The Transfiguration of Christ

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Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Luke 9:28-36

Today is the last week of the Epiphany season, with Lent beginning this Wednesday. It is appropriate for us to end the season of Epiphany by reflecting  on the Transfiguration of Christ.

The Transfiguration can seem like an odd story, and its import is not always clear. After Peter has recognized Christ as the Messiah, and after Jesus has foretold his death and resurrection to his disciples, Jesus withdraws with Peter, James, and John to a mountain to pray. There, Elijah and Moses come to speak to Jesus about his departure to Jerusalem (the Greek word used in Luke, intriguingly, is his exodos), and his impending death. Just when Moses and Elijah are about to leave, Peter speaks up, suggesting they create tabernacles, or dwelling places, for all three of them. At that moment a Glory-Cloud envelops Jesus, and a voice from the Cloud says, almost in rebuke to Peter, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” Then the Cloud disappears, and Jesus is alone.

The next day, they go down from the mountain and Jesus casts out a demon from a boy, and the story seemingly picks up again from there.

At first glance, the Transfiguration seems like a strange interlude, an interruption in the main plot of Jesus’ story. However, when properly understood, the Transfiguration provides an interpretive key to understanding Jesus’ identity, the Apostles Peter and John’s ministries, and the whole canon of Scripture.

Where Jesus’ baptism marks his entry into the first stage of his ministry, the revelation of Jesus’ glory in His Transfiguration marks his turn to the second stage of his ministry, where he journeys to His Crucifixion. The narrative elements surrounding both events have clear parallels–1) John the Baptist testifies to the Coming One before Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:11-13), Peter testifies that Jesus is “the Messiah of God” a few days before the Transfiguration (Luke 9:20); 2) Following the Baptism, Jesus wrestles with and overcomes the Devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:12-13), following the Transfiguration, Jesus drives out a demon from a boy (Matthew 17:22-24).

The events of the Baptism and the Transfiguration themselves are also similar. At the Baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus as a Dove and the Father declares that Jesus is his beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Spirit descends as a cloud of glory, and the Father declares that Jesus is the Elect Son, and the disciples should listen to him.

Both events are “epiphanies” or appearances of God, but importantly they are Trinitarian epiphanies–God is seen in the united action of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Peter, James, and John all witnessed the Transfiguration. As evidenced by their writings, it seems that this disclosure of God’s Trinitarian nature was key in shaping the apostles’ understanding of who Jesus is, and who God is.

In his Gospel, John writes that “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Close readers of the Bible might be confused by this statement. In the Old Testament, there are numerous places where God comes down, manifests, or is somehow or other “seen” in Creation–there is the Lord’s visit to Abraham (Genesis 18), the Angel of the Lord in the burning bush calling to Moses (Exodus 3:2-4), and the Lord guiding Israel in the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), to cite a few examples.

But John’s statement should call to mind the story of Exodus 33, where Moses asked to see God in His Glory. God was pleased with Moses and had been speaking to Him through the Angel, but He would not reveal His Glory-Face to Moses. This is why He hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and allowed Moses to only see His back. Then the Lord comes before Moses in the cloud and declares a covenant with Israel in Exodus 34. Though Moses has not beheld the Lord’s face, because he was in the Lord’s shrouded presence in the cloud, his own face shines with such glory and brilliance that he has to cover it with a veil when he returns to the Israelites.

At the Transfiguration, Peter confusedly attempts to equate the greatness of Jesus with that of Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:33). But what the Father declares, and what the Apostle John comes to understand, is that Jesus is not just shining as a reflection of God’s Glory, as Moses shone in Exodus; Jesus is God’s Glory-Face. Jesus is not only Israel’s Messiah–he is the full revelation and self-disclosure of God.

This is why, for John, Jesus’ presence in the world is comparable to God’s presence to Israel in the Tabernacle. John 1:14 states that the “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” But the Greek word for “lived” could also be translated as “dwelt” or “tabernacled” among us. Further, John’s statement that Jesus is full of grace and truth is itself a call-back to Exodus 34:6, where God describes Himself as “abounding in goodness and truth.”

