Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

The Relational Core of Human Identity

A danger always exists when we place special emphasis on certain texts in the Bible. Yet a proper understanding of the Bible requires that we recognize some texts and themes to be more foundational than others. As we will see, Jesus models this practice.

I believe a good case can be made that the three texts I have singled out – designed to be the image of God (Genesis 1); blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12); and called to be a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19) – provide the basic framework for understanding God’s intent for humanity. One possible danger I want to avoid is an over-emphasis on the functional nature of these roles so that they become depersonalized.

Immediately following the third of these texts, God reveals through Moses his law that defines and guides Israel in its covenant with him. Although the law possesses a positive purpose, Israel frequently struggles with it. At times they disregard or manipulate the commands, and at other times they focus so much on the law that they lose sight of its personal dimension (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”).

On one of the rare occasions when Jesus and the Pharisees appear to find some common ground, Jesus locates the essence of the law within two commands: love God with all of your being (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). This valuable insight enhances our understanding of the three key texts above.

We previously considered the common thread of mediation among the three defining passages for human identity. The admittedly audacious role of mediating between God and our fellow human beings requires that we cultivate a deep knowledge of and love for both. The “two great commands” remind us of this fact.

To say that we should love God and our fellow human beings, while nice, fails to capture the magnitude of the law’s essence. The power of these commands resides in their qualifiers. Love for God must be unqualified and undivided. The oneness of Yahweh, in contrast to the polytheistic perspective of all Israel’s neighbors, allowed for no less. A failure to trust in God’s goodness and good intent for his creation initiated the world’s problems, and only a wholehearted return to this loving trust will clear the path to God’s redemption.

To love others as ourselves reminds us that we share a common humanity that originated with God’s creation, as well as a common design to image our Creator. If we love God with all our being, we will share his desire and commitment that every fellow human being come to know this same love. We will not dehumanize others or categorize them in a way that allows us to hate or dismiss them.

In order to fulfill our function in the eyes of God, therefore, we must pursue a deep and distinctive relationship with God and humanity.

The Third Building Block of Human Identity: Priestly Kingdom, Holy Nation

At the end of Genesis, God takes one of Abraham’s descendants, Joseph, on a winding path to prominence in Egypt. Although Joseph had been betrayed and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he is able to forgive them and welcome his family into safety in Egypt because he had come to see God’s sovereign hand at work for the saving of life (Genesis 45:7-8).

In keeping with his covenant with Abraham, God blesses Abraham’s descendants by protecting them from the famine through Joseph and extending the blessings to the Egyptians and the surrounding nations by storing up food for them as well.

By the beginning of Exodus the Egyptians have forgotten God’s life-saving work through Joseph. The Egyptians cannot deny, however, the fulfillment of God’s promise to multiply the line of Abraham. Rather than bless the Israelites in light of God’s favor, the Egyptians choose to curse them instead with the bondage of slavery. These efforts fail to negate God’s promises. In fact, like the evil intent of Joseph’s brothers, they serve as a means of accomplishing God’s larger purpose through Israel.

Now Abraham’s descendants have evolved from a clan to a nation. Once God delivers them from Egypt and begins to establish his covenant with the new nation in the wilderness, we find the third key text that further defines and refines God’s intention for humanity:

This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then our of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Exodus 19:3-6

God has already blessed Israel, as he reminds them, but he goes on to offer them a highly exalted status. This further promise requires Israel’s commitment to be faithful covenant partners with God, for only then can they fulfill God’s purpose through them on behalf of the world.

The image of priesthood provides a classic representation of mediation. Israel possessed a priesthood to mediate between the people and God. At the same time, Israel provided priestly service between the other nations and God. God called Israel “out of all nations” to fulfill a sacred role on behalf of “the whole earth.” Later, God will describe this role through the prophet Isaiah as follows:

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Isaiah 49:6

The expression “a kingdom of priests” can also be rendered “a royal priesthood.” In other words, Israel’s priesthood points back to humanity’s original role to rule over God’s creation. We see here that God’s intent for human reign does not promote tyranny or exploitation, but the fulfillment of God’s gracious purpose.

