Lent: A Season of the Sermon on the Mount

 

The last day before Great Lent starts is known as “Forgiveness Sunday” in the Orthodox Church. The Gospel reading during the liturgy is taken from the Sermon on the Mount and encapsulates the meaning of the Great Fast, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:14-21). This passage immediately follows behind Jesus’ instructions regarding alms-giving and prayer. The season of Lent is given by the Church as a time to re-adapt the commandments of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount in our own lives. The main emphasis given to us during Great Lent is to fast, pray, give alms, forgive, and to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven; the Kingdom which is given to us in Christ’s Holy Pascha.

Lent is a time to practice what we preach. The Christian life is often characterized as a life lived out of love for God, but Jesus challenges us to reshape our standard of love when He says, “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15) or when He warns us that, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21). To be a Christian isn’t about merely saying that you believe in Jesus, as St. Justin Martyr recognized, “let it be understood that those who are not found living as He taught are not Christians – even though they profess with the lips the teaching of Christ.” The Christian life is a life of the cross. To follow Christ is to follow Him down the path to Golgotha to be lifted up on the cross. The way of Christ is the way of the daily cross as Jesus said, “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23).

The daily life of the cross is found in obedience to the commandments of Christ and the Sermon on the Mount is our guide. To deny our stomachs by keeping the prescribed fast is a cross which teaches us to reorient ourselves towards the hunger of our souls but if we fast with the intention of appearing righteous in the eyes of others, or that we may boast, then the spirit of fasting hasn’t truly touched our hearts and we keep the fast in vain. The keeping of the fast also reminds us that often our stomachs can be our god and more than once in the Scriptures did eating or complaining about food bring God’s judgment.

The commandments about prayer help to remind us that the needs of our lives are given to us by God. The more we turn to God in prayer the more we will find the inner peace and strength to meet the challenges of each day as well as the faith that God truly knows what we need and as a good Father will give every good gift to us. Frequent prayer will give us spiritual stability as we recognize through turning to God in prayer that He is the Maker of heaven and earth, He is the One Who orders all things through His providential will, and that He looks at us and all creation with His love and care.

The practice of giving alms teaches us that the riches of this life cannot last. Far too easily are we ensnared by the love of money and the pursuit of it, even at the cost of committing acts in rebellion to God, becomes an idol. The allure of riches turns us into gold hording dragons who wish to amass their horde while turning in towards themselves, caring nothing for the needs of others, and doing whatever it takes to keep their spoils. But gold won’t save you from death. Despite living in a world where so many are able to escape judgment through bribes and corruption God will not be bought out. By giving freely what we have received from God we become like Him and learn that our true treasure is the Heavenly Kingdom of the Resurrected Christ.

The discipline of forgiveness frees us from the inner prisons of resentment, grudges, and anger. When we’re wronged by others no matter how much we hate, how much we strike back, or how much we reject our abusers we cannot change what happened. To respond to those who hate us, persecute us, or curse us with hated, persecution, or cursing turns us into our enemies; the very thing we hate in them comes to define us. These feelings likewise keep us in inner emotional prisons and shape how we view and experience life. To forgive to to let go of the hold past wrongs have on us. To forgive is to find inner freedom. The Kingdom of Christ is marked by His own forgiveness of us and the only way to experience the liberty of His Kingdom is to follow Him in forgiveness, for as long as we remain in the darkness of our own unforgiving prisons we can never experience the light and freedom of heaven.

The effects that fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and forgiveness produce on us is no less than the very likeness of Christ Himself. Because when we take up our cross we open ourselves up to His resurrecting power. The life of the Kingdom is the life of the resurrected Christ and the way to experience the Christ’s resurrection is to follow Him to His cross. Fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and forgiving people are the means that Christ has given us to open our hearts as crosses that lead to resurrection. The essence of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount is how to live the life of the Kingdom and the season of Lent helps us to renew our commitment to Christ and His commandments as we look forward to the gift of His salvation at the foot of the cross and outside the empty tomb.

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Hebrews and the Danger of Apostasy

 

(Fresco of Israel and the idolatry of the golden calf taken from the Church of the Prophet Elijah in Yaroslavl, Russia)

Within certain stands of evangelical theology there’s the belief that once someone has entered into a saving relationship with Christ, and having received salvation, the individual’s salvation is eternally secured and that there is no possible way that it can be “lost”. This doctrine is popularly known either as “blessed assurance” or “once-saved-always-saved”. When confronted with individuals who made a profession of faith but who later on in life abandoned their faith the common retort is that these people “were never really saved”. They are forced to such a conclusion because in their understanding of the New Testament doctrine of salvation no one can forfeit their salvation; if it was lost it means that it was never there in the first place. Rather than addressing the doctrine of salvation entirely I wish to look at some of the theological themes of the book of Hebrews to make the case that, according to the book of Hebrews, people can indeed receive the gift of salvation and forfeit it through apostasy. Hebrews doesn’t make the case that apostates “weren’t really saved”[i] but rather that they had indeed been declared the message of salvation, were sanctified by the blood of the New Covenant, and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and yet still warns that judgment and condemnation will come upon them if they should apostatize.

The book of Hebrews opens up by proclaiming the superiority that Jesus has to the angels. The purpose of the opening contrast between Jesus and the angels is rooted in one of the main themes of the book of Hebrews: that the New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant. The ascendancy of Christ over the angels is connected to the contrast of covenants. The Old Covenant was given through the hands of angels with the New Covenant is given through Jesus Christ.[ii] After a litany of Old Testament quotations the writer of the book of Hebrews, St. Paul[iii], goes on to warn, “therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:1-3). St. Paul attests to the fact that the message of salvation has been heard and accepted by his audience; how else could one drift away from something that they had never received? Rather than saying that neglect of salvation was a danger in the Old Covenant but done away with in the New Covenant he seems to indicate that such a danger is still possible in the New Covenant.

These warnings continue throughout the book and the next one we find in in Hebrews 3:7-19. Here St. Paul is quoting from Psalm 95:7-11 which describes how Israel hardened their hearts in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt and how because of their rebellion God prohibited them from entering into His rest. The point must be made here that all of Israel were recipients of God’s gracious salvation and deliverance, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). The redemption of Israel out of Egypt was an act entirely of love for Israel from their God. The New Testament likewise speaks about the redemption of Jesus as a new-Exodus and Jesus both as the new-Moses and the delivering God of Israel.[iv] Returning now to the text of Hebrews, immediately after St. Paul quotes from Psalm 95 he goes on to warn his readers that they should take care less they too fall away. A connection is made between his readers and the rebellious Israelites when he warns his readers not to have an “unbelieving” heart (vs. 12) and when he states that those who fell in the wilderness did so because of “unbelief” (vs. 19). St. Paul directly makes the point that those who rebelled in the wilderness were in fact delivered from Egypt, “who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses?” (Hebrews 3:16). Having been recipients of God’s gracious act of deliverance nonetheless through rebellion and disbelief many died in the wilderness and failed to enter God’s rest. St. Paul’s point in highlighting this is to warn his readers not to follow in the footsteps of rebellious Israel, lest they too, “fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Perseverance is necessary because, as St. Paul says, “we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14). The promise of rest remains to his readers and St. Paul is concerned that just as the rebellious of Israel failed to enter God’s rest that his readers too may, “be judged to have failed to reach it” (Hebrews 4:1). Both Israel and them have received “good news”[v] and now having been hearers of the greater Gospel St. Paul exhorts his readers, “let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). The implication of these words is that the same sort of disobedience enacted by Israel under the Old Covenant is very much possible under the New Covenant as well.

Moving forward we find one of St. Paul’s most severe warnings in Hebrews 6:4-6, “for it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt”. The emphasis is put on how all of these blessings have been received in the past. The individual has been restored, has been enlightened, has tasted the heavenly gift, has partaken of the Holy Spirit, has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. After having said all of this St. Paul warns what sort of conclusions awaits those who having received such blessings nevertheless still go on to apostatize. It’s important to note that this text is not saying that there’s no repentance. The text has been understood since the early centuries to be speaking about the impossibility of a second baptism, as testified by St. John Chrysostom, “is repentance excluded? Not repentance, far from it! But the renewing again by the laver. For he did not say, impossible to be renewed unto repentance, and stop, but added how impossible, [by] crucifying afresh. To be renewed, that is, to be made new, for to make men new is [the work] of the laver only: for (it is said) your youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s (Psalm 103:5). But it is [the work of] repentance, when those who have been made new, have afterwards become old through sins, to set them free from this old age, and to make them strong. To bring them to that former brightness however, is not possible; for there the whole was Grace. Crucifying to themselves, he says, the Son of God afresh, and putting Him to an open shame. What he means is this. Baptism is a Cross, and our old man was crucified with [Him] (Romans 6:6), for we were made conformable to the likeness of His death (Romans 6:5; Philippians 3:10), and again, we were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death (Romans 6:4). Wherefore, as it is not possible that Christ should be crucified a second time, for that is to put Him to an open shame. For if death shall no more have dominion over Him (Romans 6:9), if He rose again, by His resurrection becoming superior to death; if by death He wrestled with and overcame death, and then is crucified again, all those things become a fable and a mockery. He then that baptizes a second time, crucifies Him again. But what is crucifying afresh? [It is] crucifying over again. For as Christ died on the cross, so do we in baptism, not as to the flesh, but as to sin. Behold two deaths. He died as to the flesh; in our case the old man was buried, and the new man arose, made conformable to the likeness of His death. If therefore it is necessary to be baptized [again], it is necessary that this same [Christ] should die again. For baptism is nothing else than the putting to death of the baptized, and his rising again.”[vi] With the help of St. John Chrysostom’s reading to text we can see that while a second baptism is impossible for apostates there is in fact still repentance left for them. With this in mind we can see that the danger of apostasy is real for those who have been received the various gifts of God. St. Paul isn’t saying that to be a recipient of God’s salvific gifts and to become an apostate are incompatible but rather warns what is the result of apostasy having been a recipient of God’s salvific gifts.