The revelation of Jesus as the Glory-Face of God is a theme that runs throughout John’s Gospel, even though he does not include the event of the Transfiguration itself. And this theme is further developed in John’s letters. For example, John expresses confidence in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” John’s experience of the Transfigured Christ allows him to see that the very act of seeing Christ in beauty and power will transform us into reflections of that beauty and power. Jesus is God’s Glory-Face, the true Image of God. Just as Moses’ face shone in reflection of God’s Glory before the Israelites, our faces will shine in reflection of Jesus’ Glory before the world.

The Transfiguration also had a profound effect on Peter’s theology, as clearly shown in his second letter. 2 Peter 1:16-19:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

In 2 Peter 1, Peter draws a connection between the Transfiguration on “the holy mountain” and the Second Coming of Christ. Because the apostles saw for a moment the full glory and majesty of Christ at the Transfiguration, they are able to believe with full confidence and credibility that he will come again in power to judge and reign eternally over all things. At the Transfiguration, we see God’s eternal plan had always been to, as testified in the unity of Scripture, “gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

Alastair Roberts has written at length on the importance of the Transfiguration, and his thoughts can be found in free e-book form here. I have drawn very heavily from his writings for this post, and I encourage you to read them in full. As he closes his reflections on the Transfiguration, he writes:

The glory revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration discloses the identity of Christ and thereby the character of his mission. This is the glorious Saviour that came to earth in the incarnation. This is the glorious Son that was declared in the vision associated with his baptism. This is the glorious suffering Servant that went to the death of the cross. This is the glorious Lord that rose from the grave and ascended into the cloud that received him from his disciples’ sight. This is the glorious King that will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is in this glory that we will be caught up to dwell with him forever.

Amen.

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Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 3

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“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

The season of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. We began the season reflecting on the adoration of the Magi, when Gentile wise men came to recognize the Jewish Messiah child as the true Lord of the world. Now, as we near the end of Epiphany, we conclude our last week investigating how Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan unveils his identity and purpose.

Two weeks ago, we saw how Jesus’ baptism foreshadows his role as both Israel’s substitute and Israel’s representative, whose vocation is to bring God’s plan for mankind’s redemption and glorification to fulfillment as a new Joshua who again crosses the Jordan to cleanse the land of pollution and corruption. Last week, we saw how Jesus’ baptism prompts the sending of the Holy Spirit, whose descent like a dove presages Jesus’ role as the true Ark that saves mankind from destruction, and his status as the first-fruits of a New Creation.

This week, we will see how Jesus’ baptism establishes his identity as the Divine Son who rids the world of evil.

In verse 17, as the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, the Father says of him, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This event is literally an Epiphany–a manifestation or showing forth–of the Trinity, as it involves the voice of the Father, the baptism of the Incarnate Son, and the descent of the Spirit. As Christians, we do not believe that in this moment Jesus became the Son of God. Rather, this moment was an unveiling of who Jesus already is. It had always been the Father’s purpose to sum up Creation under the Lordship of the totus Christus–Christ, Head and Body. See Colossians 1:15-20 below:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

The Divine Son is the perfect image of the Father, who pre-existed all things and for whom and through whom all things were created. This Son is the Head of the Church, which then adopts his own identity for its identity, and his status for its status. By the peace the Son made on the Cross, all who are members of the Church can enjoy His rights and privileges as the Son.

Hebrews 1:1-4 puts it this way:

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

The Eternal Son shares the Father’s very being with the Holy Spirit. This is good news for many reasons, not least because it reveals the very heart and character of our God, and because it reveals the heights to which God elevates us!

If the Son is the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” then ugly caricatures where we portray the Father as a stern tyrant and Jesus as the compassionate son who volunteers for cosmic child abuse will not do. Rather, we see that from the world’s creation to its redemption to its ultimate glorification, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united in one purpose in generously pouring themselves out for the sake of one another and for the world.

The Father is always giving us gifts, including the gift of existence and the gift of every next breath. He also gives us the Son, and the Son in turn gives His entire life as a ransom for many. The Son then gives us His Spirit, who teaches us to love the Son so that we can be reconciled to the Father, who is ready to give us the gift of eternal life. The Spirit also gives us gifts so that we can be united as one Church, so we can build one another up in faith, and so we can love our neighbors, even when they declare themselves to be our enemies.