We should not be surprised to find the descriptor “holy” in relation to Israel’s national priesthood, but this concept frequently calls to mind strange rituals or condescending self-righteousness. Instead, we should associate it with being set apart from that which comes between us and God so that we can be set apart for relationship with him and service through him on behalf of the world.

While reflecting God’s image and transmitting God’s blessings do not necessarily suggest an individualistic focus, this third text clarifies beyond a doubt the corporate nature of God’s work through humanity. Many applications of our calling reveal themselves best through our life in covenant community rather than as isolated individuals.

As with the first two foundations of human identity in the Bible, the third one continues to find expression in the New Testament:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by humans but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possessions, that you may proclaim the virtues of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10

We have been called to allow God’s likeness to shine through us so that the whole world can know his light, to experience his blessings so that the whole world world can receive them as well, and to live out our chosenness so that the whole world can share in that status.

Praise God for such a glorious, humbling, unselfish calling!

The Second Building Block of Human Identity: Blessed to Be a Blessing

After the human rebellion recorded in Genesis 3, God’s role for humanity undergoes a transition. Human beings continue to exist with the capacity and calling to be the image of God (see Genesis 9:6), but now some seek Yahweh, the God of creation, while others resist and reject Yahweh’s purpose for humanity. We find the best representation of the former in Enoch, the one who “walked with God.” We see the latter reflected in Cain, Lamech, the generation that provoked the flood, and the builders at Babel who determined above all else to make a name for themselves.

God originally intended to bless humanity, through whom his blessings would extend throughout his creation. As a result of the division within humanity, however, those who have experienced the richest blessings through relationship with God also serve to “image” God on behalf of those who do not know him. This new dimension of covenant becomes formalized in the following words from Yahweh to Abram/Abraham:

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3

Several important insights emerge from this text. God’s promises to Abraham affirm more explicitly two aspects of human identity already mentioned with regard to creation: mediation and universality. God will bless Abraham and his descendants, and through them he will mediate those blessings to “all peoples on earth.”

This text also demonstrates God’s gracious relationship both to humanity and through humanity. He continues to seek a relationship of blessing with those created to image him in spite of their rebellion. Moreover, he refuses to give up on his intention to work within the creation through humanity. The rest of Scripture records God’s relentless commitment to humanity even though rebellion continues to rear its ugly head.

We encounter a dramatic example of this newly modified role of humanity when God determines the need for judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. (This incident also demonstrates, as in the flood, that those created with the capacity to bless creation can also destroy creation when this capacity turns too far in the wrong direction. A tension thus exists between God’s intent to bless and the need to restrain evil.)

In a remarkable statement, God says that since all nations on earth will be blessed through Abraham, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 19:17-18). When God announces his intention, Abraham asks, in return, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Abraham expresses his concern for the reputation of God, fearing that he will destroy the righteous along with the wicked. He thus attempts to intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Here we see the biblical mediator’s role, standing between God and those estranged from him (this relationship also take a more positive form when, for example, leaders help those who seek God to know him better). The mediator represents God and God’s interests to others, while also interceding for others before God. In order to fulfill this complex role well, the mediator must grow deeper in love and knowledge of God and the divine will, while also loving and understanding the needs of humanity.

Jesus, of course, becomes the ultimate mediator for humanity, yet God continues to honor followers of Jesus with a role in this mediation. Notice how the following passages extend the covenant with Abraham to Christians, who inherit the ancient promises:

And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, “Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.” When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.

Acts 3:25-26

 

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, . . . .

Galatians 3:14

How would it transform the lives of Christians and churches – and as a result, the world – if we fully embraced our identity as those blessed by God to be a blessing to others? How would it transform the way we view others?    

The First Building Block of Human Identity: Creation as the Image of God

In attempting to establish a biblical basis for human identity, we begin, appropriately, at the beginning:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind as our image, as our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind as his own image,
as the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26-27

The text above contains a slight variation on these well-known verses. We are accustomed to seeing references to our creation “in” rather than “as” God’s image. I offer this alternative for two reasons. First, the preposition allows for either translation. A significant example of this translation occurs in Exodus 6:3, in which God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, . . .”

