When I talk with people about how Genesis 1 and 2, or the flood narrative, or other assorted things in Scripture are not literal history, the number one concern that people tend to bring up fairly quickly goes something along the lines of (with a huge note of caution, concern, and alarm) :
“Wait – if you don’t take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, then how do you know what else in the Bible to not take literally – and how are you sure that Jesus is a literal person and His story should be taken literally??”
Right. Well, first, I don’t always know in every case what in the Bible is literal, what is literal while simultaneously figurative, and what is just not. I’ll just be honest and put that out there. But as to Jesus being literal, I think most people asking this question might already sort of have a sense of the answer, because as I write it it’s going to seem almost too easy I think. But fear has a way of blinding us to truths we already know, so sometimes encouragement is just the voice which reminds us of what we DO know, unencumbered by those fears. But here is my reply:
“….the substance belongs to Christ.”
Ok, end of blog post. 🙂
No way, that would be my shortest blog post ever! So let’s look at this a little deeper. Now, it just doesn’t work to go backwards on this – to say that, “In order for Jesus to be real, we have to claim that Genesis 1 & 2 must be literally real too” might seem to have noble motives behind it, but it’s just not a good path to go down. Jesus’s reality does not hinge on Genesis – rather, Genesis’s reality hinges on Him. After all, if Jesus isn’t real, most Christians aren’t going to give a hill of beans if Genesis is (at least until the dust settles for them somewhere between Atheism and Judaism.) And if Genesis indeed isn’t plain history, me lying about it to prop up Jesus’s reality is bound to get us all into hot water sooner or later, and just isn’t generally the type of foundation anyone would want Jesus to have for a claim to His reality.
“….the substance belongs to Christ.”
So to elucidate: In the context of the verse above from Colossians, the topic is about practicing rituals from the the Old Testament (the Torah) like the Sabbath or New Moon or what have you – and that these things have their place, but that Jesus is more “real” than all of those (aka, He is the real, the fulfillment, the actuality of what all those things are.)
Here are more verses on the same general tone, this time from the writer of Hebrews:
They [people living out the instructions of the books of Moses] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood,and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.
We know that Jesus during His Earthly ministry showed up and had this strong preference for speaking in parables and stories. We tend to think that this is a uniquely Jesus-y thing – that everything in the Bible is stone cold factual reality and history (except for poetry, of course) apart from Jesus’s very unique and quirky way of getting a point across. AND, we tend to believe that Jesus told stories in order to really “get at the heart” – to really, truly, illustrate a point in a way that a straightforward teaching might not be able to. But this isn’t what Jesus or the writers of scriptures had to say about the reason for this style of revelation. As uncomfortable as it may be to consider, it seems Jesus’s motivations in story-telling were more about a motive to CONCEAL, than to reveal:
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” Mark 4:10-12
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’
Now, why on Earth or in Heaven God would have such a motive is well beyond the scope of this blog post, and I’ll be up front and say I’m not even going to claim to have a real grasp on it either. But the idea that God has some delight in concealing things is also seen here:
“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” ~ Proverbs 25:2
So we have Jesus, concealing truth by using parables. Could – Would – God the Father also use parables, stories that conceal truth, stories that are God-breathed but not literally historically true (nor even immediately clear in their intended meanings and use?) We are told that Jesus is the fulness of God in flesh, and the express image of His person and that “did nothing He did not see His Father doing” – that in fact, He and the Father are One. So could – would – God the Father possibly do similar things?
Actually it’s not totally the right question to ask – it’s not a matter of whether or not God would do the same things as His Son, but whether or not His Son was pretty much walking in His Father’s footsteps – doing the same things His Father always does, had already done.
So we gotta ask the question: What is WITH this shadowy, copy tabernacle stuff anyway? Have you ever asked, “Why bother?” Or, “Why would God do it that way – set up an entire religion for thousands of years when that who system wasn’t even His main goal?” He is an incredible concealer, isn’t HE? While at the same exact time an amazing Teacher.
It depends in part of whether someone has the key to open the mystery. He seems to be able to teach and reveal while hiding and concealing in the very same breath. He’s a God who surrounds Himself with clouds of darkness, but is Himself a blazing light. He’s a God who veils Himself, then splits the veil and becomes the way through it, for some it is taken away completely. And yet for others the veil is never gone.
Maybe it’s unseemly to focus on such things, after all, people are already questioning God’s character and motives in the blogosphere without me bringing up more uncomfortable things about how He does His God-thing. But while I’m not going to explain too much of the whys, let’s just take a good look at the thing and acknowledge that it’s there in Scripture – because it is.
So here in Psalm 78 is what my friend calls, “The Case of the Missing Parable.” Asaph starts out announcing that he’s about to tell a parable, a dark saying:
Psalm 78:1-4 A Maskil of Asaph.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
And then you can read the rest, all 72 verses which recount seemingly no dark sayings or parables whatsoever, just the seemingly literal, plain, historical (and if I’ll be honest, a bit boring) retelling of the history of the people of Israel and God’s works among them. My mischievous friend likes to read the whole long wordy thing aloud (which takes several minutes) to folks he ends up having this discussion with, and then matter-of-factly closes the book and looks up innocently enough to shrug and say, “Where’s the parable?”
Maybe we shouldn’t make too much out of Psalm 78’s parable – or maybe we should make a whole lot out of it. Maybe we should just read it as a subtle hint from a God who conceals things and tantalizes His Kings and Priests to seek Him out.
So let’s bring this full circle:
We know that Christ is the fulfillment of all that went before Him, of everything in the Scriptures. We know that He *is* the substance, the reality. We know our salvation is found in Him, not in the first Adam, nor in Abraham, nor in Moses or even in King David. We know it’s not altars made with tools, circumcisions made with hands, temples made by men, or the blood of bulls and goats that means anything. It’s not the keeping of days, it’s not the eating or abstention from certain foods, and it’s not even physical bloodlines from Abraham that makes someone a real child of God. So why are we so entirely horrified and frightened to think that these things we know are shadows and types and copies might not even in some cases even be “real?”
When the sun shines on you as you walk down the street, does it matter to you if your shadow on the ground has a real beating heart in it, or if it is a real person? And if you went to your kid’s school and there was a show for all the kids involving shadow puppets, are you going to get upset and feel your child was deceived if you find out that the shadow puppets were just some lady’s hands?
If you were, you’d seem at best really…silly. And at worst, really unhinged.
Kids are OK with enjoying and learning from shadow puppets. The ancient Hebrews were OK with Ancient Near East Creation Mythology. Then in the “fulness of time” when God decided His people were at the right point in the timeline, the lights came on and the shadow puppets disappeared.
Sort of. Yes, the REAL was finally here. But even He couldn’t stop telling stories that weren’t exactly literal reality…because, that’s just not how it’s done – and it’s not the Way He is. But He the Story Teller – and the Story Himself – were and are and ever will be completely real, to the point of being the very nature and substance of Reality “I am Who I am” Himself.