Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The History of Heaven and Earth 15: The Fulfillment of the Covenant

I ended the last post of this series with two references to the covenant. One, in the context of “Where I am, there you will be also,” was, “And you know the way where I am going.” The other reference to the covenant was 2 Peter 3: 12, about the disappearance of the heavens and the earth.

Everyone knows that a covenant is an agreement between two parties, much like a contract. What gets missed, however, is that a covenant is between two members of what is to become a newly unified body. As an extension of this lack of understanding of the forming of a BODY in a covenant, we often don’t realize that the Hebrew word used for covenant comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to cut” (reference HERE). In practice, an animal was cut into pieces - apparently, based on GENESIS 15, into halves - and the two halves of the animal were passed between by the two parties of the covenant being “cut.” As discussed previously HERE in this series, this means that ancient covenants were, prior to the dawn of speculative thought and, in this case, prior to the earliest known phonetic alphabets!, ACTED OUT. The cutting up of animals was the acting out of the death of an old body or bodies, the bodies both of the symbolic sacrifice and of the actual or concrete party or parties in the agreement. The shedding of blood was the loss of the flow of life, and the acting out of the covenant, then, was the acting out of a new state of things, of new living. In some cases, such as in EXODUS 24: 8, the parties participating in the acting out of the new living were covered in the life blood of it.

And, as in Leviticus 16: 20-22 and Leviticus 4: 13-21, it is also important that the animal being cut is chosen from the flock of one of the agreeing MEMBERS of the covenant. Just as “technologies are the extensions of man” (previously discussed HERE in the second post of this series), so also are his possessions. This is why, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is also why we will “receive our inheritance” in the parousia. We are His possessions, so we will be joined to Him fully in life eternal. Anyway, just as the sins of the people are extended to the scapegoat and sacrificial bull when the goat or bull from their flocks is laid upon by the hands of the priest, the life and being of the MEMBERS of the covenant are PRESENT in the sacrificed animal as it is cut. The blood of the animal is theirs, and, as such, what happens to it is an acting out of the fact that the members of the agreement “mean business.” In actuality, the cutting is what gives meaning to the business in the first place.

No wonder a covenantal reading of the scriptures is no longer the primary one. The lens handed up to us by our history makes a covenant nearly impossible to “understand,” precisely because its members don’t intellectually assent to it but, instead, ACT IT OUT. As explored throughout the history portion of this blog series, man and his interpretation of the world and reality has changed quite a bit from the time when covenants were “used” to “seal” agreements. In fact, I put “used” and “seal” in quotes there because - as discussed previously HERE and HERE in this blog series in discussions of pragmatics and literacy - both of those terms, fundamental to our language and its meaning, are at the root of how we, now steeped in our literary vision, act out or lives and our reality. “Use” and “sealed” don’t have much to do with covenant making, though. They do fit well with a complex and intellectually theorized system, both seen and crafted in the mind, written down, and, at a distance from the thought and written theory, applied. It is the acted out covenant, however, which is, historically, as far from us as the ghost from the machine, that ties my whole argument that “heaven both is and will be here” together. And that, at least partially, is precisely because a covenant is between two members of what is to become a newly unified body.

This new body is, in fact, part of the actual language of the covenant in Genesis 15. That new body is the nation of Israel, itself. In Genesis 22, this new body being formed by the covenant is experienced by Isaac when he rises from the sacrificial alter as a new person. There, it is revealed that the covenant, from its beginnings, was intended to be the formation of a body that would bless all the rest of the nations of the earth.

And, in the process of the formation of this body and as an extension of the covenant, while the holy mountain where Moses met with God was covered in a great cloud, the Law was given as a way to distinguish this body (Israel) from those around it (the nations). God’s presence was then manifest in a cloud that led Israel through the desert to the promised land. Israel broke the covenant and, as part of the terms of the covenant, was itself broken apart. In the process, because the LAND was promised in the covenant, Israel found herself in exile. While in the process of being exiled, God affirmed Israel as His chosen body to whom He was faithfully joined, and spoke through Jeremiah 31: 31-34 of a coming “new covenant”, when her sin would be wiped clean. Thus, part of God’s purpose of the covenant was to deal with sin.

