Tuesday, June 29, 2010

a holistic approach to the Person and work of Jesus (de incarnatione, pt. 1/3)

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

When we read the Gospels, it is quite remarkable to view the perspective that each writer provides concerning the Person and work of our Savior, Jesus Christ, as they join together as a coherent whole in beautiful harmony. Nevertheless, while they are complete in the sense that they supply all we need to know about Jesus, they are not "complete" in the sense that they provide a minute-by-minute detail of Jesus' life from the moment He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, until His appearances to the disciples post-resurrection. With that in mind, it is important that we attune ourselves to what is said, rather than fancy ourselves about what is silent, as the words preserved in Scripture are "inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). That which we encounter in Scripture is written for a purpose, and since we are dealing with part of God's self-revelation, it is paramount for us to bear in mind what it is that God is revealing about His Person and work, say, in a particular passage, when we seek to derive meaning, wisdom, and understanding.
Now, if I am successful, I will make apparent that I, too, have a purpose in bringing these points up here. Briefly comparing the introductory accounts of all four Gospels, we find essentially the following sequences for each book (in very broad and simplistic categories):

-Matthew: 1) Jesus' Genealogy, 2) Jesus' Birth, 3) Jesus' baptism, 4) Jesus' temptation in the wilderness...
-Mark: 1) Jesus' baptism, 2) Jesus' calling of His disciples...
-Luke: 1) Jesus' Genealogy, 2) Jesus' birth, 3) Jesus' baptism, 4) Jesus' temptation in the wilderness...
-John: 1) Jesus' eternal nature, 2) Jesus' incarnation, 3) Jesus' baptism, 4) Jesus' calling of His disciples...

After Jesus' birth, barring minimal exceptions (for example, Luke 2:40-52), we know virtually nothing of Christ until His baptism, which is immediately followed by His temptation in the wilderness. Further questions arise, questions such as: Why are these events so closely associated in the Gospels? Why did the Holy Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted by Satan? How could Satan validly offer to Jesus "the kingdoms of this world and their glory" (Matthew 4:8-9). In Hebrews 2:14-15, the writer conjoins two themes that are often (mistakenly) viewed as related only tangentially. Namely, the author alludes to Jesus' incarnation (in that He partook of humanities' flesh & blood) as corresponding to His death and resurrection, along with the principal figure Jesus defeated through death, Satan ("that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death"). If we look back to the Gospels, however, we find that these themes are in no way unrelated. That is, and while there is not room here to discuss the importance of differences between each account in terms of scope and focus, Matthew and Luke both notably position the event of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness by Satan in relative nearness to the event of Jesus' incarnation or birth (only His baptismal account interrupts an immediate juxtaposition). The temptation of Jesus by Satan brings to mind Jesus' death because the cross of Christ, His passion, death, and resurrection, is the pivotal point wherein Jesus definitively "bruised the head" of the serpent by overcoming death through death. The questions I wish to introduce, then, is why, out of all the possible events to begin speaking of Jesus' life after He was born a man and partook of flesh and blood, do these gospel writers start with Jesus' baptism and temptation? What is God revealing about Himself in the relationship between the incarnation and Jesus' death and resurrection? The answers to these questions are, in part, touched on in our present verses in Hebrews, again repeated here:

"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives." (Hebrews 2:14-15)

In short, we may (to our great detriment) lose sight of the unity of Christ's work, along with its scope and aim, when we dissect it into neat, but seemingly unrelated categories (e.g., category 1 = incarnation, category 2 = miracles, category 3 = crucifixion, etc.). Before coming across as hypocritical, these "categories" are indeed important; still, when we treat one, we must bear in mind its relatedness to the others, so that we are continually reminded of Christ's Person and work as holistic. Accordingly, in Hebrews 2, the writer expects of the reader to understand the connection between Jesus' incarnation and His death, wherein He effected our freedom from the "slavery" of sin and death - so-called "powers" that no longer have hold for those who are in Christ, "being", as Paul writes, "conformed to His death" (Philippians 3:10).
In Jesus' partaking of "flesh and blood", that is, in the incarnation, we encounter the embodiment of Jesus the eternal Word of God in human flesh without suffering any loss of His divine nature (see the post on hypostasis for more on this topic). Through the work that was only in a loose sense "begun" in the incarnation, Jesus initiates the effecting of a new creation upon His own creation. As St. Athanasius famously writes, "the renewal of the creation has been the work of the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning" (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei "On the Incarnation of the Word of God", II, in Schaff & Wace 2004a:36). The goodness of creation, though still extant, was disturbed by the entrance of sin in the fallen angel that deceived Adam and Eve, through whom death passes to all humankind. Yet in all this, our sovereign and omniscient God was never without a plan, and that "plan" was the Person and work of Jesus Christ who would become God incarnate "in order to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). This is the purpose, according to St. John, for which "[t]he Son of God appeared."
It should, therefore, no longer be surprising to see the conjunction of the birth of Christ with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, wherein Christ overcame Satan. And while Satan "left [Jesus] until an opportune time," Jesus totally conquered Satan, along with death and hell, through the cross, upon which He died in order to rise again (Luke 4:13). So the incarnation is intimately associated with His having "rendered powerless" the devil. Of course, what I'm writing is in no way novel, and we find expressions of this notion today in predicating about Jesus that He was "born to die that I might live." John Behr evidences the connection between, as he puts it, "the tomb and the womb" in the early Christian writings of Bishop Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) and St. Ephrem the Syrian (AD 306-373) (Behr 2006:134). For example, in one of St. Ephrem's hymns we read:

"But in Thy Resurrection Thou persuadest them concerning Thy Birth; since the womb was sealed, and the sepulchre closed up; being alike pure in the womb, and living in the sepulchre. The womb and the sepulchre being sealed were witnesses unto Thee.
The belly and hell cried aloud of Thy Birth and Thy Resurrection: The belly conceived Thee, which was sealed; hell brought Thee forth which was closed up. Not after nature did either the belly conceive Thee, or hell give Thee up!" (Hymns on the Nativity, VIII, in Schaff & Wace 2004:241)

And again:

1. Adam sinned and earned all sorrows;
likewise the world after his example, all guilt.
And instead of considering how it should be restored,
considered how its fall should be pleasant for it.
Glory to Him Who came and restored it!

2. This cause summoned Him that is pure,
that He should come and be baptized,
even He with the defiled,
Heaven for His glory was rent asunder.
That the purifier of all might be baptized with all,
He came down and sanctified the water for our baptism.

3. For that cause for which He entered into the womb,
for the same cause He went down into the river.
For that cause for which He entered into the grave,
for the same cause He makes us enter into His chamber.
He perfected mankind for every cause.

4. His Conception is the store of our blessings;
His Birth is the treasury of our joys;
His Baptism is the cause of our pardon;
His death is the cause of our life.
Death He alone has overcome in His Resurrection.

9. His Birth flowed on and was joined to His Baptism;
and His Baptism flowed on even to His Death;
His Death led and reached to His Resurrection,
a fourfould bridge unto His Kingdom; and lo!
His sheep pass over in His footsteps. (Hymns for the Feast of the Epiphany, X.1-4, 9, in Schaff & Wace 2004:280)

Christ, then, in His incarnation and death, but also His baptism, resurrection, and ascension, along with the life that He now lives, destroyed the power of Sheol and the power granted to the devil through the fall of humankind. Indeed, "His death is the cause of our life" and "He alone" "has overcome" death through death "in His Resurrection as "the gates of Hell" could neither keep Him out nor keep Him in. And as He is alive, so He has made us "alive together with Him," as Paul writes to the believers in Collosae:

"When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him" (Colossians 2:13-15, emphasis added)

Still, while there is a clear and lucid finality to what Jesus has accomplished, there is, from our perspective governed by the creation of time an anticipation of the full realization of what Jesus has completed and made effectual. For this reason, we on the earth still wrestle with the "rulers and authorities" that Jesus Himself "disarmed" and triumphed over. But although we do not fully experience release from this "struggle," we are to be encouraged in Christ to:

"Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God" (Ephesians 6:11-13a).

Furthermore, while we are still called to suffer in the flesh in accordance to the example that Christ provided for us (1 Peter 2:21), we cannot help but affirm in our tribulations:

"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? [...] But in all things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:35, 37). And how did He "who loved us" demonstrate that love? St. John records the words of Jesus Himself with regard to this question: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus, the eternal Word of God, took upon Himself our nature, being born of flesh and blood by the Virgin Mary so that He could not only call us friends, but demonstrate and forever prove that love and friendship by paying the penalty for our sins and conquering death through death. God "manifests" His love for us in that He "has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him" (1 John 4:9). That entrance into the world was through the incarnation; the life that we have through Him was wrought by Jesus in His death and resurrection, so that death and fear of death no longer holds us as its slaves. And so Paul continues, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).

By Jesus' having "part[aken] of the same [flesh and blood as humanity], that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives," He has granted and enabled for us both an individual/ecclesial and a universal/cosmic vision. With regard to the individual/ecclesial, we say with Paul:

"Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! [...] Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 7:24-25; 8:1-2, emphasis added).

And, with regard to the universal/cosmic, we see with John that:

"The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15). Amen, and amen!

Behr, John. (2006). The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Schaff, P. and Wace, H. (Eds.). (2004). Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. (Original work published 1892)
Schaff, P., and Wace, H. (Eds.). (2004). Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 13, Part II: Gregory the Great, Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat: Second Series. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. (Original work published 1898)

Icon of the Resurrection copyright Marie Lavie, and courtesy of www.greek-icons.org.

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