The New Creation
Published Oct. 17, 2012 @ 6 a.m.
When we read in Revelations of a new heavens and a new earth (Revelations 21:1) we may not be aware that the author is actually quoting from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 43 we read that God is doing a new thing and in Isaiah 65 in verse 17 God says, “Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth.” In Isaiah 43:19 God begins to say, “I will do something new.” It is not clear what this new thing is from that passage and it is only in the context of what follows in Isaiah that we see that God is speaking even then of a new creation. Included in those verses that follow is not only chapter 65 referenced above but also Isaiah 53, the song of the suffering servant. It is clear from these last chapters of Isaiah that God is going to bring about a new creation.
Isaiah is not the only prophet to speak of God doing something new. Jeremiah 31 introduces a closely related theme, that of God creating a new covenant and a new heart. Ezekiel also brings forward the theme of a new covenant and a new heart in chapters 11 and 36. In these passages the Law of God will no longer be a written law chiseled into tablets of stone but it will be a living presence within the lives of the people of God. Isaiah 36 goes even further and speaks about God placing a new “spirit” within his people. In verse 27 God even says that the Lord will place “My Spirit” within us and God will “cause us” to walk in God’s statues.
We see from these statements that the new creation begins in those who call upon the Lord as a new heart and a new spirit – God’s Spirit. The purpose behind this gifting to God’s people is to “cause” them to walk in the Law of the Lord. We are discovering that it is not our effort that makes us a new creation but it is God’s work within us. It is the creation of the being within us that causes us to keep God’s law, not as a checklist of do’s and don’ts but rather as a natural consequence of our identity as the children of God.
Throughout the New Testament this theme of new creation is continued. In the Gospel of John chapter 3 verse 3 we hear Jesus saying to Nicodemus, “to enter the Kingdom of God you must be born from above.” The Greek word used in the Gospel originally meant “from above” but by the time of the New Testament it also had the meaning of “again.” Most of our English translations use the term “again” because Nicodemus’s reply makes no sense if you use “above.” Even as distinguished a Biblical Scholar as Bultmann argues that the term does mean “again.” But it is plain from Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus that what Jesus was saying is that you must be born from above. Jesus said, “Unless you are born both of the water and the Spirit you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Water refers to water baptism – the baptism of repentance. The Spirit refers to God’s Spirit that is the creative force within the new person. Jesus’ statement calls to mind once again the promise of Ezekiel 36 that God is going to give God’s people a “new heart” and “My Spirit.”
Paul picks up the theme of new creation as well. The most famous passages come out of 2nd Corinthians 5 and from Galatians 6 verse 15. However, one of the most informative passages regarding Paul’s view of the New Creation comes out of Romans 8. There we find that “The Law of the Spirit of Life” has done what the old Law could not do – give us the ability to fulfill the Law. Indeed, Paul’s argument up to this point in Romans is that nothing of the old creation has the ability to empower us to keep God’s law. It takes a death (“Do you not know that when you were baptized you were baptized into Christ’s death”) to the old to be born into the new creation. The struggle Paul presents in Romans 7 is the struggle of the old human trying to please God on the old human’s terms but finding that it cannot do so. At the end of chapter 7 Paul expresses the futility of the old creation with, “O wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?”
We tend to think of the passions of the body in terms of sexual sin or greediness. But these are really more symptoms of sin than actual sin itself. There is one great sin, the failure to recognize God as God. Paul expresses this in the beginning of his diatribe against the Gentiles in Romans 1:18-21. In the passages that follow you can almost hear the Pharisaic “Amen Corner” singing out as Paul lists the depravities of the nations as being the result of their failure to recognize God as God. One of the great tragedies of our scriptures was when they added the chapter headings and made a separation between Romans 1 and Romans 2. We miss the great turn in the argument that Paul makes. In Romans 2 and following Paul brings the Pharisaic “Amen Corner” into the same fold as the Gentile sinners pointing out that in there zealousness to establish themselves as righteous they have also failed to recognize God as God. The great climax of Paul’s opening argument does not come until chapter 3 when Paul strings together a series of quotations from the Old Testament that begins with, “There is none righteous, no not one. There is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God.” This is the state of the old creation. The Old Law tells us about God and God’s righteousness and holiness. But it does not give to humanity the ability to gain that righteousness and holiness. That is why we need Jesus Christ.
Most of us are a product of the Western Church with its emphasis upon the legal atonement attained by Jesus Christ upon the cross. It is that emphasis upon Jesus’ atonement and the legal understanding of that atonement that is behind Jesus remaining on the cross in the Roman Catholic crucifix. Jesus Christ did purchase our atonement and the legal understanding of the effects of Jesus’ death is a valid point but the single minded emphasis upon this facet of Jesus’ work upon the cross and Jesus’ subsequent resurrection has left many in the western church with a very truncated gospel. We receive forgiveness from Jesus Christ but know little else of what God is doing in redeeming the world. We have often forgotten about the greater whole which is God’s bringing about a new creation. We certainly don’t understand what God’s new creation has to do with us.
Because of this truncated Gospel we tend to emphasize personal salvation. Personal salvation is a wonderful beginning to the gospel of Jesus Christ! But it is not the end of the story. When we read the book of Romans we tend to stop at Romans 8 and then skip around reading a few verses here and there that we can work into a scheme of personal salvation. We tend to think of the climax of Romans being chapter 8. The problem with this view is it makes Paul a lousy writer who spends the next eight chapters on minor points. The author of Romans 8 could hardly be accused of being a lousy writer. Our interpretation of Romans makes little sense.
But when we see Paul as picking up the theme of God’s new creation all of the sudden the other eight chapters begin to make better sense. The picture of the wild olive branches being grafted into and becoming a part of the rich root of the olive tree becomes less of a clumsy description of salvation and more of a rich metaphor for what God has done with us. We have been brought into a new creation; we have been grafted into the tree of life, joined to God’s people, made one in the Body of Christ and given the task of completing Christ’s work in redeeming the world. (It is not actually we who complete Christ’s work but Christ working through us who completes the redemption of the world.)
Now we begin to understand how chapter 15 of Romans is truly the climax of the Letter with its declaration that Christ has become the servant of the circumcised to confirm the promises of God and of the Gentiles in order that they might declare the glory of God. The passages that follow summarize Paul’s argument like a good author should and makes a final appeal for prayers and support for his mission to Spain.
What we see in the final eight chapters of Romans is that God has not just called us to salvation personally but that God’s salvation is the new creation that begins with God’s own people. Part of what it means to be “saved” is that we have been joined with this new people that in Revelations is seen has having been purchased from every tongue and tribe and nation. And it is this new people that usher in the new creation that God is bringing about through Jesus Christ. God is calling all of us to be a part of that new creation but to do so we have to be willing to do more than be forgiven. We must be willing to allow God to make us a new creation as well; and being made new, to join us to God’s people. That takes us being crucified with Christ and it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives through us. (See Galatians 2:20-21)