N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
(Rom. 8:22-23 ESV) 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
I take Paul’s language regarding the Creation to be an anthropomorphism. That is, it’s poetic imagery to make a vivid point. I don’t think that the entire Creation is sentient or capable of emotion. But that doesn’t allow us to ignore Paul’s point. The Creation is in bondage (slavery), waiting to be set free. The heavens and the earth will be changed into something better — as freedom is better than slavery.
And it’s a result of humanity’s sinfulness. It’s not just Adam’s sin. He’s been dead for quite a long time. Our continued sin continues to enslave the Creation under the curse of Gen 3.
Indeed, while I’m no fan of much of the modern environmentalist movement — which tends to undervalue humanity — I care about our responsibility as followers of Jesus to care for the Creation. We’ve allowed secular politics to define right and wrong and then excused our lack of concern with “It’s all going to burn anyway” even though (a) it’s not and (b) my grandchildren need to live on this same planet. Even if it does burn, it won’t burn tomorrow (most likely) and we should at least love our own grandchildren enough to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and toxic. (How is this a controversial concept?)
I’m not a farmer, but I used to do legal work for a family that owned a good-sized tract of farmland in very rural Alabama. The economy was bad at the time, and farmers weren’t able to make much of a living. And yet my clients worked every day to maintain and improve their acreage — because they believed that they were stewards of the earth, charged by God with caring for the land. These weren’t left-wing crazies or even environmentalists in the usual sense of the word. Rather, they’d been taught by their dad and their granddad that humans make their living off the land, and in return, they care for the land. They were Christians who saw the land as a gift from God that should be treated with respect without regard to immediate profit. Their values weren’t purely capitalist nor purely environmentalist. Rather, it seems they likely had read their Old Testaments and saw the land as the Prophets saw the land (see last post).
So when we read the Psalms and the Prophets speaking of trees singing praises to God or lions looking to God for food, we can dismiss this as superstitious nonsense or we can conclude that the poetry has a point: God cares about his Creation even now. And not just for the sake of humanity. After all, humans occupy but a tiny part of the entire Universe, and yet God went to the trouble to create all the rest, not just for our enjoyment. After all, humanity has been able to look at the stars for only a speck of the total time that the Universe has existed. For most of its existence, the only witness to the beauties and grandeur of the Creation has been God — and so he must greatly enjoy what he made for its own sake, not just for our sake. And we should feel the same way.
And Paul tells us that, today, in the presence of humanity, the Creation is in pain, miserable — just as miserable as woman having birth pains as she is preparing to deliver a baby. That is, if the Universe had its own mind and could talk, it would be screaming in agony because of the sinfulness of humanity and the suffering this imposes on what God has made.
So we should resist the temptation to abstract the lesson into “sin is bad.” Paul wants his readers to see the Creation’s place in God’s great story and to work to redeem not only humanity but the heavens and the earth. Therefore, an atonement theology that fails to speak to the Creation is incomplete. We think atonement is entirely about humanity — and Paul very plainly says that we are sadly mistaken to see ourselves as the only part of the Creation that matters to God.
“Firstfruits of the Spirit”
“Firstfruits” are the first fruit or grain of the harvest season. When I was a teenager, strawberries could only be bought in May and June, because that’s when they were in season. Apples could only be had in the fall for the same reason. It’s a recent dramatic change in the grocery business that nearly all fruits and vegetables can now be had year round — thanks to greenhouses, Mexican farms, and alar.
In ancient Israel, Pentecost was a celebration of the firstfruits of the spring harvest, and the firstfruits were offered to God. Imagine that you’ve waited nearly a year for fresh barley or wheat. You’ve labored for months to remove rocks from your tiny field, to pull weeds, to plant seed, to protect the crop from scavengers, and finally the first stalks of grain ripen! Well, most people would harvest the grain and bake some bread. After all, locusts or the weather might destroy the rest of the crop. Seize the moment! Enjoy the fruits of your labor while you can! But the Israelites took the firstfruits to Jerusalem to sacrifice them to God.
This was a great act of faith since locusts or untimely rains could destroy the rest of the crop — and the crops were a matter of survival. If the crops don’t come in, the family goes hungry — and yet the firstfruits went to God.
Paul says in v. 23 that we have the firstfruits of the Spirit, meaning that the indwelling Spirit is but the firstfruits of the gifts of the Spirit we’ll receive when Jesus returns. It’s a mere down payment — nothing compared to the Spirit in its fullness.
“Adoption as sons”
Paul gives two examples of blessings yet to come: our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. It’s easy enough to see the redemption of our bodies as happening when Jesus returns, but aren’t we adopted as sons already? Well, yes, but we have not yet become sons and daughters in the Psalm 2 sense of being enthroned as kings and queens in dominion over the Creation.
(Ps. 8:1 ESV) 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
When Jesus returns, we’ll join him on his throne to reign over the NHNE —
(Rev. 5:9-10 ESV) 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Rev. 22:5 ESV) 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
And Paul says we groan inwardly in anticipation of that day.
“Redemption of our bodies”
“Redemption” refers to being freed from slavery. To redeem someone or something is not to destroy them but to unshackle them from bondage.
We’ve covered this concept many times in previous posts. The Scriptures teach — plainly — that our resurrection will be embodied but we’ll have new bodies with a greater glory and our new bodies will be like the resurrection body of Jesus. And I don’t know exactly what this means, but some things are pretty clear —
- The resurrection will not be as disembodied souls, no more so that Jesus left the tomb as a disembodied soul. His tomb was empty because his body left the grave as a body — but a different kind of body. So it will be for us.
- The scriptures say very little about what we’ll be like between death and the general resurrection. Some believe we’ll temporarily exist as disembodied souls, and that might be right.
- Just as Jesus’s post-resurrection body was not subject to the normal laws of physics — he could, for example, walk through doors, the same will be true of us.
- Our resurrection bodies won’t float off to heaven because heaven and earth will be joined, as explained in Rev 21-22. God will dwell with man in the NHNE — which is described as a physical reality, not just clouds and spirits and wisps.
- Nonetheless, we should be cautious in being too precise, as the NHNE will be different in ways that can only be expressed in poetry. We should not reject what we’re told, to hammer the Scriptures into a Platonic world of spirits and souls, but neither should we be too literal. It is poetry, but like all great poetry, it has something to say and we should take the images we read as true as poetic truths.