The second reason for choosing this alternative has to do with the distracting path upon which the translation “in” often takes us. We speculate as to which human traits reflect God’s image: our physical appearance, our larger brains, our power of communication, our opposable thumbs, etc. The creation account has greater interest, however, in our function rather than our attributes. Any or all of the qualities above may contribute to our ability to fulfill our role as God’s image, but the bigger issue involves the nature of this calling.

Before considering what it means to be God’s image, we should note the remarkable nature of such an identity, especially against the backdrop of Israel’s world. While some interpreters have focused on the similarities between the biblical creation account and its contemporary alternatives, the true significance appears in its differences. Not only do we find the distinctive notion of a single sovereign deity who exists independently from the creation, but we also find a radically different view of humanity.

The other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts portray human beings as lowly creatures designed to serve the needs of the gods and to handle menial tasks the gods don’t want to take care of for themselves. In the Bible, however, God possesses no needs, meaning that humans cannot manipulate God in any way (another significant contrast). At the same time, the Bible elevates all humanity to the exalted place of sharing in the exercise of God’s governance of all creation.

This high purpose helps us understand at least part of the serious danger the Bible attaches to human attempts to portray God by making images of him. In doing so we inevitably lower God and increase the temptation to think that we can control or manipulate him, while at the same time forfeiting our role to be the image of God.

Think of the irony of the relationship between those two dangers. In an attempt to shrink God down to a manageable size so that we can control and manipulate him, we give up our high calling to share in his rule by living out the likeness of God that he has embedded within us.

We should mention another distinctive feature of the biblical creation account: woman’s essential role in imaging God. This fact challenges the frequently abusive and dismissive treatment of women throughout human history.

The mistreatment of women represents only one example of human failure to exercise God’s rule as his image within the creation. The central biblical descriptions of human identity share two vital traits when lived out properly. First, they reflect our role as mediators: we stand between God and his purpose within the creation. As such we must identify with God or we will abuse our exalted role for self-serving ends. At the same time, we must sympathetically identify with the creation of which we are a part and in which we serve. The second common trait of our biblical identity involves its universal scope, requiring us to rise above individual or tribal interests.

As our mediating role calls us to identify with the needs present within God’s creation, we must take care not to orient ourselves more to the creation than the Creator. Failure to exercise this caution causes us to become enslaved in toilsome labor because we attempt to find meaning in what God made or what we make rather than the One who made all. We become servants of the creation rather than God’s image reigning over it.

We will consider the nature of sin/failure in more detail later, as well as God’s work to redeem our failure. In closing this section, however, consider the following New Testament passages that connect Christ and his followers back to the creation calling to image God:

Colossians 1:15
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

 

Colossians 3:9
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

 

2 Corinthians 3:18
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.

In addition, the New Testament presents followers of Jesus as the inauguration of God’s new/renewed creation even now:

2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

 

James 1:18
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

God has been at work since the corruption of his original creation to restore what was lost. In his promised future we will return to full participation in God’s reign, but even now we are called to bear witness to God’s reign in our individual lives and in community.

2 Timothy 2:12a
If we endure,
we will also reign with him.

 

Revelation 5:10
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.

 

Revelation 22:5b
And they will reign for ever and ever.

Three Levels of Identity

As we explore a biblical sense of human identity, it might be helpful to consider at the outset a broader perspective on the possible foundations for our identity. The three foundations I will suggest do not originate with me, although they may reflect some distinctive elements. It should also become obvious that these three typically overlap and intertwine.

Individual Identity

Many of us have experienced the dilemma, especially in adolescence, of desperately desiring to fit in with our peers while at the same time longing to stand out due to our looks, athletic skill, intelligence, fashion, humor, or some other trait that would heighten our status with a particular group. Ultimately, we are seeking to discover or construct an identity that marks us as special and thus worthy of acceptance and importance.

We should note that through much of human history (as well as many places today) this luxury of “self-actualization” did not exist to any significant extent. One classification for cultures involves their place on a continuum from collectivist to individualist. Cultures like the U.S. fall near the individualist end of the continuum, but many others throughout history have depended on cooperation for survival so strongly that they occupy the other end.

In a more individualistic culture, one’s personal identity matters more than that of the group, whereas in more collectivist cultures the identity (and welfare) of the group takes precedence.

