Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Curtain, His Flesh

After two postings about the anniversary of the coming of the Saviour,  I thought it would be appropriate have a post on Easter, in good time,

The three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, each tell us that at  the time that Jesus died, the curtain (or veil) of the Temple in Jerusalem was rent in two, ‘from top to  bottom’  (Matthew, 27.51 ), Mark, (Mk.15.38)  has ‘And the curtain of was torn in two, from top to bottom’ and  Luke (Luke 23.45) ‘And the curtain the temple was torn in two’. Two of the accounts are placed close to the expiring of Jesus on the cross. In Mark with Jesus uttering with a loud cry, and breathing his last. In Luke before Christ’s ‘calling out with a loud voice, he said Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. And having said this, he breathed his last’. So that destructive event, the rending of the Temple curtain, is at the climax of Christ's torture,  so it seems purposely closely associated with the Cross and with what it achieved, and so intimately associated with Easter. Have you ever listened to an Easter sermon that took the topic of the torn curtain and what it signified? In the Gospels that event is associated with the darkening, and with what seems to have been a minor earthquake, and with the resurrection of some from their graves. But what of its greater effect?

If we have heard such a sermon it will make the point about the significance of the curtain  in the lay-out of the Temple. It is the separation between the Holy Place and the Holiest Place. It was only to be opened or pushed aside when the High Priest had to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. As The Epistle to the Hebrews puts it,

The priests go into the first section [the Holy Place], performing  their ritual duties but into the second [place, the Holies Place], only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for unintentional sins of the people, By this the Holy Spirit indicates, the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing, which is symbolic for the present age.  According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal with food and drink and various, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Heb, 9. 6-10)
These verses are part of a detailed case the writer is making for the superiority of Christ’s priesthood  over the Old Testament Levitical priesthood. Christ is a priest of the order of Melchizedek (Ch. 7) superior to the Levitical order which sprang from Abraham. He cites relevant texts……As a consequence Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Citing Jeremiah 31 in Chapter 8) so those that are called [i.e. effectually called] may receive the promised eternal inheritance. since a death  has occurred that redeems them from the first covenant…… (9.15) (Those who are expert in covenant theology don’t seem to allude to Christ who is a priest of Melchizedek, not of Levi, and so not of Abraham.)

Christ is our Mediator, a Mediator of the whole world.  He opened a new and living way to enter the holy places through his blood, which he opened for us through the curtain that is, his flesh. So…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance  of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an  evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. (10.19f.)

John Owen comments

And there is great instruction given us, in this comparison of the type and antitype, into the way and the nature of our access unto God in all our solemn worship. It is God as he was represented in the holy place to whom we address ourselves peculiarly [that is, especially]; that is God the Father as on a throne of grace: the manner of our access is with holy confidence, grounded solely on the efficacy of the blood or sacrifice of Christ,…we have our entrance into the holy place by virtue of the flesh of Christ, which was rent in his sacrifice,  as through the rending  of the veil a way was laid open into the holiest.[1]

The Epistle of the Hebrews is supplied with numerous Old Testament quotations but that inference, at the heart of what it means to pray as a Christian, in 10.21, ’through the curtain, that is, through his flesh’ is not from the Old Testament, but is an inspired inference that was drawn by whoever the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was. What kind of inference is it?  That of a type and antitype within the birth of the New Testament era. The rent curtain is a type of Christ’s rent body. When Christians pray, they are not to forget the wounding and agony of Christ. The rent curtain tells Christ’s offering of himself as we engage in prayer,  to remind us that Christ procured this right only by his own suffering. So we have seen that both the role of the Spirit, as the replacement Comforter, and the Word of God incarnate as the Great High Priest, are suffused with Christ’s  sufferings.

For it came to pass on the death of the Lord Jesus, that ‘the veil of the temple was rent from the otp to bottom’. And that which is signified hereby is only this , that by virtue if the sacrifice, wherein hi flesh was torn and rent, we have a full entrance of  into the holy place, so that it should as would have been of old upon the rending of the veil. This, therefore is the genuine of this place, \We enter with boldness into the most holy place through the veil; that is to say, his flesh’; we do so by virtue of the sacrifice of himself, wherein his flesh was rent, and all hindrances  thereby taken away from us; of which the veil was an emblem, and principal instances, until it was rent and removed. (506)_

Easter and prayer. In the current understanding of prayer, personal prayer is simply a case of talking with Jesus, a direct consequence of ‘knowing Jesus’. And Easter is being taken over by rabbits and daffodils. The Bible itself presents us with Jesus not as a companion to his  New Testament people, but as a physically absent Saviour,  who is our Great High Priest in virtue of his sufferings. His death, resurrection and ascension formed one transaction between the persons of the Holy Trinity, the economic Trinity, as a consequence of the physical vanishing of Jesus Christ’s resurrected, ascended self. This was a loss to the church, a needy place in which the Holy Spirit has become the assurer and encourager of God’s people, and our risen and ascended became Christ the mediator of the covenant. Our worship is to be ‘solemn’, as Owen tells us, because it is an activity, wherever and whenever it takes place that is validated only by the solemnity of the purchase of Christ’s blood.  Easter was never to be a once in a year celebration, and we are to remember the death of the Saviour in every prayer we engage in.