The warnings of falling away throughout the book of Hebrews are coupled with callings to persevere. Having articulated how Christ’s sacrifice is more efficacious than the sacrifices under the Old Covenant in Hebrews 10 St. Paul exhorts his readers to, “hold fast the confession of our faith without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23). After this call to persevere comes another warning about apostatizing and the judgment which will come upon those who do.[vii] St. Paul goes on to remind his readers about the punishment that was given out to violators of the Law of Moses and that now, under the New Covenant, it’s actually worse, “a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance in mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:28-31). Again we see that the warning is to those who have received the salvific gifts of God. The warning of apostasy is to one has (past tense) been sanctified by the blood of Christ. Again also St. Paul invokes the “living God” as he had in Hebrews 3:12. Just as there was the danger of falling away from the living God so now it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

After having attempted to encourage his readers with a litany of examples of faith from the righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, culminating in the faithful example of Jesus Himself, St. Paul declares how his readers have surpassed Israel, who came to Mount Sinai, since now they, “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24). No longer are they exiles and wanderers but they have been brought into the very heavens themselves by Jesus and have ascended the holy mountain by the blood of Christ. Having reminded his readers of their heavenly place St. Paul then goes on to say, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from the heaven” (Hebrews 12:25). Despite having been raised up into the heavens by Jesus there is still no warning against rejecting Him. Just as Israel did not escape the warnings of judgment uttered by Moses when he walked the earth about what would happen to them if they forsook their God so now St. Paul is cautioning his hearers that if they should reject Christ and turn from Him their end shall be much worse considering that the warning comes from heaven.

The book of Hebrews is a book that exalts Christ and His covenant over Moses, the law, the tabernacle, and the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Alongside the exaltation of the New Covenant is a host of warnings about apostasy and calls to perseverance. A connection is continually made between the judgments against those who violated the Old Covenant and the warning of judgments against those who would violate the New Covenant through falling away and apostasy. In every case the warning is made to those who have already heard the good news of salvation, those who have been sanctified by the blood of Christ, who have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, who have entered into the assembly of heaven. Despite having received such gifts there’s still the danger of apostasy; a point that’s highlighted by the fact that Israel, even though they were delivered by God from bondage, still rebelled and suffered judgement from God. The book of Hebrews presents apostasy as a real danger for Christians and never insinuates that those who fall away “were never really saved”. The call to persevere is only explainable if the possibility of falling away is real.

[i] The whole notion of individuals “not really being saved” is problematic biblically since this is a concept never presented in the Bible. The passage most adherents to this belief point to is 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.” Despite the popular (ab)use of this verse James B. Jordan (a Reformed theologian) has argued, convincingly, that this passage has nothing to do with people falling away from the faith but rather with false teachers, “The usual interpretation is that these are apostates who never really were part of the Church, and that’s why they apostatized. There is, however, good reason not to read the text this way, because in context John is not writing about people who apostatized from the faith but about false teachers who go out on evil missionary trips. A more careful translation helps. Repeatedly the preposition “ex” is used here, and a more wooden translation looks something like this: Out from us they went out, But they were not out from us, For if they were out from us they would have remained with us, But [this happened] in order that they might be manifest that none of them are out from us. The usual translation sees a play on “out from us” and “of us,” both translations of ex hemoon. I suggest that “out from us” is correct in all places. Notice that these are not just apostates in general, but from v. 18, they are antichrists, false teachers. 2 John 7 says that deceivers have gone out into the world, and that these are antichrists. The same is said by 1 John 4:1-3. The Pauline epistles speak of false teachers who claimed to have been sent out from true churches, particularly from the Jerusalem church(es). Jesus warned of them in Matthew 24. 16 Thus, it is the notion of being sent out as apostles/prophets/evangelists that is in view here in 1 John 2:19. The antichrists have gone out into the world, out “from us,” claiming to have been sent by the Johannine church. Note that since Peter, James, and John were apostles to the circumcision, this church might well be Judean/Jerusalemite, and those falsely claiming to have been sent are the same general group Paul encountered. On this more precise and contextual reading, the passage has nothing to do with the question of whether these men were formerly part “of us.” Rather, it has to do with whether they had been sent out “by us.” “Out from us they went out,” – that is, they set out on teaching missions. “But they were not out from us,” – that is, they had no valid commission from us. “For if they were out from us they would have remained with us,” – that is, if they had valid commissions from us, they would have remained with us in our true teaching. “But [this happened] in order that they might be manifest that none of them are out from us.” – that is, their false teaching shows that they were not sent by us” (from his article “Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration”).

[ii] See Acts 7:53 and Galatians 3:19 for explicit testimony that the Law of Moses was given through angels.

[iii] I fully accept the Pauline authorship of the book of Hebrews.

[iv] Luke 9:31 speaks about Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem as an exodus. The connections between Jesus and Moses are numerous within the first few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. For instance the Sermon on the Mount echoes the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; presenting Jesus as both a new Moses by going on top of the mountain and teaching to Israel as well as presenting Him as the God of Israel, since Jesus is the One Who gives the sermon just as it was God Who gave the Law to Moses.

[v] Hebrews 4:2.

[vi] Homily 9 on Hebrews.

[vii] The “deliberate sin” mentioned in Hebrews 10:26 is apostasy back to Judaism since it mentions how there is no longer any sacrifice for sin left for this. The beginning of chapter 10 recounted how the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were ineffective in taking away sin (10:1-4) and therefore to forsake the sacrifice of Christ for the sacrifices of the Old Covenant is to be left, effectually, with no sacrifice at all.

Liturgical Creation

 

Liturgy is deeply embedded in the fabric of creation. The creation narrative of Genesis follows a liturgical pattern where God speaks into creation, creation responds to the command of God, God declares that it is good, and then the evening and morning pass. Creation itself is a divine liturgy and God is the cosmic Priest. The creation liturgy of Genesis is the formation of God’s cosmic temple and all His actions within the temple take on a priestly dimension. At the height of God’s cosmic liturgy is the ordination of Adam and His priest of creation. Just as God is the Divine Priest, and Adam is made in His image, so too is Adam a priest. The text reveals the priestly vocation of Adam when he’s placed inside the garden, just as Israel’s priests will enter the temple, and animals are brought to him, just as Israel will bring sacrificial animals to their priests. When God gives Adam dominion over all the earth He effectively offers Adam all of creation as a gift of love. In the act of offering creation to Adam God reveals Himself as the Divine Priest Who took the elements of the earth, transformed them through His Word and Spirit, and then offers them to Adam. As a priest of creation, imaging the Priestly God, Adam is to follow the divine rubrics shown him by taking the elements of the earth, transforming them by Word and Spirit, and to offer them in thanksgiving to God. The earth was made by liturgy for liturgy.

The Deification of Noah

 

The doctrine of deification encapsulates the totality of the Orthodox teaching on salvation. St. Irenaeus of Lyons summarized the doctrine of deification in his third book of Against Heresies when he wrote, “for it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?”[i] Most writings that deal specifically with the doctrine of deification from a biblical perspective typically turn immediately to 2 Peter 1:4 where he describes believers being partakers in the divine nature. Sometimes 2 Corinthians 3:18 is cited where St. Paul informs the church in Corinth that the Spirit is transforming them from one degree of glory to another into the image of Christ. From these two passages we can form a basic understanding of the biblical doctrine of deification where the indwelling Spirit grants believers a participation in the very glorious life of God and through this participation in the Spirit we are transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. While this is most definitely captures the basic meaning of deification, as it’s presented within the Holy Scriptures, the fact is that the themes and imagery of deification run all the way through the Holy Scriptures. Most of the time the doctrine of deification is presented in narrative form where a biblical character is exalted and presented in ways that reveal God-like characteristics. One such example is found in the life of Noah and in his life we see a clear biblical articulation of the doctrine of deification.

