Dawn of the New Creation

Friday, 01 Nov 2019

On a clear day, I can see the Italian Alps from the balcony in my study. Their impressive form stares at me like the imposing faces of majestic giants, sculpted by deep lines of grey and green, crowned with snow-topped peaks. Living in Milan, I know that the Alps are never far away. Although a map over my desk indicates their geographical proximity, the fact is that most days I can’t see them at all. They are usually obscured by the city’s notorious nebbia, the foggy haze that completely washes out the horizons, and months can pass before I can even manage to make out a few of their jagged lines. It is therefore easy to forget that these breathtaking mountains are a present reality.

So too, it seems, is the significance of Christ’s resurrection in the daily life of the Christian. We believe the testimony of the eyewitnesses that the resurrection of Jesus is a factual event, and by faith we believe the apostolic claim that it guarantees our bodily resurrection in the future. Still, the present reality of Christ’s resurrection in our daily living is something we can easily forget.

The Bible, however, teaches us that the resurrection of Christ is more than an event in history that has bearing on our resurrection in the future. It is the dawn of the new creation in which we participate now.

A Living Hope

Perhaps no verse in the New Testament summarizes the seismic shift Christ’s resurrection causes in the believer’s life better than 1 Peter 1:3:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Writing to encourage a group of churches in Asia Minor at a time when stormy seasons of persecution loomed on the horizon, the apostle Peter begins his letter with this beautiful doxology, praising God for what he has accomplished through the resurrection of his Son. Peter doesn’t tell his readers to keep a positive attitude because things are sure to improve. He doesn’t give them clichés or platitudes just to make them feel better. Instead, he tells them about hope.

It has been said that hell begins when hope ends. We cannot live without hope. Remove all hope and life becomes too dark to live. This is due to the fact that as human beings we are hardwired to hope. In the beginning, God designed us to look forward to the future glorified life for which he created us, symbolized in the Tree of Life. The tragic story, of course, is that we fell short of that glory when Adam, our representative in the garden, rebelled against our Creator. In Adam, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Although we continue to hope, our hopes have been frustrated by sin ever since the Fall, and so we no longer hope for the glory of the age to come. Many of things for which we do hope are good in themselves (love, health, family), but they are confined to this present evil age and misguided by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of possessions. This is why we are never ultimately satisfied. As C. S. Lewis said,

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. . . . If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.1

Nevertheless, we go through each day, week, and year always hoping for the best and looking for some satisfaction in our lives. We must; otherwise we die.

The hope about which Peter writes, however, is different. It is not a dead or empty hope, but a sure and living hope—a hope that holds the future in the present, because it is anchored in the past. Peter hopes for God’s salvation, the final deliverance from sin, suffering, and death that will be fully realized in the resurrection of the body on the last day. It is “a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:5). Peter’s hope is firm, because God has already accomplished salvation “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Only this kind of hope can truly withstand the tempestuous onslaughts of persecution and sorrow in our present evil age.

This Changes Everything

Peter’s hope was not always so confident. When Jesus died on the cross, it was the end of Peter’s hopes. In John 20, we find him hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (20:19). The previous Friday, the One whom he believed was the Messiah, whom he had followed as a committed disciple for several years, was crucified. Peter’s high hopes of seeing Jesus inaugurate the Messianic kingdom in Jerusalem seemed crushed on a Roman cross. On top of that, Peter was completely crestfallen by his own moral failure, having done the unthinkable by publicly denying his Lord (John 18:15–18, 25–27). Peter was now frightened, miserable, and hopeless. Like the rest of the disciples, he was not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. All hope seemed to be lost.

But then came a series of shocking events. First, Peter learned from the women that Jesus’ tomb was empty (John 20:1–2), a claim he ran to verify (20:3–10). Later that day, Jesus physically appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5; John 20:11–29), and hope was reborn in Peter’s heart. This hope was strengthened profoundly by Jesus’ restoration of him. Eating fish and bread with the disciples, Jesus said to the one who had denied him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). Jesus knew that Peter, though undoubtedly amazed and ecstatic by the resurrection event, was still tormented by his guilty conscience. The Lord didn’t ask him, “Simon, son of John, what were you thinking? Have you wept enough? Have you repented enough? Are you really sorry? Because I’m not so sure.” Any of those questions would have plunged Peter into an abyss of despair. Instead, Jesus looked at this bruised reed and smoldering wick of a man and asked him, “Do you love me?” In that question was all the hope of complete restoration.

