Selections on New Creation Week 2
Paul’s Vision of New Creation: 2 Corinthians 3:1–6:2; Galatians 5:1–6:18
Humanity’s Reconciliation with God – Living in the New Creation, Part 1
Assistant Professor of Christian Scripture
Read this week’s Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6:2, Galatians 5:1-6:18
When I consider new beginnings, I think of two stories involving two women half a world apart — both seeking healing and new beginnings. During one of our early years of teaching and living in Hong Kong, my husband Bill and I led a youth group to Hanoi on a mission trip. There were a range of feelings and expectations among our group, yet none of us would have anticipated what happened one night as we gathered for fellowship. One of our non-Christian hosts, a young Vietnamese woman (working for the government to partner with non-governmental organizations), mustered up the courage to ask us to pray for her. The week prior a medical report indicated the dreaded diagnosis of cancer, and as a young wife and mother she was visibly shaken and distraught. Without hesitation we prayed fervently for God’s work of new beginnings and healing.
A few years earlier, an older woman — in fact my own mother, living in rural Kansas — was met with a similar diagnosis of cancer. Mom’s plea for prayer was also cloaked in fear, but not despair, for she possessed hope and confidence in a God of new beginnings — new creation. My family and many others prayed faithfully for God’s work of healing.
These two women both longed for God to intervene — to experience a taste of the promise we find in Christ who “makes all things new.” It is truly a mystery that Jesus, who lived and died 2,000 years ago, might just be that source of hope for both these women, and for billions of others who live in this fallen and broken world. And I can think of no more vivid evidence of cosmic brokenness than the dreaded diagnosis of cancer.
As we come to the second of our summer Lectio readings exploring the theme of new creation in relationship with God, we turn to Paul, who knew personally about sickness and healing, trust and prayer, faith and new beginnings.
Paul’s letters have much to teach us about new creation in Christ. In fact, although the phrase new creation is today common among Christian book titles, sermon series, and Bible studies, Paul is the only New Testament author to use this term, and the exact phrase does not appear in the Old Testament. However, Isaiah’s concept of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22) is regularly identified as an analogous theme and is considered a key theological framework for Paul’s use of the phrase. [Author’s Note 1]
Paul also stands apart as the New Testament author who most frequently incorporates Old Testament creation themes into his theology. He particularly draws upon Genesis 1–3 to inform his understanding of Christ and the church (Christology and ecclesiology). [Author’s Note 2] Even more dramatically, Paul frequently juxtaposes the old with the new to encourage his congregations to grasp the radical change inaugurated by Christ: the new age, the new humanity, the new covenant, the new law, the last Adam (in comparison to the first), the new community (the Church) and so on. [Author’s Note 3] Together these “new” motifs provide a varied context for what Paul meant in our Scripture reading for this week, which says that in Jesus Christ “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Given that Paul is the only biblical author to use the phrase, and the phrase occurs in two climactic texts of his letters (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), let’s first consider the scope of Paul’s vision for the new creation. Specifically, what was “old” and what has now become “new”? Also, what does Paul imply with the phrase “new creation”? [Author’s Note 4] This will provide a framework to elaborate on four themes of Paul’s vision for us today — living as new creation in the twenty-first century.
The Scope of New Creation
Looking more closely at 2 Corinthians, we see a clue to addressing an initial question: Does Paul limit the scope of new creation to individual persons? In other words, is Paul’s use of the phrase “new creation” primarily about how in Christ each and every Christian is made new, or is there something more going on here? One clue is in the original Greek. A common and oft-quoted translation of 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 reads: “So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This translation unfortunately gives the impression that Paul is primarily thinking about individual believers made new in Christ. Yet in the original Greek there is no subject or verb in the second clause. A translation that more accurately reflects what Paul wrote is, rather: “So if anyone is in Christ, new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”
Thus, we need to be cautious against reading this bold announcement too narrowly in individualistic terms. [Author’s Note 5] Similar language was used by the prophets to announce a new age, and Paul likely reads new creation in light of the vision of the prophet Isaiah centuries before. In a sense, a person who comes to faith in Christ is now experientially and fully participating in Isaiah’s grand vision for a renewal of cosmic proportions. Consider the following in light of 2 Corinthians 5:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18–19; see also 49:6; 65:17)
As this “new day” from Isaiah informed Paul’s Jewish identity, the coming of Christ is the singular, profound event that forms the identity of the new people of God: the community of believers who live within the dawn of a new reality. [Author’s Note 6]
Living in the New
So what is new for Paul as he instructs the first century church to live within the new creation? Likewise, what is new for us today? I see at least four compelling themes: 1) New creation people must know what time it is. In Christ, we literally live in a new time zone; 2) New creation means living as a new inclusive community of God; 3) New creation means living in the freedom of the Spirit rather than entrapped by legalism; and 4) New creation means being recreated and transformed into the image of Christ.