The story of Noah begins with priestly imagery. In Genesis 6 when Noah is introduced to the narrative he is immediately informed by God that He is going to judge the earth and is commissioning Noah to build an ark. Upon completion of the ark Noah is supposed to bring both clean and unclean animals into the ark. The imagery of the ark and of Noah bringing animals into the ark resonates with the imagery of the tabernacle/temple. The ark is described as being a three-storied construction just as the tabernacle/temple is a three-storied building.[ii] Noah building a three-storied ark is a prototypical temple. The image of Noah bringing all the animals into a three-storied building also presents him as a priestly figure. In the tabernacle/temple cult of Israel it was the priests who brought sacrificial animals into the house of God so when God instructs Noah to bring animals within the ark He is bestowing a priestly office upon Noah.[iii] The priestly ministry of Noah is seen more clearly after his exodus from the ark where he builds an altar and offers a selection from each clean animal as whole burnt offerings to God.[iv]

Noah begins his story as a faithful priest and is exalted by God to the office of kingship. Throughout the Holy Scriptures we see a progression from priest, to king, to prophet.[v] The priestly Noah is raised up by the Spirit of God onto a mountain, an image of kingship.[vi] Having been faithful to his priestly calling Noah is lifted up and inaugurated as a king of the new creation. After he comes out of the ark and makes his sacrificial offerings Noah is given dominion and authority over all the earth.[vii] As king of the new creation Noah is given the authority to wield the sword and execute judgment as a king.[viii] The exaltation of Noah is presented topographically; he begins as a priest laboring on the earth and then is raised up physically by the judgment of God onto a mountain as a king.

The final events of Noah’s story reveal that not only has God made him a king but that He has made him like Himself. The story of Noah ends with him planting a vineyard, resting in his tent, being sinned against by his son, and then pronouncing a curse of his sinful son.[ix] Details from the story echo the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. The image of the world being completely consumed be water presents the world being returned to the initial watery state of creation.[x] Just as the initial creation emerged from out of the primordial waters so too the new creation emerges from the receding flood waters.[xi] After God finished His initial creation He exhorts Adam to multiply and subdue the earth and so too He commissions Noah with the same tasks.[xii] We see then Noah being presented as a new Adam but he has been raised higher than Adam since Noah beings to perform the same tasks as God Himself performed. The planting of the vineyard by Noah echoes the planting of the garden of Eden by God.[xiii] Noah resting in His tent relates to God resting at the end of creation.[xiv] Just as Adam rebels against his Father in the garden so too does Ham rebel against his father.[xv] After the fall in the garden God pronounces judgement and curses and we see Noah doing the same.[xvi] Priestly kingly Noah has become godly Noah; planting vineyards, resting, and pronouncing judgment.

The story of Noah is the story of deification. The Orthodox doctrine of deification is about our progressive transformation into the likeness of God and we see Noah progress from priest, to king, to a God-like status. Thus we see that the Holy Scriptures teaches deification both directly and symbolically through various images and themes within her narratives.

[i] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3.19.1.

[ii] See Genesis 6:16 and Exodus 26-27.

[iii] See Genesis 7:2, Exodus 29:38-46, and Leviticus 1-5.

[iv] See Genesis 8:20.

[v] For a more thorough defense of this see James B. Jordan here https://biblicalhorizons.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/biblical-theology-basics-5-2/ and https://soundcloud.com/user-812874628/episode-008-priest-king-prophet.

[vi] The image of Noah being exalted in the Spirit is found with the association of the Spirit with water throughout the Scriptures (see Isaiah 44:3 and John 7:37-39 for example). The flood waters are also an image of God’s judgment; just as the water brings a judgment of condemnation to the wicked of the earth at the same time it brings exaltation to Noah in the ark. The association of mountains with kingship is also seen throughout the Scriptures (see for example Psalm 2:6, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill”).

[vii] See Genesis 9:1-7.

[viii] The associations between kingship, judgment, and the sword are seen most clearly in the case of Solomon judging between the two woman; see 1 Kings 3:16-28.

[ix] See Genesis 9:18-27.

[x] See Genesis 1:1-2; just as the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at the initial creation so too the dove, an image of the Spirit, flies over the face of the waters after the flood.

[xi] See Genesis 1:9-13 and Genesis 8:1-14.

[xii] See Genesis 1:28-31 and Genesis 9:1-7.

[xiii] See Genesis 2:8 and Genesis 9:20.

[xiv] See Genesis 2:1-3 and Genesis 9:21. Concerning Noah’s drunkenness Eric Robinson writes, “According to the Hebrew text, Noah’s being “drunk” could easily have been considered more what we could call “impaired.”” (See https://theopolisinstitute.com/article/drunk-naked-and-accomplishing-gods-will).

[xv] See Genesis 3:6-7 and Genesis 8:22-23. Both accounts also involve nakedness (first Adam and Eve’s and then Noah’s) and the opening of eyes (Adam’s and Eve’s eyes are open and Noah’s are opened when he awakes from his sleep).

[xvi] See Genesis 3:8-20 and Genesis 8:24-27.

Sabbath, Enthronement, and the Building of the Temple from Creation to Christ.

 

In 1 Chronicles 22:6-11 David informs his son Solomon that God has chosen him to be the builder of the temple. Intimately connected to the theme of temple building are the themes or “rest” and “kingship”, “behold, a son shall be born of you, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies all around. His name shall be Solomon, for I will give peace and quietness to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for My name, and he shall be My son, and I will be his Father, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever” (1 Chron. 22:9-10). These themes of rest, kingship, and temple goes all the way back to the beginning of Genesis and follows all throughout the Holy Scriptures. While at the initial creation rest, kingship, and the completion of the cosmic temple all occur simultaneously after the initial fall of Adam the proper order is rest, which is tied together with a victory over enemies, enthronement, and then the building of the temple. After the enemies of God have been defeated and He has brought rest to His people then the enthroned king can begin the temple building project. All of this culminates throughout the history of Israel with the victory of Christ over His enemies, His enthronement as the King of Heaven and earth, and His building of the new Temple; the Church.

The creation narrative of Genesis presents God building Himself a cosmic temple. Just as the tabernacle and the temple consist of three rooms with unique items within them so too when God created the world He first divided between three different spheres and once He had made these divisions He filled each sphere[i]. The creation narrative culminates with the declaration that on the seventh day God rests[ii]. This parallels the end of the book of Exodus where the glory of God enters into the tabernacle; sitting upon the ark of the covenant as upon a throne[iii]. With these parallels in mind it becomes apparent that the rest of God at the end of creation is in fact His royal enthronement within the cosmic temple. Having subdued all creation[iv] by forming it according to His heavenly pattern[v] we see that God’s rest, the foundational Sabbath, is nothing other than His being seated upon His throne in His completed temple building project. The concepts of Sabbath-rest and royal enthronement are fundamentally linked together along with the building of temples.

After the initial rebellion of Adam, and the subsequent fall events narrated throughout the beginning chapters of Genesis, God’s Sabbath is broken and a spirit of rebellion enters into the world. Thus to restore His Sabbath reign, so that His temple can be reestablished, God will first conquer His enemies, thereby restoring rest; rest being the prerequisite for the temple building projects post-fall. This is seen clearly in the life of Noah. When Noah is born His father Lamech prophesies that his son will bring rest[vi]; a fact attested to by his very name meaning “to give rest”. Genesis 6 begins by announcing how corrupt mankind has become and that God has chosen Noah to be the head of a new people[vii]. Since the world has become restless, rebellious, and corrupt[viii] God overcomes the corruption of the world through the flood and raised Noah up as a king in His new creation[ix]. As the flood waters recede the ark of Noah rests upon Mount Ararat[x]. The waters of heaven and earth have exalted Noah and lifted him on to the mountain; an image of kingship and enthronement[xi]. Having conquered His enemies, brought rest to the world, and enthroned Noah upon the mountain God has reestablished His cosmic temple through Noah, and as Noah descends from the ark he builds an altar and makes offerings to God; signifying the restoration of the cosmic temple[xii]. Just as God rested upon His initial completion of His cosmic temple so too Noah rests in his tent inaugurating the Sabbath reign of God[xiii]. The Noah narrative clearly shows us the pattern of conquering, enthronement-rest, and the reestablishment of the temple.

The book of Exodus begins with Israel being denied rest. Israel has become enslaved in the land of Egypt due to their unfaithfulness to God by turning to the idols of the Egyptians.[xiv] Once Israel was finally ready to cry out to God in their affliction He raised up a new Noah to bring judgement against His enemies, to bring His people rest, and to build a new place of worship[xv]. The whole story of Moses returning to Egypt is a story of the God of Israel waging war against Egypt and her gods. By sending plagues against the entirety of Egypt from the ground up to the very sky[xvi] displays God’s supremacy over the so-called gods of Egypt who rule everything from the waters to the sky. God’s final strike against Egypt, which secures His victory, is when He collapses the walls of water on the head of Pharaoh and his army; claiming victory over His enemies through water just as He had with Noah and the flood. Having delivered Israel from her bondage in Egypt God has given His people rest[xvii]. Having been victorious against His enemies and haven given rest to His people God then brings Israel to the holy mountain of Sinai in order to establish His national kingdom[xviii]. Israel followed the glory-cloud of God out form Egypt and the glory-cloud led them to the mountain. As they approach the mountain the glory-cloud ascends to the top of the God; the victorious King ascending His mountainous throne.[xix] As the enthroned King of Sinai Who has brought rest and Sabbath to His kingdom the final step is to establish a place of worship; which is what we see the second half of Exodus describe. Most of chapters 25-40 are prescriptions for the tabernacle; what materials are to be used to construct it, what items are to be made, how it’s supposed to be ordered, who will offer service in it, and how they are to serve. After the tabernacle is completed the glory-cloud of God enters into the tabernacle; which as we’ve seen earlier signifies His enthronement and establishment of His Sabbath reign. The book of Exodus is therefore the story of God conquering His enemies, giving Sabbath rest to His people, establishing His kingdom, and erecting His tabernacle.