Martin Luther recognized all of this in his 1528 Confession

“These are the three Persons and the one God, Who has given Himself to us wholly with all that He is and all that He has. The Father gives Himself to us, with heaven and earth and all created things, that they may be profitable and of service to us. But this gift was obscured and made fruitless by Adam’s fall, and the Son also gave Himself to us, bestowed on us all His works, sufferings, wisdom and righteousness, and reconciled us to the Father, so that, once more alive and righteous, we perceive and possess the Father and His gifts. But such grace would profit no one if it were to remain a hidden secret and could not be imparted to us. So the Holy Ghost also comes and gives Himself completely to us, teaches us the bounty of Christ, makes us perceive and understand it, helps us to receive and keep it, to use it profitably, to administer it and to increase and further its spread among men, and this He does both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly through faith and other spiritual gifts but outwardly through the Gospel, through Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, through which, as through means or instruments He comes to us, applies the sufferings of Christ to us and makes them profitable to salvation.”

The Son-ship of Jesus Christ matters because through the Holy Spirit and in Christ, we enjoy fellowship with the Father. These gifts are manifest to us through the preaching of the Gospel, through the Lord’s Supper, through the ministry of believers to one another, and through baptism. Our baptism takes its meaning–and therefore must constantly look back to–Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus’ baptism takes us into a three-fold mystery, so that by participating in his Death and Resurrection we receive the gifts of the Triune God. Despite our sin and idolatry, when we are washed by water and the word, the Spirit descends upon us so that we receive Jesus’ status as Son.

It is because Jesus is the Divine Son, and because the Spirit joins us to His life, that we can hear the voice of the Father regarding us, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Christians no longer need to fear anything in this life, because in Christ we receive the eternal love and approval of the Father. Truly, this is good news!

Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 2

Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 2

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

-Matthew 3:13-17

For three weeks, we are reflecting on how Jesus’ baptism helps us understand his identity. Last week, we saw how John’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River brought forward God’s eternal plan, launched with Abraham and through the nation of Israel and now focused on Jesus, to reconcile the entire world back to Himself. In particular, we saw how Jesus’ baptism connects him tightly with the history of Israel, including the purification codes, the crossing of the Jordan, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

This week, we will see how Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan is also the moment of his anointing as the Christ, or Messiah. The descent of the Spirit as a dove helps us better understand the nature of his Messiah-ship by connecting the baptism with the Biblical Flood and the beginning of Creation.

First, we must recognize that Jesus’ baptism involves the full Trinity. Through the descent of the Spirit from the Father to the Son at the moment of his baptism, “God anoints God with God.” This is the ecstatic answer to many prophetic pleas:

Oh that you would rend the heavens the heavens! That you would come down! Isaiah 64:1.

For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:24-27, 30.

And it shall to come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Joel 2:8.

What is completed in Pentecost , where the Spirit truly is poured out upon all flesh, began with the baptism of Jesus. He is anointed as the King who will accomplish God’s promises. The nature of this accomplishment is revealed by further investigating the Spirit that alights over him.

The descent of the Spirit “as a dove” immediately brings to mind certain Old Testament associations–namely, the dove Noah sent out from the Ark during the Flood, and the Spirit of God “hovering” over the waters of Creation.

In fact, 1 Peter 3:18-21 invites comparisons between the waters of the Flood and the waters of baptism:

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

After the Flood, Noah sent a dove to see if the waters had receded, but the dove returned to the ark after finding no place to rest its feet (Gen. 8:7-9). Eventually, the dove returned with an olive leaf (v. 11). This is where we get the idea of the “olive branch” as a symbol of peace–God’s Judgment had receded, and those in the Ark were saved to enter into God’s peace. The olive leaf is also significant because the olive would become a sacred fruit for the Israelite priestly ministry, especially because it produced olive oil. Olive oil was used in the Temple Menorah and in the ceremonial anointing of kings, priests, and prophets. (See e.g., Exodus 30:25).

