Distancing by Holy Men
Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26).
In the previous chapter, we studied how the faith was subverted and how God was distanced from men by the addition or reinstatement of the symbol of Law to the Christian movement. In this chapter, we are going to look at a symbol that always accompanies the symbol of holy Law. This symbol is the symbol of holy men or clergy. For a holy Law must have holy men to enforce and interpret it for the not-so-holy people.
Since the dawn of time, the holy man has been the symbol of mediation and the presence of God in the majority of the religions of the world. Great care is taken by the religious community to set the holy man apart from the rest of the community. This is done through titles, dress, and attributing to them powers that other members of the community do not have. Of course, these powers are attributed to them because of their superior faith, office, and relationship to God. These men are viewed as having a closer, or at least a different kind of, relationship with God than the others in the community. Therefore, the community’s relationship to God resembles a pyramid with the holy man at the top, mediating for the community. As a symbol of mediation, the holy man stands between the people and God, thus adding a step and distancing God from the people.
This pyramid, or hierarchy, of holy men was very much a part of the Jewish religion when Jesus came on the scene. In fact, it seems to be a major characteristic of most organized religions today. However, it would seem that the very presence of Jesus as “God among us” would have negated the need for all spiritual hierarchy and any separate group of holy men that might stand between God and the people. For if our understanding of the New Testament is correct, we find in Christ, man has become a friend of God and no longer needs human mediators to approach Him. Because of the Christ event, all men can now have a personal relationship with God without the aid of a mediator or a holy man. Moreover, after His resurrection, Jesus appointed all His followers as priests (1 Pet. 2:9). In this act, He declared all believers to be holy men, washed by His blood, again eliminating all need for a special group of holy men. Could it be that we now have holy men for holy men? In addition, the resurrection of Jesus symbolized that all who believe now have direct access to God apart from all forms of mediation. For in Jesus all believers stand in an at-one-relationship with the living God (Eph. 2:6). This again does away with the need of any form of mediation other than Jesus the Christ. This may help us to understand why pagans in the first century often referred to Christians as atheists. From a pagan and Jewish perspective, Christians were often seen to be irreligious, for they had no holy men, holy places, or holy times and were often criticized for speaking out against religion (Acts 19:27, 21:28).
In contrast, when we begin to observe modern-day Christendom, we see very little difference between its practices and that of other religions of the world. It has its holy men and hierarchy like all the other religions of the world. In fact, I would dare say that the Christian church on the whole, has more paid professionals than all of the other religions of the world put together. It literally has an army of holy men and woman. In view of this, I find it somewhat ironic to hear the Christians of the church speak of taking the world for Christ by the power of the Spirit. I grant you that the first century church could have made this boast, seeing it was largely made up of the uneducated and slave class type, but from the looks of things, the modern church is trying to reach the world with an army of flesh, or should I say, an army of professionals. We have our professionals, and they had the Spirit. They were, for the most part, a ragtag group of slaves. We, on the other hand, have our powerful institutions and supremely educated clergy. They won the world; we cannot win our neighbors.
Throughout history, Christianity has made attempts to restore to the believers in general, what it refers to as the priesthood of all believers. Its attempts have been on the whole, somewhat of a failure. It is not easy to turn around nineteen hundred years of subversion. Even in groups that have enjoyed some success in this restoration, there seem to quickly rise up charismatic leaders who dominate the ministry, or else the movements fall prey to institutionalization. In turn, these movements require a highly educated clergy to maintain control over the people and to keep them convinced the organization, in some fashion, represents Christ. One of the chief reasons for this failure to restore the priesthood of all believers is the supposed holy men themselves see no contradiction between their role and the revelation of God in Jesus. Therefore, all iconoclastic movements that have attempted to remove the symbol of holy men from the Christian movement have been met with strong opposition from the holy men or clergy.
The How and Why of Holy Men
If the symbol of holy men was removed by the presence of Jesus and then His Spirit, how did this symbol of clergy, priesthood, and mediation find its way back into the faith? For the answer, we will go to Philip Schaff who is one of the great historians of the church.