[1] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W.H.Goold, (1855 repr. Baker, 1980), VI.507

Monday, January 06, 2020

'Not Simple or Absolute'

This is the second of the posts on ‘Christmas reflections’. The first was on Jesus's present physical absence which  Christmas nativity plays, on  baby Jesus’s appearance, are rather misleading rather than helpful. The Christmas (of 2019) is by now rapidly  disappearing, which is how it is with anniversaries. Needless to say, a Christian should mull over the significance of 'God was in Christ’, whatever the day of the year.

So now we are going to briefly reflect on the fact that God decreed the coming into flesh of his one and only Son, and what the character was of that decree.

The view of the  ‘incarnation anyway’ a ‘supralapsarian’ Christology has  provoked some discussion, following the book of that title by Edwin C. Van Driel (Oxford University Press.) On this view, even had there be no lapse, the virgin Mary would have given birth to Emmanuel. (Or maybe not, depending on the multitudinous counterfactuals that are possible,  given the view.) Or maybe it is congruent with such a view that the Incarnation could have been repeated at intervals, (not on once 25th December); maybe, accoording to this speculation there could be annual incarnations. That's the way with speculations.

 In Christian dogma, the 'incarnation now' view has had a long ancestry, having been held by,  for example, Alexander of Hales, Ockham, Bonaventure and others before the Reformation. At the time of the Reformation it was held by Osiander, a Lutheran whose views bothered Calvin. And since Osiander, Dorner in the 19th century and Barth in the last century have engaged in the same speculation. But this  view is not of concern here:

Calvin says in the Institutes, in the opening section of Book II.Chapter12.

It deeply concerned us, that he who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man. If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly termed simple or absolute, but flowed from  the divine decree on which the salvation of man depended.   What was best for us, our most merciful Father determined. Our iniquities, like a cloud intervening between him and us, having utterly alienated us from the kingdom of heaven, none but a person reaching to him could the medium of restoring peace. But who could thus reach to him? Could any of the sons of Adam? All of them, with their parents, shuddered at the sight of God. Could any of the angels? They had need of a head, by connection with which they might adhere to their God entirely and inseparably. What then? The case was certainly desperate. If the Godhead itself did not descend to us, it being impossible for us to ascend. Thus the Son of God behooved to become our Immanuel, i.e. God with us, and in such a way, that by mutual union his divinity and our nature might be combined; otherwise, neither was the proximity near enough, nor the affinity strong enough, to  give us hope that God would dwell with us, so great was the repugnance between our pollution and the spotless purity of God.

What preoccupied Calvin was both God’s freedom in making the act of incarnation, and how it is necessary for human redemption. The statement with which Calvin begins his chapter, where he states that the incarnation was not what is commonly termed‘simple or absolute’, is an unusual yet significant phrase. God is eternal and infinite, absolute in himself. Here using it, Calvin  might be contrasting the incarnation of Jesus Christ with the eternal generation of the Son. That was certainly simple and absolute, being an essential element of the  mystery of the Trinity. So for Calvin the action was not simple or absolute. But was the outcome of such a free decree necessary.

God decreed, and the incarnation followed, as we can follow it, say in the early chapters of Luke, and John 1. But it was not necessitated by the divine essence, as the Son was eternally begotten of the Father’s essence, according to the Nicene formula. The Son was incarnate,  John’s  statement of the Logos, that ‘he became flesh’ In John 1, verse…,  is not a statement about God in himself, like ‘God is wise’. Nor is it like ‘the bulb became a red flower’, a natural necessity.

Calvin’s view of the atonement was that it was the outcome of the mercy and love of God for sinners. He goes on to say this….But there are places in which he sketches another possibility. For example in his sermons on Isaiah 53, the suffering servant, he says ‘If God pardoned us without Jesus Christ interceding for us and being made pledge, we should think nothing of it. We should all shrug our shoulders and make it an opportunity  for giving ourselves greater license, But when we see that did not spare His only Son….’ There are a number of other places when he entertains this possibility, his commentary of John 15.13, in a sermon on Matthew 26. 37-9, and one on Galatians 1. 3-5. (These are reproduced in Calvin at the Centre, 172.) And no doubt more.

So Calvin affirms quite a few times the idea that God could have incarnated his Son without himself  yielding to death for us, but God did not have done so because that would have been inferior to what in fact occurred. God would be free to, but this course would have been an impossible way to acheive our redemption.

Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Francis Turretin adds  (in his rather fuller account, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ii.301.)

It was not only suitable, but necessary (sin and the decree of God concerning the redemption of men concerning the redemption of men being supposed) that the Son of God should be incarnate in order to accomplish this work. (1) The question does not concern a simple and absolute necessity on the part of God for God could (if he had wished) leave man no less than the Devil in his destruction. Rather the question concerns a hypothesis – whether the will to save men being posited, the incarnation was necessary, or whether it could have been brought about  by some other means. (2) Again, the question does not concern the necessity of the decree for no one denies that on the supposition of God’s having  decreed this, it ought necessarily to have been done. Rather the question concerns the necessity of nature  - whether the decree being set aside and antecedently to it) it was necessary for the Son of God to become incarnate to redeem us. (3) The question does not concern the necessity of fitness because all confess that was in the highest decree fitting to the divine majesty – that his precepts might not be said to have been violated with impurity. Rather the question concerns the necessity of justice - that in no other way could the justice of God have been satisfied and our deliverance brought about (which we assert).

