by Michael S. Horton
‘Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.‘ Many of us recall singing that line from the hymn by the same title. But what do we mean by that? Do we mean that we experienced God directly, by the descent of Heaven itself into our heart? Do we really mean that glory filled our soul?
The only way this sentiment can have a biblical foundation is if ‘Heaven’ is Jesus Christ and the ‘glory’ that floods our soul is the goodness and sovereign mercy of God offered in the person and work of God incarnate. In this look at the Incarnation, we will see how God came close to us and fulfilled all of the Old Testament hopes and dreams of entering into a personal relationship with him. All of our Christian spirituality flows out of this supreme self revelation of God, and by understanding the mission of Christ we will have a well from which to draw throughout our Christian life.
In the Garden
When Adam reached for a ‘higher wisdom’ and a ‘higher knowledge’ than God’s revealed Word, he found himself naked and ashamed. So he fled from God’s presence. Being close to God when one is conscious of one’s sinfulness and rebellion is like a murderer being in the same courtroom with a victim. Or, to use a different analogy, it is like a husband being in bed with his wife just after he has committed adultery. There is something oddly disturbing about this presence, something that makes one look for the nearest exit, and that is precisely what Adam attempted. The problem was, God is everywhere. He tracked Adam down, confronted him with his guilt, and announced the verdict of condemnation.
But God the Judge was also God the Redeemer and even in this early stage in redemptive history, he promised a Messiah (Gn 3:15) and then clothed the couple in the skins of a sacrificial animal.
It was this Messiah whose bloody sacrifice covered Adam and his believing posterity in the righteousness of God. It was with this Messiah in mind that Isaiah so many ages later would declare in anticipation, ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand…For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors’ (Is 53:5, 10, 12). Centuries later, when John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing, that moment finally came: ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (Jn 1:29).
The Apostle Paul similarly contrasts the first Adam with the second Adam, Christ: ‘For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5:19). Christ obeyed his Father, and when the serpent came to offer him deification, together with all of the kingdoms of the world, the second Adam fasted instead of eating the forbidden fruit. Instead of listening to vain promises of a ‘higher knowledge,’ the second Adam answered the serpent, ‘It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). He obeyed in our place, so that his life of perfect conformity to God’s will is credited to every believer. Only in this way can sinners come close to God without fear of judgment, for they are wearing the righteousness of Christ instead of the fig leaves of their own pretensions.
When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best
While Abel brought the sacrifice that God required, Cain brought an offering to the Lord that was not commanded. Foreshadowing the Cross of Christ, humanity was required to bring the sacrifice of the first of the flock, just as Jesus was the firstborn of the Father. Instead, Cain sought his own path to God, his own form of worship, and was rejected by God. Sinful creatures cannot come to God or get close to God themselves, but must accept the ordained mediator and his sufficient sacrifice. Cain thought he had cared enough to send the very best.
But the analogy is even more poignant. When God approached Cain after the murder of Abel, the Lord declared, ‘Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’ (Gn 4:10). And yet, as tender as that cry was to God’s ears, we are invited ‘to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Heb 12:24). God cared enough to send the very best: his only-begotten Son, and for us to devise any other way to God-despite the best of intentions-is to invite God’s wrath (Jn 3:18).
Worshipping the Right God in the Right Way
The people at the foot of Mount Sinai were to be warned to ‘not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish’ (Ex 19:21). The sight of fire and smoke, flashes of lightning, and peals of thunder terrified the Israelites so that they kept their distance. Far from forcing their way into God’s presence, they demanded a mediator: ‘They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex 20:19). Mediating between the people and their God, Moses pleaded their case before Yahweh, just as he spoke the very word of Yahweh to the people.
And yet, as great as Moses was in his mediatorial office-even willing to substitute himself for Israel when God threatened to destroy the nation-he too was a sinful creature. Even Moses needed a mediator. Of Christ the writer to the Hebrews declares,
He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself…Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. (Heb 3:2-6)
Sinful Jews and Gentiles, like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, cannot rush into God’s presence without being consumed by divine fire. It is only by turning to the mediator who is greater than Moses that we can enter into the Holy Place. It is his sprinkled blood that makes us acceptable to the Father and his intercessory pleading at God’s right hand that give us the access of rightful heirs and children of the Most High. Like Moses, he pleads our case before the Father as our priest even as he speaks the word of his Father to us as our prophet.