“The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church. The majority of Jewish converts adhered tenaciously to the Mosaic institutions and rites, and a considerable part never fully attained to the height of spiritual freedom proclaimed by Paul, or soon fell away from it. He opposed legalistic and ceremonial tendencies in Galatia and Corinth; and although sacerdotalism does not appear among the errors of his Judaizing opponents, the Levitical priesthood with its three ranks of high-priest, priest and Levite, naturally furnished an analogy for the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon and came to be regarded as typical of it. Still less could the Gentile Christians, as a body, at once emancipate themselves from their traditional notions of priesthood, altar, and sacrifice, on which their former religion was based. Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully abandoned, the change is undeniable and can be traced to the second century. The church could not long occupy the ideal height of the apostolic age and as the Pentecostal illumination passed away with the death of the apostles, the old reminiscences began to reassert themselves.” History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff (Vol. 2 page 60).
Hans Kung, a Catholic theologian, explains the development of holy men in the Christian movement with the following: “Here we come back to the name “priest.” Although the New Testament insists quite unequivocally that there is no longer a priesthood in contrast to an un-priestly laity, but that the whole new people of God has become a priesthood, the name “priest” has generally been reserved for the leaders of the community in recent centuries, while the idea of the priesthood of all believers has at best, if at all, been commemorated. And yet it is very striking how slow the early Church was to use the name priest for the leader of the community at all. According to the New Testament, although Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is expressed in the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Supper itself is not regarded as a sacrifice on its own, nor even a repetition of the unique sacrificial death of Christ. Thus the Lord’s Supper is never referred to as a sacrifice in the New Testament…. Gradually the Lord’s Supper came to be seen less and less as the communal meal of the entire priestly people, and more and more as a kind of new sacrifice, offered by the leaders of the community on the community’s behalf; a misunderstanding which prepared the way for calling the leaders of the community priests, and as in pagan and Jewish tradition, distinguishing them from the rest of the people; as time went on the ideas and images associated with the priesthood of the Old Testament were increasingly transferred to these New Testament “priests.”
“The rapidly increasing clericalization of the Church meant that it became more and more customary to use the word “priest” exclusively for those who held a particular office in the Church. The idea of the priesthood of all believers gradually came to be almost forgotten by the faithful and by most theologians. As a comment on this development, in the light of the lengthy discussion above, two observations may be made which sum up the whole issue: the fact that the leaders of the community are called “priests” is unexceptionable precisely because of the priesthood of all believers; but the fact that the leaders of the community exclusively are seen as “priest” and become a separate caste, after pagan and Judaic patterns, standing between God and man and barring the direct access to God which the whole priestly people should enjoy. This as we have seen is contrary to the New Testament message: both the message of the one mediator and high priest Jesus Christ and that of the priesthood of all Christians.” The Church (pages 489,490).
From the above, it becomes clear as to how the symbol of holy men got into the Christian movement. It was simply introduced or carried over from Judaism and the pagan religions of Rome. We have also seen scholars agree that this addition is a subversion of the pattern set forth in the New Testament. Hans Kung goes so far as to point out that this addition of a clergy distanced the people from God, thus placing a mediator between them and God. Neither Christ nor the apostles authorized this mediator. It is also evident the symbol of holy men could not have been added to the faith until that faith had already undergone a major change in its thinking about the relationship of law and grace, as well as other major theological changes. We have already witnessed the major change was a return to a system of law and religion. (Note chapter three, “From Jesus to Religion”).
It seems clericalism and legalism go hand in hand. The more a group of people turn to law, the more they need religious professionals to interpret their law and to enforce it. The preaching of law always leads to a man-centered “legalism.” Clericalism and legalism are the Jack and Jill of religion, in that they stand or fall together. Now let us look at what revelation has to say about this addition of the symbol of holy men.
Revelation and Holy Men
When we approach revelation (Jesus), we soon begin to see a contrast between it and religion in regard to the way it views holy men. Revelation tells us that because of the Christ event all men are holy in the eyes of God (Acts 10-11). This means that all men, from the least to the greatest can now approach God directly and must now accept the responsibility that comes from a personal relationship with God.
However, in contrast, religion is all about people exalting and setting apart other people to be called holy or saints, in turn exalting them to the place of mediation between themselves and God. When this happens, people are gradually distanced from God and their personal relationship with God, and all is lost or traded for a mediated relationship through holy men. The holy man gladly takes on the responsibility of mediation and begins to live vicariously “for the people.” He lives for them before God, he thinks for them, he worships for them, he organizes their church for them, and he takes care of them as children. This is all in keeping with what religion is about, and that is keeping people eternally children and keeping them in submission. Thus, most religion is dehumanizing and lifenegating. Here lies one of the greatest contrasts between religion and revelation. Revelation has as its goal a personal relationship between God and man, with man accepting his personal responsibility before God and thus growing up. In contrast, religion is all about turning one’s responsibility over to institutions and their holy men, thus relegating one’s self to the status of a child or a slave who must approach God through the mediation of holy men and their institutions. Therefore, we could say that religion has a tendency towards immaturity, while revelation has a will to maturity.