While actually in exile, under the bondage of another nation, Ezekiel received a vision of the last days, described in Ezekiel 37. These last days would be marked by a great resurrection of the broken, dead, and dried up body of Israel, and she would return from her exile with an eternally ruling king in the line of David. In Daniel 7 this Messiah King’s throne is associated with the turning lights of heaven itself and, thus, authority over all the nations. In addition, he is imaged as judge of the nations who had broken and enslaved Israel. In this judgment, the King is also vindicator or justifier of His body of people. This just judgment and salvation affirms God’s body of people as such, which is why it is a vindication.

(Doubting Thomas, exploring a cut that fulfilled the covenant)
Eventually, when the High Priest of Israel, still in what was referred to as political exile under the rule of Rome, despite living on the land given in the covenant, asks Jesus if he is the prophesied Messiah King to vindicate God's body of people, Jesus associates his rule with that of God Himself by making it a point to quote the part of Daniel 7 that included “coming with the clouds in heaven.” Daniel 9: 26-27 then comes true, and the general resurrection described in Ezekiel 37 doesn’t occur, leading many to believe that Jesus was not the promised eternally ruling King. When Paul encounters the blinding heavenly light of the resurrected body of Jesus, however, he interprets the meaning of the meeting with the covenantal scriptures just discussed, and everything changes when he realizes that the promises of the covenant had been fulfilled in Jesus! Although Paul’s meeting with the resurrected Jesus was different from that of Doubting Thomas, the effect was the same.

Notably, Paul’s SEEING of the resurrected BODY of Jesus –HERE - indicated the fulfillment of a central part of the covenant. This meant that the rest was true as well. The new days were here! Israel’s eternal King rules! The exile is over with! Christ’s appearing to Paul meant his sin was wiped clean and that the judgment and vindication of God’s body of people was occurring by the Messiah King of heaven and earth, who Paul now realized was also God Himself. This centrality of the bodily resurrection to the covenant narrative is also why, for example, the rising and living of Lazarus is a major hinging point of the gospel of John (see John 11 and 12). Paul didn’t have special, private insight into the meaning of the resurrection for the covenant people of Israel. The centrality of the resurrection to the rest of the covenant was why people flocked from far and wide to see Lazarus. The resurrection of Lazarus was also, then, when the Pharisees went from threatening to stone Jesus in the heat of the moment to plotting his death. The resurrection was so significant that they even planned to kill Lazarus.

Precisely because of the centrality of the bodily resurrection to the covenant narrative, when he sees the resurrected Jesus, Paul realizes that the last days of the old age of death, exile and bondage – the world as it had been known to him - had already ended, and the first days of the new eternal Kingdom of life and freedom from sin had begun! Because of the death of the God of heaven and earth (of the universe, you might say) on the Cross, the disappearance, the death, of the old heaven and earth, and of the old body, had already begun! The completion of this death or disappearance of the old had been mentioned by Peter in terms of the parousia in 2 Peter 3, which also mentions the judgment of the world and vindication of God’s family promised in Daniel 7. Paul also realized, however, that the resurrection didn’t occur as a general rising of all of Israel, as he had expected. Instead, Jesus was the first born son who would come again in the parousia, when the truth of Ezekiel 37 would be more fully revealed. At that time, the King would gather the members of his body to himself to dwell in the city of his eternal rule. “Where I am, there you will be also,” thus had a double meaning in reference to the union with us that is God’s passion and joy (Hebrews 12: 2), and also in reference to his sufferings in which we are to share. This joy is a product of His love for us!

In the mean time, before the completion, before this “Day of the Lord,” since the Law was fulfilled in Jesus and partially meant to distinguish Israel as the God’s chosen, God cannot be reduced to a tribal deity of the local nation of Israel by forcing new Gentile believers to be circumcised into the chosen family. This question arose, because, when Paul realized that the covenant had been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus, since the exile was over and the new creation had begun, Paul also knew, from the scriptures, that it was time for the Gentiles - “all the nations of the earth”, to quote Genesis 22 - to receive the covenantal blessings of eternal life that come with being a child of God (2 Peter 1: 3-11)!

