Discipleship and the Imago Dei

following-jesus

A few years ago I gave a presentation to young undergraduate Christian students on the importance of discipleship, which was then followed by multiple small groups to discuss the subject further. During this group session, somebody asked if a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian than a “believer”. I felt a bit devastated with the question, given all that we had said before, but I managed to clarify that to be a Christian was to be a disciple. But such levels of ignorance about discipleship amongst young educated minds who will in the future become leaders in Ghanaian churches and Christian communities made me realise that there really was a huge gap of understanding between what the New Testament expected of us, and what our churches were training us to be. Reflecting on J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image – Imago Dei in Genesis 1” brought home the centrality of discipleship to the whole enterprise of Christianity, evangelism and church. As i promised in my last post, its time to learn a thing or two from him.

Imago Dei in the Ancient Near East

One of the important reminders about reading the Old Testament is that there is the general scholarly consensus that it was edited and compiled during the exile. It thus exhibits certain tendencies to be critical of the ideologies that it was confronted with before and during the exile. And the 2 most dominant ideologies that it critiques are those of Mesopotamian ideologies (ie Assyria and Babylon, who ended up enslaving Northern Israel and Southern Israel respectively) as well as Egyptian ideologies which they inherited after the Exodus. Viewed in this light, Middleton points out how the idea of humans being created in the image of God would have developed to counter specifically the Mesopotamian ideas about humanity, seeing as Israel was exiled there for 70 years.

Middleton points out that in the Ancient Near East amongst whom Israel existed, almost all the dominant cultures viewed human beings as slaves of the gods, created to do the menial work that the gods didn’t want to do. However, there was a small but very important distinction amongst human beings. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were gods (or incarnations of the gods), whiles Mesopotamians believed that their kings were humans, but were made in the image of their gods. Alongside these Mesopotamian kings, the priests, who served in the presence of the gods were also made in their image. This implied that every one else was just a slave of the gods via the gods’ appointed representative “images” ie the king and his priests. Given this status of a Mesopotamian king, to disregard the commandments of a king like Nebuchadnezer was to question not just the king, but Marduk himself, the primary deity of the Babylonians whom the king represented. You can understand why Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel wouldn’t have been holding hands and singing kumbaya in Babylon, as recorded in the book of Daniel. Of course there were times Mesopotamian kings not only held their “image” status dear, but blurred the lines between being the image and being the god themselves, but that is of course the way of humans when power gets into their head.

Imago Dei in the Old Testament

However, the people of Israel tell a different story about human existence. Their story went like this.

  1. Yahweh, the Creator god, created all human beings in his image. All humans are of equal worth to Yahweh, meant to “rule over the earth”, not be slaves for the benefit of others made in his image.

  2. Being “made in Yahweh’s image”, each and every human being’s responsibility was to look a little bit like that of a previous group of people I have mentioned above who were made in the image of the gods in Mesopotamia – kings and priests. It is therefore not for fun that both Yahweh’s address to Israel after the exodus, and John of Patmos’ vision in the book of Revelation are aligned when they speak of Israel and the church respectively.

    Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)

    And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”(Rev 5:9-10 NIV)

  3. The primary problem then would seem to be that humans have lost the sense of direction as to what god in whose image they were made. They therefore worship their own creation or themselves, and fail to live as Yahweh had designed them to live. Just as Eve got deceived by the serpent into thinking that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6 NIV), humans craft their own “wisdom”, leaving behind the real source of wisdom – Yahweh himself. Hence the wisdom statement “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10;Ps 111:10 NIV)

  4. And even when humans discern this god in whose image they were made (as Israel claimed to have discerned after the Exodus), they misunderstand understand his character and so do not reflect it properly. Speaking of Israel during the Exodus, Yahweh says:

    For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart. And they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10 NIV)

In short then, the key problem of human beings is not that they have failed some morality test that God set for Adam and Eve, but that they have rejected covenant relationship with the loving Creator god, Yahweh which will enable them to reflect his ways as image bearers upon this earth. This has lead to frustrations, inequality, poverty, violence and death. As NT Wright puts it in his book “The Day the Revolution Began”, the key problem of humanity is idolatory, leading to not being a true image bearer after the one in whose image we are made.