Theme One: A Community Living in a New Time Zone
One notable feature of Paul’s writing about the church is his conviction that Christ had inaugurated an entirely new age within the old. This shift is directly linked to his understanding of the end times (eschatology) and radically transforms the role of the people of God within history.
No doubt initially sparked by Paul’s own encounter of the risen Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:3–8; Galatians 1:11–12) and through later “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 12:1–10), Paul was jolted to rethink how God was working in history. By differentiating “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) from the present reality of the new age inaugurated by Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:11; Galatians 4:4), Paul envisions an overlap of the ages where God’s purposes are now manifest most vividly in and through the new community of believers. He reminds the Corinthians that we are those for “whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). [Author’s Note 7]
In both Galatians and 2 Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that the present age is inhabited by forces that are in opposition to God: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 1:4). [Author’s Note 8] This present evil age includes such misery as cancer, regret, broken promises, natural disaster, poverty, and death.
Paul does envision a future culmination in “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7; Romans 8:18–19; 2 Thessalonians 2:6–8), which includes, in part, a hope in the future transformation of bodies (1 Corinthians 15) and the restoration of the entire created realm (Romans 8). Yet in most of Paul’s letters the accent is on the present reality of the new age. It is not merely still coming (“not yet”), but should, in fact, be the focus of new creation people (“already”). Paul guides his first readers (and us as well) to embrace the full implications of this new “operative reality” and let it transform everything. God’s victory in Christ over death and the “old age” makes all the difference for Paul, and he invites all people to set their watches according to God’s time zone.
Many of us understand firsthand the nuances of different time zones. For years I have lived in countries far from many of my friends and family. Such living requires that we be mindful of different time zones — not only to avoid the embarrassing phone call in the middle of the night (which I have done), but also for the sake of staying in tune with friends and their lives. When navigating between two time zones, travel advice suggests that to avoid jet lag the most effective cure is the pre-trip shift of mindset to the time zone into which you are entering.
Paul’s spiritual advice is similar. To be in tune with God’s intent for our lives and to prepare for our eventual homecoming, we are called to be mindful of the new time zone; otherwise we risk the danger of living our Christian lives in a spiritual jet lag of sorts. In 2 Corinthians, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8 as fulfilled in Christ, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Paul further outlines for the Corinthians the specifics of their calling within the tension between the old and new ages: through Christ they are working together with God (6:1) to bring about reconciliation (5:18), to speak as ambassadors for God (5:20), and to be the righteousness of God within history — a righteousness which embodies the justice and mercy of God (5:21), all essential features of the new age.
Theme Two: Walls of Separation Removed
With the recent death of Nelson Mandela, the new reports and commendations of his life and legacy reminded us all of the dark era of apartheid in South Africa. My husband Bill and I were fortunate to spend six weeks in South Africa, arriving just days after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. It was such an exciting moment in history, and we got caught up in the celebrations and hope of this new day. Yet we could not escape the blunt reality of the old. New hope was co-mingled with the visible reality of division, hostility, ignorance, racial prejudice, segregation, and raw hatred. But the vision cast by Mandela and others, a vision of reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing, slowly began to overshadow the old and transform the lives of people.
In a similar way, Paul had a vision for those in Christ that was radical in his setting: one that was inclusive, where boundaries and differences were no longer to divide. No longer were people bound by ethnic identity, circumcision, the seed of Abraham, and/or the old covenant. The new eschatological people of God transcend each category, being bound together and equipped by the very Spirit of God (Galatians 5–6; 1 Corinthians 12–14). Within a key baptismal text in Galatians, Paul states that for those in Christ Jesus, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This text loses some of its original impact in our modern setting, yet it would have been explosive in its first century context. In one pithy phrase Paul establishes that the three major social divides in the ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish world were not operative in Christ. For the first century reader, Galatians 3:28 would have been no less revolutionary than the vision of unity, forgiveness, and reconciliation in South Africa. [Author’s Note 9]
If new creation tears down the walls of separation between races, genders, and religions, we are called to partner with God in efforts to confront the injustices that remain in this overlap of ages. With new time zone mindsets, we are called to be reconcilers and agents of change in both big and small ways.