Show Me Your Glory
When Moses cried out for the vision of divine glory, he was told, ‘No one may see me and live’ (Ex 33:20). Placing Moses behind a rock, with his hand covering the prophet’s face, God allowed his glory to pass by. How much more is Christ the ‘Rock of Ages’! ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee’! It is true that no one can see the Divine Face and live, but ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (Jn 1:14). Like the tabernacle that moved with the children of Israel, as the Divine Presence led them through the wilderness, God ‘tabernacled’ or ‘pitched his tent’ among us in the person of Jesus Christ. So much greater in excellence and the fulfillment of all righteousness was the very embodiment of God in human flesh. Far superior was this holy visitation of God than anything ever known to Israel even in the most awe-inspiring moments of Old Testament manifestations.
‘No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God,’ said Jesus. ‘Only he has seen the Father’ (Jn 6:46). This is why the writer to the Hebrews distinguishes Jesus’ superiority over Moses in terms of sonship. Of course, Moses was, like us, an adopted son of the Most High, but Christ was the eternally begotten Son, the second person of the holy Trinity (Jn 1:12, 3:16). Sonship was important to the Jews. One would never have spotted a ‘God is rad, he’s my dad’ bumper sticker in ancient Palestine, for to have God as a father was a serious claim. Surely it was acceptable to call oneself a child of Abraham, but Jesus was claiming more for himself. ‘You do not know me or my Father,’ he told them. ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also,’ he dared to say in the holy precincts of the temple itself, where the offerings were placed (Jn 8:19). These self-righteous individuals were confident that they were in God’s good graces because they had, in their estimation, conformed to the divine requirements. ‘Once more Jesus said to them, ‘I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come” (v. 21). This is certainly not very ‘seeker friendly’! Where is all the talk about God begging people to keep him company, to accept his love, and to be a part of his family? Jesus says, in effect, ‘If you do not go to the Father through me as the Son, you will die in your sin. And if you die in your sin, you cannot enter the Holy of Holies and find rest for your souls.’
Even many who believed Jesus answered, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ (v. 33). This is where we are in our day. According to recent surveys, nearly everybody in America believes in the existence of hell, but only 11 percent fear the possibility of going there. We assume that we have a right to enter into God’s presence and the suggestion that we are born into this world as enemies of God and slaves of our own sinful hearts is quite offensive, especially to those of us who are confident in their own righteousness, in their own spiritual devotion or religious pedigree. When the Jews again insisted that Abraham was their father, Jesus replied, ‘You are doing the things your own father does,’ but it was not Abraham he had in mind as their father. ‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they answered. ‘The only Father we have is God himself’ (v. 41). Think of the difficulty of Jesus’ confrontation here. He is speaking to those who are his own flesh and blood, the chosen people of Israel. If anyone had a personal relationship with God, surely it was these devoted zealots. Jesus said to them,
If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire….The reason that you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.’ (vv. 4244, 47)
In a startling declaration that left no doubts in the religious leaders’ mind as to his meaning, Jesus announced, ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn 10:30), and, to Philip, who sought a demonstration of glory (‘Show us the Father’), Jesus answered, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9). It was not enough for those seeking ‘power encounters’ and a theology of glory to see Jesus-God made flesh. Flesh and bone were too natural, too human, too earthly, to excite the emotions. And yet, what could have been more moving than being able to touch the very God whose face no one could see and live?
