A Life-giving Myth (II)

This is the 2nd post in this series based on the short story, “A Life-giving Myth, ” by Fr John Breck from his book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The first post is A Life-giving Myth (I).  The story is basically a lecture given by a college professor which offers some profound insights into the nature of Christian thinking and theology.  Breck argues in the story that there is a good and proper understanding of “myth” which is helpful for the Christian to know when reading Scripture.  Myth doesn’t mean fantasy or fiction, but is rather offering theology in narrative to help reveal the mystery of God.  “Myth” opens our heart and mind and the Scriptures to the truth which is being revealed to us in a language which helps get us beyond human limitations – which is made possible through art (icons), poetry (hymns), symbol and ritual.  So in the story, the professor lectures:

“People usually read the Bible as though it were a history book or a scientific account that details how God created the world (‘in six days,’ as bad exegesis would have it); how he chose and delivered the Hebrew people from an implacably hostile world; sent his Son from heaven to dwell as a man among men; tolerated his Son’s crucifixion as a vicarious death that frees us from the consequences of our personal sin, and by his ‘descent into hell’ destroyed the power of death; then raised his Son from the tomb and exalted him into heaven, a location conceived as somewhere ‘up there’ or ‘out there.’  These are the basic elements of God’s saving work, presented in Scripture and interpreted in various ways of preachers and teachers in our churches and seminaries.  The faith of most of us is shaped by these traditional elements, whether or not we accept them as ‘fact.'”  (pp 219-220)

The story’s professor says if we want to understand Scripture we have to be prepared to understand myth – how the narrative takes us to a deeper level and meaning.  For example, Old Testament narratives reveal Christ to us.  If we read the Old Testament only as history, we miss its point.  The texts are pointing beyond their literal meaning to the Kingdom of God, to Christ, to the Holy Trinity and to the eschaton in which Christ is revealed to all.  A purely literal reading of the text will cause us to miss the depths of what God is revealing about history and about creation and about what it means to be human.  Genesis is not trying to offer a scientific explanation of creation since in the modern understanding of “science” since science really only considers materialism whereas Genesis is offering a spiritual understanding of the empirical universe.

The story’s lecturer continues:

“This kind of perspective has also influenced – and deformed – our understanding of miracles.  Rather than receive them as ‘signs’ of the presence of the Kingdom of God within the world, we see them as exceptional occurrences that suspend or otherwise defy natural law.  In working miracles, we think, God breaks the rules to perform some extraordinary exploit that we request or that  he sees as necessary for the spiritual progress and enlightenment of his people.” (p 220)

Scriptural miracles are showing us that our world has an interface with the transcendent, with the divine, with all that is holy and glorious, with all that God is revealing to us.  If we only seek out the “magic” of the miraculous (defying nature), we fail to see the miracles are revealing God to us.  We end up caring more about the gift than the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  Miracles are a potential window into heaven, into paradise, where we can see God.  For Breck’s professor, what we need is to have revived in our hearts and minds a godly sense of myth, to help us see beyond the literal.  The empirical world can be studied by science because of its predictability and the laws of nature which govern the physical world.  The miraculous is not mostly a breaking of the laws of science as it is the breaking into the empirical world by transcendence.  We come to realize something more than the material world actually exists.  That’s what miracles do, but sadly and too often we try to change them into magic, a way in which we believe we can control these mysterious powers.  Just as quantum mechanics has revealed the empirical world is not fully grasped by Newtonian physics, so too Christianity points out there is mystery fully present in the empirical world.  And for many scientifically trained people the very problem with miracles is it leads people to want to practice magic to control things, and for them that reduces miracles to mere superstition as they don’t believe nature can be controlled by magic.

“A good example of mythological imagery is provided by the Exodus tradition.  This foundational experience in Israel’s history is recounted in different versions by the author of the book of Exodus and by the psalmist.  In both, cases, the Exodus from Egypt can be fully understood only as a typological myth, a pre-figuration of the deliverance of God’s people from captivity and death to freedom and eternal life.  As a literary trope it unites the two Testaments – Old and New, First and Second – so thoroughly that the Church Fathers could only conceive of the Bible as a diptych: two complementary panels that are self-referential and completely interdependent.  The major bond between the two Testaments is precisely ‘myth’: the unifying story of Israel’s call and saving vocation, fulfilled in the incarnation and saving mission of the Son of God.”  (p 222)

The Old Testament reveals the New, and the New  Testament is foreshadowed in the Old.  The narrative of the Old Testament prepares us from the events of the New, and the New Testament reveals the meaning of the Old.  “Myth” here is not fiction, but the narrative which ties together not only the two Covenants, Old and New, but also heaven and earth, the spiritual and physical, the living and the dead, Creator and creation, humanity and the world, sentience and inanimate, consciousness and existence.

“This explains the reason why the first chapter of Genesis must be read symbolically.  Its purpose is not to reveal historical fact.  It is to affirm that the one true God is Creator and Lord of all things in heaven and on earth, things he has delivered into the hands of those created in his own ‘image’ and ‘likeness.’  It’s pointless, therefore, to look for scientific confirmation of the creation events as Genesis describes them.  If for example, the account declares that the sun and the moon were created after the earth and its vegetation, it is primarily to counter worship of the sun by Israel’s pagan neighbors.  The author of the account never intended for it to be read as a scientific recital of actual events in their historical sequence.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis and much else in the Hebrew Scriptures can only be properly read and understood as ‘myth’ in the sense that I have defined it.  It is an example of ‘sacred history’ whose purpose is to draw mind and heart to recognition of the God of Israel as the one and only Lord of the universe, and to worship him accordingly.  Biblical myth thus unites history and eternity, and its ultimate purpose is to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, to open our eyes and hearts to transcendent reality and ultimate Truth.”  (p 223)

The purpose of the Old Testament is not mostly to give us history or science, rather its very purpose is to help us see God and to recognize God’s own activity in this world.  To look to the Bible for science and history is to lose sight that it is revealing God to us, it is using history to reveal transcendence to us, to open our eyes to the Kingdom of God, not to teach us material science.  This is how understanding myth and poetry can uplift us to see the transcendent God in the words of Scripture.

Science has tried to carve out its role as studying the empirical universe and thus limiting its study to materialism.  The fight between science and religion is between those who won’t accept the limits science imposes on itself and those who want to impose on science a narrative that is beyond what science is claiming for itself.  Some want the Bible to be “science” but it can never be that by the very definition that modern science imposes on itself.   The very nature of the Bible – a revelation from, about and of the transcendent – is outside anything science can deal with.  It is a narrative that guides believers in their understanding of the empirical universe (that which is the limit of scientific study).  Science is trying to reveal all the mysteries which are found in the empirical universe.  If science embraces an overarching narrative, it is a narrative that is limited to the empirical order which science studies.  Its conclusions can’t be beyond what the physical world can reveal.   Science cannot offer that narrative which guides believers in understanding the created order, though scientific discovery can cause believers to have to re-imagine their narrative because of the marvels it discovers.

“This was the approach adopted by the early Church Fathers, and it needs to be our approach today as well.  It means also that the Christian narrative, from the call of Israel to the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, needs to be conceived as myth in the true sense: a narrative that opens eyes of faith to the presence of eternity within our time and space, and to the working out within that framework of our salvation.” (p 233)

The Bible does not limit itself to speaking about space and time, but rather its context is God and how space and time occur within the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  Creation speak about the Creator.  Science can and does teach us about creation, but it cannot speak to that truth of the transcendent reality to which creation is a witness.  The Bible speaks to us about the transcendent God who is ever attempting to reveal Himself in ways we can comprehend – which means in and through the created order.  We can marvel when science reveals some hidden truth which helps us know the Creator, but we can also marvel when science simple reveals something about material creation, when science unlocks some mystery about the empirical universe.  Believers may be able to use scientific insight to better understand God’s revelation, but science will never be able to do that.

Next: The Transcendent Myth

 

A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

What is a Biblical Prophet?

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:24)

On July 20 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias).

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“…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God – not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.”  (Jaroslave Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? p. 11)

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The Samaritan Woman: Coming to Faith and Ending Religion

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”  Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:5-42)

Fr. Alexander Men referring to the end of the Gospel lesson when the Samaritans come out to see Jesus writes that today we are all like these Samaritans in how we come to faith in Christ:

Samaritans surrounded the Jewish traveller, not caring that He was from a hostile nation, and led Him to their village; we do not know what happened then, but the most important thing in this story is the result. After listening to Him, they said to the woman: “Now we see the truth; no longer because of what you said, but because we have seen for ourselves.

So now all of us are in the same position: at first we believe in the words written in the Scriptures and in other books, then we believe in what other people tell us. But the happiest moment in our spiritual lives is when we come to know the mystery of God, the mystery of the Lord Jesus, as revealed in our hearts, no longer through the words of others but through our own instincts and our own profound experience. We, like the Samaritans, guess at what is true and ponder on it. But He is near us, He reveals His word to us. Only we must also be ready to hear Him – like that simple woman of Samaria, like everyone who has ears to hear and hears. Amen. (Awake to Life!, p. 78)

Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the Gospel lesson and how it shows that Christ was declaring an end to religion not creating a new one for Christ is calling us to life itself:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him’” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity present as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. (For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20)

Old Testament as Images of the New

While many Christians love to defend the literal reading of Scripture, in Orthodox hymns we are more likely to find the richness of Scriptures.  The literal reading of a text is often not seen as the true significance of the text.  For one thing Orthodoxy follows the teaching of Christ that the Old Testament is really about Christ.  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . .  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:39-46)  For example,  a hymn for Wednesday Matins of the 2nd Week of the Pentecostarion offers our interpretation of Genesis 22 (Abraham’s offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice) and from Jonah 1-2:

ISAAC WAS LED UP THE MOUNTAIN AS A SACRIFICE;

JONAH DESCENDED INTO THE DEEP.

BOTH WERE IMAGES OF YOUR PASSION, O SAVIOR:

THE FIRST WAS BOUND FOR THE SLAUGHTER;

THE OTHER PREFIGURED YOUR DEATH

AND YOUR WONDROUS RISING TO LIFE!  LORD, GLORY TO YOU!

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

Noah: Prophet Preparing Us for the Coming of Christ

During the week days of Great Lent we generally do not read Scripture lessons from the New Testament.  Rather, the daily readings are from Isaiah, Proverbs and Genesis.  This does give us a chance to contemplate a world without Christ and the resurrection – to intensify our sense of being in exile from the Kingdom of God.  We  think about the world of the Fall before the coming of Christ and yet, paradoxically,  our food fasting by denying us the foods of the fallen world enables us to experience the foods available to us in Paradise (Genesis 1:29, 2:16).  And yet . . . we don’t ever read the Old Testament apart from Christ.   We always read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and we believe the Old Testament bears witness to Christ and is about Him.  We read the Old Testament to learn about Christ, not about science or history.  Jesus said of the Old Testament:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.  (John 5:39, 46)

Moses wasn’t writing history so much as writing about Christ!  That is how Jesus Himself reads and understands Genesis.  So the real question for us as Christians is not “what does Genesis teach us about ancient history?”, but what does it teach us about Christ?  What was Moses trying to tell us about the Christ long before Jesus was even born?  Throughout the New Testament, we see how the New Testament authors read Moses as being a prophet, writing about what God is doing and what God is going to do.  Noah in this context too is a prophet, preparing us to know Christ.

So in Matthew 24:36-44 we read Jesus teaching about the end times, the eschaton:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. …  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

 

We read a very similar message in the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-30 where Jesus says:

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.

The story of Noah and the flood is mentioned in the Gospels not to teach us about ancient history, but to prepare us for the future second coming of the Lord.  If reading about the Flood causes you to want to go in search of the ark, you are looking in the wrong direction, for the Gospels says the narrative about Noah is to prepare us for the eschaton and the end of this world.  Noah’s story looks even beyond the time of the Gospel into the parousia when Christ will come in glory.  We are reading the account of Noah during Great Lent, not to learn history but to get our minds geared toward the future coming of Christ.  The story of the flood is thus orienting us toward Christ and His coming again, not to some ancient event or story which may or may not have happened.

In Hebrews 11:6-7, we read:

And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Noah in this text is being upheld as a model of a person of faith, who doesn’t know what is going to happen, but who believes in God.  Again, the lesson is being used to orient us toward this future and what God is going to do.  We need to live by faith in this world in order to be righteous as Noah was righteous – we are awaiting Christ’s coming again, just as Noah had to wait to see what God was going to do.

In 1 Peter 3:18-22, St Peter connects the story of Noah to baptism to help us understand the sacrament and life in the Church.  The Church is like Noah’s ark in which we are saved from the flood, but the flood is no longer drowning sinners but rather the waters are cleansing us from sin.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Photo by Jim Forest

Finally, St Peter also interprets the scriptures of Noah and the flood as a teaching about the future Judgment of the world:

For if God . . . did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:4-9)

There is a “history lesson” to be learned from the Genesis account of Noah and the flood, but the lesson is to help us get through our current struggles in this world and to prepare us from the coming judgment day.   The New Testament interprets and uses the Genesis flood story to show us God’s concern for the righteous in this world and to prepare us for the coming judgment of God.  We should not be caught by surprise about events that are going to take place, because we have been forewarned about Christ’s coming again.  However, if we read about Noah to learn ancient history, we are going to miss the real lesson of Genesis, which is as Christ said about Him not about the past.

Jesus and Moses

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . .  Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  (Luke 24:27, 44)

In the Footsteps of Christ: Walking on Water

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 has many, what biblical commentators would call, “textual irritants.”  Textual irritants are things found in the text that cause you to stop reading and take a closer look at the text – what does it mean?  Why did it use these particular words?  Why is the grammar or vocabulary unusual or unexpected?   Textual irritants are things in the text that stand out and make you take notice so that you stop reading and start pondering.   Let’s consider the Gospel lesson of the Lord walking on water:

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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In 14:22 – Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, it is already late evening (Matt 14:15 & 23).  Why does Jesus have to compel them into the boat?  He forces them to do something they  perhaps didn’t want to do.  Was the bad weather, which will be described in 14:24 already obvious to them?  They had already survived one storm at sea, but Jesus was in the boat with them that time, though he was asleep (Matt 8:23-27).  Now He is pushing them into the boat but is not going with them.  Chrysostom and other Church Fathers think Jesus was gradually teaching them to trust Him, but each time the lesson is a little more difficult.  First He was with them at sea in the storm, but asleep, now He is sending them into the storm but not going with them.  He wants them to learn to trust Him according to these Fathers.

And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.

Matthew 14:15 says the evening was coming on which led to the disciples wanting Jesus to dismiss the crowd.  Evening was coming on but then Jesus took time to feed the 5000, all ate a full meal and were satisfied, and 12 baskets full of leftovers were gathered up and the crowd was dismissed and the disciples sent off and Jesus went up to pray [Note well: feeding 5000 people takes a lot of time as does dismissing 5000 people].   And then after all these events we read again in 14:23 that evening was coming on – the exact same phrase as before the multiplication of loaves took place.  It is as if no time had elapsed despite all that had happened.  The next time reference in the text at 14:25 mentions the 4th Watch of the night, somewhere between 3-6am.  But the time of the feeding of the 5000 is not only in an unusual place – a deserted place, but the time seems  suspended as well.  Have they entered into and are they experiencing the time of the Kingdom?  The day which has no end?  And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the LORD), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.”  (Zechariah 14:7)

[Also interesting is that in 14:15, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away for evening was coming on, but Christ choose to feed that crowd first.  Now Jesus sends the disciples away BEFORE dismissing the crowd!  Jesus  is teaching them something – this is part of their formation as disciples.   And then evening finally comes on.]

But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

The wind (Greek: anemou).  The Evangelist Matthew had in the Greek language a number of different words he could use to refer to the wind.  He chooses one which gives us a sense of the wind as a force of nature.  The wind is powerful and unpredictable, we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:8).  The word is used in the expression “ scattered to the 4 winds” meaning the entire world, or the world in which God acts.  This wind will be significant to Peter in a moment.

The wind was contrary –  Remember Jesus sent the disciples out on the sea, and now the wind is against them.  Was this a sign from God that they were headed in the wrong direction?  On the boat they were probably wondering why in the world Jesus had sent them out there in the first place.  Now God was opposing them . . . or was it God, or is it a force that opposes God?  Is the lesson they are learning is that doing the will of God is not easy and sometimes all the forces of nature and the world will oppose you when you set out to do God’s will?

Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!”

 Disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, but it is night, and the wind is howling and the waves buffeting the boat, there are no spotlights on the boat.  They are looking into the darkness and see something walking on the sea.  If the wind and water were totally calm, one might be able to see something on the water, but the wind is blowing hard, so the waves would be roiling as well.   It is pretty hard to see under such conditions, no wonder they are troubled by seeing anything on the water, let alone a person!  They see someone on the water, not in a boat, so of course they think it has to be a phantom of some kind.

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The disciples are not only seeing something, they are having some kind of spiritual experience, for their eyes alone would not be able to see much as it is dark.  The disciples had experienced something of eternity when Christ fed the 5000, something outside of normal time.  Now they experience another spiritual reality.

In 14:26 disciples seeing  is in Greek: idontes – experience or perceive.   Note that in 14:30 the Evangelist uses a totally different word in describing Peter seeing.  There he uses the Greek: Blepwn –  which is the word meaning the opposite of blindness,  but also spiritual perception and insight.  The fact that Matthew uses two different Greek words for seeing tells us he is putting special stress on how and what they are seeing.

And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

 The disciples cry out in fear, but Jesus calmly speaks to them.  Again, one wonders how they could have heard him so clearly under these windy conditions.  He must be very near their boat, another sign that something supernatural is happening.  They are able to hear and see under very adverse conditions.   We might call to mind Isaiah 32:1-4 –  “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will hearken. The mind of the rash will have good judgment, and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.”  

 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

 “Command me to come” –  Peter, as rash as he sometime is, dares not of his own volition join Christ in this revelation.   He cannot come out on the water on his own, and he knows it.  But if Christ commands him to come  out, he is willing to obey.   Was Peter trying to show off how obedient he could be?  Or trying to show the other disciples that he indeed was greater than them and had a special relationship to Christ?  Or trying to show that he was not afraid – he is obeying Jesus’ command not to be afraid but to be of good cheer?

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Does Jesus invite Peter to come, or command him to come?  In either case, Peter has to decide to do what Christ tells him.  Without hesitation Peter does as Christ bids him to do.

[One is reminded of the demons of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt 8) asking Christ to apostolize them by sending them into the herd of swine.  They can’t do it on their own, in Christ’s presence, they need Christ’s permission.]

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

Seeing the wind (Greek: anemou).  He would have felt the wind all along as it was battering the boat.  All the disciples knew the wind was blowing strongly against them.  What did Peter suddenly see?    One doesn’t normally see the wind, but one can see what the wind can do – the force of the wind against things.  Peter apparently sees the wind to be the power of nature even chaos it represents, a force far greater than himself Peter has choices before him.  He has to decide what the forceful wind represents – it is a force to be reckoned with, yet is it God’s will or God’s presence or is it opposing God?   Peter faces what the Prophet Elijah encountered: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind …  (1 Kings 19:11)

Peter can focus his sight on God in Christ,  or on the wind that great force of nature and a real threat to Peter, or on his on experience and the limits of his human powers.   Peter has to decide who is more powerful Christ or the force of the wind and whom will he obey – the force of the wind or the voice of God.   Perhaps it is even the face of death.  Blowing at Peter is the force of chaos, beneath him is the abyss of the sea – Davey Jones’ locker.   A sailor fears being swept overboard by a violent wind, but Peter is already overboard!

Again the Evangelist uses a different word for seeing.  Here, Peter sees (Greek: Blepwn) the wind whereas back in 14:26 the disciples see (Greek: idontes) Christ walking on the water.  The Evangelist changes the word for seeing because he wants us to understand something beyond nature is occurring here.  We cannot see God with the eyes of the world, we need a new way of seeing to find God, for God is holy, God is other, our minds must change in order for us to see God.  So in this lesson, it is in the most unusual place and in the darkness of the night that Peter sees something he has never seen before.   Peter’s eyes are open, he is no longer blind but is seeing the spiritual reality the wind represents – and immediately he is afraid – of what?  The chaos of oblivion?  Of his own death?  Or that now he sees God face to face?

In 14:27 Jesus told them not to fear,  but in 14:30 Peter is afraid – is the issue that he disobeys Christ in this?   His fear is a natural response to the situation, but he in walking out on the water he was obeying Christ, but now in the midst of this he disobeys and allows fear to take over his life.   Is that why Jesus rebukes him as one of little-faith?

Beginning to sink?  One doesn’t just begin to sink, one goes down quickly.  Step off the side of a pool into the water, when do you “begin” to sink?

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Petros – sank like a rock.  Maybe this is what the other disciples thought of Peter – he was so bold as to step out on the water, maybe they thought he was trying to show his faith was greater than theirs.  Later, one can imagine the disciples, but maybe not Peter, were amused.  Yes indeed Peter is rightly named the rock (John 1:42), and he sank just like one.

… and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”   And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Surprisingly Jesus rebukes Peter not the wind.  The wind keeps howling until they get into the boat (14:32).   Peter apparently is only a half-believer, and it shows.  Peter shows fear, is this his doubt? – Even though he did Christ’s bidding and came out on the water, once there he ceases to obey Christ’s command not to be afraid.   Just like Peter each of us can obey some command of Christ and yet in the midst of that obedience, disobey some other command of Christ.  Discipleship is challenging.

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Christ did not suspend nature to save this one disciple, He saves Peter while allowing the wind to continue blowing against them.  It is only once they are in the boat, in the fellowship of the community of disciples, in the Church, that the wind no longer prevails.  They also are not brought to their destination by the wind, for it ceased.  They crossed the lake in the boat under their own power.

Of course there is the one time miraculous sign – not only Jesus walking on water but Jesus able to call His disciple out on the lake with Him.   Christ is showing Himself more powerful than nature, more powerful than wind, or deep or gravity.   Yet Christ doesn’t command or teach His disciples to foolishly disregard nature or the powers of nature in their day to day living.  He does not take this moment to promise them that the winds will always be with them or that nothing will ever threaten them or that they will never be afraid again.

The Gospel lesson is also for us today.  It is  about the call to discipleship – obedience to Christ.  Even if we willingly obey Christ or do what we think he wants us to do, we might find ourselves in trouble, needing to be saved, facing death or the hostile forces of nature or of evil or of our fellow humans.  And then we have to ask ourselves do we really believe Christ is more powerful than all of these?  Are we willing to die for Christ, knowing Him to be more powerful than death, realizing we have nothing to fear from death itself for Christ has overcome death.

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On a small level, when I came to Dayton, OH, with my family in 1986, I was following Christ, and walking out onto water.  We came to establish an Orthodox parish where there was none.   I did not know whether the mission would succeed or not.  There was a small group of disciples here, but I did not know if we could work together to plant a church.  There were forces we had to deal with including that almost all of the original people were very strong willed.   Each one could blow like the wind where it would.    Could we set aside our individual egos and personal dreams and drives in order to work together to build a community?    Yet we did it, we all climbed aboard that boat with Christ to weather the storm.

And it is true that not only in founding St. Paul’s parish were we walking on water, but all  who have joined us through the years, who left behind family and friends and the familiar to convert to Orthodoxy and join the parish, also walked by faith on water.  None of us knew what would happen, but we trusted Christ each in our own turn.

And on another level, we understand this Gospel lesson to be about facing the end of life  – we each and all have to face death at some point.  Peter was suddenly confronted with it right there in the face of Christ, while obeying Christ and walking with Christ.   To the end we have to cry out:

God be merciful to me the sinner and save me.

Jesus in Context

Most Orthodox calendars list daily Scripture readings in which we have perhaps a Gospel lesson for the day.  And while we certainly benefit from the daily reading of Scriptures and from considering a short Gospel lesson, we can also gain additional insight by reading any one Gospel lesson in its context – considering how it fits in to the other lessons before and after it.  So, for example if we take the Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 (Christ forgiving a paralytic his sins and then healing the paralytic) which we read on a summer Sunday and look at that lesson in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel we may note other details.  Consider  Matthew 8:14-9:13 as a larger context for the miracle of healing the paralytic:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also all those who were ill or demon possessed.  There is no sense in this event that Jesus made discipleship a pre-condition for being healed, nor do we even see Him requiring people to make some ascetical effort to obey God, or even a demand that they repent before He will heal them.  The story is one of God’s grace towards sinners and the sick, not about people attempting to be righteous or being rewarded for their efforts.   Christ does not seem in this case to determine if they are worthy of the miracle nor if they have a proper faith or even if they practice any faith.   Jesus heals all who are brought to Him.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus, unlike modern televangelists or healers, is not trying to attract attention and a crowd.  When Jesus sees the crowd gathering, he says it is time to move on.  He is not there to set the stage for a bigger ministry nor to collect accolades or donations. He completely misses the PR opportunity.  He receives no glory from adoring followers.

What Christ does is give freely God’s abundant mercy and then He moves on.  If people want to become part of His successful ministry, they themselves have to give up everything to follow Him.  No wonder Jesus appeared in such a backward time and such a strange land with no mass communication.  Jesus was seeking neither fame or fortune – he was seeking nothing that today’s mass media gives and which those who want stardom can’t resist.  Jesus built nothing like those who create media empires today.  He chose His time and place for a reason.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have seen all that Jesus did – healing all the sick, casting out demons, and they have witnessed the crowds being attracted to Jesus.  But now, when they experience their own personal miracle in the storm at sea, the best they can do is wonder about what kind of man Jesus is.  They wonder why the winds and sea obey Jesus, but besides being dumbfounded, they show little insight into understanding who Jesus is.  They apparently think there might be something special about Jesus, but they are not sure what!

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

While the disciples are uncertain what to make of Jesus’ special powers, the demons have no doubt about who He is – the Son of God!  The demons show their powerlessness in the face of Christ.  They have to ask permission to leave.     The crowd this time reacts strongly to Christ – they expel him from their land.  The crowd of city dwellers perform their own exorcism of they land by begging Jesus to leave the neighborhood.  Jesus answers their prayer.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus, now back on the Jewish side of the lake, performs another miracle, but some of the Jewish leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, thinking Jesus is a fraud or worse, they are accusing Jesus of leading people away from God.  On the other hand,  the crowd reaction is fear as they are astounded by what Jesus can do – and they are afraid of Him!  The proximity to divinity is terrifying, but really in this passage we are considering it is only the demons who obey Christ and declare Him to be God’s Son.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus continues on His sojourn, now sitting to eat with a bunch of sinners rather than with those who were known to practice the faith.   These practitioners of the faith cannot understand why Jesus has table fellowship with people who are obvious sinners.   Jesus responds with the astonishing message that these sinners are exactly the people He is seeking out – hardly the kind of Messiah the righteous are working so hard for.

Seeing Jesus in context, we realize what it is for Him to be the Christ and the Son of God and the Lord.  He heals all, not just believers.  He eats with and has fellowship with sinners not just with the spiritual ascetics.  He flees from the crowds who would want to be empowered by Him make Him their earthly ruler.  He lives according to a Kingdom not of this world.  He does God’s will and brings God to all without wanting the prestige and power humans want to attribute to Him.   No wonder the disciples were so confused about who He is.

Jesus taught: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”

We are Made into Icons of Christ

With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image [Greek: icon], from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit.  . . . Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who perish, as the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, so that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ who is the image [Greek: icon] of God should not dawn on them.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:3-4, EOB)

This transformation of all believers into the likeness of Christ (cf. “the same image” [2 Corinthians 3:18] and “Christ who is the image of God [4:4] – the key word eikon is used in both places) should be understood as a further clarification of the senses in which Paul can claim that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ that can be known and read by everyone. Because they are being changed into the likeness of Christ, they manifest the life of Jesus in their mortal flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11). Consequently, the deepest paradox of the passage emerges: Paul’s reading of the sacred text (Exodus 34) reveals that revelation occurs not primarily in the sacred text but in the transformed community of readers.  

(Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 144)

As St. Paul states it Jesus Christ is the image (icon) of God the Father and we believers are being transformed into that same image!  We believers are becoming Christ.  We are the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), and so we together are becoming Christ.  We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ – not individually, but collectively as part of the Church which is Christ’s body.  In as much as we become the image of God, in as much as we become Christ, we become the Word of God to the world.  To read and understand Scripture, we need to be able to see Christ manifested in the world – we need to see the Church.  The Church is to be light to the world thus fulfilling Christ’s own teaching.  We are to be the fullness of Christ in the world.  As Richard Hayes notes above for people to understand a passage such as Exodus 34 they need to see Christ, visible to them in His Body, the Church.