Cosmic First Responders

I ended the last post by stating that the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all. What does that mean? What does that look like?

rescueThe other day I heard Bishop Todd Hunter describe followers of Jesus as “God’s cosmic first-responders.” I really like that image. Those who follow Jesus are being formed in his virtues and trained in his vocation so that they can rush into the places of the world’s pain in order to bring God’s comfort, restoration and healing. This is what it means to be God’s blessing.

This is also a great image of Romans 8, which we have explored in previous posts. Like a set of Russian stacking dolls, God’s Spirit is in us and we are in the world. In this “middle position” suspended between heaven and earth (remember that Romans 8 is an image of the cross), we echo the world’s anguished groans with our own travail. And God’s Spirit groans within us with intercession. We become the place where heaven and earth meet. We become the place where the world’s anguished cries are shaped and transformed by the Spirit’s anguished intercession into real human prayer through us.

So what does this look like? I believe Paul’s imagery in Romans 8 finds real-world expression in his short letter to Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon, a partner in Paul’s ministry, about Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave who ran away from Philemon’s household. After his escape, he somehow meets Paul and is ultimately converted to follow Christ.

Paul stands between these two men, embodying God’s gospel of reconciliation. He brings together two men — master and slave —  and offers his own livelihood to cover any loss so that they might be reconciled and restored.

“So, anyway, if you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me. And if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account. This is me, Paul, writing with my own hand: I’ll pay you back (and far be it from me to remind you that you owe me your own very self!).” -Philemon 17-19

This is Romans 8 in action — self-sacrifice in order to bring about healing, restoration and unity.

In fact, I would venture to say that unity among Christ’s followers is perhaps Paul’s greatest real-world expression of the Gospel. Unity is “proof” that the Gospel is real. Think about how much Paul talks about unity throughout his letters. It’s both a central theological and practical theme in all of his writings.

For example, Paul states in Colossians 1:27, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I believe the popular reading of this verse is misleading — Christ in me is the hope of my glory. Rather, the “you” is plural. And glory is God’s restorative reign on the earth, through his human image-bearers. So Colossians 1:27 is more likely to mean, “Christ in all of you in unified community is the hope of God’s full restorative and healing reign upon the creation, which will be through his unified image-bearers.” Simply put, Christ-indwelt unity among Jesus’ apprentices is the sign and hope of God’s fulfilled New Creation, which will ultimately be implemented through Jesus’ apprentices.

If that’s the case, then the Church’s role of being God’s blessing means to embed ourselves in the pain and anguish of disunity and division in an effort of embodying God’s love and reconciliation. Like an EMT specifically equipped to intervene in tragedy with life-giving care and skill, Jesus’ followers must be formed in theological imagination, character, and skills in order to help birth God’s New Creation from the pain of the old through love and reconciliation.

We’re not talking about a mushy “Can’t we all just get along?” bandaid approach. That won’t bring healing in the midst of abuse, racism, poverty, suspicion, entitlement, narcissism, consumerism and the many other forms of injustice that divide and enslave.

And if Paul’s example to Philemon provides any indication, the primary character and skill needed is sacrificial love — love for both parties that lays down one’s life and livelihood to help them reconcile.

I’m astounded at Paul’s approach with these men. He reminds them to follow Christ. He reminds them of his love for both of them. He reminds them of their value to each other. He reminds them that their relationship in Abraham’s family supersedes any societal relationships. And he offers himself as the bridge between both to make reconciliation impossible to ignore.

Sometimes Paul is critiqued by modern readers for not confronting societal injustice such as slavery or women’s rights. But in this letter, he is doing just that in a very subversive way. By encouraging Philemon to reconcile and receive Onesimus back as a brother rather than a slave, Paul is undermining the master-slave structure so central to Roman society. That’s because true unity and love in people’s lives have more Gospel power and transformation than shouting at a structural juggernaut.

So we need to ask ourselves, what is needed to bring understanding, love, care, compassion and unity to divided people and relationships? What is needed between those of different values, sexual orientation, political ideologies, religious beliefs, cultures and other polarizing factors?

Just from personal observations, our society seems more polarized than ever. Social media has become the monkey cage at the zoo, each person zealously flinging their own verbal poo at each other in an attempt to out-shout and out-shame those who disagree. Very few are willing to talk, listen and understand those who hold different values and beliefs.

But Jesus’ followers must be different. We must embed ourselves into real relationships. And with formed character and trained skill, we must work at bringing unity and reconciliation, whether between two people or two groups or two countries depending on one’s level of influence.

This is dirty and painful work. Remember, we’re embedded in a world that is groaning in travail. The world’s pain will be our pain and we will echo their groaning with our own. That’s part of the redemptive transformative work of the New Creation. Like Jesus’ New Creation work on the cross, we too will bear the world’s pain, anguish and wounds. The work of the cross will always bear the wounds of the cross. There’s no avoiding it.

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New Creation Communities

waiting-with-candles-srgbOne of the consequences of the over-simplified biblical story is the distortion it creates regarding Christian community. If the story that is told and retold is “Jesus died so that God would forgive my sins so I can go to heaven when I die,” then the Christian community is virtually stripped of its true biblical purpose. The simplified story only addresses conversion and after-life, leaving an “awkward middle” between baptism and grave.

When paired with our consumerist and narcissistic culture, Christians become “consumers of religious goods,” to borrow a popular phrase from Dallas Willard. And our local churches quickly alter their true purpose to fulfill the perceived need.

When I left professional ministry in 2003, I wrote a rather scathing and non-nuanced critique of this phenomenon called “Detoxing from church.” While I would probably say things differently today, I still believe the critique stands. The shrunken popular story contributes to the average Christian viewing the local church as they would a supermarket or restaurant — shopping for programs and services that “meet their needs.”

In contrast the full biblical story as we have been exploring compels Christians to form communities as we see in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus has faithfully fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and thereby rescuing the nations into the renewed Abrahamic family and their vocation as God’s royal priests within his inaugurated New Creation. The early Christians understood that through Jesus, God had rescued them into a family and that family’s business. They were part of a community with a vocational purpose.

The local church is to be a colony of God’s New Creation. Remember that Paul states in 2Cor 5:17 that if anyone is in the Messiah, that person is the New Creation. So the local church’s members share their lives — the meaning of koinonia or “fellowship” — as both the benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation in the world. They live together with the singular purpose of LEARNING to be like Christ in order to actually BE Christ together in community and in the world.

This purpose should then shape the church’s practices. The local church should be a community of worship, key to the biblical human vocation of God’s image-bearers. It should be a community of sacrament, experiencing God’s presence and grace in special ways. It should be a community of apprenticeship to Jesus, learning from him how to be like him in both virtue and vocation. It should be a community of vision, telling and retelling the biblical story so that the community is continually renewed in this counter-cultural vision of God’s kingdom. It should be a community of unity, where all human sociological boundaries are eclipsed by membership in God’s covenantal family. It should be a community trained to rush into the places of the world’s pain as both the prayer and presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

And all of the church’s practices should be in the life and power of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ presence in every individual member of the community. The Spirit is the animating force of all the church’s work toward God’s New Creation.

The natural outflowing of the local community’s life should be a community of royal priests, bearing God’s image into the world for the sake of the world. This outflowing of the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all.

Slowing Down

I look forward to my weekends. And for me, this photo summarizes one of the reasons why. On Saturdays and Sundays mornings, I try to make time to walk and take photos. Like everyone, all week I’m rushing and working. But for an hour or so on the weekends, I slow down, look around, and try to see things I normally wouldn’t notice.

This photo is an example. As I walked through a local park I saw a discarded softball in an empty field, a leftover abandoned after a team practice. I don’t know how long it lay there or who else noticed it. But there was something tranquil and poignant about this scene. So I kneeled down on the red dirt and snapped a couple of images.

The next morning, a softball team was practicing on the field. The ball was gone, probably thrown into a trashcan, forever forgotten. But life moved onward.

I get it. It’s just a softball. But this photo reminds me that I had the privilege of seeing a small part of God’s creation in a way that maybe no one else on this planet did. And I just didn’t see it. I got to get my knees dirty and enter and engage that special moment in order to capture it, to memorialize it.

I think part of our role as God’s image-bearers is to notice. We have to first notice in order to care, love and bless.

Dallas Willard once said, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our world today.” It’s almost impossible to be God’s image-bearers without noticing. And it’s almost impossible to notice without removing hurry from our lives.

Photography reminds me to slow down and look. It reminds me that there is far more to life than my worries, my struggles, my dreams, my agenda. There are moments and lives into which I can enter if only I slow down and notice.

New Creation Wounds

hands-bw-srgbOur vocation as God’s renewed people is to embody Christ’s covenantal-faithfulness for the sake of the wider world. Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate revelation of that faithfulness — fully loving God and fully loving people through sacrifice. Jesus’ cross and resurrection launched the New Creation. Therefore, Jesus’ cross becomes the pattern for our New Creation lives.

But what does that look like? Romans 8 offers us a mysterious, yet crucial answer. Here is the basic flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 8.

As people who are enlivened and led by God’s Spirit, we are adopted as God’s children. Being God’s children was Israel’s vocation. So Paul is saying we are now part of Abraham’s renewed family entrusted with their renewed vocation. As God’s children, we are co-heirs with Christ. This inheritance is our vocation. It is to share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may share in his glory, which is his renewing and restorative reign over God’s world as the true image-bearer, the true human being.

We are adopted into Abraham’s renewed family as God’s children in order that we may share in Christ’s vocation — creation’s renewal through Christ’s and our suffering and his and our consequent glory and reign.

Creation waits for its liberation as the New Creation, groaning with labor pains. Within groaning creation, the children of God live and groan as well. And within God’s children, God’s Spirit — given as the firstfruits of their glory and reign — intercedes with groans. Creation groans. God’s children groans within creation. God’s Spirit groans within God’s children.

This is the core commission of Abraham’s renewed family as God’s royal priesthood — living in the midst of the world’s pain, suffering and groaning with the world, and transforming it into prayer that is in sync with the Spirit’s own groaning.

The image of Romans 8 is the cross. But rather than Jesus being on the cross, Paul is depicting God’s people on the cross, suspended in the groaning world, ourselves groaning and the Spirit groaning within us. All for the sake and renewal of God’s world.

And here’s the clincher:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

In all things, especially through our groaning, suffering and pain, God is working for the good of those who love him. We are being conformed into the image of his Son, living cross-shaped New Creation lives, knowing that the ultimate goal is to be glorified — sharing in Christ’s renewing and restorative reign over God’s creation.

In other words, we — who are adopted into Abraham’s family, who are enlivened and led by the Spirit, and who are patterning our lives after Christ’s covenantal-faithfulness through sacrificial love to God and others — are the umbilical between the groaning world and the groaning Spirit. The New Creation is birthed from this creation as we join groaning creation with the groaning Spirit through our own suffering and groaning.

As revealed on the cross, New Creation is birthed through suffering and sacrificial love. So the answer to Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” required the wounds of the cross. Likewise, as we take up our cross and become the living laboring link between the world around us and the Spirit in us, we will be wounded in order that God’s New Creation may be birthed.

So, What’s The Point?

bookstore“What would be the good of learning without love — it would puff us up. And love without learning — it would go astray.” -St Bernard of Clairvaux

So why spend the last several posts exploring the biblical story in contrast to the popular story? Regardless of the theological details, isn’t the bottom-line of either story to “love God and love people”?

Let’s imagine you wanted to travel from New York to Los Angeles via plane. Wouldn’t you expect the pilot to make necessary in-flight course corrections in order to keep the plane on course? In a similar way, we need to tell and retell the biblical story to avoid “drift” in our lives.

Or even more drastic, what if you boarded a plane heading in a similar direction but bound for a completely different destination than expected? What if you thought you were flying from New York to Los Angeles only to discover that you were actually heading to Las Vegas. You would be flying in the same direction but would fall short of your intended destination by a few hundred miles.

This was my experience almost 20 years ago when I realized the popular version of Christianity that I embraced was forming me into a person far short of the biblical vision of humanness.

So let’s look at a quick summary of both stories. First the popular, yet distorted version:

“Jesus died for my sins and gave me his righteousness so I can go to heaven when I die.”

Now the fuller biblical version:

“Jesus lived and died to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel in order to rescue humanity from enslavement to idolatry and sin and restore us back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers within God’s renewed creation that launched at Jesus’ resurrection and will be ultimately completed at his appearing.”