I am convinced that the principal reason for the second commandment-the prohibition of any physical representation of God-is because only Christ is ‘the image [icon] of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15). Just as the Israelites were bored by the ‘dead orthodoxy’ below, while Moses was having all of the fun being in the presence of God, we are often bored without immediate encounters and experiences with God in his glory. So, also like the Israelites, we create a physical representation of God. Out of our imagination, we mold a golden calf. Through mysticism, speculative ideas, and the works of our own hands, we carve idols of the true God so that we can experience him here and now. But when God became physical, he was not a golden calf. He was not like the idols of the nations. He was so fully human, in fact, that his own brothers by blood, raised together in the same family, did not believe in him until he was well into his ministry-at least thirty years of age (Jn 7:5).
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (Jn 1:10-13)
The Israelites created the golden calf because they were tired of waiting. They were tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain. They wanted to experience God directly for themselves, and since their earlier experience of God on his terms terrified them, they set out to experience God on their own terms. They could control a golden calf. It did not inspire fear, but happiness and revelry. It allowed them to ‘be themselves,’ spontaneous and free.
Waiting for God to save them was, to their mind, not unlike the modern existentialist play, Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, sit impatiently, occasionally quarreling with each other over whether they are waiting at the right time, in the right place, and on the right day. The play ends with no resolution, as the characters-neither heroes nor villains-are still waiting for Godot. They want to leave and get on with their lives, but are frozen in fear of missing the famous visitor.
The Scriptures are not unfamiliar with the anxiety of our age. Anticipating the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah prophecies the mood of the enslaved children of Israel:
Why are we sitting here? Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there! For the Lord our God has doomed us to perish and given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against him. We hoped for peace, but no good has come, for a time of healing but there was only terror…Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?’… ‘The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.’ (Jer 8:14-15, 1920)
So, the prophet laments, ‘Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?’ (vv. 2122)
But the incarnation was worth the wait. When God became flesh, he was not a dumb, speechless idol, but a fully human friend and relative. He inspired fear, to be sure, as when he called Peter as a disciple. Peter responded ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ (Lk 5:8). And when Jesus calmed the storm, ‘In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him” (Lk 8: 25). But he also inspired love and devotion. While he was still the God who must be met on his own terms, his glory was clothed in humanity. He bridged the gap between Creator and creature, unapproachable light and intimate friendship.
Just as Moses asked to see God’s glory and Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father, we too seek to experience God directly, but we need a mediator just as surely as did Israel. God did not give us a mediator who is himself sinful and under the divine curse, but he gave us the only mediator who could redeem sinners from the curse of the Law by his own sinless sacrifice. ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’ (Jn 1: 1718). To know God is to know Christ and to know God outside of Christ is to know him as a judge and destroyer. It is to wait for Godot only to lose hope of ever finding him, except in terror.
A Burning Question
The resurgence of classic mysticism is powerful in our day, and this is understandable, given modern materialism. Modernity has shriveled the soul, leaving us with the deadening sense that we are little more than machine, a complex but accidental bundle of neurons and chemicals that stimulate brain waves in predictable patterns. No wonder there is a reaction in the culture, a rebellion against cold materialism and psychological or scientific determinism. The New Age movement attracts rebels with a cause, but they are rushing in where angels-one of their major obsessions-fear to tread.
One of the key metaphors for this interior spirituality is fire. Wild and unpredictable, glowing flames cast their spell on us from our earliest days of sitting around the campfire. God himself appears as a fire throughout biblical revelation, and is even self-described as ‘a consuming fire’ (Heb 12:29). But we automatically assume that this is a good thing-this business about being consumed by heavenly fire, set aflame by divine conflagration within the spirit. Books roll off of Christian presses these days zealously inviting believers into the ‘fire’ of Divine Presence. Some even want to be ‘baptized’ with the Holy Spirit and fire, not realizing the context. John the Baptist declares,
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ (Mt 3:1012)
Clearly, the two baptisms in view here are related to two distinct ends: those baptized with the Holy Spirit will be saved from destruction, while those baptized with fire will suffer for eternity. As in so many cases, the mystical passion for ‘fire’ is a theology of glory that ends in disaster. Those who play with fire will get burned.