Instead of being distinguished by the Torah of the old world, the faith by which Abraham believed in and acted on the promise of a coming seed of salvation from the stench of sin and death is what is taken to be the distinguishing mark of a chosen member of the family to be gathered unto the bosom of the King in the parousia. The “new life” of the believer is perfectly consistent with the very meaning of the term covenant in the first place, fulfilled in Jesus. The old has gone, and the new has come. Notably, in the process of this fulfillment of the covenant, the Incarnation brought the highest heaven to earth, and the Spirit by which the faith that is the mark of a member of the body of God is given does the same. As a result, the love - which produces the joy of God’s passion that binds us to him HERE – demonstrated among believers and SEEN by others, is how it will be known that we are his people!

Just as the sacrifice of an animal from the flock of one of the parties in a made covenant brings a new life determined by the terms of the covenant, so the dying of old life, of the flesh of the believer, does the same. And, as the sacrifice is an extension, a possession of the covenant maker (GOD), so the GIVEN faith (in the given Son) of the newly believing family member is, you could say, the substance of God’s choosing, of God’s joining us to Himself. This faith given by God brings heaven’s reign here – just as John the Baptist proclaimed. Thus, the new life of faith in the “reign of the heavens” (the disciple Matthew's version of the "Kingdom of God") is consistent with the very meaning of the term “covenant” in the first place, as well. “Thy will be done” brings a piece of heaven here. Thus also, heaven both is and will be here - eternally, because God is eternal (and because it is impossible for God not to be everywhere, as discussed HERE).

With that, it should also be noted that this series of blog posts was initiated with the question of where heaven is, but, in reality, it became and was a question of eschatology, which was just discussed in covenantal terms (pretty much as taught by N.T. Wright in What St Paul Really Said, I should add). I will briefly discuss the meaning of the Hebrew term for heaven in the conclusion of the series, which is the next post, but ultimately, as discussed in the previous post, the point here is, we will ultimately be HERE – on earth, in the royal city - perfectly and completely joined with God as humans. That royal city in the book of Revelation, by the way, is depicted as a cube in Revelation 21: 15-16. Because of the orthogonal order of a man standing upon the earth, discussed previously in this blog series HERE, cubes and the squares have always been symbols of Earth, whereas circles and spheres, as noted by Galileo (discussed in that same post), have always been symbols of heaven. “Thy will be done, ON EARTH, as it is in heaven.”

This is why, when I think of the “chasm” between the righteous and unrighteous mentioned in Luke 16: 22-26 and discussed in the first post of this series, I think of the chasm as the difference between joined - and having eternal life - and not joined to the God and King of the entire universe. The chasm can’t be crossed because it is as wide as the universe. The idea that the “bosom of Abraham” is "up in heaven" only comes to us because it is natural to our modern mind, and, possibly, due to common Gnostic influence. Scripture, however, sure does seem to indicate that, in the end, Abraham will be resurrected and live in the "holy city" - HERE, on the new earth. Besides Ezekiel 37, see, for example, Daniel 12: 1-3. And, on top of that, the phrase “into the bosom of Abraham,” in itself, indicates a JOINING TOGETHER, on the basis of faith, to the one with whom the joining was originally acted out (the one with whom the covenant was originally made).

Scripture’s emphasis on the promised bodily resurrection is probably why, as Wikipedia’s post on the resurrection of the dead notes HERE, early church fathers defended the doctrine “against the pagan belief that the immortal soul went to the underworld immediately after death.” This note on Wikipedia is in the midst of its discussion of why the resurrection has been deemphasized by modernity. The discussion includes a notation of the parallel between the ancient belief against which early church fathers defended the bodily resurrection of the dead and the modern belief that we go to heaven immediately after death. N.T. Wright notes the same parallel in his youtube video and book, referenced in the previous post HERE. The Wikipedia post on the resurrection of the dead also discusses the timeframe in which this shift in emphasis away from the resurrection occurred, noting that it was through the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Rather interestingly, the Enlightenment’s contribution to our current de-emphasis on the resurrection, according to this discussion on Wikipedia, was Deism.

