“Here is the whole final message of the New Testament: Through the atonement in Jesus’ blood, sinful men may now become one with God”
— A. W. Tozer from God’s Pursuit of Man
Like many people around the world, this year has been one filled with much fear and devoid of much hope. Never in my life has my home country or the world seemed so fractured and divided. Everywhere I look, people seem poised to go to verbal or physical war over ideology and identity. Having grown up in the most conservative part of the country and spending all of my adulthood in the most liberal part of the country, I acutely felt how wide the gulf between the two was growing. I had long since left the conservative ways of thought since I knew them to be hypocritical in many areas and ineffective in creating real change. However, living in one of the most liberal and and economically unequal cities with a growing disdain for the homeless also left me utterly convinced that the liberal way of thought was no less hypocritical and ineffective in creating real change. This left me wondering whether I should just embrace the lesser of two evils.
However, the current state of the world forced me to ask a deeper question, why is evil so deeply entrenched within society? This question, of course, is by no means new. It is an ancient question. Modern society has tended to diminish how the ancients viewed the problem in favor of new solutions. However, maybe they had a perspective which has been buried, one that might help get us out of the grave we’ve been digging.
Personally, the only ancient thing which I’m connected to is my faith, one that I could best describe as a belief in “the ancient way” (Psalm 139:24, Jeremiah 6:16). This belief exists even outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, in the Daodejing, meaning The Book of the Way and the Truth, the 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Laozi wrote:
Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Way,
Move with the present
I think the Ancient Israelites caught a glimpse of the ancient way and even managed to stumble down its path at times before choosing to forge their own way. I think the same can be said for many ancient cultures. With this in mind, the TaNaK, also called the Hebrew Bible, with its very developed narrative seems like a good place to start in search of the path forward.
Since we modern people have little connection with the culture of Ancient Israel or the culture of the surrounding Ancient Near East, I’ve tended to rely on scholars who can present these cultures and their resulting texts in accessible ways. For this exploration, I’ve consulted the following short animated videos from The Bible Project.
To begin down the path and not be lead astray, we must first accept that that evil, or sin, ruins the otherwise good earth in at least two ways.
Direct Consequences of Sin
The first and direct consequence of sin is the debt incurred by an individual who has committed an injustice. This concept is part of why we say that criminals who come out of prison have “paid their debt to society.” Now you might say that you haven’t done anything that bad and by universal human standards you’re probably right. Neither you nor I have likely done anything deserving of us being imprisoned for our evil or sin. For more serious evil though, most people think that prison is the best way for criminals to pay their debts. At the same time, based on Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow we should also recognize that prison both in its original legal specification and in its implementation, is the only form of legalized slavery in the U.S. as well as in many other nations. In that sense we haven’t come too far from the ancients since selling oneself into slavery was a common way for individuals to pay their financial debts in the ancient world.
Those with conservative or libertarian beliefs may say that the vast majority of criminals in prison deserve their punishment since they made a choice out of their “free will.” This conclusion shows that conservatives/libertarian-minded people tend to value meritocratic justice over all other forms of justice, i.e. people should get what they deserve. On the others side, those with more liberal or progressive beliefs may say that many criminals, particularly those that are poor or otherwise marginalized, were never “free” in the first place. They had no “free” choice as to the situation into which they were born into or the systems in which they live. Thus, it is irrelevant whether they “deserve” to be in prison. Instead, we should remove all inequality from the world which will then allow the marginalized make moral choices and shame the privileged. This denser conclusion shows that liberal/progressive-minded people tend to value distributive justice over all other forms of justice.
However, the Apostle Paul, one of the early followers of Jesus seems to claim that both of the modern points of view are at best limited and at worst deeply misguided. From his perspective, we are all born into perpetual slavery to sin and thus are all prisoners (see Romans 6:15-20). We may object and say, “Paul has no right to judge me. Only God (or the light inside of me) can judge me.” Surprisingly, Paul would agree with our secular objection (see 1 Corinthians 5:9–13). I don’t think he would try to bother us at all. Instead, he would continue speaking to those trying to follow Jesus and invite us to listen if we so desire. Caught off guard with the lack of direct conflict, we might quickly reply, “I’m quite happy with who I am. I can’t change even if I tried, even if we wanted to.” We would then would go about comparing ourselves to others and talk about how everyone does the things that we do. We may acknowledge that there is some evil in the world for which we are responsible but it’s not as bad as those in prisons (or penthouses). It’s about the same as most people on the earth.
However, even if we look at things by universal humanist standards we would have to ask the question, if most people contribute insignificant amounts of evil to the world, why is the world not a much better place? Why isn’t there more peace, justice and love in every country? Many people in modern society would point to a group that they disagree with — communists or capitalists or Black Lives or Republicans or liberals or Muslims or the uneducated or omnivores or Russians or gays or white males, etc. — and say that they are the source of the evil that overwhelms the rest of society. However, the ancient Jews and later the followers of Jesus had a very different understanding of the problem.
Indirect Consequences of Sin
The ancients realized that there is a second, indirect consequence of sin. In addition to sin creating a “debt”, it also irrevocably damages relationships and thus ruins the very fabric of society. What does this look like in our modern day?
Well, let’s say that in a post-9/11 world where we fear death from terrorism, we either support efforts by U.S. presidents (Bush, Obama, or Trump — take your pick) to drone bomb parts of the Middle East or at least don’t make any efforts to stop it. Let’s say that along the way an innocent child dies by a drone missing its target.
An understandable outcome is that the father of the child, spurred on by anger may activate some of the more destructive ideas in his religion that had previously laid dormant. He then may think it a good, even a just idea to become a suicide bomber. In this case, we fearful U.S. citizens did not contribute much to the suicide bombing, but in aggregate, a lot of people contributing a little evil caused the social fabric between the U.S. and the father in the Middle East to be ruined, leading to a disastrous increase of evil. What’s worse is that the evil act of suicide bombing will likely create more fear in the minds of U.S. citizens and predispose them to allow even more extensive drone bombings, thus activating more suicide bombers.
This is the death spiral of sin. In electrical engineering terms, the dynamics of sin create a positive feedback loop in which “the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation.” This increase in perturbations can continue to increase until they reach the physical limits set by the power source. In thermodynamics terms, sin is social entropy. It is social disorder. More formally it is the unavailability of the energy within our social structures to do “meaningful work”. Furthermore, just as entropy is “always increasing for irreversible processes in an isolated system not subject to outside influence,” sin is always increasing due to irreversible human actions occurring in our social structures. As secular society works to limit the effect spiritual influences, these social structures are growing increasingly isolated from any realm which could absorb the disorder.
Even if you decided that you weren’t too involved with the political wrongdoings of the world, you have still experienced the relational ruin caused by sin done by others against you. It might have been the frustrated parent who said you would never amount to anything. It might be sexual abuse by someone you thought was a friend. It might be the classmate that referred to you with a slur. It might be the greedy executive who got rid of the jobs on which your community depended. It might be the elitist who called you a deplorable. It might be the self-righteous liberal who silenced you from voicing your honest concerns. It have been the countless negative interactions you’ve had where you had to seriously consider whether such a thing would have happened if you were not Black or Mexican or Muslim or conservative or a woman.
In one way or another, these sins towards you have affected not just your relationship with the person who committed them but also the social fabric connected to all people remotely like them. The anger, fear and trauma incurred will invariably also come out and affect how you interact with your family and friends who were not at all involved in the wrongdoing. Thus each person carries inside of them consequences of sin committed against that person. Furthermore, to varying degrees, each person also carries the consequences of sin committed against anyone within their social fabric. These consequences reside in patterns of thought that are not from inherently good but have been created to protect the individual and society from future harm. These are the very patterns of thought that make it impossible for us to love in the unconditional, sacrificial way that God does. Without this kind of love, ruin spreads through each person in society. If that wasn’t enough, the needs to protect individuals and society from the evils of poverty, violence and death cause us in the developed world to pursue the accrual of power and wealth at the expense of stripping the natural environment of all of its resources. Thus, all of creation, all living things, suffer because of our sins — a point made by the Apostle Paul (see Romans 8:18–22)
In the title track of an album fittingly named Hopelessness, the singer Anohni laments the destruction of nature and asks the desperate question, “How did I become a virus?”. I think the social physics which govern the indirect consequences of sin is the answer to her question. That then begs the more pressing question, what is the antidote?
Ancient Israel’s Approach to Sin
Those of us under the influenced of an individualistic Western culture tend to only see the first consequence of sin. This limitation is likely because that is the more individualistic aspect of sin. However, Ancient Israel, which was part of a more communal Eastern culture, recognized both the first and second aspects of sin. Thus God revealed himself in their culture by giving them a ritual which addressed both the direct and indirect consequences of sin. This ritual was the animal sacrifice, most notably utilizing the sacrifice of a lamb. Sacrificing a lamb was the way they believed that both direct and indirect consequences of sin would be “covered” or “atoned”. The death of the lamb would “cover” the debt incurred by the person who sinned. You might ask, why does death have to be the cost of even small sins? Essentially, if one accepts that sin is entropy, even the smallest of sins will eventually contribute to someone committing a sin that is worthy of death. Thus, any sin incurs a debt that can only be satisfied by something dying. In cases where the sin is not so grave as to warrant execution of the perpetrator, an animal was allowed to take the place of the sinner.
At this point, the individual perpetrator is no longer considered guilty. However, the problem remains that the social fabric is damaged. We in Western culture might just ignore this indirect consequence and carry along with pursuing our individual happiness and erecting more walls. However, this wasn’t possible for an ancient, Eastern society. The biggest problem lay in the fact that while they agreed that God interacted with individuals, by and large, he related to the group meaning the whole society as one body. A problem would then arrive if sin ruined the social fabric. The society is tarnished in a way that prevents God from being near the society. If God is holy and by his nature cannot allow any evil to exist near him, coming into a society tarnished by the indirect consequences of sin would be impossible unless he destroyed the whole society and started over. However, the story of Noah from Genesis proves that even if he started over with one good family, evil would still spiral out of control. For this reason, God revealed to the Israelites a way to address the indirect consequences of sin.
The priest would take the blood from the same lamb that was sacrificed to cover the debt of the individual sinners. The Ancient Israelites saw the blood as the “life force” of the animal. The priest would then sprinkle the blood around the temple building to purify or cleanse the tarnish caused by sin. In the earliest times when the Ancient Israelites were nomadic desert clans, they used a mobile temple also called a tabernacle. Effectively, life was cleansing the shadow of death within their holy structure. The reason this had to occur in the temple is that the temple was the one place where the Ancient Israelites as a community were able to have God come near to them.
After this was complete, the social fabric of the community could then continue to function at least until people sinned again and thus required more animal sacrifices.
From the Ancient to the Modern World
Ancient Israel clearly had well-developed thoughts about the origins of evil and how to overcome it. However, while potentially convincing, they did not seem to create the fundamental change that was intended. Evil continued to spiral out of control. Occasionally the Ancient Israelites would return to the ancient way but would go astray once more. Eventually, the pride and violence they created led to most of them being conquered and taken from their homes into exile by the Assyrians Empire in 722 BCE. Later, the Israelites’ ancient temple was destroyed when the remaining part of Israel was conquered by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE after the Babylonians had themselves conquered the Assyrians with the help of the Persians. The succession of kingdoms continued as the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Alexander the Great conquered the Persians. Ptolemaic Egypt took over after Alexander’s death before the Seleucid Empire pushed them back. Israel created an independent state under the Hasmonean Dynasty. Finally, the Roman Empire conquered the Hasmonean Israel in 63 BCE.
The ethnic identity of the Ancient Israelites was thus scattered along with the people. However, they still retained their religious practices, now properly called Judaism. Even as many former Israelites returned to their ancestral land, built a “Second Temple”, and organized their scriptures into the TaNaK, the transition into the modern world left the former Israelites at a crossroads. These different paths led to the formation of different sects, or faith communities, that claimed to be the correct way to proceed into the modern world. The four dominant paths were lead by the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Hellenists. The Sadducees had the support of the aristocracy and prioritized the traditional sacrifices at the temple. The Pharisees had the support of the masses and prioritized study of the TaNaK, passing along the oral religious tradition, and strictly keeping the individual purity laws. The Essenes rejected mainstream society altogether. They established an encampment in the wilderness where women could visit but not live and waited for God to overthrow the Romans and establish a new, purified kingdom. Still many former Israelites adopted a Greek, often called Hellenistic, way of life. They still retained the culture from Judaism but adapted it into a philosophy more compatible with Greek philosophies.
Yet, even as these four paths struggled for influence, sometime around 27 CE, a man we know as Jesus suddenly rose to prominence and made a claim that he was the embodiment of the path the ancients had described.
Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. -John 14:5–6
Jesus’s Approach to Sin
Jesus began teaching and declaring that all of the customs of Ancient Israel were meant to point toward himself. They were like signposts along the path telling everyone what’s ahead. The connection to Ancient Israel indicated that Jesus would among other things deal with sin in a way that was surprisingly parallel to how Ancient Israel was instructed to deal with sin. This connection is immediately recognizable in the fact that near the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus is identified as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
This statement was meant to foreshadow Jesus’s eventual death on the cross during Passover as the method by which Jesus would cover all sins, not just for the Israelites and not for a limited period, but for all humanity and for all time. To serve as a true means of atonement and purification, Jesus’s death covered the direct consequences of sin and also purified the indirect consequences of sin.
To make his atonement and purification abundantly clear before dying, Jesus explained what he was about to do to his disciples by establishing a new ritual: the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper serves as a metaphor in which a community of believers break bread and share wine among each other. Jesus explains that the broken bread is meant to represent Jesus’s body and the wine is meant to represent Jesus’s blood “that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26–28). These statements are meant to remind us of the ancient lamb sacrifice. Thus Jesus’s dead body, like the lamb’s dead body, serves to “cover” the debt of all individuals’ sin. Similarly, Jesus’s blood, like the lamb’s blood, purifies the temple so that God can have a relationship with a community of people.
If Jesus’s blood was meant to clean the temple, it begs the question, which temple does Jesus’s blood cleanse? Taken at face value, it would seem that the blood would cleanse the Second Temple in Jerusalem. However, that can’t be what the temple Jesus was referring to because the Romans would later destroy that temple in 70 CE after a Jewish revolt. It could not have been what Jesus died to restore.
So what else could Jesus have meant? The answer to this question exists early in the Gospel of John. In John 2:12–22, Jesus goes to Jerusalem just before the Passover when Jews are supposed to sacrifice a lamb for the sins of their family. Jesus, though, causes a disturbance when he goes to the courtyard of the Jewish Temple. In the courtyard, merchants were selling animals that could then be used for sacrifices. Jesus gets angry, turns over the tables they are using to sell animals and says “Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2:16).
Why was Jesus so upset? There were laws that actually forbade selling sacrifices in the temple courts and for good reasons. Originally, when someone offered an animal sacrifice for their sins they would in most cases offer a lamb that they had owned since birth. In many cases they would have raised the animal themselves and thus been emotionally attached to him. By offering such an animal you would then deeply feel the painful consequences of the animal dying in your place. Hopefully this pain would motivate you not to continue sinning.
However, now that merchants had set up a marketplace where people could buy animals at the last possible moment before going into the temple, sacrificers would have no emotional attachment to the animal. Thus they had no incentive to stop sinning in the future. The sacrifice was now made cheap or even worthless. What’s worse is that marketplaces also created natural situations where each party is vying to get all they can in the transaction for as little as possible even if it meant cheating or selling animals that weren’t even healthy. These actions are the clear manifestation of sinful greed, and it was occurring right outside of the holiest place on earth for the Israelites. Lastly, the outer temple courts where the marketplace was going on was as close as any non-Jews were allowed to approach the temple and thus as close as any non-Jews were able to approach God. Only Jews were able to go further inside. Thus by setting up a marketplace in the courtyard and taking up all the space, they were preventing all non-Jews from coming closer to God. For all of these reasons and maybe others, Jesus drove out the merchants in an act that his followers later described as him “cleansing the temple.”
Just as people would be in modern day, the people of Jesus’s time were pretty upset when Jesus crashed the market. They didn’t claim that what they were doing was right but instead challenged Jesus’s authority to be the one to stop them. Thus, the Jewish religious leaders asked Jesus to “show them a sign” that he had the authority to regulate their worship in the temple. In other words, they wanted to see a miracle to convince them that it was God who was working through Jesus. Jesus replied “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:19). The Jewish religious leaders thought that Jesus was crazy because the temple had taken forty-six years to build. There was no way any man could rebuild it in three days. (Historians tell us that Herod, the ruler of Jerusalem a the time, had started renovations of the temple during the year 19 BCE. 46 years later places this story at 27 CE which would be two years before Jesus is thought to have died in 29 CE). As is the pattern in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders, like most others, misinterpreted what Jesus said and assumed he was talking about earthly things. The author of John makes it very clear what Jesus meant.
“But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body.” -John 2:21
The Bodily Temple
Let’s go forward again to the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus broke the bread and gave it to his disciples to eat, he said that it was supposed to represent his body. If his body is the temple that means that the pieces of the temple are now inside their bodies and as they digest the bread would become united with their bodies. Thus each of the disciple’s bodies is individually now a temple. Furthermore, designative the individual’s body as God’s temple means that now God in the form of the Holy Spirit dwell united within the individual’s body. Even more profoundly, since all the pieces of bread together originated from the same loaf, all of his disciples when united form one glorious temple where God dwells among them within the social fabric, otherwise known as “The Assembly” or what we in English call “ The Church.” The bread, Jesus’s body, reminds us that we believers individually and collectively constitute God’s temple. Jesus then provides us with the wine, his blood, which cleanses us as individuals and as communities of believers. After being cleansed, we are now able to have God in the form of his Holy Spirit live inside of us, as well as between us, and thus transform us into new creations.
This is a gravity shifting idea. Jesus is saying that God will no longer reveal himself in physical buildings as he had for the Jews in Jerusalem or for other ancient monotheistic religions, such as the yearly animal sacrifices to Shangdi, the “Emperor Above”, at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
These buildings never fully worked. They could not reform people’s minds in fundamental ways. Worse still the physical, geographic nature of buildings could eventually lead humans towards the sin of greed as humans contended with each other even to the extent of war so that they could own the material and worship God as they saw fit. This dynamic is what we see currently in the Middle East, particularly in Jerusalem where Jews and Muslims are at odds over who has the right to have a physical temple on the place where the Second Temple once stood. God realized that human evil would make any physical temple a cause for ever increasing evil and ruined relationships. However, by residing inside humans and within their relationships, these same humans could not only stop posing a danger to each other but could show others the way of Jesus. Thus the followers of the way could effectively reverse the entropy of sin. Thus, the love of God, working in his new temple would cause goodness to increase throughout the earth.
Signs of Life After Christ
What I described seems like a nice philosophy, but most of us don’t tend to see goodness increasing throughout the earth. What’s more is that self-proclaimed Christians cause no small part of the evil in the world. Even if their old humanity still exists why isn’t evil going away? How do we explain the continued sin of these Christians? What happens they sin in the future? Does Jesus have to come back and die again to atone for everyone’s future sins? We appear to have a significant problem. However, if we look at three of the miraculous signs mentioned in the Gospel of John, we can find some clues about how to determine which people are following the Way and how Jesus could possibly deal with any future sins.
We see the first miraculous sign that Jesus performed in John 2:1–10, just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem to cleanse the temple during the first Passover of his ministry. Jesus was at a wedding in a region called Galilee which was north of Jerusalem. As he was celebrating with the other guests, the wine ran out. This shortage would have been a major faux pas within their culture. When Jesus was called upon to help, he told some servants to take “jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing” and fill them with water. When the jars were given to someone who was not around to see the water poured in, the person drinks from a jar and announced that it is the best wine he has tasted at the wedding. Jesus had turned the water into wine. The sign thus first establishes the link between cleansing and wine. More importantly, though, the sign shows that the Holy Spirit’s power within Jesus can turn even widely available water into the wine of Jesus’s blood.
What is even more profound is that on two separate occasions later in John, Jesus says those who believe in him will receive “living water” and that this “living water” will “become in that person a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.”. He says this in John 4:13–14 and then makes the same claim in John 7:37–39, in which John directly explains the water to be a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. If we who receive Jesus’s words have in us a fountain, a natural source of water, it means that through the combination of Jesus’s words and the Holy Spirit’s power to turn water into wine we have a regenerating source of wine. This source will be more than enough to cleanse any future sins that we commit or that are others commit against the social fabric around us.
Much later we see an even more pivotal sign take place in John 6:1–13. In the story, a crowd of 5000 men — as well as unnumbered women and children — gathered to hear Jesus preach. Just like the story of the wine at the wedding, this event takes place in Galilee, north of Jerusalem, and happens just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the second Passover of his ministry. Jesus asked one of the disciples where they could buy bread to feed all of the people. Much like the leaders at the physical temple in Jerusalem, the disciple replied to Jesus as if he was crazy since the cost of feeding that many people as astronomical. However, Jesus then finds a boy who has five loaves of bread along with two fish. Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it then gives it to everyone to eat. Miraculously, the bread continues to divide as they break it amongst themselves. When everyone is full, the disciples gather up the remaining bread and find that there are 12 baskets left over that hadn’t been eaten, one basket for each of them.
Toward what reality was this sign supposed to point? It’s pretty clear that this foreshadows the Lord’s Supper when Jesus would again break bread among his disciples. However, this earlier miracle adds another element to the breaking of bread. It shows that through the blessing of God, the atoning nature of Jesus’s death able to multiply within us to the extent that it can cover every single person that hears Jesus’s words. This multiplication happens within us. Jesus’s body regenerates within those who have his words. Thus, the bread can satisfy both believers and others who have yet to received bread from Jesus. In fact, even if everyone heard Jesus’s words, there would still be more than enough potency for his death to cover more people.
The Ultimate Sign
These two pre-Passover signs, the first involving the wine and the second involving the bread, are in essence saying the same thing. Jesus’s sacrificial death along with the multiplying power of the Holy Spirit enable us to have a regenerating body and a regenerating life force. Put simply, Jesus’s sacrifice gives us eternal life.
As beautiful as those previous signs were in conveying such a deep spiritual truth, Jesus went much further following his final Passover. At that point, he performed his greatest sign which would leave no room for doubt in the minds of his earliest followers. It was the same sign that he predicted when he cleansed Herod’s Temple during his first Passover.
“‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again’.. Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body.” -John 2:19
The Holy Spirit raised Jesus’s body up from death. Jesus’s physical body and blood regenerated just like the bread and wine had. His resurrection was the greatest sign he could perform to show that the atonement and purification provided by his sacrificial death would be enough to cover and clean all consequences of all sin that could ever be committed.
Necessity of the Resurrection
As groundbreaking as it was, did Jesus’s resurrection do more than fulfill a spiritual reality? How is his resurrection supposed to apply to our lives in which we see every person has eventually die? Some of us can only go so far as to say that Jesus, like Laozi or Heraclitus, was a great moral teacher with a compelling philosophy. Those of us with such a view will have even more pressing questions. Why should we build our lives on the basis of a sensational event which we can’t prove with science? Why even bring up this idea of an afterlife? Doesn’t that lead to an escapist mentality? Aren’t we better off with a philosophy made for this life, the one we know, the one we have to hold on to?
For me, the answer lies in re-examining one of the core problems of temple buildings. As I mentioned earlier, if God were to continue designating any building or geographic location as a temple, adherents, or non-adherents who simply used religion as a tool, would be compelled to defend that place even to the point of violence and war even if such violence went against the very tenants the followers espoused. By the same human logic, now that God has designated human bodies as his temple beginning with Jesus, followers might think that they must then defend themselves and other believers even to the point of violence and war even if such violence went against the very tenants Jesus espoused.
Jesus went to great lengths to avoid any such violence from himself or his disciples. In particular, when Jesus was arrested, Peter, one of his disciples, grabbed a sword and cut off an ear from one of the opposing party members. Jesus rebuked Peter and told him to put his sword away. Later, when he faced trial by Pilate, the Roman leader in Jerusalem, Jesus made it very clear that those who followed him would not resort to violence. Pilate asked Jesus if Jesus was a king. Jesus replied that he was a king, but then qualified his statement.
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” -John 18:26
Jesus thus concluded that all kingdoms — all spheres of rule for that matter — seen before him and after him were of this world, and thus the servants of those kingdoms turned towards evil and violence to protect their sources of power, wealth, and security. Whether Davidic Monarchs or Babylonian Emperors or Persians Shahs or Hasmoneans Basileis or Roman Caesars or the Byzantine Bishops or Rashidun Caliphs or Crusaders or Colonialists or Puritans or Patriarchs or Yoruba Obas or Black Panthers or American Imperialists or Chinese Communists, all worldly kingdoms have followed the same script. The kingdom Jesus was announcing was radically different. It would be an upside-down kingdom. It would not be made of palaces and monuments but of people. It would not seek to defend itself from evil but rather absorb evil into itself so it could then conquer the evil with love. Jesus’s willful death on the cross would lead the way for all others in the kingdom to follow.
Jesus, mighty king in Zion!
Thou alone our guide shalt be;
Thy commission we rely on,
We would follow none but thee
— “Jesus, Mighty King in Zion” verse one by John Fellows
Jesus’s resurrection provided the hope that all followers would one day experience a bodily resurrection just like Jesus did. This truth freed them to die to their self-interest and in many cases to their very lives. It also freed them from creating more evil in their hearts in a vain hope of overcoming the evil around them. Fighting evil with evil was never going to work, but much more importantly, such evil in their hearts would prevent them from serving as God’s temple. God’s Holy Spirit could not dwell fully in beings so compromised by evil. Only with a willingness to die to self-interest and a hope to be resurrected can any human now begin to be reunited with God through his Spirit.
However, if the literal resurrection did not happen refraining from evil even at the threat of death would result in no benefit. Thus, without a resurrection following the Way is completely worthless. One would be throwing away one’s life in vain hope for a better world that cannot be. As the Apostle Paul put it, “if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone” (1 Corinthians 15:19). At that point, we may as well keep drone bombing terrorists in the Middle East, and just try our best to limit civilian casualties. Then eat and drink until you die (1 Corinthians 15:32), “that’s why we get high, ’cause you never know when you’re gonna go” like Nas said.
Baptism into Life
If one does accept the resurrection, that means that one can willfully accept dying with the knowledge that something far better awaits. However, one doesn’t have to wait until one’s physical death for that better life to start. To emphasize this truth, Jesus passed on the symbolic ritual of baptism. The ritual takes place when the new believer is submerged under water and then raised up out of the water.
Clearly the water of ceremonial baptism — just like the water in the ceremonial washing jars which Jesus turned to wine — is meant to portray the reality that Jesus’s blood has cleansed the temple of the new believer. It is a cleansing of the body — specifically the exterior — just as the wine of the Lord’s Supper is a cleansing of the interior — the mind and heart. The two rituals work together to show that all of the believer’s existence is cleansed — the mind, heart, and the body. It should be noted that by all accounts of early followers, believers are only baptized once when they first enter the faith. Meanwhile, all believers partake in the Lord’s Supper regularly. This difference may be indicative of Jesus’s priorities. In particular cleansing the material of the body once is sufficient. The mind and heart, though, require recurring cleansing and renewal.
There is at least one other piece of symbolism which baptism is meant to portray: overcoming death. For most modern readers the symbolism of entering into a body water is lost. However, to almost any ancient culture including Greco-Roman and Jewish being submerged in water would clearly portray the passage into death. The remaining traces of this symbolism within Western Culture exist in the references to the rivers Styx and Oceanus in Homer’s The Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid. Both rivers function to destroy the dead and also form a boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead or as Virgil put it, “its dreary water enchains them and Styx imprisons.” Jesus, however, conquered death, which is why in one of his signs, he walked on the Sea of Galilee (John 6:16–21). Even the waters of death could not destroy or imprison him.
Jesus did not intend to make walking on water a regular occurrence for his followers — even if his disciple Peter did do it once. Instead, the seemingly ordinary act of baptism testifies that believer willingly accepts to be submerged into the waters of death. However, one does not remain chained in the water like the ghosts of the ancients. Instead, the same power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from his earthen tomb raises the believer from her watery tomb into a resurrected life.
As an emblem of thy passion,
And thy victory o’er the grave;
We who know thy great salvation
Are baptized beneath the wave.
— “Jesus, Mighty King in Zion” verse two by John Fellows
This life isn’t like the one that we had before. It is no longer held prisoner to the ruin caused by our own sins and the sins of others. This life is free to love in a sacrificial way. This life is all made possible by the Holy Spirit who after raising the believer from the dead comes down and unites with believer to start her existence as God’s temple. The Holy Spirit then guides the believer as a mobile temple, or tabernacle, to bring God’s presence and love to whomever the Spirit wills. This descent of God into a human is what happened to Jesus before the beginning of his three-year ministry. We see the event portrayed in the very first narrative scene in the Gospel of John, John 1:29–34. There John the Baptist (different John than the author) after baptizing Jesus, testifies about Jesus by saying, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.”
As if the sign of a dove descending wasn’t enough, in the three other gospel accounts, the descent of the Holy Spirit is immediately followed by God the Father speaking in an audible voice. The Father says “You are my dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23). This remarkable occurrence is meant to show plainly that union with God occurs by him bringing individuals into his family and adopting the individual as his child. Only by living within the Spirit of a loving family can one truly know the Father and the Son. Entering into the family is synonymous with our reunion and thus synonymous with eternal life. We see this truth in Jesus’s final prayer before his arrest.
“Now this is eternal life — that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.” -John 17:3
This truth is the foundation for the final instructions that Jesus gives to his disciples after his resurrection. Whether they received with joy or killed with violence, they are to announce the good news, the gospel, to all who are willing to hear. Specifically, Jesus tells them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The baptism they are to spread is a baptism into a new name, into a spiritual family, and into an eternal life.
Fearless of the world’s despising,
We the ancient path pursue;
Buried with out Lord and rising
To a life divinely new.
— “Jesus, Mighty King in Zion” verse three by John Fellows
The Way of life that the Spirit has only recently helped me start to understand and try to articulate here is a radical departure from how the vast majority of people live their lives. Even for those self-proclaimed Christians, many of whom have fragmented pieces of inherited dogma but have never experienced reunion with God, the way of life described here in no way reflects their own. However, I do believe it is much closer to The Way that Jesus’s earliest followers walked in the first century CE. Through the centuries and even until now there have certainly been other true followers, people who have walked along what Jesus referred to as the narrow and difficult way which few find, the way that runs through the cross and into eternal life (Matthew 7:13–14). However, we’ve never heard of most of these people. Many of them — just like the earliest followers — were killed along the Way with little fanfare while others lived but willfully faded into obscurity. These very people are the antidote that we’ve been searching for all along. They are the ones that carry inside of them the regenerating body and blood passed down from Jesus. They are the ones through whom God will cure humanity of its virus and restore hope to the hopeless. I want to be part of that cure.