People get just about everything backwards. It’s one of our strongest “gifts”. Maybe “propensities” would be a better word. As a broken and sinful people, we have the seriously unfortunate tendency to call light “darkness” and up “down”. We call cynicism “wisdom” and pessimism “realism”. And we are constantly focused on the wrong things. We’re experts at distraction and deceit, because our hearts are desperately wicked. (Jeremiah 17:9)
Such is the case in the very story of man. For so many of us, when we survey our history, all we see is death and darkness. To be honest, I think we have a bit of a preoccupation with death … perhaps because it is the most natural part of life. It’s the one thing that is certain; the destination of every person, perceived as a looming enemy who marches relentlessly toward us or lies in wait to attack without warning. But on this most auspicious, most important, most glorious day of the Christian calendar, I am convinced of and preoccupied with better things concerning us. I think we can do better than our routine fixation on death. Instead, today, let’s talk about light and life and the God who makes all things new!
In the beginning, there was nothing but God. God is life, the source, the origin, Alpha, the ultimate backdrop for concepts let alone things. Keep zooming out, and eventually you’ll be able to see “all things”. God is He who stands beyond “all things” and gives them meaning. He Himself has no context, but is instead the context for all things. Aristotle called Him, “the unmoved mover”. Thomas Aquinas called Him, “the first cause”. The Apostle John called Him, “Light and life” (John 1:4-5). He called Himself, “I Am”.
This great God hovered in the midst of the lifeless nothing, and commanded that light come forth from it. Of course, it obeyed. This light was the second life, modeled after God Himself, who is the true light. The Word of John 1 wasn’t modeled after the light, the light was modeled after the Word.
After light, God spoke into existence matter and energy, rocks and water, air and space – the containers for life. All that would ever walk, swim or fly would do so in these vast spaces – magnificent in their beauty and shear, incredible scale – whether to the nearly infinitely large or small. And then God created that life. Orchids and amoebas, walruses and sunflowers, oak trees and insects, lions and hummingbirds, killer whales and bald eagles, deep sea urchins and red sequoia, grape vines, tree moss, cute little puppies, and even cats! The skill and creativity of all the artists and engineers, sculptures and poets who have ever lived adds up to the finger paint of an infant compared to the majesty and diversity of the life God commanded to inhabit His world. And it was amazing. And beautiful. And totally inadequate.
Physical life was something, but only a stepping stone – not befitting the glory of the God of Angel Armies. Physical life, as wondrous as it is in our eyes, was just another vestment on creation, an adornment of God’s sanctuary. There was not yet someone to lift their hands in worship. That was were God was really heading. For the “container”, God simply spoke, and it was so. But for man, God stooped down to form us from the dust of the earth and breathed into us … life.
“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).
God had done something amazing! We were alive like the hummingbirds and the tree moss, but we were also alive like God. Sortof. Both physical and spiritual life – unique in all creation. Special. Not equal to God (for what would that even mean!?), but made in His image.
But this perfectly tranquil picture wasn’t to last long. In an instant, we used our godlike freedom to doubt God’s goodness, trample on His gifts, and spit in His face. We rejected Him, and set out from Eden cold and alone. Still physically alive (for at least a while, but continually winding down in decay), but now spiritually dead. Trapped. Slaves to sin. Destined for hell.
So death entered the world, and seems to have permanently captured our attention. But it shouldn’t. God is not dead; not even hidden, for those with eyes to see. The Great I Am created all life from Himself. He was the source of the first grasshoppers and sugar maples, and He is the source of their life still. Though they die, their death is in the context of ever-regenerating life. True, sugar maples would likely have just stood there forever had Adam and Eve not sinned, but even though sin entered and broke the world, and death seems to be running roughshod over creation, there are sugar maples still. Now, instead of a sugar maple that stands indefinitely through the eons of time, there are sugar maples who drop their seeds to the ground, where they die, and are raised – I would argue, by the life of the Eternal God, as much as any technical description of the process of germination – to new life. And a new maple tree grows up to replace the old.
And so it is with us. God’s life was not diminished or incapacitated in any way by our sin and the death it causes. It is, however, now called upon to restore and renew us. And it has always been strong enough to do so. It was no difficult thing for God to create all physical and spiritual life. It is no difficult thing for God to pass down the life of one sugar maple to the next through death and rebirth over the millennia. And it is no difficult thing for Him to regenerate our lives as well. We die, but like the maple seed, that is what is required in order that we be raised – again by the life of the Eternal God – to new life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story of man.
When remembering that God sent a flood to destroy the world in the days of Noah, many fixate on the flood and ask how a loving God could destroy the world. But I say, how loving God must have been to make sure that in Noah, a new shoot of life would come forth from the decaying stump of mankind’s corruption! God chose Noah to bring out of death new life. And set a rainbow in the sky to remind us of it.
When remembering how God chose Abram to be the father of a great nation, many recoil from God’s exclusion of some to the benefit of a chosen few others. It violates our pluralist cultural tendencies. Those outside the circle call foul, and those inside the circle flaunt their self-perceived superiority. Don’t any of them realize that God’s purpose was to bring life to the whole world through His people?
When remembering that God gave Moses the Law, many obsessed over God’s judgment. How harsh, how restrictive, how unfair is this God! Truly a buzz killer! And if He’s so loving, how could He hand down this unattainable standard that condemns us to death!? But I say, how gracious God is, and how loving, to send a tutor to watch over us … a servant to make sure we would bow our knee in humility before God even when we didn’t want to! (Galatians 3:24)
In a world broken by sin, without the Law, we would have nothing to cast us to the ground unto death. Some might think there should have been a better plan. What better plan would they have for the maple seed? The law is what casts down to death. Without death, there can be no new life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it [is raised to life and] bears much fruit (John 12:24). What you sow does not come to life unless it dies (1 Cor 15:36).
Don’t you see? The grain of wheat, the maple seed, and the sons and daughters of Adam… They are all, in reality, without life … at least not life as it was meant to be. On a table, in your hand, or in a world without the Law, they possess only the potential for life. They are alone. They … we must fall to the ground and die. Then, and only then, will the life and resurrection power of God act upon us. And then… we are born again. In a very rudimentary sense for the seed, as it completes the circle of life. But for us – men and women born into sin, born under the law – it is the second birth, this time from the Spirit. (John 3:5)
Assuming there’s a Savior.
And as if on cue, then came Jesus.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)
The timeline here might be a little confusing. It’s hard to wrap our heads around eternal stuff, for sure. But in the same that the light of creation was modeled after Jesus (not the other way around), so does the model of seed falling in death to spring up in life follow after Jesus, not before. The world broke along the lines that God had scored into it. It was always the plan for Christ to “fall to the ground and die”, so the model of death leading to life was in play before there was any other life but God’s. God doesn’t react to man’s shortsighted choices – not in the garden, and not now. From eternity past, everything looked forward to the cross and the empty tomb.
So, Jesus was born of a human girl and walked among us in bodily form, displaying the very glory of the Father, full of grace and truth. He was too beautiful. Too glorious. And we killed Him for it. Of course, they … we meant it for self-serving evil, but God meant it for ultimate good. Nobody took Jesus’ life. He laid it down, because He knew that His death was the step immediately preceding resurrection.
And when He stepped forth from the tomb, the door to new life – which our sin had bolted shut – was flung open wide. In His atoning sacrifice, He set us free from sin and death, darkness and slavery. There is now nothing keeping us in our cage. We need only step out by faith … arise, and go to Jesus.
And if we do, upon being received by Him, we are spiritually born again – united with Christ as His bride, adopted by God as His children, acquitted from our guilt, and impugned with His righteousness. Made whole.
In order to receive Christ in faith, we die to ourselves. We agree with the Law and bow our heads in humble worship as it casts us to the ground. And we die. But Jesus’ blood has already soaked and fertilized the spot where our seed comes to rest, and we are by it germinated into new life. God’s power raises us from the dead. And we are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17)
In this resurrected state, we are united with Christ. The Spirit dwells within us. And we have life and power we couldn’t have known before. Augustine said we are “posse peccare et no peccare” (“able to sin and not to sin”). We stand between two worlds. Alive, but at war. But alive none the less. We are newly aware of our dependence on Christ, mindful of our desperate need to remain in Him for life. Not precarious, but firmly planted. Rooted. Being built up by God. (Colossians 2:7)
Lastly, what are we being built up into? What exactly is God building? What does He have in mind for this new life of the believer?
As in everything else, we find the answer when we look to Jesus. Paul (in Colossians 1:18) and John (in Revelation 1:5) called Jesus, “The firstborn of the dead”. He is the example, the archetype of our future selves. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him. (1 John 3:2)
The empty tomb means more than that Jesus was raised from the dead. It means we will be too. Our destiny is for a wholeness in fact greater than that in the garden of Eden. Evidently even then Adam’s life was more potential than I think we realize. There is a new physical and spiritual reality waiting for us in heaven that is even better than our initial state in the garden, because we will have passed through death and resurrection to receive it. To complete Augustine’s picture, we will finally be “non posse peccare” (“not able to sin”).
I don’t fully understand this, and neither do you. God has made it clear that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9). But whatever it is, it looks like Jesus, and it is true life. Jesus called it “abundant” life (John 10:10). And knowing how well God does “abundance,” that sounds pretty great to me.
This Easter, remember that life flows from God. In creation. In history. In the plan of salvation. In the church. In heaven. In your mortal body. And in your very soul. Don’t let death capture too much of your attention, except to be seen as life’s handmaiden.
Luther said it this way,
See how divine majesty is at hand in the hour of death. We say, “In the midst of life, we die.” God answers, “Nay, in the midst of death, we live.”
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Happy Resurrection Sunday!