Subversion and Distancing by Law
“For Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Rom. 10:4). RSV
Our beginning point will be the symbol of the old covenant Law or Scripture. We will begin by making the bold statement that revelation did away with the Old Testa-ment Law (Torah) and Scripture by encompassing its essence and superseding it by personifying it in the living symbol of Jesus. It was the reinstatement of the old and lifeless symbol of Law (written code) that marked the beginning of the subversion of the faith and a return to religion. This is not to say that the Law does not reveal God, for it surely does.
Furthermore, the Old Testament Scripture is useful for a number of things. It can aid us in understanding God as long as it is interpreted in light of the more complete revelation of God in Christ. It can also aid us in making ethical choices, though the decisive factor is the Spirit of Christ. Surely, the Scripture with its great stories of faith gives us encouragement (2 Tim. 3:16, Rom. 15:4). However, we need to remember when it comes to revealing God, the Law reveals Him in a hidden or veiled form, giving us only a shadow of His essence. It did this through the sacred symbols of mediation we find in the Old Testament, the old covenant itself being one of the sub-symbols of the Old Testament Scripture. These symbols were given to point to and foreshadow the final and complete revelation of God, which is Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and the end (goal) of all Old Testament symbols. For once the reality has come, there is no need for the shadow to remain (Rom. 3:21, 10:4, Heb. 8:3-6, 10:1-4).
The truth that Jesus was the end and fulfillment of the Law was not a truth immediately grasped by the disciples or the early church. However, as time passed (at least 15 years) and the church began to expand into the world of the Gentiles (the people of the world), serious questions began to arise as to the relationship of the Old Testament Law and the Gentiles. Over a decade passed before the Law and its religion would be brought under the scrutiny of revelation and viewed anew through the Christ event. This may help us to understand why some time passed before the church developed a theology regarding the relationship of Law and Gospel. It simply was not an issue until the church began to invite the world to join it in the Christ event. At that time, the church was forced through circumstances to look at its religion and the religion of its fathers, in light of the revelation of Christ. The result of this shook the pillars of the Jewish religion. The conclusion of the Christian movement was that none of the symbols of its religion could be bound on the people of the world. These symbols included the Law itself, holy days, priesthood, circumcision, holy places, etc. (Acts. 15:5-12).
For many today, a similar crisis is dawning. For the primitive church, it was a question of whether their Jewish religion could be separated from their faith in Christ. Some decided it could; others decided it could not be separated from their faith; the latter ended up either subverting the faith or returning to Judaism. The question today is, can we separate our religious things from our Christ things? Will we listen to the Spirit as many did in the early church or will we revert to law and institutions? Will we allow others the time and freedom to make Christ a part of their culture, or will we impose our institutionalized religion and our mummified traditions on them? Do we dare let the living Christ out of our institutionalized religion as the early church did?
As the result of the early church’s decisions, we see in the first century a general and progressive movement away from religion toward a new and radical way of approaching God. It was the way of faith apart from religion. In fact, it was not new, for this was the way it all began with a man named Abraham (Rom. 4). Abraham had a relationship with God apart from the mediation of Law or Scripture – in other words, apart from organized religion. However, shortly after the death of the apostles, we begin to see a movement back toward religion. This movement back to religion began when the church turned back to the old covenant symbol of Law (100 to 200 A.D.). As time went on, the old covenant symbol of Law was expanded to take in all the creeds and traditions of the church and became known as Canon Law. During this earlier period (100 to 200 A.D.) there was some resistance to the reinstatement of Law, but for the most part it was accepted with little resistance. The reason for this ready acceptance of Law probably came as the result of the chaos that had entered the church after the death of the apostles. Because of this, the church began to be filled with wandering charismatics and disorderly members. Therefore, it seemed logical and expedient to return to Law. Besides, there was still a large Jewish element in the church that exercised a great influence on the entire church. This group had never totally abandoned their religion and would feel comfortable with this movement to reinstate the symbol of Law into the faith. Plus, the Roman culture that the church had moved into was steeped in Law. All this made it all too easy to return to the symbols of Law and religion, thus, subverting the faith and distancing the people through a symbol of mediation (Law or religion).
The consequences of reinstating the symbol of Law in the Christian movement were many. One of the major consequences was the impression that man not only had to believe in Christ for salvation, but he had to also practice the right religion in order to be saved. In other words, one would have to conform to human beliefs and traditions. It is to this that the apostle Paul spoke when he said, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus. 3:4-5). Some have interpreted the phrase “righteous things” to mean good deeds in general, but it is obvious from the context Paul is talking about the practice of religion and the attitude that religion is going to somehow save you. This self-righteous attitude of right religion has now been translated into the “right church” mentality that is so prevalent in the Christian church today. Religion may have a number of practical benefits, but it will never save anyone. Good religion may lead one to revelation and therefore salvation, but one will never find salvation in religion. Salvation is only in revelation (Jesus).