This pattern underlies the chronology of the book of Joshua. Joshua 1-12 is all about God overcoming His enemies in the land of Canaan. The conquest narrative of Joshua is about the true King of the land triumphing over the false kings[xx]. Following the victories against the inhabitants of the land the text summarizes the conquest, finishing with the words, “then the land rested from war” (Josh. 11:23). The victories of God in the land of Canaan has brought His Sabbath reign to the land. Having brought His Sabbath reign to the land and having consolidated His kingdom[xxi] the time has come for the establishment of His temple. Having established the tabernacle after brining Israel out of Egypt God repeatedly told Israel that He will reveal to them the place to set it up once they entered the land[xxii]. Having completed the Canaanite conquest, God leads the people of Israel to set up the tabernacle at Shiloh, “now the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shiloh and set up the tabernacle of testimony there; and they subdued the land” (Josh. 18:1). After the establishment of the tabernacle at Shiloh and the distribution of the land to Israel we read in chapter 21, “the Lord gave them rest all around” (Josh. 21:48). Having secured His kingdom in Canaan, and with His royal palace[xxiii] set up, God rests and brings rest to His people and His land.

This pattern continues throughout the history of Israel. Throughout the period of the Judges when Israel turns from God to idols He allows them to be enslaved by the nations. When Israel cries out to God in repentance He raises up a judge for them. The judges wage war against the oppressing nations and God delivers Israel from their bondage, bringing rest and restoring right worship of Himself[xxiv] It continues through into the kingdom period with Solomon, as we saw in the introductory paragraph, and even characterizes the return from exile period of Israel’s history[xxv] All of this was ultimately a shadow and type of the greatest work that God would perform in the midst of Israel. When the God of Israel came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary He came in order to defeat His enemies, inaugurate His Kingdom, and build His temple. The climactic moment in all four Gospels is when Jesus is hung on the tree of the cross. The kingly imagery of the cross abounds throughout the Gospels; Christ bears a crown of thorns and is crucified with the notice “King of the Jews”. Being lifted up on the cross was the beginning of Jesus’ royal ascension and His judgment against His enemies[xxvi]. While the enemies of Christ considered the cross to be His defeat in fact He “disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15). His death upon the cross is only the beginning though. As He is taken down from the cross He’s wrapped in linen clothes and laid in a tomb; an image which relates to the adorning of kings in royal vestment and their resting upon a throne. Providentially He is crucified on Friday and rests in the tomb of Saturday, the Sabbath. By resting in the tomb on the Sabbath He fulfills the old Sabbath that He might inaugurate the Great and Perfect Sabbath. By entering into the realm of death He vanquishes the kingdom of Hades and releases all the righteous who had been held in bondage from Adam to John the Baptist. His resurrection from the dead is the true Exodus and His victory over hell and the devil brings true rest and Sabbath to His people. After rising from the dead Christ announces His royal inauguration, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Through His death He triumphed over His enemies, freed His people from bondage, and fulfilled the Sabbath of the old creation. By His resurrection He was inaugurated as the King of Heaven and earth and announced His Sabbath reign over all creation. When He ascended into heaven He sat down at the right hand of the Father; enthroned as Lord and King. Having conquered and been enthroned all that was left was to build a new temple. From His heavenly throne He sent down the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, forming the living temple of God; the Church. Through the work of the Holy Spirit Christ has continued to build His temple throughout all time and all creation until He will bring it to a completion and the end of the age where He will bring to completion His victory over the devil, fulfill His kingdom over all creation, and transform all creation into a glorious temple; a temple where He will rest and rule for all eternity.

[i] God divides the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters below, and the land from the sea; three spheres. He then fills the light with the sun, the darkness with the moon and the stars, the heavens above with the birds, the waters below with the fish, and the land with animals and man (Genesis 1:1-31).

[ii] See Genesis 2:1-3.

[iii] See Exodus 40:27-28.

[iv] See Psalm 104:9 where the waters appear to flee from the voice of God; the imagery of fleeing is connected with conquering (see for example Leviticus 26:8).

[v] The initial tabernacle was build according to the design shown by Moses on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 25:8-9). That the earthly tabernacle was an image of the heavenly tabernacle is displayed clearly throughout the book of Hebrews (see Hebrews 8:4-5 for example). Since the tabernacle was a microcosm, and the tabernacle was based upon the heavenly model, it follows that all of creation is an image of the heavenly tabernacle (especially considering the tabernacle shape of creation in Genesis 1).

[vi] See Genesis 5:28.

[vii] See Genesis 6:8.

[viii] See Genesis 6:5.

[ix] The kingly vocation of Noah is seen quite clearly when God gives him the authority to execute judgment (see Genesis 9:1-7).

[x] See Genesis 8:4.

[xi] See Psalm 9:11 where God is described as being enthroned on Mount Zion; as well as the imagery of hills/mountains are connected to kingdoms in Revelation 17:9.

[xii] See Genesis 8:20.

[xiii] See Genesis 2:1-3 and Genesis 9:20-21.

[xiv] See Ezekiel 20:7-8.

[xv] The Noah connected with Moses is seen most clearly in the infancy narrative of Moses in Exodus 2 where Moses’ mother places him in an ark.

[xvi] The progression of the plagues begins with the lowest point of creation, the waters, and progresses up to the ground, to the animals, to man, to hail and locusts that come from the sky, to the very sky itself when the plague of darkness is sent upon Egypt. The plagues of Egypt is a de-creation of their world and final plague, the death of the firstborn, parallels the height of the creation narrative where man is taken from the ground and given the breathe of life. In this inverted typology God de-creates Egypt and takes the life from the firstborn and makes their bodies return to the dust.

[xvii] See Exodus 16:22-30.

[xviii] See Exodus 19:6 where God calls Israel a “royal priesthood and a holy nation”.

[xix] See Exodus 13:17-22 which describes Israel following the glory-cloud, Exodus 19:3 which speaks of God calling to Moses from the mountain, and Exodus 19:20 where the glory-cloud is on top of the mountain.

[xx] The entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan is a royal procession. At the head of the procession are the Levites carrying the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant is nothing other than the throne of God (see Psalm 99:1 which speaks of God being enthroned upon the cherubim; the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant was topped with golden cherubim upon which the glory-cloud of God rested and from where He spoke to Israel – Exodus 25:17-22). Crossing the Jordan is the King of Israel followed by His royal army who have come to wage war against the kings of the land.

[xxi] The distribution of the land between the tribes of Israel throughout chapters 13-21 reflect the full victory of God in the land and the establishment of His rule. By distributing the whole land to the twelve tribes God is giving His victory spoils to His subjects.

[xxii] See for example Deuteronomy 12:10-11, “but when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and His gives you rest from all your enemies round about, and you dwell in safety, then there will be the place the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide.” Notice how the pattern of victory, rest, and then temple establishment.

[xxiii] Ie: the tabernacle. Since the tabernacle is the “house of the Lord” and God is the King of Heaven and Earth it follows the tabernacle is nothing other than God’s earthly palace.

[xxiv] This is the consistent pattern throughout the book of Judges (the first judge Othniel serves as a fine example: Israel worships the Baals, the king of Syria enslaves Israel, Israel cries out to God, God saves Israel through Othniel, the land remains at peace for 40 years; which implies Israel’s faithfulness to God since the following verses relate how after the death of Othniel Israel again turns to idolatry – see Judges 3:7-11).

[xxv] God defeats the Babylonians by the hand of the Persian king Cyrus who in turn frees Israel from their captivity, granting them rest, and decrees that Israel should rebuild the temple of God (see 1 Ezra 1:48-2:4).

[xxvi] See John 12:31-33 where the imagery of the cross is connected to a royal enthronement and royal judgment.

All Came To Pass: Joshua and the Fulfillment of Moses

 

 

“After the death of Moses, the Lord spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, saying, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, you and all this people, and cross over Jordan into the land I will give them” (Josh. 1:1-2). From the very beginning until the very end the book of Joshua presents it’s namesake in terms of Mosaic imagery, “now it came to pass after these things that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of one hundred and ten years” (Josh. 24:30). The first verses of the book echo the commissioning of Moses by God to go and deliver the people of Israel from the Egyptians and lead them into the Promised Land. Exodus 2:23-3:22 relates how after the king of Egypt is dead God appears to Moses at Mount Horeb promising to deliver Israel and to, “bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Gergesites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17). The last verses of Joshua echo the end of Deuteronomy, “so Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab by the word of the Lord” (Deut. 34:5). Both Moses and Joshua at their deaths are described as the “servant of the Lord” and both deaths serve to mark the end of a book; both Deuteronomy and Joshua. All throughout Joshua we continually see the associations being made between Joshua and Moses; Joshua sends out spies into the Promised Land (Josh. 2:1) just as Moses sent spies (Num. 13:1-3), Joshua crosses the Jordan while it’s waters part (Josh. 3) just as Moses passes through the Red Sea (Ex. 14), an Angel appears to Joshua and commands him to take off his shoes because he’s standing on holy ground (Josh. 5:13-15) just as Moses was visited by an Angel in the burning bush and was commanded to take off his shoes due to the ground being holy (Ex. 3:2-5).