It was the fire that terrified the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and it was when Nadab and Abihu–Aaron’s sons and high priests who had been with Moses on the mountain–offered ‘strange fire’ that the Lord had not commanded that God turned the fire on the priests themselves. If we seek to be ‘embraced by the light,’ through our own intuition or mystical encounters, we will find the goal of our quest, but it will be damnation, not glory. If, however, we seek God not as he is in his hiddenness, but as he has revealed himself-his majesty clothed in humanity-we will find access to the Holy of Holies. Unlike those terrified Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, we
Have not come to a mountain that…is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them…The sight was so terrifying to them that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. (Heb 12:1822)
Aaron, fresh from the experience of watching his two sons perish in their sacred duties, was warned by God through Moses not to enter the Most Holy Place at his leisure, ‘whenever he chooses’ (Lv 16:2). He had to approach with a sacrifice for sin, bathe himself, and put on sacred linen garments. Then, in the performance of his office, Aaron was to take the scapegoat, laying his hands on the animal’s head while confessing Israel’s sins. Israel’s guilt transferred to the scapegoat, the people were then freed from the judgment of God (see vv. 310, 2122).
God was terribly severe in the Old Testament ceremonial laws. Or was he? Has anything really changed? Of course, the ceremonies-being shadows of the reality which was to come-have been fulfilled and are therefore no longer in force. And yet the reality to which these shadows pointed is just as true for us as it was for the Israelites. Like Aaron, we cannot enter the Most Holy Place of God’s presence whenever and however we choose. We must enter with the precious blood of Christ, bathed in the waters of baptism, and adorned in the white linen of Christ’s righteousness. We dare not for a moment consider that our willing or running somehow qualifies us to be in God’s presence. In doing so we will suffer the same fate as Nadab and Abihu. God is still just as holy and just as insistent on being approached in the manner in which he has commanded. Christ is the only way to the Father, and access is through his blood and righteousness alone. For those who enter in this way, their scapegoat-Jesus Christ-has borne the burden of their sins on his head. As the scapegoat was sent out of the city, so Jesus was crucified outside the city gates of Jerusalem.
Many of us recall the Bible story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, when the prophet of God challenged the false prophets to a contest. Each party cut a bull in pieces and placed the pieces in a pit with wood. ‘The god who answers by fire-he is God’ (1 Kgs 18:24). When Baal failed to produce the fire, Elijah ordered the sacrifice to be saturated with water: ”Do it again,’ he said, and they did it again. ‘Do it a third time’ he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench’ (vv. 3435). Elijah prayed for God to send fire to consume the sacrifice. ‘Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord -he is God! The Lord -he is God!” (vv. 3839). If we are seeking a theology of glory, a naked demonstration of divine power and majesty, we will miss the greater aim of this story. Its fulfillment is not merely in a ‘power encounter,’ but in the Cross itself. It was at the Cross where the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the soul of Jesus Christ. It was there where the wrath of God fell from heaven and judged the Son of God-he who was without sin-to be a sinner because our sins were laid on him just as the wood was laid on Elijah’s altar.
Fire, then, is judgment and wrath. Nadab and Abihu’s ‘strange fire’ was a zealous attempt to please God with a sacrifice he had not commanded and, like Cain, they learned that heart-felt spontaneity in one’s approach to God does not guarantee success. Christ’s high priestly work and the offering of himself as a sacrifice, however, was a pleasing, sweet-smelling fragrance and his perpetual ministry in the Holy of Holies secures our way to God.
Even when tongues of fire descended above the heads of the early believers (Acts 2), it was a sign of judgment to the rest of the world that refused to embrace the person and work of the GodMan. Calling down God’s fire on our souls or hearts is, therefore, an unwise request. It may have its strange attraction, but it is deadly in the end. It was, after all, because our Lord endured the fire from heaven-that white-hot flame that licked up the sin-soaked trenches of the Cross-that we will never have to feel the scorching heat of divine displeasure.