It would be safe to say there is good religion and bad religion. Good religion is whatever we do or believe that brings us closer to God. Bad religion is whatever we do or believe that distances us from God. If I had my choice, I would hope that I would choose good religion. However, good religion will not save anyone and bad religion will not condemn anyone, unless it blinds one to revelation, which it has the propensity to do. The only thing that counts in Christ is faith that works through love (Gal 5:6). Religion counts for nothing. Religion at its best can only be one’s interpretation of revelation. Therefore, religion is the private property of the individual and should never be bound on others, and no one should get so serious about his religion that he allows it to separate him from his brothers in Christ. I think we all need a little more practice in distinguishing between religion and revelation – in other words, distinguishing human deduction from the facts of the faith. We need to recognize when people or institutions impose their deductions on others, those deductions become nothing more than human laws and constitute a return to Law (religion).
Here we need to remember to be cautious in interpreting the Scriptures with a Western mindset that sees an ethical meaning in the word Law. In some passages, it does carry an ethical meaning, but in many it simply means religion. Religion, in this context, means the Old Testament Scriptures and the system of ritual that grew out of them. One can be saved without religion, but one cannot be saved without ethics. We are not saved by our ethics, but we are saved unto an ethical life in Christ. When one has a right relationship with God, one will begin to live like Jesus. Anyone who does not live the ethical life of Jesus cannot be a Christian (1 John 1:6). The ethical life of the Christian centers on Jesus and is embodied in love for his brothers in Christ. However, being saved does not necessitate one being religious. In fact, you could say for the Christian, that Christ is our only ethic and our religion. For those wishing to study further the relationship of law and religion, I would recommend the following: Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People by E.P. Sanders and Jesus, Paul, and the Law by James D.G. Dunn.
The Mediation of the Law
The Law is both a symbol of mediation and actually a mediator between God and man. In other words, the Law stands between God and man, increasing the distance between the two. However, when we turn to the New Testament, we find that it is clearly stated, “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). In Christ, the lifeless mediator of Law has been replaced by the living and life-giving mediator, Jesus Christ. It is in the one mediator, Jesus Christ, God and man are united. In fact, all of humanity is potentially united in this one symbol of unity and peace. When the symbol of Law is added, it shatters this oneness, distancing God from man and dividing mankind. In view of the division in the Christian church, we would have to conclude that the symbol of Law is still very much a part of the mentality of the majority of Christians. This becomes even more obvious when you consider that creeds and theological systems, when accepted as absolutes, are nothing more than laws, whether verbal or written.
In view of what has been said about the Old Testament symbols of Law and Scripture, one would expect to find a great deal of information on this subject in the writings. In fact, this is the case. The New Testament is filled with teachings that address the relationship between the Law and revelation (Christ).
In keeping with the flow of thought, I feel one of the best texts in the New Testament for our study would be one that uses the analogy between a veil and religion. It may surprise some to learn that the apostle Paul used this analogy in a very similar way to our usage. He does this in 2 Corinthians, the third chapter, where he makes a contrast between the old way (Jewish religion) and the new way of faith in Christ.
Paul said; “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” Paul here affirms that believers do not just read the Bible about the work of God. Like their Lord, they are the word and work of God. Through the power of the Spirit, they are becoming the word and are experiencing the work of God in their own lives. In fact, all men can see God at work in them as He transforms them into the image of His Son. In truth, they are becoming living Scripture. In other words, they are becoming living symbols of the will and presence of God. Therefore, the Church is thus not only receiver of the Word of revelation, but is itself revelation and Word of God. Only in so far as it is itself Word of God, can it understand the Word of God. Revelation can be understood only on the basis of revelation. The Word is in the Church in so far as the Church is the recipient of revelation. But the Word is also itself Church, in so far as the Church itself is revelation and the Word wishes to have the form of a created body. (Christ The Center, Bonhoeffer, pages 5859)
The apostle Paul goes on to say, “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:1-5). If we approach this passage using symbolism as our mindset, we find Paul contrasting the effectiveness and meaning of certain symbols. The contrast is between the old covenant or Law, which to the Jews was a symbol of God’s presence and acceptance, and the new covenant symbol of God’s Spirit-filled people, which also symbolized God’s presence and acceptance. In this, Paul is pointing out that the very presence of the Christian community is in itself a symbol of God’s presence, acceptance, and in this case, a witness to Paul’s own ministry. In making this contrast, Paul is pointing out that the new covenant along with its symbolism is superior to the old. He also tells us why it is superior. The reason is the old is based on the symbol of Law (letter) and the new on the symbol of Spirit. He infers in this, the Spirit is greater than the Law (letter) for without the Spirit, the letter is powerless and ineffective. For the law (written code) is in itself a lifeless symbol that has no power to impart life; therefore, he characterizes law (religion alone with its sacred books) as leading to death, for the law has no life in itself. Thus, it cannot impart life. However, the Spirit is life-giving because it is alive and imparts life to all who receive it through faith in Christ. In Paul’s thinking, it seems life must come from life and death comes from death or the lifeless. Therefore, one receives either life or death from one’s absolute. In this context, Paul is telling his readers if they choose as their absolute the lifeless symbol of Law [religion], they will die, for there is no life in that symbol. In saying this, his plea is for them to put their faith in the quickening symbols of Christ and His Spirit and not in the lifeless symbols of religion.
