29 June 2013

God's Glory in the New Testament

Written by 
“Look at the sky...what do you see - I can see Clouds that are ready to burst …” “Look at the sky...what do you see - I can see Clouds that are ready to burst …” http://somethingdeepthi.blogspot.com/2010/05/need-some-rain.mwo4ml

There are times in the history of God’s dealing with humanity when the wall between the human world of time and space and the invisible, supernatural world of God and angels becomes paper-thin. That’s when angels appear. Think of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels walking up and down. God, at the top of the ladder, begins speaking to him, renewing the promises made to his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac. Upon awakening in the morning Jacob declared, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!” (Gen. 28:17 NLT).

Fast-forward more than a millennium and a half to a starry night in the countryside below the village of Bethlehem where shepherds were watching their sheep. Luke, the only Gentile author in the Bible, tells the story:

 

“Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. ‘Don’t be afraid!’ he said. ‘I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.’ Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in highest heaven,

and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.’” (Luke 2:9-14 NLT).

 

Finally, Matthew takes us to a little mountaintop where Jesus had taken his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Here the allusions to Moses and Mount Sinai are meant to strike the reader:

 

As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, ‘Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.’ The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus. As they went back down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mat. 17:2-9 NLT).

 

You can almost hear Matthew whisper under his breath, “Pay attention to the symbols of this Jewish Messiah!” You have the mountain, terror and awe, the voice of God, the cloud (Shekinah glory), and – most importantly – two of the greatest representatives of Israelite prophethood: Moses, who presided over the Exodus and received the Law; and Elijah, the greatest prophet in the days of the kings who was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot.

But you also have one greater than the prophets. His whole being radiates with light and God’s voice intones, “This is my dearly loved Son.”

This is the message passed on by all the New Testament writers in different ways. Heaven bursts open with the jubilation of angels – the time had finally come for the revelation of the Son and his ushering in the kingdom of God, and for the wonderful news of salvation not just for Jews but for all humankind. In the opening words of the book of Hebrews:

 

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names” (Heb. 1:1-4 NLT).

 

Though the idea of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s glory on earth is present throughout the New Testament, I’ll limit myself to just two instances, which perhaps best highlight the commonalities and contrasts of Islamic and Christian understandings of God’s glory.

 

Moses’ veil and the surpassing glory of the New Covenant

Moses climbed the mountain three times. First, there was a brief meeting with God who then gave him instructions on the procedures for the revelation of the Law (Ex. 19:3-6). Then there were the two extended stays on the mountain (both “40 days and nights”; the first, Ex. 24:13 to 32:7, after which Moses smashes the first set of tablets, v. 19; then the second stay, Ex. 34:1-29). It was on that last descent with the second pair of tablets in hand that the scriptures mention, “he wasn’t aware that his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the Lord” (Ex. 34:29).

As noted in the last blog, once the tabernacle was built, Moses would come out from one of his meetings with God with his face glowing. Because this instilled fear in the people, it seems, Moses would then veil his face.

The Apostle Paul had his own interpretation of these stories in his second letter to the Corinthians. Traditional Jewish interpretation sees Moses’ face shining till his dying day. Paul apparently knew of a different tradition, because his argument is based on the progressive fading of that glow on Moses’ face. He sets out to prove that however “glorious” the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai had been, the New Covenant through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is much more glorious. The Old Covenant, written as it was on stone tablets, led to death – no one can be saved by obeying the commandments, because it is humanly impossible to so perfectly. But, just as the prophets Jeremiah (31:33-35) and Ezekiel (36:26-27) had predicted, the New Covenant would be written on people’s hearts through the Holy Spirit. Here’s his reasoning:

 

“If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way . . . We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away. But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ . . . But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (II Cor. 3:9-10; 13-14; 16-18 NLT).

 

Yes, says Paul, Moses did talk with God face to face. But he was only the mediator of a transitional covenant – one that was to prepare for the coming of Messiah who through his vicarious death wiped away our sins and reconciled us to God. What is more, the New Covenant releases the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, bringing true freedom -- (s)he is now free to live for God and reflect his glory more and more each day. Thus we read in Chapter 5 of the same letter, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:19 NIV). He also puts it this way, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21 NIV).

 

Jesus, the final revelation of God’s glory

It’s the passage in between those two chapters in II Corinthians that launched me in into this 3-blog series in the first place. Here Paul speaks of the Jews (including also the Gentiles) who refused his message of “Good News” (or “gospel”) as blinded by a veil. So in the same passage, Paul transitions from Moses wearing a veil to the Jews continuing to wear a similar veil – similar because it shields them from seeing the glory of God in his Messiah Jesus: “Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand” (II Cor. 3:15).

Paul, the first great Christian missionary, had consistently endured hardships, suffering, and narrowly escaping death on many occasions while planting churches all over territories now occupied by Turkey and Greece. For him the great opposition to the gospel was spiritual in nature – Satan jealously defending his earthly kingdom from the advances of God’s expanding kingdom through the preaching of Jesus’ followers. In his own words,

 

“If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God” (II Cor. 4:3-4 NLT).

 

With the next two verses I will close this series on God’s glory. Notice already the correlation between God’s light and his glory – something we also pointed to in the Qur’an. What is more, an influential Sufi tradition well attested in the Sunna associates God’s light with the preexisting “Light of Muhammad.” Still, there is no hint that the Prophet might also be divine.

Here by contrast, Paul rejoins John and the other New Testament writers in affirming that Jesus shared God’s glory because in some sense he is God. In the famous prayer Jesus prays moments before he is arrested, he addresses the Father in these words, “I brought glory to you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began” (John 17:4 NLT).

So the common ground is God’s glory and light, graphically pictured in the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai. Included in that are all the ethical values that go along with the metaphor of light: truth, integrity of character, justice, and the like. Light dispels darkness and overcomes it. All God’s revealed books, says the Qur’an, are light – including of course the “gospel.” And much of what it affirms about Jesus the prophet can also supported from the New Testament. But Jesus or Isa as “word from God” or “spirit from God” will necessarily be interpreted differently by both communities.

In fact, the commonalities veer into opposing views on the nature of revelation. As I mentioned in the beginning of this series, for Muslims God sent down a book; for Christians God sent down his Son. Muslims and Christians will need to keep on preaching what they feel God revealed to them. My hope is that this will happen increasingly in a spirit of humility and respect, and with ears attuned to what the other is saying too. But preaching and “invitation” (da’wa) must always be part of the mix of Muslim-Christian relations. So I end with Paul:

 

“We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:5-6 NLT).