Devoted to God
In Numbers, we learn about Achan’s sin of failing to destroy everyone and everything in the land of Canaan that was not set apart to God. This scourge foreshadowed the coming judgment at the end of the age, when God will separate the sheep from the goats and devote the latter to everlasting destruction. But Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who accepted the promise and sheltered the Israelite spies, was set apart from idolatry to be an heir along with the rest of Israel. In fact, Rahab is honored in both Matthew’s geneology of Jesus and in Hebrews chapter eleven. Achan, however, himself a Jew and entitled to the promise of entering the land, was devoted to destruction because of his failure to obey God’s command to cleanse the land of everything that does not belong to God. Therefore, the nation, led by Joshua, took Achan and stoned him burying him with all of his stolen Canaanite goods.
A principle emerges throughout the Old Testament, the principle of substitution. Instead of judging the whole nation, God accepted the sacrifice of a representative. Already implicit in the sacrificial system with the offering of animals for the sins of people, the principle of substitution was also at work in Joshua’s day. Jesus Christ, of course, is the fulfillment of all substitutionary sacrifices, and unlike Achan, he was crucified for our sins, not for his own. When the Jews were plotting to have Jesus arrested, Caiaphas the high priest told them,
‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.’ (Jn 11:4953).
Without even knowing it, Caiaphas was prophesying the fulfillment of all prophecy concerning the Cross of Christ.
Among the terms that any discussion of spirituality necessarily elicits is ‘devotion.’ Those who are deeply spiritual we generally regard as devoted to God, and their earnestness is even captured in their habit of regular prayer and meditation that we call ‘devotions.’ But while these habits may be expressions of devotion, they do not constitute our devotion to God. It is God who devotes us to life or destruction, just as, through Joshua, he devoted the Canaanites and their belongings to destruction and devoted the Israelites to rest in the land. He did this, we read in Deuteronomy 8, not because of Israel’s righteousness but because of his unconditional grace expressed in a promise to Abraham and his descendants. Before the world was created, and in view of the Fall, God decided to devote a great number of the condemned to redemption rather than to their deserved destruction.
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory-even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:2224)
In eternity past, God the Father devoted us to himself. He set us apart before the creation of the world to be his own adopted children (Eph 1:414).
But the execution of God’s eternal decree in time and space required God’s own personal and physical entry into time and space. It was because Christ was devoted to God and to his Father’s will throughout the entire course of his life that we are devoted to God in him. He carried us with him just as Adam carried the entire human race in his disobedience. Theologians refer to this saving devotion of our Lord as the ‘active obedience’ of Christ. It is not sufficient for Christ to have died for our sins, because that would only mean that we are no longer guilty. But God requires more than guiltlessness; he requires the positive righteousness that he gave in creation. When our Second Adam fasted instead of feasting and ignored the serpent’s invitation to glory by interposing God’s Word, his resistance to Satan was credited to us as if we were there with him in the wilderness of temptation just as we were there with Adam in his disobedience. Every victory over doubt, temptation, despair, and compromise is credited to each believer. We are not only saved by Christ’s death, but by his thirty-three years of perfect conformity to God’s will in heart, soul, mind, and strength. This means that there really was and is only one truly devoted ‘victorious Christian,’ and he devotes us to God not by showing us how to imitate his devotion, but actually and objectively devotes us to his Father by imputing to us his obedience in life and in death. This once more underscores the ‘down’ escalator thrust of the Gospel: God coming down to rescue sinners. It is not the ascent of sinful creatures through greater heights of devotion, ecstasy, or commitment, but the descent of God in mercy. It is Christ’s commitment-his devotion, his obedience, his fervor, his relationship with God-that secures our salvation. Because he is devoted to God and all that belongs to him is devoted to God, we too belong to God and will never be devoted to destruction.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has become for us our Achan, the one man who is substituted for the rest of us. He bore our sins and propitiated divine wrath, and because he was devoted to God we are devoted to God-not by following his example, but by being united to him by faith alone. Before we ever speak of our devotion to God as our active obedience, it must be seen first and foremost as Christ’s active obedience and the effect of our union with him. In this union we share everything with him and he shares everything with us. His righteousness is our righteousness, his life is our life, his access to the Father is our access. Furthermore, our pain is his pain, our suffering he shares, our sins he carries. In this way, ‘God with us’ takes on even greater significance, as the writer to the Hebrews observes:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil-and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:1418).