Group Identity

The language of a continuum suggests that no culture can survive through absolute individualism or collectivism. The same applies to a single person. As with the dilemma above, I find my individual identity to some extent in relation to “my” peers or “my” tribe or “my” team or “my” country.

The Benefits and Dangers of Individual/Group Identity

Both the individual and group dimensions of our identity provide us with a framework to make sense of life and find our place within it. At the same time, both dimensions also cultivate and reinforce prejudices and competing interests that lead to conflict with other individuals and groups.

Each person inevitably finds his or her identity on both an individual and a group level. The Bible interacts with humanity on both levels as well. It addresses us as individuals and also calls us into community (Israel, the church).

Such a “religious” identity, however, frequently intensifies the divisions of humanity over issues such as land, resources, race, power, and past injustices. Individuals and groups can claim divine sanction for their grievances with the “other” (even when the other shares the same basic religious beliefs, as in the current conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims).

Transcendent Identity

Some critics attempt to blame religion for many of the world’s conflicts, and a superficial scanning of the headlines would seem to lend credence to this claim. On closer examination, however, I believe this charge loses much of its steam (its adherents also conveniently ignore the huge positive contributions to humanity from religions and religious people).

More often, self-serving demagogues play on people’s fears and either seduce or coerce religious leaders to support them (as Hitler did with the majority of the church in Germany). The real driving force continues to be individual and group interests, and religion becomes co-opted for those ends. In another common scenario, religious leaders who grow powerful often twist religion to serve and maintain their power.

I have deliberately spoken of religion in a generic sense so far in terms of its abuse, but now I shift back to speaking of the Bible and the Christian faith. One distinctive feature of the Bible is its honesty with the failures to rise above personal or group interest by those who profess to believe in God. The Bible’s recurrent call to rise above these interests explains what I mean by a transcendent identity.

As we explore further a biblical sense of human identity, I think we will find a message that ultimately expands our vision beyond the self-interest that lies at the heart of human conflict. In fact, it aims to call us into God’s work to reconcile such conflict. The Bible affirms a high calling for humanity that does not serve selfish interests but submits itself to God’s universal concern for the wellbeing of his creation. To realize this calling, however, we must do battle with the inevitable individualistic and collectivist interests that tend to become deeply ingrained within us.

In Falling Upward (pp. 82-84), Richard Rohr refers to Jesus’ shockingly strong words about separation from family to address the challenge of truly following Jesus.

What passes for morality or spirituality in the vast majority of people’s lives is the way everybody they grew up with thinks. Some would call it conditioning or even imprinting. Without very real inner work, most folks never move beyond it. . . . To move beyond family-of-origin stuff, local church stuff, cultural stuff, flag-and-country stuff is a path that few of us follow positively and with integrity.

Rohr goes on to note that the “guilt, shame, and self-doubt” accompanying such a break with our conditioning is so powerful that it “feels like the very voice of God.” How ironic that the pull of our lesser individual and group identity can feel more like the voice of God than the true voice of God that calls us to a transcendent identity: 

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. –Philippians 2:3-4

   

The Human Condition as Identity Crisis

Perhaps one of the major reasons the Broadway version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables strikes such a responsive chord resides in the recurring question “Who am I?” that stands at the heart of the story. Am I defined by how I see myself or how others see me? Have life’s inevitable wounds and failures determined my identity, or can I find redemption? Do I play a meaningful role in something larger than myself, or do I serve as a mere cog in an impersonal machine? If my life possesses purpose, how do I discover my purpose and pursue it?

 I want to explore the biblical response to these and related questions, as well as their implications for the life of the Christian and the church. The common division of the biblical narrative into three major movements – creation, fall, and redemption – provides an effective framework for this exploration. It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that after these three movements emerge in the early chapters of Genesis, they set the agenda for the rest of the Bible.

 Beginning with the fundamental identity of humanity allows us to understand sin and its impact on the human condition on a much deeper level than our default inclination to reduce it to rule breaking (despite biblical warnings to the contrary). Of course, the truth about both humanity and sin finds its reference point in the nature of God. Only this orientation enables us to embrace God’s ultimate work of redemption in Christ that liberates us from the alienating and enslaving power of sin.