Not only does Joshua take of a Mosaic likeness throughout the book but many of the stories and details contain Exodus motifs throughout; for example when the spies are speaking to Rahab in chapter two they instruct her to gather all her family into her house and to hang a scarlet cord through the window as a visible marking so that the Israelite army might pass over her and her household, thereby saving them from destruction (Josh. 2:18-21) which vividly recalls the imagery of the lamb’s blood being placed upon the Israelite doorposts in Egypt as a visible sign that the destroying angel might pass over their homes, sparing their firstborn children from death (Ex. 11-12). This is because the conquest narrative of Joshua is the fulfillment of the Exodus led by Moses. The first promise of God to Moses is that He will deliver Israel from Egypt but, as Exodus 13:17 reveals, the promise of being brought into the Promised Land is intimately connected; not only will God deliver from bondage but He will bring His people into an inheritance and a new land.

The book of Joshua therefore represents the fulfillment of the promises and expectations of the Exodus; and behind this the promises and expectations of Abraham, to whom God promised the land to be an inheritance for his seed (Gen. 15:18-21). Joshua is the hope and fulfillment of Abraham and Moses for the promises made to Abraham and Moses come to be through Joshua.  The first place where we see the promises made to Israel come to pass through Joshua rather than Moses is when Joshua leads Israel into the Promised Land. While Israel was experiencing their time of exile in the wilderness God commanded Moses to speak to a rock and water would come out of it as drink for Israel (Num. 20:7-8). Previously God had once commanded Moses to strike a rock in order for it to bring forth water for the people of Israel (Ex. 17:1-7). Even though this second time he was commanded to speak to the rock nevertheless Moses struck the rock with his rod just as he had the previous time (Num. 20:9-11). Due to his disobedience Moses was informed by God that he would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land (Num. 20:12). In Deuteronomy 3:21-29 Moses tells how God speaks to him saying that while he will see the land with his eyes he will not enter into it and that Joshua will be the one to lead the people of Israel into the land. As the book of Joshua begins not only do we see Joshua being presented as a new Moses but as the bringer of the Mosaic promises; while the spies Moses sent to spy out the land were afraid of the inhabitants of the land (except for Joshua and Caleb; Ex. 13-14) the spies sent by Joshua return with faith that God will give them the land (Josh. 2) and while Moses dies in the wilderness (Deut. 34:1-5) immediately we see Joshua leading the people of Israel into the land promised to them and Abraham (Josh. 3-4).

After Israel crosses into the land chapters 6-11 deal with the actual conquest of the land and it’s inhabitants. The promise to give Israel the land of Canaan and to conquer the peoples of the land is made throughout Exodus to Deuteronomy. One of the constant refrains throughout Deuteronomy is the promise of the deliverance of the people of the land and the exhortation to conquer them (Deut. 1:8, 7:1-2, 7:17-26, 9:1-3, 20:16). While Moses led the people of Israel in many victories against the people who lived in the lands east of the Jordan river due to his disobedience in the wilderness, a moment which typified him as the disobedient Israel who died in the wilderness, he was unable to enter the Promised Land and therefore unable to lead Israel into the promised victories against the Canaanites. This is emphasized in Joshua 12 where the victories of Moses and Joshua are compared (a comparison which again portrays Joshua as a new and greater Moses). The chapter begins by saying, “now these are the kings of the land whom the sons of Israel put to death, and whose land they inherited beyond the Jordan in the east” (Josh. 12:1) and then lists all the kings who were struck down by, “Moses the servant of the Lord and the sons of Israel” (Josh. 12:6). Immediately the text continues saying, “now these are the kings of the Amorites whom Joshua and the sons of Israel put to death on the other side of the Jordan…the Hitties, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Josh. 12:7-8); a litany of Canaanites that echos the initial promises made by God to Moses in Exodus 3:8 and 3:17. The victories of Moses are overshadowed by the victories of Joshua since Joshua finishes the fight started by Moses. Just as Joshua is the one who brings Israel into the land, fulfilling the exodus of Moses, so too is Joshua the one who brings the victories against the Canaanites, fulfilling the victories promised to, and started by, Moses.

The final chapters of Joshua (13-24) largely deal with the distribution of the land to the tribes of Israel. Just as the promises of victory appear constantly throughout Exodus to Deuteronomy so too is it with the promises of inheritance. After the people of Israel defeated the Midianites while still on the eastern side of the Jordan river the tribes of Gad, Dan, and the half-tribe of Manasseh asked Moses for an inheritance on the eastern side of the river (Num. 32). Moses promised this land to them if they promised to go into the land with the other tribes and to fight against the Canaanites with them. If they did this then they could cross back through the Jordan and receive an inheritance there. The end of the book of Numbers likewise describe how God speaks to Moses about how to divide the lands between the tribes (Num. 33:50-58), what the borders of their lands in Canaan will be (Num. 34:1-15), who will be the ones to divide the land (Num. 34:16-29), that there should be cities for the Levites (Num. 35:1-8), cities of refuge (Num. 35:9-34), and that in certain circumstances if there are no sons within a certain family to inherit the land then the daughters will be the inheritors (Num. 36). The book of Numbers ends with the words, “these are the commandments, the ordinances, and the judgments the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses, west of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho” (Num. 36:13). While all of the specifications are promised through Moses since he is unable to enter the land none of them can come to pass through him. All of these promises are given to Israel through Joshua. Chapters 13-19 specifically describe the allotment of territory to all the tribes of Israel in fulfillment of the Mosaic promises. In chapter 17 in the half-tribe of Manasseh that choose to receive an inheritance on the west side of the Jordan there’s a situation where, “Zelophehad the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons, but only daughters,” (Josh. 17:3) recalling Numbers 26. It goes on to describe how the daughters of Zelophehad approach Joshua and say, “the Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance among our brothers,” (Josh. 17:4) and in obedience to the mandates of Numbers 26 they are given an allotment by Joshua. The fulfillment of Numbers 35 comes to pass in chapters 20-21 where Joshua establishes the cities of refuge and the cities of the Levites. At the end of the distribution of the land we read these words, “the Lord gave them rest all around, as He had sworn to their fathers, and no one rose up against them from all their enemies. The Lord delivered all their enemies into their hands. Not a word failed of any good thing the Lord had spoken to the children of Israel. All came to pass” (Josh. 21:48-49).

The book ends with Joshua giving a final address to the people of Israel, renewing the Deuteronomic covenant, and then breathing his last breath; just as Moses established the Deuteronomic covenant, gave his final address, and breathed his last breath in Deuteronomy 29-34. The book of Joshua is all about how the promises made by God to Israel through Moses, to enter into the land, conquer it’s inhabitants, and to give Israel an inheritance, don’t come to pass through Moses but instead are given through Joshua. In this sense the book of Joshua is the Gospel following the Law. If the Torah can be considered a micro-Tanakh then the book of Joshua is the Gospel that tells the story of the promises of Moses coming through one named Joshua. Israel isn’t to expect their inheritance in Moses, the book of Joshua directs them to look forward to someone named Joshua – or Jesus in Greek – Who will fulfill all the promises of Moses; deliverance, entrance into the Promised Land, victory, and inheritance.

You are the Same and Your Years Will Never End: St. Athanasius’ Biblical Doctrine of Divine Immutability

 

Within various theological circles, particularly those influenced by 19th century German liberal theology, there’s a particular reading of post-Apostolic theological writings that see in them a departure from the pure Hebraic theology of the early Christians for an over Hellenized theology influenced by converts to Christianity who were intellectually formed by the various Greek philosophical traditions. This assessment of the writings of the Church Fathers was most famously articulated by the 19th century German theologian Adolf Von Harnack and has become a fundamental element of liberal theology that looks upon historic Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and the various Christological definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, as unauthentic elements of the Christian faith. This position is also held, to a degree, in modern theological circles that challenge the traditional understanding of God within the “classical theism” framework. Modern theologians who challenge the notions that God is immutable, simple, or impassible typically maintain that these characteristics bear more similarity to the philosophical conceptions of God rather than those found within the pages of Holy Scripture. One might expect then to find the theological articulations of the Church Fathers reaching for the authority of the philosophers rather than the Holy Scriptures.[i] Interestingly enough it’s far more common to see the writings of the Church Fathers containing hosts of Scriptural references in their theological articulations rather than references to figures such as Plato or Aristotle as their authority. This can be seen explicitly in the writings of St. Athanasius of Alexandria in his defenses of the divinity of the Son and of the Spirit.

The first place of authority for St. Athanasius is indisputably the Holy Scriptures and when he presents a theological doctrine which is likewise associated with the doctrines of the philosophers he bases his position not in the philosophers but the Scriptures. When assessing St. Athanasius’ understanding of the immutability of God in his Letters to Serapion, three letters in which he presents his position on the Holy Spirit as well as some anti-Arian writing, it’s clear that he bases the immutability of God from various Scriptural texts. St. Athanasius’ foundational text for maintaining the immutability of God is James 1:17, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” He cites this verse in his defense of the immutability of the Spirit where he asserts that since the Holy Spirit belongs to God then He too must be immutable like the Father, “if no one knows the things that belong to God except the Spirit of God that is in him [1 Cor. 2:11], and if there is in God, as James said, no variation or shadow of change [Jam. 1:17], then, since the Holy Spirit is in God, it is reasonable to conclude that he must be immutable.”[ii] The fact that James speaks of no variation or change in God leads St. Athanasius to conclude that God must be immutable.