A Classless Kingdom
By setting apart and exalting holy men and women, religion creates classes in a kingdom that was intended to be classless. In protest, revelation tells us that the kingdom of God is classless, and everyone who has put his faith in Jesus is a saint and not just the super-religious people. In fact, revelation teaches that religiosity means nothing to God. The reason for this is that God views all men the same; religious, super-religious, and even nonreligious, “for all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:9,10). Therefore, all, even the super-religious, stand in need of God’s grace, which He freely gives to all who call on Him. In Christ all believers are saints because all believers are sinners. The reason we are called saints is not because we are so good, sinless, or religious, but simply and only because God calls us saints in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30, Rom. 4:1-6). That is, He has set all Christians apart for Himself and the work of ministry. In New Testament times anything that was set apart for use in service to God was called holy; not because it was different in any way from things of like kind, but rather because it was simply set apart for a special purpose. Therefore, in the New Testament, the word saint does not denote the moral or the religious character of a person or group, as much as the function they perform. In the New Testament “saint” simply means to be set apart to do good works (Eph. 2:10). Here we see another great contrast between revelation and religion. Religion defines one’s relationship with God by what one does not do. In this it becomes preoccupied with sin. In contrast, revelation emphasizes what one should be doing (Rom. 6:11). Thus, it is preoccupied with doing good to its neighbor.
In keeping with the idea of a classless kingdom, the Scriptures tell us in the new order there would be no place for any structure that would resemble the structure of worldly societies or institutions, which always take the form of a pyramid (Mark 10:42,43). The pyramid symbolizes the structure or system where one man has power and authority over another. This is a symbol that has no place in the kingdom of God. Jesus said to His disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28). It is interesting to note what Jesus had to say about this power structure based on the model of a pyramid. He simply said, “Not so with you.” In this passage Jesus announces to His disciples that in the new order there would be no hierarchy or classes of men. There would only be one class and that class would be a servant class. When men exalt or set themselves apart (which in itself is an act of exalting) from other members of the community by dress, titles, and office, they demonstrate their lack of understanding of the very nature of the new order and the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that is to be totally opposite of the kingdoms of this world, not a reflection of them.
Holy Men Versus a Holy Man
Likewise, the whole of revelation bears witness to the fact there has only been one truly holy man and He died on a cross. All holy men of past ages prefigured and foreshadowed the one great and perfect holy man who would stand with His people at the end of time and lead God’s people into a grand exodus into eternity. The death and resurrection of this one holy man marked the beginning of that exodus, an exodus out of this world and the systems of this world into the freedom of the children of God. Therefore, we see in His death and resurrection the end or the negation of all religious systems that make a distinction between the holy and the profane: in other words, between the clergy and the laity. This is a distinction religious leaders laboriously try to maintain. Try as they may to do this, at the foot of the cross all men stand equal and holy, washed by the blood of Christ. Consequently, when He died, the symbol of holy men died with Him, because in the act of dying He has made all men holy. All men now have direct access to God in Christ (Eph. 2:18, 3:12, Heb. 10:19-25). In Christ the distance between God and man has been negated forever along with all the symbols of mediation including the symbol of holy men.
Though it is obvious the revelation of God in Christ symbolically stands for the abolition of all mediators including that of holy men, it is also obvious those who wear the name of Christ have found it difficult to get rid of this symbol of religion. The reasons for this difficulty are numerous. They range from the poor self-esteem of the average person that religion reinforces to the cultural and religious conditioning of more than a thousand years. In order for a group to do away with this symbol, it would have to reject a paradigm that has dominated human culture from the beginnings of civilization. The pyramid symbolizes this paradigm, the model of kingship. Needless to say, those on the top of this pyramid see no need to change this paradigm and will do anything to maintain it, even to the point of subverting the teaching of Christ that seems to condemn it (Mark 10:42,45, Matt. 23:8-12).
In view of this, one could conclude that the presence of holy men has always symbolized the immaturity and the worldliness of God’s people and their refusal to take charge of their own lives. Contrary to the thinking of many, the proliferation of religious professionals that we are witnessing today is not a sign the Christian movement is coming of age, but rather a sign of the very opposite. It is a sign of a digression back into religion. This movement away from the priesthood of all believers back into clericalism, directly opposes the Biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers.