Beginning with verse seven of the text, Paul begins to sharpen the contrast between the ministry of the new covenant which he says imparts the Spirit and life, and the old covenant which is a ministry of the letter (Law) and imparts death. (Also note Galatians 4:1-4). Under the old covenant, Moses and the Law were symbols of mediation that stood between God and the people. Under the new covenant, Christ and the Spirit are the only mediators between God and His people. Paul goes on to say, “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts” (2 Cor. 3:7-11).
In this section, Paul reminds his readers that when Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the Law (Ten Commandments), his face was reflecting the image or glory of God. Then upon returning, we find Moses putting a veil over his face so the people could not look directly at the image of God being reflected by his face. In this act, Moses was symbolizing what God was doing in the act of giving the Law. God was in this act veiling Himself in the Law and putting the Law and Moses as mediators between Himself and the people. Thus, the people were limited in having a personal relationship with God. However, under the new covenant, which is Christ, the veil has been lifted and believers can know God and have a personal relationship with Him in and through the God-man Jesus Christ. Unlike the new covenant, the old covenant was founded on the principle of human mediation. Therefore, it could not impart life, because no human has life in himself or herself to impart to another. Thus, Moses and the Levitical priesthood could only impart Law, which is as powerless to impart life as the human mediator who gives it. Thus, law can only be a symbol of the distancing of God from the people. In contrast, the new covenant, which is Christ, is founded on the principle of Spirit and because the Spirit has life in itself, it has the power to impart the Spirit (life) that leads to oneness with God and a sense of God’s immediacy. The Spirit then reveals God in the believer, which in turn allows and helps the believer to understand the true intent or spirit of the law. Therefore, the new covenant surpasses the old in glory, for through it, the Spirit is imparted and remains in the believer by faith in Jesus (Gal. 3:2-5). Thus, under the new covenant, the believer begins with faith and abides by faith and that leaves no room for religion (Law) and its works of righteousness (Titus. 3:5). In addition, the new covenant through the power of the Spirit reveals God to the believer and through the believer to the world, something that the old did not have the power to do.
Furthermore, from observing verse seven of this section (2 Cor. 3:7-11), we see the ministry of Moses, which included the Ten Commandments, is referred to as a ministry that brought death. The Ten Commandments formed the basis or the foundation of the entire old covenant. It was when Moses received the Ten commandments from God that his face began to reflect the glory of God. But gradually, that glory faded away. Paul here uses this fading glory in the face of Moses to illustrate what was happening in the transitional period he and the early church lived in. In this period, the superior ministry of the Spirit had come and the ministry of Moses and the Law [religion] was fading away (v.11). There was a time when Moses and the Law did reflect God, though in a veiled way, but now God was being reflected in a much fuller way by His Son and in the believers through the Spirit that dwells in them. Under the old covenant the cry was to the Law and to the testimony (Isa. 8:20), but under the new, it is to Christ and the Spirit. To the believer, Jesus is the only Law and the only testimony.
From the overall context of 2 Corinthians, chapter three, we can then infer that the written code is no longer a symbol of the presence of God, nor is it able to impart life for it has no life in and of itself. Therefore, neither the Law nor Scripture can symbolize or mediate the presence or acceptance of God. At their very best they can only be viewed as witnesses who point us to Christ; who is the Living Word that gives life to all who come to Him through the word of His testimony, which imparts the Spirit. In Christ, all Christians, like the Corinthians are becoming the embodiment of Scripture through the power of the Spirit even as the Lord Himself was the embodiment of the Old Testament Torah. It is in the believers’ hearts and lives that the Word of God is effective and becomes living and active and is read by all men. Some may not read the written Scriptures, but they cannot help but read and see God personified in the lives of His people even as He was in His Son.
It is the Christian community, filled with the Spirit that is now becoming living Scriptures that are read by all men. It is through this living Word of God, that is, God’s people, that the veil of religion is lifted allowing man to see and seek God. “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to do this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:13-18).
In the above, Paul continues to build the contrast between the two covenants by pointing out that Christians are not like Moses who veiled the glory of God, but rather they reflect God’s glory by reflecting the glory or image of Christ who is the image of God. When men looked at Moses, who symbolizes the revelation of God, they could not see a clear image of God because of the veil (religion, Law) he had over his face. Paul likens this to people reading the old covenant. He says that when they read it apart from Christ, their minds are darkened. Is this not the case today, when men try to understand God through the system and greed of the Christian religion? Only in and through the symbol of Christ alone can one have a clear understanding of God’s nature or glory. In view of this, the Old Testament should always be interpreted in light of the Christ event and the New Testament Scripture. Therefore, the New Covenant, with its symbols of Christ and His Spirit-filled people supersedes the symbols of Moses and the old covenant Scripture. In other words, revelation supersedes all religion. In a very true sense, the Word of God is God embodied in His Son and His people. Today, in this New Testament period, God’s glory or image is being powerfully reflected in the face of Christ and His people, which are the living symbols of the new covenant.
