Power

Ethics and the Birth of Jesus

It is a truism to suggest that Jesus’ life and teachings are inescapably ethical. Even a cursory glance at, say, the Sermon on the Mount reveals the moral hue of much of what Jesus’ claimed, did and taught. Less obvious is the way in which events that happened to Christ bear the unmistakable traces of ethical significance. It is one thing to argue that the life of Jesus, to the extent that he exercised authorship over its shape and trajectory, was a moral one; quite another to suggest the same of moments in his life over which he (ostensibly) had no control. Still, we must not forget that the New Testament presents Jesus’ earthly sojourn – all of it, from beginning to end – as an epochal event, pristinely reflecting the eternal will and nature of God. Birth was no different. It was something Christ chose; it was not foisted upon him, and nor was he the unwilling subject of divine fiat. No: he decided, in concert with the Father and the Spirit; he acted, in complete accord with the other members of the godhead; he sacrificed, the ground of which was the loving union of the Triune God. It is the very beginning of Christ’s life, when he entered the flow of creation and time, upon which I want to meditate; the moment at which sovereign divinity deigned to inhabit the fetters of mortal humanity. Clothed in the fine garment of infanthood, the Word incarnate demonstrated the full character of the godhead. Moreover, in doing so, he left an ethical model for followers past and present – one which remained consistent, and constant, until the very end of his life.

All this is very well; but even if we agree that Jesus’ birth was the result of God’s decree (whose identity, of course, cannot be separated from Jesus’ own), in what way does it constitute an ethical act? In what way does it function as a pattern to be imitated by Christians? I submit that it does so in three ways, by way of movement hierarchical, metaphysical and social. The first act of movement rests upon Jesus’ voluntary decision to lay aside his innate glory and live amongst his own image-bearers. The second act rests upon the singular, inimitable nature of his birth, by which he bridged the metaphysical [1] chasm between deity and humanity. And the third act rests upon his identification with the poor and disenfranchised. In reality, the various threads are deeply intertwined – the metaphysical “gap” that exists between the Creator and the creation is also a hierarchical one, whilst the social identification of Christ is an extension, or specification, of his entry into the realm of humanity. That said, for the purposes of this essay, I shall parse them out to make clearer my reflections – and, in the second part of this piece, the ethical implications thereof.

Let us begin with the hierarchical or vertical axis of the Son’s great migration. In becoming man, Jesus moved from the unshielded glory of God’s presence, as well as the acknowledged and unfettered glory of his own nature, to the “soft envelope” (to borrow Tozer’s phrase) of finite human existence. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses well this aspect of Christ’s birth. In a few short verses, the Apostle deliberately establishes a contrast between the innate equality Jesus had with God prior to his advent, and the fact of his humble entry into the created world (2:6-7). In speaking of that great event, Paul uses language that conveys deliberation, control and voluntary self-abnegation – qualities that one might argue are necessary (though not sufficient) for any act to be considered ethical. Indeed, he declares that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; he humbled himself”, and so on (Philippians 2:7-8; italics mine). Paul is emphatic, in declaring that Jesus made himself “nothing” (v.7). We might think that he is simply talking about Jesus entering this world as a powerless, impoverished individual – the son of parents who lived in penury and want. That is true, so far as it goes (I shall return to this theme below). However, what Paul means by “nothing” is humanity itself. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, influential or marginal, humans are comparatively “nothing” when placed next to the infinite glory of God.

In a previous essay, I spoke about the incomparable nature of the Deity, whose awful majesty swallows up the grandiose notions of his subjects. Whereas humans are bound, God is boundless; whereas we are finite, he is infinite; and whereas we are subject to corruption and decay (physical, moral and spiritual), God – being uncreated – is utterly untouched by these forces, governing them with complete freedom. His resplendence is “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1), which is a way of proclaiming his complete sovereignty over all there is. Time and again, the Psalms wax lyrical about Yahweh’s kingship. It is an apt metaphor that describes the hierarchical distinction between the Creator and his creation. Remarkably, however, he left what was his by nature, “emptying” himself to make possible the redemption of his creatures. Paul’s careful language preserves the paradoxical distinction between the first two persons of the godhead. Christ is at once the One who intrinsically possesses the essence of God and the One who can still relate to the Father, being as he is “with” him (Phil. 2:6). God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, and it was the latter that was fully expounded in the humble person of Christ, whose self-oblation upon earth quietly began at the moment of his birth.

The NT elsewhere picks up on this theme of the king’s voluntary pauperism. Take Luke’s birth narrative, for example. He deliberately sets his account against the backdrop of national and international history. To set the scene of the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth – he who would herald the arrival of the Messiah – Luke mentions the reign of (the non-Jewish) Herod over Judea (the name given to Judah at that time) (1:5). As context for his account of the birth of Christ, Luke refers to the reign of Augustus Caesar over the Levant (2:1). Quite clearly, he wants his readers to note the jarring contrasts. On the one hand, God’s people were ruled by a petty tyrant, a vassal of Rome who was not even Jewish (cf. Matthew 2:6); on the other, they lived under the domination of a foreign overlord, whose pomp and power were unmatched. But with delicious irony, Luke subtly suggests to us the identity of the true king of Israel, and therefore, the world. Jesus, the One to whom the Baptist was to point (Luke 3:4-6), did not reside in a palace in Judea, or a royal house in Rome. Rather, he came as an infant, shed of all the overt trappings of deity in order to consummate the Father’s redemptive plan. For all their worldly claims to rulership, the men into whose realms Jesus was going to enter were mere parodies of the true king. The point here, however, is that the true king humbled himself deeply, adopting the limitations of his creatures and entrusting himself to their imperfect care. Once more, we see the willing self-abnegation of Christ demonstrated, as he bore the lowly circumstances of those made in his image.

In laying aside his heavenly glory – something which he did not have to grasp, as it belonged to him by eternal right – Jesus also traversed the metaphysical edges of heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. This particular aspect of Christ’s birth closely follows the already-discussed overtones of hierarchical movement, whereupon he added created existence to his pre-existent nature. One might say, then, that it was the crystallization of that impossible union. In his own, writhing body, the infant Jesus personified the union between God and man; between two, apparently irreconcilable natures. Moreover, his birth was the first concrete sign that heaven and earth – the spiritual and the material – were being drawn together in loving harmony by the Creator. His life was a microcosm of that union, and a foretaste of what will be the case universally. The Gospel of John, to which I often turn, marks out the transcendent nature of God’s wisdom. Jesus, the pre-existent Word, was God and was with God “in the beginning” (Jn. 1:1). This language, much like Paul’s ode in the Philippian Letter, preserves the paradoxical nature of the Deity: combining simultaneous affirmations of the Word’s eternal identity with God and his distinctiveness. That is important, for the supervening agent in creation, who proceeds eternally from the depths of the Father, in time became one of us. John declares that “the Word became flesh” (v.14; cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). Here, “flesh” stands for mortal, created existence, in contrast with the utterly uncreated existence of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 31:3a). How could these two states – these two metaphysical worlds – be bridged? More to the point, how was it possible that in one being, these two natures, so seemingly irreconcilable, could be united harmoniously? How could the eternal One take on the substance of those he created without ceasing to be what he always had been?

These questions are largely imponderable, and the metaphors that abound can only offer a dimly lit path towards the truth. One, for instance, likens the coming of Jesus to a person who adopts dual citizenship. The person is fully a member of two nations, of two political groups, by virtue of legal reality. Going further, one could use the example of someone with multi-ethnic parentage as a metaphor for the manifold identity the Son adopted at birth. Like an individual who is, say, Spanish and Fijian (to select two ethnic groups that are largely unalike), Jesus combined in his own person two natures, two identities – two “streams”, unified in one person. Even this image, however, is limited, for it cannot adequately repeat the utter dissimilarity between humanity and divinity. Unlike a dual citizen, or a bi-racial individual, divinity and humanity do not occupy the same ontological territory; there is no space – save for Jesus himself – where they mingle. It required an act of God to create this new reality, when he “came upon” a virgin by his Spirit, and poured his life into her womb (Luke 1:35).

Lastly, I come to the socially significant nature of Christ’s birth. Whereas the hierarchical and metaphysical facets of this movement lay behind material reality, the social and economic environment into which Jesus was born reflects more visibly the extent of his identification with the created order. Even allowing for the Son’s act of “emptying”, by which he condescended to humanity in the flesh, it was yet still possible for him to be born into, say, a royal family – or at least a family of some influence. Why should he, the radiance of the Father, not have taken his place amongst earthly powers? Of course, the possibility was always present, but in an act of sheer grace, he chose to identify with the lowliest of his image-bearers; to inhabit this world as a person of poverty; to enter the flow of creation and time as an occupant of social and economic weakness. Nowhere is that truth plainer than at the time of his birth. One small example will suffice. We read in Luke 2:24 that Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice of two doves when they presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. A seemingly innocuous detail, perhaps – but the presentation of doves was a legal stipulation for people who were unable to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Quite clearly, then, Jesus’ earthly parents were poor. They could not afford the normal offering, and were compelled to offer a sacrifice out of their poverty. Thus, Jesus went beyond mere identification with humanity in some vague and ill-defined manner. He did not appear in power and glory, taking for himself worldly riches. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite. Through his birth (not to mention his life), Christ identified deeply with the poor, the outcasts and the marginal.

We ought to remember that Jesus’ life was an unfurling of the nascent qualities glimpsed at the Nativity. It certainly does not stand in splendid isolation. However, far from simply marking the beginning of the Word’s incarnation, Jesus’ birth was an intrinsically ethical act. Indeed, it continues to possess moral significance in its own right. I trust that others reading this will be able to discern some of the ethical consequences of this act for those who claim to follow Jesus. In the second part of this piece, I shall sketch out some ideas in an effort to demonstrate the implications for Christians’ lives as they attempt to pattern them on the birth (not to mention the life) of Christ.

[1] By “metaphysical”, I am referring roughly to the substance, essence or nature of things.

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.3)

The Death of Evil and the Birth of New Life

If the incarnation and identifying death of Christ were all we could say about God’s response to evil, one may wonder if he had responded to it at all. I mean, it’s one thing to suffer alongside the bereaved, as God did on the cross; quite another to actually do something about the source of that, and every other, form of suffering. But that is what the cross is: God’s ultimate “no” to evil’s reign, and in this third and final post, I shall outline the significance of the cross (and its sequel). By allowing sin to apparently crush him, Jesus not only experienced the horrors of a sinful world; nor did he simply do this as a way of demonstrating his radical identification with humanity and its plight. Rather, on the cross, God in Christ defeated evil. Through the very act of going to Calvary and dying at the hands of evil men, Jesus won a paradoxical victory over the malevolent forces that had captured God’s good world and warped his image-bearers.

Several passages help throw light on this mystery. Take Paul’s words in Romans 8:3, which we have already touched upon. Christ came in the likeness of sinful humanity, precisely to take upon himself the unimaginable burdens of sin and its companion, death. Incarnation leads inexorably to Atonement, where God’s representative freed the world from evil’s grip. And he did this via two, complementary, ways. First, he allowed himself to be the bearer of sin; here, the full significance of Paul’s words in Rom. 8:3 emerges. I said before that sin was drawn to this one point – Jesus’ body – whereby God condemned it for good. Sin was defeated, even as Jesus apparently was, and its rule brought to an end. The representative man stood in place of humanity in order that we would not have to bear the brunt of God’s just condemnation of sin. Second, Jesus eschewed the use of violence to win a victory over the various powers arrayed against him. Instead, he submitted himself to evil and its manifestations, giving us a remarkable picture of “evil doing its worst and being exhausted” (N.T. Wright). Evil had nowhere else to go, for its terrible cycle had been broken and its legitimacy stripped. Nowhere is this better expressed than in one of Paul’s latter letters, where he writes that the crucified Jesus “…disarmed the powers and authorities…ma(king) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). It was precisely through Jesus’ apparent defeat and humiliation that through him, God passed sentence on the powers that oppressed his image-bearers and his creation, and condemned for good that to which those same image-bearers had given themselves.

And so, we come back to Isaiah 53 to find confirmation of much of what has been said. The verses from Isaiah, which I quoted in my previous post, indicate that Jesus, the longed-for servant of the Isaianic prophecies, went beyond mere identification with the suffering and bereaved. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53, we read this:

“But he was pierced for our

transgressions,

  he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace

            was upon him… (Isaiah 53:5).

Jesus actually took the sin of others upon his own shoulders in order to deal with it. And deal with it he did, as he underwent the pain and the consequences of sin – abandonment, divine disfavor, death – in order that those made in God’s image might be set free from its pernicious effects (see, too, Mark 10:45, which consciously alludes to Isaiah). Many have gone through life suffering at the hands of a pervasive evil – victims of oppression and unrighteous men. But all of us, in our own way, have been caught in the maelstrom of chaos. The sin of which Paul spoke of in Romans 1 is something in which we have all participated, and from which we all need redemption. On the cross (in tandem with the resurrection), we see God’s upside-down solution to the question of its existence and our desperate need.

Indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus stands as the paradoxical liberation of those who have been crushed and enslaved by the encroaching chaos (whether their own or that of others). The seminal event in the Old Testament is the Exodus, where God led his peopleIsraelout of slavery and into freedom. Well, the New Testament speaks of the positive results of Christ’s crucifixion in those terms. John 1:14, for example, looking back at Jesus’ life from the vantage-point of a post-resurrection world, remarks that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us”, with the assumption that this indwelling would somehow lead to the defeat of evil. Here, the evangelist deliberately uses language that evokes images of God dwelling in the midst of his people after their flight fromEgypt, all in an effort to describe the incarnation of Christ. The radical identification of God with humanity thus dovetails with the “exodus” from sin and evil that has been accomplished through Christ walking the road toCalvaryduring Passover – the time when his kin celebrated their own flight from oppression. Humanity has been facing a deeper kind of slavery than any mere earthly form of bondage, and we witness it everyday. The cross was one half of God’s double-sided plan to finally, decisively, put a stop to sin and release the captives.

Of course, none of what I have claimed for the cross would be the case if it weren’t for its sequel, the resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are indissolubly linked, and without the latter, the former would have been the failure of yet another would-be Messiah (of which there were many at the time). I said before that God, through Christ, held the powers up to contempt and triumphed over them (Col. 2:15). This is true and indeed happened at the point at which Christ himself was held up and crucified. But that act would have been incomplete – nay, meaningless – without the resurrection. God’s victory over evil and sin through the work of Christ needed the promise, and the reality, of new life, if a new world free from these forces could come into being. Let us return to Romans 8 for a moment. We saw that Paul began by talking about God himself doing what humanity could not – hatching an escape from the clutches of sin. Those who were formerly slaves are now free because of what the Creator-Redeemer has done through Jesus. But, more than that, Paul speaks of the wider, creational transformation that will take place as a result of the epochal work of God (8:19-22). This is the promise of the resurrection: that those made in God’s image should not be gripped any more by the manifold examples of evil in this world. He has dealt with it decisively on the cross, allowing it to do its worst, before condemning it in the person of Jesus. The worst possible manifestation of sin is death, the complete negation of life and creation. Thus, the resurrection stands as the permanent sign that sin and death have been truly defeated. Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of his sacrifice at Calvary in addition to being the first step in God’s new world: a world beyond pain, chaos, suffering, misery, angst, hatred, evil. A world beyond sin.

We should not forget that, in the midst of the efforts of God to redeem his world, those made in his image stand at the centre of this project. It is no different with the resurrection, for it is humanity that will be the beneficiaries of what God, through Christ, accomplished at Easter. Once more, I shall turn to Paul, and his letter to the Corinthians. He speaks about death’s end, of sin’s final condemnation – of the ultimate defeat of evil (1 Corinthians 15) – which hinges upon the reality of the resurrection, the birth of new creation. In assuring his audience of the resurrection and their own participation in everything that it stands for, Paul writes, “…Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:55). Those who share in this resurrection will gain new, imperishable life, untouched by the corruption of the present world. This is the ultimate Christian hope, and the grounding for our belief that evil will be vanquished. As Paul writes, we who are “in Christ” will participate in new creation, given that he has taken upon himself the evil and the sin in this world (2 Corinthians 5:17, 21). A divine exchange, if you like, has occurred, by which those God has created have the chance to be free from evil – this world’s and their own – finally and permanently.

*          *          *

So, we reach the conclusion (almost): God has spoken against evil’s reign, and decisively so. He has borne the brunt of evil in himself, through the incarnational work of Jesus, identifying radically with those who have suffered and continue to suffer. But through that work, he has also condemned evil through the apparently bizarre act of submitting to it. However, as we have seen, it was via that sacrifice that God exposed and condemned sin in sinful man, liberating victims, bringing his wrath to bear upon evil, and doing so graciously yet justly. Finally, he has given us a concrete sign that evil will see its end. The empty tomb means that sin and death no longer have mastery over God’s world. Of course, we can ask why that new world has not yet arrived. That would require another piece entirely. Nevertheless, the resurrection functions simultaneously as the provisional fulfillment of a plan God began with the calling of Abraham and a glimpse of new, uncorrupted life – the firstfruits of a redeemed creation. This is what people can hold onto when the world seems to be crashing down around them – that the God who has himself suffered, and who has defeated evil, will bring about the promised new world for which so many long.

The End?

I would be remiss if I did not tell the whole story. I may have given the impression that all will be saved, and that all will leave behind this world, with all its points of suffering, and participate in a new world that is free from the attendant consequences of evil. But I would not be true to the witness of Scripture, and the reality of sin. By no means is one’s entry into this resurrection life a joyous fait accompli. One must accept it and receive it. Moreover, one must ground oneself in the work of another – Jesus Christ. Yes, we have all been victims of sin and evil throughout our lives; some more so than others. But, as I said earlier in this piece, we have all participated in that corruption in various ways. God has not only called us out of this place, he has made a way for us to be rescued – not just from our own pains and hurts and misery, but from the very presence of sin itself. The embrace of Christ as the One who stood as our representative; redemption from the decaying consequences of sin; and reconciliation with God in a creation restored and renewed – these are of a piece. But the question is: will we respond?