Subversion, Division, and Holy Men
What has been the outcome of reinstating the symbol of holy men into the Christian movement? The foremost result is that it has ripped the Christian movement into pieces, which in itself is nothing more than a complete subversion of revelation (Rom. 2:23,24). It is mainly the symbol of holy men that has and continues to divide Protestants and Catholics. In addition, it has been the symbol of holy men that has been the very foundation of all cults and denominations in the Christian world of today and in the past (1 Cor. 3:21, 4:6,7). Every cult and denomination has its superstar (holy man) that it follows and exalts to a place of mediation. Once established, this symbol of the “superstar” becomes the symbol of mediation between believers. The ones who accept the right superstar of course are mature, knowledgeable, and spiritual. Those who reject him, or in some cases her, are immature, ignorant, unspiritual, and even lost. No matter how one looks at it, the symbol of holy men added to the faith, becomes a symbol of division. Here we affirm again that there is only one symbol one must accept in order to be a Christian: the symbol of Jesus Christ as Lord.
Moreover, there is only one symbol that all Christians can unite on: again, the symbol of Jesus. Let’s grow up and stop lining up behind men and the symbols they have created, the symbols that have formed the dividing wall of hostility between believers (Eph. 2:14). Let’s start following Jesus and only Jesus! However, let us be cautious we do not turn the symbols of Jesus and His Spirit into divisive symbols like so many of the charismatic movements have done in the past. Christ is not divided, nor is His Spirit. In other words, Christ and His Spirit do not divide God’s people. The spirit that divides and separates is the spirit of the world and of the devil, not God’s.
I know many will say that they may respect or accept certain holy men and their teachings, but they do not look upon them as mediators. Though a person may sincerely believe this, I find it hard to accept. Even if true, it does not do away with the problem of mediation. It only deals with one aspect of the problem, that being the relationship of God and man. But the problem of mediation is larger than that; it also takes in the relationship man has with his fellow man and other believers. We live in a mediated state where symbols not only mediate between God and man but also between men. Such things as money, sex, race, and religion are all symbols that mediate between men. The best example of this is money. We have all heard the expression “money talks.” Well, it does talk. It talks symbolically. It tells you how important a man is in the eyes of his culture and his social standing in his community. Money tells us who is the boss, because it is the mediator between the employer and the employee. When this is understood, one can begin to understand the division in the Christian church. The division comes from men placing symbols of mediation between themselves and other believers. These symbols include men, institutions, and the creeds they have created. We might view these symbols of mediation as demands or expectations one believer or a group of believers put on other believers or groups. Such demands and expectations will go beyond the symbol of Christ. These demands are expressed with phrases like, “you must accept” (our way), and “you must believe” (our way) in order to be saved or mature in Christ. Some of these demands are symbolized by the following symbols: right prophet, right church, right government, right worship, and even right methods. Where is all this going to end? I believe it has already ended in judgment; that is, the Christian Church has already been turned over to aggressive men (idols of mediation) who have turned God’s people into merchandise and made the church contemptuous in the eyes of the world, a world that can no longer believe in witch doctors or holy men. In this unbelief in holy men, the world is closer to God’s will than is the church. In their unbelief they demonstrate themselves to be more mature than many Christians.
What is the answer? The cure will never come from the clergy, for by and large, they are the problem. They are the symbols that divide. They are the ones who continue to place symbols of mediation between God’s people. They are also the ones who maintain the existing symbols that divide, of course in the name of God. (In doing so, they work for God like the devil.)
The solution is the people must reclaim the ministry from the professionals, and these people must destroy the symbols, or idols, of mediation that divide them. The people of these ministries need to remember the one great truth their faith and all others’ rest on; that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised Him from the dead (Rom. 10:9,10). Instead of trusting in an arm, or in this case, an army of flesh (professionals), let us renew our faith in the power of the Spirit, a Spirit who glories in using weak and insignificant people to do His will. We need to remember that it is a gospel of a carpenter, spread by fishermen, which shook the pillars of religion and state. Reduced to professionalism, faith becomes nothing more than a lifeless ideology and a mummified institution. God save the church from its holy men!
In our next chapter we will continue our study of the symbols of mediation that have subverted the faith and distanced the people from God and their brothers in Christ by looking at the symbol of institutions.
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.
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