Theme Three: Freedom from Legalism
The second and only other time that Paul uses the phrase “new creation” (besides 2 Corinthians 5:17) is at the end of Galatians — a book all about living free in Christ. See Galatians 6:15: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” Throughout this letter, Paul has passionately argued that the elements of this “present evil age” (1:4), inclusive of both circumcision and uncircumcision (both former ways of knowing and relating; 6:15–16; cf. 3:28), have been declared inoperative in light of Christ. His specific concern is with those who would require circumcision (the Jewish mark of inclusion into the category “family of God”) of Greek converts to Christ. For Paul, this act is unnecessary because employing legalism from the “old law” tragically tarnishes the purity of God’s free grace in Christ. For Paul, we are not free in Christ by following rules, laws and restrictions.
In Galatians we have a profound description of what living free in the Spirit actually looks like. Paul reminds the first readers — and us — that the power of the Spirit enables believers to live according to a new set of criteria (e.g., Galatians 5–6). Paul concludes this letter by affirming “those who will follow this [new creation] rule” (6:16).
How do we know if we are living according this new rule? Paul answers our question in a profound and timeless way: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22–23). In case we aren’t simultaneously inspired and convicted by this list, Paul adds that keeping in step with the Spirit involves not becoming “conceited, competing against one another, [or] envying one another” (5:25–26). Paul makes it clear that freedom in the Spirit is all about living authentic lives of love from the inside out. [Author’s Note 10]
Theme Four: A Transformed Community
As I noted in the introduction to this Lectio, Paul alludes to, incorporates, and/or directly cites creation themes significantly more than any other New Testament author. This especially becomes apparent with Paul’s description of the image of God and the old/new Adam. [Author’s Note 11] In two key texts Paul applies “image of God” (Genesis 1:27) particularly to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:3–4 the seemingly clear allusion to Genesis 1:26–28 identifies Christ, not humanity, as the one who is the image of God. [Author’s Note 12] This is taken farther in a second text, Colossians 1:15–20, where Christ is said to be the image of the invisible God who was not just present at creation but is active in it, the firstborn in it, and the head of his body, the church. Paul draws upon Genesis 1:26–28, yet applies it exclusively and particularly to Jesus Christ; although all humanity is created according to the image, Paul declares that Christ is the image. Thus Jesus Christ embodies a distinctively new creative act of God — an act that reveals the limitations of the old while bringing fulfillment in the new. Namely, all humans are created according to God’s image, yet because of our nature as mortal creatures we have significant imperfection and limitations. Christ, however, is the image of God in a way that humanity was never created to be. [Author’s Note 13]
Paul further links his teaching on Christ with his teaching that the Church is being transformed into the very image of Christ (e.g., Romans 8:28–30; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:9–10). Compared to universal humanity, the church is uniquely set apart within the grand scheme of God’s universal plan. The church lives in the freedom of the new age as those who have already received “the first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23).
My mother’s battle with cancer did not end as we had hoped. The brutality of this present age eventually deteriorated her fragile body in ways that were so very painful for us to experience by her side. However, her spirit was strong as she held on to the hope of the ultimate new beginning with Christ for all eternity. Our Vietnamese host’s experience was completely different. A few weeks after our mission trip we were given an amazing report. The very next medical test revealed that the cancer was completely gone. The doctor was utterly confused and listened in disbelief as she told the story of the prayers lifted up on her behalf. God used this experience to help bring this young woman to a brand new faith in the God of new beginnings.
These two stories vividly reflect the tension for believers who live within the “already” and “not yet” of the new creation. Within the overlap of the ages, the hope of healing coexists with the reality of suffering and death. Yet in the midst of this present reality, in and through Christ, God has established the church as those who are in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ. The Spirit of Christ molds us and compels us to live as witnesses to the hope of a new day. The church is called to be the transforming light of Christ to a world that desperately needs good news.
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