development in divine dealings with sin

Progressive revelation is the theological understanding  for hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) which acknowledges the way in which themes that emerge early in Scripture go through development and change.  The big framework for this is the Old and New Covenants/Testaments, where it is often said that Christ is “in the Old concealed and in the New revealed”.

I was listening to an excellent sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, and the following progression or development occurred to me, so hence I had to blog about it.  It reflects how I understand Scripture’s progressive revelation of how God deals with humans when they sin.  I’ll list them first, and then offer comments on each one:

Seek Them Out
Wipe Them Out
Spread Them Out
Straighten Them Out
Lift Them Out

First, the response is seek them out.  This is key.  In the garden, God responds to direct disobedience by looking for them.  God seems to want to maintain relationship with them, and wants them to grow.

Before long, the next response is wipe them out.  This is severe.  Leading up to the flood, humanity is described as being continually bent on evil.  It’s as though humans have become like an animal so riddled with disease that the only thing left to do is put it out of its misery.  Or one thinks of how a farmer will set fire to a field so it can grow fresh new grass.

Soon after, the response becomes spread them out.  This is unexpected.  The story of the Babel tower portrays humanity as arrogantly trying to ascend to the heavens.  Taking God’s place.  Human languages multiply and the people divide, being scattered all over the earth.  It’s as though human arrogance is like a heap of manure that smells horrible when concentrated into one heap, and so must be spread out.  This response finds an early hint in the expulsion from the garden.

Summarising a huge amount of remaining content in the Old Testament, the response progresses on to straighten them out.  Through everything from Law codes and prophetic instruction to exodus and exile, the message is to live according to the ‘straight and narrow’; to live in ways that ‘choose life’.  I cannot help but think of how I like to re-use nails that have been pre-used and bent.  I take them over to a hard surface and bash them (sometimes gently) with a hammer until they are useful.

Finally, the response matures and comes into focus as lift them out.  The image here is of God stepping into the pit (Psalm 40) that we’ve got ourselves into, laying his hands on our exhausted bodies and lifting us out.  This is embodied (deliberate pun) in the incarnation of Christ, who we may imagine as stooping to the lowest and most sinful levels of human nature, and raising it to new life.

One final thing to say about progressive revelation is that the final and full revelation seems to be hinted at early on.  The lifting of Grace is seen as early as the clothes that God makes for the pair in the garden.  God’s dealings move from justice (harsh!) to mercy and then to Grace.

even greater

Yesterday morning, our sermon was on Hebrews 7:1-7, about Jesus being like, and even greater than, the strange biblical figure Melchizedek.  Among the more striking contrasts is that this ‘priest of the Most High God’, who was the agent rather than the recipient of blessing, was not Jewish, but was a pagan ‘king of Salem’.

I’ve often reflected on how this lovely figure does glorious and needed damage to overly-certain schemes of salvation and overly-narrow frameworks of divine activity.  God speaks, works and saves in ways that are outside our human understanding.  But my reflection yesterday was musing about how there may be a parallel with the bread and wine and the mysterious presence of Christ at the Eucharist.

Both of the human figures, Abraham the ‘great’ Patriarch and the ‘greater’ Priest Melchizedek, are transcended by the divine-and-human person, Christ, who is ‘even greater’.  There may be a similar progression with the elements of Eucharist.  Bread and wine (interestingly brought to Abram by Melchizedek!) had deep significance in Jewish history and liturgy, particularly in celebration of Passover, remembering the Exodus from Egypt.  These ‘great’ elements are taken up and given a ‘greater’ meaning by serving our remembrance of a second greater Exodus, achieved by a second greater Adam.  But both these are transcended by the ‘even greater’ presence of Christ himself who has instituted the meal as a place and event where he will be ‘known’ through, ever since the breaking of bread on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24).  Although the elements always retain the ‘mere presence’ of bread and wine even with their ‘great’ significance, through the divinely instituted celebration of the Supper, they are also ‘blessed’ with an ‘even greater’ additional Presence (both through the elements and flowing out into and among the people gathered); that of the One who is not mere bread and wine, but True Food and True Drink (John 6).

So in diagrammatic form:

Abraham < Melchizedek < Christ himself
and
Passover < Eucharist < Christ himself

a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”