In His Presence
How can we comprehend the magnitude of this announcement, ‘The Word became flesh and [tabernacled] among us’ (Jn 1:14)? Blinding light, unapproachable glory, was veiled in human nature, and the same God whose very presence could bring disaster to sinful creatures was practically indistinguishable from his friends and relatives. None of us really knows what might have been the effect of God coming to earth in all of his glory. While God’s hiddenness, as we see Christ’s full humanity, left contemporaries with the sense that Jesus was no more than a man, it was infinitely better than unveiled glory.
Just a decade ago, a thick cloud of anxiety was hanging over the individual and collective psyche of Soviet and American citizens. It was the fear that at any moment tempers could flare and nuclear weapons would be launched, leaving annihilation in the wake of a diabolical exchange in which there would be no winners. Even the utter destruction of the major metropolitan areas of the West would not be the end of the misery, as a nuclear winter would then leave the creatureless topography barren and grotesquely deformed. My purpose here is not to debate the theories surrounding the effects of a nuclear holocaust, but to employ the image in the service of analogy. If God were to ‘disrobe,’ if you will (to use Luther’s image of ‘the naked God’), and show us his glory and power, his majesty and splendor, the winds of fire would sweep across the blue planet. Leaving death and destruction in its wake, this appearance of God would not bring hope, but ruin. Whenever we forget ourselves, we assume that we are not separated from God by the distance of creatureliness and sinfulness. Seven and a half centuries before Christ, Amos prophesied against Israel,
Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light-pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?’ (Am 5:18-20)
Paul tells us that the Word of God holds together the atoms of the universe (2 Col 1:17). Likewise, Peter warns, ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare’ (v. 10).
But in his first advent, God comes to us fully robed, concealing his glory and power in our humanity. If this had not been so-if, in other words, people experienced God as he is in his majesty-the population of the Palestinian region would have been rather sharply reduced. ‘No man can see me and live,’ God told Moses. And yet the disciples gave the following report, as they were battling the Gnostics: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life’ (1 Jn 1:1). Each of these emphasized words was a ‘hot button’ for the Gnostics. Two observations are due at this point. First, this testimony stands in sharp contrast to the experience of the Israelites at Mount Sinai when they were worshipping the golden calf. There, they too wanted a god who could be heard (without the fearful thunder), seen with their eyes (without the terrible flashes of lightning), looked at and touched (without the sentence of immediate death). If even an animal touched the Holy Mountain, God commanded Israel to destroy the trespassing beast. Nevertheless, John is offering courtroom testimony to the effect that he and his fellow disciples not only were able to survive the sight of God, but enjoyed his company in precisely the same manner as that of any other human being. No doubt Jesus and the disciples wrestled, laughed, wept, played games, and recalled memories of weddings, funerals, and reunions with friends and family together.
Gnosticism finds this utterly offensive, as we have already discovered. Too spiritual to appreciate material, physical, earthly ‘stuff,’ Gnosticism cannot swallow the idea that God became flesh, that he was experienced not in the internal emotions and ecstatic moments within the soul, but in the normal, ordinary events of daily human existence.
Gnostics want to know God within their own hearts, while the disciples reported that the way they came to know God was outside of their own hearts, outside their own experience and their inner spiritual world, in the particularities of real human events and activities. These events were true, not because of the experience of the disciples, nor because of the radical change that it made in their lives and the meaning, hope and sense of purpose it provided. They were true because they happened in history, and things that happen in history are not just true for direct participants, but are true for everyone. I may not have been present at the Battle of Waterloo, but its reality as an event is indisputable, despite my absence. It happened whether I experienced it or not, whether I had ever been born or not. It is a historical fact and is therefore true for everyone, regardless of the variety of human experiences and backgrounds. The fact that a headhunter in Iryan Jaya did not know about the event, or that a young woman in Minnesota does not believe that the Battle has any particular relevance for her daily living, does not in any way affect the question as to whether the event occurred.
