Friday, May 21, 2010

life in death

But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

In addition to depicting the glorious coronation that resulted from the suffering of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, Hebrews 2:9 alludes to two other notions that resonate in Scripture: mediation and substitution. These concepts are implicated in the phrase, "that [...] He might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9). Significantly, Christ's death is no cruel punishment meted out by a malevolent diety. Rather, through His voluntary and propitiatory sacrifice we see absolute benevolence, for we see manifest the love of God toward His creation in that "by the grace of God" the only begotten Son entered death, both for our sake and "for the praise of the glory" of the Triune God (to borrow and oft-repeated phrase from Ephesians 1). Furthermore, though the death of Jesus is an integral aspect of God's plan for salvation and redemption, we must bear in mind that death itself is not the end, but life and, in a very real sense, life in death. Jesus entered death to conquer death, as the ancient hymn proclaims "trampling down death by death." But the paschal mystery is not merely passion and death, for it necessarily includes or is intimately related to Christ's resurrection, anscension, and glorification. Jesus Christ "taste[d] death for everyone," so that we who partake of His death might also rise again to the newness of life everlasting in Him.
I don't know how common this is across denominations, but in various Protestant circles I hear repeatedly evoked the truth that "Jesus died for me" (and, yes, the expression is typically focused on the individual). Similarly, we might say frequently, "Jesus tasted death so that we do not have to," but what does this really mean? This concept is also typically the locus of evangelism within much of the Protestant church. For example, one might say to a nonbeliever (as I have either said or heard something similar in times past), "You should belive in Jesus because He died for you." In saying this, however, we assume that an understanding of Christ's death is presupposed when, in actuality, it can be very foreign to someone who holds a non-Christian belief system.
The constant evocation of this reality illustrates its central place in the Christian worldview. Nevertheless, two undesirable consequences may incidentally become prevalent: 1) we treat death as either the end itself, or the sole climax of Christ's work, and 2) we perpetuate a use of this concept that assumes (or presumes) automatic comprehension. For these reasons, I wish to take a moment to expound on Hebrews 2:9 by first developing an understanding of the origins of death, as well as the biblical conceptualizations of mediation and substitution, in the hopes that this venture will inform the meaning of Christ's having "taste[d] death for everyone" "by the grace of God."
While on the one hand, we may refer to death as "natural," since it is something that every human being inevitably experiences, it is not entirely "natural" according the to Christian framework. That is, if by 'natural' we mean, "according to original intention" or "conforming the initial circumstances of and plans for creation," then death is by no means natural. Death entered into the created realm through sin, as Paul writes, "just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12, emphasis mine). This is but one ontological difference between Christianity and secular views that prevail in Western culture, and between Christianity and many other worldviews: Christianity maintains that death is a consequence brought about by willfull disobedience to the Creator, rather than a built-in attribute among the fabric of creation.
Recall that prior to the event when Adam and Eve fell by disobeying the loving commands of the Creator, God explicitly stated the results of such an action. Particularly relevant to our discussion is the fact that God spoke to Adam regarding the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" saying that, if he ate from it, "in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:17). After Adam and Eve did eat from this tree, though they hid, God as the Great Initiator actively sought them out to effect reconciliation. Accordingly, in this account (and others), it is of utmost importance for us to not only focus on the perspective gained from isolating humanity, but to focus on deity, that is, what God is revealing about Himself. Adam and Eve incurred a variety of consequences through their act of disobedience, including the implicit consequence of death, in accordance with Genesis 2:17. Significantly, though, we do not see a distant God standing afar in the process; instead we find God immanent, working directly and intimately as the sole agent responsible for effectualizing redemption.
Interestingly, though, Adam and Eve (as recorded in Scripture) lived for quite some time after the event of the fall. Does this then nullify the word of God, who declared that they would die in that very day? We find that the answer is no, for the death that they died has both physical and spiritual components, both of which began to be realized immediately. So, not only would humanity (and other created beings in the domain of earth) experience physical death, but this act of disobedience brought about spiritual death wherein the intimate relationship between God and His creation had been damaged, leaving a seemingly indelible mark on all of humankind. But, as we have begun to highlight, the will of a sovereign God could not be impeded, for "[God's] works were finished from the foundation of the world" (Hebrews 4:3; see also Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8; 17:8). God Himself directly began redemption by actively working to reconcile the broken relationship. The death and sin that passes to us all preconditions us to need Christ (Behr 2006:85), who is the antitype of Adam, since Adam was "a type of of Him who was to come," through whom the grace of God, and life, would "abound to many" (Romans 5:14-15).