Once this conclusion hit me, being an avid reader of the Psalms and the prophets, I began to notice how stridently they criticize the “nations” aka Gentiles for not listening to Yahweh, and why Paul the apostle launches his epistle to the Romans with the standard Jewish criticism of this problem – the problem of idolatory leading to immorality.

Enter Jesus

Jesus enters the scene, and makes certain claims about his identity. The people of Israel think they know who Yahweh is, and what his character is like. But Jesus makes a scandalous claim – he is the embodiment of Yawheh, Israel’s God, and everything they previously knew about Yahweh, they knew in part. He had come to reveal Yahweh’s fullness. The Gospel of John puts the above scandalous statement pointedly.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (Jn 1:18 NIV)

John even puts these words in Jesus’s own mouth

Stop grumbling amongst yourselves”, Jesus answered … “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (Jn 6:43-46 NIV)

The author of Hebrews nails it down further

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3 NIV)

It is important that Christians not miss the implication of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Since Yahweh desired that the human beings he has so loving created in his image will actually learn to “be his image” (not the image of Marduk, Enlil, Zeus, money, sex, power and a million other gods that can be named) and to properly represent his character and “ways” on this earth, he came in the flesh and showed us who he was like. And when he had finished showing us who Yahweh was like in the person of Jesus – that Yahweh was a loving God who was willing to sacrifice himself even to death for the ones whom he loved, including for his enemies – he made a simple statement that large swathes of Christianity have been avoiding for centuries on end.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The implications are clear, if one is paying attention and not reading the Gospels as nice stories for Sunday school children.

  1. God has shown us his character and his ways in Jesus. To “worship” Yahweh then, is to “follow Jesus”.

  2. We who are created in his image are meant to follow in manifesting that character and way. There is a reason why the disciples were called “followers of The Way” (Ac 22:4).

  3. That way leads through the path of self-sacrifice and loss, and into eternal life both on this earth, and in the life to come.

  4. God himself takes upon himself defeats the powers of death and sin that enslave us from living as people made in his image by taking upon himself the punishment for our sins in the person of Jesus on the cross. We can now truly live as those made in his image.

The apostle Paul caps it off with a seminal statement about God’s goal for calling people into his church, using imago dei language of Genesis 1.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29 NIV)

The Priority of Discipleship

The Christian life then, is centered around discipleship – following in the way of the one in whose image we were made. The Christian life is not about “saving souls” and giving them a ticket to heaven so they don’t go to hell. The Christian life is not about elevating “spiritual issues” over daily life ones. The Christian life is not about living in a constant state of “sin management”, as Dallas Willard puts it. All these are side issues that have clouded the real issue. The Christian life IS about being human on this beautiful earth that Yahweh, the Creator god intended for us to live, in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth that he himself will bring to pass. In Jesus we see what it means to be human, because we see the character of him in whose image we were made. The church Father put it this way.

Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.”- Maximus the confessor,

And that is why Jesus reminded us of the 2 most important things in the world, what Scot McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. a) Worship the right God (Yahweh, as revealed by Jesus) and b) follow in that God’s ways (ie love your fellow human being as Yahweh does, for they are also created in Yahweh’s image, as you are).

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29)

Whenever we think discipleship is a side issue, whether in evangelism, apologetics, theology or running a church, we are indeed missing the heart of the matter.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him

 

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The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

the_date_the_revolution_beganI finished reading NT Wright’s latest “The Day the Revolution Began” on Christmas day 2016, and have been ruminating on it since. It is indeed the paradigm challenging book that it was touted to be, although some of his arguments are familiar to fans who have read his other books. And though Michael Gorman helped exorcise my atonement theory demons last year, it seems Wright has put the final nail to the coffin. So I intend in this post to share some lessons I have learnt from these 2 theologians about how to read the Bible properly in order to understand Jesus’s behaviour and actions, including understanding perhaps the most important action of all – his death on the cross.