If you live by the first story, you will miss the second story. But if you live by the second story, then you will get most of the first story as well. That’s because the first story shrinks the actual biblical story and only highlights certain aspects.

shrinkRemember, shrinky-dinks? They were plastic art pieces that one would color and then bake in the oven. They would shrink as they baked and their colors would become more vibrant in the process. That’s what the popular version of the biblical story does. It colors certain parts of the story while ignoring others and then shrinks so the highlighted parts become more emphasized, thus distorting the actual story.

So from a very general perspective, the goal of both stories is to “love God and love people.” But the actual biblical story provides the proper context and definition.

In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus has a conversation with one of the teachers of the law. Asked by the teacher “Of all of the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replies:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is not simplifying or abstracting Israel’s ethical code to “just love God and love people so you’ll be okay with God.” Rather, Jesus is summarizing with pinpoint accuracy the covenant God made with Abraham. This is Israel’s vocation in a concentrated amplified form. This is how Israel was to be faithful to the covenant for the sake of the world. If one would worship God with every aspect of human life, pouring everything into glad worship of God and if one would love his or her neighbor with the same respect, care and devotion we show ourselves, then heaven would come to earth!

Jesus condenses the entire Abrahamic covenant, Israel’s vocation as God’s royal priesthood, into a dual-edged purpose that would actually merge heaven and earth.

If we want an example of what this kind of “love” looks like, then we need to look at the cross. For on the cross, Jesus, as Israel’s human representative king, did for Israel what Israel couldn’t do. He fully loved God and fully loved his neighbor as THE Faithful Israelite. He fulfilled Israel’s covenant with God and died in Israel’s place so that they would be rescued and renewed. And through the fulfilled covenant, the rest of the nations and ultimately all of creation would be rescued and renewed.

And on the cross we see Israel’s God, embodied as a human, expressing his full love and faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham and his family. He is faithful despite their unfaithfulness and rescues and renews them so he can rescue and renew the nations and the creation he so loves.

On the cross we see:

The true Image-Bearer

The true Royal Priest

The true King of Israel

Israel being faithful to their covenant with God

God being faithful to his covenant with Israel

The forgiveness of sins

The end of exile

The redemption from idolatry

The vanquishing of evil

The trampling of death

Creation reborn

Humanity is now restored to its original vocation by being received into Abraham’s family and thus God’s fulfilled covenant with Abraham. We are now part of Abraham’s renewed family. As such, we are God’s royal priesthood. We are God’s true image-bearers. We are truly human. We are both benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation. Our vocation is now to follow Jesus into his virtue and vocation — into his faithfulness to the covenant. We are people in whom God is at work according to the pattern of the Messiah for the sake of the wider world. We are learning to live and love like Christ, so we too can embody the covenant-faithfulness of God. To borrow imagery from Revelation, we follow the Lion of Judah (Israel’s and thus the world’s True King) who is also the slain lamb (patterning our lives after his sacrificial life).

In this light, Jesus’ statement, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” is actually about our vocation more than self-denial. His cross is the pattern for our New Creation lives.

Every act of loving God and loving people that embodies Christ’s love as revealed on the cross builds the material through which God will ultimately fashion his New Creation at Jesus’ ultimate appearing. We are like vegetation that merges the carbon dioxide of this creation and the chlorophyll of Christ’s love, transforming it into the oxygen that God will use as the very atmosphere for his New Creation.

This is why after a lengthy discussion of the resurrection, which is the inaugural moment of God’s New Creation, Paul encourages us with, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Shrinky Dinks image from midwesternmoms.com

Understanding The “Forgiveness Of Sins”

flowers-through-a-fenceIn light of last week’s post, how do we understand “forgiveness of sins”? Jesus says in Matthew 26, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This is a prime example of the importance of reading an ancient text from the original audience’s context.

In popular Christian parlance, “forgiveness of sins” usually refers to the personal experience an individual has when one repents and asks God’s forgiveness for wicked deeds committed or good deeds omitted. The modern understanding of “forgiveness of sins” is primarily about one’s personal morality and relationship with God.

Within the biblical narrative, “forgiveness of sins” includes this aspect, but is far, far more.

First, “forgiveness of sins” has a primarily Jewish dimension. God’s covenant with Israel warned that idolatry and sin would eventually lead to their exile from the Land he had given them. Israel’s continued idolatry and sin lead to an invasion by Assyria and the northern Kingdom of Israel being led away into captivity by 722 BC. Around 586 BC, Babylon invaded the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple and leading the rest of Israel away into captivity. Like Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden, Israel is exiled from their Land and Temple.