It is this aforementioned conceptualization of death that undergirds Paul's argumentation in Romans 5. There we see the fullness of God's redemption found exclusively in Christ, the Second Adam. But, before touching on that glorious truth that is the substance of our salvation, I will return to another passage in Genesis that informs the content behind Christ's sacrificial death. Specifically, most of us are quite familiar with the so-called "sacrifice" of Isaac, known in Judaism as the akedah, or the "binding" of Isaac, to emphasize the fact that God never intended for him to be killed. Abraham, by faith, had at least some rudimentary understanding of this, for when Isaac inquires of the burnt offering, Abraham responds with confidence that "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering" (Genesis 22:8, emphasis added; see also Genesis 22:5; Hebrews 11:17-19). Assuredly then, as God restrains Abraham from sacrificing his son, "Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him caught in the thicket by his thorns; and Abraham went and offered him up for a burnt offereing in the place of his son" (Genesis 22:13, emphasis added).
Again, as in the story of Adam and Eve, we find God mediating and mending the broken relationship between Himself and creation. Additionally, though, in the akedah we encounter the notion of a substitute offered on behalf of, or "in the place of," another. These events are among those that were clearly foundational to the development of an understanding of the origins of death and the need for atonement as means of reconciliation. Not surprisingly, then, we see the notions of mediation and substitution clearly embedded into the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that foreshadowed Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest, and the pure and spotless lamb. With these conceptualizations in mind, we are prepared to return to Hebrews 2:9.
To repeat the statement found there, we read that "Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus did not taste death for His own sake, nor did He do so as a result of or to remedy His own needs. The need is ours, and we are those on whom culpability rests. Our sin is so devastating, though, that we are in no position to enact reconciliation and forgiveness. We may recognize the gravity of our cirumstance and, like Adam and Eve, sew fig leaves to "cover" our sin, but God alone can be and is the agent that truly purifies us, not merely providing a superficial cover (that isn't even really a temporary fix, as it is no "fix" at all). So, Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully human, serves as both our Mediator and our substitute. He bridges the gap (so to speak) between fallen humanity and perfect divinity. He stood in our place and bore the weight of our sin. He suffered and died on our behalf, receiving the punishment that we alone deserve. He is the Lamb which God provided "for Himself" as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. This is what is meant by "He tasted death so that we do not have to."
Yet, all of the above discussion additionally needs to be considered in the context of our lives, wherein it would be ridiculous to deny that we eventually die a physical death. Far from negating what we have already established, we are brought to a point where we find need to interpret again death in light of Jesus Christ. This brings us to a further question, what death(s), if at all, do we participate in? To answer this question, I will briefly allude to repsonses that pertain exclusively to persons in Christ, knowing that these realizations are available to all who will but believe in Him.
Through Christ, the death that we will never fully experience is the spiritual death that He undertook for us, causing Him to cry out on the cross before voluntarily giving up His life, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; see also Psalm 22:1). Neither will we really fully experience physical death: Through Christ, the physical death that we experience has no finality, for He has truly "trampl[ed] down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestow[ed] life." Also, through and in Christ, we die to the flesh in the present life; in a sense, we participate in His death through baptism, not to taste death as did He (which He did on our behalf), but to overcome death by means of the life that Jesus now lives. Again, turning to Paul's writings we encounter the question, "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:3). Moreover, through Christ we encounter life in death, for in baptism we become united to Him not only in His death, but also in His resurrection, and these realities sustain us now and evermore:

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:4-11)

Accordingly, we have hope both in this present life as we are liberated from the bondage of sin, and in the life to come as we are liberated from the weak grip of death, which is overpowered by the strength of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. In all of this, we rightfully exalt Christ the conqueror of death and hell, through whom death has no sustainable hold on us. "So," as the Protestant Reformer and priest Martin Luther exclaims in the movie Luther, "when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: 'I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!'" (Till 2003).