Another text that St. Athanasius draws upon Psalm 101 when he asserts that the Son is immutable just as the Father is, “the Son is immutable and unchangeable, just as the Father is. Paul has reminded us of this, citing Psalm 101: and in the beginning, O Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish but you will remain; they will grow old like a garment, like a mantle you will roll them up, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”[iii] Just as in his reading of James 1:17 the fact that the Psalm speaks of God being the same, over and against the changeableness of creation, further underscores a biblical conception of God’s immutability.

With James 1:17 and Psalm 101 as his foundational texts underpinning his doctrine of the immutability of God he turns to other biblical passages to prove the divinity of both the Son and the Spirit by showing how these passages ascribe immutability to both the Son and the Spirit. Immediately after he quotes from Psalm 101 St. Athanasius goes on to say, “and again he [Paul] says: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever [Heb. 13:8].”[iv] This assertion of the unchangeableness of Jesus naturally leads St. Athanasius to conclude to Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, must be immutable; and therefore must be of the same substance of the Father since, “among creatures, none is immutable by nature.”[v] When turning to the Spirit he provides a host of biblical passages, “the Holy Spirit is immutable and unchangeable. For it says: for the Holy Spirit of discipline will flee from deceit, and withdraw from foolish thoughts [Wis. 1:5]. And Peter says: in the incorruptibility of the humble and quiet Spirit [1 Pet. 3:4]. And again in Wisdom: for your incorruptible Spirit is in all things [Wis. 12:1].”[vi] Here St. Athanasius associates incorruptibility with immutability, since corruption is the result of a change of state it would follow that something with remains incorruptible is not susceptible to change; ergo what is incorruptible is like immutable. This position is a conclusion of St. Athanasius’ reading of 1 Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon just as his conclusions that both the Father and the Son are immutable were based upon his reading of James, Hebrews, and Psalm 101.

For St. Athanasius the doctrine of the immutability of God is ultimately based in biblical theology. By seeing various biblical texts ascribing a notion of unchangeableness and incorruptibility to God this leads him to uphold this doctrine as a necessary aspect of orthodox theology. Not in a single one of these cases did he refer to the teaching of any of the ancient philosophers as a source for his theology. While they too asserted the immutability of God St. Athanasius would agree with them not because they believed it but because he believed the Scriptures taught it.

[i] I don’t maintain that there was no such “Hellenistic” influence within the Church Fathers but as I’ve written elsewhere before I believe that the Holy Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church were their primary authority and all Hellenistic theology was interpreted through, and tested against, the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church. Typically it seems that those cases where Hellenism triumphed over the Scriptures lead to heretical positions which came to be condemned by the Church.

[ii] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 1.26.2.

[iii] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 2.3.3.

[iv] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 2.3.3.

[v] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 2.3.3.

[vi] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 1.26.2.

Lord of Lords, in Human Vesture, in the Body and the Blood: The Eucharist and the Incarnation

 

One of the common spiritual exhortations around the time of Christmas is expressed in terms as, “just as a place was prepared in a manger to receive Christ so too let us prepare a place in our hearts for His coming.” This is expressed most popularly in the Western hymn Joy to the World, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King, let every heart prepare Him room.” While Joy to the World has written in 1719 this idea of receiving Christ in our hearts goes way back, as is seen in the writings of the third century early Christian writer Origen, “What good does it do me if Christ was born in Bethlehem once if he is not born again in my heart through faith?”[i] While the tradition of receiving Christ spiritually in our hearts has a long and venerable tradition it seems to me that in the Orthodox tradition the penultimate way to receive Christ at Christmas isn’t through receiving Him in our hearts (though of course the tradition of the indwelling Trinity within the heart is a staple of Orthodox spirituality) but rather to receive Him in His Body and Blood of the Eucharist. While examining elements of the Eucharistic liturgy, iconography, hymnography, and patristic writing we can see clearly how the Orthodox Church sees the Eucharist as an outworking of the Incarnation; the Word of God becomes flesh, taking His body and blood from the Virgin Mary so that by being a participant in our mortal flesh and blood we may become participants in His glorified flesh and blood.

Our first clue is found the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. While this hymn is sung only on Great and Holy Saturday in the Orthodox liturgical tradition it is normally seen as a Christmas hymn in the Western Christian traditions. The connection between the Incarnation and the Eucharist is strikingly clear in the second verse, “King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood, Lord of lords, in human vesture, in the body and the blood; he will give to all the faithful, his own self for heavenly food.” Here we see the enfleshment of Christ as the vehicle for His own self-giving to the Church. The language of the hymn seems to be echoing John 6 where Christ speaks about Himself as being the bread which came down from heaven and how His flesh is true food and blood true drink. This imagery of the Incarnation as heavenly bread coming down to feed the world is picked up in the writings of St. Gregory the Wonderworker, “The Bread of Heaven was placed in the eating place of beasts, so that He could provide participation in mystical sustenance for us, who live like those beasts.”[ii] The fact that Christ was laid in a feeding trough was an indication that He was being given precisely as food for all the world, symbolized in the ox and the donkey in the icon of the Nativity; the ox symbolizing Israel and the donkey the Gentiles.[iii]

 

Moving forward from this connection there appears then to be a correlation between the manger in which Christ is laid and the altar on which the Eucharist is set. This connection is set out for us in the iconographic tradition of the Church. When we look at the traditional icon of the Nativity of Christ we see the infant Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (following the Nativity account in the Gospel of Luke). There is also a very interesting icon that depicts the infant Christ again wrapped in swaddling clothes but this time He is lying in a chalice and placed upon an altar. Iconographically this presents us with the idea that the Eucharist is the fulfillment of the Incarnation; the Eucharist is the place where Christ gives Himself in His body and blood that assumed in His Incarnation, and manifested at His Nativity.

 

The symbolic interpretation of Church architecture and the text of the Divine Liturgy likewise draw out this notion of the Eucharistic association with the Nativity. In his commentary on the Divine Liturgy St. Germanus of Constantinople says, “the apse corresponds to the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born.”[iv] Based upon this observation we can see the celebration of the Eucharist in the apse as a liturgical representation of the Nativity; as the Eucharist is laid within the apse so was Christ laid in the cave at Bethlehem. This is also seen within various liturgical actions and texts from the Divine Liturgy itself. During the prothesis, the preparatory rite for the Eucharist, after the bread which will be used for the Eucharist has been prepared it is placed upon a disk and covered with an asterisk; a cross shaped object placed upon the disk over the bread. According to St. Nicholas Cabasilas, “[the bread] typifies the Lord’s body in His early years, for, as we have already pointed out, He Himself was an offering from His birth onwards. This is why the priest relates, and represents over the bread, the miracles accomplished in Him when He was but new-born and lying in a manger. Placing what is known as the asterisk over it he says, ‘and lo, the star stood over where the child was.’”[v] It’s also telling that the prothesis rite is usually performed before an icon of the Nativity.[vi] As the Liturgy of the Word is about to begin the priest recites the angelic proclamation from the night that Christ was born “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards men.”[vii] By beginning the Eucharistic liturgy with the angelic annunciation of the birth of Christ the priest announces to the faithful that the mystery of Incarnate Christ, God with us, is not merely being re-enacted through liturgical drama but is being made present. The apse is the cave, the covered bread a type of Christ, and the altar becomes the manger. Through the descent of the Holy Spirit the typifying bread becomes the very Body and Blood of Christ that He assumed in His Incarnation and as the priest emerges from the apse with the chalice both Jews and Gentiles, oxen and donkeys, come to receive the Bread of Heaven.

By surveying hymnography, iconography, liturgics, and patristic writings its abundantly evident that the Orthodox Church sees the Eucharist as an outflowing of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. What this means for us practically is that the highest way to receive Christ at Christmas is to go to Church and to receive the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ given to us. The preparatory time of the fast is when through fasting, prayer, and works of love we prepare our hearts to be a spiritual manger for Christ. While turning our heart into a manger is a spiritual activity Christ Himself gives us a very physical way to receive Him. It might be more fitting to exhort one another to recognize in ourselves the hungry animals waiting for the One Who can fill us with true food and quench our thirst with true drink. In the Child lying in the manger we see God not only made flesh but God made food. As one of the Eucharistic hymns of the Church proclaims, “receive the Body of Christ, taste the fountain of immortality.”

[i] Quote taken from the Instagram account of the Patristics Podcast.

[ii] http://pemptousia.com/2018/03/first-discourse-on-the-annunciation-part-3/

[iii] “What though is the relationship between the ox and the ass, why are these animals paired together so?  We will often read that traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the ass is seen as the Gentiles.  This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals.  The ox is a “clean” animal, and the ass is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.” – Jonathan Pageau (see https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/why-an-ass-and-an-ox-in-the-nativity-icon/)

[iv] St. Germanus of Constantnople, On the Divine Liturgy, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984, pg. 59.

[v] St. Nicholas Cabasilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, London: SPCK Press, 1960, pg. 41.