A generation later, a small remnant returns to the Land and eventually rebuilds the Temple. But God’s glory never returns to the Temple as promised and Israel remains under foreign domination. By the time of Jesus, most Jews understood that while they had physically returned to their land, they were still in exile.

God’s covenant with Israel clearly expressed that exile was the result of Israel’s sins. So the return from exile would be God’s “forgiveness of sins.” This phrase virtually became a technical term for Israel’s return from exile. The phrase meant God’s faithfulness to his covenant as he would restore Israel by forgiving their national sins, driving out their foreign oppressors, and returning personally to their Temple. This is how Jesus’ audience heard the phrase.

Second, “forgiveness of sins” has a global dimension. Within God’s covenant with Israel, Israel’s vocation was to be God’s royal priesthood. Through this amplified and restorative version of humanity’s vocation as God’s image-bearer, Israel was to ultimately undo Adam’s sins and rescue the nations from their enslavement to idolatry. So with Israel’s restoration, the “forgiveness of sins” also has a global dimension as the nations are now free to turn from their idolatry, turn to Israel’s God, and be included in God’s restored people. As Psalm 47:9 states, “The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.”

It is within this Israel-centric and global understanding that “forgiveness of sins” has a personal dimension. Because God has forgiven Israel and therefore forgiven humanity, we may now experience God’s forgiveness of our personal sins. That means Jesus has rescued you and me from our idolatry and sins that continue to enslave and dehumanize us. Jesus has rescued you and me back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers. Our enslavement and exile are over so we may turn from our idolatry and sins and serve the living God as his royal priests in his New Creation.

All of this and more are contained in the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” I’m going to quote heavily from N.T. Wright’s book, The Day The Revolution Began, since he says it far better than I could:

“The larger reality is that something has happened within the actual space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different. By six o’clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically. Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic ‘new temple’: ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah’ (2Cor 5:19)…

“Within that new reality, the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name of a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailer has already been overpowered. As Paul said, if the Messiah is not raised, ‘your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins’ (1Cor 15:17).

“‘Forgiveness of sins,’ for the first disciples, was now to be seen as a fact about the way the world was, a fact rooted in the one-off accomplishment of Jesus’ death, then revealed in his resurrection, and then put to work through the Spirit in the transformed lives of his followers. Forgiveness of sins became another way of saying ‘Passover’ or ‘new Exodus.’ Or, as in Isaiah 54-55, following hard on the heels of the kingdom announcement of chapter 52 and the ‘servant’s’ work in chapter 53, it would come to mean ‘new covenant’ and ‘new creation.’ The gospel was the announcement of this new reality.”

Wright continues to say that this new reality, was designed to find its ultimate fulfillment in the imminent new creation, the new heavens and new earth in which Ephesians 1:10 describes as God’s plan to unite all things in the Messiah, things in heaven and on earth. He then continues:

“The final scene in Revelation (chaps. 21–22) spells it out: the new heavens and new earth function as the ultimate Temple, the new world in which God will wipe away all tears from all eyes. First Corinthians 15 describes the accomplishment of this final reality under the image of the messianic battle: Jesus, having already conquered sin and death, will reign until these and all other enemies are totally destroyed. Romans 8 describes it as the birth of the new creation from the womb of the old, weaving into that great metaphor a powerful allusion to the events of the Exodus, so that creation itself will have its own ‘Exodus’ at last, being set free from its slavery to corruption and sharing the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified. That is the ultimate hope.

“All of this is the ‘goal’ of God’s rescue operation accomplished through Jesus. All of this is in direct fulfillment of the ancient hopes of Israel: it is all ‘according to the Bible’—though it was quite unexpected.”

So while forgiveness of sin has an extremely important personal dimension, it is wrapped up in a new reality that is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Israel and transforms the cosmos. And thus our personal lives are swept up into the God’s larger story and purpose for his creation.

Biblical Soteriology-Our Vocation Restored

one-dayBiblical soteriology is a huge topic, one that we cannot begin to fully address in a single post. Suffice it to say, it is utterly essential that we keep the entire biblical narrative in mind when studying soteriology. As we’ve addressed in previous posts, when extracted from the biblical narrative, and especially from Israel’s story within that narrative, salvation becomes terribly distorted.