From the above we can understand that God revealed Himself in a veiled form in and through the old covenant (Law or religion) and its symbols of mediations. In contrast, He now reveals Himself fully (to those seeking Him) in and through His Son and His Spirit-filled people. It is now the work of the Spirit to first reveal Christ in His people and then reveal Christ to the world through His people. The gospel, which is the bearer of the Spirit, is embodied in all believers and is in their mouths and in their hearts and is heard and read (seen) by all men (Rom. 10:7-18). It is through the living Scriptures of His Spirit-filled people who God now draws near to man. When the symbol of Law is added, God is distanced from the people and the faith is subverted.
Moreover, we see in the reinstatement of Law the first step in the evolution of the Jesus movement from a simple faith and way of life, to a religion that has exceeded all others in its complexities and institutionalization.
The Curse Of The Secular
There was a time when Western culture had sacred times, places and men. Now we have the secular and everything has become equal and ordinary. The mystery in the world has been taken out of the holy and sacred, leaving us with nothing but the secular or the profane without mystery and without wonder. This is a huge negative because it’s out of wonder and mystery that the celebration of life comes. We celebrate life because of its mystery. Once the mystery is taken out there is nothing left but hollow and empty dogmas’.
For example, we used to dress up for special occasions, but now we have few special occasions and the ones that we have are empty for most people. Everything, everyone and every place is equal, the special has been overcome by the ordinary. The weak, the insignificant and the small have overcome the big and the powerful. The sacred has been destroyed by the ordinary. The curse of secularism has come upon us. Increasingly our language is becoming profane and secular. Nothing is holy, nothing is sacred, all words are profane, which in the end means nothing is important or special because everything is equal. Good is evil and evil is good. Nothing is sacred, all is profane.
Some would say that science has done this but that’s not the case, what really has done it is the ego of man who has made himself larger, and God small, to the point that God has been eliminated from the world of us men. In contrast, true science has proven that the creation is infinitely big and infinitely small beyond the imagination of man. The problem is that science, like religion, has been over powered by the profane and has become secularized. Remember, that early scientist’s were some of the greatest men of faith. Their science was a wellspring of wonder and amazement at the creation of God. Their science came out of wonder, today the science of the secular comes out of doubting. It was not science, that emptied science of faith, but rather it was the secular and profane thinking of the enlightenment which profaned science and culture, and even religion.
It is surprising that atheism and Christianity has one thing in common, both equalize everything. Atheism does it by making everything equally profane and Christianity does it by making everything sacred. Christianity, if I understand it correctly makes everything sacred. All men are sacred, all places are sacred, all truth is sacred and all time is sacred. Therefore, Christianity is a positive force in the world exulting all things to a higher level where unbelief is a negative force reducing everything to the profane, even human life.
If I am correct the secular world is, and will, pay a terrible price for their belief system of the secular. We can begin to see some of the consequences of the secular mind in the atheistic systems of communism and socialism. But the horrors have just begun. The profaning of sexuality, marriage and the family will usher in the complete collapse of civilization as we know it today. It will reduce everything to the level of beasts seeking the lowest common denominator. Secularism is man’s attempt to return to all fours.
From Jesus to Religion
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1Tim 4:1-2).
Our title reflects the movement of history – the history of the Jesus movement and how a movement that began with the revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ could grow into a religion that represents the very opposite of what the original revelation represented. In this chapter, we will observe this movement from revelation to religion by tracing the addition of foreign symbols, as well as noting the changes in the original symbols and their meanings.
We begin with the master or central symbol of the Christian movement. This symbol, of course, is Jesus Himself. Jesus not only lived physically, but He also lived symbolically (Luke 2:34). He was the symbol of God amongst us. Karl Rahner said, “The Logos is the symbol of the Father.” We might say that He is the self-revelation or self-expression of God Himself. Therefore, the very nature of God is expressed symbolically in and through Jesus.
In his book, The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture, F.W. Dillistone points to Christ as a central symbol of the Christian faith. “In my view it is both fitting and true to the witness of New Testament writers to confess Jesus as the central symbol of God. ‘Centre’ is a category which has played a dual role in human affairs. Both in a circle and in a straight line, the centre is a point of major significance; society is normally ordered from a central place: a covenant or agreement between two parties also finds its guarantee through joint assent and signature at a central place. Jesus, as symbol, becomes the centre in both ways. It is the confession of Christians of all ages that Jesus Himself, revealed through the words and life-patterns of His followers and interpreted to successive generations by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was the central symbol, potentially uniting the whole of humanity to God Himself.”