 ‘The question’ which Turretin reflects on more than once is, I think, The question at the head of the question in which this passage occurs: ‘Was it necessary for the Son of God to be incarnate? We affirm. (Institutes, 2. 299)  In this passage, Turretin, like Calvin,  that that the Incarnation was not necessary but free. But it was necessary justice had to be satisfied.  Between Calvin's day and Turretin's the Socinians had become numerous. That’s why Turretin (and also John Owen) tightened the reins.

Some contend that the Reformers were  'necessitarian', but Calvin's attitude to the Incarnation is firmly non-necessitarian.

Monday, December 02, 2019

‘He is not here’

There was a time when some met Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh,  as we meet each other. Notably, his mother and father, and sisters and brothers, met him. And then his disciples met him, who when they talked with Jesus more often than not seemed to be puzzled by what he had to say about himself. Then there was the crucifixion, watched by quite a few; and his rising again, when he was seen by his disciples again, who talked to him, and more importantly, were talked to by Jesus.

After his crucifixion, the angels who attended the place where Jesus was buried, said to those perplexed men and women who brought spices to anoint him. ‘He is not here’. They went on: ‘He is risen.’ (Lk.26. 6) But since then the words ‘He is not here’,  prevailed. True, and thankfully, he was resurrected, and remained so. And for a while he remained with his disciples, still instructing them. But then he ascended, and such words about not being here came to have a more permanent significance. Since his ascension, when a cloud received him, those man years ago, it has been that true that he is not here,

Where is he?  We have several answers. He has gone to his God and our God. He is in heaven. He is at the right hand of God Almighty. What does this mean? Someone once suggested that, like an author who is creating a play, as far as the creation of our space and time is concerned, Christ (one of the figures in the play) was ‘written out’ at that point. Others have suggested that ‘heaven’ where Jesus is, is  like another wave length in a radio. As we switch from one station to another, we leave one world and ‘arrive’ at the other.

These are only analogies, with many deficiencies. But they do make the point that ‘the heavenly’ is not make-believe, but is a reality that is different from ‘the earthly’. Each has its own temporal sequencies (and frequencies!), which at certain points merge, as in Christ’s ascension, and in the appearance of the risen Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus, (Acts 9). Perhaps there is such a merging in the story of the account of Elijah who ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’  (2 Kings 2.11)   and another merging later when  Elisha prayed for the young man’s eyes to be open. ‘And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.’ (2 Kings 6.17) And of course, there is Paul on the road to Damascus, converted and commissioned as the Apostle to the Gentiles. But again, rather unclear.

But with such exceptions in mind,  if thy are exceptions, the era since those two events, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus,  is one in which the risen Christ is absent from our reality, the age of ‘He is not here’.

All this is to show that the events of the Son made flesh were events in real time, when his birth was at a time, his remaining in the temple when he was twelve was a later time, and death and resurrection and ascension were at subsequent times, each later on after the next. The modern language about ‘meeting with Jesus’, understood literally, disregards what we may call redemptive history. We live in the ‘last days’ awaiting the return of Jesus. That return is also to be a bodily appearance, as we have already noted. As Jesus does not come again each Christmas, so he does not come again each Sunday. When he appears, believers will be like him, because they will see him as he is. (1Jn.2.2)

Jesus has disappeared. We must be thankful, then, that before that He taught his disciples of the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him’. (See John 14. 16-17) But we do not meet the Spirit as his disciples met with Jesus; by God’s grace we are indwelled by him, if we are believers. And there are more clues about the Spirit’s operations here: ‘But the Helper the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’(14. 26) So we get from these words a different set of ideas than those of ‘meeting Jesus’. We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the Helper or Comforter, the teacher sent in Christ’s name to bring to the memory of the apostles the words of Christ, and reliable accounts of what he did, reports that are to be with the church - the body of Christ in a different sense -  for ever.

We are constrained by the calendar to celebrate of the coming into flesh of the eternal Son of God on one day each year. It was celebrated last year, and will be celebrated in the next. So an annual reminder, with its pantomime-like celebration of the Nativity, tends to weaken in our minds the uniqueness and reality, and seriousness,  of what we celebrate. (This is not a complaint of the usual kind, about the commercialization of Christmas). This was a once-for-all event, on which our forgiveness and reconciliation hinge. At his ascension the angels also told the astonished disciples that the no-longer visible Jesus , who was taken into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1.10) We live by faith, not by sight. Until then, the clock continues to tick. But there is assurance of his coming again. In the mean time, Paul says, don’t doze off. However long there remains for the church militant to  wait,  ‘….salvation is nearer than when we first believed.’ (Rom.13.11) ‘He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon’. To which the church replies ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22.20)