We must keep in mind that Jesus is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. This is key — God’s only plan to put the world right is to do so through Abraham and his family. God called Abraham to reverse Adam’s sin and all of its effects. Abraham and his family were to undo the problem of Adam and therefore the problem of evil within the world. They would do this by being God’s royal priesthood, an amplified version of humanity’s vocation as his image-bearers.

Even though Israel fails in their vocation and is unfaithful to the covenant, God remains faithful to his covenant. Through Jesus, God rescues Israel, through which the rest of the world would also be rescued. This is why Paul says in Romans 1:16 that salvation comes “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” Jesus is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and then as a result, rescuing the world.

But Jesus is also Israel’s faithfulness to God. Jesus is Israel’s King, their Messiah, their representative. While Israel as a nation had failed, Jesus as Israel’s representative King was completely faithful to the covenant. He was THE faithful Israelite. So when he proclaimed on the cross, “It is finished!” he was declaring that Israel’s long story was finally fulfilled and completed. Through Jesus, God was faithful to Israel and through Jesus, Israel was faithful to God.

God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel climaxes with rescuing Israel from their exile. In turn through Israel, God was now blessing the nations by rescuing humanity from their exile and allowing all to enter into Abraham’s family. As Paul states in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ (Israel’s King), then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”

All of this, and more, are essential to understanding God’s salvation for us as part of the true biblical story. Remember, in Genesis 1 and 2 God created this world to be his temple in which he would dwell and flood with his glory. He created humans as his image-bearers — reflecting worship to him and reflecting his wise care and rule into the world. But humans rejected this vocation. Thus, the primary human failure is a failure of worship. Humans began worshipping aspects of the created world rather than God. This “feedback loop” of idolatry gave the power and authority of our God-given vocation to those created forces.

Because image-bearing is our very humanness, idolatry causes our humanness to unravel. Sin, then, is the ongoing dehumanizing process in which we try to live within and benefit from this corrupted environment. But our sins only enslave us further to these forces. Idolatry and sin lead to subhuman and eventually nonhuman existence, which the Bible calls death.

As discussed in previous posts, God’s ultimate goal for his creation is the New Creation. This is the renewal and merging of heaven and earth into his ultimate temple, which he would flood with his glory and presence. And within his New Creation, humans would once again be God’s image, his royal priesthood, through whom he would run the world.

Jesus’ death, as the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham, accomplishes all of this! His death completely defeats all of the dark forces, sin and evil that enslaved Israel and humanity. Free from its enslavement and exile, humanity is restored back to its vocation! This is our salvation! John declares in Revelation 1:5-6 that Jesus “has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father” (cf Rev 5:9-10). And Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates God’s New Creation in which we may now serve.

Unlike Jesus, who fully embodied God’s New Creation in human form, God’s New Creation in the world as well as our renewed vocation have been inaugurated, but are not fully completed. We must learn to embody God’s image. Since Jesus fully embodied God’s New Creation, he was the true Royal Priest and Image-Bearer. Therefore, our salvation is an ongoing process, a journey of growth into Jesus’ likeness — into his virtue and vocation. By worshipping him, following him and learning from him, we may grow into and ultimately embody his character and ministry.

Both virtue and vocation are key. Our vocation as image-bearers relies upon our growth into Jesus’ virtues. The virtues are the load-bearing character-strength necessary to engage in and sustain the image-bearing vocation. God has revealed himself as a self-giving, sacrificial, loving God. As his royal priests, we cannot adequately reflect this into the world in a renewing and transforming way without actually embodying it.

I view the interrelation between virtue and vocation in the following way: Imagine heaven and earth as two pieces of fabric. The healing and transforming image-bearing vocation is to stitch heaven and earth together within the areas of our influence in the world. The thread that binds together these two aspects of creation, as revealed and embodied by Jesus upon the cross, is self-giving, sacrificial love. Our lives are the needle that winds this thread through the two realms of heaven and earth and brings them together. Learning from Jesus how to embody his virtues is what sharpens and strengthens the needle of our lives so it can adequately stitch heaven and earth together.

Thus our salvation is continually growing into Christ’s likeness — his virtue and vocation as image-bearers and royal priests in God’s New Creation — so we can worship him and reflect his sacrificial, self-giving love in all we do.