The Spirit that hovers over Jesus is similar to the dove that hovered over the Ark. Just as the dove announced peace with man through the olive leaf given to Noah, the Spirit announces God’s Peace to all who are in the anointed Jesus. Jesus is the true Ark who saves humanity from God’s Judgment over Evil.

The imagery of the dove shows us that Jesus is not only the true Ark, but also the new Adam, Captain of the New Creation. In Genesis 1:2, we  read:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

The Spirit of God that hovered over the waters of nothingness before God’s creative act now hovers over Jesus on the Jordan. God birthed the first creation out of the waters of chaos, and now will birth a New Creation out of the waters of the Jordan.

Jesus launches God’s New Creation–this is the sum total of His life and work. This new creative act will be accomplished through His Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. But the Spirit of God now hovers over the baptism of the incarnate God to signal the beginning of this new era, the final phase of the Father’s redemptive project.

Taken together with last week’s post, I hope I have made a case that Jesus’ baptism was his anointing as the promised priest-king who can finally fulfill Israel’s mission to re-found the world by establishing an everlasting peace with God. Next week, we will see how the Father’s words reveal that the Christ is also the eternal Divine Son.

Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 1

Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 1

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

–Matthew 3:1-17

The season of Epiphany forces us to confront the question: Who is Jesus?

Who is this person who prompts worship from foreigners, who incites murder from usurping kings, who substitutes for and represents Israel, and who confuses the boundaries of Jewish monotheism?

This question is a thread that weaves throughout Jesus’ public ministry. Who is this person who drives out demons, heals the sick, walks on water, forgives sins, feeds the hungry, eats with tax collectors and sinners, raises people from the dead, and whom even the winds and the waves obey?

The baptism of Jesus grants us an opportunity to answer this question in the light of Epiphany. For the next three weeks, we will zoom in on the baptism of Jesus to explore how this event explains to us Jesus’ identity and purpose.

A proper understanding of Jesus’ baptism has to begin with John the Baptist. What was John doing out in the desert, and why was he doing it?

The Greek word “baptizo” as used in Mark 1:4 means to immerse or plunge into water for washing. One famous use of the word is in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), in 2 Kings 5:14, where the leprous Syrian general Naaman “went down and dipped (baptized) himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

Although the term “baptizo” is not used to describe Israelite rituals, it likely has roots in the purification codes of the Tvilah, which in turn draw from Torah (ie, Leviticus 15:11, Leviticus 15:13-14).

Eventually, after the Babylonian Exile as Gentiles began to convert to Judaism, ritual washing became part of the conversion process. Accordingly, a male Gentile convert would not only be circumcised to join the covenant family of Abraham, but also baptized to repent for and be purified from his prior life of idol-worship.

After the Exile, the Jewish nation continued to be dominated by foreign powers. The religious group called the Pharisees began to advocate for national obedience to the Jewish Law. In particular, they believed that obedience to the purification codes for Temple service must expand to outside the Temple, which would result in the return of YHWH to the land–the nation of Israel would then drive out the pagan Romans, the Herodians, and their Jewish collaborators, and inaugurate God’s Kingdom on earth. This expanded set of rules included an elaborate system of ritual washings for purification. It is for this reason that the Pharisees criticize Jesus for his failure to wash his hands before he ate with them (Luke 11:37-41).

Similarly, the Qumran community–best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls–was an ascetic sect that practiced baptism after the Exile for ritual purity. The Qumran community was obsessed with the end of the world, or Apocalypse, which they taught would begin with the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. In their Manual of Discipline, they taught that those who wish to enter the community must put into practice Isaiah 43:10, and “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Some scholars have connected John the Baptist to the Qumran community. But whatever the case, it is clear that his call to Israel to repent would have been understood in the light of these background understandings and associations: National repentance for their failure to worship Israel’s God, purification from sins, and the cleansing of the land to clear the way for God’s return, all so that He would raise up a Messiah who would drive out the oppressors and bring the Judgment of Apocalypse.