The claims of the disciples are not on the level of psychology, anthropology, morality, sociology, marketing, or even-at least initially-theology. They are historical claims. They do not tell us about experiences they had, encouraging us to experience the same things: ‘You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.’ Nor are their claims based on the relevance of the events: ‘Jesus changed my life and he can change yours, too.’ Their testimony, unlike most of the ones we hear in Christian circles, was more like testimony in court than like a pitch for a product or an interview on a talk show. The court was to make its judgment not on the basis of the psychological or moral impact of these experiences, but on the basis of whether the events that the eyewitnesses reported actually took place.
Let us put this in practical terms. Every year, Christmas rolls around whether we like it or not, and it is a wonderful time for many. Homecomings, warm moments with the generations huddled to sing carols and for gift-giving, twinkling lights: It is a picture-perfect scene. But that is not the only side of Christmas. The holidays also become a time of tremendous anxiety, depression, and disappointment for many. Family gatherings, or loneliness, can make Christmas turn ugly for some people. For them, Jack Frost is roasting on an open fire instead of the chestnuts.
It’s these folks among us who especially need the message of Christmas: Emmanuel, God With Us. The psalmist lamented the fact that there is no guarantee that believers will be happier, healthier, or wealthier than their unbelieving neighbors. In fact, he said, it seems that all the unbelievers he knows are doing well, while he is suffering. Isn’t there some injustice in that, he wonders. He writes, ‘My feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong…Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence’ (Ps 73:24, 13). But then he realizes the transitory nature of earthly happiness and the eternal view of things once again restores his balance.
But the question hits a wide cross section of people not only at Christmas, but the year-round: Where is God when it hurts? And yet it is that very Christmas message which answers that question with such power. Just as the human race was groaning under the burden of its sin and guilt, God was wishing his Son off on a voyage across the great heavenly expanse, to enter time; to lay aside the glory of his divine person; to be conceived in the womb of a simple, poor virgin daughter of Israel. In the person of Christ, the eternal meets time; the One who owns the entire universe becomes poor; the God who is incapable of experiencing human passions becomes a laughing, weeping, threatening, comforting Man among us: Emmanuel, God With Us, is one of our Lord’s most salutary biblical names.
There are two words we use for how we involve ourselves with other people’s problems. One word is sympathy. It comes from the Greek words for ‘feeling’ and ‘together.’ It is my feelings agreeing with those of another person. The other word is empathy, from the Greek words for ‘in’ and ‘feeling.’ Someone who is well-provided for materially may empathize with a homeless person, but only those who have once shared in that condition of homelessness can actually sympathize with such an individual. A person without children may be able to empathize with a couple’s recent loss of a child to a disease, but only other parents will really be able to sympathize. In the same way, God is spoken of in Scripture as though he had emotions. I say ‘as though,’ because God is not subject to human emotions.
Whenever we read that God was angry or wept, grieved or laughed, these are called anthropomorphisms, that is, words that God uses to describe himself in ways we will understand. God does not really have wings; he doesn’t really have arms or legs. He is a spirit, without parts or passions. These expressions are ‘baby talk.’
But after that still night in Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago, these anthropomorphic expressions were turned to reality. Now we really observe, in the apostolic reports, God in the flesh, truly experiencing emotion, pain, suffering, and human pleasure. In the past, God had spoken through the prophets, but as the writer to the Hebrews announced, ‘now he has spoken to us in these last days through his own Son.’ In the past, God maintained his presence among his people through the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, in his holy tabernacle-a tent that was pitched in the middle of the desert. But now, John declares, ‘The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.’ The Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle of God’s presence, is now the flesh of God incarnate.
One would have thought that this event would have immediately captured the attention of the ancient world. And yet it is almost as if the Incarnation was a bit too good. God became man in such a thorough and all-encompassing manner that when he began his ministry, those who knew him responded, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, whom we know?’ In fact, his earthiness made the religious leaders uneasy. When the Pharisees were pressing Jesus for his attention to Jewish moral custom, our Lord replied,
To what, then, can I compare this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.” (Lk 7:31-34)
In other words, here is the God believers have worshipped since the Garden of Eden, the promise fulfilled in front of their eyes, the Word and very Presence of God pitched in the middle of the Palestinian wilderness. Would we also perhaps have missed his visitation because we were looking for someone a bit more spiritual? Would his earthiness have caught us by surprise, too, with our often super-spiritual piety? Here is a God who not only empathizes with our suffering, because ‘we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,’ said the writer to the Hebrews (4:15). For he was ‘tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.’
