Monday, February 26, 2018

The place of death

Numbers 17:12–13

We've been reading through Numbers in our Wednesday night Bible readings. Numbers is a favourite book of mine, and I've read it through many times. But I admit that I am seeing Numbers in an entirely new light now that we're reading through it as a group.

When I've read Numbers previously, I saw it as a sort of a patchwork of stories about the journey from Sinai to Canaan, with commandments and laws interspersed. It wouldn't be fair to say that I never saw any uniting themes, but certainly Numbers has always seemed to me more of a series of anecdotes than a unified message. This time, I'm realizing that the laws given in Numbers are generally responses to the stories that come immediately before.

Numbers 18 is a fascinating chapter, it details the priest's duty (not merely privilege) to eat the offerings brought to the Lord. There are some offerings that only Aaron and his sons are to eat (Numbers 18:9–10), others are for Aaron, his sons, and his daughters (Numbers 18:11–13). There are some offerings that the Levites are to have (Numbers 18:21–24).

What I hadn't ever understood before is, the commands in Numbers 18 are a response to the events in Numbers 16–17. Numbers 17 ends with the people declaring that the Tabernacle was a place of death (Numbers 17:12–13). Numbers 18 is the instructions for the priest, detailing how to live in the place of death. How does the priest live in the place of death? he feeds on the sacrifices.

It's worthy of note that Numbers 17:8–10 introduces resurrection: God confirms Aaron's priesthood by making his [dead] staff bloom, producing blossoms and ripe almonds. God marks His priest by resurrection.

So Numbers 18 builds on these two ideas: first, the priesthood is characterized by resurrection; second, the Tabernacle is the place of death. So the question is, how can Aaron and his sons serve God in the place of death? How does one live in the place of death?

First, the priesthood must be in the power of resurrection. It's no use trying to serve God in the power of natural life. God's presence really is death to fallen men and women (Exodus 33:20). The fact is, the overwhelming majority of "Christian" ministry I have seen ignores this. If we want to serve God, if we want to come into His presence, it can only be in the power of resurrection. It's only as risen with Christ we can yield our members to righteousness (Romans 6:13). It's only as risen with Christ we can seek those things above (Colossians 3:1–3).

Second, the service of God is sustained by feeding on the Sacrifice. There is a great deal more involved in eating the offerings, but we must at least start with this: it is feeding on Christ as dead for us – His flesh our food, His blood our drink (John 6:53–58) – that we have any life in ourselves. God never intended us to be plants, He never designed us to produce our own food. We are designed to feed: the first man fed on plants in the Garden, the new Man feeds on Christ.

This is a challenge to me: it's incredibly difficult for me to admit that I can't produce for God. He hasn't called me to fill a need He has, but to have my needs filled by Him in His Son. God doesn't need us.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Eating from the altar

The Pharisees were offended that Christ would eat with sinners (Luke 15:1–2). They didn't know the half of it: He came not merely to eat with sinners, but to give His flesh to be their food and His blood to be their drink (John 6:48–58).

It can be amusing to hear people speak about the latter part of John 6. I agree that sacramentalism has done its best to ruin this amazing chapter, but we oughtn't let fear of sacramentalism keep us from entering into what the Holy Spirit teaches here. It's obvious that Christ isn't literally speaking about eating His flesh, for the simple fact that He also taught His own resurrection. You have a bookkeeping problem if you try to believe in both Resurrection and literal eating of the flesh of Christ.

That being said, the Lord chose deliberately provocative language to describe His giving us life. We've noticed before that the Son of God can give life merely by calling the dead from the tomb (John 5:25). But when the Son of Man gives life, it costs His flesh and His blood. But I don't think that's all there is to John 6. There is not only His giving, but our eating and drinking. It's not just that we believe on Him (we do), but we must feed on Him as well.

1 Corinthians 10:15–23 brings this into the context of the Lord's table. 1 Corinthians 10:15–18 makes the association between our eating the loaf and drinking the cup and the altar. It takes us back to the Numbers 18:8–19, there the priests were to eat all the heave-offerings the people presented. 1 Corinthians 10:16 tells us this means they had communion with the altar.

There is an association between the Lord's table and the altar. We are making a statement about that association every time we break the one loaf and drink from the cup. We are claiming our communion with the death of Christ. By eating the one loaf and drinking from the cup, we are saying we are in fellowship with the sacrifice.

I don't question that we are to feed on Christ individually, but the feeding in 1 Corinthians 10 is corporate: we being many, are one Body (1 Corinthians 10:17).

The Old Testament sacrifices were all assumed to be more than enough: with a couple exceptions (Leviticus 6:23; Leviticus 6:30), there was something for the priest in every sacrifice. Even the burnt offering, which was wholly consumed, had a part for the priest – the priest gets the skin (Leviticus 7:8).

Of course they weren't really more than enough, but the principle was established. Really, the blood of bulls and of goats is incapable of taking away sins (Hebrews 10:4). But the sacrifice they pointed to – Christ offering Himself for us by the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14) – that sacrifice was far more than enough.

