Sunday, April 25, 2010

the world to come

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying, "What is man, that You remember him? Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him? You have made him for a little while lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and have appointed him over the works of Your hands; you have put all things in subjection under his feet." For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. (Hebrews 2:5-8)

Having finished the exhortation to "pay much closer attention to what we have heard" through Christ, so that we "do not drift away from it" (and because the consequences of neglecting Christ's authoritative words are to our utter detriment), the writer of Hebrews continues the comparison of Christ to the angels (Hebrews 2:1, 3). For the moment, the author no longer speaks of the present world, but, rather, "the world to come" (2:5). In the above passage through the end of chapter 2, the author develops an argument of Jesus' supremacy over the angels even as it relates to His humanity. As we highlighted in previous discussions, the Christology that unfolds in Hebrews clearly and definitively reveals the deity of Jesus while simultaneously not minimizing the fulness of His humanity, as He was "made like His brethren in all things" (2:17). Jesus as both fully God and fully human is revealed in this epistle with perfect lucidity. However, before turning to the unique Person of Christ Incarnate, the author briefly discusses an aspect of humanity in general, as well as humanity's role among creation, that will, in turn, inform the subsequent argumentation of Christ's partaking of "flesh and blood" so that He might "render powerless...the devil," free humanity from that which enslaves us, and "become a merciful and faithful high priest" on our behalf in order to make an everlasting propitiation for our sins (2:14-17).
In order to preface Jesus' humanity and how it relates to the work He accomplished/accomplishes, the author turns to Psalm 8, wherein King David ponders God's creation, leading him to view two perplexing qualities of humankind: insignificance and grandeur. As we noted in an earlier blog, the style of introducing Scriptural quotations in the epistle to the Hebrews is remarkable, as the writer typically ignores the human author in support of the notion that God Himself is speaking through His written word. While there is here no overt attribution of these words to God (as in, for example, Hebrews 1:5, 6, 7, 8, & 13), this citation is still no exception as it is introduced by the vague description, "one has testified somewhere," reducing the importance of the human author. Though Hebrews only quotes verses 4 through 6 of Psalm 8, David introduces his question about humanity as having derived from contemplation of God's majesty revealed in the works of His hands:

When I consider the heavens, the work of Your fingers
the moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of Him,
and the son of man that You take care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)