The Immediacy of God
It is also important for us to understand the basic meaning of the symbolism of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ presence in the world was a symbol that God Himself was now present in the world of men. This is not to say that God was not actually present in Christ, but is a way to look beyond the physical presence to the spiritual meaning. Matthew captures the very essence of the symbolic meaning of Jesus when he records the announcement of the angel to Joseph. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). The implications of God being among us are staggering, for it implies that all the symbols that mediated a transcended God are no longer needed. The God of the other world has come into the world of men in the person of His son. Therefore, the religious symbols that mediate His presence in the past are no longer needed. The coming of God among His people in the person of Jesus has rendered all the mediating symbolism of religions obsolete, old, and destined to vanish away (Heb. 8:13). Thus, God’s people now have direct access and fellowship with the Father in Jesus Christ. Hence, all symbols of the Christian faith must symbolize the presence of God among His people in their ordinary and everyday experiences. Any symbol that does not must be viewed suspiciously as a possible subversion of the faith and a distancing of God from His people. All such symbols are questionable and should be scrutinized to see if they belong in the Christian movement. These symbols surely should never be bound on other believers as symbols of God’s acceptance or symbols of acceptable fellowship that mediates between believers.
In view of this, the entire enterprise of religion itself, along with its sacred symbols of mediation might be brought into question. At the very least, we must begin to view religion with a suspicion that it may not be everything it seems to be. In fact, if we are right, it is the very opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, at least to the majority, to be a symbol of the presence of God. However, in reality it is a symbol of the absence and negation of the true God, who no longer dwells in the sacred or holy, but rather in the everyday and ordinary. Keeping with this line of thought, we could say that religion itself is a symbol and it is a symbol that speaks. When it speaks, it speaks of a God who is out there somewhere in another world, a God who is wholly other and removed from the world of men; a God who is distant from His people and who must be approached in and through the sacred. Yet, when we turn to revelation, we find that God is no longer to be found in the sacred symbols of religion, but rather in the symbols of His one and only Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit that abides with and in His Spirit-filled people. In these two living symbols, God has drawn near to His people in the everyday for everyone. There is no longer a need for believers to approach God through the sacred symbols of religion. Though religious symbols may induce feelings of other-worldliness, they cannot and do not draw us closer to God. In the end, all religious symbols other than Jesus and the Spirit, will distance people from God. For in the end, at least for the majority of men, all religious symbolism slips into idolatry.
When the apostle John saw the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down out of heaven, he proclaimed, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). John’s words become pregnant with meaning, when one understands that for the Jews, the temple was the master or central symbol of their religion and mediated the presence of God. One implication of this is that in the city of God there are no religious symbols that mediate the presence of God. For in that city, there is no need for religion as a mediator for God, because God is present in the person of His Son. That city is now represented on earth by the body of Christ (Gal. 4:26). The temple or sacred place has now been replaced with the symbol of Jesus and His Spirit-filled body (1 Cor. 3:16, 2 Cor. 6:14-18). Hence, the symbols of religion have no place in the city of God or the Christian movement. Today the church as the body of Christ, created by the Word, imbibed with the Spirit is now the master symbol of the living God’s presence. However, the church can only be this symbol as long as it is walking in the power of the Spirit and is enlivened by the life of its Lord. When a church loses the Spirit of Jesus, it becomes nothing more than a lifeless symbol that relies on ritual and form, which are nothing more than hollow and empty symbols of religion. When the church loses the Spirit, it becomes a lifeless institution that tries to invoke the grace of God through its ritual and its ostentatiousness. In this, it does not hear God nor does it see God in the ordinary and everyday. In its lifelessness, it becomes nothing more than a mute idol that neither sees nor hears.
In addition to Christ and the Spirit representing the real presence of God among His people, these living symbols also represent the unity and oneness of God and man. In Christ, God and man have become one. The implication of this is, if God and man are one in Christ, this oneness should overflow into the relationship that man has with his fellowmen. Consequently, Christ is not only the symbol of the presence of God but also of reconciliation between men and the Old Testament idea of shalom. “He is our peace (shalom) who…has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:1415). In view of this, we might state the following axiom: Any symbol or an interpretation of a symbol that promotes or stands for division has been misinterpreted or is an unauthorized addition to the Christian faith. All authorized symbols rightly interpreted will point to Christ and promote the unity of the Spirit.