In this context, John’s act of baptizing in the Jordan River gains added significance. The Book of Joshua begins with the crossing of the Jordan River into the land promised to Israel. Once in the land, the tribes cleanse the land of pollution and idolatry through war with the Canaanite nations. Once the land has been purified by this war, Israel can then worship YHWH freely. (See Joshua 3). Israel’s crossing of the Jordan itself mirrors the original act of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel, when God baptizes the new nation by bringing the people through the waters of the Red Sea, out of slavery and into freedom. (See Exodus 14).

With this in mind, we can better appreciate and understand John’s baptism of Jesus. Jesus is the true Israelite able to fully repent for Israel’s failures with his blood, so that God can dwell fully with His people. Jesus’ blood purifies the people from their sins, so that they can truly become the kingdom of priests the Pharisees sought to be through ritual obedience. After “crossing the Jordan,” Jesus will cleanse the land of pollution and idolatry–but this time, not through a war against pagans, but through a war with the forces of evil that hold all of humankind in bondage. Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation drives out pagans by drawing them in and converting them. Jesus ends humankind’s slavery to sin, and liberates us to enjoy God’s freedom forever.

The baptism of Jesus is about the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan, to reconcile all of humanity to Himself through the family of Abraham (Genesis 22:18). Jesus fully identifies with Israel’s purpose to bless the world, and God’s promise to cleanse the world of evil. In coming weeks, we will talk about how the baptism of Jesus is also the moment of his anointing as Messiah and establishes his identity as the Divine Son.

Jesus’ Divine Identity

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Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

–Luke 2:41-52

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The story of 12-year-old Jesus disputing with the elders in the Temple is occasionally cited to show the precocious genius of Christ as a child holding his own with learned Jewish scholars, and to remind children that even Jesus ended up obeying his parents (at least, after giving them a scare that Passover). But when we come at this passage in the light of Epiphany, its primary thrust of unveiling Jesus’ divine identity shines through.

In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the unveiling of God’s action in Christmas. The implications of the birth of the Messiah, who will be a light to the nations, are worked out. The reaction to God’s presence by the forces of evil are clearly seen. The role of the Messiah, as the substitute for Israel and the representative of a new humanity, is foreshadowed.

Luke 2 continues this unveiling. Luke 2 subtly shows that the light of the nations, who will drive out the forces of darkness, is not only a substitute who stands in for Israel and a new representative for humanity–instead, this “new Adam” and “true Israelite” also shares the divine identity with the God of Israel, YHWH. Provocatively, to some foolishly, Luke 2 sets us on the path toward recognizing that Jesus is God.

In Luke’s Gospel story, Jesus’ miraculous birth and messianic role were explained to Mary before she conceived in Luke 1. Earlier in Luke 2, Joseph and Mary hear both Simeon and Anna praise God and prophesy because the child Jesus will grow up to be the Messiah.

But it is clear that Mary and Joseph had no belief in Jesus being the Son of God in the sense that he was the Second Person of the Trinity. In fact, any conception of Trinity would challenge Jewish monotheism.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the phrase  Son of God referred to the Messiah descended from the line of David; it was not understood to mean equivalence with the God of Israel, YHWH. This is why Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus when he said, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

I want to reflect on how culturally disturbing and alien it would be for 12-year-old Jesus to call the God of Israel his Father.

At the age of 12, Jesus would already have been through much training in Torah and synagogue practices, at the instruction of both his parents and especially by his father Joseph. The 12th year was the final year of preparation before he fully entered into adult religious maturity as bar mitzvah or “son of the commandment.” In this final year, it would be Joseph’s special obligation to pass on to Jesus the ways of their Israelite ancestors. This adds special poignancy to Mary’s complaint, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

But Jesus’ answer, that he must be in His Father’s house, suggests that he was already conscious not only of his messianic vocation, but also his divine identity. He had a personal awareness of a special relationship with God that was so intimate that he did not think it inappropriate to call the Holy Creator of the Universe his Father.

For Christians, it is easy for us to read into the text our confessed (and true!) understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we have to remember that while there were a number of ways Jews of this time period expressed the presence and identity of God (Torah, Temple, Presence, Glory, Wisdom), all of these expressions were fundamentally viewed through the framework of Jewish monotheism.