It is in the context of this question that David understands the role of humanity among created things, as being "over the works of [God's] hands" (8:6). Still, clearly Psalm 8 concludes by not over-exalting humankind; instead, the psalmist leaves us with the all-encompassing greatness of God: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!" (8:9). We ought to keep in mind, that, whatever our role is as it pertains to other entities within the created realm, the defining characteristic of our relationship should be the realization that God's name, not ours, be glorious in all the earth.
For the writer of Hebrews, the main purpose in referring to this particular psalm is to establish a framework from which to discuss the Incarnate Christ and what He accomplished by being "made for a little while lower than the angels" so that He might be "crowned with glory and honor" because of His suffering and death on our behalf that resulted in Him reentering into a position of exaltation over all things (Hebrews 2:7, 9; 1:2-3; Philippians 2:5-11). Yet, the author mentions this passage because how it pertains to humanity in general informs the role of Christ and, furthermore, the Person and work of Jesus Christ and the principles of His Kingdom set the standard for the role of humanity put forth in Psalm 8, which Hebrews associates with "the world to come" (Hebrews 2:5). As a result, before proceeding to the subsequent verses that pertain to the Incarnate Christ and His priesthood (2:9-18), I would like to dwell for a moment on Hebrews 2:5-8 in the hopes that we might arrive at a right understanding of how this applies to humankind, including our purpose in this world and the world that is to come.
Misapplication of this verse, along with the biblical principles that underly the relationship between humanity and other created beings, leads to an incorrect conceptualization of our role in both this world and the next. Furthermore, misapplication can lead us to misunderstand God and His will for the whole of creation, and this can cause us, as Christians, to misrepresent God to the world. Additionally, since, as we see in Hebrews, this subject relates intimately to Jesus, misapplication can also engender in us a wrong view of Christ, His redemption of the world and the Kingdom He ushers in.
The creation of humankind by God was the culmination of initial creation before God declared all that He made to be "good" and then rested on the seventh day (Genesis 1:26-2:3). Crucially, we repeatedly read that God created humanity, both female and male, "in His own image" (1:26, 27). After repeating this notion, we find God's command to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it" (1:28). Moreover, humanity was given the command to "rule over" all of the created realm on earth (1:28-30). The point that I wish to convey here is that perhaps we ought to interpret the command to "rule over" in light of having been made in God's "image" and "likeness." When David penned what we now refer to as Psalm 8, he was reiterating, in a sense, the command given by God to humanity to exercise "rule" over "the works of [God's] hands" (Psalm 8:6). Thus, we find in Psalms and in Hebrews that humanity is, despite our seeming insignificance, "crowned with glory and majesty" since God has "put all things under [humanity's] feet" (Psalm 8:5-6; Hebrews 2:7-8). The present world is that in which we experience partial realization of the "subjection" that God has ordained, even though "we do not yet see all things subjected to [humanity]" (2:8). With this in mind, we can ask the following, "Is the manner in which we 'rule over' God's creation in accordance with His Person and nature?" If not, then are we acting in the role that God has bestowed upon us in a way that is truly consistent with the fact that we are made in His own image and likeness?
I don't want to dwell too long on an aspect that, apparently for the original audience, the writer assumes to be understood. But, from our present point in history we risk exponentially exacerbating problems that we have created that surround these concepts. Although such activity is not necessarily exclusive to any persons, groups, or times in history, the last centuries in human history have witnessed unprecedented exploitation and destruction of the creation of God. Sadly, in the "Western" nations and cultures, imperialism and colonialism (often characterized by exploitation) were/are frequently justified under the pretense that this is what God desired of humankind when He commanded us to "rule over" His creation. Many Christians today support both past and present ventures that are blatantly against basic Christian principles because they are interpreted to be in fulfillment of the subjection of creation to humankind by God. The problem, I believe, that we all too often fail to discern, is that we accept ideologies that have a hint of biblical truth while they are additionally imbued with, for example Enlightenment ideologies that may or may not run counter to Christian doctrine. As a result, when we try to understand the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation, we import ideas that not only dilute the original concepts - they distort and pervert them, as well. The end consequence of all this is that when we apply our "rule over" parts of creation, we do so in a way that dehumanizes, forcefully dominates, exploits, controls, and consumes. Yet, which of these actions was/is characteristic of the Incarnate Christ?
As we read on in Hebrews, we learn of Christ's humble condescension to redeem and reconcile humankind. Is not Christ the one who rules and reigns over all things, and the one to whom all things are in subjection? Nonetheless, despite His deity and sovereignty, this act of condescension is what (in a sense) characterizes the God in whose image and likeness we are made. Therefore, the manner in which we apply and obey God's command with regard to our position "over" the works of His hands ought to resonate with the manner with which He exercises rule, expressed through Jesus Christ by humility, love, and servitude. And, yes, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end, but as we desire and long for Jesus to usher in His righteous Kingdom wherein we will rule and reign with Him, we must remember that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). As Hebrews mentions, we do not yet see all things in subjection to humanity. When we do see this, the glory of the Incarnate God who humbled Himself unto death for the sake of His creation will be the chief attribute that permeates all things. May God help us (who believe in Him) in this present world to reflect and display the beauty of the one to come, for the praise and glory of His name throughout all creation.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested in a recent lecture given by Fr. Andrew Damick, called "This Holy Earth: Ecological Vision in the Cosmic Cathedral." It was split into two parts for his podcast. Here are the links: