I can’t how many times I have been reminded and drawn to the words Paul penned in his letter to the Philippians about Jesus (Phil: 2-6-8):
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Scholars tell us these words were an early creed. The creed that Paul recited to the people in Philippi was probably familiar to them, as it was intended to be recited. That is the nature of creeds: they are meant to be repeated.
Thus, I suppose, the fact that I find myself drawn over and over again to the Philippian creed is apt. It carries significant and timeworn meaning to me, as it certainly must have done for Paul and and the early followers of Jesus to be considered so worth repeating.
I found myself thinking again about these words today as I wrapped up another blog post (Lessons Learned from the Edge of the Wilderness). As often is the case when meditating on Scripture, meanings deepen, grow and broaden. The Philippian creed takes on new meaning for me in light of the exercise of comparing and harmonizing the “God of the Old Testament” with Jesus (another theme I have focused on in the past).
In Lessons Learned from the Edge of the Wilderness, I was thinking about the fact that Moses and the people of Israel were distanced from God – such is the fate of all people in our natural, created and sinful state. In this piece, I want to explore what that means (and why it is the case), and I want to explore why our perception of God changes in the revelation of Jesus.
First, the gap between a created being and the Creator Being couldn’t be greater than it is by the nature of that relationship. As a created being, we have no ability to affect the relationship on our own accord. We are completely and utterly dependent on our Creator by the very nature of the fact that we are created.
This seems such an elementary truth as I type these words that I almost didn’t bother with them, but they bear repeating. If God didn’t want us to know anything about Him, if He didn’t care to establish any relationship with us, we would have no ability to change that reality.
The enormous size and complexity of the universe gives (just a hint) of the difference between us and God. That we have some ability to observe and comprehend it gives us a clue as to God’s intention for us. He desires us to observe and comprehend it!
But, the very nature of a universe in which we cannot see beginning or end, that unfolds in continuous discovery of ever increasing immensity, subtlety and nuance, interconnected structure and complexity, also reveals the yawning distance between ourselves as created beings and God our Creator.
Is it any wonder, then, that God’s attempts at revealing Himself to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses took many centuries and many, many generations?
And when things really got “up close and personal” during forty years God separated Moses and the Israelites from all civilization with God’s presence a daily reality in the wilderness, the people saw God as a fearful and consuming fire – harsh, overbearing, insatiable, unquenchable, angry, terrifying and ominous. But it shouldn’t be any wonder that people perceived God this way.
Imagine a sentient microbial life form created under a microscope being contacted by the person who created it. The idea might make for an interesting science fiction story. Of course, the perspective is different when we are on the creator side of the story.
Our relationship to God is vastly more distanced than a microbe to a person. The universe is vastly more expansive than a laboratory in which a microbe might be created, and God is infinitely greater than we and a comparison of people to a microbe.
From the perspective of Moses and the people in the wilderness, God was utterly overwhelming.
It’s hard to understand how, days after God revealed Himself in a demonstration of fire on a mountain, that the people could urge Aaron to create a golden calf they worshiped while Moses was “meeting” with God. (Hiding himself in the crag of a rock, lest he might accidentally see God and die on the spot!) I think the answer lies in the overwhelming “Otherness” of God.
Their reaction was to turn to a “god” they could control. They simply didn’t know what to do with a God who was utterly and completely out of their control.
But, God was as unrelenting as He was terrifying. God gave them no choice, and He spent 40 years commanding their attention, teaching them they could trust what He said. (Or face the consequences!)
If I lived through that experience, I honestly don’t know if I would have survived it. Their perspective was very limited. Fire, and cloud, and distance, and commandment and demonstrations of fearful events were their reality.
Fast forward many hundreds of years to the birth of Jesus. God, who “stands” outside of time and space enters into His creation, enters into time and space in the form of a vulnerable human baby, born like any other human being. This is what John describes philosophically in the beginning of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)
This sequence is also what the Philippian creed describes in more poetic eloquence. Though He was God, He didn’t cling to His position; He gave up His “divine privileges” (other translations say He “emptied Himself”); He lowered Himself to take on human form and came to us. He became Emmanuel (God with us). (Isaiah 7:15; Matthew 1:22-23)
And this is the key point I am focusing on: God revealed to us in Jesus is the same God revealed to the people of Israel at the mountain in the wilderness and throughout the Old Testament. Jesus is clear about that when he says, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30); and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”. (John 14:9) Paul says, “[I]in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Col. 3:9); and God was “was manifested in the flesh” in Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:16)
In the Philippian creed we get a more nuanced description of what God did. We are introduced to the idea that God distilled Himself down, diluted Himself (emptied Himself of all the attributes of Creator that separate us from Him) in order to came to us in the familiar, intimate form of a human person like us. And that changes everything!
Distilled down into human form, God doesn’t appear so ominous or terrifying. Our perspective of God changes completely. He becomes approachable. We see that he is loving, self-sacrificing, approachable, but unlike any person who ever walked the earth before him.
He was still God, living out His divine character in front of us in the form of a person like us, stripped and emptied of all the “Glory” that would be overwhelming to us if He appeared now, undiluted in actual Form. But He still “wasn’t a tame Lion” (to parrot the description of Aslan, the Christ-like character in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe written by CS Lewis).
Our perspective of God changes dramatically in the New Testament because God came to us stripped down so that we could see His attributes intimately in familiar form to us. This is the same God who appeared to the Israelites in fire on the mountain, but He was emptied of the “Glory” that made them tremble in fear.
In this way, God demonstrated for us His love and desire for us. He didn’t hold anything back. He sacrificed Himself in human body for our good – demonstrating by the very human life He adopted the extreme example of love that sacrifices itself for the good of another.
I think it’s vitally important to note that God didn’t change from the Old Testament to the New. Our perception of God changed. Our perception of God changed because God revealed Himself in different form.
God eliminated the distance between us and Him (physically) by coming to us in human form, and Jesus eliminated the distance between us and God by sacrificing Himself in the form of a human being for the sin that separated us from Him (spiritually). (Eph. 2)
The reality of the difference between Creator and the created is immutable, but it isn’t impossible to bridge. What is impossible for the created is not impossible for the Creator.
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”