Richard Bauckham explores the features of Jewish monotheism in his book God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, where he identifies 3 key distinctives: The God of Israel is the sole Creator of the world (creational), the God of Israel will one day bring His Kingdom over all the nations (eschatological), and the God of Israel alone deserves worship (cultic).

We see that the early church re-works each of these distinctive features in and around Jesus. The apostles write of Jesus as the agent and telos, or purpose, of Creation (John 1:1-18Colossians 1:17).  The apostles testify that Christ has been given authority over the nations to establish God’s reign (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26). And from the early beginning of the church, worship of the One God was reoriented around Jesus (Luke 24:51-53, Philippians 2:5-11).

Further, NT Wright explores the theme of God coming in person to redeem His Covenant with Israel in Scripture, writing in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that:

Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, would one day return. He would return in person. He would return in glory. He would return to judge and save. He would return to bring about the new Exodus, overthrowing the enemies that had enslaved his people. He would return to establish his glorious, tabernacling presence in their midst. He would return to rule over the whole world. He would come back to be king.

Jesus’ repeated reference to God as “Father”and his need to be at the Temple reveals that even at the age of 12, he had an understanding that he would be continuing and bringing to fulfillment the work of Israel’s God in establishing God’s glorious, personal, and royal presence over the whole world.

The story of Jesus disputing with the elders at the Temple is an early clue in the Gospel of Luke that the birth of the Messiah was also the Incarnation of God. Incarnation, the embodiment of a pure and holy God in carnal flesh. Jesus was not just a great prophet or the new Davidic king–he was the true Son who was God Himself, come to complete His Redemptive Project of Reconciliation. And he embodies that reconciliation even at the level of his own flesh and blood.

We can’t know what was going on in Jesus’ mind at the age of 12. But Presbyterian minister Tim Keller goes so far as to suggest (starting at 25:24) that at the same time Joseph was training up his son in the vocation of faithful Jewishness, God was training up His Son in the divine vocation:

It’s hard for me to imagine that Jesus would have stayed behind, would have been able to contend with those folks, would have stayed in the Temple courts, unless something happened besides Joseph walking him around Jerusalem and telling him who he’s going to be. See Joseph was going around saying you’re going to be a carpenter, see Joseph was going around saying ‘You’re going to be a faithful Jew and you’re going to go to the Temple and you’re going to do the Passover, and this is what these things mean.’ But what if, what if –and Jesus virtually hints at this–his Real Father was doing that too. What if his Real Father was walking him around Jerusalem and going about a million levels deeper. And that when he went to the Temple, his Real Father says ‘You’re the new Temple, and you’re going to make this place obsolete.’ And when he walked around the streets of Jerusalem, his Father said ‘You’re going to be walking on these streets, but you’re going to be carrying a Cross.’ But certainly, almost certainly, that when he sat down at the Passover and he looked at the lamb, his Real Father said, ‘You’re going to be the Lamb.’

Though it sounds foolish and remains a stumbling block for many, the apostles confess that Jesus was not just a special or especially good person–Jesus is God. He shows God’s character, He fulfills God’s purposes, and He shares God’s Identity.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, 
    creator of heaven and earth; 
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit 
        and born of the Virgin Mary. 
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate, 
        was crucified, died, and was buried. 
    He descended to the dead. 
    On the third day he rose again. 
    He ascended into heaven, 
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 
I believe in the Holy Spirit, 
    the holy catholic Church, 
    the communion of saints, 
    the forgiveness of sins
    the resurrection of the body, 
    and the life everlasting. Amen.
–The Apostles’ Creed

Out of Egypt I Called My Son

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When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

–Hosea 11:1

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 

–Matthew 2:13-14

We are continuing our blog series on the Church calendar, and we are in the season of Epiphany, where we wrestle with the implications of God’s Incarnation in Jesus the Messiah.

Last week, we read about how the forces of evil gathered to murder the Christ child in his crib, and how this reminds us that though Christians are assured a final victory over evil, evil will not back down without a fight.

