into view, and it was Jesus all along. Now we know who God really is: whoever has seen Jesus has seen Him.

The other interesting point that I drew from Alastair’s posts is this glory is to become our glory. The glory which Jesus bears by nature as the Son of God, we will one day share by grace as sons of God. See, the glory which was revealed in the Transfiguration has been alternately viewed by some either as a divine glory (which Alastair focuses on) or as a prefigured resurrection glory. But there is no need to separate these. The glory of Jesus, of the one who is both God and man, is the glory of God in a human “shape.” Before Jesus rose, this glory remained veiled, with a single peek coming through in the Transfiguration. When He did rise, He was exalted and could be fully and simply an example of a glorious human filled with the life and glory of God.

We are also united to Christ, though. We share in His death and His resurrection, and one day will experience that fullness when our bodies are brought to new life. At that point, when Christ returns, John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), Paul notes that we are “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and Peter says that we will “share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our resurrection, an event in theology often called “glorification,” is the time that we will share the glory of Christ, who is the glory of God. The Transfiguration glory is our destiny. We will be truly and fully humans in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Or, as Irenaeus put it, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…did…become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”1

With all of this in mind, let us read the Transfiguration account and be moved to worship. Jesus is the God who has been working in salvation history from Abraham to Malachi and beyond, and He is so gracious as to unite us with Himself and raise us to His very own glory. Amen!

Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

I was reading 1 Corinthians 1-2 this morning and ran across a couple of passages that really stuck out to me. They speak fairly well for themselves (isn’t Scripture good about that?), but I will highlight the basic thoughts in them that I found so compelling.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. But I won’t quote all of that here, which would be rather long. So I’ll just present the heart of it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

From the beginning, the Gospel has appeared foolish or even blasphemous to the rest of the world. The Jews thought it absolutely unacceptable that their Messiah would suffer crucifixion, much more so in the impossible situation of Him being God Incarnate. The Greeks, well, just thought the whole story was kind of dumb. But today it is little different. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to those who are all about success and self-advancement (*cough*Trump*cough*), a group increasingly large in our increasingly corporate world. The idea that a man who lived 2000 years ago spoke truths which carry divine authority even today is ridiculous to self-styled intellectuals. The claim that there is only one name given under heaven by which men may be saved sounds like blasphemy to a culture all about inclusion and multiculturalism. All of the Gospel, if you’re not just too used to it to noticed, sounds completely insane apart from the experience of its power. This is just something I keep noticing all of the time in relation to so many philosophies and politics and worldviews. Democrat or Republican, atheist or theist, rich or poor, Jesus sounds ridiculous and contradictory to all of the cultural defaults.

The other passage I notice is at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. People often get the meaning of verse 9 wrong. What do I mean?

But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind — God prepared this for those who love Him.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For

who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?

But we have the mind of Christ. 

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

This passage comes right after Paul’s further argument about human vs. divine wisdom, and the power of the Spirit over and against the persuasive power of rhetoric. Verse 9 is often treated as a statement about the unimaginability of heaven. No eye or hear or head has a clue what’s coming! But that’s exactly not the point Paul is making. He’s making a point about the divine wisdom of the Gospel and its foolishness to men. This verse shows that no one was ever expecting what God did in Christ for us. God’s plans for us in the Gospel had never been seen before, heard before, or imagined by a human mind. If they had, as per verse 8, no one would have killed Jesus. But instead, Paul goes on to argue that even though this stuff was hidden before, we now know it. We have the Spirit of God, who is the only one to know the deep secrets of God. Because we have the Spirit, we know the secrets of the Gospel, not because we had seen or heard or known before, but because we have been taught the truths of the Spirit. We now have the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which means that we are those who know the Lord’s mind and understand what God has prepared for us. We know by revelation. There is nothing hidden anymore.

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:

  • Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
  • Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
  • One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
  • One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.

None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?

My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.

The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.

Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2 

In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.

It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.

Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?

The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.

Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?

For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.

With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.

Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.

This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.

The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.

So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.

Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.

The Bible, Limited Atonement, the Church, and the World

When I originally ran into Calvinism, limited atonement was the most frightening doctrine to me, and it almost sounded heretical. Even when I was a Calvinist, I originally and in the end found it awfully stretchy in relation to what Scripture actually says, and for that reason I was quite happy to abandon it when the time came. But for Calvinists I know, this repudiation seems strange. They can hardly see how a logical approach to the Bible can go without limited atonement. Yet I am convinced that to let Scripture say what it says entirely rules out the doctrine.

For this post, then, I would simply like to propose the basic outline of my approach to texts in Scripture which relate to the extent of the atonement. I believe that this approach is more faithful to what the Bible actually says and means than the Calvinistic one. I will try to present each in a strong and credible form for comparison, and I will then present a few verses which I think can serve as decent test cases for your own evaluation as readers.