Behr, John. (2006). The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Crestwook, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Till, Eric. (Director). (2003). Luther [Motion Picture]. Germany: Bavaria Studios.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

but we do see Jesus

But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

Though the author of the epistle to the Hebrews briefly departs from the primary theme to expound upon redeemed humanity's role in "the world to come," we return to the main point by way of an interjection that is always relevant: "But [...] Jesus" (Hebrews 2:5, 9). The previous thought segues into this by linking Jesus with humanity, as part of humanity, and by portraying Him as our exemplar. Moreover, Jesus is seen, by God's "grace," as a sacrifice which is, as the Creed declares, "for our sake and for our salvation." This reality holds since He partakes of death on our behalf, in His perfect humanity and through the power of His divinity, and He offers Himself without partiality in regards to application. In His humanity, the eternally divine Person of Christ is neither diminished nor lessened, and in His act of great condescension wherein He becomes our substitute, Jesus is "crowned with glory and honor." Christ's perfect humility and obedience enables Him to reenter the position of exaltation that He shares among the Trinity, being Himself the eternal and divine Son. Therefore, not only is Jesus "better than the angels" by virtue of His eternal nature as Son (as we saw inculcated throughout Hebrews 1), but He is also greater as the Incarnate Word, wherein He voluntarily became "for a little while lower than the angels" for the redemption of humankind.
If there is but one thing that resonates in your mind and heart as you read this, may it be that Jesus Christ, the crucified Lord, "bec[ame] a servant for the salvation of the world" (Origen, Commentary on John 1.231, as quoted in Behr 2006:35). Jesus served by the offering of His body; as the great "kenosis" hymn in Philippians 2 notes, Jesus "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). After declaring this beautiful and powerful truth, Paul continues that "for this reason God has highly exalted [Jesus]," and thus is consistent with the thought conveyed here by the writer of Hebrews, where in this epistle we find revealed that "because of the suffering of death," Jesus was "crowned with glory and honor" (2:9; Hebrews 2:9). Perhaps here it will be well for us to pause - sometimes it is easy to grow so accustomed to hearing about Jesus' death that I feel we inadvertently overlook the remarkableness of this claim: the suffering and death of Jesus resulted in His coronation.
When we view the exemplification of God's love toward humanity through the Passion of the crucified Lord, it causes me to question how we can every rightly apply the term 'king' to anyone other than Jesus Christ. For who but He has entered their kingship by suffering and death performed on behalf of, not only another sole individual, but on behalf of the entirety of humankind? As we discussed previously, the type of reign that Christ demonstrated is one that comes under others by way of service, and greatness in His kingdom comes by being a servant. If we desire to love others as God does, then demonstrations of love on our behalf (by God's grace and strength) ought to mirror His demonstration of love toward all of humanity by the giving of Himself. Moreover, we should not attempt to bear in mind the "worthiness" of the recipient of our love, for as Welsh preacher Gwilym Hiraethog (William Rees) captures in the following hymn, God tenderly embraces us in the midst of our guilt and unworthiness as we encounter Christ through the cross:

On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God's mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heaven's peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love. (Here Is Love, v. 2)

So, "God," through the Passion of our Lord, "demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). As St. John writes, "By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him" (1 John 4:9). For, as Hebrews mentions, "Jesus [...] taste[d] death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9). And in that He tasted death, with His life never departing from Him, not only did He taste death for us, but He offers the transforming power of the life He lives now (and evermore).
As we further consider this verse in Hebrews we may ask, "What is the right response to these truths?" Again we turn to Philippians and encounter a fitting exhortation that delineates our orthopraxy in this regard:

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who [...] emptied Himself" (Philippians 2:3-7)

That is, according to this passage, it is the Incarnation and death (and resurrection) of Christ that supplies the substance for our reason (and ability) to act toward others with "humility of mind." Christ, through His example of suffering and death, compels us to love humanity in accordance with His Person and work, which is characterized by the emptying (kenosis) of oneself (or, one's self?) for the purpose of servitude in obedience to God's will. If this attribute of Christ is in us, and indeed, if Christ Himself is in us, the manifestation will necessarily be loving others to the point of suffering, or even to the point of death.
Can we honestly say that this is the chief attribute that distinguishes Christians in the world today? Can we honestly say that this is the chief attribute that distinguishes ourselves as followers and servants of Christ? I fear for myself that the answer is often 'no.' If such is the case, am I (and are we) truly revealing the crucified Lord and humble King to those who do not know Him? Perhaps even more frightening to consider is what we actually are revealing, along with the resultant negative perception we invite in regards to the name of Christ, when we refuse to act in a manner that concords with Jesus' suffering and death. If we recognize the need for transformation in our own bodies and souls, may we return to the cross and contemplate its meaning. For, as John Behr remarks, "The Passion remains as the locus for contemplating the transforming power of God, the 'God revealed through the Cross'" (Behr 2006:35).

Behr, John. (2006). The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.