Herod’s attempt to murder Jesus was unsuccessful; Joseph was warned by an angel, and he fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. When Herod dies, Joseph and family make their return to Judea, and Matthew writes that this is in accordance with the writings of the Prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1 here, but this presents a puzzle. It is clear that the “son” Hosea is referring to in that passage is Israel. Hosea in chapter 11 is writing to an Israel scattered through conquest and exile, and he is assuring the people that God’s faithful love to Israel will call them back out of the nations as he once before called them out of Egypt. Why would Matthew then use this passage to refer to the child Jesus’ return from Egypt?

The key to the answer is to understand the biblical themes of representation and substitution.  Adam was not only the first man, but a representative head who summed up all of humanity in himself. As a result, his faithlessness is our faithlessness. Not only that, but Adam’s vocation was to represent God’s rule to creation as the image of God, and to represent creation’s praises back to God. Adam was the first royal priest. But the sin of Adam corrupted not only his ability to exercise his vocation, but the very nature of creation itself.

In order to rescue creation, God called Abraham and formed a nation from him, which He named Israel. Israel was a substitute for Adam–where Adam had failed as a royal priest, Israel was to be a nation of royal priests. As a substitute, the nation of Israel would then represent all the world to God, and be the means of the healing and restoration of Creation. But, as the Hebrew Scriptures sorrowfully recount, Israel too fails in its vocation. In its selfishness and idolatry, Israel reenacts the sin of Adam.

But just as all hope seems lost, in comes Jesus Christ, the true Israelite. He is the substitute for Israel, who was the substitute for Adam. And where Israel and Adam failed, Jesus succeeds! His entire life is one devoted act of worship to God the Father, and he is obedient even to the Cross and death. Therefore, God vindicated Jesus and raised Him up after three days, to be the representative head of a New Creation. All those who are joined to Jesus through faith now have the vocation of the royal priesthood, set to combat evil and love justice.

When Matthew sees Jesus as the “son” in Hosea 11:1, he is telling his readers that Jesus was who Israel was pointing to all along: The Perfect Human who is the exact Image of God. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation as the true substitute and New Adam. In Jesus, our long exile from God’s presence is finally ended.

But there’s more. In Jesus, we see the depths of God’s identification with humanity. Jesus was born to a poor family in an oppressed nation. Jesus spent formative years as an immigrant and a foreigner in Egypt. Even when he returned to his homeland, he returned as a stranger, a former refugee who still had to be careful and avoid the murderous intentions of the ruling Herodian dynasty.

When Christians see the plight of the immigrant laborer or the refugee child, we have no warrant to be callous or unfeeling. Our precious Lord and Savior was an immigrant and refugee. While political decisions should always be made with prudence and wisdom, we must realize that when we look at the face of the foreigner fleeing oppression, we look at the face of our God.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

–Matthew 25:34-40

Evil is real…and the Empire always Strikes Back

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CA.Empire20.0211.6.Q––In the aftermath of their dual, Darth Vader beckons Luke Skywalker in a scene from ” The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition”

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

–Matthew 2:13-18

As we continue our series through the Church Calendar, during the season of Epiphany, we can unpack the explosive implications of Christmas.

Christmas is not just a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Christmas is also God’s declaration of War against Evil. Christmas means War.

The season of Epiphany invites us to investigate the logical outworking of Christmas. With Jesus’ birth as Messiah, God announced that all other rulers of the world are illegitimate. This is why the non-Jewish Magi come to adore the newborn Jewish King who would bring God’s rule to earth.

The nations are not ruling the world according to God’s Principles of Justice and Holiness. And so Jesus’ birth was God’s declaration of war against all evil–human evils, the evils of sin and disease and death, and spiritual evils.

But evil does not go away quietly. The forces of evil–of sin, death, and empire–always strike back. Every part of Jesus’ mission was met by opposition from the forces of evil. This included Roman opposition, Jewish opposition, Satanic opposition, and even opposition by Jesus’ own disciples, like when Peter denies him and Judas betrays him.

This opposition started at the very beginning of Jesus’ story. In Matthew 2, when the Wise Men come following the sign of the star to Bethlehem, they stop in Jerusalem and ask where they can find Messiah. King Herod learns of this and is alarmed–his reign is illegitimate and he knows it–and he orders the death of every male baby in Bethlehem so that no new King from the line of David can take his throne away from him. Innocent children are slaughtered so that one man can secure his power. This is what Evil’s Reign looks like.