First, the basic Calvinistic approach to atonement texts. In the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Christ only died to atone for the sins of the elect, at least in any full and strict sense. Jesus hung from the Cross as the penal substitute and representative of the elect alone. He paid the full legal price for their sins alone. Some Calvinists will also say that Jesus’ death at least brought some kinds of benefits to the rest of humanity, though this is a limited blessing (one which I tend to think is actually a curse, as I will explain in a later post someday).

Obviously, this view of the atonement creates tension with texts like 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 or Hebrews 2:9. So how do Calvinists address them? It depends both on the specific context and the particular interpreter, but there are usually three main approaches. The first looks for clues in the context that show the “all” should be understood as referring to all of the Church/elect/redeemed rather than every member of humanity. Another method is to view the “all” as a reference essentially to the universal generality and diversity involved rather than the total number of people, i.e. “all” means “all kinds of people” (cf. Rev. 5:9) or specifically “Jews and Gentiles together” (cf. 1 John 2:2) rather than “every person.” And a final method, historically not very common until recently, is to take it as a reference to the supposed general, non-saving benefits of Jesus’ death for all people, such as common grace.

On the other hand, Calvinists seem to have a prima facie stronger grasp of certain texts which specify Christ as dying for His Church or His people. They take these as straightforwardly saying that, when it comes to actual atonement for redemption, Jesus died simply and exclusively for the elect, His own people. These are the only people that Jesus was crucified in order to save.

So how is my own approach (one which, of course, has plenty of parallels outside of Calvinism) different? First, I take the “all” passages at face value. When 2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “one died for all,” I accept that as meaning Jesus died for all people indiscriminately. Same goes for a host of other passages. The “all” passages seem to be clear and explicit. Unlike in the Calvinistic reading, these mean exactly what you would think and exactly what they say. When Jesus suffered on Calvary, He suffered on behalf of the entire human race as a whole, on behalf of humanity as one race. This is because He, as the divine Word in whom all humanity is created, represents them all in His own human flesh. He organically stepped into the place and guilt of all people through His stance in several layers of covenant ultimately encompassing the whole race.

So what about the passages which speak of Christ’s death as specifically for His Church or His people, the many? I believe we should also fully affirm them, without diluting their force. I mean, on one hand, obviously “all people” includes the Church. But that’s not a convincing way to understand verses as strong as Eph. 5:25. In what way did Christ die specifically and especially for His Church? For this, I look to the way that the Church is not merely meant to be individuals who don’t have to go to Hell, but is instead a renewed Israel and through Israel also a renewed humanity. The Church is the humanity of the new creation. In Christ’s death the old humanity dies, and in His resurrection the new humanity is born. In this way we can say that Jesus died specifically to create His Church as a redeemed people for a redeemed world. This isn’t saying that Jesus only paid the penalty for the sins of people who actually end up saved, but says that the atonement was especially designed to form a new humanity, a new image-bearing people of God, out of the old one by union with Christ in His death and resurrection. So it truly makes sense to speak of Jesus giving Himself for His Church to save and sanctify Her, even while at the same time affirming that He died for the sins of the world unequivocally.

So, with these two approaches, a classical one and a more Evangelical Calvinist-style one, in mind, I offer a handful of texts related to the extent of the atonement, and you can judge which view makes more sense on your own:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” 

John 10:11-18

For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. 

2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.

Ephesians 5:25-30

For He has not subjected to angels the world to come that we are talking about. But one has somewhere testified:

What is man that You remember him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him lower than the angels for a short time; You crowned him with glory and honor and subjected everything under his feet.

For in subjecting everything to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him. But we do see Jesus — made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone — crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God — all things exist for Him and through Him — should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying:

I will proclaim Your name to My brothers; I will sing hymns to You in the congregation.

Again, I will trust in Him. And again, Here I am with the children God gave Me.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. 

Hebrews 2:5-18

He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

1 John 2:2

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:28

This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, Himself human, who gave Himself — a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:3-6

God Glorifies Us through Suffering

This morning I was reading 1 Peter 1 and ran across the following statements:

You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith — more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

1 Peter 1:5-7

What stuck out to me in particular is what Peter says here about the purpose, or the “so that,” of Christian trials. Scripture here seems to say that we have to face trials in order that our genuine faith, withstanding all such testing, will actually result in our praise when Christ returns. We suffer so that we can shine.

I realize that this may sound a bit off at first, but there are other Biblical examples of this kind of rationale for suffering, at least for some of it. Take Job, for instance. In Job, we ultimately see God allowing Satan to inflict great suffering to Job’s vindication. By the end of it, Job has refused to curse God and die, as his wife suggested. He may have gotten harsh with God and threw around some blame, but he never gave up or repudiated his trust. When all of the rest is concluded, God commends Job and rewards him for his faithfulness over and against any of Job’s friends. God’s point to Satan from the beginning was that Job’s faith was real, and could stand up to trial, and this claim was vindicated to Job’s glory.

