Sunday, November 26, 2023

Onward, Outward, Upward

What a journey we've had from the dawn of creation to here. Since June, we've traced the creative work of the eternal God as his Word spoke into being this realm of space and time, as he brooded over it by his Spirit, as he separated and combined it, gave it shape, and infused it with a dazzling litany of life. And as the last of that life, we met ourselves: human beings – on the one hand, crafted from the matter of earth, sharing an origin with all other animals; on the other hand, formed by a substantial spiritual soul with intellect and will, making us kin to God's angels. As the linchpin between visible and invisible creations, God placed us in a special environment and called us to special tasks. He settled us in a delightful garden in perfect innocence and called us to know him. He made this garden his sanctuary, and installed us there as his cultic images and as his priests, to minister to him in worship on behalf of the creation around us. He appointed us royalty, giving us charge over the earth and its creatures. And all our life and work is for the sake of worship and guardianship, of governance and provision. God made us quite the creature. He made us so that he can see himself in us.

Seeing that humanity was far too exciting to be left generic, God made two ways to be human: male and female, like so many of the other animals. Equal in dignity, complementary in giftedness, men and women are partners in all these incredible and astonishing purposes for which God placed us here and commissioned us. In this first marriage made in Paradise, the first husband and first wife lived in total transparency and radical self-giving. United under God's blessing, theirs was the blessed life. As we bring our journey with Genesis to a pause today before Advent, there are three more things to say about this blessed life.

First, the blessed life means that humanity is to go onward. We spoke last Sunday about how marriage is the proper home of human sexuality – and we all know, I think, where sexuality can lead. Even in the other animals that exist in two sexes like us, that dictates how they reproduce according to their kind. And so to us, as to the other animals, God has a few choice words to say on the topic. What are the first things God says to this first married couple as he blesses them? “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Be fruitful – be growing, be productive. Multiply – become large in number. Adam plus Eve is not supposed to equal only two forever.

Nor does it. In fact, that's where Eve gets her name. We later read: “The human called his wife's name 'Eve,' for she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). The Hebrew pronunciation of 'Eve' (awwāh) sounds like the Hebrew word for 'life' (ayyāh).1 Not long after that, we read that “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and gave birth” (Genesis 4:1). The first marriage had then become the first family. And although Genesis doesn't depict this actually happening until paradise is left behind in the rearview mirror, St. Augustine pointed out that “even if there had been no sin, the marriage of the first human beings, which was worthy of the delight of paradise, would have produced children to love.”2

The nature of marriage is such that it is open to life, open to the natural fruit of sexual union, open to becoming a family. Marriage is “an institution blessed by God for the reproduction of the human race.”3 Some thought that a desire for children was the only reason to get married, that any other motive was impure.4 Thankfully, others in the early church recognized that children were only one of the things worth cherishing in marriage.5 But all agreed that the union of husband and wife, on the one hand, and the procreation of children, on the other, are naturally related: the same action that seals the first is designed by God to lead naturally to the second, under the right conditions. It's no wonder that, up until just a hundred years ago, Christians were basically unanimous in officially opposing contraception.6 Openness to natural growth, to being fruitful and multiplying, to family, is part of what it means to validly form a marriage in the first place.7 St. Augustine said, if an openness to procreation is absent, “I do not see how we can call these marriages.”8 For marriage is, by definition, “a union between one man and one woman which is exclusive, permanent, and open to life,” so that agreeing to another kind of relationship is not the consent that births a marriage.9 And Paradise respected that reality: Adam and Eve knew their Edenic marriage was exclusive, permanent, and also open to life.

So, had we stayed in Eden, the human family would've grown generation by generation; and each new person would have been born into the same original righteousness and innocence that Adam and Eve enjoyed and kept whole as an inheritance for each.10 In Eden just like here, “children should be welcomed with love, brought up with kindness, given a religious education,” as St. Augustine put it.11 As the population grew and society became more complex through the division of labor, then as now parents would've taught their children “crafts which are agreeable and suitable to the fear of God.”12 As it was meant to be: a flourishing family before God.

And yet there was a widespread movement in the early church of men and women who said no to being fruitful and multiplying in the marriage-and-family way. Other apostles were married men, but Paul – like Jeremiah and John the Baptist before him – was not. Paul was celibate, “and to the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain as I am,” he advised (1 Corinthians 7:8), since an unmarried person has greater freedom for contemplating God and serving his kingdom (1 Corinthians 7:32). Just over a century later, we hear how “many of us, both men and women,” were “growing old unmarried in the hope of being united more closely with God.”13 “Celibacy and marriage have their distinctive services of the Lord,” they said,14 but in their eyes, celibacy was actually “the superior condition,” viewed as “better and holier” than marriage and children.15

If that strikes us as strange, well, it would've been just as strange to many of their Jewish neighbors, for whom the blessing had come to be read as a commandment: Thou shalt marry, thou shalt try to have kids. So what was it that freed the early Christians to think about the blessing a different way? A few renegades decided that it had been altogether “abolished” and “superseded.”16 The Church actually accepted the command, they just saw new ways to do it. For they'd heard the Lord tell them: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18). Just as “Be fruitful and multiply” was the Great Commission of the Old Covenant, this was its counterpart in the New. So now, they said, “since members of Christ to be God's people and citizens of the kingdom can be brought in from the whole human race,” there are many more ways for God's people to increase and multiply!17

And so we're told in Scripture that “the word of God continued to increase,” be fruitful, “and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7). Again and again, we hear that “the word of God is increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24), such that therefore the Church itself “multiplied” (Acts 9:31). The Apostle Paul tells how “the gospel... is bearing fruit and increasing... among you since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:5-6), and that's how even a celibate man like him “became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15), “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Even if unmarried or widowed according to the flesh, we – like Paul – continue to be fruitful, to increase God's word, to multiply the Church, through evangelism and discipleship!18 In spreading the word of God to other people, in helping them to be converted by the Lord, in assisting them in internalizing the word of God so it can sprout and bear much fruit in the soil of their hearts – in these ways, we Christians increase and multiply as surely as by having families. You can be fruitful and multiply as profoundly as a spiritual father or mother to new disciples as by being a natural father or mother to children. And we share a sacred responsibility to let the word of God increase through us, to let the number of disciples multiply through us, so that the new humanity in Christ will go onward as surely as the old humanity in Adam.

A second lesson about the blessed life is that it means that humanity is to go not just onward but outward. The Garden of Eden was a wonderful home for Adam and Eve. But supposing they'd stayed welcome there, they would have been fruitful and multiplied till they started to crowd the garden. This garden God planted in Eden wasn't infinite; Genesis depicts it as a specific location, some amount of acreage, bounded on all sides by places that aren't the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). So what happens when the garden hits capacity?

Well, that raises some other questions. They were given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). That spurred one early Christian to ask: “How was Adam to rule over the fish of the sea unless he were to be in proximity to the sea? And how was he to rule over the birds that fly throughout every region unless his descendants were to dwell in every region? And how was Adam to rule over every beast of the earth unless his offspring were to inhabit the entire earth?” Or, we might add: how were Adam and Eve to eat “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth” if they never go to where those plants are (Genesis 1:29)?

In the ancient world, as a king expanded his empire, he would put up statues of himself in the most far-flung provinces. Just like when explorers plant flags in the name of this or that country, it was a way to stake a claim. It was how the king made his claim to dominion visible in that place, a reminder to all who saw his image that this was his territory under his watchful eye.19 The image of the king let you know who owned the land it was in. Well, each human being is God setting up his image somewhere, a visible reminder that it's God's territory under God's watchful eye (Genesis 1:26). God did not intend to stake a claim over just however many acres were in this garden. No sooner did he tell humans to “be fruitful and multiply” than he told them to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). God shows his ownership of earth “by multiplying his images over the earthly domain.”20 So human presence filling the earth is meant to be a good thing.21

But on the other hand, Adam is portrayed as a priest-king installed in the garden as a holy sanctuary. It's where his work belongs. How could he go abroad and leave it behind? And the solution to that puzzle comes when we know that in the ancient world, kings had a responsibility over temple construction and renovation. Even in ancient Assyria, sometimes they'd judge an existing temple “too small,” so the king would “greatly expand this temple beyond its previous extent.”22 But especially in Egypt during the time of Moses, temple complexes “underwent continuous expansion.”23 Many a new pharaoh, as a display of his royal service to his gods, “pushed the perimeter of [temple] walls and courtyards farther and farther into what had previously been secular space,” and in this way, “the area of the sacred was greatly extended.”24 That's how a king honored a god: by enlarging the temple space. So what would happen as they garden filled up with new generations of humans? “They were to extend the geographical boundaries of the garden until Eden covered the whole earth.”25

Picture it: pushing out the boundary markers of the garden, cultivating the newly included ground, planting the trees of holy Eden there, foot by foot. As the years pass, the garden gets longer and wider, more of the earth is claimed as part of this sanctuary. The area of the sacred would extend further out into the world as the human priest-kings subdued acre after acre in the name of life and peace, answering their call to “spread the holiness of the Holy Place to that which yet needed to be sanctified in the world beyond.”26 Whole territories would then be subdued and sanctified. Next, continents. At last, one day, there'd be no patch of dirt on earth that wasn't part of this garden that began in Eden. One worldwide community in highest harmony would fill the holy earth.

That's what Genesis suggests was meant to happen: for humans to “begin from Eden, work their way outward, and spread the blessings of Eden to all the earth.”27 Eden was to go global! Paradise was to expand! Adam and Eve and their children were to grow in practice the kingdom that was theirs by grace – the kingdom of God!

Here we are, though, and we don't live in a garden of trees and flowers and all these things. Neither did Israel. But, as we saw, God gave them back a taste of the garden when they built the tabernacle; he raised them up as his kingdom on earth, promising that if they were faithful in their land, he'd “enlarge your borders” (Exodus 34:34). The tabernacle took up just 675 square feet, inside a courtyard of over 11,000 square feet. In time, they expanded to Solomon's Temple, a building of 2,700 square feet inside a courtyard of 45,000 square feet. When they returned from exile, they built a Second Temple with a courtyard of over 70,000 square feet; and later, even King Herod more than doubled the area of the temple courts. That still didn't measure up to Ezekiel's dream, with temple courtyards covering over 765,000 square feet as the heart of a holy district of over a billion square feet, 40 1/3 square miles (Ezekiel 45:1). And Ezekiel's wildest vision pales next to John's glimpse of a temple-city covering over 53 trillion square feet, bigger than the Roman Empire (Revelation 21:16). Filling the earth!

But what does it mean? The Lord Jesus told his apostles to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Paul explains that “through us,” God “spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ] everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14). This – the realm of the gospel, of the kingdom, of the church – is the Garden of Eden planted anew. The prophet Daniel foresaw God's kingdom destined to grow and grow until at last it “filled the whole earth,” as the garden was always meant to (Daniel 2:35). The kingdom of God must be extended unended, the fragrance of Christ must cling to all things, all land must be a holy district.

But in a world of sin, we look out to a world that's not merely empty and waiting to be filled with godliness. “Their land is filled with idols,” said the prophet – allergic to the fragrance of Christ, the earthly powers resent the kingdom of God and desperately preserve the land for profanity (Isaiah 2:8). We'll meet resistance, spiritual warfare; we'll have to defend the garden against infiltrating idols inside as much as opposition outside. And as we expand this kingdom of God's peace and God's justice, God's grace and God's truth, God's beauty and God's goodness through all the ways we work and keep his creation, it's up to us to crowd out these idols by a better witness, by a humbler service, by a wiser path, by a more radical love.

We pray, we labor, we march in procession to expand the realm of “peace on earth and mercy mild,” where “God and sinners” are “reconciled,”28 where idols tremble and shatter before the Desire of Nations, where the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly are exalted (Luke 1:52-53), the poor are lifted to sit with princes (1 Samuel 2:8), where the deserts bloom like flowers (Isaiah 35:1). And “as grace extends to more and more people, it will increase thanksgiving to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).

Third – and I know we don't have long to tell it – the blessed life means that humanity is to go, not just onward, not just outward, but also upward. Eden is still a distinctly earthly life, sustained by fruits and veggies from the earth. Those in Paradise are, as one hymn puts it, “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.”29 God walks in the garden in the cool of the day, but he's not manifest to Adam and Eve constantly. They therefore don't know God fully as they are fully known (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12). And Adam and Eve, as will become all too clear all too soon, are capable of falling. This life of Eden is a good life on earth, but it's not yet the perfection God plans for them. There's got to be something more, something beyond Eden, beyond even a paradise earth.

So what if things had continued as they ought to have? As St. Augustine puts it, the bliss of Eden “would have continued until, through the blessing that said 'Be fruitful and multiply,' the number of the predestined saints was completed; and then another and greater felicity would have been granted, which was granted to the most blessed angels.”30 Somehow, Adam and Eve and all their family would “all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52), “changed into a better state... by a blessed transformation.”31 Then they'd have “spiritual bodies,” totally animated and powered by God's own Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:44).32 Then, at last, the life of Eden would flow upward into that heavenly life beyond, a life more lively than any paradise man ever tasted on the earth.

At the start of this year, we spoke about the ultimate purpose for which we're made, which is to see God as he is – to behold the beauty of his infinite depths in such a way that we're completely and eternally fulfilled in it. It's to become happy with God's own happiness, to live with God's own life, to love with God's own love. And in being united to God, we'll be “transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18), until “we shall be like him” in ways we dare not dream (1 John 3:2).

That's what Adam and Eve were meant to gain, and it's what Eden alone couldn't give them. Adam and Eve, no less than ourselves, needed to set their minds on heavenly things above, rather than on the things of their earthly paradise (Colossians 3:2). And now, in Christ, human nature – the nature of Adam and Eve and you and me – is placed on heaven's throne, and God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). As one church, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15), in whom “the whole body... grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19). So we all – Adam and Eve and all God's people – “share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1), “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). We're on a journey toward “a better country” than Eden, “that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). And there, in Christ, “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). There, “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust,” Adam, “we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven,” who is Jesus Christ the King, our Lord (1 Corinthians 15:49).

Thanks be to God! And so let's do what Adam and Eve should have from the start. Let's go onward in Christ, being fruitful and multiplying what belongs to him. Let's go outward for Christ, subduing the earth for the sake of his kingdom of love. Let's go upward to Christ, rising to a heavenly country. Until, at last, God will indeed be all in all, and heaven and paradise and all the new creation are filled with the perfect glory that knows no end! Hallelujah forever! Amen and amen!

1  Donald E. Gowan, From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1-11 (Eerdmans, 1988), 60.

2  Augustine of Hippo, City of God 14.23, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/7:130.

3  Tertullian of Carthage, To His Wife 1.2, in Ancient Christian Writers 13:11.

4  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 29.1, in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies (Oxford University Press, 2009), 161; Athenagoras of Athens, Legatio 33.1, in Athenagoras: Legatio and De Resurrectione (Clarendon Press, 1972), 81.

5  Augustine of Hippo, On the Excellence of Marriage 3, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/9:34-35.

6  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 277-279.

7  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 242.

8  Augustine of Hippo, On the Excellence of Marriage 5, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/9:36.

9  Cormac Burke, The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine, and Canon Law (Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 2; Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 241-243.

10  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.100, a.1, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 13:171.

11  Augustine of Hippo, Literal Meaning of Genesis 9.7 §12, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/13:382.

12  Didascalia Apostolorum 4.11.1, in Alistair Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia Apostolorum: An English Version with Introduction and Annotation (Brepols, 2009), 223.

13  Athenagoras of Athens, Legatio 33.2, in Athenagoras: Legatio and De Resurrectione (Clarendon Press, 1972), 81.

14  Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.79.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 85:305.

15  Origen of Alexandria, Against Celsus 8.55, in Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge University Press, 1953), 494; Augustine of Hippo, On the Excellence of Marriage 24 §32, in Works of Saint Augustine I/9:57.

16  Tertullian of Carthage, Exhortation to Chastity 6, in Ancient Christian Writers 13:52.

17  Augustine of Hippo, On Holy Virginity 9, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/9:72.

18  G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (InterVarsity Press, 2015), 36.

19  Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (IVP Academic, 2015), 69; Tremper Longman III, Genesis, Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan Academic, 2016), 36.

20  Bryan C. Hodge, Revisiting the Days of Genesis: A Study of the Use of Time in Genesis 1-11 in Light of Its Ancient Near Eastern and Literary Context (Wipf & Stock, 2011), 42-43.

21  Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation: Cosmos, Creatures, and the Wise and Good Creator (Baker Academic, 2017), 215-217.

22  Adad-nirari II, A.0.99.2 (893 BC), in Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Assyrian Periods 2:154; Esarhaddon, Nineveh Cylinder G (677 BC), in Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period 4:56.

23  Erik Hornung, Idea into Image: Essays on Ancient Egyptian Thought (Tikmen Publishers, 1992), 116.

24  Byron E. Shafer, “Temples, Priests, and Rituals: An Overview,” in Byron E. Shafer, ed., Temples of Ancient Egypt (Cornell University Press, 1997), 7.

25  G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004), 81.

26  Steven C. Smith, The House of the Lord: A Catholic Biblical Theology of God's Temple Presence in the Old and New Testaments (Franciscan University Press, 2017), 40.

27  C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (P&R Publishing, 2005), 69.

28  Charles Wesley, “Hymn for Christmas Day” [= “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”], in John Wesley and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (William Strahan, 1739), 206.

29  Robert Grant, “O Worship the Lord, All Glorious Above,” in Edward Bickersteth, ed., Christian Psalmody: A Collection of Above 700 Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Selected and Arranged for Public, Social, Family, and Private Worship (L. B. Seeley and Sons, 1833), hymn 17, verse 5.

30  Augustine of Hippo, City of God 14.10, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/7:115.

31  Augustine of Hippo, On the Excellence of Marriage 2, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/9:34.

32  Augustine of Hippo, Literal Meaning of Genesis 9.3 §6, in Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/13:379.

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