Before the resurrection, Peter did not want a king who wore a crown of thorns, and he wouldn’t tolerate Jesus talking of his crucifixion (Matt. 16:21–23). But the resurrection changed everything, changing the cross from a tragedy into a triumph. It was nothing less than the public vindication of Jesus as the truly righteous man and the last Adam, who succeeded in doing what the first Adam failed to do—namely, to love God perfectly with all of his heart, soul, and mind and love his neighbor as himself. The resurrection crowned the victory of Christ, his victory for Peter, and his victory for all those who believe.

The resurrection of Christ transformed Peter from being a coward to being courageous. This man, who was once overcome by fear as he denied Jesus in public and hid for fear of the Jews, boldly stood up among the crowds in Jerusalem during the Feast of Pentecost, proclaiming with a loud voice that God had made Jesus of Nazareth both Lord and Christ. The Holy Spirit emboldened Peter, but this was only because of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Had this not happened, the Spirit would not have been sent from heaven and the church would have no gospel to proclaim.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. . . . Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:31–36)

Peter’s central message in that pivotal sermon was that Christ’s resurrection was the proof that Jesus was not merely a good man and wise teacher, but also the God-man and cosmic ruler of the universe who had inaugurated his kingdom. Those who put their trust in him receive his imputed righteousness and the forgiveness of sins, living now in the hope of eternal life.

Apart from the resurrection of Christ, Christianity cannot exist and our hope is dead. If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead as reported by Peter and the other eyewitnesses, then we have no reason to believe that he is the Son of God or that his death on the cross was the propitiation for our sins. As the apostle Paul reasons in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Christianity has nothing to offer us separately from the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is not a method of self-improvement or moral therapy, but the announcement of God’s redemption of sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son (1 Cor. 15:3–8). If Christ was not bodily raised in history, then we cannot be bodily raised to eternal life in the future; and we should therefore simply eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die (1 Cor. 15:32). But if he was raised from the dead, as the historical record indicates, then everyone should put their trust in him, for he truly is the One whom he claimed to be: the resurrection and the life. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). The entire claim of Christianity hangs upon the factuality of this event.

This resurrection of Jesus was a life-changing reality for Peter. It was the basis for his boldness for the gospel, the foundation of his willingness to suffer for the name of Christ, and the reason for the hope that was in him. But it is also a life-changing reality for us. Although we are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection as Peter was, our lives are still animated by this living hope because of the resurrection. We live in confidence that Jesus lives and reigns over all. We are comforted to know that God has accepted us on the basis of the merits of Christ, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). We look to life beyond the grave—not our souls flying off to heaven to live happily ever after in a nonphysical realm, but the resurrection of the body—to enjoy eternal communion with God in the consummate glory of the new creation (Rom. 8:18–25; 1 Cor. 15:22–28, 43-57; Phil. 3:21; Rev. 21:1–4).

But Wait, There’s More!

Believers already live in the present as members of the world that is yet to be. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). This new-age reality was inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus. The power of the age to come has already invaded this present evil age. The resurrected and exalted Christ rules not only over the world but also in his church by means of his word and Spirit.

In the Old Testament, God promised a great outpouring of his Spirit on his people in the latter days (Ezek. 36:25–28; 39:29; Joel 2:28–29; Zech. 12:10). Although Israel failed to bear fruits of righteousness, God’s people became abundantly fruitful in the new covenant because of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would produce in his people what they were incapable of producing themselves, causing them to walk in new obedience (Ezek. 36:27). The same Spirit who was active in the original creation of the universe would once again bring forth life. As Michael Horton notes, “Yet, the resurrection of Christ makes it so, not only because it sets the rest of the redemptive economy in motion but because it is the first installment on the full consummation.”2 The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the new covenant, causing this new creation by the Holy Spirit to emerge. What Israel longed for in the old covenant—namely, resurrection and restoration—is already coming to pass in the lives of believers now in the new covenant. The Spirit applies the power of Christ’s resurrection to the people of God, so that they can walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:1–10; Phil. 3:10).

Because we have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we must recognize this new reality in which we live. Not only has Christ rescued us from the penalty of sin, but he has also delivered us from its dominating power. United with him in his death and resurrection, believers have the resources they need for the daily discipline of putting off the old self and putting on the new, which is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22–24). Paul exhorts us, “Reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11 NKJV). “The language of ‘reckoning,’” says N. T. Wright, “is that of adding up a sum, a column of figures.”

When I add up the money in my bank account, that does not create the money; life is not, alas, that easy. It merely informs me of the amount that is already there. When I have completed the “reckoning”, I have not brought about a new state of affairs in the real world outside my mind; the only new state of affairs is that my mind is now aware of the way things actually are. So it is here. When Paul says [in Romans 6:4] that “as the Messiah was raised from the dead through the father’s glory, so also we are to walk in newness of life”, he is not asking Christians to do something that, being still “dead”, they are unable to perform.3

In other words, believers must be who they truly are! Having been raised with Christ, we are no longer slaves to sin. Why would we then live as if we were?