Christ was both our sacrifice and priest. We, as family of the priest (Numbers 18:19), are to eat of the sacrifice. By feeding on the sacrifice, we express communion with the altar (1 Corinthians 10:16). What does it mean to have communion with the altar? At the very least, it means we recognize and agree with the need for the sacrifice. At the very least, when we contemplate feeding on Christ, we contemplate our deep need of Him.

I don't doubt there is the feeding on Christ in Resurrection as well as feeding on Him in humility. It seems to me John 6 is talking about the former: it is the One who has come down from Heaven.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No man has seen God at any time

Someone in the assembly here sent out an email asking for answers to several questions his son had asked during family Bible readings. I thought I'd post my response here. I don't know what other responses he received.

We understand that Christ is God over all, blessed forever (Romans 9:5). John’s Gospel tells us that the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). So Christ is God, but He’s also a distinct Person, distinguishable from God. We can say that Christ is God, but we cannot say that God is Christ. The Athanasian Creed says the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, but the Father is God, the Son is God. And they’re one God, not two gods. Of course the same is true of the Holy Spirit. From the Athansian Creed:

[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

When we look into the Old Testament, we can find people who saw God:

  • Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9–11)
  • Moses (Exodus 33:17–23)
  • Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Numbers 12:5–8) – this one is a bit questionable
  • Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1)
  • Daniel (Daniel 7:9–10)
  • Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1–28)
That’s not a complete list.

When we look in the New Testament, we see the statement that “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). So how do we understand those together? I think there are at least two correct answers: two principles that are true at the same time.

The first is emphasized in Exodus 33:17–23. Moses asks God to show him His glory, and God responds that He can show him His goodness, and He will proclaim His name, but man can’t see His face and live (vv. 18–20). We understand God to be saying, “you can’t see all there is to see of Me”. That is, God was willing to show Moses some of Himself, but Moses couldn’t see all.

I think this is really the point of John the Baptist’s words in John 1:18; it’s not that no one has ever gotten a look at God, but the only complete view of God is in the Son.

There is something else going on here, which is brought out in John 12:37–41. John quotes Isaiah 53:1 (v. 38) and Isaiah 6:9–10 (v. 40). John specifically says Isaiah “saw his glory and spoke of him” (v. 41). Whose glory did Isaiah see? In Isaiah 6 we read that he saw “the King, Jehovah of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). But if we look at John 6:41 in context, the “him” there is Christ. So Isaiah sees Jehovah, and John quotes the passage to say that he had seen Christ.

When John says “no one has seen God at any time”, he is speaking the absolute truth: none of us have seen God completely. Some, like Moses, have seen as much of God as He can show a fallen man, but none have ever gotten the complete view of God.

At the same time, we know at least one of those “God sightings” was God showing Isaiah Christ. In fact, I believe that all of the Old Testament sightings of God were actually Christ appearing to them before His incarnation. This is what theologians call Christophany (sometimes Theophany). What gets really interesting is the end of Hebrews 1, where Psalm 102:24–28 are quoted. Hebrews says those are the words of God to the Son, and God tells the Son that He (the Son) is eternal, the creator of all things. That essentially makes the entire creation story of Genesis 1 & 2 into one long Christophany. It was the Son who created all things (cf. John 1:3).

Christ is eternally God (although technically, “Christ” is a title that really only applies in incarnation, but that’s another topic…). God is spirit (John 4:24). When we consider Him before incarnation, we think of eternal Sonship (that is, the Father - Son relationship in the Godhead is eternal), and we think of Him as the Creator of all things. I don’t know that there’s much more we can say about that…

Incarnation is something none of us can understand. The Son, who is eternal God, became Man. Of course He is not Man from eternity: He took on a body (Hebrews 10:5). At the same time, we realize He is not merely a human body possessed by the spirit of Christ: that’s the heresy of Apollonarism. We understand the He is a real Man, and apparently this is a permanent change: He ascended back into Heaven as a Man with a physical body, and we look to see Him return the same way (Acts 1:11). He is so completely Man, that 1 Corinthians 15:1–5 tells us, “He was buried” (v. 4). It’s not that they buried His body, but they buried Him.

Paul’s epistles refer to Christ as a real Man, even now that He’s ascended into Heaven. Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:5 – ”the Man, Christ Jesus.”

1 Timothy 6:13–16 are probably worth mentioning here. In context, I take “the blessed and only Ruler” (v. 15) to be Christ. We’re told He lives in unapproachable light, which no man has seen, nor can see. There is apparently a place which not even those in Heaven can see, where only God can be. And Christ is there. Even in eternity, we won’t see in there. This is really what John 1:18 is talking about, the only way for any creature to know about God in that complete way is for God Himself to come out of that unapproachable light and tell us what goes on in there. This is what Christ has done.

Finally, we should probably mention Colossians 2:9. We’re told that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ bodily. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I’m certain it means that in Incarnation, Christ was never less than God. Our Protestant blood boils a bit when we hear Mary called “Mother of God”, but it is true in a very limited sense: when she gave birth to Christ, she gave birth to the fullness of the Godhead. No, that doesn’t mean that there is a Mother-Son relationship between Mary and God. No, I wouldn’t call Mary the Mother of God. But I fear our zeal to combat Mariolatry has led us to downplay the fullness of Christ’s nature as God. The fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in the Lord Jesus, even at His birth.