Moreover, any symbol that diverts attention away from the center symbol of Jesus must also be rejected. Even the symbol of the Spirit must point to the central symbol of Jesus Christ. Any theology that makes the Spirit or anything else the center must be rejected as a subversion of the faith. It is only when men have focused on something other than Jesus that division can creep into the Christian movement. In fact, all the sects of Christendom propagate them-selves by focusing on one or more symbols other than Christ. If these symbols are removed, there remains no reason for the existence of the sect. Therefore, we find that the membership of most sects have become propagators and protectors of religious symbols instead of proclaiming faith in Christ. In doing this, they have caused unprecedented division. However, in doing this, they end up diverting attention away from the central symbol of Christ to lesser symbols or they relegate the symbol of Christ to the same level of a lesser symbol. Though they vehemently deny this, their actions speak symbolically louder than their words. They separate and divide over symbols other than Jesus. They spend more time talking and studying about lesser symbols than Jesus. If Jesus is the central symbol, why do the churches spend so much of their time talking about the lesser symbols of the Bible, such as men, creeds, morality, prophecy, and the like, often without even showing how they relate to Jesus? Without Jesus being the center, people will soon find themselves living from the flesh [law], filled with division and strife. Only when a group has Jesus as the center, will it become a sign and a symbol of the Spirit of Christ and unity in the Christian community.
The Distancing and Subversion of God
In view of what has been said, I think it is fair to say that religion is like a veil of symbols, which creates a darkness that hides God and shields the people from His presence. In other words, religion removes God from the everyday and distances Him from His people. He is then no longer viewed as being among His people, but rather in some distant heaven. His only presence on earth is seen in religion and its sacred symbols of mediation. We can gather from the popularity of religion that many men do not want to live in an unmediatedIt’s state in the presence of the true God. So they lock Him away in their sacred boxes of sacred places, people, times, and books. For if they can put God back into the sacred, then they can live with the illusion that He does not know what they are doing in the everyday. This allows them to live in two worlds – the sacred and the secular while living by two different standards. However, any god who can be put into our little religious boxes is not the God you read about in the Scriptures and surely is not a God, who can help us in time of need. The god in the box, the God of all religion, becomes an idol; an idol, which Christ came to destroy.
I have charged the Christian religion with the heinous crime of subverting the revelation of God. I have also established the motive. That is, man does not want to live in the presence of revelation. For he does not want to conform to
its norms, nor does he want to continually stand under its judgment. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light (revelation) because their deeds were evil” (John. 3:19). Though men hate revelation and refuse to conform to it, at the same time, they know that they cannot live without it, for then they would have no hope. So man finds himself in a paradox where he cannot live with or without revelation. How does he solve the problem? He solves the problem by watering down, changing, and subverting revelation to where it feels comfortable to live with. These changes usually take the form of changes in the meaning of symbols or the addition of unauthorized symbols. In adding unauthorized symbols man sets himself up as the judge of revelation instead of allowing revelation to sit in judgment of him.
In addition, he usurps the authority of God Himself and in actuality, sits in judgment of God. In this, man commits the religious sin of playing god before God. Needless to say, God is not impressed with this parody. It is here that the atheist shows himself more righteous than the religious man. For the atheist openly rejects revelation, while the religious man knavishly subverts it in the name of God.
In the next chapter we will begin to trace this subversion of revelation by observing the changes and additions in the symbols found in the Christian movement. As we trace this subversion, we need to remember that these changes did not happen overnight. Many of them took decades, even centuries, to creep into the faith and often these changes did not go unchallenged by some of the church fathers. However, the forces behind these changes were too powerful and the majority of the church found itself being swept along by a tidal wave of change and subversion. Even so, there has always remained a group in the church that has resisted this subversion. These were often the ones labeled radical or even heretical.
A Forest of Symbols
“ Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8-10).
One of the main linguistic tools we will be using in our study of the contrast between religion and revelation is that of the symbol. In recent years, scholars have come to understand the importance of language in all areas of life. Language is the key that unlocks the door to what it means to be truly human. Along with this increased interest and understanding of language, there has been a corresponding increased interest and understanding of the importance of the uses of symbols in human communications. Increasingly, many scholars are coming to believe that symbols are not only the key to understanding much of the human language, but also the key to understanding the whole of the human enterprise. The importance of symbols can be seen in the statement of one author when he says, “To live is to live symbolically.” He said this because he realized humans live in a forest of symbols. In fact, he believes they are symbols themselves. Our very consciousness and identity are created and shaped by the symbols of our culture. Bernard Cook adds to our understanding of the importance of symbols when he says,
“For it is now becoming clearer that symbol is not something that humans use occasionally and for the most part aesthetically, even artificially. Rather, symbol is of the essence of all thought and all language. Even more basically, the very model of existing, which is distinctive of humans is symbolic; we are more than ‘symbol-making beings’ as Cassirer and Langer have insisted, We exist symbolically because the spiritual dimension of our being ‘speaks’ itself-though never with complete satisfaction-in our bodily-ness.”