The theme like this of God glorifying His suffering people in fact permeates all of Scripture. He did this to Joseph, to Moses and the Israelites, to David, to Daniel, to many others, and ultimately to Jesus Christ (who, we must recall, is every bit as human as you or I). When God’s people patiently wait and suffer what they must, trusting Him through the whole of it, He uses the occasion to reward them and bring praise and honor to the virtues which He has given them.

To some extent, we recognize such a possibility even in a non-theological way. This is the way that the best stories work, isn’t it? The greatest heroes, the ones who we love and praise and celebrate the most, are not the ones who stayed in their Hobbit holes and enjoyed a simple life with a peaceful death. Instead, the heroes who receive the most glory are those who make it through many sufferings, who face the toughest obstacles and most heartbreaking setbacks. Frodo and Sam are renowned, but not the old Gaffer.

Of course, it is not obvious that real life has to work this way. After all, this glory is highly contingent on two things: the sufferings being known to all, and the would-be heroes actually making it all the way to success. In this life neither of those seem very certain. You may feel like asking, “Will anyone ever know what I have suffered? And will I even make it?” But this is where we have from God precious promises to our comfort. For He declares to us that all of our patience and faith in suffering (and all other good works) will be publically known on the last day:

Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13, Lk. 12:2-3)

He also promises that He will carry us through to the very end, so that we know how our quest will conclude even in the midst of it:

Now the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will personally restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little. The dominion belongs to Him forever. Amen. 

1 Peter 5:10-11

So on the basis of these guarantees from God Himself we know that glory awaits us on the other side of suffering.

You may also wonder, though, how this can be? Has God not said, “I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another” (Isa. 42:8)? How can God glorify us at all, whether through suffering or by any other means? The answer to this, as with so many things, is found in Jesus Christ. God can glorify man because there was a Man—is a Man—who has the right to the whole glory of God. A human being from Nazareth named Jesus holds the name above every name, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father (John 1:14). We get to share in His glory because He is our Brother, our Lord, and our Bridegroom. We are united with Him by our baptism into His death and resurrection.

This brings us the ultimate promise and comfort. Because we belong to Christ, we will share His glory after sharing His sufferings. We have entered His story, not our own, and get to participate in His happy ending. Or, as Paul would say it:

So then, brothers, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. All those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 

Romans 8:12-17

The Homecoming of Jesus Christ

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both fully human and fully divine. This one person possesses in Himself two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. Unfortunately, this is hard for us to understand. We cannot get how someone can exist in this way, so we naturally tend to lean towards error. Too easily we begin to lose sight either of either Jesus’ deity or, in my experience, more often His humanity.

Losing sight of Jesus’ humanity is, to be an honest, a pretty easy thing to do. We forget things like that Jesus grew up as a boy. He had a home, a house where he lived with His mother and His adoptive father. Nazareth was His hometown, and He certainly had favorite places to go and sights to see throughout His childhood and onward. He was, and remains, a human being with a human history and a human home. Indeed, Jesus grew up in our own world, shared in our experience of this world, and enjoyed its mountains, waters, and produce.

With this in mind, I would like to point out that Jesus is currently, in a way, away from home. While He reigns from heaven, which is truly the proper home for Him according to His divinity, He is not locally present at His human home. Jesus hasn’t walked the streets of Nazareth in two thousand years, or felt the warmth of our sun, the cool of an autumn breeze, the refreshment of flowing water. He is physically away from His earthly home, from the planet and country and town in which He lived out His childhood with Mary and Joseph.

This is, of course, far from an ideal situation. Home is a powerful part of human existence. We do not easily move past the sentiments and memories of our formative years. To say that any of this does not apply to Jesus would seem to imply that His humanity is not quite fully human, that His human life has some kind of more exalted dimension that’s just a little less earthy and personal than ours. Such an implication would be a heretical one. Can we really suspect that Jesus will be content to never return home?

Yet we know from Scripture that Jesus is not away forever. He has promised to return, and this will not be exclusively for our benefit, but for His joy as well. One day Jesus will come back to His own land and live once again among us in full physical, human life on the same earth where He played and laughed as a boy. He will be able to visit old sites, the locations of precious memories, with Mary and Joseph if He pleases. When this happens, all of creation will sing for joy and find itself radically transformed to reflect His glory. Jesus is coming home, and His homecoming will give the world, including His many brothers and sisters in the Spirit, a share in His resurrection life that will never die or fade. This is our hope. Our Elder Brother is away, and in the meantime the house is chaotic and messy. But He will return, and when He does the reunion will be everything. Lord Jesus, come. Come home.

[As a side note, I recognize that some of you will be thinking, “This can’t be quite right because this earth will be completely destroyed when Jesus returns.” With this line of thinking I do not agree at all. For the sake of space, I will simply say that I believe the destiny of creation is the same as Christ’s fate: death and resurrection. I’ve written and preached on this previously, and so I refer you to such posts.]