This new reality of our union with the risen Christ is precisely why we experience a constant battle with sin. Although the pollution of sin still clings to us in this life, it does not comport with our regenerated hearts, for we have been raised with Christ and are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1–4). As Peter says to his readers, “The passions of the flesh . . . wage war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). We simultaneously feel the joyful desire for holiness and the sorrowful disappointment for our sin. As someone once said, “The pathway to holiness is paved with a sense of your own wretchedness.” But this is also good news in the sense that the whole reason why we can say both “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Rom. 7:22) and “wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24) is because we are inseparably united with the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised to bring us to completion and gloriously raise our bodies from the dead. In the meantime, the Spirit continues to apply the power of Christ’s resurrection to us through the means of grace.

Food for the Journey

If I want to walk to the Alps from my house, I had better pack some meals. Being well supplied with sustenance is crucial. The same is true for Christians regarding their journey from what is already (regeneration and justification) to what is not yet (glorification). We need spiritual nourishment along the way, which Christ provides through his word and sacraments. Indeed, it is the communion meal in particular that the Scriptures identify as a real participation with the true body and true blood of the risen Lord Jesus.

Writing to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul explains that the communion meal had a deeper significance than many of the Corinthians realized—some to their own peril. Far from being an empty ritual, the Lord’s Supper allows us to commune with the risen and exalted Christ in heaven. Warning the Corinthians against the idolatrous practice of frequenting sacrificial meals in pagan temples (a popular custom in their city), Paul reminds the members of the church about the nature of the Supper:  “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).

The word koinonia in verse 16 means far more than mere fellowship; it highlights our union with and communal sharing in the actual body and blood of Christ. While there is indeed an important horizontal dimension of koinonia—namely, our fellowship with one another in the church (v. 17)—it is the vertical dimension of our koinonia with the physical and glorified Christ (v. 16) that becomes the foundation of our horizontal koinonia. To put it another way, we enjoy life in the body of Christ (that is, the church), because we receive life from the body and blood of Christ as he gives himself to us in the communion meal. By virtue of his resurrection, Christ has become “the life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), who refreshes our souls for eternal life in the sacrament of his holy Supper.

Calvin and the Reformed tradition understand the New Testament to teach that Christ gives himself to us as our food and drink by the agency of the Holy Spirit when we receive the sacrament in faith. Says Calvin, “The Spirit makes things which are widely separated by space to be united with each other, and accordingly causes life from the flesh of Christ to reach us from heaven.”4 It is the Holy Spirit who makes it possible for believers on earth to receive the whole Christ in heaven, which is where our Lord has remained since his ascension (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9–10; Heb. 4:14). It is in heaven where Christ not only reigns, having “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3), but also serves as our great high priest, “a minister in the holy places, in the true tabernacle that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb. 8:2). It is there in the true tabernacle, where Christ has “seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6), that he properly nourishes us with his body and blood, even as we receive ordinary bread and wine on earth.

The Lord’s Supper is not an empty ritual or just another opportunity for Christians to do something in worship. Through this meal, the resurrected Christ animates the lives of his people by increasing their faith, strengthening their assurance of salvation, and combating their doubt, temptation, and fear. As the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli says,

What more could there be to lead the faithful to life than this kind of food? Do we not by such eating dwell in Christ and Christ in us? Can we ask for so great a good to be more clearly promised us than when he himself said, “Who eats me shall live by me”?5

Homesick for Our True Homeland

For all the blessings we enjoy now at the dawn of the new creation, there is still a massive “not yet” to be fulfilled. Our hope is not an end in itself. We long for that day when our hope will dissolve into reality and our faith into sight. We are “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11), homesick for our true homeland in the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). We cry out “How long, O Lord?” as we endure “sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:19).

Yet, because of the resurrected Christ with whom we are united, we can continue on our earthly pilgrimage knowing that our labor is not in vain. Peter tells us that we have been born again, not only to a living hope but also to “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). As surely as Christ was raised from the dead, so too shall we be raised.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:8–9)

May God lift our eyes above the hazy horizons of this present evil age and fix them upon the majestic glory of Christ. May he continue to strengthen us through the present reality of his Son’s resurrection. And may he hasten that day when the gap between what is “already” and “not yet” will finally be closed.

 

Michael G. Brown is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America and serves on the mission field in Milan, Italy, where he is pastor of Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia.

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