 At the outset we can affirm that the general human identity crisis both results from and contributes to the destructive power of sin in the creation. The pervasive presence of sin means that those who claim to be God’s covenant community often reflect the problem more than the alternative (as many who have left this community can attest). The journey back to our true identity thus requires humility, openness, and a seeking heart. With such qualities, however, God promises to work in us the redemptive, restorative transformation that no amount of unaided human wisdom or power can attain.    

Ideology, Identity, and Idolatry

Staunch conservatives (in the political/economic/social sense) will find affirmation of their views as they read the Bible. This reality would seem to suggest that those who believe the Bible should be conservatives – except for the fact that staunch liberals will also find affirmation of their views as they read the Bible.

Which group gets it right, and which group gets it wrong? I would suggest that each group both gets it right and gets it wrong.

I base this conclusion primarily on two factors. In this post I will address the first briefly and focus more on the second. In what sense do conservatives and liberals both get it right? Conservatives will legitimately see an emphasis on order, tradition, responsibility, and morality in the Bible. Liberals, on the other hand, will legitimately see an emphasis on justice (especially for the weakest members), compassion, and the dangers of getting stuck in tradition.

The legitimacy of these core values for each group points to the reason that both groups get it wrong. The values they latch on to are true, but they comprise only part of the picture.

We all develop biases toward any group or ideology with which we identify ourselves. To use a relatively trivial example, observe devoted fans of a team when that team plays a bitter rival. Fans tend to see their team as good and the opponent (as well as their fans) as evil. They see almost any ruling against their team by the officials as a bad call (perhaps the game is even fixed!). The same applies to ideological “teams.”

The groups/ideologies with which we identify shape our identity. We strongly value and protect our identity, leading us to hold to our biases equally strongly because so much is at stake. As a result, these biases incline our minds toward embracing information favorable to our identity and ignoring or rationalizing information that calls our chosen identity into question.

To complicate the situation even more, the very process that produces these biases also blinds us to them because it occurs largely on the unconscious level. As a result, we righteously reject any charge of bias because we do not consciously see it, even while others can see our biases as clearly as we can see them in the examples below.

Scripture regularly presents to us individuals and groups that have become blissfully ignorant of their blind spots. How easily we see King Saul’s disobedience to God’s command regarding the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 when he he spares the Amalekites’ king and the best of the spoil. Despite the obvious physical evidence to the contrary, Saul sincerely sees himself as obedient to God’s command to destroy everything. The majority of the Israelites who opposed the prophets were also confident they were living within God’s will, as were the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.

We tend to demonize and distance ourselves from such sinners, but Scripture surely uses them to warn us of the same tendencies in ourselves. Saul and the Pharisees in particular reflect the blindness to truth that challenges an identity in which people have become deeply invested. We all possess these self-serving blind spots to some degree.

Ideologies such as conservatism and liberalism are not dangerous because they are all wrong, but because they are not altogether right. They reflect human attempts to define reality, so loyalty to them endangers loyalty to the kingdom of God. I hear Christians expressing more passion for conservatism or liberalism or Americanism than for the kingdom values that transcend all such human categories.

The essential danger of idolatry lies in its function as a distorted lens through which we see God. As a result, it reduces him to something that serves our beliefs and values and goals. For this reason, we need to avoid the limiting, bias-inducing power of any identification other than Jesus himself. Scripture even warns us regarding that most treasured source of human identity: the family. If we do not practice this vigilance, our other identifications will shape our view of God rather than the other way around.

On Listening to People with whom I Disagree

A recent book by Alan Gregerman carries the title, The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation, and Success. The author argues that, with all due respect to our usual circle of friends and family, we significantly shortchange our potential if we do not engage, learn from, and collaborate with “strangers,” that is, those who differ from us.

I agree with this basic premise, and even though the book focuses more on personal and professional growth, profound implications for the Christian and the church exist as well.

Before I turn to the reasons for Christians to listen to those who differ from us more broadly, let me mention a personal motivation for addressing this idea. The 140-character limit in Twitter creates a number of challenges. Thoughts expressed in this format resemble proverbs in their brevity. Like proverbs, these thoughts do not possess the luxury of larger context, leaving them open to interpretation (and misinterpretation).

