Dr. Heath White: “An Alternative to the World’s Ways of Doing Business”

Hebrews 6:19 calls the hope Christians have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”  But at least in the evangelical circles I run in, there is remarkably little attention given to what this hope actually is.  Everyone knows that the end result is “going to heaven” and there is some consciousness that this involves worship, though the kitschy images of haloed saints sitting on clouds plucking harps for eternity don’t make heaven sound very attractive.  Scripture, however, is pretty clear on what our hope is, and why it is worth hoping for. 

 

First, Christian hope is a response to a promise from God.  The New Testament writers are clear that this promise was originally given to Abraham, to multiply his offspring and bless all the nations of the earth through him.  And God’s promise to Abraham was his response to the havoc wreaked by the sin of Adam.  Genesis 3 traces the pains of childbirth, marital discord, the toilsome necessity of hard labor for survival, and physical death to Adam’s sin.  The individual human heart, relations between people, and even the non-human creation itself are twisted by sin.  And it is these consequences that God has promised to undo.  That is our hope.

 

That sounds pretty good at an abstract level.  But what, more concretely, would a world with Adam’s sin undone look like? 

 

A good place to start is the prophet Jeremiah.  Living in the dying days of the kingdom of Judah, endlessly prophesying doom and destruction, Jeremiah does receive a promise from God for his people.  “I will make a new covenant…not like the one I made with their fathers… I will write my laws on their hearts.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-33).  Six centuries later, this promise is fulfilled with Christ’s death.  “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” Jesus declares at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20).  Jesus had spent his ministry preaching the nearness of the kingdom of God:  “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he had declared, echoing John the Baptist.  (Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:2)  What is “the kingdom of God”?  We pray for it every time we say the Lord’s Prayer:  “Your kingdom come—that is, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God is present when the world is managed according to God’s will.  Adam’s sin brought the world, and us, into rebellion against this kingdom.  In restoring it, God begins from the inside of the human heart—with a new covenant, writing his will on our hearts—and works outward.  It is probably true that most of us are more eager to see other people ruled by God’s will than ourselves…but God’s kingdom is a voluntary organization.

 

What happens in someone with God’s law written—however faintly!—on his heart?  He is inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is a source of moral and spiritual power that, over time, changes a person.  Ultimately, Christians are “predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29) and for this reason we are not to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2).  What happens then?  “You will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”—you are in a position to contribute to the kingdom of God. 

 

The Son is the image of the Father (Colossians 1:15).  So as we become conformed to the image of the Son, we are at the same time being conformed to the image of the Father.  Though humans were originally “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) that image was tarnished, marred, and broken in the Fall.  The indwelling Spirit restores it.

 

The end result is not just a moral reformation.  It enables us to live with divine power, to participate in the life of God.  The apostle Peter called it, “participating in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).  St. Athanasius describes it by saying, “God became man that men might become God.”  He did not, of course, mean that we are literally incorporated in the Trinity.  He meant that we attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13), gaining access to the full powers and resources we were meant to have as bearers of the image of God.  Peter and Athanasius, too, are drawing on promises from the Old Testament:  Isaiah 32:2 prophesies a kingdom in which “Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.”  All of these descriptions are elsewhere used of God; the message is that, in the new kingdom, “each man” has a character that reflects God’s protection and bounty.  The apostle John speaks of our new relation to God as “union”—“you remain in me, and I in you” (John 15). 

 

Nor is the end result of the Spirit’s work a purely “spiritual” matter.  For we are also promised quite “physical” results:  the resurrection of the body, moreover, of a body transformed.  “Our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” the apostle Paul calls it.  (Romans 8:23)  What exactly this amounts to is not totally clear, but we have a model in Jesus’ resurrected body.  This is a body that eats, walks, bears wounds and scars, and can be touched.  It also disappears without notice and does not die or decay.  This is what Paul, again, calls “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). 

 

I said that God works from the human heart outward.  What does a group of people, all indwelt by the Spirit, being conformed to the pattern of the Son, partaking of the life of the Father, look like?  Well, it looks like a Church—a new kind of society, no longer ethnic or territorial, but composed of “every nation, tribe, people and language”  (Revelation 7:9).  The Church, too, is inhabited by the Spirit—“Don’t you know that you [plural] are God’s temple?” Paul asks the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:16).  In the Church, ideally, we find new forms of social organization—“neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28)—a holy, peaceful, united alternative to the world’s ways of doing business. 

 

Finally, the ripening kingdom of God, the inbreaking Holy Spirit, restores the creation itself.  “A new heaven and a new earth” the Bible calls it, in the Old Testament and the New.  The prophet Isaiah saw it:  “Behold, I will create a new heavens and a new earth,” he says, prophesying health into ripe old age, productive labor, answered prayers, and even a change in violent animal nature:  “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.”  (Isaiah 65)  John saw it in Revelation, too:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”    The Bible’s picture is one of peace and harmony:  “On each side of the river stood the tree of life….  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” (Revelation 22:2).    Also, the picture includes intimacy between God and human beings:  the New Jerusalem is described as a giant cube, which sounds strange until you realize that the other cube in the Bible, “a shadow of the things to come,” (Colossians 2:17) is the Holy of Holies in the temple, the place where God himself dwells. 

 

“No longer will there be any curse.”  Meditate on that, in all its richness and depth.  Pray for it.  Bless the Lord for that promise.  And wait in hope. 

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