All of this and more has been discussed previously in this blog series. Also, notably, Wikipedia there says that the rationality that began in the Renaissance and culminated late in the Enlightenment harmoniously allowed for a belief in the immortality of the soul (generally speaking) but did not leave room for a belief in the bodily resurrection (which, as Paul noted, sounds utterly silly to pagans). Specific to this blog series, then, the Renaissance and Enlightenment left room for an idea of going to heaven when you die but not for the bodily resurrection, so, conveniently, we made ourselves into heavenly gods and scrapped the bodily resurrection on earth.

Speaking of scrapping the bodily resurrection on earth, Dispensationalism came about late in the Enlightenment, after a literal reading became the only way to interpret an authoritative text, after metaphors and analogies were relegated to being considered a hierarchically marginal or secondary source of less-than-truth, and after we had forgotten the properly ordered relationship between abstract and concrete that could give power to symbolism. This is relevant, because the Dispensationalists are premellennialists, which means they believe that, when Christ returns, he will take the righteous back to heaven with him. According to N.T. Wright in the previously referenced discussion on life after death, Dispensationalist eschatology hinges on an overly literal reading of 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 that, according to me (and probably according to N.T. Wright, too, if you read his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church), totally misses the power of the symbolic content contained therein. As N.T. Wright puts it, the dispensationalist reading of 1 Timothy 4 is just not what 1 Timothy 4 is about. The powerful effect of embodied symbols was previously discussed in the third post of this blog series, HERE.

Returning to the “great chasm” of Luke 16: 25-26, Jesus was referring to a concept that was born in what is known to the historians as the second temple period. This was when the idea of “the bosom of Abraham” first entered Jewish thought (referenced HERE) as a conception of what happens after death. It was modeled after the Greek myth of the river styx (referenced HERE); this is partially what the Wikipedia post on the resurrection of the dead was referencing when it noted the parallel between ancient pagan and contemporary evangelical beliefs on life after death. In this myth of the river styx, the dead arrive at a river that must be crossed in order to get to the underworld. The river can only be transversed by and with the ferryman, so, as a token of what you can bring with you when you die, the dead give the ferryman a penny and, thus, are able to cross. The Jews adapted the myth in various ways. In one, the story is essentially the same, except the ferryman is an angel. In another, the general picture of the myth is used, and the righteous are said to be in a place of peaceful rest awaiting the resurrection promised in Ezekiel 37. The unrighteous dead are said to be “in the fires” and separated from the restful bosom of Abraham by a great chasm or river. Again, this indicates a joining together of the righteous (Daniel 12: 1-3), on the basis of faith, to the one with whom the joining was originally acted out.

This joining here is also part of why I have discussed the meaning of the gospel in a specifically Jewish context rather than in terms defined by a fragmented, “objective”, and analytical intellectual system that tends, like a modern man, to divorce itself from the embodied and acted out narrative of the covenant.

The cube of Revelation, then, corresponds with the idea of the members of the body of God arising and living on the Promised Land as the final fulfillment of the covenant. These members of the chosen body living on earth, as in the beginning - even though they were “created in the image of God” - are men, living in their rightful place as men, rather than as gods living in their rightful place in heaven. I mean this as a statement in affirmation of who we are as human beings, which was part of the question discussed in the opening posts of this series. Part of the meaning of the Hebrew term for heaven means heaven is here, in a sense, and although Jesus Christ brings heaven here in the Incarnation and through the Holy Spirit, we are still men. And, we don’t belong in outer space.

When Paul says “set your minds on things above” in Colossians 3: 2, then, he isn’t talking about “somewhere else” as we would now think of it. He gives meaning to “things above” in verses 12-15 when he tells us to “clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” along with love, peace, and thankfulness. Therefore, when, in verse 3, he gives the REASON for setting our minds on things above as “for ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God,” he is not referring to our going and being with Jesus “up there in heaven.” He is referring to living as we were intended to live from the beginning HERE ON EARTH! As humans in whom the “image of God,” reflected from above, has been restored! The implication of our life being hid with Christ in God, since that life is HERE, is that heaven – where Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father - is here!

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