Another danger accompanies such snippets when they originate from an outside source. Someone viewing the post might consider the one being quoted suspect in some way, and thus overly identify this concern with the one posting the quote. At a minimum, the one posting the quote “should have known better than to have cited such a disreputable person.”

For example, over the past year I have read from Richard Rohr’s works fairly extensively. On several occasions I have posted quotes from him on Twitter (linking also to Facebook). For those who don’t know him, Rohr is a popular but controversial Catholic priest and teacher. I don’t believe I have ever read anyone from whom I derived such equal measures of insightful inspiration (mostly in the area of spirituality) and significant disagreement.

As an academic, I have been trained to examine sources critically. This practice challenges the researcher to find and appropriate what is valuable while rejecting that which fails to meet the standard. The quality of discernment required for this practice understandably leaves room for disagreement.

While the critical approach forever remains an inexact science, the alternative necessitates the appointment (or self-appointment) of some individual or group to determine which sources are “safe” and which are “dangerous.” This judgment typically implies that the former merit implicit trust across the board while the latter should be avoided altogether. This approach saves time and mental energy for many, but it obviously carries its own dangers, not the least of which is the narrowed field of vision it imposes.

Christians need to listen to “strangers,” therefore, because they potentially have much to teach us. We should not be surprised by this assertion. The Bible’s claim that we are all created in the image of God suggests that someone who has never seen a Bible possesses capacity for insight into the truth. The Bible’s claim that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God suggests that the most devout student of the Bible will not possess perfect understanding.

Christians also need to listen to “strangers” because we need to understand them if we are to fulfill our calling from God toward them. The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our “sympathetic” high priest because of the great lengths to which he went to identify with us. A much smaller gap exists between us and our neighbors, but it remains a gap we are called to close in order to carry out our priestly ministry and to perpetuate Jesus’ incarnational presence.

One final thought: At times I find it easier to listen to Richard Rohr and other differing voices than those whose backgrounds and basic beliefs more closely resemble my own. Why? These are the times when the “strangers” reflect a transparency about their own limitations in understanding and a refusal to take themselves too seriously, while my friends sound so harsh, so confident of their monopoly on the truth, so predictable in their responses to every event. The latter stance suggests to me fear and insecurity rather than the fruit of advanced wisdom. 

What’s In a Name?

In Matthew 1 the angel reassures Joseph about the child Mary is carrying, although the news that the child “is from the Holy Spirit” surely raised a whole new set of questions. In verse 23 the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.”

A couple of biblical curiosities regarding the name Jesus may help us appreciate why its significance extends beyond what we usually recognize. First, let’s consider Hebrews 4:8 in the King James Version:

“For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.”

This verse seems to make no sense to a careful reader who recognizes the contrast in the passage between the rest promised to the Israelites in Canaan and the greater rest provided by Jesus. The confusion arises from the fact that the name Jesus comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua. I know of no other English translation that translates the name “Jesus” rather than “Joshua” in Hebrews 4:8.

This peculiarity of the KJV, however, reminds us that the name Jesus/Joshua means “Yahweh saves.” The Old Testament use of “save/salvation” focuses on rescue or deliverance. Psalm 80 provides a good example of this broader meaning. In the midst of calls for God to save, the psalm also appeals to God to “return” to them, to “restore” them, and to “revive” them. Salvation, in other words, refers not only to a deliverance “from” something, but also “back to” something.

The second curiosity about the name Jesus comes from within Matthew 1. Just after the command to name the child Jesus, Matthew connects Jesus’ birth to Isaiah 7 and the child who is to be called Immanuel (“God With Us”). Why would Matthew tie the name Jesus to a passage referring to a child with a different name?

Jesus certainly fits the bill of “God With Us,” but Matthew also takes into account the larger context of Isaiah and the nature of the divine presence. The promised sign of Immanuel comes in the context of a faithless king, Ahaz, who turns to Assyria for help rather than to God. How does the promise of God’s presence overcome such unbelief, and what does the salvation God’s presence brings look like?

Isaiah 7 helps prepare the way for one of the most famous messianic promises in Isaiah, the “Suffering Servant” in chapters 52-53. To fully appreciate the Suffering Servant, however, we must go back to 41:8, where God speaks of Israel as his servant. God goes on to describe Israel as a blind and deaf servant, frustrated with the failure to bring God’s salvation to the earth. As the servant theme moves toward its climax in chapters 52-53, it shifts from Israel as servant to the servant who acts on behalf of Israel, and ultimately on behalf of all nations.

Notice in Matthew 1 that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” Jesus comes to Israel not just to provide forgiveness for their sins, but also to rescue them from the power of their sins that has frustrated them as servants of the Lord with a mission in the world.

The opening verse of the classic 18th century hymn, “Rock of Ages,” by Augustus Montague Toplady acknowledges this larger dimension of Jesus’ salvation:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy wounded side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure;

Save from wrath and make me pure.

What a marvelous gift is the forgiveness of our sins! Yet forgiveness of sin does not exhaust the meaning of salvation from sin. To limit it to forgiveness misses a vital dimension of Jesus’ role as Savior. Not only does it reduce his work in our eyes to a self-focused “get-out-of-jail” card, but it also dangerously distracts us from sin’s power over our lives and minimizes our role as a redeemed people in God’s larger purpose.

Forgiveness of sin suggests an end in itself; salvation from sin points us to deliverance for something better. It frees us from sin’s power to drag us back down to the world’s pattern of fearing and judging and condemning and hating. It sets us free to be servants of the Lord who follow the path of Jesus in the fullest sense of that name. Sin alienates us not only from God, but also from ourselves, from one another, and from the creation. Salvation sets us on the path to restored relationships across the board.

Now that’s really good news!

Beware the Trap of “Special” People

“Well, isn’t that special?!” We didn’t find it hard to catch the sarcasm when Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” uttered her trademark line on SNL. In general we use the word “special” with a fair degree of ambiguity. Special education, for example, applies equally to children struggling with learning disabilities and those classified as gifted.

Similarly, we tend to view both the worst of sinners and the most virtuous as special, or exceptional. Doing so, however, can yield serious spiritual dangers for us on both ends of the spectrum.

On the negative side, consider how we tend to view the Bible’s portrayal of the fickle Israelites or the unbelieving Pharisees or Jesus’ clueless disciples. Through them the Bible challenges us to humbly consider our own resistance to God’s revelation. Instead, don’t we more often dismiss them by demonizing them as pure evil or bumbling failures?

The Pharisees actually illustrate this danger. According to Jesus, the Pharisees honor the burial sites of the prophets and claim they would not have participated in shedding their blood, yet their treatment of him links them to past persecutors of the righteous (Matthew 23:29-32). Similarly, Jesus’ opening sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, in which he links the residents of his hometown to those in the unbelieving days of Elijah, turns these pious villagers into a mob intent on murder.

On the positive side, we also tend to attribute the success of those who stand out from the crowd to some inherent quality or advantage. This pattern applies to “genius” in intellect, artistry, and athletics (in spite of Malcolm Gladwell’s proposals in Outliers). We follow the same pattern with “spiritual giants.”

Dallas Willard’s penetrating essay, “Living in the Vision of God” (The Great Omission), addresses the way followers in a movement tend to lose the vision of the founder. Part of the problem, Willard says, is the followers’ “assumption that the founder or leader is ‘unusual’ or ‘abnormally gifted’ to relieve themselves of the burden of genuinely being like him or her.”

The danger of viewing others as “special,” therefore, lies in the disconnect it creates between us and them. To set the wicked and unbelieving apart for our judgment allows us to retain a smug sense of superiority that makes us more vulnerable to the same failings.

On the other hand, to place on a pedestal those in whom and through whom God is evidently working carries an equal but opposite danger. Honoring them – or even envying them – might seem to reflect humility, but in reality it keeps us from being open to God’s work in and through us.

Willard acknowledges the existence of servants of God who are marked by something special. He insists, however, that what sets them apart is their openness to the vision of God, not some quality unavailable to the rest of us. If such servants (or those who desire to follow them) shift the focus from sustaining the vision of God to sustaining the results of the vision by their own strength, they lose access to that which is special.

Perhaps we would do well to paraphrase Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: “Call no one special but God.”

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