1Center The Discussion – Start from The Gospels

Just like Gorman, Wright challenges us to answer this all important question by not first looking to later commentaries about Jesus’s death, especially from Paul’s letters, but by starting from the the best record of Jesus’s own life themselves ie from the Gospels. And just like Gorman, he brings in the significance of Jesus choosing to die not on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), but rather during Passover. Some of the results of doing this is already mentioned in my review of Gorman’s book, and in this respect he and Wright are aligned in their thinking so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they point out a very obvious problem that I have noticed in Christendom – we just don’t pay enough attention to the Gospels, and even when we do, we totally ignore the fact that the context for understanding the Gospels is 2nd Temple Judaism, not 21st century Christianity (or any other period of Christian history).

2“According to Scripture” – Know the Story of Israel

In 1 Cor 15:4, Paul makes a very important statement – “Christ died for our sins, ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURES”. Many Christians I have met and interacted with assume that Paul is talking about proof-texting ie finding 1 or 2 passages in the Old Testament that seem to foreshadow Jesus’ death. And in the case of answering why Jesus died, the go-to place has been Isaiah 53. But as Richard Hays points out in his book “Reading Backwards”, such attempts to look for individual passages or chapters in the OT to explain the NT without understanding the story of the people of Israel always leads to abuse of scripture. When Paul said “according to scripture”, he meant according to the whole witness of the Old Testament regarding the purpose of existence of the people of Israel, and not according to individual scriptural passages taken out of their historical context – which is the aforementioned story of Israel.

Let me give a clear example of how this bad attitude within Christianity towards the story of Israel has so distorted our understanding of scripture.

If you were to ask an ordinary Christian, or myriads of pastors, what Jesus meant by “forgiveness of sins” in his statement at Passover ie. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)”, you will get the classical answer which goes from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to how Jesus died to save us from the effects of this one particular sin. They will totally jump over the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, Israel as a nation as well as the exile and return from exile, as if none of that intervening bit recorded in the bible matters.

But when a Jew of Jesus’ day hears Jesus talk about “forgiveness of sins”, the “sins” that would have come to mind are not Adam’s sin which they inherited, but the sins of their forefathers which led them into exile, and even after returning from exile, into a state of slavery in their own nation. In an interesting set of coincidences (all Chapter 9), one can see which “sins” they mean by reading the prayers for Yahweh’s mercy on Israel recorded in Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 – 3 different prayers from 3 different people offered during and after the exile. I quote from some of these passages below.

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws … All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore, the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses … have been poured out on us … You have fulfilled the words spoken against us … by bring on us great disaster” (Dan 9:4-12, Daniel’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy during the exile).

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens … Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sward and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ez 9:6-7, Ezra’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy after returning from the exile)

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had waned them in order to turn them back to you … So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them … But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so that they could eat it its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, it’s abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:26,27,36-37, A prayer of the people of Israel to Yahweh for mercy after returning from exile)

But one may then ask – if “forgiveness of sins” was about the sins of Israel leading to exile, then how can we, non-Jews who didn’t participate in the “sins” that lead to the exile, receive “forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’s death on the cross? Here we go to the 3rd lesson.

3Covenant is the Key – Repent of Your Legal Filters

For centuries, and especially within Protestant tradition, many have focused on using law-court metaphors to understand not just places where they seem to appear – like Paul’s letters, especially to the Romans – but to read all of scripture, including the Old Testament. This is despite the fact that ancient Israel was founded on Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh – a relationship that was entered into not on the basis of “law keeping” but on the basis of trust – Abraham’s trust in Yahweh. The giving of the law was meant to keep the covenant relationship that had already been enacted intact, and not the basis of foundation of the covenant. Yahweh actually specifies the reason why he calls Abraham right from the get go.

I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).

