Dazzled by Salvation’s Splendor

Let us be careful how we use a weighty word in the Christian vocabulary.

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb - Version 2

I don’t like to bash Evangelical Protestants. They are my family heritage. But there’s one way Evangelicals talk that bugs me a lot.

It is their habit of talking about salvation. When they ask, Are you saved?, they generally mean, Are you going to heaven when you die? For many of them, salvation is chiefly a form of eternal fire insurance.

Such an understanding of salvation is not necessarily false. It’s just that, from my study of the New Testament, I find this way of characterizing salvation constrained and spiritually anemic.

First of all, it is highly egocentric. The focus is on my own personal fate in the hereafter. Certainly the gospel offers a promise to each of us as individuals, but my fate is not the central concern of God’s saving action. God’s salvation is concerned with the completion of God’s creative work, a work that embraces the whole cosmos.

The completion of that work is the uniting of the whole cosmos in Christ. Here I give central importance to what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Each one of us has our unique place and significance in God’s plan. We are not, however, the center of that plan.

Message in a Healing Miracle

Second, that Evangelical way of talking strikes me as constrained, because it grounds its evangelism in fear, a fear of what will happen to us when we die. In this respect it drains its evangelism of the rich and broad ways the New Testament talks about salvation.

As a case in point, let me call attention to the story found in Mark 5:24-34. This story tells of a woman who has suffered from a blood hemorrhage for 12 years. No doctor has been able to cure her.

When Jesus visits her town, she creeps up behind him and touches the hem of his garment. She is instantly healed. Jesus senses power has gone out of him. He stops abruptly and asks, Who touched my garments? The terrified woman confesses that she has done so.

Jesus does not rebuke her. Instead he responds, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. [Revised Standard Version]

The Greek verb that the RSV translates as made well is the word sozo. Sozo can certainly mean to make well, but it can also be translated to save. The sentence can be rightly rendered your faith has saved you.

In this story, salvation is understood as healing, as being made whole physically. But we must always recognize that the gospel writers often use words with more than one reference. In the context of the whole New Testament, the sentence points to an extended meaning of salvation, which is the experience of being healed or made whole spiritually.

Salvation as Wholeness

This leads me to ponder the meaning of salvation as wholeness. As I do, I remind myself that being made whole has many dimensions:

  • Physical wholeness: Our bodies function healthily. Everything works as it is intended to do. We suffer no disorder from disease or injury. Physical healing is one dimension of salvation.
  • Psychological wholeness: Our disordered and fragmented emotional lives are brought into harmony and integration. We do not suppress our desires, but we know how to govern them.
  • Social wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationships with other people are brought into harmony and integration, both in our personal relationships and in the wider spheres of the economy, politics, culture, and international relations. Races, classes, and ethnic groups respect each other and live without violence towards each other.
  • Ecological wholeness: We live in a harmonious relationship with other creatures in the world and with its natural processes. We forego exploitation of the earth in ways that destroy it as a home not only for human beings, but also for all living creatures.
  • Spiritual wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationship with God is healed through a process of forgiveness, reconciliation, and transforming union. The battle between flesh and spirit comes to an end.
  • Cosmic wholeness: The great hope of the Christian gospel is our looking ahead to a time when the fullness of God’s purpose is realized in that cosmic transformation alluded to in Ephesians 1:8-10. In that day, the whole cosmos will realize its divine destiny. Death is banished forever.

The Book of Revelation sees that day as a time when the promise of God’s incarnation in Jesus becomes a reality for the whole cosmos (see Revelation 21-22). God will dwell with us. Heaven and earth will be united. The ancient church fathers summarized this state of salvation in the statement: God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.

A Multi-Colored Coat

Each of these dimensions of wholeness form a part of the total package that is the New Testament understanding of salvation. This is the glorious cake the Christian gospel offers. The belief in a life after death is only the icing.

This vision of salvation excites and inspires me. It makes me want to sign on with the work force in the world who seek to work with God in realizing God’s vision. It also evokes a sense of awe. I want to join my voice with those of the heavenly choirs who laud and praise this God of grace and expansive love.

Wholeness is not the whole understanding of salvation that the New Testament offers. We also find in its pages an understanding of salvation as liberation, as transformation, and as the gift of shalom (Hebrew for peace). We need to be aware that in the Christian vocabulary the word salvation is a very weighty word. Like the multi-colored coat Jacob gives his beloved son Joseph, the concept has many dimensions. And those dimensions allure us not by activating our fears, but by dazzling us with their splendor.

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The image of Jesus healing the woman with a hemorrhage comes from an early Christian catacomb in Rome.

The Spiritual Life as Unfinished Business

Bible texts: The First Five Books of the Bible  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

In Judaism, the Torah is the inner core of the Bible, the canon within the canon. Christians know the Torah as the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These books contain a lot of legal material. But the Torah is much more than a legal code. It is essentially a narrative. It tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through 40 years of nomadic life in the Sinai, to its arrival at its destination, the land of Canaan, which is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.

It is, in one sense, a national epic. It provides the foundation story for Israel. It details how Israel came to be and the essentials of its identity.

But there is a peculiar twist to this story. It recounts a journey. But when we come to the last chapters of Deuteronomy, Israel has not yet finished its journey.

Deuteronomy ends with Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. It is poised to cross over and take up residency in the Promised Land. Israel, however, has not yet done so.  Even Moses at the end of Deuteronomy gazes at the land from a distance. He dies outside the land.

One has to read on into the book of Joshua to read how Israel crosses the river and takes up occupation of the land that God had promised. If one reads further on into the historical books, one will finally reach the story of the capture of Jerusalem, the construction of the temple, and the Solomonic empire. Here one reaches what we might consider the apex of Israel’s history. The historical books form part of the Hebrew Bible, but they are not included in the Torah proper.

Now this is odd, if we compare the Torah with another epic of national origins and identity, the Roman story narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid, too, is a story of a journey. Aeneas travels from fallen Troy to Latium in Italy, where his descendants build Rome.

 The epic ends on a similar unfinished note. Aeneas kills Turnus, but the city is not yet founded. Nonetheless the epic still celebrates the greatness and glory of Rome at its height. In Book Six, Aeneas visits Hades, where he is given a vision of the glorious future of Rome. That future culminates in the greatness of the empire of Augustus Caesar. In that sense the epic ends on a note of triumph.

The Torah, on the other hand, ends with an uncompleted journey. It, too, looks ahead to a conclusion of the journey, but the conclusion is not included in the Torah proper. This means the core text of Judaism is a story of unfinished business.

This raises an important question. Why did the scholars who created the Hebrew canon decide to exclude Joshua from the Torah?

I suspect the answer is that those scholars sensed, even if only in their guts, that the conclusion of Israel’s journey is not the historical possession of Canaan under Joshua and the later Solomonic empire. The fulfillment of the promise still lies in the future.

Whether Israel lives in it own land or lives in other peoples’ lands as a diaspora, its life is fundamentally a life of unfinished business. What governs that life is the narrative of the journey. The Torah’s stories, principles, and laws provide the divine wisdom for a people whose life is always a spiritual journey. That journey will remain uncompleted until that glorious day of the Lord when the kingdom of God comes finally and definitively.

The Christian Application

Now this understanding of the Torah holds great significance for Christians as well. When Christian writers on the spiritual life write about that life, they often resort to the metaphor of a journey. A few examples: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical Life of Moses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe all are drawing upon the paradigm of the Exodus as narrated in the Torah.

The Christian understanding of the journey begins with the crossing of the Christian Red Sea in baptism. It continues as a wandering through the wilderness of the world. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews will draw upon the language of strangers and exiles wandering on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), as will the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:11). That journey brings both divine blessings and many false turns, both joy and sorrows. It ends with death, which Christians have traditionally celebrated as a crossing of the Jordan.

So for Christians, too, the spiritual life remains a journey of unfinished business. The journey does not reach its final destination until after death when we arrive in God’s perfect Sabbath rest, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. Hope, therefore, remains a fundamental virtue of the Christian life.

Now this has significance for the conduct of Christian evangelism. One popular way of preaching the good news is to set before unbelievers the great blessings they will gain by placing their trust in Christ. Traditionally those include love, joy, peace, healing, and sometimes very concrete material blessings such as prosperity and worldly success. If we base evangelism on these promises, what do we do when inevitably new believers encounter turmoil, serious illnesses and reverses, hostility, and even persecution or worse in their Christian lives?

Such forms of evangelism forget that we are inviting others into a life with Christ that will include both blessing and trials,  both happiness and sorrows, both fulfillment and unfulfillment. What we are inviting people into is a journey, a journey of discipleship. And that journey will not reach its destination in this life. We remain spiritual nomads all of our lives.

But that does not mean the journey is not worth taking. Rather our spiritual lives remain unfinished business until that day when we meet the Lord face to face and he invites us into the joy of our spiritual homeland at last. In the meantime the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible gives us guidance for making the journey with integrity.

Note: I do not want to give the impression that this understanding of the Jewish Torah is an original one with me. I first encountered it in James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). I recommend it if you wish to explore the thought deeper.