[vi] See documentary Fountain of Immortality – Meditation on the Orthodox Divine Liturgy at 4:45 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hm2qSeiTCfI)

[vii] Luke 2:14 (see https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-divine-liturgy/blessed-is-the-kingdom)

The Burning Bush: Mary as the Eschatological Face of Creation

 

Introduction:

One of the deeply fascinating aspects of Orthodoxy theology is how everything is interconnected. Orthodox theology is a grand tapestry where the many threads are all woven together to reveal the glorious image of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ; or to use the language of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the many jewels which fit together to form the image of the King. The knowledge of the interconnectedness of Orthodox theology is fundamental to understand when approaching of the theological and dogmatic positions of the Church. While the theology of the Church is primarily drawn from the bottomless wells of the Holy Scriptures it is also expressed through the language of the Church Fathers, ecclesiastical hymnography, and iconography; none of which contradict the content of Holy Scripture but rather drawn out theological truths from the Scriptures. This means that some of the theological positions and dogmatic statements of the Church are expressed in ways that are not directly expressed in Holy Scripture but nonetheless are the result of the way the Church reads Holy Scripture. This is the case especially in the way the Church approaches and understands who the Virgin Mary is and what her role is in the economy of salvation and the continuing life of the Church. The Orthodox Church fully affirms her ever-virginity, her intercessory role, and her place as the Mother of God (or Theotokos in Greek). While none of these statements are made directly they are nonetheless necessary conclusions based on the typological and thematic reading of the Holy Scriptures; as taught by the Apostles (as is evident within the writings of the New Testament) and by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (see Lk. 24:27). The case I will be presenting is that according to the typological reading of Scripture, the patristic, hymnographic, and iconographic traditions of the Church we see in Mary an image of the eschatological creation; creation filled with the glory of God responding is praise and thanksgiving. When observing the connections made between Pentecost and the formation of the Church, the eschatological age and the transfiguration of creation, the burning bush, and Mary what becomes clear is that the future eschatological life of the Kingdom of Heaven is implemented in the Church, thus the gift of the Spirit and the formation of the Church constitute the beginning of the eschatological age. Both events of Pentecost and the transfigured cosmos are typified in the burning bush seen by Moses in the book of Exodus. Another typological reading of the burning bush is seeing it as an image and anticipation of the indwelling of the Word of God within the womb of Mary. Orthodox tradition has already seen in the expectant Mary an image of the Church bearing Christ and when we connect the eschatological dimensions of the burning bush and Pentecost with Mary we see in the face of Mary a personal image of the new creation.

Pentecost and the Eschaton:

The foundational event for the book of Acts is indisputably the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus at the feast of Pentecost. Acts 2 gives describes for us how the Holy Spirit descends upon the company of the disciples in the form of tongues of fire, the initial preaching of the Apostles in a multitude of tongues, the reaction of the crowds, and Peter’s first sermon. From the very first words of Peter it becomes clear that he understands the preceding event of the outpoured Spirit as a sign that the eschatological age has begun by quoting the prophet Joel, “and in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28 & Acts 2:17). The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is the fundamental event of the implementation of Christ’s Kingdom following His ascension. While the Kingdom comes in the Person of Jesus Christ it’s extension to the rest of creation begins at Pentecost. The work of the Spirit in Pentecost takes the company of Jesus’ disciples and forms them into a new community, identified throughout the New Testament as the body of Christ. The Spirit formed community of the Church made up of people from all the nations and all cultural groups anticipates the future coming of Christ in glory when the Spirit of God will raise the dead and transform the faithful members of the Church, and all the natural elements of creation, into the glorious likeness of Christ, as Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “Pentecost’s fiery tongues become the flame of the world fire, not consuming but transmuting the world. This figure represents a hieroglyph of the cosmic Pentecost.”[i][ii] Pentecost constitutes the incorporation of the disciples of Jesus into the eschatological age which looks forward to its consummation and completion at the second coming of Christ when the event of Pentecost will be universalized.

Pentecost and the Burning Bush:

The Church is the seed of the new creation in the midst of the old creation by virtue of the indwelling Spirit, through Whom the Light of the age to come is manifest throughout the world. The image of the tongues of fire resting upon the heads of the disciples draws a connection to the burning bush seen by Moses in the book of Exodus. In the Gospel of John, within Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, Jesus describes Himself as the true vine and His disciples as branches shooting out from the vine (Jn. 15:5). The image of Pentecost is therefore an image of the fiery indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the branches of the Church; and image which echoes the burning bush. The burning bush, being filled with fire and yet not consumed; out of which the message of deliverance and salvation is announced to Israel, typifies the Pentecostal Church; the fiery branches out of which the deliverance and salvation of Israel and the whole world in Christ is announced. The image of the burning bush is also, according to David Bentley Hart, an “eschatological motif of the redeemed cosmos…: pervaded by the divine glory, but unconsumed—an infinitely realized theophany.”[iii]  The divine fire within the bush anticipates both the indwelling Spirit within the Church and the pervading glory of Christ within the entire cosmos in the age to come.

Mary and the Burning Bush:

Another dimension of the Orthodox Church’s typological understanding of the burning bush is seeing in it an anticipation of Mary bearing within her womb the Word of God. This is demonstrated most clearly in the iconographic depiction of the burning bush which features the image of the “Theotokos of the Sign” within the burning bush. This iconographic interpretation of the text is rooted within patristic Mariology, as testified by St. Gregory of Nyssa, “This also symbolizes [the burning bush] the mystery of the Virgin, from whom came the divine light that shone upon the world without damaging the bush from which it emanated or allowing the virgin shoot to wither.”[iv] The Church herself likewise testifies to the typological connection between the burning bush and Mary in her hymnography. The Kontakion for the feast of the icon of the “Theotokos the Unburnt Bush” reads, “You showed Moses, O Christ God, an image of your most pure Mother in the bush that burned yet was not consumed, for she herself was not consumed, when she received in her womb the fire of divinity! She remained incorrupt after her pure childbearing! By her prayers, O greatly merciful One, deliver us from the flame of passions, and preserve your people from all harm!”[v] The hymnography recognizes a correlation between the bush that held that divine flame and the womb of Mary that held the fire of divinity; since as the book of Hebrews declares, “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).

Mary the Image of the Church:

What emerges is an intimate connection between the Pentecostal Church, the Eschatological Creation, and the person of Mary through their anti-typical relationship with the burning bush. Moving forward we come to the conclusion that the Word bearing Mary is an anticipation and image of the Spirit bearing Church at Pentecost. Just as the Spirit overshadows Mary, taking her flesh and blood and forming the body of Christ within her womb, so at Pentecost the Spirit descends upon, or to use Mariological language “overshadows”, the Church, taking the flesh and blood of the disciples and forming them into the ecclesial body of Christ. This indication of Mary as a personification of the Church has been recognized by the Orthodox Church, as Vladimir Lossky wrote, “if we consider St. Paul’s image of the union of Christ and His Church – the image of the union of the bride and the bridegroom – it would appear that Christ is the head of His body, head of the Church, in the same sense in which the husband is the head of the single, unique body of the man and the woman in marriage (Eph. 5:31). In this mysterious union…the one body, the nature common to two persons, receives the hypostasis of the Bridegroom: the Church is ‘the Church of Christ’. But it does not cease to be the other person in this union, subjected to the Bridegroom, distinct from His as bride…the question must need arise – who is this other person, this person of the Church, distinct from the person of her Head? Who is the bride in this union ‘in one flesh’? What is the Church’s own hypostasis?…this person is Mary, the Mother of God…who is herself the first-fruits of the glorified Church.”[vi]

Mary as the Face of the Eschatological Creation:

All of this leads us to the recognition that Mary is herself not only an anti-type of the burning bush, not only the image of the Church, but is herself the personification of the eschatological creation. At the end of our present age the Lord of Glory will enter into His creation, just as He entered secretly into His creation as He was conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit, though what began in secret will conclude in public. The glorified Christ will fill all of creation with His divine glory through the transfiguring operation of the Holy Spirit just as He filled the womb of Mary with His glory through hidden operation of the Spirit. The coming of the glorified Christ completes the union of heaven and earth into a new creation just as the womb of the Virgin became the place where heaven and earth first reunited and became, as the Orthodox hymn sings, a “spiritual paradise” and “more spacious than the heavens.”[vii] The womb of Mary thus became the embryo of the glorified creation, anticipating the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the formation of the body of Christ, the Church, within the upper room which looks forward until the glorious return of Christ where the inner life of the Church, the life of the glorified Christ in the Spirit, will embrace and transfigure all of creation, filling it all with the eternal glory of Christ. The eschatological age is in one sense the “Churchification” of creation, since the life of the Church in the Spirit experienced now in part will become universalized, and in another very real sense the “Mariolization” of the whole creation, where the life of the Virgin – being the receptacle and bearer of Christ – will become the cosmic experience.

[i]

[ii] Quoted by Fr. Aiden Kimel in https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/parousia-and-the-glorification-of-the-cosmos/

[iii] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/06/romans-81922

[iv] https://enlargingtheheart.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/gregory-of-nyssa-moses-and-the-burning-bush/

[v] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Theotokos_the_Unburnt_Bush_icon

[vi] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1997, p. 192-195.

[vii] https://churchmotherofgod.org/text-of-prayers-of-the-church/53-hymn-to-the-theotokos.html

Confession, Priesthood, and the New Temple in Biblical Perspective.