“All this impinges strongly on the study of symbols, for inner consciousness, even on the level of the subconscious, is shaped and animated by symbols. More than that, the entire process of consciousness being translated into communication as a basis for society is a process of symbolizing. And conversely, the shaping influence of culture and society upon an individual’s inner existence is exerted through symbols of one sort or another.” The Distancing of God by Bernard J. Cooke (page 296, 299)
From Cooke, we can gather somewhat the importance of symbols, but we have yet to define a symbol. A symbol may be defined as “a word or object or thing or action or event or pattern or person or concrete particular…Representing or suggesting or signifying or veiling…Something greater or transcendent or ultimate: a meaning, a reality, an ideal, a value, an achievement, a belief, a community, a concept, an institution, a state of affairs.” The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture F.W. Dillistone (page 13)
In the same section, Dillistone goes on to point out that the function of a symbol is to bridge the gulf between the world of the abstract and the concrete. In religion, the symbol is used to bridge or bring together physical facts and metaphysical truth without compromising either. Therefore, symbols are used to explain the unexplainable, yet never completely. Thus, the symbol always involves mystery, wonder, and paradoxes. This may help us to understand why God’s final and complete revelation of Himself is a person—in other words, a living symbol and not a written law. This could also be the reason why the New Testament witness has come to us in the form of story and not law as the Old Testament Torah. The God of Heaven and Earth could never reveal Himself through propositional truth. We cannot reduce God to a logic syllogism or lock Him in the narrow chambers of human reason and imagination. The only way one will come to know God is through reflecting on the symbol that mediates His image and presence, that is, His Son Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, sometimes this one true symbol of God gets lost in a forest of religious symbols that we humans have made. I would like to think that man has done this out of ignorance. However, both Old and New Testaments bear witness to the fact that man has knavishly and knowingly subverted the symbols of God. The reason for this is obvious; man does not want to live in the presence of God nor in the presence of the pristine revelation of Jesus Christ. The simple truth is that man does not love the truth. He loves darkness instead of the light. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John. 3:19). In this passage, light stands for revelation, and Jesus confirms the fact that the majority do not want to live in the presence of revelation. So what does man do? He hides from it in a forest of religion and its symbols. We see this rejection of revelation in the story of Adam. When Adam sinned, he also hid in the forest from God. In this act, Adam prefigures the entire human race that would hide from God in its religious systems and symbols.
However, man’s hide-and-seek game with God has far-reaching consequences. For the forest he hides in, not only hides him from God, but also from his fellow man and his very self. The forest divides men religiously, politically, and culturally. When the apostle Paul speaks about the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), he was making reference to the forest of religious symbols that separated Jews and Gentiles. He points out to his readers that this forest of symbols has been done away with in Christ. In Christ, God has cut down the forest of religious symbols that keeps people divided religiously. He did this by replacing, or in many cases, subverting the existing symbols by changing one or more of their levels of meaning. All the symbols in the old order that spoke of the presence of God or symbolized His presence were subverted to point toward Christ as their fulfillment and their end. The master symbols of religion that fit this category are the symbols of mediation such as sacred laws, places, times, and priesthood. Before the coming of Christ, these religious symbols stood for or symbolized the presence of God and the unity of His people. However, after Jesus’ coming, they stood for the absence of God and division, which is the very antithesis of God. These religious symbols still stand as a dividing wall of hostility between religious people.
In the fore mentioned case of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, it was the sacred “master” symbols of Law, sacred days, priesthood, and sacred places that formed the dividing wall of hostility. Jews could easily accept these symbols. However, Gentiles could not easily accept them for they had no inherent meaning to them because these symbols were tied directly to the history of the Jewish people. But now that God had invited the world to become His people, the symbols of God’s acceptance and presence would have to change. The new master symbols would be Christ Himself and His spirit-filled people. In order to do this, God would have to create a new history with new symbols. This He did by raising His Son from the dead. In this mighty act, God created a new world and a new humanity. He invites all of humanity to join His Son in a new exodus out of the old order into the new; an exodus out of religion into Christ. This exodus will be completed when His Son returns from on high to lead His people into the glorious freedom of the children of God. “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John. 3:2). When Israel left Egypt in the first exodus of God’s people, there were many who were intimidated by their new freedom. Thus, they wanted to return to the security of bondage in Egypt. If you remember, this happened when Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Because he tarried too long, the people longed to return to Egypt and its gods. Was this not a foreshadowing of what would happen in the Christian movement? When Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, he inaugurated a new exodus, an exodus out of religion. However, like the Hebrews, we find the people (Christians) were intimidated by the freedom they had in Christ and grew anxious over the fact that their Lord had tarried longer than they had expected. So many of them went back to religion and to the making of religious symbols, very similar to how the Hebrews had made the golden calf. God’s call today is for our generation of Christians to take up where the first generation of Christian left off: that is, in an exodus out of religion into the freedom of the children of God.
As we look anew at God’s new master symbols, we find that both of these, Christ and His people, are what we might call living symbols which are the most powerful symbols, for they are flexible and can fit into any cultural venue. This flexibility should be expected, seeing that God has invited the world to join His history. God’s history is no longer a history of a people, but rather a history of one man who now represents the new humanity that has been created by His resurrection from the dead. God now invites all to join in the history of His Son, which He is taking on to perfection in Christ.