This world is under captivity to evil, dark forces. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but the Bible is clear: Evil is real, and it wields seductive power. It’s a power that turns brothers and sisters against each other–Cain against Abel. It’s a power that causes nations to war against one another. And it’s a power that corrupts each and every one of us–no matter how good we are, no matter how moral we may think ourselves to be, there is a spiritual force of evil that crouches at our door, that lies waiting, seeking to destroy us and take everything good from us.

And the thing evil wants most of all is ourselves. It wants our minds and our hearts, corrupted and selfish and hardened and closed to joy. It wants us grasping for lesser things so that we cannot be free to enjoy the fruits of love that God wants us to bear. And the final desire of evil is destruction–it wants us to destroy one another with our jealousy and our rivalry, and it wants us to destroy ourselves.

The simple truth is, we cannot defeat evil on our own. We are too weak. And so, for most of human history, all of mankind has been enslaved to the Kingdom of the Devil. Brother is pitted against brother, parent against child, rich against poor, black against white, the strong against the weak–this is the history of our world.

And this is the good news of Christmas, unpacked and outworked in Epiphany. God did not abandon us to the power of the Devil and sin and death. Instead God, in an act of great love for us, became a human being–and not just any human being, but a human being who would suffer for us in our place to win us from the Devil. Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice who purchases us from the Devil and death. And those of us who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are now freed from the Kingdom of the Devil, and we become citizens of the Kingdom of God. Evil can try its hardest against us now, but we know that the final victory will be ours because of Jesus. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

Christmas is God’s declaration of war because in Jesus Christ, God invades the Kingdom of the Devil and He immediately begins confronting evil. Look at Jesus’s life. Jesus battles the Devil by healing– he reverses disease and death. Jesus battles the Devil with his teaching–in the Sermon on the Mount he tells us that when someone strikes us not to hit back but to turn the other cheek.

Satan, through King Herod, was trying to squelch the in-breaking Kingdom of God by murdering the baby Jesus in the cradle. But God’s plan of redemption would not be frustrated. Joseph is warned, and he takes his family to Egypt, and so Jesus escapes Herod’s monstrous actions.

The Empire of Evil always fights back against God’s plan of redemption. Christians know the final victory is assured to us, but we must heed the warning that evil will not disappear without a fight.

The Devil will always try to seduce us, and turn us into monsters like Herod. None of us can serve two masters. Either we serve the Kingdom of God, or we serve the Kingdom of the Devil. Either we serve light, or we serve darkness. And there is a war that continues to today between these two realms.

What are you really living for? Is it security? Is it success for yourself or your children? Is it peace–you don’t want conflicts in your life?

Those are all good things. But the message of the Bible is that when you make good things ultimate things–when your main priority is security, or success, or peace, then the Devil will come in to subvert those good desires to serve evil purposes. You start to short-cut some moral principles to make sure you or your children get ahead. You refuse to show other people mercy if it means sacrificing your security. You hesitate to confront evil if it means a loss of your own peace. You murder children to preserve your own power.

The message of Christmas, unpacked in Epiphany, is that God has made a way for us out of slavery to the Devil by entering into this world as the perfect human being, the kind of human we can’t be. He has launched his rescue operation for humanity because He knows we cannot save ourselves. He has started this war, and He has struck the decisive blow in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And now, we are invited into the battle against the Devil. But we don’t fight this battle by trying to destroy others–that is the way of the Devil. Instead we fight this battle in the way of Christ, who died out of love for his enemies.

If we are soldiers in the way of Christ, that means we fight this war by sacrificing our interests and dedicating our lives to serving others out of obedience to God, just like Jesus. Because of grace, we help others who we are tempted to think don’t deserve our help, and we even love those who hate us. We defeat the Devil by sharing in Christ’s love for the world, even when it demands everything from us.

Christmas is a declaration of war. And the question all of us need to ask ourselves in the season of Epiphany is this: Which side are we on?