 

Introduction:

One of the identifying traits of evangelical Christianity is it’s insistence that individuals need only to confess their sins to God, not before any man. While some of the Reformers retained the practice of confession (though in a greatly limited practice) it’s been purged out of most modern Protestant communities, especially those which have come under the influence of evangelicalism, due to it’s perception as an unbiblical practice. A closer reading of Scripture, done in a more holistic fashion, actually presents confession as a biblical practice with it’s roots in the liturgical life of Israel under the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant a verbal confession was made by an Israelite making a trespass offering in the presence of the priest, who would then take the offering and make atonement for the Israelite. This practice continues into the New Covenant since the pages of the New Testament present the Church as a New Temple and the ordained ministers as priests of the New Temple. The New Testament texts which speak about confessing sins therefore need to be read in light of the Old Testament background of confession and within the context of the Church as New Temple and her ministers as the New Priesthood. In light of this the New Testament practice of confessing sins is presented as the members of the Church coming to confess their sins in the presence of the ordained ministers who have been given to authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.

Confession in the Leviticus 5:

Throughout the Old Testament there are multiple examples of people giving verbal confessions of their sins (perhaps most famous in the confession King David makes to Nathan the prophet in 2 Samuel 12:13). The examples in the Old Testament highlight the fact that confession in Israel was verbal and took place either in front of a single person or the community (David’s confession before Nathan is an example of a private confession in the presence of a single person while in Ezra 10 Shekaniah confesses in the presence of Ezra and a large crowd of Israelites). The central texts in the Old Testament that deal with confession, however, are intimately connected to Israel’s liturgical and sacrificial order. The primary text that places confession within the context of Israel’s liturgical/sacrificial order is Leviticus 5:5-6, “When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.” The context of these verses is the levitical prescriptions for trespass offerings. After the Israelite commits a sin that warrants a trespass offering, and they come to a realization of their sin, they are to confess their sin and bring an appropriate offering to the priest. While the text doesn’t explicitly mention that the offending Israelite is to confess in the presence of the priest it can be assumed since the Old Testament emphasis on confession is on verbal confessions. This levitical mandate to confess the specific sin committed, bound up with the trespass offerings, means that an offending Israelite would be required to confess her or her sin, whenever the sin committed requires a trespass offering. Since the liturgical practice of confession within the life of Israel was intimately connected to the Temple we should understand the New Testament commands regarding confession to be read in light of their Old Testament background. If we can see that in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ that there’s a New Temple and a New priesthood than in order to have a consistent biblical theology the New Covenant practice of confession must necessarily be placed within this context.

The Church as the New Temple:

One of the major features of the New Covenant is that the incarnate body of Jesus is the New Temple. In fact this is a major theme throughout the entirety of the Gospel of John. In the prologue to the Gospel of John when it says that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn. 1:14) the Greek word for “dwelt” is literally translated as either “tabernacled” or “pitched his tent”. Just as the Glory of God dwelt within the tabernacle so the incarnate Word is the embodiment of the tabernacle, as the theme of glory immediately follows, “we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14). The Evangelist John also directly identifies Jesus’ body as a temple in John 2 after Jesus challenges his critics, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). John adds an explanatory note saying, “but He spoke of the temple of His body” (Jn. 2:21). The New Testament theology of the Church is that by way of baptism and the gift of the Spirit all believers in Jesus are made members of His body (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Since the Spirit of God dwells within individual believers they are themselves individually temples (1 Cor. 6:12-20) as well as each member is a stone that makes up the New Temple of the body of Christ (1 Pt. 4-5). Since Jesus’ body is the temple, and the Church is the body of Christ (Col. 1:18, 1:24), the Church – by virtue of it’s union to the incarnate body of Christ through the Spirit – is the New Temple. The ministers of the Old Covenantal temple were priests and likewise the ministers of the New Covenant in Christ also practice a priestly ministry.

The New Priesthood:

In the New Covenant there is a single priesthood: Christ’s. As the book of Hebrews articulates Jesus was appointed as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek and by His ascension entered into the heavenly tabernacle with His own blood to offering it as an atoning sacrifice. This follows that His ministerial representatives are participators in, and manifest, His priesthood. The Gospel of Matthew has a number of texts that portray Jesus in a priestly light and then show how he extends these priestly ministries to His disciples. In Matthew 13 when Jesus teaches the crowds through parables the disciples approach Him and ask why He teaches the crowds in parables. Jesus responds to them, “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 13:11). One of the priestly functions during the Old Covenant was that of teaching (Lev. 10:8-11). Jesus’ ministry of teaching is fundamentally a part of His priesthood. By giving the secrets of the kingdom to the disciples he extends His priestly duties of teaching to His disciples. Another aspect of the priesthood is the offering of sacrifices. The Last Supper is presented as a memorial grain offering. In Leviticus 2, where we find the prescriptions for grain offerings, the first portion is offered up on the altar as an offering to God while the rest is given to Aaron and his sons for consumption (Lev. 2:1-10). The fact that Jesus takes the first portion during the Last Supper indicates His divine identity while His distribution of the bread to the disciples indicates their priestly identity. This priestly duty of offering the Eucharist is given directly to the disciples in Matthew 14 at the feeding of the five thousand. The event itself anticipates the Last Supper since when Jesus receives the bread and fish it says that He blessed, broke, and gave it to the disciples. The startling fact is that He doesn’t give it to the crowds directly but rather gives it to the disciples so that they can give it to the crowds. This indicates that Jesus is not only handing on His priestly duty of teaching to the disciples but also the priestly duty of offerings. Further texts within Matthew also allude to the priestly ministry of the disciples (such as 12:1-6, 16:16-18, and 19:28-30) so just as the New Testament presents the Church as a New Temple so the ministry of the Apostles is a New Priesthood.

Confession in the New Testament:

The first example of confession that we see in the New Testament occurs within the Gospel accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew 3 introduces John the Baptist, and his ministry, and recounts how people go out to him to be baptized by him, “then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jorden, confessing their sins” (Mt. 3:5-6). The Old Testament background to the baptism of John is the numerous purifying rites within the book of Leviticus (the book of Hebrews calls these ritual cleansings “baptisms” – see Heb. 9:1-10). Many of the purity laws within the book of Leviticus prescribe a ritual washing when an Israelite became ritually unclean. Many of the laws involved the unclean Israelite to present him/herself to a priest after their time of ritual uncleanliness had expired; either to be inspected by the priest or to bring the appropriate sacrifice for the priest to offer. By baptizing the people of Israel John is performing a priestly duty (he himself came from a priestly line – see Lk. 1:5-24). Since John is a priestly figure, performing a priestly duty, we see that he performs another priestly duty in hearing the confessions of repenting Israelites; just as the priests in the Old Covenant heard the confessions of repenting Israelites as they brought their trespass offerings.

While John’s ministry occurs within the pages of the New Testament his ministry operates near the end of the Old Covenant. Following the resurrection, ascension, enthronement of Christ, and the outpouring of the Spirit we find a few texts in the New Testament. that deal with the practice of confession. The first of these is found in James 5:14-16, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Here the context of the confession of sins is the anointing of the sick by the elders of the Church. A second text is found in 1 John 1:9, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” A third text is found in John 20:23 when Christ says to His disciples, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus says this to His disciples immediately after He breathes upon them with the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit has many facets to it but one of them, which illuminates this passage, is connected to the ordination of priests. Leviticus 8 describes the ordination ceremony of Aaron and his sons. One of the rituals involved consecrating Aaron for the priesthood by pouring anointing oil on Aaron’s head. Elsewhere in the Old Testament the oil of anointment is directly connected with the Spirit (see 1 Samuel 16:13). The ministry of the priests in the Old Testament was a ministry of cleansing and forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial offerings on behalf of Israel. The connection then between the gift of the Spirit to the disciples and their authority to forgive sins is an indication that they are being ordained by Spirit to operate as priests of His New Covenant. With this in sight the texts of James and 1 John indicate that the confession of sins is made to the ordained ministers of the Church, who function as priests of the New Covenant. The apostolic authority to forgive sins that have been confessed is given to the priests of the Church who continue the apostolic ministry. The pages of the New Testament give an image of repentance by confessing sins in the presence of a priest. Jesus gives the authority to forgive sins to His disciples in an event that indicates their own ordination to a new priesthood. The texts of James and 1 John that deal with confession therefore need to be read in light of the Old Testament backdrop, the example given by John hearing confessions, and the authority to forgive sins given to the Apostles by Christ.

Conclusion:

When analyzing both the Old Testament and the New Testament texts that deal with confession it becomes clear that the traditional Christian practice of confession is far from unbiblical; rather it follows from a holistic approach to the Scriptures. During the Old Covenant it was instituted that the people of Israel should confess their sins in the presence of one of God’s consecrated priests so that he might offer up a sacrifice on their behalf, cleansing and forgiving them of their sins. Through Christ the Church has become the New Temple and her consecrated servants are priests. Throughout the Gospels the Apostles are given priestly duties and following the resurrection of Jesus are anointed with the Holy Spirit and given the priestly authority to forgive the sins of all. Within the Church, the New Temple, when sins are committed and the believers are exhorted to confess their sins it is done in the presence of the elders, the New Priests, who have the authority to forgive sins, and through their confession they are cleansed of all unrighteousness.