And He Walks with Me
If God had been formed in Mary’s virgin womb without a fully human nature, Mary could not have survived the experience. If God the Son had not clothed himself in flesh, his glory would have instantly turned Pharisee and fisherman alike to ash. But instead, prostitutes approached him; thieves repented, and sinners ate with him. God even played the bartender at a wedding reception (Jn 2:111) and screamed in outrage over the unnatural horror of death (Jn 11:3844). Gnostics have read these texts in utter disgust. First, Jesus was affirming the goodness of creation by turning water into wine at a party. This is hardly the ascetic spirituality that characterized Gnostic abhorrence of the world. Further, for the Gnostic, death was terrific because it meant the escape of the spirit from the prison house of the body. To them it was hardly something to lament! The resurrection of the body was, for the Gnostic, hell rather than heaven. Such sentiment is not altogether unfamiliar for those of us who recall funerals in which mourners were encouraged to celebrate the unfettering of the spirit from the prison house of the body.
‘Anyone who has seen me,’ Jesus declared, ‘has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9). Israel was taught to seek God only in anticipation, by types and shadows, not by direct encounters. It was by the historical Incarnation of God the Son that the world came to know God and it is only as sinful creatures approach God through the mediation of this GodMan, through the prescribed means of grace, that they can expect to find a father rather than a judge. The ‘naked God’ that Luther said inspired the mystics was actually ‘the consuming fire’ (Heb 12:29), and the only way of finding salvation instead of judgment is through the ‘clothed God,’ Jesus Christ. ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,’ Jesus declared in John 6, to the bewilderment of his original audience as well as John’s readers (primarily Greeks).
What a crude, earthly religion! So much for ascending the heights through super-spiritual encounters! If one is to be saved, one must accept the death of individualism, inwardness, emotional and experiential ladders of ecstasy, merit, and speculation. ‘Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for [Gnostic] wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:2224).
It is easy, of course, for the disciples and other eyewitnesses to report that they had seen, heard, and touched the Word of Life. But how does that help us? In other words, it is one thing to say that they experienced God because he had come in the flesh, and quite another thing for us to say the same. How many of us have actually shaken hands with this Jesus of Nazareth? He is a figure in history, so long ago in a faraway place. We sing those romantic refrains, ‘And he walks with me and he talks with me’ in the garden ‘while the dew is still on the roses.’ But who among us has really experienced Jesus Christ in the same way as the disciples experienced him as they walked and talked with him along the Galilean seashore? Has any one of us seen the pillar of cloud or been led by the holy flame by night, as the Israelites were led in the wilderness? Have we seen Jesus turn water into wine or raise the dead? No wonder our spirituality turns inward and we seek to make up myths about direct experiences with someone we have never really met in person. No wonder men and women will travel great distances to experience the latest epiphany, whether at Lourdes or Toronto.
Waiting for the Mediator to return from the heavenly summit, we fashion golden calves of our experience to assuage our impatience. We are like Philip, who even in the presence of God incarnate, demanded to see God’s glory, and our Lord tells us, as he replied to the disciple, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father.’ Christ is the glory of God and his Cross is the throne of divine majesty, beheld by eyewitnesses.
But for now, situated between the first and second Advent, we must be content with the Messiah’s gift, the Comforter who himself is no less divine than the Son himself. This Holy Spirit leads us to Christ and brings Christ to us through Word and sacrament. As God concealed his glory in the physical humanity of his flesh, so he comes clothed to us in the physical elements of ink and paper; in the human language of preaching; in water, bread, and wine. And there we meet with God and feed on him whose flesh is true food and whose blood is true drink, nourishing our world-weary souls with the very substance of Heaven itself.
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.
©1995, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals