As we move into the climax of Holy Week, we should consider two of the most important themes in the Gospels: Temple and Sabbath. We remember that ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’ (Jn 1:14).
We also recall the times when Jesus is reprimanded for doing healing and restorative work on the Sabbath. What I bring to you today is the conclusion of a lecture from Prof. N.T. Wright that he delivered one week ago in Cluj, Romania. It is good reflection for us at this time when we consider what it is to be temples of the Holy Spirit in the New Era of the Sabbath of God.
David P. Seemuth
Prof. N.T. Wright, Cluj, Romania, 21 March 2018
My argument to you this evening has been that if we want to know how the early Christians understood Jesus, we must look at the Jewish context, and particularly at the great themes of Temple and Sabbath.
The Temple spoke of God and the world being not separated – as so many in our world have assumed – but designed to overlap and interlock, with humans as God’s image-bearers standing at the place of overlap and given the vocation to be God’s wise and humble agents in his world.
God and the world, and God and ‘history’, are made for one another. The problems this raises – if God is God, why is history such a mess? – is partly at least answered by the failure of the human vocation, and then ultimately answered on the cross, where God ‘becomes king’ by taking the hatred and violence of all creation upon himself and, by dealing with it, enabling God’s new world to be born.
In the same way, the Sabbath spoke of the Age to Come arriving in the midst of the present age. Many Jews had expected (and many Jews today give this as a reason for not believing in Jesus) that, if the Messiah came, he would at once inaugurate a complete ‘messianic age’ in which there would be no more suffering or pain or war or wickedness. Since that hasn’t happened, they assume that Jesus can’t have been Israel’s Messiah. But Jesus himself, and his first followers, insist that the kingdom is coming like a farmer sowing seeds: some will appear to fail, some will grow secretly, but the great harvest is on the way.
The kingdom is then also like the Sabbath; indeed it is the beginning of the promised ‘Great Sabbath’. The question of ‘God and history’ is made more complex: God does not just stand at the beginning and end of history, to set it on its way and draw it to its conclusion. In Jewish thought it makes perfect sense for the living God to come in person into the middle of history to anticipate, to launch, to start off, the new movement which will result in the ultimate Age to Come in which the whole world will be filled with the divine glory. God’s promised future really has arrived in the present in the person of Jesus, in his achievement in his death and resurrection, and in his gift of the Spirit. Ultimately, the question of whether we believe this hinges on Jesus’ resurrection itself.
Jesus, after all, stands at the centre of all this. He pronounces judgment on the present Jerusalem temple, speaking and acting with authority. He is the ‘son of man’ who has authority over the Sabbath as well. He is mysteriously revealed in the baptism and the transfiguration as the one long awaited by Israel, the one to be known as ‘son of God’ not simply in the sense of ‘the coming king’, as in Psalm 2 – though it means that as well – but also in the sense of something more, the unique human one who actually embodies, ‘incarnates’, the returning and rescuing God of Israel.
From there we could spend another hour, and much more, exploring the writings of Paul and Hebrews, of First Peter and of Revelation and much more besides. But I hope I have said enough to show you that the early Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the living embodiment of the God of Israel did not involve some kind of category mistake. It would only have been that if the secular, Epicurean philosophy of modern Europe were to have the last word. The social and political events of the last hundred years or so demonstrate where that line of thought has led. It is time to look back to our biblical roots and to understand all things, not least the doctrine of the incarnation, in that light.
Of course, as I have often argued elsewhere, the main thing the four gospels are doing is not simply saying ‘there you are, Jesus is divine’. They almost seem to be taking that for granted in a way that we can’t. But they can then go on to the main thrust of the story, to which I shall return tomorrow night.
The point of God becoming incarnate is not to rescue people from this world and take them somewhere else. The point of God becoming incarnate is in order to launch his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The four gospels, and Paul, and all the other early Christians, are clear that this is what Jesus achieved. Our society today mostly doesn’t want to hear this message. It is uncomfortable today as it was in Jesus’ own day. But that is what the gospels are talking about: How God Became King.The point of God becoming incarnate is not to rescue people from this world and take them somewhere else. Click To Tweet
So, during this Holy Week, we rejoice in the beauty and wonder that God Became King.
May you be enriched thoroughly by these reflections.