The purpose of the relationship of Yahweh to Abraham was the salvation of the world. This is reiterated again to focus specifically on the nation Israel as the “inheriters” of Abraham’s task and promise.

I, the Lord have called you [Israel] in righteousness, I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you [Israel] to be a covenant for the people, and a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6)

Hence, when Abraham’s offspring missed the way, the means of salvation for the world had been missed. And since the exile was caused by the “sins” of idolatory and injustice, Yahweh needed to forgive these “sins” in order to restore covenant relationship. Hence the words of the prophets

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … for I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:31,34)

Note that Yahweh didn’t say “I will make a new covenant with everyone in the world”, but with Israel and Judah – the northern and southern parts of the divided nation which had both gone into exile.

Abraham (and subsequently, Israel) is God’s vehicle of salvation of the world, including Gentiles like you and I. Therefore, Jesus’s death is the means of restoration of the covenant so that you and I, 2000 years after, can also be beneficiaries by becoming part of the chosen people of God – becoming part of the new Israel constituted “in Christ”.

This is why Paul says

Christ redeemed us [Jews/Israel] from the curse of the law [exile] by becoming a curse for us; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’. He redeemed us [Jews/Israel] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:13-14 NIV)

Reading the bible with legal-metaphor filters however prevents one from seeing why covenant is so crucial to the bible. To make sense of the bible in a legal manner, Protestants especially, following their favourite forefather St. Augustine, have had to resort to reading Adam and Eve as breakers of moral laws, which sin is transmitted via direct inheritance (aka Adam as the first man) in order to make everyone guilty so that Jesus can come to save us all. It has been interesting to me listening to friends and pastors who read scripture with this filter explain Paul’s references to Israel, Abraham, “law”, “sin”, “inheritance”, “promises” etc that appear all over his letters, all the while skipping over the details of Israel’s story and trying to universalize the guilt of everyone so scriptures which applied to Israel will somehow apply to us all.

4Recover Vocation – Re-Read Genesis and Revelations Again

And so we begin at the beginning. NT Wright makes a very important suggestion about reading the bible, not just in individual books but especially about the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelations). Reading the end of every story helps you to understand what the beginning and middle was all about. This is obvious advise, which is why the end of a movie or a novel explains all that happened before. And in that sense, he points out a very important but critically overlooked point in the book of Revelation. That there are 3 passages which point out the purpose of salvation, but which hardly feature in most people’s conversation about salvation.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:6)

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6)

You will note that the idea of being made a kingdom of priests and a royal nation is exactly the reason why Yahweh chose Israel in Ex 19.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Now, step back a bit, and ask yourself how God made human beings? He made them “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). This would mean then that salvation is about that primary reason he created man – to set us free to become fully human, properly bearing the image of God. Humans were created with a vocation – to be priests and kings mediating God’s presence on the earth and reflecting his praises to him. The failure of Adam and Eve then is not simply about “law-keeping”, but about refusing to act as images of God through reliance on him as their source of wisdom, and deciding to be images of themselves, making themselves the ultimate source of wisdom. This is why “Wisdom” is such an important concept in the Old Testament – there was no true wisdom without “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 9:10).

As Paul mentioned in Romans 1 when condemning non-believing Gentiles, whenever humans refuse to worship Yahweh and follow in his ways, they become less of themselves, falling to immoral behaviour. The solution then, is a restoration to covenant relationship, and learning from the Human One – Jesus the Messiah – what it means to worship Yahweh, and to be made in Yahweh’s image – which is fully revealed in Jesus.

Afterall, a certain apostle once wrote.

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Ro 8:29)

I have more to say about salvation as a recovery of the human vocation as “the image of God”, but let me finish reading J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, and i’ll give you my thoughts.

Suffice it to say that moving the conversation from “savings souls from hell to heaven” to “inviting people into a community where they can live life as genuine human beings both now and in eternity” is where we need to be headed. And I’m definitely on board with Wright, Gorman,Walton, Middleton et al.

The revolution against the powers of sin and death has begun in the death of the Messiah on the cross. Long live the revolution!!!