Moreover, these living symbols of Christ and His people have the power to impart life, which other symbols do not have. “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John. 6:63). No symbol, even the sub-symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, have any life in themselves but rather point to the work of Christ and His life giving Spirit. Only Christ and the Spirit have the power to impart life. Even the symbol of the Bible apart from the Spirit has no power to convey life (2 Cor. 3:6). Regrettably, the church has often eclipsed the quickening symbols of Christ and His Spirit with the lifeless lesser symbols of ritual and form, at the same time claiming that this is Christianity perfected.
The implications of all this are incredible. The symbol of Christ among His people symbolizes that God is among His people. Not only is He among His people, but also He has accepted them in their sin, forgiven them and has given them the Spirit to deliver them from the bondage of sin and religion. This was all enacted and symbolized in the life of Jesus when He ate and fellowship at the table with sinners. Therefore, the symbol of Jesus in the world is symbolizing that the world has become a theater of God being with man and for man. Moreover, the symbol of Jesus as the Godman symbolizes and foreshadows the unity of God and man in the new humanity; Jesus Himself being the first fruits of that new humanity (1 Cor. 15:22). Therefore, in the resurrection of Jesus we have a promise and a preview of where God is taking humanity. “For we shall be like him” (1 John. 3:2).
Another incredible implication is that man no longer has to hide from God in a forest of religious symbols, for he no longer has to try to justify himself before God or man. For in Christ, God has accepted him and forgiven him, not because of his religiosity, but because of God’s grace and the work of Christ. Because God has delivered him from the need to be religious, He in the same act has broken down the religious wall that separates man. Therefore, man has been reconciled not only to God though Jesus, but also to one another. Consequently, we must conclude that the division in the Christian church is an indication of just how far religion is from God. The Christian church, especially in America, is the direct opposite of revelation and its division is a symbol to all the world of its disobedience and its distance from God.
Here we need to ask this question. If Christ has removed the symbols of religion that divide men, what would be the consequence of reinstating the old symbols or symbols like them? The answer is obvious: division. When men have symbols in their belief system, other than divinely authorized ones, there will be division. For people will insist that others acknowledge their symbols in order for them to be acceptable. This is why the reinstating of unauthorized religious symbols is condemned so strongly in the New Testament. In the book of Galatians we find a group of Christians contemplating reinstating the symbol of Law into the Christian movement. In turn, the apostle Paul warns them, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Not only does Paul give this astringent rebuke, he goes on to reinforce the fact that the main symbol in the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:4-6). In this text we find that the only authorized symbols in the Christian movement are Christ, faith, and love. The symbol of circumcision, which is the symbol of the Law, has been negated in Christ. Law is never unauthorized Christian symbol, unless it is used as a symbol of Christ Himself, for He is the new Torah.
All other symbols of law must be rejected. Symbols like creeds, human traditions, and theological systems must not be imposed on believers as law. Even the New Testament Scripture must not be symbolized as law, for it is pure grace when mixed with a spirit of faith. Those who symbolize or image the New Testament Scripture as law will find it very difficult not to lapse into legalism. For the power of the symbol will negate and overcome any verbal effect to proclaim freedom from law. The symbol of law is one of the most powerful religious symbols because it has a cosmic counterpart behind it and is linked with the spiritual powers of sin and death (Rom. 7:7-25, 8:2, 2 Cor. 3:6-18, 1 Cor. 15:56,57, Col 2:13-15). Therefore, the symbol of law should be dealt with thoughtfully in the Christian movement, lest we crucify the Lord anew and insult the Spirit of grace (Heb. 6:4-6, 10:29).
There also are some psychological consequences to reinstating religious symbols into the faith of Christ. The most obvious would be that the more religious symbols a man has in his belief system, the more exclusive and rigid his religion will be. The danger is that this forest of religious symbols will become so thick that it will blind him to all new truth. Most religious people, especially those that are exclusionist, have layers of religious symbols that protect them from revelation and separate them from their fellow-man. The religious man fears revelation because it will strip away all the false symbols that he has trusted. It leaves him naked before God, stripped of all his self-righteousness. In this context, self-righteousness could be defined as all the religious symbols that men hide in, such as symbols that allow them to feel secure and righteous. The traditionalists hide behind the symbols of ritual. The fundamentalists hide behind the multi-level symbol of the Bible and the true church. Nevertheless, no matter how hard the religious man may try, he cannot hide his humanness behind these symbols because God is continually destroying them and exposing man’s nakedness. It is here, in his nakedness, that the religious man has the possibility of coming to faith and being clothed by God in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, nothing hinders authentic faith more than religion. In a true sense, religion is a vaccination against revelation.
In our quest for a better understanding of the distinction between religion and revelation, the symbol will help us immensely, for it will allow us to look at things from a different perspective. Most importantly for our study, the symbol will help us trace the evolution of the revelation of Christ from a simple way of life into a complex religious system. We can do this by noting when and why new symbols were introduced into the Christian movement. Through analyzing the introduction and meaning of new symbols added to the movement, we will be able to see the subtle shift in theology away from revelation to religion. We will begin that study in our next chapter